Saturday, May 22, 2010

Watching space shuttle Atlantis liftoff from Kennedy Space Center's press site

When it comes to fulfilling my bucket list items, I consider myself to be pretty fortunate.  I actually saw a space shuttle launch (STS-94) about ten years before the term "bucket list" had even been invented.  But I put it on the bucket list, anyway, because I saw it from a motel on Cocoa Beach, and I wanted to see it up close where I could actually see it clear the tower and feel the rumble vibrate my skull.

Well, last year, I went down for STS-125 only to discover that a lot of other people had the same idea.  So I saw STS-125 from Kennedy Space Center, but instead of being up close and personal, I was at the Kennedy Space Center visitor center, where you can't see the launch pad, but you can see it shortly after it clears the tree line.  Not close enough.  Finally got my wish on STS-127, which was the best shuttle launch I'm probably going to ever see.  Amazing.  STS-128, my first night launch, also amazing.  STS-130, a dark moment in my life when we stayed up until 4:30 on a very frigid Florida morning to watch the shuttle launch from the NASA causeway, and it scrubbed.  (Did you know that it gets cold in Florida?  Neither did I!!  And my lack of preparedness showed for it.)  Had the opportunity to do it the following day, but I was so dejected that I went home.  And the it launched the following night.  I watched it, grumpy, from a computer screen.  Didn't bother with STS-131.

So here I am, now, a space shuttle launch veteran.  I don't know how many of these it's gonna take for this addiction to wear off, but it hasn't yet.  And now, the real fun part is bringing others into my hobby.  I greeted my cousin's wife, Ali, at the gate in Orlando International Airport, and away we went!

Now, I've been to NASA's HQ in Florida many, many, many times.  But I've never reached the security gate on my own; it's always been while sitting inside of a Kennedy Space Center tour bus.  But Ali and I were actually special guests of NASA, as part of a tweetup!  Our names were given to the desk and when we arrived, we had security badges and vehicle permits and a welcome packet -- the works!  Driving around NASA that day was honestly almost as thrilling to me as the launch, particularly because I've been there so many times that I could navigate around the base without a map.

And with this special access, we toured the Vehicle Assembly Building, the International Space Station, met Stephanie Schierholz, our tweetup host, astronauts Janice Voss (who, believe it or not, was on my first space shuttle launch, STS-94!) and Dave Wolf (who, also believe it or not, was on STS-127, the best launch I've ever seen!) in addition to a member of the air force's weather squadron, a member of the cloesout crew, the robotics instructor at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and a host of other people!

(By the way, one more coincidence:  Michael T. Good was a mission specialist on this flight.  He was also on STS-125, the second shuttle I've seen launch.  This would be his final trip into space.)

The third-most thrilling thing we did was this, below.  This is where we actually witnessed the launch:  from the countdown clock that is in the footage of every space shuttle launch that has been.  I went up to it and touched it, and noted that it makes a whirring noise when you're close to it.  I wanted to make sure that I knew that anytime I saw that clock in the future, I'd know that my hands had been on it.

The STS-132 tweetup group
I'm in there, somewhere.
The second-most exciting thing to happen was to be standing within frisbee-throwing distance of the space shuttle, watching the "Rotating Service Structure" (or RSS) rotate away from the orbiter, thus exposing it to the open air and getting ready for launch.

But, of course, that leaves the most thrilling part:

It was unfortunate that it went into its own launch plume before the solid rockets separated.  For me, Ted Shevlin, disgruntled veteran, that was a disappointment.  But for Ali, her first time seeing a launch, she was crying.

Listen to the sound in that launch:  It's every bit that impressive and then some.  When that sound hits you, you feel it in your being, the way thunder hits you.  It's really something else to imagine that people traveled on that thing, and more importantly, safely returned to Earth.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Grass-fed cheese at Bobolink Dairy

For all his snark and (as far as I'm concerned, unjustified) judgmental attitude, I still like and watch Anthony Bourdain. He tries to bring travel destinations to you from angles that your typical travel show doesn't bother with. A floating hot dog stand in the Hudson River?! Who knew?  Well, now I do, thanks to his "Hudson Valley" episode.  It aired in February, and the sight of home-cured and smoked sausages at Quaker Creek Store in Goshen, NY inspired a trip north. While up there, I thought I'd also stop at nearby Bobolink Dairy, an artisinal cheese producer featured in his third-ever No Reservations episode, "New Jersey."

Bobolink Dairy

Effective June, 2010, this will no
longer be Bobolink Dairy's home.
My first stop was at Bobolink Dairy in Vernon, NJ [Teditor's Note: the dairy is moving to Milford, NJ in June 2010].  This place interested me not just because 1) it produced artisinal cheeses that, according to Bourdain, were good enough to be the first US cheeses to be exported back to Europe, and 2) it's located in my perpetually underrated state, but also because 3) the dairy lets their cows roam free and eat grass.  In America, a combination of consumer demand and government corn and soybean subsidies have led farmers to feed dairy and beef cows, chickens, turkeys, and other farm animals (even increasingly, farm-raised fish!) ground-up corn and soybeans.   The animals, who in the wild would never touch corn and soybean, get sick off of it because their bodies lack the proper mechanisms for digestion of said grains.  (Close confinement indoors doesn't help, either.)  The conventional farm solution is to put antibiotics in their feed, which leads to antibiotic-resistant microorganisms that can infect both cattle and humans, among other problems.

The practice of feeding grain to animals is not limited to conventional farmers.  Many certified-organic farmers do it, too; they just do it with organically-grown grain.  So when the rare farmer comes along who believes in feeding animals grass, I feel the obligation to support and write about them.

Jean-Louis and Frolic cheeses with
Alfio Moriconi wine.
I stopped in for a sampling of their cheeses, including their cave-ripened cheddar, drumm, Frolic, and Jean-Louis, plus a bleu cheese whose name escapes me.  I did not take notes, and even if I did, I am an inexperienced cheese taster whose opinion basically doesn't count.  But I can say that the cheddar bore little resemblance to its mass-produced supermarket counterparts, exhibiting slight bitter notes and a fuller, more complex taste than anything you'd find at the local mega mart.  I loved the Frolic, which my inexperienced cheese-tasting palate would describe as medium-bodied and comparable in flavor to...I dunno, manchego?  (Don't take my word for it. Seriously, I don't know what I'm talking about.)  I left carrying small orders of Frolic and the earthy Jean-Louis, the latter of which was named after the famed French-American chef who inspired others to strive for better ingredients.  When I arrived home later that day, I discovered the Jean-Louis to be much more bitter than I had remembered it at the farm.  Had I tasted at the farm what I tasted at home, it would have remained in the store.  However, on a whim, I paired it with an inexpensive, medium-bodied Alfio Moriconi pinot noir (pictured above, with two pieces of Jean-Louis in the background and a single piece of Frolic in the foreground) and discovered that I had accidentally made magic.  What a pairing!  A cheese that I dreaded finishing a minute before suddenly became a decadence I had to hold back from finishing too quickly!

Quaker Creek Store

Pine Island, the heart of the Black
Dirt Region
I left the farm and headed to the nearby Black Dirt region of Hudson Valley, Pine Island.  At one time really a swamp-surrounded island, settlers in the early 1800s drained the swamp, uncovering the second-largest deposit of impossibly dark, rich muck soil in the United States, remnants of a glacier from the last ice age some 10,000 years ago.  (The largest deposit in the United States is in the Florida Everglades.)  The soil is not to be believed; I could not imagine it even as I gazed upon it with my own eyes.

The region's original settlers included Germans and Poles who formerly farmed soil similar to the muck soil found here.  Quaker Creek Store, formerly a general store but now a general store with a small eating area, lives alongside these fertile grounds on a road curiously-named Pulaski Highway (presumably connected to Casimir, but I do not know why).  Appropriate to the area, owner and CIA (Culinary Institute of America) grad Bobby Mateszewski (guess his ethnicity) serves pierogis, kielbasa, bratwurst, and various other sausages appropriate to the season.  Which is what attracted me to this place.  Seeing all of that meat, all cured and smoked in house, on the No Reservations episode was too much to bear.  I had to have some.

You may have noticed that the title of this blog entry does not include "Quaker Creek Store."  That's because the food I had was a letdown.  Not really knowing what to order, I got the Polish platter:  pierogies with sauerkraut, kielbasa, and stuffed cabbage.  (Looking back on the episode, I realize now that Tony Bourdain ate the same thing.)  I'll be the first to admit that I do not, anything about Polish food.  It was good, and I'm sure it was true to its roots:  hearty, warming, filling...but it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi to bring it to the next level.  I think that if I had stopped by this unassuming roadside shop (that's it on the right, below) on a whim without any prior knowledge, I would've thought I'd struck gold.  But driving an hour for this place wasn't worth it.

In other news, I met Bobby and his mother, both of whom were very nice.  Behind the register, his mom greeted regulars in the store by name and chatted up a customer about her husband's recent trip, oblivious to the guy waiting in line behind her to pay (me).  I wasn't upset, though; I was too busy fighting small town jealousy pangs.  I love it when people connect that way.  When it was my turn to pay I talked to her about Tony's trip up here.  She said that the producers came in on a Wednesday to eat, asked her if they could film, and then returned on Saturday to shoot everything in a day.  Pretty amazing how quickly stuff like that happens.

In Conclusion

Despite the food letdown, I was still glad to make the trip.  I satisfied my curiosity, I found the richest black soil I'd ever seen, and when I made it home I still had yet to discover how amazing the Jean-Louis cheese was with my pinot noir. All in all, not a bad day.