Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Along Route One: Exotic Mushrooms and Oddball Museums in the Brandywine Valley.

The United States Route One starts its roadtrip way up there in the mountains of Maine and splashes into the margarita blenders way down there in Key West. It’s the nation’s first great north-south road, and it still carries its fair share of history. Here in the Brandywine Valley we find artifact motor courts, hot-dog and milkshake stands, and barber shops from another time. We have to peel our eyes; the gems are hidden among the homogeny of endless suburban glens.

It’s through the big-box ticky tack that we steer Route One out of Philadelphia. We’re headed to mushroom country in the southeast corner of the Commonwealth, tucked between the corporate theme parks of Delaware and the cultural bulwark of the Mason-Dixon.

We’re hunting shitakes and morels, oysters and crimini, where those meaty portabella sandwiches fake us into believing we could go vegetarian after all. En route to the fungi farms we stumble across the first of a series of oddball exhibitions. It’s the Museum of Mourning Art, hidden inside an exacting replica of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate, which is hidden behind the walls of Arlington Cemetery in the borough of Upper Darby. Ok, we figure: before a bite of mushrooms, a bit of morbid curiosity.

Inside the faux Mt. Vernon is a gorgeous chapel of battered barn wood and country church pews. We’re ushered into a warren of crannies crowded with Victorian paraphernalia of bereavement. There’s a horse-drawn hearse behind an iron graveyard gate with curly-cued roses. A collection of mourning jewelry includes rings and broaches embroidered with the hair of the dearly departed. There’s even an original invitation to the funeral of George Washington himself. The Museum of Mourning Art is ghastly and gorgeous. It’s good grief.

An hour later, in the ragtop, bright sunshine brings us back to life. A few miles and we’re stopped again by the unexpected. We meet Tony Polito, who cuts hair and exhibits a call to arms in his unique Barber Shop & Military Museum. Since 1959 Tony’s barber chair has been surrounded by an expanding armory of canteens and bayonets, helmets and handcuffs, boots and bugles.

“I’m a barber and a patriot,” Tony barks like a drill sergeant. We nod along and nose around until our stomachs sound the noon retreat.

Good thing Jimmy John’s Pipin’ Hots is next door to the barber’s bivouac. This timeless hot-dog joy shack has grilled up quality heartburn for 67 years. We pile kraut and onions on tight little franks, layer on the brown mustard, and wolf a couple with relish. At our table, Jimmy John’s fleet of classic model trains toot by; they vibrate the straws standing thick in our black-and-white shakes.

With the repeating memory of the Pipin’ Hots dogging us on, we’re up for an afternoon of whatever comes next. And close by, near an airstrip that warns of low flyers, we find an armada of enormous Coast Guard choppers and Army gunships. It’s the front yard of the American Helicopter Museum. Inside, flying machines hang from the walls and ceilings and crowd across the floor. We climb inside a whirlybird, work the pedals and make the whappa-whappa sound effect with our lips.

Our volunteer tour guide is worth the visit alone. He’s Fred Mack, 96 years old and still an eager flyboy. He celebrated his last birthday with a parachute. “Yup,” he admits, “I jumped out of a plane that wasn’t even on fire!” Hurry up and climb on a helicopter with Fred while you still can.

Finally, we roll into Kennett Square, in the heart of mushroom country. We’re just in time to sample homemade salads and sauces at the amiable and amply stocked Mushroom Cap, the region’s semi-official toadstool capitol. Kathi Lafferty runs the place, as well as the area’s annual Mushroom Festival. Her fridge is full of beautiful white buttons and squiggly exotics. We dig into mushroom-sauced meatballs and pack away a few jars of her homemade Mediterranean mushroom salad. Now this is what we came for.

Down the road apiece we grab a room (which is just clean enough) at the Kennett Steak and Mushroom Restaurant & Motel. A walk through town works up an appetite for their beer-battered “maitakis bites”, criminis stuffed with crab imperial and a thick NY Strip smothered with a shitake marmalade. No doubt about it, there’s a lot of tasty fungus among us, or should we say we’re among the fungi. Whatever, it’s all good.

Tomorrow, we’re at the Brandywine River Museum, where Andrew Wyeth’s granddaughter gives us a personal tour of her family’s artistic legacy. Then a beautiful horse-farm B&B that makes even our feisty Terrier feel comfy. And tomorrow night, to finish our Route One excursion, we dive into the hands-down best mushroom soup of the trip at the colonial Dilworthtown Inn. After dinner we spelunk through their subterranean wine cellars, which seem to be a perfect place to grow more mushrooms. But that’s another story altogether.

Once again serendipity on the side roads leads to the most unusual – and delicious – discoveries. Drop us a line and let us know what you’ve found once, won’t you? Until then, we’ll look for you on the bends and backroads.

When you hit the road, here's where to stop. (You find a map with photos of all these joints and more at visitpa.com/shunpiker.)

The Museum of Mourning Art

Yeah, yeah, it’s all about death and grief, but it’s also weirdly amusing. Ask for Elizabeth to give you the tour, because you have to call for an appointment. She makes it a lot of fun. Arlington Cemetery 2900 State Rd, Upper Darby; 610-259-5800

Tony Polito’s Barber Shop & Military Museum

Good haircuts in a uniform setting. Truly a personal obsession worth the visit. 1501 Wilmington Pike, West Chester; (610) 459-1245

Jimmy John’s Pipin’ Hots

The regular hot dog here is, well…regular. Go for the special frank; it’s a beauty. And it makes a nice combo with the palm-sized burgers. B&W shakes are as thick as your head and not to be missed. Next door to Tony Polito’s; 610.459.3083

The American Helicopter Museum

Check out one of the first helicopters ever made from the roaring ‘20s. A real field day for the whirlybird inside all of us. Fly in or drive like most people. 1220 American Blvd, West Chester. Get info and directions online at www.helicoptermuseum.org

The Brandywine River Museum

A beautiful conservancy for the historic Brandywine River wrapped around a collection of N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth’s breathtaking paintings. If you’re lucky, Victoria Wyeth, Andrew’s only grandchild, will give you a personal tour. Just call ahead: 610.388.2700. Or visit www.brandywinemuseum.org.

Kennett Steak & Mushroom Motel

Nothing fancy, but an easy walk into Kennett Square’s national landmark downtown. The beer’s cold and the mushrooms tasty in the restaurant on site. Birch & Broad Sts, Kennett Square; 610.444.5085. See a menu at www.kennettsteakandmushroom.com.

The Mushroom Cap

This is Kennett Square’s unofficial mushroom capitol building. See Kathi Lafferty for fresh mushrooms, homemade mushroom salad and all sorts of toadstool tchotchkes. 114 West State St., Kennett Square; 610.444.8484. You can shop online at www.themushroomcap.com.

Hamanassett Bed & Breakfast

Ashley and Glen Mon offer up true hospitality on this plush horse farm. Ask about the romantic carriage house near the barn. Definitely ask for Glen’s crawfish bread. This place is a real keeper (and doggies are welcome). 725 Darlington Road, Chester Heights. Call 610.459.3000 for reservations or take a tour online: www.hamanassett.com. Oh, and pay attention when they give you directions; this place is so well hidden Mapquest can’t get you there.

The Dilworthtown Inn

One of the great American restaurants, period. And the best mushroom soup in mushroom land. Don’t leave without asking for a visit to the legendary wine cellars. 1390 Old Wilmington Pike, West Chester; 610.399.1390. Browse a menu at www.dilworthtown.com.

Ok, now it's your turn. Let us know what you find out there with an email to shunpiker@visitpa.com.

1 comment:

eric said...

Hey there! Thanks for the link back to uwishunu. It made me smile. :)