Travels in Newport with The Chowder Boy

Restored colonial houses, mansions that incite rounds of “whoas” and “wows,” a harbor full of sailboats, gently rolling waves licking piers, and…python jerky? All of the above can be found in Newport, Rhode Island. But don’t worry; I don’t think you’ll find any live pythons making their way up and down Thames Street. At least my family and I didn’t see any last week when we were in town.

We did, however, score many memorable meals in this city that should be considered a foodie destination. Even our 11-month-old son, vacationing for the first time, joined in on the action.

Offering seafood on a pizza reveals something important about the establishment. Since seafood is more perishable, more delicate, and more easily overcooked than most other ingredients, a successful seafood pie is an indication that the kitchen possesses a certain attention to detail that others may lack. Fortunately, Newport’s Nikolas Pizza, a five-minute walk away from the city’s Thames Street waterfront strip, served us a garlicy Greek-style pan pizza with properly browned cheese and sweet, juicy shrimp that popped when we bit into them. The shrimp must have been added halfway through the baking process so that everything was done at the same time. Being a pizza joint didn’t stop them from offering clam chowder, my son’s new favorite dish, easily ousting the crayons he had been starting to munch on.

At Salt Water, the Newport Harbor Hotel and Marina’s restaurant, fried oysters are not just for po-boys at lunch and dinner time. We enjoyed their fried oyster sandwich (with Old Bay aioli) for breakfast two mornings in a row.

Our favorite dinner offering was their chowder fries: a bowl of clam chowder with bacon and caramelized onions, served with waffle fries for dipping. I kept thinking that if the chowder were just a little thicker, the whole thing could be served poutine-style with the chowder poured over the fries, creating an ugly, tasty mess of a bowl. Speaking of messes, our son showed his approval of the dish with a sloppy chowder face.

The meals at Salt Water—and a few nights at the Newport Harbor Hotel and Marina—were part of my prize for winning a gold medal in the NATJA Travel Journalism Awards, courtesy of Discover Newport. The winning article, published by VICE Munchies last year, can be found here.

We happened to be in Newport for the opening weekend of the farmer’s market on Memorial Boulevard, where we met Matthew and Tammi Mullins, the husband and wife team behind the Newport Sea Salt Company, selling their product at the farmer’s market for the very first time. While wearing hip waters, Matthew gathers the sea water himself at Brenton Point Reef, about three miles southwest of downtown Newport. He then evaporates the sea water in a professional kitchen to produce the chunky crystals of salt for finishing dishes. “Reef to table” is their catchy, food-trend-aware slogan.

Sea salt from Newport has a glaring under-your-nose obviousness to it. I mean, the open ocean is right there! Surprisingly, the Newport Sea Salt Company is the first of its kind.

Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of the bag of doughnuts—fried, slightly sweet hush-puppy-like balls of shrimp and lobster morsels with a chipotle-mayo dipping sauce at The Mooring on Newport’s waterfront—because I was too busy feeding their native scallop chowder to our son (see the trend here?). But I managed to get a shot of Sticks & Cones’ waffle on a stick—baked to order on a custom-made waffle iron and covered with white chocolate, maple syrup, and caramel—before the sauces dripped too far down my hand. The ability and desire to eat anything off a stick is proof that America is already great, and has been for a long time. Who knew waffles could be political?

After serving us a cup of her horchata ice cream, the owner told us that “No one from the East Coast knows what it is,” a statement I found curious, since any New Yorker with a nose for our city’s bountiful Mexican food offerings has drunk horchata at least a few times. Perhaps New Yorkers don’t travel to Newport that often and instead choose a bungalow in the Hamptons instead?

We lucked out and scored an unseasonably warm weekend, which called for a visit to the Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown (a 15-minute drive northeast of Newport) for their strawberry ice cream, filled with plenty of strawberry chunks. And hey, the ice cream gave Chowder Boy a non-chowder treat to try, wincing at the coldness of the first bite, but then pointing at the cup for more. The farm also makes their own yogurt and whoopie pies. The latter were satisfying, but not as good as my grandmother’s (because that would be more or less impossible – sorry).

We also happened to be in town for the Newport Oyster festival, where dozens of local oyster farms set up iced tables and shucked their fruits of the sea. But how to choose? I’ll have to admit that I chose some based on the name of the farm, like Walrus and Carpenter. Because anything with the word walrus in its name is worth considering. They turned out to be one of my favorites—yielding a tender taste of the sea—along with the offerings from Rocky Rhode. The latter’s oysters were among the smallest at the festival, but were also some of the most flavorful, with a sweet, friendly finish.

Generally, I don’t count myself as a fried chicken fan. In lieu of seasonings, most fry joints rely on the mouth feel of fat and the crunch of the breading to get the eater through the task. Too many flavorless chicken-oil-breading mouthfuls have warded me off. But my wife had researched the benefits of a visit to Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, and she was right—upon opening their box containing both fried and rotisserie pieces, a very un-fried-chicken aroma hit me, one of rosemary. Chunks of sea salt sat flirtatiously atop the pieces. Winner Winner Chicken Dinner has shown that when done right, fried chicken can compete with seafood in a coastal town.

If you can handle the reality of a respectable fried chicken restaurant in a seafood town, then you should be able to accept not one, but two outposts of Newport Jerky Company, one at the southern end of town and one at the northern end. Their beef jerky is the obvious choice here, and their red wine & herb variety, using wine from Newport Vineyards, topped our tasting list, with its rich beef bourguignon bouquet and soft texture. (Am I the first person to use the word ‘bouquet’ to describe jerky?)

Being in Newport, I had to try the clam strip jerky, made from clams harvested off of Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands. The Newport Jerky Company had wisely added liquid smoke to the clams—a common pairing, found in clam and smoky chorizo stew, or the iconic stuffie, Newportspeak for a clam stuffed with chorizo stuffing. The brown sugar added an odd but intriguing note to the sticky snack strips.

No scientific category of beasts seem to be sacred in the eyes of their jerkying process, as vacuum-sealed pouches of alligator, alpaca, octopus, and earthworm jerky tempt shoppers to roam away from tried and true proteins. The python jerky caught my eye, and would you expect anything less from someone who won a trip to Newport for writing a story about dining on the world’s largest rodent?

There was another reason I was drawn to the python jerky. It was on a shelf next to animals it would consider prey. In the jerky shop, all meats humbly occupy the same rung on the food chain.

The package did not mention if the snake was sourced from a farm or the wilderness, but if it was the former, I doubt it was fed a vegetarian diet. The python jerky wasted no time introducing its flavor—black pepper and brown sugar attempted to tame a wild essence that sent me into thoughts of the creature squirming as it plotted its next move. Half of the pieces were ropy, indicating that the python must have strangled its share of critters in its days. Go python! At $19.99 for 1 ½ ounces, the package is too expensive to make into a habit, unless you have a vendetta against pythons (and if so, I’m sorry to hear about your Aunt Bertie’s untimely end while she was hiking in the jungles of Indonesia).

I wouldn’t fault you for passing on the python jerky entirely. When in Newport, the chowder is a great place to start. Just ask my 11-month-old son.

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Breakfast for Alligators scores a Gold Medal

I’m thrilled that Breakfast for Alligators won a gold medal in the 2017 Independent Publisher Book Awards (travel essay category)! The thirty-two pieces in the collection resulted from distilling seven years of experiences around the Western Hemisphere, so not only am I humbled to see seven years’ worth of my work recognized in a high-profile fashion, but also such recognition validates this storyteller’s ability to offer tales that resonate with readers. If I can help put a place or an idea in perspective in a reader’s mind–and give them a few laughs along the way–then we both win.

This award also highlights the relevance and importance of deep travel stories in this era of populist politicians encouraging xenophobia and peddling alternate facts. Mark Twain said it best: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Breakfast for Alligators is also a finalist in the 2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards (winners will be announced in at the 2017 American Library Association Conference in Chicago on June 24) and was an honorable mention in the Reader Views 2016-2017 Literary Awards.

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Intangible and Cultural: a Find from my Old Stomping Grounds

Over three decades ago, my search for Chinese, Japanese, or other Asian groceries in southwestern Connecticut would usually start and end in the yard-wide “Ethnic foods” shelf at Stop & Shop, where one could find little more than oversalted La Choy and Chun King products (I still remember the alluringly crunchy texture of the fried noodles from a can).

Such a time seems quaint when walking into the unassuming, boxy establishment simply marked as “Asian Supermarket” on the Boston Post Road in Milford. An aisle of frozen dumplings, a half dozen brands of Filipino stew seasoning packets, stacks of plastic soup spoons, and a jar of dried seahorses ($5 each) near the checkout counter lie among the crowded jam of goods. And not a can of metallic-tasting chop suey vegetables in sight.

So what sets apart one product from another in such a visual cacophony? Packaging, of course. Sometimes, a simple slogan or quote will do it, as was the case with the packet of Liuzhou River Snails Rice Noodle, whose bright yellow bag enticed me with “(A bite of China) Guangxi intangible cultural heritage.” I have a chance to taste the intangible? The cultural? Possibly some UNESCO-recognized heritage seeped in terroir? I was already considering making a purchase, but what finally won me over was the handwritten sign nearby stating that the soup packages were on sale for $4.25 apiece (save $1.25 — smart shopping!) because they were close to their expiration date.

Liuzhou River Snails Rice Noodle.

Thanks to all the ingredients having been vacuum-sealed into separate pouches, I figured I would be lunching on this southern Chinese specialty without spending much more preparation time than if had heated up a bowl of ramen. Would the snails remind me of the snail appetizers I washed down with beer in Cambodia, or would these little mollusks resemble the portabella-like meatiness of escargot?

The easy 1-2-3 steps would probably have been easy to follow had I been able to read Chinese, for unlike the quote that snagged me in the Asian Supermarket, the instructions had no English translation. We seem to share the same punctuation characters; I noticed a string of commas separating steps. Something like reduce heat, simmer, add noodle packet? The last instruction ended with an exclamation point. Was that a warning I should be concerned about? Don’t add the snails until the noodles are soft or you will overcook the snails and you will disgrace the heritage of Guangxi! Insure the rare, culturally significant vegetables grown only in our province are fully cooked or you will poison yourself! Or maybe it was just “Enjoy the soup!”

Upon opening the package, I was hit with an insistent scent that seemed as clinical as it did culinary, the scent of something being preserved, falling between dried squid and high school biology lab. But this was no time to allow a questionable smell to derail the mission; after all, there are stinky cheese connoisseurs out there who claim that once you get past the stench of unwiped ass, tasty bliss awaits.

I laid out the pouches to see what I was up against. It was an edible Ikea product without instructions. Here are the seven elements, and my attempts at identifying them:

Far left: rice noodles. That was the easy one. The other six, starting clockwise with the upper left hand pouch: a flavoring packet, somewhat sweet, containing little chunks of congealed fat; peanuts; string beans, green onions, and black strips of what could be snail meat; chili oil; fried strips of something—tripe? Wonton wrappers? Unknown at this time; radish-like vegetables.

In case you encounter your own packet of Liuzhou River Snails Rice Noodle and would like to know how I managed to prepare it, here is how I did it: I softened up the noodles in water and added them to boiling water, waited for the water to come to a boil again, added all the pouches to the pot, and simmered for a few minutes. That’s it. What I ended up with was a bright, fiery soup that could have been the latest composite picture of one of Saturn’s moons, complete with rectangular patches indicating artifacts of photo-stitching.

Due to process of elimination, the little black strips were most likely chopped river snails, and if so, the tiny portion seemed a little skimpy. But hey, I didn’t pay full price for the package, so it’s all good. In any case, the sharp heat from the chili oil overpowered almost everything else—the fried rectangles, the noodles, the sweetness I had detected in the flavor pouch. The snails were reduced to a texture, not a flavor. Only the green beans, which smelled surprisingly fresh for having been vacuum packed and shipped over in a months-long container ship—and had been approaching their expiration date—still retained some beaniness.

Would I try the soup again? Had I prepared it incorrectly, and I should give it another go? I’m afraid that won’t be possible. My wife forbade me from bringing Liuzhou River Snails Rice Noodle into our home again, owing to its smell that wouldn’t leave the apartment for a whole day—the vague scent of something being preserved. Preserved culture, perhaps.

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Succulent, Rollicking, Funny, Frenzied: the Reviews Are In!

Breakfast for Alligators

Stories from Guyana, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Panama, Canada, Trinidad & Tobago, and more countries in the Americas.

Breakfast for Alligators was released only five months ago, and I feel blessed that the Kindle version has reached #1 in Amazon’s Central America category twice. Meanwhile, the book has received a handsome collection of reviews. Here are a few excerpts:

“Succulent travel writing.”
  —Publishers Weekly

“An anthology of rollicking, sometimes baffling adventures (and plenty of misadventures)….A bunch of great stories.”
  —Spud Hilton, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Gritty, funny, street-savvy, boisterous, and informative.”
  —William Caverlee, Perceptive Travel

“Read Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas for the loving attention to detail, the frenzied trips through muddy fields, in backs of SWAT vans, in boats, even submarines. Read it for the food, familiar and weird, but most of all, read it for the journey that one man takes, and his observations of the mundane in a world that is familiar, and yet unknown.”
  —Madhushree Ghosh, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel

For those in the New York City area, I will be signing copies of Breakfast for Alligators at the Astoria Market’s final Holiday Event this Sunday, December 18, 2016 from 12 noon to 6 pm in Astoria, Queens at the Bohemian Hall. More information on the event can be found here.

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Winter: friend or foe? It depends on your latitude

Dogsledding on Ile d'Orleans, Quebec

For New Yorkers like me, the recent drop in temperature is a reminder to prepare for the mess of unshoveled sidewalks and grumpy faces that will reliably arrive in a few months. A couple winters ago, my wife and I traveled to Quebec, a place with deeper snowstorms and far chillier days, so we could experience a place where winter is not merely tolerated, but also put into one’s service, even embraced. The result is Learning to Befriend Winter in Quebec, a piece I wrote for The Expeditioner, in which I take in the city’s appreciation of the season via dogsledding, a night in an ice hotel, and a visit to a winery where frozen apples were being crushed to make ice cider. Put on a warm coat and enjoy!

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