Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze

One of the very first things we did when we were planning our trip to Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow, was book our tickets for the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze. The hugely popular event sells out quickly, with some of the more in-demand dates (weekends close to Halloween) and times snatched up before fall even begins. When we went to book our tickets (in September) the only weekend time available before Halloween was Sunday, October 27th at 9pm. We grabbed them, and planned our day around the Blaze. I'm so, SO glad we did because it was definitely the highlight of the trip, and a great way to end the night.

I actually discovered the Blaze a few years ago when I was still living in Ohio. I obsessively read all about it (including their hilarious faq page) and tried desperately to figure out a way to make an October trip to the Hudson Valley happen. Fast forward a few years, I'm living much closer to the action and one of my friends mentions that he'd like to take a trip to Sleepy Hollow in the fall. He had never heard of the Blaze before, but it didn't take much convincing to get him (and then the rest of our group) to trust my enthusiasm enough to book our tickets more than a month in advance.

In all of my planning and research I had somehow misread the descriptions, and initially thought that there were 500 pumpkins, which seemed like a lot to me. That is, until I read it correctly and realized the Blaze featured more than five THOUSAND hand carved and lighted pumpkins. Turns out that only about 1,000 of those are real — the rest are plastic, carveable "funkins" and reused year after year. This really doesn't affect the integrity of the event, however, and it's nearly impossible to even tell which ones are real and which are fake. As far as I could tell all of the ones closest to the path were definitely real and it's so dark and they're SO BRIGHT AND SHINY, so who cares in the end. Seriously, the entire thing was dazzling and even though I was there I still can't really fathom that I saw more than 5,000 pumpkins.

There were your standard, "face" carvings (in every variety you can think of, and then some), but the more elaborate displays really stole the show. It's impossible to pick favorites — from dinosaurs and zoo animals, to witches, mummies, skeletons, spiders, bees, bats and an entire yard of cat pumpkins (ok, I might have actually squealed with delight upon seeing so many cat pumpkins) — there was definitely something for everyone.

There was a grandfather clock with a swinging pendulum, jack-in-the-boxes with pop-up pumpkin heads and a new-this-year, walk-through tunnel lined with hundreds of carved pumpkins.

The event was very nicely controlled, with a winding, roped off path that you followed through the entire grounds. This made sense to protect the pumpkins, but also gave you unobstructed views of every single carving. The low-light does make it difficult to get great photos (with an iPhone at least), but please don't be one of those people that thinks turning the flash on will give you a Pulitzer-prize winning shot. All it actually does is give you a crappy, washed out photo of pumpkins, where you can't even see the carvings and the person next to you can't see anything at all for a few minutes.

There was a bottle-neck at one point in the pathway, where we had to wait about fifteen minutes to keep moving, but otherwise the night was as smooth as can be, especially considering the crowd. Parking was free (always a plus), and there's a tent to wait in until your admission time, although we were allowed in a few minutes before nine.

We had just eaten dinner so we didn't partake in any of the food, although had I known that they had apple cider donuts I definitely would have come home with some. They even sell a soundtrack made up of original music composed specifically for the Blaze (they're on volume II already). The displays change a bit every year, so I definitely want to make the Blaze an annual tradition — especially now that I'm only a short Metro-North train ride away.

Happy Halloween!

More Halloween-themed delights: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery  |  Woodlawn Cemetery

Monday, October 28, 2013

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

On Sunday a group of friends and I spent the whole day exploring Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow in the Hudson River Valley. We'd been planning the trip for a while, and I can't remember being as excited for anything in quite a while. I'd never been to upstate New York before, and Sleepy Hollow seemed as if it would be the epitome of all fall and Halloween delights. The area definitely did not disappoint, and we crammed a ton of adventures into the more than 12-hour trip.

A definite highlight was the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and Old Dutch Church Burying Ground. There are a lot of famous New York names buried in the cemetery, including a Rockefeller, a Chrysler, the Helmsleys, Elizabeth Arden and, of course, the area's most famous resident, Washington Irving.

The grounds are incredibly beautiful, especially this time of year. The entire area was exploding with fall colors, and the higher ground overlooks the Hudson River Valley, which is one of the most spectacular sights I've seen. Every corner I turned there were more and more beautiful trees and the weather was perfect.

The cemetery is a mix of old and new tombstones, fancy mausoleums and gorgeous statues — they apparently still have plots available if you're in the market for one. I can't think of many better places to spend all of eternity, but it was also a great place for a leisurely Sunday stroll.

The Pocantico river runs alongside the cemetery, and although the original "headless horseman" bridge is no longer standing, there is a rustic bridge that, according to the maps, "makes a nice souvenir photograph."

The Old Dutch Church is small and plain, but the churchyard has some of the oldest graves in the cemetery. I'll never get tired of exploring historic cemeteries, and there is always something new and interesting to discover. A lot of graves were even decorated for Halloween with pumpkins and flowers, which was appropriately festive. They offer tours during the day, but also after dark which might be neat to check out if I go back next year. I can easily see an October trip to Sleepy Hollow becoming a tradition, and there is plenty that I didn't see the first time around.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday Food: Chicago Edition

I have one more Chicago recap post left in me, and I would be remiss if I didn't spend it talking about all of the (very unhealthy) food I ate on my recent trip. My first real meal in the city (not counting the hotel make-your-own waffle) was, fittingly enough, deep-dish pizza. I met up with two of my friends who were also visiting for the wedding, and we walked around Millennium Park for a bit before we started to get hungry. I suggested Gino's, since I had been a few times before, but it was a little far away and we were on a tight time schedule. Google came to the rescue, as always, and led us to Giordano's which is right across from the park.

We were told there was a 45-minute wait, so we put our name in for a text alert when our table was available. We headed out down Michigan Avenue to sight-see while we waited, but we weren't gone more than ten minutes before I got a text that our table was ready. We had already put in our pizza order ("Meat and More Meat"), so it wasn't long after we sat down that it came to our table.

This is where I preface my review by saying that I don't even consider deep-dish pizza to be actual pizza. I am a thin-crust, New York-style girl through and through, but that's not to say I don't enjoy the occasional mile-high, cheese then sauce slice when I find myself in Chicago. I put deep-dish in a category all its own, a cross somewhere between a lasagna and a real slice of pizza. Giordano's was as good as any I've had, but to be honest all of the different kinds I've tried over the years have sort of blended together in my mind. The abundance of meat toppings was totally tasty, and the location wins on convenience points alone.

The next day, after my three+ mile walk to Lincoln Park, I stopped for lunch in one of the zoo cafes and ordered a Chicago-style hotdog. Hotdogs are my guilty pleasure, and I continue to adore them even though I know they're totally disgusting, laden with chemicals and non-edible parts, and are probably killing me slowly. I'd never had a Chicago-style dog before, and I've always been somewhat of a purist when it comes to hotdogs. For most of my life I was strictly mustard only, but recently I've ventured into sauerkraut territory with excellent results.

I said yes to almost all of the standard Chicago fixins: onion, mustard, tomato and hot peppers, although I drew the line at relish. Pickle wedges were not offered, unfortunately, but I would have included those as well if it had been an option. I'm so glad that I decided to step outside of my culinary comfort zone, because the end result was delicious. One of the best hotdogs I've ever eaten, in fact, and now I'm wondering about all sorts of alternate toppings. I don't think my hotdog consumption will ever be the same (or quite so sad and plain) again, and I have Chicago to thank for showing me the way. I also managed to eat the entire thing without getting one poppyseed stuck in my teeth, which is a pretty big deal.

That night, I also walked to Navy Pier (racking up another three+ miles in the process), where I went on a mad hunt for caramel corn. The carnival atmosphere of the pier had me craving something sweet, and once I got it in my head that I wanted caramel corn there was no stopping me until I found it. It was harder to track down than you would think, but I was finally victorious when I found a Garrett Popcorn shop. I was all set to order plain caramel corn, but when I asked about the make-up of their "Chicago Mix," and she told me that it was a mix of caramel corn and cheddar cheese corn, I thought "When in Rome Chicago," and made the last minute switch. It was definitely the right decision, and the mixture of salty and sweet was perfect. I managed to save some for the next day, by which time it had already started to go stale, so I recommend eating it quickly (not a problem).

My last food stop in the city was Margie's Candies, which I passed a few times on the walk from where I was staying to the Western stop on the Blue Line. I decided to check it out right before I left, and I'm so glad I did. It's the oldest ice cream shop in Chicago, and everyone from Al Capone, to the Rolling Stones to the Beatles have stopped in for a sweet treat. The place is a total time capsule, with tabletop jukeboxes and a huge menu filled with ice cream delights that they serve in huge plastic clamshells.

I ordered a brownie sundae, which came with an entire gravy boat filled with hot fudge, and was big enough for four people. I made it through half of it before giving up, and unless you have an enormous appetite, I recommend bringing a friend or two to help you out. Their sign has some of the most beautiful neon typography I've ever seen, and it's perfect whether it's lit up or not.

I left Chicago feeling like I was in desperate need of a vegetable (or five), but I figure I balanced my feasts with quite a bit of walking so I didn't feel too bad about it. I did, however, resist getting a Cinnabon in the airport, which I've never managed to pass up before so who cares if I ate my remaining caramel corn for dinner the next day?

More Chicago: Millennium + Grant Parks  |  Lincoln Park Zoo

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fall Field Trip

Since the beginning of August, I've worked at W. W. Norton, a 90-year-old book publisher here in New York. A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail asking if I would be interested in attending a tour of paper mills in New England, on a trip sponsored by the Book Guild of NY. I was initially hesitant until I read the details: two weekdays off work, a bus trip through Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the middle of fall, an overnight stay, open bar and all meals for FREE. I'm so incredibly glad that I ignored my knee-jerk shut-in response of saying no to a trip with strangers because I ended up having a great time.

There were two fellow Nortonians (yes, that's what we call ourselves) on the trip, along with people from a variety of other publishing houses in New York. We left on Tuesday morning, and our first stop was lunch in Rhode Island. I was nervous that I wouldn't be able to keep up my every-ten-minutes feeding schedule so I brought road trip snacks, but I never actually needed to break into my stash. We were so well fed that I actually began declining free snacks toward the end of the trip, and if you know me that might be hard to fathom.

We toured two Ecological Fibers facilities on Tuesday, one in Rhode Island and one in Massachusetts. They're actually a really interesting company, both in what they do (specialty paper manufacturing, embossing and finishing) and how they run their business (they have zero carbon footprint, use all water-based materials and have found ways to recycle everything). As a design and book nerd I found it all really fascinating, from the specialty colors that they produce (Tiffany, Cartier, Mont Blanc) to the variety of embossing patterns they have in their collection (nearly 200).

After the tours we checked into the super cute and New Englandy Wachusett Inn, where we all had our own rooms. Mine had an enormous bed, two TVs, two sinks, a kitchenette, fully stocked cabinets and a separate sitting room. It actually may have been one of the nicest rooms I've ever stayed in, and I felt as if I couldn't possibly do it justice by myself.

There was an open bar before dinner, where I stuck to Woodchuck cider because it felt like the fall thing to do. In the morning, I had a make-your-own waffle (which was actually made for me by a staff member?), which is really the best part of any hotel stay, in my fat opinion.

We boarded the bus again and headed to one more tour, at Dunn & Co., who introduced themselves as a the only "book hospital" in the world (their url is They're located in an amazing old factory building, and they do some pretty cool things with damaged or misprinted books. They do hardcover to paperback conversions, take weird smells out of books, de-warp covers, tip-in new pages and swap out bindings. Basically if you ever have a problem with a large quantity of books, you can send them to Dunn & Co. instead of scrapping them and starting all over again.

They shared some really innovative solutions to some crazy problems and it was really interesting to see it all in action. We saw hardcovers being ripped off books, additional pages being glued in and paperback covers being placed over the guts of excess hardcovers. I had no idea that a place like this existed, and the whole trip really gave me a greater appreciation for how much work and planning goes into the creation and production of a single book.

The fall scenery along I-95 was spectacular and we passed a lot of cute little towns that I'd love to go explore one day. I adore New York City, but I can imagine a time in the (distant) future when I'll welcome a move to New England, where I'll plant some mums, tie cornstalks to my porch columns and live happily ever after. Until then, I certainly won't consider passing up any free trips that way (or any way) ever again.

Chicago: Lincoln Park Zoo

During my recent weekend in Chicago, I was staying with a friend who lives in Bucktown. I had all of Sunday to myself, so I decided to walk to Lincoln Park and check out the zoo. I knew it was pretty far (more than three miles), but I'm not scared of a good walk, so walk I did. When I plotted my route for the day later on, I realized that I ended up covering nearly ten miles just on Sunday, which is a lot even for me. It was such a beautiful day, and I made a lot of stops along the way so it didn't feel quite that long.

My first real stop was Lincoln Park. It was one part of Chicago that I had never been before, and there's almost nothing I won't try for free. I love parks and zoos, so I figured I couldn't really go wrong. The park was beautiful — a little closer in feel to Central Park than Grant or Millennium Parks — with tons of trees, athletic fields, ponds and statues.

On my way to the zoo I passed a marker indicating that I was standing on an old potter's field, stating that "due to various oversights, many bones likely remain here beneath the soil," which was just creepy enough to make me officially like Lincoln Park.

The zoo was really lovely, and completely free (at all times) which is pretty awesome. They had all the standard zoo fare — tigers, camels, giraffes, a polar bear, zebras, seals — although a lot of the animals were no where to be seen, and I'm always sad when zoos don't have penguins (my favorite). The new baby black rhino wasn't on view, but there was a baby hippo to satisfy my cute quota for the day.

The leaves had just started to change, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky so it was the perfect day to linger outside. I actually took the first of two outdoor naps (the other one was on Columbus Day, next to Lake Michigan) right outside of the zoo, on an incredibly comfortable bench by the South Pond. I have to say, that for park naps, Chicago's benches have no rival (sorry, New York).

No tourist activity is complete, in my opinion, without getting a squished, souvenir penny and luckily the zoo had a machine. I've been collecting squished pennies since I was a kid, and I make a point of getting one wherever they're available. They seem to be getting a little harder to come by as I get older, but I they're the perfect souvenir because they're unique, quirky and cheap. I have books and books filled with different ones, and I hope the machines (or pennies!) never go away completely.

I wish the Central Park zoo would take a cue from the second city and stop charging a ridiculous admission price. I definitely liked Lincoln Park the best of all the parks I've visited in Chicago, and if I lived there I'd probably find myself there all the time. Maybe next time I visit I'll actually stumble on a real bone or two in the potter's field? A girl can dream.

More about Chicago: Grant + Millennium Parks

Monday, October 21, 2013

NYBG: Kiku Japanese Garden Show

On Saturday, my uncle was in town and we decided to go to the New York Botanical Garden for Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Garden show. The last time he visited me in the city we also ended up at the NYBG (the first time for both of us) for the spectacular Orchid Show, so we had high expectations for Kiku. While the Chrysanthemums aren't quite as interesting (or diverse) as the orchids, it was still an amazingly beautiful show.

I had no idea that chrysanthemums could be so large and so intricate. The centerpieces of the show were these crazy pyramids of flowers (called Ozukuri, or "thousand bloom") that are trained (by some sort of gardening sorcery) to grow from a single stem. One display had almost 500 flowers, and another had more than 200 all impossibly growing outward from one tiny, precariously thin stem.

There were other varieties that looked like fireworks, some like fancy wigs, others that swirled like whipped cream and large displays of fall-colored mums, which I stupidly had never realized were actually chrysanthemums. I was able to intently study (and photograph) some really chilled-out bees that were hanging out on a huge wall of flowers, and any time I can get a great, close-up shot of a bee (or comparable insect) is a fun time for me.

In the courtyard of the Conservatory, I finally got to see the Four Seasons sculptures up close, and they were totally worth the wait. I wanted to see them when I went to the garden in the summer, but because I hadn't paid for an all-inclusive ticket, I wasn't able to get near them. I had even tried to peek through the surrounding fence, but couldn't catch more than a fleeting, heavily-obscured glance.

There are four sculptures, each representing one of the seasons, and sculpted out of seasonal produce and flora. Winter was hands down my favorite, and at one point there was an old man standing right in front of it who was basically the human equivalent of the craggy, rooty sculpture. Autumn was a bit of a disappointment, only because it's my favorite season (if I must pick one), so I had high expectations. They are all really spectacular, and make a striking set.

Also outdoors are two huge lily ponds, a majority of which were in bloom. I became totally enamored with the lotus flowers at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden this summer, but there are even more and especially beautiful ones right now at the NYBG.

We walked through the permanent desert collection again, which seemed to be doing a bit better than when we last saw it in March. The succulents were adorable and I had to use all of my willpower not to squeeze every last one of them, because that's a totally normal reaction to succulents, right?

I'm thinking that I should probably just bite the bullet and become a member of the NYBG, because they have so many great exhibits throughout the year that it's definitely worth the price. I'll definitely be back for the Orchid Show this spring, but I'm also excited for the Holiday Train show in a few weeks, which I've never seen. A description of the train show mentions that the trains move through "more than 140 scaled iconic buildings and structures under thousands of twinkling lights," which is all I need to know to add it to my must-do list this Christmas.