Video: Visiting a Vanilla Plantation

Vanilla from Sarah Lohman on Vimeo.

While I was honeymooning in Mexico this summer, I dragged my new husband to a remote part of Mexico to visit a vanilla plantation. To be honest, he kinda relished the dangerous drive through the mountains, including the switchbacks and hairpin turns by sheer cliffs.  We went way out of the way because I wanted to see vanilla grown at its point of origin, the state of Veracruz.

For a very long time, Vanilla was transplanted outside of Mexico in vain. The orchid owed its pollination to a small bee native to Veracruz, so transplanted plants blossomed, but never fruited. In 1842, a method for artificially pollinating vanilla was discovered and the industry was born. Ironically, the bee is no where to be found ion Mexican Vanilla plantations today; plantation owner Norma Gaya believes years of pesticide-laced vanilla crops are to blame.  The Gaya plantation, the largest in Mexico, is spreading organic growing practices in hopes this natural pollinator will return

We spent a day at the Gaya plantation, and got a hands on look at how vanilla is grown.  Check out the video to follow along on my adventure!

Oh, and if you’re wondering if my whole honeymoon was trekking through the jungle, fret not. The homeland of vanilla just happens to be closest to one of the most beautiful, undeveloped stretches of beach in Mexico, the Costa Esmerelda. Everybody’s a winner.

IMG_0892Beach time at the Costa Esmerelda.

By the way, the plantation tour was facilitated by Tia Stephanie Tours, who is designing a tour of the State of Veracruz. It’s off the beaten path and well worth it.

Travelogue: Mitsitam Cafe

This is what $27 gets you at the Mitsitam Cafe.

Over the weekend, I spent a lovely couple of days with friends in Washington, D.C. Aside from general revelry (it was so good to laugh again), I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go on a few historic food adventures.

My first stop was the Museum of the American Indian, which houses the Mitsitam Cafe, a lunch-time spot with an interesting concept. The Cafe offers food inspired by the traditional dishes of five different Native American regions: Northern Woodlands, The Great Plains, Northwest Coast, Meso-America and South America. Pretty neat, huh? The Cafe came highly recommended, so I trudged over to the Mall to check it out.

Each of the regions is set up as a separate station, with a selection of entrees and sides. I selected a bison steak from the Great Plains, which was made to order on a fancy grill and served with a cherry chutney. For my sides, I opted for pan fried bread from Meso-America and a pumpkin spoon bread from the Northern Woodlands. Also from the Woodlands, I got a cup Jerusalem artichoke and chestnut soup.

My steak is cooked to order.

Although I was excited by the variety that the Cafe offered, I had to stand in a separate line for each station. And I happened to get to the cafeteria behind a rush of very old men and very small children, neither of which could make of their minds. By the time I got to the cash register, I was hungry and impatient–and then imagine my surprise when my meal totaled $27.

27!! Twenty-Seven Dollars!! For lunch! This is a recession! The best restaurants in New York are offering pre-fixe lunches for thirty bucks a pop. How did I manage to spend that in a cafeteria in DC?

Disgruntled, I took my tray to a seat, and began sampling the dishes. The steak had a good char on it, but was ice cold. While it was being cooked to order, the chef had told me to come back in a few minutes. When I did, he had sliced it into nursing home slivers and covered it in cherry chutney. The result–ice cold steak covered in fruit. The Jerusalem artichoke soup was so salty it was inedible, and the texture of the chestnuts was appalling. The pumpkin spoon bread was ok, with a taste that resembled pumpkin pie, but with a grainy texture. The best thing on my plate was my fried pan bread, and even that was so chewy I think I got TMJ.

To be fair, I may have just come on a bad day, or made bad selections. But I would never go the Mitsitam Cafe again.

Feeling ripped off, I went next door to the Air and Space Museum and spent a few moments in the foyer gazing at some of man’s most spectacular achievements. Then, I comforted myself with a bag of Spaceman Ice Cream.

I have very fond memories of Spaceman Ice Cream. I would get a package every time I visited the Cleveland Museum of Natural History as a kid. I continue the tradition by purchasing a bag whenever I can, and the flavor never fails to bring me back to my childhood. My thoughts travel far off into space, where I think of astronauts chewing away on the same neapolitan block.

I actually don’t know if Spacemen eat, or have ever eaten, Spaceman Ice Cream. But I think enjoying this crispy sweet as a kid was the first time that food helped me understand another way of life.

Day two of my adventures tomorrow.