Saturday, April 30, 2011

South Mountain Creamery: All Your Food from Frederick

     Imagine if the majority of the food you eat at home grew up out of the ground of your very county!  Well, this weekend, the Spring Festival at South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, MD is the perfect chance to explore that possibility.  Today and tomorrow from 10am-5pm they are open for fun!
     I have heard for a couple of years about the delicious milk produced at this local dairy farm, but could never seem to find the time to drive over there and check it out for myself.  So when I heard that they were gearing up for a major festival, I took a trip over there a few days in advance to get a preview of what to expect this weekend.  I knew that they produced fresh, great tasting milk, but on this visit I found that they do so much more.
     If you haven’t heard of the creamery, the first thing you should know is that their milk is totally different from what you would normally get in grocery stores.  According to general manager of the farm, J.R. Byrd, who left a career with a big dairy producer because he didn’t like their practices, most store-bought milk is “ultra-pasteurized” and contains additives to extend the shelf-life of the products.  He said that because SMC can do home-deliveries of their milk to the customer within 24 to 48 hours of bottling, their milk can get away with a 15-day expiration code, while grocery stores need about 30 days.  This enables SMC to use only the most mild pasteurization technique so as not to damage the milk.
     “With ultra-pasteurizing, basically you’re killing the same bacteria that we kill at just high-temperature pasteurizing,” he said.  “The problem with that is they’re actually bringing the milk to where you’re losing a lot of the good enzymes and things in the milk that you want to have in your body.   We don’t add anything to the milk except what the state mandated with vitamins.  So it’s as all natural and as straight from the cow as it basically possibly can be without being raw milk.”
     J.R. is also proud that all of the cows are only fed by what they grow on their own 1,400 acres of farmland.

     But health isn’t the only difference.  I can vouch for the taste myself.  It is so much hardier, smoother and creamier than anything I’ve tasted in the grocery store.  I also like that all of their milk comes in glass bottles.  In the past I’ve noticed an almost stale taste that comes along with milk from a plastic or paper carton, whereas the only thing I taste with a glass bottle is the milk itself.  And because SMC recollects the glass bottles for recycling, I can feel good about not adding to a landfill.
     The really cool thing, though, is that milk is far from the only product they offer.  They also use their own milk to make several different types of butter, heavy whipping cream, cheese, and ice cream.  J.R. said that recently they are trying to branch into more traditional ice-cream parlor offerings, like banana splits and ice-cream sundaes.  I had the honor of trying the first banana split that one of their employees ever made at their onsite store.  Like the milk itself, the ice-cream is an altogether different creature from its grocery counterparts.  Ambrosia is really the only word that comes to mind with any sense of justice.

     But they offer even more than dairy.  In fact, according to J.R., you could theoretically replace most of the food that you would buy at the grocery store with their home-deliveries.  In addition to dairy, they offer all of their own beef, pork and poultry products, and they team up with other local producers and like-minded farmers to provide everything from jam to coffee.  Imagine waking up every morning to a fresh delivery of milk, bread, meat, eggs, cheese, jam, coffee, juice and even hummus right on your doorstep!  All of that and more is available from their easy-to-use web site within 48 hours of placing the order.
     As for the Spring Fest, J.R. said it will be a two full days of food and fun.  He wants everyone to see the inner workings of their production process to show that they have nothing to hide.  The products won’t be running through the lines that day, but guests can see all of the equipment turned on and working so as to get an up-close view of where their food comes from. Throughout the day there will be special events, like a massive pork and beef BBQ, and a chance for guests to feed the calves.

     But the great thing about SMC is that they encourage guests to come any day of the week to look around and learn about how they operate.  I was worried that I was going to get in the way of the farmhands as they went about their work, but they were all extremely friendly to me and let me walk through the calf-barn and get up-close pictures of some of the bigger cows.  I was also excited to see a huge collection of antique tractors sitting out in the open right in front of their store.
     Even if you think you already know SMC, it’s important to always check out for new products and interesting innovations.  J.R. said that within the next 5 years, they aim to an entirely self-sustained operation, drawing no electricity from the grid through a combination of wind turbines, solar panels and a methane-digester.
     “Even though it’s a lot of money coming out, what you’re getting in return and what you’re doing to help the earth is a huge bonus,” he said of adding the upgrades.
     That is actually a good philosophy to remember when considering making SMC a regular part of your weekly groceries.  Yes, their products run a little more expensive than the big corporate stores, but it’s affordable and you definitely get back that little bit of extra expense in the pure quality of the products.  Not to mention that you are keeping your money in Frederick County, which contributes to the overall economic health of our community.
     So go check out South Mountain Creamery and become a believer in local farming!

South Mountain Creamery
8305 Bolivar Road
Middletown, MD 21769

1(877)COW-2-YOU (269-2968) 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Taste of Broadway in Frederick

 Photos provided by Hood College Student Musical Theatre.

     The Hood College Student Musical Theatre group will present Broadway 101, a spring cabaret featuring student performances, tomorrow at 8pm and on Friday, 7 and 10pm in Hodson Auditorium in Rosenstock Hall.  The show will include some of the most popular acts from the most popular Broadway musical productions to ever hit that that famous NYC street.  Because this show brings together three of my favorite things (musicals, student productions, and local theatre) I recently sat down with three of the production staff members to get the scoop on what it's all about.
     Co-director Ashley Birdsell said that the show will include singing and dancing from Chicago, Rent, Les Miserables, The Producers, Phantom of the Opera, Avenue Q and more.
     “The reason we pick the songs is because we really want to appeal to the audience and what they want to see, and provide them with a basic understanding of Broadway and provide them with the best of each (musical),” she said.
     Assistant director Zachery Roberson told me that this particular theatre group is an entirely student-run organization and decided to put on productions as a response to a lack of a formal musical theatre program at the college, but that they do have the full support of both the theatre and music departments, as well as the student life office. 
     "We’re hoping that by the start of this we can show interest in the program and in the future it will lead to bigger productions or larger involvement,” he said.

     Ashley said that their first performance as a group last semester sold out their small 70-seat venue, and that she is really excited to have an auditorium with 400-plus seats this time.
     Billy Lewis, co-director, said “The exact words that I want out of every audience member are ‘Wow, that show is amazing, I want to go see a full-scale musical by these same people.’”
     Ashley said she believes that musical theatre is an important form of artistic expression because it represents the culture in which it was created and every element is chosen for a precise reason.
     “I think it’s a cultural phenomenon that says a lot about a culture itself and musical theatre has really evolved over the eras and really shown the progress of politics and worldviews and really everything else that’s going on in the world,” she said.  “Obviously it’s a form of entertainment, but it’s a form of commentary and it’s even an educational tool.”
     Zach says that the really important reason for doing these shows is the way in which they can bring people together.
     “If you take the musical theatre factor out of our group, we are really quite an eclectic group of people, ranging in different things that we’re involved in, and so musical theatre definitely is important because it’s one way to bring people together and find that commonality element and really use it to our advantage,” he said.
     Billy said, “It’s the expressing yourself that I personally love about musical theatre.  I love the way they express themselves through song.”

     Zach said that he hopes to dispel certain popular myths about male involvement in musical theatre.  “You do have a fun time up there and you aren’t performing these flamboyant dance numbers that you might see from the 1930s and the 1940s, but we’re doing more modern things as well as acknowledging the oldies as well.  We have a wide array,” he said.
     When I asked Ashley how she hopes the audience will respond to her show, she said, “I hope first and foremost they’re going to appreciate live theatre and everything that goes into it, and you know the mishaps that happen on stage and all the magical moments that happen on stage.  I really hope they take away a good, solid down and dirty run-through of musical theatre and all the different varieties and things it has to offer and realize it isn’t all sparkly dances.  It’s humour and it’s sadness and it’s really deep things and it’s really moving things.  I just hope they have a good time.  I hope they are really entertained.”
     These students really interest me because they remind me of my days doing youth Shakespeare.  I see that same spark in their eyes for wanting to test the limits of their abilities as young adults with minimal resources while trying to leave a lasting impression on their world.  I didn't have a chance to watch their rehearsal, but if their talent is anything like their passion, I can't imagine that a professional Broadway troupe could put on a better show than what will take place in our own community in the next two nights.

For more information about the group or the show, visit the group's web site at

Monday, April 25, 2011

Edgeworks: The Frederick Knife Store

     Everyone remembers when they earned their first real money and what they did with it.  I don't mean those little parental incentives to scrub the toilets or clean out the attic, but that first time you were paid in real money by a non-family member for hard work.  Mine was dearly earned in the hot sun, but gratefully spent at Edgeworks Knife & Supply Co. in downtown Frederick.
     When I was 14, a local diner owner paid my younger brother and me to pass out his coupons at the Frederick Festival of the Arts.  We spent several days before the festival cutting out thousands of "Diner Dollars" and stuffing them into little menus that we also had to cut out and fold.  By the time we actually got to the festival we were already sleep deprived and then spent hours walking around in the hot sun yelling out cliché slogans at the top of our lungs, occasionally taking breaks for all the free soda we could drink.
     Sunburned and badly dehydrated, we spent the next few days with fevers and belly aches.  But it was all worth it when I got all $40 (I know, right?) of that money in my hands and set my eyes straight at Edgeworks.  I had grown up in community theatre where it seemed that everyone carried handy little multi-tools about their person so they could instantly tighten a screw, cut a tie line, or open packaging at a moment's notice, and I was tired of being left out.  I looked all about the store for something with lots of tools on it, but that I could afford, and finally honed in on a basic Victorinox Swiss Army knife.  It had two blades, two bottle openers, a can opener, scissors, screwdrivers, quirk screw, magnifying glass, tweezers and a toothpick.  It took every penny that I had, plus a little from mom and dad to cover the tax, but it was all mine.
     Sean Norris, the owner of Edgeworks for the past three years, said that out of the dozens and dozens of manufacturers that he carries, the Victorinox knives are his hottest selling items.
     “Everybody pretty much knows them,” he said.  “Nobody’s ever threatened by them so everybody feels comfortable carrying one and they have a lot of great multiple uses to them and they’re not that expensive, but they are very well-made.”
     In addition to pocketknives, the store also carries several lines of kitchen cutlery, hunting knives, fishing knives, and several other small practical blades that fit on a keychain or in a wallet.  Most of these brands can be bought online, but the real advantage of going to Edgeworks is that they are all in one place and you can put your hands on them for side-by-side comparisons.

(Click to view slide show of store)

     I’m impressed by the level of personal service provided by the knowledgeable staff.  Sean knows every detail of every piece in the store, from how it’s made, to what it’s best used for, to how to use it and keep it in good shape.  And he’s not just trying to push his merchandise.  He won’t steer you toward a more expensive knife than you need.  And before selling a knife to a customer, he takes it out of its packaging to make sure it’s in perfect condition.

     So what does the man who knows everything about his products choose as his favorite?  He is a big fan of the William Henry collection of display knives because of their artistic craftsmanship and rare materials.
     “They’re all very limited and they use very exotic materials like fossilized brain coral, dinosaur bone, mammoth teeth, and some of the best construction in the world,” he said.
     I like them because I appreciate any type of art that requires both naturally skilled hands and a very patient, well-disciplined mind that can put painstaking time into intricate details.  I can think of no other way finely forged steel could be bonded so seamlessly to natural treasures such as mammoth teeth and dinosaur bone. 
From the William Henry Collection
     The shop also carries a wide variety of decorative swords.  As a medievalist, I was drawn to the big broadswords that looked like they were pulled right off the pages of The Beowulf.  Some of them are fantasy creations, but some of them are historically accurate reproductions.  They also have collections from all over the world.  It’s one of the few places I’ve ever seen a full set of Japanese Samurai swords.
     But knives and swords aren’t all that Sean carries.  He also has some general sporting goods equipment, throwing darts, and a very vast array of puzzles for children and adults.  When I asked Sean what makes his store unique in the local area, he said that he is one of the few dedicated knife stores left in Maryland and “from knives to puzzles, we’ve got something for everybody, so everybody can find something.”
     I asked him what he would like everyone to know about his business that he doesn’t think they do, and he said, “Just that we’re here.  I constantly get people that say ‘Oh, I’ve lived in Frederick for twenty-some years.  I had no idea you guys were down here.  I guess I need to come downtown more.’”
     Well Sean, I know you're here, and I will always have my trusty red pocketknife to remind me.

Edgeworks Knife and Supply Co.
200 N. Market St.
Frederick, MD 21703
(301) 620-0477

Frederick's Little Pottery Shop

     Too often we draw a separation between what is practical and what is artistic or aesthetically pleasing when it comes to how we spend our money and furnish our homes, largely because we are afraid of damaging really nice things.  My mother would kill me if we ever used her fine Dresden Rose china outside of special occasions because it's so fragile that it can't be put in the dishwasher after use.  For about 363 days of the year, its sole job is to look expensive and pretty in the china closet.
     So when I stumbled into The Little Pottery Shop in downtown Frederick about two years ago, I was really excited to see many fantastic pieces of art, both fine and quirky, that can be used as much as they are admired. Although not true of every piece in the shop, very many of them, such as the stoneware collection, are extremely sturdy and glazed such that they can survive the dishwasher and microwave alike.  I actually bought one of their mugs when I first entered the shop and it’s sitting on my desk right now.  I love it because it has something of an unrefined, medieval or organic look about it that fits well with my aesthetic interest in by-gone literary eras.  But the cool thing about the shop is that it surely has something for you, no matter where your tastes lie. 
      "I think (pottery is) one of the more creative mediums where you can make a lot of different things.  Clay is a very versatile and really interesting material to work with," said Tameria Martinez, the shop's experienced owner.
     Just glancing around I could tell what she means.  I saw everything from pots and mugs with little faces carved into them, to plates and pitchers with South Western deserts glazed onto them.  I was drawn to a set of vases that Tammy said were made from a porous clay called raccoo, which are capable of capturing images of the flames from the kiln as they are fired.  You can actually see the shape of the flames and the different colors they left on the vase at different temperatures.

(Click to see a picture slide show of the shop)

     Tammy boasts that her shop not only has a strong collection from local potters, but from all over the United States, and one from Canada, totaling 120 artists in all.  She listed many of the different clay types, building and glazing decorating techniques that her shop carries, concluding with "just about everything in a pottery shop you can imagine.”
Recently the shop has expanded its studio space, allowing room for teaching pottery classes, and a new round of them are about to begin this May.  They offer both hand-building and wheel classes to children aged 9-13 and another set of classes from 14 to adult.

  (Click to hear Tammy explain the difference between hand-built and wheel-thrown pottery)

     Tammy says she hopes to teach people what really goes into making fine pottery. 
“I think a lot of people don’t realize what it’s like to throw pottery on the wheel.  And once they get into it, they understand what kind of techniques and what kind of skill it takes to actually throw pots on the potter’s wheel," she said.  "Also, I think a lot of people are not aware of the length of the process from the time that you begin a piece on the wheel until you actually finish it and get it out of the last firing." 
But at the same time, she wants people to know that it is a fun process and she provides a relaxing atmosphere for learning.
“We try to have a very relaxed atmosphere here.  We try to make (the classes) really fun and enjoyable, not a lot of pressure," she said.  "The pressure that happens is mostly students putting pressure on themselves, especially throwing, that’s a little bit of a challenging exercise for most people.  But we have some really great students, very fun, some great beginners who are quickly moving on to intermediate classes."

Pottery class studio
      I really like the idea of these classes because I think it would be neat to regularly use something made by my own hands.  As a writer, the products of my labor are intellectual, not tangible, and sometimes I wish I had more solid reminders of my mind’s output.  I once tried a pottery class at my college, but as I was working on my thesis I missed several of the classes and only ended up with a few glazed pinch pots.  Although they didn’t amount to much compared to the work on display in Tammy’s shop, I’ll always be proud of them because they came from my own efforts.
 The Little Pottery Shop
 Shab Row
 117 North East St.
 Frederick, MD 21701
 (301) 620-7501

Nido's: Downtown Italian Dining in Frederick

     Like most Americans, I have been to very many Italian restaurants over the course of my life.  Sadly, none of them have actually been in Italy, but I'm familiar enough with the genre to know what I like and what to expect from the ones that really have their act together.  Nido's Little Italy Ristorante on Patrick St. definitely hits the mark.  In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to call it my favorite.
     When searching for ethnic food options, I am particularly drawn to those establishments that have taken thematic ownership of the entire space, inside and out, which isn't always an easy thing to do in an historic district. This is far from a bad thing, but most of the buildings on East Patrick St. are of the uniform nineteenth-century red-brick townhouse style that defines downtown Frederick so well, but Nido's, which I'm sure used to look the same as the rest, immediately stands out to the casual passerby.  With sheer white brick, red and green trim, an enormous picture window and awnings that jet out over the sidewalk, one might wonder if the fabric of time and space are not quite in working order, as there seems to be a window to Italy sitting right in the middle of Frederick.
     The inside is no less impressive.  Maybe this is strange, but I think the first thing I noticed was the rough brick floor.  It reminded me of the old streets of Annapolis that have been trodden down by bustling activity for centuries.  It were as if they hadn't just laid a brick floor, but rather built the restaurant around an old city street.  It makes me feel like I'm literally setting foot into another world.
     Whatever the interior structure of this building used to be, it's now impossible to tell, as Roman arch-ways are punched into the walls.  Some of them form little windows, like one with a miniature Venus de Milo sitting in it.  A network of trellises covered in hanging grape-vines adorn the ceilings while black and white photos and drawings of Rome dot the walls.  If you are really lucky, you will be seated in the room with the large pictures window so you can gaze out at the city buzz.  Throw in the Italian music always playing in the background, and I am fully into this dining experience way before the food even arrives.
     Absolutely everything on the menu looks good, and if it weren't for my friend Sasha highly recommending the spaghetti in marinara sauce, I would have been forever in placing my order.  Fortunately, the waiting staff there is so gracious and friendly that I'm sure I could have taken as long as I wanted.
     The meal, of course, was amazing.  The marinara sauce is so much more tangy and savory than ordinary tomato sauce to the point that I prefer it even to spaghetti with meatballs.  I was eating it so quickly that I managed to accidentally flick some sauce onto my shirt.  It left me so good and full after my weekend of hard labor that I only had room for a cup of tea for dessert.  There is always room for tea.
     I can't wait until the period of my vegan diet ends so I can return and try a lot more of the menu, especially the lasagna and the cannoli.  I have never actually tried a cannoli before, but everything about Nido's is so well put together that I trust them to make the best example of this treat to be found anywhere.
     So now I suppose the conclusion is obvious and hardly need be said, but if you are in the area and crave a perfect dining experience, by all means please stop in Nido's.  You can't miss it!

111 East Patrick Street
Frederick, MD 21701-5677
(301) 624-1052

Thai Food Fun in Frederick

    When I heard that a new Thai food place was coming to Frederick, I knew that I would just have to try it because I'm a huge fan of Asian food generally and I never turn down an opportunity to make a fool of myself trying to use chop sticks.  But at the same time, I kept putting off the visit because for me to really enjoy this particular restaurant, I knew that it would have to overcome a totally unfair prejudice on my part.  Namely, Sumittra Thai Cuisine now occupies the space of the former Proof Café, which I still mourn every time I walk past their Patrick St. building.  I knew that this restaurant would have to really knock it out of the park to distract me from visions of sipping hot cocoa in that same space not so long ago, and I am happy to report that Sumittra more than lived up to my unreasonable and ridiculous expectations.
     The first thing I noticed was that they really made the space their own, which actually lessened my mind's desire to wander back to memories of the former occupant.  A graphic paint scheme of strong yellow, sheer white and pitch black blended really well with the unchanged ancient brick and wood of this former 18th-century hardware store.  Having removed the old Proof counter, there was much more space in there than I had realized - enough that they were able to add an architecturally interesting dividing wall to the middle of the room while still providing ample table space.
     Just looking at the menu was actually an enormous treat for me.  I've been on a self-imposed vegan kick for about a month now, and restaurant dinning almost always means resorting to pasta or salad with explicit instructions to the waiter to refrain from adding any dairy products.  I was so happy (you have no idea...) to find an entire two pages of almost entirely vegan options that I just kind of sat and stared longingly at them for a while.  With the exception of an occasional egg thrown into the mix, all of the spicy sauces that really define Thai dinning are plant-based.  Normally the sauce is mixed in with veggies and poured over rice and a meat option, but Sumittra offers tofu as a substitute to any of the meats, meaning that I had access to nearly their entire regular menu!
     I started off with an appetizer of crispy tofu, which is a plate of really big squares of fried tofu that are almost like little biscuits or cakes served with an interesting nut-flavored dipping sauce.  I really liked the squares because not only were they delicious, their size was conducive toward easy chop-stick manipulation, and I can always use as much practice as possible before getting to the rice.
     For my entrée, I ordered the tofu ka-prow, which primarily consists of tofu and rice covered in a sauce made from basil and chili powder.  I was impressed by how they were able to use tofu in such diverse ways that I couldn't even recognize it from one dish to the next.  When my ka-prow was brought to me, the tofu looked so much like chicken that I was worried they had mixed up my order with another customer's.  The tofu absorbed the surrounding flavors so well that I might even occasionally order this dish after the period of my vegan diet ends.  I should probably warn you, though, that I have been told my tolerance of spicy foods exceeds that of normal people, and this item was listed in the hottest category on the menu.  I also really appreciated that the meal was served in a long rectangular dish because it allowed me to get a little strafing run when I went to scoop up the rice with my chop sticks, like a pelican diving for a fish.
     My friend, Sasha, ordered chicken cashew nut, which she says is a really good neutral dish for a standard American pallet: absent the spice, but full of flavor diversity.
     I was really full from the richness of the meal, so I skipped dessert, but Sasha ordered a tall cup of raspberry ice cream and ate it right in front of me.  Based on her facial expressions as she taunted me, I surmised that she found the dish more than acceptable.
     I will always miss Proof, but if something else had to occupy that space, I'm really glad that it's Sumittra.  Frederick was in need of another Thai restaurant to fill the void left when the amazing Captain Kyoto's was replaced by the equally amazing Quynn's Attic a few years ago.  It should be noted that Quynn's Attic occupies the top floors of the building that Sumittra is now in, so it seems fitting that a wonderful Thai restaurant should replace a wonderful American café in that particular location.

Sasha's Corner
Hear my friend Sasha give her take on the Thai experience.

Sumittra Thai Cuisine
12 East Patrick St.
Frederick, MD 21701
(301) 668-2303

Voila! The Power of Tea

A Tea Fanatic Finds True Love

     Biased as this sounds, I consider myself a very trustworthy person.  You can trust me with your house key, your wallet, your birth certificate and even your kids. . . . but not tea.  You could hand me your entire life savings in cash and fully expect to have every penny returned to you upon demand, but leave a full teapot anywhere near my grasp and I will very likely consume far more than my fair share and make liberal use of your milk, honey and sugar.  On the exceedingly rare occasion that I do turn down tea, my friends have immediate concerns for my health.  So when I was wandering around Frederick a few days ago scouting out places to review and just happened to stumble upon the new Voila tea shop, it was love at first sight.

     The scent of hundreds of dried tea-leaf varieties and steeping samples immediately captured my olfactory sense upon opening the door.  I was torn between turning left or right because both walls were covered in tin cans full of loose tea leaves.  I felt overwhelmed as I realized that I could not possibly take a sniff of all of them in a reasonable amount of time even if I hurried with each one.  At the same time, taking in all of the nice furniture and tea accessories was going to take more than a quick visit, so I decided to come back another day to talk with the genius behind this little piece of Heaven in Frederick.
     As crazy as it sounds, the shop owner, Mary Jean Clark, is a bigger tea enthusiast than even I could dream of being.  She stocks 230 different types of loose-leaf tea, and that was after she spent months sampling from about 1,700 different types from suppliers all over the world to find just the perfect blends.  She actually wanted to stock over 300 teas, but found that her store just wouldn't make the room for it.
     So how does someone become crazier about tea than I am?  Well, it all started in France.  Mary was unhappy with her job, and while on a trip to Paris she discovered many cafes and tea shops that inspired her.  She felt that Frederick was able to sustain a shop that has tea as a main focus, and she specifically modeled her store on a French shop called "La Route au Thé" or "The Route to Tea."

     When I asked Mary what makes her tea different from grocery store tea, she said the best way of explaining it was to see for myself.  She took a plain teabag out of a store-bought box labeled "Super Fruit," which is a blend of green tea, red goji and raspberry.  She cut the bag open and poured it onto a dish where it looked like green powder or dust.  Then she showed me the tea from her store that she calls super fruit and it looked like a pile of discernible dried herbs and fruit.  She could point to the different constituent parts by name and distinguish them from the full green tea leaves. 

     As she described her tea, she also read my mind.  I was worried that her kind of tea would have to just be for special occasions, for surely it would come with a higher price tag.  But before I even asked she said that 2 ounces of her tea only costs $8.  I looked around a bit online and found that the grocery store brand can cost more than $10. 
     She had a lot of trouble saying what her favorite teas are. However, she eventually came up with a few frontrunners that are anything but typical grocery-store flavors, but why don't I let her tell you about it herself?
      As with most of the stores in downtown Frederick, another big difference between Voila and the grocery store is the level of service.  In fact, Mary refused to talk with me during regular business hours for fear that her attention might be taken away from her customers.  She works really hard to discover exactly which tea is best for which customer by starting with broad categories like black or green and slowly narrowing down the list.  She can describe subtle influences on the flavor that I would have never considered, such as the mode of transportation used to bring it out of the fields.  She reminds me more of a maker of fine wines than a tea seller. 

     Mary said that in choosing the tea accessories for the store she was less interested in presentation than practicality because there are already many antique stores in Frederick that provide elegant tea sets and she didn't want to compete with them.  She also wanted to make her teas as easily accessible to the average person as possible.  Every tea has an ideal water temperature and steeping time, so she has several pots, infusers and other vessels that allow you to carefully and conveniently monitor these particulars.  She showed me a heavy-duty portable tea thermos with a built-in infuser that can be removed from the tea at the right moment without having to open the lid.  I was super excited about this because I had always thought the only option for drinking tea on the go was a tea bag, but now I have choices!
     For those who like to doctor up their tea with sweeteners, Mary can't even seem to do that in the typical way.  Her honey comes from a local producer who also imports several special flavors that I have never before now seen outside of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, including one that tastes vaguely like marshmallow.  But all of the bottles that she sells have no added flavor, meaning that the flavor comes entirely from whatever pollen the bees used to make it. 
     Even her sugar has a unique flare.  Imported from France and sold in individual burlap sacks sealed with wax, the sugar granules are left in their raw form and infused with various flavors such as citrus, cocoa, and ginger.  

     Although Mary is very good at explaining the particulars of how to make each cup of tea perfectly, if you still aren't up to trying it on your own, you can actually order hot and iced tea by the cup and she will brew it for you right in the store.  She was gracious enough to make me a nice tall cup of a black tea she called "Anti-Oxidant Yum" on ice.  Definitely a strong black tea, the pomegranate, blue berry and cranberry blended into the mix made it much more interesting than my typical afternoon teas.
     The store is on the small side, but Mary has still made room for some really nice chairs for taking a rest while you shop.  She said that she figured most people coming into her store would be with other people who may or may not share an enthusiasm for tea (Gasp!) and that they might "need a place to park."  She figured that since she would be taking up the space with seating, she might as well go ahead and provide a nice line of furniture for sale, so she found a provider based in North Carolina called Old Hickory Tannery.  Made of sturdy wood and covered with many different leather options, Mary says that she is able to offer this furniture at a great discount compared to most of its other locations.

     I said my regretful goodbyes to Voila in the only way that was really appropriate.  I bought two types of tea that I have always had a very difficult time finding.  Normally I have to drive all the way to Shepherdstown for one of them, which although a fun trip, is not always a possible one for someone who lives near Frederick on a low gasoline budget.  But now that I've found this place, you and I will never have to worry about running out of our favorite teas again.

10 N. Market St.
Frederick, MD 21701
(301) 663-0704 (coming soon)

Beans in the Belfry

     All independent cafés have a style all their own and I am a great fan and frequenter of many in the area, but Beans in the Belfry in downtown Brunswick, MD is altogether a unique creature upon the earth, not to mention Brunswick.  Set in a former church, the interior of the café is defined by a large open area filled with eclectic vintage furniture.  Instead of regular tables and chairs right up front, there are these three little areas set up like a living room or parlor, with couches and arm chairs centered around little coffee tables.  None of the couches and chairs match at all, but they all carry an older aesthetic value and just feel like they go well with each other.  Think of an elegant Victorian sitting room thrown in with rustic chic decor.

     Behind the little parlor areas are what pass for "regular" tables and chairs in this place, but even they are persistent misfits.  One of the tables is painted with a chess board on top, another table with fading green paint looks to have been pulled out of a nineteenth-century farmhouse kitchen, while another looks like it might have been a formal dining-room table.  Two old wooden pews from when this place was a working church serve as benches for two of the longer tables.

     The walls are dominated by pretty stained-glass windows that change color as the sun moves from one side of the building to the other throughout the day.  Between the windows are prints and other photos that are as eclectic as the furniture, and just as appropriate and interesting.  I see images of old-time Europe and Brunswick alike.

     I like coming in here for my lunch break on the days when I substitute teach at the local middle school and high school because if I've forgotten to bring a book, I can borrow one off the shelf here.  And if I've forgotten to bring a lunch, it's the best place in town to grab a hot delicious sandwich.
     The drinks, of course, are amazing,  Unfortunately for my poor readers, I have never gotten into coffee, so you'll have to stop by and figure that one out for yourselves, but if it's anything like their chai or hot cocoa, you won't be disappointed.  I love that they serve the chai in these enormous mugs and steam the milk to a point where it is all frothy on top.  Whenever I order chai from other places I specify that I want a touch of vanilla added, but here it comes as part of their normal mix.
     The shop is also heavy on the arts and several groups meet there to practice and perform.  As I'm writing this article this very moment, I'm also listening to an Appalachian folk music band that just started playing live over in the children's play area.  While we were sitting here, we were visited by my friend, Ty Unglebower, who told us about a time he and some friends preformed a reading of a play back in the same area where the bands play.
     The Belfry (as I like to affectionately call it) is amazing enough all by itself to serve as an excuse for driving to Brunswick, but if you find yourself there on a nice day, you might also want to take a relaxing walk along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which runs almost right behind the coffee shop.  Personally, I think it's especially scenic in the Spring and Fall.  If you'd like to pick up a little about the history, stop in the Brunswick Railroad Museum/C&O Visitor Center just down the street from the Belfry.

122 W Potomac st
Brunswick, MD 21716-1113
(301) 834-7178

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earthly Elements: Your One Stop Rock Shop

Shop and Owner

     Fredericktonians are fortunate to live within easy driving distance of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. because of the great shopping and cultural opportunities that big cities provide, but what if I were to tell you that I discovered a local hot spot that gives residents of those big metro regions a reason to visit Frederick?  With much ado and verbal grandioseness (Hey, Shakespeare made up words, too) I give you Earthly Elements, the only dedicated rock shop in the state of Maryland!

     I got really excited the moment I first laid eyes on it a few years ago because of my childhood fascination with polished rocks.  I used to go with my dad on his business trips out west to places like Arizona and Colorado where gift shops centered around pretty rocks, especially the stores in the Rocky Mountains.  I remember filling little bags with the shiny rocks and pretending they were pirate treasure, especially the pyrite or "fool's gold."  Sadly there were so few places to learn about rocks and geology in the Frederick area that I eventually lost interest.  But when I walked into Earthly Elements at the age of 23 and saw a giant treasure chest full of polished rocks, I was suddenly a little boy again and my interests returned.
     Richard Bailey, the shop's owner, also first developed an interest in rocks as a child.  But unlike me, he turned his childhood hobby into a passion and career.  Not only does he run the only rock and mineral store in Maryland, he is also one of the few people in the whole country to do so with a degree in geology, so he is an expert at obtaining the best specimens from all over the world.
(Hear Richard tell about his childhood interest in rocks) 


     Besides the chest full of an assortment of polished rocks, many items immediately caught my eye as I strolled through the store.  He has a collection of flat, smooth message stone that carry words of encouragement and feel soothing to the touch.  I was also fond of the many little stones that have been carved into interesting shapes, such as animals and Easter eggs.  I think the eggs are especially cool because unlike real decorated eggs, they don't rot.  
     I ended up buying about a pound worth of "Healy Feelies," a trademarked brand of really, really tiny worry stones unique to Earthly Elements.  Just place these smooth little pebbles in a little bowl, let them run through your fingers like sand, and feel your stress melt away.    

(Hear Richard talk about Healy Feelies)
      But the shop carries much more than small rocks and trinkets.  He has some major pieces that would be the envy of university geology departments and museums.

(Hear Richard talk about his favorite pieces)


     Since opening in 2007, his business has been on a steady upward climb, which he attributes to the uniqueness of his trade and a natural human desire for the exotic. 
     "I've been growing since I opened the doors even though the economy's been tanking," he said.
     Although Richard hopes his store appeals a little bit to everyone, he says that it is especially ideal for four types of customers.  
     The shop is a great place for kids not only because of their natural curiosity and gravitation toward shiny objects, but because of the presentation.  For instance, they can pick out handfuls of their favorite rocks and then put them in colorful wooden boxes of interesting shapes hand-crafted in Poland.  Several are shaped like little pirate chests complete with a Jolly Roger and a working lock. Others are painted with unicorns, Celtic knot patterns, dolphins, pigs, fish, and much more.  Some of them are little puzzle boxes with secret openings. 
     The rules of the house are also really relaxed for a retail store that carries such expensive merchandise.  The kids are allowed to touch pretty much everything and Richard's only rule about taking pictures is that "you show them to everyone you know and tell them what a great rock shop it is."
     Parents love to bring their kids to the store because of the educational value.  As a professional geologist who has a seven year-old son of his own, Richard has become really good at explaining geological processes to children.  He has even given special talks to home school groups, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. 
     Decorators make up the next group.  Considering their many sizes, shapes and colors, rocks often make good accents for rooms.  Richard will sometimes have decorators come in to tell him that they need a blue rock for a blue room and so forth.
     Being the only major provider of non-native rocks and minerals, he often sells to dedicated hobbyists such as himself.  His store is something of an oasis to what he calls the "true mineral collectors."
     "I have people who come from St. Mary's County to get here," he said.  "People will drive across a whole state to get to a rock shop if they're into it."
      The fourth category of customers are those who practice what he terms "new age healing" who believe in the spiritual power of natural rock and mineral crystals.  But you don't have to believe in non-conventional medicine to appreciate an other-worldly subtext to Earthly Elements.  Most of the big rocks in the store are millions, if not hundreds of millions, years old.  Whether you believe that crystals enhance your cosmic energies, or if you feel a special connection to God by holding some of his oldest creations on earth, or if your mind is blown thinking about the massive geological forces that forged the merchandise, it isn't difficult to get goose bumps while wandering around there. 
     What I am talking about is hard to describe, but it reminds me of what the tour guide at the Washington National Cathedral said about stones in the church.  He said that saints relics run contrary to the Episcopal faith, so instead they had special rocks that "give pause for thought," such as a moon rock in a stained-glass window, a mason stone touched by a bishop, and an altar made from stone quarried in the Holy Land.  Whatever your belief system, it's hard not to feel a sense of awe in Earthly Elements. 

Earthly Elements
33 North Market St.
Frederick, MD 21701
(301) 631-5511
Hours: Tuesday - Thursday 12-6, Friday-Saturday 12-9, Sunday 12-5