Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rain Day

After months of endless Carolina blue skies baking everything to a crisp, our prayers, dreams and wishes were finally answered this weekend.  We got rain!  Almost 48 hours of everything from light misting to heavy downpours.  In less than a day, we went from moderate drought to flash flood warnings.

Be careful what you wish for.

As it turned out, the rain showed up almost exactly an hour before Miss Chef and I headed to our first-in-a-lifetime experience: an NFL game.  Her parents were in town for the weekend, and since Miss Chef's been curious about what it's like to attend a game in person, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

This was my first view of the Panthers' playground in uptown Charlotte.  As dreary as the field looks, I should tell you that I've run it through my picture-fixing software to improve the color and brightness.  I couldn't do much about the big rain-drop blob, though!  Besides, it's symbolic for the whole experience.

And as high as I was when I took that picture, I still wasn't done climbing.  We had 30 more rows to go! Our seats were literally up against the concrete wall at the top of the stadium.  So, no, we didn't get on tv.  The cameras didn't get that high, and there certainly was no blimp droning overhead.  Only heavy gray clouds.

This picture of mostly empty seats was about twenty minutes before kickoff.  However, the Bengals were in town, so once it became apparent that the skies were not going to respect the NFL's timetable, fans came out of nowhere--many of them wearing orange and black--to fill most of those seats.

Here's another shot from before the game to give you a better feeling of the atmosphere.

Nice, right?  It makes me chilly just looking at those few hardy souls braving the rain to get some beer and foot-longs.  I loved the facade of this concessions building, covered in helmets from high school teams from around the state. 

I have to say, the stadium was very nice and, as Miss Chef pointed out, everything from getting in to getting out was handled extremely well by the staff and city.  We took the train into town to avoid traffic, but it was refreshing to see uptown alive on a Sunday afternoon.  It wasn't all game business, either.  In spite of the banking bubble burst, Charlotte still gives off an air of prosperity.

So, how was the game?  Wet!  And, of course, the Panthers were steamrolled by the powerful Bengals team 20-8.  Even I, blissfully ignorant of the strategic details of professional football, knew going in that the Panthers are still auditioning quarterbacks.  And I quickly learned that their offensive line is nothing to brag about.  The rain-slicked conditions only added to the number of missed passes and fumbled turnovers.  Watching the home team lose while sitting in soaking wet jeans in a pouring rain probably wasn't the best intro to live NFL action.

Still, there's something to be said for being there.  Even the soggy, less-than-packed crowd surprised me with the level of noise produced by tens of thousands of raised voices.  The only raving drunk was at the end of our row, where he had plenty of room to manuever, and was having fun enough to be entertaining.  With a pair of binoculars, we had a remarkably good view of the game--it helps that footballs don't travel as far and as fast as baseballs.  Plus I could follow any particular player I wanted, or see how the refs do their jobs.  (Miss Chef's dad also found them handy for checking out the Top Cats--men!)

I can't say that I'm a convert, though.  Baseball diamonds seem much friendlier, and, to me, have an older, more comfortable atmosphere, regardless of their actual age.  Perhaps it's the slower, summer-tuned pace of the game, maybe it's the seventh-inning stretch, or else the focus on hotdogs and cotton candy as much as on massive mugs of beer.  Or maybe, just maybe, it's that for $14 I can get excellent seats at the Charlotte Knights field down the road, as opposed to the $50 nosebleed seats we enjoyed at Bank of America Stadium.

Whatever my personal tastes, though, I think I finally have some understanding of why football fans love the game.  Rather than looking down my nose at football fanatics, I can civilly agree to disagree.  Gimme my peanuts and Cracker Jack, baseball's the game that keeps bringing me back.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

We Have A Winner!

Wow, that was fast!  First of all, thank you to everyone who hazarded a guess--and let me tell you, there were some good ones in there!  The intersection between the full moon and autumnal equinox was a mad coincidence, I swear!  As for the rest...
  • We don't know when Rosie's birthday is.  She was adopted Dec. 9 2006.
  • My second year of blogging isn't 'til next month (and I keep thinking it's November, anyway).
  • Next month is also when Miss Chef and I will celebrate 10 years together!  (Amazing!)
  • Miss Chef's anniversary at the restaurant falls in August...and I can't remember how many years it's been!  (If I had to guess, I'd say...3?  It feels like more than that.)
  • Believe it or not, I don't remember how long I've known each of you, but I'm sure I'd be surprised by how short a time it is!

 Ok, so the real answer was: my 200th post (published right before the contest). 
Congratulations to Nekkid Chicken (also known as Mal), out there in Texas land.  I'm not sure how confident I feel about sending my homemade NC cayenne powder to the land of TexMex cuisine!  But I'll bite the bullet and put together a fiesta of Flartopian flavor for Mal's holiday pleasure.  I might even let the rest of you all have a peek at it later.
(And I swear on Miss Chef's well-thumbed Larousse Gastronomique that Mal's giving me a blog award had nothing to do with it!)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hot Blog! A Giveaway!

Whoo-whee, it's about time for another giveaway!  Here's your chance to get on my Christmas gift list!

Yup, you asked, and I'm giving.  One lucky reader will be receiving a prize package straight from Flartopia's kitchen.  It will include a selection of herbs and spice as featured in my last post, along with a few other goodies.  (Since we're still putting stuff up, I'm not sure yet what we'll finish up with.  Prepare to be surprised!)

I'm not much into drawings and don't feel like using a randomizer, so y'all are gonna have to earn this prize.  :grin:  Don't worry, you don't have to do calisthenics or race across the globe in search of clues.  (Though that is a good idea, isn't it?)

While it may seem a bit random to have a holiday-gift drawing in September, the timing of this giveaway is quite deliberate.  I'm actually doing this to celebrate something here in Flartopia.  So that's what you have to do to enter: leave a comment with your answer to What is Flartus commemorating?

This contest is open until midnight Friday (Eastern Daylight Time, if you wanna get picky).  If nobody guesses it by then, I'll post a hint over the weekend.  Yes, overseas readers are eligible!  Just remember, these pantry products are being prepared for the Christmas holidays, so it may take a month or two before everything's ready to send to you.

But it's worth waiting for, right?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Christmas "Shopping"

morning harvest from the herb garden

stacks of summer flavor in the dehydrator

Why not put some cayennes in there, too?

Christmas colors already

a little whirl in the spice grinder...

another item for the gift list!

top from left: bay leaf, thyme, oregano, cayenne powder
bottom: cayenne, bay leaf, sage

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Changing Seasons

I was going to start out by explaining that if I've been a little absent lately, it's because I've been getting random "Error 503 - Service not available" messages from Blogger.

But that would be only partly true.

The past few days I've been struck down, in a sense.  Low energy.  As far as I can tell, it got really bad last Saturday, when I dragged myself out of bed before daybreak to accompany Miss Chef and two friends into uptown Charlotte.  They were all running the Hog Jog, a 5k associated with the ever-changing Blues & BBQ festival held every year.  I was not running; I was merely going along for moral support, and to provide pockets.  Someone's gotta carry the car keys, cash and ID.

Off topic: Yes, Miss Chef ran her first 5k! I'm so very proud of her!

(Truth be told, that was actually her second 5k, as Chef Adam had somehow talked her into running one on Labor Day.  But that only served as a baseline for Miss Chef to get a slightly better time on Saturday.)

Notwithstanding the fact that, while Miss Chef puffed down and up some respectable hills, I strolled a few blocks over to wait about 20 minutes near the finish line, jogging only the last tenth of a mile with her; and the fact that Miss Chef had to go to work that afternoon...that morning wore me out!

And ever since, I've been dragging around like a sick toddler's blankie.

However, I don't think it was the early morning wake-up call that started my dragginess, since it was the same time I get up for work every day.  Or, rather, it wasn't that particular early morning.  The problem is, for the past several weeks I've been getting up before the sun.  And I HATE that.  It brings back unhappy memories.

As a teenager, I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, in our old, drafty and very cold farmhouse, in order to be showered and at the bottom of the driveway for the bus that pulled up at exactly 6:40.  By my junior year in high school, Big Brother had gone to college, and I was on my own.  While Mom and Dad snoozed downstairs, and the dog stayed snuggled comfortably on my still-warm comforter, I had to brave the cold bathroom floor and the dash from the shower to my towel.


But what I really remember is the dark, and feeling that I was the only living thing awake in the world.  Because of the age of the house, very few rooms had light switches.  So once I got downstairs, I had to walk through the living room, the dining room and into the kitchen before I could flip on a light.  Even then I felt like I was standing in an oasis of dim yellow, surrounded by a universe of still darkness. 

And of course, standing alone at the bottom of the driveway in the pre-dawn starlight, feeling the boogers freeze inside my nose, didn't make me feel any more positive about my morning routine.

To this day, I dread getting up in the dark.  And once again, since Miss Chef sleeps later than I do, I find myself creeping through a dark room to the next light switch.  And it's only slightly easier.  I have less distance to walk, and Rosie does eventually get up with me, if only to ensure she gets breakfast on time.  Most of all, I don't have the wearying anticipation of huge snowfalls and week-long cold snaps below zero; in fact I now look forward to a drop in temperature (though it's still 90 degrees at the front door by the time I get home).

I wasn't sure where I was going with this when I started writing it, and I'm still not sure.  I hardly ever talk politics here, but I have to say, when Obama was elected on a platform of hope and change, I guess I was subconsciously thinking part of the change would be to return the dates of Daylight Savings Time back to where they used to be.

'Cause I sure am ready to fall back already!

The picture is not from my childhood home.  It's a barn here in Charlotte where we rented a house when we first moved to NC; I think it was built in the 30s.  Today it stores Stuff, and houses several cats.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rerun: Do You Remember?

This is a post I wrote two years ago, as I noticed fewer and fewer people were making a conscious effort to mark the events of 9/11.  Of course, on the tenth anniversary, the media are trying to make us feel like we're there again.  But in some, unconscious way, many of us carry it with us every day.
I did not lose anyone on the dark day.  But I came too close to ever forget the feelings of fear.  And having family ties to the city, having visited the towers and Manhattan many times, the extent of the physical and emotional damage for all who involved that day is beyond comprehension.
All I can say from the heart is what I wrote two years ago.  Please remember...for those who are not here.

I remember clearly that it was a Tuesday. I was living in Mobile, Alabama at the time. It was my turn for night on duty at the school, so I had the morning off. I slept fairly late, got dressed without tv or radio on, and was headed to the gym in my car before I heard the news story. I thought it was a spoof; like an April Fool's joke. Ha ha. It sounded way too "out there" to be real.

Planes, crashing into a building in New York City? Please; the likelihood of that level of mechanical and human failure happening in the middle of one of the largest metropolises in the world? Not hardly.

I didn't think about the failure of human minds and hearts.

At the gym, I was on the elliptical machine watching the news on tv when I saw that it was real. That something was gravely, horribly wrong. I don't remember when the word "terrorist" first rolled across the screen (do you remember when we still thought it was just an accident?). My first concern was for my uncle Paul, who had worked for NY Bell and was part of the repair crew on the Towers in 1993.

But he was long retired; surely he wouldn't be down there.

And then a moment of sheer terror: I had completely forgotten that my brother worked there, somewhere in lower Manhattan, not in the Towers, but I didn't know where. As the story spread, the towers collapsed; ash and dust coated the entire area and I finally panicked. I grabbed my water bottle and towel and ran to the car.

How odd; nobody around me seemed moved or concerned. They had no connection to this news story unfolding up there in "the corner." But my dad's family is from New York; we had all visited the Towers one summer when I was ten or twelve. I had been there; I knew what it was like, the sheer enormity of the place.

And my brother was there now.

As I drove home, I called his house in New Jersey. Busy.

I called his cell phone. All circuits busy.

(Do you remember how the phone lines on the entire east coast were tied up that day?)

Tried his home again. Still busy.

Tried my parents' down in Georgia. Busy.

Finally, I noticed the voice message icon on my cell phone. It was from my father; they had heard from my sister-in-law that my brother was ok. He was trapped in Manhattan (remember how they shut down all car traffic to and from the island?), but he was safe.

I called my father and finally got through. My brother had watched the whole thing from his office in the Traveler's building, two blocks from the World Trade Center. He was on the phone with my dad, watching the first tower burn, assuring him that they had been told to stay where they were, everything was fine.

Then the second plane hit.

My brother said, "I've got to go," and hung up the phone. That was the last my dad heard from him for the rest of the day. I never did talk to my sister-in-law that day, but I knew there were vastly more important calls that needed to get through.

My brother was the recipient of some of the amazing generosity that bloomed that day. He walked tens of blocks north, and was given shelter by a friend's sister, or something like that. Her landline was the only way he was able to call his wife that day. I don't remember how he got home, or when. That day, it was enough to know that he was alive. (Do you remember the confusion; the "Missing" fliers plastered on every vertical surface?)

He worked for Citigroup at the time, in their International Treasury division. He spent the next weeks at an emergency backup site in New Jersey, working 12- and 14-hour days to ensure that his small part of our financial system remained functional. (It didn't sound all that impressive back then, but after 2008's financial meltdown, I'm a bit more respectful.)

When I finally got to talk to him about it, weeks later, he wouldn't. He wanted to put it behind him and move forward. He had lost colleagues and neighbors. He had watched people leap to their deaths rather than face hell on Earth. That detail was the only thing he would say about it, and he said it angrily: "You don't understand what it's like."

No, he's right. I don't.

Less than six months later, in February 2002, I flew up to visit. (Do you remember how brave you had to be to get on an airplane again?) My brother took me into Manhattan, and we visited his office. Two blocks down the street, there was the raw wound, the huge square of nothingness. "If they had missed the Towers, our building would have been the next one they hit."

So every September 11th I fly the flag for many reasons, but mostly to commemorate the innocents who lost their lives that day. The ones who were in the wrong building. Who weren't lucky enough to flee, covered in ash, panicked and cut off from their loved ones, but alive. Who ran in the other direction, into danger.

I fly it in the hope that it will keep the memory alive another year. To remind myself of the inconceivable tragedy that still should haunt us. To remind myself to be grateful that I still have a brother, no matter how little we may agree sometimes.

My nephew Ethan was born in 2002.
My niece Keira was born in 2006.
My sister-in-law is not a widow.

I know that by the time Ethan's and Keira's children are in school, this will be just another date in history. A bunch of people died. They'll learn the definitions of "isolationism," "nationalism" and the names Bush, Hussein, Al-Qaida, Desert Storm. And it will mean as much to them as Pearl Harbor meant to me growing up.

That's the nature of history; as it retreats further into our collective past, it gathers dust, a soft coating that makes it difficult to see clearly. It's inevitable. Over the years, plenty of other, more immediate crises will push our country this way and that. Yet, for the time being, I'm doing my part to keep the memory alive and distinct.

I don't know anyone who actually died that day. But my flag, this post, and my tears are for their memory, and for the ones they left behind.

Ethan and his dad, July 2008

Saturday, September 4, 2010


During Miss Chef's first week or two of teaching, I would still be up when she got home from class, around 11:00 pm.  One of those days, she came home frustrated, after a long day of unexpected changes.  She told me how she'd been repeatedly thrown for a loop at work and at school, punctuating her story with "Surprise!  Here's another student we're going to add in the second week of class!" or "Surprise!  We're out of stock!"

While she was clearly frustrated and tired, I have to say it was certainly one of her more amusing and memorable nights of storytelling.  Her conclusion: "I hate surprises."

So far, this weekend has been one long list of surprises.  We hadn't planned much, just a solid day of canning, stocking up on the last of summer's bounty.  After my latest solo canning session, Miss Chef and I agreed that we wanted to put up one final blowout batch of tomatoes.  She suggested we wait until Labor Day weekend, when she would have more time.

So Friday night I set my alarm for 6:30 am, and rose before dawn to chivvy Miss Chef out of bed and into the car.  With gel packs in the cooler and a back seat of totebags, off we went to the Matthews market.  When we arrived, it didn't take us long to realize: Surprise!  No tomatoes!

Whaaa??  Ok, I wasn't too worried, as half the vendors weren't present anyway.  This weekend is the town of Matthews' big festival, so the market was cut short and attendance was scant.  We did manage to pick up some figs--more on that later!--and chat with some farmers.  But we knew that some of the vendors would also be at the much larger Charlotte Regional Farmers' Market, so we got back in the car and headed there.

That market was crowded, and as we waded through the two sheds' worth of produce, meat and other goodies, we learned: Surprise!  No ripe tomatoes!  It seems the farmers are picking whatever's on the vines, before they wither completely.  I can't blame them at all; we haven't had rain for weeks, and it's about time to switch seasons anyway.  We stopped to stock up on potatoes and garlic from Laughing Owl Farms, and when we explained our fruitless search (no pun intended!), Dean Mullis suddenly handed us the two sad tomatoes left on the table, saying, "Here, have these for lunch."  Jennifer, next to him, added, "Yeah, they probably won't make it 'til dinner."

So much for our big canning plans.  We did somehow manage to blow the rest of our money (I couldn't resist a pack of locally-made hot dogs for $8), and still headed home with a full cooler.  We lugged it up to the front stoop, opened the door and: Surprise!  Rosie's been counter surfing!

When I tell Rosie she's almost perfect, this is what I mean by "almost."  This bowl was a gift from Miss Chef's brother which she was very attached to.  It's nothing unusual or expensive, but it was a very thoughtful gesture from a guy who's not usually into thoughtful gestures.  And we used it all the time.  It had been displaying a lovely pile of brownish green pears that just happened to be in front of some good-smelling candy someone had given Miss Chef.

(For my dog-loving friends, we've been trying different approaches to keeping Rosie off the counters, but that's a whole different post.)

Well, I had had enough.  I was tired, and sweaty and really really disappointed in my dog.  So while Miss Chef turned the pears into pearsauce (like applesauce), I drowsed on the couch.  After Miss Chef left for work, and the heat of the day started to ease, I finally stirred myself enough to wander outside--where I found more surprises...

Surprise!  The beans have suddenly started producing...beans!

Surprise!  The cherry tomatoes have decided to put out more flowers!

Surprise!  That volunteer plant I had just about decided was a weed turned out to be gallardia after all!

Oh, and Surprise!  We still have a canning project this weekend!

I mentioned these figs earlier--the last of Pat's Pickin's.  I was quite grateful that we could get some, as I knew fig season was winding down.  Now, normally I'm not a big fig fan.  Miss Chef loves 'em, and I do like a good Fig Newton, but it's not something I'd eat out of hand.  Surprise!  I just found the perfect recipe!

Any NPR listeners out there?  You may have heard a little story they did this week on Morning Edition about canning!  I was getting ready for work and had to stop to listen...Linda Wertheimer went to visit a fellow foodie blogger!  Her name is Cathy Barrow, and her blog is Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Kitchen.  Her stated goal on Morning Edition was to demonstrate that home canning is not difficult, and does not need to be time-consuming. 

 It was so cool listening to a news story about something so familiar to me; the jar lifters, the lids and rings, the canner full of boiling water, and the grand finale: the "ping!" of jars sealing.  Most of the story detailed how Cathy made canned crushed tomatoes, but she also mentioned a recipe for fig preserves.  As it happens, Miss Chef and I have lately been downing store-bought fig preserves with brie--so delicious!  I can't believe it never occurred to us to make our own.

But that's all changing tonight.  Thanks to Mrs. Wheelbarrow, I'm about to delve into the figs and rescue our nearly-thwarted canning weekend.  If you're looking for something fun to do this weekend, I strongly recommend you stop by her blog--she's a very gracious hostess.  And there's an easy recipe for fig preserves at the top of the page right now.

Update: Final result!