What’s In A Name? A Restaurant Review

I mentioned to Janet a few weeks ago that I would like to go out for dinner sometime before things got too crazy at Christmas. As we hit the online menus for our favorite places Janet commented, “You’re too good to me.” I don’t think that could ever be true considering what she puts up with from me, but she went on to say that I’m too good to her in the kitchen. We weren’t finding anything interesting enough to justify the outrageous cost compared with what I can cook in my own kitchen. I mean, when did pork chops and chicken breasts break the $35 barrier?

Still, Janet decided to give me a break from the kitchen for my birthday so I decided on Thatcher and Rye, Chef Brian Voltaggio’s rebranding of his flagship restaurant Volt. He had to close Volt at the beginning of the COVID pandemic when the restaurant business tanked along with so many other social endeavors. If I’m being honest, the timing was fortuitous. My last few experiences at Volt left me thinking its best days were in the past.

The rebranding went beyond a change in name, livery and décor. Where Volt offered a very hands-on in the kitchen approach with their menu offerings, Thatcher and Rye presents a more COVID-friendly minimalist take on dining out. From the QR code accessible menu to the fast pace of service, dinner at Thatcher and Rye is all about risk management in a pandemic environment where touch and time spent in an enclosed setting are minimized. Thankfully the changes did not come at the expense of flavor.

Even before COVID, the trend for dining out was toward simplifying menus, moving from a six course meal to just two, and with minimal downtime spent at the table between courses. Thatcher and Rye does a great job of all that. Too good in some respects. They no longer offer an amuse bouche to kick things off, and there was no palate cleansing sorbet before the main course. I didn’t miss the brain freeze I usually get from eating the sorbet too fast, but I did miss the amuse bouche. Chef Voltaggio is the best in the business at packing an array of flavor and texture into one small spoon that explodes in your mouth, much to the delight of my tastebuds.

Our server was knowledgeable. He answered my questions about ingredients and composition without hesitation, and the pace of service was attentive and brisk. Whereas dinner at Volt used to be a leisurely three-hour affair for me, we were in and out of Thacher and Rye in just 90 minutes. The menu features two sections, one of which is desserts, the other is everything else. Instead of a forced separation into multiple courses, this menu left it up to the diner to build their own one, two, or yes even six course dinner if you must….the components are all there. As someone who frequently orders a starter for my main, it was refreshing.

Another touch that I appreciated was smaller portion sizes, not quite tapas but not far from it. That isn’t new for Chef Voltaggio…he has always focused on quality, creativity, and above all else, flavor. I enjoy unraveling layered flavors, and I don’t measure whether I’m getting my money’s worth by counting the number of bites…I wallow in each one.

Right…so onto the food. Rather than the usual basket of bread or rolls, half of which don’t get eaten and end up in the trash bin, our server started us off with two bite sized corn bread poppers. I popped that sucker into my mouth without bothering with the spread that came on the side, enojying it for what it was…a well baked morsel of airy sweet-corn heaven. It was a good beginning.

We decided to share an order of the Parker House Rolls for our only starter, and it was the lone disappointment of the evening. Don’t get me wrong, they were perfectly baked and the dash of coarse salt on top was inspired. But they weren’t hot. At best they came to us slightly above room temperature, as did all of our dishes. I suppose that’s the cost of having a briskly paced dinner service, but I’d rather spend more time at the table and have my food served made to order hot.

The rolls were accompanied by a plate of rich and creamy butter, as well as a smoked salmon and cream cheese schmear with a spoonful of roe nestled on top. The schmear was surrounded by drizzles of a chive oil with a vibrant green color that complimented the bright orange of the salmon roe, offering as much a treat to the eye as it was the palate. For me, as good as the salmon spread was, it didn’t go with Parker House Rolls. That’s just my bias…I like my fresh baked rolls, hot straight from the oven please, unadulterated with anything but butter. I sampled the schmear and I can tell you, on a bagel it would have been delish. The pop of brine as I bit down on the roe was a playful touch that I enjoyed, and the chive oil drizzle added a biting bit of herbaceousness. But Parker House rolls aren’t bagels, and they don’t need anything more than butter. Oh I ate my share of the schmear…I’m not crazy. It was yummy! I just didn’t put it on the roll.

I chose the ravioli for my entrée, mainly because Brian’s ravioli are what made me fall in love with his style of culinary creativity during our first experience at Volt back in 2014. I still marvel at how thin he managed to roll his pasta. To be precise, because Chef Voltaggio IS precise, that dish I enoyed so much at Volt was mezzaluna, not ravioli. I didn’t fully appreciate the difference until mid-way through this dinner.

My plate came with half a dozen pumpkin colored, traditionally shaped ravioli swimming in an eye-catching bath of honeynut squash sauce that was as much a puree as it was a sauce. I know Brian uses interesting additions to color and flavor his pasta, sometimes ash and sometimes beetroot powder, appropriate to the seasonal nature of his menu on any particular day. In this case I am guessing he used pumpkin or some other form of fall squash. It added yet another layer of flavor to an already richly complex dish. The sauce was just a shade richer in color with a garnish of painstakingly placed microgreens.

The ravioli looked delicious, but my first bite was a bit of a disappointment. I tried a bite of the pasta without any sauce, expecting the same delicate wrapper filled with just a dollop of cheese as I got with Volt’s mezzaluna. I didn’t get that. What I got was pasta with the same thickness and texture as the ravioli I make in my own kitchen, and it was stuffed so full of goats cheese the sour tang was an assault on my taste buds. I was confused. This was not the dish I expected.

Silly me. What I forgot was that pasta dishes are all about the sauce, and with my first bite I left off the sauce. Italian cuisine is known for its many forms of pasta, but they aren’t interchangeable. Each is engineered with exacting characteristics intended to serve as a vessel to deliver the particular sauce it is served in. So though my first bite gave me a thicker pasta and more cheese than I anticipated, the viscosity of the honeynut squash sauce demanded both. Once I realized that and allowed the pasta to do its job of carrying the sauce into my mouth, I got over my initial disappointment and appreciated the dish for what it was meant to be…a cornucopia of fall flavors.

The ravioli and sauce were garnished with a pumpkin seed crunch…roasted pumpkin seeds caramelized in a drizzle that reminded me of cranberry. Maybe it was cranberry, maybe it wasn’t…but the sweetness was a nice counterpoint to the earthiness of the squash. The crunch gave a textural contrast to the softness of the pasta and the silky mouthfeel of the honeynut squash. The dish was a parade of flavors and textures and it represented everything I love about Chef Voltaggio’s creative cookery.

Janet ordered the chicken. When I saw the price, at $36, I thought she better be getting the whole damned chicken with a few golden eggs on the side. She didn’t. Her dish consisted of one half of one breast, skin on. She was good enough to share a few bites, and can I just say it was a huntsman’s palate of fall flavors. Somehow the meat was moist and flavorful yet with a lightly golden, perfectly crisped and well-seasoned skin. I don’t know how Brian does that. On the surface it looks like such a simple dish, yet it delivered such complex layers of flavor and texture. It was perfect…creatively imagined, flawlessly executed, and worth every penny.

The chicken was accompanied by a brodo with gnudi. Those are two menu descriptors it helps to understand. I didn’t, but I looked them up at the table. Brodo is Italian for stock, and gnudi are like gnocchi except they are made with ricotta and semolina instead of potato. The brodo in Janet’s dish was far more flavorful than any stock I’ve tasted, and the gnudi gave it a toothsome quality without the heavy density of gnocchi.

The chicken was garnished with chanterelle mushrooms and pickled red onion. I love chanterelles, but I expected the red onion to be harsh and out of balance with the rest of the dish. It wasn’t. The lite pickling tamed them nicely letting through just a hint of acidity. It would be easy to go over the top with the different components of this dish, but it all came together with a carefully reserved touch.

Dessert was good…not amazing, probably because I’ve had it before. I went with the cheesecake made with goats cheese, topped with a scoop of grape sorbet and garnished with curry almond granola. The curried granola was a new experience for me, but very much in keeping with the seasonal fall palate that ran throughout the menu. Both the crunchy texture and the exotic nature of the curry transformed an already good cheesecake into a nice end to a great meal.

I miss Volt, particularly the way Brian married his mastery of molecular gastronomy with his uniquely modern take on classic French and Italian techniques. Thatcher and Rye is a nod to operating a restaurant in a tough marketplace where the often unrealistic demands of food network trained diners compete with the reality of out of control food prices. I’m happy to say it does all that while retaining the creativity and complexity of flavors that make dining out a treat. It’s probably the only place I am willing to pay over $35 for a pork chop or half a chicken breast.

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Let’s Talk Turkey…

Tradition! I believe in tradition, especially when it comes to the holidays. There’s something comforting and familiar about traditions as they get passed down from one generation to the next with each generation adding their own interpretation, and Thanksgiving is one of those holidays when traditions matter. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have turkey for Thanksgiving. I even had turkey for Thanksgiving when I lived in Turkey (the country) a lifetime ago. That’s tradition.

Our family Thanksgiving tradition comes from a combination of my family and Janet’s. I serve a whole roasted turkey with all the usual side dishes like stuffing and lumpy mashed potatoes. I tried using an immersion blender a few years ago to smooth out the lumps in my potatoes but they ended up with the consistency and texture of kindergarten paste. Take it from someone who ate his share of kindergarten paste back in the day, that isn’t tasty. Janet makes the mashed potatoes in our house now, and I enjoy the lumps because they remind me of my mother’s mashed potatoes. Janet’s family contributed sauerkraut to our Thanksgiving tradition. I don’t like sauerkraut and I don’t eat it, but every year I make sure I pick up a bag of the stuff when I get the turkey. Because…Tradition!

And gravy. You gotta have gravy. Everybody pretends the gravy is for their mashed potatoes but its really so they can dredge their turkey in it. Let’s face it, turkey without the gravy is dry and boring. Honestly, I have yet to cook a really good turkey for Thanksgiving, just ask my family, but the gravy bails me out every year.

I’m pretty good in the kitchen at most things, but not turkey. Why do we observe such an important holiday with such a blah dish as the centerpiece anyway? I mean, I get why it was the main course at the first Thanksgiving…work with what nature, and the indigenous population, gives you and all that. But nowadays we have our choice of entrées. Why don’t we eat lasagna for Thanksgiving? I like lasagna. Oh yeah…Tradition!

I went on a rant two years ago about the roast I cooked my family for Christmas Eve dinner, another family tradition. I learned from that experience that the most important decision you can make when cooking beef is at the butcher shop. No amount of culinary skill can make up for an inferior cut of beef. Not so with turkey. All the magic happens in your kitchen no matter what you bring home from the poulter. You get that when I say butcher and poulter I really mean the meat case at your local grocery store where you pick through whatever products they happen to get from big Agra, right? It doesn’t matter how much you spend on your turkey, whether you get fresh or frozen, butter injected under the skin or not…they all turn out pretty much tasteless. That’s why we spend so much time on the side dishes. And the gravy! Gravy fixes everything. Except sauerkraut. Bleck!

I’ve done my homework on this. I’ve tried everything in my BubbaGump-esque attempt to find culinary turkey perfection…frozen turkeys, fresh turkeys, kosher turkeys, wet brined turkeys, dry brined turkeys, un-brined turkeys, free-range turkeys, name brand turkeys, store brand turkeys, generic turkeys, hormone and antibiotic free turkeys…you name it, I’ve tried it. I’ve paid as little as $13 for a 20-pound frozen generic store brand bird and as much as $120 for a 15-pound pick-your-own-from-the-field free-range hormone and antibiotic free turkey that was so fresh it was slaughtered the day before I picked it up. The cheap frozen bird turned out better, which is not to say it turned out great. Somehow all the turkeys I’ve roasted turn out tasting about the same…meh. A few years ago I started brining my turkey and that helps, but there’s only so much a dash of salt can to do flavor an otherwise tasteless protein.

The reason it is nearly impossible for a home cook, and even for many professional chefs, to get any flavor from a turkey has to do with big Agra. In the 1960s, not long after I was born, big Agra set out to come up with a breed of turkey that was cost effective to raise, and that had a higher muscle to bone ratio. Those two things increased the profitability of raising turkeys, and that made big Agra happy. After years of cross breeding they came up with a marvel of agricultural bioengineering…the broad breasted white. This is a breed that goes from egg to table in 4 short months, in the process developing a ridiculous amount of muscle mass, mostly concentrated in the breasts…hence the name. In exchange for the fast growth rate and huge breasts, the broad breasted white has no taste. It doesn’t. None.  They don’t live long enough to develop any. Big Agra bred the flavor out of turkey. That and a few other things…all in the name of profit. Big Agra ruined Thanksgiving.

Broad breasted white turkeys constitute over 98% of turkeys sold in this country. These birds are mutant freaks, the result of years of cross breeding that yields oversized breasts on an undersized frame. Broad breasted white turkeys are such freaks they are physically incapable of mating. Wait…what? Yep…they live incredibly short lives, and they don’t even get to have sex. It would kill them if they tried…literally. The undersized bones in those little drumsticks can’t support the weight of their huge breasts. If they tried to do anything as strenuous as mating their legs would snap in half. Even if they didn’t, they still couldn’t do the deed…their huge breasts get in the way. All turkeys sold in the grocery store are raised from artificially inseminated eggs. I’m not even kidding about that…you can fact check me on google.

The result of all that breast meat is that by the time you get your turkey cooked to the USDA safety standard of “165 degrees F as measured at the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh,” most of the rest of the bird is hopelessly overcooked. Whatever flavor your bird might have had to start with gets cooked out by the time it makes it to your table. I suppose that’s a small price to pay in return for killing off all the salmonella that turkeys are infested with. Big Agra raises them in such closely confined pens they spend the entirety of their short and sexless lives wallowing around in their own feces. Thanksgiving lasagna is sounding better and better, isn’t it?

I like turkey. I do. Especially for Thanksgiving. As blah as my turkeys turn out the leftovers make it all worthwhile. In addition to the best ever turkey sandwiches, the carcass makes great soup. That’s tradition, and there’s something to be said for tradition. And gravy.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Scary Cost of Travel

Happy halloween! You wanna know what’s scary? The cost of travel. If you’ve traveled recently, or considered it, you know inflation has hit the travel industry. Hard. Air travel leads the pack in high prices, but no corner of the travel industry has been immune. Inflation is a factor for sure, but demand is probably the bigger factor. That and the need for companies to recover the staggering losses they experienced during the two plus years of pandemic related travel restrictions.

Let’s take a look at what that means for your 2023 travel plans.

1. Forget about travel bargains. Sure, suppliers continue to aggressively advertise travel bargains, BOGO sales, and limited offers, but those are nothing more than marketing come-ons to get you to hit “Buy Now” and think about how much you are actually spending later. After they have your money. If you want to travel anytime in the next few years, you’ll pay more than you have in the past. Probably a lot more if this year is any measure.

2. Be intentional about your travel. Last year after Thanksgiving when fresh turkeys went on sale I bought three on impulse. At less then $14 for a 20 lb bird that was a good impulse buy. This year that same 20 lb turkey would run me over $50. My impulse now is to serve lasagna for Thanksgiving. Look..trips booked on impulse will eat into your household budget, and more often than not, you won’t get as much out of it as you wish.

3. This is the time for bucket list travel. As long as you are going to have to pay more for travel, you should make it count. You might have to save up for a year or two to be able to afford it, but you can put that time to good use planning the trip.

4. Consider the UK or Europe. The exchange rate in the UK and Europe is better now than at any time in my life, which means even allowing for the increased cost to travel, it is more of a bargain than it has been, or than it will likely be a year or two from now.

5. You still get what you pay for. Ignore social media claims of cost saving “hacks.” Those hacks aren’t universal recipes for saving money on travel, they represent trade-offs that are available to everyone. Trade-offs are good…I had an entire graduate school semester on trade-off analysis at the Johns Hopkins University. The trouble with taking travel advice from people on social media is that you are taking advice about someone else’s vacation, not yours. Their “hacks” are their trade-offs. That doesn’t make them right for you, and they could end up ruining your vacation.

6. People lie. That sounds harsh but it’s true, and it’s especially true on social media. We’ve found most people claiming to score travel bargains…didn’t. Not really. What they did was fall victim to clever marketing schemes. Suppliers, and more often internet booking sites, have invested a great deal of energy studying what makes people tick, and in particular how they can hijack your cognitive processes to get the emotional side of your brain to give you permission to spend more on travel than you plan to. Or can afford to.

7. Get family and friends to help. I’m not talking about setting up a “go fund me” page, but for your next birthday, holiday or special occasion why not give friends and family an opportunity to contribute to a special trip you want to take instead of buying a gift that you don’t want/need/won’t use? Let them spend money getting you something that will build lifelong memories rather than leave you standing in a department store return line. There are clever ways to do it that won’t leave you feel like you’re trying to crowd source your next vacation, and we can talk you though them.

8. Avoid air. With the cost of a plane ticket being the single biggest cost factor for your vacation, consider a trip that doesn’t involve flying. Royal Caribbean offers year round cruising from the Port of Baltimore. You can put the money you save by not having to buy plane tickets toward a stateroom upgrade and still save money.

9. Travel less but stay longer. The most significant cost contributor to vacation travel is air. Rather than taking two short trips and spending twice for air, take one longer trip. The money you save on one set of plane tickets instead of two may be more than enough to buy you an extra week in paradise, or exploring Europe, or whatever and wherever your next bucket list trip will be. It is a great way to get more out of your travel dollars.

I wish I could tell you the cost of travel will be going down soon, or that I have magic ways to help you save money. I can’t, and I don’t. The truth is, travel is more expensive now and any bargains that were out there during the height of the pandemic travel restrictions disappeared once the restrictions were lifted.

Janet and I have always worked hard to get our clients the best price and we continue to do so. We also work hard to make sure you are getting the most value out of your travel dollars, and that’s the magic we bring to planning your travel. People still want to travel, and you should. Make your next trip one that leaves you with lifelong vacation memories.

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Hey Grandpa…What’s For Supper?

Blackened Quail with Watermelon Molasses and Cornbread Stuffing

I get inspiration for my cooking from the most interesting places, but I never thought an airplane would be one of them. While flying down to St. Lucia recently, one of the programs Delta Airlines offered on their in-flight entertainment system was a Master Class featuring Chef Mashama Bailey. Chef Bailey is well known for traditional southern cuisine, which she features in her Atlanta-based restaurant The Grey. The recipe that caught my attention was her blackened quail with watermelon molasses and cornbread stuffing. Watermelon molasses…I had to try that.

As soon as I got home, I set about working on my approach to Chef Bailey’s dish. I must confess that although I was born south of the Mason-Dixon line, southern cooking is not in my palate’s wheelhouse. Oh sure, I had my share of greens and beans as a kid, but they never appealed to me. I ate them, reluctantly, because there were times when that was all my folks could afford to put on the table. It was that or go hungry, and I’ve never been a fan of going hungry. As an adult, my palate has no sense of nostalgia for much of the food of my childhood. I loved my mother’s scratch spaghetti sauce and her lasgane, but not the southern dishes she so creatively prepared for us. I didn’t even care for the fried green tomatoes she cooked up occasionally as a treat for my father. He loved them. Not me. But this dish promised to be different.

As I set about tailoring Chef Bailey’s creation to my palate, I found that quail is a protein not readily available at any of my local grocery stores, but I wouldn’t accept a substitute. If I got nothing right about this dish, I was determined to find some quail. I’ve used the online vendor D’Artagnan Foods in the past for specialty meat and game and turned to them to source the quail I needed for this dish. They offer several varieties of quail and I went with the traditional European quail.  I placed my order for four unfrozen European quail on a Thursday, and they were delivered the next day in a well-insulated container filled with icepacks.

I’m not sure what I was expecting as far as the size of quail. I suppose something along the lines of a Cornish game hen. I ordered four thinking I would cook two and toss the other two into the freezer…I never get a new dish right the first time. Often it takes four or five tries before I’m satisfied. But quail are small birds. To give you an idea how small, the picture in this post is of two quail…on an appetizer plate. That’s small. Where a Cornish hen weighs about a pound and a quarter, the average European quail tips the scale at half that. Each bird yielded about two to three ounces of meat, so I ended up cooking all four and thanked my stars I wasn’t planning to serve this at a dinner party.

Let me just say in spite of the fancy sounding name, this is not a complicated dish to make. Complicated in concept yes, but it doesn’t require any advanced culinary technique, nor does it require any equipment more exotic than a spice grinder and a cast iron skillet.

Chef Bailey starts with a blend of spices to create a blackening rub. Her blend is heavily influenced by Creole with its fusion of African and Caribbean spices. Her ingredient list included one spice that was new to me…powdered sumac. It has an interesting flavor profile, something akin to key lime meets cumin. Sumac berries are high in malic acid, which is smoother on the palate than the citric and ascorbic acid of lemons. It allows you to introduce subtle hints of sweet acidity to a dish, but without the lip-puckering tartness of lemon.

In addition to the sumac, Chef Bailey’s blackening blend was heavy on the cayenne, chili, and salt. REALLY heavy. Too heavy. I cut way back on those, adjusting everything else to fit my palate and tossed it all into two gallon-sized plastic bags. I rinsed and dried the quail, rubbed olive oil over them, and put two birds into each bag of the blackening spices. After shaking and rubbing them around to make sure each bird got a fair amount of the blackening spices sticking to them, I put them in the fridge overnight and let the flavors of the blackening spices infuse the birds.

I liked Chef Bailey’s idea of serving cornbread stuffing with the quail, but I didn’t care for her approach to making it Creole style. I respect the classic New Orleans trinity of onion, celery, and bell pepper in gumbo and Étouffée, but for me there is no place for green bell pepper in stuffing, so I omitted it. She also calls for adding some of her blackening spices to a shrimp stock, which she then thickens using a medium dark roux, using the finished product as both the moistener for her cornbread stuffing and as a gravy to ladle over the finished dish. I wanted a more traditional savory stuffing, so I took my New England style stuffing recipe and modified it to fit the pseudo-southern take on her dish that I was trying to create.

My mother made a decent cornbread from scratch, but for this stuffing I decided there would be no shame in using a box mix. Janet found a sweet and tasty cornbread box mix that she’s enlisted the help of our grandkids to make in the past and it turned out quite tasty. I figured if the grandkids could make a yummy cornbread from a box mix, grandpa couldn’t mess it up too badly. So I used a box mix. It took all of two minutes to mix the ingredients and another 30 minutes to bake. After letting it cool for a few hours, I crumbled it all up and let the crumbles sit out overnight to dry so they would soak up more of my stock mixture.

The next day I allocated three hours to prep and cook. I thought that was generous for such an uncomplicated dish, but I ended up using every minute of it. I knew the quail would cook up in under 30 minutes, so I saved that for last and started on the stuffing. I diced up two yellow onions and a couple of celery stalks, then sauteed them together in olive oil over medium high heat for about ten minutes. I diced up a head of garlic which I added for the last 30 seconds of cook time. Garlic is great when you cook it just enough to bring out the flavor, but it can go from fragrant to acrid in seconds if you cook it too long. About half a minute after adding the garlic I pulled the skillet from the burner and scooped the contents out onto my crumbled cornbread and gave it a good mix.

Rather than using Chef Bailey’s Creole style shrimp stock, I brought a quart of low-sodium chicken stock to a low simmer, melted in a stick of butter…yes, an entire stick of butter, unsalted of course…and then stirred in a couple of tablespoons each of rubbed sage and fresh chopped basil, and a couple of teaspoons of dried marjoram. I let that continue to simmer for another 15 minutes to infuse the herbs into stock then poured it over the cornbread.

I never know how much stock my breadcrumbs will absorb, so I always prepare more than I’ll need and add the stock incrementally. I prefer my stuffing to be a bit on the soggy side but short of soupy. In this case I used about three quarters of the stock mix. Once my stuffing had the consistency I wanted, I covered the dish with foil and popped it into a 350-degree oven for about an hour. I removed the foil cover for the final 15 minutes of cook time to evaporate off some of the moisture which left the stuffing gooey but with a nice crispy surface.

My cornbread stuffing turned out surprisingly good. It was savory and much sweeter than a classic New England stuffing. The cornbread gave it a unique flavor that teased my palate. It won’t replace my go to bread-based stuffing when I make a holiday turkey dinner, but I will make it again when I am going for a poultry dish with a touch of southern charm.

Once the stuffing was in the oven, I turned my attention to the watermelon molasses. As much as the idea of cornbread stuffing as a side dish for quail appealed to me, the aspect of Chef Bailey’s dish that really caught the imagination of my palate was watermelon molasses.

Making molasses from watermelon is easy, but it is time consuming. All you do is scoop out the contents of half a watermelon, minus the seeds, and puree it up in a blender. Once you have a pitcher full of watermelon puree you simmer it over low heat in a saucepan until it reduces down to about half a cup. Which takes forever. You have to stir it constantly or the sugars in the juice will burn and that wouldn’t taste very good. In the end it took me over an hour of steady stirring until the watermelon reached the consistency of molasses.

In my mind, the watermelon would reduce down into a sweet and delicious syrup of concentrated watermelon flavor. Sadly, that’s not how it turned out. Watermelon is a member of the squash family, and as the water cooked off and the sugars concentrated, so did the squash flavor. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t the flavor profile my palate conjured up when I imagined what watermelon molasses would taste like.

With my watermelon molasses cooling and the stuffing now out of the oven, I turned my attention to the quail. I have to say I was a bit intimidated by the idea of cooking quail, but I needn’t have been. It was the easiest part of this dish to cook. I pulled the quail from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for about half an hour as I preheated the oven to 350 degrees. While the oven was doing its thing, I took the cast iron skillet I used to sautee the celery and onions for my stuffing, poured in a drizzle of canola oil, and let the oil heat up over medium high heat. Once the oil was nice and hot I added the quail, back side down. I gave the quail about two minutes per side to brown and then popped the skillet into the oven with the quail breast side up.

Quail are so small they take almost no time to cook. And unlike chicken, quail don’t spend their short lives so densely packed into growing pens that they wallow around in their own feces. Which is to say you can get by with cooking quail to a lower internal temperature than chicken without fear of foodborne pathogens. I was going for an internal temp of about 140-145 degrees and got that after eight minutes in the oven.

After letting the quail rest for about five minutes, I put two birds on each plate, topped them with a ladle or two of the watermelon molasses and added a scoop of cornbread stuffing on the side. I like cooking a veggie with my meals, and though I don’t usually care for Brussels sprouts, somehow that seemed like the right choice for this dish. And it was. I steamed up my sprouts in the InstantPot for about six minutes, finished them with a few minutes under the broiler, and then dipped them in a bath of olive oil and balsamic vinegar before plating.

I started out intending to recreate Chef Mashama Bailey’s quail and watermelon molasses. My quail dish turned out nothing like Chef Bailey’s Creole-inspired concoction, but it was damned tasty. The meat was moist and far more flavorful than chicken with a slightly gamey edge to it. It was pink close to the bones, almost to the point of being red. If you are used to chicken where the slightest tinge of pink or red turns your stomach you might find the look of it a bit off-putting, but the texture was perfect. It was tender with just enough of a chew factor to make you want to linger over each bite as the flavors melted onto your tastebuds.

Even with my adjustments, Chef Bailey’s blackening spice blend had more heat to it than I care for. After one bite I understood the role of the watermelon molasses…it acts as a cooling agent with the concentrated sugars cutting the edge off the spicy heat.

The dish, as I created it, turned out to be a harmonious blending of north and south. The cornbread in the stuffing lent a sweet southern charm to a side that was otherwise vintage New England, and the Brussel sprouts added a nice touch of bitterness. The next time I make it, and there will be a next time, I’ll go even lighter on the cayenne in the blackening blend. And though I didn’t care for the squash notes I got from the molasses, I am still intrigued by the idea of sweet watermelon flavor in this dish. I think instead of watermelon molasses, I’ll serve it with raw watermelon chunks on the side. I’ll stick with the cornbread stuffing as I made it, and I’ll probably even include Brussels sprouts. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

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Flying Still Sucks But Help Is On The Way…Maybe

Air travel has long been something to be endured, but the abysmal performance of airlines since this past spring has turned it into something to be loathed. With all the flight cancellations and delays resulting in missed connections and unacceptably late arrivals, you have no guarantee the plane ticket you carefully selected and purchased will get you to your destination as scheduled. Good luck getting compensated for the added expense of meals and lodging when a one hour delay turns into an overnight ordeal. If your flight is cancelled the only thing you can count on is that you’ll be rebooked. Maybe. It probably won’t be the same day as your scheduled departure, and it might not even be from the same airport, but what can you do?

For now, not much. Travelers are at the mercy of the airlines, but that may soon change. The Department of Transportation is taking steps to hold airlines more accountable for actually delivering the services they promise when they take consumer’s money. It’s a bit late for this summer’s travel season, but it might prevent similar problems next year.

Getting compensated for meals and hotels when you get stuck far from home because of flight delays and cancellations has been a common problem this summer, and it’s a real headache. I’m still waiting to to be reimbursed for meals and the hotel that Lufthansa promised after a flight delay resulted in a missed connection in Frankfurt almost two months ago.

Each airline follows a different set of rules and those rules are so full of exceptions they might as well not exist. To help consumers navigate the tangled web airlines have weaved (woven?), the DoT recently established an airline customer service dashboard. It is designed to help travelers know their rights when flights are delayed, and the DoT is working to make it more difficult for airlines to avoid delivering on the compensation they promise. I am hopeful airlines will soon automate the process, allowing you to request a voucher through their app and then pushing the voucher to you digitally so you never have to wait in line or on hold if you call. They aren’t there yet, but I think that time is coming.

Getting a refund for your flight when it is significantly delayed or when the airline cancels it is another can of worms, but that too may be getting easier. The DoT has released a draft policy that will make it much easier to get a refund for your plane ticket when an airline cancels your flight, even if you booked a non-refundable fare. No longer will you be forced to accept a rescheduled flight that might be several days later than the one you booked, or put up with having your non-stop flight in business class switched to an economy class fare with two connections.

Easier refunds for cancelled flights are a good thing. It means travelers will have the option to make alternate arrangements with another airline without the risk of not getting a refund for the original ticket. Under the proposed policy you can get a refund, or you can opt for future flight credits with the same airline if you prefer. That will be your choice, not the airline’s, and under the new policy, if you opt for flight credits they’ll never expire.

One of the best parts of this new policy is that it removes the excuses airlines have been hiding behind to avoid refunds. There have been plenty of head scratching stories of airlines cancelling flights because of “weather” when the skies are clear and the winds calm. They cite bad weather on the west coast as justification for cancelling flights on the east coast, an excuse that under the current policy takes them off the hook for providing refunds. Lately airlines have taken to blaming the air traffic control system, or local airport operations for cancelled flights…anything to avoid having to give back ticket revenue once they’ve taken your money.

Under the new policy it won’t matter why a flight was cancelled…the airline will be obligated to offer a refund, even if they’ve automatically rebooked you on another flight and even if you purchased a non-refundable ticket. There are rules, but they are reasonable, not loopholes the airlines can hide behind. You won’t be able to demand a refund when you cancel your ticket, but at least when the airline cancels the new policy will ensure you can get your money back.

There are some aspects of the proposal that need more work. In addition to requiring refunds when airlines cancel or significantly delay flights, there are refund provisions for travelers who have to cancel a trip because of illness during a declared public health emergency, or in keeping with public health guidelines. This part of the proposal is intended to deal with highly contagious, serious diseases…like COVID…it won’t cover things like the common cold. In its present form the policy is way too complicated for the average traveler to understand, and I hope the final version gets simplified without sacrificing the protections it seeks to provide.

Another aspect of the proposed policy that I’m not thrilled with has to do with the role travel agencies play in air ticketing. Under the draft policy, travel agents who include air in their bookings would be liable for refunding the cost of that air to clients when their flights are cancelled. That aspect of the policy is intended to target travel agencies that take consumers money, aggregate it, and then use the pooled money to get a better price by purchasing blocks of tickets. Those travel agencies may pass the savings along to their clients, but they may not…the airlines have no way of knowing.

It makes sense for a travel agency to be responsible for returning the money when they’ve taken it for air tickets, and then get reimbursed from the airline when flights are cancelled. It does not make sense to treat all travel agencies like that is their business model, which is what the proposed policy does. At Tidewater Cruise and Travel, we don’t collect consumer money for air bookings…the money goes directly to the supplier or airline we book with. Having to offer refunds when those flights are cancelled would mean having to pay out refunds with money we don’t get and don’t have, and then hope we get reimbursed from the airlines. That’s too much of a risk for our small operation, and it means we would no longer be able to offer courtesy air bookings as we have in the past. The impact on our business would be minimal since most of our clients prefer to book their own air, but it is a change we would rather not have to make just the same.

You can expect to see this new policy published in final form by the end of the year. When that happens and all the revisions are locked in, I’ll revisit the subject in a future post and lay out what it means in simple, non-government language. Until then, we’ll continue to put up with the airlines’ shenanigans. What choice do we have?

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Turkey Taste Challenge: Fresh vs. Frozen

I came up with the idea of a turkey taste test challenge last year, the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday. When other people were lining up before dawn at Best Buy, Macy’s and Kohl’s, or more likely virtually at Amazon.com, I was shopping the bargains at Wegmans. And boy did I find some…like fresh whole turkeys marked down to $0.69 per pound. Granted, they were generic, store brand, nothing fancy turkeys, but they were fresh. I had just paid $75 for a 16-pound fresh turkey from the hobby farmer I usually get my Thanksgiving bird from, and here I am at Wegmans looking at a display case full of 20-pound birds with a price tag of $13.50 each. It couldn’t possibly come out as juicy and tasty as the turkeys I got every year from my favorite hobby farm…could it? I aimed to find out.

The sign on the fresh turkey display case said “Limit One” but judging from the number of turkeys it was filled with, and the proximity of the sell by date, I had a hunch that wouldn’t be enforced at the register. I asked the manager if he would let me take two. He gave me a sort of sad and resigned look and said “Mister you can buy them all if you want. In fact, please do. We over ordered this year and whatever doesn’t sell by the end of the day gets tossed.” I bought three, because four wouldn’t fit into my cart. I tried.

As I was driving home with three fresh turkeys from Wegmans in the back of my vehicle, I wondered what in the hell I was going to do with 60 pounds of turkey. I cook for two people, and one of them (me) has a surgically reduced stomach that holds at most a cup and a half of food. When we go out to dinner I’m a cheap date…I order off the appetizer menu. I don’t even like turkey all that much. I mean, I don’t dislike it, but honestly turkey is pretty tasteless. How was I going to cook up that much turkey and keep it interesting to eat? I probably should have thought of that before I bought three of them.

That’s when the idea of a turkey taste test challenge hit me. How does turkey that was originally sold as fresh taste after sitting in a freezer for a couple of months? I decided to keep one of the turkeys fresh to cook it up straight away and use as a baseline, and then tossed the other two into my freezer. My plan was to cook them months down the road and compare my tasting notes.

I roasted one of those 20-pound monsters the week after Thanksgiving and compared it against the leftovers I had from my $75 hobby farm bird. No comparison…the Wegmans generic store brand, nothing fancy turkey tasted better, and it was juicier. But how would the other two birds turn out? Surely spending months in a freezer would render them dry and tasteless…well, more tasteless than usual for turkey. It didn’t. I cooked the second turkey in February after it spent two months in the freezer, and it was every bit as good as the fresh bird. The third turkey, after eight months in the deep freeze, wasn’t quite as juicy as the first two, but it was still surprisingly moist and every bit as tasty. How could that be?

The Myth of Fresh Never Frozen

As anyone who has read my food posts knows, I am a food nerd. When I tackle a project like this turkey taste test challenge, I immerse myself in research, learning everything I can about what I am about to cook, and what I learned this time was a real shocker. Grocery stores lie. It turns out there is no such thing as a turkey that is fresh, never frozen.

All turkeys are frozen at some point…if they weren’t we’d all die from food poisoning. It takes several weeks to get a turkey from slaughter to the grocery store to your kitchen to be cooked. Considering how much salmonella poultry is infested with in the processing plant that’s too long to be safe. Instead, the USDA allows the food industry to sell turkey as fresh never frozen so long as the internal temperature never dips below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t know about you, but I call that frozen. A turkey at that temp, and even ten degrees warmer, is rock hard frozen solid.

I’m glad the standard exists so we can safely enjoy several weeks old poultry, but just don’t mark the price up and sell it to me as something it isn’t. A more accurate label would be “thawed for your convenience” because that’s what you get when you buy a “fresh” turkey. I’ve been down this road before with frozen beef. As long as it is vacuum sealed and flash frozen, it is every bit as fresh when thawed as it can possibly be and still be safe to consume. Turkey is the same way…my own test kitchen challenge proved it.

One important caveat: I always brine my turkey before roasting it. Nothing fancy, just a big plastic brining bag with a ziploc seal, a jar of Bell’s Turkey Brine, and enough tap water to cover the bird. Mix it all together, toss in the bird, seal the bag and pop it in the fridge overnight. I get the Bell’s brine mix from Amazon because Thanksgiving is the only time grocery stores stock it. You’ll never get the same amount of juicy flavor in your turkey if you don’t steep it in a wet brine for at least 12 hours before roasting it.

I don’t think I’ll ever bother with a fresh hobby farm turkey again. I might try to find a wild turkey, or one of those heirloom breeds just to see if they have more flavor than the usual broad breasted white, the breed that accounts for 98% of all turkeys sold in this country. Heritage breed turkeys cost even more than my $75 hobby farm turkey…is it worth paying that much for a once-a-year holiday meal where the most tasty dishes are the sides? I don’t know, but I do know if I ever see $0.69 “fresh never frozen” turkeys in the Wegmans display case again I’m buying four. I’ll get two carts if I have to. They’ll be good even after a year in my freezer, but something tells me we won’t see prices that low ever again. If I do…I’m ready! And now, I hear a drumstick calling my name.

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I’m Positive

In spite of my best efforts to protect myself, I contracted COVID during my most recent trip. Janet got it too. Actually, I got it from her, and she got it from one of the people on the river cruise we took. There were at least two people who in hindsight were symptomatic during the cruise, most likely becoming infected when they opted not to mask up on their flights over to Europe. Their airlines did not require masking whereas Lufthansa, whom Janet and I flew with, did. I know that about them because early on in the cruise we compared notes, as travel agents tend to do when it comes to our travel experiences.

In my last post about COVID I wrote that I didn’t think it was inevitable that Janet and I would get COVID, in spite of our travels. I was wrong. I misjudged some things when I posted that. I underestimated the ease with which the current strains of COVID evade protective measures by those who take them. More importantly, I overestimated the willingness of the other people we come into contact with while traveling to take the same reasonable precautions and protections that Janet and I observe. I also overestimated the degree to which the public health system cares about preventing the spread of COVID.

Our COVID cases were mild. I chalk that up to us being vaccinated and double boosted. It didn’t prevent us from getting COVID, but I do believe it prevented us from getting really sick. In fact everybody in our group was vaccinated, but we weren’t required to get tested before the trip. Even though it wasn’t required, Janet did a home test before we departed…it was negative. The people in our group whom I suspect infected us didn’t start showing symptoms until the third day of our cruise. They, like me and Janet, flew to Europe a few days before the cruise so I doubt if pre-departure testing would have done us any good anyway. Neither person asked to get tested once they started with the sniffles and sneezing, nor did anyone from the cruise line ask them to get tested. One attributed her symptoms to asthma, the other to allergies. Those seemed like reasonable explanations at the time, common problems for travel agents who frequently travel to another country across six time zones. In hindsight maybe not so reasonable. Collectively we’ve let our guard down, and I don’t think that’s going to change.

It seems that most of the world, the travel industry included, has put rigid adherence to pandemic prevention behind them. I didn’t have to test myself when I began experiencing cold symptoms on my flight home, I could have assumed I had a cold and gone about my usual routine, going out in public unmasked, uncaring, and infecting everyone I interacted with. As an aside, Janet and I always test after travel whether we have any symptoms or not. I didn’t have to see my family doctor after my at home test was positive, though I did…via telehealth. I didn’t have to get a PCR test to confirm my at home test…my doctor didn’t require it, but I did it anyway. I didn’t even have to report my positive test result to the state health department, but I did. I didn’t have to inform the host of our cruise that I tested positive for COVID after we got home, but I did. Actually Janet did, on behalf of both of us.

I did all those things because they were the right things to do, and the health care system met my efforts with a collective yawn. My doctor told me to take Tylenol if I had a fever, otherwise treat it like a cold. No order for a PCR test to confirm the diagnosis, no antiviral medications, no monoclonal antibody treatment, no follow-up PCR test after five days or even ten days to confirm I was no longer contagious…nothing. Treat it like a cold. The only thing preventing me from going out into public unmasked was a single text from the health department advising me to self-isolate for five days. I’m pretty sure some people, maybe many, don’t even do that much. I don’t know if that’s good or not so good, it’s just where we are.

For the most part, both the government and the travel industry have gone from treating COVID like a plague to treating it like the common cold almost overnight. It has only been within the past month that many travel related COVID testing requirements have been eliminated.

I know that COVID won’t be the mild annoyance for everyone that it has been for Janet and me. I will continue to get booster shots when they are available and recommended, I will continue to mask up when I fly or find myself in crowded indoor spaces, and I will continue to get tested when I think I’ve been exposed or have even mild symptoms and isolate as appropriate. That’s all I can do at a time when others won’t even do that much.

My biggest take away from my bout with COVID is that I’m ready to move on with my life. I’m in the over 60 crowd now with more of my life behind me than in front of me. Yes, that puts me in a higher risk group, but I am no longer willing to put a single day of whatever time I have left on this Earth on hold in an effort to avoid COVID. Maybe my mild encounter with the virus has emboldened me, but I don’t think so. I felt that way before we took our most recent trip, my bout with COVID just reinforces that feeling.

Whether or not it is right for you to travel still comes down to your personal risk tolerance. The main difference between today and the early days of the pandemic is that you can no longer count on others to keep you protected. For better or worse, most people traveling now aren’t taking even the simple precaution of wearing a mask, and that’s an important consideration if you fall into a higher risk group. COVID is still a greater threat than most people are willing to treat it as being. Hopefully it won’t be too much longer before it truly is no worse than “just a cold,” and maybe for all practical purposes it already is.

This will probably be my last post dealing with COVID. As travel suppliers and governments around the world drop the few COVID restrictions that remain, there is little else I can offer on the subject. I’m living proof that no amount of personal protective measures will keep you from getting COVID.

As travel agents we will still encourage our clients to take the same precautions we continue to take for our own travel…get vaccinated, boosted, and mask up on planes, buses, and in crowded indoor spaces. Whether or not you choose do any of those things is increasingly a matter of personal choice. We will also continue to inform our clients of the few COVID restrictions and requirements that remain, based on your destination and mode of travel. That gets easier to do as time goes on and restrictions and requirements fall by the wayside. There aren’t many left, and those too will be going away soon enough. Is it too soon? I don’t know.

Janet and I have several more trips planned between now and the end of the year, and we still plan to take them. We are taking a month off from travel to make sure the next time we hit the road we aren’t the cause of someone else’s case of COVID, but we will travel. At some point down the road we’ll probably get COVID again. By then treating COVID like the common cold might be the right thing to do. That’s how most people seem to be treating it now anyway. And I’m not sure that’s wrong.

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Flying Sucks And There’s Nothing You Can Do About It

Janet and I just returned from a river cruise on the Moselle River in Germany…our first river cruise after more than 50 ocean cruises. We cruised with Avalon Waterways, a member of the Globus family of brands. It was an interesting, unique, and wonderful adventure as anyone who follows us on social meda could see with all the pictures and videos we posted. But that’s a topic for another time…perhaps our next newsletter. This post is about handling what happened to us on our trip over to Europe…flight delays, cancellations, missed connections, baggage issues, and rebooking after a day of delay we weren’t counting on in Europe.

After dealing with similar problems for clients already this summer, I thought Janet and I were mentally prepared. We were not. What can you as a traveler do when even your travel agent has trouble with travel?

1. Expect travel disruptions because almost nothing will go as planned this summer. Flights will be delayed or cancelled, connections missed, or your luggage will get lost…sometimes all three, and there is little you can do to prevent it. We followed all the advice we give to our clients about how to avoid travel troubles when we planned our flights, and still we got stung.

2. Purchase a travel insurance policy that provides lost luggage, trip delay, and trip interruption coverage, because you’ll probably need it. It is best to purchase tip insurance as soon as you book your trip, but even if you didn’t, as long as you haven’t departed on the first leg of your trip it’s not too late. Airlines are notoriously bad about stepping up to their responsibilities to travelers when there is a disruption in the service they offer and it has only gotten worse with all of the problems this summer. There is no guarantee trip insurance will cover all expenses associated with trip delays or interruptions either…it depends on the specific circumstances and the details of your policy, but I can absolutely guarantee it won’t cover anything if you don’t purchase it.

3. Download your airline’s app. That has become one of the best ways to deal with airlines when problems crop up and you can’t find someone at the airport to help. It isn’t a guarantee that you will get your travel problems fixed quickly, but it is rapidly becoming the airlines’ preferred method for working with travelers.

4. Arrive at the airport at least 3 hours before your scheduled departure, longer when you are flying home from Europe. You may find yourself having to wait for someone to show up at the airline’s check-in desk if you have an early morning flight, but at least you’ll be toward the front of the line when they do, which will cut down on your wait time. If you sail through check-in and security and end up with hours of time to kill, go get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and consider yourself lucky.

5. Know your destination’s arrival requirements, particularly when it comes to COVID. Entry requirements, whether it be for pre-arrival testing or proof of vaccination, continue to change frequently. Most international destinations require that you fill out a health and contact tracing form online a day or two before your scheduled arrival. Airlines will have an app or website where you can fill out what is needed, but some destinations require that you submit information directly to them, so do your homework. If you submit the necessary form(s) at home, along with any COVID testing and vaccination documentation as required, you’ll be able to skip ahead of the people at the airport who don’t. You’ll likely get an approval notification via text or e-mail with a QR code or bar code on it. Print that out and take it with you in addition to storing it on your phone.

6. Likewise, print a copy of your boarding pass if you check in online, and make sure any QR code or bar code is free of smudges or fold lines. If you rely on your phone for your boarding pass any crack, smudge, or blemish on the screen can keep the airport scanners from being able to read it. If that happens you’ll have to get out of line and go back to the airline check-in counter to sort it out. And there is no skip the line pass to get you back to your place in line. When it comes to your return trip, most hotels and tour operators at your destination can arrange for you to print your boarding pass if you check in online, or you can print one at the airport. And thankfully, you no longer need a COVID testing before coming home.

7. Go with the flow. If a flight is cancelled or you miss a connection and your airline automatically re-books you, take the flight they’ve re-booked you on no matter how inconvenient it may be for you. We learned that lesson the hard way on this trip. It used to be you might find an alternative to what the airline offers that works better for you. Not this summer. Even if the new flight means spending several days before you can get another flight, take it.

8. If you don’t get re-booked automatically, try to re-book yourself through the airline’s app while you stand in line waiting for help at customer service. At many airports the customer service centers are so short-staffed they just close down. That’s what happened to us in Frankfurt when we missed our connection because of the three hour delayed departure from Philadelphia. We were automatically rebooked on a flight the next day, but we were on our own when it came to finding a hotel. As tempting as it may be to say screw it and pay out of pocket for a new flight, that should be your last resort. You are more likely to win the Powerball lottery than you are of getting reimbursed for that flight, even if you have a good travel insurance policy. You will have a better chance of getting any hotel, meals, and additional ground transportation reimbursed if you end up making those arrangements on your own, but not alternate flights.

9. Keep your travel agent’s contact information handy. Your travel agent can make all the calls necessary to help you get re-booked if your airline doesn’t do it automatically, and they can ensure your follow-on travel plans are adjusted to accommodate your delay.

10. Pack your patience. Our travel glitches on this trip were minor compared with others and still we found ourselves frustrated, angry, and feeling forgotten. Mostly because we were all those things. We got out on a flight the next day, as did our checked bags, but many travelers have been stuck for several days waiting for a rebooked flight.

11. Plan to arrive a day or two before you need to. We’ve never been a fan of same day arrivals and this summer that’s a sure-fire way to end up disappointed. The airline isn’t going to refund you the cost of your cruise or tour if you miss it even when it’s their fault, nor are they going to cover your cost to catch up even if your itinerary allows for that. Booking your air through the cruise line or tour operator might help, but it might not. Don’t take that chance with your vacation. The same goes for your return flight. Don’t plan to fly home late in the day when you have an important event that you can’t miss the following day. The airline doesn’t care if they can’t get you back in time for your personal schedule. Their sole obligation is to get you back…sometime.

12. Pack with the assumption you will not see your checked luggage when you arrive at your destination. A recent report indicates lost luggage, which only occurred about 1% of the time pre-COVID, is now happening about 30% of the time. Pack a carry-on bag with all the meds you’ll need for the entire trip (plus a week more for contingencies), some basic toiletries, and one or two changes of clothing. Do the same thing for your return flight, even if you have a non-stop routing. If your flight is cancelled you will most likely be spending one or more nights somewhere other than home before you can get on another flight, and you won’t be able to get your checked luggage back. The airport and airline baggage departments are too short staffed to pull luggage once it is checked in. We found that out the hard way, fortunately we were prepared. If you have to, buy some necessities to tide you over but be sure to keep all your receipts. You’ll need them when you file your claim with the airline and your insurance company. And be reasonable. The insurance company is not likely to cover the cost of a designer outfit when your Kohl’s purchased shorts and t-shirt go missing.

13. Janet’s favorite tip for packing checked bags is to avoid falling into the habit of packing “his” and “hers” luggage. Pack half of your stuff in one bag and fill the rest of that bag with your partner’s clothing and accessories. Do the same with however many bags you need to carry all your stuff, but try to make sure that you also divide up the essentials, and that what you pack in each bag goes together. It wouldn’t do much good to pack a suit in one bag only to have your dress shoes in another if one of the bags gets lost. Likewise, if the airline loses the bag with all your undergarments it doesn’t much matter that they didn’t lose the bag with the rest of your clothing.

14. Make sure you have removed all bar code tags from previous trips to avoid confusing the automated luggage handling systems. If you don’t, you could end up at your destination while your bags end up at your previous destination.

15.Keep the baggage claim tags given to you when you check in. I am amazed at the number of travelers that still don’t do that. If you don’t have your claim tags, you might as well give up any hope of ever being reunited with your bags. Some airlines send you the claim number in their app if you’ve registered your flight with them, but keeping a paper copy is always a good idea.

16. If your luggage gets lost, don’t count on the airline to find it and deliver it to you. Try to find someone who can escort you to the airport’s lost luggage center, which will probably be harder than you think, and search for your bags yourself. If that isn’t an option, provide a detailed physical description of your luggage as well your travel itinerary when you file your lost luggage claim. Many people are relying on Apple Airtags to help them track your luggage, and they work. You’ll know where your luggage is. Where they don’t work so well is getting anyone from the airline to go get your bags and send them to you.

17. Take a picture of your luggage and place a sheet of paper with your contact information inside. Both steps will help overworked and understaffed baggage claim employees isolate your bags from the thousands of others in search of their owners. Make sure you note all that information on your lost luggage claim form. The more you can do to help differentiate your suitcases from someone else’s, the more likely you are to get them delivered to you before the end of your trip.

Nothing about the delays and hassles associated with travel today is remotely satisfactory. It is the reality of travel, for now. My hope is that as the travel industry recovers from their current staffing shortages things will gradually improve. The good news is you can now travel pretty much anywhere in the world. The bad news is so can everyone else.

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Devil In The Details — The “What’s Next”

The CDC has released the details regarding their new COVID guidance for cruise ships. I noted in my last post they were ending their COVID Program for Cruise Ships, but that we needed to wait for the “what’s next” to understand what that actually means. They’ve now released the details and surprisingly, there don’t seem to be any hidden “gotchas” like there have been in the past. The requirements that were in place before regarding vaccination and pre-cruise testing remain, but they are now recommendations and suggestions rather than requirements.

The CDC is leaving it up to each cruise line to determine how closely they will follow their recommendations. As I noted in my last post, you can expect to see the pre-cruise testing requirements go away first, and probably within the next few weeks. The cruise lines will take a more deliberate approach to doing away with the vaccine requirements now that the CDC no longer requires it, but those too will be going away, if not by this fall/winter’s cruising season then almost certainly by the spring of 2023. If you have been waiting to book your cruise until the vaccine requirement is gone, you can finally start to plan. Janet and I believe it is still a bit too soon to book if you are unvaccinated, but I don’t think you’ll have very much longer to wait.

Perhaps the most important step the CDC is taking is to allow the cruise lines to decide on their own when to suspend operations due to COVID infection rates onboard individual ships. The cruise lines will still be required to report all incidents of COVID positive passengers and crew aboard every cruise ship they operate and for every sailing, but that’s no different than any other infectious disease that the CDC requires cruise lines to track and report. Cruise lines will probably still require COVID positive guests to isolate onboard for the required five days, and have a negative test result before being released from isolation. But that is dependent on passengers with symptoms self reporting to the medical center. I don’t see that happening very often unless someone is really sick.

As always, the CDC can issue an order to cruise lines to suspend operations for any ship, or for a line’s entire fleet, if they feel things are getting out of control. I don’t expect that to be necessary. The cruise lines have been far ahead of the CDC in their COVID mitigation and management programs from the outset of the pandemic, and I don’t see that changing under the CDC’s new, significantly more relaxed guidance.

Not everyone will welcome this news. As I noted in my last blog post, the risk of COVID exposure will increase with any relaxation in the measures cruise lines are currently taking to combat COVID on cruise ships. Doing away with pre-cruise testing, and eventually with vaccination mandates, will increase everyone’s risk of exposure on a cruise ship, so you still need to consider your personal risk tolerance. And though the risk of COVID exposure may be higher on cruises in the near term, it will be no greater for cruising than it is for any leisure activity involving large groups in enclosed spaces. If you are comfortable attending indoor concerts or sporting events, you will likely be comfortable with cruising.

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The Devil Is In The Details

As I posted to our Facebook page earlier today (Europe time), the CDC announced they are terminating their COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships. Before anybody gets too excited about what that might mean, as always with the CDC the devil is in the details. Back in the spring when the CDC announced the end of their no sail order to much fanfare and with a nice press release, they did so without providing details on the “what’s next”. Not long after that press release the CDC quietly informed the cruise lines, with no fanfare, the “what’s next” and it was far more arduous and restrictive than they expected. So…now that the CDC just announced they are ending that program, it begs the question…what’s next?

In announcing the end to their COVID-19 program for cruise ships, the CDC noted the following: “New guidance for cruise ships to mitigate and manage COVID-19 transmission will be available in the coming days.” You’ll forgive me for being a bit cynical here, but that caution to stay tuned for details hasn’t ended well for the cruise lines when it comes to COVID. Still, this time I find myself cautiously optimistic. The CDC is finally saying they believe the cruise industry is in the best position to self-regulate when it comes to COVID risk mitigation and management on cruise ships. We will see in the coming days whether the CDC really means that, or if they have even more mischief up their sleeves.

In the FAQs that accompanied the announcement about the program’s termination, the CDC noted the following, “While cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, the CDC will continue to publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for crew, passengers, and communities going forward.” That is the softest risk statement regarding COVID and the cruise industry the CDC has issued to date. If they limit their guidance to advisory, the cruise lines will be able to get back to implementing their own restrictions for passengers regarding COVID as they have all along, quite effectively, for other infectious diseases such as Norovirus. But the devil is in the details.

Nothing will change immediately. Cruise ships are sailing at capacity even under the current regime of restrictions the CDC appears to be ending. The first thing I expect to see in the near term is elimination of pre-cruise COVID testing requirements. Most cruise lines have already eliminated the test requirements for sailings that don’t come under the CDC’s regulatory authority, in embarkation ports where COVID testing is no longer required by the host government.

As much as you and I may dislike the hassle of getting a COVID test before embarking on a cruise, it has been a real burden on the on the cruise industry. Now that the CDC doesn’t require testing for international travelers entering the U.S., it is hard to see any scenario where testing will continue to be a requirement for cruising. That change will likely come soon…possibly very soon. If you have a cruise booked through us, we’ll be in touch once we learn of any changes.

Eliminating the test requirement does not mean COVID will magically disappear as a risk to cruisers. If anything, the risk will increase a bit. Imperfect though it has been, pre-embarkation testing has kept at least some COVID positive passengers from boarding. That increased risk will matter to some cruisers, but I don’t think it will matter to most since it merely puts the risk on par with the risk you face when flying to the port to catch your ship. Or going to the grocery store. Or using the drive-thru window at your favorite fast-food establishment.

The one requirement that won’t be so quick to fall will be the CDC mandate that cruise ships sail with only vaccinated passengers. I expect the cruise lines to be more cautious about eliminating the vaccination requirement, at least until the fall and winter cruise season. Even if the CDC eliminates their COVID vaccination requirement for cruise ships, the cruise lines are still bound by the vaccination mandates imposed by the ports they visit, but those too have been dropping fast. Barring any major change in the virus, it is possible the vaccine requirement for passengers will be eliminated if not by the fall/winter cruising season, then almost certainly in time for spring of 2023. I expect the cruise lines will continue to require their crew to be fully vaccinated.

It looks like COVID is with us forever. Testing hasn’t contained it, mask mandates haven’t contained it, and vaccine mandates haven’t contained it. All of those are still good measures to take to protect yourself, particularly if you are in a higher risk group. COVID seems to have entered a phase where the severity of illness is on par with the cold and flu, still deadly for some but a tolerable nuisance for most.

Perhaps the most telling development will be this fall when the latest batch of bivalent COVID boosters become available with more targeted protection against the newer Omicron variants. If that proves to be as effective as hoped, then cruising may be no riskier with COVID than it is with the other seasonal illnesses cruisers have to contend with. Get vaccinated, get boosted with the bivalent vaccine this fall, wear N95 masks when you fly or in crowds, and you will be as protected on a cruise ship as you are anywhere else.

This latest CDC action could be the best news for the cruise industry in a long time. Yes, the devil is still in the details, and yes, the risk will still be there for some. But for the first time since March of 2020, I am optimistic. If you have been waiting to cruise, frustrated either by the testing or vaccination requirements, I think it is safe to start thinking about your next cruise. It may be a tad too early to book something if you are unvaccinated, but that day is coming, and it is coming soon.

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