Part 3: Dolly’s Maiden Voyage

As I write this, we have been on the road for almost a month, and we have all held up surprisingly well. When I say “we,” I am referring obviously to myself, but also to my friend, Nichelina, who drove to my mom’s house in Tennessee from her home in Philadephia in order to join me on a nationwide road trip of indeterminate length, and her 11-year-old service pitbull named Dego.

We were all good friends before this trip, but it is fair to say that we have learned a lot about each other after traveling together for so long in a 22-foot-long RV.

Dego has been a very good boy, and mostly rests during the day while we’re moving.

At several times in this story, “we” also includes my RV, who I have named Dolly. She also has performed remarkably well for a vehicle built in 1995-1996 and barely driven 50 miles per year. She only stopped working once, and we were able to get that issue fixed (in a way that probably only happens in a sitcom). More on that later.

Of course, we are also traveling during a pandemic, which severely limits the socializing we would normally be doing. Instead of stopping in a strange town and popping down to the local bar or restaurant to meet some people and ask about the fun places to go, we take our food to go, eat it in the RV (she has a nice dining area), and ask the carryout guy or the gas station attendant or the Harvest Hosts host about local places of interest.

Luckily we have an RV that makes us feel safe, at least in terms of Covid protection – no hotels or restaurants necessary. And luckily, we’re good friends.

Our plan was to head generally westward, stopping at cool places along the way, and using Harvest Hosts as much as possible. I’ve explained about HH before, but essentially it is a membership for RV owners; you pay an annual subscription (which is stupid cheap) to be able to park overnight at privately-owned wineries, farms, distilleries, breweries, and other unique places of interest.

You don’t pay the host for parking, but you are expected to purchase something if they are selling (wine at a winery, cheese at a dairy farm, etc.). Most of them are small farms or businesses, many of the owners live on the property as well.

Of course, there are some areas of the country without Harvest Hosts available, so, as RV owners and travelers know, you can also park for free overnight at (almost) any Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Costco, Cracker Barrel, and most Indian casinos and truck stops. Many of these are open 24 hours, but all have 24-hour security.

Anyway, Nichelina arrived at my mom’s house a few days before we left, because we were still fixing it up — a thousand tiny little touches that needed to happen before we got on the road.

Just as an example, we spent an inordinant amount of time fixing the step up into the camper. I wanted the first view you see when you walk in to be a pretty color and something nice, not just the ugly carpet stapled to the wall. We took several days to paint it, prepare the backsplash, and fix the contoured step.

Of course, now that we have been on the road, we have thought of a thousand more things to fix or redo. By the time we get back to Tennessee again, we will have a completely different idea of RV traveling than we did before we started.

The plan was to leave by noon on Halloween. Then it was by 4 p.m.

We finally left my mom’s house at about 8 p.m.

As we went up the hill and out of the driveway, Dolly started to shake and make a wheezing noise between 35 and 45 mph. We had called ahead to a Harvest Host – Bristol Caverns, a privately owned tourist attraction of a cavern tour and museum – and they told us we could come after business hours. It was about an hour from my mom’s; which we did intentionally, in case we forgot something or something else bad happened that first night.

That first night was 26 degrees. That night I learned that the air conditioning unit was not also a heater. That night I learned how to prime the generator and get it to work – and then realized I did not bring a heater. And how did I never notice how loud that generator is? Also the stove pilot light wasn’t working … it felt like it didn’t have gas going to it, but the reader on the tank said it was half full.

We ended up deciding to use the microwave instead of the stove until we can get a propane guy to check it out – somehow there is enough propane to run the refrigerator, which was great, but it was still weird. The weird shaking and wheezing that happened between 35-45 mph was still happening.

Since it was Sunday when we woke up, we weren’t able to visit the Bristol Caverns, so we headed to Mammoth Caves in southern Kentucky.

We called ahead to another Harvest Host — Traveler’s Cellar in Rockfield, Kentucky. They were having a private party that night (like many hosts, they live on the property), but they were kind enough us a quick wine tasting anyway. We got there just in time for sunset, and to buy a bottle of the bubbly red Baco Noir.

It was lovely. I’ve never had a fizzy red wine before but I really loved it.

The next morning we attempted to visit Mammoth Caves, but due to my walker (which I still need occasionally), we weren’t able to get a tour. We had a great time driving around the park and surrounding areas.

We also took a few minutes to walk around the Corvette Museum.

Unfortunately, everything we want to visit is either closed due to the pandemic, or they’re totally changed because of it.

The next night, we stayed at another Harvest Host, a distillery in eastern Kentucky.

Again, we arrived just before dark. Since we were headed west and it’s wintertime, there isn’t a lot of sunlight, and we didn’t want to drive too much at night. Plus, most Harvest Hosts want you to get there before it gets dark.

We had a great time at Casey Jones Distillery, learning about the history of Casey Jones and the moonshine business back in the day.

We sampled a variety of moonshines and bourbons, purchased a few bottles for gifts for some friends, and the next morning, we were on our way to southern Illinois.

Dolly parked at Starview Vineyards.

The area around western Kentucky, southern Illinois and Missouri is really beautiful. In our comparatively short time on the road, we have seen some really beautiful landscapes. Southern Illinois also has a lot of cool wineries in the area around the Shawnee National Forest.

When we got to Illinois, we stayed at Starview Vineyards, probably one of our favorite Harvest Hosts stops.

They had a lovely spot to park, a nice restaurant where we could sample some of their wines and have an early dinner, and the view from our table at their pond was spectacular.

From there, we headed towards St. Louis, to see the Gateway Arch National Park and to stay at another Harvest Host outside of the city limits.

The Gateway Arch actually has a really pretty park and pedestrian walkway around it, as well as a museum and gift shop underground.

We parked downtown and walked all around, admiring the artwork and the lovely park…

… then we had a yummy to-go lunch of Korean food.

As I said, pretty much all of our meals were takeout, and enjoyed at our small dining room table in the RV. I painted some of the walls and used wallpaper on others, but the table and benches were pretty much unaltered.

We also enjoyed our stay at the Point Labaddie Brewery just outside of St. Louis. The night we arrived, they had an (outdoor) trivia night, and there were a few other Harvest Hosts RVers we hung out with (socially distanced, of course).

We had a great time drinking local beer around a nice campfire, making new friends and relaxing.

The next morning we kept west towards Kansas City, driving through the Ozarks and enjoying the scenery. One of our new friends at trivia night had recommended Lone Elk County Park, where we could drive around on a one-way road and see the elk during mating season.

We got to see a lot of wildlife, including beautiful birds and, as promised, lots of elk. We got to drive up and observe a pair of young elk fighting each other.

(I apologize for the grainy photo, I zoomed in a lot. I wasn’t about to get too close to wild and randy and violent elk who are antler-fighting each other during mating season.)

The lake communities around the Ozarks are really cute, and the flat land and lakes were a welcome respite after driving through the smoky mountains and the hills of Kentucky.

Nichelina had taken over driving, and I was chilling in the back; which is actually really fun. You get a better view and a more comfortable chair.

We were comfortably on our way to get BBQ in Kansas City – as comfortable as you can be when your vehicle shakes uncontrollably between 35-45 miles per hour – when the engine died.

Sort of.

It would start, so it wasn’t the battery. It happened suddenly with no warning lights so it wasn’t the catalytic converter. And we were able to restart the engine and move it (slowly) to a side street, before it died again.

I should point out that this tiny town of Eldon, Missouri, was the best possible place where we could have broken down. In the 45 minutes we were waiting on the side of the road for AAA to tow us to the repair shop, no fewer than a dozen people, including an EMT on his way to work and an off-duty police officer, stopped to ask us if we were OK, to offer advice and counsel, and to recommend a repair shop. They all said the same one: U Rench it.

It was around sunset when we broke down, so it was fully dark by the time we got a tow truck, they got the RV on the truck, and we got to the shop. They were about to close, but in the dark, the mechanic could tell that the problem was that — no kidding – mice had chewed through the fuel injector wires. It was an easy fix, but they couldn’t do it until the morning.

Curtis (the mechanic) let us park overnight at the secure repair shop lot, staying in our RV, and then first thing in the morning, he replaced the wires. It took about an hour because, in the daylight, he realized the spark plug wires had also been gnawed.

For a grand total of $72, we got back on the road, the RV actually drove better due to the new spark plug wires and fuel injector wires, and he showed us how to turn on our propane tank. It turned out, the fridge actually wasn’t working, it was just cold. (The food stayed cold in there when we were in Tennessee and Kentucky, but then when it warmed up again, so did our food.)

So it was a winning day all around… especially because Curtis also recommended moth balls in the engine to stop more mice and wildlife from gnawing our engine wires; and he directed us to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, a super cool hidden gem of a state park in the Ozarks.

They have an amazing natural rock bridge, which was dry from a drought, so we could actually climb and walk underneath it.

The state park is also home to an old castle built by a Kansas City business man in the early 1900s, and the ruins of the castle and surrounding views are spectacular.

I started to be really glad that we broke down in Missouri.

Finally we made it to Kansas City, where we had some really good BBQ at Jack Stacks BBQ.

Our Harvest Hosts stop for that night was a cider mill in Louisburg, Kansas, but we got there after dark and didn’t see anything until the sun came up.

And it was so cute! Pretty much by the time they opened at 8 a.m, the place was packed. I was still walking around, looking at everything while still in my PJs, and the people at Loiusburg Cider Mill were already making cider.

It was a Saturday morning, and dozens of families and visitors had arrived, already deep in their hot apple cider and cider donuts. I got some donuts, which were amazing, and some delicious fresh cider and apple cider slushie to wash them down.

Our goal was to get to Colorado before dark (or at least before too late), so I could get some Rick Simpson Oil and other CBD extracts before I started a new chemo drug. I have been on hormonal treatments (the tumors in my bones are actually breast cancer cells, so they are shrinking my tumors by cutting off estrogen), but I was starting a new regimen of oral chemotherapy pills, and I wanted to have some proper CBDs in my system so I could be as healthy as possible before I started.

Anyway, it took forever to get though Kansas, but it sure was better than slogging through that last part of west Texas that lasts forever when you’re trying to get west. (Anyone who has traveled that stretch knows what I mean.) We finally arrived in Colorado, found the nearest Wal-Mart, and stopped for the night.

As soon as we got the RSO, we headed south to New Mexico, where we unfortunately had the craziest part of our trip. It was a Harvest Hosts stop in northern New Mexico, a winery (there is a really great wine scene in New Mexico, their wines are all very unique, but more about that later). I will decline to name and tag them in this post, for reasons which will soon become apparent.

We did what we always did; called ahead to let them know we were coming, and our approximate time of arrival. We arrived just after sunset and before it got (really really) dark. Instantly, we knew this was not a normal HH stop. The place was dark and at the end of a dirt road. There were no markings. There was no sign. There were no lights. It didn’t appear to be a business at all. A man (who we later learned was the husband of the woman we spoke to), let us in the main gate, then locked it behind us.

As I mentioned, my RV is 22 feet long, which is very small for an RV. I cannot fathom how a rig bigger than mine would fit there. I started to wonder why these people were listed as a Harvest Host, and why in the world the reviews of this place – which discussed how the building was built in 1920 and used to be a dance hall – didn’t mention that it barely appeared to be a functioning business.

Nichelina commented (correctly) that it looked worse than the Wal-Mart we had slept at the previous night. I got out of the RV, with my mask on, and the lady told me that I didn’t need to wear one, because “everything is sanitary around here, even the dirt is sanitized.” Needless to say, this was not true — the place (and the people) were quite objectively dirty. But we were there, we were locked in. We had told them we were staying, I felt at that point it would have been more awkward to just turn around and leave.

We go inside to see their operation (the site boasts tasting flights and tours of their facility), and discover that this old 1920-era building, which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since it was a Prohibition-era dance hall, is a (mostly) one-room building. You have to walk through a dirty motorcycle garage to enter. There is no winery or tasting room, and our host informs us that because of some legal snafu with the Catholic Church owning property within a certain distance, they are not allowed to operate it as a winery or as a tasting room. But, of course, they still do, offering wines to Harvest Hosts RVers and people doing wine tours in the area. I have no idea how the New Mexico Board of Tourism backed them without a proper winery, but they did. We got the tour, which included a view of a tiny room with a bunch of TV screens, where we could see ourselves. They had cameras on every inch of the property. It was not like any other Harvest Host we had been to.

But I digress.

We were tasting wine in the tasting room/bedroom, at an antique table within view of our host’s unmade bed and laundry room, when she proceeded to tell us all about the neighborhood; including that she had been sexually assaulted by one of her neighbors. The assault had allegedly taken place in the room where we were sitting, just a couple of months prior, in full view of the many cameras all over the place, but she told us the man was still not in jail. This also did not make us feel better about camping there overnight.

The final crack was when we were headed back to our RV. The hosts had offered to let us use their bathroom (we only use the RV one for emergencies, and we hadn’t yet figured out the water pump), and when we walked through the motorcycle garage you need to walk through to get to the “winery,” we saw Nazi and Confederate flags.

I consider myself a tolerant person. I am liberal politically, but I can accept other points of view. I draw the line at fucking Nazis, though. And I think most people do.

Needless to say, now we really wanted to get the heck out of there.

We again decided that making a break for it now would be too awkward, plus it was dark, the roads were windy and unfamiliar, we were in an RV, and we had both drank the equivalent of about two glasses of wine at our bedside tasting. We decided the best course of action would be to get out of there as soon as possible in the morning, and to let Harvest Hosts and everyone else know to stay away from this place.

The people had been nice to us, but the place was so dirty, and so below standards … and it just made me sick to my stomach to think of a Black or Jewish person coming there as part of Harvest Hosts, or wine tasting for a birthday party, and seeing a Nazi party flag and other racist nonsense so prominently displayed. We notified Harvest Hosts, the NM Board of Tourism, and put a detailed public post on Facebook and Google reviews.

In the two weeks or so since we left that place, they apparently got wind of our posts, because they have now claimed that their dirty garage with the lawn chairs and motorcycle parts and Amazon boxes in it was actually a “military museum,” and those multiple racist icons and flags were just, like, exhibits on display. Makes sense, right? Because that’s how you would display a flag in a museum, draped over some boxes, or hanging up next to where you and your buddies sit around and smoke cigarettes? That’s your priceless artifact, there as an educational tool, next to the bottle of cleanser?

Come on. Look at those photos. This ain’t a museum; and it ain’t a winery. It’s a couple of racist, white trash people who learned how to make homemade wine, trying to pretend they are better than they are.

I believe that these flags were and are a statement. You don’t pick them up accidentally, you don’t display them without knowing what they are, and you don’t display them unless you believe in them. This dump was nothing close to a museum, but even if it was, just for the sake of argument, there is no museum that would display racist icons like this without explanation or context, if at all. A racist flag in a dirty garage is just that.

That’s all I am going to say about it, because they are also claiming they called New Mexico state police, because they say we stole priceless military artifacts from their “military museum,” and they are trying to get their friends to harass me on social media. They even found an old photo from September, of my sister and I, and added it to their sprawling Facebook post, claiming that she and I were the ones who visited, when of course, it was Nichelina and I, and of course we didn’t steal anything. They have the tapes to prove where we were every second we were on their property, so I am not worried about the cops. I know we didn’t steal, and I know we did the right thing by telling people about this place. No regrets.

I will say that I am disappointed in Harvest Hosts for allowing these people back on to their program after removing them, but I suppose they were convinced about the military museum thing. I still have a Google review active, so hopefully visitors will check first before visiting. I am still wary of any people of color coming to visit, but I assume they would have taken down the troublesome flags by now.

UPDATE: OMG YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE THIS. A week or so after I published this, the online harassment started by (I can now name and tag them) Wicked Kreations continued, and I received a Facebook message from someone I don’t know.

The message contained a link to an article detailing the arrest of Tim Lopez, the co-owner of the “winery,” for murder. He (allegedly) shot someone in the head at a grocery store on Thanksgiving.

Oh.

My.

Gaaah.

And that’s the same guy trying to accuse us of theft!

I am also happy to report that Harvest Hosts has removed these people from their app now. I spoke to them, and they explained that Wicked Kreations was temporarily removed when I showed them the flags, but reinstated when they provided HH with paperwork showing that they were a “military museum.” (You all know my opinion on that.)

Harvest Hosts explained that they had to give these people the benefit of the doubt, which I understand, but now that this has happened, I think they understand what kind of people they’re dealing with here. I really love Harvest Hosts, so I’m very happy it all came out well … except, of course, for that guy at the grocery store on Thanksgiving.

I guess if that’s the worst and craziest thing that happens to us on this trip, we’ll be just fine, right?

New Mexico is stunning, and the landscape is much more varied than you might imagine if you’ve never visited. There are mountains and plains, arid deserts and green valleys. We were at high elevation and it was early November, so it was very sunny, yet cold, and the ground was frozen.

It was beautiful.

As I mentioned before, New Mexico has a great wine scene. They have the usual whites and reds, but because grapes are so hard to grow in New Mexico, local producers often incorporate lots of other fruits and herbs. The unnamed Nazis made some wine from strawberries and others from native chokecherries.

Our next Harvest Host was like we have come to expect: wide-open spaces, lovely vineyards, warm hospitality, no racist flags of any kind.

Wines of the San Juan has an adorable little outdoor seating area as well as a small tasting room and gift shop, plus they offered electric and water hookups, which is really nice when your generator is super loud.

When we arrived at Wines of the San Juan, we noticed a lot of other farms nearby, but apparently a small, local lavender farm produces enough lavender for WSJ to make a delicious lavender wine. It tastes like a slightly fruity white wine, but has a strong lavender scent and taste. It’s wonderful. They also make a sweet cherry pie wine and other blackberry and fruity blends. It was probably the most variety we saw in any of our wine tasting travels on this leg of the trip.

The rest of the trip to San Diego went fairly quickly … we went west on a remote highway that went back and forth a couple of times between Arizona and Utah. It was cold and dry and remote.

It was also spectacularly beautiful.

Part of the drive went through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which has some of the most beautiful rock formations you’ve ever seen. We had to stop for a few minutes to enjoy the scenery, take some pictures, and let Dego stretch his paws.

Then we spent a couple of nights with friends in Las Vegas (who have been quarantining), and from there straight into southern California. In San Bernardino, we ran into some issues trying to find a free spot to park — no Harvest Hosts were nearby, so we went to a Wal-Mart, only to be kicked out around midnight. Apparently the store parking thing doesn’t work if you’re in a city or county that doesn’t allow overnight parking or camping; which is most of southern California. Eventually we found a cool security guard at a Costco who let us park there for a few hours, but it was technically illegal.

Aaah, but to be back in Ocean Beach. We left the San Bernardino parking lot super early and we were back in Ocean Beach and enjoying the salty air and the warm sun by noon.

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We’ve basically been on the beach all week… parking at various friends’ homes at night and sitting at the beach all day.

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My stepbrother visited us and showed us cool things about my RV, like how to light the stove, adjust the water pressure, and empty the black tank (I did read the manual on those things, but hadn’t done them yet). But every day on the beach ends with a lovely sunset out the front window.

I am spending Thanksgiving at my brother’s while Nichelina and Dego and Dolly are in San Diego, and we will meet up again this weekend and head back east on Tuesday (after more doctor’s visits and scans on Monday). In the meantime, we feel better about cooking in the RV and emptying the tanks if we need to.

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I also had another sitting with my friend Missy, who runs the Breast Cancer Portrait Project. If you haven’t seen it, it’s really an amazing and inspiring body of work, telling the stories and sharing photos of women who were under 40 when they were diagnosed with breast cancer.

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I sat for a session with Missy about a year ago, when I was celebrating being a survivor. Now that cancer is back, she offered to come to the beach and photograph me again in my RV.

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I strongly recommend that you visit her site and her social media and support this amazing project.

I will update soon with the next leg of the trip. The tentative plan now is to head due east, stopping in Houston and Louisiana on the way back to Tennessee. We will definitely enjoy the scenery and the Harvest Hosts and the food, but Nichelina and I both promised our moms we would be on the east coast by Christmas, so we can’t lag too much.

In the meantime, have a great Thanksgiving week.

If you are enjoying this content, please contribute to my bucket list GoFundMe page here.

The taste of home

I am officially homeless.

I moved out of my apartment in San Diego, the adorable beach bungalow where I spent 14 crazy years. I left all of my lovely friends and my boyfriend. Most of my stuff has been sold or donated. The rest was crammed into a cargo van and hauled 2,258 miles (give or take) to my mom’s house. I am comfortable here – goodness knows it’s nice to relax after that crazy fast drive from California – and my family is great, but I literally have no home to move into.

I am still waiting on my RV; I found the one I think I want in a town nearby. It needs new tires so the owner/seller has offered to deduct half of the cost of new tires from my purchase price. I am waiting to hear from him about a new microwave he is installing, and hopefully I will be bringing my new-to-me RV here to my mom’s house this week. Then, I plan to take at least a few days to spruce it up and get it ready to hit the road — plus I gotta find a road trip buddy.

In the meantime, east Tennessee is amazingly beautiful and I am enjoying my rest here.

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Our family moved from California to Tennessee once before, when I was about 12 or 13. My mom, my sister and I were living with my grandmother in Joshua Tree, then we all moved to Cookeville, Tennessee. I had more of a culture shock moving here then I did when I was in high school and did an exchange program in Germany.

It was all so different from what I was used to seeing landscape-wise, in the high desert east of Los Angeles; but also the culture is so different in so many ways.

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The lush greenery. The churches on every corner. The super-thick, country accents coming out of the mouths of people of every age. The smoky haze hanging over the tops of the trees. The roads that make no sense. The juxtaposition of torn-up trailers with rebel flags hanging outside, and stately farmhouses with perfectly manicured lawns. The liquor laws that change every few miles … where you can’t even have a glass of wine with dinner in one county, but in the next county five miles over, you can buy anything you like. Pickup trucks EVERYWHERE.

It was like another world. As my little sister and I were getting used to changes — spending the night with friends and having homemade biscuits in the morning (which at the time seemed impossibly fancy), farm work on the weekends, and prayers in our public school classrooms — we were also keeping up the recipes that warmed our hearts no matter where we were living.

My grandma was a Scottish immigrant in the late 1950s. I don’t know much about the food she cooked when she was in Scotland, but I imagine that she thought her fancy “Macaroni Mix” was very American. It’s basically a spicy spaghetti sauce, but tossed with elbow macaroni instead of spaghetti noodles. It uses up all of the extra veggies you have in your fridge. It feeds a bunch of hungry people. It’s super chunky, and my grandma’s version had a ton of ground beef, chopped onions and bell peppers. (Because I hated bell peppers, I was allowed to remove the chunks from my macaroni mix, but I had to eat the rest.)

Somehow, this macaroni mix became a family favorite. My mom still says it was the best dish and best recipe my grandma made (for me it was her barley soup, which you can find the recipe for here). My aunts and uncle would request Macaroni Mix for their birthday meal – the one time each year they got to choose what the family ate for dinner.

The meal is obviously not complicated or expensive (in fact, I am positive that is one of the reasons Grandma made it so much), but for us, it represents everything about home. It’s warm and comforting, it’s cheap and easy, it’s wholesome and healthy.

This time moving to Tennessee, it’s temporary. It’s the same, but different. The mountains are still smoky, the trees are still a luscious green, and the sunsets are still achingly beautiful. The accents are the same. There are still churches everywhere, but there are also reflexologists. The liquor laws are still wonky, but you can find homemade kombucha and craft beer around the corner …. er, mountain.

This time, it’s “Trump 2020” flags flying outside of the rundown trailers.

The roads still don’t make any sense.

But we still have Grandma’s macaroni mix, which reminds us that we’re back home.

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Try the recipe:

Macaroni Mix

(serves 6-10)

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. package of elbow macaroni
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 2-3 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped (optional)
  • any leftover veggies in your fridge (recommended: carrots, squash/zucchini, okra)
  • 5-6 fresh mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 large (24 oz) can of pasta sauce (recommended: Hunt’s Four Cheese)
  • 1 small can of Rotel (or any kind of diced tomatoes and green chiles)
  • 1 small can of plain tomato sauce
  • 2-3 generous handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 tsp. ground sage
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • 1-2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 1-2 tsp. steak seasoning (any blend of red and black pepper, garlic, paprika)
  • salt and pepper
  • seasoned kosher salt (optional)
  • grated parmesan cheese (for topping)

Directions:

Start a large pot of water boiling and in a separate (preferably cast-iron) pan, brown the beef and diced onion. Once the meat starts to brown, add the Worcestershire, the sage and steak seasoning, and the garlic, mushrooms, and other veggies (except the cans of tomatoes/sauces). Mix thoroughly as it continues to cook.

By this time the water should also be boiling. Add kosher salt (seasoned with rosemary or other herbs if you have it) and pasta to the water, and cover the pot.

Once the pasta, meat and veggies are fully cooked, drain the pasta and add the meat/veggie mixture into the pot. Turn off the heat. Add the cans of tomatoes and tomato sauces. Mix thoroughly. (Note: depending on how “wet” you like it, you might want to add another small can of tomato sauce at this point. This is usually where I think that this isn’t enough sauce, but then I just go with it, and it comes out perfectly.)

Mix the shredded cheese, mix completely, and then taste it before adding salt and pepper as desired. Serve immediately with grated parmesan on top.

NOTE: keep in mind that this is a Grandma Recipe. The measurements are not exact, and the basics can be adapted. It doesn’t matter what type of onion you use. If you only have rotini pasta instead of elbow noodles, do it. If you prefer ground turkey to beef, change it. I prefer to make this without bell peppers because bell peppers are gross, but I have been informed by other family members that it’s not “really Grandma’s recipe” if it doesn’t have the bell peppers. Make it how you prefer to eat it!

 – – –

I spent many years in Cookeville, and later I went to college at Tennessee State University in Nashville. But I never really spent very much time in the eastern part of the state, which is where my mom lives now.

Check out my Instagram and Facebook pages for more photos! Links to the right –>

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Since this is all new to me, we took some cool drives to nearby towns. We visited Historic Downtown Jonesborough, which is the oldest town in Tennessee, and where the first abolitionist papers were published.

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It’s a very adorable town, even in the summer heat and humidity.

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We also stopped at the Nolichucky River and enjoyed the scenery …

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… on our way to Asheville, North Carolina, which is only about 50 miles away. The drive there was amazing — 40 or so miles, on an interstate, where you feel like you’re literally in the clouds. You see why they call these the Smokies.

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I will update this space soon, when I either purchase this RV, or keep up my search.

Cheers, ya’ll!

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Grandma’s Barley Soup — and views on karmic retribution

Once, my late grandmother and I were watching TV. I was about 13. I can’t remember the exact context of what we witnessed on the TV show we were watching, but it was basically a bad guy getting his comeuppance, by way of multiple well-deserved punches to the face.

My grandmother turned to me and said, “at some point, everyone needs the universe to kick them in the ass. Maybe it’s not an actual ass-kicking, maybe it’s just a lesson. But if you need it, God gives it to you. Sometimes right in the kisser.”

Grandma’s relationship with God, as far as I knew, was … tenable. She had converted to evangelical Christianity for like five minutes in Britain as a young woman, when she, along with millions of others, was captivated by Billy Graham. That didn’t last long. I know she believed in a higher power, but that was the first real time I had heard her speak about God that way.

I’ve thought about that a lot of times since I have been fighting cancer. Was breast cancer part of a karmic retribution? Was it karma paying me back for that time I didn’t recycle? Or maybe grandma finally having it out with me about that glass punch bowl I broke?

Grandma had a lot of interesting views about karma and dying – she once famously said that if she were ever told she had months left on earth, she would make a list of people she hated — even though I doubt she could count the number of enemies she had on one hand.

And being a murderous, avenging cancer patient kinda has a ring to it. (It would probably make a good movie (*Copyright!) —  but now that it’s happening to me, it’s not how I would have imagined it.

It’s heartbreaking. I have to leave my friends, my boyfriend, my family and my cat (not necessarily in that order). I have time to say goodbye, which is great, but also excruciating. 

It’s momentous. What if everything I read about heaven and hell is actually true? What can I do in my last months to really make the world a better place?

It’s stressful. I have to clean out my apartment, and sell or give away nearly everything I own. I have to find an RV that’s relatively small and easy to handle, yet within my price range.

I have to plan to die.

The last thing I want to waste my time on is hating someone and making my last days all about them instead of me. I know it sounds selfish, but if there’s anytime to say “hey, this is what I WANT so I am making it happen no matter what,” it’s now.

Knowing your time is short – but not knowing how short – is really difficult. Moving is stressful under any circumstances. Travelling the country is hard to plan under any circumstances. Preparing for your imminent demise adds a whole nother layer of weird.

And the clock is ticking.

Maybe I will be dead in six months and none of this will matter. But I can’t help feeling like I have to hit the road. Like, as soon as possible.

At this point, I am frustrated. It feels like that time before a plan comes together, when you feel like maybe you made a mistake in undertaking this huge project. Sometimes that part comes right before everything works out perfectly. Sometimes this part comes right before it all blows up in your face.

Either way, I have to be out of this apartment in just over a week. If I don’t get an RV in the next couple of days (I have a good feeling about one I am going to go see in the morning), I will be taking my stuff to my mom’s house in Tennessee, and then starting my RV search from there. I should be able to find something for a better price there, too.

But that’s Plan B. Plan A is still to hit the road in 8 days, in an RV that I currently do not have. Both seem pretty terrifying.

I don’t know if this stress and insanity is life kicking me in the teeth. I don’t know if cancer coming back, this time with a vengeance, is some sort of karmic retribution for something I did in a past life (or even God forbid, in this one). I don’t know why this is happening to me.

But I know I have to make it count for something.

My grandma was a strong, and slightly crazy, woman. She had left her home country of Scotland at barely 18 years old, escaping an abusive husband with a two-year old (my mother) and an infant. She raised 6 kids on a budget while working full-time and running a household. She doted on her grandchildren and became a Quaker late in life. If anyone knew the value of life, it was Grandma.

I hope that, for her sake, I can take this punch to the chin and remain standing.

Grandma was also an amazing cook. The last week before I went to the hospital, I was craving a big bowl of hot soup, so I adapted her barley beef stew for the Instant Pot. It was a great, hearty meal (actually many, many meals), and it in the IP, you can make it in the summer without heating up your kitchen too much.

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Grandma’s Barley Soup

(adapted for the Instant Pot)

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 6 oz. dried pearl barley (about half a bag)
  • 1 large white onion, diced
  • 2 stalks fresh celery, diced
  • 2 large carrots, diced
  • 2-3 tbsp. (minimum) diced garlic
  • 2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 2 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 liter water*
  • 2 tabs of beef bouillon or Bisto**

Put the Instant Pot on the sauté setting and add the onions, garlic, celery and carrot. Once the vegetables are slightly cooked (2-3 minutes) add the beef and brown thoroughly.

Turn the Instant Pot off, and add the spices, mushrooms, bouillon, barley and water. Mix thoroughly. Note: you do not need to pre-soak the barley; the Instant Pot will do all of the work.

Place the lid on the Instant Pot, and make sure the vent is closed. Set on High Pressure for 45 minutes. Release naturally.

*You may need to add extra water or broth at the end, Grandma always made a soup like a stew, and a stew practically like a casserole. It’s gonna be thick.

** Grandma was British so she loved Bisto, which is a popular brand that gives a particular flavor. It’s not as easy to find in the states, so any beef bouillon is perfectly fine for this recipe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boysenberry Baby Back Ribs and Planning for the trip of your life

I have just under 30 days before I vacate my apartment and hit the road in an RV — which I technically do not yet have.

I have given away most of my clothes, I have packed up half of my apartment, and I have organized an insane amount of schwag. I pick up some cool promotional things from just about every 5k, festival, fun run, concert and foodie event I attend, which leads to a truly astounding array of can koozies, cup coasters, hats, lighters, posters, ticket stubs, race medals, and other random accoutrements.

And don’t even get me started on my collection of cookbooks. This is maybe half of it.

I have, of course, had my mom here to help me. She was in my apartment before I was even discharged from the hospital (see previous post), and has been here since, helping me with cooking, cleaning, laundry, and all sorts of other things, while my broken back heals.

I have also had other family to come cheer me up and help out; my sister and her partner came from Texas, and my brother came from Ventura county with his wife. It has been wonderful to spend some time with them all, especially since I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around.

Aren’t we all adorable?

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To make a very long story very short, my brother and I, for reasons beyond our control as children, didn’t meet each other until we were adults. Since then we have developed a truly wonderful relationship, but it’s kind of a bummer that we weren’t given the chance to know each other for our whole lives.

Regardless, we are making up for lost time, in the best way ever: with BBQ.

Big brother writes a blog, too, check out his theme park blog at Park Journey. Because he goes on so many trips to theme parks, I get the benefit when he shows up with things like a big bottle of boysenberry concentrate from Knott’s Berry Farm.

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I made the most awesome Boysenberry Baby Back Ribs! (See the end of this post for the recipe.)

We also went out with another friend to check out some RV sales lots, so I can get an idea of what type of vehicle I want. I don’t have a truck (or even a car) so I don’t want something I have to haul, and I need something with a standard bed, i.e., not one I have to climb a ladder to get into, or unfold from a table or something. It’s too hard on my poor broken back!

Anyway, I think I narrowed it down to the type of Class C RV I need for this trip.

I will continue to update as I prepare to take off on this amazing trip of a lifetime. I do not yet have an itinerary; nor do I plan to have one. I have a lot of people I would like to see, and there are a lot of monuments and national parks and just beautiful areas of the country that I’ve never seen, and now that I am running out of time, I am very excited to see. I even splurged and bought myself the best travel gift ever: a brand new, spiral-bound, Adventure Edition road atlas!

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This baby even has a full section on all of the national parks! I probably won’t be driving to Alaska (although you never know), but other than that, I really want to see all of the national parks. This will be so fun!

And, yes. I am excited. I have something truly life-changing and amazing to look forward to. I know it might seem weird, in fact I got a few comments and messages about how happy I seem to be about a bucket list road trip. All I can say to that is, I learned a lot from when I had breast cancer before; and I learned a lot about control.

When you have cancer, it’s easy to feel like you have no control over your life … you’re told what to eat, what medicines to take, what horrible treatments to do to your body. You feel like your own body is betraying you; like no matter what you do, this cancer is the one in control, not you. And to a certain extent, that is true.

But.

But.

You always have control over your own reactions to things. Sure, you can be a jerk to the nurse treating you, and probably nobody would blame you, because you have cancer and you’re in pain or you’re sick. But being a jerk isn’t going to make you feel any better. It certainly won’t make your treatment any easier.

A positive attitude, sometimes, is all you have.

I’ve always been a happy person. Sure, I have problems like everyone else, but I am generally happy. I have (had) a great career, a house on the beach, a great boyfriend, a wonderful family, amazing friends .. I don’t have a lot to be angry at the world about. And I am sure not going to let cancer take anything else away from me.

Being sick; I can’t control that.

But I can control how I react to it.

I choose not to be afraid.

I choose not to be angry.

I choose to be happy despite the pain.

I choose to make every moment count.

I choose to live my life as I want to live it.

I choose to end it the way I want to end it.

I am going to ride out on the greatest bucket list trip ever. Hopefully I will see everything I want to see, live another five years, and write a great book about my adventures. Maybe I will have to cut my adventure short if I get too sick or am in too much pain. But I will ride as long as I can and see as much as I can for as long as I can.

It’s gonna be so rad!

 

Boysenberry Baby Back Ribs 

(Instant Pot Recipe)

Ingredients:

  • Two (2) baby back rib racks
  •  about 1/2 of 1 bottle of Knott’s Berry Farm Boysenberry Punch Concentrate, separated (you can purchase online here)
  • 1 cup water
  • 8 oz. tomato paste
  • 3 tbsp. brown sugar
  • about 1/2 diced onion
  • 1-2 heads of crushed garlic
  • smoked salt* and fresh cracked pepper

To prepare:

  1. Place a rack in your Instant Pot inner pot. Add approx. 1/4 of the bottle of boysenberry concentrate and the water to the pot.
  2. Coat the ribs with salt and pepper, and arrange on the rack in the Instant Pot. Set on high pressure for between 15-25 minutes, depending on the thickness of the meat. (Don’t overcook, or the ribs will fall apart before you can eat them; more than 30 minutes will have all the meat falling off of the bone no matter how thick the ribs are.)
  3. While the ribs are in the Instant Pot, sauté the diced onion and garlic with the olive oil in a small pot on the stove. Once the onion is translucent, add the tomato paste and the brown sugar, as well as smoked salt and pepper.
  4. Whisk in about another 1/4 of the bottle of boysenberry concentrate VERY SLOWLY as the sauce simmers. Do not let the sauce get scorched.
  5. Allow the Instant Pot to depressurize naturally, which should take about 15 minutes, at the same time that you allow the sauce to gently simmer.
  6. Once the Instant Pot has depressurized, remove the ribs, coat them in the sauce, and place in your air fryer or under a broiler for about 5-7 minutes until the sauce gets caramelized. Serve and eat immediately.

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*Note: I do not believe in using Liquid Smoke, and smoked salt is an excellent substitute for actual smoked meats, etc. If you must (gulp) use Liquid Smoke, go easy on it.

 

 

 

Chillin at Jimmy Carter’s

I think I have found my new favorite Mexican food spot, you guys. They’re authentic, they’re classy, and they’ve got lots and lots of soups. What more could you want?

This past week, I finally got to check out Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Café in the Hillcrest/Balboa Park neighborhood. It’s been there for decades, but I am behind; I know. I had no idea what a great place I was missing. The service isn’t just great; the servers treat you like you’re a guest in their home … because you practically are. Most of Jimmy’s employees have been working for him for decades. It is quite apparent that everyone there loves their jobs, and loves Jimmy himself.

The food is ALL homemade. It is ALL authentic. It is ALL Jimmy Carter approved. But for me, the best part is the soup list.

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Albondigas (meatball soup)

There are four soups that are on the permanent, daily menu – Creamy Black Bean, Chicken Tortilla, Albondigas, and Chicken Pozole.

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Green chicken pozole

There is menudo every weekend.

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But that’s not all! Every day, the chef picks 2-3 more soups to have on special that day (Check out Jimmy Carter’s Instagram page for daily special announcements). There are over two dozen rotating soups, from calabaza y elotes and caldo de res, to Mexican clam chowder and spicy pork guerrero.

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Chicken tortilla soup

Their soup list is INSANE. I managed to escape with their internal soup list, which details the ingredients and garnishes for each one.

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I mean, right?! And this is just the soup list.

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I’ll take one of each!

You could eat here every day for a month and never have the same meal twice. I love it!

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In addition to the albondigas and green chicken pozole, I also checked out some delicious wet tacos (above) and some mini quesadillas (below) stuffed with chicken and carnitas.

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I also would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about their sauces.

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Every item on the menu can be topped with one of their handmade and super-authentic spicy sauces.

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I got to try them all, and I think the Tlaquepaque is my favorite. I see why it’s the most popular … it’s creamy and spicy and good on literally everything.

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There is literally nothing I would not like to eat with this sauce, but Jimmy himself recommends the cheese enchiladas with this gorgeous stuff on top.

Don’t forget the drinks and dessert! In addition to a super-huge menu of authentic Mexican cuisine, Jimmy Carter’s offers a fun assortment of cocktails and other drinks. As you know, I recently discovered the beauty of the tequila mule for myself, so I sampled JCMC’s mezcal mule.

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Outstanding!

And, although I was definitely slowing down by this point (those soups were so good I was licking the bowl), I had to sneak in a few tastes of the coconut flan.

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All in all, I am so glad I finally visited. I will definitely be back to try more of those amazing soups and sauces.

Instant Pot Mexican Food Night

If you have an Instant Pot, you probably already know about all of the amazing things it can do, and all of the ways it makes cooking for your family a little bit easier. My boyfriend had a special request for dinner last week, so I used my IP to make it happen.

First, being that we both live in San Diego, we eat tons of Mexican food. There is a taco shop on nearly every block in this town. But, since my beloved is allergic to most kinds of beans, it totally cramps our taco shop style. So I decided to make him some refried beans with navy beans – the only type that won’t make him sick. This recipe can be adapted for whatever type of beans you prefer or are not allergic to. 🙂

Refried Beans

  • 4 cans beans (I used navy beans but you can use any type)
  • one onion, chopped
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2-3 tbsp. of (concentrated) tomato paste
  • 3 cups of GOOD vegetable stock*
  • salt and pepper
  • garlic powder
  • paprika
  • oregano
  • 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • one jalapeno pepper, minced (optional)

Directions:

Put your IP on the sauté function and add the chopped onion, garlic, jalapeno (if applicable) and olive oil. Cook for 4-6 minutes or until the onions are somewhat translucent. Turn off heat.

Open the cans of beans, drain and rinse them, and add to the pot. Add the tomato paste and spices, and mix well. Slowly add the vegetable stock* and put the lid on with the valve closed.

Set on high pressure, and cook for 1-3 hours (the longer you cook it, the more the flavors will marry and get stronger, but cook it for at least one hour). Use natural release.

* About that vegetable stock… homemade is definitely best. Since you already have an Instant Pot (I assume, or you wouldn’t be reading this), I recommend doing this part first. Take all of the vegetable scraps that you have left over from a week of cooking … the ends of herbs and celery, the tops and peels of onions, the seeds from inside gourds, carrot tops and zucchini tips. Save them in a big baggie or mason jar. At the end of the week, empty that bag or jar into the IP, cover it with water, then add ANOTHER 2 cups of water, and cook on high pressure for at least 3-4 hours. If you open the lid and the stock doesn’t seem dank enough (you want it good and dark!), go for another 2 hours. Strain out the leftover vegetable scraps, and there you have some amazing vegetable stock. If you cannot do this, storebought is also OK. But honestly, the stock is where these beans get their flavor.

Of course, one cannot survive off of beans alone, so I also made some delicious chicken tinga … based on one of my favorite Del Real Foods recipes. I based it off of the recipe from A Pinch of Yum, but adapted it to a quick cook in the Instant Pot. This cooks up really fast, even using chicken that isn’t pre-cooked.

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Chicken Tinga

  • 2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  •  1 head of garlic, chopped
  • 1 10-oz can of crushed tomatoes
  •  3-4 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
  •  salt and pepper
  •  1 tbsp. cumin
  •  1 tbsp. dried Mexican oregano
  • 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  •  1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (see above for tips on how to make the best vegetable stock)

Put Instant Pot on sauté setting and add onions, garlic, and chipotle peppers. Once the onions are slightly translucent, add the chicken, stock, and spices. Make sure the chicken is covered. Switch to high pressure and cook for 35 minutes, with natural release. Shred chicken and serve immediately.

We made the chicken into a bunch of different dishes … enchiladas, tacos, burritos, even nachos.

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Don’t forget the cocktails … a couple of weeks ago I went to Fred’s Mexican Café in Old Town, and had my first tequila mule (they call it a Donkey Punch). It changed my life.

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So, for our homemade Mexican food night, I subbed my usual whiskey mule for a big tequila mule.

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Pour a generous shot of tequila over ice and add ginger beer or ginger-lime Boochcraft high alcohol kombucha, then add a shot of bitters and a squeeze of lime.

Salud!

 

 

 

Saturday at H Mart

This weekend I finally got to check out the newly-opened H Mart on Balboa Avenue (the one on Mira Mesa is still there, but this second one just opened in early June).

The second H Mart is considerably larger than the older store, and boasts a huge food hall with tons of amazing food.

After perusing the baked goods (that are waiting for you as soon as you walk in the entrance), it occurred to me: one must never go grocery shopping while hungry.

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Luckily, there were plenty of options.

First, I tried some kimchi fried rice from Bann Korean Cuisine. The kimchi was delicious but the dish itself was a little TOO packed with green onions for my taste.

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The busiest part of the food hall, by far, was the Myungrang Hot Dog stand, which features delicious sticked hot dogs coated in a tasty rice batter (and in some cases, squid ink, cheeses, or potato), then you have the option to have them rolled in sugar or coated in any one of a variety of yummy sauces.

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And, of course, you can’t go wrong with the hot dog coated in cheese.

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It was quite interesting … I expected them to be crunchy but I wasn’t prepared for the chewiness of the dough. Also the sugar topping was a great addition, despite how it sounds – the sweetness of the sugar balances perfectly with the saltiness of the hot dog.

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After a quick perusal of the grocery part of the store, and picking up a few essentials – sesame oil, Korean pancake mix, Korean BBQ sauce for grilling later (see below) and some ginger candies – I headed across the street to Cross Street Chicken and Beer for some after-shopping sustenance.

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There was a short wait … but it was worth it.

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I tried the soy garlic wings and the spicy corn poppers, plus a nice flight of IPA beers. I usually drink IPAs, but the beers here were specifically selected to complement the chicken and other dishes.

This place is a gem.

I kept the party going when I got home …I smoked some chicken legs and pork belly using that Korean BBQ sauce …

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… and I used smoked meats, that oniony kimchi fried rice, plus homemade sticky rice and savory Korean pancakes, as my meal prep for the week.

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Mardi Gras and ShamROCK

Being a food blogger and influencer is a great gig in San Diego! Almost weekly there are amazing events for foodies, from tasting tours to brewery fairs to block parties.

Coming up on the 16th of March, there will be an amazing ShamROCK St. Patrick’s Day block party in the Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego. Last weekend there was a 20-restaurant food and cocktails tasting tour in the Gaslamp for Mardi Gras. And we even got to preview both parties last Monday!

The preview party was a three-stop tasting party; it started at the Dive, where we sampled banana whiskey and banana whiskey mules …

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.. then we moved on to the Smoking Gun, where we sampled Hurricane cocktails and these AAAHHHHmazing lemon pepper chicken drummettes.

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I think these may be the tastiest chicken legs I have ever had in my life (and that is  BOLD STATEMENT). They are topped with a housemade ranch dressing and a spicy, herby wing sauce.

Unfortunately, on the actual date of the Mardi Gras party, I planned to hit the Smoking Gun last, but they were out of chicken by the time I arrived. It was brutal. Luckily I managed to distract myself with lots of beads and posing for pictures with my friends.

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I told you this was brutal.

The preview party finished up with a fabulous whiskey and green beer-tasting at the Field … who also participated in the Mardi Gras tasting with this spicy and creative (but definitely not gumbo) “Irish Style Gumbo.”

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It wasn’t bad, but it would never fly in NOLA.

I think my favorite food item from the Mardi Gras tasting (since I was denied another chicken leg) was the blueberry and brie waffle from Brian’s 24. It was my first time at Brian’s, and I loved the waffle (not too sweet, and the brie was whipped and blended with the cream cheese) as well as the ’57 Chevy cocktail they were making fresh at the bar.

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Speaking of cocktails, Ambrose whiskey was a major sponsor, so almost all of the establishments participating in the tasting tour offered some sort of cocktail made with Ambrose banana whiskey. I am a huge fan of whiskey and whiskey mules, but I did not care for the banana flavor.

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I understand from the company rep that they hired a chemist or scientist to find out a way to make whiskey taste like bananas, yet only use natural ingredients. I am glad they managed to do this without anything artificial … but, why? You really hired a guy just to find a way to make whiskey taste bad? What did it ever do to you?

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Anyway, I will have to find a way to make a boozy banana shake or bananas foster to use this whiskey.

Obviously, since it was a Mardi Gras themed tasting tour, there was a lot of jambalaya, gumbo, and Cajun-spiced dishes. Among the best were the chicken and andouille sausage jambalaya (with a Hurricane) at Suckerfree:

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… or the Southern shrimp n grits from Tin Roof:

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… or the Cajun mac and cheese from Henry’s Pub:

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… and the chicken and sausage gumbo (and martinis) at the Dive:

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There were also some amazing fish dishes, like the ceviche (and jungle juice cocktail) from the Rockin Baja Lobster:

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… as well as this amazing ceviche de pescado and seco de res (rice dish) from Machu Piccu.

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This is the second time I have been to Machu Piccu for a tasting tour, and it is very tasty. The service is wonderful, too.

Are you psyched for the ShamROCK party yet? I will be giving away a pair of tickets to the greenest party of the year in the next week, so check back soon!

 

 

Toast of Gaslamp 2018

The holiday season got kicked off right here in downtown San Diego last weekend … most of the tasting walking tours you generally get tickets to in this town are small bites of food only, and the Toast of Gaslamp is one of the few where you get food AND cocktails.

I went to the event (after giving away a pair on my Instagram page) with an awesome foodie friend, because of course you need an awesome foodie friend for an event like this one. Luckily, most of the participating restaurants were on Fifth Avenue or very close.

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First, we were all supposed to dress in festive holiday outfits. In contrast to the previous few days when the weather was FREEZING (read: San Diego “freezing,” which is about 40 degrees), Saturday was sunny and warm. Definitely the weather you want when you are doing a walking tour, but not when you’re wearing festive winter hats.

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So, this cute ensemble didn’t last long. (By the way, these gorgeous purple couches are at Side Bar downtown, where we also enjoyed a lovely taste of a cauliflower tempura dish.)

I think my only complaint about this event (other than the weather, which is hardly anyone’s fault), is that the tasting ticket all the participants were given also said what the tastes and sips were, and some of them turned out to not be correct.

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For example, the first entry, American Junkie, supposedly offered chipotle bacon mac and cheese with BBQ pulled pork garnish (!!) and crispy rock shrimp. The mac and cheese unfortunately was not really there, but the shrimp with sweet aji Amarillo sauce was delicious, as was the watermelon mule.

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Because it was a holiday theme, lots of the food samples offered were sweets, like this gingerbread spread on plain bagels at Spill the Beans

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Or these delicious New Orleans-style beignets at The Dive

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I think one of my favorites was the chicken and waffle bite at Tin Roof, although their “Yule Mule” was a little too sweet for me.

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Although most of the non-dessert food samples turned out to be some sort of ceviche — luckily, all of them were quite delicious, especially the shrimp ceviche from Bar Vie and the house ceviche from Machu Picchu — there was also some ultra-smoky pulled pork and coleslaw from Gaslamp BBQ

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Stay tuned for more next year! 

Smoke a (meat) fatty this weekend

There are a million amazing things you can make in a smoker, mostly involving meat. It’s a time-honored tradition now to coat a nice piece of protein in a spicy dry rub, perhaps inject it with some moisturizing, tenderizing marinade, and slow-smoke it over low heat for hours until the meat has reached perfection.

That’s one way to do it.

Another way take a little bit more hands-on work, but it’s an amazing smoked dinner that you can have on the table in half of the time it takes for your average brisket or pastrami or beer-can-chicken. One of the best things about smoked meats is that it takes very little work prior to smoking … you generally coat and/or inject your meat (as per above) and then the next few hours is hands-off, and you can enjoy a few beers while your meat cooks itself. A fatty takes a few additional minutes of prep time, but then you only need half of the smoking time.

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In a nutshell, you make a fatty with three main ingredients: 1) bacon; 2) ground meat; and 3) a stuffing of some sort. I have seen breakfast fatties with eggs inside; a Big Mac fatty stuffed with pickles and special sauce; and all sorts of other variations stuffed with mushrooms, cheese, vegetables, sauces … you name it.

This Thanksgiving, I decided to create two different Thanksgiving Fatties, both made using ground turkey, one stuffed with homemade cornbread stuffing and the other with some super-cheesy homemade mac and cheese. I think the mac and cheese version was better, mostly because (as you can imagine) the stuffing dried out the finished product — just slightly, but it was definitely dry. That isn’t to say not to make it, but just make sure you serve it with extra gravy.

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Mac and cheese on the top rack; mac and cheese-stuffed fatty on the bottom.

The mac and cheese version  -especially because my homemade cheese sauce tends to be extra saucy and cheesy – was very moist and flavorful. (See the end of this post for my homemade mac and cheese recipe!)

The procedure itself is very simple:

Step 1, make a bacon weave over a piece of plastic wrap:

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Step 2, cover the bacon weave with ground meat (make sure it is seasoned well):

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Step 3, add whatever stuffing you are using (this is the cornbread stuffing):

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and Step 4, roll and smoke.

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I smoked mine for about 3 hours over wood chips at approx. 300 degrees. The rack I used is actually for grilling vegetables, but it isn’t really necessary; it works just as well to use a bit of aluminum foil.

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As promised, here is my recipe for the most amazing homemade mac and cheese you will ever have:

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Starbright’s Kitchen Homemade Three-Cheese Smoked Mac and Cheese

  • 1 1-lb box of macaroni noodles, cooked to package directions
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup chicken broth (* or use vegetable broth to keep it vegetarian)
  • 2 tbsp. flour
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1 cup grated Asiago cheese
  • 1 pinch nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • salt and pepper
  • panko crumbs or cooked bacon for topping (optional)

First prepare a white sauce by mixing butter and flour over low heat, then SLOWLY whisking in milk and stock. Once the mixture has become a thick sauce, add the cheese and spices.

Simmer for an additional 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until the sauce is thick and creamy. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary.

Add the cooked noodles and mix completely. Add any optional toppings. Transfer to smoker-safe dish and smoke for 2-3 hours over low heat.

Happy smoking!