Tag Archives: foodie travel

What Time Zone Is This?

For years, the running joke in our house was that I would never go to Australia. My daughter became quite interested in Australia after the continent/country was a project in her kindergarten class. That was in 2009. She asked if we could go to Australia, see the koalas and kangaroos, and I showed her a map, explained that Australia involved over 20 hours of flying, including about a 15-hour flight across all of the Pacific Ocean, and that it was just simply too far and too expensive.

Last night, I returned from 10 days in Australia. Twenty-four hours of nonstop travel; 19 of those hours in the sky. No one is more surprised by this than me.



I was approached to participate in a press trip, and the itinerary was too intriguing to say no. In fact, despite the long haul, I was quite excited. My trip was coordinated and all expenses, including air, hotels, activities, and meals were covered by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Travel and Visit Victoria (and if I left anyone out, I do apologize, but those were the biggies). I flew Qantas (which quickly became one of my favorite airlines ever) for most of the trip, with a side hop on Virgin Australia when I flew from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs. I even spent a night in a tiny town called Dunkeld, about a three-hour’s drive west of Melbourne, population 480, which has this kick-ass hotel simply called The Royal Mail Hotel. This posh hotel is across from a tiny bookstore that’s only open on Saturdays and Sundays called Roz Greenwood’s Used and Rare Books. I was there on a Friday, pressing my nose against the glass wishing I had another 24 hours in town. Parked in front of the Royal Mail Hotel was a turquoise-colored, 1950s-style car featuring an airbrushed image of Elvis during his younger years. The car is owned by a local, making me wish that I had been given more time in Dunkeld.




There’s no way to sum up 10 days on another continent in one blog post, and my sense of time, not to mention what season we’re currently in, is too screwed up to offer you anything compelling or coherent. Australia will emerge gradually and sporadically on this blog. It’s a big country with a big landscape, and there’s just too much to process right now. What I can tell you is that I constantly mispronounced Melbourne, as many Americans do. It’s “Mel-burn,” not “Mel-born,” so I’ll work on that. I can also tell you I drank a flat white almost every morning—“flat white” being Aussie for latte—and that the Royal Mail Hotel whipped up one of the best flat whites in the world.

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I can also tell you that I’m not a carnivorous or adventurous eater but I ate the following during my 10 days in Australia: green ants sprinkled on several dishes, crocodile, emu, wallaby, kangaroo, camel, eel, barramundi and a gazillion other types of fish with names I can’t recall. I’m jetlagged and know I’m forgetting a few critters, but I know I didn’t eat chicken or beef (I think some bacon might have been involved somewhere along the line). I ate a roadhouse camel burger about six hours after a riding a camel as the sun rose, the first—and, so far only—time I’ve ridden and eaten the same animal in the same day. I wasn’t fond of the camel burger though I’m confident I didn’t have the best cut of camel, probably some mix of body parts with most (hopefully) originating from the rump. No offense to the roadhouse cafe in Glen Helen that served me the camel burger, though the countless flies and wasps hovering over our food were annoying since we were eating indoors and I’m allergic to wasp stings.


It’s nearly summer in Australia right now. The constellations there are different because the seasons are different, some planets more clearly visible than others. Someone set up a large telescope in the desert while we were there and I got to see Saturn for the first time. I looked at this faint star in the desert sky, then peered through the lens and saw a white dot with a very distinct white ring, as if someone had placed a kid’s sticker on the other end of the telescope. I glanced back and forth between the two, my naked eye on the speck of light above, and the image coming through the telescope, trying to gauge if what I was seeing was real. It was a perfect night in the desert. Saturn wanted to be seen, surrounded by many stars, moonlight touching almost everything.

Back in the city, the desert feeling far, far away, Christmas decorations were already up, a tradition that always follows the Melbourne Cup, which this year, occurred on November 6, a holiday in Melbourne that involves high fashion and more than the usual amount of drinking. We were on a flight from Alice Springs to Melbourne when the pilot announced the winner: Rekindling. A good name. The name of one who perseveres. A word I need to hold on to now that it’s almost winter here.

Noshing on that kinda-tough camel burger the day before the Melbourne Cup, I had been dressed for 100-degree heat, sweating from unusual places, begging for a cool breeze to find me. I received texts from home about the drop in temperature, even my daughter complained about the cold, and I tried to remember what cold felt like. I flew home last night, crossing half the globe by air. Somewhere over Fiji, I watched The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, an Australian comedy-drama that takes places in the Northern Territories, and the movie made me love Australia even more, all that heat on screen in that cold, cramped plane. I landed, gathered my overstuffed suitcase, walked out into the dark New York night, and immediately questioned my choices. Daylight Savings occurred while I was away, which means it’s now nighttime at 4 p.m. I went from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere, from late spring to late fall, from light to dark, all in a day. My patio tomato plants are very brown and very dead, some tomatoes ossified on the vine by below-freezing nights. Such a sight to come home to was jarring.

While in the Northern Territories and Australia’s southern coast, I tried to soak up the region’s abundant sunshine like a camel (yes, pun intended!), but I knew re-entry would be hard. Today is re-entry. And it’s hard. I already feel that seasonal affective disorder weight settling in, and I’ve been on the ground less than 24 hours. Outside my living room window today, it’s gray, rainy, and barely 40 degrees, as if the sun decided “I prefer Australia, too. See you in April.” I had to dig out a pair of socks for the first time in almost two weeks, and I’ll likely have to dig out the happy lamp tomorrow.

Please don’t mistake today’s mopey mood for entitlement; I’m just missing sunshine and a functional circadian rhythm. I am home, with my kid, happily doing mom stuff, finally writing again because these press trips actually involve very little writing. Instead, it’s hauling your laptop from location to location, activity to activity, with the hope that you might have a spare 15 minutes to write anything down. It’s all exhilarating and tiring, as most cool things are. Today is simply a hangover after nearly three solid weeks of travel involving two trans-Pacific flights (more on Macau soon). I began this Monday by waking up at 1 a.m. because I was so hungry, I microwaved a few chicken nuggets. I’ll likely spend the day in my baggy flamingo pants writing and drinking tea. I sipped home-brewed coffee that admittedly tasted disappointing after days of being spoiled by the Melbourne flat white scene. Hiking four or five miles along the Southern Ocean last week already feels like it happened to someone else, which is why we take selfies and drain our smartphone batteries snapping photos. We need reminders that we are many people doing many different things all at once. Mother and traveler. Wife and writer. Tourist and homebody. Australia surprised me. I want to go back, despite that ridiculously long flight. The continent I told my daughter was too far to visit got under my skin. I like that the red dirt from the Northern Territories stained my sneakers. I spin the globe that sits on my kid’s bedroom desk, the classic one found in most elementary school classrooms with countries the color of Easter eggs. Australia is flamingo-pink on this globe, impossible to miss, and I think “When?”

I Won’t Say I Was “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Even Though I Was)

Okay! It’s that part of the day where I’m up at 3:30 a.m. rearing to go because my body is still in Italy thinking it’s time for cappuccino and sunshine. This is what flying from Europe to the United States means: doing laundry at 4 in the morning, feeling like the only one moving at this hour except for the raccoons outside calling it a night and the hookers on 8th Avenue thinking the same.



My 10 days in Italy flew, and there’s no effective way to capture all that I did, saw, ate, smelled, heard and overheard other than to list. As Diego Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “Let me explain. No. There is too much. Let me sum up.” Here we go:

– Nonnas everywhere: towns, cities, dirt country roads. And it’s good luck to catch a nonna. I caught one last year while standing on a train that was slowing down to the station. Our train lurched, and a nonna standing next to me lost her footing and just fell into my arms. It was *exactly* like that feeling of catching the ball in third grade and all your classmates cheering for you. This nonna regained her balance, squeezed my arm, and pronounced the longest “Grazie,” Italy had ever heard. It was like six syllables long and easily a full 10 seconds, that’s how grateful she was to have not fallen down. She wore a cardigan, skirt, and a beautiful scarf, and as I drove from Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena this past week, I saw that all nonnas wore cardigans, skirts, and beautiful scarves. It’s their superhero costume. One even wore yellow Crocs. So always slow down for nonnas crossing the road, getting on/off trains, and better yet—catch one! She might even grant you three wishes.

– People keep making films in Tuscany and about Tuscany because Tuscany is probably what the Garden of Eden looked like, and we all crave to get back to what was green and good.

– Green shutters on all houses. It’s like a homeowners’ association thing, but nationwide.




– No one uses dryers. I love this about Italy (perhaps because my own dryer doesn’t work). This was my third visit, and I always saw people line-drying their clothes. Fuck dryers.

– Fat grapes heavy on the vine do indeed look sexy.

– I drove a little stick-shift Lancia from Florence to Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena to Florence. I named him Pepe. He didn’t like uphill dirt roads but anything downhill turned him into Peter Pan. Also, driving Pepe into one-way city streets or markets in Florence while jet-lagged and with minor traces of Klonopin in your bloodstream may sound scary, but Italians appeared accustomed to this and simply moved aside while I made very public mistakes and got turned around. I even pulled up to Il Duomo and no one cared. This zigzagging and series of false turns is not in any guidebook but is a great way to see Florence.

– As my new friend Rose McAleese says, “Bugs are annoying in all countries.” Italy was beautiful, but its bugs are formidable. I saw bees that had actual muscle mass. I saw ants that could bench-press Skittles with ease. I also watched a yellow jacket take a piece of chicken (or was it pork?) off a spoon and fly off with it. I have an allergy to wasps and hornets, and while I’m not interested in wiping out any species, I don’t need to get close with bugs. I did two beautiful hikes with my EpiPen in tow and nothing happened. I’ve been fortunate to have not needed the EpiPen, and if there is an emergency stinging situation, I’m worried injecting an EpiPen will be like trying to remember how to properly use the kitchen fire extinguisher. Those are two situations you don’t want to screw up.

– I ate my body weight in mozzarella. I am both proud and slightly ashamed I did this without hesitation.

– I did not see the actual David in Florence, though saw its replicas everywhere. Honestly, I don’t mind missing David. I’m a fan of The Man, but David looks like a guy who lives in his head and he’s not well-endowed, so I didn’t feel motivated to pay museum admission to stand and admire a thinky dude with a small penis. I know that says a lot about me.

– I ate my first gluten-free ice cream cone in Sestri Levante. I’ll take this to the grave. The flavor was olive oil gelato, which was amazing and should be its own body scrub.

– Finding St. Catherine’s severed head was indeed a “Where’s Waldo” moment. You’d think a 700-year-old head would stand out, but we walked by it at least three or four times before realizing that waxy bulb behind the glass was the face of a 14th-century nun who had a relationship with Christ that would incite Jesus-envy among women and men alike. Not only did she suffer the Stigmata, but was said to have a ring made from Jesus’s foreskin that only she could see. Can you picture her showing off that bling? Once we did find her, me and my two companions, both Irish-Catholics, dropped to our knees and bowed in prayer. We may not be church-going regulars, but we know what to do when facing the mummified face of a saint.

– I hiked by olive trees that had inexplicably split. No one knows why they did this, but the olive trees kept growing and now look like hands raised in prayer. This seems to work because there are now more olives.

The Bay of Silence lived up to its name. Go, especially late morning on a Wednesday when it’s just you, a few leathery-looking ladies, one nun, and the beach guard.

– You can get bad coffee in Italy. Anything that comes from an automated machine should not be trusted. You’re in Italy; treat yourself. Pay the three Euros and ask some handsome fella behind the barrista to razzle-dazzle the espresso machine and whip up something nice for you. You won’t regret it.

Meatless in Chicago

Can you travel to the land of deep-dish pizza and beef hot dogs buried under pounds of condiments, not eat meat yet still eat flavorful, inventive food? The answer is yes. Yes, you can.


During my trip to Chicago earlier this month, I ventured out from the South Michigan Avenue/Grant Park neighborhood, took a cab ride north along Lake Michigan, and found The Chicago Diner, which this year celebrates 30 years of cooking non-meat cuisine. I have to thank tweeps on Twitter for suggesting this place, for I had never heard of it. Apparently, it’s been mentioned as a favorite among the founders of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.

I visited the Halstead Street location, aka the Mother Ship, and found the place almost packed on a rainy Thursday night. Looking like any typical diner with red vinyl seating and quirky vintage-esque signage, you would expect chunky fellas with tattoos frying chicken steak behind the grill. Staff had tattoos, but most were svelte, wiry types busily arranging blackened tofu on a plate, stacking a vegan sandwich or hustling blanched greens to tables. I tried to imagine what this place might have looked like in 1983 when badmouthing meat was not only anti-Midwestern, but anti-American. In fact, even today, despite all the buzz about meat and its impact on health, red meat still accounts for 58 percent of meat consumption in the United States; 22 percent of meat Americans eat is processed meat, like bacon and hot dogs and other pink slime concoctions. As a vegetarian about eighty-five percent of the time (I think I eat less meat than what qualifies for Mark Bittman’s term: flexitarian), I find those figures galling.

Whomever frequented Chicago Diner 30 years ago, it was enough to keep business thriving and allow the owners to open a second location. Perhaps those having dinner that night are among the minority who believe that meat doesn’t have to be a dietary staple? Maybe the owners of Chicago Diner had tapped into a need that wasn’t being met in the Windy City? I could see why, because the food was excellent and worth a 20-minute, $20 taxi ride through traffic and rain. Chicago Diner focuses on simple and delicious, serving vegetarian and vegan options of American classics like the Reuben and a “BLT” Burger.


My colleague and I both ordered blackened tofu with mashed sweet potatoes, beans, avocado and greens (pictured above), an entree that was as savory as it was filling. And not the gross kind of filling you feel after eating a hot dog, which I haven’t done since the Washington, D.C. Kite Festival in 2002 because it made me sick to my stomach.

So Chicago Diner was a hit, and I hope to return, but how to eat meatless at the Chicago airport where every 10 yards is some food stand selling burgers, hot dogs, and greasy pepperoni pizza (which is every American airport)? Enter Rick Bayless, who by no means is a vegetarian (the guy loves his lamb), but he’s one of Chicago’s most innovative chefs pushing boundaries in Mexican cuisine. Yes, his sandwiches at the chain Tortas Fronteras in Terminal 1 at Chicago O’Hare Airport cost more than a McDonald’s patty next door, but put your suitcase down and enjoy every bite because Bayless’s takeout food is scrumptious and worth a flight delay. Most of the sandwiches feature meat, but for $9 there’s the roasted cremini and shiitake mushroom sandwich with chipotle, garlic, goat cheese, black beans and arugula. I was eating alone when I tried this, and let’s just say I wasn’t dainty about tackling this sandwich. It was a tad messy, extremely delicious, and worth the cost of four McDonald’s pink slime burgers. I wish Tortas Fronteras offered gluten-free options since I had to pick the bread off my sandwich, but, hey, gluten-free appears to be trending lately, so I have hope.