Five Days in Cleveland

When making plans for summer trips, Cleveland, Ohio isn’t usually the first place most people have in mind. Telling people I had plans to visit Cleveland was often met with furrowed eyebrows, but I think many people underestimate Cleveland. It’s certainly not a flashy city, but it still has many good things going for it that makes it worth visiting. For me, one of those good things is one of my best friends, Mandy.

Mandy and I have been learning to master the art of long distance friendships since the start of collegemaybe even since high school when we went to different schools after middle school. It’s been a long time. I’m grateful that we don’t have to talk every day or even for weeks at a time, yet when we get together, it’s like there’s been no time apart.

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Since we both wouldn’t be in New York at the same time at the end of the summer, I decided to visit her now before my other travel plans and moving to work abroad. The day I flew in was the same day she was moving into her new apartment, so it was a little chaotic, but still manageable. I’m absolutely obsessed with her new place; it’s a beautiful and spacious 2-bedroom apartment, with walls painted a soft pinky beige and has ample sunlight streaming in at all hours. It makes me so jealous what $1300 can get you in Cleveland compared to Boston or New York.

The first day was spent helping Mandy move in and buying immediate apartment necessities with the assistance of her boyfriend, Yoon. We picked up shower curtains, cabinet liners, The rest of the week was spent waiting for some other essential furniture pieces, like mattress, bed frame, chairs, and work desk. We had something new to assemble almost every day. Aside from apartment-oriented activities, we ate out a lot and went to some cool places.

Normally for my travel diaries, I do day by day breakdowns, but since this trip wasn’t very jam-packed with activities and pictures, I’m going to do broader summaries and highlight what’s worth talking about.

CLEVELAND MUSTS

Mitchell’s
I am a big fan of ice cream and if you are too, Mitchell’s is the place to go. Their ice cream is handcrafted in their Ohio City kitchen, which is open for public viewing, and the company is focused on sustainability and contributing to Northeast Ohio communities. I was super excited to visit their Ohio City location and to get more of the banana cream pie flavor that I loved so much last time.

West Side Market
Mandy and I tried coming here on Tuesday without realizing that it was closed, so tip to visitors: make sure you check the operating hours. West Side Market is located in a beautiful concourse and boasts hundreds of vendors selling meats, sweets, fresh produce, and more. We picked up some desserts, our favorite beef jerky sticks (smokeys), and fresh fruit.

SOME PLACES WE ATE AT

LJ Shanghai
This is one of Mandy and Yoon’s go-to places to eat. For dinner one night, we each got a bowl of the Chongqing spicy beef noodle soup, as well as an order of soup dumplings to share. The noodle soup was fantastic and really hit the spot, although it could have been spicier and had even more noodles.

TownHall
TownHall was probably my favorite restaurant of the whole trip. The restaurant has one side that has wait service and the other, you order at the counter, but they both serve the same food. We couldn’t get seats immediately at the wait service side, so we just opted for the cafe. We each got the grassfed burger, which comes with a side of truffle oil and Parmesan fries. Absolutely delicious.

Map of Thailand
While Cleveland, I also met up with my friend Danielle who is from here. She took me to her favorite Thai restaurant and she was boggled by how full it was during lunch, since she only goes at odd hours. It was really great being able to catch up with her and talk to her about post-grad life.

Morton’s The Steakhouse
I’ve never been to a steakhouse before, but dang, they are expensive. We went to the Tower City location for dinner before seeing a play. The waiter recommended the prime cajun ribeye, so that’s what I got. It was cooked to a perfect medium, in my opinion. You couldn’t really taste any cajun spice, but it makes for a nice rub on the meat and adds a smokey flavor. Yoon and Mandy both got the prime ribeye (Mandy added some truffle), and we got matchstick fries and spinach and mushrooms to share. Not sure if eating 16oz of meat in one sitting is really my thing, but it was a neat experience even if I’m not eager to repeat it anytime soon.

THINGS WE DID

SPACES
When we found out West Side Market was closed on Tuesday, we scrambled to find an alternate plan, and Mandy found this art gallery. At the time, she didn’t give me any extra information, nor did I ask for any details, yet I was on the fence about going. However, since there wasn’t anything else to do, we decided to go anyway and I’m so thankful we did because it was really cool.

There was one exhibit about the Seattle campaign for safer drug consumption sites, which was a remarkable example of health communication and public health promotion through digital print and stories. I spent my last semester lobbying for the implementation of such sites in Massachusetts, so it was really amazing to see the exhibit in Ohio. Another piece that stuck out to me was Roopa Vasudevan’s Editor’s Notes, which showcases edits to the Constitution with written print or spoken words from the Trump administration. It is a powerful statement criticizing the values (or lack thereof) of the current presidency.

Tabletop Board Game Cafe
One of my favorite places! Super cozy and casual, perfect place to hang out with a few friends. Mandy and I spent three hours playing a variety of games, including my favorites Organ Attack, Scrabble, and Pandemic, at this board game cafe. There’s a $5 cover charge, so we had to get our money’s worth by staying there for a bit.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at Allen Theatre, Playhouse Square
Mandy asked me if I wanted to see a play after she found tickets on Groupon. I knew nothing about who Hershey Felder or Irving Berlin were beyond the short description of the performance, but decided to do it because exposing yourself to new experiences is the only way to broaden your knowledge. Yoon, Mandy, and I were by far the youngest people in attendance, which I didn’t really notice until we were into the play. It made sense once I realized that Irving Berlin was a famous composer and performer from the early 19th century. By famous, I mean a literal American icon who produced popular songs like “God Bless America”, “Blue Skies”, and “White Christmas”.

After the show, Hershey Felder held a question and answer session with the audience, which I really appreciated. He gave us insight into his craft and characters, and I really admire his talent, intelligence, and abilities. Each character takes him years to develop, and Felder writes and performs all by himself. I think he’s a truly brilliant storyteller.

Incredibles 2
I was adamant about watching Incredibles 2 on the day it came out, so we went to the local cinema to catch it. Matinee tickets were just $7! We were both buzzing with excitement, and the movie didn’t disappoint, even after 14 years of waiting. Jack Jack and the racoon were the real stars of the show.

With all Pixar movies, there is a preceding short film. Bao confused me, particularly when I first saw the trailer, but upon seeing the whole short film, I realize it’s about a story about a mom coming to terms with her son to grow up and leave home. Most importantly, it’s situated in Chinese culture and there are so many details that resonate with me. It’s such a beautiful, wordless film and I think it really tugs at the heartstrings. I love this LA Times interview with the director, which provides more artistic insight to the short. I love that Pixar is diversifying their storytelling, and props to Domee Shi for being the first woman to direct a Pixar short and surrounding herself with people who helped bring her vision to life.

Overall, I had a lovely week in Cleveland and can already think of things I want to do next time.

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Five Days in Cleveland

When One Chapter Ends

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place. Like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” — Azar Nafisi

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Last week I graduated from college, and I think it still feels very much surreal. It broke my heart to have had to move out following my commencement ceremonies. I still had remaining stuff on top of my desk and dresser that I was forced to sweep into bags because I lacked other appropriate containers. Had I been completely packed, I could have just basked in the moment, but just like that, it was all over.

I’ve been told it hits you at different times and even over the course of a long while. “It” being the realization of things not being the same. Seeing friends will require meticulous planning. You can no longer expect the ease of hanging out in residence halls, the library, or dining halls. Friends will be spread out across states and countries. I’ve been told you will probably feel lonely, bored, and sad. Being employed is not the same being in college.

What will it be like three months from now? Half a year? A full year? Regardless, I’m incredibly thankful for people I’ve met along the way.

From the women I’ve known since we were randomly assigned to live together freshman year on Deroy 3,

to people I met through being a Community Advisor,

Orientation,

and things in between.

During four years in college, I have lived in five different bedrooms at Brandeis even though I don’t have furnished photos of all of them. Going away to college is such a pivotal experience. I’m going to miss hanging out with friends and playing card/board games.

I can’t wait to see where life takes us next.

When One Chapter Ends

That Time We Went to Budapest & Vienna

After coming home from abroad, I took a break from blogging because I didn’t feel like I had much to write about. During that time, I celebrated my one year anniversary with John and coincidentally we spent it on a week-long trip to Budapest and Vienna (that was when our February break was). Since then, we’ve celebrated our two year anniversary and my twenty-second birthday, but I still want to share some moments from our 2017 trip.

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Day 1

We flew out of Boston Logan International Airport to Budapest in the evening on Air France with one layover in the early morning in Paris. We had the most legroom ever in coach for no additional cost on this flight as we magically snagged seats in the first aisle of our section. It was glorious.

I was pretty excited we could take the train from the airport to the city center. Transportation in so many European cities is seriously top-notch; it’s so easy to get around.

For an early dinner, John found a recommendation for Lucky 7 Burgers and More on Reddit. We were unashamed to have flown a couple thousand miles just to eat some burgers. They were pretty dang good burgers, too. It’s nice to have a little taste of home before getting on with more traditional and local fare.

We went to bed early our first night to adjust to the time difference and get enough sleep to power us through the next day. We stayed in a pretty central Airbnb in the Inner City, which was in walking distance of metro stops and many cool and historical sites, including the Dohány Street Synagogue (the largest synagogue in Europe).

Day 2

We stumbled upon the Miniverseum when we were out exploring the city and walked by it at first, but then doubled back to go inside. The museum showcases intricate, 1:100-scale models of Hungarian, Austrian & German landmarks and is one of the largest miniverseums in the world.

We got a chimney cake rolled in cinnamon sugar from a street vendor as we continued on our walk. It was tasty and perfect for snacking.

I believe afterward we went to see House of Terror, a museum documenting the effects of the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Hungary and serving as memorial to victims. It was definitely an intense experience, but very eye-opening to the history of the region.

As the sun was setting, we went to see the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament Building. We crossed a bridge somewhere to get a better view of the building in its entirety.

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For dinner, we scoured TripAdvisor and discovered Bors GazstroBar, which ended up being a short walk from our stay. It offers super cheap and delicious soups and sandwiches made with baguettes. It’s got charm and quirky decor, notably Darth Vader brandishing a baguette. Not much sitting space, just a place where you wait, order, and take your food to go. We got an amazing cup of cheesy potato and bacon soup and two sandwiches. I don’t remember which ones, but it was quality street food.

Day 3

We spent our third day in Budapest continuing to explore some of its famous landmarks. One of our favorite things about the city is how manageable it is to walk from one side of the city to the other. We first went to see the Citadella, which is a fortress located on top of Gellért Hill. Both were sites we could view from our Airbnb on a clear day. It was fun climbing to the top and the views of the entire city is absolutely breathtaking.

We continued on to see Buda Castle, Matthias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion, all icons in Buda’s Castle District. Buda Castle is the historical castle and palace complex of the Hungarian kings. If we had more time in Budapest, I would have loved to tour the inside. We went on to see Matthias Church, also from the outside. John didn’t have any interest of going in (there’s also a small fee), so we observed the exterior architecture. I thought the colors of the roof were stunning. We attempted to get some Instgram-worthy shots at Fisherman’s Bastion, but the light and shadows were just not in our favor on the cloudy day.

We made our way down and across Széchenyi Chain Bridge, the iconic suspension bridge between Buda and Pest, just as the sun was setting.

For dinner, we ate at Sir Lancelot Lovagi Étterem, or Sir Lancelot’s Knights Restaurant, which is a medieval themed restaurant that reminded me of other medieval-themed experiences I had as a kid. It’s a super lively and entertaining environment with staff in character. The restaurant has a wonderful selection of roast meat and platters- you definitely don’t leave hungry.

We were unfortunately in kind of a rush through dinner (not a quick affair) so that we could make our escape the room reservation. John really wanted to try an escape the room quest and found one at Gozdu Mission, again relatively close to where we were staying. We were playing the role of prisoners trying to break out in under an hour and actually succeeded with about a minute or two to spare! Mostly thanks to John’s math skills at the end.

Day 4

The next day, we left early for Vienna via the train at Budpest-Keleti Railway Terminal. I find that there’s always some magic about train terminals, probably due to train culture from the 1900s. It was about a 2.5-3 hour train ride through the eastern European countryside. We figured out how to take three different metro lines to our Airbnb and dropped off our stuff before heading out for the afternoon.

Our first stop in Vienna was Tiergarten Schönbrunn, or the zoo. It’s the oldest operating zoo in the world, dating back to its days as an imperial menagerie in 1752, and one of the few in the world to house giant pandas. I was really excited to see a koala and some other animals they had at the zoo.

After spending a few hours there, we walked over to see Schönbrunn Palace, a former imperial summer residence. We didn’t go inside, but the grounds themselves were grand, even in the winter.

For dinner, John insisted on finding some Asian fare, so we went to eat at Gu, a well rated Chinese restaurant in the city. I think the owners were very intrigued by us being two Chinese American tourists. It’s a small family business, operated by a husband (chef) and wife (host/waitress) duo and their son (also a chef/assistant). John ended up conversing with them in Mandarin, and we learned that they intended to move to Paris but ended up settling in Vienna instead. The chef also came out to meet us and even took a picture of us eating their food, almost made us feel like celebrities (the chef did say John had some resemblance to pianist Lang Lang).

But the real highlight of the meal was trying Almdudler, Austria’s iconic carbonated drink, for the first time at the recommendation of my friend Helena. It’s akin to ginger ale, but not quite. Very tasty.

Day 5

We kicked off our second day in Vienna by visiting the Naschmarkt, the city’s best known market with about 120 stands selling produce and products from dozens of different origins. We also had lunch nearby at Ra’Mien, for more Asian-inspired cuisine. John picked it because he knew I love noodles, and it was pretty good (doesn’t compare to American Chinese food though).

After lunch, we walked around the old city center and picked up some Manner brand wafers at a shop. I was taken aback by the size of Stephansdom, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It’s the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and is a ginormous structure in the middle of much smaller buildings. They’re in the middle of cleaning the exterior, so some parts of it are whiter and more restored than others.

We also saw Hofburg Palace, which used to be the principle imperial palace and seat of the Habsburg rulers. With some backtracking and dedicated searching, we also went to see the State Hall of the Austrian National Library. It’s a breathtaking library dating back to the 18th century- just absolutely stunning.

Day 6

John wasn’t really all that interested in Vienna and insisted on spending some time studying for the MCAT, so I headed out alone for some independent adventuring. My first stop was the Palace of Justice, the seat of the Austrian Supreme Court. One of the most stunning sights is the staircase located within. Visitors are allowed to enter; you just have to go through security, which can be a little intimidating. But the grand staircase is worth it, and not many people come through to view it.

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Afterward, I head back toward the city to grab a quick bite to eat at Bitzinger’s Sausage Stand, which is just outside the Albertina, an art museum best known for its print collection but also boasts many other paintings. I got to see some pieces from my favorite post-Impressionist artists. Bitzinger’s a foodie’s must-eat locale when in Vienna, or so I was told by TripAdvisor. Top-notch sausage and I got a bottle of Almdudler to drink alongside it. It was a peak Austrian moment.

I met John for dinner at Brezlgwölb, a restaurant that Helena recommended to us for traditional Austrian fare. It was a super cozy place and had some pretty good food. We got the schnitzel, of course, and another entrée.

Day 7

We both were looking forward to heading back to Budapest to round out our trip. After dropping off our stuff at a different Airbnb location, we checked out Central Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest indoor market in the city. It’s housed inside a gorgeous building, and there are a mixture of hot food, produce, and souvenir stands inside. We got things to eat at multiple stands and picked up some souvenirs along the way.

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We went back to see Fisherman’s Bastion again to try to get some more photos and enjoy the sights one last time.

For dinner, we picked a place off the street for some Hungarian fare. I really wanted to try goulash and chicken paprikash. At the place we went to, both dishes were good but didn’t blow me away. In hindsight, I should have done more research about best places to eat. We grabbed some gelato for dessert and wrapped up our week in Budapest and Vienna.

The next day, we flew out from Budapest with a layover in Paris again. Budapest was definitely my favorite of the two cities, but they both really enticed me to the slower charm of Eastern Europe. There’s still so much more to do and eat that we didn’t get around to, most notably the thermal baths. John forgot to bring swim trunks, and we just didn’t make it a priority to go, so next time, that’s first on my list.

That Time We Went to Budapest & Vienna

More Noms and Jazz (NOLA part 3)

As I’m finishing up my recaps of my spring break trip to New Orleans, I’m boggled that there are only two weeks left of classes (and of my undergraduate years). How time flies.

Day 5

We were fantastically lucky to experience pleasant and sunny weather every day of our trip. Rain was on the forecast throughout the week for Wednesday, which is why we planned to visit the National World War II Museum on this day, but it turned out to rain overnight, leaving the day in the pleasant high 60s/low 70s.

For lunch, we ate at Cochon Butcher, which John picked up from raving reviews online. It’s a butcher shop, a sandwich counter, and a wine bar rolled into one located next door to its parent restaurant Cochon. Fun fact: Cochon is the French word for pig. Inspired by Old World meat markets and charcuterie shops, its specialty are, of course, the meats which are smoked and cured in-house.

I honestly can’t believe we saved the restaurant for our fifth day in NOLA because it ended up being one of my favorite meals and lunch spots. We shared the duck sliders, mac and cheese, and Le Pig Mactheir (better) take on McDonald’s Big Mac. Meat and cheese heaven in every bite.

After loading up on calories and more artery-clogging goodness, we headed a couple blocks over to the National WWII Museum. We were taken aback by the number of people at the museum and how long the ticket line was, as neither of us did any research about the museum. We ended up buying tickets online as we were almost halfway in the line (already a slow 15 minute wait). Basic student tickets run for $17.50, and you can tack on additions such as the 50 minute film Beyond All Boundaries ($6) and Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience ($6). Since John is a war history enthusiast, we went for the full package, complete with the Dog Tag experience that allowed us to follow stories of two people throughout the museum on interactive computers.

The museum exhibits were very extensive and we belatedly found out that most people spend a full day at the museum. Having arrived at 12pm and finding out the museum closes at 5pm, we were in for a doozy. The museum is divided into four buildings, each with a different focus. There are two major immersive timelines: Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo, offering perspectives on the war from both European and Pacific fronts. In these two exhibits, there are just so many stories, videos, and artifacts every way you turn. There are additional exhibits on D-Day, U.S. Merchant Marines, and more.

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The Final Mission experience interrupted our flow through Road of Tokyo, as we selected a 1:55pm time, and we had to make our way outside to access the building it was in. It ended up being an 11-minute simulation of what the USS Tang went through during war. People were assigned to battle stations and could follow instructions as though we were the crew. It was pretty cool, but at the same time, terrifying as it’s both of our fears to be trapped underwater in a sinking submarine. Not really sure if I would recommend it, but if you like simulations, it’s an additional part of the museum experience.

I was quite fatigued by the end of our four hours walking through the museum with few opportunities to sit. Overall, I think it’s an incredibly intensive and immersive museum. I was really struck with sadness, a little overwhelmed by the number of lives lost on both sides and by all the stories. We concluded our experience with Beyond All Boundaries, a 4D experience that takes you through the progression of the war and the values that the Allies fought for. It was very engaging, but does display graphic scenes and includes sounds and lights that may be triggering. Very jarring.

For dinner, we actually went back and ate at Cochon. I was relieved that the hostess was able to seat us without a reservation after some moments of deliberation. The restaurant was still a little less than half full when we arrived at 6pm. We ordered the wood-fired oysters, fried alligator bites, shrimp and deviled egg gumbo, and braised beef. John ordered a random wheat ale off the beer menu called Canebrake that we both actually fell in love with. (We would later be dismayed to find out that it’s only available within Louisiana.)

For the meal overall, John actually liked their oysters better than the ones with had at Acme. The alligator bites were really good. It was our first time tasting alligator wholly and we would describe it as chewier and leaner chicken. Everything was absolutely delicious, although I could have done without the gumbo. It wasn’t really my kind of dish.

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After eating at Cochon, we walked to Frenchmen Street again for a night of jazz and drinks. I originally wanted to go check out Shotgun Jazz Band (I was excited to see a female trumpeter be a part of the mix) at the Spotted Cat, but from listening outside, we found their music to be mellower than what we were looking for. We doubled back and passed The Blue Nile, which I heard great things about as well. The show wasn’t starting until 8:30pm and we were 10 minutes early. I wasn’t sure if we should commit. We walked down to the end of Frenchmen St to check out other offerings and I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that we should go to the Blue Nile, so we went back.

We were one of the first people there, so we were able to grab a table on the far side of the club. I ordered our two newfound favorite beers, Abita Purple Haze and Canebrake, which were available on draft. The New Orleans Rhythm Devils were playing that night and from their website, I learned that they were actually founded at the Blue Nile. They play super fun jazz that gets your hands clapping and feet tapping. At one point, they reminded people to tip, and said: “There’s a party in the tip bucket and your money is invited.” So funny! John and I liked the band a lot and were happy to cap our jazz experience in NOLA with NORD and Blue Nile.

For dessert, I couldn’t resist stopping by Cafe Du Monde again and this time I wanted a seat under the canopy. Even at 9:30pm, a table was oddly hard to come by, but I managed to spot an empty one among the masses. I thought the beignets were tastier and crispier this time around, and was thoroughly satisfied (although I would have preferred to have my own order, but you know, moderation).

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I also insisted on stopping by the CVS on Canal Street again to pick up Chester Cheetah’s Flamin’ Hot Fries for the road. It boggles me that they’re not available in the Boston or New York to my knowledge (let a girl know where I could find them if they do exist). I honestly wouldn’t have known of their existence in NOLA if I didn’t see a boy eat them on my first day in the city.

Day 6

It broke my heart that we were at the end of our trip and that we would have to leave New Orleans that night. It’s so easy to be happier and more carefree in a warm place with few responsibilities.

We had to check out of our room by 11am, but decided to do so a little earlier at 10am. We asked the front desk staff to hold our luggage while we explored the rest of the day unencumbered.

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For brunch, we stopped by Jimmy J’s Cafe where we encountered an unexpectedly long wait of about 40 minutes. We had time to burn and it came at the recommendation of one of our Lyft/Uber drivers. When we were seated, we discovered that the space was actually very small; the restaurant seated about 26 people. I ordered the Monte Cristo, which is their French toast sandwich with ham and cheese, and John had the shrimp and oyster po’boy. It was a good brunch that hit the spot, but not really worth a wait longer than 20 minutes.

After eating, we visited the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, which was our last stop on our access pass. I was amazed that so many kids were more curious than I was about insects. Perhaps I’ve been too conditioned to fear them and be grossed out, so it was charming and heartening to see their enthusiasm and interest. I did force myself to look at some live exhibits, such as the ants and rainbow beetles, but was definitely skived out by a lot, especially the tarantula.

There was also an immersive exhibit about the underground, which I was adamant about not going into but John made me. I almost cried when a large robotic bug shot out from its hidey hole. John took great delight in it, even though it surprised him as well. The family behind us didn’t even notice it, but when we left, we stopped to check out another unsuspecting pair: a woman was very startled but her companion laughed his ass off at her reaction.

After visiting the Insectarium, we wandered around the French Quarter a little more and I snapped some last photos. We checked out some more stores on Decateur Street, including a hot sauce shop. John was disappointed that hot sauces he tried didn’t have the painful kick to them.

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We also popped by St. Louis Cathedral, which dates back to 1720s and is the oldest cathedral in the U.S. Not the most impressive looking after seeing European churches and cathedrals, but still worth the visit for some historical value. The cathedral overlooks Jackson Square Park, and whenever we saw it from the park, we couldn’t help but get Disney Park vibes. Let me know if you think so, too.

John was content to spend the rest of our afternoon sitting in the relative shade, talking and people watching. I opted to go grab one last meal from Verti Marte, taking some more time to walk through the French Quarter. As though I didn’t gain enough pudge from eating throughout the week, I got another All That Jazz po’boy and split it with John at the park.

If I looked up the hours and pricing of The Pharmacy Museum ahead of time, I would have realized that it was only $4 and open until 4pm, so we unfortunately missed out on that.

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We headed back to the hotel around 4:30pm to pick up our luggage and leave for the airport by 5pm, heading back to reality. John and I had a great time watching Paddington 2 on the plane. It was also wicked amazing to see New York City from cruising altitude, the first time I’ve ever flown over the city. We got into Logan International at a little past midnight and had a lovely conversation with our Uber driver, a Jordanian man, on our way home.

And that, my friends, is the end of my week in NOLA.

More Noms and Jazz (NOLA part 3)

Wild Boars, More Oysters, & Art (NOLA Part 2)

The best thing about being in New Orleans for a whole six days is having the luxury of time. We never felt pressed to fit in as much as we can in a day (and boy, do I have a knack of trying to do so) and could really spread out our activities over the course of the week. If you’re looking to vacation in New Orleans, I have two pieces of advice for you, as told to me by our swamp tour driver: “You best bring your walking shoes and elastic pants.”

Day 3

One of the things John and I both looked forward to doing the most during our time in NOLA was a swamp tour. We initially thought about doing a swamp and plantation package but found that the plantation we wanted to visit (Oak Alley) would have taken half the day, which we both agreed we wanted to do other things with that time. So with some research, we settled on booking a tour with Cajun Encounters, which we found to be highly rated and an Internet favorite. For $56 a person, the tour included being picked up and dropped off at our hotel and downtown New Orleans, which is super convenient for people traveling without cars.

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We started our day very bright and early, getting up in advance for the window of pick-ups between 8am and 8:30am. Once our driver, Dana, finished making all the pick-ups, we commenced on our 45 minute ride to Slidell, LA. Along the way, Dana told us some history of the city and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. You can’t go most places in the city without talking about Katrina in some capacity, as it had such a profound impact on New Orleans. You can still see residual damage here and there, especially with still vacant buildings and abandoned Six Flags park. It’s amazing how so much of New Orleans is located at or below sea level. I didn’t even really know what that meant until I looked up a diagram online, even after one Lyft driver told us that some tourists like to go on tours to see the sea wall. Dana also pointed out many landmarks and points of interests as we drove to Slidell. I learned a lot about the Causeway and Lake Pontchartrain.

When we arrived, we had about 10-15 minutes to check-in, use the restroom, and take some photos at a lookout point of the swampland before being called to meet our color group. It was honestly so stunning and got us even more excited for the tour.

Cajun Encounters takes you on a two-hour bayou tour of Honey Island Swamp on the West Pearl River. Our captain was Emmett, who had only been working with the company for less than four months. Despite that, he was very knowledgeable and bantered with his co-workers on other ships with ease and experience. We got to see some alligators (mostly small ones), a turtle, egrets, water snakes, and raccoons. One German fellow on the boat jokingly quipped that he would like to see hippos. For me, the best of animal encounter of all was the wild boars. They were so unexpected and eager for food. Our guide was so excited to see a particular boar named Oreo.

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When we got back to the downtown, we grabbed lunch at Acme Oyster House. The restaurant is famous for their chargrilled oysters, which is something I didn’t know I needed in my life. They’re so tasty and generously spiced, just as people rave about, albeit a little sandy. They provided bread on the side, almost like they know you’re going to want something to sop up all the juices. Finger-licking good.

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After a filling lunch, we kept up with the animals by visiting the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. I was delighted by the otter feeding, which we raced to catch after arriving at the aquarium. It’s so much fun watching Ruby twirl in the water as she tries to break open her food.

The other feeding I enjoyed was with the African penguins. Their names are so cute! Some of my favorites included Ernie (he’s the oldest), Sticky, Dumpty, Sassy, and Flippy. I loved learning about them. At the aquarium, they’re fed three varieties of small fish, and the animal keeper talked about how they check the penguins’ health during feeding. Penguins are really good at hiding illnesses, but if they’re sick, they won’t eat, so appetite is a pretty good indicator of how things are going. It awas so fascinating to see how they kind of just choke down their food.

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After spending about 2.5 hours at the aquarium, we caught a showing of Oceans 3D: Our Blue Planet at the Entergy Giant Screen Theater, which is included in the $45 Audubon access pass. The 25 minute film showcased stories of a variety of underwater creatures. I was intrigued by a fish that could use its mouth to pick up and throw a clam to crack it open. The film also touches upon the gravity of needing to explore the oceans, which also comes at a time when our planet is so rapidly changing due to climate issues. It’s awe-inspiring and also left us with a little bit of despair.

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We made our way back to our hotel for a break before going out at night for the first time. I was eager to go to Cafe Beignet to give their beignets a try and see how they match up to Cafe Du Monde’s. We opted for the location in Musical Legends Park so we could enjoy some live music and get a little taste of Bourbon St at night. The park does offer some reprieve from the partying that’s happening around and provides a much classier, laid-back environment.

We were able to snag one of the few empty tables after ordering beignets and happily tapped our feet to Steamboat Willie and his jazz band. The beignets were bigger than expected and very well fried. John liked them a lot more because there was less sugar. We also got an alcoholic mango slushie to share from the bar, which really got me tipsier than I wanted to be. I blame the lack of eating since lunch. We ended up grabbing a chicken and beef gryo combo platter from The Halal Guys. It was the drunk food I really needed.

Day 4

The next day we slept in a later after having such an early Monday morning. We then headed over to the New Orleans Museum of Art. It’s New Orleans’ oldest fine art institution and boasts an impressive collection of over 40,000 pieces. I was actually not as excited for NOMA as I normally am about art museums, but decided that it was worth the trek over since I was in town, and thank goodness I decided to go.

One of my favorite exhibitions that ended up blowing me away was A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes, which is dedicated to “avant-garde fashion designers” while investigating “symbols of womanhood” and looking at “fashion as art”. The pieces in the gallery explore seven personality types: Sage, Magician, Enchantress, Explorer, Mother Earth, Heroine, and Thespian.

The exhibits that struck me the most were Enchantress (for the beautiful, mesmerizing fashion pieces, pictured above), Mother Earth (for the sustainably and ethically manufactured garments), and Sage (for its focus on “smart” garments and inventiveness).

About Enchantress: “The Enchantress is a seductress, femme fatale, sensualist, and enthusiast. Her strengths are passion, wit, and spiritual and bodily appeal. She demonstrates appreciation, but is also capable of manipulation. She is happiest when she mesmerizes all those around her. Clothing is made erotic through its ability to not only reveal but to also conceal parts of the body culturally construed as forbidden, intimate, or private.” The Enchantress is so often the inspiration for many designers, who want to capitalize on “lust and passion” and create pieces that dazzle.

About Mother Earth “Fashion designers have long used the grounding of Mother Earth as inspiration for creating disruptive and critical collections that call attention to the pollution and suffering that the fashion system leaves in its wake.” I was really excited to see the Adidas x Parley for the Ocean sneakers (made from salvaged plastic) and smog free ring (pictured below) in person. The smog free ring is produced from carbon taken from the air, a statement piece reflecting the state of air pollution in 80% of urban areas worldwide.

I think it was cool that I could show John some of the sustainable fashion pieces that I’ve seen online, and he became more open to how fashion and popular culture can change public perception about important issues.

The exhibition featuring Carlos Rolón Outside/In was another one of my favorites at NOMA. This exhibition “explores the rich connections between New Orleans, Latin America, and the Caribbean through allusions to each region’s natural and built environments.” In his sculptural art, he uses materials such as glass, wrought iron fences, and construction blocks to produce stunning pieces.

My third favorite exhibition was New Forms, New Voices: Japanese Ceramics from the Gitter-Yelen Collection, which showcased many modern and contemporary ceramic pieces. I was captivated by some of the colors, new forms, and types of glazes many pieces had.

Afterward, we took a walk through the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, which showcases a variety of pieces within a large park dotted with pines, magnolias, and live oaks. It’s such a beautiful and serene space to enjoy the sunny weather.

For lunch, we ate at May Pop, a chic Asian-Creole fusion restaurant that was another recommendation of Mandy’s. It’s definitely on the pricier side, but offered great service and delicious food.

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In the afternoon, we popped back on the St. Charles street car line to take a self-guided tour of Garden District homes, courtesy of Free Tours by Foot. The area was believed to be developed between 1832 and 1900, largely by wealthy Americans who wanted to show off their opulence and prosperity while living apart from the Creoles. There’s a mix of architectural styles within the District, adding to its beauty and wonder. Today, the Garden District is still home to many of the wealthy and famous, including actors, athletes, and writers. John was kind of unimpressed I took him around looking at rich people’s houses, but he was still intrigued by the various actors who call this area home.

We again took a break at our hotel in the late evening. John dragged me up to the fitness center in an attempt to get both of us to exercise. Neither of us could figure out how to turn on the treadmills, so he resorted to biking a couple of miles while I managed a paltry 1.5 miles on the elliptical before calling it a day.

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For dinner, we walked on over to Maison, which is located on famed Frenchmen Street. There’s a two-block stretch with a very dense concentration of clubs that play live music every day of the week. Many clubs don’t have cover charges, just one drink per set minimums, and many bands play for free so attendees are encouraged to tip generously.

On Tuesday night, Maison hosts Gregory Agid Quartet led by frontman and clarinetist Gregory Atid, who was mentored by many famous jazz musicians. John and I were able to grab a high table in direct view of the band after a party of two cancelled their reservation. We ordered alligator and crawfish bites and hamburger sliders alongside a cocktail and a beer (Abita Purple Haze, which John drank all of because he hated his cocktail and is now obsessed with it). We both really dug the vibes of the place and John was really into the music, so we had a fantastic time.

Wild Boars, More Oysters, & Art (NOLA Part 2)

The Big Easy (Part 1)

New Orleans, the city of festivals, jazz, and perseverance. Where do I even begin?

I’ve heard many things about NOLA, such as the wild stories about Mardi Gras and debauchery on Bourbon Street, but also tales about the rich history and delicious food. I’ve never been that far South in the U.S. and I was itching to see someplace new, so I’m glad that John and I agreed on New Orleans.

Early April turned out to be a fantastic time to visit. New Orleans is the place a Northeast girl needs when the weather up here hasn’t gotten memo that it’s supposed to be spring. It snowed in Boston the day after we left (and snowed the day we got back)! But with it being between 70 and 80 degrees out down in the Big Easy, I could rock some of my favorite dresses and reward my skin with some badly needed (warm) sunshine.

From puffy beignets and chargrilled oysters to stunning architecture and upbeat jazz, New Orleans took me for a twirl, taking my breath away and simply dazzling me with its beauty.

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Day 1

We flew into Louis Armstrong National Airport (MSY) at around 1pm local time on a Saturday. I love sitting at the window seat because it allows me to see what’s below. As we soared in over lower Louisiana, I was amazed by the marshland and Lake Pontchartrain. I was most curious about the very long road cutting across the body of water. I later learned it’s called the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest continuous bridge over water in the world, stretching nearly 24 miles.

We got to our hotel about an hour after landing using Lyft. During our trip, we called the Blake Hotel New Orleans (a Best Western hotel) our home base. I was delighted that we had a room facing the street and overlooking Lafayette Square. The hotel was located conveniently right on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line and a very short 10-minute walk from the edge of the French Quarter. I would have preferred that the bathroom wasn’t right next to our bed, but overall, we were very pleased with our choice.

Our first meal in New Orleans was spent at Luke, a French and German brasserie located just down the street from our hotel. We got there shortly before 3pm and right on time, as our waiter tipped us off that happy hour starts at 3pm. They do 75 cents P&J oysters, $1.25 per fried oyster, and half off drinks. What a steal! I couldn’t pass up 75 cents raw oysters, even though I’ve never had them before. We ended up ordering half a dozen raw oysters, half a dozen fried oysters, crawfish bisque, and jumbo Louisiana shrimp “en cocotte”.

Eating raw oysters is such an experience. The P&J oysters were served with ketchup and horseradish on the side. Since neither John and I really knew how to eat them, we observed the parties around us to pick up some pointers. We used the fork to get them loose and kind of just took it like a shot (or tried to). I was surprised by how smoothly they went down. Didn’t really taste like much, but definitely tastes good with ketchup. The fried oysters were the real star- absolutely delicious!

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After a late lunch, we headed toward the French Quarter to explore what it had to offer. We hit up Bourbon Street first, taking in the sights. Maybe because it was a Saturday, Bourbon Street was bustling with people drinking on the streets and balconies, hanging out, and catching free stuff being thrown from above. When it all got to be a bit much, we took a turn and found ourselves on Royal Street, definitely a much more mellow and refined in comparison. It’s a big hub for classy antique shops, boutiques, and art galleries.

For dessert, we grabbed some beignets from Cafe Du Monde. We probably made a rookie mistake by coming here around 4:30pm on a Saturday, but I also couldn’t wait to try the hype. We waited close to 40 minutes on the take-out line and went to Jackson Square Park to enjoy them.

After that brief break, we headed back toward Royal Street and walked around some more. I was captivated by the presence of street poets, who would write you a poem if you gave them a topic, but was too afraid of what the cost might be. It’s silly, but now I wish I at least stopped to converse.

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However, as we continued on, I stumbled across and was captivated by a poetry display by @cubsthepoet. I wanted to take a photo of a poem that really spoke to me, but John pointed out the “no photography” signs. Above, you can see a screencapture of the poem,  which I was thrilled to find, on his Instagram. @cubsthepoet actually came out of the gallery and asked if we would like to come in for a spoken word performance. I said yes with little hesitation, even though John isn’t the biggest fan of poetry, and we walked on in. The performance piece included a man and a woman personifying the id and ego and expressing the tensions between the two. According to John, it should be the super ego, not ego, as the ego is the one responsible for reconciling the id and super ego. Regardless, it was very neat to spontaneously attend the free show and check out the exhibition.

We popped by a few more shops after that. One called the Idea Factory caught our attention because it featured lots of handcrafted wooden pieces. John loves wood, so he picked up a laser-cut wooden magnet with the image of a street car.

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We headed on to Verti Marte to grab its famous All That Jazz po’boy before calling it an early night. Verti Marte is this little convenience store on Royal St. with an unassuming kitchen in the back serving up delicious sandwiches. All That Jazz comes loaded with ham, turkey, sautéed shrimp, cheese, mushrooms, and a tartar based “wow” sauce. It is the definition of artery-clogging goodness.

That afternoon, we also saw quite a few couples (the same couple?) taking engagement/wedding photos on the streets. We also a wedding parade, which we actually followed, as it was the same direction back to the hotel. It was so beautiful and festive! We experienced so much in just one day.

Day 2

We kicked off the second day with brunch at The Ruby Slipper, a NOLA favorite with award-winning breakfast and brunch. My best friend Mandy gave me a tip that the easiest way to get seated without a long wait is to join the Yelp waitlist, so that’s what we did. It allowed us to shower and get ready for the day and walk on over to the Central Business District location in the time we would have spent waiting outside the restaurant. We were seated shortly after arriving.

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John got the Chicken St Charles eggs benedict and I had the peacemaker, which allowed me to mix and match with the Eggs Cochon and Shrimp Boogaloo benedicts. I also got a Peach Bellini for kicks. We were both actually underwhelmed by our eggs benedict. The food didn’t come out as piping hot as expected and wasn’t particularly dazzling, so I was actually disappointed by my experience at The Ruby Slipper.

After brunch, we made our way to the Audubon Zoo via Uber. The zoo is one of three institutions managed by Audubon Nature Institute, which also oversees the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. For $45, you can get a 30-day access pass (only one entry per locale) to all three institutions, which is a great deal considering they each cost either $23 or $30.

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Audubon Zoo is an absolutely beautiful place, offering a wide variety of animal exhibits, educational programs, and animal encounters. I was most excited by the orangutans, Asian otters, and sun bears, mostly because I got to watch all these animals eat. I also touched a ball python, which was pretty cool. John’s favorite was the aviary enclosure. We were captivated by the weavers and ibis. We had a brief conversation with a zookeeper, who was very knowledgeable despite not actually working with the birds. Instead, he enjoys spending his lunch breaks in there, which made us really happy to hear.

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At the zoo, I learned of the existence of white alligators, more specifically called leucistic white alligators, which are incredibly rare in the wild. They’re also different from albino alligators due to their deep blue eyes with hints of pigmentation (albinism, on the other hand, produces red eyes and no pigmentation).

After the zoo, we went for a walk in the surrounding park, took note of the stunning homes, and made a pit-stop at the Tree of Life (officially known as Étienne de Boray Oak, named after the first mayor of New Orleans), a grand oak tree thought to be aged somewhere between 100 and 500 years. At the park, we also caught sight of a mama duck with 10 ducklings. So adorable!

We made our way to the north of the park to hop on the St. Charles street car line back to downtown New Orleans. To our dismay, the street car was packed with people and we were unable to really observe the gorgeous villas and townhouses while standing.

After our day in the sun, we took a brief break in our hotel room before heading off to Cajun Seafood. It’s is a super no-frills eatery located on a small strip of stores outside of the downtown, so you know it’s a local’s place to go (however, still friendly enough to tourists!). It was recommended to us by Mandy and a Lyft driver for being the best place to get a fresh seafood boil at a very cheap price. For two pounds of crawfish, a pound of snow crab legs, half a pound of shrimp, and some corn, it came out to be $33. At $5 a pound of crawfish, I’m crying about not buying more. That’s a price you can’t find in New York or Boston.

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Because it was Easter Sunday, we waited about 40 minutes to order and get our food, but it was well worth it. We ended up taking it back to the hotel to enjoy while watching an episode of Scrubs. The crawfish was delicious! Very fresh and not very heavily seasoned, but still great flavor and spice. Some of the claws were so big that there was actually meat inside. The crab was a nice treat for ourselves, but the shrimp wasn’t worth it (too dry and the shell stuck to the shrimp). Overall, a great end to our second day in New Orleans.

The Big Easy (Part 1)

Food and Farming

During the fall semester, my course work was largely focused on food and food security in the U.S. with courses Food and Farming in America, Hunger in America, and an independent study on farmers markets. These courses really opened my eyes to farming and food security issues and really helped cultivate a deeper interest in food studies.

Food and Farming was a class I had my eye on for over a year now and I’m so glad I chose to take it. The class looks at the history of American farming and diets and examines what makes a healthy food system with extensive fieldwork at various farms in the local area. The Tuesday field trips really made the class for me and I talked about going to the farms all the time. Coming from New York City, I’ve never been exposed to farms as a child like so many of my peers had been. It was really cool to see what certain plants looked like before reaching the supermarket (I was most surprised by broccoli) and I loved learning about the different businesses.

Land’s Sake Community Farm

The first farm we visited during the semester was Land’s Sake, which was co-founded in 1980 by my professor alongside some other farmers who were interested in preserving the historical agricultural heritage of Weston. There’s a big emphasis on educating young people about agriculture, ecology, and local history at the farm. During our volunteer trips, we weeded and broke down tomato plant rows (the least favorite trip of the year).

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Land’s Sake has a small plot of apple trees (pictured below), which were grown experimentally. The apples aren’t great for eating (some of us munched on them anyway, me included), but I’ve been told they make decent cider. I was fascinated by how apple trees are grown: surprisingly you can’t just plant an apple seed from a type of apple. Successfully planting apple trees requires roots and grafts of particular strains, and it’s quite the complicated process from what I can understand.

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Waltham Fields Community Farm

Aside from Land’s Sake, Waltham Fields was the other farm we made multiple trips to. Waltham Fields was founded in 1990 and its mission is to promote “local agriculture and food access through our farming operations and educational programs, using practices that are socially, ecologically, and economically sustainable.” They donate a portion of their annual yield to charity, which is pretty awesome.

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One of my favorite volunteer trips was when we picked and sorted carrots for CSA shares and donations at Waltham Fields. It was so fun pulling carrots from the ground, especially since the dirt had already been loosened with a plow earlier in the day. That made it a whole lot easier to grab a good handful in one pull. It was also refreshing eating a small carrot straight from the ground (after wiping it thoroughly on my jeans). It was so sweet!

Natick Community Organic Farm

My second favorite visit was to the Natick farm. We were told that people tended to like this visit the most because of the animals and we were not disappointed. But before getting to the animals, we helped out with placing plastic covering over late winter crops in preparation for the winter season. My group harvested arugula and helped round up chickens into their coop.

I also learned how to milk a goat! You make a O with your pointer finger and thumb and gently massage and squeeze the udder. It was kind of intimidating to approach the goat, but she’s very well versed in the process. She eagerly hopped up on the milking platform when told to. It was hard getting milk out at first, but I managed it!

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Appleton Farms

Appleton Farms, located in Ipswich, was the most idyllic farm we visited. It was maintained under the Appleton family for nine generations before being gifted to the Trustees of Reservations. It claims to be the oldest continuously operating farm and still runs dairy and meat production. At Appleton, Jersey cows graze on pasture and are rotated every so often.

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Walking around Appleton grounds evoked the ideal American agrarian narrative, one that affords many acres of land and bounty. It was really interesting to compare a farm like Appleton that exists as a preservation of the past and for primarily tourism purposes with the other farms we’ve visited that focuses much more on annual production.

Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds at Codman Farm

Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds first started in 2003 and quickly expanded with the demand for delicious and humanely raised meats and eggs. Their birds are raised organically and allowed to feed on pasture. Because their birds are grown with the peak of the season, the production capacity is much more limited, but their philosophy is rooted in producing birds in a healthy environment that benefits the birds and human taste. The quality of the birds’ diet and lifestyle is reflected in how shiny and soft their feathers are (I touched a chicken). The price for a chicken is undoubtedly very high at Pete and Jen’s, but it’s a price paid for growth and quality.

They relocated to Codman Community Farms in Lincoln in 2016 and now also run the farm’s daily operations. Codman has been a thriving community farm since 1973 and cares for over 150 acres of land. There’s a big emphasis on local farming, heritage breeds, and community involvement.

It’s been so exciting to learn about the agricultural economy of Massachusetts. We have so many small, family-owned businesses and non-profit farms in the state. Sustainable farming is sorely needed in the U.S., not only to feed people diverse and healthy diets, but also to be good to the land and beings that inhabit it.

Food and Farming