You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Trying New Things’ tag.

Okay, okay. I know I promised that I would keep you all updated on our travels, but that was before I found out we would be going non-stop, all day, every day for the last four days. Any time we’ve been here at the condo since early Friday morning, it’s been to shower, sleep, and get organized for the next outing. This evening, after four full days of exploring the Big Island, we’ve come back early to re-group and get ready to fly to Oahu tomorrow afternoon. Finally, I have a bit of time to write and get you all caught up. I don’t have time to go into great detail, but I will give you an overview of what we’ve been doing.

Friday was our only truly leisurely morning on the lanai. Oh sure, we’ve eaten breakfast out there every morning because what kind of idiots would we be if we didn’t, but our morning meal has become more of a planning session than a relaxing repast. With maps, tourist magazines, and Fodor’s spread out before us, we plan our daily forays with a level of precision that would put most military strategists to shame. Our efforts have paid off. In four days, we’ve covered nearly every corner of this island. That’s not to say that we’ve seen everything. Far from it; however, we have gotten our money’s worth. That’s all I’m saying.

Because our door-to-door travel time getting from KC to Kailua-Kona on Thursday promised to be a nearly 24-hour affair, we agreed weeks ago that Friday would be a day of rest and relaxation. Ha! Excitement and adrenaline got the better of us, and we were out the door before lunchtime, headed into town.

Our first stop was a locally owned restaurant in the shopping district along the waterfront. While our noon meal was nothing to blog about, the quaint little oceanside city of Kailua-Kona is. Shops, galleries, and open-air restaurants line the narrow winding road that runs along the coast. Since few sidewalks exist, visitors and locals alike walk single file along the edge of the pavement as they go about their business while locals sit along the seawall watching the tourists parade by in their goofy hats and loud Hawaiian shirts. A few of the more industrious locals weave hats out of reeds or strum guitars as they watch the world go by, but most just sit and enjoy the show.

Downtown Kailua-Kona

After lunch we did a bit of wandering ourselves, stopping first in an art gallery, then the grounds of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, and finally at the flea market where we loaded up on some exotic local fruits, including dragon fruit, rambutans, and papayas. After a quick run back to the condo, we returned to a well-reviewed restaurant (thanks to the restaurant-finding application on Carey’s iPod) in Kailua-Kona to enjoy dinner on their open-air patio perched on piers above the water. The drinking of fruity alcoholic beverages with little umbrellas ensued.

10-24-09 016

Rambutans

10-24-09 019

Dragon fruit

Our Saturday morning started early because we were heading across the island to see the volcano. To get there, we traveled south along the Kona Coast, stopping as we went to see Kealakekua Bay and St. Benedict’s Painted Church.

10-24-09 035

Kealakekua Bay

10-24-09 054

St. Benedict's Painted Church

As we rounded the southern tip of the island, we got off the main highway and headed even further south down a bumpy mostly one-lane road (Hertz is going to love us) to South Point (Ka Lae) the southern-most tip of the island which is also the southern-most tip of the United States. Talk about windswept and desolate. You feel like you’re literally clinging to the edge of the world, but, oh my word, is it beautiful.

Ruth's Pictures 138

The road to Ka Lae (South Point)

At some point in the last twenty or so years, some enterprising soul thought to erect a wind farm to capture the gales roaring across the peninsula, but today most of the tall, ghostly white turbines are abandoned and rusting. Only one row of newer looking windmills still spin in the wind. We don’t know why, but there you are.

The rutted narrow road leading to South Point ends at a parking area more than a quarter of a mile up a rather steep incline from the water, so we all piled out and started hiking. I’m so glad we did. The sea was at low tide, so as we clamored over the hardened lava flow lining the beach, we found numerous tide pools full of small fish and tiny crabs.

10-24-09 062

Ka Lae (South Point)

10-24-09 065

Exploring the tide pools on Ka Lae

Our next stop was at a black sand beach on the east side of the island called Punalu’u Beach Park where we saw a big ol’ sea turtle sunning himself, doing his best to ignore all the tourists who were flapping around him, snapping pictures.

10-24-09 071

Sunbathing sea turtle

After another hour or so of driving, we could see the plume of smoke rising from Kilauea and could smell the sulphur. Only a few minutes later we arrived at what the GPS was telling us was the entrance to the park. It was closed! In a bit of a panic, we tuned the car radio to the park’s information station and learned that the volcano’s sulphur emissions are currently two to four times levels considered safe, so the National Park Service had closed the downwind half of the road that runs around the rim of the volcano. Luckily for us and everyone else atop Kilauea that day, the upwind portion of the park was still open. Hazzah! We hurried to that entrance and to the visitor’s center. At this point, I could write forever about what we saw and experience at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park—I think all five of us would hardily agree that we enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime experience—but I could never do it all justice in the short time I have to write this post, but I will give you a short synopsis and then post pictures.

In a nutshell: we stood at the rim of the caldera where the plume we saw as we approached the park was rising hundreds of feet into the sky; we saw steam pouring from vents all around us and even got to stand right over a couple of the vents and feel the heat rising from the earth’s interior; we walked through the Thurston Lava Tube, “a lighted prehistoric cavelike tube”  where “several hundred years ago a river of red hot lava rushed through” on its way to the sea; and we walked nearly a mile across a hardened lava field in the pitch dark (aided only by dinky little flashlights) to see fiery lava flowing down the side of the volcano, through the vegetation where trees exploded in its path, and finally into the ocean where massive towers of glowing red and orange smoke rose into the night sky. It was spectacular. It was breath-taking. It was unbelievable. And, please note, when I say “we,” I mean all five of us. Ruth did it all. She’s a ROCK STAR!

10-24-09 081

The Kilauea caldera

Ruth's Pictures 163

A steam vent

Ruth's Pictures 178

Thurston Lava Tube

Ruth's Pictures 200

Lava flowing down the mountain

Ruth's Pictures 199

Trees bursting into flames

Carey's Pictures 076

Lava spilling into the sea

It was nearly midnight by the time we got back over the mountains (volcanoes) and into bed, but we were up early on Sunday because Ruth, Janie, and Carole wanted to go to mass before we headed out to explore the Hilo side of Hawaii. While the three of them went into Kailua-Kona to attend mass at St. Michael’s, the nearly 160-year-old church we’d seen on Friday, a church where half the mass is done in Hawaiian, Carey and I did some research and mapped our route for the day.

They were back by 10:30 and we were headed to Hilo. This time, instead of going around the bottom of the island, we headed toward the top and crossed over on the north side of Mauna Kea, the tallest volcano on the island. Although it has not erupted in nearly 4,500 years, it is still considered an active volcano.

The Hilo side of the island is wetter than the Kona side, so it’s more tropical and lush. Hundreds of waterfalls flow from the mountaintops on that side of the island, many of which can be seen just driving down the highway. But we wanted to see a waterfall up close, so we stopped in Akaka Falls State Park to see one of the most dazzling and accessible falls (many require a strenuous hike or a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to) on that part of the island. Spilling more than 400 feet to the floor of a steamy tropical rainforest filled with banyan trees, banana trees, two- and three-story tall bamboo shoots as thick as a weightlifter’s thigh, and hundreds of tropical plants and orchids of every shape and color, Akaka Falls is…is…well, shoot, I’m running out of adjectives. Some things you just have to see for yourself.

Carey's Pictures 107

Akaka Falls

After our stroll through the rainforest, we headed into Hilo with the intent of going to a botanical garden, but the garden was closed. We have no idea why, but this is Hawaii. Islanders seem to close things when it suits them. Guide books be damned. Probably a good day for surfing or fishing. Who knows. We weren’t too upset though. Short of having labels to tell us what we’d been looking at back at the Falls, we’d already walked through a spectacular botanical garden…even though—until a German tourist set us straight—we thought the blooms on the banana tree we were ogling and taking pictures of were some kind of an orchid. Somehow we missed the big bunches of bananas hanging nearby. Hey, give us a break. How many banana trees have you seen growing in Kansas!?

We noodled around with the idea of stopping to do some shopping in Hilo, but after the extremely late night the previous evening, we decided to make our way back to the other side of the island and eat dinner closer to the condo. Once again, Carey and some gee-whiz application on her iPod found us a great place to eat.

Monday, Ruth got a quick hit of Walmart and Target as we went screaming through both in search of aqua socks and sun hats. I don’t think she was very pleased about being rushed through her favorite haunts so quickly, but we were on a mission. We were heading to a local coffee plantation and then to the beach.

Compared to the other islands in the chain, there aren’t many sand beaches on the Big Island, but the ones that are here are gorgeous. For example, the Big Island has the only green sand beach in the world. Unfortunately, we were unable to go because it can only be accessed via an hour-and-a-half-long hike. Please note, if you plan on visiting the Big Island, rent a four-wheel drive and bring your hiking shoes. Many of the most raved about sites are hard to get to.

Anyway, for our outing on Monday, we chose a beach with easy access on the northwest shore called Hapuna Beach. It was glorious: white sand, rolling surf, and palm trees lining the beach. Because of the other activities we had planned for the day, we didn’t bring our suits, but we waded in as far as our capris, shorts, or skirts would allow. Not surprisingly, we walked out of the surf dripping wet from thighs down, smiling like idiots, sand between our toes. Even Ruth got in. Really. I have pictures. Look!

10-26-09 048

Ruth ventures in...slowly

From the beach, we headed up to Kawaihae Harbor for a late lunch and a bit of shopping and then back to the condo to get ready to leave tomorrow…which is where we are now. If all goes as planned, Ruth, Janie, and Carole will be up and out the door early to cram in as much shopping as they can manage before we have to head to the airport. Carey and I will be holding down lounge chairs at the pool overlooking the ocean. Hey, someone’s got to do it.

Aloha!

Advertisements

My mother-in-law, Ruth, sisters-in-law, Janie and Carole, my daughter, Carey, and I departed for Hawaii from Kansas City on time Thursday morning with minimal flap. Oh, there was the requisite jostling of crap in and out of tote bags, digging in purses for IDs, and fumbling for Ziploc bags full of toiletries, but for this group of travelers, that can safely be called minimal flap. The flight itself was smooth and uneventful—that is, if you don’t count the coffee Ruth spilled on Janie—and we were even treated to a view of the Grand Canyon at no extra charge. Janie, Ruth, and Carole had a good view of the canyon from their side of the plane. Carey and I crossed the aisle for a peek. We touched down in LA 15 or 20 minutes early.

Thankfully, our layover in LA went very smoothly. I’ll admit, I jumped the gun on the airport shuttle, taking the shuttle that was headed to the parking lots instead of to the departure gates—Hey! the driver lied and told me he’d take us there—but we got where we needed to go with only minimal fuss, so no foul.

Once our checked luggage was safely on its way to whatever vortex checked luggage disappears into, we found a spot to sit and relax while we waited for Encounter, the restaurant atop the funky spaceship-looking building in the center of the airport complex, to open at 11 a.m. We had plenty to occupy us as we waited. LA is a fun place to people watch. I’m fairly the certain the per capita number of folks in sunglasses is at its highest in LA. Plus, Carey thinks she saw the guy who wrote and starred in Super Size Me, but we couldn’t be certain. I’m sorry to say, no other celebrity sightings occurred.

The spaceship building at LAX is under renovation, so we had to skirt scaffolding and union protesters as we walked around the perimeter hunting for the entrance to Encounter. The scaffolding was up when I went through LA in March, and it doesn’t look like they’ve made any progress to speak of since. Anyway, after much marching about and asking for directions from kind (and bemused) strangers, our little parade of five, toting sundry Hawaiian rolling bags, backpacks, and purses, finally found the entrance and made our way to the elevators.

The Entourage

The Entourage

An Elevator Encounter

An elevator Encounter

The elevators going up to Encounter are an experience all on their own. The small, capsule-like enclosures with wild-colored amoeba shapes climbing up the walls have psychedelic piped-in music that starts as soon as the doors close and that stops as soon as the doors open. Groovy, man. The doors open onto a bar area and a mostly unobstructed 360° view of LAX…and the LA smog. Cough. Cough.

The manager of the restaurant greeted us like we were long-lost relatives and, with a grand flourish, showed us to a great table with a view, indicating a spot along a nearby wall where we could deposit our plunder. We had a lot of time to kill before our flight to Honolulu, so the meal was a leisurely affair. We took the edge off our hunger with a plate of edemame before enjoying our salads and sandwiches. And, of course, we took pictures. Pictures of the food, pictures of the view, pictures of us, pictures of us with Duane (our waiter), pictures of the funky bathroom, and pictures of the elevator. Our time at Encounter was well documented.

Janie, Ruth, Carole, Mary, Carey, and Duane at Encounter

Janie, Ruth, Carole, Mary, Carey, and Duane at Encounter

Then it was back to the terminal and through security. More fumbling.

Our flight to Honolulu was delayed while mechanics worked to replace the pilot’s oxygen canister. Apparently, testing showed it was threatening to malfunction. I suppose if anyone on the plane needs an oxygen mask in an emergency, it would be the pilot, so we waited…and waited…and waited. Just over an hour after our scheduled departure time, we pushed back from the gate and were on our way.

We were on a 767, a plane with two seats on the outside of the aisles and three seats between them. When I booked the flight, I struggled with our seat selection because I knew that Janie, Carole, and Carey would enjoy having a window seat and that Ruth would want a seat where she COULDN’T see the water. I settled on the outside aisle seats in three consecutive rows, seated two, two, and one. On that flight, I was the one. My seatmate, Mike, was a very nice man whom I would guess to be in his mid- to late-50s, a nice man who was easily 6’5” and close to 300 pounds. He sat in the aisle seat and, after lifting the armrest, part of mine. I’m not complaining, really. Mike was as pleasant and as considerate as he could have possibly been under the circumstances, but I was still smashed against the window. And then, as is so often the case when I find myself of long distance flights, I was sitting behind a total tool who threw his seat back into my lap. Whop!

The tool was the same numb nuts who got on the plane with a “carry-on” that was just barely smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle and who spent more than 20 minutes trying to cram the aforementioned monstrosity into an overhead bin where it clearly was NEVER going to fit. Finally, in frustration, he began asking other passengers if he could move their bags to bins further back in the plane so he could get his stowed. He then had the gall to act indignant when they told him, “No!” I repeat. He was a numb nuts, a total jerk who sat down RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME! Within 20 minutes his Mohawk—yes, he had a Mohawk, not a faux-hawk, but a Mohawk and he was easily my age—was lying in my lap sound asleep.

Meanwhile, a few rows back, Janie and Carole were having their own adventures. Early in the flight, Carole tried to get her headphones plugged in. As she fumbled around trying to insert the plug into any hole she could find within arm’s reach, she unknowingly pushed the call button. Both she and Janie were surprised when a cheerful flight attendant appeared asking what they needed. After assessing the situation and their blank faces, he smiled knowingly, gallantly plugged in Carole’s headset, and headed off to assist other hapless passengers. Sometime later, he re-appeared—this time, not so cheerily—and reached over their heads to turn off the call light that once again had mysteriously come on. Then, without saying a word, he reached over Janie and punched Carole’s call button (probably to disable it) and left. Carole was mortified, Janie was amused, and the flight attendant was…well, I’m guessing he’s seen it all before.

Thanks to Janie’s forethought and Darrell and Janie’s generosity, we were greeted at Honolulu International Airport with orchid leis. Much picture taking ensued. Daisy, the lei lady—I kid you not, her name was really Daisy; how’s that for irony—was absolutely wonderful. Thanks to her kind and patient guidance, our plane change in Honolulu went off without a hitch. As an added bonus, the intoxicating smell of the leis totally masked the full day of travel stink we’d accumulated since our departure from Kansas City nearly 21 hours earlier.

aDaisy Greets Ruth at the Airport
Daisy greets Ruth at the airport
Of course we're smiling. We just got lei'd!

Aloha! Hawaii

After a pleasant and very short flight, we were at the car rental place in Kona by 9:00 p.m. While Ruth guarded the luggage and Carole squirreled around with the GPS that her husband, Paul, had so thoughtfully pre-programmed with many of our destinations, the rest of us stood in line to get our car. Well, actually, it’s a minivan, but let’s not split hairs.

After loading the minivan with our luggage, we took off for a Safeway to get a few breakfast supplies before heading to the condo. We wanted to be sure that we wouldn’t have to get out this morning if we didn’t want to. We didn’t want to. It was pitch dark when we got here last night, so we couldn’t see the view off our lanai, but we could hear it. This morning, the view took our breath away. We’ve been sitting out here pretty much non-stop ever since. As Carey so insightfully and eloquently pointed out at one point during our reverie, “This does not suck.”

I’ll post a running narrative of our Hawaiian adventures here on this blog (including more details about the condo), and I’ll post information about specific places we visit on P.S. Wish You Were Here. We hope you’ll tag along!

Aloha!

The view off our lanai looking north

The view off our lanai looking north

The view looking north

The view looking south

The shore 25 feet off our lanai

The shore 25 feet off our lanai

Before I get too far, several of you have inquired about the state of Brian’s digestive tract after the ostrich episode. Suffice it to say even after swigging half a bottle of Pepto Bismol within hours of wrestling the thing down, he didn’t feel normal again until early the next afternoon. Ostrich-on-a-Stick? You might want to think twice. I’m just saying…

Now back to our regularly scheduled posting. Sadly, this will be my last post about the food-on-a-stick available at the Minnesota State Fair. Brian got called back to Kansas City to work on another project earlier than he’d originally expected, leaving more than three dozen skewered possibilities un-sampled. He got home last night in time for dinner, extremely tired and–amazingly enough–hungry. The smart-aleck part of me wanted to fix a meal of fried-everything, but my mom side won out. Stupid mom side. So, instead, he was served lots of fresh fruit and raw veggies. Tom, however, did try to skewer Brian’s serving of meatloaf before carrying it to the table.

Even though he didn’t get to sample everything before leaving, Brian did find several more things to share with us. You’ll never believe a couple of them.

First on the line-up: Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick. He had already sampled this particularly nasty sounding option–and had sworn he would never eat it again–but, at my request, he did find someone else who was eating it and managed to get a picture. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but, sadly, Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick looks just like every other stabbed, battered, and fried grub-on-a-stick offering we’ve already seen. Sigh.

Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick

Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick

The same is true for Mac-and-Cheese-on-a-Stick. Phooey. I really had high expectations for this one, as well as for Spaghetti-on-a-Stick (which Brian never managed to find, but which I found a picture of on the Minnesota State Fair website). Unfortunately, neither is the culinary marvel I imagined. In both instances, it appears the pasta is scooped into a tight ball, dipped in the ever-ubiquitous batter, and deep fried. Are you sensing a pattern here? Even worse, the mac and cheese wasn’t even of the homemade variety. Brian said it tasted just like it came out of a blue box. It’s an OUTRAGE! I have no choice but to assume the spaghetti comes out of a Chef Boyardee can? Honestly!

Mac-and-Cheese-on-a-Stick

Mac-and-Cheese-on-a-Stick

Next up: Nacho-Mama-Dog-on-a-Stick. Pause and say that out loud before continuing. This particular offering isn’t exactly what the name suggests, in as much as there is no traditional hot dog involved. Yes, the “dog” looks like a corndog, and it is, in fact, breaded in cornmeal and deep fried. But where you’d expect to find a frankfurter, you actually find taco meat pressed into the shape of a hot dog…SURPRISE! The faux dog is then piled high with traditional nacho fixin’s, including melted processed cheese food. I was ready to give this entry a few points for its catchy name until I saw the melted cheese food. Velveeta IS NOT CHEESE, people! Geeez!

Nacho-Mama-Dog-on-a-Stick

Nacho-Mama-Dog-on-a-Stick

And what’s a meal-on-a-stick without a dessert-on-a-stick to go with it? In my book, not much. Luckily for fair-goers, there are plenty of speared sweets to pick from. Brian’s choice: Key-Lime-Pie-on-a-Stick, which is strange because Brian doesn’t even like key lime pie. He didn’t like this version either which could mean it actually tastes like the real thing. It could also mean it was just plain awful. Strangely, it appears to be covered in chocolate. I love chocolate, but on key lime pie? What are they thinking?

Key-Lime-Pie-on-a-Stick

Key-Lime-Pie-on-a-Stick

Unfortunately for us, Brian did not sample the Pig Licker, aka Chocolate-Covered-Bacon-on-a-Stick, which several of you asked about, so no picture. Worse luck. The poor boy had actually tried chocolate covered bacon a couple of weeks ago at the Indiana State Fair and just couldn’t make himself go near the stuff again. Understandable. He did, however, man up and give the Foot-Long-Pepperoni-Pizza-on-a-Stick a go which he says tasted like “a Hot Pocket on a stick.” Overall,very disappointing. He was especially put out when he discovered that the stick in the Foot-Long-Pepperoni-Pizza-on-a-Stick wasn’t even a proper stick. The pizza folks were spearing their pepperoni-stuffed blob of dough with flimsy-ass disposable chopsticks. Very un-Italian.

Foot-Long-Pepperoni-Pizza-on-a-Stick

Foot-Long-Pepperoni-Pizza-on-a-Stick

He had no complaints about the Chocolate-Covered-Frozen-Banana-on-a-Stick. In fact, he tweeted, “Chocolate + Frozen Banana = One Happy Kid.”  He does look pretty happy, doesn’t he. I’m guessing he was relieved to be eating something that wasn’t breaded or dipped in batter.

Chocolate-Covered-Frozen-Banana-on-a-Stick

Chocolate-Covered-Frozen-Banana-on-a-Stick

And Brian had absolutely nothing but praise for his next on-a-stick experience. I believe the picture tells you all you need to know.

Beer-on-a-Stick

Beer-on-a-Stick

Clever, is it not? Those crafty folks up in Minnesota have this whole stick business down…really take it all quite seriously…then again…

Brian came home with one more item on a stick, and you’ll never believe what it was. I just hope the folks who were passing these little gems out didn’t put holes in them when they were putting them on the sticks. That could get rather…ummm…sticky.

Condom-on-a-Stick

Condom-on-a-Stick

Kudos to you, son! You survived. Thanks for taking us along on your adventure! I promise to feed you nothing but healthy food the entire weekend…but not on a stick.

According to fair organizers, if it weren’t for the fact that the Texas State Fair runs twice as long as the Minnesota State Fair, the latter would be considered the biggest state fair–attendance-wise–in the country. Based on our conversation last night, I don’t think Brian would argue that claim. He estimates he’s met at least half the people who live in Minnesota plus a number of others who have arrived from neighboring states for the festivities.

Brian, who has attended a number of state fairs in recent years, seems genuinely amazed at how many people are packing the fairgrounds in St. Paul from early in the morning until late in the evening. He is, without a doubt, having fun yakking it up with the fair-goers, but the large crowds do make it difficult for him to slip away from his work to pursue his quest to sample every food-on-a-stick offering at the fair.

Never fear. He’s a Woltkamp and not easily deterred from the task at hand (except, maybe, by pretty girls). He’s a man on a mission, a 23-year-old bottomless pit with an appetite for something more exotic than mere burgers and fries. He’s busy, but, this weekend, he kept his digestive system even busier. So, with a nod to his tenacity and his iron gut, I share with you his findings in the order they were eaten. I hope you yourself are not eating right now.

First up, Meatballs-on-a-stick, a hearty offering of meatballs rolled in garlic bread crumbs, skewered on a stick, and deep fried. Brian declared them “not bad,” but said little else. Obviously, not a terribly memorable option. He made no mention of dipping sauce, but I think, if you’re going to eat one, a bit of marinara on the side might make the thing more palatable. Maybe.

Meatballs-on-a-Stick

Meatballs-on-a-Stick

Next, Scotch-Egg-on-a-Stick. This one is definitely novel. According to Brian, a hard-boiled egg is impaled on a stick, encased in sausage, hand-dipped in a batter tasting strongly of nutmeg, and finally deep fried to a golden brown. His assessment: “intense.” He seemed particularly put off by the nutmeg. If you ask me, that’s the least of this dish’s problems.

Scotch-Egg-on-a-Stick

Scotch-Egg-on-a-Stick

On to the next offering: a Butterscotch-Twinkie-on-a-Stick. Amazingly enough, this one is not fried. It’s served cold and is exactly what the name and the picture suggest. A Twinkie, punctured by a Popsicle stick, covered in butterscotch. Brian wasn’t impressed. Specifically, he called it “gross.” Wouldn’t you think that at some point the folks as Hostess would get tired of having their snack cakes defiled?

Butterscotch-Twinkie-on-a-Stick

Butterscotch-Twinkie-on-a-Stick

After the sugar rush from the Butterscotch-Twinkie-on-a-Stick, Brian opted for a truly unique–and savory–offering found only at the Minnesota State Fair: Hot-Meal-on-a-Stick. And here, I must give the good folks of Minnesota their due. Just when you think there cannot possibly be any other way to combine meat, tater tots, and a can of cream-of-fill-in-the-blank soup into another casserole or repast of any kind, the clever cooks up there devise Hot-Meal-on-a Stick, the extremely popular offering in which meatballs and tater tots are lined up alternately on a stick, dipped in batter, and…wait for it…wait for it…deep fried. Lest the cream-of-whatever soup feel left out, they serve that on the side. Brian said he wasn’t sure what the soup was cream of, but it looked like “snot.” Brian has a way with words, doesn’t he?

Hot-Dish-on-a-Stick

Hot-Dish-on-a-Stick

Brian declared the next speared entree on his agenda, “Delicious!” and “a nice break from fried food.” The Wahoo-Steak-Dinner-on-a-Stick is essentially what the name implies–chunks of steak, potato, onion, and bell pepper skewered on a stick and grilled–a steak dinner on a stick. Nice. Except for the pasty white dinner roll smooshed onto the end of the stick. Couldn’t they just leave well enough alone? Still, Brian gave it two thumbs up.

Wahoo-Steak-Dinner-on-a-Stick

Wahoo-Steak-Dinner-on-a-Stick

Next stop? A Texas-Tater-Dog-on-a-Stick. I have to say, I’m fascinated by this one. Considering the folks in any food booth on the fairgrounds are feeding hundreds, if not thousands, of people in a short amount of time, how in the world do they manage to find the time to get the potato to spiral down the length of the hot dog so evenly? That must take forever. How many volunteers does it take to prep all those Texas Tater Dogs? And how many different ways–you may be thinking to yourself–can a Texas-Tater-Dog-on-a-Stick be seasoned? Well, I’ll tell you. Four: Parmesan garlic, lemon pepper, seasoned salt, and TNT. If you know my son, you know he ordered TNT. Apparently not many folks choose that option. Brian said the woman who took his order raised her eyebrows at him and asked if he was sure. Was he sure. YeeHaw! Stand clear, Robin.
Texas-Tater-Dog-on-a-Stick

Texas-Tater-Dog-on-a-Stick

Before he stopped for the night, Brian went international. The Chinese-Chicken-Dumpling-on-a-Stick and the General-Tso-Chicken-on-a-Stick both received a “tasted-like-it-came-0ff-a-crappy-Chinese-buffet” rating, but the vegetable Eggroll-on-a-Stick got rave reviews.
Chinese-Chicken-Dumplings-on-a-Stick

Chinese-Chicken-Dumplings-on-a-Stick

General-Tso-Chicken-on-a-Stick

General-Tso-Chicken-on-a-Stick

Egg-Roll-on-a-Stick

Egg-Roll-on-a-Stick

Brian ended the weekend with Ostrich-on-a-Stick, which he called a “karate kick to the innards.” When I talked to him late last night–a three full hours after the encounter–he claimed to be still feeling the effects and planned to stop by the tent where volunteers were passing out Pepto Bismol. In fairness to the ostrich, it could have been the Twinkie.
Ostrich-on-a-Stick

Ostrich-on-a-Stick

See, I told you you’d be better off not eating while reading this.
As for you, son, twelve down. Forty-seven to go.

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!

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.

I had really hoped to sit down and write today. I’ve had all these things rattling around in my head that I want to write about, but no time to give them form. I’m not complaining, really. Since I last posted, I’ve enjoyed a visit with a sister-in-law I rarely get to see; a few wonderful days of having Tom home on vacation; several fun outings with Tom, Carey, and Austin; a trip to a local farm for fresh sweet corn, green beans, peaches, and basil; lunches with good friends; and a couple of good movies. I’ve managed to get the dog groomed, the car serviced, a contract written for our fence project, an estimate for having some trees trimmed, the sweet corn and green beans from the farm frozen and stored, the laundry done, and my bags pseudo-packed for my trip to Texas tomorrow. Oh, and in the middle of all that I successfully crossed over to the dark side–chronologically speaking–without any major body part breaking, shriveling up, or falling onto the pavement. But today, I had really hoped to write…

It wasn’t meant to be. All good intentions evaporated as I flew around the house, arms waving, hair on fire, clock ticking, accomplishing…well, I don’t know what. In the middle of the chaos, as I’m trying to get out the door to meet a friend for lunch, I realize Teddy hasn’t been out to have a wee yet. Ye, gods! He’s normally not interested in going outside for any reason much before 9 a.m., but it was after 11! Surely, the poor little guy was about to burst, so I start clapping my hands and slapping my thigh, squealing, “Come on, Teddy! Let’s go outside, buddy!” and generally acting like I’d lost my mind. How could I be so distracted? And what was I going to do if he didn’t hurry up and pee? Holy cow, I was going TO BE LATE! After much effort, I got him heading down the stairs, out the door, and into the backyard. Whoops. Wait. I went running into the backyard, slapping and squealing; Teddy made it as far as the patch of liriope on the edge of the patio before throwing himself down in the middle of it with the biggest, most satisfied grin on his face you can imagine.

ARGHHH! Teddy and I have had a discussion about the liriope before. From my vantage point, it’s part of the landscaping–something IMG_0006[1]to be looked at, not sat on. From Teddy’s vantage point, it’s really thick, fluffy grass with little, smelly-good, purple flowers–a perfect spot for a pause in the sunshine. The first time he decided to park himself there, I fussed at him, and he reluctantly moved out into the yard. Since then, I’ve generally given up the struggle and allowed the indulgence. You have to pick your battles, right? But today, as he sprawled there grinning at me as I ran crazed circles in the yard, I had an epiphany. There was more to lying in the liriope than defiant behavior or ignorance of previous discussions. He was blissfully happy. I, on the other hand, was a raving lunatic. He was enjoying the glorious summer day. I was sweating like a whore in church. Even if he did have to pee, there was liriope to lie in. What was I going on about? He could whiz later. It could wait.

Oh, for crying out loud. Scoot over and let me sit down, will you?

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.

When I set up this blog back in April, I wrote on my About Me page that I was doing the blog because I found myself “at a professional crossroads, needing/wanting to write every day, and hoping [the venue would provide] both the motivation and the personal gratification [necessary] to keep me in my chair typing away.” And to an extent, I suppose, it has. I certainly enjoy writing for the blog, and I most definitely enjoy getting feedback from those of you who are reading it. But I had really hoped I would be a bit more dedicated to the whole endeavor than I have been and had expected I would post on a much more regular basis than I have up to now.

The truth is I’ve allowed myself to be easily distracted by anything and everything: laundry, errands, naps, housework, golf outings, emails, lunch with friends…did I mention naps? Very unsatisfactory and very unsatisfying. Guilt producing even. So, with the encouragement and advice of friends–old and new (you know who you are)–I’m approaching the whole exercise a bit differently. Instead of schlepping down to my office at any ol’ time of the day with bed-head, no make-up, and in whatever grubby garment was lying on the bottom of the closet, I’m getting up, showering, putting on my make believe, doing my hair, and making sure my rear end is in my office chair by 9 am every morning–Monday through Thursday–and staying in my chair until 3 pm. Really. Please note, I will still be going to lunch with friends (you really didn’t think I was going to give that up, did you?), but the rest of the distractions will have to wait until I’m “off work.” Really.

Besides continuing to post to Mary’d With Children, I will be writing posts for a new blog I’ve created called P.S. Wish You Were Here. The new blog is dedicated entirely to my travel adventures–past, present, and future–giving me an opportunity to marry two of my greatest passions: travel and writing. Between now and early November, I’ll take you along with me to the southernmost tip of Texas, the Colorado Rockies, Hawaii, and many locales right here in my own Kansas City backyard. I hope you will join me. I also hope you will tell your friends about my blogs. One of my goals is to dramatically increase my readership in the coming months. And please, share your comments with me along the way: what you enjoy reading about, what you’d rather not read about, where you’d like for me to explore and report back to you about… With any luck at all, someday I’ll grow up to be a professional (translated: paid) travel writer. We’ve all got to dream.

“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.