This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Back to Atlanta and Home

June 31st, our final day on our southern road trip before boarding our flight home to the cooler temps of Bellingham. We packed up and after breakfast at the hotel, headed for Atlanta. The drive was uneventful. We finally took some photos of the Kudzu that we'd seen so much of along our way. This funny looking vine often takes the shape of familiar objects like clouds often do, but sadly it has become a real problem to control here in the south.

As we drove along, Leslie discovered Harold's Barbecue in Atlanta was right on our way into the city. She read its description aloud and it sounded like a place we ought to try so we took the turn off for it just as we came into town. The description read that it was located between a housing project and a state prison, but not to worry as lots of cops ate there as well. The location wasn't that seedy but there were cops there. I had wanted to try Brunswick Stew and hadn't had a chance the entire trip so I ordered that along with some ribs. Leslie ordered her usual pulled pork sandwich. The stew is a thick southern vegetable soup with meat added. In the case of the Georgia style it is usually pork. The stew was a disappointment. It was pretty flavorless and sadly it was a foretaste of the rest of the meal. After Sargent White's, Harold's just didn't even come close to matching up. Later on I read that they had stopped using wood fires to BBQ their meats and had gone over to a gas oven. What are they thinking? A sad, disappointing final taste of the south.

We had a plane to catch.
We had hired our car downtown Atlanta instead of the airport saving ourselves the high airport taxes they tack on when you get the car their. It was an easy and very convenient train ride from the airport to the center of Atlanta and then only a 3 block walk to the car rental agency. We returned our car and they even drove us the 3 blocks to the train station for the return to the airport.

Our visit to the south was wonderful. Oh, I know I have complained a lot in this blog series about the heat and humidity and it was genuinely a problem for me and Leslie as well. I would recommend taking the trip during a cooler time of year, perhaps early spring or fall.

But don't stay home for any other reason. I have long stayed away from travel in the deep south for reasons that are really prejudicial which is rather ironic because that was my image of the south--prejudiced white supremacists driving around in old beater pick up trucks proudly flying the stars and bars, poor blacks relegated to run down neighborhoods, marginalized where opportunities in life are concerned. The separate water fountains, Jim Crow laws, etc. may have been outlawed, but. . .

Now admittedly I am seeing it through the eyes of a caucasian male, but my view of southerners both black and white was one of a warm, friendly and generous folk. The racism so burned into my memory from all those 60's images was simply not evident anywhere during the trip. Instead those ugly ways seem to have been exposed for what they were, not hidden or swept under a rug, but admitted to and now there is a feeling of live and let live.
Oh, I'm not naive enough to think racism no longer exists in the south, I'm just saying that, like the rest of the country, we have come a long way.

Successful, affluent African Americans were quite evident everywhere. The charm of the old south is also evident everywhere--in conversations, the service, courtesy, warmth and friendliness of nearly everyone we met and so one day very soon I'd like to return and continue exploring more of the south.

Savannah, Georgia

Before leaving for Savannah, we had one last meal I have got to share with you (if only I could) in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Sargent White's Diner was our vote for the best BBQ on the trip. We were the first to arrive at the diner that morning. We needed to drive to Savannah and so we wanted an early start. I tried the ribs and three sides, mac and cheese, corn bread and greens. Leslie tried the pulled pork, butter beans, corn bread. The deep smoky flavor of the ribs was lay your head on the table and cry good. The meat melted in your mouth and fell from the bone. The greens were smoky as well, with chunks of ham scattered throughout. The corn bread was moist and the mac and cheese rich and creamy. We were able to have a short chat with the Sargent before leaving and thanking him profusely, told him about where we'd been on our trip and declared his BBQ the best we'd ever had. The next day I picked up the shirt I had worn at the diner and could still smell the smoky flavor of Sargent White's ribs. It still permeates the menu I took home with us. If you are anywhere near Beaufort, SC in your travels, Sargent White's is a must!

We headed down the highway next to the final destination on our trip--Savannah. We arrived in the late afternoon, drove around familiarizing ourselves with this beautiful city and got ourselves checked in to our hotel.

We stumbled onto The Lady and Sons, the Paula Deen owned restaurant destination I had been looking forward to. The more I read about it the more I thought this was going to probably be a mistake--another victim of it's owner's success. Call me crazy but I have admired Paula Deen for a long time. I guess it is partly a result of her rags to riches story (only in America). You can look up the story if you want to know more about her. Its easy to find.

I let Leslie out in front of the restaurant to try and get us in or get a reservation and I drove around the block waiting for her. She hopped back in the car announcing we had an 8:30 reservation. Cool!

We drove around town some more fascinated with the squares that dot the city. When originally laid out, every so many blocks a park-like square was placed. It is surrounded on all four sides by lovely homes, many antebellum, or sometimes a church, shops or municipal buildings. It makes for a much more small town feel breaking up each area into neighborhoods. The trees were draped with wisps of moss and life just slowed down in Savannah. I now know why southerners talk with that slow, genteel drawl and why they move just a little slower. Its got to be the heat and humidity! If you tried to move through life at a faster pace, you'd just have to lay down and die.

That evening we drove over to The Lady and Sons for dinner. The downtown was a lot less lively compared to earlier in the day so it was easy to find a parking place. The evening breezes also made it more pleasant outdoors so the walk through the streets was much more fun.

We arrived early and walked into the gift shop attached to the restaurant. Every Paula Deen endorsed cooking item was available. From pots and pans to utensils, knives, you name it. I located a copy of her second cookbook (I already had the first one) and noticed they were autographed by Paula. I had to have one of those. Her cookbooks, just as her TV show, are filled with recipes that are very southern and don't hold back when it comes to using original ingredients. No fat-free recipes here.

Our table was waiting for us. We were sent to the third floor dining room! Third floor? This place has three stories high, each floor with its own dining room. It makes the restaurant much more flexible. A wedding reception for a couple of hundred could be going on on one floor and the general public could still be accommodated on the other two. Still, it seemed quite a factory sort of set up. To my surprise, the food was quite good. I had some of the best fried chicken of the trip and despite the fact that I opted for the buffet line, the food was fresh, hot and as good or better than many of the Road Food recommended spots we tried. I settled on several of the sides and was not disappointed. My favorite greens were smoky and chunks of pork were scattered throughout. The mac and cheese was creamy and delicious and the corn bread, moist. Leslie was just not that hungry and sadly, opted for a big salad that was fine but wasn't representative of what we were there for. My dinner was delicious and my expectations were not disappointed. I'd go back if I was in Savannah again. Thanks Paula.

The next day we headed out to Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island along the Inter-coastal waterway. The fort was pre-civil war, built much in the style of Fort McHenry in Baltimore and many others of its era. It is star shaped offering its weapons the ability to shoot overlapping patterns at enemy ships.Thick walls made it pretty much impenetrable up through the civil war. I followed along with a very interesting ranger guided tour for a while but the heat was just getting too overwhelming so I ducked into the air conditioned gift shop to cool down. Fort Pulaski was so hot and humid that Leslie was even affected by the heat. We got some ice cold water out of a machine, got that down and decided to call it a day with the outdoor site seeing.

We drove over to Tybee Island and took a look at a tall light house for which the Carolina coast is famous. Then we headed back into Savannah stopping along the way at a Piggly Wiggly, the famous southern grocery store chain. We bought a bunch of souvenirs there--t-shirts and mugs. Deciding it was time to get out of the heat, we found a movie theater and sat through Knight and Day, a new Tom Cruise film. Fun!

The final full day of our trip ended with a swim in the hotel pool and staying in for the evening. We were tired and ready to head home.
Next--The Final Day--Back to Atlanta and the flight home

Monday, July 26, 2010

Charleston, South Carolina

Arriving in Charleston we once again felt the full force of the heat and humidity of the south. High 90's and humidity the same. But what an incredibly beautiful city. Sitting right along the Atlantic Ocean it is surrounded by low lying habitats--mud flats as we'd call them here in the northwest. But these flats are often vast fields of Spartina, a plant that belongs there but that has become a pest here in the northwest. It actually looks lovely here in Charleston--green, spiky plants that do equally well in and out of the water and thrive in the harsh, saltwater environment.

We drove around town quite a lot as the heat was just unbearable for walking. We did get out and about in the morning seeing a couple of the lovely antebellum homes that line the streets in the nicer areas of town.
On our first day we decided to head over to Mt. Pleasant and Sullivan's Island and stopping by Gullah Cuisine in Mt. Pleasant. We'd heard great things about this place. The food is not terribly different than the meat and three's we'd been enjoying in much of the south. The spicing was a bit different but on the whole I thought it rather bland. We tried the fried chicken and the other usual suspects--mac and cheese, greens, cabbage, and there was a mild nod to creole-style cooking, too. Dirty rice and sausage, shrimp gumbo and the like. But it was all much blander than the creole food I had in the New Orleans region. On the whole, I wouldn't go back, but we drove right past it so why not.
The evenings brought in amazing thunder storms the next few days. The lightening would light up the sky and thunder would crash all around us, even right over head.

Day two we visited two antebellum homes in the downtown Charleston area. The Aiken-Rhett Home was a place that must have been beautiful at one time but is being left in its current condition I guess so people can see what a mess some of these homes have become. The guides said that it was being kept in its current condition on purpose and is not being restored but rather just kept stabilized. I just thought the whole idea was crazy. I told one the guides that if they didn't want the home to continue to degenerate they would have to close it up, air condition it and even then they would have to continually work on the exterior to keep the ravages of termites, rain and humidity from further damaging the home. We also visited the Russell House a few blocks away that had been restored and was being properly maintained. The home and the gardens were beautiful. We had a very knowledgeable tour guide who walked us through. One of the most intriguing architectural points in the home was the free-standing staircase completely unsupported.

For lunch we headed across town to Bertha's Kitchen. This Road Food recommended place was nearly impossible to find but Leslie's instin
cts kicked in and she was sure if we just drove down what looked like a street that I was sure we should NOT drive down, we'd find it. Sure enough, there it was. Fried chicken to die for, juicy, spicy and hot out of the fryer. Great greens, mac and cheese, corn bread, the usual suspects again, but this food was just terrific! A definite yes if you're in Charleston, but good luck finding it. Take a GPS!

We decided to head on a little further down the road and stop in Beaufort (pronounced beeyou-fert) where several
popular films have been made including Forrest Gump and The Legend of Bagger Vance, Prince of Tides, The Great Santini and The Big Chill to name a few. Beaufort is also home to Parris Island, the U.S. Marine training base on the edge of town.

Before arriving we stopped at a road-side Carolina Cider Company, a cider shop where we tasted some ciders and other locally produced foods. We loved the deep fried peanuts. These peanuts don't need to be shelled. Just pop them in your mouth and eat them shell and all. Very cool! We also bought some praline candies and some cider to take with us.

What a gorgeous town Beaufort is. I actually liked it better than Charleston. We found a place to stay in the heart of town and then drove around taking it all in. Lovely old tre
es with moss hanging from the branches, Palmetto palms, lovely old homes. Too hot to wander around on foot, we decided to take in a movie. We found a theater only a couple of blocks from our hotel and went to see Toy Story 3 which turned out to be a great Pixar film, every bit as good as the first two. Stepping out of the theater we were met by a horrendous thunderstorm. The lightening flashes were so close we didn't dare cross the parking lot to the car. When it finally let up for a minute I ran for the car getting soaked in the process and drove around to pick up Leslie.

The next day we drove downtown for breakfast at
Blackstone's Cafe. The breakfast was fine. The decor was more interesting with a nod to the military and a nautical look with a collection of flags. After breakfast we walked a block over to the water and discovered a lovely walk along the water. Porch swings lined the walkway as did gardens, chairs and tables and a playground. We sat in one of the swings for over an hour and let the cool morning breeze blow over us while we watched a bridge open and close for boat traffic. It was a lovely way to spend some time outdoors before the noon day heat took over. We drove along the water front, past more beautiful old homes and moss laden trees on our way out of town towards Savannah, our final destination.


Next Stop--Savannah, Georgia and Paula Deen's The Lady and Sons.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

We've spent a few hours recently watching the Bellingham Bells baseball team. No, they aren't a professional team. This team is made up of a couple dozen scrappy young men who are barely out of high school. But they play with a lot of heart.

Best of all the price of admission can't be beat. Go ahead, pay $25 or $30 to get a ticket to see the Seattle Mariners. You can spend another bundle on food, too.

Or, you can spend no more than $7 for the best seats in the house at Joe Martin Stadium and get a whole hot dog meal, with chips and a drink for $6. Then there are the $2 Tuesday games where a ticket on the first or third base line, right behind the dugout is really only two bucks. Other nights food is offered at big discounts. Recently hot dogs, pop and ice cream was only a dollar.

Then there is the baseball. You get to see some very enthusiastic playing by a bunch of guys who are admittedly still learning the game, but we have seen lots of incredible plays made. Double plays, runners in pickles, terrific leaping catches on line drives and some pretty good pitching.

Enthusiastic, though rather small crowds attend. Lots of between inning action is provided by the young perky staffers who get kids involved in activities like running the bases, racing the chicken mascot across the outfield, and lots more. Foul balls are easily chased down by little ones out in the left field concourse where families can come with a picnic and the kids can run around or watch the game. Standing up to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame at the 7th inning stretch is fun like it used to be.

The action is up close and the players very accessible for kids who want to collect autographs or just get a high five. Plenty of free parking instead of the $10-20 at Safeco and you can get in and out quickly. We're home in ten minutes.

You have got to get out and see these guys play. With only one more game to go in the season and then the playoffs, the season is about done. But they'll be back next year and so will we.

Asheville, North Carolina

The Smokey Mountains had given us a couple of days of relief from the heat. Descending into Asheville, the heat was a bit more evident but still not bad and I think that probably had some to do with the our enjoyment of that city. In what I guess I'd call the foothills of the Smokies, is a town that reminds me in some ways of Bellingham. It is a city of about 70 or 80 thousand, a university town and the arts are a big part of the community. What Asheville has done that I wish Bellingham had more of is a very vibrant downtown. Think downtown Bellingham only with every empty store front occupied and without the riff raff hanging out on the street corners. It's very lively with many great restaurants and art galleries, even an independent bookstore, though our Village Books beats their bookshop by a mile.

One of the
stores was an old Woolworths that had been converted into a gallery for local artists including several whose work we really enjoyed. Along one wall a very clever entrepreneur had restored the old Woolworths lunch counter. Absolutely perfect in every detail, I was drawn immediately to it and even though we had just a had a wonderful lunch I had to sit at that counter. So we ordered a milk share to share and just took it all in and then continued wandering around town for a couple of hours.

The lu
nch I mentioned was at the Early Girl Eatery. Recommended in our Road Food guide, it was a cozy spot in the heart of a very lively downtown. We sat in a sunny spot near some windows looking out on a park and enjoyed our lunch of a meat and three. It was a nice, though not particularly memorable meal.

Leslie decided she'd like to go see something that evening, so she looked through some of the flyers we had picked up telling about upcoming events in tow
n. She found an ad for a production of A Little Night Music at Mars Hill College. Billed as being a professional show, we had never seen a production of it before so we purchased tickets over the phone. That evening we drove over to the very picturesque college campus and found the theater. Unfortunately, the theater, a very old former church converted into the campus theater, wasn't air conditioned and with no windows to open and all the doors closed tight it became a sweat lodge very quickly. At intermission I easily convinced myself to stay outside in the much cooler air. The show was really not very well done anyway and when I discovered lightening bugs flying about the campus lawn, I had found my entertainment for the evening. After a while I walked back to the car, drove over to a store and got gassed up for the next day's drive. I got back to the theater just about in time to watch the doors flung open by the patrons almost as if the building had exploded from the pent up heat.

The next morning
we left town on our way to Charleston, North Carolina. No, we didn't stop at the famed Biltmore Estate on the outskirts of town. It kind of came down to the cost. Not that we couldn't afford it. I don't know but we both agreed $55 just seemed totally ridiculous to spend on seeing this place so we passed and moved on to our next destination. Perhaps we will regret not having done it. You could argue that we will probably never be back so why not go. It just didn't seem to be that important.

On our way to Charleston our curiosity finally got the best of us and we decided to stop along the highway at one of the
Waffle House restaurants that seem to be at just about every exit. Big mistake! Yeah, the waitstaff was very friendly and very efficient, but that is where the quality ends. The waffles are thin, pasty things. Cold and lifeless. The rest of the food, and it was plentiful, was just uninspired. We left scratching our heads over why such a chain continues to exist. There are hundreds of these little waffle shops along the freeways across the south. I suppose the location is their attraction. Easy off, easy on. But, for us anyway, fool me once. . .

Next Stop--Charleston, NC--Gullah Food, and lunch at Bertha's