19 November, 2014

Donut French Toast: The Breakfast of Kings

Sorry about the picture quality -
it's a little out of focus.
This is one of those posts that make me glad my cardiologist doesn't know I have a blog, because in it I detail an awesome breakfast which was totally delicious as well as being pretty low on the heart-healthy scale: Donut French Toast.

Now, you can accompany your donut french toast with anything you like, but I really went for the Trifecta Of Density by siding it with mashed-potato pancakes and thick-sliced bacon. (In my defense, I cooked the pancakes using olive oil and that was the only slice of bacon I've eaten in about two months.)

Anyway, Donut French Toast is wicked simple to make. You'll need some leftover cake donuts - plain is fine, cinnamon/sugar is great, cider donuts are even better. (Don't use raised donuts.) Split the donuts in half, bagel-style, using a sharp knife. Make your usual favorite beaten egg mixture for dipping, but instead of just dipping, allow the donuts to soak a bit, cut side down, in the egg. Flip the donuts over to coat the other side, too, and then fry them, cut-side down, until browned. Carefully flip them over and fry the rounded side. Serve with your favorite sides. You can serve them with syrup if you like, but we didn't find it necessary.

Mashed-potato pancakes are similarly easy to make. Start with some leftover mashed potatoes. Season with a little extra salt and pepper. Crack an egg into them and beat the egg in, then add some baking powder and enough flour to make a rather still batter. Use a spoon or a portioning scoop to put them into a hot skillet - they'll rise as they cook, and when they're browned on one side you can flip them over and brown them on the other. 

The combo is delicious, and guaranteed to stick with you all day until supper.

18 November, 2014

I Didn't Choose The Coke Life, the Coke Life Chose Me

Earlier this month, Coca-Cola rolled out a new product: Coke Life, a decent product with a kind of stupid name. They're calling it a "reduced calorie" cola. There's no high-fructose corn syrup in it, just real by-God cane sugar and a little touch of stevia extract. That dash of stevia lets Coke maintain the sweetness level of the beverage while allowing them to cut the amount of actual sugar in the drink - and there is absolutely no trace of an aftertaste!

Quite seriously, Coca-Cola Life tastes exactly the way Coke did when I was a kid, back before HFCS wormed it's way into every goddamn food product imaginable. If you go crazy trying to find sugar-based Mexican Coke or if you hoard Kosher-for-Passover Coke when you can find it in the spring, try a bottle of Life and see how well it fits the bill.

By the way, I bought a six-pack of these cute li'l 8-ounce bottles, and GUESS WHAT THEY'RE NOT TWIST-OFF YOU'RE GONNA NEED AN OPENER, SON.

07 November, 2014

New England Clam Chowder Update Coming

I'm working on updating the comprehensive guide to canned clam chowder, which was first published in June 2011. There have been a few minor updates over the past couple of years, but since I first posted it, Campbell's has discontinued some of their products and introduced others, and there has been at least one major recipe and/or label change. Look for a heavily revised guide to come out soon.

In the meantime, if there are any canned (or plastic-pouched) New England-style clam chowders you think I should try, let me know about it in the comments here or through the Contact Me form and I'll do my best to find them. Remember that I have to have some way to get them (online ordering or from a store close to the Western Massachusetts / Northern Connecticut area.) Also please remember that I do not accept manufacturer's samples or freebies.

05 November, 2014

The Mystery of Smarties

So, Halloween has come and gone, and once again I'm left with a gigantic bowl of leftover candy. There are a lot of kids in my neighborhood and the weather was fairly decent, so I thought there'd be a good trickertreat turnout, but alas, only a dozen or so groups of kids.

Most of the leftover stuff will get piled in the breakroom at work for the ravenous jackals there, but not the Smarties. Everyone in the family poked through the leftovers, and almost universally said, "Oh, good! you didn't give away all the Smarties!" 

Smarties are billed by their manufacturer as 'America's Favorite Candy Roll," which could be true I guess, although Tootsie Roll might dispute that. Actually, I hope they do dispute it, Smarties were invented in 1949, making them 65 years old; Tootsie came around in 1896. I say we give them each a sword and let them slash it out at the neighborhood Senior Center. 

This would bring in a fortune on Pay Per View.
Anyway, I mentioned "The Mystery of Smarties." Lynnafred was the one who first pointed it out to me. She was sorting a roll of Smarties by color so she could eat the white ones - her favorites - last.  I have to admit, I do the exact same thing (could Smarties preference be genetic??) Mindful of Kellogg's fessing up that all Froot Loops cereal colors were actually the same flavor, I said that the white ones were my faves, too, but I've never been able to really tell them apart other than the fact that the white Smarties seemed to be more citrusy and "brightly" flavored than the others.

And so I made up my mind to really concentrate on the flavor of different colored Smarties, to see if I could discern something more than "the white ones are pretty damn good and I'm not too crazy about the green ones." With little piles of the different colors in front of me, I started to deliberately taste each color.

Nope. Sorry. I got a vaguely citrusy/vanilla taste from the whites and a whiff of pineapple from the yellows, and a warbly, indistinct "fruity" flavor from all the rest except orange. Orange tasted like a fainter version of the St. Joseph Children's Aspirin my mom used to give us when we were kids.

Luckily, the Smarties web site has a FAQ wherein the true flavor intentions of Smarties are revealed! According to Mr. Smartie Pants, the flavors are as follows:

White - Orange/Cream
Yellow - Pineapple
Pink - Cherry
Green - Strawberry
Purple - Grape
Orange - Orange

So...What's your favorite color Smarties?

22 October, 2014

Fishy Delights 52: Richfield Farms Ready-to-Serve Clam Chowder

I spent most of last week along the southern Maine coast, doing things like visiting lighthouses, walking the beaches, and gawking at the gorgeous New England autumn foliage (seriously, those of you who don't live here should put "Second Week Of October In New England" on your bucket list.) One of the things Maryanne and I always do on visits to Maine is hit up Marden's, a regional chain of discount/job lot/cultch stores. We generally go to the Biddeford store on US 1.

And it was here that I found a few cans of Richfield Farms Ready to Serve Savory Selections Clam Chowder, Healthy Chunky New England Style. (Look at all that text. Who designed this label, Leo Tolstoy?)

Clam chowder - even canned - is one of my favorite lunches. In addition, I try to keep track of what chowders are good and which are crap. In my Comprehensive Guide to Canned Clam Chowder, I've reviewed and rated nearly every available clam chowder I could find. Discovering Richfield Farms chowder in Marden's reminded me that the guide is still a work in progress.

So how is it?  Pretty good, I'd say.  The color and consistency is pretty much what you'd expect of a New England-style chowder, although the texture is a little on the "slippery" side. I was surprised to see visible bits of herbs in the broth - mostly, though, it seems to be finely minced parsley with enough thyme to give the chowder a vaguely aromatic aftertaste. I was also a little unsettled by these weird little white floaty bits that just would not stir into the chowder. I think that might have been some kind of starch or fat or something. The floaters persisted even after microwaving and the chowder didn't have an off taste. Despite how it looked, it definitely wasn't mold and probably wasn't a bacterial colony either (I ate it at the beginning of the week and I'm still alive.) 

There were big chunks of nice, waxy potatoes and plenty of clam bits of varying sizes. Overall flavor was pretty good - clammy and a bit herbal, but a little tinny. Like most canned chowders, it was improved with a good dose of black pepper.

I would love to give Richfield Farms a 7/10 but them floaty bits, yo. Gotta knock it down a tad to a 6+/10.

To see how this chowder stacks up against other canned chowders, you can click here to go to the Richfield entry in the Comprehensive Guide.

21 October, 2014

Vintage Cookie Recipes

Some time ago I posted about a set of old Christmas cookie cutters that made me nostalgic for my childhood. Last week I got a comment from a reader:

"Do you happen to have the cookie and glaze recipe that I believe was on the lid of the box, on the inside? If so, would you be kind enough to share?"

I had forgotten all about the recipes included with the cutters, so I dug them out of their off-season sleeping place and checked it out. There are actually four recipes printed on the underside of the lid - three cookies and one for frosting.

Sugar Cookies

½ cup shortening
1 cup sugar
2 well-beaten eggs
2 tablespoons cream
1 tablespoon vanilla or almond extract
3½ cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

Cream together shortening and sugar. Add eggs, cream, and flavoring extract and beat well.  Sift flour and baking powder together. Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture. Shape into mound, wrap in waxed paper and chill thoroughly. Roll on board lightly "floured" with confectioners sugar until dough is about ¼ inch thick. Dip cutter in confectioners sugar each time before cutting cookie, the place cookie on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake in moderate oven (375 F) for about 8 minutes, or until delicately browned.


Ginger Snap Cookies

½ cup molasses
¼ cup sugar
3 tablespoons shortening
1 tablespoon milk
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger\

Heat molasses to boiling point; add sugar, shortening, and milk and mix well. 

Sift flour, soda, salt, and spices together; add sifted dry ingredients to the molasses mixture. Shape into mound, wrap in waxed paper and chill thoroughly. Roll on board lightly "floured" with confectioners sugar until dough is about ¼ inch thick. Dip cutter in confectioners sugar each time before cutting cookie, the place cookie on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake in moderate oven (375 F) for about 8 minutes.


Brown Sugar Cookies

2 cups brown sugar
2/3 cup shortening
2 well-beaten eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

Cream sugar and shortening together until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat well.

Sift flour and baking powder together. Add sifted dry ingredients to the creamed sugar and shortening. Shape into mound, wrap in waxed paper and chill thoroughly. Roll on board lightly "floured" with confectioners sugar until dough is about ¼ inch thick. Dip cutter in confectioners sugar each time before cutting cookie, the place cookie on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake in moderate oven (375 F) for about 8 minutes, or until delicately browned.


Frosting and Decorating

1 egg white
1 cup confectioner's sugar
Few grains of salt

Add sugar gradually to the unbeaten egg white. Beat until smooth and of a consistency to pour slightly. Divide frosting into two or three small bowls and color to pastel shades with vegetable coloring; flavor as desired.

16 October, 2014

Craft beer?

Big Y has a really loose definition of "craft beer."

(Look carefully at the top shelf.)

15 October, 2014

Special K Chocolatey Delight

Special K - the flagship of the Kellogg's "good for you" cereal brands - is now available in a heavily-sugared version which includes tiny little chocolate bars. 

For the record, even though they're almost as sweet as Cap'n Crunch, they're not all that bad - a good hearty whole grain flake with lots of crunch - but they're much more like Sugar Frosted Flakes with bits of Hershey Bar mixed in than traditional Special K. It's like Kellogg's just said, "Fuck it, just give 'em candy." 

14 October, 2014

Twilzzlers Caramel Apple Filled Twists

Candied nastiness has taken a new form and is now available as Caramel Apple flavored Filled Twizzlers, a confectionery abomination that Lynnafred came home with a few days ago.

She's long been a big fan of Twizzlers, so she was kind of excited when she presented them. "Check it out! A new kind of Twizzlers! And look, they have skin inside!" (referring to the human-flesh-colored stuff which was supposed to represent the "caramel.") Okay, so "excited" might be the wrong word.

There were four pieces in the package, one for each of us, and we all helped ourselves to one and took tentative bites.

This is, we unanimously decided, not the candy to choose if you are looking for the flavor of caramel apple.

The Twizzler part - that is, the surrounding green twisty bit - is fine as far as it goes. If you're a fan of "red licorice" you know what to expect from it, only it will be green instead of red and have a vaguely apple-ish flavor that bears little resemblance to actual apples.

But the filling is astonishing in its utter worthlessness. How hard could it have been to put something more like actual caramel inside? Caramel is cheap and common, and the technology needed to fill Twizzlers has already, obviously, been perfected. But no, Twizzlers had to go with some kind of sweetened plasticine psuedofood with a flavor eerily similar to caramel and an aftertaste strongly similar to Play-Doh.

Twizzlers should change their label for this candy. I suggest this:


06 October, 2014

Hebert Filled Chocolate Bars

Photo of the Candy Mansion by Hebert Candies
Just about everyone in central New England is familiar with Hebert Candies. The company got it's start in 1917 when Frederick Hebert cooked up his first batch of caramel. In 1946, the company moved to a big Tudor mansion on Route 20 in Shrewsbury Massachusetts where they've been ever since. Hebert's candies are outstanding, and their chocolate is really quite excellent - velvety smooth as it melts in your mouth.

Once upon a time, the only way to wrap a lip around a Hebert's confection was to travel to Shrewsbury, but these days they distribute their sweets over a much larger range. For the most part, this increased production and distribution has done nothing negative to the quality of their products - the chocolate is always great.

Recently we found four varieties of filled chocolate bars produced by Hebert at the local Ocean State Job Lot store. How could we resist their delicious allure?

We picked up one each of the four varieties: Banana Cream Pie, Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, Peanut Butter Cup, and Peanut Butter and Fluff. All of them were good - they can't help but be good since they were enveloped in Hebert chocolate - but some were gooder than others.

First up:  Banana Cream Pie. An interesting simulation of pie, with banana ganache filling over a graham cracker-studded base. Our tasters were unanimous that the banana flavor was entirely overpowering, even knocking out the rich chocolate. The graham cracker crunch was really nice, though.

Next, Peanut Butter and Fluff. Fluff is a type of marshmallow creme made in Lynn, Massachusetts, and sold virtually everywhere in New England, but is almost unknown anywhere else in the country. That's a shame, because it's not at all like the standard marshmallow cremes available anywhere else - it's airier, and...well...fluffier.  

Hebert's confection doesn't quite pull off the peanut-butter-and-Fluff thing. The marshmallow flavor gets totally lost between the milk chocolate and the peanut butter. Perhaps if the marshmallow layer was
thinner, or if there was more marshmallow above the peanut butter layer? Also, I'm wondering whether that was really Fluff™ in those little pockets and not just some kind of marshmallow thing that Hebert is calling "Fluff" in a generic sense. (Given that this bar no longer appears on the Hebert website, I would guess that it was the latter. Fluff™ is, after all, a trademark.) Either way, this bar was rather underwhelming.

Peanut Butter and Jelly was a better combo; the jelly was a little bit of an overkill in the sweetness department, but the flavor was discernible along with the peanut butter and the chocolate, and I thought the flavors were pretty well balanced.

The unanimous favorite among the taster was Peanut Butter Cup, perhaps not surprising considering its classic and familiar combination. The peanut butter flavor was, like in the PB&J bar, just right and well-balanced with the chocolate. And the chocolate used for this bar was noticeably darker than with the others (although the label did say "Milk Chocolate" like the others.)

05 October, 2014

Help Me Identify This Edible Root

I bought these roots at Price Chopper the other day. They were right next to the parsnips, and no one in the produce department could tell me what they were (and the cashier rang them up as "parsnips" so she was just as clueless as everyone else.). I bought them because they're so cool-looking - kind of square in cross-section, with little root nubbins along the "corners" which give it a distinctively grub-like look.

I haven't done anything with them as of yet, because...well, because I'm not sure what to do. I did take a slice off on one to taste it. It has a wet, refreshingly crispy texture very similar to a water chestnut, but without the water-chestnut bitterness. The flavor was pretty neutral, but with a gentle nutty undertone.

So...WHAT ARE THEY?  Help a brother out here - I think they might be jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes, but I'm not familiar enough with them to tell for sure.  If you have any ideas, put 'em in the comments.

30 September, 2014

Aldi's Deutsche Kuche Bavarian Brand Wieners

Here's another one of those "rotational" items that cycle in and out of ALDI stores now and then: Deutsche Kuche Bavarian Brand Wieners. They're decent natural-casing wieners made by Specialty Sausage Co. LLC (Bobak Sausage Co.) in Chicago.

My favorite way to enjoy natural-casing dogs is to steam them; it plumps them up as they heat and coaxes the buns to a delicate pillowy softness.

Don't look for any kind of assertive frankfurter flavor in these wieners. They're made of pork and veal, gently seasoned with black pepper, and lightly smoked. The flavor profile is similar to that of a high-quality veal luncheon loaf, smoked. Not too bad. I would certainly recommend them, especially if you're lucky enough to get them at the end of the sale cycle when the store starts discounting items to get them off the shelf (you might not want to wait that long for these because I bet they don't last that long.)

The somewhat bland nature of this dog lends itself to topping. Chili sauce was pretty good (the smoke was a nice compliment, and the veally flavor came through nicely) but the kraut and mustard pictured above might have been too over-the-top - the sharp tastes of the mustard and kraut totally overwhelmed the rest of the combo.

28 September, 2014

Homemade Dog Treats

Have you ever given your dog those dried chicken strips for a treat? Dogs go crazy for those things. My dog Zim (seen here flapping his lips by hanging out the sunroof of the car) would do just about anything for a bit of dehydrated chicken.

There are two big problems with store-bought dried chicken treats, though: they're mad expensive and - far more importantly - lax production standards in China, where so many of the treats are made, result in products that can potentially kill your dog. I stopped buying imported animal treats several years ago when word first started circulating about the problem, and it hasn't gotten any better since.

Luckily, there is a huge supply of dog treats available to you at an extremely reasonable cost of time and treasure, and you need look no further than local supermarkets.

The answer is right there in the poultry section. The raw materials are inexpensive, dehydrate quickly with little risk of spoilage, have an insanely long shelf life at room temperature once they've been processed, and are not only low in fat but provide your dog with calcium. And they're crunchy as hell, which seems to be really important to dogs - if you've ever seen the way a teething puppy crackles an empty water bottle, you know how much dogs love stuff that crunches between their jaws.

I'm talking about chicken feet, or "chicken paws," as I've seen them hilariously packaged. They start out being low in moisture, consisting mostly of skin, tendons, and bone, so they dry well and keep a long time. While most everyone knows that you're not supposed to give dogs cooked chicken bones because of the danger that they'll splinter, that doesn't apply to raw bones, which help provide dogs with essential nutrients which their canine guts are especially keen at extracting. These treats aren't cooked, they're dried, so they're safe. And of course, they're not made in some anonymous Chinese industrial plant so you know exactly what your dog is eating.

The first step is to acquire a few pounds of chicken feet. Most of your suburban white-bread supermarkets will not carry them, so seek them out at more urban or ethnic locations. Asian markets are ideal, and usually the least expensive. When I make these (which is at least once every couple of months since I always give some away to friends with dogs) I try to get two heavy packages of them, five pounds or so.

Chicken feet are rather cool and prehistoric-looking with big nails and scaly reptilian skin. And there's usually tendons sticking out of the cut ends. If you hold the chicken foot in one hand and pull on the tendons with the other, the toes will curl like some kind of gruesomely beckoning marionette. [My grandmother once told me that when she was a girl, she would take one of the feet of a freshly-killed chicken and do exactly that with it, chasing her squeamish and screaming older sister around the house with the monstrous gripping claw.]

Anyway,  once you get the packages home, open them up and give them a rinse. If you have a child around, show them how those tendons work - the kid will be fascinated and horrified and probably want to try it themselves, and you should let them as long as you have them wash their hands when they're done, because it's fun.

Okay, so that part about kids and tendons is optional, but rinsing shouldn't be. Rinse them off and then pat them dry. Then, using kitchen shears, cut off the toenails. If you cut straight through the toe at the base of the nail, you'll go right through a joint and it's easy. If you cut through bone, it's still easy, it just gives a bit more resistance. I take the nails off, even though I just told you a few paragraphs ago that raw chicken bones are okay, because they're sharp. Most of the nails are like needles, and they don't get any blunter when they're dehydrated. So just to be safe, I remove them.

Next, I arrange them in single layers on the trays of my dehydrator. It's okay if they touch, but you don't want them packed tightly against each other because they need room for air to circulate around. Use as many dehydrator trays as you need, put the cover on, plug it in, and let it do its magic. I rotate the trays bottom to top once or twice a day.

After three days, open up the dehydrator and check them out. They should be totally dry to the touch and rather stiff. If they feel at all pliable and leathery, they're not ready.

It usually takes three or four days for them to all dry out. You'll have a large enough supply for at least two months, feeding your dog one of these treats twice a day or so, and trust me he'll love them.

When you buy dehydrated chicken feet ready-to-eat online or at retail stores, they can cost as much as $45 a pound (they're often put up five or six to a package and that package costs up to 10 dollars!) I buy the feet for $1.29 a pound around here, so for six or seven dollars I make a bag full of them that would retail for about $75.

PS: If you're really lucky, you can find duck feet as well as chicken. They're a little meatier and more substantial than chicken feet, but you process them the same way. Usually they run about 20 - 25 cents a pound more expensive than chicken feet; you'll have to decide for yourself if that's worth it.

Where to find a dehydrator:

You can get one at many Walmarts or hardware stores, in the canning section. You can spend a couple hundred dollars on these things, believe it or not, but you can also order one inexpensively on Amazon. Or you can do what I did and pick one up at a church rummage sale or estate sale. Many people buy one, use it a couple of times, and then get rid of it. I've bought three or four of them secondhand like that, all the same make, and put the trays together to make one bigass dehydrator for making dog treats, jerky, dried herbs, and so on.

25 September, 2014

The Big E 2014 - Observations and Reviews, Part 2

The Eastern States Exposition runs for 17 days every September, and it's a big, raucus event. I could file a blog post about it every day (if I went every day - as it is, I head over there at least a couple days a week during the run.) After the first couple of times, I'm no longer visiting the usual attractions, I'm noticing things.

One of the unsung benefits of attending a state fair really early in the morning is that you get to experience perfectly spotless unused Port-A-Potties. Seriously, check out that sparkling toilethole there. This is the first time in my half a century on earth that I've looked down the hatch and seen nothing but pristine blue poopeater. I got goosebumps. Or maybe piss shivers, it's hard to tell the difference sometimes.

A couple of years ago, I reviewed the overcooked nastyburgers found at Yankee Boy. They're still there, behind the Better Living Center by Gate 9. Apparently kangaroo is off the menu, but now you can enjoy a camel burger if you are so inclined. I know better than to order anything here.

Here's a peek right by Yankee Boy's corrugate compactor. Apparently, they're sourcing their burgers locally from Arnold's Meats, a wholesale/retail supplier. I often buy from Arnold's, and I trust their quality. They're one of the few places around here that still grinds their own burger meat instead of bringing in chubs of industrial mince.

So the culinary horror show at Yankee Boy most likely originates at the grill.

The purpose of an apostrophe is to alert the reader
that the word they are reading will end with an "s"

One day, just inside Gate 9A, Post Foods set up a Cereal Tent! They were giving away samples of many of their cereals along with dollar-off coupons for use at the grocery store. I tried some old favorites like Honey Combs (they still taste like honey, but the cereal bits themselves are a lot smaller than I remember) and some new ones, like Mini Cinnamon Churros (deliciously similar to the competitor's Cinnamon Toast Crunch.) The tent was drawing a steady stream of curious customers, most of whom were old farts like me - not really the target market for stuff like Fruity Pebbles, Alpha-Bits, and Waffle Crisp.

Yuengling Beer, which has recently been returning to the New England market, has really become a presence at the E this year. Near Gate 9A on New England Avenue, Yuengling is running a "brew pub" tent featuring several of their beers on tap. While not boomingly crowded, the tent draws a fair number of people.

And they've turned up in a number of other food service areas as well, even in places I hardly would have expected. Like here, at the Matunuck Oyster Bar, the featured beer is Yuengling. I would have expected them to be carrying Narragansett, which is made right in their Rhode Island back yard.

Another very popular feature is the new Wine & Cheese Barn. you'll need an ID to get in, seein' as there's alcohol and stuff. There's also a long line to get in. Looking at my photo there, you'd probably think that there are only a couple of people ahead of you...

...but alas, the actual tasting area is all the way at the back of this mostly-empty building. Bring your 3DS to kill some time while you wait in line. I moved about three feet in half an hour before I decided that I could go to the liquor store and buy full bottles of wine for the price of my time at prevailing labor rates.

Photo courtesy Eastern States Exposition
The Coliseum is the central building of the Eastern States Exposition; events here were originally the main attraction of the fair in the early part of the 20th century and the other buildings and events gradually grew up around it.

This is an interior view. For fifty years, there was ice plant under the floor and for many years, the Coliseum was the largest ice hockey venue in Western Massachusetts. Growing up, I watched the Springfield Indians (AHL), New England Whalers (WHL), and the Hartford Whalers (NHL) play there (the Hartford Whalers made the Coliseum their home-away-from-home for a short time after the Hartford Civic Center roof collapsed during the winter of 1977-78.)

My favorite events there when I was a kid, though, was the roller derby. Forty years later, I can still remember how much fun that was.

At the far western side of the fairgrounds, near the New Hampshire building, is a large brick structure called the Hamden County Building. It houses a sort of circus museum - a large number of intricately detailed little dioramas depicting traveling show life through the mid-twentieth century. My favorite part of the exhibit is the outhouse tent - catch it at just the right angle and you can see a little guy inside taking a dump.


The Big E 2014 - Matunuck Oyster Bar

In Rhode Island, the Matunuck Oyster Bar is justifiably renowned as one of the state's - indeed, even the country's - best oyster bars. And so it was great excitement that it was announced that they'd be opening up a raw bar at the Big E. While anything new is welcomed at the Exposition (existing businesses tend to become entrenched and the waiting list for new vendors to come in can often be years long) having Matunuck arrive at the fair was treated as an especially big deal, particularly by the local news media who went bonkers over the idea of a raw bar at the Eastern States Exposition! 

[To tell the truth, I was pretty excited by this news too - this is a New England state fair, after all, and we need more New England-oriented attractions and fewer stupid copycat crap attractions like the faux "Mardi Gras" parade.  Mardis Gras? Really? In fucking September??]

So anyway, I wandered by the oyster bar to see what all the fuss was about. The shellfish was nicely iced and looked pretty decent, and they were taking the time to shuck oysters as they were ordered to make sure everyone got the best experience possible. So I ordered half a dozen oysters for a light early lunch.

They were...okay.  Just okay. Nothing stellar, and I'm really glad I decided to order when I did, because when the fair gets crowded, there is a long queue at the ordering counter here and these oysters were, quite frankly, not worth an extended wait time. They were good enough for oysters trucked inland far from the sea, but also they were small, not very plump, and not very sweet or briny. Go to one of Matunuck's Rhode Island restaurants and you will have an awesome experience. Go to their Big E building and you will have supermarket oysters.

The condiments available for the oysters are low-grade standard as well - a slice of lemon and a cup of very bland and ketchupy cocktail sauce on the plate, and a bottle of unexceptional hot sauce at the pickup window for optional sprinkles. Horseradish was missing and very sadly missed - I would have take a big scoop of it just to mix with the cocktail sauce to try and kick up its Heinz 57ness.

Matunuck's auxiliary seating bench (a concrete flower bed.)
I'm also going to take this opportunity to bitch about the seating. Many of the food vendors (and restaurant operators) at the Big E take a crowd-oriented view of seating: they set out picnic tables in their areas and benches at the perimeters, and as folks order they find seats with strangers along with friends, kind of "boarding house" style. Sharing a space like this is common and traditional and it gets people, if not talking to each other, at least introducing themselves and exchanging a little small talk. Not at Manutuck Oyster Bar, though. They set out tiny little tables which can just about fit four people. Except a great number of couples claim tables in such a way that it makes it difficult or impossible for anyone else to sit and share a space, effectively cutting their seating capacity in half. The result of this misguided attempt at "intimate bistro seating" is that those unlucky enough not to find a seat are forced to wander out to the back alley and sit on the concrete edge of the flower bed ringing the New England Center building. There's a great view of the electrical transformer and the service area/trash barrels for the various food vendors. At least it was convenient to be able to just walk a step or two to throw away the shells.

24 September, 2014

The Big E 2014 - Observations and Reviews, Part 1

The Big E - The Eastern States Exposition - is a six-state state fair where all of New England is represented. It runs for seventeen days in September of every year, and I always try to spend some time there. Tickets are $15 for a single day entry, but for $40 you can get a pass that's good for the full run of the fair so that's what I usually do. I spend enough time there petting sheep, talking to goats, and watching cattle judging that the pass easily pays for itself.

I try to get there early - before 9:00 AM. Most of the exhibit buildings don't open until 10, so there aren't too many people wandering around first thing in the morning. Employees and vendors, mostly. The grounds aren't crowded, but they are bustling. Vendors and hucksters are tidying up their kiosks and trucks roll though with deliveries. Everyone wants to get their supplies laid in before 9:30 when vehicles are banished from the fairgrounds for the day, because anything that needs to be brought in after that has to be rolled in by hand.

I like hanging around the fairgrounds early, because I like to see how things work. There are usually a couple of boom trucks travelling around replacing light bulbs on vendor's marquee signs and crews are coming through toting supplies, making sure trash and recycling containers are set, and making other last-minute preparations.

One of the first places to open up is the West Springfield Fire House restaurant on the northwest side of the grounds between Gate 2 and Gate 4. They serve one of the best breakfasts at or away from the fair - two eggs any style, toast, home fries, bacon AND ham, with coffee, for just eight dollars. (Breakfast sandwiches are also available.) You pick up your food and pay cafeteria-style, and there are plenty of seats in the dining area (a lot of the seating is at big round tables where everyone grabs a seat family-style.) The breakfasts are generous, and I always make it my first stop. It's a lot easier to resist the lure of deep-fried state fair junkfood when there's a decent meal under your belt.

Next to open after the restaurants are the vendors. Many of them are happy to serve customers even while they're getting set up for the day, and by 9:30 or so they're already making sales. I found one cool place selling handcrafted glass spheres in various designs - including huge eyeballs.

Each of the New England states has a building dedicated just to them. Those buildings, highlighting the agriculture and selected industries of each state, open at 10. On our first visit of the year, we usually go to the state buildings right after they open, before the crowds start to pour in. We also make it a point to visit the agricultural exhibits in the morning.

By 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon, the fairgrounds are packed and the experience gets somewhat less fun. That's about the time we head for the car, leaving the crowd behind. It's nice to know that we can come back again when the "rush" is over since we have the passes.