Shore Break

IMG_2652We rode the train about 50 miles south of Hoboken to spend a couple of days in a pair of New Jersey’s shore towns: Ocean Grove, a quaint, quiet Victorian town founded and owned by the Methodist Church as a permanent camp meeting location, and its neighbor across Wesley Lake, Asbury Park with its mixture of mid century, Beaux Arts, and Victorian buildings, its famous music scene, and its year-round culture.

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We sat on the beach and read during the day, walked up the boardwalk in the evening to dinner, sat on the porch watching the ocean and the stars at night. I had to be reminded to slow my pace when I walked. The boardwalk is for leisurely promenading, not for barreling down like a mack truck. I appreciate the contrast between the pretty towns along the shore and the energetic urban life a short drive north. It’s good to get out and slow the heart rate occasionally.

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There was damage on the boardwalk and in Ocean Grove and some of the ocean front buildings on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, but both towns were relatively unscathed by Sandy.

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One of my regular customers had stopped in the store last week on her way home from the shore and recommended several places for us to have dinner in Asbury Park. Tuesday, we walked over to Brickwall Tavern and Dining Room on Cookman Avenue. They had a huge wall of chalk boards behind the bar with the current “On Tap” list, as good a list as I’ve seen anywhere in NJ. Our waitress was also especially knowledgable about their craft beer menu and when I commented, she told us she was working to become a certified cicerone ( the craft beer equivalent of a sommelier). We tried a few tastes before getting a couple West Coast beers: Bear Republic Crazy Ivan and Stone Cali-Belgique. The food was tavern comfort food with a Southern influence, biscuit of the day, fried catfish, deviled eggs and their parmesan grits were surprisingly good!

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Porta Pizza is in what looks like an old garage with glass garage doors beside the bar that are rolled up in the summer weather to open to an outdoor garden and bocce court. The interior is industrial in it’s structure but very warm in its decor and atmosphere- large communal tables, mismatched chairs, really beautiful bronzed pendant lights around the bar, a white and turquoise tiled bank of pizza ovens along the back wall. Their Wednesday night special is a fresh stretched mozzarella first course, and there was a young man behind a counter by the door making fresh ovelini.

We got a carafe of house red and the octopus and fennel salad and a hot sopresatta pizza (the “14 1/2”). The octopus was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a while, crisp and tender with a lemony buttery sauce, subtle capers and a fresh parsley, chervil, and fennel salad. The pizza was topped really well with enough  heat from the Calabrian peppers to satisfy my hot tooth. There were a couple of other pizzas I would love to try, like the “Cecelia” with artichokes, fried lemon, and crescenza cheese, or the “Lardo”, and there was an intriguing salad called “Three Trees” that looked like it would be sharp and balanced and interesting.

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As we were getting ready to bay our bill, a couple was seated across from us at our end of the table. When I looked up, who should be sitting across from me but Dan, the owner of a really great pizza restaurant in Jersey City, Razza on Grove Street, who we had just been talking about while analyzing the pizza crust. His pizza crust, by the way, is exceptional. He and I have talked bread baking on Twitter for a long time and it was fun to run into him.

We’re back in Hoboken. It was a nice little catch-your-breath break, a chance to see the stars, relax, walk slowly, and eat nice food. Over too soon. But not so far away that we can’t get back down there again soon.

PS: I took all the pictures with my phone; they aren’t at my usual standard. and yes, that is my finger in that picture…

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A step in the right direction

After lots of chop-busting, whip-cracking and general unpleasant behavior toward the gentlemen in the construction trades on my part, we’re 5 or 6 coats of white paint in- it’s an improvement. There is a rumor that trim and doors will be added to the lower half (and as always, under my gimlet-eyed supervision) in the immediate future …..

There may end up being 5 or 6 more coats of paint, since using a primer would have been doing it

right in the first place, and that is, clearly, not how they roll here.

Before and After

I just walked in the door from a lightening-fast stealth mission to the coffee shop around the corner and the bakery across the street for a fortifying large coffee and a couple of almond biscotti. I was worried I’d get locked out while I was gone (more on that later) despite my clever use of cardboard in the lock on the front door, but I’m up the stairs and in again. We’re in our new apartment but I haven’t been able to unpack anything like a coffee maker in the kitchen yet. Or walk on the floor without having to wash my feet off.

We started moving our things over from the furnished apartment Tuesday night to be ready for our truck and movers to arrive early Wednesday morning. When we signed the lease for this place, the kitchen looked like this:

I loved the tin ceiling and the tall window and especially the built-in cupboard. It reminded me of my Granny’s house. I envisioned my cookbooks and my sky-blue Kitchenaid mixer on the shelves, maybe my apple-green soup pot and some  big glass jars of beans. I was told the kitchen was going to be renovated to look like the one downstairs, where a wall of counter-tops and shelves were added on the opposite wall and the floor was a black and white checkerboard. We asked if we could talk to the owner about getting a slightly bigger fridge since we noticed that the kitchen downstairs had a flash water heater which gave a little  more room between the counter and the stove by the window. So imagine my surprise when I walked in Tuesday evening to find this:

I feel like there was a cupcake in the kitchen and someone came in and swapped it out for a big steamy cow pie. It’s even worse up close, just bad, bad work. There was no sink and no countertop or backsplash when we got the keys Tuesday. The workers came in Wednesday and sawed and tiled in the kitchen while our furniture was being moved in, did a very cursory sweep- up of the dust, and left. All of the work in the kitchen is the shoddiest and sloppiest I have ever seen, the tiles trickling downhill behind the fridge, uneven cuts, paint and grout everywhere. The cupboard was ripped apart and had unsanded, unfinished plywood sloppily shoved in and haphazardly smeared with a eye-watering oil- based stain. I’m not sure what to do about it yet, so I’ve been concentrating on getting the floors in the rest of the apartment clean of the paint and grout the workers left behind and making the living room and bedroom  habitable. I’m not sure how to handle this. We’ll see what the owner says when Scott gets home, which brings me back around to the stealth visit to the closest purveyor of caffeinated deliciousness from which I can make a round trip in 5 minutes or less.

When Scott left for a short over night trip at 5 AM the morning after we moved in, he accidentally grabbed my apartment keys and took both sets with him. So, in order to go out I have to leave my door unlocked and risk one of the neighbors closing the common street door before I get back, locking me out of the building. I sneaked out for coffee yesterday morning, but last night, after spending all day scrubbing the floors (my knees are killing me today) and shifting boxes around, I wanted nothing more than a shower and a glass of wine. Hot shower- done. Clean clothes and socks- done and done. Now for the wine and a corkscrew……hmmmm. I have about 35 boxes labelled “k-ware/glass” or “k-ware/china” with thousands of heavily paper-wrapped small lumpy objects inside. Possibly millions.Trying to find that particular needle in this haystack is an exercise in futility.

I grabbed the bottle, ran downstairs, propped the door open, and went across the street to a BYOB pizza place and told them I had just moved in, can’t find a corkscrew, would they kindly open it for me? Perhaps they saw the desperate look in my eye, or maybe they are just nice folks, but they said “Sure!” and opened it and I was able to slip back into the building before anyone came out and shut the door. Now for a glass. I realize that you technically don’t NEED a glass, and I probably had a water bottle or something around that I could have drunk from, but I just wanted to sit down and drink from a proper wine glass and feel like a civilized person. So, with a fanatical gleam in my eyes, I girded my loins, got out my step-ladder and my utility knife and spent the better part of an hour rummaging through the aforementioned multitudes of boxes (what in the world can THAT shape be? did these lumps have baby lumps while they were in storage?!?) where  I ran across my coffee cup, some kitchen towels, a random handful of flatware, a million weird shaped lumps, and (cue choirs of angels and a spotlight from the heavens) a box of wineglasses!!!

It’s the little things really- the spots of paint all over the floor, the set of keys that leave one housebound, the corner cupboard that was loved and lost- that can push my endurance. And it’s the little things, like a wineglass and a clean pair of socks, that can remind me that I’m still me, even though I’m way over here in New Jersey in this utterly challenging period in my life with no idea what to do about that stinkin’ kitchen.

What I brought

When I knew that we would be living in a furnished temporary apartment for two months with a “fully equipped” kitchen, I suspected rightly that the kitchen would only be considered fully equipped by someone who ate in restaurants exclusively, with perhaps an occasional “home-cooked” bowl of cereal. I started a mental list of things I used most often and then pared that list down to the most easily transportable basics. Here is what I brought:

-3 knives, a small paring knife, 1- 8 inch chefs knife and my slicer.

-my little emergency knife sharpening doohicky (because a dull knife is worse than no knife)

-a bamboo stirrer

-tongs ( my second pair of hands)

-pepper mill

-one-cup-at-a-time drip coffee maker and filters (and the last of my Peet’s Sumatra)

-Sherry and Champagne vinegar and olive oil- these were last-minute additions because the packers didn’t think they would make it intact in the truck, but I’ve  used them a lot anyway, so I’m glad they came along with us.

Once we got to the apartment and my worst fears about the kitchen equipment were realized (this cookware is the reason “heavy-bottomed pots” are specified- I feel like I am cooking in big Coke cans), I started another mental list of things I wish I had brought:

-a flexible plastic cutting board as we’ve been provided a 3-legged glass cutting board (yes, I know that you don’t cut on glass)

-my saute’ pan, probably my most versatile and oft-used piece of cookware

-a small cheese grater- because believe me, you only grate an entire block of cheese with a fork once before thinking “that little cheese grater wouldn’t have taken up that much space in the car.”

-my jar of good paprika, because you can do a lot to meat, pork and chicken with salt, pepper, and paprika.

and finally

-a silicone spatula for making omelets and general stirring of things like pimento cheese

I tend to keep my kitchen tools pretty well-edited to things I actually use regularly; I’m not a big gadget collector. But it has been interesting to see that I can function reasonably well with a really basic handful of tools and what things I miss most when they are unavailable to me.

One thing they do have here that I don’t have in my own kitchen is a microwave oven. I’ve been making microwave popcorn just because I can. But I’ll be happy to give up the microwave popcorn to cook in my own kitchen again. I’ll be looking at apartments today, hoping to find a kitchen that I can settle happily into very soon.

We made it

After a 6 day, 3,000 mile end-to-end blitz of I-80, we made it all the way from California into Hoboken Tuesday afternoon.

We rented an immense juggernaut of a vehicle to carry us across the vast width of the country, large enough (but just barely) to hold two months-worth of clothes, two plants, two guitars, cameras, some essential kitchen tools, and the odds and ends that we didn’t feel comfortable entrusting to a moving company.

We only made it as far as Reno on our first day. Wednesday was an agonizing day of loading the big moving truck, renting the car, dropping off our car to be shipped, packing the rental car, closing up our apartment, saying our last goodbyes, and finally taking that gut-wrenching drive out over the Suisun Bay Bridge to I-80 east.

Our first full day of driving through Nevada was surprisingly beautiful, our late, wet Spring leaving a green haze over the immense landscape. We kept timing the distance as far as we could see because the road looked like it went on forever; it was always seven miles from rise to rise. Like Johnny Cash, we stopped in Winnemucca and had some lame stringy BBQ at a restaurant with some kind of slot machines on the bar. Maybe the slot machines should have been an indicator. However, there are not necessarily a lot of options along the interstate for the “culinarily-aware”and it beat another fast-food stop. The mountains quickly dropped away as we approached the Utah border and we sailed down in the huge white salt flats, a strange lunar-looking landscape full of mirages, speed testing tracks and salt factories.

After a night in Salt Lake City, we made it way up through the Wasatch Mountains (with a quick detour through Park City- beautiful!) and on through Wyoming. Wyoming was incredibly beautiful, especially the eastern half as we approached the Medicine Bow area and our destination for the night, Laramie. Scott decided a couple of hours earlier that it was Friday night, he was in Wyoming, and he wanted a steak. I did some looking around on Yelp, and since Yelp agreed with the front desk at our hotel, we ended up with a fabulously good grass-fed steak and a couple of house-brewed beers at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery downtown. We were a couple of hours too late for the annual Beerfest, although we passed a store front with some judging in progress, but the bands at the street party afterward were great. I was really impressed by what good and enthusiastic dancers the Laramians were.

Day three was spent in a long slow descent from the continental divide, beyond the edge of the dry, sere beauty of the West, through the hypnotic monotony of Nebraska (we distracted ourselves by eating “spicy hot” chicharronnes and lurid blue slurpees) and across the Missouri River and into Des Moines, Iowa. When we got out at a rest stop to stretch our legs and switch drivers in eastern Nebraska, we remarked on the humidity, the first we had felt. And then as we drove into the green fecundity of Iowa, it was a distinct regional shift- we were out of the West and had made it to the mid-West, the heartland.

Iowa was remarkably pretty, with chalk-white dirt roads between the greenest fields I had seen in years. There were pretty farmhouses in their groves of mature trees and the verges of the roads were a tangle of Queen Anne’s Lace, blue flax, purple coneflower, yellow buttercups, gold black-eyed susans, indian paintbrush, clover, and orange day lilies. We made a short detour through Iowa City to try the BBQ at Jimmy Jacks’ Rib Shack, which I would characterize as “fusion” style, a little mustard for the Carolinas, a hint of celery seed for Memphis, pulled pork for the South, beef brisket for Texas. It was really good BBQ at an establishment obviously run with a lot of care.

We crossed the mighty Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa and it all started to blend together in a thousand miles of flat, straight roads, cornfields and rainy weather. I must have seen a million acres of corn on this trip. Illinois was remarkable only for its bad roads and worse traffic. Overnight in South Bend, Indiana, we met a very nice waitress who chatted with us and said that she aspired to visit the South someday, and we encouraged her to visit California too. Then on through Ohio and into Pennsylvania and the Appalachians, with high bridges crossing deep ravines with boulder-strewn rivers at the bottom, fern covered forest floors, and bits of fog catching the edges of the mountains like bushes on the roadside after a cotton truck has driven past.

After one last night on the road in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, we loaded the truck on last time for the final leg of the trip into Hoboken. Almost as soon as we crossed the Delaware river into New Jersey, we were engulfed in a torrential rainstorm- welcome to East coast summers! All the way into Jersey City, we had to drive slowly just to be able to see. The low-lying areas as we finally  left I-80 were flooded, small cars stalled out in a foot or two of rainwater. The rain began to lift as we approached the railroad bridge announcing the entrance to Hoboken and we drove past the weekly downtown farmers market being set up on Washington Street and then around the corner to the Hudson River and our temporary apartment.

So, we made it. Six days and 3,000 miles from one end of 1-80 to the other, and it seems like from one world to another. It still doesn’t feel real- I keep thinking I can go home after this trip is over. It’s a new chapter starting now. We’ll see what happens next.

Of all places….

I’m a pretty adventurous person. My earliest memories are of a cross-country road-trip from Atlanta to California when I was three years old, and I’ve been drawn to the thrill of the open road (or airport) ever since. My roots are in the South, my heart is in California, and I keep a suitcase partially packed to go wherever the wind takes me. So when I say that I never saw this coming….

We’re being moved to New Jersey.  We’ve become part of the diaspora of Americans being displaced by “the Economy” because of a company reorganization that closed the headquarters office here and relocated the staff to Chicago and New Jersey. Of all the places in the world I have ever imagined visiting, traveling through or living in, New Jersey never entered my mind. It’s so …..opposite.


ETA is about two weeks away. We’ll be in a short-term apartment until we find a place to live. Since we got our orders, I’ve been trying to get ready to go, trying to come to grips with this monumental change in my life, trying to say goodbye. Saying goodbyes are the hardest. It’s saying goodbye to favorite views (the bay as you emerge through the Caldecott Tunnel) and drives (coming home from the coast along Highway 37 at dusk), a beloved beach we discovered way way back on our honeymoon, a favorite farmers market and the strawberry farmer who always says hello when I walk by and never lets me pay for a basket of berries, the mountain that has been the backdrop of my everyday life for ten years, my favorite Peets shop and the guy with the Jimi Hendrix tattoo who talks to me about music and knows I prefer my coffee in a real cup, my favorite pho shop  where the waiter knows our order before we even sit down (#12 with tendon, small) and the taqueria where they make fresh chips just for Scott and our favorite torta (with carnitas). It’s saying goodbye to my garden and all of the other community gardeners who have treated us  young upstart gardeners with kindness and welcome. It is saying goodbye to my beloved friends who have made our hard times easier and our happy moments sweeter, who have brought so much life to our life. It’s saying goodbye to my life as I know it. My heart seems to have broken a thousand times in the last month and I’m sure it will continue to until we take that one last look in the rearview mirror and head East.

I know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m not sure how I feel about that light being New Jersey. Whatever is coming next in my life is nothing I ever expected but I know the grace that can be found in the most painful moments, and the treasures found in the most unexpected places. My plan is to take each day and build a new life one piece at a time, taking all of the adventure I can from it. There is a whole new world for me to discover.

While you may not be able to find me in California, you will be able to find me here at Cognitive Leeks. I’ll be posting as often as I can while we are in transition, but plan to get back into the swing of things with more regular posts when we see how things shake out with house-(and town)hunting. Catch you on the flip side….

Harold’s

Harold’s New York Deli, Edison, New Jersey- Scott and I ate here on a Friday night during a house- hunting trip to New Jersey. It’s next to a hotel near the business park where his new office is in Edison, right off the highway. As far as I’ve seen, it’s the only place to eat in Edison besides Dunkin’ Donuts and the only place I could almost reliably find from our hotel with out ending up on a divided highway in bumper to bumper traffic for an hour while the GPS indignantly and huffily re-calculates repeatedly. But I digress. The entrance hallway is flanked by the cashier’s booth on one side and a wall of glass fronted refrigerator cases on the other. The cases are full of cakes- layer and cheese on a scale that makes me feel Lilliputian. Seriously huge, the layer cakes are six layers tall in commercial sized cake pans and the cheesecakes are probably six inches deep by eighteen inches across. Scott took me past the hostess stand for a quick look at the pickle bar, a twelve foot buffet with sliced bread, rolls and pickles- sauerkraut, sour, half sour, kosher dill, health salad (oh the irony!) pickled tomatoes, hot cherry pickled peppers, hot garlic dill chips, and maybe a couple more that I can’t remember. We went back to the hostess and she threaded us through several dining rooms of hearty eaters to a long table near the back of the restaurant. The menu recommended sharing sandwiches between two people for a large or up to four people for the extra-large. We ordered a Reuben with pastrami, sized large comes with pickle bar and we order a couple of Dr. Brown sodas. Walking back through the restaurant to the pickle bar, the scale of the food on the tables I pass begins to really sink in- these are massive sandwiches! I see a sandwich with a half a head of iceberg lettuce perched on top, dwarfed by the huge pile of meat underneath. We get an assortment of pickles to try, and they are really good- the sauerkraut has that bitter tang of really fermented cabbage, the pickles are each distinctive in flavor and texture. I really like the tomato and the half sour.

There are a couple of guys in our section who are apparently enjoying their first visit to Harold’s also and seem unable to believe their luck. One sits sideways to the table, facing the room as if watching for someone to come up and tell him he’s being punked, making asides to the room- I overhear   “well, you’re not getting ripped of paying $26 for a sandwich here!”

Our sandwich arrives, open-faced and roughly the size of a roast chicken, covered with melted cheese and accompanied by spicy mustard and Russian dressing on the side. When we dig in and start piling it onto our plates, it’s a layer of swiss (?) cheese, a pile of the great sauerkraut and a moist pink pile of pastrami on top of dressing and a slice of bread. It’s the best pastrami I have ever had- juicy and flavorful with just the right amount of fat throughout each slice. The peppery black layer on the outside is delicious. There is easily a pound and a half of meat on the plate. My cream soda and the pickles cut through some of the richness, but really, that’s a losing battle.  I wonder out loud if Scott’s vegan colleague breaks out in hives just driving past the restaurant.

Meanwhile, a couple of guys sit at the opposite end of our table- clearly local based on the accent. They order the “romany” steak which reminded me of the grocery list for King Solomon’s household when it arrived along with about a quart of mashed potatoes.  When I ask what it is and then laugh spontaneously at the absurdity of it all, they go into full swing. They remark how ridiculous it is- disgusting, really- as they dig in. Got any friends in the area, they say, call them and have them help us eat this. One says he’s going to take a baby aspirin as soon as the meal is over, the other says he’s got his doctor on speed dial and sets his cell phone on the table next to his plate. Their wives will no longer come here with them, they say, they’ll have stroke from all the salt in the pickles. It’s pure theatre and they play it to perfection. We made it through about half of our sandwich before calling it quits and turned down the offer of dessert, no thanks, no two-pound slice of cake for me tonight, thank you. A couple more groups come past us as we’re paying the cashier, and the stereotypical bleach-blond cotton candy haired, leopard clothed, perma-tanned, gold encrusted 65-year-old Jersey matron cackles past us saying ”everything here is king-soized!” Her compadres are outside finishing their cigarettes and gossiping.