My mother knows all of the best places to eat in Cleveland. My husband thinks that when she retires, she should give culinary tours of the city. What I’ve learned from paying attention to the places my mother eats is this: If you walk in and see lots of old people, and I’m talking very, very old people using canes and walkers, and wearing thick bi-focal glasses and you suspect that they’re not just grandparents but probably great grandparents, then you have hit upon a gem! Old people need actual food and not that processed stuff. I’m talkin’ real potatoes and fresh carrots–nothing frozen, manufactured, or held over from another time. You can expect to be able to see and taste your food. There will be chunks of onions and celery in your gravy and big flakes of freshly ground black pepper. You will be able to cut your chicken with a fork…and the bread will melt in your mouth. There will also be light! Forget that stuff about mood, atmosphere, and ambiance. There won’t be any dimmed lights in the place. You will be able to see how clean your flatware is and how much salt you shake on your food. Old people. They hold the key. If they are in the house, the food will be real and it will be good.

I was reading Clotilde’s blog, Chocolate & Zucchini, and she had written a post about imagining spending 12 hours in Paris that she patterned after her friend Adam’s post a few years ago about how he would spend 12 hours in New York. I decided to try planning my own culinary trip to Cleveland, enjoying places that my mother has generously brought into my life.

So, I am going to choose a Tuesday as the day where I will enjoy the food, but I would need to spend some time on Monday getting it all together because I want to plan for a picnic at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. So on Monday, I would go to the the Westside Market, which is only open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

This gorgeous photograph of the West Side Market comes from the “All Things Cleveland Ohio” blog.

The West Side Market is Cleveland’s oldest publicly owned market. I used to love going there as a child. It is a feast for all five senses. I don’t have to work hard to try to convince myself that if I’m still enough, I can travel back to the sweet taste of crisp white grapes pulled with quick hands from a vine that I desperately wanted to take home. I swear I can hear myself chewing the grape and hearing the rest, the remainders on the vine, slide into a bag before it gets handed to a young man who will weigh it as we count out cash to give to the young woman who manages such things. Thinking about how I buy fruits and vegetables now at the grocery store, the most prominent thing I remember from buying from the West Side Market is actually being able to smell, see, and touch the fruit at the stands because nothing was pre-packaged in bags or in plastic containers. Brown paper lunch bags were available at each stall and you would take a bag and fill it with what you wanted. Those were the days when you could select every cherry you wanted for your bag in order to ensure the sweetness of each one. My Uncle B.B. was also a big fan of the cheeses and the deli meats. I remember bringing home grapes and melons, cheeses and fruits. Adults were excited about buying meat from the market–especially for holidays. They would buy their ribs, chicken, and steaks there. I don’t remember even knowing that you could buy pastries at the West Side market. The fruits and cheeses were my delight. So for the picnic I’m imagining at the Zoo, I will buy three pounds of grapes–one pound each of white, red, and purple seedless ones. I will also buy cheese–one pound each of pepper jack, cheddar, and colby. I will purchase one seedless watermelon, two pounds of cherries, one pound of bananas. I will also purchase about three pounds of shaved smoked turkey. I’m debating about whether or not to have sandwiches for my picnic; maybe the meat will be for another time. Of course I won’t use all of this food for my picnic, we’ll save some for home.

Next, I would go to Joe’s, a fine deli and restaurant in Rocky River. Joe’s is one of those places where you’ll see those old people I told you about above.

This is an image that I grabbed from someone’s Four Square page. I daydream about being able to go into Joe’s and take my own pictures of some of my favorite dishes. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water! Thanks to whoever took this photograph. I envy your access.

I would purchase two “Chicken Pasta Salads” and curse the fact that I couldn’t also take along my favorite salad, the “Cranberry Chicken Salad,” for the actual picnic. Follow the link to read about the glorious items in that mix. When I’m dining in, I usually order the Cranberry Chicken Salad with the House made Balsamic Vinaigrette, which is beyond heavenly. As much as I want this salad, I think the pasta salad is a sturdier option for a picnic and it uses the same dressing but I wouldn’t have to deal with the lettuce, which wilts under the warm chicken and so would not hold up until the next day’s picnic. So the “Chicken Pasta Salad” would work because I would get the dressing and the chicken and it could be served cold. In addition to these salads, I would also get about five pieces of their Baklava (walnut or pistachio makes no difference to me because I love them both) and at least one lemon bar just to enjoy on the way home. The desert menu is embedded here in case you want to imagine what you might enjoy.

I grabbed this image from Yelp. My Mom goes to Joe’s for her potato pancakes but I really like the ones served here. The place looks like an old railroad car. I don’t know what makes my Mom try some of these spots but I’m glad she’s so adventurous.

I think that I’d have to go to the Breadsmith for my French Baguettes and then I’d pick-up a few extra rolls to go with my Tuesday morning breakfast. On Tuesday morning, I’d stop by John’s Diner and get a few orders of potato pancakes with sour cream and carry them home so that I could eat while I assembled our picnic fare.

Off to the Zoo

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is the bomb! When my husband and I were dating, I brought him home with me once just so that we could visit the Zoo. He was so impressed with Cleveland’s Zoo that it became the measure for all of the other Zoo trips we would take during the course of our travels. I think it’s such a good Zoo because it offers a full experience of the natural world. You feel like you’re in a big park and there are lots of things to do and see in an incredibly vast space. Too, it’s very reasonably priced. Adults pay $12.25 and children over 2 pay $8.25 during the summer months. During the fall and winter months it’s $8.25 and $5.25 respectively. I’ve always thought that Cleveland did a good job imagining family experiences. City planners appear to think about how families might be able to enjoy themselves on a range of budgets. Too many outdoor arenas these days make it difficult for people to picnic, which traps you into buying overpriced things at the venues and standing in those long lines.

I used to enter the Zoo and head straight to the Rainforest. I’m incredibly afraid of snakes but I think I would tough it out for my son’s benefit so that he could get the full Cleveland Zoo experience. I’d be ready for some picnic fare around 11:30. I didn’t pack drinks because I love the fruit juice that they used to sell at the Zoo that comes in fruit shaped plastic containers. I used to struggle between the strawberry and the grapes (or maybe the choice involved the orange), but I think I liked grape the best. So we’d get our drinks and eat our grapes, melon, cheese, pasta salad, and smoked turkey sandwiches while we watched the waterfowl. We would take in more exhibits until about 3 p.m.

Heading Home

On the way home, we’d stop at United Dairy Farmers (UDF) and get strawberry milkshakes and I would get four scoops of strawberry sherbet to store for later. UDF is a taste explosion! You have not had good sherbet until you’ve had it. When I worked at the Cain Park ticket office for a summer job, there was a UDF across from the park that seduced us all into tendering over our summer pay. I will never forget the night when one of my co-worker’s parents came by to visit us while we worked our late evening shift and brought us each scoops of my favorite sherbet! If you are ever in Ohio and you happen to see a UDF, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a milkshake or a scoop of sherbet. You won’t regret it.

At around 6 p.m. I’d call in an order at Nunzio’s for pizza and a few salads. This pizza is a taste sensation! (The salads are really good too! The mozzarella cheese is good and the house dressing is pretty amazing.) The photos on their site do their food little justice. My mother lives directly across the street from a Nunzio’s so I would order the food and just run over and pick it up. We’d enjoy pizza before eating the Baklava that I got from Joe’s and the sherbet from UDF.

O.K., so all of you Cleveland readers, I’m sure , will notice that my entire eating experience involved the West Side. So how would you suggest incorporating the East Side into my plan for a Zoo picnic?

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