food, history, travel

Between Seasons in Baltimore

The still-green trees swayed in the wind as the rain poured down in sheets.  I stood at my friend’s white quartz kitchen island and put together our frequent supper of a cheese/deli board.  When the weather cooperates, we like to sup on the roof deck, with its views of the ever-changing city sky-scape.  But clearly the weather was not going to cooperate this evening.  So we ate in the living room, sipping Picpoul and watching Homeland.

By morning the weather had cleared, and we set out for a walk.  After six weeks at my parents’ house, I was in Baltimore for a few days’ break at the nose rub of summer and autumn.  I couldn’t have picked a better time.  The mid-Atlantic is not known for its pleasant climate, but once the previous night’s storm had passed, the days were comfortably warm and the nights refreshingly cool.  And so we strolled in fresh air under a blue sky, along Baltimore Harbor, past the Museum of Industry, a former cannery with lots of hands-on exhibits teaching about manufacturing during the early 20th century.

A little later, after a Wayward lunch, we walked to Camden Yards for a Yankees game.  I always like when I can cheer for the Orioles at home, which of course includes any time they’re hosting the Yankees.  Ball games are more fun when you can root, root, root for the home team.  And Baltimore fans have a lot of spirit.  Inevitably, they revise the Star-Spangled Banner, transforming the second solemn “O say” to a resounding “O’s!!” at Orioles games.  And at Ravens games.  And at Fourth of July concerts.  And, in at least one instance that I personally witnessed, at a Brewers game at Dodger Stadium.

In line at bag check, a young woman in a Yankees jersey was having her multi-pocketed backpack searched.  Seeing this was going to take a while, I jumped over to the next line to have my small cross-body checked.  We cleared at the same time, and she breezed past me and the two ticket takers flanking the gates. All four of us tried to call her back:

“Ma’am?”

“Ma’am!”

“MA’AM!”

“YANKEES FAN!”

She deigned to return and have her ticket scanned, after which my friend and I honestly entered the stadium.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is the first of a wave of “retro-classic” ballparks, baseball stadiums that revive the style and feel of the early parks but with modern comforts.  With its charming combination of light orange brick and painted exposed steel, the bright and airy park feels like a visit to a simpler time.  It’s not Fenway (what is??), but that’s not a fair fight:  105-year-old Fenway Park is a place where baseball history unfolded; 25-year-old Camden Yards feels like a place where baseball history unfolded.  “Retro-classic” can never be real classic, but it does have its advantages.  Where Camden strikes out on history, it hits a home run on comfort.

And I like comfort.  We usually sit in the carpeted and climate-controlled club level, but Thursday’s tickets were a gift from friend who couldn’t use them.  We sat squarely behind home plate, on seats well-spaced by stadium standards.  The weather could not have been better, clear blue sky, cool dry air.  The afternoon make-up game for the previous night’s rain-out was sparsely attended.  A couple of seats from us was a young Dad with an orange “Yankee Slayer” tee-shirt and a two-year-old daughter.  A few rows ahead of us was a pleasant and polite older couple of Yankees fans.  A younger Yankees fan sat behind us.

Indeed, the Yard was lousy with YFs, many sporting jerseys with the names of former players, lots of Jeters, a few Mantles, at least one Mattingly.  In front of us passed a middle-aged man, wearing dress shirt and tie, talking on a cell phone, probably a YF, and a 20-something man, wearing a Gronkowski jersey, probably not a YF.

“Wrong team, wrong sport,” said my companion, whose pet peeves include stadium spectators wearing garb for teams that are not presently playing.

“What about the guy down there in the Ray Lewis jersey?” I pointed out.

“Him too.”

“Gronk never killed two people.”

We stood and sang the national anthem, me joining in with the hearty “O’s!!” Things went rapidly downhill from there.  The Orioles gave up three runs in the first inning and never got their footing.

Mid-way through the game, Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier hit a foul ball into our section.  Yankee Slayer fumbled but then picked it up and gave it to his little girl.

“That was embarrassing,” he said. “I have a phone!”  He held up the device in mock self-exoneration.

The YF behind us claimed that Todd Frazier was his favorite player and asked for the ball.  YS rightly told him, No, he wasn’t going to take it from his two-year-old.  The YF left, presumably in search of a baby from whom he could wrest some candy.

By the seventh inning, the score was 9-1, and we were starting to care if we ever got back, so we headed out from the sea of pinstripes.

On the walk back, we stopped at the family boutique Berries by Quicha, where I love the large juicy dark-chocolate strawberries.  Then we headed to Cross Street Market to pick up some Port-wine cheese we both like.  CSM is a once-vibrant 19th-century marketplace where neighborhood residents have long been able to find fresh meats, seafood, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, and even flowers, as well as community conversation.  Today it stands as a sad shadow of the importance of city markets to neighborhoods’ economic, physical, and social well-being.  A development company in cahoots with the city government has forced out roughly half the small businesses in an on-again-off-again scheme to transform the marketplace.  As we strolled from one end to the other of the sadly half-empty building, the hyper-local chatter was all Orioles.

“The game’s over,” called a vendor, before it actually was, in a perhaps unintentional refutation of old-time Yankees catcher Yogi Berra.

We stopped at a bar and briefly chatted about the game.

“There were a lot of Yankees fans,” I said.

“You could tell that even on the radio,” replied a patron, sitting on a stool and swigging a beer.

But the evening ended happily on the roof deck, where we dined on meat and cheese, sipped Lambrusco, and listened to Sinatra.

Our morning walk took us to Federal Hill Park, one of the highest vantage points in the city, with spectacular views of the Harbor.  It once housed a military battery from which Maj. George Armistead led a cannon attack on British ships at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812.

I snapped pictures of the monuments before they’re defaced or removed without public debate under cover of darkness.

My friend loves public sailing tours, so after a quick lunch of grilled brats and fresh berries, we Ubered to the marina and boarded the Summer Wind for a 90-minute excursion around Baltimore Harbor.

It was another spectacular clear day as we sailed past Fort McHenry, best remembered for its role in the War of 1812.  As Maj. Armistead was firing on British ships from Federal Hill, the Fort was holding through 25 hours of shelling.  When the British attack finally ceased on the morning of September 14, 1814, the Great Garrison Flag signalled that the Fort remained under American control and inspired 35-year-old Francis Scott Key to write his poem the Defence of Fort M’Henry, now known as the Star-Spangled Banner.  One wonders what he thinks of Orioles fans’ edit.

We Ubered from the marina to Horseshoe Baltimore, a three-year-old mid-level casino not far from Camden Yards.  Like most casinos, it has several restaurants for a range of tastes and budgets, but sadly our favorite, Jack Binion’s Steak House, was set to close in a week.  So we sat for the last time on its cushy stools at its large square bar for happy hour.  Sipping Malbec, we started with calamari, some of the most lightly battered I’ve had.  Then we split our favorite entree, the moist Chilean sea bass.  We skipped dessert, as we had Quicha’s strawberries; we Ubered back and fell asleep watching The Americans.

The morning walk took us along the red brick path of the Inner Harbor, an open meld of office buildings, tourist sites, and hotels, shops, bars and restaurants.  Attractions include the National Aquarium and one of the world’s greatest Barnes and Noble bookstores.  Several historic ships are slipped in the water, including the U.S.S. Torsk, a World War II submarine that torpedoed the last two enemy ships of the War to sink, on August 14, 1945.

In the afternoon, a couple of friends joined us as we Ubered to the annual self-described “neighborhood arts festival” HampdenFest.  Among Baltimore’s hundreds of neighborhoods, Hampden is one of the most unique.  It was originally settled by mill workers, but these labor-class families have largely been priced out by more well-off couples who want the vibrancy and conveniences of city life but where they can be buffered from the consequences of their public policies.  The Hampden for Bernie booth we saw last year was nowhere to be found, but Planned Parenthood was well-represented by women in pink tee-shirts, and one dressed as the Statue of Liberty, accosting Fest-goers with stickers and urging them to “vote for choice“.

Strolling past the art galleries and upscale boutiques was a tour through the peculiar perils of millennials with more dollars than sense:

“He dumped me by a text to my Mom!”

My companion and I love Indian cuisine, so we shared chicken tikka masala and mango lassi from the Mount Everest restaurant booth, both very good for festival food.  Then my friends stopped in a liquor store to purchase a six-pack of Natty Boh and a single cider for me.  They were so excited to see me drinking from a paper bag on the street that they snapped a picture and posted it on facebook.

The highlight of this annual affair is the “Toilet Race Competition”, described “as single-elimination tournament-style drag races” during which a helmet-wearing “pilot” rides a “racer”, which must “include at least one clean human defecation device” and be “gravity-powered” yet “capable of stopping without damaging the street”.

A few minutes before the scheduled start time of 3:00, my friends decided to stake out a viewing spot.  But I got separated from them, and it was so crowded that I couldn’t catch up, so I decided to wait it out where I’d last seen them.  But my companion found me, so we grabbed another spot to watch.

“Are they all made out of toilets?” asked a girl of about six, perched atop her Dad’s shoulders.

By 3:15, the race hadn’t started, but the area was becoming so crowded that we wouldn’t be able to see anyway, so we decided to move on and wait for our friends.  Soon they too gave up and joined us, and we all sat on a curbstone as they finished their beers.

A little before 4:00, it was getting pretty warm, so we decided to find an indoor spot for a while.  Along the way, we passed a band called PLRLS, and my companion asked to listen for a couple of minutes.  The keyboard wasn’t working, and the player asked an audience member dressed as a “Rock Pope” to pray for it.  Amazingly enough, the intervention didn’t work, but the band played on, heavily inspired by the B-52s.

Rock Lobster!” an audience member shouted his request.

Around 4:40, the band played its last song, and we headed to a dive bar called Fraziers, for more beer and cider, and most importantly air conditioning and a comfy couch, somewhat lighter brown than the large room’s panelled wainscoting.

The air was much cooler by the time we sat at a black table on the spacious back porch at Wicked Sisters, a fairly new casual American restaurant.  The special was a marinated flank steak so tender I probably could have cut it with my butter knife.  It came accompanied by a smorgasbord of carbs:  fried green beans, three Yukon gold potatoes, and half an ear of corn.  I ate three of the least battered beans, two potatoes, and a bite of the corn and gave the rest to my companion.

Our friends had an anniversary coming up and wanted dessert, so we ordered a piece of chocolate Smith Island cake with four forks.  The official dessert of the State of Maryland, Smith Island cake features 8 to 14 thinly baked layers, frosted in between.  Though I prefer the most common variety, yellow cake with chocolate frosting, Wicked Sisters’ all-chocolate version was moist, and the frosting was wicked good.

But the cake wasn’t even the best treat of the night.  One of our friends liked the Malbec so much that she asked the waitress for the name of the winery.  The waitress gave her the half-full bottle.

We Ubered back to the house and climbed up to the roof deck to polish off the wine.  It was so chilly that I had to change into jeans and a sweater and bring up blankets.

It’s finally Fall!

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