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. . . . . .is it me you’re looking for? Sorry to drag schmaltzy song lyrics into it, but maybe in my subconscious I think if I make you giggle you’ll forgive me. Forgive me for being away so long. I didn’t want to be.

For the past 7 months (That long?) things have been volatile. Family crises, health problems. I’ve wanted to write but every time I sit down, things seem to conspire against it.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about food. Or doing things with food. Or taking pictures of food. Or brainstorming about where I want this blog to go. With food. I’ve done all of that. No matter what I’ve got going on, the food is always there and the cogs are always churning along the lines of, “How can I write about this? How can I share this?”

So bear with me, this post might get personal, but want to share what I’ve been experiencing. It’s a lot. It may even span a few blog posts. I’ll try to be brief but make no promises.

Our dog Lois died in May, but it was winter when she started to slow down, to show signs this might be the end. Pair that with my snail-slow recovery from Lyme Disease and all writing came to a halt. Plus, I needed to be there for her. The way she’d been there for me all these years. It didn’t matter that writing might’ve helped me process. I just couldn’t do it. Besides, I didn’t have an appetite anyway. I went months subsisting on Kefir and white rice with sugar, butter, and salt, a panacea for pain that Momma used to spoon feed me when I was young. It tasted good. The white carbohydrates mixed with the sugar and fat and salt to create a fast food high that was a band-aid for my aching soul. At least I was eating.

When she finally died, every time I tried to write about food, I’d think about Lois. I knew I had to write about her first. But if I did that, if I tried to put into words what she really meant to me, then she’d really be gone. She’d never come back. Facing that hurt a lot. A real lot.

Lois was my world for 7 years. Brought to us from a shelter in Pittsburgh she’d called home for an entire year. She’d been adopted out once, but returned for being “too destructive”. Originally she’d been picked up from what was only described as “an inhumane situation”. She slept under the desk, wagging and smiling at visitors. Part of this was due to her over-exuberant friendliness, and the fact she was the volunteer favorite, but part of it was because during thunderstorms she went totally crazy. Like tearing up the house, makes Marley the dog look like a pussy, batshit crazy. The desk was the only safe haven.

We loved her anyway. Initially she hated walks, the outdoors, other dogs. She had serious guarding issues. We trained her out of all that. I’ll never forget the day her “shelter jitters” subsided. The crazed look relaxed into big doe deer eyes, full of love and puppydom. She realized this, in fact, was her forever home, and no matter what, we’d love her. No matter what.

I miss the way she’d paw us to play ball, roll onto her back for belly rubs, pretend to behave for hours only to counter surf a tomato when we weren’t looking. She couldn’t help it. It looked so much like her red Kong. Even during those times we had to leash her, Thundershirt her up into her doggie strait jacket and sit with her in the shower until the storm passed, we loved her. The hours and hours of playing Drop 7 on my phone while she panted and drooled at my feet, her only Xanax the Phyllis Hyman I played on an endless loop from my Spotify. Who knew? My darling independently-minded female Labrador could only be calmed down by the dulcet tones of a gorgeous black R&B diva. If Phyllis were still alive I’d give her a hug.

Lois was my best friend, my companion. I always said if I’d had Lois when I was a teacher, I’d have been a better teacher. And I might still be teaching. She taught me that much. About patience, perseverance, how love can sometimes involve the giving of yourself until it hurts. Four years ago when I took the plunge and decided to work from home, we became even closer. We spent entire days together, she curled up at my feet while I wrote. Standing at noon, wagging her tail (to be let out), and again at 4pm (to be walked). The routine, the constant companionship guided my days and comforted me during the dark times when I was suffering from neck injuries, Lyme disease, my most recent writing rejection. I know my husband has his own remembrances of Lois, but for me, she was my rock. I leaned on her as much as she leaned on me during those storms. Lois was a true friend who stuck by me all day, every day.

So imagine my shock to receive a call from my husband that Lois was dying. I was 7 hours away in the wilds of Kentucky at a food event. I’d hemmed and hawed about going, but she’d been doing so well. Twenty-four hours later, she wasn’t.

The event was the First Annual Appalachian Food Summit at Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky. For two days food writers, purveryors, chefs, historians, and enthusiasts gathered to sing the praises of Appalachian food and to brainstorm ways to improve the economy of Eastern Kentucky and to get the word out to the rest of the world that Appalachian food, often culled from lean cupboards, is freaking delicious.

The entire weekend we ate, talked, laughed, and rocked on porches. There was a genuine potluck church dinner with ham biscuits, chocolate love cake, potato salad topped with bacon, jello salad, banana pudding, and four kinds of pie. There was a supper of soup beans, collards, dilly beans, green tomato fried pies and fried catfish crafted by Travis Milton, a native of Wytheville and chef at Richmond’s Comfort. Late nights spinning records, listening to live bluegrass and sipping West Virginia bourbon on the sly (Shhh. . .Hindman sits in a dry county).

Then the call came, and the news was devastating. Lois’s kidneys were failing. I knew I had to leave. To do something I’d hate to do. As I lay in bed late that night listening to the fiddle, the banjo, then later the Merle Haggard records coming from the cabin’s living room, the laughter and the bourbon flowing, I knew no sleep would come. So I pulled out my phone and looked up, “How to bury your dog”. The guilt sat like an elephant on my chest. I should be there now.

But as I wound my way through the hills and valleys of Kentucky at dawn, the sun rising right into my eyes, I felt gratitude mixing with the guilt, dissolving the rock in my chest. Gratitude for the camaraderie, the companionship, the shared love of good, simple Southern food. I hadn’t eaten that well since I’d sat at my Nana’s table. I hadn’t eaten that well since Lois took sick. All that sustenance, both physical and emotional, would prepare me for the task that lay ahead. Thank god for that.

Still the drive home was horrific. Knowing she was hanging on, but might not make it before I could arrive. In desperation, even though I NEVER do this, I appealed to Facebook friends to send prayers for my safe arrival, and for her comfort. I wanted us both there, but if she needed to go, so be it. No matter what, I wanted folks surrounding her with love, easing her pain. The response I got was overwhelming, and to this day, I know I got there in time because of those well wishes. Thank you so much for that.

Thanks go out as well to my fellow Appalachian food enthusiasts. This gathering was the best I’ve ever attended, in its relaxed nature, its sincerity, and in its unpretentious, fucking delicious array of homegrown food. I cannot WAIT until next year. And I cannot wait until this weekend’s Fire, Flour, and Fork event in Richmond, because many of those same folks will be in attendance. And there are many hugs of thanks to give out. And soup beans to eat.

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Tea and Cider on BTF.

Hey y’all. Yeah, I’m one of those…get over it ;) I’ve been hibernating as I tend to do every year from January to March. I’m convinced I was a bear in a previous life.  I love to sleep, eat trashy food, I’ve dumpster-dived (for a FABULOUS mid-century end table) and honey is my favorite. When I was 15 I boycotted all Winter school assignments, including the ever-important term paper because the due date was in March. Ms. Rasnake, who not once pronounced my name correctly, passed me with a “D-” for the year without a second glance. Yeah, she was not pleased. But that’s another story for another time and venue. In other words, I digress.

I have been writing though, working on two books, one sort of about food, one sort of not. I’ve been gearing up my cookbook store for Fleaville in May. And I’ve been submitting bi-monthly “Drink This!” columns to that wonderful website, Beyond the Flavor. One about hopped cider from those good-lookin’ Potter’s Craft boys, and the other about my favorite Sage Tea at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. Just up today in fact.

On a day like this, I can think of nothing better than to soak up rays on the Twisted Branch back porch. Tonight they’re calling for snow maybe, so it’s back to layering myself in fleece (THIS is my new favorite thing, WANT!) and curling back up in a ball to sleep, becoming one with my blankie. Wake me when it’s Springtime, will ya?

Best of 2013.

Yep, about this time each year I pull out my golden fork and spoon awards for my “Best of” post. Not the best restaurants, but the best food I ate. The most memorable. I sit down with coffee and a notepad, and brainstorm the 13 best foods I ate in the Charlottesville area in 2013. From off the top of my head. Because in this brain with its vastly diminishing capacity (thanks middle age and Lyme Disease) if I can remember it right away, it was probably pretty outstanding. And worthy of an award, however small. I’m just one broad, but I’ve got a good palate and know when something has skipped past the boundaries of delicious into the stratosphere of, “Hey remember when we ate that?”

Here are my picks in alphabetical order by establishment. Go eat them. A few are seasonal, but I bet if you wait until the appropriate season and ask real nice, they’ll make it for you. Especially when you tell them it won a major award! Congratulations to all, and good eats in 2014!*

Smoked Turkey. At BBQ Exchange.
This is the second year in a row Chef Hartman’s smoked turkey has won a golden fork and for good reason. It’s incredible. Melt-in-your-mouth-smoke-meets-sweet-meets-meat incredible. Only available at Thanksgiving. Sad face. This was the third time The Hubby and I ordered our turkey from The Exchange and if I can help it, I will never cook turkey again. Because it won’t be as good. The first year we got the dinner with sides, but I like leftovers. LOTS of leftovers, so the next year we got an entire bird. Repeated this year. And between the two of us, managed to finish off a 15-20 pounder. Boom!

Fried Green Tomato, Smoked Salmon, and Mozzarella Salad with Basil Crema. At Bizou Restaurant.
A fancy take on a BLT. The crunchy fat and acid of the tomato pairs well with the soft cheese and the creamy greenness of the crema, which was like the best Green Goddess dressing I’ve ever had. I couldn’t eaten five of these salads without saying Boo!

Bacon Fat Popcorn. At Brookville Restaurant.
Congrats to Brookville for making my “Best of” list 2 years running! The Hubby and I love Chef Keevil’s place and eat there often for brunch or any time we need the greatest hamburger on the face of God’s green earth. But in 2014 his bacon fat popcorn sent me into the stratosphere. Imagine huge fluffy kernels with just a touch of salt. Then imagine crunching down and tasting bacon. But not a big grease-filled overpowering smoky business. A touch, a kiss. Like popcorn and bacon didn’t get married but are just making out. HEAVEN!

Chocolate Macaroon. At Cappellino’s Crazy Cakes.
Who cares if it’s gluten-free? This cookie is simply the most deeply, darkly, chocolaty, ooey, gooey confection I’ve ever eaten. Right away you can taste the high-quality chocolate. The way it just glides over your tongue into a gooey delicious chewy chocolaty mess is a gorgeous thing indeed. No way you can eat just one. It has officially replaced their Apple Harvest as my favorite cookie.

Carne Asada Tacos. At El Tako Nako.
Monday night is taco night because of this food truck on Hydraulic Road across from Stonefield. I love all the tacos on offer: Pastor, Chorizo, Lengua, but it’s the Carne Asada that gets my motor running. Charred meat with a little cilantro, onion, and lime in double-wrapped corn tortillas. Completely authentic Mexican tacos for $2 each. You can’t beat that with a stick.

Pupusa Queso Con Frijoles. At El Tepeyac.
El Tepeyac has incredible tacos, but I will always mark 2013 as the year I fell in love with pupusas. This Salvadorian style tortilla tastes like the best Hot Pocket you’ve ever eaten. Scratch that. Imagine if Hot Pockets were actually any good! That’s an El Tepeyac Pupusa. They’ve got several different styles (including an incredible one make with loroco flowers) but my favorite is the pupusa with black beans and cheese. Like you took corn pudding, stuffed cheese and black bean dip inside it then stuffed it in a panini press. I can eat pupusas until the cows come home.

Poached Duck Egg Frisee Salad With Warm Bacon Dressing, Chive Flowers, and Crispy Ramps. At GlassHaus Kitchen.
I’m very sad I won’t be able to enjoy this classic anymore while sitting on the patio with The Hubby and watching the freight trains roll by. Chef Ian Boden’s version is lovely and perfect. The creamy egg mixes with the warm fat of the bacon and the tang of the chive and the sweet of the ramps to create something awfully special. Perhaps we can persuade him to recreate this perfection at his new venture, The Shack? Hope so.

Chicken Liver Mousse. At JM Stock Provisions & Supply.
I’m a sucker for a good chicken liver mousse. Put some of that on a cracker or good piece of baguette and pour me a glass of wine and that’s dinner. The mousse at JM Stock is luscious, creamy, rich, and decadent. Priced right and presented in a small Mason jar. Yep, an entire Mason jar full of chicken liver mousse. If that’s not decadent I don’t know what is.

Tonkotsu Ramen. At Now & Zen.
Ever since I tucked into my first bowl of in Vancouver a few years back I have searched and longed for this dish. There isn’t a day goes by where I don’t long for ramen. Not the 5-for-a-dollar version in the market, but good, authentic, steaming, yummy ramen. Preferably with fatty broth, seasoned egg, and extra wakame. No matter where we travel, my first question is always, “Is there ramen here?” Now when fellow seekers ask me, I can point them to Now & Zen. Unfortunately Chef Sato only has ramen nights every so often (next one scheduled for January 19 and 20). Go early with an empty stomach (bowls are huge), and order the broth as fatty as you can.

Fried Okra With Comeback Sauce. At Pasture Charlottesville.
Oh my lord! Simply the best fried okra I’ve ever had in my life. Chef Jason Alley fries the okra whole, and the batter is so light, so crispy, I dare you not to finish off their ginormous bowl. Every time I’ve eaten this I swear I won’t possibly finish the whole thing, and every time I fail. It’s that good. The comeback sauce tastes like mayonnaise and Sriracha? Not sure, but it has kept me coming back for this appetizer again and again.

Spicy Creamed Rice Grits, Smoked Tomato Broth, Black-Eyed Peas.
At Pasture Charlottesville.

This is one of those dishes I want to magically appear on my counter every time I have a crappy day. Or the weather is crappy. Or I’m just feeling crappy. Comfort in a bowl. They serve this as a small plate, but trust me, after inhaling this unctuous blend of smoky, creamy goodness you’ll want more. A whole lot more. Tastes like a big ol’ nap! Which is a compliment of the highest order.

Charcuterie Plate. Pippin Hill Vineyard.
We had a miserable spring and summer full of rain and gray skies. So when we finally hit a warm patch The Hubby and I had a lovely “All Summer in a Day” moment at Pippin Hill. Cured meats, olives, arugula pesto and grape must mustard paired with a nice Cabernet Franc can cure every form of seasonal disorder. I’m convinced of it. And I’m counting the days when I can lounge on their sumptuous deck once again.

Anson Mills Sea Island Peas with House Bacon and Appalachian Star Farm Spring Onions. At The Whiskey Jar.
This dish was prepared as a side for the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium opening dinner. The beans tasted like tiny black-eyed peas, but with better texture and flavor: sweet, meaty, and hearty. The bacon added a fatty, smoky flavor while the spring onions provided sweetness. This dish was by far the hit of the night; everyone raved. I even bought my own bag for New Year’s Hoppin’ John. To say I can’t wait to dig in would be an understatement. Here’s hoping Sea Island Peas are rediscovered and relished in 2014. They need to be.

Peach Trifle. At The Whiskey Jar.
Congratulations to Rachel Pennington on creating a dessert I devoured without a second thought. Let me explain. Usually I’m so enamored of appetizers by the time the dessert comes, I can’t take more than a bite. Not here. This trifle with its layers of fresh peach, feather-light cake, fresh cream, and vanilla custard is simply one of the best desserts I’ve ever tasted. Decadent, yet light as a Spring cloud in May. It should be a staple on their summer menu. And they should give Chef Pennington a raise. Yum!

*You’ll notice I actually included my “Best 14 for 2013”. Whatever. I love it when my town makes it hard to stay within parameters ;)


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