Monday, August 29, 2011

Running Through the Aftermath of the Storm

No trains or buses running. Sporadic and unpredictable down pours of rain. No restaurants or bars in my neighborhood. What do all of these things have in common? Combined, they are the perfect recipe for complete and utter boredom during a hurricane.

Despite my desperate attempts to lockdown a Hurricane Boyfriend, after my jog through Brooklyn on Saturday, I pretty much became a prisoner of my own home and a slave to Netflix, bedding down and waiting for the second worst possible thing to happen to New York City, second only to the Second Coming: Hurricane Irene.

Not wanting to miss a single moment, I found myself dashing to the window every five minutes, expecting to see the train tracks falling to the ground under the weight of the rain or possibly a taco truck whirling by in the wind like an image stolen from the Wizard of Oz. But, alas, I saw nothing but rain. Sometime shortly after 3 am, my body overpowered my mind and to dreamland we went.

I had set my alarm for 7 am (I really didn't want to miss anything!) and when I once again stumbled over to our looking glass to the outside world, the rain continued, but from what I could deduce through the rain-splattered pains, Bushwick, Brooklyn, still seemed to be in tact. With all seemingly right in the world, I laid back down for a few more hours of rest. Being up at 7 am is for the birds, especially on a hurricane weekend when you don't have a Hurricane Boyfriend!

By the time I reemerged from slumber around 10 am, the rain had completely stopped, but the wind still wafted strongly through the trees. After scrolling through news websites and seeing that New York handled the battering of the storm with ease, I decided to assess the damage throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn myself. I laced up my running shoes, still wet from the previous day's trek, threw on my Bronx Half tank in remembrance of the race that never was, and mapped out a little 15 mile run between the two boroughs. I have been stuck at the half marathon distance for what seems like all of eternity and I was determined to break that thirteen mile threshold and what better way to do that than with a little site seeing?!?

For the second day in a row, Irene wrapped NYC in a thick blanket of white clouds, preventing the sun from seeping through and smothering us with her humidity. The streets were emptier than a typical Sunday, but I definitely wasn't the only one with the same idea. Others obviously also wanted to enjoy the city in its post-hurricane serenity. The bridges were once again walkable. Restaurants and bars began opening up. Stores started putting their wears back on the sidewalk for passers-by to peruse. By nightfall, Irene was just a fleeting memory.

Along my 15 miles, the only evidence of destruction I witnessed was the shedding of major leafage, a few downed branches and some minor puddling. For all the hype that this hurricane received, she definitely didn't live up to expectations... which is a good thing. After this dress rehearsal, hopefully NYC will be better prepared for the real curtain call...

Clouds over the Williamsburg Bridge.

No buses coming.

No trains coming, either.

Chanel store boarded up with cardboard. I wonder what Coco would think of that?

Manhattan on the left, Jersey on the right.

Clouds over Jersey.

Because New Yorkers' levels of "I don't give a fuck" were at an all time high, someone broke through the barricade to the park on the West Side.

Clouds over the Statue of Liberty.

Clouds over Brooklyn.

Manhattan Bridge standing strong.

The lovely Gowanus Canal smelling of rotten eggs and death.

A small flood in Thomas Greene Playground looking like an infinity pool. Gowanus, Brooklyn.

The dull red of Public School 15 fitting perfectly with the muted white sky. Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

Sprinklers are so necessary during a hurricane. Lafayette Playground, Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

More from The Outer Banks

With Hurricane Irene having just passed the Outer Banks, but the damage yet to be assessed, I thought I'd share a few more photos from my most recent trip to North Carolina. I've said before that this visit to North Carolina was going to be about more than my traditional family visit; I wanted to see more than just the countryside. I had been trespassing on her land all these years without ever really getting to know her and I wanted to put an end to that during this summer jaunt to the south.

Why did I pick the Outer Banks as my inaugural exploration? Well, my mother, a North Carolinian to the core, had formed an obsession with North Carolina lighthouses, specifically Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island and Cape Lookout-- the three black and white beauties that are housed on the Outer Banks. I never really got to ask her why she developed such a fascination for these structures. I was young and stupid and didn't realize how, one day, such a seemingly unimportant thing could come to mean so much. I don't even know if she ever got to witness their awe-inspiring facades in person.

Her curiosity for them hadn't always been there, but rather emerged sometime in my high school years. At least, that's when I first remember her bringing their presence into our home. With our military lifestyle, moving across the globe every two years, I think she allowed these lighthouses to simply embody everything that is North Carolina and that their light would always guide her home, no matter how far she wandered. And, believe me, we wandered far. When everything else seemed dark, these would always shine through for her.

Us servicefolk had adapted an old cliche to fit ourselves, "home is where the Air Force sends us." But that's not really true. It's hard to consider a place home when you know you'll be leaving before you can even celebrate three birthdays there. Even the original saying of "home is where the heart is" becomes a falsity. When you're uprooted and relocated so often, it's hard to have a settled heart, no matter who or what is around you. I think the more we moved, the more it wore on her heart and she just needed the reassurance that she could always go back to her true home. The guiding presence of lighthouses gave her that.

I didn't get it then and I'm only starting to get it now. North Carolina just has this way of drawing you in. The deep, southern drawls and torpid movement of time slowly sweep over you like the sea of the Carolina coast itself. It leaves a longing in you and before you know it, you're the one looking to be guided back home, to be lead back to North Carolina.

The Outer Banks offer many great reasons to warrant a visit-- a stunning shoreline, secluded beaches, historic landmarks-- but my real reason was the lighthouses. Through visiting them, I paid homage to my mom.

I feel so grateful and fortunate that I was able to see the Outer Banks in all of their splendor before Hurricane Irene hit.

Bodie Island Lighthouse.

The wetlands at Bodie Island.

These windows provide the only lighting inside the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Spiral stairs.

248 spiral stairs, to be exact!

View from the top of Cape Hatteras, looking south.

Yes, I am a tourist!

My camera died midway through our day trip up & down the Outer Banks and Jessie is being such a slag about getting me the photos off her camera!

Running through the Calm Before the Storm

This weekend was supposed to be a double header of races for New York City runners. Saturday was to be the Percy Sutton 5K, a short, scenic route that loops through the west side of Harlem. This race is one of my favorites and, despite its varying topography of inclines and declines, I was hoping to gain a new 5K personal record. This race would be followed by the Bronx Half Marathon on Sunday, the second to last race in the NYRR Half Marathon Series. As I've mentioned previously, one of my running goals for the year was to complete a race in the Bronx and the Bronx Half was going to provide such a beautiful and fulfilling check mark on my 2011 Running To-Do List. I was looking more forward to these back-to-back races than any other non-NYC Marathon race on my schedule this year.

Throughout the week, as it was becoming more clear that Hurricane Irene would, in fact, make her presence known on the series of little islands that compose NYC, local area runners kept their eyes to the Internet to see if New York Road Runners would tough out the storm and let the races go on. We thought, for sure, that Saturday's race would be a keeper, but it was really Sunday that had everyone on the edge of their seat. Would we really get to run a half marathon through a hurricane? I think most of us became giddier than the school nerd asked to prom by the quarterback when we envisioned the tales we'd be able to tell for years to come. The valiant battle wounds of blisters and chafe marks would be physical reminders of our arduous accomplishment. The terrible times scored as we raced against the wind and rain-- as we raced against the world, really-- would be accepted with grace and honor. That gleam of jealousy in the eyes' of other runners as they devoured each and every detail of our soggy, muddy, brutal quest to victory would swell our chests with pride. This is the kind of race you can't wait to tell your future children about. Yes, this was going to one for the history books.

Since I had heard no word regarding the cancellation of either of the races, I made my way to the NYRR headquarters on Thursday to pick up my bib numbers and shirts for the coming weekend's competitions. Everything was business as usual. When I received my numbers, I was presented with a placement in the 2000 corral for the Percy Sutton 5K (YAY!) and a 7000 assignment for the Bronx Half (WTF?). Being that corrals are awarded based on your fastest previous time, the lower the number you're given means the faster they expect you to finish. I had only ever dreamed of pinning a 2000 bib number on my shirt and sharing a starting line with the speed demons. Conversely, I never thought I'd be placed in the back of the pack with the 7000s. It was simultaneously the most exalting and depressing bib pick-up ever!

I arrived back home quite some time later, having other errands to run while I was in the city. By the time I thought to get online again, there were already several chains of emails from my running team, as well as a buzz on Twitter, confirming the information that we had all been dreading to hear: the Bronx Half was cancelled. In fact, all permits for Sunday events had been revoked and everything was cancelled. Imagine holding an open book in your hands and the words slowly disappearing one-by-one, drifting away into a grey sky while the pages flutter in the wind. Where black ink once marked a definitive record of history, there was now nothing. Our story was being unwritten and there was simply nothing we could do about it. We were all heartbroken and helpless. None of us would have that gruelingly bonding adventure to tell and we would forever have an unfulfilled gap in our running archives.

We thought that was the worst case scenario, but there was more bad news on the horizon. With New York City now evacuating residents and with the announcement that all public transportation would stop at Noon on Saturday, the seriousness of the storm set in and permits for all Saturday events were revoked, as well. First no Bronx Half Marathon and now no Percy Sutton 5K. It's as if Hurricane Irene has a personal vendetta against runners. The weekend of racing that I had been so looking forward to would be no more.

But even without racing, the run must go on! This morning I set out to greet the preceding elements of Irene before she made her grand entrance. I was wanting a mid-distance run that would take me to an optimal viewing location and back to my house. Total score that the Brooklyn Bridge Park is almost exactly five miles from my apartment and a 10 mile run is what I was really hoping for!

Thick white clouds layered the sky like ripples of icing on a cake. Not a single ray of sunshine broke through. I hoped this, combined with the sporadic rainfall, would cool the air, but the humidity drenched my skin before I could even close the front door behind me. The streets were still bustling with people, but instead of carrying on about their usual weekend activities, lines wrapped around the corners of grocery stores, old ladies pushed carts down the street filled with gallons of water and bread, younger groups carried cases of beer on their shoulders, inevitably for a hurricane party that was already taking place or just about to begin.

I was almost able to make it the whole way to BK Bridge Park and back with no rain, but just about 3/4 of a mile before I reached my HQ, the skies opened up and soaked me right through my rain jacket. But what's running in a hurricane without getting a little wet, right?

The Financial District, as seen from the Brooklyn Promenade.

Brooklyn Bridge, as seen from Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The East River is restless.

Dead end in Brooklyn Heights.

Friday, August 26, 2011

I Lied. THESE Are My New Running Shoes

On Wednesday, like a innocent, adolescent boy becoming intimately acquainted with the softness and warmth of the female form for the first time, it seems that I... spoke... too soon.

Caught up in warm and enchanting glow of the oh-so-strategically placed lighting that illuminated the most mesmerizing of colors on the most technically constructed articles of clothing within the confines of the Asics store, it appears that I fell victim to the manipulative combination of marketing and merchandising. Hey, I like bright, shiny things, what can I say!

The staff was so unexpectedly nice and accommodating that I really, really wanted to like their shoes. And, I thought I did. The Asics Kayano felt so new and unusual that I thought they were for sure the change I needed. I thought they were lacking everything that I had been missing. I was happy to have new running shoes, but that happiness just felt so hollow.

I spent the latter part of yesterday in my apartment with the Asics on: walking, running in place, jumping, prancing, dancing. I realized that what I was doing was trying to convince myself that these were the shoes, but no matter what activity I executed, I just couldn't escape the fact that these shoes didn't fit me right. Nothing about this whole situation felt right. And I absolutely hated them for that.

Still in dire need of a new pair of running shoes, I headed to everyone's trusty stand-by sporting goods store, Jack Rabbit. This is where I had my first ever gait analysis, so it holds a special place in my runner's heart. The staff there are extremely knowledgeable and the guy that helped me today was pretty nice on the eyes. (Not my type, though!) A rainy weekday, this was the first time that I haven't seen a list of people 20 deep waiting to be scene. The shoe specialists at Jack Rabbit are to running what beefy, 250-pound bouncers are to nightclubs: both are in extremely high demand and both hold the key to your immediate happiness.

I explained to him my dilemma and off he went to the deep reaches of the stockroom, emerging with a stack of stability shoes to the ceiling. (Ok, fine, maybe not that high!) First came the Sauconys, then the Nikes. Next were Mizunos, followed by another pair of Asics. I was definitely liking all of these better than my most recent purchase. Then, as if Jesus himself presented me with the Holy Grail, my perceptive shoe specialist produced from his tower of footwear a brown box covered in a blithesome blue running scene: he presented me with a pair of Brooks.

These were Brooks Ravenna, a different style than I've been running in, which are Brooks Adrenaline. I had never paid much attention to the Ravenna because it's listed as a "guidance" shoe and I generally only keep an eye out for stability or support shoes. Before I had even tied the laces, I knew. I knew that this is exactly what I had been searching for all along. Picture yourself hanging out with your best friend, who you didn't even realize you had fallen in love with until one day his hand accidentally grazes you in the slightest of ways and instantly little, tiny explosions of electricity are sent coursing through your veins, popping with each heightened heartbeat. It feels exhilarating and it feels right.

What's different about the Brooks Ravenna than the Adrenaline? There's noticeably more cushioning in both the forefoot and the heel. It's a soft landing, but sturdy enough to let you know you're connecting with ground beneath you. The existing arch of the shoe feels higher/ more stable and there's also an adjustable arch saddle on the exoskeleton of the shoe. This summer, Runner's World named the Ravenna "Editor's Choice," so I'm hoping it will be "Katie's Choice" as well. And at 9.0 ounces, I think this is the lightest shoe I've run in yet!

I had set out to try another brand of shoe, but what I really wanted, what I really needed, had been right in front of me all along. It looks like Brooks will be the running shoe to take me across the finish line at the NYC Marathon... and I'm quite smitten about it!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The World Is Coming to an End, So I Bought New Running Shoes!

Yesterday, I sat here mapping out my run for the evening when my room began to tremble. The water began to lap against the sides of my dog's bowl where it sat in the far corner, the metal dish clanking against the stand that held it. I thought for sure that construction had, randomly and unexpectedly enough, began in the empty lot next to our Brooklyn two-story brick dwelling. But something felt too familiar in the way these walls wavered, something too reminiscent of my time spent in Cali as a kid. This was not a man-made movement. This was an earthquake.

While an earthquake is not impossible, nor unheard of, in New York, it is far from a common occurrence and it is definitely an occasion that New Yorkers do not know how to handle, despite our tough, omnipotent exterior. Originating from Virginia, another unlikely candidate for an earthquake, I took this as a sign that the end was nigh and that the impending hurricane Irene was coming to finish us off this weekend.

So I thought to myself: Fuck it, I'm getting some new running shoes! If the world is ending, no point in me worrying about my credit card debt or suffering through worn out sneakers any longer! (Even if "any longer" only means three more days.)

My long run on Sunday was supposed to consist of 14 miles throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, but at Mile 12, a sharp pain shot through my right ankle and I decided to call the rest of my run quits. I spent the next hour with ice on every joint below my hip, as well as nursing a toe that had been rubbed raw. I've also been noticing some soreness in my feet when I get out of bed, which I assume is a mild case of plantar fasciitis. It seemed that after five months of continuous beatings, my faithful Brooks Adrenalines had finally surrendered.

Knowing that I was already an overpronator, I reached out to my team, North Brooklyn Runners, for stability shoe suggestions and was educated to the Foot ID analysis that Asics provides. Although already having my disgraceful gait investigated at Jack Rabbit last year, I thought it may be time for an updated opinion. So I laced up and decided that the seven mile trip to the Asics store would be my run for the day. I ended up arriving well after they stopped taking Foot ID appointments, but after explaining that I had run all the way from Brooklyn, my face still red and the sweat still dripping off of me to prove it, they took pity on me and saw me anyway.

More than just a gait analysis, Asics Foot ID first scans your foot in an x-ray-esque manner, each foot being measured using a cross section of lasers and cameras. This gives insight as to your foot length, ball girth, heel breadth, instep height, arch height and toe angle, as well as any discrepancies between your two feet. From there, you're handed a pair of test shoes and hop on the treadmill. This is familiar territory for anyone that's had a traditional gait analysis, but for those who haven't, a camera records your feet as you run. The special shoes that Asics provides for this portion of the testing have strategic dots within the shoe that read your gait and help determine your running style. Also by viewing the footage, your foot specialist can gauge your arch type and your heel angle. Then bada-bing-bada-boom, you're done! From all of this info gathered, the specialist can suggest the perfect pair of shoe(s) for you.

So what did this all mean for me? Well, my left foot is longer that my right, the ball girth and heel breadth of my feet are narrow, my instep height is average and my heel and toe angle skew "valgus," meaning they abnormally turn. Sounds about right! The only results from the analysis that were questionable were the arch height and my shoe size. Foot ID analyzed my arch height as being high, which couldn't be further from the truth. This may have been an error on my part though, since when you KNOW someone is watching, you subconsciously try to perfect the actual thing that is being watched. I've been flat-footed since 1980! I was also estimated to have a size 8.5-9 foot. I wear a 7 in regular shoes and a 7.5 in running shoes. There's no way this mistake could have been my fault! But what all of this really comes down to is that I'm still an overpronator.

The shoes that were suggested to me were the Asics Kayano and the Asics GT 2160. After trying on each shoe multiple times, requesting different sizes, having one of each shoe on at the same time, having one of each new shoe on one foot while having my Brooks on the other, and hitting the treadmill at least 10 times with each of these combinations, I finally decided on Asics Kayano.

The Asic GT 2160 felt just too much like my Brooks Adrenalines. I have genuinely enjoyed my Adrenalines, but that's not to say that I haven't had any problems with them. Besides, I just think it's time for something new. The weight of the Kayano was a concern of mine. At 10.4 ounces, the Asics Kayano is a fairly heavy sneaker, even for a stability shoe (Brooks Adrenalines clock in at only 9.4 ounces.), but it definitely has more cushioning than the 2160 and almost reminds me of my Nike Air Max 360's in the softness of its sole. Unfortunately, I don't remember enough about running in my Nike's to know if this is a good thing or not. In place of the famous Nike air pockets, these Asics have a gel substance, trademarked as "Solyte," embedded and injected in the soles.

But I did really like the differentiation between the man's and woman's Kayano: the woman's has an extra 3 mm of additional height to relieve achilles tension and a space trusstic system that recognizes the normal periodic changes in the shape of the woman's arch and provides for the controlled deformation of the arch into the space within the system. From what I've seen, most running shoe websites don't really call attention to any gender-based differences in their shoes.

I hope that everything goes well with the Asics Kayano because I'm really banking on them to take me across the finish line at the NYC Marathon!

Runners, even if you've been analyzed in the past, I highly recommend checking out Asics Foot ID. You might learn something you didn't know before!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tupac Shot Glasses aka The Best Birthday Present EVER

Is the best birthday gift ever, or WHAT?

Rachel, one of my ultimate BFF's from high school and beyond, sent me this set of Tupac shot glasses as a belated birthday gift. This "shooter set" contains four glasses, appropriate enough since Tupac's death was the result of being shot four times after a boxing match in Las Vegas: once in the chest, pelvis, his right hand and thigh. Whoever licenses this is either a genius or a complete idiot.

We were huge Tupac fans in high school and I can vividly remember listening to Hit 'Em Up in Rachel's room while getting ready for the club and going completely apeshit over the darts he was throwing at Biggie and Junior Mafia. The 90's will always be the epitome of rap music to me: the emerging dominance of West Coast rap, the ensuing beef between the East and the West and then the reclaiming of power by the Beast Coast. And, of course, the eventual birthing of Southern Rap. But no matter what, we were never not listening to Tupac. Strictly 4 My NIGGAZ, Me Against the World, All Eyez on Me, The Don Killuminati, R U Still Down? Reminiscing right now, I'm kind of surprised at just how many memories this die-hard East Coast chick has attached to these albums.

September 13, 2011, exactly three weeks from today, will be the 15th anniversary of Tupac's death. Pour out a little liquor out and then throw a shot back for your homie, y'all...

Looking for some of your very own? Well, then just check out eBay, ya dumby!

Monday, August 22, 2011

My Top 10 Favorite Things About North Carolina

The last few posts about North Carolina were very wordy and very running-y. But maybe you hate running? Or you're a "just the facts, mam" kind of person? Could you possibly have the reading comprehension/attention span of a six year old? If any of these sound like you and those last two posts were just a bit too hard for you to get through, then this post is for you!

I've taken everything that I love about North Carolina and boiled it down to 10 easy-to-read, photo-heavy bullets. Everyone likes moar pictars, right?!?

So please scan through and let the jealousy ensue!

Hushpuppies. I never realized what a delicacy hushpuppies were until I was dining with Jessie in the Outer Banks. As she gazed concernedly at the basket of golden brown fried goodness, she asked: "just what exactly is a hushpuppy?" I was dumbfounded that someone from the south had never actually eaten a hushpuppy, let alone didn't even know what one was. After I picked my jaw up off the ground, I was able to explain to her that it's simply deep fried cornmeal. In North Carolina, hushpuppies are served just as often as french fries with your meal or even in place of the traditional bread basket while awaiting your entree. No matter when in your meal they're interjected, you will be eating hushpuppies.

Boiled Peanuts. I've never really heard mention of boiled peanuts anywhere outside of North Carolina. As a child, I completely despised these things. They were soggy, mushy and, more often that not, cold. My-my-my how things have changed now that I, and my palate, have matured. Yes, they're still soggy, mushy and cold, but the saltiness that the peanut acquires from the water in which it's boiled is just as addictive as any can of Coke. You can see boiled peanut stands scattered throughout the countryside and along most major highways, which is convenient because if you're a boiler with a good technique, people are definitely down to travel major distances for your offerings.

Cheap Gas. When I returned my rental car to JFK after my nine-day North Carolina excursion, gas around Brooklyn was $3.95 and up. It was all I could do to keep from crying at the thought of the comparatively cheap gas prices down south. While $3.39 per gallon is still no bargain, when you're working with a 15-gallon tank, that $.56 difference adds up to an $8 savings, which could very well pay for lunch. I have no idea how people in New York can afford to drive!

Farmland. Here in New York, we have everything imaginable at our finger tips. Walk into any grocery store (even the shitty ones) and you're overwhelmed by an endless choice of fruits and vegetables. We don't ever really stop to think that these things we have such easy access to actually come from somewhere. I know it seems silly, but I'm kind of proud that an area that I hold so dear to my heart-- and that even members of my family-- are responsible for providing the rest of the country with the food that it needs (and takes for granted).

Walmart. There are many things to love about Walmart: the cheap prices, the unbeatable selection. I mean, where else can you go to purchase a greeting card, toilet paper, a new fern for your front porch, leggings and a gun all under one roof? But let's be honest, the best thing about Walmart is the people watching. Even my 77 year-old grandma, a native to the area, commented on how people watching at Walmart can be a "real educational experience." I was going to try to snap some photos of my fave big-box beauties, but I just really didn't have the heart to do it. (Yes, it was THAT bad.)

Finally, some honest advertising!

Guns. Like I said in the post above, you can get them at Walmart... and, really, you can get them just about anywhere down here. You know the myth that you're never more than six feet away from a spider at any given moment? In North Carolina, just replace a spider with a loaded gun. Actually, there are still spiders, so really, you're never more than six feet away from a spider and a loaded gun. You could get yourself into a real sticky situation if you're in the habit of keeping company with trigger-happy arachnodphobes. All of this gun toting is just fine with me, since Jenny and I plan to escape to North Carolina when The Revolution comes. (Do NOT try to steal our plan!)

Flag in the window of a pawn shop in downtown Whiteville, NC.

Styrofoam Cups, Crushed Ice and Sweet Tea. Styrofoam has become such an anomaly for me that whenever I encounter it, it's as if I'm witnessing the last living unicorn. Where does this stuff even come from anymore? Who even has the balls to still drink out of it? North Carolinians, that's who. It's as if styrofoam was put on this earth solely to serve North Carolina and it's penchant for crushed ice, both of which you'll be served at almost every restaurant and fast food chain you enter. I know I should be mad at this, but it's just so... North Carolina! Besides, when each cup is filled to the brim with the sugary goodness of southern-brewed sweet tea, everything is right in the world. (You don't even have to say "sweet" tea in North Carolina!)

Homemade "Wine" and/or Moonshine. The awesomeness of this should be pretty self explanatory and can only really be furthered by firsthand experience. I was first turned onto this homemade hooch a few years ago when my uncle presented me with a huge half gallon mason jar full of red liquid. I was accustomed to receiving jellies and jams and vegetables of all sorts sealed in these air-tight glass containers, but this was something new. After glancing from my uncle to my aunt and then back to my uncle, they finally understood that I had no idea what I was looking at. It was Strawberry Wine and each sip set my entire body aflame. Meaning, of course, that I was hooked instantly. Since then, one of my cousins' friends has taken up the potable pastime and every time I go back, I'm guaranteed to leave with new jars of this homemade wine. Last summer it was blueberry, this summer it was pear and sweet potato. I'm drooling just writing this...

Blueberry Wine in the making.

Sweet Potato and Pear Wine ready for the drinking.

BBQ. In North Carolina, it's not called pulled pork; it's just simply called BBQ. This is pretty much the only BBQ that I've ever truly known, as I've been eating it since I was a kid. Skip the ribs and spare me the brisket because if ain't Carolina BBQ, then I don't want it! There's just something about the way the pork is cooked in this state that just can't be replicated elsewhere. (It's kinda like going out of town and seeing a sign for "New York Pizza." You just can't get New York pizza outside of New York.) Dripping with a peppery vinegar sauce and usually accompanied with the aforementioned hushpuppies, there are few meals that make me feel more at home than Carolina BBQ.

BBQ Plate with green beans and hushpuppies from Joe's in Whiteville, NC.

You know you're in the South when...

BBQ Plate from King's with basket of freshly fried pork skin in Kinston, NC. Not seen in pics: the separate basket of hushpuppies. The rolls and fried pork skin were actually brought out to us because the hushpuppies were taking so long.

A board highlighting everywhere across the country that King's has catered and shipped to.

BBQ Beef (the Thursday Special) and a BBQ Sandwich from Wilber's in Goldsboro, NC. Pic from the hushpuppy listing up top was from this meal.

Cook Out in Roanoke Rapids, NC. ALWAYS the first place I stop once I cross the border. They also have like 40 milkshakes on the menu. This time, I had watermelon. A WATERMELON MILKSHAKE. Also not seen in pic: side of hushpuppies.

Family. Everything else is well and good, but this is the real reason I come to North Carolina. The Carolinas pretty much house my mom's entire side of the family and the majority of them have lived in the same places for as long as I can remember. As a military brat that moved every two years of her life, this was the ONE thing that I could rely on to stay the same. North Carolina has been the only constant throughout my life. Although I've never actually lived there, I consider it just as much my home as I do New York and my family is obviously the cause of this. Now that my mother is buried there and I've been making a pilgrimage to visit her every year, I have grown to love the state and my family even more.

Honorable Mentions: Peaches, Country Boys, Putting Peanuts in Your Coke, Everything Cooked in Bacon Grease, Grits, South of the Border, Thrift Stores, Pronouncing "-ville" like "-vul," Mello Yello.

*Note to self: find new pose for family photos.