A Food-loving Night in Philly (& Goodreads!)

I signed on for some extensive touring in the latter half of October. But it didn't fully hit me until I drove back from Mississippi on Halloween Day, fell asleep fully clothed beside a still-packed suitcase, and woke up Tuesday morning needing to with only an hour to unpack, repack, and get to the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition by 9 AM. 

(FYI, their College Park facility isn't listed in the public directory if you happen to be stuck in Beltway traffic and trying to call. "It better exist," I told the 411 operator.)

What followed was a dozen meetings with scientists, regulatory experts, and high-ranking CFSAN officials, as well as an opportunity to read from Don't Kill the Birthday Girl as part of a talk simulcast to two other FDA facilities. We talked about peanut proteins, FALCPA labeling, the difficulty of determining allergen contamination thresholds, the need for more food challenge data. My favorite moment was when one director started to talk about the challenges his office faced, paused and said "Well, I don't need to tell you--[gesturing at my memoir]--you've got it all in there." 

I came away understanding of the scope of their powers; what they do, what they could do better, what they can't be held responsible for. Those folks are working so hard. I hope my visit put a face on the people they serve and protect. 

What's this got to do with a food-loving night in Philly? Well, I drove directly from the FDA to Union Station, and boarded a train north. On Wednesday I would speak at the Union League for an annual medical conference sponsored by Philadelphia's Children's Hospital. I was excited to see the city--a new one to me. My host, Dr. Joel Fiedler (who contacted me out of the blue after reading the book) picked me up at the station--greeting me with a glittery-wrapped gift. 

"I read your blog and saw you mention this," he said. 

We went to a restaurant called POD that features tables for two set into the walls and red vinyl couches that evoke The Jetsons. Dr. Fiedler is the best of the best allergists--experienced, reasonable, with a sense of humor and compassion. We talked over a meal that included silken Japanese eggplant with niku chicken miso and rich chicken with "Tokyo scallion," both cooked over the 1000-degree robata grill.

"That should kill any offending allergen proteins," Joel joked. 

I remembered my pathetic penny-pinched dinner in the Copley Square Hotel after the Boston Book Festival: sardines out of a tin over rice crackers left over from my Hockessin Book Shelf reading in Delaware. None of that, I decided. This was my final stop before coming home to invariably crash in DC after 22 days on the road. I was going to enjoy. This seemed to be a town friendly to writers, after all. How often do you pass public street art that serves to paint the concrete around it in light-language?

Over a later scotch at the Union League's bar, a tablemate recommended a gastropub called Dandelion housed in a townhouse down Sansom. (This was one of those random, magical conversations that happens when two strangers order the same pour of single malt...we also talked chess.) After the next day of conversations with research doctors, pediatricians, and nurses, I called my mother from beside the Liberty Bell to tell her I was going out for a great meal before coming home to an empty fridge.

"Just be sure it is safe," she said. She was nervous. The gods of irony had surely noted a morning spent talking about anaphylaxis. My book includes an account a bad biphasic reaction on Amtrak while coming back from a "great meal" in New York City. I promised her I'd be careful. 

Hmmm. The best way to be both indulgent and safe is sometimes to cherry-pick courses from multiple places. I had my reading: the Arkansas music edition of the Oxford American. I had my route: slowly working back from Independence Hall toward where my luggage waited at the Union League. I had my timeline: 3 hours to kill. 

Walking past Washington Square I spotted Talula's Garden. Local, organic, and quirky. Don't let this stock shot fool you; though it has only been open since April, the bar was packed. I went for cocktails--The Butcher (vodka, horseradish, tomato, and a dash of brown ale that added balance) and The Loner (rye, muddled apple and cranberry, and bitters). The Loner is usually made with Black Walnut bitters, but I explained to the bartender that I was worried about other nut extracts amidst the "natural flavors" (see, Mom? being cautious). He was happy to take up the challenge. Two potential bitter options, several exploratory licks--his, not mine--of his fingers and three dashes later, my Loner had a pleasing orange edge. 

Then I made my way along Jeweler's Row until Fat Salmon's neon blue wave decor lured me in. I ordered the Unabara roll (eel, tamago, avocado). It's usually pretty hard for me to find complex rolls; invariably there is random egg, shrimp, or cucumber amidst the hodgepodge. But this was perfectly designed as-is. The eel was sweet, skin crisped. Heaven. I ordered salmon sashimi. I was tempted to keep ordering. But my three hours was rapidly dwindling, and Dandelion waited. 

Picking up my bags took a bit longer than expected, and when I walked into the pub it was, again, packed. I said to the hostess "I'm from out of town, I've heard you all have a great scotch cocktail--but I have a train to catch." What followed was a welcome that had an almost comic urgency. I was going to get the best 25 minutes of service in town, damn it.  Within five minutes I was in a corner seat by a fireplace on the second floor. Within eight minutes I had the "Scotch Honeysuckle": a surprisingly delicate blend of Dewar's, dry vermouth, honey, lemon, and rosewater. Within ten minutes I had a half-dozen beautiful oysters served with a red wine mignonette. 

Some nights are naturally welcoming to the belly and soul. You click with a new city. Spying my family name emblazoned randomly on a building, I knew this was one of those nights. 

This is the same week that I found out my memoir is an official nominee for the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. The category? "Food & Cooking," which means I am up against paeans to veganism, a year in the life of El Bulli, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Compare the beautiful cover art of fresh tomato bruschetta to...my skull-topped cupcake. I'm a dark horse to say the least. 

But if Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life does climb in the polls, what a great reinforcement that would be of what I've been saying all along: having food allergies doesn't mean you hate food. It shouldn't even mean you fear food. More than most you appreciate food in all of its spectrums, from nuances of taste to history to its power as social currency. I know I do. I travel with a need to eat, not in spite of it. Meals are part of how I explore the world. 

You can go to the Goodreads website to check out the other nominees & cast votes. Every vote counts! They'll narrow it to 10 finalists in each category on November 21.