Fake Plastic Food In Japan Evolved From Less Than Appetizing Origins

Walk through any food court or eatery in Japan and you’ll find yourself face to face with walls of plastic food. These displays are designed to show potential diners exactly what they’ll receive if they order a particular dish, from the portion size to the ingredients right down to the little garnishes. They’re helpful for foreigners who can’t decipher Japanese menus but even the locals have come to depend on the fake food when eating out.

These sample meals have always had an uncanny realism to them – and now we know why. It turns out these plastic food replicas were borne out of a more scientific art form. The original maker of fake food started out creating models of human organs and diseases, with the realistic plastic replicas aimed at helping doctors study illnesses. Pretty soon, restaurants came knocking on the artisan’s door – despite it’s unappetizing origins, they figured fake food was the perfect way to familiarize country folk with the unique fare city restaurants had to offer.Like most things in Japan, the plastic samples don’t come cheap, especially since the food samples are modeled off real dishes and created for each individual restaurant. A life-like plate of plastic sushi or a heaping bowl of fake spaghetti sell for around $100 each, although budget-conscious restaurants can rent their fake food for about $6 a month.

The sample-making company says they haven’t been able to get the concept to take off in the Western world… after learning the less than appetizing story behind the samples, we’re not sure they ever will.

Do you like the idea of plastic food? Do these samples help you pick your meal or are they are turn off?

Eating With Locals The Easy Way

There was once a time when travelers were a rare species, so venturing off into foreign lands often meant being invited into the homes of generous locals where you were treated to lavish meals. This kind of thing still occasionally happens in developing countries, but as tourism becomes more and more commonplace, it’s rare to be able to dine with locals unless you’ve already got connections, are visiting friends, or are taking part in a home stay of some sort.

But the good new is that there’s now another a way to sit down to a meal with locals, and it doesn’t rely on serendipitous encounters with potential hosts or having a rolodex full of international friends. EatWith is a new online community that connects travelers with local hosts willing to invite tourists to their dinner tables. The concept – which recently launched – works much the same way as couchsurfing. Travelers and hosts sign up online, write detailed profiles about themselves, and then choose where and with whom they wish to dine.The user profiles provide plenty of information, like which languages the host speaks (always useful), what kind of food they plan on cooking for you and what you can expect during your meal (like whether you’ll be eating with just the host or a merry band of relatives as well). EatWith’s database also includes a number of “verified” hosts that have been vetted by the organization for travelers who are concerned about safety.

Some of the meal experiences currently on offer through the program include enjoying homemade paella in Spain, sitting down to a nine-course meal on a farm or taking part in a barbeque with a local family. Travelers pay around $30 and up for the privilege, but the cost is comparable to eating out at a restaurant – not to mention all the benefits that are hard to put a price on.

For one thing, the meal is a chance to meet locals and enjoy the home-cooked cuisine people really eat – not just the food available in the touristy restaurants (and sometimes there’s a big difference between the two). It’s also a great opportunity to pick the brains of a local, whether that’s an insight into the culture or politics, or simply some tips on things to see and do. And of course, it’s a chance to get some good suggestions about the hot places to dine so you can ensure the rest of your meals live up to the one you just had.

I think it’s a concept that’s sure to take off, since it’s great for travelers who are attracted by the social aspect of couchsurfing but don’t want to deal with safety or comfort issues. With programs like this, you can stay in a regular hotel but still enjoy the company of a local host. It’s also ideal if you’re a solo traveler – after all, sharing a meal with a friendly local and perhaps a few other travelers beats dining alone in a restaurant.

Right now, EatWith only offers hosted meals in Israel and Spain, but the company plans to expand to other destinations.

Have you ever eaten a meal with locals when traveling? Would you sign up to do it?

[Photo credit: Flickr user Laurel Fan]

In America’s ‘McFarthest’ Place, Strippers And Coyote Hunting But No McDonald’s

If Rebecca Bierman gets an urge for a Big Mac, she has at least four options to satisfy the craving.

“I can go to Pierre or Sturgis, here in South Dakota,” says Bierman, a farmer and rancher who lives in Glad Valley, South Dakota. “Or I can go to Dickinson or Bismarck in North Dakota.”

The McDonald’s in Pierre is 142 miles from her home, the Sturgis branch is 147 miles away, and the golden arches in Dickinson and Bismarck are 146 and 159 miles away respectively. According to Stephen Von Worley, an artist and scientist from California, the area between Glad Valley and Meadow, South Dakota, is the “McFarthest” place in the country, that is, the part of America that is farthest away from a McDonald’s location. But there are places to eat in the area and one establishment even has strippers and coyote hunting contests.

According to Bierman, who grows wheat and oats along with her husband, Gene, there are only two houses with a grand total of three people in Glad Valley. There are no restaurants or businesses. She lives a mile and a half outside of town, if you can call Glad Valley that, and her husband is the town’s volunteer fire department.

“We’re very, very rural,” she says.

Bierman likes Big Macs but not enough to drive hours away to get them. Her husband wouldn’t eat at a Mickey D’s even if there was one across the street. When they want to go out to eat, there are two restaurants that are each about 20 miles away. There’s Sparky’s, a place that serves “regular American food” and is famous for its caramel nut apple pie in Isabel, a hamlet that, according to South Dakota magazine, has two farm implement dealers, a grain elevator, a medical clinic, a grocery, a hardware store and a few other businesses.

And there’s Smoky’s Bar & Grill, the only restaurant in tiny Meadow. A little further afield in Dupree, there’s a family restaurant called the Ranch House Café and an hour away, in a place called Eagle Butte, there’s a Dairy Queen, a Taco John and a gas station with a deli inside. She isn’t exactly spoiled for choice, but she isn’t complaining.

“We eat at home a lot,” she says.

When you live in a town as small as Glad Valley, you learn not to burn bridges and Bierman was guarded when asked which place she prefers.

“I could never tell you which place I like better,” she says. “That would get me in trouble around here.”

If McDonald’s decided to open a location in the area, would it be popular?

“I’m sure people would go there,” says Cindy Longbrake, the county auditor for South Dakota’s Ziebach County, which includes Glad Valley, plus the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. “I don’t make a special trip to go to McDonald’s but if they opened up around here, I’d probably go sometimes.”

Maybe so, but McDonald’s doesn’t have fully nude strippers or coyote hunting contests, as Smoky’s does.

“We’re an unincorporated town, so the girls can go fully nude. They don’t even have to wear pasties on their breasts,” says Lisa Wagner, the owner of Smoky’s.

Wagner said that the place has been open on and off since the 1950’s when a guy nicknamed Smoky ran the place.

“When Smoky owned this place, if you were old enough to reach the bar, you were old enough to get a drink,” she says.

These days, Smoky’s is known for their charbroiled burgers and steaks, and their Sunday buffet, which includes three choices of meat, a full salad bar and coffee or lemonade for $11, or $9.50 for seniors. Every so often, Wagner has strippers come in to dance and offer table and lap dances. She lives next door to the bar and says the town has six houses and a total of five residents and five dogs.

“We’re down to five people because Bernie just recently left the nursing home, Renee passed away from cancer and her husband lives out at the lake now,” she says. “And we have one empty house, the woman died years ago but they’ve haven’t tried to sell it.”

Wagner is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 19 years. She doesn’t mind living in a rural area but says that her daughter, who is “kind of a vegetarian” missed Taco Bell and other fast food places when they moved to the community about a decade ago. For the moment, business is decent and Wagner isn’t worried about McDonald’s coming in to steal her customers.

“People call ahead with their orders, so we’re kind of fast food,” she says. “And besides, our burgers are much better than theirs anyways.”

[Photo credits: Frago on Flickr; Sparky’s, Smoky’s]

Crap Food No Longer The Norm At Museums

It all started with a damn good slice of pound cake at the British Museum in London. Then I wondered why the bowl of corn chowder I devoured at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art cafeteria, Lickety Split, was the best thing I’d eaten in weeks. And by the time I had a plate of mouth-watering chipotle chicken quesadillas at the Getty Museum cafeteria in L.A. several weeks later, I wondered what the hell was going on. Museum cafeteria food is supposed to be overpriced crap, right?

Ordinarily, I hate to get stuck eating at tourist attractions. In December, on an excursion to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, for example, I neglected to pack drinks or lunch for my kids and was distressed to find $5.19 fountain drinks (one size only), cups of soup for $7 and a selection of crummy looking sandwiches that cost roughly the same as Burundi’s per capita GDP. This is more or less what I expect from dining establishments at any sort of tourist attraction: a rip off.But there appears to be a real trend toward good, moderately priced food at a host of art museums I’ve visited over the last year. Aside from the otherworldly chowder, Lickety Split at the Mass MOCA in the Berkshires has tasty burritos, great coffee, microbrews and fresh baked goods. The British Museum has cafés featuring good sandwiches, soups, pies and baked goods. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two gourmet restaurants, a café and a cafeteria, all of which looked appetizing to me on a visit last summer. And the Art Institute of Chicago has a pretty decent cafeteria, a café, plus a fine dining option.

But my favorite museum culinary experiences in the last year came courtesy of the Getty Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The Getty has a few dining options, ranging from casual to gourmet, but I was hard pressed to make a selection at their cafeteria, which is loaded with good-looking, healthy food. If the weather is good, as it usually is in L.A., you can sit outside and enjoy a lovely view along with a good, reasonably priced meal (see video below).

Café Calatrava at the Milwaukee Art Museum offers fine dining with a view of Lake Michigan (see photo on the right). The seasonally inspired menu is created to match the museum’s featured exhibits. When we visited in December during the Treasures of Kenwood House exhibit, there was a British theme featuring offerings like ale steamed mussels, ploughman’s lunch, wild boar and sage bangers and mash and Cornish beef and veggie pasties. I had the pasties, which were first rate, and my wife had something called Col. Mustard’s chicken, which came with some tasty dauphinoise potatoes.

I hope the experiences I’ve had at these museums is indeed a trend and the days of having to smuggle food into museums and other tourist attractions are numbered. Let us know if you’ve had good, bad or indifferent dining experiences at museums and other tourist sites around the world.

[Photo credits: Getty Center (sea scallops), Dave Seminara]

The Best Lobster Roll In Maine

“Saturday Traffic Alert,” read the subject line of an email from our vacation property manager.

We were packing up after a blissful week in midcoast Maine, where my family and I had spent the days either on a boat; on the shore, finding leftover shells in the mudflats; or driving the rural roads of the St. George peninsula. In the evenings, we returned to the house where we cooked our own meals and usually collapsed into bed before 10. Seven days and six nights of pure idyll justified Maine’s self-proclaimed title as “Vacationland.”

But then reality struck: a traffic alert. The property manager explained:

“It happens every year from about the 3rd Saturday in July – through the 3rd Saturday in August – it’s become a regular Maine tradition. The ‘great Wiscasset bottleneck.’ The small village of Wiscasset has a well known food wagon called “Red’s Eats” right in the center of the village the [sic] develops long lines early in the day. As a result, traffic slows to figure out why people wait for hours to get a lobster roll (that we think is no different than lobster rolls elsewhere) and all those ‘rubberneckers’ build up the traffic lines quickly.”

We hadn’t heard a traffic report in over a week, and now, if we didn’t leave town early enough, we would have to endure a traffic jam – for a lobster roll.
I came to know of Red’s earlier in the week soon after a friend caught wind that I was in Maine: “Seriously, you must go to Red’s! Best lobster roll on the planet. DO NOT MISS THIS. MUST GET THERE NO LATER THAN 11:45. Crazy lines.”

Unswayed by caps lock and frankly too far from Wiscasset, I had my first-ever lobster roll in the state of Maine from Miller’s Lobster Company, a Spruce Head shack with its own fans. Located on Wheeler Bay, with invigorating views of placid water and blue spruces, Miller’s had no lines but there was a wait of about 30 tummy-grumbling minutes for our chosen crustaceans to go from tank to pot to bun. Served on a split-top potato roll – kind of a like a hot dog bun moonlighting as a slice of white bread – and with a plastic ramekin of melted butter and bag of Lay’s potato chips, Miller’s lobster roll seemed like the perfect lunch. As I bit into the fresh chunks of bun-swaddled lobster meat, I thought, “How can any seafood place anywhere improve upon this?”

While I was confident in my endorsement of Miller’s, I was even more impressed with the trap-to-table ethos of seafood dining in Maine. The lobster capital of the United States – if not the world – Maine harvested more than 100 million pounds of lobster in 2011 and is on track to shatter that record this year. Lobster isn’t just rich man’s food in Maine, it is everywhere, a fact that doesn’t compute until you’re driving on coastal Route 1, passing signs claiming “the best lobster roll in Maine” about every 3.7 seconds. I saw lobster rolls advertised for $9.99 at roadside stands to $18 at The Pearl, the kitchen of “Food Network Star” contestant Michele Ragussis. Most places charged about $14 for their rolls, to me a princely sum considering the lobster content of a roll added up to about two claws’ worth of meat dressed with a bit of mayonnaise and/or butter. Besides, lobsters were selling for about $6.50 per pound at the dock.

Convinced that the lobster roll price fluctuation was based solely on the labor costs of extracting the meat from the shell rather than some magic mayonnaise recipe, my husband and I visited Owls Head’s Ship to Shore lobster pound on our second night and purchased two medium-sized lobsters for our meal. As they sat in a paper bag on my lap on the drive home, then as they quietly chirped in the fridge while we brought a large pot of water to a boil, I realized the market price of a lobster roll was a tariff on convenience. Once cooked, these lobsters that had been skittering only hours earlier on the rocky bottom of the Atlantic Ocean (the very waters from which all the area’s seafood dinners had originated), produced the sweetest, most luscious meat I had ever tasted. That we had cooked the lobsters ourselves, creating a 20-napkin mess as we cracked the claws, split open the tails and gingerly removed the flesh with lobster picks, was more satisfying than waiting while someone else made dinner. Renting a house, rather than staying in a resort or bed and breakfast, afforded us the chance to live as Mainers, to cook in our own kitchen. We bought and cooked our own lobsters four out of seven nights.

Early morning on the sixth day, as we were mentally preparing to leave the midcoast, I checked my email and found the traffic alert from the landlord. We hadn’t made it to Red’s Eats or to the dozens of other diners, restaurants and shacks beckoning with “best lobster roll” signs. But I was relieved to read the statement that Red’s rolls were no different than lobster rolls elsewhere.

Why would vacationers line up for hours for a lobster roll when they have likely spent the last week or two gorging on the same fare without having had to take a number and wait? While I bet Red’s rolls were delicious – I’ve never had a lobster roll that wasn’t – I have a hunch that Red’s reels in the tourists who just can’t say goodbye to that midcoast Maine state of mind.