Live Active Cultures

Seth searches for live active cultures in Pennsylvania and finds flash floods, pearls and mushroom

Torrential rain. Flash floods. Boil orders. These are just a few of the nearly Biblical plagues I braved last weekend during my latest Northeast sojourn. I braved nature’s fury in service of seeking out the latest in live active cultures outside Orlando. Now I’m back bearing gifts for you, gentle reader: a pearl of wisdom, wrapped in a beard, served with a steaming side of fungus. Hey, don’t say I never got you anything!

Our story starts on a rain-slicked interstate, as I speed into the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. My destination is a family function on the edge of Harrisburg, Pa., but thanks to my typically terrible timing, this trip coincides with a hydrological catastrophe. The one-two punch of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee have swelled the Susquehanna River beyond its banks, sending the surrounding cities into a state of emergency. Morbid curiosity makes me want to watch the slow-motion disaster firsthand, but mandatory evacuations and a cop-enforced curfew compels me to experience it vicariously via visibly exhausted local news anchors. In the end, the area remains above sea level, though nearby businesses and homes are inundated, and overwhelmed wastewater plants prompt us to boil our drinking water.

The toll of the flooding, which is only beginning to recede as I write this, will likely total in the billions of dollars. But most relevant to this column is the cost to the area’s classic amusement parks: Hersheypark and Knoebels Amusement Resort, two vintage venues that I’ve reported on in the past, are both currently closed due to severe storm damage. Shocking images of Hershey’s Comet coaster and Knoebels’ carousel, both submerged, have emerged online, making it obvious that families won’t be enjoying these rides again for some time to come.

A day later, the skies have cleared and I’m cruising again through Amish country, where farmers leave baskets of gorgeously ugly tomatoes along the roadside with unattended cash boxes labeled “Thanks for your honesty.” My new destination: a dimly lit suburban basement where, with a few dozen others, I witness one of the most exclusive concerts I’ve ever attended.

Orlandoans have long benefited from Benoit Glazer’s Timucua Arts Foundation concert series; for 12 years he’s thrown open the doors of his home for free performances. This domestic auditorium isn’t nearly as elegant, but the show makes up for it in intimacy and energy. Tonight’s headliners are Pearl and the Beard, an up-and-coming indie trio from New York. I’ve been invited to this exclusive house show because singer-percussionist Jocelyn Mackenzie is the niece of the homeowner, whose wife was my wife’s former roommate. (“What does that make us?” “Absolutely nothing!”) Along with guitarist Jeremy Styles and cellist Emily Hope Price, the band plays original songs in a style I’ll call “hipster roots”: a blend of Brooklyn bluegrass and Flatbush folk, with a hint of hardcore pop. Their hauntingly witty lyrics draw on a wide range of cultural references, from Cervantes to Coney Island to Johnny Cash – and that’s just in one song. And who can resist instrumentation that includes kazoo, ukulele and toy xylophone? I’m no music maven, but I make Pearl’s two albums my first physical CD purchase in ages and listen to them nonstop for the rest of my road trip.

The grand finale, and the real focus of my journey, is nearby Kennett Square. This picture-postcard village is famed as the “mushroom capital of the world,” and this weekend is their 26th annual Mushroom Festival. (Imagine the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival, the Central Florida Fair and Epcot’s International Food and Wine Festival, all in one family-friendly package.) In between the craftspeople and the carnival rides I sample mushroom stew, mushroom bisque, mushroom risotto and exquisitely rich mushroom mac & cheese from the epically unbookable restaurant Talula’s Table (though I pass on the mushroom ice cream). And since I get most of my gourmet gastronomy via television, I’m thrilled to see a live cooking demonstration by American Iron Chef Jose Garces and to meet recent MasterChef champion Jennifer Behm.

Of course, Orlando has its own mushroom connection: the paper faux-fungus installations of local artist Doug Rhodehamel. So I simply had to sneak in several dozen of his creations and surreptitiously plant them around the festival, because no matter where I go, I like to leave a little Florida sunshinebehind.

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