old-mill

Pimp My Grits

Last night while talking to my mother on the phone, I asked her if she ever made grits. I don’t remember her ever serving them to us, so I was curious if her mother ever made them. Mom said no, and she wasn’t sure if she had ever eaten them before.

I remember a typical family breakfast for us was biscuits and jam, sausage or country ham or bacon, and scrambled eggs. For me, it was breakfast cereal or the occasional biscuit or piece of toast with jam or jelly. Yep, I was a picky eater as a child. I’m glad that’s changed.

I’ve eaten grits before, but don’t remember them being a menu staple in too many places so I don’t even remember where I’ve eaten them except one place in particular. In 2014 while in Charleston, SC I had shrimp and grits with red eye gravy at a restaurant right on the water called Fleets Landing.  They were so good and worth remembering! So I think grits are a more popular dish the closer you get to the coast in the south because Vivian remembers them very well from her childhood.

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Cheesy Grits. Just add hot sauce.

This weekend we watched the “Pimp My Grits” episode of A Chef’s Life from Season 1, and the grits section in Deep Run Roots has the same title and features Pimento Cheese Grits with Salsa and Grits and Greens with Hot Sauce and Pork Rinds.

We started by making a batch of cheesy grits. When buying grits, Vivian suggests whichever box of instant grits that has the fewest ingredients. I didn’t know until watching her show that they are made from corn. I would have definitely guessed they were a grain, but not corn. On the show, Vivian visited the Old Mill of Guilford which has been in business since 1767! And it’s water-powered. (See pic above.)

We enjoyed a bowl of the cheesy grits with a bit of hot sauce that night and then saved some for breakfast the next day. On the show, Vivian makes a sausage ragu to add to her grits that night in the restaurant, so that’s what we decided to do for breakfast. I noted that in the cookbook there’s a recipe called Spoonbread with Sausage Ragout. On the show, they spelled it ragu.  Spellcheck says ragout is correct, but I think either spelling is okay.  I once had a friend in a restaurant order the Seafood Rag Out. Hey, when I was younger

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Cheesy Grits with Vivian’s Sausage Ragu

and didn’t know I probably would have done the same thing.

The “ragu” is a mix of sausage, mushrooms, onion, peppers, garlic, tomatoes, stock, butter, and spices. I used turkey sausage and had all fresh vegetables.  We topped the grits with the ragu and then sprinkled some shredded cheese on top. It’s definitely a hardy comfort food, especially when I don’t usually care much for a large breakfast still to this day (I’m eating breakfast cereal while writing this).

I should also note, unlike Vivian, I don’t care much for tomatoes. I hate them sliced on a sandwich and will usually request it to be left off. BUT…I love them cooked in things like stews or pasta, and don’t mind them fresh in salsa. It’s weird, I know, and especially since my dad grew tomatoes during much of my youth. More about that later. But we actually had some fresh tomatoes that we bought at the farmer’s market last weekend so I did chop one up and threw it in and it was just fine.

Like the cornmeal, I’m not done with the grits section just yet. I want to try her Pimento Cheese Grits with Salsa next. Maybe we’ll have that next weekend before we go out shopping for Thanksgiving groceries.

 

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Time for a change…

deeprunrootsOn Monday of this week, Vivian Howard’s cookbook, Deep Run Roots, arrived via Amazon. At 576 pages, the book is an enormous bible of recipes, stories, and photos that tell Howard’s story. You can read her story for yourself here.

We became fans after watching her show, A Chef’s Life, on PBS last year. It’s not just another cooking show where the star is in a kitchen by herself and talking to a camera across a hot stove.

Each show focuses on one ingredient, often a vegetable, which Howard teaches the viewer all about. She doesn’t have the science teacher persona of Alton Brown, but the show does have that down-home country feel that I enjoyed from Paula Deen which makes Howard so fun and personable.

The difference is that Howard usually tells the story of a local farmer who grows the ingredient near her.  She tells you how she likes to use the ingredient, and there’s often a story line of her creating a recipe in her restaurant or at an event that features the ingredient.

Her husband, family, and employees usually have a part in each show. Other real-life conflicts often pop up like Vivian writing her cookbook or planning photo shoots for it, being the grand marshal in a local parade, and losing her chef at her restaurant.

This season there were two episodes all about cabbage where Vivian packs cabbage to take to a food festival to smoke and serve like barbecue. Before she leaves, one of her friends shows her how to make cabbage and sausage. In another episode, Vivian visits a catfish farmer to pick up fish for the restaurant. Her mother serves the family some fried catfish for lunch, and Vivian attempts to make ceviche for dinner at the restaurant. I learned how to make the best potato salad ever by watching!

I have to say the cookbook is a direct reflection of Vivian and has the same feel as the show.  It’s not just pages and pages of recipes and photos.  Each recipe has its own story or memory. It’s simple. It’s approachable. You can tell she put just as much soul into it as she does a new dish in the kitchen.

With that being said, and with a new year approaching, I’ve decided my blog needed a new focus so I’m going to be blogging a lot about Vivian’s book as I attempt to make most, if not all, of the recipes in it. I believe there are around 250 recipes. I’m only about 30 pages in with reading it so far and have only covered a few recipes which focus on corn meal and grits. But I’m already inspired to start cooking.

So join me as I explore my own deep run roots with Vivian Howard by my side. See you in the kitchen!

Open Mic

A funny anniversary…my return to stand up comedy

Today marks a very small insignificant anniversary for me as a comedian, but I feel the need to blog about it anyway. Six months ago today I returned to the stage and did my first open mic after a long fifteen year hiatus from comedy.

On stage earlier this year. Yes, there was an audience there. I promise.

My very first attempt at stand-up was in the summer of 1990 at a band camp talent show. I took first place where my prize was exemption from “slave day,” the last day of camp where all the freshmen had to be slaves to the seniors. In the spring of 1991, I did comedy again in a school talent show and tied for 3rd place with a hip hop dancer.

I would not do stand up again until about ten years later when I started going to open mic every Wednesday at The Loony Bin Comedy Club (now closed) in Memphis. But that stopped in late 2001 when I moved to St. Louis. I never thought of doing comedy again until May of this year when a new coworker who was a comedienne encouraged me to give it another try.

The comedy bug bit hard and I’ve been doing mics almost weekly ever since. I just did my 25th mic two nights ago. Yes I keep track! Not sure why. It’s just one of those silly things comics do sometimes. I also have audio of every set recorded on my phone (minus the very first one). Because of a full time job and a long-term relationship, it’s hard to do more than one mic a week, especially when most of the open mics outside of the two comedy clubs here are late night mics at bars.

But I’m okay with that. I won a comedy contest qualifier in July. I got $75 for it and free entry into the club’s annual comedy contest next year. I got to be host at open mic last month at a club. And I have my first showcase coming up in two weeks at another club. It’s a new talent showcase where I get to do 8 minutes, and it’s also sort of a try-out to be considered for the host or feature act for future shows.

So what have I learned in six months? Well, comedy has been a great creative outlet for me. Being a published author, I’ve been in a writing slump for about three years now. I’ve needed a new outlet and doing stand up has become just that. Writing jokes is just as tough as writing a book sometimes, but I can get instant gratification by trying new material out on stage each week.

I’ve also made a lot of new friends. Most of that is thanks to social media. The regulars at open mics have friended me on Facebook so it’s kind of like a giant support group or network of indie comics. I’m even in a few local comedy groups where information about the industry and various shows is shared. If anything, I have people I can talk to or sit with at the shows.

I definitely never had that back in 2001 because we didn’t have cell phones and weren’t tapped in to the internet so easily, and comics didn’t really associate with each other, in or out of the club. I am still friends with only one comic from back then and can’t remember the names of any of the rest who came to open mics.

Back then, comedy was just a short-lived hobby, something to do on Wednesday night. It felt good to make people laugh. Today I realize it’s something I’m really good at. I still enjoy making people laugh and my biggest regret is that I didn’t pursue it harder back then. But honestly, I didn’t know how and was probably too afraid to fail at it. I think that’s what holds a lot of us back from pursuing something that seems so out of reach: fear.

One advantage I have now is more life experience. That definitely helps when it comes to writing new jokes. I can’t say I’ll be dropping everything and moving to L.A. or New York anytime soon to pursue comedy full time, but I might have done it back then if things had turned out differently.

So where do I go from here? Well, the three clubs in the local area all have contests next spring and summer. I’m definitely going to sign up for those. I’m already looking at comedy festivals that are nearby and might be submitting applications next year.

I’ve got some out-of-state traveling to do for my professional job next year and will try to hit open mics just to try out a new club. Ultimately, I’d love to spend a week vacationing in New York just going to mics every night of the week for the experience. And who’s to say that won’t happen, right?

For now, I’m just really enjoying this experience and trying to catch up on all the fun I’ve missed out on. It makes me happy. I’m making new friends doing it. I’m becoming a better writer. It’s been a long time since anything like this gave me such joy and gratification so as they say, seize the moment!

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Emily is back!

emily-frontIt’s been almost a year since I wrote a blog post about the end of my fourth book, Dickinstein.  The two year contract it had with its publisher was drawing to an end and I chose not to renew.

I wrote Dickinstein in 2012, finishing the first draft in just 8 weeks that summer and believing it was the best writing I’d ever done.  I still believe that. I haven’t written anything since.

This year I contemplated sending it out to agents, but I knew the mediocre sales record already attached to the book the first go around wasn’t going to make it all that appealing.  If I didn’t believe in the book enough to try to make it successful, why should I believe someone else will? I could be wrong, but I figured it would be a waste of time.

So here we are.

A few weeks ago I decided to re-release the book myself. I gave it a new cover and dropped “Dickinstein” from the title.  I think that’s a kick ass title and I was proud of it, but some friends joked that it sounds a bit X-Rated. So now I think the new title and new cover have some broader appeal.

Though our real-life Emily shared very few of her poems while she was alive, and even wanted her papers to be destroyed after her death, I feel my book should live on in some way. It seemed selfish of me to keep a good book to myself. What’s the good in that?

So this new 2nd edition is available now in paperback on Kindle. If you missed it the first time, you can get it now. The story itself is unchanged. Enjoy!

Hello September 2013

Blog. Money. Health. Write. September 2016.

Yep, I’m glad summer is moving on.  I’m ready for fall weather! August and September are usually my least favorite months. I think it’s because they remind me of back-to-school season.  It’s also that time of year for transitioning.  Our yard and garden are a mess.  It’s still too hot outside, and we just have to wait it out.

Blog

I only wrote 3 blog posts here in August.  But I wrote 2 additional posts over at Medium.  Medium is a new blogging platform created by the owners of Twitter. I’ve really enjoyed reading articles there each day and becoming a part of the community, so I’ve been blogging there and can definitely see myself doing more there as time goes on.

Money

Nothing too extreme in the money saving department.  Almost all of the accounts grew a little except for cash savings.

InBox Dollars Account: $44.73
iBotta Account: $32.20
Receipt Hog Account: $13.75
Primary Savings Account: $30.00
Primary Money Market: $15.00
Credit Union Savings: $96.00
Capitol One Money Market: $441.61
Cash Savings: $0.00
Total: $673.29

Health

Other than some extreme yard work last weekend that just about killed me, nothing has changed here.  I’m still avoiding stepping on the scale.

Write

I’m not working on a book right now, but I have been penning other stuff.  I wrote 2 songs in August for a musical project that I’ve started with a friend.  And ever since I started doing stand-up again, I’ve been writing a lot in my “joke journal.”  Earlier this week I wrote an entire new 4 minute set which I’m looking forward to testing out at open mic. So, I’m still writing and I still get the rush of writing even from these smaller projects. Right now, I have no desire to work on anything larger.

And that was August.  The eighth month of 2016 is gone.  It’s been a rough year, not just for me, but for all of us I think. It’s been weird.  And I’m trying really hard to remind myself not to stress about the little stuff.  My goals have definitely changed from what I had intended back in January. So what?  I’m okay with that.  Have your goals for the year changed too or are you making progress?

See you in October!

 

Surprise

It’s August. It’s 83 degrees here in St. Louis, a nice reprieve from the triple digits we had just a few weeks ago in July. The end of summer is approaching, and I’m okay with that.

It’s been an odd year for us in the garden. We lost our vegetable garden to rats this year. Mrs. Frisby and her entire family helped themselves to it. We became so frustrated after catching a rat in the traps every day for two weeks that we cleared the garden out to get rid of their food source.

We didn’t plant as many flowers this year because we have too many already. Despite the heat, we still have flowers blooming right now. I just haven’t shared as many pictures this year of them because I haven’t been taking any.

20160806_095833But I did take this picture yesterday that I’m quite proud of. These are surprise lilies, and this is the first time they’ve bloomed since I planted them in 2014.

It was the same time of year as it is now because I remember the lilies were almost done blooming at Dad’s house. My dad had been a resident at the senior center for a full year when we finally decided to give up his trailer knowing that he would not return to it.

He had planted dozens of surprise lilies around the trailer while he lived there. As we finished cleaning the trailer out, I decided to dig up all of the lilies and transplant them at my house. There were over 60 bulbs total, so many that I even gave some to our neighbor.

After returning home, I planted about ten bulbs a day that entire week until they were finally all in the ground. I was hoping to see a yard full of lilies the next year.

Not a single one bloomed last year.

If you are familiar with surprise lilies, you know they shoot up leaves in the spring. The leaves die off in summer and then all of a sudden this single stalk comes up out of the ground in late summer and the lilies bloom at the end of it.

This single stalk started growing up out of the ground last week. It’s the only one out of the 60 or so that I planted that has ever shown itself. I had given up on them after they didn’t grow last year. I thought maybe the bulbs had rotted or maybe I had planted them wrong. By now, I’d forgotten even where they were all planted.

And then this happened, and it made me smile and think of Dad.  It’s been an odd summer, but the flowers are still blooming. The rats ate our garden. It’s hot out. But this one surprise lily has made it all worth it.

 

 

 

Open Mic

Two Shows a Week

Last week I was fortunate enough to do two new open mics in one week for the first time.  And I’m doing two mics this week as well.

Last Tuesday was my first time getting to do open mic at the Helium Comedy Club in Brentwood. It was their first open mic after a hiatus due to a six week long contest so the crowd was small. Helium is nice because they serve food and it’s a very large and upscale place, but they don’t seat people down front and their sound system is a bit muffled since the showroom is so large.

I was having trouble sleeping that week so I had a raging headache that night so I didn’t feel good about my set and left shortly after I was done. It was still a good experience getting to go up on a new stage though.

On Thursday that week I also debuted at the open mic at Hey Guys Comedy Club in Fairview Heights, Illinois. That’s a great venue for that town and only about fifteen minutes from downtown St. Louis. There were ten really strong comics that night so it was a great show.

I also tried out new material, and we each got to do seven minutes instead of the typical four minutes at open mics. The only drawback was the thunderstorms and hail in the area obviously kept people away that night. Besides the comics, we only had three people in the audience.

This week I did Funny Bone’s open mic on Tuesday. I was the next to the last comic to go up, and though we had a nice sized crowd of about thirty people they were a very cold audience. A few comics were bombing so bad that they didn’t even do their full four minutes.  Even the headliners that get squeezed in and do a set throughout the show were bombing. It was a rough night for everyone.

I tried out some brand new jokes that night which did okay.  And I recorded audio of my set to listen to. Playing it back, I was actually surprised at the laughs that I did get so I think I did better than some that night. It just goes to show you never know how the audience is going to be! That’s one thing that makes stand up comedy so appealing to me.

Tonight I’m headed back to Illinois for my very first contest qualifier.  It’s at Hey Guys Comedy Club. Each month they do a contest qualifier. Twenty comics go up and the audience picks the top three or four.  Those who win become semi-finalists in next year’s contest which is held in early spring.

I’ll probably get to do 6 to 7 minutes I’m guessing. I don’t know the details yet.  Even if I don’t make it into the contest, it’s still good experience for me. Most of the clubs hold their contests in the summer.  Helium wrapped up their contest a few weeks ago and Funny Bone is also in the middle of a contest that wraps up next month.  I’ll probably definitely get in on those next year.

 

Open Mic

What’s so funny?

This last Tuesday made my 6th STL open mic performance (my 5th one at Funny Bone).  It was the largest crowd so far, but definitely not the best.  The audience was pretty luke warm and the drinking didn’t help as the evening progressed. But, sometimes that happens.  I think most people were having a good time. They just weren’t laughing very loud. There was one woman right down front who looked bored out of her mind.  One comic even called the crowd out and joked about how bad they were!

Most comics that night had a good set, but some didn’t get any laughs at all, or barely any laughs. That’s not good, but that night you really had to blame the audience because the majority of comics were really good. I felt the same way about my set. I recorded audio with my phone and listened to it the next morning and realized I got more laughs that I thought when I was up there. Recording your set definitely helps.

I also had my set video recorded that night.  There’s a nice guy, also a comic, there most nights who will tape you for just $10 and make a DVD for you.  I’ve definitely done better as far as getting laughs goes but that’s a chance you take.  I’ve watched the video a few times now and feel pretty solid about it.  It’s definitely a set I’d do again just as it is.

What do you think?

Another perk about taping (audio and video) is it helps you develop your timing and delivery, while also working on which jokes work and which ones don’t. My “Samantha” joke got lots of laughs two weeks ago when I did it in front of a crowd that was half the size, but on the tape it barely gets any laughs. Another advantage to video is just seeing how you look on stage and how you can improve your stage presence.  I immediately noticed I play with the mic cord too much, something you might not have noticed until now when I pointed it out to you.  But I noticed right away!

I’m also a bit animated on stage and talk with my hands a lot, but that’s just who I am and I’m probably not going to try to change that. I’ll definitely have my set recorded again later on. It’s $10 well spent.  I hope you enjoyed it!

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Lemon Balm Limoncello

Happy Independence Day! It’s been a rainy three day weekend for us here in St. Lou so we’ve been taking advantage of the long holiday weekend by processing some of the summer harvest.

Yesterday I shucked corn and bagged it for the freezer. If you read my Urban Gardener 2016 post from a few days ago, you know we lost our own small corn crop to rats this year so we went to the local farmers market on Saturday and bought some ears of corn. By the way, we’ve caught a rat every night this week in the live trap, but that’s a blog post for another day! We also bought green beans and added those to the freezer today.

We fried some zucchini last night for dinner. The rest also went into the freezer and will be quite yummy in soups this winter. I canned pickle relish last weekend and was tempted to do it again today to use up a small batch of some cucumbers we have left.  Instead, I thought I’d try some refrigerator pickles.

I found a recipe on Pinterest which will be ready to eat tomorrow so if we like it, we’ll probably make another jarful of pickles just to use up what’s left. Our homegrown garlic and dill were also put to good use with these pickles. We’ve canned pickles the last three or four years but we are never satisfied with the outcome though we do like the relish. So hopefully these fridge pickles will be better.

Today the house smells like sage, lemon balm, and vodka. I’m just joking about that last one. Vodka has no smell really. I mention sage because I filled up the food dehydrator with it.  We use it quite a bit in the kitchen and it’s time to start harvesting our herbs and drying them. But we don’t dry the lemon balm. This year we’ve been soaking it in vodka!

20160704_125303 (1)That’s right!  Vodka! We’ve lived here for ten years and our neighbors have had lemon balm growing right on the fence line all this time.  We’ve transplanted some into our yard, mostly around other plants to keep rabbits from eating them. They don’t like lemon balm. We’ve never really used lemon balm for anything though other than enjoying the smell of it in the yard and occasionally adding it to sun tea.

About a month ago I came across a limoncello recipe that uses lemon balm instead of actual lemons. Having made limoncello from real lemons many years ago, I enjoy drinking it but the task of making it is long and tedious. This one seemed much easier and worth a shot.

20160704_125327You start by cutting some lemon balm leaves and stems and washing it. The leaves tend to take on a rusty color the older they are. You don’t want to use those. Try to find the fresh, smaller leaves near the top of the plant.

After you wash them, stick a bunch of stems of leaves into a bottle or jar that has a lid. We have a lot of these jars with porcelain stoppers that we bought to make our own herbal vinegars years ago and they are perfect for the limoncello.

After you’ve put a bunch of lemon balm into your container, you fill it with vodka. Any plain, non-flavored vodka will do. No reason to spend a lot of money on it since you are flavoring it. We use 360 Vodka because it comes in a nice bottle that also has a porcelain cap so it can be reused to make and store limocello as well. One bottle of it filled two of our smaller bottles. Be sure all of the leaves are covered with the vodka.

20160704_131453After you’ve filled your bottles, let them sit in a nice cool dark spot for 30 days. I put mine in the back of the pantry. Be sure to mark your calendar so you don’t forget about it. The vodka will take on a dark rusty color as the lemon balm soaks and ages.

After soaking for 30 days, you are ready to add the next ingredient. Add one cup of water to a pan on the stove and turn your stove on low heat. To the water, add one cup of sugar. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. You do not have to let the water come to a boil. You’ll want one cup of this sugar mixture for about every four cups of vodka.

Next, pour the vodka that’s been soaking up the lemon balm into the water, minus any lemon balm leaves or stems. Stir well, making sure the sugar is dissolved and then rebottle it. You now have limoncello! It’s rusty color will be diluted a bit but it’s ready to drink!

And believe me, hot or cold it is yummy!  It tastes like lemon drop candy. We liked it so much we went out today and bought two more bottles of vodka and started three more batches!

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