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Variety is the spice of life

Variety is the spice of life, from what I've been told. Sometimes it's a good idea to break up the routine and keep things from getting too boring and mundane. 

Blogger Jeff Ryan, and wife Sherill got a vacation in, thanks to a super-fast harvest. Hello from Epcot

The harvest season of 2015 was one for the record books, especially in terms of weather. We rarely had to stop for any weather. No fog, no rain, no snow, nothing. It was several weeks in a row without a pause. Quite frankly, it got to the point where we were looking for a break in the action. 

One of the best, unintentional adventures Sherill and I have had for the last several years was when we took a trip to Walt Disney World five years ago with my sister, Jean, and her daughter, Sara. It was around the 10th of November, and Sara had a day or two off from school for parent-teacher conferences. 

We walked into Epcot Center at Disney World that November day in 2010 and saw a bunch of banners and signs welcoming us to Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival. It didn't take long for us to figure out that we had made an unintentionally smart move in our vacation date selection. The Marketing Department at Disney didn't get in touch with me before they set the dates for their festival. I'm not so sure I'd have gone with late September through mid-November like they had. Their focus group must not have had a strong ag feel to it.

There were all kinds of small booths around Epcot's World Showcase where each country would sell a small food item and adult beverage that represented their country's native land. You could actually graze from one corner of the world to the other without all the time and travel hassles of an actual round-the-world trip. 

Thanks to the fast harvest this year, we got a chance to make a return trip for the Food & Wine Festival.

One of the many samples the Ryans tried included grilled sweet and juicy bush berry shrimp with pineapple pepper onion and snap peas (left); and grilled lamb with mint pesto and potato crunchies.

I happened to be sitting at a table yesterday when someone nearby commented on my Food & Wine Festival hat. That's when I gave him the rundown on how the festival works. It's a chance to sample a whole bunch of foods from various parts of the world without having to gamble on a big entree for the meal at a sit-down restaurant. You're really only risking somewhere between a buck-fifty and six or seven bucks most of the time at the food booths, or mobile kitchens as they're now called. So, if the item doesn't taste that great, there are plenty of garbage cans nearby and you're not out much. Then you have the ability to walk a few yards further and take a chance on something else.

Another thing we did differently this time involved airport security. We got signed up for TSA-Pre-Check. That cuts at least another hour from our airport time on both ends of the trip when we don’t have to go through the long lines at TSA. It’s like hitting the snooze alarm when you have to get up early for something important, but you still get there on time.

Because of my various bionics and accompanying hardware, I always have to go through a body scanner and get frisked at TSA, regardless of my TSA status. (It's always fun to have the TSA agent ask where my medical device is before he proceeds to do the pat-down. "There's a pacemaker here; another one over here; an insulin pump infusion set here, and a Continuous Glucose Monitoring Sensor over here. But that's it.")

We also talked my folks into doing the TSA-Pre program. They don't fly frequently, and they're supposed to automatically be TSA-Pre because of their age, but we've always had to go through regular TSA and wait for them at TSA in Orlando. My basic explanation of the program must have worked, because one of my sisters got a chuckle out of the email she got from Mom about what was on her agenda the next day: "Then we have to go to the airport with Jeff so that we can get to Disney faster."

Elsie is totally on board! Safety, schmafety. Yep, the government set up the program to get my folks to Epcot in an expedited manner. Lines are for losers! Mom wants a FastPass and a Magic Band for everything! 

Arriving in Orlando isn't always flawless. On a different trip, we arrived shortly after a weather-related scheduling mess. The line for rental cars was 58 people deep for every company, thanks to a snowstorm cancelling a bunch of outbound flights. It was close to two hours before we finally got the keys to our vehicle. That's when I heard another couple mention their preferred status with the rental company. Turns out those customers get to bypass the usual desk at the airport and go straight to the parking garage and get their car from the staff out there. At most, there will be two people waiting out there compared to the 50-some inside. It rarely takes three minutes when I walk up to the outside desk and get my keys.

When renting a car, it's a good idea to pick one you can find in the parking lot. Yep, that van.

You also get the option to upgrade to a better car than what you booked in advance when you go the outside desk as a preferred customer. On my previous trip, I rented a tiny car, because it was just me on the trip. I didn't need room for lots of luggage or passengers and I wasn't going to be driving a lot of miles. All I needed was a front seat that would move far enough back to fit my giant carcass inside. 

The kid working the desk in the ramp didn't even look up when I laid my drivers license and rental company card down in front of him. He went ahead and did the paperwork and then said, "Okay, Mr. Ryan, let me get your keys. We have . . . a . . . . Volks . . . (that's when he slowly looked up, and kept looking higher and higher when he realized he hadn't found the top of me yet.) . . . wag . . . en . . . Beeeeeeeeetle for you . . . and . . . . I'm going to upgrade you to something way better than that so you actually fit. How about a Buick?" 

"Sounds good," I replied with a big smile, as I slid the keys back to him. 

Huge points for thinking on his feet, I'd say! He was probably glad that he wasn't going to have to figure out how to shoe horn me into a tiny car. 

When everything was complete, I pulled out a business card and gave it to him. It has a small picture of the GuyNo2Mobile on it. 

"I actually drive a Beetle at home. It's good to mix things up from time to time."

His mind was blown. (Thanks, Jill!) 

The other thing we discovered when we went from the plane to the parking ramp in Orlando was that it was more than balmy outside. A quick check of my phone revealed it was 88 degrees and 84% humidity at the moment. It didn’t take long to figure out that record highs had been happening in Florida that week and the forecast was for more of the same. Sun and warmth are fun to find when you go to a warm destination in the winter. When you’ve just come from reasonable weather, it’s not such a bonus. 

Fortunately, I’d done some research ahead of time and had a few ideas in mind. We would stray from our usual agenda somewhat. A heat index well into the 90’s helped in our decision making. Rather than walk seven or eight miles a day like we normally do, we’d hit fewer attractions, spend more time at each one, and we’d try to avoid the middle of the day as best we could. Sherill hit the spa the first day while I went to the park. An all-time favorite like Canadian Beer Cheese Soup at the Canada booth just doesn’t hit the spot when it’s 91 degrees like it does in January. 

We still managed to hit a bunch of countries during the outer reaches of the day. A couple of items had changed slightly, like the Korean pork lettuce wrap, which used to be more of a BBQ flavor and was now a blander, roast pork version, but we still had some great finds. Some countries have obvious choices. If you think Italy, you aren’t surprised to find selections like ravioli, chicken Marsala and cannoli. Then you stop by New Zealand and find mussels, or you find shrimp at the Australian booth, or a lobster fisherman’s pie at Ireland. These were all great choices, but they weren’t what comes to mind first when each country comes to mind. 

Think about Chinese food for a minute. No matter where you go in the United States, you will almost always find Chinese food. It’s usually pretty good, isn’t it? Not super high-end, take-the-in-laws-to-impress-them kind of stuff, but good food, right? Sherill and I went with two choices at the China booth and found both of them to be terrible. She had black pepper shrimp with Sichuan noodles and I went with Beijing roasted duck in a steamed bun with hoisin sauce. The only thing that came through on Sherill’s dish was the pepper. There were shrimp in it, but I couldn’t tell when I tried it. As for my roast duck, the flavor had been roasted right out of it. The worst part was the steamed bun. It had the same texture and flavor as the Styrofoam containers most to-go orders use. Neither of us could finish the tiny order we had. That’s how bad it was. 

The Ryans got a lesson in naan bread at Sanaa at Animal Kingdom. They liked both the bread and the sauces - and learned that mixing sauces can be a good idea too.

To expand our horizons, we drove to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Somehow, I had recorded a show about a family’s trip to Disney World. The dad evidently has a Food Network or Travel Channel show. I’d never heard of him before or since, but I probably saw a glimpse of them at some Disney landmark and decided to record the episode. They went to Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge. We’ve done the Kilimanjaro Safari ride several times at Animal Kingdom, but we’d never gone to the lodge. It was spectacular! 

The thing that caught my attention in the show was Naan bread, which is pronounced “non” and quickly turns into a “Who’s On First?” routine if you let it. My brain had a hard time doing the math for my insulin intake when I was eating what sounded like non-bread. It sure looked like it would be full of carbs, but yet it’s called non-bread. What if it’s some kind of trick, like sugar-free candy, and I take way more insulin than I need? Then I’ll have to go back to the therapy regimen my former diabetes nurse, Joan, gave another of her patients and "eat like Hell!" to counteract my overdose.  

Fortunately, we had left the truck in the gluten-free parking area, so I could go back there to do the math. 

The menu at Sanaa runs toward the East African variety with a strong Indian spice flavor. Naan bread is about the size of a tortilla, but has the texture and thickness of deep dish pizza. There were also Onion Kucha and Paneer Paratha varieties of bread. I’m not sure I could give you a detailed description of the differences. It was like the chef had arranged a bread lineup to confuse the witness/customer. 

There were many different sauces available, ranging from mild to plenty-of-Diet-Coke hot.

The Indian-style bread came with a selection of nine sauces to put on as you ate it. They were thoughtfully arranged on the tray in order of hotness, from a sour cream and cucumber wimpy version, to a have-two-more-Diet-Cokes-on-standby version. Only eight sauces are listed on the web site now -- Roasted Red Pepper Hummus, Mango Chutney, Tomato-Date Jam, Tamarind Chutney, Coriander Chutney, Garlic Pickle, Red Chile Sambal, or Spicy Jalapeño-Lime Pickle – but I’m not sure I could tell you which one is which or which one is missing. All I know is that the flavor and variety were tremendous and the heat was a big plus. You basically tear off a chunk of bread, put some sauce on it and fold it up to eat it like a fajita without all those pesky vegetables and meat making a mess.

Sanaa turned out to be a great find for us. It’s going to rank right up there with 'Ohana at Disney’s Polynesian Resort as a go-to destination for us and others we bring with us in the future. 

We hit Sanaa for lunch, so it wasn’t too hard to find the place in the middle of the day. What I’ve found, being a former little league dairy guy, is that I like to follow patterns that are easy to remember. The condo where we stay is fairly close to Epcot. It’s pretty easy to find our way from Epcot back home at the end of the day. It’s also fairly easy to park at Epcot compared to the other parks. That’s why we normally go there and take some other form of transportation to the other parks. The car route home from Magic Kingdom has a sign pointing you toward Epcot. It’s not easy for me to convince my tiny brain to take that route, because it seems like a side trip rather than an endpoint to me. Instead, I keep going and try to remember if I want I-4 East or West, and then end up driving around forever without getting back to the condo. I’ve done that wandering trip on more than one occasion with more than a couple of individuals. 

Our final day at Disney arrived. Our flight would leave at 2:05 and get us back to Minneapolis around 4:30. We had not done the German Buffet in World Showcase at Epcot, mainly because it’s not easy to leave enough room for a big buffet when there are all kinds of mobile kitchens on the way there. Germany is basically on the opposite side of the park as the entrance. The buffet doesn’t open until noon. In the days before TSA-Pre, we couldn’t get to the buffet, chow it down and still make it back to the airport in time to wade through Security for a 2-ish departure. Even with TSA-Pre this time, it would be a challenge, especially if it was 87 degrees and 88% humidity. 

Eat big. Run fast. Run far. Cram yourself into a plane. Not a storybook vacation. 

Sanaa seemed like a better idea. They opened around 11:30 for lunch. We could casually drive there, have a bite to eat (with what I now knew to be the right amount of insulin) and then make our way back to the airport at 1:00 to head home. 

Most of your foreign country restaurants at Disney are staffed by natives of that country. The lovely lady who served us on our first trip was a native of East Africa. Our server on this last-trip-of-the-trip was a guy named Vinny from New Jersey. He had a distinctly New Jersey accent that didn’t conjure up thoughts of African safaris. 

When our order of bread and sauce showed up, Vinny gave us a tip, as many Disney servers do, (Pointing at the sauce portion of the tray.) “What I like ta do wit dese is, I mix ’em up and put ‘em ahn da bread. I like dese two hyere da best.” 

Yeah, thanks, Vinny. I was surprised and not at the same time.

Turns out Vinny was a culinary genius. Combining multiple sauces with each bread gave it an extra pop of flavor, as the Food Network crowd loves to say. Vinny ended up being a plus. 

It was time to hit the road. Our food had arrived almost exactly at noon, so we were at the limit for time, were it not for our TSA-Pre status. We got in the truck and started heading back. Neither of our phone GPS systems seemed to be working, so I did what I knew best. I headed for Epcot. 

There were three ways to get out of Epcot. One EXIT sign would work, but it was very near another one I’d taken on the trip with our Amish friend in January. That particular EXIT sign turned into one of those extra-half-hour-of-driving options. The third option was to roll through like we were actually going to Epcot and then leave the parking lot and head back like we normally do. 

I went with the sure thing. Time gambling isn’t for everyone. As we pulled up to our usual exit, I looked at my watch and realized it was 1:09 and we were still at Epcot. The airport is about 20 minutes away and we were now 56 minutes from departure. 

It was 1:39 when we finished up with the car rental return and made our way into the terminal. We rarely take checked bags with us, so we got our tickets printed out and headed for TSA. That’s when our TSA-Pre status was really a bonus. It still took me a while to get patted down and handle my insulin pump before getting my hands swabbed for explosives like usual, but we got through and made it to the tram to get us to our gate. Once again, we sat down in our seats and the door was closed behind us within two or three minutes. 

Custom hats with Mickey bling were all the rage on the flight home.

A couple across the aisle from us was showing their hats to the staff. The husband had made them. They were covered with dozens of small Disney rhinestones, I guess you’d call them, in the shape of Mickey Mouse. The couple was returning home from their wedding at Disney, which amazed and delighted the airline staff as they listened to the details. Everyone was trying to how to get in touch with the Disney marketing department and get these hats onto the heads of the general public. 

All I could think of was one of my favorite comedians, Dennis Miller, when he was talking to the crowd and found someone who was from Tennessee. 

“Really?” Dennis replied. “I’ve got relatives who live in Nashville. They work in the sequin mines.”

Keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming episode of “Shark Tank” with unique hats. Meanwhile, I’ll be in my hayfield, fracking for Disney rhinestones. 

Guy No. 2

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