The Great Unmasking (Cont.)

Yesterday I was on the road and in an airport for the first time in months. It was my first exposure to a mandatory mask environment after weeks of mask-free or at most temporary entry/exit masking on Deer Isle, where you see fewer and fewer people—residents or tourists—wearing their masks. I adjusted to a no-mask existence pretty easily and quickly, so being back in a mandatory mask environment was a bit jarring.

My travel day got messed up due to mechanical and weather issues, so I spent a lot of time in airport concourses, watching the world go by. And based on one day’s experience I’d say people are a lot laxer about masking now than they were at the height of the pandemic.

In part, I think this is due to the reopening of most businesses in the airport concourses, especially food businesses. Once you plant your behind in a chair in an airport restaurant or bar, you’re magically freed from the mask mandate. It’s kind of weird to think that food consumption creates a magical no-mask zone, but it’s a recognized loophole and people were taking advantage of it. I had dinner in a typical pub/restaurant place in Reagan National, and it was packed with people, crammed into seating areas that, like every airport dining option, was set up to leave you elbow-to-elbow with other patrons, and everyone had their masks off, chatting and laughing and inches away from unmasked strangers. No one seemed troubled by that. And yet, when you leave that magical mask-free zone, you’ve got to mask up again. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it makes me wonder if patrons are lingering longer, or consuming more, just to enjoy a few minutes more of unfettered breathing. I would guess it is boom times for all airport bars and eateries.

And speaking of consumption, travelers seemed to be taking advantage of the food consumption loophole to doff the mask and chow down in the gate areas, too. I saw one guy buying an armload of every kind of junk food you can imagine being sold by an airport concourse outlet—chips, soda, popcorn, jerky, cookies, and candy—and later saw him, mask off, noshing away on his calorie hoard. Others had bought take -out from fast food places and were taking their time and enjoying multiple gulps of maskless air as they ever-so-slowly ate their food. And one guy at National casually walked around, mask cinched up on his upper arm, carrying a cup of airport coffee, as if holding a beverage and taking a sip every few minutes excused him from mask requirements. He talked to a gate agent for a while without masking and she didn’t call him on it, either.

In this food loophole setting, the dire broadcasts over the loudspeakers about wearing only approved masks (no “gaiters”!) and being disciplined for not fully complying with mask mandates seem almost antique. Airports and airplanes will be the last bastion of masking, but I wonder how long it will be before they give it up. Yesterday’s food exception experience suggests the population is ready to bare their faces and accept the consequences.

Sunset Lobster At The Burnt Cove Boil

Tonight we paid our first visit of the summer to the Burnt Cove Boil. This classic outdoor venue operated by owner Jake McCarty became a favorite of ours last year, and I’m happy to report that it’s still terrific.

Why is the Burnt Cove Boil great? For one, you get a great view looking straight west at the sun setting over the islands in Penobscot Bay. For another, you eat sitting outside at picnic tables, and there’s just something fun and kind of magical about eating outside on a cool evening. And for still another, the natural remains of your meal get tossed back into the water, to return to the marine ecosystem. If you don’t think it’s fun to fling an oyster shell or crab claw or lobster tail into the seawater after you’ve finished with it, you’ve got another think coming.

But here’s the best thing about BCB: the food is excellent, and Jake is a great host. Tonight we started with local oysters, followed by stone crab caught about a mile away, then corn on the cob and lobsters caught just offshore. Everything was absolutely fresh, and that’s a big part of the reason why it was delicious. We used some rocks —also local—to crack open shells and made a merry mess of our picnic table.

While we waited for our next course to cool we enjoyed the quiet of the cove and the setting sun reflected on the water next to our table. The sky had cleared a bit and it was pleasantly warm in the sunshine. It wasn’t a bad view, either.

By the time our lobster arrived our paper trays were pretty well drenched, but we carried on anyway, ripping the steaming lobsters to shreds in search of every last morsel of succulent lobster meat. And after the lobster came the piece de resistance—individually wrapped ice cream sandwiches for dessert.

By the time we polished off our ice cream sandwiches and took our last swigs of Allagash White, the sun was a blaze of golden glory sinking low to the west and the seagulls were bobbing on the surface of the water. it was a beautiful scene to top off a great meal.

“Yes,” we thought, “we’ll come here again.”

Big Pot, Small Pot

We’ve had a bit of a coffee quandary in our household recently. The nagging question was about the size of our coffee pot.

We admit it: we like coffee and drinks quarts, if not gallons, of it each week. But that reality doesn’t really address the optimal pot size issue.

We had a small Mr. Coffee coffeemaker, shown above at right. The pot indicates it makes four cups of coffee, if you fill the pot to the brim, but that’s pretty misleading. Coffee pot “cups” are as arbitrarily undersized as the mysterious “servings” you see described on food packaging. This particular pot might hold four dainty cups that could be sipped by effete French elves, but it basically made enough for one steaming American mug of the black brew. It wasn’t wasteful, because we promptly drank every drop in the fresh pot, but we ended up making new pots constantly and walking around with partially filled cups so everyone could get their share of that precious caffeine. This clearly was not an ideal situation.

So we upped our game to the 12-cup Black and Decker model, which makes more than enough coffee to fill three cups—the kind with handles that you actually find in your cupboard—and more besides. We’re making fewer fresh pots of coffee, for sure, but estimating proper water intake to get the right pot size under the circumstances is more of a challenge. With the shrimpy model, you made a full pot every time, but the increased pot size requires careful consideration of your household’s likely coffee intake over the next hour or so. You’re aiming for the sweet spot that allows everyone to drink their fill of joe without leaving that remainder in the pot that boils down to an oil-like sludge that will curl your teeth if consumed. (Of course, on some days that oil-like sludge is precisely what you need to get that extra jolt.)

So, big honker, or elfin? All told, I’ll go for the bigger pot.

The Art Of Presentation

When I first started going out to eat, and for most of my dining career, restaurants didn’t seem to pay much attention to the presentation of the food on the plate, or the design or decoration of the table, or the decor of the restaurant itself. You might get a sprig of parsley on your plate next to the baked potato as you sat in a dim room, but that’s about it.

The American foodie scene has changed all that—and how. In addition to offering fresh, local food that is packed with flavor, modern restaurants pay much more attention to the whole eating experience, from the point of entry to the end of the meal. The holistic approach makes for a far more enjoyable, and interesting, dining experience, where you can’t help but admire and appreciate the effort that has gone into making sure that your meal is a wonderful time.

Aragosta, where we went for a fantastic meal last night, is at the top of the line when it comes to attention to detail. From the bright interior and huge windows that leave the dining room bathed in light and present a terrific view of Goose Cove, to the little touches like the delicate fresh flowers on the table, to the presentation of the excellent food on the plate, the chef and proprietors have thoughtfully considered every detail. And the plates themselves—shown here by photographs of two of our courses from our meal last night—are like individual works of art, featuring beautifully arranged rocks, mosses, shells, ferns, pine cones, white birch bark, and other accent pieces—all of it local. I’ve never been to Japan, but I expect that the experience of dining at Aragosta is a lot like eating in a fine Japanese restaurant.

I’m an old codger who has to resist reflexively thinking that things were better way back when. But I have no hesitation in saying that the experience of dining out in America has improved tremendously during my lifetime, and is light years better now than it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s. Aragosta is exhibit A in support of that conclusion.

Library Stress Advice

The Stonington Public Library is a great small town library, with a friendly attitude—no library card needed!—and a great selection of old and new books. It’s also got a dash of whimsy.

The second floor of the library clearly started out as living space and features a small area that once was a kitchen and now is used for storage. That’s where you can find this sign with its helpful guidance about dealing with stress. And if you’re so inclined, you can follow the advice by heading to the Harbor Cafe down the street, where the dessert menu is extensive and ever-tempting.

From the Bottle Boneyard

It seems like every time I go to work in the down yard I find a new bottle that has emerged from the soil during the long winter months. The latest entrant in our bottle collection is this distinctive Nesbitt’s bottle, with its beveled ridges and the script Nesbitt’s name in raised lettering on the front.

Nesbitt’s of California sold a number of fruit-flavored sodas by the bottle in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ’60s, but the most popular was Nesbitt’s orange soda, which was supposed to be made from 10 percent California oranges. The brand later fell out of favor and has been sold and owned by a series of different companies since some unknown kid drained their Nesbitt’s orange soda and left the bottle in our yard, but the internet indicates that you can still order Nesbitt’s orange soda on line. It looks like the design of the bottle has changed, however.

It’s interesting that a bottle of California soda pop could end up in a yard at the tip of an island on the coast of Maine.

Back To The Fin & Fern

The Fin & Fern is a cozy local restaurant on the edge of town, next to the mailboat dock. It serves great food in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Last year it was a dining mainstay for us during the COVID Summer of 2020, when some of the other local restaurants shut down. And it apparently stayed open, at reduced hours, through the winter months, continuing to serve the residents of Stonington and provide them with another chance to get away from their home cooking for an evening.

So when we got back to Stonington, of course we decided to promptly pay a visit to the F&F, both to get an excellent meal and also to reward them for being courageous stalwarts during a very difficult time. The food was great, as always–we shared some very tasty oysters, and I had a delicious, perfectly cooked ribeye steak for my entree–and we were glad to see that the place was jammed with patrons. I’m betting that many of them also wanted to reward the F&F, and that the restaurant’s decision to stay open created some customer loyalty that will last for a long time.

Last year I wrote periodically about the need to support local restaurants and bars, which were hard hit by the shutdown orders. Keep them in mind this year, too, as the country works to recover from the pandemic period. And if there are places in your towns that stayed open during the worst of it, give them a special nod, won’t you? They deserve it.

Cereal Advances (II)

The cereal makers keep pushing the envelope and blurring the lines between cereal and dessert—as well as messing with our holiday traditions. I’m not sure that Kellogg’s Peeps cereal can ever be topped, but I saw two new strong entrants in the cereal advances category on a recent trip to the grocery store: Kellogg’s Elf On The Shelf Sugar Cookie Cereal With Marshmallows (really, that’s what it says on the box) right next to Post’s Dunkin’ Mocha Latte Cereal made with Dunkin’ coffee that the box discloses is both naturally and artificially favored. (No kidding!)

I can’t figure out what’s weirder—Christmas-themed cereal in April, or wanting to buy a cereal that tastes just like the sugary flavored coffee that you are drinking with your cereal. I guess as between the two I would have to pick the Elf On A Shelf cereal, both because it threatens complete sugar overload and because kids deserve a break from thinking that creepy bug-eyed elves are spying on them and monitoring their behavior all year ‘round.

In Search Of Healthy Options

I’ve written before about how difficult it is to find any kind of healthy food options in airports. That reality has only been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. When we took our recent trip to Arizona, many of the restaurant options, whether sit-down or carryout, at the various airports we traveled through were closed, and there were long lines at other places that sold food items. That means hungry travelers who didn’t think to pack their own food are going to be looking at vending machines as a viable option.

The photo above is of one of the airport vending machines we saw. It’s not exactly brimming with healthy options. Instead, it offers the unholy “four Cs” of snacking: chips, cookies, cheese crackers, and candy. What’s the healthiest option among this assortment? The Pop Tarts, perhaps?

Ironically, this particular vending machine was right next to another one, selling beverages, that had a big sticker on it that proclaimed: “Calories Count. Check then choose.” I’m not sure how you are supposed to apply that advice in airports these days.

Cereal Advances

With great advances being made in space flight technology, rocketry, electric cars, and communications devices, it’s nice to see that the cereal companies are keeping up their end of the bargain.

Kellogg’s has introduced Peeps cereal, which looks like it consists of Froot Loop-type rings and small marshmallow chicks and bunnies—just in time for Easter. It seems as though that combination would be sweet enough to curl your teeth, but perhaps that’s the point. And judging from the number of boxes that were absent, it looks like Peeps will be a hit.

When will the cereal companies finally drop the pretense and just start putting chocolate bunnies and malted milk eggs into cereal boxes?

Hiking’s Reward

After our hike through the Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, we drove over to nearby Yellow Springs, Ohio for lunch. And on our way back to Columbus we decided to treat ourselves to a classic Ohio privilege: getting some homemade ice cream from Young’s Jersey Dairy, a legendary spot located on the short stretch of Route 68 between Yellow Springs and I-70. We weren’t the only ones who had that brilliant idea, either; the parking lot was packed with people who were enjoying a beautiful day.

We went through the drive-through and were delighted to learn that mint chocolate chip — my favorite — was the ice cream flavor of the day, which meant we got two enormous scoops for the price of one. I got mine in one of their colossal waffle cones, which admirably holds the ice cream and prevents the drippy, melty spillage that often occurs when you are eating a cone in the car. The ice cream was great — and very reasonably priced, I might add — and the cones lasted until we were more than halfway back to Columbus.

It’s amazing what a day trip outside of Columbus on a bright early spring day after weeks of crappy winter weather can do for your mood. Topping things off with some homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream doesn’t hurt, either.

Ancient Seeds Can Still Bear Fruit

Herodotus, Galen, and Pliny the Elder, names from the ancient Greek and Roman world that are familiar to the classical scholars among us, all praised the fruit of the Judean date palm. But in the centuries after the heydays of the Greeks and Romans, the date groves fell into decline and the distinctive Judean date palm plant disappeared — until now, thanks to the efforts of some Israeli scientists. And the reappearance of the plants tells us something noteworthy about the sophistication of the ancient farmers who grew the plant and, potentially, the hardiness of seeds.

The scientists located ancient seeds of the long-lost plant in caves and the ruins of a fortress built by King Herod and have used the 2,000-year-old seeds to grow thriving plants, like the one shown in the photo above. From hundreds of seeds that were collected, scientists selected a few dozen of the best candidates, soaked them in water and fertilizer, and then planted them — and, amazingly, six plants sprouted. The scientists then used the grown plants to conduct a genetic analysis that showed that the Judean date palm contained elements of African date palms and Middle Eastern date palms.

In short, the Judean farmers of long ago had engaged in careful breeding programs to try to produce the most succulent dates — which is why many people in the ancient world praised the Judean date for its large size, sweetness, and long storage life, as well as claimed medicinal benefits. Those findings suggest that ancient farmers knew what they were doing as they crossed different plants, hoping to enhance specific, desired qualities of the fruit.

The successful regeneration of the Judean date palm, centuries after its disappearance, from seeds that have sat, unused, for millennia may teach us something about the longevity of seeds, and may mean that other lost plants of the distant past can be recultivated. As for me, I’d like to try one of those famous dates — after the scientists that rescued the variety from oblivion are done experimenting with them, of course.

The Why Of Spillage

Every morning, my first task is to make a pot of fresh coffee. And on the vast majority of mornings, after I fill the pot with water from the faucet, as I am pouring the water from the pot into the coffee maker some water drips from the spout and runs down the side of the pot to the counter. There might be a rare day, once in a great while, when my combination of morning alertness and careful pouring technique prevents any spillage, but 99.9% of the time I’ll need a dish towel to mop up the water.

What causes this annoying event? Your sixth-grade science teacher would tell you it is the so-called “capillary effect” of water, which involves elements of cohesion, adhesion, and surface tension. Basically, water molecules like to stick together, and like to stick to almost anything — including the sides of coffee pots. Once the first water molecule decides to tumble over the spout of the coffee pot and stick to the side — rather than obediently falling into the coffee maker, like a good water molecule should — other water molecules will follow.

This is a common problem, and you’ll see all kinds of tips about how to address it. As for me, I think the best approach is to try to pour the water into the coffee maker very slowly, so there is no chance that the first rogue water molecule will make its break for freedom over the spout and down the side of the pot. But normally the urge to drink some hot coffee is too strong, the pour passes the tipping point, the first bad boy molecule leads the way, more inevitably follow, and it’s time to get the dish towel off the rack again.

This can be annoying, to be sure, but as the U.S. Department of Interior “water science school” website teaches us, capillary action is essential to the health of trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants — because capillary action is a big part of how they get water from their roots up to their branches, leaves, and flowers. Capillary action also has been a real boon for paper towel makers, because that’s why water creeps up a paper towel that touches a water spill, thereby ensuring that Rosie the lunch counter lady can demonstrate that Bounty is the quicker picker-upper.

So that’s the capillary effect for you — helping trees and Rosie, while adding an inevitable extra step to the morning coffee making process. The morning spill might be irritating, but if that’s the price to pay for flowers and green leaves, I’ll gladly pay it.

Wine Whine

We have an excellent wine shop only a few blocks from our house. Called Hausfrau Haven, it has an extensive selection of wines of all varieties, from all locations, as well as helpful signs to convey Wine Spectator ratings and thoughts from the proprietor about particular bottles. People who really know wines would love this place.

As for me . . . well, the selection is a bit overwhelming. I really like wines — specifically big bold reds. I like all of them. But how do you expand your horizons and educate your palate? Just try different offerings? Start with a particular region and get to know it well before moving on? Decide you’re going to focus on cabs?

I’m flummoxed.

Just In Case . . . .

The stories we’ve been hearing from Texas over the past two weeks have been truly horrific. People went without heat during an unprecedented cold snap, without electricity, and without water for days, and many shifted to a survivalist mode. Obviously, the Texas authorities responsible for the power grid have a lot to answer for, and talking about a winter storm of the century doesn’t fully explain how completely the system failed.

Now that the worst of it is over, Texans have been talking on social media about what they learned from this experience–and what they can do to prepare for the next devastating winter storm, or hurricane, or other natural disaster. It’s an interesting topic, and one that those of us in other parts of the country would do well to think about, too. You never know when the weather might wreak havoc with expected utility services and food supplies and leave you to go into survivalist mode. And the unsettling question is: if that were to happen to you, would you be reasonably well prepared?

So what are our friends in Texas saying?

  • Lay in a supply of bottled water, and if a storm is bearing down, fill bathtubs and sinks. Humans need water, and if disaster strikes you just can’t have too much of it.
  • If you live in a standalone structure, buy a generator. People in Texas who had generators that they could rely on during this period say they’ve never made a better use of their money.
  • Know how to shut off your water and drain your pipes, and remember to turn off your water heater when you do.
  • Be sure you’ve got flashlights and batteries.
  • When your plumbing is inoperative, disposable plates, cups and utensils are essential.
  • Get a propane-powered space heater and don’t forget the propane for it.
  • Keep a supply of instant coffee and canned food in the garage.
  • Did I mention bottled water and a generator?

You never know when a crisis might hit. Being prepared for the worst isn’t a bad idea.