Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My Long Awaited Experience With Poutine

You may not be familiar with poutine, and until recently neither was I. I first heard of poutine from my wife. She described poutine, a regional dish originating in Quebec, as french fries with cheese curds covered in gravy. I had been to Quebec prior to learning of this dish, but I had completely missed poutine. I have to admit that I was a little irritated that I missed out on trying such a healthy regional delicacy. From that point on poutine was on my list of "must try" foods.

I waited for my travels to take me back to Quebec, but time went by and I began to wonder if I would ever taste poutine. I had all but forgotten about this culinary aspiration when I made my way to Sudbury, Ontario. Since Sudbury is not Quebec I didn't have poutine on the mind. What I didn't know was that while poutine originated in Quebec it has spread to much of Canada. It wasn't until I came across a chip wagon that I learned of this fact.

I spotted my first chip wagon, a food truck specializing in all things deep fried, from across a busy street. It was white with the offerings contained within plastered on the side. These offerings included chips (fries), pogos and poutine. I was excited by the sudden and unexpected availability of poutine, but I was confused by the term pogo.

Sadly this chip wagon was closed when I walked by, but I decided to make some inquiries the following day. Upon discussing the topic with the group with which I was working, they informed me that a pogo was actually a corn dog and that we could surely go out for poutine if I was interested. The only catch was that the weather had to be nice because chip wagons only have outdoor seating. Two days of rain followed.

On the last day of my visit, the sun was shining and I was ready for my poutine. At lunchtime we drove to one of the more reputable chip wagons in town. It turns out that not all poutine is created equal. Since cheese curds are expensive, some chip wagons substitute a mild grated cheddar to reduce costs. If this was going to be my first poutine, my hosts wanted me to have the real thing.

As we approached our destination, the Poutine Xpress chip wagon shone a glistening silver which acted as a beacon to all those looking to clog their arteries. At once I could tell that this was a special place.

While placing my order, I mentioned that I was from the States and that this would be my first poutine. The register worker smiled and the person that I believe to be the owner of Poutine Xpress, Edgar, came over. I told him that I was also a travel blogger and he invited me into the wagon to take pictures of my poutine being made. I instantly accepted the invitation and got the grand tour.

The wagon was tight on space, but it was also clean and efficient. Everything needed to make poutine was was close at hand with fries frying on one side of the wagon while hot gravy was cooking away in a large pot on the other. When the fries were up, Edgar filled a styrofoam container with hot fries and then some gravy followed by cheese curds before being topped with more hot gravy.

The gravy is key here. It needs to be hot enough to melt the curds and it must be the correct kind of gravy. When asked what kind of gravy was used, Edgar gave me a strange look and informed me that it was poutine gravy. Upon inspecting a large bucket of gravy mix, I found that it was indeed labeled "Poutine Gravy". This gravy mix is also available at grocery stores in small packets so that you can make poutine at home.

What exactly poutine gravy should be is widely discussed and depending on who you ask, it can be chicken gravy, beef gravy or a mixture of the two. I don't really like the idea of the gravy coming from a mix, but if it goes well with curds and fries then I'm reluctantly OK with it.

Getting to see my poutine as it was being constructed within the bowels of Poutine Xpress made the experience of my first poutine somehow more complete. Too often are we just consumers in the world; consuming one thing and then the next while we don't take time to appreciate the work that went into creating them. Watching my food being cooked and assembled may have made it taste better as I had seen where it was made and met the person who made it.

Outside on the picnic table I dug my faithful spork into the heart clogging concoction, and as I took my first bite a smile crossed my face. I've often been disappointed with food that I had looked forward to trying for such a long time, but there was no such disappointment with poutine, there was only pleasure.

The crispness of the fries melded perfectly with the creaminess of the curds and the richness of the gravy. Heat coming up from the fries and down from the gravy caused the curds to melt so that I wasn't consuming fries, gravy and curds. I was enjoying a wonderful marriage of all three where I couldn't tell, or didn't care, where one ended and the next began.

For me, having poutine for the first time was one of those wonderful experiences that makes travel worth some of the pain. There are some things that you have to travel to in order to experience them, and that's what makes the world wonderful.

With fries made from scratch and cheese curds that were made just the day before, it is easy to see why Poutine Xpress is a local favorite. I will forgive them for using a gravy mix, but if I ever find poutine with real gravy I'l definitely give it a try.
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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Extreme Packing- I'm Moving Again

Photograph by Nicole Holt

Well, I've been living in the Boston area for around a year now so it's time to pack up all of my belongings and move once again. Faithful readers of Graham's Travel Blog will remember how much of an adventure it was for my wife, our cat and myself when we moved from Oregon. If you missed that, you may enjoy Flying With a Cat.

This time the move is just a few miles, but everything must still get packed. Over the past few weeks we've been busy packing and the cat has been busy trying to figure out what's going on. She really doesn't like it when we start packing everything up in boxes, but considering what we put her through last time I can't blame her.

I hope that you will forgive me for this departure from my normal travel writing. If all goes as planned, I'll be back next week to tell you all about poutine. Until then, safe travels.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Traveling With Duct Tape

Photograph by Nicole Holt

Much has been said on the topic of duct tape, but I believe that there is still more to be said about this wonderful invention. While traveling, I have made it a habit to carry duct tape because I find it an incredibly useful and flexible item that coexists well with my philosophies on travel. When I travel I must be flexible and ready for what life throws at me. The endless possibilities of duct tape fit right into this philosophy.

There are several sights such as Delicious Baby and Go Budget Travel that list some of the possible uses when you travel with with duct tape, but I'm going to try something different.

I much prefer having duct tape with me and seeing what it can do rather than having some predetermined ideas in my back pocket. The value of the lists lie in their ability to get the uninitiated thinking about the endless possibilities of duct tape.

Instead of a list, I will share my favorite duct tape travel story with you along with my technique for traveling with duct tape without carrying a bulky roll with me.

While checking in for a flight to Australia, I noticed a group of what appeared to be musicians checking in as well. One of the members was busy wrapping the instruments in duct tape for security and safety. At the worst possible moment, his roll ran out. He dug through his bag for a spare roll but found none. Fear and panic invaded him briefly.

He evaluated the situation and figured that he only needed a few more feet to secure the precious gear. How could he run out of tape? After all, he was the designated tape master!

Knowing exactly how I would have felt had I been in the same situation, I dug into my carry-on and pulled out my travel pack of duct tape. I approached the slightly flustered traveler and handed him his silver savior. Relief overtook panic as he gratefully accepted the tape. Upon completion of the task, he returned the tape and thanked me. I never did find out what band that was, but I'm guessing that the duct tape-less band member remembers the exchange as vividly as I do.

The utility of carrying duct tape is clear, but how to do it is a little more tricky. Duct tape traditionally comes in large (read: heavy) rolls which are not at all suitable for travel. Unless you have specific duct tape needs, you are very unlikely to go through an entire roll. A small roll/pack of duct tape can provide the same utility without weighing you down.

Several companies offer travel sized rolls, but since you probably already have a large roll of duct tape at home it is much more cost effective to make your own travel roll/pack.

Various methods may be employed to start a travel roll. Starting on a golf pencil is popular, but I prefer to carry a flat "roll" with me. This "roll" is started on a business or similar card, is flat and easy to pack. There's no big secret on how to do this, but I've created a video to show you exactly how I make these travel duct tape rolls.

Given that duct tape is at once one of the most useful inventions of the modern age and easy to carry, it would be silly not to travel with some in your pack, bag or suitcase.

If you have any good duct tape travel stories, I'd love to hear about them in the comments section below.

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Regional Cookie Highlight: The Oreo

Photographs by Nicole Holt

I know what you are thinking- how can Oreos be regional? I was thinking the same thing when I stumbled upon this story a couple of months ago. I now know more about the differences between Canadian and American Oreos than I ever thought possible.

Prior to leaving for a trip to Sudbury, ON, I asked my contact there if I could bring her anything from the States. I was surprised when she replied that the only thing that she wanted was a box of Oreos. She explained that while they are available in Canada the Oreos there are different than the ones in the States and that her partner prefers the US made Oreos.

Her partner was raised in Bermuda where, amongst other things, the Oreos come from the United States. When she moved to Canada, she was surprised and disheartened to find that her beloved cookie had been transformed into something that, while having the outward appearances, was not the cookie with which she had grown up.

I have to admit that I was suspicious of the claims that there was a noticeable difference, but since I am fond of cookies of all sorts I decided that I had to get to the bottom of this Oreo mystery. After delivering the promised cookies, I headed to a local grocer store to purchase some Canadian made Oreos. My initial inspection of the package revealed that the Oreos were made by a company named Christie and not by Nabisco.

I returned to the United States with an unopened package of Canadian Oreos, and I did a side by side comparison with a fresh package of US Oreos. While the package colors and basic cookie concept were basically the same, there were indeed some significant differences between the two cookies. The following information was obtained by inspecting the packaging, measuring and making careful observations.

US Oreos are darker than Canadian Oreos.
US Oreos are slightly over 1 3/4 inches in diameter, and Canadian Oreos are slightly under 1 3/4 inches in diameter.
The frosting (AKA: white stuff) in US Oreos is softer in comparison to the Canadian frosting.
A US Oreo weighs approximately 11.6 grams, and a Canadian Oreo weighs approximately 12.2 grams.
There are 3 Oreos to a suggested serving in the US while there are 2 Oreos to a suggested serving in Canada.
US Oreos contain corn syrup while the Canadian Oreos do not.

The serving differences are interesting, and they probably say more about the differences in eating culture between the two countries than anything else. It's interesting to note that while US Oreos are bigger in diameter, they weigh less. I didn't measure height, but the comparative heights are probably similar. The difference here likely comes into play with the filling. I noticed that the Canadian white stuff was denser; this is most likely because of the absence of corn syrup which can lighten and soften a frosting

With a well known product like the Oreo, why are there such big differences in the offerings of two neighboring countries? Companies often adjust their formulas to take advantage of locally available ingredients and to appeal to regional tastes. With all of the energy that goes into building a successful brand, companies are loath to throw away all of that brand recognition, which is especially true for a product as recognizable and iconic as the Oreo.

Another famous example of a company regionally changing the formula of a product can be found in Coca-Cola. In the United States, this soda is sweetened with corn syrup while in Mexico it is sweetened with cane sugar. I much prefer the Mexican product, but it is only sporadically available in the United States, so I hoard what I can find. My wife and I do the same thing with Mallomars which are only available seasonally.

So, which Oreo is better? That's a fine question, but it's one that is impossible to answer because it is a matter of personal taste. In a very unscientific taste test, I found that people have a strong preference for the cookie with which they grew up. Generally speaking, Canadians prefer the Christie cookie while Americans prefer the Nabisco cookie.

My experience investigating the regional differences in Oreos has showed me that if you keep your eyes open, you might just find something unexpected in a product that you thought you thought you knew all of your life.

If you have any other examples of products in which the formula changes from region to region, please let me know in the comments section below.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Two Years of Graham's Travel Blog

Photograph by Nicole Holt

At midnight on May 26th, 2010, something of note happened on the internet. No one took notice, and I have to admit that I slept right though it, but it was something that I had been anticipating for quite some time. On that date and time, Graham's Travel Blog became 2 years old.

This is quite an achievement in a world where the attention span of the collective population seems to be measured in hours. In today's day and age, anything lasting for two years on the internet seems like an increment on the geological timescale.

For me, it's been quite a journey. When I started, I had a rough idea of what I wanted to accomplish and an understanding of the English language that is best described as "functional", but I had no idea what I would learn or how far my writing would reach.

In the past two years, I've not only written over 100 articles but I've also improved my writing skills and made some new friends along the way. I've found that maintaining this blog has been a rewarding experience, and I am glad that I've continued to keep it up.

One of the unexpected and rewarding things of writing a blog has finding out who regularly reads what I've been writing. Not surprisingly, people that know in real life make up the majority of my regulars, but there are a few that I've never even met . This brings me a smile every time I think about it. After all, my mom has to read my blog, but there's not reason for anyone else to read my musings.

Not all of the articles that I've written have been great, but I've stuck with it and published something every week without fail. I'd take a few minutes and reflect upon a few of my articles that continue to be popular long after the publish button had been clicked.

Walking Across the George Washington Bridge
Going for a walk over the George Washington Bridge was something that I'd wanted to do for a long time and it turns out that it's been on many other people's list of things to do as well.

Not a day goes by where someone, somewhere in the world doesn't read this article. That any one particular piece of writing has been read by so many people pleases me to no end. One reader even mentioned that they had always wanted to walk across the bridge, but had put it off for years. After reading my article, they commented that they were inspired to finally do it. I hope that that reader finally made the walk.

What Airplane Ear is and How to Avoid It
Airplane ear was something that I had never heard of until I was stricken by it, and it was terrible. Getting the chance to educate people on a potentially serious yet little known medical condition was a nice change of pace from my normal lighthearted articles.

Oddly enough, this article did much better than my article about pinball wrist, go figure.

Sleeping in the Frankfurt Airport
When I wrote about my rough night in Frankfurt, I had no idea how many people sleep in the Frankfurt airport every day. Being an international airport, Frankfurt has flights coming in all the time with overnight layovers being common. One reader even contacted me about a rumor that was being spread around that you could no longer sleep in the Frankfurt airport. Thankfully this isn't true, but that's a story for another day.

Aside from these few popular pages, Graham's Travel Blog continues to have a small, but loyal, following.

I'd like to thank everyone who has supported me along the way, especially my wife, Nicole, who regularly contributes her photography and editing skills to this blog.

It's been a great two years of writing for me, and I hope that it's been good for you. If you have a favorite article that I have written, please let me know in the comment selection below.

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