Part 8: How many wine countries can there be?

As I mentioned in my previous post, my friend Belinda is one of my oldest friends, and it was really a blast having even a short trip with her. We managed to fit a truly incredible amount of fun and food into a small amount of time!

After our incident with the snowy mountaintop, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the trip. Our first evening on the road had been at Giessinger Winery in Fillmore, where we enjoyed great wines as well as the quaint little town and the local farm-to-table bakery. (We also stayed at Giessinger on the way home, so see the end of this post for more about the lovely town of Fillmore.) The next night we were at the top of that precarious mountain, and we didn’t want anything like that anymore.

But we can always count on Harvest Hosts to be a good time, so we headed towards Lodi and planned to decide on a Harvest Host when we got there. We were supposed to meet a friend there, but he got delayed for a couple of days. So we headed slightly east, to the Somerset area, where there a ton of wineries, and several are Harvest Hosts. Since we had already stayed at a winery, we opted for the one guy in that area NOT growing grapes – the Windmill Creek Olive Oil Company.

(We needed olive oil anyway.)

It was really great to sample Windmill Creek’s olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and we got to pick up some awesome gifts for friends … or at least the ones who don’t drink wine. Then we headed to Lodi for a couple of days.

Like several areas around California, Lodi has rich farmland that has become a “wine country” — and as such, there are a bunch of wineries and farms that are Harvest Hosts as well.

As a kid in California, I always thought of “wine country” as Napa Valley. When I moved to San Diego as an adult, like everyone else, I got suckered into at least one birthday or wedding party in the nearby wine country of Temecula. I never realized how many “wine countries” there were, nor how organized they were. Lodi, Napa, Somerset, Livermore, Paso Robles … all of them had great wine associations and easy local signage that made it easy to taste and visit there.

Anyway, we didn’t want just wine, we are foodies as well. We really wanted to stay at the Spenker Family Farm that first evening, but we couldn’t confirm with the hosts in time. Luckily Viaggio was nearby and was beautiful.

Viaggio Estates is a spectacular winery and event/wedding center jut a few miles away from downtown Lodi. It was a little chilly outside, but we enjoyed the lovely grounds and the whole event center. It was a very peaceful and relaxed place to spend the night.

Wine tasting during a pandemic is unusual … there are rules against actually sitting or standing at the bar, or handing glasses back and forth. Some of the wineries insisted on plasticware for tasting or standing outside for your flight, but the best ones, like Viaggio, gave you a flight, glasses for the actual sampling, and extra munchies for the process.

In the cooler for the cheese and charcuterie, we noticed some Spenker Farms goat cheese – yes, it is literally a winery, a goat cheese farm, and a Harvest Host – so we had some amazing goat cheese, salami and crackers with our Viaggio wine! Around the same time, the Spenkers got back to me to confirm our stay for the next night, and we were so excited to hang out there and pet the goats who made the cheese we had just eaten.

So, for two nights in a row in Lodi, we sampled local wines and local goat cheese. It was incredible. The Spenkers gave us flights of their local wine as well as their homemade cheeses; paired perfectly. We ended up buying a ton of different cheeses — they had a soft chevre, a spicy aged cheese and a hickory-smoked gouda that was divine.

The Spenkers also make soap and lotion from their goat milk, so you know I got some of the all-natural goodness to take home!

We also got to meet up with someone important … my buddy Seth is a cannabis grower who produces high-quality CBDs for cancer patients and other people in need. He started helping me with CBD treatment years ago when I had breast cancer, and he has been a good (if only online, until now) friend since then. When I was re-diagnosed this past summer, and set up my GoFundMe to raise money for my adventure, he donated a ton of his own money, then started an auction to raise thousands of dollars more, by selling his own hybrid seeds! His company, Str8organics, does a lot of great things for the community, and he’s just a really awesome guy. He even bought us a lovely sushi dinner!

It was a blast to meet him in person and enjoy the best sushi and Japanese food in Lodi. If you want to support Str8organics’ mission, please click here and buy some merch!

The next night, we were scheduled to meet up (socially-distanced) with a friend who had just moved to Sacramento. We told him we would arrive at night, so we had all day to hang out and check out Sacramento. Neither Belinda nor I had ever really been to the area, so we checked out the internet for suggestions.

The first item was a three-hour downtown walking tour of the food and history of Sacramento.

Sold.

Like I mentioned last time, I could write a huge post on every aspect of this tour, Instead I will just give you the highlights.

The very first stop was Mayahuel, a Mexican restaurant that has a tequila museum; so, we could have spent all day there. Instead, we had 2 hours and 57 minutes left of a three-hour tour. Plus, I still had to drive an RV later, so Belinda took one for the team and drank my share.

At least the virgin cocktail was pretty.

As I said, you can spend a whole day just at Mayahuel, learning about tequila and mezcal and the history of Mexican food and Mexican-Americans in Sacramento. Most people don’t think of Sacramento as being the melting pot of cultures that it is, or the farm-to-table capital … at least, I didn’t. I was really pleasantly surprised by the beauty and culture and history of the whole area. In San Diego we tend to think we have a monopoly on California’s beauty sometimes.

We also got a sample of this amazing poblano crema soup. It was just enough to energize us for more walking. We continued down K Street, which the city has designated for public art and recognition of historic areas.

Although the tour took three hours, not all of it was walking around, and it was only a total of a few blocks. I was a little worried that a three-hour walk might be too much for me, but it was perfect. The second stop was the Allspicery, a lovely little spice store right next to the state capital building.

Because of Covid, we weren’t allowed to go inside or sample any spices, but we each got a custom blend of tea and seasoning spice mix, and I was allowed to kind of lean in the door to quickly take some photos without touching anything. But just being able to smell the cloud of sensory delight when the door opened was enough to keep us going.

The next stop – after a lot more art and history – was a Nashville hot fried chicken place, which I was looking forward to, especially after my recent trip to Hattie B’s. Nash & Proper used to be only a food truck, and got a brick and mortar store right before the pandemic hit. Luckily, they were well set up for takeout, and haven’t suffered as much as other businesses that weren’t able to adapt. And they still have a food truck schedule. The chicken sandwich was really good; although I have to say I have had better.

Then again, I am a food snob. Our next stop was the best of all.

The Odd Cookie is a bakery, a deli, and a bar. And it’s no joke. The owner and head chef is an art-loving, super-creative, whiskey-slangin, rock music-blaring, purple-haired GENIUS.

You know how sometimes, the fancier a cupcake or cookie is, the worse it tastes? When they pack all the fondant and paint and stuff, so it ends up tasting more like plastic than food? Yeah … this isn’t that.

Observe this brief video of the display cases:

As part of the food tour deal, I got to pick one, which ended up being one of the hardest decisions of my life. I picked the Great Balls of Fire (see below) … and we took a four-pack to my friend’s house for later, so I got to eat one of those banana ones as well!

If you’re ever in Sacramento for a day, I highly encourage you to check out the Local Roots food tours, and the Odd Cookie bakery. It was a day well spent.

That weekend was my friend Ali’s wedding anniversary, and we had yet to meet her husband (we hadn’t seen each other in about 10 years). We decided prior to arriving that the four of us would be headed out to the Calistoga area to celebrate their anniversary in some hot mineral baths. So after a night outside their house in Fair Oaks, we drove the short 2 hours to Calistoga, found a sweet hotel, and they checked in while we parked Dolly outside. It worked out really well, since Belinda and I got full use of the room, bathroom, and pool/spa area, but we could still camp in the RV and give our friends some wedded bliss privacy. Calistoga is still in the Napa wine valley, so it’s beautiful and lush, but it’s much less snobby and pretentious (or so we were told).

On our way north from San Diego, Belinda hadn’t been very picky about where we went or what we did; with three small exceptions: she wanted, when we visited Paso Robles, to visit a four-star Italian restaurant, and to taste wine at a winery that was one of our favorites, and, she wanted to have dinner at the Calistoga Inn. She offered to pay for my dinner at both locations, but that wasn’t why I agreed … Belinda is one of very few people whom I trust explicitly when it comes to food. Even if it’s something I wouldn’t normally want to try; if she tells me to, I will. If she says this restaurant is the place to eat; I’m there.

Of course, the Calistoga Inn needed no introduction. We ordered half bottles of wine and fresh, farm-to-table appetizers. But I stayed clear of it all because I knew that this yoooge ribeye was on its way!

Isn’t that glorious? I also splurged on dessert; I got a peanut butter chocolate pie, with a glass of the dessert port they recommended and a couple fingers of a glorious 18-year scotch. It made my tummy hurt a bit the next day, but it was worth it … I mean, I hadn’t had scotch in almost a year, but if you can’t enjoy a scotch when you’re having an epic meal in wine country, when can you?

On our way out of Calistoga the next day, we stopped at the California Old Faithful attraction, which was actually really nice.

It’s a private attraction (pretty much every landowner in the area has a mineral spring in their backyard) and they have these cute little pool cabanas and a petting zoo and garden to hang out at in between the eruptions, which happen every 45 minutes or so.

We finally had to begin heading south, so we went a short drive southeast to Livermore, yet another of California’s many wine countries and a very peaceful and nice town.

We camped at another Harvest Host, the Leisure Street winery, which had tons of lovely space to park and drink and walk around. There was a huge parking lot and lots of permanent campers who worked at a nearby electrical plant, so we got to meet some interesting people.

In a way, pandemic traveling makes you feel a lot more isolated from people, but that’s another great thing about Harvest Hosts. We got to meet lots of great people – hosts and other guests – at the socially-distanced wineries. Even better, we were able to support small businesses who need the money in these crazy times!

The next day we headed to my great-aunt’s house in Santa Cruz. I hadn’t seen Aunt Lesley in about 10 years, and I was looking forward to seeing her and to meeting my third cousin I had never met before. I initially parked on her street, a lovely tree-lined cul-de-sac smelling of eucalyptus, but after a quick (masked) hug, we insisted that I park in her driveway. As she was guiding me in, I didn’t notice (not did she) a piece of gutter sticking out from her carport at a weird angle. I didn’t see it until it was smashing through my window!

Belinda had a tiny cut, but other than that no one was hurt. The problem is that I have a $1k deductible and my RV is 25 years old. so finding a replacement piece of glass isn’t easy. As I write this, I am sitting in San Diego, recovering from this trip, and waiting to see a mechanic who can find us a replacement. It’s only the glass that’s broken, so if I am lucky (and I usually am), I can get a replacement from a junkyard for cheap. Worst case scenario, I need to get a custom-cut piece of tempered glass, which will be less than my deductible but still expensive.

That night Aunt Lesley took us to a lovely dinner at a scenic spot in Santa Cruz (check out the Crow’s Nest if you’re nearby), but I felt really bad about not seeing her for 10 years and then basically crashing into her house. I guess Dolly likes to make an entrance.

But we still had things to do. We still had two days planned in Paso Robles and another back in Fillmore before we headed back home, so we patched up the broken window and got the heck out of there!

First we went straight to Dark Star Cellars, a small but very cute winery on the outskirts of Paso Robles. They have a great tasting room, which I am sure is a lot of fun when it isn’t a pandemic, and their vintners are very educated about their wines. We had a great tasting and bought a couple of bottles, then cooked ourselves a great dinner and relaxed in the RV all night.

The next day, we knew we were going to throw down at this fancy Italian dinner Belinda kept talking about, so we decided to be productive early. Belinda gets to do a lot of her work remotely and had been working a couple of hours per day while we were stopped. So we emptied the dump tank (I am getting really good at it now) and filled Dolly up with water, then cleaned ourselves, and I did laundry while Belinda got some work done.

That afternoon, we checked into our Harvest Host (Tobin James cellars this time), and had a great tasting.

Pro tip: the back side of their tasting menu has the reserve bottles that they don’t sell at Costco. That stuff is way better than the mass-produced bottles!

We then took an Uber to Chronic Cellars, one of our favorite brands, This was literally the only winery that we stopped to drink at that wasn’t a Harvest Host. And while it isn’t technically mandatory to drink at the Harvest Host, the idea is to support the business while they let you camp for free.

But we had to go to Chronic .. as you can see, Belinda is the Ultimate Fangirl.

The Chronic Cellars wine is incredible, but I really love their designs and their labels.

We spent a pretty insane amount of money on merchandise, but it was worth it!

So. About this Italian restaurant. As I mentioned, Belinda hadn’t insisted on much, but this was one of the restaurants and spots she insisted upon. She said it was better Italian food than she had enjoyed while she was in Italy, and that I had to try it. And everywhere we went in Paso Robles, when we mentioned that we were headed to Il Cortile for dinner, the person we said it to got a dreamy look on their face, and then quietly mouthed the words “you’ll love it!”

We did not hold back. The first course was the antipasti … we got a beef carpaccio with parmesean sauce and shaved truffles. It was DIVINE.

I really could have left it there, but we kept going, We had lots of good bread and balsamic/oil for dipping, and we also ordered a polenta and poached egg antipasti dish. Then we (wisely) split a pasta dish, so we could each properly annihilate an entree. This is the pappardelle noodles with a wild boar ragu. Literally every bite (and you know it was washed down with some impeccable wine!) was perfect.

Belinda had opted for the Osso Bucco, since she had it there before and was in love with it. I had to go for the veal chop, and I was not disappointed. I think there was a little veggie or something in there, but wow, that shank.

It was epic.

Our last night on this trip was back in Fillmore. I picked that place because if you’re heading south, it is the last Harvest Host before Temecula. Also, it’s about 30 minutes from my brother’s house, so he came to hang out with us when we stayed there the first night, and the last night he came to take me to his house for my nephew’s birthday party. But I also went back there because we really loved the Giessinger Winery, and the area it’s in is fantastic.

The first time we stopped there, the server told us about an amazing bakery where we scored a bunch of yummy baked goods for the rest of our trip.

The winery is situated right in the historic downtown area, which is super adorable, and there is a (now-closed) railroad and historic railroad station. We were able to walk to get sushi the first night, and when we went back, we had some excellent Mexican food.

I am currently recuperating and getting Dolly fixed up, and I plan to be out in the desert for the majority of the month of March.

In April, I will be headed back east, and I plan to go to my mom’s and then to the east coast for a couple of weeks before I head back to San Diego again for more doctor’s visits in June.

Thank you for following my adventure! Please subscribe to get notifications of new blog posts. and please donate to my trip GoFundMe here.

Part 6: My First Solo RV Trip

I actually really love traveling alone. I know it stresses my family out, especially with my health issues – and I loved traveling with my good friend, especially for Dolly’s maiden voyage – but there is something about the peace and quiet and freedom of doing it yourself.

I left my mom’s house on January 13, and the first night I stayed in Cookeville, where my family has a farm (where I spent the night in the RV) and I got to see some old friends.

As I mentioned my parents (and other family members) were not crazy about me doing this trip by myself. I try to give them my ear when they are concerned, at least — to be fair, they basically are going along with this whole crazy idea of a bucket list road trip with minimal complaints so far — but I also think this is one of the safest ways to travel. My mom was particularly worried about crazy right-wing violence, after the riot at the Capitol on January 6. People were talking online about more trouble during the inauguration, and even rumors about the electrical grid.

I told them – and I believe – that if something did go down, the RV would be one of the best places for me to be. I could literally just pull off the road and use my generator, as well as my full kitchen and bathroom, and wait it out. I also planned to be in rural Texas and New Mexico on Inauguration Day, and that wasn’t likely to be a hub of activity. Plus, I am a grown woman and I am safe and smart.

I got this.

Anyway, one of those Cookeville friends has a husband who is a truck driver, who recommended a trailer repair guy who could look at the business with my electrical system. (Long story short, the battery was working but there was something stopping it from illuminating my camper.)

Like everything else that has gone wrong with this RV, it worries the hell out of me for a while, I research it and make myself crazier, then someone comes along and says “hey this wire is loose” and fixes it. They wouldn’t even take my money. I pray that everything on this RV is always so easy and cheap to fix (knocking wood and crossing my fingers).

So instead of worrying for days, it was fixed in minutes and I was on my way.

I spent a couple of days in Nashville, eating tons of good food…

… catching up with more old friends from high school and college…

… seeing old sights (that are totally different from back in the day) and new ones (like this street art):

I also got to go to Hattie B’s which is the new “Nashville Hot Chicken” place. I say that in quotation marks, because now that it has become a hashtag, it’s totally different.

Back when I was in college there (and, again, this was 1997-2001), there was a joint called Prince’s, which was the best hot chicken in town. It came on a scale of 1-10, and the 10 would do some damage. Back then, I didn’t even try the hot stuff, I got the not-hot-at-all kind.

Back then, Prince’s was in a part of town that, shall we say, was not frequented by white people very often, and it was run by an older black lady who was frankly kind of mean.

Hattie B’s is a hashtag. Hattie B’s has t-shirts. Hattie B’s lets you substitute your chicken if you taste it and find it to be too hot. The old lady at Prince’s did not let you do that. You made your choice, you live with it.

But Hattie B’s is also impeccable. The chicken – heat aside – was perfectly crispy and juicy. The sides were all perfect – perfectly seasoned greens, creamy potato salad. Don’t even get me started on this banana pudding.

But everything else in Nashville is so different. Prince’s was destroyed when someone drove a car into it; a new location opened with new owners but it wasn’t the same. The neighborhood where I lived as a teenager was completely razed and there were fancy condos and apartment homes there instead. I went looking for a BBQ joint I used to frequent when I was in college, hoping that it might still be be after all this time – not only was it nit open, but the whole strip mall it once housed was gone. Dang.

But that just leaves an opening for trying out more good new stuff, right?

I have been wanting to check out Slim ‘n’ Husky’s pizza since I heard about it – the founders are Tennessee State University alumni, like myself, and my foodie friends there always rave about it.

I got this meaty pizza, and some whiskey pecan cinnamon buns for the drive the next day.

I hit I-40 west with my road cinny buns, and I stopped at Samuel Bryant’s Distillery in Jackson, Tennessee.

You may recall when I first met Mr. Bryant on my first solo van journey (as opposed to this solo RV journey), he makes the Tennessee whiskey that you can’t call Tennessee whiskey, so it’s really “dark shine.” I picked up some boozy souvenirs for lucky people back in Cali.

On this trip, I have been intentionally, where possible, staying at state and/or local parks. Local governments are going through a harder time than usual, so every bit helps. It’s worth it to me to spend $20 or so to plug in for the night and have a water and sewer hookup, especially when it’s so cold, and that $20 goes a long way to keeping these places open and operational. Many parks have cheaper-than-normal winter rates as well.

Davis Lake campground, Tombigbee National Forest, Mississippi

The first night out of Tennessee (and of course, the weather was perfect) was in Mississippi, but I was only there for one night. For $20 cash, I got a lovely spot to camp next to a brilliant lake, and there were only three other campers in the whole park.

This is Davis Lake, in the Tombigbee national Forest in central Mississippi.

The next morning, I went to Louisiana, and stayed at Indian Creek Campground, another state park where we had already camped before in December. The weather was also perfect, and in fact the scenery wasn’t that different!

From southwestern Louisiana, it’s only four hours to my sister’s house in Houston, which is always good for a couple of days-long pit stop to wash clothes and sleep in a real bed and relax with family. I really wanted to get on the road to see more state parks and natural beauty before I got back to California, though, so I was only there for a couple of days.

When I arrived in Houston, I noticed that my driver’s side rear light was missing a cover, and I couldn’t get the replacement in time, so my sister ordered it to be delivered to Vegas when I would be there. In the meantime, from Houston to Vegas, my light looked like this:

Luckily I made it through several state parks, into a canyon, up several snowy mountains, and into Las Vegas and it held. And once I got to Vegas it was as good as new.

When I left my sister’s, the plan was to do three nights and two different Texas state parks. I had reserved a spot (you have to reserve everything online before you show up now) the first night at Lake Mineral Wells (about 4 hours from Houston) and two nights at Palo Duro, another 4-5 hours northwest.

I really loved both of them; and could have easily spent a week at either campsite. I will, in fact, try to do so on my way back to Tennessee in March or April. Lake Mineral Wells is a really fascinating park; the entrance to the campsite makes you drive past a dam that seemed to be on the verge of overflowing as I drove by. My actual campsite was next to the lake, and had a little fire pit and picnic area.

Again, I could have stayed for days. Luckily I got there right in time for a sunset, and the gloomy weather made a sweet rainbow.

This was the actual view from my campsite!

On my way to Lake Mineral Wells, I got a call from a lady at the Texas state parks department. She said the reservation I had made for two nights was cancelled due to a broken water main near the camping area. They could book me another campsite, but it would only be for one night instead of two. Plus, I had picked my site from photos on their website, and I was driving while I was speaking to her and obviously couldn’t look at the website, so I asked her to pick me a nice campsite that was open.

When I arrived, the park ranger informed me that I was in campsite number 16 … and that she loooooooved number 16; it was one of the best as far as beauty and hiking trail access. And she wasn’t wrong. Since my doctor doesn’t think hiking is good for my broken back, and I was only there for one night – albeit a long, winter night – I wasn’t going to be doing any hiking. But it was such a beautiful area!

Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the United States, and the campground is literally inside the canyon. My spot was right at thhe entrance to a hiking trail (as promised), and was nestled between two cliff faces. It was a full campground, but very peaceful.

Of course, it took longer than anticipated to get there, and it was only for one night now, so I didn’t have much time to check out the scenery. I had many more miles to go before I got to the beach!

Most of the time, I get up early and hit the road, usually because when the sun comes up, it’s hard for me to get back to sleep. Plus, when I am ready to go, I can do so quickly — another good thing about solo travel. I get up early, drive 4-5 hours, and then get to sleep early when I arrive at my destination.

For example, when I left Palo Duro early in the morning, I headed towards the Four Corners area. I have been through there before, and it’s a really beautiful and easy drive. It appeared to be around 5 hours from Amarillo, but I didn’t account for a) the time it took to get back up out of Palo Duro Canyon, and b) how long it took me to drive through New Mexico with all of the big mountains and high elevations (driving an RV always adds 20% on to your time estimate in the hills and mountains). That night I ended up sleeping at a truck stop/ casino in Indian country, maybe 100 miles southeast of the four corners area.

I prefer not to drive the RV at night in unfamiliar areas. It seems safer to me to be in a well-lit parking lot with other people (who never bothered me in the slightest) than to be on the road, trying to navigate poorly lit roads in the dark in winter.

In other words, I try to plan it that way – an easy for hours every day and a comfy and electrified place to park at night – but some nights, that just isn’t possible. Either way, it’s a fun time.

The next two nights weren’t much better. I headed west, further towards Vegas, and stopped in Page, Arizona. It was a really interesting drive: as I drove northwest, I was at such high elevation, I was practically in the clouds. About 40 miles from Page, the elevation drops, and the sky clears. Then as I come around a mountain and in sight of the Antelope Valley (just east of Page), it’s mid afternoon, the sun is throwing the most spectacular shadows on the cliffs and the rock faces, and … a power plant. Just a huge, ugly, gross, grey, shadowy power plant. They made no effort to blend it in with the landscape or anything, so I can only hope that means it does a lot of good. It sure isn’t pretty. It was jarring to see the difference.

Page is right next to Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, so the area is beautiful.

There were still stay-at-home restrictions in Arizona so the state parks were closed, and I looked around to see if any of the local RV parks were offering a one-night special or a winter deal; none were. I just spent the night at the Wal-Mart, and left early. Maybe I would have relaxed for a few hours if I had had electricity and water, but in a public lot there’s no reason to hang out.

Plus, this is the really scenic part of the drive. The weather was crazy; but the route to Vegas takes you on a stretch of road that zigzags between Arizona and Utah, and it’s really beautiful in any weather.

The trip from the middle of Arizona to Las Vegas was equally weird – the high elevation and storm clouds made for a really weird drive; on-again, off-again snow, sleet, rain, and beautiful clear skies. All in less than five hours. When I rolled off of the Las Vegas Strip, there was snow on my windshield. When I arrived at the Las Vegas National Golf Club, they were about to close due to weather (but thankfully allowed me to park there as we had arranged through the Harvest Host program).

I’m sure this is really fun when it’s not snowing.

So, I spent another cold and noisy night at a place off of a busy road (this time a golf club off the Strip instead of a Wal-Mart or truck stop), but it still felt good to be heading west.

I could tell I was on the west coast again, because I actually waned to eat Mexican food I generally do not eat taco shop food unless I am in San Diego, because I have been spoiled (and all other taco shops are gross).

But, one of my favorite San Diego/ Tijuana shops has a few Las Vegas locations, so some adobada fries (con todo y pina, unless you’re a savage) from Tacos El Gordo was dinner.

The next night, I was in California. I spent the night at my stepdad’s house in San Bernardino – actually I parked outside of his house and slept out there. This was a totally socially distanced visit because my stepdad and his wife are elderly and he has had some health problems in the last year. They’ve basically been quarantining for going on three years now; so they let me eat and do laundry inside, but I slept in the RV. Which is like, the reason I have it. This is the best way to quarantine travel! No need for motels or restaurants – I can get take-out and eat it right in my RV, or better yet, cook.

I basically jinxed myself by complaining to Tennessee people that I only encountered “weather” of any kind in Tennessee. Now I am getting it everywhere. There were clouds and rain all through Texas; there was snow and sleet through New Mexico and Arizona, and it’s even rainy and stormy in southern California!

But of course, stormy skies sometimes make for beautiful sunsets.

So, I am back in California. Yay!

In the next couple of weeks, I will have some medical scans and tests to see how my current medications are working. I plan to be at a local county park that offers camping, and I will be checking out the cheap/ free places to camp and boondock here in San Diego. I plan to go to Sacramento and the Bay Area in mid-February and head back to my mom’s in late March or early April.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Instagram, and if you are so inclined, please support my GoFundMe. All funds go directly to this trip – gas, repairs, and stuff for the RV.

See you out there on the road!

Part 2: The Southwest

I just completed part 2 of the best bucket list road trip ever. I learned a few things about camping in a van, about the quality of fast food, and I (re-)learned how much I love — and just enjoy being around — my family.

First things first, if for some reason you don’t follow me on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter (shame on you!), you probably have not been informed that my last scans, which I had in San Diego, looked really good!

Unfortunately, barring some sort of miracle, I don’t really have a lot to look forward to medically other than hoping the tumors don’t get bigger (hurting my bones more or breaking them) or spread elsewhere (a big concern especially for the lesions on my skull) — but that’s just what happened! All of the tumors either shrunk or stayed the same size, and luckily one of the big ones on my skull they were worried about, shrunk by like, a lot.

So it was the best news I could have hoped for.

After I left San Diego, I went to see my ex-stepdad in San Bernardino for an hour or so, then went on to my brother’s house in Oxnard (just north of Los Angeles).

Brotherhood

To make a very long story very short, my dad was married before he married my mom. I never knew the woman he married, or her son, my half-brother. For some reason, our father was adamant that my sister and I never meet our brother, and we never did … and after my parents divorced, our father showed us his true colors, and we moved on and didn’t think much about his side of the family at all.

A couple of years ago, on Facebook, I searched my half-brother’s name on a whim (his name was literally all I knew about him, after all), and found a guy who I thought was my brother. His name could have changed. But then, I looked at his photo, and let’s just say, I was sure we were related. Over the last two years, I started to get to know him and his wife, and it’s really been amazing. I even have a “new” niece and nephew.

Then, this diagnosis came.

I wasn’t going to get more time to get to enjoy the loving and fun relationship I just found, this extra side of my family I never knew existed. It’s a harsh realization.

But, we’re going to try to make up for that.

The plan was for me to meet up at his house in Oxnard, then drive through the southwest for a few days on our way to Houston to see our other sister. (It is becoming clear to me that I will basically be travelling between Tennessee and San Diego quite a bit, so I am happy to have my sister’s place in Houston as a sort-of-halfway point to rest.) The three of us hadn’t spent any time together at all except for right when I got out of the hospital, and I could barely move, then.

My brother and I changed our plans several times. First, we talked about going to Vegas and the Grand Canyon, then considered both traffic (at the canyon) and Covid-19 (in Vegas). Then, we talked about going to Dodge City, then quickly realized a) we didn’t have time to go that far east before heading to Houston in three days, and b) there is nothing to do in Dodge City. We were also trying to plot our route along where some cool Harvest Hosts places are, but many are closed for either the pandemic or the season.

We finally settled on driving in a general easterly direction, stopping briefly in Vegas for a quick photo shoot, then driving to Zion National Park instead of the Grand Canyon. We also wanted to go through New Mexico and see Roswell, and maybe Carlsbad Canyons. We had a general plan, but not an itinerary.

On the Road Again

My brother insisted on leaving his house at an ungodly hour, so I got to see the sunrise touched with a bit of smog and haze and wildfire smoke while he drove the van.

In Vegas, we took our obligatory sign photo …

… and I gave Trump hotel a little salute on behalf of those of us with pre-existing conditions.

But it was still morning, so we barely spent any time in Vegas. I lost $10 at the slot machines in Circus Circus, I washed my hands about 10 times, and then we were back on the road.

The real breathtaking views — like, it will literally take your breath away — were in Zion National Park.

Photos don’t even do it justice (although I will say, my iPhone 8 was taking some great shots!). Thank goodness for Teddy Roosevelt’s foresight to set aside and protect National Parks, because they are the most amazing places.

Zion has guided tours on a tram, but also a self-guided driving tour with a really cool windy road, which luckily has points where you can stop and take pictures.

It was really an incredible afternoon. We could have spent a week there exploring all of the mountains, trails and little villages nearby.

There was also a super-cool thing that you probably don’t know about if you’ve never been to Zion … but there is a weird hole in one of the mountains that looks man-made but might not be …

After wondering aloud what the heck that could be, my brother and I took the driveable trail that goes through one of the mountain tunnels. It was completed in 1930, so it’s wicked narrow and super dark, and of course has no electricity or infrastructure apart from the actual road and tunnel. It turns out, that hole in the mountain is a way to get light into the tunnel without electricity.

Brilliant.

If you’d like to hear my brother and I discover this in real time, check out this awesome POV video he took while driving through the tunnel . And be sure to follow and check out my brother’s theme park blog, Park Journey.

No More McDonald’s

On our way to Vegas from California, we stopped at McDonald’s somewhere in the desert. Mostly because it was the only place to stop. We were thinking about lunch at a diner near Yermo that apparently has awesome food and cool movie memorabilia, but it was kind of gross and empty when we arrived.

I basically used their ladies’ room, took this photo with a creepy Elvis, and left.

After our cruise through Zion National Park, we were planning to spend the night at a Harvest Hosts spot, a trading post in Navajo country almost at the Four Corners (of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado).

After a very long and very beautiful drive — which was surprisingly diverse, in my opinion (you expect the desert to only look a certain way, but in northern Arizona and New Mexico and southern Utah, you see an amazing variety of rocks, formations, mountains, flora, and even weather) — we came to the trading post, but it was very dark at night and there was no phone reception. It seemed a little too sketchy, so we kept driving to a small town in northwestern New Mexico to get a motel room for the night.

There is no food in the desert.

We arrived almost exactly at 10 p.m., but everything was closed. Everything except– wouldn’t you know it — the McDonald’s. My poor brother drove all around Farmington, New Mexico looking for any kind of food, but eventually went to the McDonald’s because that was all that was available. We ate enough to not be starving anymore, but then we both felt kind of gross.

The next day, it was time for something better.

We weren’t far from Santa Fe, and I had a good friend who has spent a lot of time there. We arrived just in time for lunch, and at her suggestion stopped in the center of town — the Plaza, as they call it.

We were excited for anything that didn’t come in a paper bag and have fries and a drink included. We found the Cowgirl BBQ restaurant, where (appropriately socially distanced) we had some amazing drinks and spicy food.

New Mexico is famous for its chiles, and I ordered their Smoked Chicken Short Stack, which was a stack of blue corn tortillas layered with smoked chicken, then topped with chile sauce.

I got it Christmas style, or red and green together. It was … definitely spicy. The chicken had an amazing smoked flavor and the tortillas were nice and fresh.

We hit the road again, headed to Roswell, then to Carlsbad Caverns. Halfway between the two was another Harvest Hosts stop, this time a winery. When I called them ahead of time to let them know we were coming, they informed us that it was lasagna night, so in addition to a place to camp, we could taste some wine and have a nice dinner. It was like we almost could get over having nothing but fast food the day before.

Roswell is … interesting. I expected that some of the town would be trying to bank on the weird alien landing story, but wow.

The sign for the Dunkin’ Donuts had an alien holding it up.

The gas station had green moonmen waving you in to the car wash.

The street signs look like this:

WE GET IT. THERE ARE ALIENS.

The UFO Museum was very cool, complete with full replicas…

… of the alien autopsy and other parts of the legendary story of the Roswell alien landing.

Honestly, some of it was more than a little creepy.

I will say that the UFO Museum, at least, took social distancing and Covid precautions very seriously. Everyone was masked, there was a machine at the door that took your temperature, and there was a strict 6-feet distancing policy.

I kind of wanted to just get out of there before someone offered me an alien-shaped burger or something. Plus, I had lasagna to eat. We had to get on the road to the Balzano Family Winery so we could have dinner and some wine before it got dark.

Success!

This is a really great Harvest Hosts spot. If you aren’t familiar with Harvest Hosts, it is an RV owners’ program wherein you pay an annual fee, and you can park your rig (or converted cargo van as it were) for free at various locations. Most of them are farms, breweries, distilleries, wineries and attractions, but you can also expand your membership to golf courses.

Anyway, we set up the van (electric hookups are always a plus), then went to their lovely garden area for dinner. It’s not a restaurant, but a winery and gift shop, and apparently they also have dinner nights.

We stumbled luckily upon lasagna night, and we ordered a bottle of the Montepulciano to wash it down.

The pecan pie was also slammin’.

It was very, very nice.

In the morning, we rose with the sun, and took a few photos of the lovely sunrise over the desert.

Then it was on to Carlsbad Caverns. This is where we got really lucky.

For the most part, 2020 was one of the worst times to decide to take a nationwide road trip. Unfortunately, my clock is ticking, so I have to hit the road, pandemic or no. But half of the cool places to visit are closed or irreparably affected.

Others, like Carlsbad Caverns, are better.

We checked the website before we arrived (a MUST when traveling anywhere these days), and it advised to come early, because they often sell out of tickets before 9 a.m.

The visitor center and gift shop is awesome.

They only allow people to visit the cave a few at a time. We got a ticket for one of the first tour groups (8:45 a.m.) and I had my walker with me because my back was hurting.

So, with the combination of our early ticket time and my handicap, we got to take the elevator down to the caverns, which shaved about 45 minutes off of the walk down. Which meant that as we entered the cave, the first group of tourists (from 8 a.m.) were still descending.

We were practically alone. In the caverns.

They tell you to keep your voice to a whisper, because any noise reverberates like crazy. I’ve seen photos and videos of tourists in the caverns, and they’re always super close to each other, and the videos sound like there’s a ton of background noise (probably all of those people whispering to each other).

But this was practically silent.

We didn’t go far (it’s a hike for healthy people and my back wasn’t just up to it), but we saw about half of the public part of the cave, and that was a lot.

The lighting inside makes the rocks look like living creatures or spooky ghouls, and being in there in near-silence doesn’t hurt, either.

After Carlsbad, we headed southeast to see our sister in Houston. If you’ve ever been through west Texas, you’ll know that part of the trip isn’t much to write about other than the fried chicken. The chicken livers at Bush’s Fried Chicken in Pecos were legit.

Check out my next post for the shenanigans we got up to in Houston, and my trip further east to an alpaca farm and my mom’s house. I’ll be at my mom’s for a couple of weeks while I get my RV ready to hit the road!

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!

Want to help me out on my road trip? Donate to my GoFundMe campaign here

Freedom

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose …

-Janis Joplin

Janis wasn’t lying about freedom, but for me it seems like the freedom I need before I kick the bucket is coming at the price of losing everything else that I care about. Last night, my kitty (also named Janis, after the legendary singer) went on a road trip to stay with my brother and his family, probably forever.

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I am the only parent she’s ever known and my home is the only home she’s ever known. I know she will be in the best care and that this is the best option for us both. I know I can come visit her and see her every time I talk to my brother. But my house feels achingly empty this morning. I keep looking outside, expecting to see her walking up my stairs. There’s a hole in my heart.

I won’t see my boyfriend for at least two weeks, and while I don’t see him as often as I would like anyway, I feel like I can handle leaving him better than leaving Janis. At least he understands what’s happening. Janis must have been so confused and scared (and certainly mad) at first. Hopefully she will adapt and be happy there sooner rather than later.

But I really haven’t cried much, with my diagnosis and prognosis, and with all of the craziness of moving and buying an RV and planning an epic road trip that will literally be the last fun and crazy thing I do. I haven’t felt sorry for myself or blamed or denied or deflected or comforted myself with drugs or fallen into depression. But now, sitting here in a nearly empty apartment, I can’t stop crying.

And I’ve got to hit the road. Like, tomorrow.

My search for the perfect RV in southern California has not been fruitful. The market is crazy right now because of the pandemic – everyone wants an RV for a vacation instead of hitting up theme parks and crowded hotels. There’s never a good time to have cancer, but this is a singularly bad time to decide to take a kickass road trip, for sure.

So I decided to take (some of) my stuff to Tennessee, to my mom’s place, and try to find an RV from there. The market is better, the registration is cheaper, and I need to be out of this apartment in San Diego by end of business on Monday (i.e. tomorrow). Renting a one-way moving van is prohibitively expensive — seriously, $2,700 for the smallest moving truck, without gas, without insurance, and without the added mileage fees. I actually saved money by buying outright a used cargo van.

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Meet Gracie. She’s not much to look at, but she will get us from California to Tennessee.

Follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for instant updates from the road.

Please click here if you’d like to contribute to my RV/road trip GoFundMe.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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AYCE Sushi FTW

This week I was a guest of the fine people at Onami, an all-you-can-eat Japanese seafood and sushi in the Mission Valley mall. I’ve seen this place a hundred times as I walk past on my way to the movie theater, but this was my first time eating there. And what an amazing meal it was!

Right when you walk in, you’re greeted with friendly service and a huge buffet table covered with salad fixings and every type of sushi roll you can imagine.

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I don’t know about you, but one of my least favorite things about sushi dinners are trying to decide what to order. Every selection means you get 6-10 pieces of whatever roll you choose. But AYCE sushi is the best because you can just grab a bite of whatever you feel like, and you don’t have to commit yourself to an entire roll.

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My favorite was the tuna tempura roll. Super spicy and stuffed with two kinds of tuna!

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Onami also has an amazing selection of hot food, like miso soup, tempura, stuffed mushrooms, teriyaki chicken, sautéed vegetables, and a delicious spicy tofu with eggplant.

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The seafood was also impeccable … try some crawfish, some crab legs, or some icy oysters on the half-shell!

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And don’t forget dessert!

Onami has a full fruit and dessert bar, with traditional Japanese flavors as well as good old American chocolate cake.

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All of this amazing food is also surprisingly reasonably priced … I don’t think I’ve ever spent less than $20-25 for a sushi dinner, and they definitely weren’t customized and all-you-can-eat. This can all be yours for $15.99 for lunch, $22.99 for weekend lunch, and $26.99 for dinner.

Onami is located at 1640 Camino del Rio North, in the Westfield Mission Valley mall.

I am told that Onami will soon be adding a “Lobster Day” special all weekend long. Be sure to check back with Starbright’s Kitchen for updates.