Karstic Treasure: Mammoth Cave National Park (Mammoth Cave, KY)


Although our travel plans were going to be largely confined to Tennessee, how could my wife and I not pass up Mammoth Cave National Park in South Central Kentucky? The first I ever heard of it was during a nature program on PBS, described as the largest cave system in the world. Its size is so immense that it would still be larger than the next two largest systems combined by 100 miles.

Odd that the name uses the grammatical singular when in fact Mammoth Cave is comprised of many interconnected spaces in the limestone: sink holes, tubes, passageways, canyons, shafts, fissures as well as caves. This combination of limestone and excavation is characteristic of karst. A geology map shows that almost a quarter of Kentucky is karstic.

Mammoth was our first overnight stop after picking up a car at Nashville Airport and driving two hours north. The park is surrounded by the famous rolling hills of Kentucky. As we got closer, the road cuts in some areas bared telltale limestone layers. The soil has a rusty-reddish color.

We checked in to the Mammoth Cave Hotel, located within the national park boundary. Our accommodation was a standalone cabin, one of ten that form an arc along the property’s edge, which was rustic but comfortable. The hotel was undergoing an extensive renovation and construction until November, so the main building and eating facilities were closed behind chain-link fencing, except for the outlying cabins. In the evening, there was the musical thrum of cicadas and tree frogs. The park’s visitors center is only a short walking distance away.

On our only full day here, we wanted to maximize our cave experience. To that end we decided to take the longest tour called Grand Avenue tour. At almost 400 surveyed miles and counting, Mammoth was not going to feel as if we had trod on it at all. We had a terrific guide in ranger Rick Thomas, who was so knowledgeable about the cave and its history, told interesting stories and cracked bad jokes (“There’s nothing lower than cave humor,” he said proudly). As a federal employee, he was obliged to forewarn everyone on the tour, all 69 of us, that the fast-paced walk of roughly four hours, four miles and almost 700 steps over uneven terrain would be taxing. He also had to mention that in an emergency, it would take a very long time to get anyone to a hospital. No one budged. The last time my wife and I were ‘intimidated’ by a park employee (the Fiery Furnace walk at Arches National Park), we to this day regretted having changed our minds. Not this time.

The usual speleotherms of stalactites, stalagmites and such, of wet cave environments were scarce, but there were plenty of gypsum accumulations (in the form of blisters and flowers) typical of dry caves, compliments of a hard layer of sandstone that acts like an almost impervious cap over the limestone underneath. These gypsum deposits are unimaginably slow growing at a rate of a dime’s thickness per century. One impressive example is Last Rose of Summer along Cleveland Avenue. There are prolific gypsum blisters in The Snowball Room, because they look like snowballs on the ceilings and walls.

Last Rose of Summer on Cleveland Avenue

Last Rose of Summer on Cleveland Avenue

Snowball Room

Snowball Room

The long tour passage was the result of underground streams and rivers that have long since drained into the Green River, which over a period of time has carved ever deeper into the limestone layers, leaving the upper limestone layers dry. Parts of the tour were like walking through a long elliptical tunnel, sometimes bordered by smooth walls or flat ceilings, other times littered with limestone fragments, including huge slabs lying at oblique angles. Other sections were like underground slot canyons, at several points narrow enough that you had to angle your body to get through, an experience not unlike in the Southwest. We had to walk single-file for roughly a mile. There were also cavernous rooms where the group could gather around Ranger Rick to hear another story or lecture. At tour’s end, we got to see the spectacular Frozen Niagara, an unbelievable mass of flowstone deposits that require a steep descent of some forty stairs to see top to bottom. Looking up from the pit gives you a view of why this area was so named. It looks like frozen water cascading over an enormous U-shaped ledge (top image).

Ranger Rick delivering one of his talks

Ranger Rick delivering one of his talks

Ascension

An elaborate stairway and ramp system winds around Frozen Niagara

An elaborate stairway and ramp system winds around Frozen Niagara

As it turned out, the tour really was exhausting like Rick warned. We were bushed by its end, but what an experience!

Mammoth Cave National Park
1 Mammoth Cave Pkwy
Mammoth Cave, KY 42259
270. 758.2180

Personal Food Favorites at the Issaquah Farmers Market


As the season for the Issaquah Farmers Market draws to a close in two weeks, I wanted to write about my favorite food vendors. These are businesses that I consider to be first among equals, so to speak, businesses that sell uncompromisingly good food that I look forward to every time I’m visiting the market. Summertime would not be the same without these Saturday visits.

Kallstrom Sweet Corn sells corn, and only corn. Grown in fields between George and Ephrata (in eastern Washington), they are the best, very sweet and tender and—almost unheard of in this day and age—non-GMO. Their familiar covered trailer is always found at the northwest corner of the market. When they didn’t show up one week, loyal customers (including my wife and I) were alarmed, making worried inquiries at the market’s information booth, going to their Facebook page or website for clues about their absence. Even if my family doesn’t eat corn much during the rest of the year, we eat it weekly during the season, and we get it only here. Kallstrom has a devoted following. The corn is as good as it gets. Candy on a cob.

Uriah Kallstrom, Kallstrom Sweet Corn

Kallstrom Farm trailer

I don’t know how Michael Pinckney does it, but all his cookies (Pinckney Cookie Cafe) are out-of-this-world. I prefer chewy cookies, and he obliges. None of them is crispy. He also doesn’t use artificial ingredients. The line-up includes at least eight kinds. Every week, he features a cookie-of-the-day. I am partial to the Bing Bling!, an alchemical mix of coconut, chocolate and dried Bing cherries. The Double Chocolate Espresso is another home-run, as deep a spiritual chocolate-espresso experience as I will ever get. And this year, he added a cookie made with Woodinville Whiskey Company’s bourbon. The cookie is tasty and surprisingly non-boozy, clearly on its way to becoming one of the best sellers. I buy only 2-3 cookies per visit to hold the lust in check during the week.

Michael Pinckney, Pinckney Cookie Café

Bing Bling! and Double Chocolate Espresso cookies

Next door to Pinckney’s (this year, anyway) is WiseGuy Italian Street Food that sells the best Italian meatball sandwich that I’ve eaten in a long time. And equally delicious is the sausage and bell pepper hero. It took us until this year to ‘discover’ them after they’d been doing business at the market for years. What makes the sandwiches so irresistible are the light, crispy bread that WiseGuy sources from Le Panier and an outstanding, zesty marinara. The cauldrons of simmering meatball and sausages-pepper fillings are like siren calls. Resistance is futile.

WiseGuy Italian Street Food

Sausage and pepper hero

Italian meatball hero

I’ve been motivated to buy farm fresh eggs whenever possible ever since stories emerged that what you buy at the supermarket might have been in storage for months and can come from anywhere in the world. Even organic eggs. At the market, I buy fresh eggs from Ode to Joy Farm. The hens are pasture-raised in Enumclaw and eat grass, bugs and organic feed. Every now and then, a lovely pastel green egg will appear among the otherwise brown dozen. The stall also sells duck eggs and poultry.

Joyce Behrendt, Ode to Joy Farm

odetojoy

Mouth-watering treats that showed up at the market this year are popsicles made by Seattle Pops (Facebook page). They’re made with the freshest ingredients, including fruits in season. The fruit pop line-up includes strawberry, lime, blueberry and watermelon. Their cream-based pops use chocolate, raspberry, peach and banana. In the latter category, the two that my wife and I had to have without hesitation were Coconut Cream (☆☆☆☆) and Kona Coffee (☆☆☆☆). Holy moly! We have never had popsicles this good, inspired by Mexican canelas. The dairy cream is ridiculously rich. The addition of toasted, shredded dried coconuts elevate the coconut pop to another level. The Kona pop has an incredibly deep coffee flavor. Unfortunately, we haven’t tried any of the other flavors, so enamored are we with those two. Several of their pops are seasonal; upcoming are Pumpkin Pie and Cranberry.

Dave, Seattle Pops

I described Gobble Express in my previous post, but the vendor apparently has to alternate appearances with other food trucks. In that sense, it doesn’t qualify as a purveyor I can even look forward to every week. But, oh, that smoked turkey leg is enough for me to be on the lookout whenever I go marketing.

Though this has nothing to do with food, I had to put in a plug for the Hmong flower stalls. They sell beautifully arranged bouquets throughout the market season at very reasonable prices. My favorite times are late spring (when peonies are abundant) and late summer (for the spectacular variety of dahlias).

Peonies

Peonies

Dahlias

Dahlia bouquet ($15)

Dahlias

Dahlias

One vendor we dearly miss is Westover Farm. Darrell Westover sold uncommon produce, like lemon cucumbers, corno di toro bell peppers, kamo eggplants, Ailsa Craig onions, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and shishito peppers. Not only were they freshly picked but were a great value. For health reasons, Darrell no longer drives out to Issaquah on Saturdays but still continues to sell his hydroponically grown produce at his farm in Maple Valley. I was very disappointed (but understanding) that he didn’t show up this season.

Darrell Westover, Westover Farm

Shishito peppers

Farmers markets are reminders of the plenty we have available locally. It takes dedication and lots of hard work by the people who grow and make things. A few of them travel long distances to sell at the market. Though it lasts five months, the season is all too short.

Eat Your Heart Out, Disney World—Gobble Express’ Smoked Turkey Legs


Gobble Express started showing up at the Issaquah Famers Market this year, swapping the sole food truck location every other week with Maximus/Minimus. As the name suggests, Gobble Express specializes in turkey, as does the brick-and-mortar operation, called Gobble Restaurant, in Woodinville. The truck has a more limited menu, including smoked turkey legs. The first time I ever ate one was at Disneyland two years ago, a transplant from Disney World where it has been a huge hit. My gnawing on it must’ve seemed like a Neanderthal moment to my family. In truth, I wasn’t so impressed, the leg meat being extremely chewy and stringy. So it was with a little trepidation that I took my first bite of Gobble Express’ drumstick. Not to worry, it was phenomenal, the meat succulent and smoky and burnished to a rich, dark brown.

Gobble’s motto is You buy, we’ll fly, referring to its flexible catering business. Its drollery and terse rhyme remind me of another local smokehouse, Caveman Kitchen in Kent, whose motto is You choke ’em, we smoke ’em, referring to its side business of smoking any meat you bring them. The similarity doesn’t end there because the skin of the turkey leg is like that of Caveman’s vaunted chicken, very smoky, leathery—and delicious. Gobble Express also sells sandwiches made with BBQ beef brisket, pulled pork and pulled turkey, but the turkey leg is its best seller (☆☆☆☆).

Please, Have a Seat


In the shady part of the Bellevue Demonstration Garden is the frame of a chair that adds a little unexpected whimsy.

And, right around the corner is the children’s garden featuring a small plot fit for tiny—really tiny—people. Elves?

Chiles Growing in Seattle?


While no one would ever mistake the climate in the Seattle area for Mexico or the Southwest, or eastern Washington even, King County Master Gardeners are intent on proving that chiles can grow quite successfully in our climate. True, they will never develop the legendary heat of Hatch chiles, but it is possible for our gardens to produce more than just bell peppers. No doubt, our unprecedented run of warm, dry weather was responsible for a surprisingly robust crop. I was struck by the variety that was growing in the Bellevue Demonstration Garden. These were just a few varieties.