Archive for May, 2012

5 Ways to Celebrate the Pretzel

May 31, 2012

Philadelphians eat about twelve times as many pretzels as the average consumer does. It’s not surprising — soft pretzels are one of Pennsylvania’s greatest products, though they often get overshadowed by the glitzier cheesesteak and Italian hoagie.
Pretzels (scandalously) didn’t make Parade magazine’s recent Memorial Day list of all-American classic foods, but I miss them desperately when I am out of the area (those mall kiosks just aren’t the same). Here are some favorite stops along the state’s unique pretzel network. I’ll save the sublime ice cream and pretzel cone combo for another post.

• The Sturgis empire. Julius’ side runs America’s first commercial pretzel bakery in Lititz, where visitors can check out the original 19th-century ovens and learn how to twist dough. Brother Tom’s side operates the factory and outlet store about 25 miles away in Shillington. Here, you can sample all types of pretzels, from cinnamon-dusted to spicy jalapeno and buy huge tins at a discount (but there are no tours).

Philly Soft Pretzel Factory. This 14-year-old franchise has won a slew of awards, and its storefronts are everywhere from Chalfont to Reading. Plus, it had the audacity to invent the cheesesteak pretzel. So wrong, but so good.

• Hanover, Pa. The factory tour of Snyder’s of Hanover is a must – a front-row look at the conveyor belts and mammoth machines needed to mass-produce salty snack foods — but the smaller, more personal Revonah (Hanover spelled backwards) is also worth a stop.

• Don’t let the humble name fool you. Gettysburg’s lively Pub on the Square sells a terrific appetizer simply called Pretzel Twists. Served hot with marinara sauce and dusted with garlic, it’s a perfect way to carb-load after a day of biking or walking the battlefields.

• Sweet pretzels in Amish country. Pretzel purists may object to this one, but there’s something about the butter/sugar combo they slather on the dough that is heavenly. I don’t even know the name of the small shop that sells them, but it’s next to one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area: Plain & Fancy Farm.

Sophisticated Lancaster

May 23, 2012

Sometimes you just might crave a little wine and cheese with that farm stay or funnel cake.

It’s Friday night and the lobby bar of the Lancaster Arts Hotel is packed with office workers sipping organic cosmopolitans and couples dressed for date night. Overnight guests wait amid mixed-media sculptures and floor-to-ceiling abstract paintings to check into the renovated tobacco warehouse. Next door, the John J. Jefferies restaurant serves lamb samosas and grass-fed bison tartare with microgreens to eager diners.

This isn’t the image most of us get when we think of Lancaster County. Amish-driven horse and buggies, Mennonite farm stands, and home-style buffets still dominate the surrounding landscape and serve as the cornerstone of the area’s tourism industry. In recent years, however, the area has upped its sophistication quotient in a big way, adding day spas, boutique hotels, expanded wineries, and elegant art galleries.

Lancaster Arts or the Cork Factory Hotel are good bases for such a venture: both are located in gorgeously renovated buildings within easy reach of the city center. Nearby at Penn Square, the Charles Demuth Museum is a rarely crowded homage to one of the country’s best watercolorists, while Fenz Restaurant is sleek and boisterous  and the go-to place for late-night goat-cheese pizza or truffle fries.

If you really want to avoid the horse-and-buggy vibe, the best town to visit is probably Lititz, a few miles north of Lancaster City.  Anchored by a girls’ boarding school on one side and a lovely park on the other, its main street is a haven of Victorian-era architecture, independent shops, and small museums.

Cap a Sophisticated Lancaster weekend with a visit to the peaceful Garden of Five Senses in Central Park (3 Nature’s Way, Lancaster) or a stop at Twin Brook Winery in Gap for samples of award-winning rose and chardonnay reserve.

There will always be time for chow-chow or shoo-fly pie on your next visit.

Organic oasis near Kutztown

May 20, 2012

This is not your basic manicured garden tour. A visit to the Rodale Experimental Farm is a fascinating, sometimes muddy and bug-laden, window into a working sustainable organic farm.

Hats are a must. Boots are good idea.

Here’s the backstory: In 1947, a man named J.I. Rodale started the Soil and Health Foundation on his small farm near Kutztown to promote his theory that healthy soil, not chemical fertilizer, is the basis for growing healthy food. Five decades and one publishing empire later, these 333 acres near Kutztown are home to a research farm and educational center that is open to the public for $5 self-guided tours and workshops on composting, soil biology, and other topics.

Tours start in an old red schoolhouse, where books on gardening and cooking and locally made honey and jams are for sale. From here, the sometimes-paved paths wind past wide garden beds, compost windrows, bank barns, owl hollows, and patchwork-quilt fields of corn, alfalfa, wheat, and soybeans. In summer, an unfathomable number of bugs and butterflies – plus the occasional herd of cows — will cross your path. I have yet to take one of the $12 Saturday guided tours, but I hear they are thorough and inspiring.

A tip: Don’t rely on your car’s GPS to find this farm. Map it out or call for specific directions before you leave. It’s not exactly on the beaten path, though it isn’t far from two great refreshment stops: Premise Maid Candies for ice cream and Brenda’s Eatery (15380 Kutztown Rd.) for Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.

What Recession? A shopper’s nirvana in West Chester

May 16, 2012

When is Heidi Klum most likely to be on the set? How do those ankle bracelets and skin-care systems get OKed by quality-control experts?  What is Rick Domeier’s favorite movie?

Learn these and other facts about the fascinating world of round-of-clock shopping on QVC’s popular daily tours. Friendly guides share behind-the-scene anecdotes and blooper videos (everything is live), then lead you past the color-coordinated product warehouse, the audio-visual computer nerve center, and a cool observation deck overlooking the studio sets, where you might glimpse Klum, Isaac Mizrahi (a Philly native) or other celebrity hawkers.

Now is the time to visit QVC’s thriving West Chester headquarters, before the summer crowds arrive. No reservations are needed, but tours (5 per day beginning at 10:30) are limited to 20 people and often fill up in July and August. If you really want to submerse yourself in home shopping, try the deluxe three-hour tour, given most Fridays; it’s $75 a person and includes lunch in the Studio Park Commissary and visits to the green room where celebs chill before going on camera. All tours include a coupon to use in the large, attractive gift shop, which stocks all kinds of QVC items from jewelry and beauty products to Marie Osmond dolls. You will probably leave here wondering, What Recession?

A tip: QVC is in the same business complex as the American Helicopter Museum, so there’s always the option of sending your kids and spouse there, while you shop without interference. Or make it a double outing and hit both of these worthy places in one trip.

Another tip: Dads get in free to QVC on Father’s Day, June 17. Cost is usually $7.50 per person.

My New Hope

May 9, 2012

When my husband and I sought a place in eastern Pennsylvania to get married, New Hope seemed like the perfect setting. Walkable streets, quaint inns to accommodate out-of-town guests, and a unique combination of history and artistic whimsy—all anchored by the mesmerizing Delaware River.
Much has changed since we wed a decade ago in an old stone church on the hill above town. For one thing, the church is now a community center and police headquarters, and flooding over the years has wreaked havoc on access roads and caused some longtime businesses to close or relocate.

Yet the things that make New Hope such a popular weekend destination remain exactly as I remember them: the steel truss bridge that links New Hope to the lovely town of Lambertville; modern sculptures fronting 18th-century buildings; shops selling mystical potions, Indonesian masks, and unique watercolors; bed-and-breakfast owners who point out Underground Railroad tunnels beneath their homes one day and deliver cream-cheese-stuffed French toast to your door the next.

A Dunkin’ Donuts has taken over the fancy dress shop that once anchored Bridge and Main Streets. Ney Alley on the canal towpath, once a collection of art galleries and meeting place for Pennsylvania Impressionists like Edward Redfield, is now deserted save for a tattoo parlor. But it’s still the New Hope I fell in love with years ago, a place to wander and discover or just break bread and relax with friends for an hour or two. The river has tested the town’s patience in recent years, but it still has the ability to charm and comfort anyone who visits.

WALKING PHILADELPHIA

May 7, 2012

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For several years, I was a Los Angeles-based contributor to the arts and entertainment section of the Philadelphia Daily News. That meant interviewing actors and directors about their work and lives. If they had ever spent any time in Philly, I also would ask about their best memories of the city. Sarah Jessica Parker remembered a mime who performed near her dad’s place at the old Headhouse Square, Nicolas Cage liked the pizza at Tacconelli’s, and Elizabeth Banks has fond memories of catching a show at the Theatre of Living Arts after a dinner date with her future husband in South Philly. All good stories, but my favorite answer came from Rick Yune, who played a villain in the James Bond film Die Another Day. As a Penn student in the 1990s, he recalled his favorite running route: beginning at 40th and Chestnut in West Philly, east to the Delaware Avenue waterfront, then back. Whether you run, walk or stroll it, it’s a fantastic way to experience the city—32 blocks that take you by historic sites, beautiful old churches, unexpected murals, top restaurants, brick homes, and gates that lead to secret gardens or alleys. Take Walnut one way and follow Chestnut back past Independence Hall,Washington Square, and City Hall, or zigzag between them and other parallel streets such as Spruce or Pine. The grid layout means you’ll never get lost, and you’ll end with a heightened sense of the city’s eclectic mix of academia, history, and blue-collar pride.

TOP 5 REASONS TO VISIT PENNSYLVANIA

May 1, 2012

1. Historical nirvana. Trod on cobblestones older than the U.S. Constitution, worship in the same pews as the founding fathers, and stay in B&Bs that take their “George Washington Slept Here” signs very seriously.

2. Pennsylvania Dutch diners and BYOB (bring your own bottle) restaurants. More per capita than perhaps anywhere else in the country. And they’re almost all absurdly good.

3. Unique Museums: Places exquisitely dedicated to pinball, quilts, corpses, Civil War ghosts, and the Three Stooges.

4. Andrew Wyeth landscapes. Gorgeous, lush, and accessible by almost any back-road drive in New Hope, West Chester, and Berks County. Plus, the forests of the Poconos go on forever.

5. Cheesesteaks. No matter what they tell you, they just aren’t as good west of the Susquehanna.

I started this blog to coincide with the release of the second edition of Eastern Pennsylvania: An Explorer’s Guide. Both are aimed at anyone looking for cool and easy things to do in the Keystone State – with and without the kids.  I am a native Pennsylvanian who grew up near Valley Forge National Historical Park, lived in a corner of a converted sugar mill in Old City, Philadelphia, and got married in a historic 19th century church in New Hope, Bucks County. My blog posts will cover old favorites and new discoveries, plus tips on parking, hiking, eating, and other ways to make the most of your time here. Expect entries devoted entirely to pretzels, whoopee pies, used bookstores, and covered bridges. It’s a diverse and endlessly fascinating state, and I can’t wait to share my discoveries with you.

Thanks for dropping by!

Laura