Category: Life


Okay. I know that you, whomever you are who may read this beyond some of my friends and family, probably don’t want to read the innerworkings of my brain. You want to see food and read about food. Understandable!

WELL, SKIP OVER THIS:

I thought I was missing German food. And I was, in a way. Okay, I’ll admit it: When I tasted my Wurst, my eyes might have rolled back in my head a little bit. When I tried my German potato salad, I may have had to tone down my shriek of “Oh! This tastes just like the Kartoffelsalat I had at the Schwarzwaldstuben!” But I think, honestly, what I was and am missing is my time in Germany. I was there (alone, not counting when Charlie came to visit at the end) for two months last summer and it was a total learning experience of the grandest sort.

Me in front of Berlin's Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate)

There are lots of things I don’t miss:

1) Being away from Charlie.

2) Being away from Charlie.

3)      “          “         “          “     [repeat]

29) No free refills on drinks and having to buy water at restaurants.

30) Meeting no one who understands what on earth I do professionally.

But I suspect I miss the adventurous feeling, wherein every day held something new. I miss speaking German out of necessity, not just as a novelty. I love that language. I miss the strange array of people, architecture, and foods that make Berlin such an amazing global city. I miss having a singular focus into which all of my activities (leisure, classroom, study, sight-seeing) fit in some aspect: learning German. I miss the amazingly comprehensive public transportation.

Adventures like that most likely live on as a golden-hued chapter in our memories precisely because they are short-lived. My scholarship didn’t go on forever. I am a wife and Ph.D. student and I couldn’t stay away from my husband and study a field (German) only tangentially related to mine (New Testament). And I didn’t want to.

But in retrospect, what I remember isn’t the heartsickness for my beloved husband nor the loneliness of being in a new place where I knew not a soul. I don’t remember the times when I embarrassed myself terribly by calling something by the wrong name or committing some social faux pas (like sniffing repeatedly or putting a hand in my lap at the dinner table). Instead I remember the joy of discovering new things, new foods, unique places, hidden alleyways, city quirks, local haunts, new worlds of history in unequaled museums, new stories on walking tours with Berliner guides, cultural particulars both of Germans and other nationalities in my class, and the sheer loveliness of the German language (NO naysayers allowed. I adore German!).

On a fantastic walking tour (Spaziergang) of Berlin's Mitte

So, I shouldn’t have expected a restaurant featuring the cuisines of the countries of the Alps (Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, namely) to have been the balm to cure  all of my wistful feelings regarding Berlin. First of all, Berlin is nowhere near the Alps. Second, a Berliner is much, much more likely to be found munching on an organic salad topped with sprouts and flaxseed, or eating a Turkish kebab on the run, or snacking on tapas and drinking wine for hours and hours in an outdoor cafe than they are to be eating anything we Americans would classify as “German cuisine.” In fact, many “German” restaurants in Germany are geared toward tourists. And, third, what I hadn’t considered, but really should have known is that no one in Allentown, NJ would be speaking German at a German restaurant. In fact, they’d be butchering it (in speech or, a couple times, on the menu) to a degree that would make me cringe. And I’m an American, not a German! This lack of German conversation should have been a given, but it took me by subconscious-surprise and made it impossible for me to even pretend that I was in Deutschland. So, that was a bummer that shouldn’t have bummed me out, but did anyway.

START BACK HERE, O FOOD-CENTRIC READER:

The Alps Bistro opened on Allentown, NJ’s picturesque, historic Main Street (the perfectness of which, for me, makes it the standard by which any small town American main street will henceforth be judged) on July 6, 2010. So, it had not even been open a month when Charlie and I decided to check it out. I, see previous post, felt compelled to have some German food, so we made reservations. The restaurant is open for lunch most days and dinner only on Friday and Saturday. The dining room is also quite small, so reservations are recommended.

The Alps Bistro

It was full when we got there. As many nice NJ restaurants are, The Alps is a BYOB place, although they have sodas, coffee, and water at least. We just had water, but folks around us had brought along wine. I thought it was kind of cool that the local liquor store had suggested some wine and beer pairings that would go well with German food (they were German, mostly). This, along with other signals like the small lace table adornments, showed me that the management is really trying for authenticity. I appreciated that.

* I apologize that the food photos that follow are really quite grainy. I tried to use my iPhone for subtlety, but I’ve learned my lesson. These photos do not really do the food justice. I apologize. *

Charlie's salad (It came with a three-bean salad, too)

The mood of the restaurant was upbeat. Owners, employees, customers were excited about the new business. They were excited to try something new or, for the many people of German descent in the area, they were excited for a taste of the familiar or nostalgic.

We had printed out a coupon (good until August 31) for a free appetizer when you purchase a dinner entrée over $11. This was not, given the menu, a hard amount to top. The restaurant’s menu incorporated German titles, always with translation, and was very focused. That is, they’re not attempting to offer everything under the sun. There were two soup choices, for instance, and about five options for appetizers. There’s a daily menu and the schnitzel changes daily, as well as the options for wursts.

Soup (Suppe)

I started with the Alsatian Sauerkraut soup, which wasn’t “sauer” at all, but faintly sweet. It was brothy and just perfectly flavored to be a light starter. Charlie had a salad which came with a 3-bean salad and blanched carrots, in addition to a more traditional green lettuce salad.

Other people seemed to get a bread basket, but we didn’t. I’m not sure whether I observed this incorrectly, or if there was some reason why we didn’t qualify. I would have liked to compare The Alps Bistro’s breads to German Brot, since breadmaking is one of the areas in which Germans are vast culinary superiors to Americans. German breads are not only staple of their daily meals, but are always fresh, artisanal, with many whole grain varieties to choose from. Wonder Bread is not an option in Deutschland. But bakeries (Bäckerei/Konditorei) are on every corner, offering full loaves, sweet and savory pastries, desserts, and vast varieties of flavorful sandwiches, fresh every day.

Pierogies

Venturing outside of Deutschland for our appetizer, we selected potato pierogies. The Alps Bistro’s self-diagnosis of their gastronomical territory is as follows: “Join us for a culinary adventure through the Alps region of Europe–feature the foods of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France. We’ll even make stops to Poland, Hungary, and Russia to tempt your tastebuds.” So, we figured we’d allow them to take us to Poland with a pierogie. Since we’d only eaten ice cream in that nation (when we barely crossed the border last July) it seemed fitting to try something a little more Polish when we had the opportunity.

The appetizer plate came with three potato pierogies, hot and sprinkled with bacon and onions (which had clearly been cooked with the bacon). Delicious! We definitely ate every last morsel.

Pork Schnitzel

Charlie had chosen the day’s Schnitzel as his meal. It was a pork schnitzel in a dark gravy with mushrooms. He asked for Spätzle as his side and, in addition, it came with carrots. Everything was well-cooked and not overdone. The Schnitzel was really tender, flavorful, and lightly breaded. It certainly rivaled any Schnitzel we had in Europe. Charlie was wholly satisfied.

Being a bit of a Wurst-fan myself (and not being tempted at all by anything with a “Leber” in it—that means “liver”), I ordered the three-Wurst platter. It came with German potato salad and sauerkraut (this was actually sour, not sweet like the soup with the same label). The smaller Wurstchen were the tastiest.

Lots of Wurst

Apfelstrudel

I was too full by the end of the meal to want a dessert, but Charlie thought an Apfelstrudel was in order. I was afraid to chance tarnishing my active memory of amazing Strudel. But I agreed to have a couple bites. The apple strudels are made on-site and it was, itself, quite tasty. One fun ingredient was chopped nuts (maybe walnuts?), which I don’t think I’d had in any of my German or Viennese strudels. As I predicted, I didn’t think it lived up to my memory, but that just means it didn’t ascend to demigod status. So, it was good. I’d recommend it.

All in all, I’m impressed at the new restaurant in town. People are clearly trying hard for Alpine authenticity. It’s a quaint place for a meal and a good alternative to the sea of Italian restaurants that are [Kara scans the horizon] just about all that is available around here. I do want to do a German spell-check of their menu, but Charlie told me to hold off with the red pen until after we’d eaten. Sigh.

True confession: I expected more than a single restaurant could ever truly provide—more than anything short of a plane ticket, Bahn pass, and a fistful of Euros could offer—but I still greatly enjoyed my meal and hope to return.

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I do love food (too much – I’m still trying to learn to balance) and I thrive on new experiences. Making new recipes at home, as well as tasting someone else’s cooking, is a chance to embark on a mini journey of flavor.

My idea when starting this blog was to post about my wanderings (as in, world and domestic travel) and my culinary wanderings (as in, experiences with food – eating out and in). Well, blogging while I was bombarded with new places, people, and subject matter in Germany in the Summer of 2009 turned out not to be my specialty. I was constantly on the move, trying to soak everything in, which made it hard to edit photos and to write (in English – when I was supposed to be immersed in German) about my experiences with enough background for anyone else to understand it.

But, now, we’re fully settled in New Jersey. We’re starting our fourth year here together (my fifth year!). And we’re even further settled into a new house with more space. I’ve cut back on responsibilities at school (and we’re cutting back our budget). So, maybe this is a better blogging atmosphere for me.

I’ve recently been posting quite a bit to the website Yelp!, adding reviews of places I’ve been, or that Charlie and I have been together, mostly in the last year. I think I’ll be expanding and reposting several of those reviews here.

The Yelp! website has the following star scale to guide reviewers:

1 = “Eek! Methinks Not”

2 = “Meh. I’ve experienced better.”

3 =  “A-OK”

4 = “Yay! I’m a fan.”

5 = “Woohoo! As good as it gets!”

Cafe Du Monde, New Orleans (taken by iPhone)

For the most part, except if the visit was very recent, the places I remember were my very favorites. The result is that at the time of this post I have never given any place a 1. I’ve given two places a 2 (one was a recent visit and bad service; one was because I was stretching to think of someplace I’ve been displeased with to balance out my ratings). I’ve given two places a 3 (and I felt really bad about one of them, even though it’s a nice rating!). I’ve given a whopping eight places 4 stars (which is pretty stinking effusive). And I’ve awarded the highest honor, 5 stars, to six different establishments.

I trust Yelp! because the reviewers are real people with real budgets and real preferences. We’ve used it to pick several restaurants and hotels and have, basically, never been led astray.

So, what do my overly-enthusiastic reviews mean about my reviewing mantra? Am I just uncritical? Have I, perhaps, majored in my favorite restaurants and forgotten about the poor or average dining experiences?

Kara, “The Simon Cowell of Life”

I am trained to be critical in some things: biblical scholarship, for instance. And, according to my husband, I’m really critical about “everyday life.” He’s taken, on occasion, to calling me “The Simon Cowell of Life” (referring to Simon Cowell of American Idol fame; he was my favorite of the judges the one season I watched, by the way).

But, thinking about my reviewing stats (see restaurants above; or, just ask me about TV shows or movies I’ve seen = probably 75% positive), I felt like I needed him to clarify. So I asked him: “In what way am I the ‘Simon Cowell of Life’?”

Under some duress (since he doesn’t want to be critical), Charlie said, “I just notice it with anything that’s on TV, you feel the need to criticize things. Sometimes it feels like, ‘What did that person ever do to you?’”

I asked him to clarify. He said it’s mostly “people’s appearances and voices on shows.” (I can actually think of two very specific examples of the latter that drove me c-r-a-z-y!)

My husband insisted, “I’m not trying to be meeeeean.” But then he went on: “To say you’re the ‘Simon Cowell’ is like to be so brutally honest that it’s mean. Maybe that person didn’t deserve such a harsh critique.”

Hmmm.

Cooking Brussels Sprouts at home

I mean, I think he’s right. I can get bugged by something (a systemic evil, administrative red tape, electronics not working, a mistake I’ve made, a terrible Boston accent on a show, a grammatical mistake) and harp on and on and critique it ad nauseum. My verbosity and my willingness to “speak the truth” combine in a nasty way sometimes. (Note to self: Work on that.)

But how does that part of me—the critical Simon Cowell part—become (if you’ll allow the metaphor to extend slightly further) the Paula Abdul of Food. That is, I love it all, with the rarest of exceptions.

Kara, the appreciator of little things in life

More flattering than the Paula Abdul comparison, I guess, I’d say, I appreciate the little things. I notice beautiful trees on the side of the highway as we’re whizzing past them and point each one out to Charlie. I worked hard during seminary and college to find something I liked in every class I took, which made education a wonderful experience, even outside of my interest areas. When I don’t like something at first (music, an artist, a vegetable), I try it again to see if I missed something about it.

And as a kid, disliking the food I was served wasn’t an option. We were praised for adventurous eating. In that regard, I blame my parents both for my wide expanse of tastes … and my wide expanse of backside.

So, sometimes when I read other people’s Yelp! reviews I think: “Ouch. Why are these people so picky?!” I mean, I can find something I like at McDonald’s, at Ruby Tuesday, at random roadside grills in Turkey, at open air cafes in Vienna (see photo below for proof!), at the swankiest restaurants in Princeton, etc. Anywhere.

Our shared dessert of Struedels in Wien (Vienna)

I don’t think it’s that I’m undiscerning. I have favorites and some things impress me more than others. There are places I’m happy to have gone once and there are places that, as I exit, I’m planning my return trip. There are recipes that I toss out as soon as I’ve made them, and others that I mark with a quick “We loved this!” notation.

But on the whole, I like the experience of trying new food, or familiar food at a new place.

So what if my Yelp! reviews make me look like a wide-eyed big-eater from Idaho? That’s not so far from the truth. And I hope to recount here on “the Wandering Palate” what I’ve tried and just how good it was.

I wrote the following brief biography of my dear husband Charlie for class on the 11th of May. My writing in German has likely improved greatly since then … but I still thought I’d put it up here. 🙂 And, no, I won’t translate it for you. I have many friends who claim they want to practice their German. Here’s the easiest way to do so: Baby-Deutsch.

The last photo we took together before my departure for Berlin.

The last photo we took together before my departure for Berlin.

Mein Mann heißt Charlie. Er ist Amerikaner und kommt aus dem Staat New Mexico, der im Südwesten der U.S.A. liegt. Er wuchs auf einer Ranch auf und war deshalb natürlich ein “Cowboy.” Aber als er 18 Jahre alt war, wünschte er ganz weit von der Wüste wegzugehen. Er studierte Religion an einer Universität im südlichen Kalifornien, in der Stadt San Diego. Er hatte den Ozean viel lieber als das Leben mit Vieh und Pferden.

Charlie machte mir einen Heiratsantrag auf dem “Observation-Deck” des Empire State Buildings. Natürlich sagte ich: Ja! Obwohl es in Filmen viele Heiratsanträge am selben Ort gibt, überraschte er mich!

Jetzt arbeitet Charlie bei der Kirche als Pastor für Jugendliche von 14 bis 18 Jahren alt. In seinem Beruf muss man freundlich und geduldig sein. Er ist beides. Obwohl seine Frau oft zu genau and nervös ist, ist Charlie fast immer ruhig und lässig. Er ist auch kreativ und macht graphische Kunst. Am liebsten schaut und dreht er Filme.

Am 27. Juni wird er erstmals nach Deutschland reisen!

Lass mich in Ruhe, bitte!

Ich bin ein Löwe!    (Rawr)

Ich bin ein Löwe! (Rawr)

Okay, okay! I get it. I may not be cut out for this blogging thing. I’ve got to start thinking of it as a series of smaller projects. Such an approach has NOT, however, revolutionized my success as at keeping my house clean, so I don’t expect fabulous results here either.

My blog has been silent. But rest assured that I have not. I speak German here nearly as much as I speak English when at home. My chatterbox status translates, I guess, to any linguistic platform. The frequent speaking helps, I think, but I make tons of mistakes, focusing rather on getting my idea across. The biggest difference in my talkativeness here, I guess, is that I sound like a poorly-educated foreign child, whereas at home I’m at least occasionally articulate.

I’ve actually been doing SO much every day that it now seems insurmountable to go back in blogging and catch up on everything I’ve done, so I’m just going to do posts as they strike me, hopefully more frequently, and allow things to flow a little more naturally. Apparently adding perceived blog-homework to my already full Berlin-days sparked a little rebellious streak in me.

(Lass mich in Ruhe! is literally “Leave me in peace!” but is better translated translated, “Leave me alone!” I added a “please” to be polite: that’s the “bitte” part. I’m not telling YOU, my few, actual readers, to leave me alone or to stop attempting to read my blog. But such a comment is aimed at my imagined reader who–in my mind–thinks my posts are too trivial or too infrequent or must be beautifully crafted in order to deserve posting. I don’t mean to direct my lion’s roar at any real person, honest.)

Meine Wohnung

In Berlin wohne ich im Kiez “Pankow.” Es war DDR vor dem Mauerfall. Hier ist mein Bahnhof:

Me, tired but still smiling, in my U-Bahn Station, Vinetastraße

Me, tired but still smiling, in my U-Bahn Station, Vinetastraße

Translating and expanding on the above: I live in the neighborhood called Pankow (although it’s closer to Prenzlauer Berg than most of Pankow). This area was in East Berlin/East Germany before the wall fell.

I live with a host whose name is Barbara, she’s a journalist and early childhood specialist/consultant. She has two children, twins (“Zwilling” in German), who are grown. In another room lives a boarder, Sigrun, whose husband and daughter are in the U.S. right now. Her husband is an American. Her English is impeccable. But, so she says, that’s why she doesn’t have to practice it with me!

Meine Aussicht

Meine Aussicht

Barbara, Sigrun, and I live on the fourth floor of an apartment building. That was a tough climb the first day with all my luggage, but since has been lovely, especially because of my great view out my window. Flowers are in bloom these days, and you can see some flowering trees in the park across the way. One night when we had a big thunderstorm, I had a great view of the lightning. I closed my windows, though, as we have no screens so there’s NOTHING to protect the house from the rain if I leave the windows open. (Note to self.)

Children (Kinder) behind my apartment buildingChildren (Kinder) behind my apartment building

I’ve heard lots of children outside playing. I think a little boy lives in the room below me. It’s about a 4-5 minute walk to the U-Bahn station. There are icecream parlors, flower shops, fruit/veggie stands, fast food places (to be discussed later), etc. right on the same street, Berlinerstraße, as the U-Bahn entrances. The only negative is that I’m about 30 minutes from the Goethe-Institut, which isn’t that much, but means I have to get up earlier or wait longer to get home after a long day.

My abode for 2 months.

My abode for 2 months.

a normal sight for me

a normal sight for me

As a student in an intense New Testament Ph.D. program, sometimes I feel my interest-world closing in around me. I learn more and more about this collection of 27 books—and especially the one, awesomest text of them all, the Gospel According to Mark—but in so doing I become dumber and dumber about other things. For instance, I used to know what a mole is in chemistry. I used to play the trombone. I used to draw and paint and work in a church archives. Most of the time now, I read about the New Testament, write about the New Testament, and grade unending stacks of papers on the New Testament.

Cuban food

Those of you who know me, of course, know that I buck against this singularity of focus. I listen to podcasts religiously and attempt to be full of facts regarding the world around me. I love German and am starting an adventure to be better at it. I have pop cultural interests: TV shows, music, and movies to which I have degrees of allegiance. I like to read and have broken my former, pitiful trend of only reading for school by reading at least six novels since October.

Baltimore Bomb, anyone?

Baltimore Bomb, anyone?

But the interest that I don’t have to put forth effort to sustain is most broadly categorized as an interest in adventure. This craving for the new and strange takes two much more specific forms: 1) a fascination with (or addiction to) travel; and 2) a desire for weird, special, or interesting food. These two expressions of my love for new experiences are fantastic in combination!

A Philadelphia mosaic

My travel destinations need not be exotic. I’m happy with a trip to Halo Farm and the Trenton Farmer’s Market just down Route One from our home.

I’m thrilled with a new museum exhibit or a ticket to a play in a nearby theater. I’m even more ecstatic when a trip for a professional conference gives the opportunity to get in tune with the pulse of a new town and try some local specialties. I love to camp and hike and go to the beach. I love a good roller coaster and the shrill scream that belongs with it.

In the Cascade, Idaho snow

Not only to I love travel and eating while I’m traveling (or home, trying out a hidden, local gem), but I have opinions about these things. If you travel somewhere I have been, you’ll probably have to hear about these opinions. So, a travel and food blog has been something that has been percolating in my brain for a few months now. It also gives me increased license to indulge my penchant for taking food photos (often to the chagrin of my long-suffering husband).

So, when my trip to Berlin came together, I thought that this would be a perfect time to begin. I’m going to want to update friends and family, but might prefer the interactive format of a blog better than a weekly mass email. Honestly, though, I hope it won’t stop here. Charlie and I have gotten really good at finding an adventure around every turn, something that punctuates our everyday life with some spice, literally or figuratively. Here it goes.