Friday, June 28, 2013

China Trip Travelogue: Summer 2013.

Friday, June 7th, 2013:

Greetings from China! Staying in Dalian at a beautiful hotel. Sightseeing begins today! Travelled 31 hours, slept five. Can't wait for coffee! 

Saturday, June 8th, 2013:

After an exciting day touring the spectacular rock cliffs of Tiger beach with views of the Yellow Sea: Richy, Mom, her mother and I were able to people watch at Xinghai Square, which had a beautiful sculptures and a giant lawn (think Wash D.C.) which rolled out to the sea where there was a giant "book" made of concrete which could house several hundred tourists sitting, walking, and milling about. There is a children's fair of amusement park rides, which played Maroon 5, J-Lo, and other American pop songs. I was very surprised to see English translations on nearly every business sign and advertisement in the city of Dalian! Saw dinosaur bones and preserved giant whales, sharks and fish at the Dalian Natural history museum.

We met up with Richy's grandmother, aunt, cousin and father for dinner: one of the most spectacular meals I have ever seen! 

Sunday, June 9th, 2013:

Today we headed to Pebble Beach and to a meal at the Lan's family house. In the morning, we were able to see the Chairman Mao museum, the Dalian Wax museum, a "trick art" interactive photo exhibit, as well as a "Body Worlds" exhibit and several other places at the Pebble Beach area. It was a very fun day!

Monday, June 10th: (Flew to Beijing)

In Beijing we were able to see the 2008 Olympic area, and although it was raining lightly we had fun seeing the Birds Nest and the modern National Swimming Center, and the Water Cube, which was financed privately by donors who contributed  over $100M to build it in advance of the Olympics. Surprisingly, Beijing is still a developing city, with most of the buildings having been built after the Revolution and WWII beginning in 1949. Many other even more modern buildings in the downtown area were built between 2003-2010 for the tourists coming for the Olympics. The ancient buildings were two thousand to six hundred years old!

Especially memorable was the tour of the Forbidden City. With seven massive walled courtyards leading to the political buildings and the family living spaces for the Emperor, to the Imperial Gardens, the Forbidden city was truly a tourist highlight of the trip. 

The other parts of the city, like Qianmen (Tianmen Square) were massive. Our tour guide Jasmine said that the area can hold over half a million people. The ground was all squares of cut stone, and the intersections were blocked for pedestrians who needed to go underground to cross streets using the subway walking routes. Two or three times we sent our purses through x-ray machines just to go underground or into the square, but the police mostly waved us (my mom and I) through. Richy said it was because we were foreigners and more trusted. I wondered if it was because it was too much of a API in the neck to translate the directions to us. In Tianamen Square, was the Final resting place of the beloved General Mao. It was explained to us that he is submerged in "medicine" probably a chemical, in a crystal coffin, where he can still be viewed for limited hours. (We did not see him.) Also in the square is "the Chinese White House" where the politicians work, but the Preside does not live. Also, directly across from this building was an enormous museum (Beijing history.) I really enjoyed people watching in the giant square, seeing the little girls run with streamers, people with touristy hats, many foreigners. There were very serious guards, and marching groups of soldiers who were so quiet we were almost run over and had to jump out of the way! Attached to the famous Square is the more modern (Olympic revitalization) shopping center of Tianamen street with a Zara, KFC, and Starbucks where I bought a collectible Starbucks mug to add to my collection for 80Y ($20) which Jasmine and Richy thought was crazy- but it's worth it, because I had to travel so far to earn one just like Pike's Place with Rachel.

In Beijing we also saw an exciting night market where there were scorpions on a stick to eat, sea horses too, and fried cicadas.  We especially enjoyed the sounds and sights of these shopping alleys. Alleys in Beijing are called Hutongs, and they are the neighborhoods for most of the populations living in the city. There are over 3,400 hutongs or alleys in Beijing with restaurants, barbers, and shops of all sorts.  

I bought a bronze horse statue for about $70 USD, Richy was awesome at negotiating it down from a lot more.

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013:

Yesterday, (Tuesday, June 11th) we saw one of the most memorable sights of my life: the Great Wall at Badaling, about a three hour drive (because traffic was so terrible for the Dragon Boat festival) up into the majestic mountains of northern China. Reminiscent of the Grand Tetons only without the snow, I was haunted by the rows of cultivated mountainside cliffs where shrubs grew in rows as we drove into them. After sitting in a traffic jam for thirty minutes from the Great Wall highway exit, we finally exited our van with our tour guide Jasmine and liked towards the mountain city: facilities, restaurants and shops created to support the massive influx of tourists where "You are not a man until you climb the Great Wall," greets you in huge stone Chinese characters everywhere you go. There was even a "Hero Certificate" you could earn by climbing it! After waiting in a very long queue for the squat toilets, we made our way up to the Wall, where you needed a ticket and to pass through security to enter the entrance stairs. Like a moving river, people were climbing the North and South sections, taking photographs as much as us, taking in the impressive sights of the man made structure as it snaked up the impossible mountain cliffs with varying staircases and leveled street-wide walking way. Jasmine walked with us through two turrets, and Richy and mom even further to the next one, but I was determined to reach a high point, visible to mom and Richy as I ascended, and I sprinted as far as I could until the stairs became too steep to navigate safely at a quick pace. I was smiling the while way. I would have loved to have a whole day to explore much further, but in retrospect with the sloping descents and rail gripping deep stairs, my legs were sore enough today that I'm glad I didn't! We took photos and videos everywhere along the different points of the wall. It was incredible.

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013:
Today we took a flight from Beijing to Xi’an and when we were flying over China we could see incredible vistas of farmland. There were rice paddies, deep mining quarries, and terraced agricultural leveled mountainsides. Closer to Xi’an there were deep ravines of trees and plateaus of farmland above. The city appeared, again with hundreds (thousands?) of skyscrapers and buildings over five levels. Incredible in size. We met out tour guide at the airport, and were driven to the hotel downtown. Then we went out to see the Wild Goose Pagoda, the water fountain show (think Bellagio in Vegas!) and the Muslim Market where we made a dinner of street snacks and the famous Xi’an noodles. So incredible. Did I mention that we are seeing the Terracotta Warriors tomorrow? :) I can't wait. Also will see a dinner and dancing show. Will update again tomorrow- yay for WIFI!

Thursday, June 13th, 2013:

In the morning we drove one hour from downtown Xian to the farmlands where in the 1970's a farmer drilling for a well discovered a Terracotta Warrior head. (We met him yesterday and got his autograph!) He placed the head in his house and prayed to it for three months for rain, but none came, so he left it out in a field, disgusted. A visiting government official heard the rumor of the head and went searching for it, understanding its probable archeological value. After an initial assessment, the government sent an archeological team to excavate, and the three famous pits were found. The local farmers were rewarded with new homes and income, as the land became one of the largest "open digs" on the world. Teams still are excavating, having today only covered about half of the buried territory! We were able to see some restorers working to reassemble broken soldiers, horses and chariots: it was fascinating! I have a great video of my mom seeing the first pit for the first time- it captures her genuine surprise, wonder and emotions at seeing one of the 8 Wonders of the World. I loved getting that moment on film, I can't wait to share that and other clips of video with you. Be prepared for a long one! :)

From the dig sites and museums,  we went to see how silk is made at a local factory and silk shop: so interesting! It was fun for me to see Richy be weirded out by the dead worms in the cocoons where many yards of silk thread are unwound from the cocoon. Eight cocoons are wound together to create an even tougher thread and you wouldn't believe the silky softness of the stretched cocoon or the thread! We shopped in the store and bought matching traditional shirts which we wore later to the formal dinner and show!

After the silk area and lunch we drove to the nearby hot springs to see where the Emperor Tang and Lady Dian spent time relaxing and living when they were in this area. There was such an interesting story of how they met: Lady Dian was originally married to Tang's son, but when the Emperor saw her sing and dance he took her for his concubine and they lived happily for many years. Eventually, after a war he lost, the enemy demanded that Tang kill Lady Dian, or they would kill him. So Lady Dian was hung by her own scarf from a tree, aided by a helper, by herself. So tragic!

The grounds, pools, mountain views, elaborate pagoda style houses were inspiring. We took many photos and videos there.

After the hour drive back, and a rest in the hotel, we left in a taxi for dinner and a traditional show. The dinner had a delicious tomato and dumpling soup, and about twenty different kinds of famous local dumplings! We tried a "rice wine" which was too sweet for me! We had "healthy munchkins" which tasted delicious- made from rice, but tasting like a munchkin anyways.

The show was SPECTACULAR. Amazing costumes for the cast of over twenty dancers, acrobats and tumblers. My mom said that it reminded her of Circe de Soleil, with all of the cool tricks they could do. Many videos from that show too- there don't seem to be many copyright laws here! ;)

So now we are waiting for the plane after an INCREDIBLE day in Xian: put this city on your list! :)

Friday: June 14:

We flew to Hangzhou from Xi'an in the morning, met our tour guide and driver, and immediately drove the one hour into the downtown area to meet Richy's friends, other Chinese international foreign exchange students (Romo and his girlfriend Candy, John, Tom and Kartal) from my school for lunch at Romo's Uncle's restaurant: Hot Fish. After a delicious meal of fifteen or so different kinds of dishes, we departed for the West Lake area of Hangzhou. 

We took a man-rowed boat tour of the lake as a group, (now lacking Romo and Candy who didn't join us for the second part of the afternoon) seeing a lone gas powered speed boat amongst a hundred rear oar one man row boats which could fit about 2-8 people inside out on the water and moored near shore awaiting passengers. The boat ride gave us beautiful lake views of the greenery, rolling famous tea plant hills, a temple, pagodas and later the city skyline. I enjoyed the Chinese chatter of the kids, together again, and had fun communicating with these familiar members of our big International family again in English. They seemed so refreshed and happy since I had last seen them after exams (especially Tom and Kartal) it was almost like seeing new people! 

Back on the causeway of the National Park of the West Lake, we walked over the incredibly scenic and traditionally landscaped street wide paved paths. There were magazine quality scenic photo spots everywhere I turned: a pagoda amongst a hill of flowers, manicured lawns of closely mowed grass, half moon bridges, a moon gate over a river pebble stone walkway, a pond of koi fish, water birds along the shore, weeping willows hiding gently lapping water, secret paths through rock gardens, it's no wonder that this was the favorite spot of Emperors. I took landscapes and portraits, videos of walking, enjoying the scenic beauty of the distant bass of the local music festival and a loud group of tourists following us all over the paths that I jokingly coined "my friends" because clearly we had a bit in common!

[Random side note: Mom teases me for making friends everywhere we go because I have pantomime conversations with the locals multiple times per day. On the plane to Hangzhou, I mimicked stealing another passenger's breakfast brownie after pointing to one and our row mates laughed, and one asked me with fingers if I was two or four years old. (Richy helped to translate.) I've offered successfully to take photos of multiple groups clearly missing that photographer from the shot and on the Great Wall, one group raced to catch up with me and asked with gestures to take a picture with me! So I did and the we kept seeing them everywhere so we laughed and smiled with them the whole time at the Wall. Then I met a group of American girl college students traveling to most of  the same places as us. Then there was a little Chinese boy on the played hide and seek with who asked me basic questions in English (with help from his mom). She let us take his picture- he was adorable. End side note.]

After the lake side and park walk, our group traveled, a bit squished, to a  famous Buddhist temple nearby. My mom was especially looking forward to this addition to the itinerary because of her appreciation for spiritualism and affinity for calm, zen-like serenity and peace in such places. We entered the lines and had our tickets scanned, and were met by a long avenue of cafes and shops for visitors. We continued through the throng of street sellers towards the entryway. Our tour guide navigated us toward the notable spots, like a 600-year old concrete rebuild of a telescoping pillar where the founding monk was buried 1,000 years ago. He was inspired by the Buddhism of India, and there were hundreds of carved Buddhas in various forms in the outside rock walls of an inner natural cave with mountain goat paths of steep steps closed to the public from times long past. We saw a few monks during our time at the temple, and our tour guide explained to us that this was a day job, and that many of them went home to their houses and in some cases, wives at night, and even drove BMW's from tourist donations and ate meat even though they were allegedly vegetarians. I don't know whether or not this was true, by it was fascinating. While they were very wealthy, these few monks who had earned this status did have at the very least a Masters Degree and were very educated.

There were three temples of such size, scope and wealth as I had never seen. The Buddha of the second temple was the largest indoor Buddha in China, gilded wood rising from a concrete lotus and a rising alter of over forty feet high. 

There were dozens of other impressively large idols (15-40 feet high) of important figures in Buddhism in all of the temples, too. Most impressive, was a wooden wall with a hundred and fifty characters from local legends and idols of Buddhism together, made from clay, balancing on ledges looking down on visitors as high as the ceiling over sixty feet above us.

We shopped in the temple gift shop and headed out, as the temple was closing, to head out for dinner.

Our tour guide brought us to one of her favorite restaurants, which was in this cute tiny residential area tucked into the tea hills along a running brook, up a very narrow street off the beaten path of tourist cafes. It had the mood of a country bed and breakfast and they made original dishes of creative culinary art from local sources. John and Tom ordered some of the best dishes that we'd had in China yet: amazing dragon fruit and watermelon in sweet milk, frog leg curry, a quartet of exotic desserts, braised lamb ribs, and a delicious cooked local lake fish in broth. I ordered a green tea with millet and it was plain and not very delicious so I ended up drinking mine and my mom's, haha. Oh well!

After dinner we dropped the boys off downtown and drove to another part of West Lake to see a spectacular show directed by the man who staged the entire Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony. Due to the drizzle that morning we had secured seats on the top, covered level of a lakeside boat, which had a perfect view of the water. The show began with spotlights on a lone white figure walking out on the water towards the grandstand! It was miraculous! The entire lake where the show took place was on a man made stage just under the water. The cast of about a hundred played, ran, sprinted and walked in the water in the dark! The show lights ran all around the grotto, and lit up a bridge and a mobile water two-story pagoda where the characters lived. The musical sequences with illuminated fish, controlled by invisible actors in the dark, and a feather sequence, where each actor had a giant oversized feather to wave in perfect unison were breathtaking. I eventually kept my cameras on because I was tired of missing stunning choreography. At one point in the show, a giant metal inverted 'V' set piece came from being hidden underwater to rising like an erector set fifty feet over the actors, streaming water like rain, flood lit in wonderfully romantic colors as the main couple danced in love. Eventually she was torn away from him and they never found each other. Richy said this was because all Chinese stories (like the Lady Dian one from my last update) end in tragedy. So sad. 

Eventually we made it to the hotel, enjoyed the view of downtown Hangzhou from the twelfth floor for a moment, showered and crashed. No journal updates that night!

Saturday- June 15th, 2013

We awoke this morning and ate a Chinese breakfast (Dragon Boat festival lotus leaf wrapped sweet rice, "healthy munchkins" or sweet rice balls, sausage, fruit, fruit juice, delicious steamed pumpkin slices) and took pictures from the 17th floor where breakfast was located and them we checked out and met our tour guide to travel to a tea plantation. This very small district of Hangzhou makes the national tea of China, and has the best green tea leaves in the world. (The plantation we visited had been visited by Queen Elizabeth in 1986!) We had a tea ceremony and toured the tea drying process: very interesting! Then we drove to lunch. We tried twenty more new small plate dishes of Hangzhou specialties. My culinary vocabulary is currently stymied by my fatigue so I will just mention that again, this meal was spectacular! 

Then we took the most interesting ride in China so far, past the famous farmlands of Hangzhou, known for pearl cultivation, silk, and tea. I saw a chicken farm, bogs with fisherman and varied styles of houses ranging from a concrete forest of skyscraper apartment buildings as far as the horizon is wide, a sight unknown to the USA, except in Manhattan, to waterfront villas, to humble battered brick buildings.

We drove up though the famous small town of Wuzhen, where hundreds of cars, tour busses and vans were parked awaiting tourists and took our luggage, 5 rolling suitcases, up to the visitor center across very challenging stone walkways. Inside, our bags were taken by a porter, to be ferried to us an hour later. The water town of Wuzhen is a quaint "Venice, Italy" style multi-island river town and we were staying in a refurbished farmhouse style inn with adorable hosts, who were quick to help us choose a breakfast, accept luggage, even carried all of our luggage upstairs (we would never have let them if we could have grabbed them!) We were relieved that they accepted a tip, and our watermelon! [Tipping is generally unacceptable in China- as each service is a vocation and it is a socialist society.] After walking to dinner with our tour guide, she left us to explore the walkways, bridges, water views, scenery, locals, tourists, shops and boats by ourselves for the early evening. Walking in the evening lights in Wuzhen is one of my fondest memories in China. We shopped at many stores, took photos, and ate ice cream before heading back to the inn, our princess netted canopy beds in the adorable wooden cottage style room above the river.

Sunday, June 16th, 2013:

The next morning we ate breakfast (shrimp fried rice, hard boiled eggs, dragon boat bean rice wrapped in lotus leaves, coffee!) and continued to walk through the morning walkers. We ate second breakfast an hour later: we all had vanilla ice cream cones. It was so early that one of the locals actually laughed at us licking them!

Eventually we made it over a high stone bridge with views of an ancient very tall pagoda, then headed out to take a short tram ride to the main building to await out luggage which was again being ferried by taxi boat back to us. Such a charming city! I wish we could have spent another night enjoying it. Our tour guide showed us pictures of it from her trip in the snow and it was equally beautiful.

Then we drove to the town of Suzhou, where we explored a local restaurant for lunch, another Silk museum, and most memorably, "The Humble Administrator's Garden," something my mother and I had been looking forward to since reading the trip itinerary months earlier! I will definitely appreciate looking back on the photos and videos I have of this spectacular inner-city walked haven, even more than seeing it in person as it was stiflingly hot there. We absolutely melted with the crowds in the heat and after about an hour we exited to the busy street vendors along the walls of the garden to meet our driver and travel to the Glamor Hotel! I suppered with Richy as mom packed an incredible amount of things into her suitcases in preparation of the return trip to America.

Monday, June 17th, 2013:
This morning, we traveled about two hours to Shanghai, where we walked around in the famous Hutongs (shopping alleys) and again ate ice cream before lunch. Delicious beef curry, rice paper vegetable roll "trees," and other dishes. Hundreds so far this trip. I'm going to have to start running again in Tampa on Wednesday! 

Richy went shopping in the glamorous Xintiandi Shopping Area (Dolce and Gabbana, Harry Winston, Chopard, Armani, think Newbury Street!) for a Prom dress, and my mom and I walked around, saw a Shikumen 1920's style Shanghai open house museum: delightful antique artifacts! Then we walked to Starbucks and waited for the meet-up time. (I bought more Starbucks collectible mugs to add to my now international collection.) I ordered iced teas and then waited for the thirty people ahead of me to get theirs. It was hard to understand the order calls, but he called mine in English:) luckily! 

Later, we were able to see 360-views of the city from the top of the "Shanghai Pearl" building. Scary glass floors but awesome pictures! We had famous Shanghai dumplings for dinner: but I have good news, we have some just as good in the States! ;) More shopping in the fashion district with Richy!

Had a driving tour of "the Bund" then to hotel. Early airport time on the morning to begin our 24-hour trek home! Bon voyage! Can't wait to see all of you! Thanks for keeping up with our exotic trip! 

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013: Flew to Seoul, then to Atlanta, then to Tampa.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Gluten Free/Vegan/Dairy Free/Non-GMO/Raw Food & Product Reviews.

The Disclaimer: I have an annoying, fancy, trendy, alternative diet. So I'd like to apologize in advance if any of my Non-GMO, organic, dairy alternative, Gluten Free food choices offend you, I'm just an American girl trying to navigate a sea of chemicals and genetically modified foods in a processed food empire.

The Apology: I used to laugh at vegans. I rolled my eyes at the "Raw Food" yuppies. I scoffed at vegetarians. (I'm sorry, friends!) Now? I'm wondering if they are on to something. So, friends, I apologize for my preconceived, ignorant judgments and hope that the following food products and lifestyle diet changes that you have helped me make for the better can help others.

The Quick Story: If you want to read the story why I chose to go Gluten Free after adopting a more Chinese/Asian diet last fall, you can read how I was hospitalized because of fruit poisoning, learned more about my blood type, and struggled to find all of the right vitamins and nutrients after cutting out lots of processed foods, then you can read my story here. It talks about the struggles at first with gluten withdrawal, and then the quick weight loss and energy boost.

Since going Gluten Free (GF) last October, I've struggled to get enough carbohydrates and satisfying GF bread products -that warm sink your teeth into buttery crust kind of feeling, any kind of GF pastry or dessert. I had pretty much given up on the fact that I might ever get to eat decent bread or desserts again when I discovered Nutrition S'Mart, a "Whole Foods" or "Trader Joes" type food store in New Tampa. Here, at this place, I found dozens of new GF products, some of which are dairy-free and/or vegan, which I would like to share with you today.

Categories of Food Reviews, scroll down for: -Gluten Free foods, -Vegan Foods, -Multi-category foods (Non-GMO, Raw, Vegan, Dairy free, Soy free, nut free, GF foods), -Beverages.

Gluten Free Specific Products: 

Gluten Free bread was the first GF change that I made to my diet, and no product has been better than UDI's. Found in the freezer section, it is great toasted, especially the raisin & cinnamon flavor, the millet-chia one, and the whole grain. It's got a great crust. It is a bit small for sandwiches... I usually have to make two because the slices are so small. Udi's Breads are the reason I was able to give up gluten in the first place and these are awesome products. Udi's also makes hamburger buns, hot dog buns, and other styles of bread. About $5/loaf.

GLUTINO: GF Bagel Chips (with Kosher Dairy): I am delighted to share with you that you can't tell that these are "GF" bagel chips. They taste exactly like the real thing and are delicious. If you're craving something crunchy (besides carrot, cucumber or other vegetables) to dip in hummus, or to load with bruschetta, these are it. Enjoy! ($4.79/box)

I've been buying Tinkyada's rice pastas for the past year. You might bemoan the $4-5/package over it's $1-wheat counterpart, but I've found with rice pasta, you tend to eat less of it to be just as full. (You can get a 6-pack online for $20.) The fettucini style makes for a great Pad Thai, just add peanuts, vegetables and GF thai peanut sauce like the one I've reviewed below.

I bought SAN-J's Thai Peanut sauce this week so that I could make pad thai with the Tinkyada rice pasta that I reviewed above, and I loved this sauce! A lot of sauces have flour in them (a fact I didn't know before this GF journey!) so I grabbed this one, and it's going to work great for the rest of my life. It's mildly spicy, which works for my stomach, and I added some fire peanuts to make it a bit spicier that day: it was perfect. Enjoy.

Vegan Specific Products:

SAMI'S BAKERY: Millet and Flax barbeque pita chips. Because these pita chips have traces of gluten, yeast and wheat, I can't put them into the GF food category, but if you don't have Celiac, they're probably okay, having none of these ingredients, but made in a facility that does. Don't be fooled by the bland-looking picture, these pita chips are loaded with flavor, especially in the Barbecue flavor. Enjoy! ($3.99/bag)

 Gluten Free, Dairy-Free, Raw, Non-GMO, VEGAN: 

My favorite product in this category, is the bag of "Blonde Macaroons" from HAIL MERRY. They are organic, vegan, raw, GF, and non-GMO, and they are DELICIOUS. It's challenging to stop eating them out of the refrigerated bag! If you miss cookies, these are the ones that you've been missing. They're rich, smooth and melt in your mouth. Also beloved by my other GF friend, Kim and her daughters. Enjoy! $3.99/bag. 

go raw's REAL LIVE CHOCOLATE is like a chocolate you've never had before. In amazing singly wrapped live truffles (thank God or I'd eat the whole carton), this live chocolate which is Vegan, GF, GMO free, Dairy free, nut free and soy free, and is a delectable superfood dessert. I can die happy now. TRY IT. $5.49/carton. (Worth every penny.)

The SO DELICIOUS cultured coconut milk "Greek Style" yogurt (dairy free, organic, GF, soy free, vegan) has a more solid texture than it's actual yogurt counterpart, but as a substitute, it's not terrible. The Strawberry flavor tasted a bit like aspartame to me, even though that is not an ingredient, and must be the "organic dried cane syrup" natural flavor. At 130 calories for 6oz, it's so-so. At $1.99/cup it's a bit expensive to eat often. I'd pass on this product.

The regular product (not in the Greek Style) cultured coconut milk review is coming soon! 

Earth Cafe makes some of the best (GF/Vegan/Dairy free/Raw) "cheese cake" slices that I've ever tasted! You can also buy a whole cheesecake on their website. I'm going to buy a whole one for Thanksgiving this year. Don't be fooled: these slices are full of calories, but worth every bite! At about 400 calories and $4.99/slice, it's a rich, delectable dessert to indulge in. Banana Dream in my favorite.

Stacy's Gluten Free (and dairy free, wheat free, soy free, nut free and egg free!) is a local Tampa bakery that makes goodies with all of the above listed considerations as well. Her heartwarming story about how she discovered her son's allergies, and then his recovery from challenges with a diet change, is inspiring! This week I tried the Agave Vanilla Cake with cocoa icing: it was rich!


"SYNERGY: Organic and Raw- Raspberry Chia," by G.T Dave made in Beverly Hills, CA, is full of enzymes, probiotics, detoxifiers and chia seeds. These seeds have "more than 8 times the omega-3s found in salmon. It's probably better of you don't know what kombucha is, but feel free to check here, I did (RACHEL: don't look!) Because of the fermentation process, there are trace amounts of alcohol, which I felt in the first sip! Who knew? The $3.39/16oz bottle took me two days, and three servings to drink, and besides the fuzzy "buzzed" feeling at the sharp almost smooth not-so-sugary raspberry vinaigrette taste, it's not so horrible that I won't try some of the other flavors because it is a superfood beverage. This one's a bit too much like salad dressing for my taste.

MORE FOOD REVIEWS of the following products COMING SOON!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer 2013 Movie Reviews

Updated: July 12th, 2013. It's time for my Early to Mid-Summer 2013 Movie Reviews. Scroll through the following to hear my thoughts on the following blockbusters recently released in theaters. It has been an action-packed male audience geared summer so far. Unfortunately, there not too many great flicks, considering all of the hype that went into most of these titles. Of the entire list? I'd only recommend seeing Star Trek and Epic in theaters.

Disclosure/Note of bias: I've been considering the theory of rating movies this year based on the "Bechdel Scale" in regards to female lead characters. Almost all of these movies would fail. Bechdel Scale: "1. has to have at least two [named] women in it, 2. who talk to each other, 3. About something besides a man." It's frightening how hard it is to name a movie that passes this test! Check out which ones pass below.

THE WOLVERINE: It was good, but not "great" and I'd advise you to rent it rather than to spend $25 on a ticket and food. The Pros: it's an X-Men movie. I love X-Men movies, especially X-Men: First Class, X2, and Wolverine: Origins and as fun as it was to step away from Marvel's Avengers series to get back to X-Men, this prequel (The Cons:) didn't come close to having the character development that the other films did, or the casting. I loved the character cameos of the hundreds of mutants in the other flicks. (Even Stan Lee was noticeably absent from his usual Marvel-flick cameo.) The Plot: I was surprised, but it was, in fact, believable enough to land us in Japan without question. (Thank you, exposition.) I enjoyed the Asian fight scenes, and yes, there is an incredible rooftop bullet train action fight scene that trumps even some of the best 007 stunts for coolest fight sequence I've ever seen. The romance though was awkward, and uncomfortable, (he's over a hundred years old, and she's barely out of her teens, remind you of Twilight too? Yuck!) and there was really no chemistry between the leads, not like in Wolverine: Origins, which had a much better romantic match, but oh well. It's an action film and it delivered when it needed to. It whetted the appetite for the next film: X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is a sequel to First Class, but a prequel to the X-Men trilogy. (I realize that sounds almost as ridiculous as the title to the new flick, sorry.) So Advice: Date night flick? Not really. Friend night flick? If you're bored and love X-Men. 

PACIFIC RIM: I love movies of all types. I don't discriminate when I go to see different genres of films in theaters, or when I watch them at home on our television, and computer. The HBO, Showtime, Movies on Demand, iTunes and Netflix services give me more titles than I need and often suggest films that I end up liking. However, my husband Tom picked this movie, and counted down the months, weeks and hours until we saw it last night in 3-D after seeing the trailer, and I have to admit: the demographic of viewers coming out of this movie was, not surprisingly, male dominated, aged 16-35 with their friends, out in droves of man packs. They loved this movie. It was basically Godzilla(s) vs. Transformers with the digital visual coloring of Tron vs. Jurassic Park, with stunning effects that tickled the inner child of every man in that audience. So, let me begin my review of Pacific Rim with the questions that every guy wants to know before they drag their friends/family out to see this movie: (1) Yes, the effects are spectacular/cool/new/unbelievably rendered in a way that we only see every few years, usually from Michael Bay. (2) Yes, the alien Godzilla-like creatures are believable enough to suspend disbelief and appreciate this Monster vs. Robot war in its entirety. (3) Yes, the movie is generally action-packed with good pacing. (4) Yes, it was one of the better films this summer if we're talking action and effects, especially in 3-D. Now that's about where my good reviewing of this film will end. So, if those aforementioned criteria are all that you are seeking, go enjoy a good mindless, fun action flick. (SPOILERS AHEAD.) Now here are my thoughts: boy, this film made me angry. It was terrible. Cliched dialogue that made the audience groan, a plot that was barely developed: aliens invading, robots are the only solution, (because apparently there are no Armed Forces in this film) so every hotshot robot "pilot" disobeys orders directly, (ego!) breaks his billion dollar robot, and puts humanity in jeopardy for a boy vs. boy intercontinental pissing contest. Yes it failed the Bechdel test because it only had ONE female character. REALLY? Only one? Amongst dozens of egocentric, testosterone filled, apparently uneducated gunslingers. Perhaps the producers simply FORGOT to put any other english speaking female characters in. J.R.R. Tolkien sure did. (The Hobbit). [Wait, I'm forgetting the female Russian robot pilot, but she doesn't really count because she never speaks, and dies after three minutes of battle.]  I just can't believe that a $200 MILLION dollar movie was so badly written. They couldn't hire anybody to fix that script? I would have done it for free. Also, after all of these movies this summer, I am becoming more and more horrified that generally, almost across the board, mainstream movies don't have TWO female characters, with names, that talk about something that is not the lead man. This absolutely disgusts me. So no, Pacific Rim bombs my expectations and I am further disappointed in humanity by the release of yet another, testosterone fueled violent advertisement for "acceptable" male behavior. Advice: Skip it unless, like my husband, you want to see the effects and just want to be entertained. 

DESPICABLE ME 2: After looking forward to this film for a year and half after seeing an adorable "Barbara Ann" (Banana) song trailer by the Minions months ago, I have to admit, painfully and sadly, that this movie was really disappointing. The storyline was mediocre if not predictable, and the humor relied too heavily on slapstick, rather than the funny banter of well developed humor in the last flick. There was even a horrifying "bimbo date scene" with Gru that was a bit inappropriate for kids which made me cringe. The scary purple minions? A bit too creepy and not at all funny. I will admit that I will be seeing the next film, The Minion Movie, because I continue to enjoy their hilarious shenanigans. This movie also failed the Bechdel test, because none of the female characters (of which there were six) had a conversation with each other about not Gru or a future with Gru. Sorry, Universal, clearly you tried hard, just not hard enough. Advice: Rent it. 

EPIC: Think Avatar meets Fern Gully meets A Bug's Life in yet another charmingly animated story that is compelling from start to finish. Yes, it passes the Bechdel test. (The first true pass of the summer!) It's not enough anymore to just have a compellingly animated story, to compete with Disney, Blue Sky (the makers of the Ice Age series) have really honed humor, from slapstick to device to comic relief, this movie had all the jokes it needed. Definitely a great PG movie for kids, and parents will really enjoy it as well. Advice: See it in theaters, rent or buy it. 

WORLD WAR Z. If you liked the thrilling moments of I am Legend, then you'll like this movie. There were some fun "shriek in your seat" moments, believably scary zombies both in dormant stage and in full bite mode, and believable plot events, where things just go wrong for the lead character as he travels to find the origin of the infection as they would for anyone else (Murphy's Law.) What was particularly terrifying about this movie, was the eerie accuracy in the portrayal of the doom of the human race when faced with the chaos of an apocalypse. Watching societies around the world be lost, and despair, have hope, then despair again raises questions of team work, diplomacy and preparedness for viewers that may seem comic when thinking about zombies, but also important when thinking about other contagions. I'd give this flick a B. (Oh, yes, it failed the Bechdel test, too.) Advice: Fun to see in theaters to see other reactions. Or rent it at night.

STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS. The best movie so far this summer by far...especially in 3-D as the action sequences are easier to follow with a third dimension (I saw it in both 2-D and in 3-D). Even seeing it the second time, I was equally engaged and excited as the first, knowing more of the information that created confusion in the first, and I could detach myself from the stressful experience of seeing it the first time to really enjoy it again, and even more. I really liked the villain played by Benedict Cumberbatch (also amazing as Sherlock on Sherlock). Here he was terrifying: his cold, calculating plans being revealed piece by piece as his game is played out- it's satisfying to have a criminally brilliant villain again, because it's more satisfying seeing him be defeated. Chris Pine animates Kirk in a loveably irritating way, and Zachary Quinto pushes his Spock into legend. I appreciated Zoe Saldana's Uhura, with her angry frustration and honesty with Spock, and brilliant Klingon dialogue. I was irritated by the boring blonde cookie-cutter "Carol," played almost unnoticeably (by everyone except Kirk) by Alice Eve. It seemed like a cop-out to have her character at all. With that one minor gripe, and my reluctance that, yes, this movie fails the Bechdel Movie Test, I can admit that it was very good. Advice? See it in 3-D/Buy it.

IRON MAN 3: Thank you Marvel and thank you writers for making a character who is renowned and respected worldwide have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on screen, for humanizing his panic attacks with the humor of the teenaged boy who helps him recover, and for letting Tony really deal with the emotional and psychological aftermath that followed The Avengers. (I also saw this movie in both 2-D and in 3-D and the difference was unremarkable. I'd definitely recommend the 2-D. Save the 3-D for Star Trek.) One of the best parts of this film was the role played by Ben Kingsley. I've always enjoyed his performances, but this was special: so funny and surprising! Great stunts, great recovery by Tony, great ending (if somewhat unbelievable, at least it was enjoyable!) and a great ending to the trilogy. Can't wait to see Avengers 2 and 3 now that Robert Downey Junior has signed on for them, news that came out today. In case you were wondering: This movie surprisingly just barely passes the Bechdel Movie Test, the two lead females discuss (besides Tony AND the main villain) just briefly scientific research, and how to save the world, briefly, before returning to interact about the male leads. Advice: See it in 2-D, rent it. 

SUPERMAN: This is a terribly long movie. At almost three hours, I found myself completely disengaged from the final scenes, just waiting for the movie to finish. Henry Cavill was a humble, believable, likable if somewhat boring lead; and Amy Adams was a meek, curious, starstruck Lois Lane, and the two seemed to have some chemistry together, but it was very staged. There were at least three minor scenes where I said to myself, "Wait. How did she get there?" for them to have an "experience" together. Also: the villain (Michael Shannon) was overacted and campy. Then I always spend a lot of time wondering about alien clothing and costumes. When it's hard to suspend disbelief with these "Power Rangers" bad guy outfits, it's hard for me to take in  and appreciate the alien scenes very easily. (Just like it was for Green Lantern, and some of Thor.) The fight scenes were boring. Really? A supernatural fist fight? Boring, and yes, it fails the Bechdel test. Advice: Rent it when you have three hours to waste.

NOW YOU SEE ME: This was actually a good movie, enough puzzles and tricks to keep me engaged nearly the whole time! Reminiscent of "Oceans 11, 12 & 13" or "The Italian Job" this magical thriller has you guessing until the very end, which I didn't like and was annoyed by, but could still appreciate. Note: Failed the Bechdel test. Advice: Rent it with friends.

FAST 6: I'm so mad at this movie. What a dud. It was really terrible. My husband is still quoting "Ride or Die" with a whispery tough guy sarcasm around the house. Granted, Fast 5 was probably the best movie in the series so far, so this one had a lot to live up to, but it was just a big joke all around. I can't even talk about how disappointing it was. The Stunts? They were so ridiculously unbelievable that the audience was laughing and groaning! The cars? Not impressed. I refuse to even put a picture up for it. It's not worth the space. It was just a campy, adrenaline fueled testosterone trip that by the way, also failed the Bechdel test. Advice? Let's just all pretend this movie never happened and rewatch Fast 1, 2, and 5. 

THE GREAT GATSBY: Groan. Another dud. It was very overhyped and the delayed opening also contributed to my overwhelming disappointment in the Baz Luhermann adaptation. As a film, it was fine, it told the story, it was flashy, it had the glitz and a work of art, it left something to be desired with its over-the-top sequences, costumes and sets. The artistic crew just tried way too hard. Surprisingly, one of the only redeeming acting performances was Carey Mulligan's Daisy, who I have always loathed as a character: she played Daisy with a deep pain that created a pity for her early on in the film, before the tumultuous events of the climax where again, I loathed her. DiCaprio was "too" romantic, the music was "too" trendy. It reminded me of Les Miserables, the movie everyone was talking about and loved that I just couldn't appreciate. Oh well. I'm still glad I reread the book (and liked it) in advance of the movie this past year. Another point for the "book being better than the movie" category. Also, it failed the Bechdel test. Advice? Skip it, unless you liked the book. 

JURASSIC PARK 3-D: I really enjoyed when the audience laughed at Lex when she said, "Wow! A touch screen with an interactive CD-Rom!" in the Jeep during the Dino-Tour this time around, twenty years later. The dinosaurs are still as scary, especially in the darkened theater, especially in 3-D, and I even appreciated a few "new" moments, even after having seen this movie a dozen times, now viewing it as an adult. Definitely worth the ticket. Sadly, it too fails the Bechdel test, although it's a toss-up with the Ellie Satler line here: [After Ian states: "God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs."] Ellie: "Dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the earth." Advice? See it in 3-D for nostalgic purposes. 

OBLIVION: A decent sci-fi/fantasy psychological thriller, starring Tom Cruise, after the apocalypse of Earth. While I do not necessarily agree with Cruise's angst-ridden political rants in real life, he has always played a believable agent in an action flick, and here is no exception. Also: it fails the Bechdel test unless you count a female robot talking to lead female. No more giveaways, I don't want to spoil it! Advice: Rent it. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

10 of the Best Movies that you might have missed!

As I made my dinner tonight, I heard a small fragment of a musical theme, and guessed from the kitchen, "Stardust?" to my husband who was watching this movie in the living room beyond. (I was correct.) Then I got to thinking that probably not many people have seen this awesome flick, hence, today's topic: TEN of the Best Movies that you might have missed!

1. STARDUST. (2007) This movie is delightful. Spectacular musical accompaniment reminiscent of a Spielberg or Lucas film, and it was directed/co-written by Matthew Vaughn. (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, X-Men First Class, and Kick-Ass. He's even married to Claudia Schiffer!) Besides the incredible cast: Danes, Pfeiffer, DeNiro, Ian McKellen, Henry Cavill (the new Superman!), Sienna Miller; they all deliver solid performances with witty/hilarious dialogue and engaging plot. It's not often that there is an unpredictable, enjoyable plot, with believable action and magic, and not to mention powerful female characters that delivers in a way that my husband always watches it every time it's on t.v. Rent it/Stream it. Tonight.

2. Coco Avant Chanel ("Coco before Chanel."- 2009) The ultimate French chic-flic about Coco Chanel. Starring the lovely miss Audrey Tautou as a believable Coco long before she became the famous clothing designer. It satisfies the "foreign romance" category as well as the "haute couture" category and is all together endearing and romantic.

3. The Fifth Element. (1997) Believe me, I hope you've already seen this one. Surprisingly, I have non-Sci-Fi geek students (and adult friends) who have never watched Star Trek: Next Generation, or even seen Star Wars: any of them. It's equal parts horrifying and unbelievable to me. However, if you're going to see ONE sci-fi/fantasy movie this year, make it The Fifth Element. It's a cult classic for a reason. Bruce Willis is on fire with his expressions and sarcasm, Milla Jovovitch is a formidable supernatural being that saves the Earth, and the dialogue/script is one of the best in memory. Finally: Gary Oldman is one of the best villains of all time. Also, you'll understand why my entire family has adopted the word "chee-kon" to mean chicken.

4. Overboard. (1987) Another film I have to attribute to my husband's choice. A grip-your-gut comedy with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, where she is a rich socialite who stiffs him out of pay for a subcontracting job and gets amnesia, and he takes advantage of her by pretending she's his wife and mother to wild, country kids. Eventually everything works out to the couple's advantage, but it's always fun to watch the privileged clean. A quirky and hilarious comedy.

5. The Holiday. (2006) Every time the ditzy Los Angeles based Cameron Diaz drives in the snow, backwards in England, screaming her lungs out passing cars, I remember how good this film is. It's become a Holiday-time staple in my house, but it's still too new to often be on t.v. The budding romance between Cameron Diaz and Jude Law is heartwarming and hilarious, and Kate Winslet's heartbreak conquering is so admirable. It's "just right" in all the ways that count.

6. Excess Baggage. (1997) I own this film because I got tired of wanting to watch it at least once per year. A comedy of errors where a young socialite fakes her own kidnapping only to be really kidnapped by a car thief by accident. He tries to remedy the situation only to get them into further and further mischief...a true 90's gem.

7. Empire Records. (1995) Speaking of 90's gems, this movie, (like 5th Element) makes my top ten list of movies of all time. Move aside, Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, this is the 90's staple: it's about a record store that is bleeding cash and about to close, and the charming characters that work there who try to save it. Cue the amazing soundtrack (which of course I own on actual vinyl), the great acting talents of young stars like Renee Zellweger, Ethan Embry and Liv Tyler, and the ensuing hilarity that is the store, EMPIRE RECORDS and you're in for a happy and  nostalgic two-hour trip back to the 90's.

8. How to Steal a Million. (1966) I'm often irritated that many Audrey Hepburn fans haven't seen this flick. It's clearly one of her best. It's a great way to meet Peter O'Toole, and incredible actor as well. Audrey's dad is an art-imitator, until a museum hosts one of his fakes. Audrey is determined to get the small statue back before the museum finds out and hires O'Toole to
help get it back. Another delightful comedy of errors- this one is perfect for the whole family to enjoy. Put it in your queue. NOW.

9. The Boondock Saints. (2000) The ultimate Boston mafia revenge movie where the lead characters, Irish brothers, target mobsters and killers for judgment. Completely satisfying in an overly violent revenge plot on other bad guys kind of way. Not for kids, or my mom.

10. Secondhand Lions. Saving the best for last! I show this film during my "character development" unit in seventh grade because I love the good values, ethics and fabulous storytelling in this movie. It's absolutely magical. I made everyone in my family watch it: parents, brother, grandparents: everyone loved it. It's beloved by all generations, proving it to be a classic. Once you watch this movie, and realize that these choices are legitimate, please go back and watch the rest on this list.