Is it possible to find happiness inside a commercial shipping container? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on a whole slew of factors. But be that as it may, my interest remains on those who would actually answer “yes” to this sort of question. This is specially the case in big cities like Washington, DC where long, sour faces have become the modern Venetian masks of the average worker. Ever ride the metro during the rush morning or afternoon hours? You would be forgiven for thinking that smiling has been officially banned in the city. More than that, you could also be forgiven for thinking that you have become invisible, or transparent at the very least. No eye contact, no acknowledgement of your presence, and definitely no smiling. Strangers doing their best to ignore each other while sharing the same space, the same direction, and the same universe.
But then, when you least expect it and are about to give up on humanity, something different happens. Right there in the middle of grumpy city, and inside a hot metal shipping container, the very meaning of happiness and friendliness. No suits, no high-paying job, no ideal working conditions, and no high-flying college diploma on the wall. Just the mere presence of a photographer looking into the container was enough to do away with invisibility. As if being transported into another Second World galaxy, I was suddenly blinded by the toothy smile of an alien DC character and his incredible good attitude. An unsolicited display of friendship immediately followed, ending in a gladiators’ duel of who could express the most effusive “great talking to you” goodby. Walking away with my camera, I couldn’t help but think of the words uttered by the late Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh: “There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” A chance encounter, a lifted spirit, and a much needed shot of faith in humanity. Away I went with a little more bounce on my steps and a much needed reminder of the power of good attitude.
Some attractions never get the amount of publicity they deserve. That seems to be the case with American central markets. You see, I am convinced that food is culture, and you simply cannot experience the culture of any country unless you experience their food and the social interactions that takes place around the local tables and the people who make it all possible. And if there’s a place to experience the local culture, it has to be in those unique, historical markets that dot the landscape everywhere from Istanbul to the colorful street markets of Asia. That certainly includes the many farmer markets of America, of which the oldest in existence (dating back to the 1730’s) is the colorful Lancaster Central Market in Pennsylvania.
While not as large as the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, the somewhat reduced size gives the Lancaster Market a little less of a commercial feeling, which translates into a somewhat more personal experience. And yes, the Amish are there with their wonderful fruit and baked goods offerings, but to my surprise, so are the Puerto Ricans, with their pulled pork and rice and beans. Nevertheless, it is the proximity to what one local described as the “bionic soil” of the old Amish farmland that makes the Lancaster Market so special. Drive along the luscious, winding farm hills of such towns as Strasburg, Paradise, and Intercourse (it really exists) and you will soon realize what makes this part of the country such a natural treasure. Stop by a local farm and try their home made Root Beer and jams, and you will regret not living closer to the area. I’ve always associated the state of Pennsylvania with great food, but after visiting the Lancaster area, I am elevating the state a few notches on my scale of places to visit any time you can. After all, food is culture, and as a self-appointed culture seeker, it is high time I become more cultured, so here I go.
When it comes to restaurants, it doesn’t get much simpler than the great American diner. And while restaurants come and go, all those magnificent diners that dot our great land are nothing but the rough diamonds of our culinary landscape. Too greasy? Yes. Too many calories? Sure. Cholesterol bombs? Definitely. Delicious? Absolutely. This culinary dichotomy (eyes raised to the heavens while placing one foot on the grave) is what makes these places a must while we spend time on this earth. Gravy on the biscuits? Must you ask.
But what is it that attracts so many people to the simple American diner? To a large extent, it is a large degree of nostalgia. Diners remind us of simple days, of small town America, of long-gone family time when you could dress casually while enjoying food that at some level helped to bind us as a people. What’s more, when go to a diner, we really don’t care much about how the food tastes. We already know how it’s going to taste. After all, how may permutations of eggs and hash browns can there be. No, going to a diner will always be about feeling differently when we’re there; about unpretentious servers who greet you as if they’ve known you forever. It is about the sweet “seat yourself” melody resonating in our ears, and about not being able to decide what to order because everything looks too good to pass. Heaven on earth, if you ask me. A place to be who you truly are and not the promotional version of yourself. I only wish I could turn back the clock a few decades or so, to a time when I could have added a couple of pancakes to my order. Next time, my friend, next time.
I’m fascinated by tables. No, it’s not a clinical condition or anything of the sort, but rather that whenever I see a table with some chairs, it is almost impossible for me not to photograph it. Now, mind you, that I’m not talking about just any table out there. My photographic fascination lies with those unoccupied, lonely, waiting-for-someone kind of tables. Yes, yes, a bit awkward, I’ll grant you that, but I just can’t help it. Every time I see one, I am inevitably transported to an imaginary story of a secret rendezvous, a long wait for a person who never shows up, or the melancholic story of a table that remains unoccupied, night after solitary night. Yes, I can see it now: a long wait, nervous anticipation, an uncomfortable smile, a conversation, a tear. Who knows. All I know is that I’m no writer, but if I were, perhaps it would be at one of those empty tables where I would start my next great story, or end it.
Love food? Ever dream of finding yourself at a place where most of the food of the world can be found a mere short walk away? Then you should definitely make plans to visit the 2015 Milan World Expo taking place from 1 May to 31 October this year. For the first time ever, the World Expo is entirely dedicated to food, from its production and management, to its distribution and consumption. It is a spectacle like no other, and the fact that it is being held in the beautiful city of Milan, Italy just adds gravy to the mix, so to speak. More than 140 countries from around the world have gathered in Milan to educate and showcase their contribution to feeding the world’s population, and a lucky 20 million people are expected to visit the Expo grounds and consume endless amounts of food from every region of the world. In between education and consumption, everyone will will have the chance to meet neat people from all over the world while enjoying one of the most unique Expos in the history of these events.
Like any other major event of this kind (or city, for that matter), it is impossible to see everything there is to see unless you have lots of time to spare. This is particularly the case if you want to visit some of the largest national pavilions, where the lines waiting to enter can be quite long. However, some of these long queues will be well worth the wait (like the one at the incredible Japanese pavilion). Amazing technological shows, information booths, and elaborate information displays are everywhere. But perhaps of equal interest to us mundane consumers of good stuff, at the end of the presentations you will usually find a small restaurant serving some wonderful food from the country being represented at the event. Definitely not the place for dieters, or those over-concerned about an expanding waistline. Then again, who ever visited Italy avoid eating too much? But don’t despair, the Expo’s 1.1 million square meters will give you plenty of time (and room) to walk off those extra calories. Yes, the place is big, real big.
And while the endless, world food venues are reason alone to visit the Expo, a more sober and important reason to visit is highlighted by the event’s theme: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Great costs have been incurred by over 140 nations to showcase the endless networks of producers, laborers, managers, and distributors that are necessary to feed our world’s ever-growing population. With its underlying theme that food is life and good food leads to a good life, the message being sent by the Expo is a crucial one for us to understand the complexities associated with feeding the world. Globalized resource networks work around-the-clock to guarantee the availability of these food products, but behind it all there will always be a person. Someone to walk the fields to plant and harvest the goods; someone to sort, preserve, and distribute the goods; and someone to transport the goods to markets near and faraway. Along the way, these individuals also live their everyday lives, go to work, get paid, try to achieve their dreams, and plan for a better tomorrow. They are the heroes being celebrated at the Expo this year. Their efforts and sacrifices sustain our lives, while allowing us to engage in a myriad of non-food-producing activities thousands of miles away from the source of our food. This is indeed an incredible world we live in.
Ever been to Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market? Well, if you haven’t, then I would suggest that you add this place to your bucket list, and do it soon. But before you visit this food paradise at the “City of Brotherly Love,” there are a few things that you must get out of the way, or come to terms with, to be more precise. For starters you must convince yourself that all food products in the world were meant to be eaten. Then you tell yourself that dieting is a bad thing, but unchecked consumption is a virtue. Follow that with some brainwashing on the benefits copious amounts of pork, beef, and Provolone cheese to your health, and then you will be mentally ready to tackle this heaven of culinary extravagance. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of lighter, salad stuff at the place, but this is Philly we’re talking about, and that to me means only one thing: go big, or go home. Dinic’s over-the-top pork sandwich? Must you ask. A few Amish filled doughnuts dripping with glaze? Why not. A block of Peach corn bread? Can I get an Amen! So as you can see, overindulgence will be the least of your problems at the Reading Market. Your greatest problem will be resisting the temptation to camp overnight so you can be the first in line the next morning. It is that good of a place and one that I’m sure I will be visiting many times in the future, but only after I’ve given my body a rest.
Once in a while you come across a restaurant where all the elements seem to click. I’m not referring to some drain-the-bank-account type of place, mind you, but rather to a restaurant that seems to seamlessly combine those little things like good service, elegance, and basic good food with a little flair. One such place is the Secret Garden Cafe in Accoquan, Virginia. Not that I knew about this place before today, or that I would have found it without my good friend Mark suggesting I check the place out (the entrance is down a short alleyway and the restaurant is at the back of a local business). What I discovered at the end of that short alleyway was one of the most quaint and charming places I’ve seen in a long time. The white-linen tablecloths and the soft, pastel colors inside set the tone for the type of clientele that is always looking for that little extra in a place. And when you consider that you can have a two-course lunch with enough freshly squeezed lemonade to kill a horse for less than $20, the place becomes even more attractive, specially for someone used to DC restaurant prices. Next time I’m in Accoquan, I know exactly where I’m going for lunch.