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“Natural Flavors” are Anything But

I was drinking a seltzer water this afternoon, and noticed there were only two ingredients listed: carbonated water and “natural flavors.” Since this particular seltzer was lemon flavored, I assumed this meant the natural flavors were lemon juice, of course.

Sadly, I was wrong. natural flavors

“Natural flavors,” it turns out, are anything but natural. The legal definition, according to the Code of Federal Regulations, is as follows:

The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

Like artificial flavors, “natural flavors” (I can’t not use those quotation marks) are usually concocted in a laboratory. The only difference is, “natural flavors” are derived from natural sources, while artificial flavors are manmade. Which means my lemon flavored seltzer water was likely made with a chemical found in lemons, rather than actual lemons themselves. “Natural flavors” might actually contain as many as 100 individual ingredients, including solvents and preservatives. As much as it saves valuable packaging real estate, it seems like a cop out to lump everything together under such a deceptive label anyway – even if companies are perfectly within their rights to do so.

naturalflavorsstarbucksWorse, “natural flavors” may actually cause consumers to crave the food or beverage even more. Those pharmacists in the food labs are attempting to make short, intense bursts of flavor that dissipate quickly, tricking you into coming back for more. And more. Of course, this benefits the manufacturing companies who put out the product in the first place. While “natural flavors” have never been associated with health issues, they can definitely make your wallet thinner, and trick your palate into believing a real lemon pales in comparison to a “naturally flavored” lemon.

Buyer – or in this case, taster – beware.

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Cruel Irony: How a Foodie Copes with Diabetes

It started with an intense thirst.

I had never been one to drink much before. I’m not referring to alcohol, but to normal, everyday beverages. I’d have a cup or two of coffee in the morning, a glass of water after lunch, something with dinner, maybe a mug of hot tea before bed. That was it. They say you’re supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day, but I rarely came even close to that quota. I just never really felt all that thirsty before, unless I’d been doing something physically exerting.

That all changed sometime in December. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it happened, but I suddenly found myself drinking more fluids throughout the day. I noticed this at work first. After finishing my coffee, I’d grab a tall glass of water from the kitchen. Then when I was finished with that one, I’d have another. The first couple of days, I barely registered this happening; when I did, I figured I was simply dehydrated. Then I began drinking more at home, too. I’d down a beverage at dinner, then have another after that. And another. The drinks varied – I’d switch from water to lemonade to Coke to juice – but I kept filling my glass with something. This was so out of the norm for me that I looked it up online. Though excessive thirst is a classic symptom of diabetes, I was like, nah.

Until my vision grew blurry.

For most of my life, I’ve had near-perfect vision. 20/15 at one point. Suddenly, I could not make out objects at a distance. I first noticed this during a basketball game that was being televised in a bar; the score was a jumbled and incomprehensible tangle of squiggly lines. Tara, however, was able to see it just fine. Every day, my vision grew a little worse. I started wearing an old pair of her glasses, which helped quite a bit. Without them, I was nearly blind. This degradation of my eyesight happened very rapidly, over a matter of days. I went into work one day and the person sitting a few desks away from me was a complete blur. I actually thought she was somebody else entirely.

By now I was getting worried – and also feeling decidedly strange, for lack of a better word. This started on Christmas day. We were having dinner at my parents’ house and I just felt “off,” though if asked to elaborate I have trouble finding the right words to convey how I was feeling. I felt tired and lacked energy, but it was more of a general malaise than anything else. I felt like something was going on inside me, but could not figure out what. This continued through the holiday weekend. And when I stepped on the scale, I was shocked to see I had inexplicably lost 11 pounds in three weeks, though my appetite had not changed and I wasn’t exercising any more than usual. Some people would find this a cause for celebration, but without any reason for the loss, I couldn’t help but feel scared. I weighed myself again five days later, and discovered I had lost another 8 pounds. Warning bells were going off like crazy by this point. Cancer does that, I thought, and suddenly found myself rooting for diabetes.

The person sitting a few desks
away was a complete blur.

Monday morning, December 29, I went into the local clinic to have blood drawn for lab tests. I had very fortuitously had a doctor’s appointment on Christmas Eve, right before my symptoms started worsening rapidly. I was there to get my prescriptions renewed, and mentioned in passing some of the things that had been going on with my health, which were enough to convince my doctor labs needed to be done. Stupidly, I waited five days to take care of them, because I wanted to enjoy the long holiday weekend without worrying about making a trip to the clinic. (Then again, had I done them the day of my appointment, I likely would have ended up in the hospital on Christmas morning and that really would have been a bummer). I had to fast overnight, and could only drink water. Which I did, copiously. Immediately after my appointment, I stopped at Dutch Bros. for a large iced coffee, which I guzzled in the car, finishing every last drop before I got home. It’s a 5-minute drive, I should point out. I chased that with a tall glass of orange juice. Then a bottle of Gatorade. A large iced tea. Try as I might, I could not quench my thirst. Weirdest feeling ever. That evening, I got a late night call from a lab tech. Never a good sign.

“Your blood sugar levels are very high,” he said. “You have full-blown diabetes.”

This caused a minor freakout on my part. I had a restless night, waking up every hour to take a sip of Gatorade, which I kept on my nightstand. The next morning, my doctor called and her words chilled me to the bone.

“Drop everything and get yourself to the ER, Mark. You have severe diabetes and your kidney function is down to 40%. You might lose your kidneys.

My heart leapt into my chest. This was just about the worst news possible, and scared the living daylights out of me. I immediately called Tara, who rushed me to the Emergency Room. Fortunately, there was nobody ahead of me, so I was able to be seen right away. My blood sugar level was a whopping 780-something. Normal is around 100. They said I was suffering from diabetic ketoacidosis and admitted me to the PCU (Progressive Care Unit). I did not know this at the time – thankfully – but DKA is a life-threatening condition in which toxic acids build up in your bloodstream as your body breaks down fat because it cannot use the sugar it normally would for fuel. Basically, your body is poisoning itself; left untreated, it can lead to swelling in the brain, coma, and even death. Long story short, I spent three nights in the hospital, was moved from the PCU to a regular room after they got my blood sugars down to a manageable level, and learned all about my condition from a helpful diabetic educator. My first stop after I was released? The pharmacy, where I loaded up on syringes, alcohol swabs, blood glucose strips, and insulin. Tools of the trade. My new reality.

diabetes

What does a post about diabetes have to do with a food blog? Nothing, really. And absolutely everything.

I love food, which should be obvious to anybody who has read Eat My Words. I’m the guy who completed a 365-day food challenge, after all. Food is truly one of the greatest pleasures in life. Being diagnosed with diabetes is the cruelest of ironies for a foodie like me. Because suddenly, my whole world has changed. The list of foods I can’t/shouldn’t eat is longer than the list of foods I am allowed. I need to avoid processed flour and refined sugar most of all. I’ve learned to count carbs, because anything over 60 in one sitting (surprisingly easy to exceed) will raise my blood sugars. Lean meat, non-starchy vegetables and protein are my new friends. My enemies? Things I have always loved. Rice, pasta, and bread. Desserts? Forget about it. But hey, I can have all the mustard I want. Woohoo! This diagnosis forced me to completely overhaul my diet overnight.

Fortunately, I am doing very well. I’m stubborn, but that works in my favor because I refuse to eat anything bad for me. I’m losing weight, naturally this time. And feeling better than I have in ages. I actually enjoy the challenge of eating healthy, and when I find a meal that tastes good and is good for me – like the black cod with butternut squash, white beans, oyster mushrooms, spinach, red peppers and tomatoes I had Saturday night on the Oregon coast – it feels like a win. I may not be able to beat diabetes, but I can manage it and lower my chances of developing any of the many complications diabetics face.

“You have full-
blown diabetes.”

The truth is, completing the challenge would be an impossibility now. There are far too many obstacles for a diabetic. This makes me sad, but even more grateful that Tara and I successfully finished the challenge in 2013. It was a one-and-done, but that was always the point.

It doesn’t mean the end of this blog. Far from it. You’ll just see more of a focus on healthy eating, but we’ll still work on tackling some of those food holidays we have yet to celebrate. National Meatball Day is right around the corner, it turns out. Low carbs and no sugar there. I’m in.

While walking around the neighborhood a few nights ago, Tara wondered aloud if the food challenge could have somehow contributed to the diabetes. I had never thought about that before, but I suppose it’s possible. There were an awful lot of sweet dishes, after all, a fact that we bemoaned constantly. In the first 12 days of June alone, we celebrated food holidays dedicated to hazelnut cake, rocky road ice cream, frozen yogurt, gingerbread, applesauce cake, chocolate ice cream, jelly filled doughnuts, strawberry rhubarb pie, chocolate cake, and peanut butter cookies. Holy shit. I don’t know how we did it. And I can’t help but wonder: did I pay the ultimate price?

Maybe, maybe not. The jury is still out on whether I have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. I’ll know for sure by the end of the month. Eating sugar has nothing to do with developing Type 1. One of the biggest risk factors for developing Type 2 is being overweight and eating a diet high in calories, which of course would include sugar. I can’t say definitively that taking part in this food challenge caused my diabetes, but it certainly didn’t help matters.

It’s okay, though. I am fine. Acceptance is one of the classic stages of grief, and I have cried tears aplenty for the doughnuts I can no longer eat and for the mac ‘n cheese that would send my blood sugars through the roof. I have embraced the world of whole wheat and am keen for quinoa.

Still along for the ride?

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Face Off: Boxed Macaroni & Cheese (Part 1)

If you’re like us, you grew up eating Kraft macaroni & cheese. (Actually, if you’re like us, you still eat Kraft macaroni & cheese). The little blue box is ubiquitous with childhood, much like Saturday morning cartoons and Big Wheels. But Kraft is hardly the only boxed mac ‘n cheese on the market, and we began wondering how it would stack up against other brands. So we’ve decided to find out! We’ll have a bracket-style challenge pitting two competing brands against one another, with the winner of each round advancing in order to square off for the title of Best Boxed Macaroni & Cheese. This is something that will take awhile, so don’t look for a winner on Thursday. unnamed

Our first two contenders: Kraft v. Trader Joe’s.

The packaging alone sets Trader Joe’s apart from its better-known competitor. “Wisconsin Cheddar,” it proclaims, front and center. Kraft makes no such similar claim. The big difference is in the ingredients: the Trader Joe’s brand uses annatto for natural coloring, as opposed to Kraft’s use of yellow dye (something they have come under fire for). The safety of food coloring is questionable at best. Apparently they are gradually phasing out this additive, but the box we picked up still listed it as an ingredient. Time will tell how long it takes the company to make good on its promise.

Regardless of the use of colored dyes, we’re not here to debate the merits of the ingredients. Each brand’s offering contains plenty of hard-to-pronounce preservatives, after all. We’re reviewing on taste – and even then, we’re not expecting to be blown away.

If you’re looking for authentic macaroni & cheese, you won’t find it in a box, regardless of the brand.

Instead, it’s a quick and convenient side dish when you don’t feel like going to the trouble of grating cheese, making a casserole, etc.

In the interest of fairness, we agreed to follow the exact instructions on each box, rather than doctoring up the preparation. The Kraft calls for milk and butter, while the Trader Joe’s requires only milk (though it is suggested you add 2 tablespoons of butter for a richer, creamier flavor). Both contain the requisite pouches of cheese powder.

unnamed

Kraft cooked up perfectly, without fail. The Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, contained clumps of orange cheese that no amount of stirring would dissolve. We finally did add butter, and that helped a little, but we couldn’t get rid of every last bit of cheese like we’d hoped. This made it less than appealing from a visual standpoint. Before even taking a bite, Kraft had the edge.

And after taking a bite? That’s where the difference of opinions settled in. The Kraft was predictably rich and creamy, with its distinctive cheese-like flavor. Trader Joe’s was less gummy, and had a more natural cheese flavor. Tara liked Kraft the best. At first I agreed with her, but I think that was a case of familiarity winning out initially. The more I ate of both, the more I liked Trader Joe’s version, despite a few remaining undissolved flecks of cheese powder. To me, it tasted more “real,” and made every corresponding bite of Kraft taste more processed.

Unfortunately, we ended in a stalemate. Like a hung jury, we were deadlocked. And then my daughter stepped in, and said she preferred Trader Joe’s, as well. So, there you have it. Round 1 goes to Trader Joe’s, though it was really close.

Stay tuned for the next face off, coming soon.

Trader Joe's on the left, Kraft on the right.

Trader Joe’s on the left, Kraft on the right.

 

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We’re Adding Reviews!

I’ll be the first to admit, this blog has suffered from neglect in 2014. Once January 1st rolled around and our daily food challenge was complete, we struggled to find a new groove. We had – still have – ideas for new food challenges, but without a calendar forcing them upon us, motivation has been lacking. I was all set to start my campaign to get a national food holiday declared for ketchup, but then found out a day devoted to ketchup was added last year, on June 5. Somehow, we completely missed the news. Which raised the inevitable question: now what? Eat My Words is still getting a lot of hits; that’s the beauty with food holidays that reoccur every year. But we want new content. After all, this was such a big part of our lives for 365 days, we can’t just toss it aside like yesterday’s trash.

Today, inspiration struck. And it’s such a simple solution, I’m surprised we didn’t think of it earlier: we’re going to start adding food reviews!

This is the type of food item we'll be reviewing.

This is the type of food item we’ll be reviewing.

We’ll primarily focus on new items, like the latest sandwich from Subway or the newest flavor of Oreos. I don’t foresee actual restaurant reviews, since they’re too local. I’d like to stick with items that most readers will be able to find in their own hometown. Our inaugural review will focus on Arby’s wildly popular limited-time-only Smokehouse Brisket sandwich. Hint: it’s a winner! restaurant_review-5-stars

Because there are hundreds of food review websites out there, we want to differentiate ourselves from the pack a little. To do so, we’re going to incorporate a fun rating system that’s unique: instead of letter grades or stars, we’ll rate products with knives. The idea is, the more knives we’d be willing to use to theoretically consume each product, the better it is. Hence, a 1-knife review is something we didn’t care for (why waste time sharpening the blade?) and a 5-knife review is worthy of the time it would take to finely hone each blade and then wash it by hand. You get the point. 1 knife = bad. 5 knives = excellent. And everything in between varies.

Got it? Good. Now let’s do some reviews!

 

 

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Q & A

Hi, there! Guess who’s back?

Not “back” in the sense that we are celebrating daily food holidays. We did not have spaghetti yesterday, chocolate covered cherries the day before, or cream puffs the day before that (though we did start the New Year with Bloody Marys again, but that’s a tradition we’ll probably always partake in). As liberating as it is not having to plan our menu around a particular food holiday, it has felt kind of weird readjusting to a normal schedule. It’s like we’ve stepped into “civilian life” after spending a year in jail, or perhaps the military. I still find myself automatically checking in on what the food holiday is, out of habit. Like, a year ago we celebrated whipped cream in Seattle. Ahh…memories. Questions-and-Answers

But life goes on, and while we do miss the challenge at times, we are both glad it’s over. We came, we saw, we conquered. Time to move on.

Last month I asked our dear readers for questions, and they came through with plenty. So here are the answers!

  1. What was the worst food you tried? Ironically enough, one of the most expensive: caviar. It’s the only one that made Tara dry heave. Fish eggs may be considered a delicacy, but they didn’t win us over. Even the dog biscuits were better. We also despised the martini. I’ve since learned how awful vermouth is. 
  2. What was the best? We both loved Julia Childs’ Coq au Vin. Tara was also impressed with the chocolate souffle. She did a kick-ass job with that one. I loved the Peking Duck and was blown away by the Pepper Pot. 
  3. What was the most difficult challenge to celebrate? Vanilla custard, because it took multiple attempts to get it to set properly, and then we had to drive it across three states due to an unexpected death in the family. When we finally ate it, it had separated, and was quite frankly a mess. 
  4. What food surprised you the most (in taste, and in what it actually was)? We were both surprised that we didn’t hate lima beans. Tara thought the escargot was much better than she expected. The Yorkshire Pudding was nothing like we expected, but delicious; when I hear pudding, I think a custard-like dessert, not a baked popover. 
  5. Have any new foods youve been exposed to incorporated themselves into your regular repertoire of meals/snacks? Yes! We have made the curried chicken salad several times, and in fact, it’s on our dinner menu this week. We’ll also be making Coq au Vin once in awhile, and Pepper Pot, for sure. Same goes with welsh rarebit. And I’m sure at some point down the line we’ll be trying our hands at souffles again!
  6.  If you were to do this challenge again, what would you do differently? I’m proud of the way we took on this challenge, and wouldn’t change much. Maybe try to make a few more things from scratch. Tara wished we had kept track of our expenses, and I would have used a real camera rather than my cell phone to concentrate more on getting a good picture of each challenge.
  7. What advice would you give to someone who would want to try to do this challenge? I answered that in detail on our last post. 
  8. What did you learn most? We learned tons about the backgrounds of many foods – how they were created, named, etc. I loved hearing the story behind Fettuccine Alfredo, Peach Melba, Tollhouse cookies, Popsicles, fried clams, and so much more. These histories have given us a better appreciation of many different foods and drinks. 
  9. What was the cheapest challenge? Most expensive? A lot of the challenges were cheap. Buying a kiwi, eating an apple, a candy cane, a handful of nuts – none of these cost much. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the roast leg of lamb cost us $40, making that one the costliest. We also had to buy a lot of alcohol, which added up. 
  10. Did you ever take the easy way out of a challenge? Of course! We would have driven ourselves crazy if we hadn’t. Buying pudding cups for some of the pudding challenges, for instance. Or eating Boston Creme Pie flavored yogurt instead of making an actual Boston creme pie. But you get to a point where there are so many dessert challenges in a row, or dishes that require a lot of cooking, and you are just too tired to put in every bit of effort. Like I said, I’m proud of what we accomplished!

There you go! Consider this a helpful tip if you ever plan on taking on this challenge yourself.

And stick around – our first challenge of the new year will be taking place next weekend!

 

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364/365: National Bicarbonate of Soda Day

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253/365: National TV Dinner Day

There’s no need to change the channel, you’re reading it correctly: September 10 is National TV Dinner Day!

We sort of did this before when we celebrated National Frozen Food Day back in March, though that holiday never specified a TV dinner. It may surprise you to learn that C.A. Swanson & Sons actually trademarked the name “TV Brand Frozen Dinner” in 1954. They didn’t invent frozen, compartmentalized meals, but they were the first to achieve mass-market success with the product. In 1944, William L. Maxson’s frozen dinners were being served on airplanes. The first frozen dinners packaged in oven-ready aluminum trays appeared under the name brand One-Eye Eskimo in 1952; their “Frigi-Dinner” entrees included beef stew with corn and peas, veal goulash with peas and potatoes, and chicken chow mein with egg rolls and fried rice. But it was Swanson’s, with a well-known brand name and extensive marketing campaign called “Operation Smash,” that was able to convince the general public that their TV dinners were convenient and tasty. Their first offering was a Thanksgiving meal consisting of turkey, cornbread dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes. The name “TV dinner” actually referred to the shape of the tray: the main entree was located in a large compartment on one side of the tray, and the vegetables lined up in smaller compartments on the other side, similar to the layout of a 1950s television set with a screen on the left, and the speaker and controls on the right. They sold for 98 cents and were cooked at 425°F for 25 minutes.

Over the years, the meals evolved. A wider variety of main courses was introduced, and the name “TV dinner” was officially dropped from packaging in the 1960s. In 1986, the familiar aluminum trays were replaced with microwave-safe trays. The original Swanson metal TV dinner tray was inducted into the Smithsonian Institute to honor its place in American culture, and Swanson received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999.

Like them or loathe them, TV dinners are an important part of American history (and a reminder of a more innocent era). To celebrate, Tara and I were rebellious and had TV dinners…for LUNCH. ‘Cause that’s how we roll. I went with turkey, she chose salisbury steak. The portions weren’t huge, and actually made a pretty decent midday meal! 

National TV Dinner Day

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226/365: National Creamsicle Day

Orange you glad you popped on over here to find out which food we’re celebrating today? August 14 is National Creamsicle Day! IMAG1263

Creamsicles are another brand name of Popsicles characterized by vanilla ice cream that has been covered with a layer of ice. As such, credit goes to Frank Epperson in a roundabout way; click on the link for the interesting story behind the invention of this tasty treat, which was yet another “happy accident” as so many of the foods we are honoring for this challenge are.

Creamsicles are available in a variety of flavors, but the most common (and best) is orange. Other flavors have included, at various times, raspberry, lime, grape, cherry, and blueberry. They are available in three varieties: 100-calorie bars, low-fat bars, and sugar-free bars. Creamsicles are occasionally referred to as “50-50 bars.”

Honoring today’s food was as easy as picking up a box from the grocery store and licking. Both of which we accomplished in short order.

Related articles

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140/365: National Quiche Lorraine Day*

Contrary to popular belief, real men do eat today’s celebrated food. May 20 is National Quiche Lorraine Day!

It’s also National Pick A Strawberry Day. But here in the Pacific Northwest, strawberries won’t ripen for another couple of weeks yet. I suppose we could “pick” some from the grocery store, but that doesn’t really count. (Actually, we did pick some from the grocery store when we went shopping yesterday. For tomorrow’s challenge).

Quiche Lorraine is another in a long line of French dishes that are official American food holidays. Somewhere, a guy named Jacuques must be bribing government officials. He’s probably wearing a beret, too. The bastard. Not that I’m complaining: by and large, the French meals have been c’est magnifique. Named for the Lorraine region of France, and the German word kuchen (“cake”),  later altered to kische, Quiche Lorraine is a staple of France dating back to the 16th century, where it is usually served as either a light lunch or a first course at dinnertime. Recipes for savory custards baked in pastry and filled with meat, fish, and fruit are found in English cookbooks 200 years prior to that. Julia Child describes Quiche Lorraine as “an open pie with a filling consisting of an an egg and cream custard with smoked bacon or lardons.” In American versions, cheese is a popular addition, especially gruyere.

Tara baked us a quiche from scratch this morning. Actually, we ended up with two, since we had a pair of crusts (those were frozen…shh), so I took the second one to work. True to form, her quiche contained bacon, cheddar, and a dash of nutmeg and was a delicious way to start a Monday!

Quiche Lorraine

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131/365: National Eat What You Want Day

YES!!!

This is the holiday we’ve been waiting for. After 128 consecutive today-we-have-to-eat-this-because-it’s-on-the-calendar food holidays, we get a break and can have whatever we want. Talk about a novel concept. May 11 is National Eat What You Want Day!

This holiday was actually created as an intent to give dieters a break, and allow them to set aside one day in which they can indulge in any craving they’ve got and eat whatever they wanted, guilt-free. But it’s not limited to dieters – anybody can use today as an excuse to enjoy whatever their culinary hearts desire. Some people may gorge themselves on junk food, others might choose to splurge on a fancy meal in a restaurant, and others might decide to create from scratch a favorite childhood meal. However you celebrate today’s food holiday, the sky’s the limit. There are no rules: it’s all up to you!

Portland is known for their popular food cart scene. Mobile cuisine is all the rage, with food trucks offering everything from waffles and dumplings to Cuban pork mojo, Vietnamese bhan mi, and Hungarian paprikas. Tara and I were downtown for a trip to the farmer’s market, and decided to swing by our favorite food cart pod at 10th & Alder for lunch…where we proceeded to Eat What We Wanted. That meant fish ‘n chips for her and a porchetta sandwich with lemon arugula for me. We were both pretty pleased with our choices.

The People's Pig The Frying Scotsman

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