Tuesday, March 31, 2009
I'm writing this from Austin, Texas, but let's go back to Louisiana...
First stop: New Orleans!
I'd been there twice before. Once, on Cross Country Road Trip I in 2001, with my sister. We roamed around the French Quarter, ate lunch at NOLA's (oooh, that garlic bisque!), gawked at the street performers/statues, rode a steamboat with a N'awlins band playing. All the touristy charm.
The second time, my friend Carol and I hit up Bourbon Street during spring break in college. We found great blues music in the bars, but I remember being astonished by the literally water-bottle-sized drink that cost $8, in lieu of a cover charge. Minimum one drink per band set. We didn't last very long there.
This time, I bypassed all the tourist lures. I was coming to New Orleans to see my friend Sam, in his neighborhood, where real people and students live.
And I was coming to play Scrabble.
Well, rather, to get beaten in Scrabble. Badly.
We had divine po' boys at Liuzza's By the Track ...
... oyster po' boy ...
... roast beef po' boy ....
... and crispy sweet potato fries, perhaps the best I've ever tasted.
Then we dived into a game at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse. It's a nifty space with art on the wall and cool touches, like this wacky lighting above the cashier:
And homemade lemonade and desserts. I had the spice cake. I loved how the icing wasn't all neat and perfect and manufactured, but looked like a real cook had smoothed it on this morning.
Right, back to Scrabble. What a game!
Check out the board:
The killer play was HERETIC, down the right side, all 7 letters played by Sam, for 95 points.
No, actually, it was the next play by Sam.
FILTERS. The S both makes HERETICS a triple-word score and FILTERS. Plus 50 bonus points for the bingo. For a total of ... 103!
A pretty incredible total, even for him:
That's 492 to 289! FOUR-HUNDRED NINETY-TWO! I could hardly believe it.
Now do you understand why I drove all the way to New Orleans to play Scrabble?
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
On the musical side, I've been listening to Gnarls Barkley's new album, "Odd Couple," which is great for rhythmic, keep-me-awake-and-energized driving.
On the more whimsical and charming side is "The Bird and the Bee"'s new album, "Ray Guns Are Not Just Your Future." If you like indie/groovy/vaguely folky with sprinkles of bells and such, you should check out "The Bird and the Bee." "You're a Cad" is a catchy, surprisingly swingable tune, after a long lyrical intro. I also adore "Diamond Dave" and "Love Letter to Japan."
I'm hunting for more good road music, though. Any ideas?
One dancer at Memphis recommended the Grateful Dead song "Promised Land," which begins so appropriately:
"Left my home in Norfolk, Virginia; California on my mind ..."
Back on I-49 ... I'm headed to Dallas tonight!
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
I spent the past four days in Memphis, at a terrific dance weekend dubbed Bluesalicious. Awesome dancers, sizzlin' music, intriguing conversations, nifty city ... and mounds of fried food.
Here's a glimpse of the tastiness. On Saturday, we had lunch at The Cupboard, a diner in downtown Memphis. I ordered a side of the crispiest fried green tomatoes I've ever had. They were like little saucer chips, a bit greasy with thick cornmeal breading and sweet warm tomato inside. Mmmm!
The other side pictured is a cucumber salad, that classic Southern bit of veggies with a good pour of vinegar. It was light without being soggy or saccharine.
The funniest moment was when one dancer ordered, verbatim from the menu: "Freshly squeezed orange juice, please." The waitress looked at him in half-befuddlement, half-hopelessness. "It's not really freshly squeezed," she whispered.
My other highly nutritious meals included plenty of pig.
Pork is everywhere in Memphis. (Also, everything is "famous" or "world famous"!) All the barbecue joints I saw boasted grinning pigs, often with chef's hats. Sometimes, they are even dancing.
On Friday, Jeff and I had a late lunch at the Three Little Pigs, which had a catering truck parked outside and decorated with fat, pink, grinning pigs doing chorus line kicks. (The restaurant's motto: "We serve no swine before its time!" Yes, I kept wondering if there should be an apostrophe in "its." I guess not, but really, then it seems inaccurate. I mean, the pigs were killed before they would have naturally died, right? I hope so! Er, right. Sorry, moving on ...)
Inside, the misty blue cinderblock walls were lined with shelves of piggy knickknacks. You order at the counter on one end, trying not to hold up the line nearly out the door, and pick up your order a few feet down at the other end. Most of the diners were in the senior-citizen range, which leads me to believe that eating pork is clearly a factor in living a long life.
I had a barbecue sandwich for just a few bucks. It was tasty but not dazzlingly divine. I'm used to either vinegary, succulent Carolina barbecue or shredded pork smothered in gobs of sauce. This was neither. The pork was decent, but the sauce was minimal and the coleslaw on top seemed to add an odd tasteless crunch to it. (I'm not so keen on the coleslaw. Maybe if it was deep-fried...)
On Saturday, a crew of us went to Corky's for dinner. The place was jammin', and for good reason. I split a dry-rubbed rib dinner (the "Ribs & Beef Killer Combo" for $16.99). I was curious about the fuss over dry vs. wet. Next time, I think I'd order a dripping, gooey, lick-my-fingers wet ribs, but the dry ones had a great coating of spice that was delectable. The potato chips were handmade — thick, crunchy and golden brown. Soooo good.
And the hushpuppies definitely had their time in the fryer, too. I think the crunchy fried outside probably out-massed the soft cornmeal inside. I'd go back in a second. Oh! And we had pecan pie ($3.79) for dessert, which a heaping of vanilla ice cream. The ice cream overwhelmed the pie goodness a bit, but that really shouldn't be a complaint.
On Sunday, the dancing moved to Beale Street. Think Bourbon Street, but tamer and shorter. (At least, that was my impression. I didn't measure.) It's blocked off to traffic in one section, and people wander from bar to bar rather aimlessly. We lucked out with a hot band at one bar, then another across the street, and then DJ-ing until 4 or so in the a.m.
For dinner, I split fried catfish ($11.95 with french fries) and tamales ($3.75 for 5 and "world famous"!! ) at the Blues City Cafe. The tamales were sort of mealy and bland, but the catfish was decently fried and spiced. And it's always fork-tender. Gotta love catfish.
The beer list was above average — Anchor Steam and the like — and the prices for alcohol were far more reasonable than other joints. It was pretty empty when we went, but it's also nice to find an oasis for conversation on Beale Street.
(Bonus tip: Check the tamales to make sure that's not, oh, say, paper they're wrapped in. Because that would be rather unpleasant to chew and also mildly embarrassing. I mean, I would imagine, anyway.)
I left Memphis on Monday, and now I'm outside of New Orleans, ready for Cajun food. And it's crawfish season! I got a salad with crawfish for dinner tonight, and I'm sure there are more in my future.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
...but not in Athens. I'm in Nashville! There's a full-scale replica in
Centennial Park! Craziness... Apparently, it was built as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897. The original building wasn't made to last, but the Nashvillians loved it so that it was re-erected as a permanent structure.
It had all of the usual pretty park-ish things — benches, flowering trees, fountains, walking path — plus swings! Not kiddie swings — adult swings scattered all over, perfect for one or two people to sway in the breeze. I was thrilled.
The curvy, artsy chairs here were cool. This one seats at least three, facing backward, forward, backward. I bet the two on the end can project their voices better if everyone is engaged in conversation. And it looks fun, too.
A mile-jogging path loops a lake.
And winter? Winter is leaving the South ...
Check out these gorgeous blooms...
I was also a fan of the weird and vivid park art. Like, what is the dude doing? Is he on the grass? Is that a golf ball in front of his nose? Is that a drain spout, and he's swimming in water?
No idea. One of the many days I wished for an artist's statement.
I wish I had had more time to linger, but it was time to get on the road. If you are ever driving through Tennessee, this park is not far off the interstate and completely worth the detour.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
This time the most startling sight among the beautiful hilly landscape was the new Taubman Museum of Art, designed by a protege of famed architect Frank Gehry.
My friend Gretchen suggested we meet at the museum for lunch. "You'll see it on your right," she said. "It's a monstrosity. You can't miss it."
Whenever someone tells me, "You can't miss it," I groan inside. It's a sure sign that I'll fly right by the supposedly obvious turn.
Not this time.
Architect Randell Stout has crafted a building that stands out, even from the driver's seat on the highway.
(This view is from a walkway.)
Wow. It's a glass and metal piece of art, complete with a giant pyramid stuck on the top and an undulating roof. You can find more (and better) photos here.
It's beautiful inside. Lots of open space, soaring ceilings and bold museum walls.
Those two "people" sitting cross-legged are pieces of art work. The one on the right is fuzzy and purple, like a muppet.
I really liked this colorful, spunky mural. It was created by a collective of 30 artists from Brooklyn and Tokyo who worked in the setting of rural Cameron, North Carolina.
Here's part of the wall note:
"The citizens in the small town of Cameron (pop. 281) opened themselves to the impulses of this multi-talented, creative group of artists: they provided food, shelter, supplies, found barns for the group to paint, and, during late night outdoor painting sessions, provided power generators for the light. The urban, hip-hop, hard-noses, hit-and-run artists collided with the honest-working, down-home, southern-style hospitality, and the interaction profoundly affected both the group and the community at large—they became family."
What amazing connections art can create ...
This sculpture's title translates to "Howling Faces," above.
A few more pieces that intrigued me ...
I loved the wide range of time periods. The museum went from modern to historic in a few steps, and the transition was flawless.
This hanging cloth was intricately cut. Imagine the most exquisite paper snowflake ever, and you'll get a glimpse of the workmanship here.
A close up:
Ah, right! Lunch! I knew I was forgetting something ...
The museum restaurant is called the Norah's Cafe, after the subject of one of the museum's most cherished pieces, an 1888 painting by John Singer Sargent.
Norah (Mrs. George Gribble) overshadows the other pieces on this wall:
Norah's Cafe is probably the most delicious and reasonably priced of any museum cafe I've been to. View the menu.
Gretchen ordered the "Verdant Panini" ($8) — "Eggplant, red peppers, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, carmalized onions, and pesto on a focaccia roll."
I ordered the Asian salad ($8) — "Boston bibb lettuce layered with crumbled Maytag blue cheese, candied cashews and pears topped with seared tuna , dressed with a toasted sesame dressing."
It came with grapes and a mini chocolate chip muffin. And it was delicious.
Can you see what a great surprise this museum was? It also has a nifty Norman Rockwell painting, and one by Winslow Homer, if you are interested in art superstars.
And the Roanoke downtown is charming, too ... photos of that in another post!
So... 500 miles is a long way to drive in one day.
Just in case you wondered.
I traveled from Norfolk to Knoxville in Day 1 of the resumed road trip. What a great day! The sky was gorgeous, the temperature in the 70s, the sun beaming. And the scenery was breath-taking.
I drove out I-64 to I-81, which should be named Hokie Highway. Just in case I didn't realize I was passing by Blacksburg, it seemed every 10th car sported a Virginia Tech sticker or window flag. (Of course, Tech did have a home game in the NIT tonight — and won in OT!)
The Blue Ridge Mountains made such a pretty background. It felt like Mother Nature's roller coaster. Up and down the hills. Overachieving hills — or mountains in training.
On the way up, I-81 was steep enough that the two lanes widen to three to give straining trucks a place to chug along. On the way down, the highway narrowed back to two lanes.
On the side of the road, the forests gave way to pastures dotted with brown cows, straight out of a painting. Even the rest stop views were gorgeous.
And on the other side of this Exxon .... a farm:
A little later, the sun began to set. The blue pillowy clouds let the sunbeams gush through. I felt like the symphony should be playing.
But I'll happily settle for country radio.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Sunday, March 15, 2009
What I miss most while traveling, so far, is a kitchen.
And the simple things it makes possible.
Like, oh, toasting. I’ve never missed a $10 Wal-Mart electronic device more. The magic of a crisp bagel, lightly browned, with a tab of butter or a smear of cream cheese — heavenly. (Yes, I can get up, change out of my comfy PJs, wash my face, brush my teeth, drive/walk to an Einstein’s, and order one, but that sort of spoils part of the allure, you see?)
Or, say, a stove and a teapot. The shrill whistle and blow of steam that signals a forthcoming cozy cup of jasmine green tea. With a spoonful of honey. Heavenly.
This weekend, I visited my friend Carol. One night, we made an Italian dinner — linguini topped with a tomato sauce with asparagus and shrimp, a spinach/walnut/mandarin orange salad, and bread. It was delicious, and the leftover bread is perfect for ... french toast!
She happened to have eggs, milk, salt, sugar, vanilla extract — all the ingredients for a scrumptious Sunday brunch. I have never been so exceptionally pleased with a stocked kitchen and the easy ability to turn nearly stale bread into a lovely breakfast.
And in a half-hearted quest to add a fruit, I cooked apple slices with cinnamon, sugar and butter. It’s so easy: just heat a tab of butter in a nonstick pan over medium or so heat. Add apple slices and a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar, and be patient, turning them every so often until they are the perfect tenderness for you.