I haven’t posted much lately – nothing here, and far less on social media than I usually do – but, then again, I haven’t done much, either. I basically realized that, on my social security income, I cannot afford the full-time RV travelling life. I have help from friends and family, but the road isn’t cheap. I decided that the holiday season would be the perfect time to shack up with the family who always says they miss me.
I finally got my bone scan done in San Diego in mid-October, after spending a couple of weeks at my brother’s house in Ventura; getting to know the family a little better and spending time with Janis. I hit the road right away, spending only one night at my Dad’s in San Bernardino, and heading north to Las Vegas, then east to the Four Corners and south again to my sister’s in Houston.
It was a fairly uneventful trip east, because I didn’t have the money to stay at a fancy Harvest Host or campground, plus I was in areas that didn’t have much. I say “fairly,” because the morning that I was almost at my sister’s, my refrigerator stopped working.
I thought I could make it to Houston, but it was close – I literally had just texted my sister, telling her I was ten minutes away – the engine died literally as I was pulling off of the freeway. It was brutal; I was in a three-lane exit ramp during rush hour, and it was a really, really bad time to discover that my hazard lights also didn’t work. My sister’s boyfriend was perched on the rear bumper for a good 45 minutes, directing traffic away from Dolly, until we were able to punch the gas and get to a parking lot nearby.
I finally got Dolly towed to my sister’s house, not even a few miles away, and tried to find a good mechanic. Between the confusion about how to get it fixed – RV techs won’t look at the engine, and mechanics won’t work on a RV right off the bat – that was way more of an ordeal than I anticipated. It took weeks to find a tech to come look at it, and then afterwards, my fridge still didn’t cool anything even though the motor was now running. My lights worked, and my engine started, but I had no idea why it broke down again, seemingly for the same reasons.
My stepdad has been saying since Dolly started doing this same thing while breaking down that it was the ignition coil. I was able to get one and get a local mobile mechanic in Houston to install it, and by that time I had been in Houston for nearly a month.
Of course, I made the best out of being “stuck” in a great city like Houston.
My sister has lived in Houston for a few years now, in a super cute neighborhood near their Produce District. Every year the neighborhood association puts on a Dia de Los Muertos festival in their local park, and my sister is a huge part of the planning and organization. This year, for once, I got to be there to experience it.
It was pretty spectacular. The costumes and decorations were brilliant, and the food was amazing. I had churros and tacos and beer and I watched beautiful dancing and met all of my sister’s neighbors and friends.
My sister and her boyfriend have undergone a total diet and lifestyle transformation this year, cutting out all alcohol, most sugar (except for natural sugars in berries and whatnot), most fats (except for the healthiest avocados, etc.), and most carbs but the most complex and healthy. I’m so proud of them for the transformations they have made. Most of our meals consisted of lean meats, roasted or low-oil-sauteed veggies, an ancient grain or two, and very little, if any, sugar.
This was our Thanksgiving dinner: lean turkey breast, a root vegetable mash, roasted acorn squash with an ancient grain stuffing, a tabouli-type salad with fresh herbs, low-fat feta, pomegranate seeds and more. The red stuff is a faked-out cranberry sauce I made with hibiscus and apple. Everything was really delicious, and it was fun to try new healthy variations on some favorites.
Of course, I also took advantage of the amazing food scene and ate out a bit as well.
Houston is rightfully known as a great foodie town and is one of the most diverse cities anywhere. In addition to being right next to Mexico and Louisiana (so Mexican and Cajun food is off the hook); there are huge Thai, Vietnamese, and Arab communities, so the ethnic food of every type is great everywhere.
I had some really incredible food, just within walking distance of my sister’s house. There is an amazing Thai street food place, where I had delicious curry, Tom Ka Gai soup, and chicken appetizers, not even a half mile away.
A few blocks in the other direction is a famous Mexican joint, Teotihuacan Cafe.
Down another street, towards the farmers market that is the heart of the Produce District, and on the way to a street corner with a taco shop, a famous Mexican bakery, and a spice store, there is an amazing cheese shop with free samples. I had a blast walking around.
While I was there, a fan of my Instagram page contacted me about Hugs and Donuts and encouraged me to check it out. I got an amazing boudin kolache and a cherry chocolate shortbread donut. Magnificent.
Of course, it wasn’t all in one neighborhood. I met up with one of my old friends from college, who treated me to a super fancy and decadent dinner at Caracol, an elaborate Mexican restaurant in the fancy tourist part of town. I had some amazing oysters, wood-grilled with cheese, chipotle butter and breadcrumbs, and enjoyed a great evening with an old friend.
As you can see, I had a fabulous time eating my way around town. But just as often, I was chilling at my sister’s house, playing with her sweet kitties (especially the luscious Nerms, below).
I was there for weeks, and while I had many good days, where I felt great walking all around the neighborhood, I think I had just as many low-energy, not-so-good days. It’s been like that for a while, now that I think about it; but I am trying to focus on the good days and enjoy life as much as I can. That’s the whole reason I am on this trip, anyway!
So, after a month, and a new ignition coil, I hit the road for 2-3 days to my mom’s house in east Tennessee. All I wanted was an uneventful and safe trip, and I got it.
The first night was in Louisiana, where breakfast was a boudin ball from a gas station. If you’re not familiar, the best food in most parts of the south is at gas stations. Food desert doesn’t even begin to describe some of these areas.
I stopped the next night in Mississippi, then in Alabama (both at truck stops just to make it easier and cheaper), then I was, miraculously, without incident, at my mom’s house in the Smokies. I hadn’t realized how anxious I was about the engine dying, or something crazy happening, until I finally got out of the RV and hugged my mom, and realized I was really, really there.
Not long after I got here, there were major tornadoes and thunderstorms across Tennessee and Kentucky, but luckily they were far from us. We got a few menacing-looking clouds, but nothing too serious.
I have spent most of my time relaxing, cooking, and doing artwork.
I used to do oil painting as a kid and it was a lot of fun. I know my mom was disappointed that I kind of stopped doing art as an adult (except for cooking and some needlework stuff), but really I think it was because my apartment was too small to do a lot of projects.
Regardless, I got the chance to make up for lost time, doing some paint-by-number coloring and painting projects, as well as painting a big empty wall in the basement.
Before (above) and After (below). And, yes, I used the magical hula hoop I got from Raiye at Rabid Brewing in Chicago.
During the drive to my sister’s, headed east through Arizona and New Mexico, I started to feel tiny pains in my left wrist. By the time I had been at in Houston for a couple of weeks, I had a lump on my wristbone that was freaking me out, so I started wearing a wrist brace to prevent any potential damage. I called my doctor, who basically said he couldn’t do anything until I came back.
After a couple of weeks in Tennessee, I ran out of CBDs at the same time that I weaned myself off of Baclofen, a back-spasm-reducing drug that I had been taking for way longer than the recommended time due to my back pain. It was bad timing, for sure. I was in so much pain that I was ready to cut short my time in Tennessee and go back to San Diego right away.
Luckily, I got a hookup on some good CBD capsules, and within days my pain was much better and more manageable. My mom briefly planned to come back with me, but she has her own health issues to take care of, so she will hopefully get to join me in California sooner rather than later.
We had a really lovely, but small, New Year’s celebration, complete with a huge party cheese plate and spread …
and, of course, some black-eyed peas with greens and cornbread for good luck on New Year’s day.
As I sit here now, finishing this post, I am planning to leave tomorrow from my mom’s house, head straight south through Alabama to Interstate 10, then straight west, as far south as I can be, until we get back to San Diego. Of course, I will stop to see my sister in Houston again on my way. I have an appointment with Dr. Vlad on January 21 already, so if I am back earlier, I will try to see him to check out my wrist.
It’s been a wonderful and relaxing couple of months with family, but the weather out here is too cold.
I can’t wait to get back to the beach!
Follow me on social media for updates, and I’ll see you all out there on the road!
What an incredible time this adventure has been so far! This has been everything I could have hoped for.
After I left my mom’s house in east Tennessee, I went straight north to Virginia.
Of course, barely a week after there had been freezing rain, it was in the high 80s with insane humidity. Southwestern Virginia is really beautiful, although the landscape is pretty much the same as Tennessee.
I visited a cool monument to Booker T. Washington outside of Roanoke, and camped that night at a state park. Smith Mountain Lake State Park is one where locals go to fish and boat all year long, but I was only there for one night. I met a few people, I enjoyed the air conditioning in my RV (that sweltering Virginia humidity is no joke), and when the sun went down I built a campfire.
I have been full-time in my RV since Halloween (except for a couple of weeks at my mom’s house over the holidays), and I have never stayed a single night in an RV park. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen an RV park that looked like a cool place to hang out. Most are full of kids, which I do not care for, and very few are cheaper than a county or state park. Plus, who would you rather give your money to, a parks agency that just got another round of budget cuts, who offers a safe and fun and cool place to camp; or an RV park full of screaming kids? Seems like an easy choice to me.
Other than a few parks and a few friends’ houses, I stayed at a bunch of Harvest Hosts. If you are new to this blog, you may not know about HH … they’re for RV owners; you pay a set annual fee (less than $100 unless you’re premium) and you can stay at several thousand hosts across the country.
Some are wineries (hence the name), some are farms or distilleries or golf courses, and some are just places of interest, like a museum or an inn or a cool store. It is also requested that you support your host by buying whatever they have for sale (a bottle of wine or a tee time, etc.), so you get the extra benefit of supporting a small business in a pandemic as well. My second night in Virginia was at Hubs, a Harvest Host that is a company store for a peanut farm — so as you can imagine, I walked out of there with a few peanuts.
I also feel like I did a great job of sticking with Harvest Hosts that were on-brand for that region. As you’ll see later, I stayed at a dairy farm in Iowa, a cranberry bog in Cape Cod … and in Maryland, I was at a crab restaurant.
Ocean Odyssey was amazing. No frills or anything fancy, but the crab was so flavorful and so well-prepared, I can’t even describe it. I had my crab cake pan-fried (as opposed to deep-fried, upon the recommendation of my server), which was almost all crab meat and spices, very little breading, and served with an array of sauces, including an impeccable homemade tartar sauce. I also got a cheesy crab dip.
And although it was rainy and windy that night, it was a really nice evening.
(I try to take a picture of my view from my camper door from most, if not all, of the places I stay.) The eastern shore is really amazing in terms of beauty, wildlife, and history. Within walking distance of my camping spot at Ocean Odyssey is a river port with a visitor’s center, artwork and murals, and beautiful views.
The eastern shore is also where Harriet Tubman lived and helped rescue thousands from slavery. There is a really cool museum and learning center nearby. I really wanted to get one of these as a hood ornament for Dolly.
I also thought the Chesapeake Bay was super cool … I didn’t realize before that the bay was crossed by not a tunnel or a bridge but a series of bridges and tunnels that span dozens of miles over sandy beaches and the deep bay between Virginia and Maryland.
It was a really interesting drive that day, especially. Next time I do this trip, I am taking someone else with me (and washing my damn windows) so we can get a lot of (much better) photos.
I got my first Covid vaccine shot in April in San Diego, and I was eligible for my booster when I was going through the DC area, so I left Maryland early the next morning, I got my booster shot, and went to my next Harvest Host. I wanted to spend some time in Washington DC, so I picked Port City Brewing in Alexandria, Virginia, which is actually accessible to downtown DC by subway. I planned to take an Uber into town and either take the Metro back or meet some friends.
It turned out, I did all of those things! After I parked Dolly at the brewery, I took an Uber to the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl, where I had an awesome half-smoke and some fries.
Then I took the Metro to the Smithsonian, because it was a gorgeous spring day and I had never seen the new MLK statue (the last time I was in DC was for a college internship in 1999). I think everyone in the DC area had the same brilliant idea as I did, since people were starting to get vaccinated, things were starting to open up on a limited basis, and it was just a fantastically gorgeous day.
I was really glad I carbed up at Ben’s, because I did a lot of walking that day around the Washington Monument and the mall.
I got to check a couple more national monuments and parks off of my list that day as well, so I think I earned this new sticker.
I also met up with a friend (she’s actually a sister-in-law of another friend, but we had only met online previously), and then ANOTHER friend from high school (who I literally had not seen since graduation) picked me up and took me back to the brewery where I was camping; so I was able to relax with her and have a couple of beers while we caught up.
I would say that it was an extremely eventful day, but most of my days on the east coast were similarly packed.
The next day I was off to Delaware, staying at another Harvest Host brewery called Midnight Oil Brewing.
This one had kombucha as well as beer, which I appreciated, and it wasn’t as crazy packed as the one in Alexandria had been. I even ordered some local Chinese food that was pretty awesome.
You know I will always find a way to eat well, even when traveling, but it’s hard sometimes to get good ethnic food on the road. I can always pretty much assume that pizza, BBQ, burgers, fried chicken, etc., will always be good if you go to a good restaurant; but Mexican, Thai, Indian, Chinese – anything ethnic – it’s best to get it on recommendation from a local instead of winging it.
Speaking of food …
The next day I was in Jersey, seeing my dear friend Nichelina for the first time since we got back from Dolly’s maiden voyage back in December. I parked at her house in Ocean City, New Jersey, and she took me to all the places and we ate all of the things.
But first, I went by myself to the Ocean City boardwalk. And it was abandoned.
Almost every shop closed. Almost no people.
I’ve never seen anything before in my life like a beach town that is closed for the season. This isn’t a thing we have on the west coast. I got myself a frozen custard (which was delish) and some souvenirs (because of course those stores were open, haha), and took a walk on the boardwalk, but it felt weird.
The next day, Nichelina took me to Philadelphia, so I was able to have the most incredible foodie day! Our first stop was the Reading Terminal Market, where they have tiny little booths of craft and artisanal foods. I got some Amish goat cheese and duck pate, as well as some fancy chocolate.
Because Nichelina drives like a crazy person, I got a literal whirlwind tour of Philly. I flew past the Love statue, the courthouse and the Liberty Bell. I managed to jump out of the car for thirty seconds or so to take a selfie in front of the Rocky statue.
Luckily they moved the Rocky statue so you don’t have to climb a bunch of stairs to get to it. I definitely would not have had time!
You may or may not know about the Cheesesteak Corner in Philly. It’s literally a street corner where two competing cheesesteak joints have been rivals for decades. Everyone in Philly has an opinion about Pat’s vs. Geno’s. Being a west coast girl, I did not have an opinion, but Nichelina insisted (in a characteristically quasi-violent way) that we were going to Pat’s or nothing.
So we went to Pat’s.
And I’m not mad about it; it was incredible. I learned how to order it properly so I didn’t look stupid, and it was delicious.
Next, we went to Termini Brothers, a century-old bakery known for handmade cannoli and other sweets. I got a cool video of the expert cannoli-stuffer filling it with one of three tasty fillings:
I was also told (by another friend from PA) to go to John’s for a roast pork sandwich, but John’s was closed due to being out of bread. I almost witnessed some acts of violence by other patrons when they realized they couldn’t get a sandwich, but Nichelina suggested that we go to Tony Luke’s instead for a roast pork. It was really amazing. The bread was soft and chewy, the pork was super tender and spicy, and the cheese was the perfect topper.
Then, because I guess we hadn’t eaten enough, we stopped for a slice at Lorenzo’s on the way out of Philly.
Even splitting everything halfway with Nichelina, I was more stuffed than I have ever been in my life. It was a rough night.
The next day, we went to Atlantic City, which was also closed for the season (it wasn’t quite Mother’s Day yet). I still think it’s weird and kinda eerie to be in a beach town – one with gambling and entertainment, no less – that is mostly closed and almost totally abandoned except for hardcore gamblers and locals.
I guess since it’s off-season they felt Ok about treating us like crap at the restaurant … the Gordon Ramsay spot inside of Caesar’s Palace was pretty much empty and the Buffalo Cauliflower was rad, but the service was just awful. It’s the first time I haven’t tipped over 20% since the pandemic started. It was especially a disappointment after hearing good things about the spot.
Most of New Jersey is wooded and then it’s the beach. Frankly, if you didn’t know Jersey was a blue state, you’d swear you were in the South – there are absurd liquor laws, weird one-way roads, and some rural homes that would be similar to ones found in Mississippi or Louisiana.
I got to meet up with two different friends of mine from college, to show them around Dolly and catch up for a few minutes. This lady was my editor on the student newspaper in college for two years and we haven’t seen each other for at least 3 years.
Seeing old friends – some for the first time in decades – has been one of the best parts of this adventure. And they love seeing Dolly!
Next, I went north to Long Island, but from Jersey I had to go through New York City. This would not have been as strange or anxiety-producing or crazy if I had been in a normal-sized car, but NYC has a lot of bridges that are old and cross over major expressways, so for example if your vehicle is over 10 feet in height, you can’t go down certain streets. Dolly is about 11 feet and 5-6 inches, so I go with 11’7″ to be safe.
Of course, they can’t just have a sign that says a low bridge is ahead, that would be too easy. I saw a flashing sign on the side of the road that said “you are over height, exit now.” This was the third or fourth time I had had to jump off of the expressway, and rush hour in New York isn’t the best time to do that. So I ended up pulling over and downloading a new app specifically for RVs and trucks so I could take a route that didn’t knock Dolly’s block off.
Between a new route and all of the stops, my three-hour drive became almost 7, so I was glad for a quiet parking lot outside of a bagel shop that night. The Bagel Cafe was another Harvest Host, and one I thought would be cool for the full Long Island experience.
As I said, it seemed like the landscape didn’t change much from Tennessee all the way up through the eastern shore and Virginia to Jersey. All the trees and highways look the same until you’re at the shore. The architecture changes a lot, though … you go quickly from the Appalachian-style brick farmhouses to the clapboard, New England-style farmhouses.
Then, when you really get to New England, everything looks different.
I stuck to the expressways, mostly because they were the only roads recommended by my new driving app. I’m pretty sure all of the other roads had too many low bridges and quaint little hairpin turns for my RV to pass over safely, so it told me to stay on the big, main roads. The only weird thing about that is, at least in the spring, you can drive down the expressway and all you see on the side of the road are trees. Tons of trees. Every color. Some bare ones but just miles and miles of trees. And there are signs on the road telling you that there are restaurants and hotels and gas stations and cities if you exit here, but you can’t see any of it from the road. It’s pretty surreal.
Then, you’ll be driving down the road enjoying all of the various shades of all of these trees and gardens and farms, and all of a sudden, BOOM. PINK. Dogwoods in bloom in every shade of pink, including some I had previously thought couldnt occur in nature. It was really magnificent. I am so glad I managed to pick the perfect time to be on the east coast – not too crowded, not too hot, not too cold. Next time I just need to spend more time there.
I have a few friends in Massachusetts and Rhode Island – two states, which, let’s face it, should just be the same damn state. I will never again be impressed when someone refers to anything as “the size of Rhode Island,” because it is very, very small. I am used to living in a big state, which means when you say something like “I am crossing state lines,” it means something. In New England everything is so small it makes it seem farther away than it really is. In one day, I drove through Connecticut and Massachusetts, then through Rhode Island and into Massachusetts again. And I barely drove three hours. It takes some getting used to.
I visited Cape Cod, which was really beautiful.
I had a lobster roll and camped at a Harvest Host that’s an actual cranberry bog, so I definitely got the full immersive experience. The bog wasn’t blooming any berries at the time, but as you can see the weather was perfect.
I got to stop the next night to see some friends in Easthampton – we used to be neighbors in Ocean Beach and now they’re married with a 7-year-old kid, so it was a really great visit.
After a fun night, we went to a beautifully fragrant apple and peach orchard/ sculpture garden nearby, which was super awesome …
… then on the way back we spotted some roadside asparagus, so I couldn’t resist. It was some really delicious asparagus, too.
Honor system, side of the road.
After that I had to head west, but it took a whole day of driving just to get through the Catskills and the Hudson River valley to eastern Pennsylvania.
Normally I don’t drive more than 5 hours if I can help it, but this was just under 6 hours … and it was spectacularly beautiful.
I headed to a Harvest Host called Stone Lake Inn, an adorably quaint winery and inn that’s also used as a wedding venue, etc. The wine was not the best, but the staff was very kind and the scenery was unbeatable.
Pennsylvania is a big state so it took a while to get through it. The next night I was in western Pennsylvania, at a farm near the continental divide. I was given the option of parking near a barn with the other equipment, or at the top of a (kinda muddy) hill where they usually grow sunflowers. I guess you know which one I picked.
I got Dolly’s undercarriage a bit dirty, but had some amazing views all night and the next morning at the top of this hill.
The next day I drove through the rest of Pennsylvania, the tiny sliver of West Virginia (I think it’s like 17 miles) that sticks up in between Ohio and Pennsylvania, and into Ohio.
I made it most of the way through the state, to Miamisburg, aka Star City (read here to find out how it got that cool name), and to a Harvest Host called Star City Brewing.
I really loved this town, and not just because of all the stars.
The people were super friendly, the beer was really good, and there were great restaurants. I parked Dolly at the brewing company and went down the street for some BBQ, then came back for a couple of beers. I met some really fun people (again, the mask mandates were starting to ease as more people go vaccinated, so it was especially cool to be drinking at a bar with people).
Stay tuned for the next leg of this trip, where I make it the rest of the way through the Midwest and western states back to California. There’s a lot more to tell! And don’t forget to follow along on social media!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’ve basically been on the beach all week… parking at various friends’ homes at night and sitting at the beach all day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Albondigas (meatball soup)
There are four soups that are on the permanent, daily menu – Creamy Black Bean, Chicken Tortilla, Albondigas, and Chicken Pozole.
Green chicken pozole
There is menudo every weekend.
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.
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.
I mean, right?! And this is just the soup list.
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!
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.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about their sauces.
Every item on the menu can be topped with one of their handmade and super-authentic spicy sauces.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
one jalapeno pepper, minced (optional)
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.
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.
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.
So, for our homemade Mexican food night, I subbed my usual whiskey mule for a big tequila mule.
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.
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 …
.. then we moved on to the Smoking Gun, where we sampled Hurricane cocktails and these AAAHHHHmazing lemon pepper chicken drummettes.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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:
… or the Southern shrimp n grits from Tin Roof:
… or the Cajun mac and cheese from Henry’s Pub:
… and the chicken and sausage gumbo (and martinis) at the Dive:
There were also some amazing fish dishes, like the ceviche (and jungle juice cocktail) from the Rockin Baja Lobster:
… as well as this amazing ceviche de pescado and seco de res (rice dish) from Machu Piccu.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
Or these delicious New Orleans-style beignets at The Dive…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Step 2, cover the bacon weave with ground meat (make sure it is seasoned well):
Step 3, add whatever stuffing you are using (this is the cornbread stuffing):
and Step 4, roll and smoke.
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.
As promised, here is my recipe for the most amazing homemade mac and cheese you will ever have:
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.
This past Saturday, October 20, I and the rest of the Starbright’s Kitchen team joined up to have fun and support a great cause. The Fit Foodie Festival and 5k features a fun run (or walk) around Liberty Station, then ends with a free beergarden … and it’s all to help out an awesome charity called No Kid Hungry.
I trained for a few weeks to get ready for this weekend, and I picked up my bib the night before the race at Soda & Swine.
(P.S., if you’ve never been to S&S, you should check it out. Their scotch eggs are ALMOST as good as mine.)
First thing in the morning, my friends and I posed for a few pre-race photos and did a nice warmup …
And a few fun photos:
… and although we didn’t run, we kept up a great pace the whole time.
Hatch Chiles are truly a marketing marvel of modern times. Typically, from around the beginning of August through the end of September, you will see many of your local stores featuring the mild New Mexican chile pepper, and many of them will offer free roasting as well.
I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a “Hatch bag” from the Lazy Acres Natural Market in Mission Hills (on Washington Street, if you’re in San Diego). It’s a wonderful natural foods market, and they make a ton of their own products. I was given a bag not just of the chili peppers themselves, but a plethora of items made with Hatch chiles.
That’s pie, cornbread, wine, crackers, cheese, cream cheese, beef patties, orange juice, guacamole, cream cheese, fiesta mix, and of course, some Hatch chiles, both fresh and roasted. Wow! Who knew they even made Chile Wine? (Not me.)
The first thing I did was grate up some of that Hatch chili cheddar cheese, and I used it in my Sunday meal prep to spice up my breakfast casserole.
The recipe for the casserole is wicked simple: the crust/bottom layer is crumbled up biscuits, then cooked sausage with mushroom and onion, then scrambled egg mixed with a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Top with cheese and bake til done, like 30 minutes on 400 degrees.
Next, I used the Hatch chili cream cheese and the grated Hatch chile cheddar cheese, plus ranch dressing and chicken breast, to make this amazing little snack.
If you’re ever stuck needing a quick, easy, potluck dish, or just a regular appetizer or snack, this is for you. Simply mix the chicken (canned or fresh/cooked) with ranch and cream cheese, then top with grated cheese and bake until bubbly. This is a very versatile – the original recipe is buffalo sauce and regular cream cheese instead of Hatch-flavored cream cheese and cheddar cheese – and will be an instant crowd-pleaser.
I also used the spicy orange juice (I was too chicken to drink it) in my Instant Pot to make some delicious ribs … just cook the ribs (on their side, like pictured below) on a rack inside the pot, pressure cook on high pressure for 25-30 minutes (and natural release), and then finish off on the grill or under a broiler with your favorite BBQ sauce. You won’t be disappointed!
I also used the cornbread for a few dishes … it was a perfect accompaniment to the sweet taste of the Mississippi “Coke” Roast I also made in my Instant Pot.
Coke Roast is one of those recipes that sound really crazy when you read the ingredients, but you know it’s for real as soon as you taste it. This particular insanely easy and fast Instant Pot recipe is a pork loin (or beef chuck roast, but I think the pork is more tender), a can of Cola-Cola, a stick of butter, half a jar of pepperoncinis (with the juice), a packet of ranch dressing mix and a packet of au jus gravy mix. Pressure-cook for about 30 minutes with natural release, and serve over something spicy.
I used the Hatch chile cream cheese and cheddar cheese for variations on a few of my favorite recipes. In addition to the chicken-cheese dip, I also made one of my favorite side dishes with a spicy twist.
These onions are usually made with Asiago cheese … simply wrap a slice of bacon around a half an onion, then add broth, cream, and roast until tender. Then add a bunch of grated Asiago cheese on top. I followed this same recipe but added Hatch cheddar instead of Asiago. It doesn’t have the same funky Asiago flavor, but the spiciness certainly made up for it.
I think my favorite item in the bag was the delicious beef patties … they were clearly handmade, stuffed with cheese and lots of chunks of Hatch chiles, and the meat was very tender and fresh.
I served the burgers on cauliflower sandwich thins with ketchup, mustard and mayo, and topped it with some sautéed mushrooms and fresh Hatch guacamole from the Hatch bag.
It was EPIC.
What’s your favorite Hatch chile recipe? Let us know in the comments and your recipe might be selected for our Hatch feature next summer!