Fried food is not your friend

We’ve been back from our jaunt to Daytona Beach for four days and I’m just now feeling well enough to tackle a recount of our food experiences there. To sum up the Daytona culinary scene in one word: Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. UGH.

Hubby had to manage his company’s booth at a private trade show in conjunction with Bike Week, hence the reason for the trip. And since hubby’s run up about a gazillion frequent flyer miles, the toddler and I were able to tag along for a mere service fee of $10. How could we say no to that?

We flew down last Friday morning through Atlanta and exited the Daytona Beach International Airport around noon to palm trees waving in the breeze and gloriously sunny skies. After the long winter we’ve had in Indiana, Florida was definitely a sight for sore eyes.

We arrived just in time to catch the tail end of Bike Week, an annual Daytona tradition now in its 69th year. To say the place was overrun is a huge understatement. Here a motorcycle, there a motorcycle, everywhere a motorcycle… seriously, the number of bikes we saw was absolutely overwhelming. I mean to check with the CVB to get some stats on just how many people attend this event each year from near and far (we even encountered more than a handful of Europeans who had flown over to be there).

The toddler nearly lost his mind pointing everywhere at once and making engine noises so enthusiastically, he drooled all over his shirt. The bikes came in all shapes and sizes, from the fattest three-wheelers and Goldwings that looked like couches on wheels to sleek, stripped down racing numbers and even the occasional Italian Ducati masterpiece.

I’m obviously not a biker, but still found the whole thing super interesting from a people-watching standpoint. Bikers are an intriguing crowd – many are older and uh, how to put this politely… weathered? Maybe seasoned is a better word… I suppose years on a bike in the sun, rain and wind will do that to a person. I was pleased to see quite a bit of diversity in the crowd, but disappointed to note only a very small percentage of women in the driver’s seat as opposed to hanging on the back.

Overall, they seemed a friendly bunch, too. The toddler tried to make friends with all of them, running right up to the biggest, scariest guys in the crowd, screaming “Hi! Hi! Hi!” The only questionable incident we had was actually with a driver who tried to execute a turn right across traffic in front of us and flipped us off for our hesitating to let him through.

If you’re a non-biker like me, here’s how to look like you fit in. Don a pair or jeans and something tight and black. Heavy eyeliner. Sunglasses. Perhaps a bandanna. If you’re feeling really saucy – chaps and a leather jacket. For the men – same rules apply, minus the eyeliner. If you don’t have the goods to pull off a ponytail, shave your head and make up for it by growing a nice ‘tache or goatee. There you go. Insta-biker chic.

Our hotel was a scrappy little number right on the beach, parking lots filled to overflowing with bikes gunning up their engines at all hours of the day and night. Sigh. The saving grace was that every room had a balcony that opened directly onto a beach view. When the bikes weren’t revving, we could open up the window and enjoy fresh sea air and the shushing sounds of the surf.

So, let’s get on to the food… hubby was suffering a minor tummy upset when we arrived, so after a safety lunch at Panera, our first dinner in town consisted of cheese toast and ginger ale via the in-room kitchen. The continental breakfast at the hotel entailed standard cereal, juice and coffee, plus a couple of college dorm-style waffle irons that took me right back to IU Forest Quad, circa 1988.

Daytona Beach is known for its beach and its speedway, not its food. Along the main International Speedway Boulevard drag is the requisite spate of franchised offerings – Chili’s, Carrabba’s, Hooter’s and the like. Other than that, the food choices closer to the beach are wings, ribs and burgers. There’s a small diner or ethnic eatery thrown in for good measure here and there, but the quality and cleanliness always seem sketchy. Not exactly reassuring to pull into a completely empty parking lot to wonder how good or bad the eatery inside might be.

There wasn’t anything tempting foodwise within walking distance of the hotel, but hubby somehow sniffed out a coffee/donut shop along one of the main thoroughfares that we hit each morning for the rest of our trip. We found a grocery store and stocked up on a few relatively healthy items – oranges, bananas, crackers, cheese, milk, etc. — that took us through the days and then we would venture out for dinner in search of the least innocuous option.

Saturday was the last night of Bike Week, and the motorcycles were out in such force that we got sucked into a traffic vortex that took us two hours to navigate. Well past the toddler’s appointed feeding time and flirting with more potential meltdown disaster each passing minute, we finally pulled into a Ruby Tuesday’s. We got seated right away, thank heaven for small favors. Dinner ended up being a slab of babyback ribs for hubby and a burger for me that I ended up having to send back when it arrived too pink for my taste. Both were served with fries, which the toddler used as vehicles to shovel a plateful of ketchup into his mouth.

Dinner, night 3: Bubba Gump’s Shrimp, rated the best restaurant in Daytona according to their billboard on the bridge. We’d never been to one before, and although the Forrest Gump décor was fun and kitschy, the food was mediocre. Not a seafood fan, land-loving hubby opted for a burger and fries. I got a plate of not-terribly-fresh (fried) coconut shrimp with a dipping sauce that tasted like orange marmalade with a little crushed pineapple stirred in for good measure. And fries.

It was day four that did me in. While hubby worked his trade show, the toddler and I drove an hour north to meet up with my mom’s cousin RuthAnn (a Jacksonville resident) for lunch in St. Augustine. We ate on a lovely little shaded patio at a small bistro. The surroundings were charming, but the food…uh… well… I ordered a tomato tart that sounded much more appealing on the menu than it looked on the plate. It was described as a pizza sort of thing, but when it arrived, I discovered it was actually quiche, and not a very good one. Kinda goopy texture with some slightly browned lettuce on the side in lieu of a salad. I ate it anyway. Probably not the smartest idea, but the rest of the afternoon seemed to go by smoothly, so I didn’t think too much about it.

For what was originally meant to be our last evening in town, we ended up at Hog Heaven Barbecue. The place was packed and smelled yummy when we walked in, both of which I took as good signs. We’d been carrying a few dinner standbys for the toddler and then getting drinks for him on site and letting him nibble off our plates. However, Hog Heaven didn’t carry milk or even juice, which I found odd as there seemed to be quite a few kids present with their families. Fortunately, the toddler settled for watered-down lemonade and was reasonably happy about it.

Hubby ate a combo plate that offered all sorts of barbecued meats – ribs, chicken and whatnot. I ordered my standby meal at barbecue joints – a pulled pork platter. Sick to death of fries, I asked if I could swap mac and cheese or something else, but beans and a baked potato were the only allowable substitutions. Ok. Baked potato it was, and a slice of stale-tasting garlic bread. A small ramekin of warmish cole slaw served as the only vegetable on the plate.

My meat arrived dry; each table in the restaurant housed three or four bottles of barbecue sauce flavors to choose from (and ketchup, of course, which I’ve determined appears to be considered a vegetable serving here in Daytona). I sampled the smoky, sweet and spicy sauce varieties – in retrospect, probably mistake #2. No idea how clean those squeeze bottles really were or how often they were refilled.

I started feeling oddly woozy a few hours later and went promptly to bed as soon as the toddler fell asleep that night. I slept restlessly, and by 1 a.m., my tummy was making noises to rival the Atlantic waves outside. I broke out in a sweat. The first lurch made me sit straight up in bed, and the second had me running for the bathroom. This pattern recurred every half hour or so until about 5 a.m., when I simply pulled a pillow and a blanket off the bed and camped out on the floor beside the toilet. Good times.

By the time morning rolled around, I was in no shape to move, much less manage two flights to get home. My wonderful hubby, bless him, got on the phone and made arrangements to extend our trip a day. He took charge of the toddler and I spent the next 24 hours barely moving. Funny how a simple (yet harrowing) act like puking can wear you out so much.

After a full day and night of nothing but water, Gatorade and Tylenol, I managed to haul myself up long enough to take a shower and get dressed. A banana stayed down – a minor but significant victory, and we were ready to attempt the trip home. Thunderstorms through Atlanta meant bumpy flights all the way back, but my empty stomach cooperated and we arrived safely in Indy that night without further incident.

By a fortunate stroke of luck, hubby and the toddler appear to have been spared my ailment (knock on wood), but whatever it was is taking its own sweet time in letting me out of its grip. I have managed a few fairly bland meals since we’ve been back, but I’m still not right. Even now, my stomach is rumbling again. If this lasts another day or two, I’ll be making an appointment with the doctor to see if I need an antibiotic. Yuck.

Overall, the trip was fun, but I definitely won’t be rushing back to Daytona anytime soon. I’m not writing off the Sunshine State completely, but there are plenty of other Florida cities I’d much prefer. Now could someone please pass me the Pepto?

Two for one

Yesterday, my lovely friend Laura and her lovely sisters hosted not one, but two bridal showers. Yes, on the same day! The first was a brunch for their youngest sister Julie, and the second was a Mexican-themed cocktail party for their future sister-in-law Rachel. I offered to do the food for both… needless to say, I’ve been a busy girl these past few days!

Everything went fine until my water softener started causing problems on Friday, right in the middle of all my food preparation. Fortunately, Laura allowed me to invade her kitchen in the middle of all of her own preparations to get some things done. My dad arrived that night to babysit, and it was smooth sailing from that point on.

The food turned out great, I couldn’t have been more pleased! The brunch menu consisted of four different kinds of quiche – broccoli cheese, spinach feta, sausage with red pepper and onion, and ham and cheese – bacon, vanilla bean syruped fruit skewers and mini cupcakes decorated with raspberries and kiwi to coordinate with the bride’s chosen colors of hot pink and pale green.

I went home in between showers to recuperate a little and spend a few minutes with the baby before packing up and heading back for the second shift. The Mexican menu was beef and cheese empanadas (thanks for the recipe, Jen!), gazpacho in chilled espresso cups, cheese jalapeno corn muffins, crudite with dip, nacho chips with cheese, salsa, fresh guacamole and frozen key lime tarts for dessert.

Everyone seemed happy with the food at both parties, and I was happy Laura and her sisters were on hand to pitch in when I needed assistance! All in all, a good time was had by all.

the quiche/bacon buffet

the quiche/bacon buffet

spinach feta quiche

spinach feta quiche

fruit skewers

fruit skewers

mini raspberry and kiwi cupcakes

mini raspberry and kiwi cupcakes

the Mexi-buffet

the Mexi-buffet

crudite with jalapeno ranch dip

crudite with jalapeno ranch dip

beef empanadas

beef empanadas

gazpacho cups

gazpacho cups

chips and dips

chips and dips

mini jalapeno corn muffins

mini jalapeno corn muffins

Viva la France

My first 24 hours in Paris have been fairly great, but only after an auspicious start, I must admit. 

Monday night, I was packing and preparing for my flight from Cork to Paris the next morning when we got word on the radio – a serious storm was quickly approaching northern France and all Paris airports were to be closed from 8 p.m. that night until 10 a.m. the next morning. My flight wasn’t due to leave Cork until 10:50 a.m., arriving in Paris at 1:35 p.m. local time, but I was nervous. What if the flights were off schedule, or worse, cancelled? What if we couldn’t get there on Tuesday at all? Hubby was due to be traveling on business Wednesday through Friday and would not have been able to pick us up if we were delayed a day. I’m a worrier, what can I say?

Well, I’m thrilled to report that all’s well that ends well. The airports reopened; my flight from Cork to Paris was only delayed about 15 minutes; and short of a couple sorta terrifying air pockets, we arrived safe, sound and pretty much on time.

Traveling solo with an infant gets a little tricky, and Paris is not proving to be very baby-friendly. Baby did fantastic getting through Cork airport and we navigated the flight just fine, in spite of my somehow having forgotten to pack baby wipes and/or a pacifier in the bag. (What was I thinking?) However, once we landed in Paris, it was a whole other story. For starters, I found out that the stroller we’d checked in Cork as we boarded the plane would not be returned to me at the gate; instead, I’d have to schlep the baby all the way through to baggage claim in his carrier, along with a purse, a backpack and a diaper bag. 

Charles de Gaulle airport is, as my husband would say, one big fuck-off place. With clear covered tunnels criss-crossing in never-ending directions, I felt like I was stuck in a giant human hamster cage. So there I am, loaded down like a pack mule, inching my way through the what feels like a miles-long line at the passport inspection. Several folks smiled politely at my sleeping son as we crept along a few steps at a time, but it was two young French girls directly behind me who really stepped up and came to my rescue. When they urged me to cut to the front of the line, I was hesitant, not wanting to violate any unspoken French rules of etiquette right off the bat. But they insisted, one of them grabbed the baby carrier and starting plowing her way through the queue with me trailing behind. She deposited me at the front of the line, smiled politely and returned to her place with me spouting “merci” after her like I had Tourette’s. 

From there, passports duly stamped, we were on to the baggage claim where, lo and behold, the stroller was there waiting. Having had to bring along a month’s worth of clothes, etc. for me and the baby on this trip, I think I did extremely well to limit my packing to one small suitcase for him and one good-sized rolling bag for me. Silly me, I had expected hubby would be there to meet us at the bag claim and help with the suitcases. Nope. We would have to traverse yet another long hall first to meet him in the arrivals area. Now picture me, trying to push a stroller forward with one hand and drag a loaded trolley cart behind me with the other. This is where the stereotypical French rudeness really became apparent – not one person took pity and offered to help me, even the guards and airport employees who flat out watched me struggle along. The passengers practically cursed me and ran me over in their haste to get by as either one or the other of my vehicles veered off course toward a wall every few feet.

By the time I managed to get out to the arrivals hall and hubby came running up, I had worked up a sweat and was so frustrated I burst into tears. After a few minutes of calming down, we were on to the next part of the adventure – the Metro. If Charles de Gaulle airport is a hamster cage, the Metro is a labyrinth series of mouse tunnels. 

The Metro is really a cool thing in concept, but with a baby, c’est impossible. I have no idea how people in wheelchairs get around on it. Maybe they just don’t. There seem to be hardly any elevators, and the ticket-controlled entries and exits are so narrow, our stroller wouldn’t fit through several of them. More than once, we resorted to taking the carseat off the stroller, collapsing the stroller down and carrying each through on its own. Yikes. Not to mention there are about a million stairs up and down to deal with as well. 

One other point I’d like to make about the Metro – it is prime property for busking. Every time I’ve been on it in the past 24 hours, I’ve been treated to live musical performances. The first was a young gent with an accordion, next came a surprisingly good string performance of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” worthy of a MUCH nicer venue than the Metro tunnel, and then finally a dreadlocked guy cranking out an acoustic version of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” in a heavy French accent. I would have given him a few euros for style points alone if I’d had any change on me. 

Anyway, we finally arrived at Gare du Nord, where we said fuck this nonsense and smartly grabbed a taxi to the apartment from there. Our digs for the next two weeks are just off the Place de Bastille, one of the oldest and most historic areas in the city, now a bustling area full of shops, cafes and an ultra-modern opera house. The Bastille itself perches sedately at the center of a huge roundabout with streets shooting off in all directions. 

The apartment itself is dollhouse TINY, but in pristine condition and decorated very nicely. We have a small sitting room, one bedroom, a miniature kitchen, a bathroom and a loft sleeping area. The furnishings are quality and the windows and ceilings are tall, letting in a surprising amount of light. Exposed wood beams on the ceiling give the whole place a rustic feel. It’s a cozy little home as opposed to the antiseptic style of most hotel rooms. The two flights of rickety stairs we have to climb to get in are going to kill me, or give me buns of steel. Which is actually a good thing to offset the amount of fattening food I plan to consume over the next two weeks. 

So for my first meal in Paris, I wanted something authentically French, but nothing formal or stuffy. A nice bistro sounded just right, and Lord knows there are plenty to choose from! We first took a stroll around the Rue de Saint-Antoine, taking in all that the avenue has to offer. My mouth watered as we passed food stand after food stand, each offering its own specialty – fabulous breads and pastries, glowing fruits and vegetables, cold cuts and meats, crepes with all sorts of sweet and savory fillings, sushi, Chinese food, cheeses like you’ve never seen, and gorgeous chickens spinning on a large rotisserie, their glistening juices falling to flavor a bed of peeled potatoes roasting just underneath. I wanted to eat everything I saw. 

We settled on a quaint little cafe called Le Rempart for dinner. The owner was good to accommodate us with the stroller and the menu offered casual eats such as salads, a variety of croque sandwiches and a few plated entrees. Hubby ordered a beer, and I a glass of the house red wine, eager to try out my rusty French. To me, it’s always a relief to receive exactly what I intended to get when ordering in a foreign language. I’m always nervous that I’m not pronouncing something correctly and will end up with a plate of brains or liver instead of the chocolate cake I wanted. 

For my supper, I opted for a quiche Parisienne chalkboard special and hubby got a croque Italianne sandwich, both with green salads. The meals were simply prepared and presented, nothing flashy or trendy, just good quality ingredients cooked simply and well. My quiche was studded with tomato slices and bits of savory ham, and the salad was just green lettuce with a few more tomato slices and a splash of tangy creamy dressing. I realized as I was eating it that I hadn’t had a salad in about a week and really missed it! Hubby’s sandwich was an open-faced delight of the same flavorful country ham, fresh mozzarella, tomato and a sprinkling of herbes de provence on a generous slice of baguette. 

Not ready to call it a night just yet, we ducked into another cafe for another drink. I might have mumbled a little, but the server couldn’t understand my request for another glass of wine, which immediately shook my confidence. I got flustered and pussed out, letting hubby take it from there and order for me, as he seemed to be having better luck getting his point across. 

After a sound sleep, I awoke this morning to a fantastically sunny day, thrilled to be in Paris! It’s still cold, but the sun more than makes up for it. Hubby had an unexpected free day due to a travel scheduling glitch, and we decided to take a long walk. I had my heart set on a pan au chocolat, but since it was nearly 11 a.m. by the time I got the baby fed, both of us dressed and ready to go, I worried we might have missed our breakfast window at most cafes and be well into the lunch service. Fortunately, I needed have given it a second thought.

A small patisserie/boulangerie (that’s a pastry/bread bakery for the non-French readers) called Miss Manon suited me to a tee. A glimpse through the window of row upon row of the most delectable pastries imaginable beckoned us inside, and we were glad they did. A couple of friendly young ladies behind the counter took our order (understanding me perfectly, thank God!), served us and made over the baby. I felt right at home. The decor was warm and simple and the pan au chocolat was a little bite of heaven – flaky pastry crust that shattered with each bite to reveal tender layers beneath and parallel tracks of deep dark chocolate running through. Washed down with a cafe au lait, I could eat this every morning for the rest of my life and be totally happy. I hope to come back here for lunch and try some of their sandwiches, or at the very least, sample a few more of the tempting pastries on display. The baguettes looked magnificent, too, jutting out of their baskets like fragrant missiles of goodness. Yum, yum, and yum.

We continued our walk down to the Seine and across to the Ile St. Louis, looping up around Notre Dame, across into the Latin Quarter, cutting over again to the Louvre and making a pit stop into another cafe by the Palais Royale for a warm-up (espresso for hubby and a hot chocolate for me). Our feet growing tired by this time and the baby sleeping soundly in his stroller, we wrestled our way back through the Metro to the apartment for a well-earned rest. 

Now, what to have for dinner tonight??? So much to eat, so little time.