18 August 2010

Comfort Food (Shopping) and New Places

I've been living in Philadelphia for the past three years and I'm ready for a break.

I moved here for school and was excited to be in a new place with people I didn't know. The disappointment came slowly; I realized that, while I wanted to try something new, not everyone else did. Friends were hard to find because everyone at Temple seemed to be from around the area and came to college with their friends and groups from high school intact. My classes weren't what I had expected and as the first year ended, I was no closer to finding a major. I missed my family and the familiarity of my life in Ohio. At home, I knew the streets I drove on and who to call when I needed to get out of my house.

It's gotten easier, though. I've made friends, gotten a bike, called my mum a lot, and found places that feel comfortable. Like my grandma, I like visiting grocery stores when I go somewhere but finding places to shop for food in the city has been more difficult that I would've thought. Growing up in suburban Cincinnati, there was a Kroger a mile away so I didn't have to hunt down stores to buy fresh produce or bread. The urban grocery shortage wasn't something I'd been forced to consider before, though I know I didn't feel any of its effects seriously during the semester I ate grilled cheese after grilled cheese in my dorm's kitchen.

Freshman year, the only place I knew how to get to was city hall, but now I can find my way almost anywhere. I've been to every grocery I've heard of and been disappointed with their selection, paid too much, and gotten there to find it's been demolished. Hopefully the little bit of knowledge that I have can help someone else moving here because regardless of how lonely, overwhelmed, or upset you are, you need to eat so that you can get past it.

+Rittenhouse Market
18th and Spruce
This one's just not worth visiting. It may be convenient for the people who live in Rittenhouse Square, but if you go there, you'll be paying way more than you have to for a very small selection of items. I suspect that this is because people who live in Rittenhouse can afford to go out to eat a lot or get their groceries shipped to them but I don't/can't/won't.

+Food and Friends
20th and Spruce

This guy, on the other hand, is completely lovely. It's got a great name and it's probably one of the prettiest grocery store I've ever visited. Despite Pennsylvania's asinine liquor laws, Food and Friends somehow managed to squeeze in an entire aisle of beer by the bottle so that you can create your own six pack or just buy a single bottle on your way home at night.

+Trader Joe's
22nd and Commerce (between Market and JFK)
Trader Joe's is like that friend you forget about because you've both moved and now you live so far apart but when you finally do see each other, you're suddenly reminded why you were such good friend in the first place and promise to see each other more often. I went here the other day and was amazed at how cheap everything was. I got 8 ounces of goat cheese for $3.50 (4 ounces is $5.99 at Acme, $4.99 at Whole Foods, and $4.50 at Reading Terminal) and organic, vegetarian-fed, free range chicken for $4.98 (the same amount at Acme runs around $8.95 and isn't special hippy chicken.) They keep prices low by only carrying their own store brand so this might not be your thing if you're particular about a certain type of yogurt or rice but usually their version is excellent.

+DiBruno Brothers
19th and Chestnut
The only reason to visit this store is to marvel at the outrages prices people are paying for really boring things. You might initially being excited by the panache, but there's nothing here you can't find anywhere else. I peeked in their pastry case and their cakes looked like they were covered in whipped icing. Whipped icing is cheap and gross and lackluster baked goods are bad news for everyone.

+Reading Terminal Market
12th between Filbert and Arch
If I can find a market half a good as this in the cities I move to, I'll be lucky. Reading Terminal is all about variety. I come here to buy most of my produce (Iovine's near the back right corner has everything plus granola, dried fruit, and nuts and gives a student discount on Wednesdays and Sundays) but they've got at least two cheese shops, a spice store, bakeries, honey, jewelry, ice cream, handmade soaps, bookstores, and dozen of little restaurants that serve Indian, Middle Eastern, Japanese, as well as local food.

6th and Berks
I did most of my emergency shopping trips here last summer only because it was close to my apartment. It's not convenient--you have lug your groceries back up a hill to get back to Temple--they make you check your bag when they get there, and there are birds flying up and down the aisles. It's not without it's charms, though; in the city of brotherly love with bars named things like "Sisters," "Uncles," and "Sugar Mom's" it's good to know that other family members aren't being forgotten. And while most grocery stores have aisles for baking needs and cereal, Cousin's has two entire aisles labeled "Goya."

+That New Temple Grocery
Broad between Oxford and Jefferson
I would have killed for a grocery store during my first two years at college when I lived on Temple's campus. Compared to other options in the city, this one's not so special but it beats biking two and a half miles to get to the nearest grocery.

+The Foodery
10th and Pine
Like Food and Friends, The Foodery sells beer by the bottle. I mentioned Pennsylvania liquor laws before but my excitement about beer in corner stores might make more sense if I spelled it out for you. You can't sell beer in the same store that wine and liquor are sold. You can't sell any of the three in grocery stores. Liquor stores close at 9 and all day on Sunday. You can buy beer at beer distributors but you can't buy any less than a case or you can carry out at bars but they raise the price and you have to tip the bartender.

+Whole Foods
10th and South
Meh. Whole Foods is alright if you're looking for free samples or a DivaCup, but you can get anything here, including organic items, somewhere else. I've heard that they sell bulk flours (Essene, a natural food store near 4th and South, does too) which is something I'm into, but I'm holding out for finding a wholesale bulk store in the city.

10th and South
SuperFresh is great if you're just looking for a regular grocery store and it's in a pretty convenient location. It might be slightly pricey but if you're just looking for orange juice or a box of pasta, this is just fine.

+The Italian Market
9th between Fitzwater and Wharton
If you're looking for some obscure fish, meat, fruit, or vegetable and can't find it anywhere else, it's probably hiding somewhere in The Italian Market. Since it runs up and down one street, it's a easy to check everything out before going back and buying what you want since you might have instant buyer's remorse when you realize that the tomatoes half a block away are fresher and cost half as much. Two of Philadelphia's cheesesteak places are at the south end, if you're into that sort of thing, but think about not visiting Geno's because Joe Vento is not a nice man.

Passyunk between 10th and Dickinson
The proximity of a grocery store was one of the main reasons I moved into the neighborhood I've been living in for the past year. It was great to only have to walk a block to get food during the winter and if I'm cooking and realize I've forgotten something, I don't have to go far to get it.

+Amish Farmer's Market
Passyunk between Cross and Tasker

Every Wednesday afternoon in the summer, all the Amish come to the square outside my house to sell vegetables and sunflowers and honey. The kids who run the stands are so nice and polite even when people are pushy about buying things. For a fun recycling adventure, buy a single beer on Tuesday night to have with dinner and then use the bottle as a vase for flowers that you buy on Wednesday.

A Biking Trail

View Food in Philadelphia in a larger map

I haven't been everywhere in Philadelphia, but I know it's not my home. I'm ready to get lost in a bigger city with a culture that's not quite so cold. I'm leaving to study abroad in Barcelona on September 3rd and I'm apprehensive but excited.

This time, I already know what it's like to be alone and I'm okay with it.

I'm taking my helmet and signing up for Bicing, so that I can explore the city when it gets a little too lonley or loud to take. I'm not expecting it to be perfect, but the challenges seem less unexpected this time--languages, school, my new family, managing money, missing home, traveling. Right now, though, all I can think about is visiting the Boqueria.

Addison Between 17th and 18th

Notes from me to me (and maybe you): Neighborhoods can be more magical at night. Don't rent an apartment without seeing what it looks like after dark.

Emily and I found this street biking home from Rittenhouse Square the other night. The picture says nothing about what it's really like, but I said "Wow!" and stopped quick and Emily was mesmerized and we had a mini collision. If I were planning to stay in Philadelphia for longer, I would like to live here.

05 August 2010

Tying the Knot

Learn to make skinny ties out of regular ties. See the full post on autostraddle.com.

04 August 2010


Last week, my computer crashed and I was face with the daunting tasking of filling up my time, prairie style. Luckily, I haven't touched any of my Christmas books since they were given to me due to the lure of the Internet and so I had 3 brand new books batting their eyelashes at me.
Since I'd been spending most of my computer time either being a professional lesbian or a a future professional housewife (this is only sort-of true, I also spend a lot of time researching linguistics programs and making myself panic about grad school so that I don't end up on Wisteria Lane), I pulled out this 844-page baby. So far, I've learned that mead is fermented honey-water (yum), that fruits and vegetables don't have to turn brown when you cut them, and that Henry David Thoreau had nice things to say about popcorn.

"I have been popping corn to-night, which is only a more rapid blossoming of the seed under a great than July heat. The popped corn is a perfect winter flower, hinting of anemones and houstonians...By my warm heath sprang these cerealious blossoms, here was the bank where they grew"

But let's go back to keeping green vegetables green. Guacamole is my passion. I had it for the first time last summer (I know. I had sushi for the first time a month ago and tried my first soup--gazpacho--last week.) and never looked back. It's easy to make; cheap (holla 10/$10); and, regardless of how much you want to tell me that avocados are mostly fat, it's a green vegetable. Sometimes when I go home to visit my family, I spend time telling my grandparents new foods that I've eaten. "Red peppers!" I'll tell them, "Broccoli!" "Peaches!" "Crab!" and they're very proud. Despite having traveled all over the world, though, they insist on calling tortillas "tor-til-lee-yahs" and guacamole "guac-a-mol." They also exclusively call each other "dear" and my grandpa introduces my grandma as "my wife" instead of her name so much that once her friend addressed her birthday card "to my wife." This is a completely digression that I'm only including to point out that I used to think that the arcade game whack-a-mole had something to do with chips and dip.

Like any warm-blooded man, I like to come home from work to find dinner ready on the table. Just kidding, my girlfriend lives in Canada and I don't have a table. So I like to come home and have snacks waiting patiently in my fridge. Unfortunately, guacamole has a tendency to turn blackish-brown after a few hours and, while the taste doesn't change so much, the texture isn't quite the same and the color can be hard to get past. But guys, Harold McGee has all the answers and I'm about to break it down for you.

Q: Where did the avocado get its name?
A: "The name comes from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl, which was apparently inspired by the fruit's pear-like shape and irregular surface; it means 'testicle.'" (page 337)

Q: The avocados at the grocery store are never ripe but I want guacamole NOW. What do I do?
A: "Ripening can be accelerated by enclosing the fruit in a paper bag with an ethylene-emitting banana. If these warm-climate fruits are refrigerated while unripe, their cellular machinery is damaged and they will never ripen; once ripe, however, they can be refrigerated for several days and retain their quality" (page 337)

Q: What makes guacamole turn brown?
A: Guacamole is a puree. "We make purees by applying enough physical force to rush the tissue, break apart and open its cells, and mix cell innards with fragments of the cell's walls." "Many fruits and vegetables...quickly develop a brown, red, or gray discoloration wen cut or bruised. This discoloration is caused by three chemical ingredients: 1- and 2-ring phenolic compounds, certain plant enzymes, and oxygen. In the intact fruit or vegetable, the phenolic compounds are kept in the storage vacuole, the enzymes in the surrounding cytoplasm. When the cell structure is damaged and the phenolics are mixed with enzymes and oxygen, the enzymes oxidize the phenolics, forming molecules that eventually react with each other and bond together into light-absorbing clusters. This system is one of the plant's chemical defenses: when insects or microbes damage its cells, the plant releases phenolics that attack the invaders' own enzymes and membranes." (page 269)

Translation: Cells are basically little bags of stuff with bags of other stuff inside them. You know those glow sticks that you crack and they start glowing because the chemicals start mixing together? Cells are tiny versions of that. Only instead of glowing, they just turn a gross color and try to attack your mouth.

Q: How can you prevent it from changing color?
A: Mr. McGee and I don't agree on this one. Here's what he says: "Avocado flesh is well known for browning rapidly once cut or mashed, a problem that can be remedied by adding an acidic ingredient (often lime juice) or by airtight wrapping with a plastic film that blocks oxygen effectively" (page 337)

But you know what else he says? "The enemy of green: acids," (page 279) then goes how to explain how acids remove tails from chlorophyll a and turn it into chlorophyll b which is an olive brownish color. Acids like lemon or lime juice should be added at the last minute and he advises us to "consider protecting them first with a thin layer of oil" (page 280) Avocados are about 30% oil, so I guess that's helpful.

He recommends blanching green vegetables as "boiling temperatures will destroy the enzyme [that reacts and turns vegetables brown], so cooking will eliminate the problem," and quickly submerging them in a bath of icy water to stop cooking since "high temperatures can encourage phonolic oxidation in the absence of enzymes."

This all sounds great and very good stuff for modern jackass so rather than try to figure out what might work, I went ahead and did it. I split my avocado in two, blanched one half, added the same ingredients to both bowls, and came home to see what they looked like, with a couple of taste tests along the way.

On the left is the unblanched avocado. On the right is the blanched one. I lost a few flecks of avocado to the boiling water, but it's looking mighty green. Mr. Food said that vegetables appear to turn a brighter green after a few seconds in boiling water because of a "sudden explansion and escape of gasses trapped in the spaces between cells. Ordinarily, these microscopic air pockets cloud the color of the chloroplasts. When they collapse, we can see the pigments much more directly." (page 279) We're going to be breaking cells open in a minute so it shouldn't matter, but it's nice to look at for the moment, isn't it?

They look pretty much the same at this point. I like to add onions, garlic, salt, lime, tomatoes if I have then, and cilantro to my guacamole but I'm down for new ideas. Even after putting the boiled avocado in an ice bath, it didn't cool down completely so the guacamole was weirdly warm and slightly more bland.

After 7 hours at work, this is what I came home to find in my fridge. I thought the blanched guacamole tasted slightly fresher but that might have just been wishful thinking. The verdict: If you're making a vat of guacamole to serve later and want it to last and stay in the salad days of youth until then, you might want to consider boiling your avocados before mashing them. If you're looking for a quick snack, it's definitely not worth the extra time.

01 August 2010

Sometimes I Write Things In Other Places

Mostly at Autostraddle, although occasionally things I say make guest appearances over at Emily's blog (Do you read it? She's cutesmartandfunny. Especially here.) when she wants to talk about my areas of expertise. If you happen to be interested, you can learn about a few of my favorite things: silver white winters that melt into springs, girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, and brown paper packages tied up with strings.