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Entries in Food & Travel (83)


RC Cola 

Royal Crown Cola has been around, in one fashion or another, since 1905. This flavorful cola is arguably a happy medium between the sweet end of the cola spectrum that is Pepsi, and more bitter edge of Coke – a sort of Goldie Locks of the cola world. And, as such, RC remains a third option in the minds of consumers. With restaurants engaging in non compete agreements – denoted by affiliated brands adorning the soda fountain spigots – the common statement when taking orders is: “We offer Pepsi products,” or, of course, “We offer Coke products.” Within that paradigm, the restaurant goer has to mentally translate what type of non cola beverages that might be. “Let's see here, would that mean Sprite, or was it Sierra Mist? Or 7up?” This monopolistic grip on the restaurant industry delimits customer choice, and also presupposes that all colas, and subsequent sodas are the same. Not really true. A bar would gladly offer various brands of liquor of a similar ilk, right? Why not sodas?

That aside, RC cola has maintained itself as a distinct brand with grassroots affiliations. For instance, Shea Stadium of Mets fame boasted RC sponsorship for nearly three decades. Singer Nancy Sinatra even made a jingle for the cola. And, of course, RC cola is noted within Andy Griffith lore as being coupled with Moon Pies, and symbolic of down home goodness and simple pleasures.


Hammond’s Candy Canes

Since 1920, this Denver candy maker has been churning out sweets, and every holiday season they put out a fleet of candy canes, with varied flavors and colors and permutations. The confectioners take the process of candy making seriously, with the hard candies undergoing a long process of precision heating, melting, kneading, rolling, reheating, and eventually hand shaping the various stripes of flavored and colored caramelized sugar into the recognizable crooked cane known so well – almost shepherding in the Christmas season.

And that brings up the obscure history of the candy cane. It came about as a bribe of sorts to boisterous children attending church in Germany in the 1600’s . The candy: to pacify kids during Christmas mass. The justification: it’s shaped like a crosier, the symbolic shepherd’s crook carried by a bishop (incidentally, the crosier is also the namesake of lacrosse, bestowed by French Jesuits upon the Iroquois sport for similar reasons). The canes were didactic – instructive in nature from an authority perspective – but as every kid knows, they were really just fun. The canes stuck. Hanging perfectly from the boughs of trees. Splaying from the top of a stocking. The colors seemed to match Santa’s.

Hammond’s confectioners, like the confectioners of most great candy makers, take years to perfect their craft. And the candy cane remains one of the more complicated hard candies to fashion. As the sugars cool from molten softness to the brittle hard of the finished candy, working with it is akin to working with glass. Deft hands have to preen and tease the material. Reheat it along a table lined with specialize gas burners. Roll it and caress it into the familiar stripes. Give it a hook. This all has to be completed within a certain temperature and moisture range. Hammond’s candy canes are a Cadillac of candy canes, and are still made the old fashioned way.


Little Caesars Hot-N-Ready

Hey, for the money, these pies can’t really be beat. Five dollars might not be what it used to be, as fiat currency gets inflated, or contracted, or eased, or whatever it might be doing in fiduciary terms, but it still scores big with this ready to go meal. Zip in, plunk down a fin, and pick a cheese or pepperoni, and zip out.

The Little Caesars franchise started in a Detroit area strip mall in 1959. Owners Michael and Marian Ilitch, both offspring of Macedonian immigrants, have parlayed that humble baby-boom era pizza endeavor into a panoply of Detroit sports franchise ownerships, including, but not limited to the Tigers and the Red Wings. Since its start, Little Caesars has become a pizza brand vaulted into international notoriety (estimates put the Little Caesars company in the top 5 nationally in terms of pizza chains).

The Hot-N-Ready aspect of the enterprise has arguably mushroomed franchise development, with stores popping up in repurposed storefronts, filling cavities left in the wake of the economic downturn. Dinner rushes see lines of folks, Abe Lincoln bills in hand, filing to the registers as cashier and kitchen staff shuffle hot and ready pies in and out of convection warmers. A sale of a “cheese” is denoted with an announcement to the kitchen: “Taking a cheese!” Another pie fills its place.


Miguel’s Pizza & Rock Climbing Shop

Image Robannz

A trip to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge and Daniel Boone National Forest isn’t really complete without a stop at Miguel’s. This pizza shop has been feeding climbers, hikers, locals, spelunkers, and visitors since 1984, and probably has the distinction of the only pizza parlor and rock climbing shop on the planet. The gravel parking lot is usually filled. Volvos and SUVs and ramshackle Civics (and at least one token VW Bus at any given time) with plates as far flung as Montana, Vermont, and Ontario. Several from Colorado and New York. Most splaying bumper stickers – markers, really – of past outdoor conquests and treks, or allegiances to jam bands. A dancing bear. Some Phish icon. The packed lot speaks to the quality of the place.

The pizza itself is a well-made and unique semi thin crusted pie, and bears a vague resemblance to pizza indigenous to the East Coast, and harkens to eponymous owner Miguel Ventura’s former residence of Connecticut. A heady hint of oregano tops off the pizzas, with a grand permutation of possible additions including chorizo, corn, pasta spirals, rice, beans, tofu, and zucchini; orders are made at a counter flanked by 200 foot coils of specialty climbing rope, carabiners, headlamps, and displays of high end rubber toed climbing shoes. Tables inside are surrounding by repurposed bench seats from school buses worn and frayed from years of use, and patched loosely with red duct tape. The overall ambiance of the place exudes a well worn, comfortable, and inviting feel, and is well in line with the rugged yet inviting ambiance of the Red River Gorge.

Image B.Smaurer

Outside, around back, Miguel’s offers a table area for eating, and a wall of Ale-8 deposit bottles braces against the outer wall of the basement, and clutches of friends huddle over a steaming pizza and soft drinks. A half court basketball setup to the side seems to have a constant game of pick-up, and occasionally hosts tournaments comprised of teams of rock climbers. The 24 hour accessible basement is a tiny cove of a room evocative of a mid nineties coffee shop. Replete with worn paperbacks of Dragon Lance and Anne Rice novels on a shelf, the ubiquitous chess sets in various disrepair, in colder weather the basement provides extra dining space, and also presents a kind of living room for campers.

Image Paradem

Behind Miguel’s one can’t help but notice acres of tents. Some of them appear well established with wooden platforms, blue tarpaulins heavy with leaf sediment, and guy wires anchoring to stakes and trees. Campers can camp for $3 a night, and do – attracting climbers from around the nation and globe, offering a sense of community while they participate in events on and around the numerous crags and rock faces at the Red River Gorge. Amenities include shower facilities, laundry, wifi and computer access, and even cooking facilities. There are also a few bedrooms for rent for around $40 a night. It’s like a modern, rock climbing oriented equivalent of a medieval tavern or inn, offering a sort of one stop shop for travelers and climbers. Miguel’s is an experience, and is almost emblematic of the Red River Gorge.


Daisy Cakes 

When South Carolinian Kim Nelson appeared on the investment/start-up reality show Shark Tank, all but one judge passed on the proposal to join Daisy Cakes as a backer. What they did not pass on was seconds.

It used to be that there was no such thing as bad cake. That was until Nelson introduced her delectable family heirloom to the industry. On the sage recipes of her aunt Daisy and her two grandmothers, Miss Nellie and Miss Nervilee, Nelson and Daisy Cakes are marking their territory in the baking world, one lemon cake at a time. From her commercial kitchen in the south, Nelson has been a busy lady (5,000 cakes in 30 days is her new normal). Her award winning confections are in high demand, and Daisy Cakes operates as an online bakery; made from scratch and shipped anywhere one might have a sweet tooth.

The blue ribbon cakes (carrot, chocolate, red velvet and coconut among them) are a labor of love for Nelson. The key? Simple and pure ingredients. From hand sifted flour and farm fresh eggs, no corners are cut-and it is evident by her clients’ jumping taste buds that dance with every bite. Daisy Cakes recently joined forces with Whole Foods and continues to ply away in Nelson’s kitchen, the timeless southern fare available anywhere thanks to the matrix. It is an odd pairing, something as folksy and traditional as baking coupled with technology, but one that works well. One thing is certain-grocery store cakes might have just met their bubonic plague. As for the rest of us who have our cake and eat it too?

Everything is coming up Daisy.


Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop 

Chagrin Falls. It is a tiny village in northern Ohio, a picturesque community that Norman Rockwell might have dreamed of, a quaint beauty surrounded by majestic arbors and a proud waterfall. It is a hidden gem, a secret that must be shared but not by too many, as a treasure becomes tainted when divided too liberally. It is a vintage piece of traditional Americana, sans the pretense of trying. And The Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop, perhaps even more iconic than its namesake, is the heart of it all.

Nestled against the banks of the pristine falls, The Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop began as a complementary piece to The Pride of the Falls, a flourmill anchored by a water wheel-driven gristmill. The current incarnation began in the 1940’s, as the retail end of the flower mill began serving local ice cream, coffees, candy, gifts, and of course, popcorn. The shop, rightfully adorned with a red, white and blue awning, has since become a generational hotspot, a place where families create memories on the wooden steps of the falls, a confection in hand and warmth in the heart. A grandmother might hold the same cone she enjoyed as a child, in the same spot she stood back then, hand in hand with a grandson who will someday pass the torch down the family tree.

In 2000, an errant automobile nearly ended the communal heirloom, crashing into the shop and dislodging it from the banks. Lucky for the driver, the building was saved and rebuilt to withstand such future atrocities, preserving the tradition. Otherwise, Art Modell and LeBron James might have company as the “Most Reviled” person in these parts of Buckeye country.

The Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop carries into the future, driven by the past. It is a simile for America, a small business fueled by local pride and abject perfection in its product. And on a clear night, with the falls raging mightily and the caramel corn in hand, one can almost see the ghost of Rockwell if they squint as he transfers a scene on canvas, a scene that is, undoubtedly, already art in itself.


The Lemon Ice King of Corona

We’ve said it before. Occasionally, a business becomes iconic of the community it inhabits. This little corner of Americana remains emblematic of a neighborhood forged around a culture. Directly across from the so called “Spaghetti Park” at a crossroads of the long time Italian American bastion Corona, Queens, sits The Lemon Ice King of Corona. Featured in the opening montage of the sitcom King of Queens, this frozen treat shop has been at it for over six decades, and their simple delivery of Italian ices in corrugated cups remains a winning formula.

At over forty flavors, including, of course, lemon – The Lemon Ice King of Corona distinguishes itself from other purveyors of Italian ices by creating their concoction with real pulp and bits of fruit. The little scoops, in vivid pastels burgeoning over the lip of the paper are dabbed, licked, gnawed till tongues and teeth bear the tale of the flavor, as the creased pleats of the paper cup are slowly unfurled and peeled back. “Businessmen” in looming black limos have been known to, on occasion, double park, and partake of The Lemon Ice King, as customers hush into a reverent pall, averting the urge to stare. They’re here, like everyone else, because the ices are that good. This establishment remains one of the nodes of the Italian American community in the NYC area.


The Milkman's Daughter 

It used to be a frantic race. Pump up the AC, put some lead in that foot and rev up those RPM’s as the grocery store became a mere dot in the rearview mirror. Afterall, they weren’t called perishables for nothing. From the confines of a mud brown paper bag, the glare from the sun through a thick windshield was public enemy number one. The cheese had to be saved.

They say Seattle doesn’t get much sun but the rules still apply. So it bucks all sensibility that The Milkman’s Daughter exists. What flawed reality would allow a ’56 snow white Wimbledon Ford to deliver Bessie’s greatest invention to the masses amongst traffic jams and four way stops?

To go all Gen X on you, reality bites. But the reality of the Northwest based Milkman’s Daughter is a bite of class, redefined. A traditional food truck with a twist, The Milkman’s Daughter is a Sommelier’s urban dream. It is a gourmet delicatessen and cheese snob heaven (sans the pretense) and it is an unlikely and fantastic marriage of American automotive prowess and refined French cuisine. The mobile grocer, a staple at some of the best wineries and breweries in the land, takes the traditional road warrior grub (think cubed imitation cheese from the local gas station) and replaces it with the gourmand favored requirements of a soiree on a Paris rooftop, or a seaside terrace in Tuscany. A Tillamook white cheddar or a Spanish Winey Goat cheese for a Merlot; Rogue Creamery blue cheese, spreadable on a cracker, for a Riesling or Chardonnay. For the hops and barley enthusiasts with a penchant for brew unavailable in a drive thru, Gouda is a-gooda with an IPA; a French Camembert, an age old symbol of distinguished class, will mesh well with the maltier variety. And of course, a diet soda or bottled water will blend well too, as any of The Milkman’s Daughter’s delectables stand on their own merit.

From berets to ballcaps, something cheesy is happening in Seattle. And it’s the coolest thing on four wheels.


Bragg’s Liquid Aminos

Celebrating 100 years, Bragg Live Foods has been a harbinger of the natural food movement since the start. Their liquid amino sauces are a lower sodium alternative to soy sauce, and continue to use non-genetically modified soybeans. The familiar yellow labeled bottles adorn kitchen shelves across the nation, and line natural aisles in grocery stores. A protein infused seasoning, Bragg’s dresses stir fries, and adds flavor to otherwise boring casseroles and salads. A flip of the nozzle tab and a dousing squirt of the brown liquid is a nutritious and tasty augmentation to many meals.

Founded by Dr. Paul C. Bragg, and now headed by daughter Dr. Patricia Bragg, the dedication continues within the company to wholesome food products, sensitivity to allergenic needs, organic intentions, and nutritional concerns of consumers. And, like many likeminded companies, Bragg’s maintains a sort of grassroots, and word of mouth promulgation, and enjoins with the company ethos a mentality of holistic mind-body wellbeing in the form of daily affirmations, and guidance from spiritual texts.

The advent of the Bragg Live Foods company came at a time when industrialized automation and mechanization of processed foods slowly blighted the nutritional intake of America. Artificial sweeteners, preservatives, augmentations, and “better living through chemistry” introduced ingredients with an ineffable amount of syllables on packages; things to be consumed in a hurry, and without much thought.

The Bragg Company refers to themselves as “Health Crusaders,” and even infomercial fitness guru Jack LaLanne has given accolades and credit to the Bragg family for setting him on the path of health. At fifteen, an out of shape, sickly LaLanne attended a Paul Bragg seminar, and from that day forward aspired to the physical fitness maven he became – until his death at the ripe age of 96. Paul Bragg has also been commended by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop for his lifelong work toward the betterment of health in America.


Tony Packo's 

This Toledo, Ohio institution has been selling Hungarian style hot dogs and sausages since the early 1930’s, and markets their “Pickles and Peppers” of spicy, sweet, and garlic infused varieties internationally. The Hungarian culinary bend toward things spicy and sweet is evident in Tony Packo’s products. The Pickles and Peppers line features an anthropomorphic cartoon pickle and pepper, whose flavors complement each other to the point of being in bed together on the label (original), or running toward each other with tiny hearts in their wake (sweet hots), or dancing beneath the moon (sweet mix) – a veritable gustatorial match made in heaven – or at least, you know, a pickle jar.

The Packo name first struck a global chord when the cross dressing, incessant discharge seeking company clerk Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger, played by Toledo native Jamie Farr, was asked on the seminal show M*A*S*H to speak about his hometown. Farr kept the verisimilitude of the Klinger character with realistic insertions of his locally beloved Toledo Mud Hens (one of the oldest minor league baseball teams in existence), and of course Tony Packo’s.

The Pickles and Peppers kick up any sandwich an octave or two, and can be found at specialty food stores, some larger chains, and online by the jar or the case.

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