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Actually, if you count the egg-sandwich-on-a-stick Tom fixed for Brian before he left for Minnesota Wednesday morning, this posting would be about Day Two, but I’ll not confuse the issue.

Brian and Kyle arrived at the fairgrounds early yesterday morning, the first official day of the fair, to a “whirlwind of delicious fried smells.” I’m guessing Brian’s use of the word “delicious” in his Tweet was tinged with a bit of sarcasm, but I forgot to have him clarify that when I talked to him a bit earlier. What I did learn was professional obligations kept the two of them from exploring their surroundings yesterday as they had planned, but they did manage to try two novel food-on-a-stick offerings before heading back to the hotel late last night.

The first was gator-on-a-stick which, according to Brian, “wasn’t bad.” When pressed to elaborate, he said it “tasted like pork sausage.” Actually, had the sign not announced that the offering was, in fact, alligator, it sounds like–from Brian’s subsequent description–no one would have known the difference. Phooey. I was hoping for something a bit more exciting. A bit more exotic. Swampy, even. At least, I suppose, we can take solace in the fact that he didn’t say it tasted like chicken.

Gator-on-a-Stick

Gator-on-a-Stick

The second food-on-a-stick they tried was a Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick. Yes, you read that right. Curd. Not curds. A single gigantic cottage-cheese-like curd impaled on a stick. Served hot. “Death,” he said when asked, “It tasted like death.” Yummm! Apparently, he was able to stomach only one bite before throwing the whole business–curd, stick, and all–in the trash. He didn’t even hang on to it long enough to take a picture. Rats. Maybe he can stalk a curd-lover or two between now and the end of the fair and get a picture. I want to see Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick. Not eat it, mind you. Just see it.

When I talked to him, they haven’t had a chance to go a-tasting yet today, but he promised they would. Stay tuned!

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As I type, Brian is heading north to the Twin Cities for the Minnesota State Fair. While his primary responsibility is to execute the assignment Department Zero and Toyota sent him up there to do, his–and his traveling companion, Kyle’s–primary off-duty objective is to sample every one of the 59–yes, that’s right, 59–fair food offerings on a stick, supposedly the largest food-on-a-stick menu at any state fair in this great nation. Cue the anthem.

For the next seven to ten days, these two brave souls will selflessly sacrifice their waistlines and arteries to bring us the details of such novel offerings as spaghetti-on-a-stick, fried-alligator-on-a-stick, hotdish-on-a-stick, deep-fried-candy-bars-on-a-stick, and Pig Lickers (chocolate-covered-bacon-on-a-stick), along with the more traditional corn dogs,  cotton candy, and frozen confections that, as it happens, also come on a stick. I’m so proud. My job is to chronicle the entire gastric extravaganza for you in all its crunchy, gooey, burbly, acidic detail (Brian has promised pictures).

So, if you have the stomach, please join us for the fun. Tom, who never fails to put his snappy-ass spin on any new adventure, got into the spirit of the thing by serving Brian an egg sandwich on a stick this morning before his o’dark thirty departure.

Egg-Sandwich-on-a-Stick

Egg-Sandwich-on-a-Stick

Grab your Tums. It promises to be quite the ride.

This past weekend, we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday with a luau-themed open house. It was a terrific party. Friends and family came from all over the country to help her celebrate and to raise their glasses in toast to her.

Weeks before the party, one of my sisters-in-law  suggested the luau theme as a nod to my mother-in-law getting to go on her dream vacation to Hawaii this coming October, a start-the-celebration-early-whet-the-appetite type event. Brilliant. With the theme agreed upon, a couple of my other sisters-in-law and I sat down to plan out how we were going to turn a Midwestern suburban backyard into a Hawaiian island. Ideas flew fast and furious, and in the middle of the melee, I jokingly said, “I’ve seen Sandra Lee make a volcano cake that really smokes…I could do that.” Snort.

Apparently I didn’t snort loudly enough because the gals gathered around the table immediately jumped on the idea. “Wow, that’d be great! Can you do that?”

Wait…wait…I didn’t mean…huh?

For those of you who do not know who Sandra Lee is, she’s a tall, gorgeous, incredibly freakish, blond woman who has several cooking shows on Food Network. In a nutshell, Sandra’s a fruit loop. An entertaining fruit loop in an good-grief-I-can’t-believe-she-just-did-that kind of way, but a fruit loop, nonetheless, who dresses to match the curtains over her kitchen window and the color of the standing mixer on the counter behind her. A fruit loop who closes every show by sipping a cocktail as she goes through a long-winded explanation of the “inexpensive tablescape” she’s created that just happens to match her clothes, the kitchen curtains, and the standing mixer. The same tablescape that is taller than your average sixth-grader and easily more expensive than my first house. I can go on, but I won’t. If you don’t believe me, read what Anthony Bourdain wrote about her recently on his blog in a post called A Drive By Shooting. Anyway, Sandra’s schtick is “semi-homemade cooking” which means that most of what she “cooks” on the show comes out of a box or a package. She uses an expensive-looking chef’s knife to hack the boxes and packages open–which, I suppose, makes her feel justified in using the word “Cooking” in the title of her show–but the knife gets very little use otherwise.

Anyway, the aforementioned volcano cake is no exception to Sandra’s “semi-homemade” repertoire. Made from boxed cake mixes, canned frosting, and those aerosol cans of decorator icing, it truly is a pastry chef’s worst nightmare. It is, however, a five-year-old’s dream. It smokes. It’s covered in frosting. Lots and lots of frosting. And it smokes. Did I mention that? Tom wanted to know if I’d make one for his last birthday…but I digress.

The freakishness of its original creator aside, however, I have to admit the idea of a volcano cake as a conversation piece for a luau-themed party isn’t bad one, especially–I reasoned–if I made the cake and the frosting from scratch. All righty then.

The Friday before the party, I began baking the cake layers. Five in all: two 10″ round layers, two 9″ round layers, and a bundt cake. And here, I’m going to admit–after extensive searches through my recipes and a number of online recipes–I did make the cakes from a box. Or, more specifically, boxes. I’ve never been much of a cake baker, but of the cakes I used to make before going gluten-free, none seemed dense enough to withstand the weight of the other layers once they were all stacked atop one another in volcano formation. I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t have a lack-of-density problem with boxed cake mixes. All those artificial ingredients I can’t pronounce have to have some purpose, I suppose.

I did, however, make the frosting from scratch. I’m not a big fan of sweet frosting–plus, I really wanted to do something special for the big event–so I decided to do a cream cheese frosting instead of the typical butter cream frosting. Saturday night, I made nine cups of chocolate cream cheese frosting and six cups of white chocolate cream cheese frosting. The white chocolate frosting got divided up and colored red, orange, yellow, and green. Each color went into a pastry bag, and the whole lot went into the refrigerator until the next morning when I would take it to my in-laws where I planned to assemble the cake.

Before falling asleep that night, I began to worry that the masses wouldn’t like the cream cheese frosting. I fell  into a fitful sleep and woke the next morning at 5:30 to resume worrying. By 5:45, I was out in the kitchen trying to decide if it was worth the gluten-intolerant side effects I would experience if I taste tested the cake with the cream cheese icing on it. Luckily, Tom wandered into the kitchen about that time, offering to sacrifice himself for the cause, so I smeared a blob of the icing on one of the mutant 10″ layers I wasn’t using and asked for his thoughts. “It’s not what I was expecting,” he said sheepishly as he tried to lick the icing from the corner of his mouth.

Well, that’s all it took. If it wasn’t what he was expecting, then it wouldn’t be what my mother-in-law or any of her guests were expecting either. Within seconds, Tom was off to the grocery store for more butter and powdered sugar, and I was warming up my KitchenAid. By 9 am, I was showered, my car was loaded with the frozen cake layers and buckets of butter cream icing in all the required colors, and I was on my way to my in-laws.

I’m happy to say–after all the hoopla of getting the components of the cake assembled–the cake itself came together without much fuss. Most importantly, it was warmly received by the crowd for both its novelty (we did actually get it

The volcano cake (aka The Giant Chocolate Boob)

The Giant Chocolate Boob (aka The Volcano Cake)

to smoke) and its taste, and my mother-on-law seemed genuinely pleased. So, what’s the problem? Well, there was no problem until after the party when I saw the pictures of the thing. Viewed in person, it was a pretty respectable replica of a volcano. At least, I thought it was. In the pictures, it looks like a giant chocolate boob coughing up party streamers! Seriously. Take a look. Once again, just as I’m feeling pretty cocky about myself and my abilities, my ego gets side-swiped a la raisin on the white capris. I fear I will go down in family lore as the creator of the giant chocolate boob, particularly by anyone who didn’t see it in person. I can just hear future generations talking about the demented aunt who made the obscene birthday cake for her dear, sweet mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party. What a freak.

“Hi, I’m calling to enroll in the Basic Cooking Skills classes—all four of them. I’d like to enroll my husband, too.”

“Great! Have either of you taken classes here before?”

“Well, my husband hasn’t, but I took a cookie baking class about a year ago.”

“So neither of you has taken the Basic Knife Skills class?”

I was afraid she was going to ask me this, “Ummm, No.”

“Well, we do recommend that you take the Basic Knife Skills class before starting the Basic Cooking Skills series.”

Nuts. I’d read this in the course catalog, but I really didn’t want to pay $120 for the two of us to take a class on how to use a knife. I mean, come on. A knife? Maybe a food processor, but a knife? So I opted to play dumb. “Really? Do we have to take the Basic Knife Skills class before we can enroll in the others?”

She wasn’t going to give me a break. “Truthfully, you don’t have to, but we strongly recommend it,” she said patiently and with great emphasis on the words “have to” and “strongly.”

Rats. Time to come clean. “Yes, I read that in the catalog, but I was hoping to just jump right into the cooking courses. You see, we’re both well over 40 and have been using knives for years. It seems a bit unnecessary.”

“Yes, ma’am. Most people feel that way. But I promise you won’t be sorry if you take the class.”

Big sigh. Not wanting to have a black mark next to my name before ever even starting the classes, I enrolled us in the stupid Basic Knife Skills class.

Crazy, but true, it’s one of the smartest things I ever did.

For years, my mother had been giving me the business about my dull knives. She lived on the other side of the continent by then and wasn’t in my kitchen often, but when she was, she’d mention the inadequacy of my knives every time she cooked with me. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. I managed to put meals—facile meals, but meals—on the table with those knives every single day of the year for twenty-some years. Why couldn’t she just suck it up and use them without giving me such a hard time?

Why, indeed. Once I took the Basic Knife Skills class, I understood why, and I marveled that Mom hadn’t been more militant about the whole thing than she was. Ye gods, she showed restraint!

The course description of the Basic Knife Skills class read, “Any chef or serious cook will tell you there is no substitute for proper knife skills as the foundation for all other cooking skills.” In hindsight, all I can say is, “Amen.” And after taking the class, I would go one step further and add, more specifically, there is no substitute for the right sharp knife, either. For me that knife is a Wüsthof 6½ inch Santuko knife, a knife I learned about in class that night. I seriously can’t cook without it or, at least, without something comparable.

Need an onion diced up? No sweat (and usually only a few tears). With my beloved Santuko and the techniques I learned in the class, I can dice up an onion—or any other veggie or piece of fruit, for that matter—without any drama whatsoever. That was not true BTC (before the class). BTC, it routinely took me way too much time to prepare the ingredients for something as simple as a stew or a salad. Not surprisingly, I often went to great lengths to avoid preparing certain dishes all together just because I didn’t want to go to the hassle of cutting up all the ingredients. Even worse, when I was truly desperate, I would resort to the more expensive and way-less-nutritious option of buying the already-cut-up-and-frozen versions of the ingredients. How silly.

Today, I can mince garlic, dice red peppers and tomatoes, chop carrots and fennel, slice avocados and mushrooms, and chiffonade basil without thinking very hard or spending much time doing it. I have found I truly enjoy the time I spend standing at my cutting board, mincing, dicing, chopping, and slicing. Even though I have since purchased a number of other kitchen gadgets designed to help me cut up ingredients, I still, more often than not, reach for my Santuko.

And I love using words like “chiffonade” and “Santuko.” Tossing the word “chiffonade” into a sentence makes me sound like I know what I doing in the kitchen, even when I don’t (which is often). It impresses my non-foodie friends and gives me the confidence to try new things with food that I would never have attempted BTC.

Today, I live in my kitchen and love experimenting with new recipes and new foods. I’m mortified to think I might not ever have expanded my vocabulary nor my culinary horizons had I insisted on skipping that one class or had I failed to treat myself to the one kitchen gadget I now know is essential to any serious cook.

The woman on the other end of the phone that day was right. The Basic Knife Skills class was a game changer for me. I will be forever grateful. But you must excuse me now. My roasted vegetable ragù is ready to come out of the oven.

We are in the sixth or seventh day of heat advisories here in the Land of Oz. Not an entirely novel state of affairs; although, we usually don’t get these extreme temperatures this early in the summer. No matter. It is what it is. Every time I hear myself moaning about the miserable heat and humidity, I remind myself how lucky I am not to have to work outdoors in it. Unlike the mail carriers, construction workers, and farmers, I have the luxury of ignoring the outdoor tasks requiring my attention, the flower beds that need to be weeded and most of the errands that need to be run. But it is hellaciously hot. Hellaciously. Even Teddy doesn’t want to go outside. Smart dog.

Even so, I would like to propose a new rule that would take effect when the thermometer and/or the heat index goes over 95 degrees, and that rule would be: No Makeup Allowed. Think about it, ladies. If we all agreed to this rule, none of us would stand out from the crowd. None of us could be singled out for ridicule when our lips disappear, our eyes recede into nothingness, and our age spots and red blotches come out of hiding. We’d all be lip-less, eyebrow-less wonders together. Moreover, none of us would have foundation and blush dripping onto the front of our shirts or smeared all over the ear pieces of our cell phones. Nor would we have black smudges under our eyes from wiping away the salty rivulets of sweat that keep dripping from our eyebrows onto our lashes. While we’re at it, maybe we should add an addendum stating that when the No Makeup Allowed rule is in effect, all hair must be worn plastered to the head. Completely flat. No fluffage. No exceptions. Think how much time, aggravation, and hair spray these few simple rules would save us.

If the men complain, we can just remind them that they’re not much to look at in this heat either. Even though they may not have eye shadow pooling under their chins, the dark stains under their armpits that blend into the dark stains running from collar to belt on their backs are not a great look either.

Something to think about.

Two weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a nasty headache. Getting up in the middle of the night has become something of a routine in the last year or so–not because of headaches, but because of my middle-age hormones–all exacerbated in recent weeks by the jet lag from an overseas trip. The headache added a new twist to the whole business, but I have developed a routine for such occasions. Instead of flopping around in bed, becoming evermore agitated at my inability to fall back asleep, I’ve learned to just get up and do other things–read, surf the net, attempt to watch TV (although TV at that time of night is worse than awful), or noodle around in the kitchen. Seriously, several nights ago I was so wide awake, I made cookies. Anyway, after taking a couple of Excedrin that particular night, I carefully tip-toed out of the bedroom, being careful to avoid the squeaky spots in the floor so I didn’t wake Tom, and headed out to the living room and the pile of books and magazines stacked next to my chair.

While thumbing through one of the cooking magazines, I came across an interview with Elisabeth Hasselbeck in which she talked about being gluten intolerant. Gluten intolerant. Hmmmm. Interesting. Just a few weeks before when I was visiting my aunt, I learned that one of her sons (my cousin) is gluten intolerant. I’ve only known one other person my entire life (that I’m aware of anyway) who is gluten intolerant and that was when I was in grade school. I must admit, it’s not a topic I’ve given much thought to. The extent of my knowledge about gluten intolerance was that anyone who has it must avoid wheat products. That’s it. I knew nothing more. Having plenty of time on my hands and no inclination to go back to sleep, I headed into the office to do a little research on the subject.

I started at MayoClinic.com. Let’s see…not a food allergy, hmmm…abdominal pain and diarrhea, interesting…genetic, really?…linked to auto-immune disorders, what!?…to say I was shocked by what I read would be a gross understatement. The list of symptoms of gluten intolerance reads like a checklist of my medical records and my maternal family’s health history. Not that any one of us has all the symptoms, but among the entire group of us, we’ve covered a scary percentage of them. If you–like me–are unfamiliar with gluten intolerance, here’s a quick overview from the site: “If you have Celiac disease and eat foods containing gluten [found in products containing wheat, barley, and rye], an immune reaction occurs in your small intestine, causing damage to the surface of your small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients.” Besides disrupting a person’s digestive system, gluten intolerance is linked to a number of conditions–particularly auto-immune conditions (my family’s specialty)–including, but not limited to, thyroid disease, lupus, Crohn’s disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, alopecia (hair loss), rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain, skin rash (particularly on the elbows, knees, and buttocks), mouth sores, dental disorders, neuropathy, general weakness and fatigue, infertility, and liver disease. Holy cow! Until learning recently about my cousin’s diagnosis, I’ve never heard anyone in my family mention the possibility of gluten intolerance.

About then, Tom woke up and wandered into the office in a sleepy fog, blinking and scratching, “What are you doing?”

When I explained about my research and what I’d learned, the first words out of his mouth were, “Maybe that explains why you felt so good when you did Atkins.” Out of the mouths of the comatose.

For most of my adult life, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with food. I love to eat it, but hate how it makes me feel and look. And for most of my adult life, my digestive system has been wacky, something I chalked it up to my latest diet du jour and/or stress. And there were plenty of diet du jours–and stress (but then, who isn’t stressed?). Over the years, I’ve tried just about every diet out there. Some worked, some didn’t, and with the exception of Atkins, they’d all made me feel lousy–or at minimum–no better than my normal diet (of mostly processed foods) made me feel. Atkins was different. I felt great on Atkins. My energy level soared. My digestive troubles went away as did my rashes and indigestion. I remember telling people I felt like I was twenty again. But Atkins was also a diet that made others nervous. “You shouldn’t eat like that!’ my friends would say, and truthfully, based on my knowledge of nutrition at the time, it made me nervous, too. So after six or seven months, I gave it up and went back watching the numbers on my bathroom scales yo-yo up and down.

Then a couple of years ago, my attitude about food and cooking changed–dramatically. Up to that point, cooking was something I did to feed my family. Providing sustenance. Just one more chore. One that I tried to do as quickly and easily as possible. Although my family didn’t eat a lot of take-out, fast food, I did prepare a lot of meals using pre-packaged, highly processed ingredients. Food itself fell into two basic categories: healthy and time-consuming-to-prepare or yummy, quick, easy, and fattening. What a choice, and what an incredible amount of time I wasted wringing my hands over the whole mess. But then, as I said, things changed.

Over the last two years–because of events I won’t go into now–I have fallen in love with cooking. Along the way have learned a great deal about food and nutrition. Not the misguided, pyramid-shaped gospel of nutrition preached by the government, but the common sense version practiced by our ancestors until the middle of the last century when food became industrialized. No more fake, manufactured foods, no more packaged foods with lists of ingredients I don’t recognize or can’t spell or pronounce, just whole real food. Again, this is a topic I can write hundreds of posts on, so I’ll move on and get to my point. Finally.

I no longer eat the things that I had previously blamed my digestive problems on, and for the last several months have had virtually no stress in my life. In many ways, I feel much better, but my digestive system is still buggered up. Which brings me back to gluten intolerance. If improving my diet and reducing stress hasn’t clear up the problem, could I possibly be gluten intolerant? And if I am, could changing my diet now save me from some of the nastier auto-immune issues others in my family have faced? Under the circumstances, it seemed perfectly reasonable to find out, so I made an appointment with my doctor and had the blood test a few days later. I learned earlier this week that the test came back negative, meaning I’m not gluten intolerant. However, the very next day, I shared the story with a friend who just laughed and told me her sister had the same experience. Eventually, the sister was diagnosed with Celiac disease and felt better within a week or two of starting a gluten-free diet. Last night, I met another woman who relayed a similar story, so I’ve decided to go gluten free just to see what happens. I know for sure I felt better when I wasn’t eating bread, cookies, pizza, etc. on Atkins, and my gut instinct tells me it’s a good plan.

So, why am I telling you all this? Because the more people I talk to and the more I learn about Celiac disease and its symptoms, the more I’m convinced that there are others out there like me who are totally unaware of the problems gluten may be causing. If not with you, maybe someone you love. Not that I want anyone to be gluten intolerant, but if someone is, it seems much easier to make a few changes in diet now rather than to have to deal with the damage later. Moreover, I’m learning there are lots of people in the world who eat gluten free just because it makes them feel good. I’m also discovering yummy, healthy ingredients like arrowroot, quinoa, and millet that I’ve never considered using before. At this point, I feel overwhelmed by it all, but grateful to finally feel like I might be on to something that will change my health for the better. I’ll keep you posted.

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