Valley Forge: A Reality Show

Reality #1:  The American Revolution was saved at Valley Forge

For over twenty years  I have driven through Valley Forge, site of the great winter encampment of 1777-78. Nearly every road was laid out over 300 years ago. The landscape is still lush with rolling hills. There are many more trees and deer than in 1777, but I can imagine that prior to December of that year, it was just as peaceful as now in the early morning mist – perhaps a few more farm animals would be awakening.

I park my car and walk down the silent lane towards the Issac Potts House. The gravel crunches under my shoes, birds chirp, Valley Creek gurgles on its way to the Schuylkill. The small stately house that Washington rented for six months, which served as the headquarters of the General Command, stands solitary.  The Potts grist mill  burned in the 1830’s, victim to sparks from one of the nation’s first rail lines – still in use in 2017.  Long-gone as well is the bustle of 1777 Valley Forge village.  Myth and reality float as mist on a land that  holds too many undiscovered stories.

1913 Reading RR train station now Washington’s HQ visitors center, Top Right: original ticket window, Bottom Right: rail line still used for freight

The 3,700 acres of Valley Forge National Historic Park are a small part of what was known in the 18th century as Pennsylvania’s Great Valley – one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in the thirteen colonies. Populated largely by Quakers, this industrious area had given rise by the 1750’s to the start of Pennsylvania’s iron industry – hence the village of Valley Forge along Valley Creek.  This small company town owned by a few intermarried families, along with farming and water powered mills on the Schuylkill River, was making the region an economic power house. Yet before the  autumn of 1777, the bucolic, hilly and peaceful countryside was hidden from the turmoil embroiling the colonies since 1775,  but Philadelphia was only 20 miles south.

 The crops were being harvested when the British advanced towards Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777.  Although there is evidence of British requisitioning of supplies, the population was equally nervous concerning any future involvement in war. The British did burn a Potts  forge warehouse because munitions were found. Being staunch Quakers, it’s unlikely the family gave the local colonial militia captain permission to use the facility.

One week before Christmas 1777, the first of what would fluctuate between 10,000 to 17,000 troops, women and children arrived. An area of 3,700 acres had been chosen months before as an alternate encampment should Philadelphia fall to the British.  On the Schuylkill River, at the highest elevation closest to the city and overlooking the  major routes from Philadelphia to the interior of northern and western Pennsylvania, the site at Valley Forge was ideal for both defense and reconnaissance

It wasn’t a demoralized, bedraggled rag of an army that marched into the encampment. The troops were rather pumped at the drubbing they’d given to some of the British Empire’s crack brigades while defending Philadelphia. True, the Battle of Brandywine was horrific in terms of casualties, but the pain was equally shared and the Continental brigades remained intact. Washington’s competition to house everyone in log cabins was a resounding success. Many diary entries speak of the relative comfort of these accommodations compared to other encampments.

Reality #2: Starvation or incompetence?

A severe lack of effective planning plagued the loose collection of brigades that constituted the Continental Army in 1777 with food supplies being the most obvious initial problem. No one was in charge. The troops had arrived at the start of winter, in the midst of the breadbasket of Pennsylvania and they had no one in charge of obtaining food. A canary in the coal mine?

Christopher Ludwick accepted the commission Baker General of the Continental Army. A prosperous German/Philadelphia baker, renowned for his gingerbread (General Washington’s favorite dessert) and a financial backer of the revolution, he was in his late 50’s – one of the oldest men in command.  (Ludwick would remain BG until the end of the war in 1782). Along with the appointment of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne as Quartermaster General, these two men created, within three weeks of the first troop arrivals, an efficient commissary system with 13 field kitchens and 22 bake ovens feeding 10,000 – 15,000 people a day soup/stews and baking nearly as many loaves of  bread. (Volunteers offer baking and cooking demos during the summer and special events. See park web site.)

  Reality #3: Snag the Golden Ring

Because the defense of Philadelphia had called for a total effort, nearly every important person involved in the Revolution (and most of the troops) were together at Valley Forge – in one encampment. Yet Valley Forge encampment history seems almost uneventful to all but diehard history buffs. No battles for one thing.

The British fail to venture out of Philadelphia by the end of January to engage Washington at Valley Forge (they were not having an easy time controlling the city). The consequences of such an encounter – before the onset of “mud season” –  would have been fatal for the Revolution.  A golden opportunity presented itself and the General Command seized the ring: six months to get organized, trained, equipped, deal with corrupt merchants and a cautious Congress, standardize training, revamp recruitment and establish a central commissary kitchen system that remained in place for the remainder of the War. In other words, create a unified Continental Army – in six months.

The French Alliance in the spring of 1778 sent the French navy and millions in gold to the Revolution. The army marched out in June and nearly crushed  British forces evacuating Philadelphia for New York at the Battle of Monmouth.  For all practical purposes (except New York City) the Revolution in the North was over – bitter fighting moved South for five more agonizing years.

Reality #4: Myths are easy; uncovering the human story is difficult.

Mrs. David Edwards Stephens inherited from her father, a prosperous Methodist farmer in this Quaker community, a comfortable stone house and 400 acres. The slave-owning Mrs Edwards, and her Quaker husband David  Stephens, rented the second floor of their house as an office and beds for the staff of 28 year-old  General James Varnum.  A wealthy, staunchly abolitionist Rhode Islander, General Varnum had successfully pressured Rhode Island to create a free-black regiment who billeted across the street.   To have been the fly on the wall…the dinner conversations…

Yet the family put up with half their small house being occupied and watched their prime farm land – the encampment’s Grand Parade – turn into a sea of mud by the boots of troops being trained under the Baron von Steuben. It would be four-years before any of the farms financially recovered.

Little is known of the family that rented rooms to the tall,  dashing 19 year-old Frenchman the Marquis de La Fayette. The Marquis rapidly gained Washington’s trust, entre into the General Command’s inner circle and, I can assume, was a favorite at dinners. The house is not open for tours and is said to be haunted.

Eight hundred fifty women and children lived at the winter encampment.  Blood relatives could share the 12-person cabins with others in the brigade. Women and children performed a number of necessary roles within the camp structure. An authoritative and insightful new book, Following the Drum, does much to end the myth of the disreputable woman camp follower.

The American born Scots aristocrat, General William Alexander, 6th Earl of Sterling, his wife, Lady Sarah Livingston Sterling, along with Martha Washington, were the center of the social calendar for officers and their wives during the encampment. The Sterlings leased a house that, unfortunately, is unstable today, but the Washingtons  leased what is presently the best preserved 1760’s house in America.

Issac Potts house – George Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge
Issac Potts house – George Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge

Built in the 1760’s as one of thirteen rental properties owned by the wealthy Potts family, this fine example of 18th century craftsmanship was never meant to house 15 to 20 people. The staff of the General Command exceeded that number, but not all shared the house with the General and Mrs. Washington (it’s rumored Martha Washington  remarked, through cinched teeth, that the house was a “lovely little cottage.”)  There were strategic reasons for choosing this site even if it was cozy.

Only top aides had the comfort of beds. Most slept on the floor in bed rolls and the attic – including approximately five slaves. One slave, Hannah Till, earned enough money on the side as a seamstress (allowed in the 1700s) to purchase her freedom after the War.

 

 The kitchen hummed all day with a staff of five – majority slaves – cooking meals for the General Command staff as well as numerous VIP guests. The fare was not the bread and soups of the enlisted men. Officers were from a different class. They lived better, ate better, and many subsidized their own expenses. Martha surprised the General with what became the first official celebration of his birthday in February 1778 complete with cake and a band.

kitchen at George Washington’s HQ set with officers fare

Reality #5: This was the 18th century – before indoor plumbing…

That’s why 3,000 people died at Valley Forge. Sanitation, 18th century style, no matter how well thought out by the best science of the day, still left much to be desired. Mass inoculation for small pox was a resounding success – George and Martha led by example. Daily rations for all of beer and whiskey to prevent the consumption of tainted water helped. A daily dose of wine vinegar prevented scurvy. Yet by the end of March and through May 1778, as Spring arrived, fevers, dysentery, pneumonia and infections took the lives of nearly 3,000. None are buried at Valley Forge – considered bad for morale. Many lie in lost graves. Most were tended in hospitals as far away as 50 miles from the encampment by pacifist Amish/Mennonites and Quakers – Ephrata, PA, contains a rare grave yard.

P. C. Knox House (descendant of General Henry Knox) c.1900, with Mercer tiles, now VFNHP’s archives

I spent more hours than I can count roaming the fields and buildings of Valley Forge, leading tours as a volunteer and cooking in the outdoor kitchen. To a military history buff, the meaning of this site is obvious and the wealth of 18th century military information available is abundant.

For me, though, it’s the drama of the human stories of both camp and Valley residents that resonate: the failed attempt by influential locals to arrange a peace conference, dissension within the officers of the General Command,  the constant complaints concerning mud,  denuding  the landscape for over a 5-mile radius of the encampment,  the stench of thousands of barely washed bodies and animals, the smell of fresh-baked bread and dinners at the Sterling’s.

The detritus of war. It’s never myth; it’s only reality.

Maurice Stephens House, 1816

 

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Colonia: Uruguay’s many reasons why

“Better to marry a neighbor than a stranger.”
Uruguayan proverb

Perhaps that is why Buenos Aires (Argentina) is fond of calling this Uruguayan city their “48th barrio.” It’s not imperialism or condescension, it’s 300 years of history. Founded in 1680 by Portugal, Colonia del Sacramento is a mere 50 minute high-speed ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Colonia suffered a violent history for over a 140 years as it ping ponged between Portugal’s Brazil and Spain. Finally, with significant Argentine assistance, the former Brazilian province, known today as Uruguay, achieved it’s independence in 1828.

old town Colonia with lighthouse
oldest house in Colonia 1690

Colonia’s renowned historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the finest districts of 17th and 18th century South American colonial architecture. It is a popular tourist attraction for visitors from Buenos Aires especially during the summer as its position on the northeastern side of the Rio de la Plata provides a cooling breeze. The Barrio Historico de Colonia, within walking distance of the ferry terminal, contains portions of its fortified wall and the City Gate with its  still functioning wooden drawbridge. Original cobblestone streets radiate from the tree-lined Plaza Mayor. Shops, restaurants and intimate inns are interspersed among residential 18th century houses.

original city gate, drawbridge and fortified walls
“300 years of struggle and love”

I was visiting in late June which is the beginning of winter in Uruguay. Because of the country’s long Atlantic and Rio de la Plata coast line, Colonia was pleasant in the breezy 60’s (F.) The entire historic core is closed to traffic except for business owners and residents. Many visitors rent bicycles and scooters – many residents use similar vehicles – but it is an easy town for walking. In the summer season Colonia is as crowded as any popular historic waterfront town, especially with Argentines.

Casa del Almirante Brown

Among notable attractions are the Lighthouse and convent ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco. The Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento was  constructed in 1808. The 18th century Portuguese Museum has Portuguese furnishings, jewelry, uniforms and old maps of Portuguese naval expeditions. The Casa de Nacarello, is an 18th century upperclass house museum. The Casa del Almirante Brown houses artifacts and documents of the city’s different periods and cultures. Of note is that the Irish-born Admiral William Brown was instrumental in gaining Uruguay’s independence, is regarded as the “father of the Argentine navy” and a national hero in both Uruguay and Argentina! The oldest church in Uruguay, Iglesia Matriz, dating from 1695, is found in Colonia as well.

Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento, Plaza Major

There is a new town to Colonia that is commercial and conveniently seperated from the historic zone. It continues the city’s traditional base as a trading hub between Argentina and Uruguay.

Top: new maritime terminal, historic train station Bottom: Buquebus ferry

Buquebus ferries make 5 to 6 round trips between Buenos Aires and Colonia daily from its new modern and efficient terminal at the Northern Dock in Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires). The trip takes less than one hour. Same day excursion specials are also available. From both Colonia and Buenos Aires, Buquebus ferries sail to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.

Cafes in Colonia (yes… that is a former windmill & a dining table in an antique car)

There are dozens of restaurants in the Barrio Historico de Colonia. It has always been my experience to avoid any restaurant that has waiters outside overly eager to “capture” a tourist – of any nationality – and explain their menu. I’ll make a generalization based on hundreds of restaurant meals in dozens of countries – this tactic sends up the proverbial “red flag” that the food is mediocre and overpriced. Colonia, especially around the Plaza Major, has many such establishments. On the other hand, I am partial to restaurants that have water views, even if the menu is not extraordinary. Simple food, well cooked and presented, acquires a special aura when accompanied by a beautiful setting. Uruguay, like Argentina, is known for the excellent quality of its grass-fed cattle and natural farming methods.  In recent years there has been an increase in vineyards devoted to organic grapes and wine production.

a profusion of flowering plants even in winter

Restaurant Dos Puertos filled that criteria. Set one block from the waterfront, the outdoor seating had a clear view of the sun dappled Rio de la Plata. Even though it was winter, the temperatures in the 60’s were fine for an outdoor lunch. My first course was their interpretation of what the menu clearly said was Caprese Salad – thick slices of tomato, fresh basil with slabs of Gruyère cheese. If you are very fond of Gruyère you would be in heaven – personally, I would have liked the fresh mozzarella a Caprese Salad requires. My entrée was grilled fresh Sea Bass, simply seasoned, accompanied by a vegetable medley that had obviously come from a freezer bag, but at least they were not over cooked. It was not a memorable meal, but the service was friendly and the view relaxing.

Restaurant dos Puertos

Like most restaurants, Dos Puertos is primarily a parilla, and stacks of aromatic wood were piled on the side of the building. Pleasant folk music was piped outside. Restaurant prices are slightly higher in Uruguay than in Argentina.  If you are just making a day trip to Colonia, use a credit card rather than exchange money for Uruguayan currency. You can use Argentine pesos in Colonia, but you’ll get a better exchange rate on the dollar with your credit card, even with the bank fee. (Note: Uruguayan currency is not accepted in Argentina.)

at rest in Colonia’s harbor

With the pleasant waterfront surrounding three sides of the Barrio Historico, Colonia is well worth at least a day trip from Buenos Aires with its history, charm, cafes, sailing, shops and galleries. For a longer visit, it makes a good base to explore the beautiful countryside of southwestern Uruguay.

(Note: All photos and collages will enlarge when clicked and very large when double clicked)

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Reinventing Reading

No, the frog has not become the mascot of Reading, Pennsylvania. They are two of four outdoor sculptures from the annual June Arts of the Avenue Festival. They  grace the grounds of the four businesses on Penn Avenue in West Reading that commissioned them for the 2009 festival.

Once a coal choked industrial city in the hills of Berks County, Reading is reinventing itself as a center for arts, education, restaurants and natural food. On the subject of food, it helps that Berks County farms are part of the Pennsylvania Dutch agriculture region famous for their all-natural farming methods.

part of the VF clothing outlet complex in West Reading

Founded in the 1740’s, along the Schuylkill River, by two of William Penn’s sons, Reading quickly became an important link for access into Pennsylvania’s interior and a center for the growing iron industry during the Revolution. Reading boomed until the 1930s, when its population reached nearly 120,000. Coal from Pennsylvania’s mountains flowed through Reading like a black river fueling the city and the nation’s industrial might. The city not only was a center for heavy manufacturing but its proximity to New York and Philadelphia retail markets created a vibrant textile and clothing manufacturing sector. The Reading Glove and Mitten Manufacturing Company founded in 1899  changed its name to Vanity Fair in 1911 and is now the major clothing manufacturer VF Corp. In the early 1970s, the original factories were developed to create the VF Outlet Village, the first outlet mall in the United States. The mall is so successful that it draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to Reading every year.

Reading from Mount Penn

From the 1940s to the 1990s, however, the city saw a sharp downturn in prosperity and population (80,000 in 2008) largely owing to the decline of heavy industry and railroads on whose wealth Reading had been built. Yet even as the city struggled with urban blight and a deteriorating downtown, by the 1990’s a certain stability had been reached. The revitalizing Penn Avenue commercial center – from Mount Penn to tony Wyomissing – played heavily in the December 2007 NBC’s Today show featuring Reading as one of the top four “Up and Coming Neighborhoods” in the United States.

 A great example of adaptive reuse is the Goggle Works. Founded in 1871, the Wilson Co. manufactured industrial goggles and glasses until 2002.  The idea of the 145,000 square-foot brick complex  deteriorating just blocks from Penn Avenue stirred strong interest in local leaders. Extensive restoration to the factory resulted in the 2005 opening of the Goggle Works Center for the Arts. Included in the Center are performing arts spaces, galleries, studios and workshops encompassing a wide selection of the arts.

Just across the bridge from the Goggle Works is West Reading where walking along plant bedecked Penn Avenue is a nice shopping stroll past locally owned small shops, restaurants and cafes. I did not see a single national chain store among the lot. The profusion of plants exist, according to the post-office women I stopped to ask, due to the persistance and persuasion of one businessman – the owner of Curious Antiques and Secret Garden, 605 Penn Ave, which is well worth a visit. A branch of the Young Chef’s Academy, 703 Penn Avenue, is in an attractive space. It was filled with eager kids taking cooking classes. The shop carries a line of kid-friendly kitchen tools and uniforms for the budding chef.  Visit the West Reading Main Street site for a list of special events, festivals and shops.

Top center: Haute Chocolate Cafe (a killer Frozen Hot Chocolate), Bottom center: Brassiere Papillion,right: interior of Cafe Harmony

I’ve had numerous reasons to visit Reading over the decades but not for interesting restaurants. The good German stock of Berks County consume high quality meats, vegetables and baked goods from the local farms but there was never much variation in preparation – generous portions of simple hardy food. Yet change has come to Reading and great ingredients are being imaginatively prepared by a new generation of chefs and restaurant owners. Once more, Penn Avenue in West Reading seems to dominate the cafe scene for five blocks from the classic West Reading Diner, 411 Penn Avenue, where you can still get that hardy food, to Go Fishi Seafood Market & Sushi Bar, 622 Penn Avenue.  At Go Fishi you can dine in an attractive front room, or purchase an extensive selection of fresh fish, seafood and salads from the market in back.

Go Fishi Seafood Market & Sushi Bar

Breakfast at Good Eatz Green Cafe, 701 Penn Avenue, is not only imaginative and healthy but good for the environment.

Eggs Sardou

The 30 month-old cafe (almost at the magic 3-year survival mark) serves meticulous, mostly vegetarian/vegan dishes but wisely offer items for carnivorous. Besides being green and natural, an atmosphere of “old town cafe” pervades as a couple of low-key business conversations are carried out over coffee, a few  people at single tables read the paper, backgammon games and books are in a bookshelf and customers walk-in for take-out (natural beverages, prepared sandwiches & salads).

Green Eggs & Ham

My wife had Green Eggs and Ham, an omelet with prosciutto, tomato, basil pesto and provolone served with three perfect corn cakes – crisp exterior, soft fresh corn interior ($9.00). I enjoyed Eggs Sardou, a variation of Eggs Benedict with spinach and artichoke hearts (no Canadian Bacon) topped with two perfectly poached eggs and real homemade Hollandaise Sauce. They were accompanied by Yukon Gold hash browns ($8.00). The presentations were attractive and the dishes carefully prepared. The Good Eatz Green Cafe is not for customers looking for a quick sitdown breakfast but, as mentioned, talk-out is available.

Even that once venerable bastion of old-school dining, Stokesay Castle, 141 Stokesay Castle Lane, has changed ownership after many decades and entered the world of modern fine dining, sensible portions and artistic presentations. Set in a sprawling 1920’s English stone manor just outside Reading on Mount Penn, the view from the covered bar patio is bucolic and the interior dining space understated, elegant and spacious. The Tuesday and Thursday four-course prix fixe dinner menu is an excellent choice.

Top: stately High School & the Hampden Heights, Bottom: art deco Olympian Ballroom & 50's signage

Many of the once well crafted urban row-house neighborhoods are in bad need of repair, as in many cities. Yet there is evidence of slow progress in renovating these blighted areas. Very positive is the determination of residents around Penn Avenue, Albright College, Berks County Park (spotless, safe restrooms) and the still beautiful 1920/30’s hill-side neighborhood of Hampden Heights to maintain the original architecture and landscape.

Driving into Reading, especially at night, a visitor can’t miss a large, brightly lite red Japanese Pagoda looming over the city 900 feet up Mount Penn. Built in 1908 by a Reading quarry millionaire, plans to open it as a hotel/club/restaurant quickly fell through. It was purchased in 1910 by another Reading millionaire who promptly gave it to the city. Like all “white elephants” it’s useless and beloved. Having gone through a number of restorations over the years, the Pagoda is in beautiful condition, and the city has recently constructed nature walks in that area of Mount Penn. It seems only open on the weekends, contains a small gallery and an oriental themed cafe. There is talk that perhaps the city will restore the Pagoda to its original purpose as a hotel and fine-dining restaurant. Perhaps it will reinvent itself yet again.  In which case, the Pagoda is a fitting mascot for the city it oversees.

The Best Entertainment in Buenos Aires

And it’s free!

The western barrio (neighborhood) of Mataderos in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is host to the incomparable Feria de Mataderos.

Once the meat-packing district, this barrio on the edge of the Pampas rocks every weekend year round to the sounds of folkloric music and dancing, A-list performers, artisan foods, crafts and antiques. It is a must for any visitor especially since few guide books even mention this treasure!

God buys a beach house – Ocean Grove, NJ

The beach at Ocean Grove, NJ

The great organ surges with power. The behemoth American-made 1908  Robert Hope-Jones pipe organ easily fills the 100-year-old, 6,000 seat Great Auditorium with body vibrating sound waves. The National  Anthem plays and at the last chorus, the large wooden American flag over the broad stage lights up in a carnival display of patriotism. The show commences: Michael Feinstein and Linda Eder enter the stage and enthrall the audience of the sold-out concert for the next 2 1/2 hours.

The Reverend William B. Osborn may not have approved even this mainstream entertainment when he founded the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting of the United Methodist Church in 1867. The Rev. Osborn was following a well established tradition along the Jersey Shore, starting in the late 18th century, of creating havens of calm in the barrens along the ocean, far from the bustle and temptations of urban life in Camden and Philadelphia. Although Cape May, Ocean City, Vineland and many other shore towns that started as Protestant camp meetings morphed into resorts, Ocean Grove remained true to its original mission. That mission in the 1860’s included open support for racial and women’s civil rights, education reform and prohibition. Ocean Grove is still a dry town (Asbury Park and Bradley Beach are right next door) but its relaxed fundamentalism encouraged non-camp followers to settle. Today the Rainbow Flag flies from nearly as many houses as the United Methodist Church banner.

Ocean Grove: America’s largest concentration of 19th century Victorian architecture

The houses of Ocean Grove are stunning. The one square mile has national historic designation with the largest concentration of original late 19th and early 20th century architecture in the country. Rarely will anyone find real estate that exemplifies the ultimate in wood craftsmanship, and this exuberance for decoration keeps many 21st century craftsmen employed by the demands of constant maintenance.

Victorian Gingerbread

Ocean Grove, a mere 90 minute drive from Philadelphia, is still a glimpse of what the Jersey Shore used to be like. The boardwalk is a walkway – no food vendors, no video arcades. Pedestrians rule and with most streets narrow, driving faster than 25 mph is difficult. On summer weekends parking is impossible. Most people arriving Thursday or Friday for a weekend never move their cars until leaving. Ocean Grove is a perfect walking town where Main Avenue is never farther than a five-minute walk from your B & B, and kids are safe riding bikes and skateboards. An evening’s biggest treat is catching a concert in either the Great auditorium,  Wednesdays and Saturdays, or the boardwalk’s pavilion and always having ice cream at  Nagles or Day’s  – very partisan as to which one is the best!

The Great Auditorium, Ocean Grove, NJ

The center of Ocean Grove is the Great Auditorium with its magnificent pipe organ. This all wood, barrel-vaulted 6,000 seat structure is an engineering marvel with acclaimed acoustics making it a sought after summer concert venue by A-list performers. Besides concerts, the auditorium is the focal point for the Camp Meeting’s summer religious activities including an active youth program. Anyone’s invited to participate in Camp Meeting activities. Surrounding the Great Auditorium is an oddity to all new visitors. Dozens of white tented structures in close formation are what remain of the original tent city that was the camp meeting. As affluence allowed for the building of the Victorian houses, the number of tents diminished. The remaining 142 half tent/half wood cottages are on long-term lease to Camp members and frequently passed down to the generations.  Spreading majestically for at least a 1/4 mile from the Great Auditorium  to the beach is the wide, landscaped Great Lawn. Closer to the building itself, numerous antique and craft markets are held from July through October.

Tents in summer season, off season: tents removed and stored in bath/kitchen hut
Main Street, Ocean Grove, NJ

The commercial district is small, occupying the better part of six blocks along Main Avenue and a few blocks off Main. Being northern New Jersey, Ocean Grove is not a winter ghost town. With direct train links to New York, half the population is permanent,  providing a base for shops and restaurants that are not all post cards and cotton candy.

Cheese on Main, 53 Main Avenue, offers more varieties from more countries and animals than you imagined. The Emporium At Ocean Grove, 63 Main Avenue, and Ocean Grove Trading Company, 74 Main Avenue, have imaginative, and well made, women’s fashions. Just off Main, the Beach House, 52 Pitman, is the place for souvenirs and gifts with class, and Tumblety Howell Art, 45 Pilgrim Pathway, highlights top works by area artists.

Top: Shawmont Hotel, Bath Ave B & B interior, Bottom: Bath Ave. bedroom, porch Shawmont Hotel

Dozens of bed & breakfast and hotels, all historic structures, are either on the beach or within three blocks. Some of the best, such as the Laingdon Hotel, 8 Ocean Ave, remain open year-round with a glassed-in porch. The Shawmont Hotel, 17 Ocean Ave, provides well-appointed rooms with private bath, a continental breakfast,  a beautiful porch with rocking chairs and a full view of the ocean. Bath Avenue House, 37 Bath Ave, a beautifully restored 80-year-old prior rooming house. The 30 rooms are on the small side but individually decorated, air-conditioned and with a sink. All rooms but one (on the first floor) share  bathrooms located on each of the three floors. There are so many repeat guests, that sharing a bath seems no more odd than having house guests for the weekend. A full breakfast is included, and filling. The Carriage House B & B, 18 Heck Avenue, an elegant eight room inn, provides an equally elegant breakfast making it an excellent choice for food lovers.

Ocean Grove is a dry town, but Asbury Park and Bradley Beach are within walking distance along the boardwalk. Many Ocean Grove restaurants are discretely byob, but inquire first. I would not say that the restaurants are outstanding but neither will a customer feel they have had a bad meal in any establishment. In summer, all seem to take advantage of New Jersey’s abundant summer produce.

Among my recommendations are: Bia at the Majestic Hotel, 19 Main Ave., for imaginative presentations and an eating porch with an ocean view.  Sea Grass, 68 Main Ave, serves generous salads and sandwiches including a killer BLT – but this is bacon, lobster and tomato – on a large toasted soft bun with sweet potato fries.  Nagles Apothecary Cafe, 43 Main Ave, complete with soda fountain, has been an Ocean Grove institution for over a century – first as an apothecary and now a popular restaurant serving generous portions of classics for breakfast,  lunch and dinner. The outside walk-up ice cream window dishes up dozens of rich creations and along with Day’s Ice Cream, 48 Pittman Ave, have  loyal partisans who line up every day. On weekend evenings, the lines at both places can be blocks long. The Starving Artist at Day’s tries to focus on healthier ingredients and serves a good breakfast with interesting omelet fillings and pancakes.

The charm of Ocean Grove, it’s a place where all you want to do is wait patiently and let the calm take over.

The Puna – Produce Garden of Hawai’i

    

Top Left: Papaya, coffee beans, avocado. Bottom Left: unknown, Asian cucumber, Cacao pods

 

I was startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window. It was the next door neighbor of our rented Hilo water view house telling my wife and I that we had to evacuate. A Pacific-wide tsunami warning, following Chile’s catastrophic earthquake in February 2010, had been issued. Not knowing if we’d see our beautiful Japanese beach house again, we drove the 30 minutes to Volcano National Park, 4,000 feet elevation. The Park is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanos – in an island chain born of volcanos. As we had breakfast in the tropical forest we were struck that we had fled to the sides of an active volcano to escape a tsunami. This is the fragility of paradise; an environment that allows for abundance yet it just may convulse and destroy it all. Fortunately, Hawai’i was spared this time, but that wasn’t the case in 1950.    

Hilo Market

 

Later that week we drove the ten miles into Hilo for a day at the already famous Hilo Market – founded in 1988. I was struck by the vaguely shabby feel of Hilo’s commercial waterfront. Some fine examples of Art Deco, tropical Victorian and Arts & Crafts architecture are in various states of repair or restoration. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land, athletic fields and water activities, but that’s not the reason for its existence.    

For nearly a century, prior to 1950, this land had been Japan Town, a warren of shanties and pan-Asian cooking. The legacy of Japan Town lives on in the Puna’s suburb Asian fusion cuisine. In a brief period of time one morning in 1950, Japan Town was swept into the sea by a tsunami created by one of history’s most catastrophic earthquakes centered in the same area of Chile as the 2010 event. The Hilo Market area occupies land that had been devastated by that tsunami.    

    

As we neared the market, the scents and sights pulled us quickly along.  The main stalls, flower vendors, clothing, crafts, jewelry and a seamstress radiated onto the surrounding sidewalks. The Hilo Market  is not really a building. The main stalls are under a permanent cover with no walls (fortunately or else it would feel like an oven). It’s a bustling place. Organic lettuce is sold next to carnivorous plants. Taro root’s for sale if you want to make your own poi or tapioca. Exotic fruits and vegetables from Asia and the Pacific are in abundance and require conversations with vendors and fellow market goers for preparation suggestions. It’s a riot of color, textures and sounds!    

Top pics: sweet potato cheese cake and "what is it?"

 

The fresh coconut “milk” vendor is a perennial favorite in the tropics. Fresh, iced green coconuts have their tops sliced off with a machete. A straw is all that’s needed to enjoy a truly refreshing drink. Often when finished, the soft green shell is cut in half exposing the pudding-like coconut that can be eaten with a spoon – a double treat !    

    

The multi-cultural quilt that is Hawai’i resulted in a fusion of comfort foods. During the Second World War, that marvel of canned foods, SPAM, hit Hawai’i like a rock star. Overnight, the refrigerator scarce islands of the 1940’s found a food of remarkable flexibility, even if it is lacking in other qualities.    

Tradition meets SPAM and Loco Moco: popular island breakfast

 

The macadamia nut is nearly synonymous with Hawai’i, even though it’s native to Australia. What processors do to this buttery treat is legendary, and for another blog post, but suffice to say, the nut also married SPAM.    

Macadamia: green from tree, dried and shelled

 

Farmers markets are in nearly all small towns, and even between them, on the island. The Sunday market near Hawaiian Paradise Park, south of Hilo, offers a large variety of local crafts, musical entertainment, fresh eggs, Kava (for a relaxing morning), candles and terrific poultry, beef and pork grilled over guava wood.    

    

The lush eastern half of the Big Island is a garden, and even if you are a visitor without a kitchen, the markets of Hawai’i provide not only the best and exotic but a terrific insight into cultural fusion, entertainment and certainly an opportunity to eat authentic prepared island foods.

Peas In A Pod – A love story

        

Susan and Kristen

2007 did not start well for Kristen Coyle, Susan Bailey and Karen Dooley. The three sisters faced a bitter-sweet crossroad. Their beloved parents passed away too soon to enjoy retirement and for these three daughters to share those years. Now the nest egg their parents had saved became an unexpected inheritance for the three sisters. It was the decision of the women to use the money in a way that would both benefit all three and, privately, memorialize their parents. They would open a business, a produce business. In my opinion after 30 plus years in the food industry, I’d say opening a small produce shop ranks very high on the risky scale in an industry that already is a big risk. It took brains, passion and a sense of humor to turn sorrow into Peas In A Pod.       

       

The sisters do not come from a food industry background. Kristen and Susan are both nurses and Karen is a teaching assistant. All were ready to try something different – but anyone can run a food business? Susan and Kristen freely admit that after three years they are still learning – a key ingredient for success. Their Dad, according to Kristen, had an adventurous spirit taking the family on roaming summer drives through the farms of south-eastern Pennsylvania – the famed Pennsylvania Dutch and Quaker farm counties: Lancaster, Chester, Berks, Montgomery and  Bucks. The object was to find, and eat,  the freshest in-season vegetables and fruits at local farms. “Eating a fresh tomato with salt…,” is a strong memory for Kristen. So is growing up in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia surrounded by the kitchen aromas of the many Italian households in the neighborhood and  sitting down to a freshly made family dinner every night – a tradition these three busy, multi-career women still uphold.       

       

I entered the small shop at the intersection of Keswick and Glenside Avenues in Glenside, PA – a leafy, older suburb a mere 10 miles from center city Philadelphia – through a plant framed door that sticks and agitates an old-fashioned bell announcing a customer. Peas In A Pod is in a typical nondescript twin house converted into mixed commercial/apartment space. Out in front of the shop is a covered stand with produce available on the honor system. Inside, Kristen was at the counter and Susan, with helper, niece Mary Kate, were in the kitchen. (Karen had the day off). Frequent customers, of which there are many, are greeted by name; perhaps they have a quart of soup reserved. Customers, now friends by association, linger and chat.  The interior space of the shop is small, simple and functional.       

       

80 South Keswick Avenue was chosen the end of March 2007, and the doors to the shop opened in June – record time for a food business…until the sisters tell me the space was the very small front room – maybe 8 x 10 –  of the three rooms.  From day one the object was to sell produce from local farms that used green-earth farming techniques from southeastern Pennsylvania counties.       

 For small shops, and any small food business to succeed, it’s necessary to build personal relationships with suppliers. Susan spent days driving through  the countryside and was attracted to the corn fields ofTruck Patch Farms in Bucks County and developed the trust necessary to ensure high quality fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs. Truck Patch is their largest supplier.  Heirloom tomatoes come from Herrcastle Farms and Jesse Hale of Everhart supplies the raw honey. Patterson Farm’s  maple syrup is a personal favorite, and Four Seasons Farm in Lancaster County, as well as orchards in Loyola, PA, supply fruit, especially Pennsylvania’s wide variety of apples. What you will not find at Peas In A Pod are strawberries in January.       

       

You also will not find most of their 21 soups during the months of June, July and August, but, fortunately, their incomparable Crab Bisque is available every Friday year round – otherwise there would be serious withdrawal issues. Susan’s responsible for the soup, according to Kristen. (Susan: “What were we going to sell in the winter? Soup!”) Susan wanted to bake breads, make soup and maybe expand into… (the curse of a new business – expand). Expansion is a decision often made too early. Sometimes bureaucracy is beneficial, especially considering the 2008 financial meltdown. Cheltenham Township made it clear that fire codes allowed a maximum of only two hot plates for cooking – no oven without excessive renovations –  in the compact kitchen (complete with walk in-refrigerator) that was being constructed in the second room.  A third small room became more produce and Cento brand packaged pastas and sauces. Susan had a stint, while being a nurse, at Flying Fish restaurant in Chestnut Hill and still has dreams of adding more in-house made products, but reality dictated that soups and salads were a marketable match. With the exception of crab bisque every Friday (300 quarts), the remaining 20 soups rotate with one or two  available daily – lemon chicken, bean and potato leek are all favorites. I was allowed only the briefest glance at one of their proprietary recipes, some from their Mother.  Fresh salads with in-house dressings are in a refrigerated section and range from garden to chicken to orzo. The two professional grade hot plates are doing just fine.       

       

Peas In A Pod celebrated a milestone anniversary this past June 2010: they’re still in business three years after opening – nearly 65% of all food businesses are bankrupt within the first three years. Not that mistakes haven’t been made – the worst was an early over reliance on expensive certified organic produce. Customers preferred the chemical-free products from many local farms that result in “same as organic” at less cost. An obvious suggestion that  future  marketing of their soups, salads and dressings may be a good idea was met with a look  in their eyes that it was already on the table.

The bell at the front door gently clanged as another customer entered the shop. Kristen said that sometimes the bell rings but no one enters. After a brief pause she adds, shyly, “We know its our parents. They would want to be here. I think they’d be proud.”                    

They certainly would.       

Peas In A Pod       

80 South Keswick Avenue
Glenside, PA 19038-4607
(215) 887-2719

Purveyors of fine foods since 1512

 
 
                Ordizia, Euskadi (Basque Country), Spain
 
 Still a modest sized town of 10,000 founded in 1268, Ordizia (on some maps Villafranca de Ordizia) lies in the heartland of Euskadi’s prized agricultural abundance. Iberico and Serrano hams – from pigs who diet on wild acorns –  Idiazabal sheep’s milk cheese, and flawless lemon-yellow peaches are only a few of the products from farms following ancient as well as state-of-the-art green methods: organic, grass-fed and chemical-free. In Spain, these methods are not only tradition but in many cases codified in law.      
 
 
San Sebastian

Leaving the beautiful Basque seaside town of San Sebastian on an early morning train for the 60-minute trip south to Ordizia, the countryside speaks its beauty. Vistas of lush green hillsides are dotted with cattle and centuries old white-washed red-roofed farm houses. Yet there’s resilience as over the years it was at the center of wars and atrocities. The past four decades has witnessed resurgence and affluence.

Ordizia

Like all towns in the Basque country, Ordizia is built on a hill close to water, in this case the Rio Oria. Easier to fortify, this topography also makes these century old villages  picturesque and a decent aerobic workout. With perfect early October weather – high 70’s, sun, deep blue sky – I walked hilly, cobblestone streets lined by old narrow, townhouses whose window boxes were bursting with a profusion of flowers. Ordizia’s Wednesday Farmers Market, in continuous operation since 1512, occupies the plaza in the heart of the old town, but, unlike most plazas, it’s covered by an open-air Romanesque-Renaissance structure befitting an important 500-year-old institution.

This is not just another farmers market.  Along with the variety of customers who come to purchase goods for their homes and socialize, there are serious negotiations going on among commercial buyers, restaurants and farmers. These negotiations usually result in setting the prices for many products throughout Spain – until the next Wednesday market. Food here is serious business.

The food stalls glisten with vibrant colors: peppers, squashes, fruits – fresh and dried – pickles, olives and preserved foods. Bushels of freshly picked mushrooms, varieties I’ve never seen, vie for my attention with dozens of Euskadi’s famous sheep and goat’s milk cheeses. Baskets of breads studded with herbs, grains and seeds are close enough to local sausages and hams to make me desire a sandwich.

Fish, especially fresh sardines, anchovies and salt cod (bacalao), are well represented, as well as services – like knife grinding. Serious cooks can purchase freshly executed pigeons, feathers and all, a Basque delicacy – of course most households know how to dress and prepare them.

A milk dispensing machine is a standard farmers market service. Sterilized quart glass bottles are removed from a refrigerated compartment and placed under the dispenser. Empty bottles are returned to the attendant. A local dairy co-op operates the kiosk.  It was very popular.

Cafes, butchers and cloth shops line the edge of the market plaza. Sitting at an outdoor table listening to a musician playing Basque accordion compositions, sipping espresso, watching the bustle of a serious farmers market, I was struck by the permanence markets give to life. For the past turbulent 500 years the same hustle and bustle has occupied the Ordizia Farmers Market sustaining and celebrating every day life.

For an interesting “birds-eye” view, follow this link for Ordizia. Move the map a bit east (to the left) and the white covered structure of the market will come into view.

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Where to get your goat…

…and your heirloom tomatoes?  In Jenkintown, of course. Now Jenkintown, (Montgomery County, PA) hasn’t been home to a farm in a century, and when I moved here in 1984, a rather small Acme pretty much was it for food supplies. The world for foodies has changed considerably starting in the mid-1990’s. Zagara (short-lived but exciting while it lasted), Whole Foods, Produce Junction, Trader Joes, Peas in a Pod, and the Acme, are all within walking distance or short drives from anywhere in Jenkintown.          

The farms of Philadelphia’s surrounding counties – Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Lancaster and Berks – are historically famous for their products. Yet in this age of diet-by-frozen-foods, we forget that there are places within less than an hour’s drive where leg of goat (grass-fed) is available, as well as drop cherries, raw honey and Thai eggplant.              

Thai eggplant, heirloom tomatoes & carrots

 

This June, Jenkintown inaugurated a weekly Wednesday Farmers Market in the Town Square from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM. For a variety of reasons, today was the first time I had a chance to check it out. I walked the less than 10 minutes from my house not necessarily with high expectations that I’d discover anything different from the normal stands of fresh, small-farm produce I’ve come to expect.           

It’s nice to be surprised in your own backyard. Three sizable stands of produce were brimming not only with the normal assortment. Herrcastle Farms (Holtwood, PA, Lancaster County) has an impressive display of heirloom tomatoes and the unusual drop cherry – beautiful yellow color and crisp texture. Tall Pine Farms’ (Rushland, PA, Bucks County) table caught my eye with a half-dozen eggplant varieties, including the crisp, tennis ball sized Thai eggplant that’s great in curry and stir-fry. Farmer Thad of Jett’s Produce (Telford, PA, Montgomery/Bucks County) prominently displays a sign “We grow chemical free.” Isn’t that organic? To Farmer Thad, it’s “organic” minus the bureaucracy, paperwork and high fees to be FDA organic certified. Herrcastle and Tall Pines, as well as many small farms I know in Pennsylvania, agree.             

Drop cherries

 

Not all is produce. In the center of the square at least six long tables were overflowing with cinnamon rolls, muffins, carrot cake, decorated cookies and at least a dozen savory breads including a still warm loaf of Olive Rosemary bread. This carb heaven is the work of Tabora Farm and Orchard (Hilltown, PA, Bucks County). It seems Tabora’s still a farm and orchard with a bakery that produces 160 different baked items per day!              

Tabora Farm's baked products

 

A small stand displayed raw honey, including my favorite, Buckwheat Honey. The product of Everich Honey Farm (Cedars, PA, Montgomery County), I had an informative conversation on the still real threat of Colony Collapse Disorder and the possible ties to the over use of chemicals in American farming. Coffee is in the mix as well with One Village Coffee (Souderton, PA, Bucks County) a company that takes corporate “fairshare” seriously, funding farming projects in third world coffee growing areas. A Little Taste of Tennessee (Jenkintown, PA, Montgomery County) started in April by Pat Walton, a Tennessee native is a new catering business and weekend restaurant in Jenkintown featuring the country foods of that state. At the market, they were offering Ms Ethel’s and Aunt Weeze’s nut brittle and a variety of fresh, crisp pickles – the Bread and Butter nicely under sweetened. Varieties with jalapeño peppers would probably burn my tongue off.          

Two craft stands are in the mix – one selling hand bags made with recycled material, and another table of handmade “Jewelry From a Writer, for Word Lovers” from Words at Play (Elkins Park, PA, Montgomery County). Janet Falon, a writer, creates necklaces and bracelets built with word blocks so the wearer can create a message.          

What really caught my eye, shortly after I arrived at the Market, was a mobile kitchen parked at the edge of the Square. Thinking it was a misplaced Philly Steak and hotdog stand, I finally walked up to the M & B Farview Farm (Hamburg, PA, Berks County) mobile unit to discover a refrigerated/freezer trailer selling grass-fed beef, veal, lamb, goat and pork. With a 142 acre farm (soon to grow to over 200 acres) M & B, from looking at their order form, utilizes every part of an animal offering kidneys, hotdogs, sausages as well as a full line of cheeses from both cow and goat milk. M & B’s ranching techniques would make both an American Indian and an Argentine Gaucho proud!           

Prices at the market are comparable to Whole Foods or anyplace selling premium products, but now you know where they’re coming from – your own backyard.           

           

  Herrcastle Farms, 198-A Douts Hill Road, Holtwood, PA 17532, www.herrcastlefarm.com          

Tall Pine Farms, 1046 Swamp Road, Rushland, PA 18956           

Jett’s Produce, 87 Ridge Road, Telford, PA 18969, www.facebook.com/JettsProduce           

Tabora Farm and Orchard, 1104 Upper Stump Road, Hilltown, PA, www.taborafarmandorchard.com/store/           

Everich Honey Farm, Cedars, PA 19446, (215-565-6422)           

 One Village Coffee,18 Cassel Road. Souderton PA 18964           

A Little Taste of Tennessee, 307 Old York Road,  Jenkintown, PA 19046 (215-432-8028 or 215-906-3903)            

Words at Play, Elkins Park, PA, 19027  (215-635-1698)           

 M & B Farview Farm, 229 Farview Road, Hamburg, PA              

 

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