Monday, September 29, 2014

Beginning the Herbal Medicine Path - Part 1

Sleepily we gathered for our first weekend of Grassroots Herbal Medicine, letting piping streams of maple colored tea flow from the samovar into our outstretched mugs before sinking down into a chair to wait for the magic to begin.

All ages of women had assembled into our circle of eager herb wielders, from the salt tinged hair of one women to the budding, rounded belly of another. We introduced ourselves somewhat timidly, each secretly wondering what the other person already knew about herbal medicine.

As each of us found our seats Molly welcomed us, radiating the warmth teachers seem to so easily exude when they are blessed with a classroom of intention-filled students. Molly holds a presence in the space that is undeniable, swathed in chocolate dreadlocks and a knit sweater she beamed at us over her own cup of steaming tea.

She asked us to pick up our cups. 

"What do you smell?"

We brought the wisps of steam to our noses and inhaled. I was reminded of my first attempts at wine tasting. The swirling red liquid sending only heady whiffs of alcohol to my nostrils. Only with months of practice did I start picking notes of leather, chocolate, honeysuckle and plum. 

"It smells kinda sweet," a young girl to my right said.

"Hmmm sweet, interesting," Molly mused, letting silence fall again to open the floor to more guesses.

"Yeah, kinda like a sweet earthiness is what I get," another woman said, her nosed still pressed to the rim of her mug.

"What part of your body does this tea go to?" Molly asked.

"How can I feel that?" I wondered. I took another sip, willing my body to tell me where the plant was drawn to. I felt the warmth of the liquid flowing down my throat, emanating out through the skin of my neck. And I felt the warmth enter my stomach, sending that little thrill up to my brain, the first buzz of the morning alarm to rouse the sleeping senses. 

"I feel it in my kidneys," someone said, letting her hand graze her side for emphasis. 
Molly nodded with a smile and I sipped again, stretching my nerve ending out to feel my kidneys. 

"What part of the plant do you think this comes from?"
We looked a little confused perhaps because she quickly offered, "Is it a bark? Is it a berry? Does this taste like the leaves, or maybe the root?"

"Leaves?" someone guessed? 
Every part was thrown out in hushed whispers, no one quite sure.

"Are there any guesses for what plant this is?" Molly asked.

No one offered up a guess.
"This is dandelion root tea," Molly smiled, "Taxicum officinal," she said in latin.
There were whispers of "I knew it!" from a few and looks of "really, dandelion?" from a few others.

With one simple exercise we had been thrown into the world or herbalism. Herbalism is not a study so much as it is a way of life. It is an intention of joining yourself with the plant world in a way that seems foreign and at times silly and so far removed from our current sphere of life. 

 I had come to this class wondering what possible connection I could find. I worried a little about the ideas of appropriation, exoticism and novelty seeking. Would I be hoodwinked into potion making? Would I foolishly delve into traditions that had no bearing on my personal history?

As if sensing this discomfort, these open questions and uncertainties, Molly began that morning by sharing her own story. Her exploration of Costa Rican medicine, her experiences at Sacred Plant Traditions in Charlottesville, her decision to come back to her home of Maryland and start a school. 
But more importantly she shared this thought with us: 

"Every single one of us come from a lineage of plant people."

Perhaps I can't claim any bloodline to inform my use of astragalus, and maybe I don't belong to a people who used tobacco medicinally, but somewhere in my history, my personal lineage, I come from a people who used plants as healers. We all do.  
The room filled with excited buzz as I imagine we all thought about our own families and what traditions might be buried in our pasts. What plants, perhaps even plants in this very garden, might have played a role in our histories.

The Grassroots program, Molly explained, is meant to make herbal medicine approachable, after all, herbal medicine is for the people and is made by the people. 

There is no certification out there really that is accredited. You don't have to know every plant under the sun.  Your depth is completely up to you. If you are called to make teas from your garden and to use herbs in your stews, you're an herbalist. If you make salves and tinctures and poultices, you're an herbalist. 
If you form a relationship with even just one plant, you're an herbalist.

"Congratulations," she smiled, "You're all herbalists now."

Becoming an herbalist was as simple as deciding. 

And with that knowledge, that confidence that we hadn't even dreamed of gaining on the first day, we dove into our exploration.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Exploring Home: The George Washington Masonic Temple National Memorial

I've had a couple years of practice now in playing tourist in other people's homes. Sleeping on stranger's couches, sipping tea in other people's coffee spot, lazily walking someone else's route to work. But when I get home from my trip it's right back to the grind and I can easily grind myself into a rut when I'm not careful. 

And so sometimes I have to dust off my Exploring Home cap and spend a day poking around my own town. Luckily I'm not the only one who has never played tourist at home so my friend Anthony joined me on a particularly blown out, sultry day to a visit to the George Washington Masonic Temple in Alexandria. 

The monument can be seen from all over the area. As you fly into Reagan, dusting the Potomac with jetfuel and wanderlust you sail over it's pointed balcony. How many times I had hoped the metro in front of it I couldn't tell you, but I had never been inside. 

For a couple of dollars you can meet a docent in the main hall, under the imposing bronze statue of Washington himself, and get shuttled up and down on the gondolaeque elevator to see some of Washington's treasures and to poke into some of the displayed secrets of the masons. 

You'll see things like Washington's leather chair, where he would hold majesty over the masons in meeting, the clock that shows the exact time of his death, a strip of his hair and even the strangely cryptic apron he wore as a practicing mason. 

As a special treat we got to go into the Chapel of the Nights Templar, a very formal affair in black marble and heavy iron shields. 

If nothing else, the view from the top is wonderful on a sunny day. 

Thanks for exploring with me Anthony!

Where to Eat Vegan: Present Moment Cafe - St. Augustine, FL

We drove right by Present Moment Cafe the first time and had to pull around and approach it again. The squat barrel shaped building hugged close to the road had blended into the tightly packed urban blip of King Street in Old Town St. Augustine. 

But this is no urban desert of a restaurant. Within the doors lush blues and greens stream through the jewel toned windows, wood so lustrous it seems to still breathe, coats the walls and a gentle pink emanates from each table set with a Himalayan Salt grinder. 

In a town more equipped to serve novelty fried alligator tail and slippery sweet ice cream cones to tourists, Present Moment Cafe gives one pause. 
This is a restaurant designed to nourish all the senses.

I had convinced my grandmother to bring us into town to sample Yvette Schindler's raw fare not really knowing what to expect. Would there be anything she would dare to eat? 

Salads don't hold much of a place on this imaginative menu. Mango samosas, Viva Burrito, Nachos, White Truffle Pesto Pasta and the Sunlight Burger stuffed with mushrooms and nuts. 
Where to begin? 

Sometimes when I don't know where to start I go back to the start.
 Where did I start this weird food journey? What foods brought me out of the boxed mashed potatoes and microwave mac and cheese dark ages? 

Miso was one of those first foods.
At the Japanese Steakhouse, where charred bits of shrimp were thrown into the grinning gapes of openmouthed spectators, I tasted my first bowl of salty miso.
As a new vegan years later I was heartbroken to find so many restaurants served fish laced broths, so when an opportunity to try a miso made without my swimming friends comes along I take it.

Present Moment Cafe could have gotten away with being mediocre. With few vegan options and no real competition in the way of raw vegan fare, they probably could have gotten by being the only joint in town and could prepare whatever they wanted. But they turned out an amazing meal, a New York quality meal really. 
I was tempted to buy their cookbook before I left but opted to just hold the flavors and textures in my mind until I could make another pilgrimage to the fountain of youth that is Present Moment Cafe. 

22 West King Street
St. Augustine, FL 32084

Monday - Thursday 10am - 9pm
Friday - Saturday 10am - 9:30 pm

Monday, July 21, 2014

Where to Eat Vegan: Ballyhoo's - Key Largo, FL

Ballyhoo's doesn't seem like an obvious choice for vegan food. The warm patio flanked with bananas is inviting, sure, but the ghastly crab legs that hang as a welcoming banner to their website seems, somewhat less than welcoming. 

Push past the obligatory seafood section though and you'll find a whole separate menu of vegan and vegetarian delights like Fried Pink Tomatoes, Vegan Grilled Cheese and Black Bean Soup, Grilled Avocado and a selection of salads that breaches the iceberg and watery tomato protocol. 

As we sipped on our Mason jar tumblers of water and pursued the menu we realized those tasty options from the website were nowhere to be found.
"Excuse me, but we thought we saw online that you have vegan options?" I asked the waitress.
"Oh, you're vegan, we have a whole menu for you honey," she beamed, rushing inside to grab a few of the reserved copies for us. 
"There aren't a lot of vegan options here in Key Largo but it turns out that our chef here is vegan so that's why we have this whole separate menu," she explained. 

We decided to get a few dishes to sample the menu: 
The Grilled Cheese with Black Bean Soup
Joe Vs The Volcano Salad 
and a Sweet Potato Burger with Jalapeño Jelly 

Grilled Mango, Sliced Tomato, Avocado and Noodles are tossed with a Chili Lime Dressing, Fresh Cilantro and Mint and served atop Spinach with a handful of Peanuts and a side of crispy toast. 

The Sweet Potato Burger, which is mixed with white beans and tahini was served crispy and warm on a kaiser roll with a spicy Jalapeño Jelly side and a choice of Green Beans, Black Eyed Peas, Mushrooms, Spinach or Fries. 
We resisted the Fries. 

The Grilled Cheese was the most unique vegan grilled cheese I've yet to experience. Instead of the stringy glue that Daiya can produce or the itchiness that cashew cheese can produce for me, this "cheese" was made of reduced coconut milk and what I assumed was nutritional yeast. Lightly flavored but satisfying in a gooey way that reminded me of childhood Velveta days. 


Open Daily 11am - 10pm

97860 Overseas Highway
Key Largo, FL 33037

305 852 0822

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Somewhere New December: Everglades and Keys and Alligators, Oh My!

Florida is nowhere new for me really but in every place there are nooks and crannies left unexplored and waiting for discovery. It turns out that I had left about 1,500,00+ acres unexplored. 
The Everglades are a wild and winding beast, shifting with the tides and aptly referred to as "a river of grass flowing imperceptibly from the hinterland into the sea."
The name Everglades is said to have come from the explorers to the area but the indigenous cultures would have called it Pa-hay-Okee, meaning grassy water. 

Whatever you call it, it's immense.

Just outside the boundaries of the National Park are little locally run airboat companies that give tours of the grasslands. We hemmed and hawed and read a lot of reviews giving opposing opinions about taking a tour, but at the recommendation of our host Justin we decided to do it after all. 

Airboats have been around since the early 1900's when Alexander Graham Bell got tired of inventing telephones and moved to hydrofoils and aeronautics. The first airboat to be registered in the US was right here in Florida in 1920. So if you're going to ride an airboat anywhere, here is where you should ride it. 

 "Now I'm from this area," our barrelchested boat captain growled into his headset mic,
 "lived not twenty miles from here my whole life."
He passed out cotton balls for us to gingerly manuever into our ear canals as he fired up the 15 foot fan behind him. The blades swooshed to life and we slowly eased forward into the dense canals that lead out to the grasses. 

"Now keep your hands and feet in the boat and hopefully you'll still have them when we get back," he cackled as he pushed the throttle, excellerating us towards a wall of tall grass. I panicked, he turned sharply and the underside of the boat floated out from underneath us, tilting us towards the soupy water as we slid around the bend. 

Phil laughed and unpried my fingers from his leg. 
"You were in the bathroom when he warned us that there would be some sliding involved."
"Oh good because I thought we were just dying already," I replied with a little angry nudge at Phil for not passing said warning along.  

Boattailed Grackle joining the tour 

After some more acrobatics and some high speed touring, little islands of densely matted ferns and trees appearing and disappearing as we wound deeper into the maze, we slowed down to a purr and entered a thin channel. 

"Here Nubs. Where you at Nubby?" 
The captain cut the engine and we floated in silence. 

"We've got a couple a males that live round here," he explained as he slapped the boat hull with a stick and called out to Nubby. "Now males are real territorial. Sometimes they'll take up acres and acres of land and all the females in that area are his and he'll drive out the other males, even his sons. Our little Nubby here was stubborn and got in a tangle with Bubba, the dominant male here. And that's how he got his name, because he's missing the end of his tail." 


Just as we were getting ready to push off in search of another alligator to ogle, Nubby swam out of the grasses towards us, swinging his petit tail in slow arcs. 

"You would think these guys are indestructible and I guess if you aren't another gator they kinda are. This here is called a scoot, its what's under those plates that run down the gators back," he said, passing us a little square piece of bone that could more easily been mistaken for a piece of coral. 

After visiting Bubba, who hissed at us from his grassy sunbathing mat we ended the tour by visiting some of the babies in captivity and the alligators who had become so hurt or mangled that they were kept in enclosed pools. 
As a rule I don't really like zoos and aquariums and even ecotours, which often proclaim their respect for the natural scenes and animals on display, can set my morality meter swaying.
I can't say if it was in the best interest of these animals to be in captivity or even to be accustomed to humans the way Nubby obviously was, but I chose to engage in the tour and just remain mindful of how I was feeling and let that guide my future interactions with nature. 
According to our tour guides alligators live anywhere from 30 to 50 years. As babies for the first few years of their lives they are susceptible to poaching by large birds and other alligators and spend most of their time hiding in the grasses, or in this case pools, until they are large enough to find their own territories to dominate.

The little guy that we held was over two years old, and still so tiny! Having held one baby alligator, who really I was tempted to cradle but had to follow instructions on how to hold it "properly," I don't see much need to do it again. It was an interesting experience though to come skin to skin with one of those predators that men fear. 
Humbling, even as a vulnerable infant. 

The next day we headed down past Key Largo with Justin to snorkel and live the good life by the ocean. The water in December is definitely brisk and a wetsuit was welcome as we spent the afternoon floating past waving purple sea fans and brightly tinged sea whips and star coral and little clusters of pufferfish and clownfish. 
I heard tell there was a barracuda but I didn't see it. 

On the way back Justin insisted we had to stop in Islamorada to feed the tarpons and check out the artist shacks of painted driftwood, cheesy tourist postcards and straw hats. 

Robbie's is where you belly up to the bar, order your bucket of french fries and then a bucket of tiny fish so you can walk down to the end of the dock and hold them out for the sport of feeding the bigger fish. The tarpon don't have teeth but they DO jump almost completely out of the water and wrap their gummy lips around your hand in an attempt to swallow the minnows you offer. 
I screamed a lot of course. 

On another day we visited Niki at work at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden
And pretty much died and went to heaven. 

I was so absorbed in the Rainbow Eucalyptus, and Beobab, the Sausage Tree and all the amazing flowers and plants that I actually didn't even take pictures, I just soaked it in. I've been learning trees for over a year now but this expansive living museum taught me I have a long way to go as Fairchild is the host to one of the world's largest collection of palms and cycads

We took the tram tour around the grounds with the most amazing tour guide. Well actually to anyone else on the tram he might have been the very worst tour guide but we found his monotone humor and creaky old man jokes so endearing.

I did take one picture of the butterflies enjoying their tropical treats. 

Thanks to Niki, Justin and his mother for sharing their lovely house and pool so we could come to Florida for a warm weekend in December!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Where to Drink Like a Local: Portland, Maine

I'm not a drinker really. The occasional glass of wine after work has even disappeared to be replaced with herbal teas I brew and then put by the bed to cool, always left half-forgotten until the morning finds me parched and ready. 
But Mainers are proud of their local products and a tourist is obliged to sample the wares of the state.

So John directed me down to Anderson Street in East Bayside. The houses and shops become blips on this side of town giving way to long factories and abandoned buildings. 

Tandem Coffee Roasters is crisp and white with the only major adornments seeming to be the polished steel of the old Probat roaster and the sleek La Marzocco espresso machine - shining totems to the coffee deities allowed to shine amid the sterile absence of clutter so prevalent to small, local coffee shops. There is very much a feeling of ritual and worship that attaches itself to the roasting and brewing of coffee and while I don't seem to have the palate or appreciation for coffee that many do, I can still lap up the zen rolling off these carefully poured cups of (yucky) bean water. 

Next door is Maine Craft Distillery doing what they call "farm to flask" whiskey production that displays the unique terroir of Maine. If you drop by in the evening for a tasting you can get a tiny shot of each of their brews and ask questions like:
 "so there are carrots in this spirit?!"

In addition to sourcing local flavors MCD also sources locally inspired names like their botanical spirit named Chesuncook - the Abenaki word for "where the waters meet," or their spiced rum named QueeQueg named for the famous harpooner of Moby Dick lore. 

I dutifully tasted each one searching for "the taste of Maine" before passing the rest of my shot to John who was enjoying his free high.

Next jump another building down and visit the Urban Farm Fermentory or UFF as it's known around town and sidle up to the bar for a locally fermented kombucha. After the kombucha crackdown scare of 2010, many feared their precious bubbles would be lost to the government's foam but UFF is doing just fine for itself years later. 
12 taps of kombucha and hard "cidah," as they call it, grace the tasting room swathed in boozy browns and tans and a long wooden bar.
With flavors like Blueberry and Ginger to Chaga Chai and Cascade Hopped, Basil Mead and every variation of cider, it was easy to knock back a half and hour tasting and talking. 

Many thanks to my drinking companion for not only finishing all my shots but also introducing me to the little seen side of Portland!