The Mutant Cow I Served for Dinner Last Christmas

I served a prime rib from a mutant cow last Christmas Eve. I didn’t mean to…I didn’t know the cow was a mutant until I carved the roast. By then I had no backup, so I had no choice but to serve it. Fortunately, I was just feeding my family. Shhh…don’t tell them!!!

I wanted last Christmas to be special since both Rob and Chris and their families would be with us for the holiday, but serving mutant cow was not exactly what I had in mind. Nobody complained, likely because they didn’t realize the cow was a mutant, but I knew.

I ordered a USDA Prime grade standing rib roast, a Prime prime rib, from a local butcher shop I was using at the time for special orders. I arranged to pick it up a couple of days before Christmas, and since it was a pre-order the roast was already cut, trimmed, and wrapped up in butcher paper when I picked it up. I should have asked the clerk to unwrap it so I could inspect it, but I didn’t.

Everything was fine at first. I mean it wasn’t really. I could see as soon as I unwrapped the roast that it wasn’t USDA Prime grade, but by then the butcher shop was closed for the holidays so I cooked it. It left my whole house smelling yummy, just like every other Christmas before, and that’s the part that was fine. Then I started to carve it, which was about the time all hell broke loose. As I started carving off the first big juicy portion of prime rib I got about two or three inches into the meat and my knife stopped. It had struck an impenetrable object and would go no further. I had already removed the ribs so I knew it wasn’t bone, but beyond that I didn’t know what it was.

I tried muscling my way through it with my general-purpose, usually-sharp-enough-for-prime-rib carving knife but that didn’t work. I switched to my ultra-sharp J.A. Henckel precision German steel carving knife and tried sawing my way through, but that didn’t work. I grabbed my blade-so-big-and-sharp-meat-parts-like-the-Red-Sea-out-of-fear-of-it Chef’s knife and tried hacking my way through it, but that didn’t work either.

At this point the profanities were coming out of my mouth fast and furious. I had to get something on the plates for Christmas Eve dinner, so I decided to change tactics. I traded in the big knives for my fileting knife and took a deep cleansing breath to center myself. And to stop the profanities…the grandkids were within earshot now that everyone was sitting at the table waiting for me to finish up in the kitchen. No pressure. With the skill of a surgeon I used my fileting knife to probe the margins of the obstruction and then neatly cut around it to carve off enough decent sized portions of prime rib to serve my family.

As I lifted a portion of prime rib off the roast to plate it, I got my first good look at the mutant bovine anatomy and that thing that kept getting in the way of my knives. It looked like the cow’s aorta…that was my first thought anyway. Once I was finished carving, I realized I had laid bare a two-inch-wide piece of something white, thick, sinewy, and as tough as the toughest shoe leather I’ve ever encountered. It ran the length of my roast and it didn’t belong there. My rib roast came from a mutant cow.

After the holidays I tried getting in touch with the butcher with a WTFO but I never heard back from him. I gave up on that shop and went back to Wegmans for my beef. I had several decent conversations with the Wegmans butcher after I went back, and not long after Christmas I asked him if he had ever run across any mutant cows. As I explained what I had encountered, the butcher nodded knowingly and sympathetically. He knew right away what it was. Not a mutant cow he told me, just an old one. What I thought was the aorta was a piece of connective tissue that is found in every prime rib from every cow at that spot. Normally you don’t notice it because you can cut right through it, but in an older cow or one with poor genetics it can get thick and tough and, well…impenetrable.

I pictured my holiday roast coming from an overworked cow on an Amish farm sold for meat after a long life of hard labor pulling a plow for the Yoder family. That thought made me sad. Most likely it was just a regular cow from a regular herd that got sold as ungraded beef destined for a local budget restaurant to be served as the $4.99 Tuesday night all you can eat prime rib special. For reasons I’ll never know, this budget special from the shallow end of the bovine gene pool found its way to the butcher I no longer use, who sold it to me as USDA Prime.

The Lesson Learned

I was on a quest last Christmas to find the perfect recipe for the perfect holiday prime rib and I failed miserably. I discovered that the decisions you make at the meat counter are far more important than the decisions you make in your kitchen. There isn’t much a recipe can do if you are starting with beef from a mutant cow. Find a store that is reliable and get to know and trust their butcher. Then you can think about the recipe.

I now buy my beef from two places I trust: Wegmans, and Roseda Farms. I discovered Roseda Farms’ beef sometime this past spring and fell in love with it. It has a unique flavor that appeals to me, and the farm’s backstory does as well. My Christmas prime rib this year comes from Roseda Farms and I can’t wait to get it in the oven!

A Ridiculously Simple Recipe for Perfect Prime Rib

I found a ridiculously simple recipe on a website I go to for cooking tips, Serious Eats. The recipe is from my favorite food writer, Kenji. He developed the reverse sear prime rib recipe that I now use for prime rib and my steaks. It works, and it isn’t complicated. In fact, it is ridiculously simple.

Start with a quality rib roast with both the rib rack and fat cap on. Use a roasting pan that has a rack to elevate your roast so the drippings have some place to go. From there, all you have to do is remember four numbers: 4, 200, 125, and 500.

4 — The number of days to season the roast before you cook it. And by seasoning, I mean salt. Nothing else. You can use some fresh cracked black pepper later but at this point use just salt. I start by removing the rib rack and fat cap so I can season the entire roast…salt can’t work through bone and fat. Once the roast is seasoned I tie the ribs and fat cap back…the roast gets a more even edge to edge finish if you cook it with the ribs and fat cap in place. I put the roast on a rack and put it back into the fridge. It takes at least one full day for the salt to work its osmotic magic, and longer is better up to four days. After that the muscle tissue starts to break down.

200: The temperature to set your oven to for the start of your roast. Forget the recipes that have you cranking the heat up to 500 degrees at the beginning and then dialing it back. The reverse sear method is, well, the reverse of that. It is safe to cook meat that low…I’ve done it and lived to tell. There’s no need to let the roast sit out and “come to room temperature.” Stick an oven safe temperature probe in your roast, pop it into a 200-degree oven, and go watch football.

125: The internal temperature of your prime rib when it’s time to remove it and let it rest. After a 30 minutes rest period your roast will have continued to cook until the temperature reaches the perfect range for medium rare…132-135 degrees. If you like your prime rib closer to medium, set the temperature alarm to 127-128. If you prefer your meat cooked any more than that, save some money and buy a chuck roast. You won’t know the difference.

500: The temperature to reset your oven to after you take the roast out to rest. By the time your roast is rested, 30 minutes minimum, your oven will be up to temp and ready to put the crispy finish on your perfect holiday prime rib roast. It should only take about 5-10 minutes to get the perfect finish on your roast, at which point you can take it out of the oven and go straight to carving. It doesn’t need a second rest period after this short high temp finish.

That really is all you need to do to cook the perfect holiday prime rib roast. If you want to know the science behind why it isn’t any more complicated than that, check out Kenji’s prime rib Q&As. He even takes Wolfgang Puck to task, though not by name, using science to prove him wrong about the need to let your roast come up to room temperature before cooking. You don’t…myth busted!

I hope you’ve found something in this article useful, or at least entertaining. If you get the chance to try the ridiculously simple recipe for perfect prime rib, let me know how it turns out.

Merry Christmas!

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Jeff’s Test Kitchen: Thanksgiving Turkey Taste Test

Mandatory Health Dislaimer: I will not burden this post with repeated references to the USDA’s guidelines for safely handling turkey. Ya’ll know the drill, and if you don’t…go to the USDA’s turkey safe handling web page.

The Set-up

As small business owners, Janet and I support local small businesses any chance we get, especially farmers. But…there is a limit to how much more I’m willing to pay to buy local. After noticing how much more the turkeys I’ve been getting from a local hobby farmer cost as compared with what I can get at Wegmans, I decided it was time for a taste test. While the taste of the hobby farm turkey I cooked up for Thanksgiving was still fresh in my mind, I picked up a fresh, never frozen turkey at Wegmans a couple of days after Thanksgiving and set to work.

The Birds…Let’s Talk Turkey

Except for a modest difference in weight, and the source, the two birds were identical, and I prepared and cooked them the same. The turkey I picked up from the hobby farmer weighed in at 16.5 pounds and cost me $75 ($4.55 per pound). The turkey I picked up from Wegmans was a generic, store brand bird that weighed in at 19 pounds and cost me $13 ($0.69 per pound).

Both turkeys were the same breed…broad breasted white, the most commonly sold breed of turkey in this country by a huge margin. Both were fresh, never frozen, and both were hormone and antibiotic free. Neither were sold as self-basting, neither had injected moisturizers, fat, butter, MSG, or any other flavoring agents. They were both 100% turkey. There was one difference…the Wegmans turkey came with a pop-up timer, the hobby farmed turkey did not. I don’t use the pop-up timer to determine when my turkeys are done, so that was inconsequential to the taste test.

To Brine or Not to Brine…That is THE Question

I brined both turkeys. I’ve tried turkey both ways and have found that brined turkeys come out more tasty and moist. Brining uses osmotic principles to bring moisture and flavor from your brining solution into the insides of every cell in the bird. I used Bells Turkey Brine for both birds in this taste test, and I brined them both for about 12 hours.

I don’t stuff my turkeys but I do put aromatics into the body cavity to enhance the flavors a bit. For both birds in this taste test I used a couple of sprigs each of rosemary, sage, and thyme, and added a sliced apple, orange and onion along with two cinnamon sticks. The steam generated as the turkey cooks will pull out the aromatic flavors from the herbs and infuse the turkey meat with flavor from the inside out. At least that’s the theory. If I’m being honest, it only contributes to the flavor of the bird a little…most of the flavor a turkey gets comes from the brine. The reason I bother to dress my turkeys is that it makes my kitchen smell like Thanksgiving, and that makes me happy.

I didn’t mess with fancy trussing for my turkeys…I tucked the wings under the body of both birds to keep them out of the way. The local hobby farm turkey’s legs were loose so I used butcher’s twine to tied them together…the Wegmans bird had a plastic retainer holding the legs together which I left in place. I coated the skin of both birds with duck fat then sprinkled rubbed sage, and a proprietary blend of poultry spices I got from a special source. Mostly it is dried sage, thyme and rosemary with some paprika and powdered garlic.

Feel the Heat

I set the oven at 450 degrees for both birds for the first 30 minutes to start the skin crisping. After 30 minutes I reduced the heat to 325 degrees and left it there until the birds were done. My hobby farm turkey at 16.5 pounds was ready to come out of the oven after 2 hours 30 minutes of cooking, the 19 pound Wegmans bird took 3 hours 25 minutes to cook. I used an oven safe constant read temperature probe that I stuck into the deepest part of the turkey’s thigh with the alarm set to 160 degrees. When the alarm went off I used an instant read thermometer to spot check in the breast and thighs and when I got temps at or above 160 degrees all around, the turkeys came out of the oven. The turkeys’ temp continued to rise as they rested, and I gave both birds a 30 minute rest period. By they time they were ready to carve the lowest temperature was 165 degrees and some spots read as high as 185 degrees, which is a good range for ensuring safety while maximizing moistness.

And the Winner Is…

The hobby farm turkey was good…nice and moist and the meat tasted like turkey with rubbed sage and thyme and maybe a hint of citrus. The rosemary didn’t come through specifically, but I’m sure it was there in the overall flavor profile. The Wegmans generic store brand turkey was a bit better. It was more moist and had a slightly stronger flavor in a pleasant way. As with the first bird, the sage and thyme flavors came through, the apple, onion, orange and rosemary not so much. I really noticed the difference between the two birds when it came to next day leftovers…the Wegmans bird retained more moisture than the hobby farm bird, but that could be because I got it into the fridge sooner.

On balance, as good as the hobby farm turkey tasted, it was no better than the Wegmans generic store brand bird. And at 5 times the price on sale, definitely not worth the extra cost. Even had I paid full price for the Wegmans turkey, which I would probably have to do to get it before the holiday, I would still have paid about a third less than I did for the hobby farm turkey, and the Wegmans bird came out a touch more moist and tasty. Considering the price differential, the Wegmans generic store brand turkey was the clear winner of this turkey taste test.

Footnote

After tasting the difference between the Wegmans turkey and my local hobby farmed bird, I did a little homework on where Wegmans sources their turkeys. I didn’t trust that any generic store brand turkey would beat out the local hobby farm bird in a head to head taste test like this one. Wegmans sources their turkeys from a local farm just outside Allentown, PA…the same farm that the White House chefs use to source the turkeys they cook up for the President’s official Thanksgiving dinner. Yeah…the whole pardon the turkey thing is nothing more than typical political smoke and mirrors. While over aged too tough to eat turkeys get “pardoned” and sent off to live on a petting zoo, the young gobblers from Allentown with extra moist and tender meat end up on plates embossed with the Presidential seal. Anyway, the turkeys come from a small family owned and operated farm that has been raising and selling turkeys for several generations. They are fanatics about caring for the turkeys they raise, at least as much as you can be in that business and still make a profit. They’ve even grow the grain they use for their turkey feed. It makes a difference, one that I definitely tasted and I’m getting next Thanksgiving’s turkey from Wegmans.

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A Gastronome’s Review of The Milton Inn: Three Hits and a Miss

My birthday and Janet’s are separated by three weeks and occasionally we decide to celebrate with a combined birthday dinner out, as we did this past week at The Milton Inn. Our previous visit to The Milton Inn was in November 2007. Back then Chef Brian Boston was owner and Executive Chef. He poured his heart and soul into the place, and it showed with each meal we had there. The food was good, elevated without being trendy. And though pricey, I always walked away feeling like I was getting the better end of the deal. I was sorry to hear that COVID forced him out of business.

When I learned the Foreman-Wolf group purchased The Milton Inn I had mixed feelings. I was happy to see it reopening, but I have a love-hate relationship with Foreman-Wolf. There is no question that Cindy Wolf is an accomplished Chef with a long list of well deserved accolades to her name. She and business partner (and ex husband, and ex co-chef) Tony Foreman draw an almost cult-like following that worships the stove tops they cook on. That alone is enough to turn me off, but there’s the cost to value consideration. I’ve eaten at three of their establishments: Charleston, Cinghiale, and Petit Louis, with food experiences ranging from pretty good to horrible. None left me feeling like I got my money’s worth.

The food at Chef Wolf’s flagship restaurant Charleston was my biggest disappointment. I went in with high expectations and came out having been served food that was just OK and deeply flawed in places it shouldn’t have been. That was in 2014…based on today’s menu prices at Charleston that same dinner for two would set me back close to $450. As many times as I’ve considered going back to try again, I haven’t been able to talk myself into it with that much money at stake.

Friends of ours with similar, though decidedly more refined, preferences in food and wine dined at The Milton Inn earlier this fall and gave it a thumbs up, so I decided to give it a go for our combined birthday celebration this year. I’ll skip to the chase and say our 2021 birthday meal at The Milton Inn was good…probably better than our last meal there in 2007. I took to social media later that evening and gave it my enthusiastic thumbs up. But…as I started to write this review several days later, I found myself oddly disillusioned and at odds with the sentiment I expressed on social media.

Rather than lingering over the memory of a delicious meal, which it was, in a romantic and historic colonial era building, which it was, I found myself disappointed.  Disappointed because as I worked to pull back the curtain on our experience at The Milton Inn I discovered that what we got was Petit Louis. I mean…darned near a carbon copy. From the menu selections to the prices, to the Executive Chef…all the way to the unapproachable Tony Foreman curated wine list where wine isn’t wine unless it comes from France and the more obscure the label the better…it was Petit Louis. That will make the legion of Foreman-Wolf fans happy, but not me. It shouldn’t have surprised me since Chef Scanga was Executive Chef for Petit Louis for eight years before joining Foreman-Wolf as co-owner in their newest venture. They even use the same supply chain, which I suppose makes sense since they copied everything else.

I had read reviews that credit Chef Scanga with making the most of the creative space allowed him in his new position as Executive Chef and co-owner of The Milton Inn, and that’s what I was hoping for. Someone fresh and new that could tap into the culinary mastery of Cindy Wolf and express it in a style that I find more appealing to my palate. Chef Scanga is talented there’s no doubt about that, but he’s only ever worked in various capacities under the Foreman-Wolf umbrella. I so wanted his food to be expressed with a unique voice in keeping with the history and tradition of the Milton Inn, but I didn’t get that. I got Petit Louis North.

If you’ve ever dined in the Milton Inn at any point during its history as a restaurant, you’ll appreciate the charm of the converted 281-year-old colonial era building. The front of house staff that we encountered were pleasant and the server assigned to our table, located in the more intimate front room, was good. She was responsible for the entire front dining room which, if I counted right, consisted of three tables for two, one table for four, and a single table for six. That’s not an excessive server to guest ratio for a competent server. Our server was competent, but her assigned tables were full and everybody arrived within 30 minutes of each other. She had some help, but only from lesser experienced staff who were still learning the ropes. It was even busier in the two larger main dining rooms, both of which were packed.

The only service issue we experienced was that it took about 10 minutes after our entrees were served for Janet to get the glass of wine she ordered…a wine she ordered to be paired with her entrée. The only reason we got it when we did was that I flagged down the server and asked for it…she was oblivious to the fact that our entrees had been delivered and that we were just sitting there waiting. That’s a pretty big gaffe when you consider the upside-down importance Foreman-Wolf places on wine, and specifically wine-food pairings. The wine was perfect Mr. Foreman…if only the food had been a bit warmer.

Alright enough about that…let’s get to the food. Janet and I shared a starter and dessert but went our separate ways when it came to the entrée. I sampled Janet’s entrée and got enough of it that I can speak to both. I’d characterize our dinner as three hits and a miss with the miss being my entrée. It wasn’t horrible, it just could have been better. It should have been better.

We started with the Velouté de Choufleur, described on the English side of the menu as a cauliflower and apple soup with thyme oil. It was a classic French velouté…silky, rich, and creamy, finished with a few chunks of diced apple in the center, surrounded by a thin ring of thyme oil. The presentation was unapologetically simple, the apples adding a bit of texture to the otherwise smooth velouté base. The thyme oil was a nice touch…truffle oil would have been tempting but too heavy. As good as this dish was, and it was quite good, I would have liked it better if it had more cauliflower flavor. It was there, but only just barely. Still, it was a warm and welcoming hug on a chilly fall evening and a great start to our dinner.

Janet ordered the bronzino for her entrée and it was served with honeynut squash purée, roasted local broccoli and cauliflower, marcona almonds, and lemon beurre noisette. As this was Janet’s dish, I only got a few bites of the fish to taste and only a schmear of the puree…none of the other components so I couldn’t really tell how well imagined the dish was with all components together. What I got of the puree though was delightful…smooth, sweet, and earthy… a nice fall frame around an otherwise all-season fish. Because it took so long to get Janet’s wine, by the time we started to eat the puree had begun to set a bit. You can see it in the pictures I posted on social media. It detracted from the texture a bit, but not the flavor which was still spot on.

The bronzino was amazing. Bronzino is a fairly forgiving fish to cook and difficult to ruin, though I’ve managed to do so on more than one occasion. That leaves a lot of room for mediocrity which is what I usually get when I order bronzino in a restaurant, but not this time. Whomever cooked it in The Milton Inn’s kitchen absolutely nailed it. The skin on Janet’s bronzino was crisp without being greasy, and what impressed me more was how evenly the fish was cooked edge to edge. The flesh came out like it had been cooked sous vide, yet the skin was so nicely crisped it had to have been cooked in the skillet. It was well seasoned and couldn’t have been prepared any better. My only disappointment with this dish was that I didn’t order it…it was Janet’s entree and that meant I would only get two bites!

I wanted to try the beef tenderloin. I don’t usually order beef when I eat out because it is expensive, and I have yet to find a place that can cook it better than I do in my own kitchen and on my own grill, but I was tempted to see what Chef Scanga might be able to do. Tempted enough to ask our server where they sourced their beef from. When she told me Creekstone Farms, I decided to pass. Creekstone Farms is a respected premium beef supplier located in Kansas. Chef Wolf uses them for Charleston, but having had their beef at Charleston, I didn’t find it to be particularly noteworthy.

I find the choice of Creekstone Farms as the source for beef at The Milton Inn curious. The marketing pitch for The Milton Inn notes that they make extensive use of locally sourced ingredients. Local sourcing was part of the unique “voice” I was looking for from The Milton Inn and I was disappointed to find it doesn’t extend to their beef. Why source your beef from Kansas when you can get it a little closer to home, from like…oh, I don’t know…say, Roseda Farms? At less than three miles down the road from the Inn, Roseda is so local you can almost hear the cattle lowing from the restaurant’s kitchen. And it is good…really good. But Chef Wolf has to know that…Roseda has been around since before she came on the scene. Which makes the choice of Creekstone all the more puzzling.

I ended up ordering the guinea fowl. Not particularly exotic, but it is a protein that I can’t routinely get my hands on to cook in my own kitchen which made it a better choice than the chicken or duck. It was roasted and served atop pommes puree with some carrots on the side and a generous amount of several mushroom varieties scattered about the plate. I count it as the one miss of our dinner because there were some things about the dish that I didn’t particularly care for.

I’ll start by saying the meat was tender, moist, and well cooked. The thigh had a bit of red meat around the bone but that was just from the usual marrow and myoglobin extraction that you get when frozen poultry, or this case guinea fowl, is thawed. To have cooked it out was unnecessary and would have left the rest of the meat insufferably dry which thankfully they didn’t do. As nicely cooked as the leg and thigh were, I expected the breast meat to be overcooked and dry. It was not. In fact, it was so juicy I checked to see if the two quarters of the bird were separate, which would tell me they may have been cooked separately. There would have been nothing wrong had that been the case, but it wasn’t. I was impressed, and it is hard to impress me when it comes to food.

My problems with this dish were skin and fat. Visually the dish looked amazing…the skin was golden brown and looked crispy. Unfortunately, there were patches on the leg and thigh where despite the golden color, the skin was soft, flaccid, and downright rubbery. And there was enough unrendered subcutaneous fat to be texturally unpleasant. Considering how lean guinea fowl usually is, I wasn’t expecting that. I don’t usually have to discretely spit out a wad of chewy skin with a glob of unrendered fat in a restaurant at this level, yet that’s what I found myself having to do. I usually leave most of the skin on my plate anyway, so no big deal…just not perfect and a source of potential disappointment for those who do like to eat the skin.

The real problem for me was the flavor. It’s been awhile since I’ve had guinea fowl, but this didn’t taste anything like what I was expecting. Guinea fowl is supposed to be a pretty lean bird, but that wasn’t my experience with this plate. I didn’t get much flavor out of the meat, but what I did get was the strong flavor of poultry fat. I suppose it might have come from the game bird reduction. More likely the kitchen went overboard with duck fat on the skin to get that golden color without drying out the meat. Wherever it came from, it was an unwelcome presence that delivered an unpleasant flavor to my palate and limited my enjoyment of the bird.

There were some high points with the rest of the plating. The mushrooms were incredible. I’m not much on mushroom identification but to me it looked like a few whole chanterelles along with some beech mushrooms and maybe cremini buttons or portobello portions. They were delicious…earthy and cooked just enough to leave a bit of crispy texture. The mushrooms too suffered a bit from excess fat but in this case it was butter and it tasted good so I didn’t mind the little bit of excess. There were also a couple of roasted carrots on the plate that were well cooked, crisp and with just the right touch of sweetness. The pommes puree was the best part of the dish. It was smooth with just the right amount of butter, cream and salt. I wish I could have gone back for seconds! Someday I’ll master the art of making pommes puree as smooth as what was on my plate without leaving it gummy. Some day.

I usually skip dessert, but when Janet pointed out Meyer lemon cheesecake was on the menu…cheesecake and Meyer lemons are two of my favorite things in the world…I had to order it. We agreed to split a serving, which meant I got just two or three bites, but that was enough. What I like about Meyer lemon is that it isn’t a true lemon…it is the result of a hybrid between lemon and Mandarin orange. It gives the fruit a nice balance of sweet and sour. This cheesecake was so rich and creamy it could have used more of the acidity you get from a true lemon to cut through it. That isn’t a complaint or a flaw…just a fleeting thought I had as my tastebuds wallowed in the decadence of it, quickly chased away by my next bite of the rich creamy cheesecake heaven. The edible flowers on top gave a nice visual pop to the dessert. Gosh, I hope they were edible…I ate them! At this level of dining if its on the plate its meant to get ate. Our server added two candles in celebration of our joint birthdays, which I found to be a nice personal touch.

What made this dessert particularly interesting for me was the use of an oat streusel as a non-crust crust. It was strewn around the plate, lolling about in a Meyer lemon anglaise. It added an interesting texture that was chewy with an occasional crunch. In between the rich cheese filling and the sweet and sour of the anglaise, the oat streusel tasted like a freshly mown hayfield after the first cut of the season. It evoked a strong sense of nostalgia for me as I still mark the passage of seasons by smells, often with my head hanging out the car window taking it all in like a dog, and the sweet smell of first cut hay is one of my favorites. All of that is to say the oat streusel was a pleasant addition to the plate all around and like many tastes and smells, it evoked some strong but pleasant memories. A bite of the cheesecake with a few bits of the anglaise covered streusel put me in my happy place for the rest of the night. Just the memory of it as I write this has my mouth watering. The ribbon of white chocolate the cheesecake was topped with probably didn’t hurt. So yeah, order the cheesecake.

Now that I’ve eaten at Chef Scanga’s Milton Inn once, I have no reason to go back. I pulled the curtain back on what I hoped would be a new and unique culinary voice brought in to run an iconic establishment. What I found instead was the homogeneity of the Foreman-Wolf brand as executed by a talented chef who hasn’t yet discovered how to express his own voice, or if he even has one. What I found was Petit Louis North in a hunting lodge. That’s not what I was hoping for at The Milton Inn.

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Holiday Travel Helps

Traveling in connection with a holiday, particularly flying, is a mix of joyful anticipation and anxiety-laden fear of disruptions. Janet and I have been flying somewhere every month since May, and over half of our flights have either been cancelled or rescheduled, and that’s before the added load of holiday travelers. This year presents some unique challenges…major airlines like American and Southwest scheduled flights and then filled them with paying customers, knowing they didn’t have the flight crews to operate them. They have been relying on flight crews taking on as many extra flights as the FAA allows, but their flight crews are tired and are beginning to refuse the extra hours. That has resulted in an unprecedented number of cancelled and rescheduled flights just when the peak holiday travel season is upon us.

If you are flying this holiday season there isn’t much you can do to avoid the risk of last-minute schedule disruptions. However, here are a few things you can do to soften the impact if you find yourself staring at a text message telling you the flight you are waiting to board has been cancelled:

1. Once you’ve booked your flights, assume they will be cancelled. Look at alternatives that, while not your first choice, would still work for you. A back-up plan can substantially reduce your risk of missing out if you face last-minute changes, and it will definitely lower your stress.
2. If you find yourself with a cancelled flight, your airline will automatically rebook you. That isn’t for your convenience but for theirs. You don’t have to accept their choice, which will probably be worse than any choice you would make. Go through the options that work best for your schedule. You may not get your first choice, and maybe not your second or third choice, but you won’t know until you ask.
3. Be sure you enter a current cell phone in the contact information field when you book. You’ll be the first to learn about changes that way, and if there is a schedule change that doesn’t work for you, you’ll be at the head of the line for more acceptable options.
4. Download your airline’s app and if the airline changes the schedule on you, don’t wait for them to rebook you. Once you learn of a change, use the airline’s app to check options and at the same time call the airline so you get into the queue ahead of everybody else on your flight.
5. Think outside of the box. When the airline changes their schedule and your preferred alternatives aren’t available, look at other airports. We are fortunate to have four major international airports within a 3-hour drive: Philadelphia, BWI, Dulles, and Reagan/National. Don’t worry if you have to fly out of one airport but return to another if there is an option that otherwise works for your schedule. You can book an Uber, take an airport shuttle, or get a one-way rental car, though you’ll want to consider costs.
6. The days of an airline rebooking you on a competitor are long gone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it on your own. Chances are it will cost you more…there’s a reason you didn’t book with that other airline and the reason is almost always cost. You also must think about whether to cancel first or rebook first. But when your trip is on the line, you might find the extra cost and risk of cancelling and booking with another airline are worth it.
7. Just say no. If the airline has changed your schedule or cancelled a flight and rebooked you on an alternative that doesn’t work for you, think about whether you might be better off cancelling your plans or putting them off until after the holidays. If that is an option, refuse the change and demand a refund.
8. Don’t fly. It sounds trite, but do you really need to fly to get where you want to go? Maybe you can take the train, or drive. We’ve been able to avoid flying several times since we resumed our travels by driving and taking a train.

It would be nice if you could book your holiday travel plans without having to worry about delays or cancellations, but that isn’t going to happen this year. The only thing you can do is pack your patience and have a plan of action in the event your flights are cancelled or delayed. And it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway…get to the airport early. Plan to arrive at least two hours before your scheduled departure for domestic flights and three for international.

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Dine Like a Virgin

Follow the link above for my final post on Virgin Voyages. Too many pictures for a regular blog post! Next up…Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas. And maybe more fun stuff in between.

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Words I Love to Hate

We all have them…words and phrases that get on our last nerve…that cause us to react like fingernails on a chalkboard or like we just got a blast up our nostrils of goat shit from a barnyard on a hot day. This is a list of the 10 words and phrases that I most love to hate. Some are unique to my job in the travel industry, some go back to my days in the federal government, and some are ubiquitous. Enjoy this cringe-worthy list of mine, and feel free to share yours with me. I bet we have some in common!

“Literally” – this word tops everybody’s list because it is literally the most annoyingly misused and overused word in the American English language today.

“Bespoke” – I have a special category of hatred for this word. It is at the same time pretentious and meaningless. As a one-time linguist, albeit many years ago, I understand the etymology of bespoke. I daresay cultural influencers who are now using the word to describe their collection of jewelry, cosmetics, clothing…whatever it is they are trying to use their celebrity influence to sell, don’t have a clue that their very endorsement of a product as bespoke makes it not bespoke.  I am quite sure travel agents who describe themselves as providing bespoke travel services don’t realize what they are saying when they use the word either.

“Curated” – I don’t hate the word; I just dislike it. It is another participle adjective like bespoke and with similar etymology that has become misused in general, and in particular by the travel industry.

“So.” or “So,” or “So…” — It has become common practice to use this word with a flat affect as a grace note to start a sentence. When used in that way it becomes a throw away word that doesn’t add to comprehension. It’s just a waste of breath.

“Really?” – Spoken as a question but intended to convey incredulity or disbelief, the degree of which is conveyed by changes in accent point, the duration of the long “e” sound, and variations in the speaker’s pitch. Actor Jim Carrey provides an extreme caricature of this in his role as Ace Ventura, and it has become a popular meme.

“Just shoot me” – A phrase, not intended to be taken literally, that conveys an overly dramatic sense of frustration. Also conveyed as “Shoot me now.” Nobody means it and the shock value is lost after the fourth or fifth crisis that prompts such a response…because anybody who uses it does so often…with each crisis as often as not being inconsequential in the grand scheme of human suffering.

“Welcome to my world” Some people substitute “my world” with “my life,” or “my hell.” I dislike its use because it is expressly dismissive. It shuts down any possibility of empathy or validation, which is often all the speaker is seeking.

“Been there, done that” This one gets to me because it is trite and ambiguous. Some people use it interchangeably with “welcome to my world” as unsympathetic and dismissive. Others use it to extend empathy, conveying to the other person that they understand because they’ve been in a similar situation or circumstance, and for that reason they are someone you can confide in without risk of being belittled. But usually it is meant to be dismissive.

“Right?” – When I worked for the government, I noticed senior executives using the word “right” when addressing a group of subordinates in a talk or speech. It started as a way for the speaker to check-in with the audience and draw them into the topic, though actual audience participation was never welcome. It was also used as a way to break up the flow of meaningful words and make it seem like something really profound was being uttered when it was all just drivel. Right? Now I hear it more often in a person-to-person exchange where the person doing the listening uses it as an interjection to convey empathetic agreement with what the speaker is saying, often when both know the speaker is engaging in hyperbole. In this latter usage the phrase “I know, right?” can be substituted.

“Here’s the thing” A way of expressing that what has been said up to that point was background, context, or introductory material and the main point is finally about to be made. I would prefer the phrase be skipped along with everything that precedes it and that the speaker get right to “the thing.” You can fill me in on the background and context after you’ve gotten to the point. Of all the words and phrases on my list of most despised, this is one that I use most often, usually in my writing. But here’s the thing…I just can’t help myself.

And a bonus…

“Gamechanger” — Janet shared a link to our Tidewater Facebook page earlier today. It came from a supplier and it used the word “gamechanger” to describe a cruise ship. First of all, it is two words… “game” and “changer.” And B, though even Webster’s has allowed the modern misuse of the phrase to creep into their definition, that doesn’t make it right. Justin Tucker’s field goal in overtime that allowed the Ravens’ to beat the Vikings’ in Sunday’s football game was a game changer. A cruise ship? I don’t even know what that game is.

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Just Released: CDC Report on COVID Aboard Cruise Ships

Spoiler alert: It’s good news!

According to information just released by the CDC, there have been a total of 1359 positive laboratory confirmed cases of COVID-19 on cruise ships sailing from U.S. ports between June 26 and October 21. Of that, 49 required hospitalization and 38 prompted medical evacuation. Those numbers include passengers and crew.

Those numbers are good. Really good. Especially when you consider they include passengers and crew members. Any numbers I’ve shared previously were for passengers only but the CDC report presents a more complete picture of how effectively the cruise industry is managing COVID risk. The news is good, and the numbers look even better when viewed in some context. Over 600,000 passengers have sailed aboard cruise ships from U.S. ports during the time covered in the CDC report, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA),  a major cruise industry trade association. I actually think the number passengers is much higher, but who am I to question CLIA?

Individual cruise lines are releasing their own COVID reports. Royal Caribbean reports that they’ve had just 150 cases of COVID with over half a million passengers having cruised worldwide. According to the trade journal Travel Pulse, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio called the number of cases on his company’s ships “inconsequential and well below what we all saw in the general population during this time.”

The number of required hospitalizations and medical evacuations among these positive COVID cases are reassuringly low. More passengers are medically evacuated for injuries and heart related incidents than for COVID. There hasn’t been an “outbreak” of COVID on any cruise ship sailing from a U.S. port since cruising resumed back in late May, and the overwhelming majority of the COVID-19 cases were positive COVID tests in people who were asymptomatic.

This report from the CDC is truly good news. Even so, it serves as a stark reminder that contracting COVID on a cruise is still a risk. It is a much lower risk than most land-based leisure activities, but a risk none-the-less. The virus is here to stay but the CDC report tells me that the cruise lines have found a way to reduce the risk of contracting COVID on a cruise ship to the point that most people should feel comfortable cruising.

This is a great time to book a cruise. Ships continue to sail at partial capacity but with full crews. That means you get the double benefit of all the fun of cruising without the crowds, and personalized service on mass market cruise ships that you won’t see again unless you spring for a luxury cruise. That won’t last much longer. The cruise lines have almost two years of lost revenue to make up for, and they can’t do that until they get back to sailing at full capacity, which will probably be by Spring 2022 for most ships. The demand is certainly there to fill the ships and then some, so if you have been thinking about a cruise now is the time to act.

Since cruise ships resumed sailing from U.S. waters, we’ve sailed with Norwegian Cruise Lines, Virgin Voyages, and I’m excited to announce that next week we will be sailing with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. In fact, we are cruising aboard two ships next week. On Thursday we set sail aboard Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas, for an invitation only, two day pre-inaugural event. This is a non-revenue sailing that gives the travel community three days and two nights to kick the tires of this Quantum Ultra class ship. Odyssey will be sailing to Royal Caribbean’s private paradise in the Bahamas where get to experience a “Perfect Day at Coco Cay.” We love the Quantum class of ships, and we are excited to be able to share with you all extras that put the Ultra in a Quantum Ultra class ship.

We will be on land for just one day after that event before we set sail again, this time aboard the newest ship in Norwegian Cruise Lines’ fleet, the NCL Encore. We participated in a pre-inaugural event aboard the Encore a few months before COVID shut down the cruise industry, and we are excited to be getting back aboard for a full week of cruising. Since we’ve been aboard before we know right where to go for the most fun! Follow us on social media to see how much these two ships have to offer.

If you’re vaccinated you can cruise, and this latest CDC report gives us all confidence that you can do so safely and with well-managed risk. Now that COVID is something we are learning to live with, it’s time to get back to living our lives. Give us a call, drop us an e-mail, or send us an IM on Facebook and let’s start planning YOUR cruise!

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I Don’t Have COVID…I Have a Cold!

I have a cold. It hasn’t been a particularly bad one as colds go…but it is the first one I’ve had since before the pandemic started. I forgot how lousy colds make you feel. I’m on day 8 and ready to start feeling better. I’m sure I’ll be on the mend tomorrow. Because that’s how my colds go. I don’t know where I picked this cold up. I haven’t been around anyone that seemed to be sick…nobody coughing or sneezing. I mask up when I go anywhere, and while I don’t engage in hygiene theater by dousing my grocery bags and mail with sanitizer, I do wash and sanitize my hands more often now than I ever did. And still, I got a cold. Janet was worried when I first started sneezing back on Monday that it might be COVID. We have some at home COVID test kits because of our travel, the accurate kind from Abbott like they use at the test centers. She asked me to take a COVID test, so I did. It was negative…I have a cold.  Yesterday when my cold entered the coughing phase, right when I expected it to based on every other cold I’ve ever had, Janet again asked me to take a COVID test. So I did. It was negative. I have a cold. But here’s the thing…as careful as I have been with masking, hygiene, and keeping my people interaction limited, I still caught a cold. And COVID is many times more transmissible than the rhinovirus that causes colds. There’s no vaccine for rhinovirus, but there is for COVID. I’ve been fully vaccinated since April, and I even got a booster shot almost two weeks ago. So I got a cold. I can live with that.

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I Kissed a Girl, and I Liked It

I wanted to hate it. I really did. But I liked it. In fact, I loved it. Janet loved it too. We loved everything about it. I’m talking about our voyage on Scarlet Lady. I promised a rundown on our cruise when we got back, so here it is.

It was fresh, it was fun, and I’m looking forward to doing it again in December. Would I recommend it? Absolutely, though not for everyone. If the idea of a drag queen brunch sounds interesting and entertaining, you’ll enjoy a voyage aboard Scarlet Lady. That said, there are some people that should not in a million years cruise with Virgin Voyages. If you are offended by the occasional gratuitous f-bomb, can’t embrace inclusion in all its forms, or find yourself cringing at truly clever yet tame sexual innuendo like the name of Scarlet Lady’s ice cream parlor “Lick Me ‘Till Ice Cream” (sound it out in your head)…without passing judgement, I can say absolutely you’re better off cruising with someone other than Virgin.  You can stop reading now. For the rest of you, here is how I rate our Virgin Voyage:

Overall experience – Great.
Crew – Super! Polite, professional, competent, engaging, and genuine.
Food – Excellent. Possibly the best I’ve had on 50 cruises with over a dozen cruise lines.
Drinks – Excellent. Prices lower than other cruise lines. Creative mixology.
Entertainment – Adult, though no worse than late night TV (mostly). Different, interesting, and quite good.
Demographics – Age is just a number that doesn’t mean much when it comes to a Virgin Voyage. Virgin began this venture targeting younger Gen Xers and Millennials, along with older Gen Zs. Now that they are sailing, they have found they appeal to that entire demographic and more, including older Gen Xers as well as active and young boomers like me and Janet.
Technology – Buggy.
Embarkation – Chaos…needs attention before they start to scale up to higher capacity sailings.
Debarkation – A breeze. Linger over breakfast, leave when you want. No rush to get off, and no line when we did.
Cabin size – Small with way too little storage. Not a deal breaker, but yeah…small. Pack light.
Dress code – Shorts and bathing suits by day, whatever makes you feel good at night, which helps with the packing light thing. A loose country club casual was the rule for evenings during our cruise, and everyone seemed to get it. Not like our cruise last month with Norwegian. Even with a dress code, cruisers on the NCL Gem dressed so poorly and sloppily for the evening they made what I wear to a crab feast seem like formal wear. And that was in the upscale French Bistro specialty restaurant!
Value – Good to excellent.
Wi-Fi – Complimentary Wi-Fi OK, problematic at scale. Go for the upgrade. At $50 it’s a bargain.
Cruise Director – There isn’t one. We didn’t miss it.
Activities – Without a Cruise Director you are largely on your own. Scarlet Lady offers plenty to do without having to resort to a program of belly flop contests and ice carving demos.
Ships’ Photographers – None. Superfluous on a ship full of tech-savvy iPhone-toting millennials.
The App – Needs attention. Great when it worked, not so great when it didn’t which was far too frequent considering how much Virgin relies on it.
The Band – Pleasant surprise. It worked, and it was convenient. A welcome change.
Sexualization – For an adult only cruise, I didn’t encounter anything that made me uncomfortable. I’ve read reviews from people on the same cruise I took that complained about over sexualization…I didn’t see it. I’ve encountered far more boorish and cringe-worthy “get a room” behavior on mass market and premier cruise lines. If you can handle a drag queen brunch, you can handle a cruise on Scarlet Lady.
Drag Queen Brunch – Speaking of…it didn’t happen. Big disappointment…I was really looking forward to it. Drag queen brunches won’t start until sometime after the first of the year. No explanation. Bummer.
Scarlet Night – A fun, ship-wide party. Easy to avoid if you want to, but why would you? The odd consent disclaimer I mentioned in a past post was meant for the after-party dance, where you have people packed into a nightclub setting having a good time. In that context, it makes sense. Go ahead…pack your splash of scarlet and plan to wear it on Scarlet Night.
Fitness and Wellness Programs – This is the one thing on Scarlet Lady that may not scale well. Our voyage sailed at 40% capacity but even with that the gym was busy, and classes were fully booked before we set sail. There is unused capacity so it isn’t necessarily going to be a problem…just a caution.
Spa – Same contracted, overpriced services and high-pressure sales job as every other cruise line.
Gimmicks – Plenty, but I didn’t mind. It added to the fun.

I’ve said on social media that Virgin Voyages isn’t for everyone, and they aren’t. But they appeal to far more people than they targeted when they first started advertising their cruise product pre-COVID. If you think a Virgin Voyage might interest you, give me a call and let’s talk about it. And then let’s get you booked!

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The Final Countdown…

I have just a few minutes to finish this up and get it posted before Janet and I head out to Miami, so I’ll keep this uncharacteristically brief. If you found yourself singing the title of this post (the rock group Europe, 1986…I don’t judge) you are someone that should try cruising with Virgin Voyages.

I’ve shared what I hope to experience on this cruise, and about how different Virgin Voyages is from other cruise lines. Those posts are only the tip of the iceberg. Oops…probably not a good idea to invoke a Titanic metaphor just before boarding a cruise ship. Anyway, for the past few days I’ve been following social media posts from my colleagues who are fortunate enough to be on Scarlet Lady this week, and it has me even more excited to set sail on our cruise tomorrow. Seeing their pictures and videos reminded me of a few things I missed in my earlier posts that I want to quickly share with you now:

*I do plan to visit Squid Ink, the first tattoo parlor at sea. Not sure if I will walk away with any new ink, but I’m open to the possibility.

*I do NOT plan to visit Dry Dock. That’s Scarlet Lady’s hair styling place…I don’t have enough hair left to make that worth anyone’s time.

*I do plan to visit Stubble and Groom, the old-style barbershop, to get a beard trim. I need it.

*I will be going to the gym…y’all talked me into it.

*I will be checking out the fun on Scarlet Night. I bought a scarlet colored shirt yesterday to make sure I fit in.

Well…my suitcase isn’t packing itself and I’ve got a plane to catch, so let me wrap this up and get it posted. A cruise with Virgin Voyages is not something that will appeal to everyone, but I bet it will appeal to some of you. Follow along with me and Janet through our social media channels as we experience all that Virgin Voyages and Scarlet Lady have to offer. I guarantee you it will be different, and it just might be something you want to try!

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