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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Pour Some Sugar on Me

The line between what we put in our bodies and what we put on our bodies continues to be muddied.

Witness chocolate perfume, as pimped in this month’s Intermezzo magazine. According to a little blurb therein, Boston-based chocolatier Temper Chocolates has joined forces with smelly San Francisco perfumer Yosh Han.

Some of you might run screaming from the room, bellowing, “Hey, you got your perfume in my chocolate!” Others will surely insist, “You got your chocolate in my perfume!” However, the fact remains that three kinds of chocolate perfume will be emanating soon from a body near you. Intermezzo describes the three varieties:

01’s inspiration is a chocolate-dipped, ginger-encrusted Asian pear; 02 fuses the mystery of jasmine with the sumptuousness of dark chocolate; 03 is reminiscent of sensual Bordeaux with cocoa undertones.

“Encrusted”? “Mystery”? “Sensual”? Are they perfumes or Danielle Steele novels?

Next up is the caffeinated bar of soap on the ever-fabulous and fascinating Think Geek, the e-retail site that sells all you ever need to dress, think, play, and live like a geek. The idea of caffeinated soap calls to mind those old Zest commercials where just ripping open a bar of blue soap is enough to send the Average Joe or Jill into a sudsy frenzy of work-happy wakefulness.

Think Geek always has a sense of humor about their products, which has the effect of really making you believe them. Check out their description of ShowerShock:

Scented with peppermint oil and infused with caffeine anhydrous, each bar of Shower Shock contains approximately 12 servings/showers per 4 ounce bar with 200 milligrams of caffeine per serving. No, we’re not kidding and no you don’t eat it. The caffeine is absorbed through the skin.

Now I have to go on a run, so I’m off to rub a Mr. Goodbar under my armpits.

Oh, My Darling Clementine

“Getting to Know Citrus Fruits” is the sawdust-dry headline for an explainer in the January/February edition of Cook’s Country. But there’s something oddly compelling about this collection of tasting notes on everything from the semi-exotic Ugli Fruit to workaday Persian limes.

Like picking up an old hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica and just plowing through the data, reading this periodic table of citrus fruit has a certain kind of wonky sex appeal—it’s nerd catnip.

Blood oranges? “Winy and complex.” Meyer lemons? “Assertively acidic.” Key limes? “Earthy-floral.” The tasting notes are brief, but accompanied by the full-color fruit photos (whole and sliced), they pack a relatively hefty informational wallop.

And if you ever happen to need to know the difference between the taste profiles of tangelos and pummelos, Cook’s Country has you covered.

Crossing the Mars Bar

To follow up one bit of tastelessness with even more tastelessness, I can now update my previous post in which I wondered about Saddam Hussein’s last meal.

Ynetnews.com is the English-language sister site to Ynet, Israel’s leading news site, and they reported that Saddam liked to eat hamburgers and fries, and deliberately chose Western fare during his last days.

However, the site Dead Man Eating had a different menu recorded:

Hussein had a final meal request of boiled chicken and rice. With the food he drank several cups of hot water laced with honey. It was a drink which dated back to his childhood.

Slight difference of opinion between those two.

Speaking of Dead Man Eating, back in December, Mike Randleman, the creator of the last-meals site, came on KCRW’s radio show Good Food to talk about his website. During the interview, Mike revealed an intensely poignant last-meal request he discovered in his research. Ohio inmate Robert Buell’s only request for food on his last night on this earth was a single black olive with the pit intact. Upon further research, Randleman discovered that Buell was honoring Victor Ferguer, the last person executed by the federal government until Timothy McViegh. Ferguer had requested an unpitted olive before his execution in 1963 because, as Ferguer told prison officials, it was his hope that when his body decomposed, an olive tree would sprout and grow as a sign of peace.

Halal à Go-Go

Fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, Subway, and Kentucky Fried Chicken are customizing their menus to target a new kind of customer: Islamic individuals looking for a meal on the go.

As reported in the Chicago Tribune (requires registration) and the National Restaurant News blog, several chain restaurants are revamping their menus to include dishes that follow Islamic dietary rules. This means that meat must be halal—slaughtered according to certain rules. Thus far the experiment has been limited to a few outlets located near large Muslim populations in New Jersey, Chicago, and Dearborn, Michigan.

But the combination of halal and large-scale fast food has run into problems. For meat to be truly halal, it must be slaughtered by hand and prayed over, something that is difficult to do in the quantity needed. As the Chicago Tribune article reports, “Muslims are divided about whether that can be reconciled with poultry-plant practices of machine-slaughter and stunning the animal before slaughter.”

Some companies claim that, while machine slaughtered, their meat is halal, but Syed Rasheeduddin Ahmed, founder and president of the Muslim Consumer Group, doesn’t believe it. “The machine slaughters 142 chickens per minute,” Ahmed said. “He cannot say ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is great] for each one.”

Some chains, such as Brown’s Chicken, are going out of their way to uphold the strictest halal standards when it comes to meat (called zabihah), since it is in their interest to do so. “The Muslim community is growing, and they’re looking to eat American-type food,” said Frank Portillo, president of Brown’s. “It’s just a real growth market.” The chickens that Brown’s buys for their halal outlets are grain fed and hand slaughtered.

But don’t look for halal meals at your neighborhood McDonald’s just yet. For a restaurant to be considered halal, it must not serve pork, and I can’t see Mickey D’s taking those Egg McMuffins off the menu any time soon.

Simmer, Don’t Shiver

January has brought a chill to lots of the country—even California!—and newspapers are breaking out the warming winter-soup recipes.

The Seattle Times takes classic chicken soup around the world with variations like Peruvian chicken soup with cashews and Burmese chicken-coconut soup.

In the upper Midwest, where the dark and cold are extreme, they don’t fool around. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune goes straight for the comfort-carbs jugular with recipes for a bacon-laced “Good Ole Potato Soup.” Meanwhile, even single diners need some warmth, so Detroit’s “Cooking for One” columnist, Curtrise Garner, whips up a batch of corn chowder that “allows [her] to snuggle on the couch, eat this simple but filling dish and fall fast asleep while watching reruns.” Sounds like a perfect way to hibernate the winter blues away.

And then there’s Florida. It may occasionally get cold enough to break out the smudge pots there, but judging from the Miami Herald’s recipe for an abomination called pizza soup, they don’t quite have the soup thing down yet.

Mmmm, More Stamps, Please!

The arrival of 4705, the Year of the Pig, is on its way, and China is celebrating with mouth-watering scratch-’n’-sniff postage stamps. Scratch the cute, chubby pig on the front, and you’ll get a wave of sweet-and-sour pork aroma.

OK, that’s tasty, but not exactly news; Britain’s Royal Mail introduced a eucalyptus-scented stamp way back in 2001. Last year, Australia offered a rose-scented stamp for Valentine’s Day, while Switzerland did chocolate and Hong Kong green tea.

What’s truly brilliant about the Chinese promotion comes on the flip side. Lick the stamp to stick it, and you’ll actually taste that same sweet-and-sour pork—or a chemical facsimile thereof, since gluing an actual piece of pork to each stamp would be, you know, messy. Not to mention lumpy.

Alas, the stamps are only available in China, where they’ll be for sale starting on February 18 to herald the arrival of the Lunar New Year. If you’re heading to China soon, enjoy them; we don’t think 4706, the Year of the Rat, will get the same treatment.

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Belfast and Up North to Down East

Belfast, Maine

This tree, on a residential lawn, greets you as you head into downtown Belfast:

Virginia may be for lovers, but Maine is for cookie lovers. I haven’t had a bad cookie since I entered the state, and, sure enough, the ones at Weaver’s Bakery (101 Main Street, Belfast, Maine; 207-338-3540), an otherwise unexceptional-seeming luncheonette, were charming, unaffected, and irresistible.

I’m accustomed to big-city cookies, which, like big-city muffins, come in on the big truck. Even if they’re baked in-store, they’re nearly always made from that same cynical industrial batter.

But the SYSCO trucks seem not to make it up this far. This forces cookie bakers to actually bake cookies. While the cookies at Weaver may lack artistry, they are honest. And in a cookie, honesty is all that counts. All cookies ask is that you be non-evil in their preparation.

Doesn’t this photo (if you click to larger view) make you sigh?

Across from Weaver’s is Chase’s Daily (96 Main Street, Belfast, Maine; 207-338-0555).

This is a neo-hippie market/bakery/restaurant/coffeehouse.

You can best grok the vibe via close examination of one of their napkins:

You don’t see napkins like this in New York City.

Per last night’s podcast, I’d been craving simplicity and heathfulness, so Chase’s Daily seemed a gift from heaven. I ordered the dullest, most earth-motherest thing on the menu: curried parsnip soup.

Well, I got my wish. This is food as nutrition. I probed for subtleties but tasted only … parsnips. I’d like to send one of those New American Cuisine believers in “using good ingredients and getting out of the way” to a place like this—where people really walk that walk. Cookies may benefit from being left alone to be cookies, but they’re unique. Parsnips, like most things, need help. Artifice is required to transform them into deliciousness.

By contrast, the fried-egg sandwich (with breadcrumbs, sautéed greens, and Grafton cheddar on grilled semolina bread) was also guileless, but value was injected via cannily chosen ingredients and stupefyingly perfect balance. The result: an unpretentious wonder I’ll forever crave:

Pastries were ambivalent. The bakers have more pretension than the cooks, so this stuff doesn’t know whether it wants to be voluptuous or ascetic. I tasted a bunch of these things, and none were memorable.

Scoops & Crepes (35 Main Street, Belfast, Maine; 207-338-3350) is a relaxed trippy café with counter service and an old upright piano. It’s open all winter.

The blueberry ice cream was extraordinary, redolent with mobs of intensely flavored wild blueberries. Not very sweet, this was obviously a blueberry lover’s ice cream made by blueberry lovers, with skill and love.

For lunch I hit Just Barb (24 Main Street, Stockton Springs, Maine; 207-567-3886), which makes peppery, soulful fish (haddock) chowder, though you have to really bear down to appreciate the subtle flavors. I’m finding that as I go north, flavors, like Mainers themselves, express themselves more recalcitrantly. You must slow down, look deep, and be patient.

Just Barb’s also makes great strawberry shortcake, even out of season. It’s all about the biscuits, and they’ve mastered them. The big problem, here and everywhere, is Cool Whip. Cool Whip is to New England what instant mashed potatoes are to the South. New Englanders love pie, cobbler, and shortbread—all of which involve whipped cream—as much as southerners love mashed potatoes. So why does seemingly everyone serve Cool Whip?

From Stockton Springs it was a long, long drive up to Machias, near the Canadian border. I’m finally Down East—a wry Maine term that actually refers to Up North. The foliage has been breathtaking all the way from Connecticut, but I’ve refrained from compulsively shooting photos of trees. Since things seem to be coming to a peak, color-wise, I offer just this one representative shot, taken in a minuscule settlement in an unthinkably remote forest at the very top of Maine:

Helen’s Restaurant (28 East Main Street [Route 1], Machias, Maine; 207-255-8423) is right on the coast, nearly as far up as you can go without being policed by guys in red coats.

Helen’s scallop stew was a masterpiece of understatement. Puffy, meltingly fresh and tender scallops float happily in a thin, weak, slightly buttery milky broth, which delicately cradles them. You taste an echo of scallop in that broth—attenuated but dead-on faithful. Even the salting is disarmingly restrained. It’s not one grain past the point of just-barely-salty-enough.

I’m not sure when New England decided Westminster All Natural Oyster Crackers were the one and only oyster crackers. I’ve been served them literally everywhere, but Helen’s alone serves old-fashioned Saltines (so I shot this photo elsewhere):

Helen’s lobster roll is fully doctrinaire, containing a merely generous portion of lobster, ample mayo, and honest-to-goodness hot dog bun. Pat Hammond would be happy!

Strawberry pie was delicious, but from a dessert galaxy I’d not previously visited. Take a look at the photos. It required lots of shots from several angles at several stages of consumption:

You can mail-order their wild-blueberry pies via Helen’s website.

Machias Motor Inn, which appears to be a sparkling-clean, inexpensive, and well-maintained motor court, is right next door. What a great vacation it’d be to stay at this place and just eat three meals a day at Helen’s!

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One troubling non-food observation. I stayed in several B&Bs run by harried city folks who had moved to Maine to chill out. I noticed something terrifying about them: Without exception, all seem to have brought their harriedness with them. You can always spot the urban escapees up here—they’re the ones who are high-strung and tightly wound. I suppose the cliché is true: You can run, but you can’t hide.

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The Chow Not Eaten

These are places in Maine I passed but didn’t try, or was tipped to by friend—or friends of friends, or found on Chowhound or elsewhere. I haven’t eaten in any of these places, so none of the descriptions or opinions are mine:

Bangor: Friar’s Bake House. (Run by monks! Breakfast and lunch only.)

Belfast: Singh Thai.

Belfast: White House B&B.

Brunswick: Wild Oats Bakery in the Tontine Mall. (“A homegrown, community oriented gathering place with a huge selection of homemade goods, including fresh baked goods and bread, cakes and pastries, healthy soups and hearty sandwiches.”)

Hallowell (near Augusta): Liberal Cup. (“For fine hand-crafted brews and superior pub food.”)

Old Orchard Beach: Mary Anne’s. (“Excellent pancakes, full of locals.”)

Searsport: Rhumb. (“Good upscale place.”)

Waterville: Bolley’s. (“Awesome french fries and hot dogs.”)

Waterville: North Street Dairy Cone. (“The world’s best fresh-banana ice cream and homemade cookie dough ice cream. Grapenut is a New England specialty flavor that is also very good here. Also peanut butter or peanut butter choc chip.”)

Winslow (one town over from Waterville): Big G’s. (“A favorite breakfast and lunch destination. Creative, fresh, ENORMOUS sandwiches, home made bread and desserts. And low prices.”)

Tips from my friend Jon Kalish:

Belfast: The Wealthy Poor House (70 Church Street; 207-338-4578). (“A B&B with amazing blueberry pancakes.”)

Bethel: DiCocoa’s Market Bakery/Cafe DiCocoa (119 and 125 Main Street). (“For good coffee and wonderful lunch—including awesome spicy African peanut soup.”)

Tips from Elizabeth Bougerol, author of New England’s Favorite Seafood Shacks, whose website, by the way, is Clamlove.com:

Boothbay Harbor: “Go to the Ebb Tide on Commercial Street. You’ll know it by the striped awning. Probably the peach shortcake will be off the menu (because it’s not peach season), regrettably. No matter. The place rocks.”

Harpswell: Dolphin Chowder House: “This diner is seriously out of the way, but the fish chowder. Oh, the fish chowder. I can’t stop the tears.”

Port Clyde: The General Store: “Haddock chowder. Try it if you’re nearby.”

Wells: Maine Diner: “Ignore the gift shop. Ignore the ‘As seen on the Today Show’ banner. If you’re on Route 1 heading through, stop in and ask for Myles Henry, who owns the place with his brother. He’s a Mainer and a font of information about great Maine food. Ask him to tell you the story of the guy who used to own the place and the waitress who worked for him. Also, if you eat here: lobster pie. It’s made with tomalley.”

Coke and Peanuts!

Coke and peanuts has been a southern treat for decades. RC Cola was used for this snack in a bottle too. As strange as it sounds, this combination of salty and sweet is really good.

Take a few swigs of coke to make room for a good amount of peanuts. You can add more as you drink. The idea is to have a mouthful of coke, including some nuts to chew. Don’t add too many nuts, or the coke will foam all over the place.

For the optimum experience, use coke in bottles made with cane sugar.

Debbie M says the book White Trash Cooking has a recipe for Coke and peanuts called “The Quick Pick Me Up” and a diet version that calls for Tab and dry-roasted peanuts!

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Coke and peanuts