Dear Candy Gods, Please Don’t Let Sugar Rush Become a Carpet Shop

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In the village in which I grew up, the very first shop at the end of the downtown strip was the stuff of legend. I lived in an ordinary, quiet, not-quite cul-de-sac so bereft of traffic that children could actually play in the street, and in which everyone pretty much knew everyone.

The trek to the shops was not a terribly big deal, especially after I got my first bicycle. I celebrated my triumph over my training wheels by looking over at my brother cycling in the road, squealing a squee of smug delight and then screaming a scream of “this is the real world” terror as I crashed into a neighbour’s front wall. Refusing to let myself be thwarted by garden brickwork, I soldiered on, knowing that I now had a vehicle with which to traverse the enormous mutant hill that stood at a 40-degree angle between me and the main road like some sort of taunting, concrete, dinosaur bastard.

Onto the main road, past the woods, past the village park, past the village school, past the village church and finally a stretch of shops comes into view. And on the end of that tiny, terraced row of shops, there it was. The mother ship: Carters’ Sweet Shop.

It was a tiny little shoebox of a store, and the way that everything had been crammed into it seemed to us to be some sort of awesome Wonka-esque witchcraft. There was every type of candy imaginable – everything from penny-candy in large jars, to brand-name chocolates and even a decent-sized ice cream section. In the time it took for me to get there, I’d inevitably have amassed a group of friends who were trying to decide whether to spend their pocket money on aniseed balls (yum!), Fun Dips (sugar sticks you could dip in sherbet powder), jelly babies, or all of the above.

My personal favourite were these little guys:

Truly revolting to look at, repulsive to touch, and consumed in questionable amounts, this was even more popular than the fake candy cigarettes that would constantly freak out our teachers. According to my dad, they really did smell and taste of beer, but had no alcohol content, making them about as acceptable as all the other deliciously disgusting crap we ate as kids.

That store was almost a daily pilgrimage, a reliable detour on the way home from school, and the staff were always so lovely. So I was sad when suddenly, one day, seemingly without warning, it closed down. I remember hoping that it was just closing for repairs, or that, according to my primary school understanding of the retail sector, another sweet shop would take its place. It didn’t. Months went by, and the storefront became a carpet shop, and that was it.

It’s a cliche, but a tiny little tuck shop bag of my childhood died that day. It was the only shop in a stretch of opticians and banks and hairdressers and boring takeaways that had any interest to me, and now it had vanished.

Carpets.

I wish I had a photo of the shop, but even identifying it by name online proved difficult. It had been around for decades before I was born, and the tradition of old-fashioned sweet shops can still be found in brick-and-mortar shops today, but of the eye-gougingly expensive variety, because they also sell £7 boxes of imported Lucky Charms cereal. Even the offerings of online shops whose business model is that they’re an old “penny-candy/retro sweet/childhood favourites” retailer is dampened by the fact that it wasn’t really about the range of sellable stock (or even the long-lost price range). It was about cycling my impatient little legs over a mile and a half to get to a magical cornucopia of all things unhealthy, shoehorn it gleefully into my face and then cycle my sugar-bloated little happy demon self back home again.

sugar-rush-sign salem ma

And so enter Sugar Rush, one of the many new businesses opening up in downtown Salem, right on Essex St. Owned by Helen and Gazmend Taka, the former owners of Fountain Place, there’s not been much I can glean about this little shop, but they did let me pop in and snap a photo of the awesome-looking walls that had just got a fresh lick of paint:

When I saw the name, the first thing I thought of was this, but the term’s been around longer than Wreck-it-Ralph, but it would be kind of cute to have some kind of nod to gamer/nerd-related candy (especially if there are some stores downtown that are kind of bending the rules here and there). The store should be opening up soon, and I hope it sticks around, because it could be one of those businesses that’s good for both locals and tourists.

I don’t want another carpet shop usurper in town. Unless the carpets taste like snozzberries.

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That Time I Failed To Score Free Film Crew Food

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Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner are in Salem, filming American Hustle (2013) . There were also reports that Amy Adams and Elisabeth Röhm were also spotted. Other leads (i.e. Robert DeNiro) were apparently not in town. Tons of vintage cars and trucks lined up on Federal St, but actors are filming on a closed set, doubling for Philadelphia.

—This means…BATMAN AND HAWKEYE ARE IN TOWN ERMAHGERD—

A comment on a recent Patch article implied I might be able to yoink free food if I could convince the set caterers that I was a lost extra, but my accidental ’70s hair was in vain, as the mythical munchies had already scarpered.

Instead, we wandered down Federal St and saw a bunch of cool vintage cars (including a cop car) and costumes. I want that coat!

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Salem, MA: In Which it is Easier to Be a Geek than a Goth

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Last weekend, I did what any self-respecting nerd would do and went to see The Avengers, a movie I had been patiently waiting to see for a while, but impatiently waiting to see since that delightful Superbowl spot.  So overcome with fangirling was I at such an Event that I couldn’t quite hear most of the 7pm showing over the clear fanboying delight of a super-loud kindergartner behind me, who felt it necessary to narrate every scene – not only during important bits of quietly-delivered expository dialogue, but also during those silent pre-dialogue beats.

My companion and I exited the cinema and returned for the 10pm showing, and our minds were pretty much blown – an eloquent tour guide and (almost) a Master of Letters reduced to “OMG WTF that was awesome”; “Shakespeare in the park LOL” and “HAHA MEWLING QUIM PUNY GOD”, and (highlight for spoiler) “WUT THAT WAZ THANOS OMG DEATH SHAWARMA!!!” (end spoiler).

To me, it was a brilliant movie. Well-made and well-played, crafted by a director whose TV shows I had grown up watching (and BtVS was my first 12-rated movie, even though I was not old enough to get in). The characters and the plotlines of the comics were faithfully-rendered. The hype had been easy to generate because this had been a long time coming; threaded through the Iron Man movies, Hulk, Thor and Captain America was a tease of this movie, built up via each film’s post-credit scenes, as if one were watching a TV show with a weekly cliffhanger.

The local cinema got in on the midnight showings and themed movie drinks (Cinema Salem’s “Thor” – white chocolate mocha with hazelnut was my popcorn companion of choice) and it was funny to notice who stayed once the credits started rolling (about half the audience), and who stayed to the very end of the credits after the mid-credit scene (about seven people).

Last weekend was also Free Comic Book Day, a day in which comic book companies issue special “free” versions of their comics (usually more ads per book than usual), and our local, Harrison’s, allowed just two books per customer. Not two of each book, just two. Two of the free books. Better than last year, I suppose. Although I was in South-East England, in which not only is there just one comic book store, but he didn’t even participate.

Not free, but still awesome anyway.

For a town peddling all manner of ghost tours, psychic parlors, magic shows, illegal/unauthorized Harry Potter merch stores and witch museums, it seems to be harder to get goth supplies than it does to furnish a geek’s closet. Salem has a comic book store (plus The Red Lion’s sizable action figure/trading card/comic section), a video game store and, thanks to the recent spate of comic book movies, related merch is ubiquitous.

I could stroll into CVS and pick up a Spider-Man beach towel but not find anything with Emily The Strange. The aforementioned store that is entirely stocked with 100% illegal/unauthorized Harry Potter merchandise could rival the stock and imagination of actual, legitimate sellers, but there’s nary a Nightmare Before Christmas or horror-themed merch to be found. The Fool’s Mansion has an excellent selection for both the aspiring and seasoned goth, but their prices are not really for the faint of heart.

My bank has s0me awesome Batman cheques available. Where are the graveyard-themed ones? Of all places, The Trolley Depot has some great Doctor Who merchandise (and they’re usually cheaper than Harrison’s). I honestly can’t even think of any commercial goth characters beyond those being misappropriated by Hot Topic (The Crow blankets, anyone?), but for a city teeming with people who clearly keep Manic Panic in business, there isn’t anyone with a creative mind who wants to put their designs out there? Or are all local goths just poseurs who are selling the idea of being a goth but not capitalizing on how mainstream it’s become?

I’ve been to a couple of tiny local goth shows, and a couple of tiny mini-parties in which the same two of three songs get repeated by a goth DJ, and I have to admit I was thrown by some of the choices. The Pet Shop Boys ? Really? American goths really…listen to that? And the dancing…my god, the dancing…I really wasn’t sure how it worked.

There are regular Magic: The Gathering tournaments at Harrison’s, and a few times they’ve even hosted small gigs by Voltaire. The closest thing to a goth club night in Salem was a local Thai food place hiring the same DJ, turning the lights down once a month and enforcing an all-black dress code. When the Thai food place shut down to transfer ownership, the night moved to a local dive bar more famous for its pukey fights than as a place to be seen. Then when that in turn closed down, the club night’s website announced that they are on hiatus. Maybe it’s cursed. T’would be fitting.

On the other hand, it’s extremely easy to be a hipster in Salem. You can’t swing a dead witch’s familiar without running into one, stumbling into one of its open mic nights (and then back out again), purchasing an ironically droll accent cushion or living around the corner from a new place that serves spelt quinoa beet ginger soy tofu sprouted wheat bean kimchi raw flax applesauce granola. Oh, American subcultures, how much you amuse me.

 

Salem, MA: In Which A Cafe Named “Coven” Can Be Replaced By A Cafe Called “Life Alive”

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Perhaps I am just getting old.

Several clusters of lentil and patchouli-scented gas clouds sprang up all over Salem when vegans and vegetarians (myself included) sighed in despair, but not surprise, at the news of Coven’s “temporary” closing in January. Followers of our beloved eatery’s Facebook feed were told that the owners were shipping off to New York for a “much-needed rest”, something which, they did in fact need, owing to the long hours I would see them working and how empty Salem was in January. Assuming that they would follow suit of Ben & Jerry’s and The Lobster Shanty and re-open when people have shaken off their post-Christmas financial hangovers, we waited with bated barley-spelt-quinoa breath.

The other day, we got an update, but sadly, it wasn’t what anyone wanted to read. No, they hadn’t switched to the new Facebook Timeline; Coven was closing for good, and the owners had permanently relocated back to their native NY.  The clusters of hippie whinging dust had now become full-blown, granola-spitting, organic cyclones, and there was now a Coven-shaped hole in our lives.

My first panicked thought was, “who is going to feed me now?” I am a perfectly capable cook, have never made anything inedible (save for some basmati rice which I was forced to cook without proper measuring utensils) and have an inspired imagination when it comes to sourcing/creating new dishes – even snacks (seriously, try Edamame houmous with some Branston pickle).

But when I get home from an 11-hour workday with most of it in Boston (and no lunch break), I am just too tired to whip up my garam-cashew-raisin masala from scratch, and too much in possession of working tastebuds to sully them with an EasyMac (unless I am drunk). My mother is all the way back in England, and could post me some pakoras, but something tells me the taste and heat would become diminished with transit.

Enter Life Alive, a cafe mini-chain who have taken over Coven’s old spot. I have never been to their Cambridge or Lowell locations, so I could only judge them based on their website. If anyone has an aversion to colour, look away now and don’t click on this website link.

It really is quite a pretty, positive and promising site, and gives the impression that, once the nerdy vintage cereal mascot toys and board games and the TV and alternative art sculptures are cleared out, I’ll be walking into a serene, leafy grotto decorated with Hawaiian-lei-shaped peace medallions, tie-dye wall tapestries and an assortment of re-homed Buddha statues. Gone will be the Depeche Mode or Alice Cooper Pandora station of yesteryear, and instead gently piping in will be the sounds of local sitar artists and experimental poetry activist readings.

A peek at their menu brings more promise. It’s mostly vegan, but fully vegetarian. Ignoring the somewhat patronizing whiff of the portion descriptions (“Filling Bowl”; “Hearty Wrap” etc), I can see they’ve got the usuals – tofu, brown rice, quinoa, sprouts and ginger, but with what appears to be a focus on fresh ingredients and care in preparation.

Could it be? An actual vegetarian restaurant in Salem? One that doesn’t offer items made with vegetables that were actually stewing/frying/baking with the remains of meat and fish? A vegetarian restaurant that actually has a varied menu, doesn’t rely too much on meat substitutes, and that actually seems to have some imagination in its presentation and ingredient selections? I am still staggering at the thought of somewhere I can go eat as a vegetarian that doesn’t laugh at me and tell me I’m too thin (I get enough of that when I go home to see my parents).

An extensive smoothie bar and a lack of alcohol means they are probably going to draw in the crowds who still go to Front Street Coffeehouse because they have the best coffee, but go far less often because they remember when the baristas played Edwin Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes instead of Chris Brown and Jennifer Lopez.

They’ve not set an opening date, and, quite frankly, I don’t know if many people even know about this.  Prices seem more along the lines for what you would pay in a sit-down restaurant ($9 for a meal bowl), so let’s hope they live up to that. I feel a little sad and a little old when stores I like close; it seems to be happening frequently in Salem. I remember feeling this intrigued when hearing of Coven’s construction period, and how soon their “soft open” and “official opening” were.

All that remains is to wait and see. I would rather not put all my free-range eggs in one ethically-woven flax basket.

Salem’s So Sweet Chocolate and Ice Sculpture Festival

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This past weekend, the city celebrated  “Salem So Sweet!” Chocolate and Ice Sculpture Festival. I never know which part of that title is actually capitalized, and which part are in inverted commas, and whether or not it’s Salem’s or Salem. It seems to change – even on the same page. And the title of the festival makes no sense grammatically, sounding like Stephen King’s Boogeyman and Gollum’s bastard lovechild trying to write its first Valentine’s Day card. Salem needs  a proofreader…badly.

As they were every year, the ice sculptures were the focus of the festival, and they were different every year. There didn’t seem to be a theme (I thought there had been in previous years). Not attractively presented, they were still nice sights to encounter while strolling around town.

Outside MudPuddle Toys - The Adventures of TinTin in Salem

Outside Tavern in the Square

Outside Adriatic Restaurant & Bar

Chocolate Fountain at Maria's Sweet Somethings

Outside the Peabody Essex Museum

 

The kick-off was the chocolate and wine tasting at Hamilton Hall, but at $30 a ticket, it’s not for everyone, but it sold out fast. I do get the feeling that it’s the same group of people going to these things (the historic house/garden tours; the Dickensian Christmas ball etc) and were I to buy a ticket, I’d look very much out of place.

The festival’s brochure stated there was a window-dressing contest, but save for a few balloons and pink stuffed animals here and there, I didn’t see much in the way of competing. Rumour has it there was a raffle, and Milk and Honey ran a chocolate-themed baking contest on Saturday.

Outside Maria's Sweet Somethings

Downtown wasn’t terribly crowded due to the weather (bitterly cold and very, very blustery), even for February’s standards. I’d been told by a shop owner that the ice sculptures cost upwards of $500, so it’s a shame there’s never been much of a turnout, or much in the way of promotion, given the effort that was put into the sculptures.

As an amateur party-wrangler since the age of 9, I saw so many missed opportunities. Ideal additions could have been chocolate-making workshops (free or paid); chocolate liqueur-tastings; chocolate-themed menus; markets (like the Biz Baz) – indoor or out with hot chocolate sellers; or maybe inviting local dairies or chocolatiers to actually visit and do demonstrations. Maria’s Sweet Somethings did go all out with a small chocolate demonstration, some sipping chocolate samplings and a huge chocolate fountain, but the enthusiasm for the festival elsewhere was sadly…lacklustre.

Outside Rockafellas

The romantic aspect could have been celebrated by a special movie offering at the cinema and/or reviving the Movie on the Common series; an event at the PEM; a floral/gifts market; jewellery-making workshops/demonstrations; art displays – everything the city and local businesses put their imagination to when it comes to Hallowe’en, but to get that festival atmosphere back for the singles and families who actually live in Salem or visit during the off-season. People will get out of their homes, tourists and residents alike, if you give them something to do.

Isn’t that what the festival was supposed to be about?

Ice Dragon on Essex St. Decapitated by arsehole drunks on Saturday evening; was said to be the best sculpture of the lot 😦

American chocolate masquerading as British chocolate

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Kraft didn’t fool anybody.

When they bought out Cadburys almost two years ago, everyone was freaking out. I can’t imagine why:

Kraft bought Cadbury for £5 of their own money. The rest ($11.5 billion) was borrowed from RBS, a bank that is 84% owned by the British government (and therefore…Brits!!). They then threw in a few Kraft shares, which, if they had to borrow money to buy the company in the first place, probably weren’t worth a hell of a lot. They made no promises to secure jobs – remember, this is an American corporation; they don’t care about workers’ rights. Just look at Apple! Kraft did promise to keep the Keynsham plant open, though.

Less than a week after they bought out Cadbury, they shut down the Keynham plant and sacked over 400 workers. CEO Irene Rosenfeld did have the time to pose for some ridiculously crass photoshoots, though.

In-keeping with their track record, after they sacked everyone in Keynham, they moved production to Poland (where…guess what? It’s cheaper).  Then, a few months later, they shut down their Polish division and then outsourced that to Korea! Maybe they’ll finally just move production to China and take some of the heat off of Apple. Way to go trying to fight that “evil corporation” stereotype, Evil American Corporations….

I’m currently helping out a local business owner with her Facebook and email stuff (something that professionals with a 2:1 BA (Hons) in Twitter would call “digital marketing strategy” and “e-campaign promotional paradigm initiative plans”). The fact that she pays me in chocolate, ice cream AND money is quite possibly the best benefits package I could think of. Take THAT, fellow employees who get computer purchase reimbursement and long-term disability! Does your Roth come with maple sprinkles? No? Then jog on.

It did get me thinking that, even though most of the chocolates aren’t made in-house, they are made somewhat locally, and while the nostalgia and warmy warm feeling of Cadbury’s earns Fruit & Nut a perma-top place in all things chocolate, those melt-in-your-mouth caramels she sells are a close second. She also rents a chocolate fountain (free!).

Click on me:

I once took part in a focus group about chocolate (!!). It was in Boston, and we actually got to eat Kit Kats and talk about them – the packaging, the taste etc. Best. Focus group. EVER. After being shown the typical US packaging that everyone recognized (paper, with thin foil underneath), and then some UK/European packaging (thick, all-foil packaging), everyone said they hated the UK/European version because it “looked weird” and they would choose the US packaging as it was recognisable and trustworthy.

We were then told to taste samples of Kit Kats in a blind test. Everyone preferred one over the other, citing a milkier, “almost coconut”-type depth to the chocolate.

Turns out they all liked the British version! The same guy who professed his hatred of the commie European packaging was practically wetting himself over the hidden nuances of something that chavvy receptionists are accustomed to dunking in their tea every day.

It got me thinking about how I was unjustly fooled by chocolate bars here in the US either claiming to look like or taste like their original UK counterparts. The first time I ever tried Hershey’s, it was a Cookies ‘n’ Cream flavour. It tasted like chalk. Having a go at Nestle, it tasted like slightly milkier chalk. Dove was totally masquerading as Galaxy, and even then it’s just not the same. It’s like they dried up some milk behind a radiator, spat in it to get it wet again (shut up) and used that in the chocolate-making process. With a bit of shit.

Old faithfuls like Lindt and Godiva are around, but if you’re after a Thorntons equivalent you’re shit out of luck. Hotel Chocolat has a store on Newbury Street, but they’re always out of the Macadamia and Coconut squares. Even the Cadburys bars that are made by Hersheys are positively revolting.

All of the chocolate here is so bad that its taste has to be masked by mutating it with other substances (peanuts, peanut butter, nougat, gummy bears, caramel). The odds of you finding a simple, plain chocolate bar (a la Dairy Milk or Galaxy) are about as likely as finding a someone drinking a PBR without a lobotomy receipt stapled to their head (they did trepanations before they were cool).

It’s only been two years, and I’ve not noticed any further upsets in their business practices. While Kraft will never, ever, make iconically ridiculously amazing award-winning adverts like this or like this, they’ve at least kept Cadbury’s 2009-onward promise to only use Fair Trade cocoa for their chocolate production.

The chocolate I bought back with me are now part of my “I’ll eat it when I’m homesick” rations (which is all time). Wish I’d bought more than just one of these.

Cereal: Killer

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Looking at this picture:

Breakfast or dessert? Honestly, I think it should be neither. This is worse than candy corn, because it’s actually pretending to be something other than pure sugar. It’s typical of breakfast food here. People get a doughnut or a muffin with their sugary, syrupy coffee instead of a healthy fry-up and a beer. It’s insane.

I once had a roommate over here who would eat an entire pack of cinnamon rolls most mornings. He wasn’t interested in my pesto scrambled eggs, blueberry wheat muffins or papaya-mango smoothies (made with fresh fruit I’d bought, cut and cubed).

Early on in our relationship, my husband surprised me one morning with a box of Reese’s Cereal – chocolate and peanut butter-flavoured rice puffs (sort of like ginormous, empty-feeling, sugary Coco Pops). He remembered I was a fan of the Nutrageous bars and wanted to pick up something he thought I’d like. Being a vegan hippie, he poured some into a plastic beer cup with some soy milk and handed it to me. It was delicious, and we went back to sleep (it was around 6am). A few hours later, I rushed to the bathroom where I simultaneously threw up and had the worst stomach upset I would experience until Marks and Spencer would later give me food poisoning from their improperly-cooled miniature cheesecakes.

It seems to be a trend. Cereal is the most important meal of the day, and when you’re too hungover to try, what better way to get your kids to eat it than by cramming it full of sugar and candy?

  • Lucky Charms

No-one buys this for the actual cereal. They buy it for the fun shapes, the marshmallow-y goodness and the somewhat racist Irish stereotype of a mascot. If you can’t trick the kids into eating a healthy breakfast, then scare the shit out of them with this maniacal packaging design. Just look at him. Tell them he’ll be hiding under your bed if they don’t eat every last bit of their organic tofu mungbean breakfast burrito.

  • Cookie Crisp

Honestly, what is the fucking point of this as a cereal? It shouldn’t even BE in the breakfast aisle. Cereal that tastes and looks like cookies? That’ s because it IS cookies! They are tiny little chocolate chip (sorry – double chocolate cookies as per this variety) that you cover in milk. As in, milk and cookies. This is not a fucking breakfast cereal! Aside from sneaking in a way to get your kids to eat more cookies, this isn’t doing much to stave off diabetes. If you feed this to anyone, you should be ashamed. Buy ACTUAL cookies. And stop calling them cookies, you damn Yanks.

  • Trix

These are fruit-flavoured, fruit-shaped puff pieces, but are not actually fruit. In fact, when they first launched this cereal, it was 46% sugar. I have never eaten this cereal. I don’t think anyone has, because they are clearly for kids, according to those snobby little shits. I hate rabbits as much as the next leporiphobic, but there’s no excuse for those manners. Just look how upset it made Carlton.

  • Count Chocula

Any cereal that uses a vampire as a mascot is a win in my book. But I feel somewhat unsettled to know that it’s named after the vampire itself, as if I’m eating a chocolate-covered bloodsucker for breakfast. Sort of like some tacky communion thing. Also, the fact that its sister cereal, Frankenberry, dyed children’s poop pink, might put you off a bit.

When I got back here, I was devastated at the thought of not being able to get hold of my favourite cereal (Crunchy Nut Cornflakes) while I was away. I seriously considered either shoe-horning a box or two into one of my suitcases or ask my dad to post me a box so I could enjoy a box of crumbs at least. But when I went food shopping at Shaw’s I saw it perched on the shelf with a giant “NEW!” banner splayed across the top of the box. Yay! I could hear the faintest sounds of God Save The Queen whispering grandly in my ear to welcome me back with a bit of home in the morning.

Because breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But not as important as CAEK!!!11

Lucky Charms cupcake

A Cup of Tea Solves Everything (if you can find one)

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No, they're not tissues. They're gulls. Hundreds and hundreds of gulls.

Today, it was a lovely, drizzly morning, with an unsually-large gathering of eerily-quiet seagulls (where’s Hitchcock when you need him?). The forecast said “Rain” with a picture of a cuddly cloud weeing out a few drops, so naturally I expected something a bit more like this:

Surprisingly, it really was just a bit of drizzle, which understandably made me a bit homesick. So I stopped by the Dunkin’ Donuts on my way to work (the only coffeehouse that’s actually on my way to the train station) and ordered a “hot tea”. It really doesn’t mean anything special – but otherwise they’ll think you want an iced black tea with a lemon wedge shoved in there. So yes, you do have to ask for milk and sugar. Like a nonce.

The tea bag actually says “regular tea”, which is about as useful as a bottle of white wine called “White Wine”. It’s incredibly weak (and this is coming from a non Lapsang-souchong person), so by the time I’ve walked to the station, waited 10 minutes for my train, then finished my 27-minute train journey, it’s reached a somewhat kind of discernible…flavour. Unfortunately, it’s also lukewarm.

So, in the absence of tea-rooms, where does one go locally to get good tea for the commute?

While there’s nowhere with a mostly-tea menu, not even in downtown Boston (not after Cambridge-based Tealuxe closed up shop on Newbury St), you can find some decent offerings if you’re willing to try and test a few places. Like any fusspot knows, it’s not just about the types of tea they carry, but it’s also how they brew it.

From Le Richoux to Costa Coffee, any place in England either already has a kettle on, or will serve you up a full pot of tea with a teeny tiny teacup. Over here, you are getting one cup and one cup only (with the exception of Gulu-Gulu, who will give you an adorable little stainless steel teapot), and your barista will most likely either make you wait for it to steep (which they even do in a British Starbucks), or plonk the teabag in there and leave it for you to decide.

Based on the range of teas, Front Street Coffeehouse (20 Front St), is probably the best bet, because their teas are fresh and loose-leaf, and their baristas are fairly knowledgeable and creative when mixing different varieties and flavours. One Autumn they tried out a “London Fog” – Earl Grey, vanilla syrup and steamed milk. I liked it, and you can still order it, but it’s not a chalkboard-featured item anymore.

Coven (281 Essex St) (update 2012 – closed 😦 :() is a close second because they make an effort to get in unusual varieties, as opposed to the other cafes that will just order in mass stock of Mighty Leaf Tea (not that that’s bad, but you may as well buy it from the supermarket to make at home). Their chocolate flavouring is also made in-house, which goes perfect with a strong, malty black tea like the Bolivian Black or English Breakfast. I usually order it iced – just black tea (no milk or sugar), chocolate and ice. Simple, but brilliant.

the best tea in the world. and at the time of posting, i have less than 20 bags left 😦

My favourite tea, however, is the maltiest one of all – the Assam. But sadly, there is nowhere decent to get a cup. And that leaves me with the choice of either bringing in little baggies of Assam (either Twinings brought from abroad or a different brand they sell at Milk and Honey – 32 Church St), so that I look like a druggie, or staying home and making my own cuppa.

And I guess, at the end of a long, cold, gull-infested day like today, that’s probably exactly what I’m looking forward to.  Tea is so much better for you in many ways  – it’s more hydrating, has less caffeine (per cup), and makes you happy (just look at the difference between the adorable, “tea drinking” candids and the miserable/forced-smiles “coffee drinking” bastards on Google Images). Even the SAS drink it!

A cuppa also just tastes and feels different after a long, dreary, drizzly day (maybe because it’s not being served in a paper cup – or worse – a styrofoam cup). A proper cup of tea in mug is like a great big warm hug 🙂

Especially when it’s in a mug like this:

(the scarf also helps with the warm part.)

How to Be an English Vegetarian in Salem

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Forget everything you know about being a vegetarian. Just because you think you’re in another somewhat English-speaking country, it is still a foreign country, and most of it just isn’t going to happen here, or be understood.

British vegetarians are used to seeing a symbol like this, usually in green, and often varies in design based on the brand of product. Sometimes you’ll just see a big green “V”, but the message is pretty damn clear: we can eat it. The philosophy of being a vegetarian is pretty clear, too: we eat and use anything, including things that come from an animal (milk, wool, honey), as long as the animal doesn’t have to be killed to obtain it.

It’s a bit different here in America, and in Salem in particular. While hippie states like California and Oregon might tolerate our annoying non-allergic lifestyle choices, it’s different on the North Shore. You have the black pinstripe-suited conservatism of New York, but without the willingness to accommodate this. Sure, a hot dog cart vendor who never, ever, ever cleans his grill will serve melted cheese and veggie subs, but he is going to fry that on the same meat-encrusted stove he did with that non-Kosher/non-Halal pork weiner.

It’s reflected in the attitudes of vegetarians here, too. Plenty of them will say they eat gelatin or Thai curries with fish sauce, because being vegetarian is a grey area here. It’s more about avoiding the meat you can “see” as opposed to making a more conscious choice about what you eat. That’s why there are so many VEGAN communities online. It’s yet another American social extreme – either you’re a steak-eating carnivore (like several of my roommates) or you’re a hippy-dippy vegan.

"I wonder how many lentils I've ever eaten?"

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that local restaurants and cafes follow suit. You can order a mushroom and spinach crepe at Gulu-Gulu, and it’ll be delicious, but bear in mind it’ll be cooked on the same tiny little crepe pan they use to cook the bacon ones.

“OK then,” I hear you think (I know, I’ m psychic. I do live in Salem, after all), “I’ll just get something simple like french fries/chips”.

Sorry, mate.  I know from experience that almost everyone cooks their fried foods in the same oil as everything else. Everywhere from the aptly-named TiTS (Tavern in The Square) to Passage to India cooks their french fries and pakoras in the same oil as fish. Even the Greenland Cafe, a swanky little brasserie, served me up a plate of sweet potato fries with an giant piece of calamari hidden in there (they then kindly “offered” to take it off the bill).

And now for a quick list:

Best place for fries – The Old Spot (121 Essex St). They cook their fries separately and will serve it up with a side of curry cream if you ask nicely. A side of fries costs less than $4, but there’s a $10 minimum for credit/debit cards.

Best quick-eat place – New England Soup Factory (140 Washington St). Every soup is labelled as either Vegetarian (V) or Vegan (VV). Their 4-5 core, evergreen soups are meaty/fishy, but their daily, changing soups of the day always, always, ALWAYS have at least one V or VV. You can sample any and all the flavours you want. Best flavour: Spicy Chickpea Butternut Squash (which has coconut). A small cup sets you back about $6.

Best sandwich place – Front St Coffeehouse (20 Front St). Their sandwich artists usually at least sanitize their knives between sandwich-making, and you can see everything being made while you wait. They also carry soy milk (and don’t charge extra). Sandwiches are usually $5-$6, and are cash only.

Best baked goods – (was – update 2012 – closed 😦 )Coven (281 Essex St). Plenty of vegan baked goods (brownies, red velvet cakes, mac and cheese, meatball subs, Thanksgiving catering – all vegan).  The owners used to live in Manhattan, so they know what they’re they were doing. They also don’t didn’t charge extra for soy milk, even though I think it’s gross.

Milk and Honey (32 Church St) have been doing some good vegan cardamom-ginger-clove-baby cakes as of late. Like any baked goods, though, they are always the most delicious on the day of purchase.

vegan butter pecan cupcake at Coven

Also a lovely surprise is the Boston Hot Dog Company (60 Washington St). Previously a daytime-only pitstop for hungry commuters,  this teeny-tiny, awesomely-decorated gem is now open until 2am on Fridays, and serves not only veggie hot dogs, but also veggie sausages. These ones:

They have 4 types of these vegetarian sausages, and a varied menu that acts as a suggestion for how many things you can pile onto the dog. Personal favourite: Chicago Dog (onion, tomato, peppers, lettuce, relish, mustard, poppy seeds, celery salt and a pickle). The sausages and the veggie hot dogs are usually microwaved separately (whereas the meat ones are boiled), but your hot dog bun is likely to be toasted on the same grill as meat, and the same tongs/hands might be used to make your dog inbetween meat-handling.

left: Chicago Dog; right: New York Dog (sauerkraut; mustard; cheese), both with Apple Sage veggie sausages

Now it’s irrelevant why I’m a vegetarian, but I’m not some overly moral militant veggie. I can go out to eat and not feel uncomfortable if people are eating meat. What I don’t like is someone forcing/sneaking it into my food. Like the time I stopped eating lamb and my mother tried to pass it off as chicken (which I was still eating at the time).

(skip to 2m 30s)

Being a vegetarian in England also means you actually, genuinely do not eat any meat. So anything marked “suitable for vegetarians” does not, say, contain beef stock, fish sauce, rennet or gelatin. The same goes for any restaurant menu items – a “fish paella” is NOT vegetarian.

I once went to an IHOP (my first and last time) somewhere off of Route 66 where I ordered a vegetable pasta dish (which was on the menu). They brought it out with a huge slab of chicken flattening the coagulated pasta block and tried to tell me it was vegetarian.

Then there was the coach trip I took around California and Nevada. They asked everyone to put their meal requirements/allergies on a clipboard. I was one of the last to get it and saw so many entries saying, “Vegetarian – but can eat fish”; “Vegetarian option – but I eat chicken”; “vegetarian – except for beef”.

Me? I put “Vegetarian – no meat or fish whatsoever.” Like I really had to explain it like that?

And what did I get every single night?

A Caesar salad.

Yep. A Caesar fucking salad. While everyone tucked into their own entire bucket of fried chicken, mashed potato and fries, or a huge tuna pasta  bake, or a steak burrito, or a curry, or a burger…I got a Caesar fucking salad.

Guess what’s in Caesar dressing? –

America: Where Everything is Bigger

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On the way to work this morning, I passed by this enormous, 3-foot spindly, creepy-looking bug. I remember when I was travelling, my aunt warned me that when I was staying around California I should check my shoes every morning in case there’d be a scorpion hiding in them. This huge bug looked like it might have been dead. But no-one was freaking out over it, and since no-one had been as terrified as I of these gigantic things called June bugs that I saw at a party one time, I guessed it must have been some sort of native arachnid monster, and I should just bloody well get used to it as part of the scenery.

I had to do a quintuple take before I realized it was actually a broken-off bit of tree branch.

As my apartment building’s dryer got fried by the flooding the other week, it’s perpetually laundry day as far as I’m concerned, so I had dressed for work in a grey lace single-breasted blazer, purple houndstooth fitted jeggings, grey belted ankle boots, and a loose, 80s-style tunic with pictures of buildings on it. So, while I’m clear on the fact that my clownish attire leads shuttle drivers to believe I work at Dunkin’ Donuts, I didn’t want people to think that I not only dressed like an escaped mental patient, but that I also acted like one, staring down at a broken-off bit of tree branch like it was not a broken-off bit of tree branch.

You couldn’t blame me for thinking it. I probably have some form of dyslexia owing to the fact that I can see a fire hydrant from a distance and think that it’s  a small child in a puffer jacket, but everything is so much bigger, weirder and more extreme that the thought did cross my mind that a giant 3-foot-long insect could wander around Boston and not faze anyone. Because everything is so inexplicably enormous here – bigger, louder, more insane, such as:

Egos:

Religion:

Cars:


But ultimately I think food is the biggest culprit.

Everyone and their mum has seen this infographic, but I can’t quite grasp the point of the newest Starbucks drink size:

What if you’re drinking it on a train? Will you get one of these free?

And then there’s diner food. When I think of pancakes, I think of something like this for Shrove Tuesday:

Yet if you order pancakes at a diner, you get something more like this:

And whenever I’d go into an ice cream/chocolate shop, I ordered a “baby-sized” ice cream in case I couldn’t finish it:

I’m sorry…what? “Baby-size”? As in, the size of an actual baby? Cause it’s not like it’s tiny. And if it’s the size of an actual baby…no wonder Americans are so unhealthy.