raneyfarms.jpgIt's not a common occurrence for me to be hit with something that rocks the fabric of my gastronomical universe so unbelievably hard that I'm forced to reassess all that I believed to know about food and my own taste buds.  Quietly hiding in the heart of Ohio, I had come upon what I can only call a culinary A-bomb, and it came in the form of a deceivingly plain post dinner pie. Encased by a simple crust, peaches purchased from Amish neighbors lay nestled in gooey fruitiness, cold vanilla seeping in from the sides. It looked harmless enough.

The first bite stops time. Holy smokes! Where has this been all my life? Had I really been eating pie before? As I continued to devour bite after bite I realized the entire goodness of this pie lay in the fact that the peaches, perhaps the best I'd ever had, were fresh, locally grown and home baked.  I was beginning to question the origins of everything I've eaten before. Where had it been coming from and why hadn't I ever tasted ingredients that were this good?

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ladies_market_hong_kong.jpgCruising Hong Kong’s street markets is a savvy shopper’s dream come true.  Fashion hounds can score bagsful of famous label clothing copies, counterfeit leather accessories, faux pearl necklaces, and fake jade gewgaws.  Gadget buyers gravitate to stalls overflowing with cameras, watches, and electronic gizmos.  On a recent ramble through a bustling night bazaar, none of the above were on my list.  I was seeking a somewhat more authentic trinket.  Snakes.

Some cultures regard serpents with fear and loathing.  Not the Chinese.  A person born in the Year of the Snake is considered wise and cunning.  Able to slip in and out of tight situations with ease.  A formidable foe and a staunch ally.  Cool, calm and collected.  Strikingly beautiful.  Exotic.  Sensuous.  If one is not fortunate enough to be born in the lucky year, there’s an alternative way to pick up a little snake essence.  You can eat them.

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sol-lewitt-300x225I know I'm usually focused on food, but there are many kinds of sustenance to be savored in this world. This week, we were treated to a feast for our eyes and our souls at the brilliant MASS MoCA in its complex of late 19th century factory buildings in North Adams, Mass.

An entire three floors of the museum house this retrospective of Sol Lewitt’s astonishing wall drawings and the old brick of the buildings plays off the sleek surfaces of the art in a stirring dance of line, texture and color.

We almost knew Sol Lewitt. He and his wife, Carol, lived in Umbria not far from where we have a house. Many of our ex-pat friends were close friends of theirs. Many are artists who drew inspiration from Sol. But by the time we arrived, Sol had returned to the states for health reasons. He and Carol lived in Connecticut until he succumbed to cancer in 2007.

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garden-of-eden.jpg Ischia, the biggest of the three islands in the Gulf of Naples, isn’t big.  You can circle its rocky, 34-kilometer perimeter by boat in less than an hour. 

And while you’re doing that, may I suggest you pause, as everyone does, to leap into the Tyrrhenian Sea, where you’ll encounter (1) volcanic thermal waters, and (2) the fish you’ll be eating later that evening.

Ischia differs from its more famous neighbor, Capri, in ways that are readily apparent.  You can feel it’s more laid back.  You can see there are far fewer yachts anchored in its bays. You can walk down every one of its cobblestone streets and never pass a Prada, Ferragamo, or Dolce & Gabbana shop.

Instead, it has terme – spas – rich with rejuvenating mineral salts from underground hot springs.  Most of the bigger hotels have at least one pool filled with these healing waters.  And then there are places like Giardini di Poseidon, a kind of elaborate therapeutic theme park set down along the beach of Citara, where every 'ride' – and there are 22 of them – is a plunge into a thermal pool of a different temperature.

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wisandwichHave you ever tasted Limburger cheese?  So you think you're eating a pair of regular socks.  Then you realize you're eating your brother's socks. 

How did I come to enjoy this delight?  As it turns out, flights around the holidays to Costa Rican crunchy granola yoga ranches are unusually pricey when you attempt to book them a few weeks in advance.  Vacation #1 scrapped.  Vacation #2 born - depart home-base (Chicago) with my partner in crime and spend a few days enveloping ourselves in the beer and cheese of Wisconsin.

Day 1. Monroe, WI

In Monroe, I fell in love with an unattractive older swiss man, seduced by his cheese tour of the Roth Kase plant.  Did I know that parmesan sat in the salt brine for 2 weeks?  No, sir.  I didn't even know what a salt brine was before this tour.  I'd been consuming passionately but ignorantly for 30 years.  The tour group discussed and debated what gave cheese it's flavor -- the cultures!  the aging!  the milk!  the land!  whilst I peppered them with questions and succumbed to the brain tingles.

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