Friday, 7 June 2013

Desserts for/with/after Lunch: Take Your Pick

I found out this morning from Jack, one of my faculty foodie friends, that today was National Donut Day. As was the case for this site, something didn’t seem right, as I remembered celebrating donuts during a previous autumn. Then again, why only celebrate food 25% of the year? After a brief search (and continued research for this post), I learned there’s a difference between today’s holiday and that which is celebrated on November 5th. Celebrated every first Friday of June (coincidentally, this year just after the national anniversary celebration of D-Day), National Donut Day was begun in 1938 by the Chicago Salvation Army not only as a much-needed fund raiser during the Great Depression, but as a celebration and commemoration of the “Lassies," female volunteers who brought food and morale boosts to the front line troops during WWI.  By contrast, the November 5th food holiday is National Doughnut Day (aka, Doughnut Appreciation Day), which celebrates the foodstuff (and which I think would be the more appropriate time to promote free donuts, especially if the promotion doesn't include the history; oh, the irony). Rooted in Europe and first referred to in writing in Washington Irving's 1809 text A History of New York (in which he writes of "sweetened dough, fried in hog's fat"-- no wonder I'm drawn to these), donuts were sought after by troops longing for the fried treats that were being served in France (as mentioned in the above clip). Well, whichever way you spell it and whenever you choose to neglect any sense of a diet (or perhaps even to reward yourself), fried dough is definitely something I can enjoy on any day ending in “y” and today was no exception. Thankfully, Sarah, a constant cheerleader and supporter from across the Academic Quad, was willing to join me in an extended lunchtime exploration of the local food scene, complete with donuts... and key lime pie. (All in the name of proper research, of course!)

Jolly Pirate Donuts on Urbanspoon

In reading through Jack’s Facebook thread, one place immediately jumped out as unfamiliar to me, a restaurant known simply as “JP” (re-reading the thread after the fact, I saw what JP stood for but it still didn’t connect as a local dive). No matter, as a resident of Newark, Sarah immediately knew that JP stood for Jolly Pirate, a small chain restaurant based in Ohio. Apparently, it’s popular enough to even get its own well-rated entry on Urban Dictionary in 2006. Back in 2009, Paul Sebert of The Herald Dispatch (West Virginia) wrote about Jolly Pirate which he claimed, after 30 years, has "perfected the donut." Not having known any of this, of course, Sarah and I headed over to the JP located in Heath and after seeing a roadblock in front of the train tracks, lo and behold Jolly Pirate was situated in plain sight. Surely it was a sign that we were meant to stop in and buy some donuts. (Note to self for Buy a Donut Day, celebrated on October 30th.) Anyway, we seemed to have just beaten the lunch rush and were welcomed in by a wonderfully warm employee (totally forgot to ask her name… I blame that on the donuts..) who hadn’t realised earlier this morning that it was National Donut Day (though, she definitely had a good enough reason.. congratulations, by the way!). 

In any case, after a pleasant conversation with her, we got down to business, started talking donuts and (eventually) chose the donuts we wanted to take back with us to campus. First into the box was a popular favourite, an apple fritter of sorts, made simply of dough scraps and diced apples. And for our baker’s dozen (note: the apple fritter is sold as a separate, special item, and thus can’t be included in the dozen), we got a pair each of the Long Johns (white chocolate, milk chocolate and caramel; also known as Bismarks), three crème-filled ones (chocolate, lemon and black raspberry), a toasted coconut, one that supposedly tastes like Reese’s peanut butter cup, a honey dew (no relation to the melon) and one which I absolutely loved with cinnamon but forgot the name (in the above left photo, I believe it’s the one just under the cinnamon sugar donuts to the immediate left of the white box on the counter).  

Cognisant of the fact that toppings and fillings certainly can change the flavour profile and uniqueness of any food, Sarah and I had talked about whether or not there was any truth behind (essentially) "a donut is a donut is a donut," i.e., what is it about one donut--literally, fried dough--that makes them special and different to others of a similar profile, if at all? Well, within the context of friendly competition and comparison, and as Sebert’s article notes and the woman behind the countered shared, what makes JP donuts different from anyone else’s is that JP donuts are all made fresh in the kitchen (and not shipped frozen to the store to then be cooked). And having made donuts in the past, I could discern nuanced differences in taste and texture, in the form here of clearly defined flavours that were complemented by the the delicate, fried exterior which gives way to a subtly yeasty and airy interior. But as I continue to reflect on our experience at JP, I think a more notable difference is the sense of hospitality and nostalgia that fills the donut shop, which here, mirrors a sense of family and community in this Newark nook.

Donuts in hand, Sarah and I switched our focus over to lunch (yes, the donuts alone could've been lunch..). As we were driving around, I asked her about a restaurant that was emblematic of her experience growing up in the area, one place did stand out, though more so as a memory of one of her favourite places outside of Ohio: Key West.

Pappy's Grill on 79 on Urbanspoon

And so we drove over to neighbouring Heath to Pappy's Grill on 79, which just recently celebrated its first anniversary. I've been to Florida before, but never Key West, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. If I can summarise my initial reaction as soon as we stepped in, I think it would simply be: chillax. With bright pastels and a rather open floor plan, stepping foot into Pappy's certainly didn't feel like we were stepping into Ohio.

Rather than dine in the main part of the restaurant in sight of the kitchen, we headed to the enclosed outdoor patio which felt like it had an entirely different (yet chillaxed) environment. It was an environment that reminded me of a low-key, casual summer afternoon block party. With a cool breeze and a feeling of isolation from the busy street outside, both dining environments are two of Pappy's strong points. 

Another strong point was definitely our waitress, Emily, who was extremely personable and attentive to us and all of the other diners, and who presented us with the regular menu, as well as a list of specials. After quite a bit of going back and forth, Sarah and I both selected from the very interesting food fusion menu presented before us.

I can't say the above photo is one of my best, but the presentation itself doesn't quite do the Reuben Quesadilla's taste much justice. Sandwiched between a toasted honey wheat flour tortilla was a list of ingredients that remind me of a "Chopped" basket: corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, caraway seeds and the chef's take on Thousand Island dressing. All told, these are typical ingredients of a classic Reuben, and so I found it particularly interesting that the arguably simple shift of serving this lot via a tortilla and not the traditional, heavier vehicle of marble rye bread made this dish stand out as something markedly different. Overall, I found the tortilla itself to have a strange lightness to it and a toasty crunch that finds its way through the generous amount of meat, cheese and sauerkraut. At one point, I thought for a brief second that perhaps the inner ingredients might as well have been served without the the tortilla; and then I realised that the ingredients definitely benefit from it, though I'd give credit to the rye bread for being able to better handle the dish's overall sauciness. As a final note on this one, I'm not a spice expert by any stretch, but I do wonder whether or not there were enough caraway seeds to make any noticeable difference in flavour (particularly given the heaviness of everything else). 

As for Sarah, she went with the Fajita Philly Sandwich, the other gastronomic, food fusion dish, where Tex-Mex meets "something a little bit different than what you think it is". Stuffed into the Hoagie bun was a mix of sirloin and chicken, along with sautéed, flame-roasted peppers, peppers and onions, and jalapeño Monterrey Jack cheese and the chef's Fajita sauce. The fajita flavours were definitely there (and had a gentle kick) and melded nicely with the bread. (I suppose you'd need to put the lot onto a Hoagie because the Reuben took all the tortillas, eh?)

If you go to a restaurant that is thematically Key West, it only seems logical that the quintessential food staple of the region should make an appearance at some point. (Aside: according to the aforementioned link, did you know that it took about 12 years before key lime pie was recognised as the state pie of Florida?) And so, purposefully forgetting the fact we still had a bunch of donuts to try, we did get a slice of key lime pie, which was definitely worth trying. As we savoured the pie bite by bite, Sarah explained that of there are many peculiarities of key lime pie, but the major point of contention is, of all things, whether or not to top off the pie with whipped cream. After many tastes, it dawned on me that my conception of key lime pie (and even my vague recollection of a lime pie I once made) was that it would be a bit more tart, a nuanced flavour that was cut down by the cream that topped off this pie. This being said, it was still an overall tasty slice of pie, and ending with dessert (let alone with this one) was a great way to end my first visit to Pappy's and indeed a great afternoon of food. For the above photos via Facebook, click here.

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