Travel Eats: Portland

21 Aug Visiting one of the famous food pods

I’ve found that one of the best ways to reset my brain is to wander a new city or neighborhood. Wandering provides the perfect mix of adrenaline, curiosity and relaxation. As I explore, my brain is so wrapped up in discovery mode that it forgets stressors and to-do lists.

I switched jobs recently and wanted to reset my brain a bit before heading into something new. Portland, Oregon has long been on my mind as a potential vacation destination. I’d heard such good things about its scenery, its people… and of course, its food. So when I realized I’d have a few days between jobs, I booked a rather last-minute trip and finally got to see what Portland’s all about.

We spent 2.5 days wandering every neighborhood we could, and sampling every dish we could. We also rented a car so we could drive to Multnomah Falls, the second highest waterfall in the U.S.

I’d compiled our list of “must dos” based on lots of advice from friends, websites like Eater and a bit of Yelping. We found so many delightful spots on our trip, but today I’m just going to share the very top eats. This was supposed to be a top 5  list… but I couldn’t narrow it down to 5! So, here are my top 8 places to eat in Portland:

1. Chizu 

IMG_0636Chizu focuses on cheese, and its menu is mighty impressive. You can pick cheeses by the ounce to make your own plate or order “omnikase” style and let the staff pick cheeses on your behalf. We ordered $20 of cheese plus some duck charcuterie and were incredibly pleased with what we got. The platter included an awesome mix of hard and soft cheeses, served with accompaniments like honey and dried fruit. The staffe explained the back story for every single cheese we ordered. Plus the staff was super friendly and chatted with us about recommendations for our stay.

2. Hat Yai

IMG_0870Hat Yai is all over the “best new restaurant” lists for Portland right now, and the hype is definitely substantiated. We loved our meal of meat skewers, curry, roti and grilled corn. Everything was so flavorful, and so satisfying. We stopped here on our way back from the Falls and it was the perfect post-hike dinner!

3. MÅURICE

IMG_0907Maurice calls itself a “luncheonette” and is only open until early evening, so make sure you stop here for lunch! It’s adorable inside, and its food is simple but delicious. We got a wonderful shaved carrot salad, delicious scones and yummy open face sandwiches.

 

4. Shalom Y’All

IMG_0632.JPGThis recommendation came from my mom (hi Mom!). I love falafel, and Shalom Y’Alls take on falafel was truly incredible. Spiced with sumac, accented by the unusual additions of walnuts and feta – this falafel sandwich keeps calling to me in my dreams. I usually find falafel options disappointing and really wish I had a Shalom Y’All in the Bay Area! The PDX location is in a “food hall” with several other local favorites.

5. Nuvrei

IMG_0900This Pearl District bakery has the most beautiful display of varied pastries and croissants. I opted for the Kare Pan, a brioche bun stuffed with Japanese-style curry. This thing was SO GOOD.

 

 

 

 

6. The Meadow

IMG_0939This shop specializes in salts, chocolates and bitters. So in other words, it’s a foodie’s dream. I snapped up awesome saffron salt, and resisted the urge to buy every kind of chocolate they had in stock. There are two locations in Portland and one in NYC, plus an online store!

 

 

 

 

7. Cheese & Crack Snack Shop

IMG_0783I found this shop by Yelping “pickles” and man, am I glad we visited! We stopped here for snacks on our way to the Falls. We got a “cheese plate to go” that had a great selection of cheeses, crackers and spreads like honey and mustard. We ended up eating this overlooking a vista point. Turns out that cheese + vista points = the perfect combo.

 

IMG_06148. Simple Local Coffee/Sterling Coffee Roasters

Ok, I’m cheating a little, but both these shops serve the same brand of coffee. First we bumped into Simple Local Coffee, a charming shop downtown that serves Sterling Coffee. A couple days later, we sought out Sterling’s own shop over in the city’s Alphabet District. I drink my coffee black, and loved their flavorful roasts. Fun fact: there are remnants of an old tunnel in the lobby adjacent to Simple Local Coffee, complete with old tools. Pretty cool!

 

 

Here are just a few more snapshots of our wonderful trip. If you’re ever headed to Portland, let me know. I’ll give you all the dirt on different neighborhoods, eats, etc.!

 

((This entry is cross-posted on my baking blog, Sugarsmith

Mapping Memories

7 Aug

It started with a sports bar.

A few weeks ago I was rounding a corner in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, rushing to meet some friends for dinner. As I looked up at the bar across the street, a wave of memories came crashing over me. Back when I lived in Chicago, I’d gone to that bar for a university alumni event. Seeing the bar again reminded me how happy I’d been to attend that event, how nice it’d been to see old friends and how good it felt to meet more alums.

The same sort of memory “flash” happened again the next day, when I passed a French bistro downtown. My thoughts flashed back to getting late night snacks there after a networking event, with people I’d just met that night, and never saw again.

Sometimes when I walk around a city, memories ripple through my brain in a series of bits and pieces. It’s small moments that I suddenly remember, prompted by a physical sight that takes me back to another time. Some of the memories are monumental; I think of my boyfriend whenever I pass the bar where had our first drink. But most of these “flashes” are made up of non-monumental moments. They’re those experiences you sort of forget about over time, but reflect on fondly when they float to your brain’s surface. They fill in the gaps between milestones and big life changes. They make up most of our day-to-day lives, and collectively form most of our life stories.

I’ve been wanting to create a “Memory Map” for a while to chronicle these sorts of moments. The things that make me smile, make me reflect, make me think back to a different point in my life. I’ll probably start with a map of San Francisco, since it’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my post-college days. Perhaps over time I’ll do the same for other places I’ve lived, and places I’ve visited. I love keeping track of different pieces of my life: it provides a good mix of nostalgia, reflection and general Type A geekery. And it just sounds so satisfying to draw all over a physical map, to “formally” associate spaces with thoughts, memories with markers.

 

When History Gets Personal

13 Jul

Like so many others, I’ve been swept up in “Hamilton“-fever. I’ve listened to the musical’s soundtrack on repeat, I’ve watched video after video of its cast, I’ve fawned over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s thought-provoking Tweets and speeches. I could sing much of the soundtrack for you at this point – though I guarantee you don’t want to hear me sing. I’ve read the show’s plot synopsis too, trying to envision what action accompanies the show’s masterful lyrics. But the other day, as I queued up the soundtrack yet again, I started wondering about the characters’ real-life stories, beyond the musical numbers and creative license of a Broadway show.

I started by Googling the Schuyler sisters, who comprise the female protagonists in “Hamilton the Musical” (and also sing one of my favorite songs from the show). Eliza Schuyler became Hamilton’s wife, so I figured I’d start there. Googling inevitably took me to Wikipedia, where I pored over Eliza’s biography. The story of how Eliza met Alexander caught my eye – but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn’t the details of their courtship, or hard-won approval that I found interesting. Instead, it was where they met: Morristown, New Jersey.

Eliza Marriage.pngYou see, I spent time in Morristown too. I stayed there for a few months in 2010 to do a consulting project a couple towns over. In my personal history, Morristown is another marker on my “memory map”: a place I have summarized to represent a particular moment in time. When I think about Morristown, I remember the friend I made on that project, our attempts to get (good) pizza delivered to the client site, my first ever Tres Leches cake from a nearby restaurant. I think about the assignment I was on and what I gleaned from it. I never got to explore Morristown beyond my day-to-day life, so my associations with the town are purely personal, and relate to my own experiences.

But isn’t it sort of mind-boggling to think about all the things that happen at any given spot? 230 years prior to my discovery of Morristown’s best Tres Leches cake, Eliza Hamilton discovered her future husband in that very same town. Long before I made a new friend on my work assignment, Eliza befriended Martha Washington just a flew blocks over. Like Alexander, I was sent to Morristown for work. But my client’s technology didn’t even exist during Alexander’s lifetime!

I’ve always been fascinated by the way personal memory, collective memory and “history” overlap. It boggles my mind to think about all the things that have happened at a particular site. Not just the monumental moments, but the things that make up “normal” people’s personal histories.  Reading about Morristown reminded me of the many layers that make up every physical location we see. For every “history marker,” there are plenty more things that happened in that place, that mattered to someone, who maybe just wasn’t famous.

Think of all the mysteries that lie beneath the surface everywhere we step. What else happened there before now? Who else crossed that point? Who do we “share” that spot with? And in 200 years, will it be an important place for someone else’s story?

 

Introducing Word Jam

27 Jun

My previous post inspired me to start a new blog.

You see, I take tons of pictures of language that catches my eye. I write about some of the pictures here on Culture Cookies: the baggage sign at JFK, the bathroom sign at a gas station, adventures in translation. But the bulk of my photos never see the light of day.

That’s silly! And so I decided to start Word Jam. Word Jam will be my repository for short, pithy musings on interesting language that I find in my everyday life. I’ll probably dig back through my photo archives, too. You can still expect regular content here. Word Jam is more like a visual explanation of words, than a wordy explanation of visuals. Just go look at it. You’ll see what I mean.

Producing Meaning (Picture Prattle)

26 Jun

I walked into Trader Joe’s yesterday on a mission to buy watermelon. I walked out with a camera full of pictures, and a blog post on my mind.

It all started with some peaches.

File_009.jpegRight when we walked in, we saw a display of “Peach Pie Peaches.” We wondered what that meant. Did it mean they’re perfect for pie? That they taste like pie? Or was it simply a catchy alliterative name for a new variety? We concluded it was probably the latter, and started to walk away. Until my boyfriend noticed that the package said “heirloom flavor.”

IMG_0169.JPGAnd that’s when this post started to come together. The phrase “heirloom flavor” is a perfect example of product copy that confuses more than it clarifies. “Heirloom” technically refers to produce that comes from heritage seeds. Heirloom produce is usually considered more flavorful than other varieties, and also more “pure” since it isn’t cross-bred. But what on earth does “heirloom flavor” mean? Does it mean that the peaches taste like they could be heirloom, since they’re so flavorful? Does it mean the peaches are heirloom? Or is it simply a copywriter’s attempt to infer quality?

I tried to resolve this mystery via my good pal Google, but never sorted it out. It looks like Family Tree Farms did sell heirloom peaches at one point, but it’s unclear if the peaches at Trader Joe’s are that variety. It’s possible these specific peaches aren’t heirloom, so “heirloom flavor” was the best they could say from a legal perspective. It’s possible they used to call it heirloom but had to stop due to regulatory reasons, and now can only say the suggestive phrase “heirloom flavor.” It’s also possible that someone added “flavor” in an attempt to amplify taste appeal. In the world of food marketing, “flavor” can add or detract from perceived appeal depending on how it’s used. Think “vanilla-flavored” vs. “full-flavored” or “flavorful peaches.” Language is nuanced, my friends.

I’ve done a fair number of packaging projects, and it’s always really fascinating what ends up on a package. Package copy is largely made up of “claims,” phrases that explain a product’s key attributes and benefits. Typical claims are things like “gluten-free,” “no artificial flavors” or “provides 6g of protein.” In this case, “heirloom flavor” is a claim that effectively means nothing, since its intended meaning is so unclear.

Claims work alongside the product name and branding to tell the product’s story at shelf. So, many companies choose to plaster their packages with as many claims as they can, hoping to touch on every topic their target consumer might care about. I’ve written claims before, and I’ve also tested them in focus groups. I will tell you for a fact that consumers don’t read most of what’s on a package. And yet, companies continue to use as many claims as they can.

Here is an example from a more classic type of packaged good: cookies. Look at how the Goldfish brand has spread different kinds of messaging all over its package, from texture cues to health benefits. Once you start paying attention, you’ll notice that almost every packaged good you buy is telling a story with claims. Next time you’re out buying snacks, take a closer look at the package copy – and then let me know what you think!

Goldfish 2.png

Candy for Lunch

14 Jun
Goo Goo

Old ad campaigns on display at the Goo Goo Cluster store

On a recent trip to Nashville, I stopped at the Goo Goo Cluster store to buy myself a treat. The store doubles as Goo Goo’s “history museum,” and an old ad caught my eye. “A nourishing lunch for a nickel,” it said.

I had to giggle. After all: Goo Goo Clusters are candy, a mix of chocolate, caramel, nuts and marshmallow. Delicious? Yes. Nourishing? I wouldn’t say so.

And yet, Goo Goo advertised their candy as a “nourishing lunch” well throughout the 20s and 30s. That slogan wouldn’t work today, for reasons that go far beyond ad regulations. The old ads position Goo Goo on this idea of sustainment, a filling meal that keeps you feeling good throughout the day. That might have worked back in the day, but today’s consumers have different perceptions of what’s healthy, and what’s “acceptable” as a meal. In today’s society, consumers simply wouldn’t accept the notion of a candy bar as a “sustaining” lunch.

The Goo Goo ad made me think about perceptions of health and sustenance, and how they shift over time. Words like “healthy” and “nourishing” sound like they should have concrete definitions – but their meaning evolves along with consumer understanding and beliefs. Just take a look at what’s happening with grains: in the last decade we’ve shifted from idolizing the low-carb Atkins diet, to idolizing whole grains, then ancient grains… and now 17% of U.S. adults actively avoid gluten altogether.

Today’s consumers root their food “truths” in a different story than we’ve seen before. There is significant pressure for big food brands to clean their ingredient decks, offer “healthier” options and enable smarter choices. We’re seeing a lot of big CPG brands struggle, while smaller “challenger” brands swoop in to meet evolving consumer needs. Smaller brands swoop in because they can – they’re nimble, with a strong sense of purpose that’s focused on meeting today’s perceptions of health and nutrition. Rather than trying to reverse old products into a health-focused strategy, they’re planning for today’s needs from the start.

Over time, Goo Goo started calling their product candy instead of lunch. That’s the right way to go for products that can’t fit into modern perceptions. But for a lot of big brands, there are in-betweens: taking out artificial flavors, adding trendy nutrients, creating new products with health benefits. Where there’s a consumer need, there’s a way. And as consumer conceptions of wellness continue to shift, classic packaged goods brands will need to keep an eye ahead of the tide. Simply knowing what today’s consumer thinks about health and wellness won’t suffice – because by the time you’ve reacted, public opinion may change.

This post was originally published on my company’s blog – check it out on the Sterling Brands site

Happy 5th Birthday, Culture Cookies!

4 Jun

Culture Cookies turned 5 last week! Every time WordPress sends another “Happy Anniversary” notification, I reflect on what this blog means to me. I’ve written before about why I started the blog – today I’d like to talk about why I keep it going.

Writing feels like exercise for my brain. There are so many things I find interesting in this world, and I get an itch to write about them. That’s why this blog’s content is such a grab-bag: it maps to things I find interesting, and that’s a huge category of topics to explore. So one day you’ll find a blog post about trucker web forums, another day you’ll find a defense of hobbies, and another day you’ll find an analysis of $4 toast. Last year I thought about creating a more refined content strategy – but decided against it. Because I like having a place to write whatever’s on my mind.

I’ve always loved to write, but my favorite forms have changed over time. When I was in elementary school, I dreamed of becoming a poet. As I got older that morphed into wanting to write fiction. My college experience was filled with literary analysis and cultural research; I learned that I loved to write about society and human behavior. I took a fiction writing class in college and realized fiction wasn’t where my heart fell anymore. Research papers and cultural critiques were feeling more my speed, after all.

In retrospect, it makes sense. I’ve always been intrigued by human behavior, how we think, why we do what we do. I’ve always loved telling stories that help people look at a topic in a new way. And I’ve always been a researcher, getting totally sucked into whatever topic is on my mind. Today, I’m lucky to work in a field that merges research and writing. And yet there’s still a need for this blog. No matter what, I’ll want a personal outlet for writing. Whenever I hit “publish” on a Culture Cookies post, it feels so darn good. It feels like I got a burgeoning idea out of my brain and into the world.

I keep a “draft roll’ of potential blog topics, and it’s always getting longer. When something piques my curiosity, it goes onto the list. If you ever see me furiously scribbling something on paper or tapping away at a note on my phone, I’m probably saving ideas for future blog posts.

And so on we go, to another year. What will this year bring? My “next in line” drafts give a quick preview: a post about food marketing, one about social media pictures, one about “real people.” And that’s only a few of my drafts!

Besides this post, I celebrated a second way, too: I baked my blog cake! Ok, fine, I just wanted an excuse to make strawberry cupcakes. The cupcakes came out great – you can find them over on my baking blog, Sugarsmith (see what I did there?)

Upwards and onwards, dear readers!

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