on fat and spontaneity

Today’s workout: 40 minute big gear workout followed by 70 minutes of running (pace work); yoga and/or paddle swim in the evening.

This post is dedicated to two of my favorite things. Fat, and spontaneity. I’ll start with the latter.

Not a bad day for riding.

Saturday’s ride through Joshua Tree National Park delivered a fresh jolt of the unexpected into my fairly predictable weekly schedule. Up until Thursday night, the plan had been to spend the weekend in Palm Springs doing a century ride and half marathon with a group of my teammates.

After our housing plan fell through, however, Plan B unfolded quickly before me and I ended up on a couch in Palm Desert with three familiar faces and 10 new ones. I was grateful for the new training environment, and for the chance to practice flexing that spontaneous muscle I too often ignore.

I traded my two races for a) making a whole bunch of new, incredibly generous friends from Chicago, b) getting to ride my bike through a cold, windy, and starkly beautiful desert, and c) drinking barolo at a restaurant straight out of The Godfather with a few of my favorite people. It’s a trade I’d gladly do again, changing only the bitter 4-degree C weather we started riding in.

The cuddliest of the cacti kingdom. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Hall.)

In other news, happy Mardi Gras (aka Fat Tuesday) everyone. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent—which for many just means an excuse to eat pancakes and go out and party. For some, it means that the first tendrils of spring are starting to show, despite the still clinging winter. Whatever it means now, Fat Tuesday got its start when Christians would clear their cupboards of fat and flour in order to prepare for 40 days of leanness.

I can hear all you triathletes now: Did I hear something about leanness? Sign me up!

Last Saturday’s 80 mile trek through Joshua Tree.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, really. I’m here to talk about fat.

As a triathlete—which is basically synonymous with some degree of food obsession—the notion that eating fat doesn’t make you fat is something I’m still learning. It’s becoming more well known that stuffing ourselves with low fat and nonfat everything doesn’t work, as such foods are often loaded with extra sugar and fillers to make up for the lack of flavor. I’m still developing a healthier relationship with food overall, but I think triathlon has helped me come to love and appreciate fat. I no longer shiver in fear at the sight of a bright yellow yolk breaking over a thick slab of perfectly-cooked bacon.

I’m not knowledgeable enough to go into the whole burning fat as fuel/carbohydrate debate, but today I’m celebrating the f-word in all its delicious forms. (My favorites: Avocados, nuts, coconut oil, eggs, and all things pork.)

So go eat some good fat today. Or go be spontaneous, where it’s often the hardest. Either will do you good.

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entering the Ironman fold

I’m not the personal race report writing type. Never have been, and after this, probably never will be. But last night, after pouring a glass of pinot (OK, three) and sitting down to read my good friend Lisa’s account of competing in last weekend’s inaugural Ironman Mont Tremblant course, I was inspired.

Finishing an Ironman—a day spent swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles— is an achievement worth commemorating with words beyond status updates. So I’m going old school and putting this up the only place I have to publish it: my backslidden food blog.

I blame this one.

When I decided last summer that I wanted this new Canadian race to be my first Ironman, I thought it would be perfect to have one of my first tri mentors there by my side. Back in 2007, as a fresh transplant to Syracuse, Lisa’s spin classes and passion for triathlon carried me through a relocation funk and sparked my urge to do a tri. By early 2008 I’d signed up for the Cazenovia Olympic-distance triathlon. Three years and a whole bunch increasingly long races later, 2012’s docket held two half iron-distance races (Wildflower and 70.3 Hawaii) and a local sprint triathlon in the spring, and last weekend’s Ironman Mont Tremblant in Quebec. It’s a typical path for a triathlete; the bug bites quickly and the sting goes deep.

I somehow managed to convince Lisa to trade her usual July Ironman in Lake Placid for this new, unknown Canadian race, and as our respective training programs kicked off in January, we began, totally unplanned, to exchange weekly emails about our training. We asked each other a million questions (“Does X happen to you?” “Do you feel like X too?”), shared advice, and wove the highs and lows of Ironman training into our correspondence. I felt like I had a training companion three time zones away. To bring closure to this seven-month journey, I’m going to step out of my comfort zone just this once and pound out my first race report, even if nobody reads it but me.

A few ounces of red at my aunt and uncle’s condo on race eve, fingers and toes freshly painted to match my bike.

Race Day Arrives

My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. on the heels of a fitful sleep (no surprise there, adrenaline and sleep do not make good companions). A new race day nutrition plan from the good people at QT2 Systems dictated an early morning meal of 2.5 cups of unsweetened applesauce (low glycemic index but also low fiber), protein powder (I used a Tropical Energizing Smoothie mix from Vega), and a banana. I’d blended the powder and the applesauce together the night before using the hand blender I’d packed, so all I had to do was open the fridge, scoop a ridiculous amount of pureed mash and a banana into my mouth, and hit the pillow for another 45 minutes of precious “I’m trying way too hard to sleep” shut-eye.

At 4:15, Mark prepared the contraband mug of coffee my nutrition consultant had declared off-limits. Even though I did end up trying a few new things on race day (one of triathlon’s biggest no no’s) a morning without coffee was one I simply wasn’t willing to try on my first Ironman. I was about to put my body through enough. How much more could I really ask of it?

This shot contains many of the essentials for a good race.

I suited up for battle in my Long Distance Tri Shorts and Singlet from 2XU, secured my timing chip around my ankle with safety pins, and tied my hair in a ponytail. I put full compression tights and a warm hoodie overtop of my ensemble, as it was chillier than it’s been in SoCal for some time. Having dropped off everything I might need for the bike and run portions the day prior (bike, helmet, cycling and running shoes, sunglasses, etc.) all that was left to cart down to the transition area was a backpack containing the two special needs bags I’d receive mid-bike and mid-run, and my swim gear (blueseventy googles, swim cap, Brave Soldier body lube, awesome new Doc’s surf earplugs, and pre-race nutrition). Phew, Ironman’s a mouthful. There’s so much to remember, and if I hadn’t had my lists and notes on my phone, I would’ve been a disaster waiting to happen. Not to mention my awesome pack-horse husband.

The perfect day began beautifully.

After dropping my special needs bags, pumping my tires in the bike corral, and throwing a last-minute pair of arm warmers into my T1 bag for what looked like a cooler-than-usual bike. I downed an Apple Pie Bonk Breaker at 6 am, an hour before I’d hit the water, and promptly got in line for the porta potties. Silently singing the praises of coffee, I emerged with a big smile for Mark. Despite the new day-before-the-race nutrition plan I’d tried (a HUGE carbohydrate-rich breakfast, medium-sized lunch, and tiny serving of pasta for dinner) things seemed to be working somewhat normally. We met up with Jordan, a friend who’d driven up from Ottawa at 3 a.m. to watch me race (!) and headed to the beach. I was freezing, so Jordan lent me his Syracuse University hoodie, which kept me warm and gave me a nice little nostalgic boost to boot.

Athletes and spectators poured onto the beach, to the usual upbeat Ironman soundtrack, and it was hard not to get distracted. I ran into a friend from SD, and pulled my wetsuit over my shorts and jersey while chatting with her, Mark, and Jordan. Then I stuffed my tights, hoodie, and walking shoes into the green plastic bag given to each athlete for their “morning clothes,” and tossed it into another bin. (Volunteers would later sort them out and return it to the transition tent.)

All kinds of colorful fun down at the swim start.

The clock inched closer to 7. Heading for the beach, an unplanned meeting with my parents surprised and delighted me. Seeing their faces stirred the emotional pot already teeming with both new and recognizable varieties of anxiety and excitement. I walked over the timing chip activator and found a spot on the soft sand. At 6:45, I ate the Raspberry-Chocolate GU Roctane I’d tucked under my wetsuit sleeve, pulled on my green cap, spit in and then rinsed my goggles with lake water, praying they wouldn’t fog up. And then–Lisa! A familiar face on a strip of sand packed with athletes, yet that was starting to feel surprisingly lonely. I noticed some moisture in her eyes, too, as the fighter jet fly-over signalled the arrival of our day. I never actually cried on race day, but I definitely didn’t expect to be closest to tears at the start. Maybe you’re more vulnerable at the beginning of a journey than you are at its end.

Love this shot! Thanks Jason Ward Studios for this and many other great edits.

The swim: just breathe

I’d been advised to start on the edge of the beach, but running into Lisa distracted me and we both ended up starting dangerously near the front and center of the pack. I ran into the water, dove in, and proceeded to get plowed over by what seemed like hundreds of bodies. About five minutes in, I had a mini freak out moment. Not a full-fledged panic attack, but I swallowed a bunch of water and my heart rate skyrocketed. I actually started looking around for a kayak to rest on, but instead put my head down and let the motion of a familiar activity soothe my nerves.

Another mental strategy that kept the chaos at bay was bringing to mind the countless open-water swims I’d done with my training partners (and good friends) Robert and Dane. As I focused on the tasks at hand—hips rotating, arms reaching, head turning—I just kept saying to myself, “That’s Robert right beside you.” “You’re just out swimming in the Cove on a Friday morning.” “It’s just like swimming Masters at the Y.” Little thoughts like these made the “big” moments of the race seem more manageable. I’ve read about the pre-race strategy of reviewing one’s training log for an extra kick of confidence, but what worked best for me on the day was reliving the moments of training in as much detail as I could.

Chaos.

I eventually found my rhythm in the water, and after what seemed like a very long time, began to hear the din of the crowd grow louder. I swam until the sandy lake bottom appeared beneath me, stood up, and ran over the timing mat at the one-hour, 12 minutes, and 16 seconds mark. I ran over to a crew of volunteers, laid down on the grass, and had my suit peeled from my legs in a flash of neoprene. It was my first time at a wetsuit stripper equipped race, and I loved it. I stuffed my goggles, earplugs, and cap into my wetsuit sleeve as I began the quarter-mile jog over soft red carpet to the transition tent. A nasty yet familiar cramp sunk its teeth into my right quad, and I made a mental note to take extra salt as soon as I hit the bike.

The bike: a trusty steed

I tried to take my time in transition, having heard that calm breeds success in Ironman. I found my bag easily (thanks to the strips of bright-blue towel I tied to the top) and carried it into the women’s change area. I put on socks, my helmet, and Oakley Commits as a helpful volunteer sprayed me with sunscreen. I grabbed my shoes as the volunteer insisted on putting all my swim stuff into the bag for me, shooing me off with an insistent “go go go!” I found my bike, put on my shoes, and wheeled Amelie out for her victory lap.

Mounting the saddle is one of my favorite parts of a race. Only the last 100 yards of the run and the finish line itself can compete with the feeling of climbing on a well-oiled machine you’ve spent so many hours riding through the countryside in the company of friends. As my strongest leg and the one I enjoy most, the bike always feels like a solid, trustworthy companion propelling me farther and faster than I could ever go alone. If the ancient elements (Water, Earth, Air, and Fire) applied to this sport, the bike would be my Air. Light and swift, cycling is a constant play between smooth efficiency and pure, fierce strength.

Matchy matchy! (Photo courtesy of FinisherPix.com)

One thing that I didn’t expect was how quickly the bike leg flew by. The rolling hills thick with evergreen and the freshly paved roads were a welcome change from parched San Diego county, and I soaked in the scenery with every passing mile. Riding through the town of St. Jovite, its narrow streets lined with spectators, was how I imagine riding in Europe must be. The wind picked up but was never unmanageable, and looping past the crowds in town four times brought me fresh energy each time.

My Garmin 910XT reminded me to eat every 40 minutes—all I had to do was look at the piece of paper I’d taped to the bottle between my aerobars to see what was on the menu. Bike time 00:00 and 00:40 each brought half a peanut butter Powerbar (race day “new thing” number … ?) At one-hour 20 I ate a Honey Graham Halo Bar, and starting at 2:00:00, I began to taper off the solid food, switching to a caffeinated gel and salt pills only (extra of those given the annoying quad cramp that wouldn’t go away.) These solid food sources were in addition to the three full bottles I started out with on my bike, each containing either two scoops of EFS mixed with water, or a NUUN tablet/CarboPro combination. (Each of these mixtures provided the same electrolyte/carbohydrate combo as the sports drink my nutrition consultant had recommended given my sweat rate. I’d never used that drink in training, however, and I didn’t want to try something that major for the first time on race day.) What you consume on the bike is actually more important for setting you up for a good run, not just fueling the bike leg itself—another thing I learned from my coach, Mike Plumb.

At the halfway point I received my special needs bag, which I’d stocked with two fresh bottles of fluid, a Kona-Mocha flavored EFS Liquid Shot, and a Ziploc bag of Korean seaweed. It was something I thought might make me smile (something a friend had encouraged me to think about when packing that bag), and I must say, it was fun jamming that salty, crispy, green stuff in my mouth as I passed hoards of spectators on the sidelines.

I can say now that my QT2 fueling plan worked remarkably well, despite not having much time to practice it in training, which was no fault of theirs. I got a jarring abdominal cramp around mile 85, which made breathing difficult and slowed me down considerably. I’m guessing this was just from loading my body with more than I’d conditioned it to in training. Given the seven or eight times I peed on the bike, I was adequately hydrated, despite finishing the bike one full bottle short of the six I was supposed to consume altogether. By mile 100, I was really ready to be vertical again—strange for this cycling-focused triathlete. A few more deceptively steep hills on Chemin Duplessis to put under the wheels, and five hours, 38 minutes and 58 seconds later, I was back where I started. And thanks to some key trainer workouts from my coach (and his 180-190 watts range guide for race day) not much worse for wear.

The marathon: taking care of business

I dismounted, passed my bike to a volunteer (gotta love that about Ironman) stopped to remove my shoes, and hobbled back into the transition tent. I grabbed my bag, exchanged cycling shoes for my Pearl Izumi Kissakis, popped a visor on my head and stuffed my bike gear into the bag. A row of portapotties appeared like a mirage, and two volunteers slathered me with sunscreen while I waited for a vacancy. It was clouding over, but you can never have too much sunscreen (right Baz Luhrman?) I was in and out of that portapotty in a flash, emerging with an even bigger smile than my morning stop had warranted. The abdominal cramp was a thing of the past. I saw Jordan in that first few hundred yards, and his cheering giving me much-needed boost. A few steps later, a large black man was bent over the fencing yelling “Go Jennifer! Go Jenny!” in a thick French accent. My grimace broke into a huge smile, which seemed to whip the spectators into even more of a love-fest. I kept on trucking, trying not to let the thought of a full freaking marathon get me down. Just a long, slow, easy run. Take your time.

Running (and talking) in some light rain.

Mark, my parents, and my aunt and uncle surprised me on the hill at around mile one, their ecstatic cheering providing yet another boost. This wasn’t going to be a boring 26-miler. There was a huge family here to pull me through, and I was going to milk it for all it was worth. I’ve heard it said that an Ironman marathon is about 80 percent mental. I’d up that to 90. If it weren’t for some of those spectators—one of them looking right into my eyes and saying “you are an inspiration, Jennifer!”—I’m not sure where I might’ve gone, mentally. A massive thanks goes out to all of them, and their shouts and signs: “Allez allez allez!” “You’re part of the 0.01%!” etc.

It’s always hard for me to consume calories on the run, hence the importance of getting in enough on the bike. I often develop acid reflux—an incredibly painful tightening of my esophagus around mile 14-15, a problem I still haven’t solved. I ate half a banana at the first aid station, which sat well, and sipped on the on-course drink (Ironman Perform) and my Liquid Shot when I could. I felt surprisingly strong on the first 10K, but at the half-marathon point back in town, noticed that an on-again, off-again pain in my left knee had flared up again—the chief physical niggle of this particular race. Thankfully, the right quad cramp was long gone. Yay, salt and seaweed!

On the advice of a pro triathlete friend, I had put a bottle of Ensure Plus in my run special needs bag. Channeling my inner 80-year-old, I downed it, along with two Advils, in hopes of staving off the knee pain. (Both were additional race-day firsts, but they proved wise decisions as I dug into my second half-marathon.) At one of the next aid stations, I pulled my left calf sleeve up over my knee and jammed some ice cubes in. Eventually the Advil kicked in and it never got any worse. Thanks to the 300-plus calories in the Ensure, I didn’t need to take advantage of many more of the aid stations from then on in.

The miles between 13 and 18 formed the toughest chunk of my day, mentally. Once I hit the final turn-around at the end of Le P’tit Train du Nord (an old railway bed converted to a cushy recreational trail), I was charged by how little there was left to go: “It’s just a six-mile run around Cardiff.” (Beep and buzz of the watch.) “It’s a five-mile run on your lunch break!” (Beep, buzz.) “It’s an easy four-mile recovery run with Mark.” (Beep, buzz).

And finally, the last two miles showed up like honored guests at a party, and the roaring crowds began to break the grip of my fatigued muscles and run-zombie brain. My cadence slowed and I began to take huge strides forward on the cobblestone, feeling like a professional athlete as hands reached forward to high-five me in my last push. Borrowed energy carried me to the illuminated finish arch. I heard the author Paul Auster say the following on NPR interview yesterday: “Some people take their bodies for granted. They just sort of live in them.” It’s hard to be an Ironman athlete and be that kind of person.

Off the ground.

It took me 11 hours and 19 minutes on the nose to enter the Ironman fold, and suddenly, as quickly as it had arrived, it was all over. Mark medalled me, and escorted me with another volunteer to the finisher’s area where beer, pizza, and all sorts of of other necessities were on offer. Cuddled up in my foil blanket, all I wanted was an ice-cold Coke. I immersed myself in the sweat-soaked moment I knew would fly by so quickly. As I hugged my dad I thought back to the first long run (seven miles) he convinced me to do with him years ago in Birds Hill Park. I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. As I hugged my mom, I thought of the model of health and fitness she’s been throughout my life. As I hugged Mark, I thought of all the post-workout lattes, bike maintenance help, much-needed company on runs, and the great interest he’s taken in the sport and my participation in it. These types of achievements don’t happen in a void, and I am very grateful.

Smiling and still upright.

Six days later, I’m back in our Cardiff apartment, coming down gently off the high something like that infuses into your life. My recovery has been easy—I haven’t been as sore or broken as I thought I might be. As per usual, I’m taking one solid week to eat whatever I’m craving, which always makes me return to healthy eating with a new appreciation. Save for a quick Cove swim yesterday morning, I’m waiting one solid week to swim, bike, or run again, and I’m trying not to think about my next athletic goal. Ironman is so much more than a day, it’s a many-month journey; the feeling of all that coming to a halt is jolting. Hopefully by focusing on the things that got waylaid by my training I’ll be able to temporarily fill the hours once occupied by swimming, biking, and running. But after having completed an Ironman, I can confidently say that for as long as my body will put up with it, I’d like to keep my membership to this club, thank you very much.

So here it is, down on “paper:” my account of 11 hours and 19 minutes doing three of the activities I love most in the great outdoors, with some of the people I love most—and a whole bunch of like-minded strangers—along for the ride.

Taking a bite out of 140.6 miles.

SoCal discoveries

Warning: This post contains a glut of pictures of yours truly in the act of eating. Apparently I’ve been in a narcissistic phase as of late.

Today marks the one-month anniversary of my Southern California residency. Despite the stresses of finding a place to live, starting my career, trolling Craigslist and Target for basic necessities, and hauling heavy furniture across town, life has been pretty good.

The weather has been colder and gloomier than the locals say they have seen “in decades.” I haven’t joined a gym, found a place to worship (other than at the ocean shore), or made a ton of new friends. I have also not been cooking much, unless you count assembling salads and spreading peanut butter into ribs of celery. But I’m grateful for what I have, and for the daily reminder to be patient and persistent in making the life I want to live.

That’s one thing I love about food. In the sometimes mundane rhythm of hours, food is that shot of newness into the day. It’s something to look forward to, to plan for. Whether its a perfect avocado from a new friend’s tree (I guess we do have a few new friends!), or discovering this state’s mammoth raisins, relocating has its charms. Though I definitely do not have my kitchen groove back yet (and I haven’t been since living in Syracuse!), I am truly excited about everything my new home has to offer.

The situation looked a little dire at first. We couldn’t find a little ethnic market like we had in Syracuse, and the farmer’s market seemed so much more hoity-toity than the Central New York Regional Saturday mash-up. But we’re getting there, thanks of course to Trader Joe’s (which I’ve now been fully indoctrinated by), and a small market across the street from us called Just Peachy with excellent produce prices. Then, the other weekend (thanks to Chowhound) we found North Park Produce, and its shelves of fun ingredients provided an afternoon’s worth of entertainment.

Pussy willow water, anyone?

I know I’d heard of labne, or kefir cheese before, but this is the first time I’ve bought it. It’s lower in fat than cream cheese, and much more tangy. It’s excellent spread on sandwiches, or on a cracker with some raspberry jam.

At this same market (where we procured fresh tamarind, dirt-cheap olives, two kinds of feta, and so much more) we also sampled some most delicious tamales. I might have tried a tamale or two before, but I remember them being soggy and unimpressive. These ones were wrapped perfectly in corn husks and packed with cheese and jalepenos, not to mention the perfect texture and steaming-hot fresh.

Just as I was staging this “authentic food experience” for Mark to capture  on his iPhone, two women unloading their groceries next to us started giggling at me. Feeling a little sheepish, I started explaining that I was from the East and how you simply didn’t get good Mexican there. They offered us some of their sticky-soft Medjool dates, and all was well.

Then last weekend, in L.A. for the first time, I was treated to two new food experiences. After our coffees from Intelligentsia (esteemed in the coffee community), we walked around until our stomach started growling. Though the famous Kogi taco truck was too far away to follow, we did have the opportunity to dine on fusion truck food — something the city is known for. Our truck of the moment? Calbi, which you can follow too at twitter.com/calbibbq.

We shared a kimchi quesadilla (why haven’t I thought of that?!), a shrimp and a pork taco, seasoned with Korean spices. It was all delicious, and taken in on the street of Abbot Kinney, surrounded by hipsters in their full-sleeve tattoos and fluorescent cruisers, it felt very L.A.-esque.

I guess I have been doing a wee bit of cooking. At the same North Park market where we scored tamales and olives, I also bought a can of fava beans with cumin, and whipped up thislittle stew for us last night. You saute a few cloves of garlic and onion, add 3 small eggplants, cubed, stir in cumin and oregano, and cook until tender. At the end I added the can of fava beans, fresh mint, and a few drizzles of balsamic vinegar (you could use red wine too). Try it with pita bread, yogurt, and/or feta cheese.

Stay tuned for a post with some actual recipes in it (I know, it’s been ages!), starring the fresh tamarind I found at North Park, and more musings on this state’s excellent Mexican cuisine.

eating my way west, part II

In my last post, I managed to sneak a bit of food-talk between paragraphs of moving-onset nostalgia. I shared my last D.C. supper, as well as a random sample of the meals that welcomed me to California. I shared the wild fun of cleaning out a freezer you’ve occupied for three years, and my worries of falling back into road trip temptations.

And I promised there would be more. Traveling across this vast country is a food-lover’s joy ride: as with souvenirs and roadside stops, everything is tinted with kitsch. Food is no exception. Along our NY-PA-OH-IN-IL-MO-OK-TX-NM-AZ-CA trail we’ve found Cheese Barns to rival Wisconsin’s and all manner of fried eggs, flattened burgers, and iceberg lettuce salads. Thank goodness we haven’t bought, stopped at, or eaten any of it.

Our first real respite from McDonald’s (yes, we gave in to the Egg McMuffin’s seductive power, but it was so early and our bellies so empty!) came at the hands of our friends Bill and Emily. Everything at what they called their “Love Fest” was fresh, local, and organic: There were curried empanadas, sun-dried tomato polenta triangles, and cheese to snack on after the ceremony. For dinner, fresh salad, cold-smoked pork, and wood-fired chicken were served.

The best part of sitting down to witness my friends’ vows in the 30-degree-and-humid heat, however, was the “Sapphire in Bloom” cocktail I got to nurse in my adorable Ball jar glass:  a blend of Bombay Sapphire gin, St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, honey, soda, and fresh herbs over ice.

Back on the road. I wouldn’t think about food so much if driving weren’t so mind-numbing. Of course we embarked well-equipped: a recording of my Grandpa reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and enough RadioLab podcasts to earn a BSc with.  But after a while, the hum of the road sort of lulls you into a trance. And we all know what goes well with that state of being: food, in all it’s munchy, boredom-reducing glory.

I’m just glad I packed good chocolate (for sweet cravings) and carrots (for crunch). One thing this adventure has made me more appreciate of is my mother’s ability, rest stop after rest stop, to provide ample sustenance to a family of five on our long summer trips. It’s a little easier to bulk buy for a family of five than two, but the memory of a cooler full of her lovingly packed sandwiches has made my mouth water more than a few times on this trek.

In place of towing our mothers along (and mine’s so small she might just have fit!), we moderns have Yelp, the wonderful on-the-road food finder. Between the wedding victuals and what I know awaits in California, Yelp helped us lasso down dinner in Oklahoma and New Mexico. On our way from Springfield, IL to Amarillo, TX (where we’d be greeted in the morning by locally-roasted coffee, fresh bagels, berries, granola, and yogurt at the home of one of Mark’s former babysitters), we found this little Pho shop just outside of Oklahoma City. It didn’t hold a candle to Pho 14 in D.C., but its house-made broths of noodles, shrimp, bean sprouts, basil, and thin cuts of beef truly satisfied.

Part of the fun was getting pho in Oklahoma, of all places, where they apparently have to explain what pho is on the sig—so much different than living in a city where whole suburban complexes are devoted to the cuisine. You’ve got to hand it to them for at least trying to expand beyond Outback Steakhouse!

Yelp also delivered us into the hands of this wonderfully kitschy (this time in a good way) Tacqueria at 415 Lomas Blvd NE in Albuquerque, NM. Reviewers raved about their “old Mexican” cuisine, service, portions, and prices. We pulled up in a small gravel parking lot next to a mechanic shop, and unfurled our crunched-up, Jetta-ed bodies into the 34-degree New Mexico afternoon.

We plunked ourselves down in the tiny dining room, which looked like it once catered to fried-egg eating, coffee-sipping morning laborers. The stools were topped in faded blue pleather, and behind the open counter at least four each of cooks and waitstaff moved. I don’t even remember if the place was air-conditioned (which it probably wasn’t) due to the agua fresca that was soon placed before me. I chose the tart tamarindo (you guessed it, tamarind), while Mark sipped on a sweeter horchata made from ground almonds, barley, spices, and sugar.

Now I’m no expert in Mexican cuisine (CA, here I come!), and I don’t know what the heck “old Mexican” is supposed to mean, but I was impressed with my choices: a ceviche tostada, a crispy corn tortilla topped with ceviche-style shrimp, fresh lime juice, cilantro, and tomatoes, and two tacos, one langue (beef tongue), and the other adobada (pork). These two came with ample toppings and loads of fresh cilantro. Mark had a platter brimming with all kinds of goodies I can’t now remember.

My guess is that this more traditional style of Mexican is just simpler than a lot of the food I’ve been introduced to so far here in the U.S: tofu burritos a la Syracuse’s Alto Cinco, for example. I’ve had some pretty bad Mexican here (a soggy, greasy, and warm taco salad in Nixa, MO comes to mind), but it’s the kind of food I’m always hunting for. This tacqueria provided a hearty and fresh, cheery and prompt meal to two weary travelers. Whatever kind of food it is that they serve, I’m a fan.

One state away from our destination and with help like this, the report looks good: I’ve managed to stave off cravings for kettle-cooked chips, Nibs, and Twix bars at bay with ease. Sure there have been more sodas than usual, but for me as long as it’s got “diet” (or even better, “zero”) in the title, it passes the test. Sure there have been indulgences (wedding cupcakes, post-Grand Canyon soft serve), but what’s not to celebrate when love and breathtaking views show up?

Lastly, I come to the brewpub responsible for two out of three of our dinners in this wild and colorful town. It’s our last night in Arizona, and in Flagstaff, home base for our daily hikes in the Canyon and Sedona’s red rocks. I sit typing at one of the Grand Canyon International Hostel’s open windows, where the noise of mid-week revelers is broken only by the sound of trains rumbling by every hour.

Usually Mark and I like to try new things, whether it’s a new restaurant or recipe. Besides a few signature dishes and favorite restaurants, when it comes to food, we generally don’t like to repeat ourselves. That is, unless we find something that just works, like post-hike dinners on Flagstaff Brewing Company‘s patio. Beer seems to be on our minds more than usual here in Arizona: our first night in town we ate and watered ourselves at the Lumberyard Brewing Company just down the street from the hostel, where we had their decent IPA, nachos, and a surprisingly good Black Bean Hummus Reuben.

After logging about seven miles in the hot sun on the Grand Canyon’s south rim (and the previously mentioned soft-serve!) we happened upon FBC. We were ravenous, and so after briefly glancing over the menu, found ourselves a seat on their courtyard patio. I had a Greek Salad with some of the most garlicky dressing I’ve ever tasted (which again greeted me this morning!), but Mark’s Black and Blue Burger was the to die for meal of the evening — if it doesn’t clog the arteries, first! A black peppercorn-crusted patty topped with blue cheese, two onion rings, and chipotle mayo? I’m just thankful he let me have two good-sized bites. That’s love.

After our hike today along Oak Creek (near Sedona), and upon agreeing that the Flagstaff evening scene was considerably cooler than Sedona’s, we came back for more. You can’t say we didn’t try: we scoped out two other restaurants, but none of them appealed to the patio-happy delirium we’d experienced the night prior. Back we went. This time, as you’ll see pictured above, one of us decided to try the Pear Burger (a roasted pear and blue cheese burger drizzled with balsamic glaze), while the other went for the house-made Black Bean Burger with avocado, tomato, and roasted green chiles. I’ll let you figure out who ordered what.

Arizona surprised me, I must say. It really has so much more going for it than sketchy immigration policies, and the white hair and golf courses I expected. A real wilderness culture, not to mention some darn good beer and burger action, lives among its red canyons and hot pine forests.

Maybe, when California rests from courting me, I’ll come back for a little bit more.

eating my way west, part I

“Whirlwind.” “Roller coaster.” “Bittersweet.” None of the moving clichés are right. Each time, packing feels like something vaguely familiar—something I should be good at by now but for some reason am not.

For all the times I’ve moved, I really should be a pro: At 20, loading up two decades into a U-Haul in my parents’ driveway; at 23 to the apartment where I’d live alone for the first—and only—time; at 24 to a mountain lodge and back; at 25 from a ex-boyfriend’s house to a friend’s sun-room and then to Vancouver; at 26 to Upstate New York with my new husband; at 29 to D.C. for yet another solo jaunt.

Orange-zest sticky bun heaven (Pannikin, Leucadia, CA)

That pile of boxes—life squirreled away in cardboard—brings as many puffs of nostalgia as it does dust. Piles of papers and coins, clothes to give away, friends to see—so many lasts. It’s not fun being so well-versed in goodbyes.

Not that I’m unhappy: As many of you know, I’ve just landed what I can fairly call a dream job at a triathlon magazine in San Diego. It all happened so fast: an email, a telephone call, and a fly-out interview. Back in D.C. I wrapped things up, re-connected with my similarly jet-setting husband, and packed the Jetta for Syracuse.

How does one keep a food blog at a time like this? Not well, I’m afraid. But bear with me: Southern Californian delicacies are on the menu for the next season of freshcrackedpepper.

Curry mussels (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

For now then, the story of how one food-loving wanderer eats her way west.

While in San Diego for my interview, the coast established itself as a mecca of bee pollen/hippie cuisine, flirt-worthy sushi, and orange-zest sticky buns on the ocean (pictured above).

Back in D.C., I had to choose a place for my “last supper” in the city that had been so good to me (bike accident battle scars aside!) I thought back fondly on all the cupcakes, ethnic morsels, and new experiences (like brewing beer for the first time) D.C. had offered. Indeed, it was more than just a six-month stopover between Syracuse’s ports and San Diego’s harbor: it was a satisfying sojourn in and of itself.

Spinach Salad with Cocoa-Balsamic Vinaigrette (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

I settled on Café St. Ex in the U Street neighborhood, for their cute street patio and the great food I’d had at their sister business, Bar Pilar. Our meal of mussels, salad, and a Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. was summery and simple, a good memory to part on. In the very near future, I’ll be experimenting with how to incorporate cocoa into my balsamic vinaigrette.

And their sweet potato fries with just a touch of sweet-salty cinnamon? For those I might be willing to endure a humid D.C. summer. Although I’m sure the West Coast will have a suitable contender.

Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

Back in Syracuse, eating quickly became a mindless task in a long list of to-do’s. Canned baked beans and back-0f-the-freezer discoveries were supplemented with the summer’s first corn (decent, though no sweet ears of late July) and the generous grills of good friends. I think beer might have supplied a higher percentage of my daily calories than is advisable, but my triathlon friends (not to mention all those boxes) helped me keep the negative effects to a minimum.

We set sail yesterday for our cross-country adventure, flung back into the arms of McDonald’s (recommended for their free wireless only), Starbucks (for the only suitable road coffee), Chipotle (yum), and friends along the way (rhubarb ice cream—thanks, Kristen!) After tonight’s quick stopover in Springfield for our dear friends’ wedding, we’ll join up with old Route 66, John Steinbeck’s “Mother Road,” and be on our way to the Texas panhandle.

More to come.

2010 D.C. RAMMY Nominees Announced

This might be the first time I’ve ever broken news on this site: Tonight, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington announced the nominees for this year’s awards. I say “break” because at the time of posting, the nominees have only just gone up on the RAMW site and a search still brings up mostly last year’s stories (except for my new friend Michael’s post).

I attended tonight’s reception at the Ritz Carlton—stocked with big egos and small bites—to meet other food writers and keep my finger on the food pulse in this new town of mine. Thank goodness a sister blogger was there to sip Casablanca Crustas with—The Tabard Inn’s own cocktail contender. (I’m only half kidding about the egos. There were a lot of inspiring, hard-working souls humbly strutting their stuff.)

Birch and Barley's diminutive sweets, not pictured are the lemon-vanilla cream puffs which nearly bowled me over

And B&B's executive chef's buttery mackerel

I don’t follow celebrity chefs or watch Top Chef much. Moreover, the RAMW’s motto, “Dine Out, Dine Often, Dine Deliciously,” is only a third of the way accurate in my life, where eating out is more of a novelty. Still, the art of public cookery is something valuable, and it was fun to witness the red carpet glory … er, tablecloth … glory.

The iPhone pictures leave much to be desired, but they do give a glimpse into some of the exciting things happening in this city’s food scene.

Seafood Salad from Eventide, up for Best New Restaurant

Bibiana's "head cheese," in another's words

The RAMMYS are, as one Washingtonian Magazine writer said last year, the Golden Globes of D.C.’s restaurant awards. If the  James Beard Awards are the Oscars of the food world, that is. So while now you can go to the site to see the full list and descriptions of the categories, I’ve narrowed them down to the ones that most people will actually care about. (“Manager of the Year” is a great award, but does that matter when we’re hungry?)

Bourbon Steak had memorable oxtail shooters

Almost as much fun as the food were the creative cocktails

And the innovative cocktails served up by the nominated Mixologists were also captivating: My favorite, a lemon-verbena “Grog” from Restaurant Eve, was like a spiked lemon iced tea as refreshing as a creek in the hot summer. Most of the featured drinks were surprisingly subtle, not too sweet, and in (what I’m guessing to be) the old school style. The Tabard Inn served their Casablanca Crustas, made up of Plymouth gin, Cointreau, chamomile honey lemon syrup, lemon juice, and bitters. Brasserie Beck’s Appertiivo had Tres Generacions Tequila, sour mix, Campari, ginger ale, and a cinnamon and Hawaiian sea salt rim. PS7s‘ Bittersweet Isla featured vodka, Campari, honey, cinnamon, rose and marigold tea, and fresh grapefruit juice, and was served with an edible flower garnish. Founding Farmers garnished their sophisticate take on the Daiquiri with grilled pineapple chunks.

Yeah, my evening workout was a little, shall we say, groggy?

Enough of me. Here are the nominees. (Winners will be announced at a dinner on June 6th, but in the meantime, you can visit Young and Hungry for a more comprehensive analysis of the process and politics of the awards.)

_______________________________

Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year

2941
Michel Richard Citronelle
Minibar by Jose Andres
Oval Room
Source

Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year

Central Michel Richard
Liberty Tavern
Proof
Vermilion
Zaytinya

Neighborhood Gathering Place of the Year

Bar Pilar
Belga
Cork
EatBar
Kemble Park Tavern

New Restaurant of the Year

Bibiana
Birch & Barley
Bourbon Steak
Eventide
Inox

Chef of the Year

Bertrand Chemel – 2941
Scott Drewno – The Source
Daniel Giuste – 1789
Vikram Sunderam – Rasika
Haidar Karoum – Proof

Rising Culinary Star of the Year

Michael Isabella – Zaytinya
Liam LaCivita – The Liberty Tavern
Shannon Overmiller – Majestic Café
Nicholas Stefanelli – Bibiana
Jon Mathieson – Inox

Pastry Chef of the Year

Anthony Chavez – 2941
Amanda Cook – CityZen
Josh Short – Neighborhood Rest. Group
Fabrice Bendano – Adour
Travis Olson – 1789

Wine Program of the Year

2941
Citronelle
Dino
Knightsbridge
Proof

Beverage Program of the Year

Brasserie Beck
EatGoodFood Group – Eve, Majestic, PX…
Founding Farmers
PS7’s
Tabard Inn

Hottest Restaurant Bar Scene of the Year

Birch & Barley – Church Key
Bourbon Steak
Masa 14
Posto
POV

Review: Café Atlántico

Unpaid internships aren’t exactly synonymous with haute cuisine. My encounters with fancy food have almost all been because of lucky invites—either to media events, or exquisite dinner parties. I’m aware of the hot-list haunts in this fair capital, but the closest I can get to most of them is the bar.

Except for this past weekend.

Exhibit A: chimichurri lamb shank, tamarind lentils, poblano chile relleno.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t been so hard done by: Vinoteca spoiled me in January. Dukem‘s affordable spreads have never disappointed. Cheap-eats excursions to Eden Center, Amsterdam Falafal, and Pho 14 have provided enough new sensations to tide me over for weeks. And today, in the leftover afternoon sun of D.C.’s summer in March, authentic Neopolitan pizza on Red Rocks’ backyard-style patio more than satisfied my craving for good pie. Luckily, simple foods do it for me.

But this weekend, the elaborate overshadowed the simple.

Exhibit B: duck confit, parsnip “linguine,” dried cherries, fresh herbs, almonds, horseradish yogurt.

Food reminds me that everyone needs a good spoil from time to time. This morning’s sermon was on the anointing of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. In the passage, Mary Magdelene pours expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair. Judas, judging this an abhorrent display of excess, chastises Mary for wasting what could have been sold and used to benefit the poor. Jesus addresses Judas: “The poor will always be with you, but you will not always have me.” I used to think this pompous, but have learned that sometimes, extravagance wisely directed can herald beauty, worth, significance.

Artful extravagance like Saturday night at Café Atlántico.

Exhibit C: skirt steak, warm fingerling potato salad, queso fresco, grilled persimmons, tamarind, pomegranate dressing.

When I worked in restaurants I got used to being around fancy food. Over the past few years, I had time to create masterpieces out of a fairly limited budget. More recently, though the lack of a paycheck sometimes takes a toll on the self-esteem, I refuse to let it influence my food choices. Through homemade granola, eating mostly vegetarian, and bulk food shopping, I’ve managed to keep food costs down and still derive great pleasure from eating.

This weekend, I was happy to discover that I haven’t lost my taste for the exquisite.

Exhibit D: portobello mushroom, sweet potato-plantain ‘ravioli’, seasonal mushrooms, Chihuahua cheese.

It helps when you have someone to take care of you. I’m grateful for a partner who’s willing to spend his hours enlightening ungrateful undergrads to help me pursue this dream. I’m grateful that this weekend, one of my two loving families traveled so far, just to spend time with me in this adopted city. Families operate under a logic that runs counter to the rest of the world: they remind you that you’re worthy of love simply by being who you are. Living so far away, sometimes I forget what that feels like.

If that feeling had a bouquet, Saturday night’s dinner would be its finish:

Exhibit E. scallops, cocoa butter, cauliflower purée, cauliflower ‘couscous,’ American caviar.

No matter what’s on the plate, sitting around a table with people you love is the most gourmet experience one can know.  I miss Sunday dinners: the regularity of fellowship, the comfort of companions. I’ve tried to recreate that experience since moving here by making time for eating with my church family, my friends, and my housemates.

Even in the face of all the poverty and injustice in this world, the brevity of fellowship seems to justify an artful display or two of abundance.

Exhibit F: pineapple-lime cake, pineapple-lime salsa, caramelized Brazil nuts, black pepper, Mexican sour cream sherbet.

Perhaps this is pompous or even sacrilegious of me, but this meal seemed to follow Mary’s lead of wiping Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. To my brain, Judas’ point seems merited—shouldn’t we have considered the poor? But then I remember: we all have our daily callings to right wrongs, to give, and to serve, but there are times we eat drink and are merry simply because we do not always have each other. That alone seems like a reason to indulge.

Café Atlántico
405 8th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 393-0812