LOS ANGELES - The security guard at the airport is holding up his hand. My carry-on has raised a red flag.
With a look of bafflement rather than suspicion, he pulls out four California artichokes - long-stemmed beauties, big as grapefruits. I dare not think what kind of WMD they resemble on the X-ray screen.
Actually, I am elated. The perk of the hunt is flaunting your winnings. These maracas-size artichokes will make a beautiful mid-January spaghetti aglio e olio back home. They are the bounty of a visit to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market on the morning of a Boston Bruins game in Los Angeles two seasons ago.
This is my sixth season covering the Bruins for The Boston Globe. Of 41 regular-season road games, I travel to approximately 30. I enjoy watching these hockey games, reporting on their significance, and molding my interpretations into what I hope is the definitive account of what took place. It is, however, a hard-hat job. On a game day, I arrive rinkside at 10 a.m. to cover the morning skate. I sometimes close my laptop at 11:30 p.m. In that span, I usually write 2,500 total words for the next day’s paper, for Boston.com, and Twitter. Food has become my salvation: something to look forward to and something to feel good about after very little sleep.
As much as good food pleases me, its pursuit is just as enjoyable. Via methods of pre-scouting such as Chowhound.com, cabbie inquisitions, and intuition (menus written in chalk almost always reflect dependable joints), I track down a meal as fiercely as Tim Thomas battles for pucks. On nights before games, day-of mornings, and afternoons before the puck drops, with the latest New Yorker in hand to read between bites, I hunt for bold tastes at cheap prices. I rip myself after misses. I revel over scores.
There’s the hubcap-size plate at Ottawa’s Shawarma Palace - spicy chicken, rice, potatoes, hummus, garlic sauce, pita bread, pickles, and salad piled high. There’s the roast pork sandwich with provolone and broccoli rabe at Philadelphia’s DiNic’s, where the first bite is more a suck of cheesy, garlicky pig juice. The jackpot at New York’s Ess-A-Bagel, where I always buy two dozen plain and sesame to bring home, putting my car tires at risk of puncture because of their weight.
My favorite is the Montreal road trip. In winter, Route 133 out of Montreal and 89 South in Vermont are dark, snowy, and slippery when I’m driving postgame to Burlington at 1 a.m. But those fears are tempered by the joints I’ll be visiting the next morning. First, a cheddar and mushroom omelet at Mirabelle’s, with chocolate croissants, almond horns, and honey bee cakes to go. A stop in Waterbury for maple syrup at Cold Hollow Cider Mill, a block of Vintage Choice cheddar at the Cabot Annex Store, and some seconds (who cares if they’re not perfect?) at Lake Champlain Chocolates. Finally, a visit to the King Arthur Flour Store in Norwich, where I elbow aside the grandmas to get a baguette and a bag of semolina.
In tracking my prey, I abide by my Rink Radius Rule. My thorough research concludes that the close quarters around every arena are dominated by sports bars. I prefer to explore the outer neighborhoods, where there are fewer chains and better flavors. The RRR’s corollary is the Press Meal Theorem: Food served to scribblers and shouters is as bland as the water baths in which they keep warm.
For all of these food pursuits, I credit my parents. They are Japanese by birth and all-accepting citizens of the chow world. From my mother, I learned to flatter a host by demanding third helpings (in my family, seconds are assumed). My father taught me the correct way to drink coffee: black.
They also gave me some skills. I’m not a kitchen hack seeking belt-notching scores at foodie establishments. I think of myself as the food equivalent of an East Coast Hockey League lifer. That is, a JV cook with no big-league future, but one who can do a few things well enough to keep skating.
To that end, my vinaigrette is improving. I’ll put my mushroom pizza up against anyone’s (the dough’s secret is a rapid, hot rise). If you drink my coffee (Blue Bottle beans via Capresso Infinity burr grinder via Bodum French press, brewed for four minutes), you’ll never seek commodity stuff again.
It’s because of my comfort in the kitchen that I appreciate the pros’ best stuff. When I eat the croque monsieur at L’Express in Montreal, I understand the difficulty of achieving its harmony - the balance between runny cheese and the crunch of butter-bathed bread - and weep over my culinary shortcomings.
Usually, immediately following a road game, the Bruins scramble to make their charter flight home. By the time they’re wheels-up and tucking into post-game meals, I’m filing my stories. Mornings after games, while the players are snoring in their own beds, my wake-up call can be as early as 4:30 a.m. Because of prospective winter-travel hazards, I always target the first return flight. Some days, I fly to Boston and head straight to practice.
When I travel, I leave my wife, 5-year-old daughter, 3-year-old son, burr grinder, and grill. I miss them very much when I’m away (not necessarily in that order). So to fuel my keyboard-sore fingers and keep from going cuckoo, I eat. Almost always, too much.
I suppose my searches are my way of dealing with sadness. Ask any business traveler. Being on the road is lonely. I recall one trip last year to Buffalo and Washington, when I was unhappy about leaving.
The day before I left, my son had thrown up. When I checked in from Buffalo after an order of medium wings from La Nova, my wife had gotten sick. So had my daughter. That night, after the game, I paid for those wings.
The next morning, as I waited to return my rental car, I made two deposits - one in the trash, the second on the mat outside the rental office. On the first leg of the flight (to Boston, but the real destination was Washington), I got sick again.
When I called from Logan, my wife begged me to come home. The Washington game wasn’t until the next day. I wanted to go home. But in this business, you play hurt. Excuses about a stomach virus don’t fill blank space in the paper.
I got on that flight to Washington. I covered the Bruins’ off-day practice. I wrote my story, then passed out in my room for several hours. Pizzeria Paradiso, my dinner destination, was only 10 minutes away. But I didn’t feel strong enough to walk. Instead I took the Metro one stop.
In hindsight, I must have been really sick. I only ate four slices.