Gone shopping

Autumn reflections at the Holden Arboretum

It’s one of those shopping days.  I’ll be going north, up near Cleveland, to make the pilgrimage to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to pick up things I can’t find at our local grocery store.

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The chains that bind

I have mixed feelings about chains and their uniformity.  But before I tell you about my ambivalence, I should tell you what I mean by “chains.”

I’m talking about franchises.  Big box stores.  Hotel and restaurant chains.  Big Corporate Businesses.  The places where we are supposed to be spending our money in order to boost the economy.

The reason I have mixed feelings about them is because M and I have recently started using a certain hotel chain when we travel.  The reason we started to use a specific franchise was because they are in our price range, they are conveniently located, and we can usually rate our stays as “very satisfied” (which is an A+ according to a letter from the manager of the hotel where we stayed in Greensburg, Pennsylvania).  We used to stay at small family- or locally-owned hotels or motels.  But after a series of bad experiences, we gave up.   There are one or two exceptions.  A certain hotel that has been family-owned for a long time in State College, Pennsylvania comes to mind.  Their rates are great, the rooms are small and dated, but they are clean and we have never had any problems while staying there.

The people buying into the small family- or locally-owned places are obviously not too experienced in the hospitality business, at least not in the way we’re used to thinking of it.  Dirty sheets, moldy/stinky/dirty bathrooms, bugs, and glasses that look like they haven’t been washed do not make for a good hotel stay.  Bad attitudes about complaints are a guarantee that we won’t be back.

I suppose that makes me sound like a snob and a complainer.  I’m not.  It doesn’t take much to satisfy me (and I dislike having to complain about anything) but cleanliness ranks pretty high on the not-much list.  Camping is one thing.  I expect dirt when we’re camping.  Staying at a hotel/motel is another.  To be honest, I’d much rather stay at a bed & breakfast but in the U.S. they are often more expensive than a hotel/motel.  When traveling abroad we usually do stay at B&B’s which have often been someone’s spare bedroom blocked off from the rest of the house by a curtain.  I find that much more interesting as it gives us a chance to get to know people.

We have gotten sucked into the chain-hotel system with points and platinum memberships and free stays.  I don’t think we’ll make platinum next year.  Gold is more likely, but we’ll be close to platinum.

The thing is, we have a long standing tradition of trying to support the local economy of wherever we live and travel.  We rarely eat at chain restaurants.  Usually that happens when we’re with family or friends who prefer that style of eating.  I understand the appeal of it.  One of the reasons I understand the appeal of it is part of the ambivalence I mentioned earlier.  You know what you’re getting when you go to a chain restaurant or hotel.  When I woke up in a hotel room on Wednesday morning after having actually slept (something I have trouble with when traveling), I thought, “THIS is why people like chains.”

I like the beds and pillows of the particular chain we have been giving our money to when we travel and are in need of a room for a night or two or three.  I know what to expect for the breakfast that is included in the price.  I can boot up the laptop and get online without worrying about extra costs because it’s included (not the case, by the way, in the more expensive places).  When we were unable to open the in-room safe, someone from the front desk was there within minutes of our call.  Someone friendly.  That’s up there with cleanliness as far as I’m concerned.

Within this one chain of hotels there have been regional differences.  Staying at one of their hotels in New Orleans was a completely different experience than staying in one of their hotels in New Jersey or in Chicago.  Yet the pillows and beds were what we’ve come to expect.  The friendly service was what we’ve come to expect.

And so we have been trapped in that way as well.  We know what to expect.

That is what makes me understand the reason why people will go to chain restaurants.  You know what to expect.  The food is uniform, whether you eat at one of their restaurants in Maryland or in California.  The same is true with shopping in the big box or franchised stores.  Sometimes the layout may be different but the stuff is the same.  Whether you’re buying clothing, towels, or tiles for your bathroom, you can find the same thing though out the nation.  I suspect everyone will have the same decor in some way or another before long because the choices seem to narrow as the chains take over and the smaller businesses disappear.

It’s got me thinking about diversity and how little of it there might be if the consumer world continues this way.  It’s also got me thinking about ways to support the economy on a small scale.  When I try to look at the big picture it’s, well, too BIG.  It’s easier for me to look at things on a community level, the place where maybe we should all start looking.  Perhaps supporting the economy, turning around the economy, begins at home.

I know I’m not the first to bring up this subject.  Other, brighter, better-with-words people have been talking and writing about it for years.  There are probably small movements out there where people have made the decision to stop giving money to the big corporations and to start investing it in their local economy by shopping local.  Foodies refer to it as being locavores.

I have a proposal for you, particularly for you bloggers out there.  If you’re not a locavore in some way or fashion, how about giving a local restaurant or hardware store or other business a try?  Maybe take a trip to your local farmers market.  Then write or post pictures about your experience.  Perhaps it will give them a boost (assuming your experience was a good one).

As for me, I’ve been beaned.  Yellow wax beaned.  A whole bushel of ’em from Hilgert’s farm up the road has been taking up my days.  I hope to finish up the blanching and freezing process today.  Tonight’s dinner will be an experiment in stir-frying the fresh and tender beans  (part of my cookbook adventures which I’m sure you’ll hear all about in tomorrow’s post).  I haven’t been able to keep up with other blogs lately, for which I apologize.  Mother Nature has decided our harvest will be early and abundant this year.  I will be busy over the next few weeks, preserving that harvest.  I will catch up when I can.

In the meantime, I hope life is treating you well and that your harvest is as abundant, whatever you may be harvesting in your life.


The busy life

(E & A’s swimming pool. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

M and I have been pretty busy over the past few days. We spent Friday shopping for the big reunion party on Saturday. A group of folks who used to work for/with M and E (the friend and collegue who brought M here for his sabbatical) all gathered at E’s home for food, fun, and the chance to see who aged well. In my opinion, we all aged well. 🙂

I paid my first visit to Costco on Friday. E and his wife A are members. We decided it would be a good place to stock up on some of the party food as well as beer and wine. I was impressed with Costco. I’ve decided M and I should join when we return to the Bogs. I don’t think M was quite so impressed and sees Costco as just another place to spend too much money. He’s probably right.

Because people were driving in from as far away as Huntington, West Virginia (about a 7 hour trip, I think), we decided we should have plenty of food and plan on feeding people two meals since the party started at noon. For lunch we had a variety of hoagies from PrimoHoagies. The variety included the ever-popular and delicious Italian style; turkey with American cheese; and a fantastic veggie sandwich made with eggplant, broccoli rabe, and roasted red peppers. For dinner we had hamburgers and bratwurst. In addition, there were all kinds of salads (potato salad, coleslaw, pepper slaw, pasta salad), a veggie tray, a cheese tray and crackers, chips and salsa, fruits (grapes and a watermelon we never cut into), and a yummy cheesecake for dessert.

If you’re throwing a party and have a PrimoHoagies near you, I highly recommend them. Their hoagies are fantastic. They use good quality luncheon meats, the provolone is always sharp, and the rolls are freshly baked each day. The PrimoHoagies location I’m most familiar with closes when they run out of rolls and that can sometimes be fairly early in the day if they’ve had a good run of business.

After all the shopping on Friday, E thought we should try out his margarita recipe, just to be sure it was good enough for the party. We’d had one margarita by the time A arrived home from work and from there it turned into the Margarita Evening with the Tequila Gang. It was fun, silly, and resulted in the four of us feeling a little rough the next morning. I’m not sure how many recipes we tried out, but they were all pretty tasty. E makes a good margarita, that’s for sure.

The reunion was a blast. The only thing we really overindulged in was food. We had WAY too much food. However, in our defense, we started with a head count of 22-24 and last minute cancellations resulted in an actual attendance of about 13 or 14. The good news is that neither E and A nor M and I will need to do any grocery shopping for a while.

It was wonderful spending time with old friends and coworkers again. For E, it had been about 20 years since he’s seen some of those people. M and I left West Virginia about 7 years ago so it hasn’t been quite so long for us. It was agreed that we have to do this again without waiting so long the next time.

On Sunday we took one of the party guests to the Philadelphia airport to catch her flight home. M and I decided that as long as we were in Philly we might as well do something in the city. We started with a late (noontime) breakfast at Little Pete’s.

(Little Pete’s. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

Little Pete’s, I’m told, is something of an institution in Philadelphia. It’s a great place for a fast and decent breakfast that’s apparently popular with the after-party crowd. M and I both had omelets which came with home fries and toast. The food was good and plentiful without going overboard, the service was speedy, and the price was cheap (about $14 for the two of us).

(Inside Little Pete’s. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

After breakfast we strolled around the neighborhood for a few minutes, making our way back to our car.

(Somewhere on 16th Street, near Locust, in Philadelphia. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

(Philadelphia sights. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

(Philadelphia neighborhood. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

After our stroll we went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a culture-filled afternoon. I’ll post a few photos from that adventure sometime tomorrow. Right now I need to get off this computer and make myself at least semi-useful in life.


Times Square

Once again I’ve gotten so far behind in posting about our trip that we’ve since done other things I want to post about.

Oh well, they’ll just have to wait as I try to rush through the rest of our visit to New York City.

When I last left off, we were on our way to R’s apartment for a rest and a wash-up. We sat out on the patio for a little while, drinking beer, talking, and getting caught up with each other until it was time to get ready for dinner.

For dinner that night we went to Mamlouk in the East Village. Once again the restaurant does not have their own website so here are some details:

Mamlouk
211 E. 4th St.
New York, NY 10009
215-529-3477

(Photo by Younga Park)

Mamlouk is a Middle Eastern restaurant that has a 6-course prix fixe menu that changes daily. They have two seatings for dinner: One at 7:00pm and one at 9:00pm. We went to the 9:00pm seating.

I loved the atmosphere at Mamlouk.

(Photo by Younga Park)

We were seated at one of these bench/sofa type areas with the comfy pillows and the round table with the copper top. It was relaxing and comfortable, especially in the candlelight. The atmosphere is romantic and transporting. I felt as though we’d entered another part of the world as soon as we stepped inside.

Dinner began with great pita bread (plain and seasoned) and a fantastic meze that included hummus, baba ghannouj, stuffed grape leaves, muhammara (a Middle Eastern hot/spicy dip), served with small bowls of raw vegetables, olives, fresh yogurt and tahini. That was followed by a minty fattoush (bread and vegetable) salad.

The next course was a delicious vegetable soup, followed by two meat courses (sea bass and grilled lamb). Both meat courses included vegetable dishes that complimented the meats well.

We had a lovely white wine with our meal, but I don’t know what kind or brand as R picked out the wine and I didn’t have a chance to look at the bottle. I’ll have to ask him the next chance I get because it was a wonderfully refreshing wine that went well with everything we had to eat that evening.

The food was beautifully prepared and presented. The variety of tastes and textures was fantastic. The friends, the meal, the ambiance, the Middle Eastern music, and the fabulous baklava and mint tea for dessert all made for an exotic and entrancing experience.

The only thing missing was the belly dancing.  Mamlouk usually has belly dancing on Saturdays, but the belly dancer must have been taking the night off or something as we saw no sign of her.

I’m not sure what time we finished dinner, but I’m sure it took us at least two hours, perhaps a little longer. There was nothing rushed or hurried about the meal, something else I thoroughly enjoyed about it.

We followed dinner with a quick trip to Times Square so M and I could see all the lights. I have to tell ya, I was impressed with Picadilly Circus when we went to London, but Times Square puts it to shame. More lights, more people, more everything.

(Times Square. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

R dropped us off and we walked a few blocks while I gaped, gawked, and took a lot of photos. The number of people walking around at midnight amazed me. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, as if it were all one great big party. I can’t imagine what it must be like on New Year’s Eve.

(Times Square. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

(Times Square. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

(Times Square. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

(Times Square. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

(Times Square. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

One more and we’ll leave the cathedral of advertising.

(Times Square. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

I should be able to finish this up tomorrow. I hope.


Interlude

Meanwhile, back in Sabbaticalville…

M took off early from work yesterday. It was such a nice day. A good day to go for a walk around Sabbaticalville and check out some of the shops. I’ve been avoiding the shops because it would be all too easy for me to spend money I shouldn’t be spending on things we don’t need.

Which is precisely what we did yesterday. I swear M is an enabler when it comes to this sort of thing. Or maybe he’s the shopaholic and I’m the enabler. Or we switch roles, going back and forth between shopper and enabler.

Whatever the case, we found some great buys at one of the consignment shops:

  • A pressure cooker for $18.
  • A large soup pot for $10 (the size is in between my giant stock pot and smaller dutch ovens, perfect for making soup as I always end up putting too much in the soup for the dutch oven and have to drag out the giant stock pot).
  • A wonderfully kitschy serving bowl from Italy for $6.
  • A lovely small glass dish with an unusual design for $5.

There were a few more items, but I don’t want to bore you all with our entire shopping list.

So much for simplifying and cutting back on owning so much STUFF.

(Sabbaticalville in June. Photo by Robin. 2007)

After our little shopping spree, we stopped by Teca, a small restaurant on Gay Street. Teca is best described as a wine and nibbles bar. Because the weather was so nice we sat outside. The food wasn’t bad. It wasn’t particularly great either. I splurged and had the breaded olives stuffed with gorgonzola cheese. M and I split bruschetta with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, onions, and basil, and a panini with grilled vegetables (zucchini, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and red peppers with a kalamata olive paste).

The food was heavy on both the salt and the olive oil. The olives were good, but I should know better than to order a plate (even a small plate) of something that’s stuffed with cheese and then deep-fried when there’s no one to split it with (M doesn’t like olives). Next time I’ll just order the olive bowl if I want olives.

Other items on the menu include cheese plates, meat plates, and salads. I think they have some dinner specials that are not on the menu but our waitress didn’t bother to tell us about them.

M the Younger had some car trouble over the weekend and even though he is 22 years old, he called his parents to help him out. I worry about that boy. He didn’t have his AAA card with him, he had no cash, and his bank account was practically empty because he hasn’t gotten paid from either of his jobs yet.

The car broke down somewhere near Cleveland where M the Younger was headed for a gig (he plays drums in a rock band). To balance out the fact that M the Younger was missing the much needed items named above, he did have his girlfriend with him (who had money in her wallet), his band mates were nearby, and a friend of his was driving up to Cleveland to see the band.

We learned all of this while touring New York City. M the Elder spent some time over the weekend on the phone with M the Younger providing the needed information to have the car towed and to work out other arrangements. Eventually the car was towed, M the Younger and his girlfriend made it to the gig and they got a ride home with M the Younger’s friend.

The news on the car was not good. It needed a new transmission. The cost of replacing the car would be more than the cost of a new transmission so we had it fixed. This left M the Younger without a car and finding some creative ways to get to work as well as figure out how to get back up to the Cleveland area to pick up the car.

This epic saga was finally resolved by the time we finished eating at Teca. The car had been fixed, we paid for it via credit card over the phone, and it was arranged for a friend to pick up the car and take it to M the Younger.

Parenthood. Always an adventure.

After we ate and finalized the solutions to M the Youngers latest problems, we walked a little more and then went back to the apartment to drop off our goodies. Later in the evening we drove out to Longwood Gardens to see the fountain show, a 30-minute display of water, lights, and music that takes place 2-3 time a week after dark.

(Fountains before the show. Photo by Robin. June 2007)

I need to bring my tripod from home the next time we go back to the Bogs. I took a lot of photos last night, most of which didn’t come out well because no matter how still I think I am, I’m apparently always moving. Most of the photos are blurry. Here are a few of the better ones:

(Fountain show at Longwood Gardens. Photos by Robin. June 2007)

The show was beautiful and colorful. The music was John Williams stuff (Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and more Star Wars). I don’t know if they change the music and show each week or not. It’ll be interesting to find out. I’m looking forward to going again (with a tripod).

There weren’t many people in attendance last night. I imagine it will get more crowded as the summer goes on.