On discovering America

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I think there’s a deeper lesson to be learned from this article about why the Japanese – an advanced, seafaring nation – didn’t discover America. First, let me summarize the key points: The Japanese had everything they wanted, right there on their little archipelago, and what they didn’t have they could obtain from China or Korea, so there was no need to hit the high seas. And what were the Europeans doing when they “discovered” America? Searching for a shortcut to Asia so they could bring back spices. Asia was it, the place to be in the world of commerce.

I can’t help but picture a 15th-century Japanese man swinging his fist and saying, “aw shucks!” because let’s face it, America turned out to be a pretty big win.

And I also can’t help but think that on a much, much smaller scale, this little drama plays out over and over again in each of our lives. When we are  comfortable—when we have all the saffron a decent person needs—we stay home. Worlds go uncharted, seas go un-sailed. Make no mistake: There is something to be said for staying put, for raking zen gardens and tending our hearts like perfect bonsai trees, but to do so requires intention. I hope that I can learn to relish days that taste a little dull because they will send me in search of better salt.

A traditional trip to England with my own, personal photographer

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Truth: I am partial to strange adventures marked not by their potential for beauty or danger but by a particular kind of mundane novelty. Take, for example, my trip on the F two weeks ago or my desire to drive between my hometown in Oklahoma and my friend Tobia’s hometown in  Manitoba simply because one is almost exactly straight north of the other (a plan that is known simply known as “Drive Straight Up” in our household.) Having impulses like this requires friends who share them, and my English friend Peter has always been a fan to my quirky-travel flame. So deep is our friendship and so odd our travel impulses that we have long conspired to join our families by marrying two of our cousins in a wedding that would (must) take place in the Azores simply because the Azores exist roughly half-way between our two nations.

But when Peter married Richard last March, it wasn’t in the middle of the Atlantic but on his native soil, and instead of embarking on a random adventure, the occasion resulted in the most traditional trip to England I’ve ever taken. “In a decade of knowing you, how is this the first time you’ve taken me to an English garden? Or a manner house? Or Stonehenge?” I asked him half-way through the trip. “What have we been doing all these years?” “Clearly, I’ve failed you,” Peter said. Hardly.

Luckily, all the wonderful, traditional Englishness was documented by my own personal photographer, who I have vowed I will never again travel without, even if she is my sister. Hailey is blogging about our trip this week over on her website, sharing lots of pictures of me sipping tea, eating pudding and climbing castle walls. I stole the photos above from her website, yet another infraction in a long history of sisterly stealing, I’m sure. But if you hire her to be your personal photographer, she will forgive me.

Her most recent post documents my favorite day of the trip, which involved a lesson in rhubarb forcing and advice on bicycle riding from Peter’s father and a caravan picnic and a curry dinner prepared by his mother, my “English parents,” who I adore more than all the F-trains and Azores combined.

The F (mostly) underground

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Our adventure last week on the F was mostly about seeing what was on street level since we usually spend so much time below ground, but we also visited stations that we had never been to at all, and we encounter a lot of interesting spaces, so we tried to document the stations themselves as well as the view up above. We started strong, pulling out our little signs at ever stop, but as we grew tired and rush hour closed in around us, we slacked a little. Plus, all of the above-ground stops in Brooklyn look similar.

I’m a huge fan of subway art. I can’t help but appreciate the fact that even simple bands of colored tile took time to build and required decisions that could have just as easily been rubber-stamped into uniformity. And the real art − it just makes me love New York City so hard. Art in public places is just such a decent thing to do.Plus, many of the subway art projects are full of history and whimsy, two of my favorite things. The MTA has a website and even an app dedicated to art throughout their system, but I have purposely avoided it because I much prefer to stumble upon things and be amazing in the middle of a boring day. I did consult the website briefly today, however, and realized that we missed seeing some great work at a few of the stations we visited. Oh well – next time.

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Notes:

  • Queens, what the heck is going on with your cavernous subway stations? You will never fill that space. It isn’t even walkway space, it is just there. I really want an answer to this. Why?
  • We only encountered three or four escalators, but we relished them. Elevators = time sucks.
  • I love the underground shops, especially at Jackson Heights. I like the fact that flower shops are a popular underground choice — apparently people still like to arrive at their destination with a nice bouquet.
  • I think the hallway at 7th Ave. might be infinite.

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  • Least impressive art: The strange circles at Kew Gardens. I don’t think they are even listed on MTA’s website. I would like to believe that this is some form of really boring community improvement project or graffiti.
  • Most impressive art (that we saw): Delancey. I have never seen the cherry trees on the opposite platform up close, but I love them, and seeing them gives me a visceral desire to hold these little cherries in my hand again.
  • Most icky station award goes to Lexington Ave, of all places, thanks to a construction project.

 

You can see all of our underground photos below. Click on any of them to open a slideshow. 

The whole F-ing thing

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We were actually riding the R when Loes first told me about her idea for a big adventure. She wondered what it would be like to ride one subway line from beginning to end, getting off at every stop to see what there was to see above ground. I loved it imediatly: It was a challenge, a grand adventure, a way to grab this massive city and put your arms around it. I was in. Right there on the R, we decided that the F would be the best choice for a maiden voyage, not only because it runs thorough three of the five boroughs, but because it is one of our two neighborhood trains. We were having this conversation in a subway car, so Loes’s husband, Eli, immediately went to the wall map to help us grasp the logistics. He reported that the F has 45 stations. We did some quick math, allowing for travel time to our starting point in Queens and allowing for about 12 minutes between trains as well as some downtime for lunch.

By the time we were all ascending the escalators at Jay Street-MetroTech, I had reached this conclusion: In the time it would take us to ride the F from Queens to Coney Island, we could drive all the way to Indiana. I was still in.

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Let me be clear: We weren’t just riding the F. Riding the F from one end point to another would only take about one hour and 45 minutes, plus travel time to and from home. But staying underground is what we do all the time; we wanted to know what was above ground. Does Avenue X have an air of mystery? Is Forrest Hills a verdant oasis? (Spoiler alert: no and no.) To be efficient, we would have to get off the train, get above ground, take a photo, and get back to the platform in time to catch the very next train. As it turns out, efficiency is hard.

After a few weeks of discussion and two postponements, Loes and I left our building (she is my upstairs neighbor) at about 8:30 last Wednesday morning and headed for the F. We returned just before 11 p.m., victorious, with sand from Coney Island clinging to our calves. A few notes and takeaways:

  • We thought about coming up with rules about how and where we took the photos, but we decided that might be too limiting, so the only consistent factors are Loes and/or I and our little station signs, which really helped us remember where we were when we reviewed the pictures later.
  • Our main goal was to make sure that every photo said something about the area around the station. Most of the photos were taken within about 30 feet of the station entrance, but a few times we ventured further to include a landmark or get a better feel for the block.
  • Wednesday was the hottest day of the year so far.

  • The hardest part (which I didn’t anticipate) was the temptation to linger in the really neat and inviting places, like Roosevelt Island, Bryant Park and Carroll Gardens. The photo above was taken from the Roosevelt Island Tramway.
  • The most surprisingly easy part was the train itself: Almost all of the trains arrived at 4-8 minute intervals. In fact, we missed a number of them because we couldn’t get back to the platform in time.
  • Rats: ZERO!
  • Like any quest, we had our ups and downs. We stayed on Roosevelt Island for two hours and seriously considered staying all day. It was 2 p.m., and we were only a quarter of the way through our journey. And it was so nice there. But we pressed on. By lower Manhattan our energy was way low, and we did the math and estimated that we were unlikely to reach Coney Island before 9 p.m. We almost threw in the towel but decided to go at least as far as our “home” station at 15th St.-Prospect Park. Then we hit the above-ground stations, and it was much easier to get a photo of the streetscape below without missing trains, so we made up time and kept going.
  • We also took photos inside most of the stations, but I think that deserves another post.

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  • Almost every New Yorker I’ve told about this project reacted with some level of revulsion. Apparently this is the last thing most people ever want to do.
  • Favorite stations: Parson’s Blvd., in part because of a nice pizza vendor; Jackson Heights; Roosevelt Island; 42nd St. (Bryant Park); West 4th (we found a little farm stand!); Carroll St.; and 18th Ave.

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  • Biggest letdown: Neptune Ave. Don’t you want it to be fantastic? It isn’t.
  • Only time we felt unsafe: Walking barefoot on the beach at Coney Island. I was doing the math on my last tetanus shot.
  • We did reach the beach just in time to see the last light of sunset. We spread out a blanket and watched the stars come out.

Life in New York City has a way of making me feel a bit caged – I spend most of my time within a 15-block radius of my apartment, and when I do venture out, I usually disappear into a tunnel and emerge on the other side while the points in-between remain deeply other, shrouded. Putting a place with a name made everything from Kew Gardens to King’s Highway feel just a little bit more my own. My city, the whole F-ing thing.

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You can check out all of our photos below. Click on any of them to open a slideshow. I only labeled the ones in which the sign was hard to read. In a few of them, like West 8th St., “you can see the train coming in our eyes,” as Loes put it. We became increasingly focused on not missing trains as the day wore on.

Perfect pancakes (which happen to be gluten-free)

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Long plagued by various allergies (grass, pollen, cats), last year Jeff decide to see what would happen if he stopped eating gluten. Jeff is always experimenting on himself, so, honestly, I didn’t expect it to last, but now we are both convinced that steering clear of gluten was a good thing for his health. I am a pretty firm believer in “all things in moderation” when it comes to food, so at first I wasn’t very tolerant of gluten intolerance, and one of my chief concerns was pancakes. Every weekend, I like to make pancakes. What would become of my pancakes? 

Well,  after just a few weeks of experimenting with various flours and dairy products*, I didn’t just discover a good gluten-free pancake, I produced my ideal pancake, a holy grail that had long eluded me. And, miracle of miracles, I remembered exactly what I did, and I wrote it down.

It is crucial to note that whether or not these are your ideal pancakes all depends on what you want from your pancakes. I don’t like them to be cakey, I like them carmel-colored and floppy with buttery edges—think Cracker Barrel, not IHOP. I also like them to be a real day-starter, not dessert, so I am pleased with the protein content of my ingredients. Without further ado, I give you my perfect pancakes:

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Perfect Pancakes (which happen to be gluten free)

1/2 cup of almond meal

1/2 cup of rice flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons ground flax seed

1/2 cup half-and-half

1/2 cup greek yogurt

1 egg

1 tablespoon safflower oil (or similar)

Water/milk to thin as needed

Add the dry ingredients to a mixing bowl and stir to combine. Add the half-and-half, greek yogurt, egg and oil and stir with a rubber scrapper until all ingredients are well incorporated. The batter should be just slightly thicker than cake batter—wet enough to pour slowly and spread slightly on the griddle, but not runny. I often add about 2 tablespoons of water or milk to thin the batter, but you can vary this as needed since different flour and yogurt brands might result in thicker or thinner batters.

Heat your skillet or griddle until a piece of butter sizzles on impact but doesn’t instantly burn. It you are using a cast iron skillet or griddle, you might want to start preheating it first, before you mix up your batter, since they can be slow to reach the right temperature. I use a cast iron griddle, but I tested the recipe in my non-stick skillet as well, and it worked fine. When you think you have the heat right, add a small piece of butter to the pan (about the size of a pencil eraser) then add a 1/4 cup of batter to the puddle of sizzling butter. If your heat is right, you should see bubbles form in the pancake within about 15 seconds. When the top is covered in bubbles and the edges are starting to set, flip the pancake. Check for doneness, and remove when the bottom is golden-brown.

Now this is key: Add a new piece of butter (just the size of a pencil eraser) to the pan between each pancake. And no, this doesn’t mean you will skip buttering the pancakes when you put them on your plate—what’s the matter with you?! The butter is key to achieving a carmel color and a lacy crunch on the edges (see the second picture above.)

I like to keep the pancakes warm in a little pocket of folded foil on the counter, which works surprisingly well. The recipe makes about 12, but there’s no shame in doubling it. I’m especially fond of serving them with blueberries.**

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 Last photo by Jeff!

* I can’t wait to listen to this episode of Fresh Air. I love when the Test Kitchen folks break down the science of cooking for me!

**These blueberries came in our frozen CSA via Winter Sun Farms. Once a month through the winter, we get a box of frozen or canned items that were harvested from regional farms during peak season. Lots of people neglect the importance of supporting not just local farmers, but local processors, aggregators and distributors, too!