The Hobo News

The Hobo NewsOne day my husband, David, came home with The Hobo News.  In return for the dollar he had given to a panhandler on the street, he received a hand-folded, stapled leaflet. Inside were poems, drawings, thoughts, ideas and stories “written, distributed and printed by the homeless” – an attempt to enlighten a mostly disinterested public.

Such a variety of stuff: 10 questions for a local police officer; an Ask Bella column (a la Dear Abby); poetry, and a crass political cartoon. There was even a word search entitled “Death to all who oppose me.” Spend a few minutes circling words like alcohol, privacy, tribe, xcon, and fight.

The Hobo News got me thinking about all the characters I pass on the street during my daily walks to and from the office. Familiar faces, greetings, requests. I stop occasionally and contribute a buck, but I have yet to receive the next issue of The Hobo News. Here’s hoping.

One familiar face on Exchange Street is a women panhandler who always stands just about halfway between my office entrance and Starbucks. This means I walk by her often. On one particularly freezing afternoon, I offered to get her a cup of coffee.

“Oh thank you. I take it with seven sugars and seven creamers,” she said. Seven sugars? Seven creamers? Okay, one person’s caffeine fix is another person’s calorie fix.

On to Starbucks where I aimed to please. I stood at the side counter hoping no one would notice me tearing open seven sugar packets and emptying them into the same cup. Then I poured in what I hoped would be about seven creamer’s worth of white stuff, burning my hands as the hot coffee overflowed its cup. I managed to get the lid on and carried my coffee and hers back onto the street.

I handed her the coffee, but instead she asked me to pour it into her own well-worn to-go cup. “I don’t want anyone to see me carrying a Starbucks cup. They’ll think I have the money to buy coffee.”

Of course. Image is all, even when you are trying to keep afloat by panhandling on the street. Or maybe especially then. Because the public has no mercy.

I choose Starbucks over Dunkin’ Donuts because, well, that’s my brand. She, on the other hand, can’t be seen drinking Starbucks because it would hurt her brand. And she has a lot to lose.

If I were writing for the Hobo News, this is a story I would tell.

Welcome to Porkland, Maine

Americans have been bacon crazy for a long time now. I’m waiting for this fad to pass onto the “meh” list, but it only seems to be intensifying, especially in Portland, Maine. The two items you’ll find on most Portland restaurants are Brussels sprouts and anything made with pork. How did this happen?  I mean, Lobsters R Us.

I couldn’t be happier about the sprouts. I credit chefs Dan Sriprasert and Bob Wongsaichua who own two great Portland restaurants, the Green Elephant and Boda, for spreading the Brussels sprouts religion. Most people wouldn’t have been caught dead eating Brussels sprouts as a kid, but now we Portlanders are gobbling them up like candy. This is good news, because Brussels sprouts are a cruciferous veggie associated with lowering cholesterol, guarding against cancer, and even protecting DNA.

But pork?  Masa Miyake’s restaurants (Miyake and Pai Men) do a marvelous job with Brussels sprouts but pork is their pride and joy. This is because they raise their own hogs at Miyake Farm. (They probably grow their sprouts there, too, but it’s the pork they crow about. Mixed metaphor?)

Sometimes for us non-meat-eaters, who have to navigate menus carefully for salads without bacon bits, the proliferation of pork items can seem like an assault. But when the dishes are in another language it’s not so bad. Pai Men’s Yaki buta or the Cotelette du porc next door at Petite Jacqueline’s, for example.

I recently visited the cute new restaurant on Dana Street called Blue Rooster Food Co. There were the required Brussels sprouts on the chalkboard menu. And there were, as expected, many pork items, all with very cute names. There was the Crafty Swine and the Three Little Pigs, and a lot of specialty dogs (i.e. pork and beef) with cute names like Barking Dog and Junkyard Dog.

From the Portland Press Herald, 7/29/13
From the Portland Press Herald, 7/29/13

Enough with the pork already. I am not out to change pork eaters into vegans, but yesterday’s Portland Press Herald had a story about a group of scientists and animal advocates who would like to make us think differently about pigs and other farm animals that we eat.

Lori Marino, at Emory University, is the lead researcher on The Someone Project, which is trying to illuminate the emotional lives of highly intelligent animals like pigs. It’s sponsored by Farm Sanctuary (which does want to turn you into a vegan), and the idea is to get people to reject eating pigs in the same way they would reject eating cats or dogs.

Personally I would love to see less pork on Portland menus. As much as I admire Masa Miyake, and am proud to have his restaurants in Portland, Maine, I am all for the Someone Project. I think these clever chefs could come up with some variations on Brussels sprouts that would be welcome, too. Cute names might help.

Six hours north…

If you want to get away, you can drive south from Portland, ME and be in the Big Apple in just under 6 hours. Or, you can drive north and be in Montreal in just under 6 hours. Go north! It’s a foreign country and a lot cheaper and quicker to get to than France.

They speak a different language, they use a different currency (worth slightly more than ours last I checked) and the food is magnifique.  Like Portland, they have an Old Port…only it’s really old and really impressive.  So I say, go north!

Although you might want to bone up on your high school French first, if for no other reason than to be able to read the traffic signs. We were there on the weekend of Quebec’s National Holiday, a week before the Montreal International Jazz Festival. There were many signs, related to parade routes, parking bans… you name it…we couldn’t read it.

Here are the consequences of not being able to read the fine print on signs in French:

1. Within 10 minutes of parking our car right across from our auberge, we had a ticket: $55 CAN.  (The little red square with the number in it means residents only)

2. After parking overnight in a large facility on one of the quays, we returned to pick up our car and it was nowhere to be found. Stolen? Towed? Apparently we had missed the fine print on the parking regulations that explicitly stated no overnight parking on June 23rd.  Security for a cruise ship or something. The security folks did help us find the car –– just a warning this time.

3. After traversing the city on Sunday morning to find the Botanical Gardens (worth the trip), we couldn’t seem to get out of Montreal.  It being the Fete Nationale, the main routes were blocked off for parades, traffic was completely tied up…and we would have known all this if we could have read the little signs along Rue Sherbrooke.

But of course, none of this really dampened our enjoyment of La Belle Province.  Montreal is a great city and an easy road trip. We should all go north more often. In fact, the only truly irritating part of the trip was the hour wait at the US border going back home. There were no signs in any language warning us about that.

A tourist on my own turf

We should all act like strangers in familiar territory now and then. I tried it the other day when I joined a Maine Foodie Tour. It was a 2-½ hour culinary walking tour around Portland, eating as you go. A little history, a little lore, and a lot of foodie facts.

I loved it, but (and I’m a little ashamed to admit this) it took me awhile to loosen up and have fun.  Here’s why:  I had to keep my mouth shut.

My natural inclination was to make sure everyone in the group knew that I knew just as much as the tour guide. (Fat chance!) Out of courtesy, I refrained from pointing out all the really hot foodie spots she was bypassing (Hugo’s! Bard Coffee! Standard Baking!) and instead, I listened. And that’s when it got good.

By listening, I found out why Wharf Street is called Wharf Street, so far from the wharves. And where the lobsterman statue came from. And which Maine-made cheeses took first prize in national competitions (City of Ships, Hahn’s End). And how you measure a Maine lobster to make sure it’s a legal catch. I looked through my familiar surroundings through stranger’s eyes and liked what I saw (and really liked what I ate). And let’s face it, if you stopped at every foodie spot in Portland, it would take 24 hours, not 2 ½.

So I recommend it. Any tour will do…Duck Boat anyone?  But if you like food (capped off with a Whoopie Pie from Two Fat Cats), the Maine Foodie Tour has the advantage of letting you walk it off.