Orchids of the Atlanta Botanical Garden

I thought I’d seen almost all the interesting orchids there were to see. I’d been to several world-class botanical gardens, each with very fine orchid specimens. When I walked into the Fuqua Orchid Center of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, I knew from the outset that the collection was exceptional. What I saw was only a portion of the 2,000 species that the center cultivates. Come back in a couple of months and the display will be different. The gallery of images below makes no attempt at identification and certainly is a small portion of the (then) current exhibit.

A Brief Visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It was a surprise to me—and probably a lot of other people, too—when I learned from my wife’s cousin that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in all of America. Even more than Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone. Hard to fathom.

One big reason is that there is no fee to enter the park. Tennessee can be thanked for adding the free-access stipulation when Newfound Gap Road, then the main artery for crossing the southern Appalachians, was transferred to federal jurisdiction. Lying between North Carolina and Tennessee, the park has over 800 square miles of protected land that hosts an incredible bounty of plant and animal life. Ample rainfall exceeded only by my own Pacific Northwest has produced a temperate rain forest. All that moisture gives rise to abundant condensation, giving the appearance of the characteristic blue smoke that seems to hover over the mountains.

One of the best ways to experience this diversity up close is to take a hike among the 800 miles of trails. Being wildflowers enthusiasts, my wife’s cousin and her husband, who live in Asheville, took us on a couple of hikes that showcased some of the over 1,500 wildflowers that bloom during the year.

We were also taken on a drive along the Newfound Gap Road along which are high-elevation lookouts with spectacular views of the Smokies. Their gently sloping sides are indicative of extreme age; geologists estimate 200-300 million years old. In the early summer, the hills are literally covered with spectacular catawba rhododendrons.

Our brief visit here only whetted our appetite for a return visit or two.

Catawba rhododendrons near Grassy Ridge (photo taken by the husband of my wife's cousin)

Catawbas ( June 2011) at Grassy Ridge (photo taken by JB, my wife’s cousin’s husband)

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Wildflowers of the Great Smoky Mountains (NC)

I was surprised to learn that the Great Smoky Mountains have the most species of wildflowers of any place in North America. There are reportedly over 1,500 that bloom year-round, and all you have to do is take one of the many trails in the park to view them. Because my wife’s cousin and her husband live in Asheville, they take many of those hikes. They have become experts at identifying them and knowing what time of year the various flowers blossom. Since we were visiting them, they were happy to take us on a few trails.

Since we arrived in late April/early May, the literature points out that this is the time for what are called spring ephemerals, flowers that blossom as early as late winter and into early spring before the deciduous trees overhead leaf out, lasting only a month or two before they die.

The following are photographs that were taken on two separate hikes.

Monk’s Cafe (Philadelphia)

Monk's Red Light Mussels

Monk’s Red Light Mussels

Ever have a sour beer? Not one that’s gone bad, but a beer that’s brewed that way? It’s quite distinctive, deriving its sourness from lactic acid.  Monk’s offers a Flemish sour ale that is made for them in Belgium. On first taste, the sourness is surprising, but it grows on you. It pairs especially well with the restaurant’s specialty, steamed mussels, which come in a variety of preparations. All the mussels are cultivated in the cold waters of Nova Scotia. The dish pictured above is the Red Light Mussels steamed in Belgian witbier (white ale), fumé blanc, toasted chile de arbol peppers, chervil and garlic. The mussel meat was small (the way I like them) and perfectly cooked, if somewhat gritty. All the mussel dishes come with Belgian fries, cut small and twice-fried for crispiness, accompanied by a tasty bourbon mayonnaise. A single roll is also provided for sopping up the delicious broth.

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Monk’s Cafe
264 S 16th St
Philadelphia, PA

Carmen’s Italian Hoagies

Carmen’s Super Italian hoagie

The hoagies of Philadelphia are justifiably famous. The sheer number of restaurants that serve them keeps the competition high. Besides Chickie’s, Carmen’s is a local favorite. I ate one of their sandwiches on our last trip to Philadelphia and was impressed. I ordered the same hoagie again, the Super Italian, filled with sweet sopressata, capocola, mortadella, tomatoes, onion, lettuce, and roasted spicy peppers, whose fire sort of sneaks up on you. The bread here was light, yet wonderfully crispy and seeded on the outside. I much preferred the bread here than at Chickie’s, which uses Sarcone’s. Here, on some sandwiches you can also add “extras” like sharp Provolone and broccoli rate, Philly favorites.

Carmen’s Italian Hoagies
51 N 12th St
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Between Arch St & Filbert St

Tommy Di Nic’s (Philadelphia)

Tommy Di Nic’s is another hoagie stand (Reading Terminal Station in Philadelphia) that appears on many favorite lists. They specialize in roast beef and roast pork, as well as pulled pork. I got the roast pork, plentiful slices that were piled into a light, crispy roll, mounded with sautéed broccoli rabe and sharp Provolone, and finally finished with pork gravy. This was a superb sandwich, with ingredients that typify the hoagie made in this part of the country (including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware).

Adam Richman ate and praised this sandwich on his Man v. Food show back in 2009 (Season 2).

Roast pork with sharp provolone and broccoli rate. Photo borrowed from yelp.com (Cynthia L)

Reading Terminal Market
1136 Arch Street
12th and Arch streets
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Chickie’s Italian Deli (Philadelphia)

Chickie’s veggie hoagie

Chickie’s is one of many restaurants in Philadelphia that make Italian hoagies. The veggie and tuna sandwiches are their two famous specialties. The vegetarian in particular has received several awards and media recognition. Chickie’s claims that even blue collar workers can’t resist it. Roasted red bell pepper, baked eggplant and sauteed broccoli rabe are nestled in a sliced and lightly toasted bread made by Sarcone’s, a long-time bakery in the Italian shopping district. Grated sharp Provolone and a vinaigrette dressing round out this delicious sandwich. I found that the bread suffers from a somewhat dense and chewy texture, like a baguette, with the result that biting into it causes the filling to be squeezed out at the opposite end. Other than that, this is a noteworthy hoagie. The tuna sandwich (featuring oil-packed tuna, which is much more flavorful than water-packed) will have to wait for another visit.

Chickie’s Italian Deli
1014 Federal Street
Philadelphia, PA

Mercato (Philadelphia)

Within a few blocks of our daughter and son-in-law’s house is Mercato, a restaurant that draws inspiration from Italian and Italian-American cooking. It’s nestled in a tiny space on Spruce near 12th, but the cheerful saffron yellow walls make it feel more expansive. Our daughter brought along an Italian soave because of a BYOB policy observed by many Philadelphia restaurants.

The evening got started with spectacular antipasti, Mercato’s splendid version spread with grilled and marinated vegetables, bocconcini, a sampling of cured olives, crostini topped with diced tomato, slivered basil and red onion, and thinly sliced soppressata artfully folded to suggest a flower.

Mercato Antipasti

Another appetizer was a spot-on grilled artichoke accompanied by a citrus aioli. The grilling intensified the vegetable’s flavor.

Grilled artichoke

Grilled artichoke with citrus aioli

Three pan seared diver scallops were served on a bed of mushroom and English pea risotto, topped with a Parmesan crisp. As if that weren’t enough, the entire dish was drizzled with truffle oil. The scallops were crisply browned but still sweet and succulent. An excellent entrée.

Pan Seared Diver Scallops

Ricotta gnocchi were served with long-braised, fork-tender short ribs, broccoli rabe and locatelli cheese, and bathed in a fresh tomato sauce.

Short rib ragu

You know it’s was winning restaurant when it was hard to say which entrée was our favorite.

1216 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Rodin Museum (Philadelphia, PA)

The Thinker

I was surprised to learn that there was a museum here in Philadelphia of Auguste Rodin’s works, thinking that most, if not all, of the originals would be in Paris. This belief is based on a misunderstanding of how Rodin worked. He often made plaster casts of his sculpture to be used to make replicas in bronze. To preserve their value, only limited numbers of pieces were ever made. Thus, there are other museums of Rodin’s works.

The Thinker, Rodin’s most recognizable bronze sculpture, sits outside the Rodin Museum. The Philadelphia museum houses the largest collection of his sculpture outside France. Though the building is quite small, there are over 100 of Rodin’s pieces here.

Rodin’s (in)famous sculpture is The Kiss, which is also widely recognizable as one of his enduring and erotic works. There is a copy of it, actually done for the museum by Henry Gréber. Another marble sculpture of an embracing couple is Eternal Springtime, a bronze casting of which also stands nearby.

Eternal Spring

Rodin’s most ambitious work is The Gates of Hell, a bronze door that recreates themes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. It can be seen in the portico as you approach the front of the museum. Several of Rodin’s most famous sculptures were inspired by smaller versions of them on the door, such as The Thinker and The Kiss.

Gates of Hell