Monday, December 30, 2013

A Comforting Taste of Home

The most recent journey to my hometown of St. Marys, West Virginia yielded some much sought-out comfort food.  Every bit of it provided tastes, textures, aromas and even the look of something deliciously familiar.  Some reminded me of my childhood, others were new flavors that I now associate with going home.  Every bite was like wrapping myself in a one-of-a-kind security blanket like none else.

Many of the bites that remind me of childhood are happily still available.  Mister Bee potato chips was founded in 1951 in Parkersburg, WV and is a crisp, salty chip that I've been noshing on since I was a kid.  This company, while having struggled in recent years, remains a prime example of small business made good.  The perfect accompaniment to these chips is of course, Broughton's creamy Chip Dip.  Broughton's dairy was founded in 1910 and remains the go-to local dairy.  I also reveled in a return taste to a hometown pizza that is truly beloved to me from childhood.  Pizza Place is a pizzeria that I first encountered in its home in the Grand Central Mall.  One bite of that thick-crust Sicilian style (corner slice, please) pie and I was swooning.  I hadn't had it in so long and one bite reminded me of lunches with friends, high-school band outings and so much more.  Finally, we had a quick lunch with our beloved Lydia at the Town House in Marietta.  We noshed on French Onion soup and Buffalo chicken salad while I perused the place...its always interesting to see in the less-than-light-of-day here as it is far more familiar when it is elbow-to-elbow, pitch dark, really loud and reeking of beer as it was during many an unwieldy nighttime sojourn in my more wayward youth....

On this last trip to St. Marys, I was introduced to a new taste of home by someone I had grown up with by the name of Denette. Thanks to Kristy who gave me the heads up (and assistance from Facebook), we were fortunate to get a lovely gift basket from Denette filled with mason jars of homemade pickled beets, salsa, and apple butter and all were wonderful.  Such a thoughtful surprise, but not really shocking as this is just one example of how the good neighbors of St. Marys treat each other.  Some newer and now treasured tastes of home come from Chams, the Lebanese restaurant that Kristy turned me onto. This food is homemade Lebanese cuisine that stirs the senses with its delectable aromas and nourishing flavors, from a family that clearly prides itself on its dishes. The bright, lemony fava beans are outright soul-nourishing and this last time I got to try the lamb shawarma, which was so filling and flavorful.  No wonder the Avengers sought out shawarma after saving the world from an alien invasion.

The allure would be lost on many for some of the homegrown items I sought, such as the six ham sandwiches wrapped in plastic that are found only at the Food Giant grocery store in St. Marys.  Indeed, they are rather plain, each with thinly-sliced ham and a slice of American cheese on a bun.  These sandwiches are burned in my memory, though, as they were bought on many a week for my father to take for his lunch to work when I was a kid.  I would watch as each one was packed in his square, black plastic "pail" (as Dad would call it) along with the red plaid plastic Thermos filled with black coffee.  These would only count for the five work days of course, so Dad would always give me the sixth ham sandwich.  Dad worked a long hours at at tough job and when I was young, I would eat that sixth ham sandwich and imagine myself working alongside him, precariously balanced on a steel beam at his ironworking job.  Eating one of these sandwiches now continues to evoke memories of Dad; now even more treasured as we lost him a couple of years ago.  I will probably be treating myself to these somewhat plain ham sandwiches for the rest of my return trips home.

The power of hometown food is precious to me and so welcome with every return trip.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Mud House and The Bonkers Museum

The hometown journey in November resulted in a return trip to KC that was a lively one thanks to some well-chosen stops on the way.  After a brief but soothing stop in Columbus, Ohio at our favorite German Village bookstore (the Book Loft) and some delightful noshes at a boisterous eatery called the Brown Bag Deli (highly recommend the Spice of Life:corned beef, scallions, cream cheese, Batampte mustard and onions on a crusty French roll), we rolled on westward and settled in for an overnight in St Louis.

St Louis was a kick and it kicked off with a sunny beginning at colorful coffeehouse The Mud House.  Over a steaming Cubano espresso, I took in the eccentric surroundings (like the MJ print and hidden plastic doll above) and soaked up my breakfast burrito with eggs, cheese, hearty black bean chili and greens.
 Soon, we were off to the main event which was the most utterly bonkers museum I had ever experienced: the City Museum.  There is not a more apt description of this one-of-a-kind marvel than the one the museum itself provides..."an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects."  It's breathtaking at once when you enter the grounds....the whooshes of spiraling slides, the precariously balanced school bus on the top corner of the roof.  We weave our way from corridor to corridor, floor to floor and soon realize it is virtually impossible to traverse unless you do it as the "natives" do.  Climb ladders, plummet down slides, crawl through tunnels and caves. Hang out and find munchies at the Shrine of Shameless Hucksterism.
City Museum is a delirious interactive ride of a museum and should be experienced by everyone who's in the area.  We finally gave our senses a break by stopping for a treat of mini hot, sugared donuts called GoNuts courtesy of City Museum's concession masters Samwiches.  This might not have been a wise choice as we immediately followed noshing on these chocolate and sprinkle-covered treats by heading to upstairs to see the rooftop Ferris wheel before hurtling down a ten-floor tall spiral slide, but oh, what a perfect ending to this brilliantly bizarro experience.  Keith's cousin summed up City Museum in a nutshell: it's like "an artist's dream".

Later on down the road, we soaked up the last of the balmy fall weather on the patio at Flat Branch Brewery in Columbia where I reflected on this fun-filled trip while sipping on a Katy Trail Pale Ale....I was ready to do it all again.

The Birthday Girls

I've had the distinct pleasure of sharing in significant celebrations with two of my favorite girls recently.  Keith's sister Kim and her daughter Sierra both marked birthdays recently and in fact, Kim's was a milestone.  I feel a significant bond with these two as members of my extended family...after all, the first family celebration I would share with this family was Sierra's christening, several moons ago.  This year, we celebrated in style both at the lake with Kim and here in KC with Sierra.

Kim's celebration occurred during some blessedly balmy September weather at the lake.  One serene day aboard the Winge boat had us sipping Bloody Marys at a lakeside joint complete with ginormous fans on the ceiling and a cockatoo that will perch on your shoulder.  The day of her actual birthday saw some soft rain and was an actual surprise for her as we all waited in the cabin garage for her to arrive.  Kim celebrated her milestone surrounded by love and family and well she should; she has so much to be proud of; has achieved much and yet remains a helluva fabulous sister(and sister-in-law), mother, wife and human being that one could hope to know.

Kim's daughter Sierra had a whimsical weekend party with us here in KC in November.  Cousin Jill, her husband Chris and their girls also joined us as we descended on the Crown Center area.  The kids got lost in a sea of color and lights in a literally crafty space called Kaleidoscope that was created by Hallmark, whose HQ is here in KC.  From glow-in-the-dark painting to making your own greeting cards and puzzles, Kaleidoscope was a dizzying colorful palette that Sierra reveled in before we moved on to the more sedate space of the KC Sea Life Aquarium, serenely following the watery world of various ocean dwellers. Our food for the day ranged from some New York- style slice at D'Bronx in Crown Center to the homemade feta dip we made for the birthday girl that we enjoyed on the poker table in the Capone Suite at the Elms where the family stayed.

Our birthday girls were feted in fine fashion.  Here's to many more celebrations of this dynamic mother and daughter duo to come...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Challenge

I suppose that I could go song-and-dance into the multitude of reasons I haven't been writing, but in the spirit of recent learning experiences, I will instead choose to move forward and just say, "Hey! We all busy, right?"  Writing is something centering and cathartic for me though, so I've been searching for a way to get back to it and have it be more feasible for my revved up life.  Leave it to my better half, the K-Man, to challenge me to return to it by appealing to my basest guilt-ridden instincts: he asked as part of his birthday present from me to meet the challenge of writing and posting on the blog every day until the end of 2014.  Every. Day. What a challenge this will be...the primary reason for NOT doing it after all, is the ever-busier routine of my life and the resulting addled stir-fry of a brain said life has been creating.

So how do I answer the challenge?  I'm going for changing it up. When particularly inspired, I will frame my posts in the storytelling style I've done in the past, but for the most part and in order to meet the challenge, I'm planning to evoke more of a Tumblr style micro-blog.  Keith is actually challenging me toward changing up the blog in even more dramatic style, but this remains to be seen....

The posts will be shorter for the most part, much more random and less linear.  The song remains the same however; my life with a food theme, and even this is a challenge as food blogs are clearly moving past the saturation point.  Mine is a personal blog though, and whether it be cool or uncool to write about and photograph food these days, food remains my most powerful passion, not just because I love to eat but because as I've written before, I love the stories that accompany them and how these tales and dishes tie into our life.

K and I will also go into 2014 challenging ourselves personally and professionally.  When I started The Confounded Cook, I had several goals in mind, mostly to start writing again and that I achieved and have maintained for the last four years.  I had other shorter-term goals such as getting healthier and quitting smoking.  I'm happy to say I haven't smoked in nearly three years and K and I have ran two 5ks in the past couple of years.  2014 is a milestone year for a couple of reasons, so change is in the air once again and among our personal challenges are training for more runs.

 To kick it off are photos from our wonderful and delicious 2013 Thanksgiving shared with new faces such as South African university student Erick who joined us (and survived) the signature blessed revelry that is our family gatherings.  The dishes include Keith's dark chocolate cake, bacon-wrapped and Parmesan-dusted breadsticks, and Dave's take on the restaurant Black-Eyed Pea's stuffing.

So,can I meet the challenge?  How much change will there be?  Stay tuned.