Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Cavalry deployed to Tampa

The Castros in Tampa have had a bad time. Elizabeth contracted laryngitis last week; Afonso had knee surgery on Friday; and worst of all, little Alexander had a serious viral infection that presented with high fever and some sort of neurological episodes which scared us all. So, Tom and I left home on Sunday and plan to be here until Friday, when we leave to meet our friends in Apalachicola for a fun weekend.

So, no recent posts, and this is just to say that the Castros are on the mend. After neurological tests and a consult with a neurologist, Alexander was pronouned free of any major neuro problem, but his little body is ravaged by a week of fever. He is slowly getting his strength back. We have provided little except moral support---which is what parents do. More later.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Dose of My Own Medicine

Remember my post about Successful Entertaining? Well, I recently had the opportunity to practice what I preached. We were scheduled to host our Gourmet Supper Club (we call it that, but actually we are just four couples who enjoy food and cooking) this past Sunday night. At our last event, on New Year's Day when L and T prepared an incredible New Orleans Brunch, T said he wanted me to prepare quail when it was our turn. That started me thinking and planning---how to prepare the quail. Grilled quail, baked quail, stuffed quail, creamed quail, quail and grits, quail with wine, or what?

The truth is, there is no better way to prepare quail than to fry them. So, I thought well, we'll just lower the formality level a little and have the event at the farm. This group has not been to our farm, so it would be a good opportunity for a different experience for them. I planned for us to meet about 4:00--to give us plenty of daylight--and to eat in our barn. I had it all planned in my mind. I even decided to print menu cards for the occasion and to move one of the "old family rugs" out to the barn to serve as an anchor for the table and to add a little color to the concrete floor. The best laid plans, right?

Well, I could not control the weather, and by the end of the week it looked bleak. On Thursday, I called and changed the venue to our home. Here's how this party stacked up against those seven rules I wrote about from Southern Accents:

Camouflage your flaws. I had to do that; it was too late to enlist my housekeeper's help in special cleaning. Tom and I hit the high spots on Saturday, and I spent time making the sure the dining room had some wow. Here's how the table looked:

Do not be afraid to fake it. My menu was as follows: Buttermilk Fried South Georgia Quail; Yellow Squash Casserole; Grape Tomatoes and Bleu Cheese in Romaine Nests; South Alabama Truffles; Cathead Biscuits and Henry County Gravy; Chocolate Mint Trifle Shooters; House Wines. I knew the quail would have to star in the menu, so I looked for ways to ease the workload. There are wonderful frozen biscuits at the market; check. Gravy, no problem. Squash --can make ahead; Salad, easy. That left the quail, the Truffles, and the Shooters that would require the most effort. Remember, I wrote about the truffles--grits wrapped around crabmeat and deep fried. While I looked for shortcuts, I also needed a little wow in the menu and I knew the Truffles and the Shooters would provide that. The shooters were simply my version of chocolate trifle (starting with brownie mix) served in my colored shot glasses. This was a heavy meal, and I knew we needed just a taste of dessert. The wine we offered with dinner was Cantina Zaccagnini, a montepulciano d'abruzzo, that I had read about in the Wall Street Journal (Weekend Edition). We like it; it's just a good red house wine. One member of our group is quite the wine connoisseur (his wine cellar is bigger than our house), so I never try to bluff my way around wines. We don't know much, but he is gracious about our oenophilic (how about that for a new word?) ignorance.

Be a mix master. You may not see it readily in the photo, but I used three different patterns of stemware and three patterns of demitasse spoons for dessert.

Know when (not) to fold them. You can see in the photo that I used my good old animal print napkins--in the traditional fold. They are so soft and absorbent from many washings, and I knew that the fried quail would be messy. They were just the ticket.

See how low or high you can go. You can easily see in the photo that I used the tall silver vase, this time with pheasant feathers in it. This was another way I saved time. The vase and feathers were in a different setting in the house, and I just moved them to the table. I'm not even sure the vase was freshly polished---do you think anyone noticed?

Break up the couples. Yes, I used place cards so no couples were seated together. They thought my place card holders were great--wine corks with a dime glued to the bottom for weight and stability and a cut about one fourth inch deep across the top to hold the card.

Some rules are made not to be broken. You can see that I maintained the traditional place setting.

A lot of work? You bet, even with the shortcuts. But this group is appreciative. They notice the little details; they want a description of the food and the wines, and they are gracious in their compliments. I love to cook under those circumstances.

Another thought. You know this is all about timing, and this is the time in my life when I can get the creative juices flowing about cooking and entertaining. I have the time, and I enjoy the preparations. When our children were young and at home it was hard to get beyond chicken nuggets and mac and cheese--and add that Andrew didn't want two foods mixed together or to touch on his plate. I remember thinking that we might never have a nice meal again. The key is to do the best with whatever stage you are in and to share meals and your home with friends.

Friday, February 15, 2008

On Being Home Alone

While I was home alone last night, I found myself poking around in the library, and I bumped full force into Walt Whitman, my old friend from American literature. I've reported that I enjoy the American poets, and while Emily Dickinson shares glimpses of her world in short, staccato-like phrases, Walt Whitman rambles with confidence, sensuality, and a broadly democratic discourse. I reviewed several of his poems, but I found myself looking for something that I remembered from 1993.

During that year, I earned my doctorate from the University of Alabama, and, after five years of travel to Tuscaloosa on weekends, and research, writing papers, and studying, I surely intended to participate in the graduation ceremony. At that time, it was a ceremony that featured the doctoral candidates, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The speaker was Howell Raines, Alabama native, graduate of the UA journalism program, and the editorial page editor for the New York Times. He gave a memorable speech chastising state leaders for selling our state and the future of our children to large landowners--paper companies and others---by giving them a pass on property taxes. At some point in his remarks, he did offer advice to the graduates, and he quoted Walt Whitman---from the long preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman's lifelong collection of poetry. Here is that advice, written in 1855.

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Those words have remained somewhere in the recessses of my mind and I call them forward intermittently to review and enjoy again and again. I invite you to read the passage from one comma to the next and to compare his succinct advice with your own life experience. Comment?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine Dinner

Tom and a friend left today on an overnight quail hunting trip to one of those fancy plantations---great timing, huh? How did eight or ten men manage to get out of town on Valentines Day? I figure I and the other girls are scoring major points--being home alone tonight. Well, actually, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must report that at least two of the boys took their girls for a Valentine Dinner last night. They actually took us out of state for dinner. We went to The Log Cabin just across the river in Georgia, owned by our friends the Wells, and enjoyed their great fried shrimp and catfish. This is a take-your-own-beverage kind of place--and we took several! Good time as you can tell!!!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Successful Entertaining

I saw this article on Seven Steps to a Highly Successful Dinner Party in Southern Accents, and I discovered that it meshed almost completely with my own philosophy. The article is short, but it focuses on these seven rules:

Camouflage your flaws. Absolutely. Do the big house cleaning after the party, not before. Dim the lights; create a wow factor as guests walk in--a vase of tall flowers, uplights on a piece of art, twinkle lights in an unexpected place---and they'll never notice the dust bunnies in the corner.

    Do not be afraid to fake it. You can't do it all. If you aren't sure about a four-course meal, then plan a big pot of soup and ice cream sandwiches for desssert--who doesn't like those? Just put them on a pretty tray. One of our favorite meals is a Caesar salad put together in front of the guests, a big pot of homemade tomato soup, and a good red wine. You have your own speciality--try it out.

      Be a mix master. Don't have eight or ten of everything? No problem. I mix and mingle a few stems of crystal that were my mother's, a few of my wedding gift stems, and a few Waterford water goblets (see # 80 in my list of 100). If people comment, I tell the story about each pattern. Same with china. Though I still enjoy my unadorned wedding china---Lenox Solitaire--I do like to put contrasting salad plates with it--and the ones I use most came from Big Lots. Bottom line--be creative with what you have.

      Know when (not) to fold them. Folding napkins is the least of my worries, but I do like pretty ones. Years ago, I bought two dozen animal-print napkins, and I have used those so much that they have faded a little, but they are soft, absorbent, easy to clean, and they look great on the table.

      See how low or high you can go. I agree that table decorations should never impede vision. Low is fine, but I prefer tall. If you get the arrangement above the line of vision, that works, too. I often use a tall (27") silver vase, and sometimes I even raise the vase. Years ago, we removed the chandelier from the dining room and replaced it with a recessed can so I could have tall arrangements, and I have never regretted that move. See photos above.

      Break up the couples. We've been doing this for years. I like using place cards with eight guests or more (my favorite place card holder is a wine cork with a dime glued to the bottom, but that's another story!), and I usually take the opportunity to separate couples. It eliminates confusion and the "where do I sit" question; it is more singles-friendly; and it enables more conversation. At a table for four, you have four households represented rather than two. And if, perchance, one member of a couple tends to dominate the other---well, you get the picture. Of course that would never happen.

      Some rules are made (not) to be broken. Precious few, I'd say. However, I agree that the place setting is one of them. Let's not mess with fork on the left, knife on the right; bread plate on the left, stemware on the right. That system has worked for a long time.

      Sunday, February 10, 2008

      On the Road Again

      If ever a day was made for a Road King, this was it---not a cloud in the sky, cool temps, and a little time on our hands. We left the house this morning about 10:30 and rode leisurely. We stopped at the dam on the way to Fort Gaines, GA to meet our friends, Ann and Ken. From FG, we rode to Shellman, GA for a lunch of soul food at The Back Porch. After lunch, we headed to Plains, GA and looked around, which didn't take long; we saw Jimmy Carter's house, the downtown area, and that was about it. Then, back to Fort Gaines and on to Dothan. We rode 230 miles; for the record, it was real cool. We were all leathered up, and we needed every bit of it. Though the expected high was about 70, when you're on the bike going 60+, the air temperature is really in the mid 30s. It was a great day on the bike!

      Friday, February 8, 2008

      What I've Learned About Blogging

      I've been blogging about two months. This has been quite an exercise, and I've learned a lot. First, I've learned some technical stuff--how to select the layout, how to get the effects I want in the text (I'm still working on that),how to add the slideshow, links, the site meter; how to change the poetry and the lists; how to leave comments on other blogs.

      I've also learned that there is a whole, big, interesting blogging world out there---blogs on every imaginable topic. I saw one today devoted to Post-It art--those people who doodle at work on Post-It notes and share them on the blog. I've read blogs on food and cooking, travel, wine, limericks, memes (that's a new word I've learned--more on it later), and more. You go to one site, see their favorite sites, go to one of those, see another list.

      I've learned, too, that blogging is a great way to practice writing skills. The blogs I have read are very well done. You might say that people who blog are probably pretty good writers or they wouldn't be interested in blogging. I guess that is so; however, practice never hurts, and it is refreshing to see that our language is alive and well and dynamic.

      There are whole blogging communities built around a common interest--people who have never met and may not know each other's names but who share an interest and a unique perspective on that interest. There are lots of blogs like mine that developed to keep in touch with relatives and friends wherever they may be. There's my daughter-in-law over at The Roney Family who keeps us and others up-to-date on their lives. There's our friend over at Sitting on Top of the World whose blog was the first that I ever read, and I was hooked.

      And then, I think there are those who start out as I have, with family photos and personal musings, and who, somewhere along the way, find a purpose or cause. Like my friend over at Gray Matters. She has embraced the movement to reduce, reuse, recycle, and I have learned so much from her. I now take my own shopping bags--there are some neat ones out there--more about that later, too, and I use some of those efficient light bulbs even though they aren't dimmable--someone needs to work on that---and I have joined Freecycle. I am more conscious of our consumption, and I am taking a few baby steps to reduce my personal impact on the environment.

      I have not stumbled across any blogs that are offensive--though there may be some. On the contrary, I have found people to be honest, helpful, sharing, and courteous---and oh so smart. They know lots of stuff!

      I blog at night. I find it relaxing, and I like to write. I can say whatever I want, or I can say nothing. I can whine, brag, gloat, preach, pray, lecture, explain, convince, joke, condemn, exalt, proselytize, or otherwise ruminate on any subject I choose---and no one has to listen. No one has to agree or disagree. It really is liberating.

      Will I continue learning from other bloggers? Definitely. Will I continue blogging? I think so. Will I find a purpose or cause to embrace? Maybe.

      It can't hurt me, and it sure beats Law and Order reruns!

      Friday Night Dinner Date

      After two busy weekends, Tom and I had a dinner date at home tonight. I shopped a little this afternoon at the fresh market, found local lemons, wonderful Amish butter, and green tomatoes. Then I headed to Sams and found the sea scallops, grape tomatoes, and baby colored peppers. Hmmm? How about Sauteed Sea Scallops with Green Peas, Bacon and Onion; Grape Tomatoes with Bleu Cheese and Olive Oil on Romaine Hearts; and Roasted Baby Peppers with Garlic and Balsamic Vinegar. The wine, A New Zealand Pinot Noir. Pretty good, if I do say so, though I would change the wine next time.

      Wednesday, February 6, 2008

      100 + Things About Me

      One of the challenges making the rounds of blogs is to write "100 Things About Me", and then to tag someone else to do it. Well, I decided to try. After the first 10 descriptors, I didn't think I would ever make it to 100. But I hung in there and decided to work on it as long as it took. So, developed over parts of three nights---here is my list:

      1. I have curly hair.
      2. I love learning.
      3. Ellen is my middle name—but middle names for girls are worthless.
      4. The American poets---Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson—oh especially Emily Dickinson---speak to me.
      5. I grew up in Texas, but I don’t have big hair.
      6. I don’t like August and September in the South.
      7. In the first grade, I was the bride in a Tom Thumb wedding.
      8. I like to write—and I’m fairly good at it.
      9. I can’t sing a note, but I am a great audience.
      10. I believe Balance is the key to a happy life.
      11. One of my favorite books is East of the Sun by Barbara Bickmore—great story.
      12. In a group, I am usually the leader.
      13. My Myers Briggs type is ENTJ.
      14. I get together annually with five of my high school girlfriends—they are all in Texas.
      15. My father died when I was 17—heart attack.
      16. I met Tom in college when he called my roommate for a date and she was busy. I was the substitute—that was about 40 years ago.
      17. I helped found the shelter for abused women in our community.
      18. I am a pretty good public speaker—and I have done a lot of it.
      19. I like to use things in a different way than they were intended—bedspreads for tablecloths, old tin buckets for vases, a quilt as art on the wall, an old drawer as a shelf.
      20. I am not the most patient person; actually, I am rather impatient.
      21. I don’t have trouble expressing my opinion.
      22. I see the forest more easily than the trees.
      23. I enjoy lake activities more than beach activities, but the beach does have better sunsets.
      24. My theology was shaped in part by Rabbi Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
      25. I am Republican about fiscal issues and a Democrat about social issues. I live with a banker.
      26. I married at 21---and it took.
      27. I love big cities—NY, Chicago, London.
      28. I don’t like long airplane trips.
      29. Les Miserables is my all-time favorite musical.
      30. The Internet is like having the world at my fingertips.
      31. I am good at telling stories (jokes), but my friend Leslie is better.
      32. I sleep on my tummy with a flat pillow under my head and my right foot uncovered.
      33. I like to cook, but I don’t like to bake.
      34. I’ve been to the Bike Rally in Sturgis.
      35. I don’t have a tattoo.
      36. I like to plan parties. Our last one was an engagement party, Pearls and Pork. We gave big pearls to the girls;we served barbecue;and the guests brought“pearls of wisdom”(advice and tips) for the Bride and Groom.
      37. I like to cook in front of guests, so my kitchen is designed to accommodate that.I give everyone a small task.
      38. I have chaired more committees and organizations than I can count.
      39. I love the world wide web.
      40. I can sew.
      41. I think blogs are a great way for people to practice their writing skills. Just think about it—otherwise, how often do people write these days?
      42. When I travel, I would rather mingle in out-of-the-way places with the natives rather than spend hours in line with other tourists to see an attraction. I figure I can see the attractions on line.
      43. I usually start conversations with, “Hi, My name is Kay. I don’t think I have met you”.
      44. I like to dress up grits. I have made grits with goat, smoked gouda, cheddar,boursin, and other cheeses. I have made grit cakes, grits truffles stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat, and grit casseroles.
      45. I like to try a new dish in a restaurant and attempt to replicate it at home.
      46. I belong to a supper club, 16 of us, that has been together for 18 years. We meet monthly at the club, except for exceptions like next month at our farm.
      47. I belong to another supper club that cooks—eight of us. We meet every other month and the host does it all. It’s my turn next. I think we’ll have quail and grits—dressed up, of course--- at the farm.
      48. I vote.
      49. I need to exercise more and eat less. Just looking at that treadmill doesn’t work.
      50. I love that my children are such wonderful adults and incredible parents.
      51. I’ve learned a lot about Brazil because our son-in-law is Brazilian.
      52. I managed a major gifts campaign that brought in $4.4 million---and lots of friends--- for the College.
      53. I like to read the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal.
      54. I’m learning more about recycling, repurposing, and reusing.
      55. I like sunlight, but I don’t stay in the sun.
      56. I really don’t care about cars except as a way to get from A to B. What kind do I have? A white one.
      57. Jet lag kills me.
      58. Over the years we have hosted several international citizens in our home. One of our young Asian guests, a fashion designer, said, “You Americans wear too much fuschia.” So I try not to wear fuschia.
      59. I buy online when possible—no parking, no lines, no weather, no tax.
      60. When we visit our farm, I pick up trash on the road in front of it—cigarette packs,beer cans and bottles, fast food packaging. I can’t believe people just throw garbage out the window. But they do.
      61. I love porches and rocking chairs and swings.
      62. I enjoyed my children’s weddings, but I don’t want any more.
      63. I love beautiful prose.
      64. I don’t want one of those digital photo frames. What good is it? Your screen saver can do the same thing.
      65. I wish I knew more about photo editing.
      66. I can’t stand having molds—like for a crown--- made in the dentist office. Have to have some drugs. My children, who had braces, have no sympathy.
      67. I’ve had one Valium in my life—see # 66.
      68. I’ve been on some great Harley trips. We trailer the bikes to the destination and ride when we get there. We usually have to take one car—-just can’t get pearls and other gear in those saddle bags.
      69. I love watching Tom play with our grandsons.
      70. I used to watch Law and Order reruns—until I discovered blogging and bloggers.
      71. I like old movies—did you ever see All This and Heaven Too with Betty Davis and Charles Boyer?
      72. I had several great high school teachers.
      73. I like the bathroom tissue to roll off the top.
      74. I squeeze the toothpaste anywhere I want to.
      75. I am right-handed and mostly left-brained—but I am working on that.
      76. I don’t like to chew gum.
      77. I really like happy hour. My favorite cocktail napkin says “It’s always five o’clock somewhere.”
      78. I live in a football crazed state—and there are so many important things to think about and act upon.
      79. Among my favorite books is the Clan of the Cave Bear series.
      80. I’ve bought beautiful Waterford water goblets because they stay on the table and are less likely to break.I buy cheap wine glasses so guests feel comfortable. So what if they break.
      81. I don’t know why all caps is considered screaming in email.I would like to use it sometimes for emphasis but don’t.
      82. My cocktail of choice is Grey Goose and water with lemon, but I love to read about and buy single malt Scotch for Tom.
      83. I have no desire to ride my own Harley; I just love sitting behind Tom.
      84. I need at least one private (as opposed to corporate) social event every weekend. That’s how I fill back up.
      85. I am a terrible proofer. Thank goodness my assistant is a good one.
      86. I have never smoked a cigarette.
      87. I am a Leo—whatever that means.
      88. I like movies and plays that make me feel good. There’s enough poverty, squalor,dysfunction, broken relationships, and ignorance already. I don’t want to pay to see more of it.
      89. I just don’t like cats at all. We have outside dogs (setters) and I like them a lot—just not on me.
      90. I’ve never slept in an unmade bed---and I don’t plan to. Mornings, I make the bed,and Tom makes the coffee.
      91. The camera is not kind to me—or maybe I’m just not as cute as I think I am.
      92. I’ve never had a broken bone.
      93. I’ve had massages and pedicures and manicures,and they are okay,but I generally don’t choose to spend my time that way.
      94. I enjoy collecting and wearing vintage rhinestone jewelry.
      95. I am not much of an athlete—but I grew up before Title IX.
      96. I like to garden only in April and October.
      97. I try to water ski at least once each year.
      98. I love oysters.
      99. I am always on time—except for my purposeful “fashionably late” entrance at parties.
      100. I am thinking about recycling greeting cards—tearing off the cover and writing my own message on the back, then punching a hole in the corner and tying to a wine bottle or gift package. Cool idea, huh?
      101. I’m okay with public prayer if it is inclusive. When I pray in public, it is inclusive.

      Well, that's my list. I think I could go for 200--but who would read it! I won't tag anyone just yet, but let me know if you try it.

      Tuesday, February 5, 2008

      I Need to Ride!!!

      Whew! January was a busy month, and February looks to be the same. I have been super busy at the College with chairing a regional education committee, managing a big interior design project--with a professional designer, of course-- and preparing to fill a few personnel vacancies. We have a wonderful staff, so it's not that I am any busier than anyone else, but when I am also busy at home, I feel the load. At home, we've had lots of planning and preparation for two big events on back-to-back weekends. All fun stuff, but pressure nonetheless.

      What I need is a ride on the Harley--to blow out the cobwebs, to feel the wind in my face, to smell Life--the new baled hay, the smoke from someone's fireplace; the spring weeds, the cow herds, and yes, even the occasional skunk. I love those smells. In the car (the Cage, we call it), we are separated from those smells, those reminders of the life cycle. We breeze down the road with the windows rolled up and the music playing, and we never even consider the miraculous events going on right outside. But on the bike---oh, on the bike--we are part of that Life. We can feel the wind; we see the setting sun; we smell the wild onion; we taste the moisture in the air; and we hear the lowing of the cattle.

      The picture of Tom, made this past weekend, on the bike with Alexander--never fear, just posing for the picture--- reminded me of the freedom and the controlled wildness of a bike ride. Yes, yes, I do need one!

      Monday, February 4, 2008

      Artsy Photos

      I've played with a few of the photos from the birthday party weekend. It helps to have great subjects. Just click on the title of this post; then click Slideshow. Enjoy!

      Such Wonderful Family and Friends at the Birthday

      Thanks to all who made the day so special for us!

      Sunday, February 3, 2008

      The Birthday Boys

      We've been looking forward to and planning this event for a year. Almost as soon as Alexander was born January 31, 2007, Elizabeth began talking about a joint birthday party for the little cousins. Brooks will be two on Feb. 6. Some things work out, and this did. This weekend was right between their birthdays; mommies and daddies were able to get away from work and travel to Dothan from Columbus and Tampa; the weather was almost perfect; forty-four friends and relatives were able to join us; and the birthday boys were in rare form. Tom and I enjoyed the preparations, and the farm is such a good location for large gatherings. Our cup runneth over!