I am writing this from sunny Orlando. Come 3pm on-the-dot, this will turn into stormy Orlando, with dark horror movie skies and rain streaming down windows, claps of thunder followed by long bursts of lightening slicing the sky. So far, the monsoons haven’t made sight-seeing too difficult. Last night we drove slowly through the tropical storm weather with our flashers on, cautiously following the car ahead all the way to Cocoa beach. The rain stopped just as we got there and picked an outdoor patio for dinner.
We sat drinking beer and sweet tea and played with the ancient ‘Trivial Pursuit’ cards that rested on each table. Some questions now irrelevant, most ahead of our time. Donning plastic bibs, we cracked lobsters and snow crabs until our stomachs ached then walked off dinner on the wet sand, its surface dimpled from the heavy rain drops. You won’t see a brilliant sunset over the water on the Atlantic side, but you do get to witness the moon shine brighter and brighter over the ocean as the sky darkens and the treetops along the beach look dusted with pink and orange while the sun settles down. The sandpipers scurry to the water’s edge as the waves go out and peck for food then quickly scurry away just as the water rushes back up shore.
Not your usual Orlando vacation, mine is devoid of Disney. The night before we bought cigars and nestled in wooden chairs for a couple of hours, smoking and talking. I spend my early day in the sun or reading or thinking of what to eat later on for dinner. That’s always at the forefront of my thoughts – next meal. Both sides of me come from families where food is very central. I still remember being 7 years old and everyone at my mother’s parent’s house gathered around the round kitchen table to make ravioli from scratch. Some were placed on pasta duty, while others prepped the filling. I was on the assembly line. I wish I could say, “and that was the moment I realized I love food” but I was a kid, with all of my cousins in the middle of summer and I wanted to be playing outside underneath the giant willow tree in my grandparent’s yard. We’d pull on that poor tree’s hanging limbs, pretending to be ringing church bells.
There have been some good food finds here in Orlando. We ventured up to the Mills 50 district one night for Asian street fare from Hawker’s. Comforted and full from handmade roti, spicy prawn mee, duck curry noodles and 5 spice green beans with sweet chrysanthemum tea. BBQ was dinner for the next night at this place called 4 Rivers Smokehouse. I loved the casual counter-service style. In line there is a large refrigerator case full of old-style sodas – apple beer, ginger ales and creamy root beers arranged neatly in tall, thin glass bottles. You shout your order out to a guy cutting off the burnt ends of a brisket and a sheet of butcher paper is slapped onto a tray to hold your meat of choice. I was taken with the ribs, a half rack so big it nearly took up the entire tray. My sides were baked cheese grits and corn so good I gobbled it up first thing. The key to an automatically amazing corn salad? Grill the corn.
Ashamedly (because it is kind of embarrassing) I am not a BBQ sauce lover. I tolerate it. Give me gravies, give me spicy rubs, but slather my 16 hour slow-cooked meat in sweet, tangy BBQ sauce and I make one of those twisted toddler faces of disgust. Perhaps I care so much because I love a man who could slather BBQ on hardtack and be happy or maybe I dislike feeling left out, especially if it is from a popular culinary item. BBQ sauce, I fear, is not a craze but a fixture. Deepening its roots further and further into traditional American cuisine and I kind of want in. My first stop was Lillie’s in Chicago, where I sort of dipped my toe into trying anything, instead enjoying my pulled pork pile sans sauce. Down south though, where BBQ is king, I had to abandon hesitation. I tried brisket covered in the house-made sauce and my tender St Louis style ribs which thankfully were not drenched, but sweetly glazed. Thank you Orlando, I see more of this American obsession in my future.
There have been more to fill up my days than just food though. This trip was encouraged because I felt restless yet unproductive and wanted to leave my house full of chores and my city with all of its dirt and traffic. Even sitting at the airport terminal early in the morning to fly to Orlando was a relief, as if I had put on noise-cancelling earphones and was awakening all the other senses I’ve lost touch with. Gathering up thoughts and taking them to another place can sometimes lead to small revelations, like when you are stuck and decide to approach a puzzle from a different angle. By merely changing seats at the table you gain a fresh perspective. Meeting new people and seeing new things can be re-charging. Even taking part in activities I do at home, but with palm trees outside of my window today might lead to catharsis. I don’t believe there is a geographic cure for anything. You are where you are at any given moment and that is to be respected and reveled in. It is nice however to pluck yourself out of your usual routine and exist someplace else for awhile.
Travel keeps me sane.