Traveling culinary competition makes for swine time

Two garish, heavily-tattooed girls approached me and my friend Adrienne, and pointed their weapons at us. “Pig liver mousse?” asked the blonde, aiming a whipped cream dispenser at me. Her brunette counterpart stood silently, wielding a squeeze bottle of barbecue sauce and a tray of meaty tidbits.

Welcome to the second annual Cochon 555, a lard-fueled, traveling circus of five chefs, five winemakers, and five pig carcasses. It’s actually a 10-city tour, with each destination’s chefs engaging in “friendly competition” for a great cause: “to promote and preserve heritage pigs, and breed diversity in local and national communities.”

Heritage livestock are domestic breeds that are threatened with extinction due to the demands of modern agriculture. In the words of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, “Modern food production now favors the use of a few highly specialized breeds selected for maximum output in a controlled environment.”While some may find it ironic and hypocritical to eat, glorify, and promote animals in the name of saving them, you’re entitled to your opinion. For the rest of you, not only do heritage breeds help to preserve genetic diversity, but they also taste better. Many heritage breeds possess a “true” flavor inherent to the animal, i.e., pork tastes…more porky. Heritage breeders in general also have an emphasis on animal welfare, sustainable farming and animal husbandry practices, and regionality, as they’re generally small, family outfits. It’s hard to argue with those ethics if bacon makes you salivate.

I attended Seattle’s Cochon 555 on May 23rd to support the cause, as well as watch local chefs like John Sundstrom (Lark), and Tamara Murphy (Brasa) duke it out. Each competitor is chosen based on their support of local food sourcing and commitment to sustainability; the pigs are sourced from ranches dedicated to preserving heritage breeds. While the chefs prepare tasting plates (they’re allowed free rein on preparation method) for the guests, local family winemakers keep the grape flowing. Guests help select the winning chef by voting for their favorite, along with a panel of 20 judges. The victor of each destination is crowned “Prince or Princess of Porc,” and moves on to compete in the Grand Cochon finale, to be held June 20 at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

Cochon 555 also includes a VIP “Meat & Greet” with local foods and producers, a “Swine & Spirits” mixology showcase, and- my favorite- a demonstration breakdown of a whole pig carcass. San Francisco’s Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats (and producer of the best damn chicharrones on earth) made a guest appearance in Seattle, and proceeded to dismantle a 140-pound pig before an awestruck audience. The results were raffled off, leaving each lucky winner clutching a package of pork to their chest.

Adrienne and I wandered around, sampling everything from tortellini with pig brains in a pork dashi, to apple-bacon ice cream, and red velvet cupcakes with whipped (sweetened) lard frosting. Not everything was good, mind you, and I can live a full life without eating the lard-shortbread version of a Snickers bar ever again, but chef Chester Gerl’s (Matt’s in the Market) cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan-style preparation made from a Red Wattle pig from Lazy S Farm in Kansas , was outstanding. I also thorougly enjoyed the mini “ultimate BLT” of chef Adam Stevenson’s (Earth & Ocean) cocoa-cured bacon, bologna, and smoked coppa, with tomato jam.

While the $125 price tag ($175 for VIP pass) is too steep- at least, at the Seattle event, where the food and drink ran out before the sun even began to set, it’s for an important cause. Even if you don’t eat meat, there’s a dire need for more humane livestock management, and stricter regulation on livestock production, waste management, and processing. As we used to say at the meat shop I once worked at, “Praise the Lard!”

Portland’s Hotel Modera reviewed

Portland, Oregon, knows it’s pretty damn cool, which is why the city has garnered a rep for having a bit of a ‘tude. Let’s just say you should study up on your coffee order before getting in line.

Blissfully free of hipster snark, however, lies downtown’s funky Hotel Modera, a two-year-old addition to the area’s eclectic mix of venerable and boutique properties. Another selling point: Modera has ($27/day in summer)) valet service, removing the pain from downtown Portland’s notoriously scarce parking. Check-in was prompt, and every staff member I encountered during my brief stay was genuinely friendly and helpful. The twenty-four hour concierge service and business center are useful for night owls, businesspeople, and insomniacs. Asthmatics like me and healthy types will appreciate that it’s a 100% non-smoking property.

A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, a group of which I am fond,
Modera’s butt-ugly, nondescript, colorless exterior is deceptive. Built in 1962, it was originally a Days Inn, and then the Portland Inn City Center. But ah, inside lies a colorful, groovy oasis full of local art, Italian marble, and polished walnut floors. Fusion jazz emanates from hidden speakers.

Modera’s decor may not be to everyone’s taste. Done up in textural and tonal variations of white, orange, chocolate, and red, it looks kind of like the love child of Ikea and the Brady Bunch house. I’m not a Danish Modern person, but for some reason, I found this hotel fun, without trying to be. It just suits the utter weirdness and iconoclastic nature of Portland.My premium suite room, while small by some standards, had a nice, open layout, filled with light and glam trappings, and sensor-controlled heat, AC, and entry lights. The front room contained a dining table, LCD 32-inch flat screen TV, and a nice little desk/office area, with an iPod docking station and free Wifi. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any electrical outlets in which to plug my laptop.

The sunny bedroom featured a comfy King, with quality linens and loads of pillows; another flat screen, and a great view of downtown. The faux lynx bed throw and gigantic polka dotted carpet were a bit over the top, but the spacious, spotless, marbled-tiled bathroom made up for it. The open shower had two heads- one a European-style, and I loved the yummy, blood-orange-scented Tarroco bar of soap, shampoo, conditioner, and bath gel, which somehow found their way into my duffel bag.

Room rates vary seasonally and according to local events, but nightly averages per person for summer are $179/Premiere City King room, $189/Premiere Garden King, $199/Premiere Double Queen, and $289/Premiere King Suite.

What’s nice about Modera’s location is that it’s centrally located (but safe), yet a few blocks off of the retail corridor of Pioneer Square, and about 20 blocks from the boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and bars of the vibrant Pearl District (the free Portland StreetCar is one block from the hotel if you want a lift). Parts of lower downtown and Pioneer Square are like running a gauntlet of panhandlers and obnoxious, punky street kids. Ignore them, and focus your attention on the collective of glorious, multi-ethnic food carts clustered nearby, as well as other locations downtown.

The 174-room hotel is a peaceful oasis from all the bustle, made more so by an attractive courtyard that provides outdoor seating for the hotel’s Mediterranean-influenced restaurant, Nel Centro (helmed by acclaimed local chef David Machado). The eye candy, however, is Portland’s first “living wall,” a verdant, sustainable backdrop covered with ferns, moss, and other native plants. At night, fire pits light the courtyard, which is packed with guests and locals, who come for Nel Centro’s screaming deal of a Happy Hour. From four to six, cocktails and wine are five dollars a glass, microbrews are four, and three to seven bucks will get you pomme frites with harissa ketchup, a lamb burger with peppers and feta, or a seasonal pizza. If it’s chilly outside, seat yourself at the lively square bar, where you still have a courtyard view.

Modera is walking distance to the many arts and cultural events held within the downtown area, such as the Portland International Beer Festival, as well as the Portland Art Museum and Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The city has a great public transit system, MAX, and is very bike-friendly, so get out to explore the Hawthorne District and Mt. Tabor, the Alberta Arts District, and the spectacular Forest Park. Even if you never make it past downtown, there’s plenty to see and do (and Modera offers complimentary passes to the adjacent 24 Hour Fitness if you want to get some exercise in). All just groovy to me.

Vacation homes and social media worth a million dollars

Did someone mention a travel slump? Second Porch, up in Portland, Oregon, must not have received the memo.

Damned memos.

The new company just picked up $1 million in A-round financing (an early round, for those not of the finance world) which was led by the Oregon Angel Fund. Translation: a few people are making a seven-figure bet on a travel company in a shitty market. And I think it’s pure genius. Now is the time to make a play in the travel market, as there’s nowhere to go but up. Also, Second Porch has a nice social media connection which is not only all the rage with the kids right now (and the Baby Boomers and everyone else, for that matter) but has demonstrated continued potential for the travel and tourism industry.

The premise behind Second Porch is straightforward: these guys want to harness the power of social media to make it easier for you to book a vacation home. The company has put together a free Facebook application – a portal into the vacation home rental process. End-user ease, however, is only part of the plan. Second Porch CEO Brent Hieggelke says, “The typical Facebook personal network comprised of ‘friends of friends’ reaches almost 17,000 people, all of whom can be vouched for by a friend in common. For a homeowner, this is an obvious opportunity to find prospective guests to rent to with a higher level of comfort and peace of mind.”

Right now, Second Porch has only 1,100 fans and 2,450 users … but give it time. A million dollars buys a lot of friends.

12 underground tours around the world

Sometimes there’s more to a city that what you see above ground. Several cities around the world sit above underground labyrinths just waiting to be explored. Budget Travel has put together a list of some of the best underground tours around the world.

In Paris, you can tour the sewer system, in Berlin, check out a hidden world of bunkers and tunnels used during World War II and the Cold War, and see the remains of the older city (which the new city was built upon) in Seattle. Other cities with tours that take you underground include Vienna, Rome, Seoul, Portland, Naples, New York, Jerusalem, Edinburgh, and Istanbul.

And to Budget Travel’s list of spots with unique attractions below ground, I’ll add two of my own. Most visitors to Chicago don’t realize that the city has it’s own network of underground tunnels, called the Pedway, that connect many of the city’s government buildings and allow people to travel between them without suffering in the bitter winter cold. And in Logrono, in Spain’s Rioja region, the area underneath the town is actually larger in area than that above, thanks to an extensive network of tunnels that were once used for defense and are now used as wine cellars.

When we visit a new city we generally spend a lot of our time looking up, gawking at the tall buildings. But, it seems, maybe should pay a little more attention to the wonders just underneath our feet.

Chattanooga, Portsmouth among top art destinations in the U.S.

Who thought that Tennessee and New Hampshire would be some of the top towns in the country for art lovers. AmericanStyle magazine just issued the results of its twelfth annual arts destinations poll. Some spots are predictable. Others, like Chattanooga, will just blow your mind.

This is the first year Chattanooga made the list, shooting all the way up to second in the mid-sized city category. If you’ve been there, some of the surprise wears off. I hit Chattanooga back in 1999, and it was turning into a pretty cool small city. The past decade, obviously, has treated the city well. More shocking is the top mid-sized city: Buffalo, NY.

At the top of the small city list, Santa Fe is an utterly predictable #1 – like New York in the big city category. Portsmouth, NH, toward the bottom of the small city list, is a sentimental favorite. I had my first real job in Portsmouth and drank away many a Friday and Saturday (and Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday) night on its sidewalks.

See the full lists after the jump.Big Cities (population of 500,000 or more)

  1. New York, NY
  2. Chicago, IL
  3. Washington, DC
  4. San Francisco, CA
  5. Albuquerque, NM
  6. Boston, MA
  7. Seattle, WA
  8. Atlanta, GA
  9. Philadelphia, PA
  10. Los Angeles, CA
  11. Portland, OR
  12. Baltimore, MD
  13. Denver, CO
  14. Phoenix, AZ
  15. Austin, TX
  16. Charlotte, NC
  17. Columbus, OH
  18. Nashville, TN
  19. San Diego, CA
  20. Tucson, AZ
  21. San Antonio, TX
  22. Las Vegas, NV
  23. Milwaukee, WI
  24. Dallas, TX
  25. Houston, TX

Mid-Sized Cities (population of 100,000 to 499,000)

  1. Buffalo, NY
  2. Chattanooga, TN
  3. Pittsburgh, PA
  4. Scottsdale, AZ
  5. New Orleans, LA
  6. Charleston, SC
  7. Savannah, GA
  8. Cleveland, OH
  9. Ann Arbor, MI
  10. Minneapolis, MN
  11. Alexandria, VA
  12. Miami, FL
  13. Tacoma, WA
  14. St. Louis, MO
  15. Athens, GA
  16. Kansas City, MO
  17. Colorado Springs, MO
  18. Providence, RI
  19. Salt Lake City, UT
  20. Honolulu, HI
  21. Rochester, NY
  22. St. Petersburg, FL
  23. Cincinnati, OH
  24. Raleigh, NC
  25. Tampa, FL

Small Cities (population of below 100,000)

  1. Santa Fe, NM
  2. Asheville, NC
  3. Sedona, AZ
  4. Taos, NM
  5. Saugatuck, MI
  6. Key West, FL
  7. Berkeley Springs, WV
  8. Boulder, CO
  9. Carmel, CA
  10. Corning, NY
  11. Sarasota, FL
  12. Beaufort, SC
  13. Chapel Hill, NC
  14. Burlington, VT
  15. Annapolis, MD
  16. Aspen, CO
  17. Laguna Beach, CA
  18. Northampton, MA
  19. Eureka Springs, AR
  20. Brattleboro, VT
  21. New Hope, PA
  22. Naples, FL
  23. Cumberland, MD
  24. Berea, KY
  25. Portsmouth, NH