Happy 2015/ Favorites from 2014

Paper Stars

Hi everyone! How were your holidays? We had some sickness, which was no fun, but all in all, it was great to spend time with family and to slow down for a bit.

I’m enjoying getting back into the swing of things, though. What about you? I thought I’d start off the year by cataloging some of my favorite things from last year. A few of them are things that were new in 2014, but most of them were just new to me. Maybe you’ll enjoy some of them.

Songs

“At the Beach” by the Avett Brothers

“Just You and Me” by Zee Avi

“The Water Fountain” by tUnE-yArDs

Podcast

Pop Culture Happy Hour

I think I’ve already talked about this to death—it’s an NPR podcast with pop culture critics sitting around and talking about new and old music, movies, TV and the like. It’s smart but not highfaluting, and it’s very, very funny. I listen to it every week.

(You can find this podcast and the songs on iTunes).

Television

Sure, we watch some network shows, but I figure you know about those already. Here are some you may not have tried:

Call the Midwife, on PBS or Netflix: based on the memoir of a 1950s midwife in London’s East End. She lives with Anglican nuns who are also midwives. The characters are just incredible.

Borgen As far as I know, this one’s only available via DVD. In a nutshell, it’s a Danish West Wing. The acting and writing are terrific, and again, fantastic characters. It’s in Danish with subtitles, so you definitely have to pay attention.

A Chef’s Life (currently airing on PBS)—I just found this one recently thanks to my mom (who also turned me on to Call the Midwife). I can’t tell you how excellent it is. It’s part documentary, part cooking show, part food history program. It follows Vivian Howard, a chef hailing from tiny Kinston, NC, as she and her husband run their high-end restaurant. But it’s more than that. Vivian visits all kinds of local folks who teach her about various aspects of southern cooking and farming. It is totally charming, never saccharine, often funny, and it even won a Peabody. And btw Vivan Howard and the producer, documentary filmmaker Cynthia Hill, are both UNC grads! (that’s where I went for undergrad in case you didn’t know)

Broadchurch via Netflix, a British seaside murder mystery. Beautiful, gut-wrenching, dark, and addictive. Great characters (hmmm…sense a theme?).

Bletchley Circle, again from Netflix, follows a group of British women who were code breakers in WWII. Now they’re reuniting to solve mysteries.

Also enjoyed the BBC miniseries version (with Gillian Anderson) of Bleak House, available via Netflix.

Books

These are all nonfiction, which seems to have been my theme for last year. I read a ton of memoirs and several history books.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and America’s first known serial killer

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart, a memoir about moving from the Soviet Union to New York in the early ’80s. Dark, funny, poignant.

My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss, a cooking memoir, complete with recipes, of a half Italian, half American woman who grew up moving back and forth between Berlin and the US. I laughed, I cried, I got super hungry.

Cookbooks

Once I found the Budget Bytes blog, I had to have her cookbook of the same name. It’s a great place for weeknight meal inspiration, and I love her simple-yet-interesting, less-meatarian approach. Many recipes are easily adaptable to be gluten-free if they aren’t already.

I’ve just started cooking out of the How Can It Be Gluten Free? Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen. So far, I’m really impressed, and I’ll share some of our favorites soon.

I’m sure there are other things I’ll remember as soon as I wrap up this post, but for now, that’s what I can think of.

In case you’re wondering what’s happening with my writing, I’m still at it! I’m in the process of revising both my YA novel and my middle grade nonfiction book (not simultaneously but back and forth). It’s slow-going, which is why I don’t talk about it much, but I seem to be inching forward.

Death by Dessert, or How to Watch the World Cup On the Border

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We became pretty solid soccer fans while living in Germany, especially around World Cup time, so on our recent return trip, we were psyched to watch games with our German friends.

For the U.S. v. Germany game, though, we were on our own in France. We planned the whole evening around the game, which aired at 6 p.m. in that time zone.

It was also the only night we could eat at the local Michelin-starred restaurant—and the night they serve a very reasonable prix-fixe menu. So we made a late reservation to fit in both, planning to watch the game at our B & B.

Gourmet Salad

We’d biked 15 miles that day (a lot for us), and I planned to take a shower during half time.

One big problem. After the pre-game commentator chatter, the screen went blank with a message that said something like: “This game is not authorized to be shown in this region.” We flipped around, hoping another station would carry it, but the only game on was the other World Cup match happening at the same time.

Luckily, we were staying right near the German border, so I took a 3 minute shower, hopped into a dress, and we loaded up and drove to the ferry to cross the Rhine. On the other side, my husband knocked on restaurant doors until we found one with public viewing in its little bar area.

The one long table was full of retiree-aged tennis table club members, and the only free seats were at the front with a mustachioed man who’d already had a few too many beers.

He was friendly, though, and when he found out we were American, he told us over and over how much he loved Americans and how the best possible outcome for the game would be a 1-1 tie. He reminded us many times (a few too many) that the German coach and the American team coach (also German) were best friends and how they would both want this.

If you were watching, too, you know the Americans actually lost 0-1. We were disappointed, but after the game, everyone (except the kids) was treated to house-made pear Schnapps while the table tennis team sang the German victory song (is there a name for this?). Everyone was very friendly, and when it was over, we thanked our hosts and dashed back across the river to make our 8:30 reservation.

The restaurant was lovely, with a view to a garden and a stream. The noise level was nearly silent, but our kids were completely awesome and went with the flow.

We opted for the prix-fixe menu and added on the “Festival of Desserts,” which sounded perfect. We envisioned a dessert sampler.

First course (salad above) was great, second course (some kind of meat pie) was amazing. Meanwhile the service was first-rate. Our hostess made sure to graciously inform us when we were missing something, i.e. “You can actually eat those flowers,” and, “Those table decorations are actually pretzels” (in the first photo, the rock-looking things behind the ceramic elves).

Here’s the cheese table, from which we could choose what we liked.

Cheese Course

And then the desserts started. First, a platter of teeny tiny cookies of many kinds. Then, a pastry with gelato. Another pastry with gelato. Another….we were losing count.

French dessert

Surely the cookies had counted as dessert #1. There were supposed to be five desserts in total. Surely the gelato counted for one and the pastry counted for another, right? Wrong. The desserts kept coming, and we slowed down so much that we started getting two at once. The cookies hadn’t even counted as part of the five.

Gourmet dessert

Not only that, but the kids had gotten (included) a dessert of their own, so they couldn’t help us out so much. Still, we were determined to do our duty and eat every bite. On top of the five desserts + cookies + cheese course, there was a tiny truffle course where we could choose our own adventure. How could we say no?

At one point I said, “If they bring another dessert, I’m going to cry,” and we all started laughing, on the verge of breaking the Code of Near-Silence.

Finally we ate our way through the last plate, now having finished enough dessert for about ten people. The last plate was probably my favorite, some kind of cherry cake (pictured above). We rolled out, giggling to ourselves.

My son said the other day, “Let’s never take the circus of desserts next time.” Amen. Maybe just 1/10 of it.

Below is a picture of one of the children’s desserts.

Ice Cream Rabbit

And in case you’re wondering yes, I threw the whole gluten-free eating thing out the window that week. I paid for it the next week, but it was well worth it!

 

 

Cycling in Alsace

Poppy

Since we were already in Germany visiting friends in June, we decided we might as well stay a little longer and do some exploring. Yep, I know we are incredibly lucky to be able to do it, and I’m very grateful.

The theme to this side-trip was something like “Easy Biking and Eating in a Pretty Place within Driving Distance from Hannover.” I had this dream of one of those tours where they move your luggage from spot to spot, but none of those were really very kid-friendly. The Alsace region of France fit the bill for a DIY version. My French is completely rustig, so it was very nice to be able to speak German. (Sorry France, I do love French—I just need a refresher course!). Alsace is that part of France that was once part of Germany, then France, then Germany, now France.

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Since it had to be easy biking, I went for the flattest part of Alsace, which happens to be right next to the Rhine river, just at the border to Germany. I found a family apartment near Rhinau, and we could borrow adult bikes for free. Kid bikes we rented from the nearby tourist office. I have to say France does a great job with its tourist offices—-very handily placed and staffed.

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Oh, btw, in case you didn’t know, that is NOT the Rhine in the above picture. That would be a canal.

Not having a bike rack made for some logistical challenges, but still, we managed to get in a couple of days of nice long (for us) rides in between the eating and the castle-viewing. We stayed in the same spot each night and just turned around when we’d had enough.

We may also have been dragged to  taken a day to visit Europa Park, an amusement park everyone kept talking up to our kids, despite our gestures to keep mum (thanks a lot, folks!).

Picnicking on bike rides was a highlight, though we could rarely manage to get very far without eating everything up. The kids did great, though.

Another highlight: riding the ferry (free to all) back and forth over the Rhine.

Rhine Ferry Crossing

I’d love to do a longer (mile-wise) trip sometime and cover more ground. I like being able to ride from town to town—-something so cool about that. Speaking of which, there are plans in the works for a cross-town urban bike trail (including joining up some existing trails) in the Charlotte area, and I couldn’t be more excited.

In case you missed the bit about the first part of this trip, click here.

Currently reading: Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? She has such a fabulous voice.

What about you? What have you been up to? We were just visiting with family (in the U.S.) and are now home again.

Oaxaca, Mexico: Architecture

Oaxaca street

So, in my last post I showed you some food from our trip to Oaxaca, and here I wanted to show you a little of the town and surroundings. Excuse me if I’m a little picture happy. It was hard to choose.

Above is a street in Oaxaca, to give you an idea of the town. This street happens to be a pedestrian only zone, though I guess bench-sitters get a pass, too. Hey, if I could sit on a comfy pink bench on this street right now, I would.

Below is the Santo Domingo church. Georgeous. Love the landscaping out front, too.

Santo Domingo church, Oaxaca

And I’ve fallen hard for the church’s stone walls. The subtle color variations (and size variations, which you can see less well) are making me so, so happy. I think I’m going to have to use that colorway and grid pattern somewhere.

Stone Block Wall

Up next, a convent-turned-hotel. The walls are literally three feet thick. It’s a total dream. I have a thing for thick walls and courtyard gardens.

Convent hotel

Here and there, on the former convent walls, you’ll see little bits of painting:

Floral border

Wall painting

Rose painting

And lastly, just outside Oaxaca are the pyramids of Monte Alban. From the top, the view of the area is breathtaking.

Monte Alban

Monte Alban dandelions

I’d love to show you some of the handicrafts Oaxaca is famous for, but I think I’ll have to show you after Christmas, since several that I bought are gifts for others.

Up next, hopefully I’ll have time to post a few Christmas-themed items. I’ve been trying to be really nose-to-the-grindstone on my writing projects. Back to work for me! Be well.

Oaxaca, Mexico: Food

Ancho Chile Relleno

So, the secret destination I mentioned earlier was Oaxaca (say “wah-HOCK-ah”), Mexico. I love this city! I had visited once 15 years ago and always dreamed of going back.

The capital city of the state of Oaxaca, it’s like a jewel-box deep in heart of the southern mountains of Mexico, full of stunning architecture, intricate handicrafts, and oh yes, fantastic food.

The top photo was my first meal there, an ancho chile relleno next to plaintain mash with Oaxacan cheese. Surprisingly, it was actually a lot prettier than it was flavorful, but I enjoyed trying it anyway.

Below are the appetizers from that night, including, from the back of the slate platter, cheese, guacamole, and chapulinas. Chapulinas are a Oaxacan specialty—roasted grasshoppers!

Chapulinas

Our Mexican friends told us that if you eat one, it means you get to come back to Oaxaca. It would be a lie to say they’re my favorite dish, but I was super glad I DID eat one 15 years ago. So glad, in fact, that I ate several more, hoping I will for sure get to visit again.

Below you see chiles drying at a restaurant where we ate lunch. The set up was unusual—you walk through the kitchen area up to the roof to eat. Sadly I didn’t take pics of the wonderful chicken red mole enchiladas I had.

Mole is a type of sauce involving many ingredients, including cocoa, which was first cultivated in ancient Mesoamerica. There are many different kinds of mole, and they’re not at all sweet, so don’t worry, it’s not at all like eating candy on your meat.

From the rooftop of the lunch restaurant, there’s a view of the historic Santo Domingo church, and we had great seats to see a traditional wedding celebration going out of the church, complete with dancers, costumes, and these enormous puppets that lead the way to the reception.

Chiles

Lastly, here’s a photo (from the same location) of Caldo de Piedra, or “Stone Soup.” I couldn’t actually eat it, since I can’t do shellfish, but it was fascinating to watch our chef cook it, tableside.

The rocks were heated to such a high degree that when they were placed in the bowls of raw food (shellfish and broth, veggies), the liquid immediately boiled like mad. After a few moments, the liquid cooled a bit, and the chef removed the first stones and added a second hot stone to each bowl.

Caldo de Piedra

If you look closely, you can see the beautiful handcarving on the bowls, which are made of what I gather is a kind of gourd.

Delicious foods not pictured: duck tacos, Oaxacan tamales (wrapped in banana leaves), hot chocolate, and eggs smothered in fantastic sauces. Breakfast was not to be missed.

More on Oaxaca to come. Hope you have a great weekend. It’s like 75 degrees here today. I can’t believe it’s December!

Artist and Author Talks: Podcasts and Videos

One of my favorite things is Terry Gross’s show, Fresh Air, on NPR. I especially love the interviews with actors and writers. Lately I’ve been listening to the podcasts while I’m doing something boring, like folding laundry.

Sometimes there just aren’t enough of Fresh Air interviews, though, so I’ve been looking for more conversations with authors and artists. Here are a few good ones I’ve found:

This Creative Life, created by YA author Sara Zarr (who btw also blogs here). There are interviews with a lot of writers and other creatives about how they work and live. I especially enjoyed the one with author Andrew Auseon (who is also a video game designer).

Mini studio-tours with artists at Little Scraps of Paper make me smile so much. The one above is of three collaborators who make these wacky wonderful costumey-snuggie-kind-of-things. Trust me, you just have to watch it. The videos are so beautifully filmed and just the right size for a quick pick-me-up. Thank you to Blair Stocker of Wisecraft for this hot tip.

Here’s a video of young fashion blogger/ Rookie magazine editor Tavi speaking at TEDxTeen about the strong female characters she’s looking for, and not always finding. YA writers, if you don’t know Tavi, you SHOULD!

What about you? Do you have any favorite creativity-related podcasts?

And by the way, are you on Twitter? I’ve been on it for years but am really just now learning the language and getting into it. I’m discovering all kinds of things there, including some of the above links. Meet me on Twitter @emilysmithpearc

A few other random things:

-Speaking of talks about art and writing, if you’re in the Charlotte area, check out the April meeting for the Women’s National Book Association (yes, men, you can join us, too): Monday, April 22, 6:30 – 8:30 PM at Consolidated Planning. The talk is titled “Latin American and Latino Women Writers and Literature in Translation.” More details here.

-Did you hear about the break in the Isabella Stewart Gardner art heist case? Soooo exciting. I used to work down the street from this lovely, one-of-a-kind museum.

-Saw Natalie Merchant the other night with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Great show. Her new material is as complex and thought-provoking as ever, though I have to admit my favorite part was the 90’s set she did for an encore. The nostalgia factor is hard to beat. Seriously, what pipes she’s got—and what a talented songwriter.

-Lastly, I love this DIY magic potion kit over at Elsie Marley.

What’s got you inspired these days?

Easter Grass from Seed

Wheat Grass Seeds

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may remember my first encounter with real Easter grass, in my son’s German kindergarten. I was almost amazed at the simple thought of growing something that we’d always bought manufactured from plastic, in plastic bags.

But really, it’s the simplest, easiest thing you could ever grow, and the payoff is huge.  This year, we’re growing our own at home. I’m just as excited as the kids to watch the green pop up.

Wheat Grass Sprouts

Sprouts

I got a package of wheat grass seeds from the garden center, we filled some pots, lay the seeds on top, and watered. My son, now 5, told us not to cover the seeds with any dirt.

And shazam!

Real Easter Grass

It’s got me singing Now the green blade riseth…

P.S. The lovely bird pot was a gift from our friend Sally Brotman, she of chicken kebab fame 🙂 I love, love this pot!