Ithaca: a Cultural Smoothie, with Hardcore/Reggae/Jazz Protein Booster

Ithaca packs a curious amount of diversity and street life for a city of just 30,000 people. There is something in the alchemy of the young student populations of Cornell University and Ithaca College, the nearby fertile farms (many of them organic) surrounding the Finger Lakes, the proud preservation of the city’s Victorian buildings, and a pedestrian-only commons that makes Ithaca a walkable center of progressive activity. Below are scenes from a recent weekend visit.

The Finger Lakes region may be well known for its wineries, but a few cideries have turned up in the past decade or so to revive the almost-forgotten swill of the early years of the United States. At Just a Taste, a restaurant just off the commons in Ithaca, my wife and I found that the mysteriously named “cider number 4” from Bellwether Cidery went remarkably well with patatas bravas and a slow-cooked duck leg served over couscous and chick peas. Cider isn’t just for getting shitfaced anymore. But I suppose you could still use it for that in a pinch.

In Ithaca, we found that live music provided a running accompaniment to our visit. We encountered a hardcore band screaming its way through an aggressive set in the back row of a basement record store, the guitar snarling while I shopped for late 70s ECM jazz titles. We ate Vietnamese banh mi sliders in the bar of Lot 10 Lounge as we waited for the roots reggae show, fronted by local Ithacan Kevin Kinsella, to start upstairs (dreadlocked whites outnumbered dreadlocked blacks about five to one). We listened to a four-piece jazz band while we devoured ribs at Maxie’s, a southern-style comfort food joint.

“Locally produced within 30 miles,” states the sign at the entrance of the Ithaca farmers’ market. As expected, we found a bounty of tomatoes (the kind that have a smell, not the crappy pink things in grocery stores), dragon carrots, cilantro, and squash. But the covered market provided plenty of options for shoppers looking for instant gratification…

Prepared food vendors were selling Thai, Cambodian, and Tibetan lunches. We shared a banh chev (Khmer pancake), a sort of thick crepe filled with rice noodles, bean sprouts, ground pork, and homemade lime sauce. As with many dishes too irresistible for their own good, the Khmer pancake was eaten before I remembered to take a picture. Sorry ’bout that.

A mobile pizza oven was cranking out thin crust pizza with the proper amount of charring on the crust and browned spots on the cheese, qualities of pizza that are difficult to find, even when considering pizzas emerging from stationary ovens.

Downtown Ithaca now sports a smoke free zone.  It was something that simultaneously reaffirmed and undermined my faith in humanity. On one hand, I have to commend the city of Ithaca for their forward thinking and their passion for quality of life. On the other, I think it is sad that the government has to step in and show smokers how selfish and offensive smoking is. Smokers should already know how selfish and offensive their habit is, and thus should voluntarily refrain from smoking in public. But if a monetary fine for smoking on the sidewalk is what it takes to advance society, then so be it.

Leave it to Ithicans to dress up an ugly concrete monstrosity such as a parking garage with a mural. I’ve never looked at a parking garage for such a long time in my life.

While I am a carnivore (a previous mention of ribs at Maxie’s has established that fact), I enjoy creative presentations of vegetarian meals, since I feel that veggies are often a token afterthought—something quarantined to side-dish status—on the dinner plates of America. But at the Moosewood Restaurant (kudos to David Drotar, editor of Brookview Press, for the recommendation), I encountered a Mexican bean salad in a cilantro-citrus dressing that tasted so fresh and intense, I didn’t miss the meat. My wife had the Szechuan eggplant stir-fry in a chili-garlic sauce, and she commented that if she ate vegetarian dishes like that all the time, she wouldn’t need the meat.

A smooth smoothie, that city of Ithaca.

About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
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