Exploring Rockbridge County


Last week, I headed south to Lexington, Virginia, where my mother's family is from, to do some research on photographer Michael Miley. Miley worked in Lexington immediately following the Civil War and became best known as "General Lee's Photographer." After surrendering at Appomattax, Lee accepted a position as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee, for obvious reasons) also located in Lexington. Miley took a few famous shots of the former general, including the only image of Lee in his military uniform after the war.  


I ended up spending more time reading about the Civil War during my trip than I expected, as I planned to focus more on Miley's photographic innovations. But it's not an element that can be stripped out of Miley's story. I was able to visit two of my great grand-father's graves while I was there; one of their tombstones reads "Confederate soldier and lifelong democrat." 

Pilgrim talk

I spent a few days in Plymouth, Mass. recently while profiling a historic interpreter at Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the original Pilgrim settlement. The interpreters speak in what they call dialect, a recreation of the English accents (and Dutch, as required) that would have been heard in the early colonies. The level of specificity is incredible: interpreter training manuals include lines such as, "Appendix C - Polysyllabic Words with Probably Accents in 17th C." and separate sections for vowel and consonant variations for different English cities.  (Malka Benjamin, the woman I profiled, played a character from London). 


I really can't imagine spending the entire day speaking in a 17th century British accent. Malka told me that she used to have trouble turning it off at the end of the day, realizing she was still speaking with an accent at the grocery store after work. Today, she has that under control, "But I say vex a lot," she admits. 

You can read my profile here, and listen to Malka learning a traditional song (with a few snippets of Pilgrim speech) below. 

The search for delicious


While New York was going crazy for cronuts this summer (an actual line from the bakery's website: "As a rule of thumb, if you arrive prior to 6:00am on a week day, you have a great chance of getting a Cronut™.") I had to settle for plain old croissants, which didn't actually seem like such a bad deal. My favorite came from Du Pain et Des Idées, tucked not far from the Canal Saint-Martin on the Right Bank. 


The bakery is most famous for its escargots, so named for their snail-shell shape. The pinwheels of flaky pastry are lined with dark chocolate and pistachio. It looks innocent enough, but it leads you down the road to ruin. This is the sort of thing that caused my Parisian friend Sophie to remark, "French women don't get fat, but you, an American in Paris? You'll get fat."  

I passed over the escargot many times, however, in favor of the croissants, delicate and flaky on the exterior with just the right amount of chewiness inside, wrapped straight across, not in a crescent (the curved shape usually indicates a croissant is not made with real butter in France). There is no doubting these are made with butter, and plenty of it. 

While in Paris I learned that croissants are believed to have been invented in Vienna and that the baguette was not named as such until 1920. Is nothing sacred? 

Beba Isso Com Açúcar

 A bica with a pastéis de Belém, Portugal's beloved baked good

A bica with a pastéis de Belém, Portugal's beloved baked good

Throughout Portugal I was treated to excellent coffee, which Lisboans call a bica (elsewhere it is simply um cafe). It is served in a demitasse cup, but is a longer pull and lacks some of espresso's bitterness (Portugal is known for its lighter roast). When it was first introduced, however, Lisboans found it extremely bitter, thus the ad campaign that became an acronym: Beba isso com açúcar (drink that with sugar). 

Portugal's coffee obsession began in 1727, when Brazil decided to join the nascent coffee market. Coffee plants were prized by the nation's that held them, so Brazil began its quest to secure their own stock. Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta, the man they chose for the job was an inspired choice; as National Geographic  notes, he was the "James Bond of beans":

Colonel Palheta is dispatched to French Guiana, ostensibly to mediate a border dispute. Eschewing the fortresslike coffee farms, suave Palheta chooses a path of less resistance—the governor’s wife. The plan pays off. At a state farewell dinner she presents him a sly token of affection: a bouquet spiked with seedlings.

And thus the seed was planted, so to speak. Today, nearly every meal ends with a bica. They are also consumed throughout the day, often standing up at a counter and sometimes with a brandy or a custardy pastéis de Belém. Fernando Pessoa, the great poet, is immortalized in bronze in front of his favorite café, Café A Brasileira. 


Consider the crassostrea angulata

 A Portuguese oyster

A Portuguese oyster

The crassostrea virginica, also known as the Eastern oyster, was all I knew growing up in Annapolis on Maryland's Western shore. In the Chesapeake, they are generally mid-sized, briny, approachable bivalves, usually served with cocktail sauce (that highly underrated ketchup-based concoction that has unfortunately been overtaken by mignonettes in recent years) lemons, Tabasco, and crackers. To sit on the sidewalk in front of McGarvey's, which no one likes anymore except for me and my parents, drinking beer and eating oysters while midshipmen and tourists walk by on an early autumn day, sucks me into a memory vortex like Proust's lime blossom tea and madeleine. The taste of the Bay fills my mouth as if I were thrashing my way to the dock by my childhood home, latching onto a barnacle covered ladder and breathing in salt-inflected air. 

In the Pacific Northwest, oysters are typically the small and sweet crassostrea gigas, transplants from Asia. I first encountered them when I moved to Portland, Oregon, but didn't begin a love affair until I met the Kumamoto, which, while commonly farmed in the same areas, is actually a distinct species (crassostrea sikamea).  Floating in their deeply hollowed shells, they are to me the bastard children of Eastern and Pacific: salty and sweet, floating in their deeply hollowed shells, mid-sized. They are prized wherever they can be grown. 

When Eastern oysters were devastated by the diseases dermo and MSX in the 1940s and 50s, there was talk of replacing native varieties with Asian imports, as the Pacific did after Olympia oysters were ravaged by overfishing and disease in the mid- to late- 1800s. In France and Portugal, the destruction of the Portuguese oyster, the crassostrea angulata, in 1969 led to a similar choice. Pacific oysters were introduced and the native species retreated; what had once been one of Europe's more common varieties ceased to be commercially cultivated at all. 

At Cervejaria da Esquina, Vitor Sobral's upscale Portuguese beer hall, I was at last able to try one of the angulatas, so named because of their lovely fluted shells. Larger than a typical Eastern oyster, it was served simply with a lemon wedge. When I bit into it, my eyes popped; it had a sweet taste, not terribly briny, but also a taste that struck me as fecund. It had a creamy consistency that I had never experienced before and a rich, almost oily feel in my mouth. I found it shocking. 

As it turns out, the Portuguese oyster is itself an Asian transplant, having been introduced, possibly from Taiwan, during the early days of intercontinental boat shipping, probably around the 1500s. I wonder if there were oysters there before that, true Portuguese oysters, driven out by their cousins from the East. 


Corpse flower in bloom

Amorphophallus titanum, usually called the titan arum but also also known colloquially as the "corpse flower," is the largest known unbranched inflorescence in the plant kingdom. That means that there is a larger flower—one—but it is actually a cluster of flowers, far less impressive. The flower, whose official name comes from the ancient Greek for "giant misshapen phallus," earned its corpse connotations from the smell of its bloom, which is often compared to a rotting carcass.  In other words, it's got a lot going for it.  

The United States Botanic Garden happened to have one of these beauties on view in preparation of it's death-stench bloom. I arrived to early to see that, but caught it just beforehand. It is a sight to behold, and re-instills a proper fear of plants that is often lacking in modern life.  


There is, however, a very cool time-lapse video of this particular plant blooming:

Our Table

I was able to visit Josh Volk at Our Table Cooperative, just outside of Portland, while working on a story. The hand labor that goes into their production is awe-inspiring, but these blueberries were by far the best I have ever tasted.