Thursday, September 4, 2014

Mount Vernon on the Fourth of July

(Hello there! After a long sabbatical to move from Europe back to the States and several family milestones, I'm returning to Forks in the Road. Now based in D.C., I'll be writing about the seemingly infinite historical and otherwise noteworthy sites here. Please feel free to recommend a place to visit in the comments. I'd love to hear your suggestions and thoughts. Thanks for visiting!)

I'd venture that the D.C. area has more options for celebrating the Fourth of July than any city in the world, as it should. The obvious destination is the National Mall, with fireworks launched from the Reflecting Pool and memorable viewing spots like the Lincoln Memorial. But if you have a little one in tow, who goes to sleep long before the sparkling bombardment, I'd direct you south of the city, to George Washington's estate, Mount Vernon.

Unlike the National Mall celebration, Mount Vernon isn't free, but it is packed opening to closing time with festivities: a patriotic concert, greetings by "General Washington" and Mrs. Washington," military re-enactments, a "Happy Birthday, America" birthday cake, a naturalization ceremony. And fireworks—daytime fireworks.

A slice of America's birthday cake
Waiting around to begin the fireworks

Drumroll, please...

And the fireworks! Small and colorless, they were still impressive for their daylight novelty.

A burst overhead with a bang, far less fierce than the usual baby-unfriendly cacophony.

The fireworks were fixed to 1 p.m.—if you lollygagged around the grounds, you'd be sure to miss the brief display. We were 15 minutes late to the wheat demonstration and missed it entirely. But many other sights had no schedule at all. We wandered around the farm areas to find sheep and horses and made our way down a wooded path to the founding father's final resting place.

The modest tomb is nestled quietly away. Even on a landmark day with a steady stream of visitors, the wait was minimal.

The grounds also include a slave memorial and burial ground and a reconstruction of Washington's wharf on the Potomac River. Tickets include a tour (timed, so you need to reserve a spot when you purchase your ticket) of the Mount Vernon Mansion and admission to the distillery, gristmill, museum, and education center.

The 21-room mansion at Mount Vernon
We've heard that Christmas time is spectacular at Mount Vernon, so we'll be back. The only drawback to a July visit is the searing sun, unavoidable on the vast grounds with little shade. In the winter, the sun will be welcome, and, we imagine, the grounds quieter. 

5 Tips for the Next Fourth of July
  1. Bring water—outside food isn't allowed, but water bottles are. Use the water fountains to refill.
  2. Reserve a table at the Mount Vernon Inn. (We ate at the food court, which was chaotic, noisy, and unmemorable.) The inn serves grits from the Mount Vernon gristmill, and the Virginia peanut soup gets raves on Yelp.
  3. Come early. The parking lots filled up fast. We had to park on the side of the road, about a mile away. Shuttle buses were available at some outlying parking lots, but they didn't seem stroller friendly. (Strollers are allowed on the grounds but not on the mansion tour.)
  4. Don't be late for scheduled events. Most things stayed on schedule and went by swiftly.
  5. If you are a local, consider purchasing the annual pass at $28. So long as you visit one more time, you'll save money, and you won't feel pressured to cram in the entire estate in one day. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

5 Foods to Try in Southern Germany

We miss our time in Germany—the gracious, reserved people, the amazing access to travel in Europe, the world-class public transportation, the magnificent centuries-old cathedrals, the luscious art. And the food.

If you find yourself in Germany, especially southern Germany, do try:

1) Butter bretzels
A chive butter bretzel from Yorma's.

Double-up the B: It's not pretzel in Germany, but bretzel.

I long for this soft, doughy 1€ treat, sort of the German breakfast on-the-run equivalent of our bagel. Bakeries on every corner sell them, freshly made that day. You can get them even a little cheaper plain ("normale"), but I wouldn't skip that smear of rich European butter. Look for the Yorma's chain (central train stations often have this quick eatery) for the chive variation, which is extra delicious.

2) Maultaschen

Maultaschen topped with gobs of caramelized onions, plus a heaping side of Kartoffelsalat.

A specialty of Baden-Württemberg, home of Stuttgart, Maultaschen is similar to an oversized dumpling, the Germany's version of stuffed pasta. Legend—perhaps urban myth—claims that monks invented Maultaschen to hide meat from God's watchful eyes on Fridays during Lent. And Maultaschen is often stuffed with minced meat and herbs, though I've had a tasty vegetarian version with tomato sauce, very unusual. Maultaschen soup is a menu fixture; the dumplings float in a savory brown broth. Often, the pasta comes with bronzed caramelized onions on top and a side of Kartoffelsalat. My go-to item at a traditional German restaurant.

3) Kartoffelsalat

Kartoffel = potato; salat = salad. It is what is says, only the version in southern Germany is liable to be made with vinegar rather than dosed with the familiar American mayo. The potatoes are cooked, sliced thinly, and then marinated in a vinegar dressing. If you like vinegar, definitely try Kartoffelsalat; if you despise vinegar, take a pass.

4) Käsespätzle 

An order of Käsespätzle—cheesy German dumplings—with onions and herbs.

Spätzle is a popular mini dumpling dish in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and surrounding border towns. In southern Germany, especially near Stuttgart, Käsespätzle—cheese dumplings—is on all the menus. Think of it as an adult mac and cheese, with soft thin, doughy strips rather than macaroni pasta, perhaps peaked with a dreamy pile of caramelized onions.

5) Beer

That's Hefeweizen on the right (wheat beer, unfiltered—see how opaque it is? ),  and I'm guessing a pilsner-style beer on the left. And, of course, a wurst (sausage) front and center.

Beer is a revelation in Germany (and Belgium). Even if you think the fizzy gold stuff is horrendous in the States, I'd strongly encourage you to try a sip or two in Germany. Beer (bier) there has none of the bitter hoppy aftertaste or odd chemical tinge. My favorite brews are the fest beers, crafted just for Oktoberfest or spring fest (Frühlingsfest). Served up in nearly cartoonish 1-liter mugs, the beer is so fresh and light than even I could down a entire liter. And many fest-goers, of course, put away several liters, and rarely with a hangover to show for it. Magical.

Which beer? Tasting something great is not so complex as ordering at a fancy craft beer shop in the States. The choices are usually limited to one brand in a few varieties. Whatever is on draft is usually terrific and fresh. Hefeweizen (wheat beer) is common in southern Germany, light, sweet, often with a slight bit of banana flavor. I'm a weird banana-averse gal, so I prefer Kristalweizen, a filtered Hefeweizen that's a little smoother.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thanksgiving turkey in Berlin

The Berliner Dom, Protestants' reply to St. Peter's Basilica, and Berlin's TV tower.
We took our first trip to Berlin over Thanksgiving, a flight to a real big city, where people jaywalk (yes, even Germans!) and buses employ their horns. After endless idyllic villages, I found the loud, gloomy city oddly comforting.

Checkpoint Charlie. In Berlin, dusk is just a deeper shade of gray.
Any construction-smitten little boy would find plenty of toys in construction-riddled Berlin.

On the fourth Thursday in November, I wish we had been seated around a dining table with our families. I dreamt of a great turkey resting on a platter, its skin crispy and glistening. My mom's pecan pie, its rich layer of sugary sweetness topped with a pebbled roof of pecans.

But instead, since we couldn't teleport ourselves across the Atlantic, I instead hunted for an American Thanksgiving dinner. At least let me fool my taste buds.

We took a tour of the Reichstag, the Berlin parliament building. It's free, but you must schedule ahead online. The dome emits sci-fi coolness at night.

But where does one find Thanksgiving in Berlin?

Ja. It's as American as you can get.
If nothing else, you can count on Hard Rock Cafe to be predictable.

I wish they'd turn the dang music down. But perhaps that's all in the American ambience.

My Thanksgiving supper, 2012

So I'd say, if you find yourself in Berlin on a certain Thursday, you can do far worse than this respectable platter for 17€. (26,50€ for three courses – add corn chowder and pumpkin pie.). The turkey was meaty, the mashed potatoes luscious, the green beans a near perfect replica of my mother's. 

But alas. There was no pecan pie.