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Just minutes ago, I was driving across Bay Bridge in what seemed like miles of concrete, the ferocious rain slapping against the barely visible windshield, all the temporary residents of the bridge enveloped in a thick fog. Even with the wipers toiling at maximum speed, visibility was near zero. Then, in spectacular fashion, the sky cleared and the clouds parted, collecting the rain and its remnants. As rays of sunshine pierced the withering layers of precipitation, the fog cleared as well, dissipating in a heartbeat, as if it were never there to begin with.

“I’ll have a shot of espresso, pulled long please.” Thanks to a faulty navigation system, a supposed two-hour drive up to St. Michaels had taken closer to four, and with a stiff back from the extended drive, I desperately grasped coffee’s medicinal healing powers. Espresso for the back. Worked before, so why not. Doctor’s orders. What came back was an overly bitter, acidic specimen of espresso, remarkably similar in taste to the ginseng extract my mom used to shove in my mouth as a child. Not something you would want to correlate with coffee, especially the first few sips in a new town. In open defiance to the predisposed list of “coffee cities” – the likes of Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – I was, in part, in search of a noteworthy coffee scene in this small tourist destination, a roaster and a cup or two of praiseable beans and coffee. Maryland has its share of excellent specialty roasters, Ceremony Coffee being one of them. But my first stop at Blue Crab Coffee quickly dwindled any hope of making a significant discovery (TripAdvisor and Yelp are not to be trusted blindly). Disappointment trickling down my esophagus along with the shot – I had expected much more from a relatively well-reviewed cafe, especially a more jovial atmosphere in lieu of sorry music – I stepped back outside and into the sun on my first afternoon in St. Michaels.

A trip to crab country when crab season is still months away. The only glimpse of Maryland blue crab was a glistening plastic replica hanging on a wall at Blue Crab Coffee. But St. Michaels was much more than just crab. It is a quiet coexistence of opposites, centered around shipbuilding and leisure. The town first flourished as a mecca of shipyards in the Chesapeake, fueled by people’s explosive appetite for oysters and later crab. A boom in ships, oysters and crab meant a boom for the town. Churches and schools were built, homes were settled, and fisherman, oystermen and businessmen alike flourished. Then the ships were no more. The oysters never died off, but harvest levels fell drastically. Crabbing became the main source of livelihood. Over time, the once thriving ship town evolved into a quaint retreat, with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld purchasing vacation homes on the Bay. Different types of vessels are built now, mostly luxury yachts. Tourism, especially during the summer crab season, sustains the town.

But ironically, the off-season is the ripe time to immerse oneself to the quintessential Eastern Seaboard. Away from the flocks of tourists, jam packed in the one-two-many crab shacks near the docks. Distanced from the temptation to settle for only the guided tours offered twice a day. In all honesty, escaping “touristy” St. Michaels is near impossible. You should pay admission and check out the maritime museum, a must to understand the backbone shipping industry that sustained this regions for decades. Guided tours or not, you should walk through the heart of the city on foot; the historic section is tiny, and you’d drive through it in minutes. In the midst of “touring,” however, be sure to chat up the locals to find out where they eat and where they drink their coffee. In doing so, you will find that crab country is possibly more charming when there are no crabs around.

From my short trip to the heart of the Chesapeake, here are three takeaways.

1. Fried Oysters and Pulled Pork, at Once

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Talbot Street is the main street piercing the belly downtown St. Michaels. The narrow street is clubbered with eateries left and right. One restaurant was particularly eye-catching, with an open patio resembling Cancun during spring break. A menu displayed the usual of what you’d expect on the coast – fried fish, burgers, sandwiches. Packed and bustling, very “family friendly.” Pass. Instead, I walked further down the road, a few blocks, towards the outer edge of downtown. Fewer people on the sidewalk. In the distance, I spotted a cloud of smoke slowly rising from a smoker on a trailer. The smell of smoky, caramelized meat was violently enticing. Gripping. The last thing I expected on this trip was to be standing next to a cozy smoker, inhaling the Divine Breath while contemplating whether to have grilled grouper or oysters. And pulled pork. The sign outside read ‘Big Al’s Market.” Smoked meat. Plus freshly fried Chesapeake oysters. Needless to say, I walked in.

On the hand-written menu, “barbeque” and “oysters” floated harmoniously, shyly as if the two acquaintances did not really know how to coexist within the limited square footage of the establishment. Surf and turf was no longer a plate of disdainfully well-done steak with dehydrated shrimp. Here, pork butt slowly roasted for hours in an actual smoker married just-shucked oysters the size of dried persimmons, breaded and perfectly deep fried. Smoke, pork, bun, oysters, cocktail sauce (with extra horseradish). All consumed at a “smoke-side” table outside, right next to that smoker. Did I mention the smoker? The oysters, still hot, had an audible crunch, and yet I could still taste the sea from the juices in side. The horseradish pleasantly shot up my nostrils, while the fuming smoke from the roasting pork bun and ribs cajoled the left side of my face. No complaints on being completely enveloped in that smoke.

A proper hello to a new city. Cars whizzing by behind my back, the warm midday sun easing the still brisk spring winds, a few local high school students taking the table next to ours with baskets of pulled pork sandwiches and fries. Even if I was sitting on the curb, without tables, I would not have had lunch any other way in St. Michaels. Expected and unexpected at the same time, on that main touristy road but not touristy at all. Southern charm from the ongoing smoker, Chesapeake charm from the oyster juice. A wonderful dichotomy reflective of the bygone glories of the shipyards, the mounds of shiny oyster shells, and the remaining gift shops selling disturbingly ugly t-shirts. Embracing this dichotomy presents a new prism in which to view St. Michaels as something more than a mere settlement of vacation homes. Embracing this dichotomy tastes like, well, smoke. That smoker!

2. White Tablecloth is Not the Devil

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I have a thing on fine dining. Not against, just “on.” The one-too-many shiny utensils, two-too-many glasses, the obviously American-born waiter (quite possibly a George Washington University student) painfully saying “voila” every other visit with an accent even I can detect, the pitifully frugal morsel of food on my overpriced plate with some sauce smeared across the top and mysterious foam slowly deflating on the side. Not against fine dining, not against it. I’d like to redefine it, somewhat. White tablecloth does not make food “fine,” nor does an over indulgence of fois gras or truffles on every dish. To be honest, I don’t know how I’d define fine dining. “Fine” is subjective on so many levels, although Michelin or the Beard Foundation would disagree. Defining subjective things is almost a pointless task, for the final definition of the term will be, by “definition”, different for any individual or group. Different definition across cultures, race, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Given this, I say the hell with it, here is what fine dining boils down to: enjoyment of well-prepared food in the company of likeable people within the confines of agreeable surroundings. Food, people, place.

Hence the heightened speculation when I was seated at Sherwood’s Landing, the exquisite restaurant at the Inn and Perry Cabin hotel. In any city I visit for the first time, my priority is to explore the hidden huts and shacks no one has heard of and not reviewed in Yelp or TripAdvisor. That cafe only the locals frequent, that burger joint students visit for their hangover cure. But this trip had a grander purpose than my priorities, our first wedding anniversary. For one meal, no shack will do, no hut will do, only the best dining experience in all of St. Michaels would be worthy of our occasion.

The dining area was beautiful, overlooking a small bay with wooden docks, the late afternoon sunshine illuminating the entire room. The tables were mostly empty, as we had opted for an earlier time slot. Like much of the resort itself, the restaurant was serene and calming, the famous spa having rubbed off its influence even in the gastronomic arena. Enchanting, but my interest, as always, was whether the food would match the ambiance. And indeed, the chef rose to the challenge. No foam. No fluff. No frills. Local, in-season ingredients, generous portions. The warm salad, with blanched asparagus and morel mushrooms, was more than pleasing even to this salad-despising carnivore; the butter and crème fraîche sauce, punched with chopped garlic, was perfect. The real highlight, however, is the stuffed duck breast I had for my entree. If you’ve had duck breast done blasphemously incorrectly on more than one occasion (read overcooked), you will empathize with the praise I am about to pour out. Most importantly, the breast was the perfect temperature, pinkish and very moist. The chef butterflied the breast, pan fried it, and stuffed it with a tantalizing concoction of apples and smoked walnuts, among other things. Three medallions, rolled like a futomaki, rested on three beds of pureed parsnips, a much wiser supplement than potatoes or other starches. To best enjoy this dish, every criterion must hit the tongue at once. Juicy duck, tart apples, smoky walnuts, sweet and buttery parsnip. Oh, and the medallions were wrapped in bacon. Not overpowering, just adding salt and smokiness. Do I need to say more? The sauce was something wine-based, sweet, savory, brilliant. No other single dish has left a lasting impression as this one. That says a lot.

Fine dining has reinvented itself in my psyche. The fancy frills, the foie, even the foam – they’re okay. As long as the food is profound and prominent throughout the dining experience, as long as the food is straightforward, as long as the food tastes “fine,” white tablecloth is not the devil.

3. Locals Know Their Brew

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Exploring a new city through its cafes is a brilliant approach. Coffee, the people who serve it and the cafes in which it is served, is a vein that connects cities and their inhabitants. Where there is coffee, there are stories, stories about stories, and the people behind the stories. Cafes are microcosms of the city itself, a miniature that captures its essential characteristics. You know a cafe, and you’re half way there in knowing the city.

I did not have high expectations of St. Michaels’ coffee scene. Most reviews I glanced over indicated two cafes, one of which was closed in 2011. The other is Blue Crab Coffee, a supposed local favorite located in a big yellow house known as the Freedom’s Friend Lodge. As my first stop in town, I walked in and ordered an espresso. The rest is as stated in my opening; nothing special, nothing noteworthy. Bad espresso. Maybe it was that particular barista. Maybe the specialty pour over coffees would have fared better. I judge sushi joints the same way. One bite of nigiri; if it’s off, you haven’t got the basics down. Coffee? Espresso, if it’s off, it’s off. Whatever the reason, my first impression of St. Michaels, and any hopes of discovering a hidden coffee culture within, was all but ruined.

This is why you talk to waiters, bartenders, baristas, and hotel concierge. These folks know their cities in and out, and usually are giddily happy to share nuggets of information with you. At the end of a mind boggling meal at Sherwood’s Landing, as I was stuffing my face with an equally delicious souffle, I asked our waiter about their coffee. Restaurant coffee service, especially in starred establishments, is a recent interest to me, as I have written about it in this post. A blend of Sumatran and Guatemalan beans, the coffee was smooth, full body, and very nutty. With obvious pride, the waiter informed me that they have been working with the local roaster Rise Up Coffee for some time, and this was a specially designed house blend for the restaurant. Rise Up Coffee, I had to get me some of that, pronto. Evidently, the nearest nexus to this new found wonder was a drive thru kiosk a mile or so away.

The kiosk was the last pit stop before driving back to DC. I usually enjoy the cafe experience, walking in, perusing the single origin menu, checking out the espresso machine, the whole bit. But if a ten-by-ten hut in a parking lot serves fresh, tasty coffee, I do not care. Nothing frivolous, just a standard cup of the daily house blend, and yet my last impression of St. Michaels is now etched with Rise Up’s rich brew. The coffee scene did not let me down, after all. A local roaster in existence since 2005 serving great coffee on par with bigger competition in cities like New York and Seattle. It was a shame I did not visit the newly opened roastery in Easton; you can be sure I will drop by during my next visit. New roaster (at least to me) doing things right, brewing excellent coffee – these things excite me. Who knew. The “locavore” concept now makes more sense to me. Local oysters, local duck, and locally roasted coffee. Besides the obvious benefits of freshness and taste, the discovery of locally owned and distributed foods and coffees adds pure bliss to travel. And such discoveries will be the focal point of future tales to come.

“Stop being an asshole and you will start having fun.”

That sums up my interview for the Legal Nomads series “Thrillable Hours.” Founder Jodi Ettenberg epitomizes a major truth of why I started this blog – to document lawyers in the act of not lawyering. A former corporate lawyer in New York, Jodi left her practice to eat her way through the vast unknown, writing about her devourable moments on her site. She has also authored the book “The Food Traveler’s Handbook,” in which she preaches why food is the ultimate prism in viewing our world of many cultures. If you have not already, check it out here. Jodi was a joy to work with, and I hope to conjure up another deliciously creative project in the near future.

“Thrillable Hours” features ex-lawyers who have left the practice of law, or current lawyers like me with multiple identities beyond the reach of the law. Many wonderful people were interviewed before me, doing incredible things I may never achieve. Reading their stories have left a lasting imprint on my thoughts, and I hope you will discover a similar jolt in yours, lawyer or not. I tried to answer the questions as honestly as possible, and the process was most rewarding to me and allowed me to reflect deeply into the last few years and the years ahead.

What an honor. You can read the full interview here on Legal Nomads.

The big hand on the clock had not yet passed the number twelve. It was not yet seven a.m., early for breakfast, according to some standards. I had barely taken off my parka when the kimchi jjigae started to boil, simmering atop the makeshift butane gas burner. “Aged” kimchi, fatty morsels of pork, fish cake, and in spectacular fashion, instant ramen noodles. This was the most memorable meal in my trek through Korea, and a worthy champion of all breakfasts of champions, a mesmerizing symphony of hot, spicy, sour, fatty and nutty.

Eating through Korea, and much of Asia, one inevitably encounters levels of heat and a variety of spices. They are what make the dishes unique, that “bang” effect when you pop that first spoonful in your mouth. Meat from all parts of the animal (and from all kinds of animals) smeared in deliciously mysterious blends of red chilies, fish from all depths of the ocean simmering in heat-infused cauldrons, and the freshest produce with nothing else but touches of sesame oil and mother loads of garlic. Personally, anything in soup form turns my head; alongside coffee, things boiling in savory broth are my favorite psychoactive drugs. What can I say, doctor’s orders. Soup fetish is shared amongst many travelers, writers and eaters alike. Fellow non-lawyer lawyer Jodi Ettenberg, travel writer and author of the blog Legal Nomads, knows a little something about eating through Southeast Asia, and has professed her love for all things soup in a beautiful piece about the gastronomy of Mekong (read it here).

One problem. I have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. According to the renowned Mayo Clinic, “Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic digestive disease that occurs when stomach acid or, occasionally, bile flows back (refluxes) into your food pipe (esophagus). The backwash of acid irritates the lining of your esophagus and causes GERD signs and symptoms. Signs and symptoms of GERD include acid reflux and heartburn. Both are common digestive conditions that many people experience from time to time. When these signs and symptoms occur at least twice each week or interfere with your daily life, doctors call this GERD.” In food terms, anything flavorful and exciting will cause stomach acid to shoot up my esophagus. No good.

Thankfully, my case is not that severe, nothing that cannot be treated or controlled with “healthy” eating habits and Prilosec OTC (and my condition has improved significantly within the past year). Nevertheless, eating my way through Korea was not always easy with GERD, especially when I was treating every meal (starting with breakfast, and often more than three times a day) as if it was my last. But I wasn’t about to settle for salads and bland rice porridge. So over the years, I have developed a list of sorts, comprised of tips to control and minimize the level of discomfort. Every street I strolled down, something was boiling to my left, something steaming to my right, the soondae lady calling for me, the catfish stew guy grabbing my arm. As Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist everything, except temptation.” Ah, the temptation. Ceaseless. Having GERD could be a death sentence to a traveler, a crippling Achilles heel. While shitting like a mink and crawling on all fours after eating bad crab is probably worse, GERD still impacts your eating routine. So awareness and precaution is critical. That is why I share this list with you, in hopes that, if there are any travelers out there suffering from this annoying-as-hell disorder, they will still manage to conquer the gastronomical path without a trip to the emergency room.

With that, here is some non-medical advice from a non-lawyer lawyer.

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1. Take Prilosec OTC (or equivalent) Religiously

I cannot emphasize this enough, for I once too underestimated its usefulness. Prilosec should be taken once a day, and it essentially blocks the release of excess stomach acid. Better than Tums. One doctor recommended I take it right before bed, because, theoretically, acid is more likely to travel upriver (meaning up the esophagus) when one is reclining. Makes sense. Another doctor told me I should take it about an hour before an anticipated “big meal,” so when this anticipation comes to fruition, my stomach is not freaking out, spewing acid like a frightened sea squirt. Personally, I think taking it at night before bed has worked better, but I cannot say that for others. Try both and see for yourself.

2. Stay Away from Aspirin

Down all the gochoojang you want, chomp on all the chilies you want, drink that late night coffee (ok, these are bad, too, for GERD). But whatever you do, don’t take aspirin, especially when your GERD symptoms seem to be on the rise (trust me, you know when things are about to get worse). I cannot explain why this is, and my med student brother told me some gibberish at some point, which I rarely comprehend. Bottom line, aspirin makes your symptoms worse. If you need pain medication or a fever reducer, try other drugs that do not contain aspirin.

3. Carbohydrates are Your Friend

You should eat your bland carbs (often meaning bland rice) to balance out the spice and heat of the other foods. In addition to all the grilled meats, fish, and stew, a bowl of rice or a slice of bread goes a long way, in my opinion, absorbing excess acid generated from the fiery pork belly and raw garlic that just went into your mouth.

4. Breakfast Does a Body Good

This isn’t your mom nagging you through grade school. Yes, breakfast is good for you, especially if you have GERD. In my experience, an empty stomach is ripe for acid action, especially if that empty stomach is blitzed with heavy, fatty, spicy, delicious creations without notice. Wherever your current destination is, the locals probably know where the best breakfast grubs are. You don’t really know a culture until you sit down with locals for breakfast. So for everyone’s benefit, search for breakfast and enjoy it, regularly.

5. Snack Away in the Streets

For true travelers, I do not have to emphasize the thrill and joy of street food. Street food is not a fad, it is certainly not a “hipster” thing. It does not spring up by every John Doe crowing every street corner with a truck or cart. While they may be serving ridiculously good food too, “street food” is a time-cultivated, history-tested tradition. Folks eating on the streets – while selling and bartering whatever they could find to earn very little – is what created street food. This is certainly the case in Korea, where outdoor markets were (and still are for many) the very source of livelihood. People had to eat while working, and voila, street food. In any event, an empty stomach is bad for GERD. So while you are exploring the explorable (by foot, wherever possible), snack and snack often. Control the acid with regular food intake, and really learn the streets and the people that inhabit them. Tough to learn that in front of tablecloth.

6. Tums for Your Tummy

While drugs like Prilosec are better for long term treatment, Tums can save your ass in an emergency. Carry some with you at all times. But a word of caution: do not rely on them. For me, there were days when each meal was a grand slam; hearty kimchi jjigae for breakfast, spicy monk fish casserole for lunch, snacks, snacks, more snacks. Ah, and dinner was something grilled, intestines perhaps with a little skirt steak on charcoal. Having forgotten to take Prilosec the night before, I took some Tums before dinner. No good. It didn’t seem to work as quickly as I thought it would. But that was one particular day with meal after meal after meal. Tums would have worked wonders on any other day, and if I had taken them earlier.

7. Raw is Good, but Not Always

Sashimi is sexy. It just is. Raw fish in any form – also, beef tare-tare in any form – is plentiful throughout the Korean shores and elsewhere in Asia. But, unfortunately, raw things do not seem to be best for GERD people. My most memorable sushi experience to date has been at Sushi Sunsoo in Seoul (which I wrote about in this post). Cruelly, I was fighting off a nasty cold, and my GERD was acting up again, thanks to many fantastic meals preceding Sunsoo. Sashimi, oysters, nigiri sushi, maki, tempura – divine. But that night, I almost crawled into the ER. Raw fish plus cold plus that mysterious medicine the pharmacist gave me (which I stupidly consumed without reading the labels for aspirin) did not please the GERD gods. So if you are in a region prone to magnificent uncooked foods, schedule your meals accordingly.

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There it is.

Travel is meaningless without food. The essence of travel is the acquaintance of and interaction with the people that make up the destination, and food happens to be the universal language spoken across all continents. To reach a soul, the stomach is the quickest route.

Don’t let that acid get in your way.

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