I have been trying to enjoy Los Angeles. Or at least dismantle my aversion to it. It all started in January when my L.A.-based friend, who knows I’ll find any excuse to decline a visit—impromptu family reunion, cardiac arrest—gave me two robust months’ notice for her 40th birthday party. I was going whether I liked it or not. And besides the two-plus hours of stop-and-start maniacal traffic, I think L.A. finally broke me.
Never have I seen such a seductive town as Madison, Wisconsin. Nope, not New Orleans, not New York, but this capital city between two lakes in the northern Midwest, renowned simultaneously for educational research and drinking prowess, tempered by what is at times unbearably frigid weather (but that can be fun, too—who gets a “snow day” in grad school?). Yes, as a double graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I have watched time and again an eye-rolling high schooler dragged on an admissions tour by her alumni parents (a gleam in their eye so bright with nostalgia they’re practically planning another toga party) only to watch that student show up the next day with the same wide smile and a bright red UW Badger hat, exclaiming, “This place is awe-some!!” Legendary UW football coach Barry Alvarez said when recruiting athletes he just had to take them down State Street, the pedestrian-only main drag that connects the capital building to the campus, populated with restaurants, bars, and shops. The city takes care of the rest.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has an image problem. As this Saturday Night Live parody demonstrates, the HFCS industry has launched a series of commercials over the past year to clarify misconceptions and “state the facts about corn sugar.” That’s right, it’s no longer “high fructose corn syrup,” but “corn sugar”—an almost identical, warm-and-fuzzy twin that will subtly convince you that “sugar” and “corn sugar” are interchangeable ingredients. Wrong.
ONE The French aren’t rude. Here’s something I never thought I’d say: I think I like the French. (Cue the gong.) I lived in Italy for three years. Let’s just say I was Team Olive Oil, not Team Butter. Plus, everyone’s heard the stories of notorious French snobbery, especially toward uncouth Americans who don’t speak the language. I was prepared for a throwdown by Day 2, but it never happened. Taxi drivers doubled as tour guides, waiters were friendly and dutifully answered any menu translation questions, and even when we stopped into cafés for a quick coffee (obvious strategy for using their bathrooms) we were welcomed.
At Travel + Leisure magazine in 2003, I pitched a story about my hometown of Milwaukee to the magazine’s Editor-In-Chief. I believe her exact response was: “Who goes to Milwaukee?” Uh, Harley riders and cheesemongers to start! Okay, perhaps they’re a bit outside of T+L’s demographic, but I was nonetheless given a page to amuse my Midwest pride.
Living in California now, I always enjoy a trip back to Wisconsin’s largest city to set my head straight (as long as it’s between May and October, ahem). Milwaukeeans bring a lot to the table: they have classic Midwest traits (down to earth, hardworking, hospitable) but they’re also informed, interested, and often activist. On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I thought of Milwaukee more than once. Perhaps most endearing, Milwaukeeans have a vicious sense of humor about themselves (Cheeseheads and the pervasiveness of Big & Tall stores will do that to you).
Here I was on a mailing list for the last year for a farm dinner outside of Portland, Oregon, and I had neglected to look in my own backyard (don’t tell the locavore police). It was my Pilates teacher—between administering punishing sets of stretching (I am officially not flexible)—who told me about a farm dinner happening outside San Diego at Sage Mountain Farm, known for its sustainable and organic produce.
My interest in Italy was first sparked by the movie The Godfather. Part I, of course. When Mike meets with Salozzo and police commissioner McClusky in an empty Italian trattoria with plans to kill them both, Salozzo turns to the police commissioner and says, “I’m going to talk to Mike in Italian for a moment.” I leaned in at what I thought would be a pivotal moment—the raunchy underbelly of the movie, the secrets among blood brothers. They spoke, and there were no subtitles. No subtitles! I was crestfallen. I had probably missed the most critical part because I lived a squalid English-speaking existence. I resolved to learn the language and see the movie again, only to find out what he said had just been filler. Why I oughta…
So I fell for it. The Olive Press, in Sonoma and Napa, challenged food writers to use four of its extra virgin olive oils in a four-course meal, and there it went: my competitive inner child reared its head. We’re taking this all the way to the end zone. (Sorry, is my football hem showing? Growing up in the Midwest reduces everyday activities to sports clichés, like “That’s gonna leave a mark” and “I’ll have a Leinenkugel’s.”)