Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

“Words have no power to impress the mind
without the exquisite horror of their reality.”
— Edgar Allan Poe

The Masque of the Red Death
Image by ProfessorMortis via Flickr

Mention his name and goth girls swoon, black cats hiss, and the timid turn away.  Edgar Allan Poe was born January 19, 1809.  More than 200 years after his birth, cities still fight for ownership of the dead writer’s corpse, whose tortured life and mysterious death were as strange as the tales he told.  Tales like “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Masque of the Red Death” still have the power to shock and enthrall readers all these years later.

In pop culture, Mr. Poe is most often revered as the master of the macabre, but his pen and his influence reach far beyond that.  He and Nathaniel Hawthorne are credited as the fathers of the American short story.  “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was the first detective story and created the genre.  “The Balloon Hoax” was an early form of science fiction and was an inspiration for Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days.”  His poem, “The Raven” is still one of the most famous poems ever written.

He was born in Boston, was orphaned at age three, and taken in by the Allen family of Richmond, Virginia.  His older brother Henry died young and his sister Rosalie went insane.  He lived in Philadelphia with his wife and mother-in-law, before moving with them to the Bronx, New York.  He was married only once, to his 13-year old cousin Virginia Clemm, who died at age 24 of tuberculosis.  He was an alcoholic and a drug addict and was labeled paranoid and perverse.  The day before he died, he was found on a Baltimore street, delirious, incoherent and wearing clothes that weren’t his.

All five cities have landmarks or museums dedicated to him and the Poe Wars over who gets his corpse (Baltimore has it now) aren’t cold yet.

edgar-allan-poeIn honor of his birthday, I’m happy to share this fantastic party favor, a make-your-own Edgar Allan Poe doll, courtesy of the Toy-A-Day blog. (Caveat: Lots of pop-ups, but definitely worth it.) Mr. Poe might roll his eyes at the frivolity of the gesture, but I like to think it would make him crack a smile.

Resources: Post A Day, Edgar Allan Poe Museum/Richmond, Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Sity/Philadelphia, Edgar Allen Poe Cottage/The Bronx, Edgar Allan Poe Society/Baltimore.

Finding Insight in the Lost Luggage

Courtesy of Unclaimed Baggage CenterA couple months ago when I was flipping through channels looking for something to watch, I found the program, Extreme Superstores on the Travel Channel. Within the first few minutes I got completely caught up in a cross-country shopping spree that included everything from Daffin’s Candy, dubbed the world’s largest candy store, in Sharon, Pennsylvania, to the eight-square mile San Jose Flea Market in California.

The Extreme series picks a theme for each show, e.g., Extreme Mind-Blowing Hotels, Extreme Water Parks, Extreme Pig Out Restaurants, and then tracks down the most over-the-top examples of that theme. With a name like Extreme, the program is practically required to be overly enthusiastic and full of hyperbole, but it’s fun to watch and it’ll perk up even the most dormant travel gene. It certainly got my motor running as I watched the segment on the 20,000 square foot candy store. As an avowed candy junkie, I plan on making a pilgrimage one day soon.

After the candy store, the most interesting shop on the program was also the most unusual one.

Abandoned treasures
As you may have heard, sometimes airlines lose luggage. But what happens to the luggage that is found and can’t be reunited with its owner? That’s where Extreme Superstore No. 4 comes in. The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, buys the orphaned luggage and all of its contents from airlines around the world. They clean it, price it, and sell it to the public. What a great idea. My inner bargain hunter wanted to see what kind of deals I could find, and my inner voyeur was interested in seeing what kind of stories these lost treasures told.

As Hon and I planned our trip west, we kept the store in mind. It would be about two hours out of our way since we weren’t planning on passing through Scottsboro specifically. Other than Unclaimed Baggage, there isn’t much to do in this remote little spot in northern Alabama. Right off the main highway, there’s a Walmart and some restaurants and that’s about it. Once you get into Scottsboro, you have to drive even further to get to Unclaimed Baggage, which sits four miles off the main road, near the site of the original store that opened on a much smaller scale in 1970.

After watching Extreme Superstores, I did some internet research. It turns out the Unclaimed Baggage Center is world renowned. It’s website alone features enthusiastic quotes from World News Tonight, Wall Street Journal, London Free Press, CNN, Vogue, et al. A Google search brings up more than 17,000 results. After reading about all the treasures and the shoppers who visit week after week finding amazing bargains every time, we decided a trip to Scottsboro would be worth the extra miles. We weren’t the only ones. Every year, thousands of visitors from around the world pass through Scottsboro, like so much lost luggage.

Through the front doors
The store’s popularity is often exaggerated in the press with claims that the store hosts a million visitors a year and is the state’s biggest attraction. That’s not quite accurate. A 2008 report from the Alabama Department of Tourism says the Gulf Coast beaches are its biggest draw, bringing in more than 4.5 million visitors in 2007. Unclaimed Baggage welcomed just under 850,000 shoppers, making it the fourth largest shopping destination in the state, behind The Riverchase Galleria in Birmingham, Tanger Outlet Center in Foley, and the Bass Pro Shop in Prattville. Being #4 is not as exciting as being #1, but considering that it is one store, tucked away in a tiny little Alabama town, it’s a pretty impressive feat.

As we were en route, I questioned whether we might be lost ourselves. Our driving lanes kept tapering, first four lanes, then three, two, and one. I checked my iPhone a few times just to make sure we had the correct Unclaimed Baggage Center. Could there be more than one? I didn’t think so, but this seemed like such an unlikely location for a store that garnered international attention. We kept on driving and finally saw the big sign announcing “Unclaimed Baggage Center.” Whew, we made it!

With all the gushing praise from the media, I imagined some kind of neo-bargain basement experience with the secret contents of suitcases and steamer trunks spilling out onto the floor and customers scrambling to get their hands on the best of the booty.

In reality, Unclaimed Baggage is a big thrift store with a lot going for it. Aside from being the black hole for waylaid luggage, the store is as big as a city block, it’s clean and well-organized. Every day, 7,000 items come into the store. Clothing makes up 60% of that, the rest is a mix of electronics, jewelry, bedding, garden tools, skateboards, surf boards, musical instruments, medical instruments, suitcases (empty ones), wedding dresses, travel mugs, paintings, eyeglasses. The list goes on longer than the world’s longest packing list. Yet even with all that inventory, I found a surprising little that interested me enough to warrant a purchase. Maybe I was turned off by the excessive spirit of consumerism all around me, or maybe it was the prices. Considering everything is second-hand, and it’s bought in bulk from an industry that is probably thrilled to be rid of it, the prices were much higher than I expected and that just annoyed me.

As far as finding the stories that these lost treasures told, well, they’ve all been erased, at least as far as I could tell. Everything in the store has been sanitized and de-personalized. Before selling anything to Unclaimed Baggage, the airlines go through their own stringent process of trying to reunite owner and luggage, so most items arriving at the store are already anonymous. Once merchandise arrives, it goes through a thorough check-up and cleaning, so by time it gets to the shelves all identifying marks are long gone.

I’m glad we took the side trip to Scottsboro. We really wanted to see the store so it was worth the effort, but while I was there I felt sad and kind of empty. As I stood looking at a long wall of plastic baggies filled with hundreds of earbuds, adapters, USB plugs, etc., I thought I was feeling sad for the anonymous travelers who once cared enough about these things to pack them up and take them along. Then I realized I was feeling sad about some things in my own life.

Letting go
In packing for our move to Phoenix, I had given away a lot of “stuff” that once meant a lot to me. I knew it was time to let go of these things, but letting go can be hard, even in the best of circumstances. I was feeling the sadness of loss and saying goodbye, not just to things, but to the people back in Baltimore who meant a lot to me: Dennis, Christina, Keith, Megan, Nate, Nicholas.

It’s true I was moving onto another phase of my life that is exciting and full of hope, but I was missing my friends and it hit me right there in front of the earbuds. I let the tears come for a few minutes, until I saw the cutest little tote bag, which was exactly what I needed for the road trip. Not one to dwell in the past, I walked over and checked it out before someone else got their hands on it. Then I went off to explore the rest of the store in hopes of discovering something fantastic like the things I’d seen on Extreme Superstores. Perhaps I’d find a suit of armor or a Barbie doll with $500 stuck in her head.

No luck there, but I did find Hon checking out the tools back in the Annex, a separate building that sells an ever-changing mix of brand new items that come in from unclaimed cargo..

We ended up leaving the store with a $3.99 tote bag for me and a $2 knee brace for Hon’s sore knee. It wasn’t much loot considering all the build-up, but I guess we got what we needed.

After we left the store, I was trying to make a connection between people and travel, the things they take, and the things they lose. I wasn’t looking for a big revelation or the great secret of life. I just wanted a little insight, and after thinking about it for a long time, I got some. It’s this: If you care very much about something, don’t pack it in a suitcase, but if you have to, make sure it’s a carry-on.

A Little Country Gets Into My Soul

Grand Ole Opry on the Ryman StageI’ve never been a country music fan, but our drive from Baltimore to Phoenix took us through Nashville, the country music capital of the world. That isn’t something that would ordinarily draw me in, but since we were nearby and there is a lot of music history there, we wanted to stop.

We only had a few hours to spend, so Hon and I booked Gray Line’s Discover Nashville Tour. We had a great time seeing the city and listening to the commentary of our tour guide Rudy, who had a strong Southern drawl, a huge knowledge of the city and a dry sense of humor that kept us laughing. At one point, Rudy told us about the Nashville Raccoons, the city’s old hockey team that did great at home, but always got killed on the road.

Rim shot, please.

It’s a corny joke, but having a tour guide with Rudy’s knowledge and wit made the tour so much more enjoyable than the standard … “on your right is the blah, blah, blah.” He was friendly and funny and he humanized Nashville in a way that made the city come to life.

Our tour started when Rudy picked us up at the Gray Line office and off we went with about 15 new friends who met the bus at their hotels.

The Mother Church of Country Music
We stayed on the bus through most of the tour, but we were able to walk through some of Nashville’s most legendary sites like the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry gained its fame.
Ryman Auditorium
The Ryman was our first stop and it was there that I started to feel like a visitor in a foreign land. So much of the history … events, names, faces were unfamiliar to me. I knew I was clueless, so when my tour mates oohed and ahhed over something, I made a note to self: Google that. What I was seeing was an important part of American history and I wanted to learn more. Names I had never heard of, like Porter Wagoner, George Morgan, and Red Foley, were treated with such reverence that I’d have to be a complete moron not to realize there is more to country music than heartbroken hillbillies and low-down cheatin’ red-necks.

Stained Glass inside the Ryman Auditorium

The reverent atmosphere in the Ryman is more pronounced because it was built in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. When we first walked into the auditorium we all quieted down, not because we were told to, but because the room still looks just like a church and that was our natural reaction. The original wooden pews are there and provide seating for more than 2,600, and the stained glass windows still paint the room in quiet, colorful strokes of light.

The history of the Ryman itself is pretty remarkable beyond the notoriety the Grand Ole Opry brought in. It was built by riverboat captain Thomas Ryman, a hard-living, hard-drinking business man who owned a few saloons in Nashville and encouraged gambling and drinking on his riverboats. After hearing a sermon by the evangelist Samuel P. Jones, he was so moved he not only repented, he built the Union Gospel Tabernacle as a revival hall for Jones and the largest convention hall in the South. When Ryman died in 1904, the Tabernacle was renamed in his honor.

The Ryman Auditorium, nicknamed the Mother Church of Country Music, was in constant use from 1892, and hosted a remarkable mix of historical figures. President Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryant, and Booker T. Washington all lectured from its stage. World renowned performers like Enrico Caruso, Charlie Chaplin, Sarah Bernhardt, and Mae West performed there.

Despite the high caliber names that streamed across the Ryman stage, it was the Grand Ole Opry that brought it to national prominence. After making its first appearance in 1943, the Grand Ole Opry called the Ryman home until 1974, when it moved it to its current home in the Nashville suburbs.

It didn’t seem to matter how popular it once was, because after the Grand Ole Opry moved on, the Ryman was nearly forgotten. A few movies scenes were shot there and an occasional hard-core fan would tour the building, but beyond that it was vacant and left to decay. By 1991, it had been vandalized many times, there were holes in the roof and floors, and demolition was its likely future.

Then came salvation in the form of Emmylou Harris and her band the Nash Ramblers, who recorded a live album there and reawakened public interest. A year later, concern was so great, owners Gaylord Entertainment agreed to a multi-million dollar renovation, and when the Ryman reopened in 1994, it was with the same glitz and glory that drew in its first capacity crowds. Big name acts were on-stage again and shows quickly sold out.

These days, the Ryman Auditorium still brings in big names. The day we were there, the box office was busy selling tickets for an evening of bluegrass and banjo with Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Roger Daltry will be there in October; Aretha Franklin is coming in April. Even the Grand Ole Opry comes back for a performance every now and then.

Patsy Cline handbillOur tour took us beyond the auditorium to the back hallways where salvaged memorabilia is preserved in glass cases. Old handbills advertise Patsy Cline and an unknown Elvis Presley, who appeared only once at the Opry in 1954 and vowed never to return. Presley’s rockabilly music didn’t impress the audience and afterward Opry manager Jim Denny told him he should go back to his truck-driving career. Sepia-toned photographs show Minnie Pearl, a member of the Opry for 50 years, wearing her trademark $1.98 hat and laughing with her Opry friends. Again, I don’t know a lot of the names, but the vitality and the energy of what happened in the Mother Church of Country Music still shines through.

Today, the Ryman is well-cared for and well-loved. It is one of the most popular concert venues in the country and with it’s been designation as a National Historic Landmark its future is secure.

Back on the Bus
After the Ryman, we boarded the bus to start the driving part of the tour. As capital of Tennessee, Nashville is home to the Tennessee State Capitol, a huge and impressive Greek Revival building that sits high up on a hill overlooking the city. The Capitol was completed in 1859 and was visible from all sides, but a building boom 100 years later obscured the view from all but one side. To preserve the remaining view, plans were developed to build a public park, similar to the National Mall in Washington DC. The result was Bicentennial Mall.

Rivers of Tennessee Fountain

Aside from the Ryman Auditorium, Bicentennial Mall impressed me the most. It is a 19-acre state park that was completed in 1996 to pay tribute to the state’s 200th birthday. We entered the park on the south side where a 200-foot granite map of Tennessee includes every county and waterway in the state.

As we continued through the mall, different areas honor highlights in the state’s history and geography. 31 fountains gushing up from ground level represent the state’s 31 rivers. A 1400-foot granite wall along the west side of the park is engraved with a chronology of world, U.S., and Tennessee history.

The World War II Memorial in Nashville
A memorial to World War II features (get this!) an 18,000 lb. granite globe floating and rotating on 1/8 inch of water. Because the globe floats, visitors can stop it and turn it with their hands to see lines connecting Tennessee to the locations where Tennesseans fought during World War II. It’s a remarkable monument that honors the thousands of Tennesseans who were killed in the war. Along the North end of the Mall, a 95-bell carillon, representing the 95 counties of Tennessee, plays Tennessee Waltz every 15 minutes.

Our tour guide Rudy filled us in on lots of details, and seeing this park from the tour bus had its advantages (comfortable seats, air conditioning, Rudy’s commentary), but this park should be experienced on foot. Every monument is interactive in its subtle way. On the granite map, you’re compelled to walk across the entire state, in the meantime you learn a little about Tennessee’s geography. You can romp through the rivers and walk along its path of history. Visiting this park and simply admiring its sites would be a lovely afternoon, but walking through and getting your hands on, would make for a much more enriching experience.

Ancient Greece in Tennessee
After Bicentennial Mall, we headed to Centennial Park. Oh, Nashville does honor its milestones. Centennial Park is home to one of the more unexpected finds on our tour … The Parthenon. Yes, that Parthenon. Well, kind of.

The centerpiece of Centennial Park is a full-scale ancient Greek building. Seeing that kind of architecture in the middle of a Nashville park was a pretty strange site, but Rudy filled us in as we zipped by on the bus. Nashville built its Parthenon in 1897 to celebrate the state’s Grand Centennial Exposition. It chose to model the Athens original because of its nickname, Athens of the South, earned by the city’s early commitment to higher education.

The Centennial Expo included 36 other structures, all built from temporary materials like plaster and wood, but the Parthenon was the only full size replica. By 1920, all the other Expo buildings were gone and the Parthenon was falling apart. When it came time to decide what to do with it, the public made its wishes known. The building had become a beloved part of Nashville’s personality, so rather than demolish it, the city rebuild it in concrete and made it a permanent part of its landscape. It stands today as the ancient Greek treasure of Centennial Park. It is open to the public and serves as home to the Nashville Art Museum.

A little bit more country
Next up was a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Rudy dropped us off out front and told us to meet him back there in an hour. Some fellow passengers grumbled that an hour wasn’t enough to see everything, and I might have agreed since the Museum is so big, but I’d had my fill of country music at the Ryman and thought an hour would be plenty of time.

It was enough time for me, but country music fans could easily spend hours looking at the exhibits, listening to historic recordings or just browsing through thousands of platinum, gold and silver records that line the walls.

The architecture of the Hall of Fame and Museum is not what you’d call understated, but it is elegant and rich. It’s also true to its roots both musically and geographically. Taking its cue from the music, the façade of the building looks like a piano keyboard, with windows lined up to look like the black keys. The right side of the building arches upward, paying homage to a 1950s Cadillac fin. With the Rotunda on the left and the building curving to the right, the entire complex is shaped like a bass clef.

Inside the Museum, we were directed to start our tour on the third floor and work our way back down to the lobby. We piled into an elevator decorated to look like the inside of a barn … another nod to country music’s roots, and started the tour when the doors opened.

“Sing Me Back Home,” one of the Museum’s permanent exhibits, starts with the evolution of country music as far back as the 19th century and continuing through to today’s country artists. The two-floor exhibit features display cabinets filled with memorabilia and history. Listening booths offer a rare opportunity to listen to crackling old recordings of country music’s earliest creators, and touch-screen kiosks let visitors “interview” their favorite musicians with pre-recorded answers to a surprisingly in-depth set of questions.

Elvis Presley's Gold Piano

Further along the exhibit is a seemingly endless collection of everything Country: Elvis Presley’s gold piano, a very beat-up Martin Guitar belonging to Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams’ custom-made cowboy boots.

Speaking of Hank Williams, the Museum gives a surprising amount of space to the seemingly endless collection of Williams’ wives, supposed wives, children, step-children, unrecognized children, grandchildren, etc., and that was only three generations. That’s in addition to “Family Tradition,” a temporary exhibit on the Williams’ family legacy. It is true that Hank Williams had a huge impact on country music, but even in light of that, I thought the exhibit was a little Jerry Springer-esque and gossipy, and I quickly lost interest.

Walking along the top two floors of the museum, we were able to look into the Frist Library, a two-floor, glass enclosed archive of historical photographs, recordings, films, sheet music, newspapers and more. The Frist Library and Archive is the branch of the Museum that acquires, documents and preserves country music history and makes it available to the public.

In another architectural nod to country music’s geographical roots, the walk down to the main floor follows a long waterfall made of stone from East Tennessee and the flooring is made from southern yellow pine from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

The main floor is home to the Hall of Fame Rotunda, where 108 inductees are honored with brass plaques featuring their names, faces and accomplishments. The inscription, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” from the Carter Family hymn wraps around the room and offers a hopeful link between the long history of country music and its growing future.

We finished our Nashville tour on a low note with a visit to Legends Corner, a famous (I’m not so sure) Broadway honky-tonk. We were herded off the bus and hustled inside for a soft drink and serenade. An earlier tour group was already there, so we settled for bar seating. The serenading was done by a local performer, whose name I’ve forgotten. He had a decent voice and it was nice to get a free soda, but with all the important names and places we had seen on our tour, I felt like we’d had an authentic Nashville experience. This final stop seemed a little too forced and it was a disappointing end to a really interesting tour.

I’m not sure what I thought I would see in Nashville. I don’t think I was expecting to see a bunch of hillbillies sitting around chewing on hay stalks, but I was surprised at how beautiful and well-thought out it is. It’s rich with history, but also very modern and metropolitan. We left that day with a new appreciation for Nashville and a respect for country music that I never had before. I still can’t say I’m a fan, but maybe I am just a little bit.

To see photos that accompany this blog, please visit my photo site:

A Journey Begins

Yesterday was the Big Day, the Giant Leap. It was my last day at Ukazoo Books, where I was store manager for the last two years. Throughout the day, my emotions careened from one extreme to the next, like monkeys swinging wildly through the trees. First, feeling the exhilaration of leaving a job that it’s time to leave, then feeling the heartbreak of saying goodbye to employees who have wormed their way deep into my heart … the little buggers. Then the monkeys took flight again: excitement, then fear, then laughter, then tears, then, well, you get the idea.

After I boxed up the last pictures and chotchkies from my office, I took a long quiet look around the store and remembered some of the best times and some of the worst. It’s been a tumultuous two years, filled with the hard work and frustrations that come with being the manager of a brand new bookstore. It was also filled with the endless enjoyment of being the manager of a brand new bookstore. I’m an unbridled book junkie, so being able to share books, books, books every day with employees and customers AND get paid for it was truly a gift. Amplify that with a group of employees who shared with me more fun, friendship and belly laughs than I ever expected, and it’s easy to see that I had the best job in the world.

Deciding to leave that job took a long time and a lot of thought, but I know I made the right decision. Some meddling misanthropes … Oops, I mean well-meaning, concerned friends, say I should stick around and hold on to a secure job until the economy gets better, but good timing has never been a quality I possess, so I’ve learned to take my chances when a new adventure comes a-calling.

The new adventure is not just another job, but I will be working, hopefully working harder than I ever have, but this time it’s for myself, as a writer. That’s right! I said it! I’m taking time to work on my writing and get back to the career path I abandoned 20 years ago when I left a job as a newspaper reporter. This time I’ll work on both fiction and non-fiction, and this time I won’t take for granted how much I love to write. If being a bookstore manager is the best job in the world, than being a writer is the OTHER best job in the world. Lucky me, I’ve been able to do both.

I’m going to be starting this figurative journey with a literal one when Max and I move to Arizona next week. Yes, Arizona. Yes, we’re moving in the middle of the summer, and yes, average temperatures this time of year range from 110 to 115. (You may be starting to see what I mean about my timing.) In the end it doesn’t matter when I do this, it just matters that I do it. So, I’ll do it indeed, with anticipation and gratitude and the excitement of beginning a new chapter (I believe it’s chapter 92 or thereabouts) in this surprisingly fascinating, complicated and ever-changing life of mine.

Bonaparte Breads: Ooo La La

If only there weren’t a trillion calories in a croissant and two trillion calories in pain chocolate, I would visit Bonaparte every day. Bonaparte is very nearly the perfect cafe (perfection would require wi-fi and more computer friendly tables). But I’ll take the near perfection that they offer over most other Fells Point coffee houses.

The coffee is brought to the table for you and served in a French cup and saucer with hot steamed milk instead of cream — very nice touch. They also bring you whatever tasties you’ve ordered at the counter. In addition to perfect croissants, Bonaparte offers sandwiches, breads, soups and a daily quiche. I’m so enamored of the croissants and pain chocolate that I haven’t gotten around to ordering anything else.

Service is generally a positive, although there is one server (possibly the manager?) who can be a grouch, but I figure she’s probably been there since 3 a.m. baking those perfect croissants, so she’s earned her grouchiness (just keep it away from me, please). The other servers are friendly and attentive, but sometimes have a hard time keeping up with the crowd at the counter and serving the coffee table-side. It’s not an aggravation though because Bonaparte is not a rush-in and rush-out kind of place. It’s a slow-down and enjoy kind of place.

The atmosphere is lovely, very French, nicely decorated (aside from the plastic folding chairs stacked up near the front doors), classical music piped in, and a view of Fell’s Point and the harbor. It’s such a relaxing environment that even the cell-phone junkies seem to understand that they should put away the appendage for a few minutes once they’ve entered Bonaparte’s front doors. That alone would make Bonaparte a favorite spot, but since it’s got so much more going for it, the unspoken no-cell law is just a bonus.

Bonaparte Breads is located at 903 South Ann Street (Fells Point) Baltimore, MD 21231. They are open daily, 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. 410.342.3000.

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What’s French for “Dang, That’s a Big Steak?”

Hon and I went to Brasserie Tatin for a celebration dinner. (I finished the first draft of my first novel.) I had been wanting to try it since moving to Baltimore more than a year ago, and I’m so glad we finally checked it out.

It was a very quiet night … maybe three or four other tables were occupied.  It was also a very cold night, so walking in and seeing a fireplace at the far end of the dining room was warming and welcoming.  The decor is fairly low key … modern, elegant, but not stuffy.  It was a comfortable environment, although on a busier night, I can imagine that it feels overcrowded as the tables are close together.

The service was very good, friendly and knowledgeable. I got the sense that even if it had been a busier night, our server would have been just as attentive.

Now for the food.  For starters, I got the French Onion Soup or Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée.  It was perfect, and if it hadn’t been such a classy joint, Hon and I probably would have licked the bowl.  Hon got the soup du jour, which was a cream of parsnip soup.  Sounded positively awful to me, but he loved it.  Said it was a very rich, full flavor.

On to the entrees: I was looking forward to the veal scallopini that is (still) listed on their online menu.  I was disappointed to see it wasn’t on the regular menu. Instead, I went with a standby favorite, the New York Strip steak.  When the server brought it out I almost started laughing. I know that some people believe size matters, but this steak was enough to feed three people.  It was served on top of mashed potatoes and squash with bernaise on the side. I was a little concerned that the steak might be tough or not cooked well enough because of the size, but every bite of it (including the bites that lasted for two more meals!) was delicious and perfectly done.  Even when I think back on it now, I laugh because it looked like an entire side of beef on my plate!

Hon got the Seared Diver Scallops, which were also Amazon-sized. Again, there was a concern about them being too tough or chewy, as larger scallops can be, but these were fresh, tender and delicious.  They were seasoned just right and the sweet succulence of the scallops really came through with the flavor of the buerre blanc sauce.

After such a wonderful meal, I was very excited about dessert.  We selected the seasonal sorbets, which, pardon the pun, left me cold. The tastes were either too strong, too sweet or too strange for me.  We also got the restaurant’s namesake, and the reason for my wanting to check this place out … the tarte tatin, which, after creme brulee, is my favorite dessert.

I almost don’t want to say it, but I was disappointed in it.  It had a bit of a leftover taste to it..  The pastry wasn’t flaky and light the way it should be.  It was more dense, cakelike and soggy. The caramelization had gone a touch too far and seemed overly sweet and crystallized.

You definitely pay for the experience of dining at Brasserie Tatin, it is expensive, but we were celebrating and Hon was splurging on me, so we dug in and enjoyed it!

I don’t want to end this review on a bad note, because overall it was a very good experience.  I’d even be willing to try it again, but next time we’ll finish off with the creme brulee.

Brasserie Tatin is located at 105 W 39th St., Baltimore, MD 21210. They are open Sunday and Monday, 5:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.; Tuesday to Thursday, 5:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. They serve Sunday brunch from 11:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. 443.278.9110. www.brasserietatin.com

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Beautiful Burgers in Baltimore

Five Guys Burgers & Fries

Just after moving to Baltimore I told my Hon I had a craving for a great burger.  He told me to leave everything to him. He was taking me to Five Guys Burgers & Fries in Canton and he assured me I’d have the best burger blast I’ve ever had. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but I went with it.

When he told me Five Guys was a chain, of sorts, my trust faltered even further, but I kept my mouth shut and my mind open.

Then I opened my mouth. I had to!  The burger that was put before me was without question, beautiful! It was big, beefy, sloppy and loaded with my favorite toppings. And it was the best burger I have ever had!  It was fresh, perfectly cooked, and D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S! 

I chose the regular hamburger, which I learned was actually two hamburgers on one bun. Daintier appetites can go for a “Little,” which is one burger. Heartier apps can opt for bacon, cheese or both. For toppings, I went with the basics: onion, pickle, ketchup.  Hon got his burger loaded with the big 5 … grilled onions, tomato, mushrooms, relish, lettuce. 

All toppings are free and plentiful, and also include mayo, raw onion, mustard, jalapenos, green peppers, A-1 Sauce, BBQ, or hot sauce.

We shared a (ha ha) small order of fries, which were enough to comfortably feed four.  Fries were amazing, too, and even though it was such a big order, we managed to eat them all and didn’t  finish until we sucked every last bit of salt off our greasy fingers.

Before our burgers were cooked and bagged up, we feasted on a handful of serve yourself peanuts. That was unexpected and fun and it’s a daily amenity at Five Guys. They get bonus points, too, for serving Coke products, instead of Pepsi.

Five Guys is not fancy.  You place your order at the counter and they call your number when it’s done.  Whether you eat in or take out, your order is served up in a brown paper bag with a fistful of napkins. The music is always obnoxiously loud and the counter guy is usually grumpy, but who cares!  These are fantastic burgers and I’d gladly suffer more abuse for a lesser burger. Don’t expect conversation because aside from the loud music, once dinner is served everyone will be too intimately involved with their burgers to be distracted with any conversation beyond, “Mmmm,” “Oh my God,” and “Can you pass the ketchup?”  

I’ve been back to the Five Guys in Canton and their various locations many times and it has always been an excellent, extraordinarily filling meal at a budget price.  If you’re feeling hungry enough, add a hot dog to your order.  They’re super, too!

The Canton location at 3600 Boston Street, Baltimore, is open daily 11 am to 10 pm. 410-522-1580. For other locations, and more info, check in at www.fiveguys.com.

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