Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ghost Hunting At The Elms

And so, on this fateful night, we did set out to hunt ghosts at the Elms Hotel and Spa. This was not my first rodeo, er, paranormal investigation at the Elms, but it would certainly be the most memorable. We would begin the evening with dinner and drinks with the Posse at Jim's. It was an evening that served as great fortification for the hunting of ghosts in both a physical and spiritual way: dining on Jim's masterful Eggplant Parmesan, artichoke-foccacia bread and cheesecake flan while surrounded by good friends, echoes of laughter and positive vibes. Fully sated, Keith took Ronnie and I to the Elms to meet with the rest of the investigative team.

Earlier in the evening, by my request, Keith took Ronnie and I on a quick rundown of the present state of the Elms. The hotel is closed for renovations and large portions of the Old Girl have been gutted in preparation for the spankin' new spit-polish she's about to receive. I needed to get my bearings and get a quick reminder of exactly where everything was... or where it used to be. We ran into the foreman for the renovation when we arrived and apprised him of our paranormal endeavors. He appeared to smirk in response and as I prepared for a dismissive rolling of the eyes, he instead provided our first surprise of the evening. He told us to "please tell whatever's in there that we're not bad guys and we're doing good things for the hotel. I'm tired of doors opening and getting slammed on the upper floors when I'm the only one here." Ronnie and I exchanged startled glances regarding the possibilities.

When we returned with Keith after dinner, I was introduced to the team of investigators that Ronnie has worked with. Knowing Ronnie's love of all things Scooby Doo and our mutual love of Buffy The Vampire Player, I tend to refer to this group as his 'Scooby Gang'. They actually go by the name KC Paranormal Playground and were as professional and fun as I had hoped. Stephanie is the soft-spoken and seriously tuned-in center of the group, James is her serious and typically more skeptical beau and teammate and Jan is their energetic compatriot. Factor in my deliciously irreverent friend Ronnie and this team makes for quite the investigative force. Its a good thing I felt so positively towards them as we were about to be locked down in an empty, century-old, supposedly haunted hotel together. Yes, that's right...Keith locked the door behind us, bid us adieu and left us to fend for ourselves. Yikes.

Picture this: we're in the empty lobby as the team prepares their equipment. Most of the hotel is dark and there is no heat. I had a list of the areas, including room numbers, on my cell of where paranormal activity had been detected before. We began on the top floor in the concierge lounge in one of the suites. The suite was quiet but a nearby room startled me out of my brief reverie. The instruments were already reacting to...something. Have I mentioned that I've been on a couple of these hunts before? And that, by and large, nothing happened? I just spun it as, well, it was cool to learn about how the equipment worked. Well, here and now, in this empty room lit from the outside, connected to abandoned hallways straight out of The Shining, far more than that would already commence...the devices lit up and it was already time to make contact. A flashlight was placed in the center of the room and was balanced on its end, turned off and pointed to the ceiling. The thought behind this action is that a request will be made to the spirit to either move the flashlight or turn it on. Various questions were posed to the "energy" to no response. Then Jan asked the spirit if they had passed away at the hotel....

And the flashlight came on.

I was gobsmacked, to say the least, but skeptically so and immediately thought it must be a trick flashlight. Other questions were asked and after certain ones, the light would flash its beam again. Only after the question, in fact, never during. Now, if the team were all people I didn't know, I would seriously be trying to figure out how they pulled this off. Ronnie was a member, however, and it was clear by the look on his face (and theirs) that if there be trickery afoot; it was not on the team's part. I was truly floored by this investigation already.

Of course, there were a few noises that were explained...embarrassingly so. Ronnie and I quickly realized that Jim's rich food might not be the best meal to ingest right before an investigation that records every sound. At one point, I was incredulous that the ghostly sounds on the fifth floor sounded like an angry underwater sea creature, until I realized that it was Ronnie's stomach rumbles. We moved onto the fourth floor, where I would experience the "spirit" or ghost box. I'm not sure how it works, but it looks like a foil box that when turned on sounds seriously staticky and is supposed to pick up "spirit voices". We sat in the middle of the darkened hallway and asked questions of the box. When the question was asked of the box if the spirit present was a woman, a distinctly female voice answered "Yes" through the waves of static. Again, despite my growing feelings of trust and warmth towards the team, my mind was searching for logical explanations.

On the third floor, we again visited a suite which remained quiet and then upon entering a nearby room, found the instruments lighting up. Another run with the flashlight yielded startlingly similar results and even more intensely so. Soon, James, Ronnie and I all experienced the sounds of heavy footfalls near us and they seemed so real to me that I found myself looking for friends that I was convinced HAD to be there and were trying to punk me...friends like Kiko who had earlier joked about coming in and pranking us. None were there. At this point, I was almost awash in a somewhat unsettling mix of exhilaration and tension. We were experiencing an almost non-stop stream of otherworldly responses and my attempts at reason were getting outweighed. I found myself looking for windows in order to look out at the back lawn and ground myself.

An attempt at contact in a first floor room proved fruitless and after a break, we moved on to the lower depths, as it were. We walked what was once the cafe and amphitheatre and the vast, dark, cold, gutted room was creepy to walk, to be sure. To add to the disconcerting feeling, several holes existed in the concrete floor where pipes had been removed. As the lights were actually on in the room below, narrow beams of light rose from the pitch-dark floor. Once again, like the lockdown scenario and The Shining-like atmosphere upstairs, it felt like the perfect horror film setting. We also had strong instrument reactions in the tunnel that was once behind the maintenance shop. Long rumored to be the tunnel where bootleggers ran their stash, it seemed to be a hotbed of activity, but other than some dancing shadows, none of these spirits were conversing.

We moved on downstairs to the unique indoor pool area. Always a fascinating area, with a circular lap pool as the centerpiece, this has also been where the most paranormal activity has been detected from previous investigations. The lore surrounding this area concerns the supposed ghost of a young boy. Ronnie had recorded big band music from the 20s on his iPod and played the songs, in hopes of stirring the spirits. That music from a bygone era that once saw this hotel in one of its heydays was certainly eerie echoing off those limestone walls. An occasional rush of water from hidden, underground pipes would make us a bit jumpy to begin with, but when Ronnie turned off the music, the energy heated up even more. Stephanie, long sensitive to the spirit world, felt almost overwhelmed by the feeling of a child-like spirit nearby. A small voice, sounding certainly like a young boy, seemed to bounce from the walls. It almost felt like the scene from Poltergeist when you could hear the young girl's voice from the TV sound distant and then get stronger. Soon, it started to sound like a party was going on above us; with adult conversation. Once again, it sounded and felt so real that I was convinced that my friends had found their way in and were playing a practical joke on us. No one was there.

Returning to the lobby to regroup, I was haunted, certainly, but realized that I no longer felt scared. Instead, I felt calm and completely excited. We had a brief look into the Grand Ballroom, which revealed little and finally moved on to the final location: the Library Lounge. This charming bar area overlooking the outdoor pool has also seen a lot of ghostly activity and all of it pretty much the work of prank-playing poltergeists. Doors would be locked by managers who would return minutes later to find all of the glassware lined on the bar....that sort of thing. The ghost story attached to the lounge involves an Elvis impersonator who supposedly died at the hotel and the ghost is often seen as and referred to as The Man In White. Research yielded the real story...the impersonator's agent had actually gotten a bit loaded and fallen to his demise off a balcony, apparently. Expectantly at this point, the devices lit up and we settled into a circle in the center of the floor. Ronnie played the vintage music and the flashlight was brought about again and soon was lighting up in response to questions again:

Are you a man? Yes.
Are you a musician? Yes.
Do you like the music we're playing? Yes.
Are there any other spirits here in this room with you? Yes.
How many? One? Two?

Nothing again until the count reached twelve. The light came on again.
I was impressed as 12 is significant...this particular building was constructed and re-opened in 1912 and this year will be its 100th anniversary. The others were amazed due to the more mystical connections of the number...12 astrological signs, etc.

The spirit box was brought back out. Questions were asked again. A male voice answered.

Are you a man? Yes.
Are you a musician? Yes.
Are there still 12 spirits in this room? Eight.
And then more insistently..

Eight.
EIGHT.

This time it was my turn to react to the repeated number. Eight was a very significant number for the hotel. The original building was erected in 1888. The frequent-stay program is named the 1888 club.

Strangely, as this was happening, I was almost relaxed with all of the activity. I had grown almost accustomed to it but was far from bored...I was so giddy to share the experiences of this amazing night that I was fumbling with the camcorder to try to film these moments. In the meantime, one of the team members asked the spirit if they knew anyone in the room? After a teasing attempt at Stephanie's name, others were asked...

Jan?
James?
Ronnie?
Greg? YES.

Yes? Indeed, I've been employed with the hotel for a few years and helped co-host monthly wine tastings in this very room. Then the voice returned..

Greg.

I looked up from the camcorder. Did "he" just say my name? Judging by the shocked looks on my compatriots faces, I hadn't imagined it.

GREG.

That time was clear as a bell, I thought as I nearly came out of my skin. What do I do? Talk to "him", my friends replied!

Um...yes?

Help.

"He" was asking for help. The team members heard it clearly and in fact, like me, felt incredibly moved by the plea. What could I do to help? I remembered what the foreman asked of us early in the evening and just started babbling:

Don't worry about the renovations, it will be a new beginning for the hotel and help it survive another 100 years.

Or something like that. It may have just come out in a series of nervous hoots and clicks, I'm not sure. However it was presented, we agreed that the message was received. No more was said. The voice was done. And so were we.

Packing up, we reviewed the evening, all of us giddy from this astounding experience, despite the late hour. I was what you might call an open-minded skeptic before and now I am, well, much more open-minded, let's say. Outside of Ronnie ,I had just met the Paranormal Playground folks that night but now feel bonded with them for life after this shared revelation of a night. Also, I had always had a great affection for the Elms, but now, feel a much deeper connection with the hotel. People tend to fear the unknown, but for me, the more I experienced, the warmer I felt toward the Elms. Truth be told, I'm still reeling from this night a week later.

Let the spirits move me.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Egg And I

So how does one properly fortify before going ghost-hunting? Saturday night, I would embark on a paranormal investigation of the Elms Hotel and Spa and I admit to being a tad jittery. I'd stayed overnight with investigators at the hotel before, but this was something new: the hotel was closed for renovations and we would be on our own...in an empty, supposedly haunted, historic hotel. What better way for me to center the nerves and open the senses then digging into some spicy goodness? The lunch buffet at Taj Mahal in Liberty was a fine way to satisfy hose needs.

We had set this new-ish Indian restaurant as the location of a lunch meeting with our friend Charlotte, who is also our financial planner, and she was helping us manage our monies. Indeed, Charlotte is a good bud and fellow Posse member, so we turned a work meeting into an excuse to snatch some good Indian grub. Once arrived, the table was already stocked with a basket of warm and delicious naan. The lunch buffet at Taj Mahal had an impressive array of Indian dishes: tender and turmeric-laden Chicken Tandoori, fiery and delicious Chili-Lime Chicken, and hearty Palak Peneer, a silky blend of spinach of cheese. The K-Man is not the biggest fan of Indian food, but he dug his creamy and spicy Chicken Tikka Masala. We also got to try Charlotte's Chicken Korma, which was quite yummy. That signature blend of yogurt and spices is fast becoming one of my favorite Indian dishes; whether it be with chicken or vegetarian style. The Korma's a charmer, indeed, but it still doesn't quite beat the Vindaloos for me.

The lunch conversation eventually touched on my impending ghost hunt and as Charlotte is a very spiritually-attuned person, she enlightened me to an eye-opening Native American ritual for ensuring that spirits don't piggy-back on you and follow you home. Apparently, once one has visited a reportedly haunted establishment or taken part in a ghost hunt, this ritual involves returning home, stripping naked and rubbing a raw egg in the shell all over your body before showering. The egg supposedly lifts whatever spirits may be attached to your body and removes them. You then break the egg into the toilet and flush it. As if hunting spirits in an empty, century-old hotel isn't odd enough, I would then have to hit on my huevos for ghost relief. Hmmmmm...

The ghost hunt would actually prove to be quite the revelatory experience and will be featured in the next post. Did we experience any spiritual activity? Did walking the halls of the empty hotel feel a bit like being in The Shining? Did any nosy, night-owl neighbors see me getting intimate with the Grade-As from my frig? Stay tuned...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Judgemental About Chocolate

This coming Saturday, February 4, will see the return of one of Excelsior Spring's most decadent events: The Chocolate Tour. This is always exciting news on its own but this year I'm particularly pumped as I've been asked to serve in a bit of a dream role. This year, there will be a panel of judges determining the best chocolate treat and I get to serve on said panel. Fifteen businesses will be participating and sampling chocolate and the attendees will also act as judges and vote for a People's Choice winner, which will also enter them into a drawing which could win them a night at the Southmoreland Bed and Breakfast at the Country Club Plaza. The event will also include chocolate demonstrations from Ventana Cafe and Oooey Gooey Chocolates. The chocolate goodness will take place from 1 to 5 pm. For more information, check out the Downtown Excelsior Springs website here. See you there....we'll all ride the sugar rush together.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Melodrama In Excelsior Springs! (Boo! Hiss! Yay!)

I hadn't experienced old-fashioned melodrama...well, of the staged kind, anyway...since the old days of working on the Showboat Becky Thatcher in Marietta, Ohio. Long about a decade and some change ago, the Becky would host a thriving restaurant and lounge scene on its upper decks while below deck featured a theatre hosting nostalgic and interactive shows where the stalwart hero would rescue the damsel-in-distress from the mustachioed villain while the audience would boo and cheer at the appropriate moments. Female performers from the show would stroll through the dining room carrying ruffled parasols in long gowns and elaborate hats and pose for pictures while barbershop quartets crooned in another corner of the room. One day, I'll write a post dedicated to the dear, departed Becky. This memory, however, was triggered by attending the melodrama Peril In Pointsville put on by the Excelsior Springs Community Theatre's own Slightly Off Broadway Players.

We first met Kiko and Deb, our "playdates" so to speak, for fortification at Ventana Cafe. Our buddy and Ventana owner Wendy took her usual great care with us and we dug our grub: Keith got the Spinach Salad, Deb had the Steak Salad and I went with the special: Cajun Whitefish done Scampi style...yum. I enjoyed mine with a frosty mug of Buffalo Sweat. We also dug into some classic Ventana desserts: homemade caramel-pecan cheesecake and banana bread pudding included. We also saw our friend Troy there who also happened to be the lead actor in the evening's production.

We made our way across the street after dinner to the way-cool venue for the community theatre. It's set in an old church and features not only a main theater with a great stage and balcony but one of the coolest bathrooms around; from the PVC-pipe toilet paper holders to the stained glass windows. We munched on some popcorn and enjoyed the show, particularly seeing our buddy Troy do a little steppin' on stage. Indeed there were calls for cheering the hero and hissing the villain. Amanda Day wrote, directed and starred in the production, which is more than enough, but also proved quite the lithe and lovely dancer to boot. Peril In Pointsville was great fun and I'm looking forward to the lineup of upcoming shows, including Sweeney Todd and Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Good show, E.S.C.T.!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Condo Camping With The Notches

Many a word have I written about Keith's family and their unique traditions. This weekend, a new tradition has been christened with a vengeance. This tradition has broken the mold a bit in comparison to many of the others. Many of the family gatherings revolve around those massive camping excursions that I've written about. This was a twist on those...family and friends rented a condo together at The Estates at Tan-Tar-A resort. This outing was also strictly for the family members that constitute The Notches. The Notches are the younger set of the family...after all, the grandparents often travel together on their own and every now and then so do their kids and grandkids. How were these Notches so named? One time, when this group was preparing to depart on one of these trips, Anne sent out a text message to the rest asking ever so sweetly..

Are you bitches ready yet?

...except that the Autocorrect on Anne's smart phone typed: Are you notches ready yet? And so, The Notches were born. And it was good.

Off we went on Friday night to experience our first outing with the Notches. Alas, it wasn't to be a sedate trip as a smattering of freezing rain near The Lake Of The Ozarks left a sheen of black ice that caused numerous delays and a few hair-raising moments to boot. Having gratefully arrived at the condo, we were shown to "our quarters" by young Caitlyn, Sierra and Tanner who had already taken our suite over and left us complimentary rolls of Smarties on the vanity. They took us on a tour of our suite, going over every detail; utilizing their strangely newfound British accents. The suite was indeed sweet, even with its oddly mixed nautical and golf theme. Once settled, cocktails in hand and hugs exchanged, we could finally unclench for a moment. A brief moment, that is, before we joined in with the bonkers game called Spoons. An innocent arrangement of plastic spoons in the center of a table is the centerpiece for some sedate rolling of the dice until someone gets four of a kind and reaches for a spoon...and then the scene turns into a crazy jumble of flying limbs. I felt briefly bad about wresting a spoon from a 10-year-old girl until Allie(who, in the course of the game, went from laid-back, quiet new mother to badass chick wielding an elbow smash straight out of the WWE) assured me that this family may be close, but its strictly take-no-prisoners when it comes to games.

So, yes, there were games like Spoons and Farkle and outings to outlet kitchen stores and water parks and bowling but this blog is about the food so as Sarah would say, "Focus Bitches!" because we enjoyed some seriously fine grub this weekend. There was many a highlight, including Kim and Dave's always tasty country ham and delicious tiramisu, Anne and Randy's killer Pasta E Fagioli, and Allie and Tim's homemade biscuits and gravy. K and I and Jill and Chris were responsible for Saturday night's dinner and so we took the opportunity to bust out some of the new cooking hardware we've been blessed with. We made the feta dip, which largely debuted to raves, and served them with the screaming homemade pita bread fresh off of our new tortilla maker. We then took our first whirl with our spanking new fondue pot, which was a gift to us from Jill and Chris themselves. They also brought their own pot and made a killer fondue of Swiss and Gruyere. We made one called Bourbon, Bacon and Cheddar and we served a mix of bread, vegetables and fruit for dipping. Gourmet pizzas were up next and we discovered a beauty of a pizza by accident. We used the feta dip as the cheese on a whole wheat crust and then topped it off with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, black olives and onions. It was so darn good, I can't wait to try it again. We finished off the evening with chocolate fondue, both dark and white. We dipped fruit, brownies and "angel cake"(as Sierra calls it), in the chocolate and found another revelation by dipping Granny Smith apple slices in white chocolate. Divine madness was this dinner.

The weekend was the signature cacophony of chaos that are these family get-togethers and it was as grand as always. We even got Morgan, currently serving our country in Turkey, involved through an iPad game of Words With Friends; my newest obsession. Until the next family whirlwind...

Friday, January 20, 2012

KC Restaurant Week

Alright, friends and neighbors, it is time once again for Kansas City's annual Restaurant Week! This year's KCRW kicks off today, January 20th and runs through January 29th. This is not only a boffo opportunity to hit up KC's kickin' culinary scene but an excellent time to give something back as Restaurant Week is also a benefit for Harvesters, KC's amazing Community Food Bank. Did you know one lunch purchased during Restaurant Week will buy 7.5 meals through Harvesters food bank? Or that purchasing one dinner during this week will buy 15 meals for folks in need? Yes, 10% of every meal goes to Harvesters and as the site says, giving back never tasted so good. Click on the link here to learn more about Restaurant Week, the list of participating restaurants and further ways to contribute to Harvesters. Might I also mention that Restaurant Week sometimes takes a hit from bad weather, so take advantage of the lack of snow and ice and get out there, peeps!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

First Fling With The 400 Calorie Fix

So here we be with that dreaded post-holiday malaise...feeling bloated and slow and ready for some healthy changes. I admittedly chafe at the onslaught of diet tomes that take center stage at the store this time of year; so many of them promising some new miracle formula for losing weight. It's a recurring cycle that seems on endless repeat: overindulgence followed by regained determination to make healthy changes. I may chafe, but it doesn't change the ugly truth. I need to make some changes and truly, what better time than the beginning of a new year?

Of course, writing a food-related blog presents its own challenges when working to be healthier, as there is so much I dig sampling. That said, the blog has also been a terrific tool for me concerning my relationship with food. When I first starting writing The Confounded Cook in 2009, I mentioned some personal goals; among them quitting smoking and eating healthier. Gratefully, I have been smoke-free for nearly eight months and while I've certainly always loved food, the blog has helped me gain a whole new respect for it. I have been able to largely break a lifelong affair with fast food and pre-packaged edibles. Not that I've made some great declaration to ban either fast food or packaged food, nor will I. I have, however, in my journey to become a better cook, truly learned the value and importance of real food, something my family knew in spades. It has helped me change my eating habits in greatly positive ways over the past few years. What I need to do now is proceed with greater care as I age. Paula Deen announced that she has Type 2 diabetes today and that has stirred up a s^!tstorm in the media. I am the son of two parents with diabetes and I monitor my blood sugar regularly because I am all too aware of those genetic consequences. The diagnosis of diabetes was a shock to my Mom but she turned it into an amazing journey to health; one that ended with her losing 40 pounds, keeping it off and working out in the gym. She took Dad and I on this active trip with her and we were all the better for it. What a kick it was to see my 70-something year old Mom sporting weight-lifting gloves at the gym. Its time for me to get healthier again, for sure.

So, what of the new dietary tomes did we break down and buy this year? Its called the 400 Calorie Fix by Liz Vaccariello of The Flat Belly Diet, Mindy Hermann and the editors of Prevention magazine. The Prevention connection is what sold it to me...I first starting reading that mag when my folks had a subscription and I still peruse it today. Keith was sold after checking out some of the delicious-sounding recipes. So, buy it we did and this past Sunday, we busted out two of the recipes we were most intrigued by: Thai-Inspired Lettuce Wraps and Amy's Minestrone Soup.

The minestrone soup was filling and tasty and made for excellent leftovers. We are big fans of PF Chang's lettuce wraps and were psyched to make our own. In the end, they were good but truthfully lacked a little something in the zing department. This was nothing a little extra soy, lime and spice couldn't fix. These two dishes were packed with nutrients, very filling and fed us for a few days. These factors and of course the flavor were the important criteria of the dishes for us. The recipe for the wrap also included some ingredients we didn't typically carry in the pantry such as rice wine and bean sprouts and that is something I'm going to be way more conscientious of this year (Keith is still reminding me of the plethora of somewhat exotic ingredients we have leftover following last year's Cookbook Challenge....yikes).

So, there's my long-winded take on the beginning of our healthier outlook...thanks for indulging me. This weekend's Condo Camping outing may undo all of our good moves with some indulgences of its own, but more on that later...You can find the recipe for Amy's Minestrone Soup here.