Seeing Red: The birth of my son and in a way, myself.

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Red in Slumberland.

Red in Slumberland.

Well he’s here. My son.

At 6:21am, Red Oliver Varela came into the world roaring with life. I screamed when I saw him. Not a painful scream, I had only phantoms of legs and nether regions thanks to a great epidural, but a surprised and startled (embarrassing) scream. Looking at him in radical amazement, he was the conclusion of everything I had felt during pregnancy, the push and pull of this sort of becoming.

My whole pregnancy I wanted nothing but to feel like my body was my own again. It was a small frustration at first, sparking in the extra motivation it took each morning to get going after I gave up my coffee ritual or as quick and passing as the momentary pains when I would bump into something behind the bar, unfamilar with my new volume and dimensions.

Then I started crying. In the beginning only while listening to sad songs or happy commercials. Then I started crying over watching music videos that reminded me of all my nights out in the city, the lights, the dancing, the potential for anything to happen, the defiance with which we all faced the world, the sunrise. (damn you Calvin Harris and David Guetta.)

I started crying over the work I couldn’t complete because I was just too tired or too unfocused. In all honesty, there was no point in trying. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing anyway because somehow I had become bad at all the things I was good at, even relaxing.

I realized I had not gone into the baby’s room the entire time we have lived here except to deposit gifts and things I collected for him. I’m supposed to be blissfully happy. I’m supposed to be glowing. I’m supposed to be a god damn goddess of nature and miracles and life!

But instead I was an anxious, fearful mess that couldn’t quite wrap my head around why I would possibly do this to myself. Why would I invite this little person into my life of too much coffee, too late nights, plane ticket roulette, spend it all, see it all,  defy tomorrow!

I wondered when I would become this mother. Maybe it took the time it takes to wear in a new set of heels or for the stiff spine of a new book to soften. At times, I was completely distraught that I may never accumulate the abundance of selfless love a parent has for their child.

Love at first sight.

Love at first sight.

They placed him in my arms and I was stunned by the intensity, the immediate shifting of things. All this time, I didnt realize the biggest part of me was growing inside. All of the things I searched and longed for about myself were being funneled into shaping this little being. To nourish him with life and personality so that when he came out he was immediately recognizable. Mine. Mine. MINE.

How natural.  This whole time I was afraid my greatest adventures were behind me, my wildest dreams extinguished.  But holding him; in the heat of the instincts, the hormones, the love, the hope, everything was made possible again. I was on a fast train to something exciting, something permanent: motherhood. What is a grander adventure than that?

My family, my loves.

My family, my loves.

The Maine Event: Eventide Oyster Co.

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“It’s not a very romantic story.” Said Christian of his start into the food industry. He is the Provisions International Specialty Goods Salesman and my adoring “Baby Daddy” (Is that the correct term? I’m new at this…)

One of the ways Christian and I connected when we first met was our mutual passion for food and great restaurants. Together, we continue to explore new eateries whenever we find ourselves with the rare opportunity to spend a day together. Which is what brought us to Portland: food. Because as a former chef, he has a lot to say and now that I’m pregnant, I have a lot to eat.

Portland’s gastronomic potential was first spotted when the Locavore Movement began to turn the tables on American cuisine toward food made with sustainable products found close to home. With an abundance of fresh fish and small town charm, Portland quickly rose to its fame as one of the “foodiest towns in America” (Bon Appetit, 2009).

Our traveling concluded at Eventide; the restaurant co-owned and adjacent to Portland’s culinary darling Hugo’s. The restaurant that also catapulted Christian into the industry. His first love.

“I worked at Hugo’s for Rob [Evans].” Christian explained wistfully of his motivation to begin his career in Hugo’s kitchen that later launched him into the sous chef positions at Vermont’s boutique destination Simon Pearce and New Hampshire’s Dartmouth retreat, The Hanover Inn.

“I walked in a week after he won the James Beard Award. He won, he took me on, I showed up a week later and fell in love with it. I loved the way he talked about food. I loved the way he ran his kitchen and I loved the food coming out of it.”

Evans has since left the establishment, leaving it to the direction of his three best knife-slinging successors; Arlin Smith, Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley who continue to transform New England fare with their inventive menus.

Eventide is their newest, solo venture. Here are some postcards from our culinary cruise.

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While guests grab a beer from the bar, they can browse a wide selection of locally and internationally sourced oysters on display.

While guests grab a beer from the bar, they can browse a wide selection of locally and internationally sourced oysters on display.

A not-so traditional lobster roll on a simple sub roll with big chunks of lobster. Light and fresh with house mayo and hints of dill. For a sweeter note, have it blended with hollandaise or brown butter vinaigrette.

A not-so traditional lobster roll. Light and fresh with house mayo and hints of dill. For a sweeter note, have it blended with hollandaise or brown butter vinaigrette.

Sweet and salty squash fritters.

Sweet and salty squash fritters.

Bonito potatos

Bonito potatos

Grilled octopus sliced to the thinness of pasta with kimchi, lemon grass and topped with garlic chips.

Grilled octopus sliced to the thinness of pasta with kimchi, lemon grass and topped with garlic chips.

Razor clam with uni hot sauce and bread crumbs.

Razor clam with uni hot sauce and bread crumbs.

Photo Round Up: Chris, Meredith and Benjamin

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I met Chris while working in the Hanover Inn’s catering department last winter. As we set up events, we would all talk amongst ourselves about our home-life, relationships, new endeavors. Throwing the linens up to unfold themselves in mid-air and flutter down to blanket the table in crisp white, Chris would always talk so enthusiastically about his wife Meredith and their son Benjamin. 

it was only the other day I had the pleasure of meeting them both when I shot their Christmas portraits and found them to be even more wonderful than their storied selves. Benjamin is bright and curious. Meredith is beautiful and welcoming, making me feel like a friend immediately. 

With such a warm and affectionate family; admittedly, this was an easy shoot. It was a true pleasure and I look forward to getting to know them as time goes on! Happy Holidays Leblancs!

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This is Paradise: Pearl Harbor Memorial

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Working as a journalist, I have come to work very closely with both soldiers and veterans. As someone who also suffers PTSD, their stories and wisdom have helped me navigate my own fickle emotional state throughout the years. This Veteran’s Day, I’d like to share one of the most moving trips I have taken while traveling and encourage you all to not only remember our fallen soldiers but let them inspire you with their strength and passion.

Those of you who have skimmed my ABOUT Page may have caught the brief mention of a car accident in 2008. It was this car accident and months worth of recovery paralleled with a mentally abusive boyfriend that left me with a complex case of post traumatic stress disorder that matured as the years passed.

Much of my work as a journalist since has focused  on those who serve or have served in the military, many of whom are also inescapably reminded of the things they have experienced. As it was a  privilege to meet them professionally, it was a pleasure to get to know them personally.

My Valley News articles on three Korean war vets that were reunited 50 years! (feature Image by photographer Ryan Dorgan)

My Valley News articles on three Korean war vets that were reunited 50 years! (feature Image by photographer Ryan Dorgan)

Around this time last November, I took a trip to Hawaii. To confront the issues and anxiety that were resurfacing or to escape from them, I’m still not sure. We had a great first night on the island, meeting up with my little brother to sip mai tais out of coconuts and eat a decadent sushi dinner on a restaurant patio illuminated by tiki torches that overlooked the ocean. The next day, as we hiked up Diamond Head, I felt it all come back; the anxiety, the urgency, the alertness, the violent-heartracing-anger with myself.

Not here. I thought. How can this happen? This is supposed to be paradise!

As we hiked on, my brother and father falling behind me, I passed a group of surfers loading their boards on to the top of their car and unpacking sandwiches. I overheard the one in the wetsuit as he explained a recent surfing accident;

“I not only had to relearn how to walk but I had to relearn how to be me, to live. That is PTSD. The accident made me afraid to be even myself.”

The surfer reminded me that along with surfing accidents and other personal traumas, Hawaii is where one of the most traumatic events in the history of the United States took place; the bombings of Pearl Harbor.  I realized that nowhere, not even the most exotic, pleasant island is off the radar of for tragedy.

A couple days later, I found myself at the The Pearl Harbor Memorial built in memory of the WWII event that stands as a symbol of healing for survivors and families.

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The landscape was lush and the water was a clear, perfect aquamarine. The sun was shining brilliantly. It was beautiful.

This is paradise. I thought again.

As we walked in I tried to imagine it as a working base, the harbor filled with massive ships threaded with officers in crisp white uniforms checking and tuning and preparing and fixing. I imagined that it was probably a day that began not unlike today when the Japanese surprise attacked Pearl Harbor.

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We boarded a small boat to take us to the USS Arizona Memorial that marks the resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors that were killed during the attack. I walked in and saw their names with leis of orchids lain across stone plaques. In the center of the exhibit, a viewing window allowed you to look down and see the rusted remnants of the USS Arizona.

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While re-boarding, I noted the somber military officers who worked the memorial and how quiet the crowd stayed, each one of us learning and experiencing this alone but together. Back at the visitor’s center, I stood watching a  documentary replaying footage of the attack and interviews with survivors. One survivor, his uniform decorated in medallions of honor, sat to speak with curious tourists about what he remembered on that day.

Pearl Harbor survivor Allen Bodenlos stationed at Scholfield Barracks on December 7, 1941 turns to show me his Survivors Association jacket crest. His hat decorated with military pins.

Pearl Harbor survivor Allen Bodenlos stationed at Scholfield Barracks on December 7, 1941 turns to show me his Survivors Association jacket crest. His hat decorated with military pins.

Yet, the ships were still coasting in and out of the port. The sailors still stood tall in their pressed whites. No one here was trying to forget. There were no cheery attractions or gaudy kitsch. Nothing covered up what happened here and what still happened here. That it is still a working Naval station where the United States Pacific Fleet still endures.

Admittedly, that wasn’t the first memorial that I have visited. The memorials that surrounded me while living in Washington DC somehow became a part of the landscape, beautiful structures that I passed en route to work or admired during walks. However, after returning from my trip to Pearl Harbor I thought about them too and how maybe the key to recovery is to do just that: re-cover. Recover all that you can by picking up all the pieces, meditate on what happened and use it to restore yourself. Use it to build something beautiful and revisit it often to remind yourself of how strong you are. Use it to drive you forward, to inspire others and then look back and celebrate how far you have come. To take a lesson from our marines; “Adapt and overcome.”

In honor of those who serve and all who support them. I wish you Happy Veteran’s Day.

Photo Friday: Waterbury, Vermont

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Usually while traveling, I want to find the secret spots, go where the locals go. I don’t want to be a tourist I want to be a traveler.

Autumn in New England is a time to cast those pretensions aside. It is a time to load up on maple candies and cheese samples, take long drives and guzzle apple cider like all the guidebooks advise.

Those of us that live up here call it “Foliage Season” and we all partake when the leaves start turning those fiery reds and oranges. Droves of cars make their way north to admire the scenery, the sidewalks fill with herds of pedestrians shopping for some small town swag.

Waterbury, Vermont is always on my autumn agenda so Sarah and I set out for a good old fashioned, north country day trip.

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If you are looking for a one stop shop for all of Vermont’s finest staples, this would be the place.

What to do:

The factory tours and tastings at Cold Hollow Cider Mill, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory, Cabot Creamery, and Lake Champlain Chocolates.

Where to Eat:

The Prohibition Pig for “smoked meat and libations”. Wash that brisket and burger down with restoration-style cocktails such as the Throw the Horns- Rittenhouse Rye, Sandeman Madeirda, Marischino, grapefruit.

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The Alchemist Brewery for a Heady Topper, the double IPA that was ranked No. 1 beer in the world on BeerAdvocate.com.

Where to stay:

Moose Meadow Lodge. Vermont’s only log-cabin style B&B with a tree house suite. Need I say more?

So grab your camera and hit that country road!

VOLVER: I’M BACK.

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It has been WAY too long since my last entry. Five months? Maybe more? It goes by fast, doesn’t it. A stark reality that moments, thus life, is fleeting. So let us not waste any time, where to begin…

Ah yes, Twenty-Seven. I’m that much closer to thirty and en route to becoming a mom (Surprise! I’m preggo! Get ready for my travel posts to become family friendly!)

Baby bump.

Baby bump.

It has been an interesting year…

As some of you may know, I come from a small town. Perhaps it is because of this I chose to spend college and my years after submerged in the street lights and vibrancy of cities, totaling almost 10 years buoying from Savannah, GA, Boston, MA, and Washington D.C.

In August of 2012, I returned home to my mother’s small house in the backcountry of Vermont taking comfort in the quiet solitude of the woods. The rural life I left behind always seemed somehow more real with its isolation and dramatic turnings of each season compared to the consistent glamour of city life.

Vermont livin'

Vermont livin’

However, no place is immune to change and I was happy to find urban sprawl shining its way through the pastoral canopy of my small town. Embracing the collaborative environment of the community, I saw forces come together to build a new visual arts center at Dartmouth, flooding the town with the types of creative, eccentric people I left and longed for back in Savannah, GA.

Dartmouth Black Family Visual Art Center

Dartmouth Black Family Visual Art Center

Visual Performance piece at The Hopkin's Center at Dartmouth. Hanover, NH.

Visual Performance piece at The Hopkin’s Center at Dartmouth. Hanover, NH.

Our local inn, it seemed, went through a phoenix’s rebirth; the tired, kitschy curtains and book shelves that once preserved ancient Dartmouth yearbooks at the Hanover Inn were moved and replaced with sleek granite fireplaces and marble floors during a 48 million dollar renovation by The Pyramid Hotel Group.

Also gone, was the tavernous cave of a restaurant where they nixed typical New England pub food in favor of building a swanky new grub spot out of refurbished barn board and an inventive contemporary-American menu by celebrity Boston chef Michael Schlow.

If we build it, they will come. This was the bar mid-construction.

If we build it, they will come. This was the bar mid-construction.

If any of you have read the words of Jacob Tomsky in his revealing memoir, “Heads in Beds”, then you have already heard that the hotel industry is the perfect place for a travel addict to work. The environment is ever-changing, new cultures and people come to you everyday looking for drink recommendations, directions, a fair-weather friend.

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I got my start selling idyllic tourist experiences and camera-ready cultural cliches at 16 working the ice cream counter at a Ben and Jerry’s shop. Since then, I have worked every inch of a restaurant from kitchen to host stand, so if there is one thing I can offer a foreigner stopping through town, it is hospitality.

 

 

That is why when the offer to team up with bartender James Ives and crew to man the bar for the opening of the hotel’s new restaurant PINE, I went all in.

Slinging drinks behind our beautiful new bar! (Why, yes, that IS pine wood!)

Slinging drinks behind our beautiful new bar! (Why, yes, that IS pine wood!)

There is James! Look at him looking all dapper!

There is James! Look at him looking all dapper!

Since, I have been soaking up all the knowledge I can from this alcohol alchemist. Every work day truly is an adventure of histories and cultures to draw inspiration for new drinks. All while keeping my wanderlust at bay with periodic trips and freelance assignments.

Here are some of our creds.

Here are some of our creds.

So there it is. In a nut shell. Stay tuned!

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Local Flavor: Chefs on the Farm


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A massive Heritage pig stares up at Justin Dain, chef of the newly opened PINE Restaurant at the Hanover Inn in Hanover, NH. Disinterested, he snorts and saunters on. It is nine in the morning, cold, and overcast at best. The chef six-five, hulking and pristine in his leather jacket sidesteps the chickens and ducks nipping at the feed sprinkled all over the ground to make his way down the hill to see next week’s pig.

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Dain and one of the farm hands, Curtis walk on discussing quail eggs and micro greens. Excitedly, I make my way over to the edge of the property where an ox and a bull stand untethered. I have never seen an ox up close so I approached with caution. Horned and Herculean, both looked on unconcerned about the tiny human trudging toward them.

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This was my first trip to one of the 30 farms and producers that source PINE Restaurant (for whom I both bartend and photograph). The restaurant works based on a farm-to-table philosophy but can also serve as a reflection of the food culture in the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire.

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Dain has termed this style of cooking as “Refined American” referring to local, simple, good food; no fuss, no muss, just high level flavors and quality.

Justin Dain is the Executive Chef at the Hanover Inn in Hanover, NH. He has received regional and national recognition for his food including preparing a custom dinner for the renowned James Beard House in New York.

Justin Dain is the Executive Chef at the Hanover Inn in Hanover, NH. He has received regional and national recognition for his food including preparing a custom dinner for the renowned James Beard House in New York.

“I don’t stick things where they don’t belong. I like things clean and simple.” Dain says. “When I use a product, I try to use it the right way. The way it should be used. If I have pork, I am not going to try to make it into something else. I am going to find the best way for that pork to be pork and the flavors to compliment it.”

Boston Chef and Restauranteur for PINE Michael Schlow agrees; “simple does not mean plain, creative does not mean complicated”.

Local, organic product demand continues to grow in 2013, with consumers reporting that their motivations include helping local businesses and farms along with sharing a common a belief that the products are healthier, fresh, and more humane.

So here we are in Croyden, New Hampshire in our mud boots and winter jackets, shopping.

Local Flavor: Chefs on the Farm