Taking Denny’s Tour of America

Denny’s – America’s Diner – recently introduced their Tour of America menu. The chain attempted to capture the essence of America’s diverse cuisines in seven dishes and three beverages. However, it’s not really a tour if you only order one meal. That simple thought led Gadling to send me to New Jersey with Erik Trinidad, food writer for the Huffington Post and creator of Fancy Fast Food, to sample Denny’s entire Tour of America menu. We ordered all ten items and took a trip around the United States without ever leaving our booth.

Were the dishes accurate representations of their regions? Does Hawaii deserve three dishes when it’s the 40th most populous state? Is eating that much food at Denny’s good for you?

Watch the video to see if we managed to answer any of these pressing questions and read on for more on the Tour of America.

%Gallery-129528%It’s hard to have high expectations when it comes to Denny’s. That said, we always have high expectations for America. This conflict was evidenced in the inconsistency of the dishes.

Philly Cheesesteak Omelette

There are certain things that you expect from a Philly Cheesesteak, not the least of which is the thinly shaved beef. The omelette, however, featured chunks of prime rib. That’s just not right. Add to that the noticeably modest amount of cheese (and it’s not even Cheez Whiz) and lack of bread and nothing about this was related to a Philly cheesesteak. It’s a good omelette, but it’s not a Philly Cheesesteak Omelette.

gadling denny's tour of america shrimp gritsSouthern Shrimp & Grits

Erik and I were nervous about this one. I mean, it’s shellfish…at Denny’s. That said, this was a delightfully delicious surprise. The grits were initially bland, but once you mixed them with the bacon and jalapenos, the dish really came to life. The Lowcountry would be proud!

Georgia Peach French Toast

The french toast was bland. The peaches were most likely from a can. Nothing about this was remotely good. You want to serve a Georgia breakfast? Give me a chicken biscuit and just back away.

Midwestern Steak & Potatoes Sandwich

My favorite dish on the entire menu. How can you go wrong with chunks of prime rib (the same cuts used in the Philly Cheesesteak Omelette, only this time much more appropriate), cheese, french fries, gravy, a cheese roll and a side of mashed potatoes with more gravy. Hearty, comforting and straightforward. Just like the Midwest.

California Club Salad

You don’t need to be from California or a member of any club to know that this is just a salad. A salad loaded with turkey, bacon and avocado, yes, but simply a salad nonetheless.

Hawaiian Tropical Pancake Breakfast

Only three pieces of pineapple? Seriously? The pancakes are bland (would it have killed them to mix some macadamia nuts into the batter?) and the coconut whipped topping is basically just cake frosting. Which is to say, we highly recommend eating the whipped topping and ignoring the pancakes, which are neither Hawaiian nor flavorful.

gadling denny's tour of america menu hawaiian pancake puppiesHawaiian Tropical Pancake Puppies

OK, we get it: pineapples are Hawaiian. As are the coconut shavings on the outside of these pseudo-beignets. But we’ve never seen these little bite-sized confections anywhere on the archipelago. However, they are delicious and most certainly the best sweet item on the entire Tour of America menu. What they lack in authenticity they more than make up for in crunchy goodness. Aloha!

Hawaiian Tropical Smoothie

Easily the most accurate of the regional beverages on the menu. You taste pineapple, banana and other tropical fruits and it seems like it was freshly made. If I closed my eyes and took a sip, I could almost feel like I was in Hawaii…or at least in a better restaurant than Denny’s.

Florida Orange Milk Shake

Quite simply, it tastes like an orange Creamsicle. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s also not a Florida thing. When I was a kid, my grandmother used to send us packages of oranges from Florida. We’d juice them and enjoy the fresh-squeezed citrus sensation. This drink was not fresh and it was barely orange.

Pacific Northwest Iced Coffee

Folks from Seattle and Portland take their coffee seriously. As such, they should be offended by this offering. It was quite possibly the worst thing on the entire Tour of America menu. It basically tasted like sweetened condensed milk with just a hint of coffee. People of the Pacific Northwest, write to your congresspeople….or to Denny’s. Just don’t drink this beverage.

Some hits, some misses. Overall, the spirit of America was felt (mostly in how this menu could make anyone morbidly obese). However, simply slapping the name of a place on a dish doesn’t make it authentic. Things like Philly cheesesteaks are best left to the experts. Or at least left as sandwiches.

Representatives from New England, New York, Texas (which is its own region and not simply a part of at the South) and the Southwest were sorely missed. Hawaii is over-represented and, if I was Alaskan, I would find that insulting. Seems like we could have had some sockeye salmon in there somewhere!

It was an interesting trip, though, and isn’t that all you can really ask for from any tour of America?

Ten iconic foods of summer, and where to find them

favorite summer foodsAah, summer. A time for the beach, pool parties, lazy days…and sheep cheese? While many foods are undeniably the essence of summer–watermelon, peaches, and anything grilled come to mind–there are plenty of edibles not identified as seasonal foods.

Most of my favorite things to eat just happen to peak in summer, so I decided to compile a list of both the obvious and not-so. Even the most dedicated city-dweller can find these foods with minimal effort. Farmers markets abound in major metropolitan areas, as do specialty food shops and local produce-focused grocery stores and food co-ops. Just look for the most local product where things like tomatoes or corn are concerned; they degrade quickly, and summer produce is all about freshness.

1. Cherries
I used to work for an organic peach and cherry farmer at several Bay Area farmers markets. Each year around this time, customers would start getting antsy, wanting to know when the first cherries of the season were coming in.

I understood. I also eagerly await their all-too brief appearance. Sweet cherries have a wide growing range, from the Pacific Northwest and Southwest to the Rockies. But Traverse City, Michigan, gets the title of Cherry Capital of the World. Their famous National Cherry Festival is July 2-9th, but should you miss out, there are U-picks pretty much everywhere cherries are grown. FYI: Most tart (“pie”) cherries are grown in Michigan.

[Photo credit: Flickr user dr_knox]favorite summer foods2. Copper River Salmon
The first shipment of this Alaskan treasure hit the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma Airport on May 17th. While season and availability depend upon how stable the fishery is during a given year, May 15th to mid-June is when you can usually find this succulent, deeply-flavored species on menus and in the marketplace. If you’re feeling really motivated, take an Alaskan fishing expedition. However you procure it, treat it gently and prepare simply, so you can best enjoy this most fleeting and precious of wild ingredients.

3. Corn
“Knee-high by the Fourth of July.” The first time I heard that old-timey phrase, I was driving with a chef through the verdant farmland of Southern Wisconsin. As with cherries, people get really amped up over the imminent arrival of sweet corn. U-picks and farm stands are a way of life in Cape Cod and other parts of the Northeast (how can you have a clam bake without fresh corn?). And “fresh” is key. Corn starts to lose its delicate, milky sweetness the moment it’s picked; refrigeration converts the natural sugars into starch. Resist purchasing until the day you need it, and don’t shuck it prior (avoid purchasing pre-shucked ears, or those with dry, brown, or slimy tassels). For a real down-home corn hoe-down, check out the Olathe Corn Festival on Colorado’s Western Slope.
favorite summer foods
4. Blue crabs
A few years ago, I went crabbing for the first time in an estuary on the Florida Panhandle’s “Forgotten Coast.” Those blues tasted all the sweeter because I’d caught them myself (Equipment check list: string, bait, and a net. Go to this site to see what state permits are required, and double-check with local authorities). Alas, BP has utterly screwed the marine and estuary life and livelihood of the fishermen on parts of the Gulf Coast (word is the Apalachicola/Forgotten Coast was spared). An alternative are Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. While commercial harvests are in decline due to habitat loss, it’s still considered a “good alternative,” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Just don’t be greedy.

5. Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Spot prawns–actually a species of large shrimp– can be found throughout the North Pacific, but this fishery has a rep for being one of the most sustainable, due to it’s strict regulations, catch-method (traps), and the fact that the small fleet are all small, family-run vessels. Because the cold, deep waters of the nearby Channel Islands are so clean and nutrient-rich , SB spot prawns are revered for their sweet, lobster-like flesh. Supplies are limited, however, due to loss of habitat (if you need to purchase a large quantity, opt for British Columbia spot prawns). While technically available yearround if the fishery is stable, spot prawns are an iconic Santa Barbara summertime treat, especially grilled. You can purchase them from the fishermen at the farmer’s market; at the Santa Barbara Fish Market (live and frozen) or straight off the boat at the adjacent Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor (7-11am).
favorite summer foods
6. Wild mushrooms
The Rocky Mountains explode with edible fungi such as morels, chanterelles, and boletes (porcini) come early August, which is monsoon season. If you’re not an experienced forager, be sure to go with someone who is, or see if your local mycological society offers forages. Never eat a mushroom you’ve collected without having it identified by an expert, first. If you live in mushroom country, which also includes the Pacific Northwest, and parts of the South and Midwest, you’ll likely find foraged mushrooms at the farmers market. If you want to really geek-out, don’t miss the Telluride Mushroom Festival, August 18-21st. Seminars, forages, special dinners, and a truly, uh, trippy parade are the highlights.

7. Tomatoes
Sun-ripened. Just picked and still warm–preferably from your own garden or container planter. Or just check local farmers markets, farm stands, specialty food stores, and co-ops for local, sustainably-grown heirlooms or hybrids such as Early Girl. Tomato-lovers understand that there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

8. Watermelon
Few can resist a slice or three of icy-cold watermelon, followed by a long nap on a sweltering summer afternoon. Cordele, Georgia, declares itself the Watermelon Capital of the World (Watermelon Days Festival ion June 3rd!), but Arizona, Florida, and California’s Imperial and Riverside Counties are the other major growing regions. My personal favorites come from Northern California’s pastoral Capay Valley, located between Davis and Sacramento. The Valley’s dry, intense heat produces melons with a syrupy sweetness and perfume balanced by fine-textured flesh. Bonus: most of the farms in the area are small, organic or sustainable family operations; look for Capay or North Valley/Sacramento Delta melons at Bay Area farmers markets.

9. Honey
Most folks don’t realize honey is a seasonal food. But during the chilly, wet winter months, bees hunker down in the hive, feeding on honey. Come mid-to-late spring, they again venture out in search of pollen. Seasonal harvests depend upon location, climate, and food source (pollens) but on average, a beekeeper can expect two to four hauls between late spring and late summer/early fall.
favorite summer foods
If you’ve never tried local, raw (unheated; pasteurizing or heating destroys flavor compounds as well as health benefits), unfiltered honey, you’re in a for a big treat. Honey has proven anti-microbial properties, and studies show consuming local honey helps prevent seasonal allergies (by ingesting it, you’ll build up a tolerance to the allergens). The flavor complexities and textures in local honey are specific to microclimate, and what the bees are eating. Where I live, in Seattle, blackberry honey is treasured. But you can find great local honey anywhere: whenever I’m in New Mexico, for example, I’ll puchase a jar from a roadside stand.

10. Fresh goat and sheep’s milk cheeses
As with honey, our urban-dwelling culture has mostly lost touch with the concept of seasonality, especially as it pertains to certain crops and food products. Cheese is of an entirely seasonal nature, especially at the “artisan” level. A small-scale cheesemaker creates product as the milk supply waxes and wanes throughout the season(s). The flavor and chemical composition of the milk also changes, depending upon how lush the pasture, if the animal’s feed is supplemented by hay or grain, and what plants are indigenous to the region.

While cows produce milk for about 10 months of the year, sheep and goats lactate only during the spring, summer, and sometimes early fall months. That makes cheeses produced from sheep and goat’s milk a seasonal specialty, especially when they’re fresh varieties such as tangy chevre or fromage blanc, or sweet, milky ricotta. I know summer has arrived when the first deliveries of cloud-like sheep’s curd arrive at the cheese shop I work at.

We live in a time when we can get whatever ingredient or food product we want, when we want it (usually at the expense of massive fossil fuel consumption, environmental degradation, and pesticide use that affects the health of both consumer and farmworker). Some things are just worth waiting for.

What’s your favorite seasonal food of summer? We’d like to hear from you!

[Photo credits: corn, Flickr user agrilifetoday; all remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

How to Grow Tomatoes on Your Patio

Bowermaster’s Adventures: America’s Night out for Gulf Seafood

bowermaster-gulf-seafoodLast week, nearly 300 restaurants across the country joined in promoting an event they called “Dine Out America: America’s Night Out for Gulf Seafood.”

The mission was straightforward: Get folks around the country back to eating fish, oysters, shrimps and crabs taken from the Gulf of Mexico. The impetus was that while most of the Gulf’s fishing grounds have been reopened since the spill and while government continues to vouch for its seafood’s safety, the market for Gulf seafood remains depressed.

The “special night out,” according to the New Orleans group that organized the nationwide effort, was intended to “honor the thousands of Americans and their families in the Gulf seafood industry who are now back at work fishing the Gulf waters for their catches.”

Which sounds fine and good, in a patriotic, support-our-troops kind of way, but one big question remains: Are we sure seafood from the Gulf is truly ready for prime time?

News stories from the region are not reassuring. Oyster beds are on the ropes, many still buried under detritus stirred up by the spill. Pictures from a Navy ROV last week showed a 30 square mile kill zone on the ocean floor near the site of the spill where nothing lives. Fin fishermen report they’re coming in with catches but that the markets for their fish have disappeared, forcing them to sell for 35 cents on the dollar. And last week NOAA closed 4,200 square miles of fishing grounds to red shrimp after tar balls were found in the same nets.

I called my friend Marylee Orr who, for more than 23 years, has run the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (L.E.A.N) in Baton Rouge. One of the group’s expertises is studying the impacts of environmental pollution on human health.

Though she has many friends and supporters who are fishermen and certainly understands their plight – many are still unemployed, uncertain when they’ll get back to fishing — based on just-completed blood sampling done by Louisiana chemists she’s not convinced the nation should be being pitched Gulf seafood.

Her concerns are straightforward:

In the midst of the BP gusher the FDA (with NOAA’s input and concurrence) questionably raised the allowable levels of PAH (polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons) found in Gulf seafood. They are an EPA-classified carcinogen, particularly harmful to pregnant women and infants and the BP crude was full of PAHs. “The FDA based their decisions on a 175-pound person eating four shrimp a week, which is a joke on the Gulf,” she says, where four shrimp wouldn’t even qualify as an appetizer. “And what about all the children and our Vietnamese fishermen (who are smaller)?”

Much of the government’s evidence continues to be based on “sensory testing” – essentially giving seafood a sniff test. Only if a shrimp or fish does not pass the smell test does it go on to any further government testing. “We’ve given the seafood we’ve tested the smell test and there was no odor,” says Orr. “However when we got the numbers back after testing it there were alarmingly high for both petroleum hydrocarbons and PAHs.”

Orr and LEAN are not alone in their concerns. Ed Cake, an environmental consultant from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, recently told the International Conference on Shellfish Restoration, “They’re doing the sniff and taste test. We as human beings no longer have the nose of bloodhounds. I will not eat any seafood coming from the Central Gulf at this point.”

Chuck Hopkins, director of the Georgia Sea Grant Program at the University of Georgia told the same conference that he’d just been to New Orleans and had eaten shrimp and oysters six days in a row. But was it safe? Given the misleading information doled out by the government during the spill, he admitted he didn’t have a lot of faith in its current testing. “Why should I believe their claim that the seafood is safe?”

Perhaps the toughest and most consistent critic of any quick return to Gulf seafood has been Dr. William Sawyer of the Sanibel, Florida-based Toxicology Consultants and Assessment Specialists, who says since the spill he has found petroleum in 100 percent of the shrimp, oysters and fish he’s tested that was already on its way to the marketplace.

The government’s stand is that those toxins are far below dangerous levels.

But Sawyer is adamant. “I don’t recommend eating any Gulf seafood, not with the risk of liver and kidney damage.

He has called the FDA’s safety threshold “borderline absurd.” “It’s geared so that shrimpers can go back to work and that’s great … but if we’re talking about human health and the environment, you need to proceed slowly.”

Evidence of the dispersants used during the attempted cleanup continues to mount too. Off the coast of Florida, for example, since the BP well was capped the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has found the widely-used dispersant Corexit in two out of four tests; prior to the spill, they found no Corexit in 20 samples.

Flickr image via wolfpix