Welcome to Vacationland

This photo is the property of Gritty’s, I assume.

So “welcome” isn’t exactly the right salutation… it’d be more along the lines of “Five months and counting” in Vacationland, which sounds weird. The whole thing strikes me as odd. Most people get, what? maybe 2 weeks of vacation a year? I’ve been living in Vacationland since March. Sometimes, I’ll look up after a hot day in the field forgetting completely how insanely picturesque my environment is. It’s like waking up suddenly from vivid dream and coming to the conclusion you must still be dreaming based on how unreal the scenery looks. Honestly, though, it just dawned on me how fitting the nickname is for Maine. There’s even a local beer named Vacationland (above), bottled with a bright green label featuring a bear offering up a cold one he stole from a campsite.

Maine is known as the state well-to-do (hell, even just well-meaning) parents send their kids off to for summer camp. The whole place is like one giant camp complete with swimming areas, trails, waterparks, boat rides, whale watching, rafting, canoeing…you get the idea. They even call their summer or vacation homes “camp.”

The state is entirely populated with a whole bunch of happy campers, too. There’s something about Mainers, it seems like no matter how hard their work day/week has been that there’s always room for a little fishing, camping or hiking. “Hey Jack, just finished my 18 hour shift at the Iron Works, what say you to some casual, deep-sea fishing or crabbing to cool off?” Bless them.

I got out on the Appalachian trail, enjoyed the novelty of it for about 3 days before I began plotting my escape route to the nearest shower. [More on that in a post on my experiences hiking the AT.]

It’s also the only state I’ve ever lived in where it’s sunny even on a rainy day. I saw my first double rainbow here and documented it thinking “How rare! I must collect photographic evidence for posterity.”

At this point I’ve seen and photographed so many freaking rainbows I had to delete some of the images from my gallery to conserve space. Maine is so cheerful and vacation-y that rainbows are as common place as fog in London and sunshine in southern California.


Is it really surprising, though, that the state that brought you “Whoopie Pies” and $5/lb lobsters would be such a cheerful and well-meaning place? My boss’s car broke down on his way to a farmers’ market, and a Burger King employee jumped into action offering to drive him and all his market set-up to the farmers’ market because “he was on his break.”

The Burger King manager on duty obliged, but was not available for commentary because he was probably having a cookout and pool party during his own15 minute break at work.


The Girl Who Kicked the Ground-nesting-wasp’s Abode

It’s exactly how it sounds. Today, this particular girl found out that ants are not the only insects who make little hills in the ground.

I suppose as someone who proposes to start her own farming operation it is necessary to become familiar with the hidden dangers of working with the earth.

I was plodding through the grass today (in retrospect, rather like a bull in a china shop) and thought absolutely nothing of stepping on what I assumed was a small ant hill. What followed was mother nature’s version of a Godsmack. I recognized my error almost instantly when I heard a humming sound coming from underfoot. I was frozen in fear. I didn’t know whether to keep my foot where it was (covering the exit to the irate insects’ nest) or to flee the scene like the Knights of the Round Table from the “most foul, cruel and bad tempered rabbit you ever set eyes on.”

After considering how I might go about attaining my life’s goals without taking my foot off the wasps’ nest, I made like the cast of Monty Python’s Holy Grail and ran awaaaaayyyyyy.

I was followed by a stream of wasps for a good 1/4 mile until they either lost interest or realized they had better things to do than chase a wailing human across a field (like rebuild the home I just demolished with a big toe).

I’m calling this the first of many life experiences culminating in “I’ll never make that mistake again.”

[photo credit go to google image]

A short interlude concerning zucchini

Apparently there’s an age old joke in Maine that goes something like this:

Why do Mainers lock their car doors in the summer?

-To keep people from filling their cars with zucchini. 

In the late summer (squash season!) there’s a very real problem of too much zucchini.

People show up at their neighbors’ homes with buckets of zucchini…

There are tables set up in major junctions with piles of free zucchini…

People just desperately trying to get rid of zucchini.

Last night, we grilled the hell out of a bunch of zucchinis, and I could absolutely imagine doing that once a day for the foreseeable future.

I will do my part to help the poor Mainers with their overstock of zucchini.

Maine is…

Maine is a very unique state. According to craigslist, Maine is one large interconnected region. That is to say, if you go to the craigslist site for Maine, under “cities” you’ll find “Maine.” If you ask a Mainer, they’d agree. A new friend and tattoo artist would tell you it’s because everyone knows each other through someone else. In Chicago we think we have it rough, you can pretty much play the 6 degrees of separation game with anyone you meet (biggest. “small town.” ever.) but in Maine, John would tell you, you can play that game with 2 degrees of separation…with the entire state.

Last time I was in his shop in Old Bay, Portland, delivering bagels from the magnanimous Josh of One fifty Ate (a phenomenal little bagel spot in South Portland) I met a farmer from Freedom, Maine, who knew the farmer I work for and was actually attending a conference with him after John finished working on his tattoo. I’m telling you, this state is one big SMALL town.

Don’t ask why I was delivering bagels from South Portland to Old Bay, it’s just something that happens when you’re in Maine. People do things for each other. Crazy.

So I figured I’d impart some tidbits I’ve picked up so far in Maine.

1. We are far enough North that there are Tim Horton’s here (Canadians or anyone who has spent time in Canada will know what I’m talking about)

Further research indicates that there are various locations across the US, but I happen to associate Tim Horton’s rather strongly with Canada, so I’m leaving this bullet point up.

Doesn't look that terrifying.

2. Everyone (from tattoo artists to farmers and bakers) has a story about a moose. There was apparently a pair of rogue moose terrorizing the tranquil South Portland area, and there are multiple claims out there as to who actually got to kill the moose.

Everyone I’ve encountered thus far has -or knows someone who has- successfully killed a moose and promptly bled and butchered it, stashing the 1200 or so pounds of meat in a freezer somewhere.

I’m assuming that every Mainer has a dedicated freezer that lies empty for years in anticipation of just such an event.

I heard one story about a guy who pulled up behind the site of an unfortunate accident involving a [now deceased] moose on a roadway. Before asking the shaken-up motorist who had just hit the moose if he was alright, the man asked “are you gonna take that home?” He proceeded to tie the thing up on the side of the road with some pulley devices he kept in his truck for just such an occurrence, and bled the thing out and started chopping it up before the Game Commissioner had even arrived on site.

You see, dear reader, there is a Moose Lottery here in Maine. Some folks have been on that list, waiting for their opportunity to take home their very own ton of moose meat, for half their lives. With that, I think I’ve exhausted the moose topic.

I’ll let you all know when I see one, I’ve been told there are black bears in the woods behind the farm! Moose can’t be that far away.

3. Every city outside of Portland is “oh, you know, out towards Unity.”

4. Tides are no joke.

You hear almost as many stories about unsuspecting tourists getting caught on a little inlet that’s closing in on them as the tide rises as you do about moose. 

They do create amazing pools though…that are fun to explore.

4. Maine has got to be the friendliest state I’ve ever visited. People go out of their way to help others. It can be very difficult to get anything accomplished because you end up stopping to chat with everyone you pass.

For instance, I had a long conversation with a man who was driving through town and wanted to know my life story since he didn’t recognize me. After about ten minutes, he was satisfied and pulled away… followed by the 5 cars that were waiting patiently behind him the entire time we were chatting.


A Holiday Roast Beast…

…and a big huzzah to those who got the Grinch reference.

Every Christmas it is my privilege to spend a week with my slightly crazy family in California. It’s not just the (welcome) climate change that makes it a privilege, but the opportunity to pin down exactly how inevitable it was that I turned out as batty as I did!

This Christmas marked the first time that I was able to go to a family gathering feeling 100% confident that I am moving in the exact right direction with my life. I may not be galloping out of the gates, but I know I must be doing something right when upon hearing of my new proposed vocation, the family assigned me to cook for all of them. You know you’re on the right path in life when being forced to feed over a dozen hungry family members actually sounds like the best way to spend your days. It’s also encouraging that I get paid to document every triumphant success or epic failure of the process.

I love everything about food, especially being able to be in proximity to those who are truly gifted at preparing it. It seems only natural that I put in my time writing about those who do it so much better than me. I have big plans [top secret, sorry] of ultimately selling the entirety of my soul to this fickle industry, but until I do, I might as well enjoy experiencing others’ great food while I have the time.

But today it’s time to document one of my own feasts, prepared over the holidays:

Pork loin with pear and shallot, roasted fennel bulbs and Thomas Keller’s savory bread pudding with leeks.

I figured apples with pork is getting a little tired… so I decided to use pears (slow down, crazed adventurer!) I know, I know, it’s not the biggest departure. It turns out that they compliment pork nicely AND since their meat is a little more delicate and pulpy than that of an apple, browning them in the sauté pan yields a lot more fresh pear juice for your pan sauce.

I seasoned the gargantuan piece of meat with a lot of salt and pepper about 45 minutes before I intended on getting back around to messing with it. The pork loin was so gigantic that I had to cut it in half to be able to sear its sides in a pan before putting it in the oven.

Then in a bowl, I mixed enough olive oil to coat the meat with fresh thyme and minced garlic. Simple. DONE. I trussed the loin and smeared the mixture of oil, garlic and thyme on the beast and then seared each side of the loin until achieving that pretty brown quality you want to see. To borrow a word from my dad, the “grumph” will fall off the meat. (If you haven’t gleaned from the context… grumph refers to the non essential though tasty bits of garlic and thyme that you lose to the pan).

I chose not to clean the pan before I sautéed the pears and shallots in it. After transferring those elements to the platter (which I served “as is” to accompany the pork) you’re left with a wonderful assortment of juices and flavors swimming around in the pan. I added a few cups of pear nectar and a bit of chicken stock for saltiness. I sprinkled in some flour to get a more dense consistency, oh and a (rather large) slab of butter.

As for the remarkable savory bread pudding, you can find it on epicurious.com or, if you’re really committed (and you should be!) to trying out Keller’s recipes… go ahead and purchase Ad Hoc at Home.

With that, I leave you with the idea of roasted fennel bulbs (halved) which we brushed with oil and dashed with salt as the final touch on a meal that turned out to be deceptively easy to pull together!

Behold the bulbs:

Old news from afar!

Hello readers, please note that I have added a new tab entitled “Old News from Afar!”

A friend stumbled upon my old travel blogs from my journeys during college.

I could have sworn they were long gone.




The new tab is right up there next to “Home” and “About”… So go ahead and take a look, it will certainly start to fill up some of those empty “travel” categories.



The trips chronicled there are a far too brief trip to Turkey and some thoughts I had while living in Vietnam in 2007, as well as some random posts from my brief hiatus from travel when I spent the summer back in Chicago.



So if any of these photos seem like experiences you want to know more about please visit the new tab!






Or just visit http://blog.travelpod.com/members/leighhansen

Thanksgiving, revisited

On those things for which I give thanks:

-This year, it seemed more difficult to determine what tops my list of things for which I am most thankful. Maybe it was the hectic holiday plans that had us driving to Cherry, IL  then back to Chicago in 5 hours (it takes 2 hours to drive there and another 2 to drive back), not to mention a second day of thanksgiving, a leftovers version, with our close family friends.

But I stop and think.

This chaos I’m using as an excuse to not find thanks, really just means that we are surrounded by family and great friends. No complaints there.

-Then I allow myself to consider the surgery I have scheduled in the coming week. Great timing? Right in the midst of the holiday season… sweet.

But I stop and think. 

This is a minor surgery to rectify a rather debilitating problem I’ve been dealing with that knocks me on my ass every time I am around someone who has the sniffles. No more chronic strep throat and bacterial infections in my throat after December 5th? No complaints there.

-Oh, that’s right, I get to spend my holiday season explaining why I’m single.

But, again, I stop and think. 

This is the first time in close to a decade that I have not been attached to someone who ultimately ends up not quite panning out (or worse!) Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the necessity for constant companionship at an age when I can barely evaluate what comes next in my own professional and personal life. How can I possibly hope to make another person happy when I haven’t mastered how to make myself happy? No complaints there.


So I suppose that for which I’m thankful this year is the support and warmth that emanates from my sometimes chaotic but always dependable group of friends and family who have already offered their professional services, keeping me well stocked with homemade broths and ice cream for the flip side of this surgery, and who keep me busy and engaged with this time I’ve come into now that I can finally think about what I want out of this fleeting, infinitesimal blip of a thing I am fortunate enough to call my life.



Discredit- An angry letter

To whom it may concern,

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the unfortunate situation of requiring your services. I have chosen to place emphasis on the term by italicizing it due to the fact that, already, I find myself in need of an ironic tone. This should indicate immediately that what follows is not complimentary. If you should choose not to read on, in light of the negative tone being set so early, I would understand. However, I would caution you against this reaction. Although I subscribe to very few biblical idioms, one I quite enjoy and find incredibly a propos, is “an eye for an eye…”[Matthew 5:38. King James]

Weeks ago, I spent 3 hours trapped inside one of your parking structures due to an error message telling me my ticket was unreadable, and I intend to return the favor of lost time. If that means that I flood your inbox with letters and/or emails until I get an appropriate response, then so be it. If I call your offices and leave messages playing inane elevator music, taking care to accompany the wretched smooth jazz by static noise so as to replicate the response I got from your ludicrous little box claiming to connect me to a human “in case of emergency,” then so it shall be. My only talent that overshadows my gift for ironic prose and angry letter writing is my persistence when it comes to retribution.

That said, I wonder what you could possibly do for me to compensate me for the 3 hours of my life I spent waiting for the Chicago Police Department to respond to a non-emergency call to a parking lot in Lincoln Park. If you know anything at all about the police force in question, you know that I could have very well been waiting there over night. Immediately after calling the police (after trying to reach someone on your pathetic little box for over an hour) did I regret the decision to call in the authorities.

Why the regret? It was not because I was guilt stricken by the prospect of wasting the valuable time of the Chicago Police Department, but rather because I no longer felt secure getting away with busting through the flimsy barricade that was keeping me from resuming my life.

So I waited.

Finally, 2 hours later, an officer arrived on the scene. And you know what we did? After several attempts to trick your machine with a highly evolved pressure sensor system considering the lack of a functioning emergency call system, the officer sent to uphold the law actually suggested sneaking under the barricade at the same time on a ticket she had just purchased. By this time you should realize that a customer doesn’t pay for a ticket time-stamped at under 10 minutes… and the bureaucratic entrapment spirit of yours should quiver at the very thought that not only I, but a badge wearing member of the Chicago Police Department conned you out of not only one egregiously expensive parking fee, but two.

As I do not anticipate being compensated in any way by your painfully dysfunctional company, I will take comfort in knowing that you now share my frustration. This shared frustration has a dual impact. On my end, I have learned to never again park in one of your structures, and on yours, you might learn that even the Chicago Police Department will go out of its way to screw you if you don’t stop screwing your customers.

Good day,

Leigh M. Hansen

Credit- Taking Bourdain up on fishery recommendations

I would like to take a moment to thank the parties from many centuries ago responsible for smoked fish. I’d also like to extend a hearty congratulations to those establishments who are able to prepare battered and fried fish that taste like something other than dough. I might as well also thank Anthony Bourdain for his recommendation to drive to a shack on a bridge just a few miles from the Indiana border. And a final hoorah to my whimsical and adventurous equal who agreed to hop in my car at noon on a Monday to investigate Calumet Fisheries, one of the last standing smokehouses in Illinois.

It may not be a whole lot to look at, but there’s actually something very appealing about making the trip down here. My mother called the landscape a hybrid of Chicago’s industrial past and a scene from Mad Max. As you can see from the sign, it’s located at “95th at the bridge.” The fact that they listed their address as such tickled us. You’ll all be relieved to know that this brand of humor was not lost on my Canadian counterpart for this adventure.

They really do get jokes! I kid, I kid. He knows I’m joking…

Anyway, they have all sorts of smoked fish to sample and a friendly staff. The guy who helped us out used one breath to poke fun at my driving (yeah I may have backed up at a somewhat rapid speed to snag a parking spot on the bridge… hey, they’re hot commodities!!) and then in the next breath told us all about the different fish, allowing us to sample a few things to make sure we got exactly what we wanted!

As it turns out we wanted smoked sturgeon, smoked peppered salmon and fried perch. He let us try the famous smoked shrimp, and they were fantastic, but we went another direction. Of the three things we got, we were the most impressed with the salmon. In fact, though we inexplicably had four plastic forks between the two of us, we deep sixed the forks entirely and started ripping into the smoked fish with our teeth. It got kinda feral… think last piece of fish in the Lord of the Flies.

The (deep) fried perch was great. When batter is involved, you run the risk of getting a mouth full of greasy dough instead of fish, but they nailed it here. My companion, being from Port Dover and thus from an area where perch practically jump out of the waters onto your plate, knows his perch. Even he had to admit it was some mighty tasty perch.

Note, in the photo to the left, that this was apparently before we “misplaced” all of our forks and reverted to animal instinct.

The smoked fish really was delicious!

Our favorite was easily the Salmon. We were told that the salmon had just come out of the smoker and thus was still sort of warm, which may have impacted our opinions.

We both agreed that the smokiness of the salmon was not matched by that of the sturgeon which was quite a bit cooler having come out of a day’s worth of refrigeration. I sent the leftovers back with the man who clearly should investigate a career in hand modeling based on his masterful pose (left) showcasing the smoked salmon.

He’ll have to fill me in on how the smoked sturgeon tastes room temp! It sure looked like it should taste AT LEAST as good as the salmon, don’t you think?!

Oh, and for the record, yes I am crediting this in the travel section. We traveled well outside the comfort zone of most Chicagoans (totally worth the 17 mile trip) AND we took local streets most of the way home to check out South Chicago. I’m not saying I’m Magellan or anything, but damn if I’m not claiming this as travel!

Credit- The Great Outdoors

Just some photos from the camping trip… errr proof that I can hack it in the great outdoors.