Friday, December 31, 2010

I'm Easily Lured

So you're at a bar and a guy invites you to come over to his apartment to "see his father's prints." How far removed from "Why don't you come upstairs and see my etchings?" is that really?

Turns out it was completely on the up and up, thereby disproving all my suspicious-natured friends who consider me naive about other people's (read:guys) intentions.

He lives on Riverside Drive, so the view out his living room is panoramic. There's the skyline, the park and trails, and the river spread out below. Admiring all that through an open window on the last day of 2009 alone would have been worth it.

Competing for my attention was his very sweet beagle/basset hound mix, who gave me those beagle eyes with which I used to be so familiar. She seemed pretty thrilled with my company, constantly coming over to say hello and sniff another of my body parts.

On his turntable, he was playing vintage country music from the 40s and 50s, so distanced from what is now considered country music as to be laughable. And when is hearing a record not infinitely preferable to a digital listen? Heartbreak, unrequited love and even a song about a dog's death never sounded so good.

And my host had taken the liberty of making lunch, something I hadn't expected. We had a tomato/black bean/chickpea soup, a pasta salad with mozzarella, roasted red pepper and basil and a spicy hummus with freshly-made pita crisps. Wow, come for art and get fed. How nice is that?

My friend's dad was artistically active in the 70s and 80s; in fact, in the early 70s, he was one of only three people in the country teaching woodblock printmaking at the university level. His dad kept one of his printing presses in my friend's childhood room and he remembered there always being wood shavings on his bedroom floor growing up.

Occupying a wall in my friend's dining room was an enormous flat file and from it he pulled limited edition prints, books and posters for me to see.

It was obvious his dad had a deft touch with not just printmaking, but lettering and color. Stylistically, he owed a fair amount to the German Expressionists.

There were prints illustrating folk tales, interpreting the Bible and self-portraits. After a couple of hours touching, looking and discussing only a part of the collection, I had to wonder if my friend ever intended to have some of it hung in a gallery show. He's understandably leaving that decision up to his mother.

Over blueberry/cranberry sorbet, he showed me an oversize book on jazz, complete with large-format black and white photographs of musicians and 78-rpm records in sleeves.

It was a vintage and beautiful compendium on the figures who shaped jazz, shot when they were young and on the rise. My friend said it's out on DVD, but there's no way it could be as impressive that way as this experience was.

So there you have it. No inappropriate suggestions or forward advances, nothing untoward at all. Just a chance to admire art that I would have otherwise died without ever having seen. And that would have been a loss to me.

Sometimes my trusting nature pays off, oh cynical ones.

Praise from my Past

Why is it that the people who dump you continue to follow you and admire you?

Officially I'm talking about, they who first dissed me by laying me off and now, for the second year in a row, are lauding me.

On their list of Top Ten New Year's Resolutions, yours truly comes in at number nine. Witness:

Have a life as busy and exciting as Karen from I Could Go On and On
Seriously, have you seen all the awesome things she does?

Last year they named me one of the three Best New Blogs of 2009.

People are so thoughful once they ditch you. If I didn't know better, I might think they actually miss me.

Make no mistake, I'm flattered. Flattered and wistful.

A Tale of Two Kens

Yet again, the evening didn't work out the way I had thought it would. First off, my girlfriend and I did not connect.

When she wasn't at the appointed meeting spot, I figured she'd blown me off for better things. So I walked the galleries at VMFA looking for her and finally ended up at the Best Cafe, hoping to salvage the night with time spent listening to Hotel X.

I was as unprepared as the VMFA apparently was for the hordes that crowded the cafe for Hotel X tonight. First of all, the band has a huge following. Second, on New Year's Eve eve, there was not a lot happening in RVA. Hence the mob.

Luckily when I arrived, there was one table open and I snagged it in the name of a music lover, albeit a lonely one. Yes, it was a four-top and yes, I was one lousy person, but I'd been stood up and I was not going to stand for three hours of world music.

Afraid to lose my table if I left it to get wine, I stayed put and enjoyed Hotel X's unique blend of Afro-beat, jazz, rock, pop and world music. Before long, I saw an old friend making his way through the crowd and waved hello from my prime seat.

It was Ken, the man who delivered me one of the unkindest and funniest lines of my life (he's the first one mentioned), here, and he came over to ask if he could join me. Not one to hold grudges against people who don't find me pretty (after all, I'm not), I welcomed him to my humble table.

When he discovered my wine dilemma, he was off like a shot to fetch me wine (well, if you insist). He caught me up on his life and I was impressed to hear that he is planning to leave April 1 to spend a month sailing his boat to Florida and back to get a little ocean-going experience. Sounds like a lot more fun than selling securities (again, why he's not my type).

Just as he was reminding me how I'm the perfect girl for him (believe me, I'm not), a woman approached our table and asked if she could join us. Eager to play nice, we said yes. Then we found out she had two friends on the way. Okay, things were getting a bit crowded, but we could adapt.

They turned out to be a fine addition to our duo, the doctor, the operating room nurse and the interior house painter. They had ties to the old Main Street Grill, knew Hotel X and were eager to swap conversation.

One of the women had been burned badly in her last relationship, necessitating her getting out of town to heal and we shared tales of love lost. The nurse asked me about the Rattlemouth show tomorrow night and the painter wanted to know all about me and my neighborhood. Ken who?

I love Hotel X; their fluidity (lots of musicians in the audience), the genre-crossing sound (is that rock?...they're pretty jazzy, aren't they?...what's that groove?), the way they inspire that crazy butterfly-catching dancing and sideline acoustic-guitar playing.

The place eventually became so jammed that the staff went out on the deck and brought in a additional tables and chairs to accommodate people. Simply put, the joint was jumping.

Once the excellent music ended, I said goodnight to my new harem (Ken having departed earlier due to the late hour...8:30) and they asked for ways to keep in touch.

Leaving the museum, I had a dilemma of where to go and decided that Carytown was my best shot tonight. I rolled up to Bonvenu, busy with a half dozen tables or so and figured they were going to welcome me. And they did.

I took a seat at the bar, was welcomed back (again) and ordered a glass of Tempranillo to start. A quick look at the menu assured me that I needed to finally taste the butternut squash dumplings with chevre, cayenne walnuts and grilled sweet onions in browned butter sauce with crispy sage.

About damn time, too, because the dish was terrific. The dumplings were dense and flavorful, the chevre abundant, the onions cooked to the sweetest perfection and with enough walnuts to satisfy a nut-lover like me. No, I'm not sharing a bite of this.

Mid-dish a butcher came in and sat near me at the bar but didn't speak. I could tell he was eavesdropping when I initiated a conversation with the bartender about the music, but he didn't join the conversation.

The music was a bit dated for my taste (Melanie, "Brand New Key"? Hall and Oates? Wow) , but the discussion thereof caught the interest of the butcher's friend who'd come in and placed himself between me and the meat man.

He was my second Ken of the evening and he was a huge pleasure to talk to (he also didn't mention me not being pretty or my nose being too big). I was set.

We had only minor overlapping music to discuss (although he awarded me major points for my extensive current music knowledge; his stopped at Kings of Leon and Kaiser Chiefs), but it was a start.

We segued into the research skills of the PDA generation (non-existent), the unprecedented turnaround in cultural attitudes toward vets (from dissing Viet Nam vets to celebrating the current crop in a mere 35 years; warp speed for a cultural shift in this country) and the way our parents' generation worked through marital discord rather than resorting to divorce at the first difficulty.

Eventually the butcher left and Ken stayed (I think) for the pleasure of further conversation.

Even so, I could not have been more surprised when he finally asked for his check (his work requires a much earlier wake-up call than mine, but then doesn't everybody's?) and insisted that Miss Karen's bill be included with his. Had I just unwittingly talked for my supper?

I was sorry to see such a fine conversationslaist go but he had a butcher to meet before bed and I understood that. Within moments of his departure, the bartender started telling me about how West Coast drink trends slowly make their way to Richmond and how it says so right in the restaurant magazines.

Specifically, she wanted me to know about the Pickleback, a shot of Jameson's followed by a half shot of pickle juice, which comes to us via Los Angeles. Since I only drink tequila and wine, the conversation between her, the staff and a customer was of no relevance to me.

Until they insisted that I join them in a round of Picklebacks, resulting in my first taste of Jameson's, not to mention my first pickle juice. Who would have thought?

And neither Ken around to witness it. I'm honestly not sure who might have been impressed and who would have been appalled.

Not that it matters either way. I just don't think I'm the Ken type.

Do I look like Barbie?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Damn Yankees

So, is Thursday a possibility?

Sure, Thursday could be a possibility for so many things. Perhaps it could be the day a stranger gives me a million bucks or the day a meteor drops on my head or the day the love of my life finds me. Who knows what Thursday might hold?

In any case, what my friend was asking was whether I was free to hang out with him on Thursday evening. I wasn't.

So we settled for Wednesday and he suggested FanHouse since he'd never been there. Driving up Main Street, most restaurants looked slow or even empty, not surprising given the imminence of New Year's Eve. When I arrived at FanHouse, there were four people in the place: three staff members and my friend.

But the music was to my liking, ranging from the Killers to Earth, Wind & Fire to Muse (Pandora, natch) and the staff seemed happy for the company, so it was all good.

At least until my friend tried to order a Hendrik's martini, only to find out that the bottle on the shelf was empty with no backup. Even then, he obligingly dropped to his second choice gin with a smile while I got a glass of the Alumina Albarino (hay and honeysuckle, as a wine friend used to say). Let the Wednesday chatting begin.

My friend works downtown and he was telling me about how dead it is down there this week; his example was that you could arrive at the parking garage at 8:45 and get a first level spot (not that I want to arrive anywhere at 8:45 a.m.).

He said that even e-mails are slow, which made me feel better about the dozen we had exchanged yesterday setting up our evening out and trading quips about nothing important.

A nearby bar-sitter shared her recently-acquired knowledge of Lady Godiva, pictured in the large painting near the bar (how did people educated themselves before hand-held devices?). That somehow led to a tangent with a perfect stranger about body images, aging and confidence. You know, the mind is the biggest turn-on, blah, blah, blah.

Somehow, she had misread our relationship and when I went to the bathroom, she inquired of my friend if we were on a date (we weren't, but he danced around his answer just to mess with her).

I found it interesting that if she thought that that was a possibility, why had she asked him and not me since he'd gone to the bathroom first. What happened to sister solidarity? And if she'd been asking for her own purposes, why hadn't she moved in for the kill? Women, I'll never understand them.

Meanwhile, Friend and I had gotten a bottle of the Alumina and took the bartender's recommendation for a couple of his favorite dishes.

We got the sesame-encrusted jumbo shrimp with Thai basil, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese ("You'll just have to fight over that last one," the bartender warned us. "We don't fight," Friend promised) and the tuna tartare trio (sesame oil, sweet and sour, sriracha).

The high quality tuna and variety of preparations made that one my favorite, whereas Friend was taken with the cheesy shrimp. Something for everybody.

For dessert, we kept with the evening's theme and had the Lady Godiva chocolate bread pudding, most enjoyable for its non-traditional appearance, warmth and the abundance of sauce and cocoa-dusted ice cream. Our minds were well satisfied.

Unlike me, my friend is a native Richmonder, but terrible at remembering names and out often, so he'll find himself approached by someone he went to high school with and have no idea who they are. Such are the perils of staying in your home town, I told him, a problem I neatly sidestepped by leaving mine.

But sometimes his southern roots are positively charming, as when during our discussion of drinkable spirits, he pronounced, "Scotch is for Yankees and social climbers."

As one who most definitely qualifies as the former, I'd take issue with being labeled the latter, but he explained patiently to me that they're synonymous. I'll just have to verify that with my Richmond-born father when next I see him (and, no, I do not call him Daddy).

It doesn't seem likely that one necessarily equals the other, but I've learned to accept that anything is possible.


Modern Romance

It was a small, intimate post-Christmas dinner party with an unexpected focus on sex toys and new relationship memories. I have to say, it was really kind of sweet.

The dinner had originally been scheduled for Sunday night, then shifted to Monday night because of the snow and finally agreed upon for tonight. I was the first to arrive, only to find the hostess in full Suzy Homemaker mode, not her norm by any stretch.

The prime rib was about to come out of the oven, the water was boiling for potatoes, bread was being sliced and veggies were being prepared. She poured us both a glass of wine and I shared my tale of wrist woe. Moments later, the other guests came in and the party started in earnest.

I loved her music selection for the evening; it was all obscure vintage holiday stuff from before my time, stuff like Johnny Hartman, Steve and Edie, Joe Williams, Billy Eckstein, Doris Day, the Lennon Sisters.

A few voices I recognized from my parents' old record collection, but we also had an aficionado of that era's music in the group and she was lightening fast at telling us whom we were hearing (her boyfriend said she was born 60 years too late). Really, Jim Nabors aka Gomer Pyle?

It was the kind of gathering that required a fire, so one was started while we enjoyed cocktails in the living room. A discussion of real versus gas fires ensued, but with the scent of well-seasoned wood burning in our nostrils, it was difficult at best to buy into the gas log argument.

Then the hostess disappeared, we heard the whirring of an electric knife and dinner was served. She had bought an enormous 5 1/2-pound piece of meat, despite the butcher warning her that she was overbuying for the size of her group, but meat's her thing.

She'd done a salt crust and barely cooked the meat to rareness and the butter for the bread required a sharper knife than the meat did. Though she claims she's not much of a cook, you'd never know it by her meat.

There was much moaning about the meat and in the midst of it, the cook casually mentioned that she'd been shopping at Priscilla's ("Where Fun and Fantasy Meet") today using her Frequent Customer Card. I thought I knew this woman, but apparently not.

She's a few months into a new relationship and they're doing a getaway New Year's Eve weekend and she thought she'd pick up a few treats. (Wait, Priscilla's has a Frequent Customer Card?) She offered to show us her stash after dinner.

Since I'm the curious type and I've never been in a Priscilla's (or any kind of fun and fantasy-type store), I wasn't willing to wait to learn more. This group was having third and fourth helpings of meat and there was no telling when they might be finished satisfying their blood lust.

Maybe she could start by telling us about some of the purchases she'd made, if only for discussion purposes? But words were clearly inadequate, so she fetched the pink plastic bag and I was designated the show and teller.

First came the Whisper Micro Bullet, which I'm still a bit unclear about, but the woman on the package looked very happy. It was followed by a silicon ring for a certain body part, no doubt a gift for her beloved. Surely also for his pleasure was the, um, cut-out outfit and stockings.

Then came the vibrating tongue ring (lasts up to 40 minutes!) causing a male guest to say, "Well, your tongue does get tired," with a slightly embarrassed laugh. Our hostess quickly corrected him, however; the product is designed to be used by a woman for a man's pleasure.

A collective "Ohhhh" came up from the table. Every single one of us had made the incorrect assumption about who would be using it on whom. Not that Priscilla's can check on proper usage or anything.

And on that note, we moved back into the living room to enjoy the warmth of the fire, yet another bottle of wine and some slightly more classically romantic conversation.

A guest told us about the memoir she had written about the beginnings of her relationship. It was sort of a memory book about their first four or five dates, complete with reminisces, restaurant and festival logos, even her unshared-at-the-time feelings about the burgeoning relationship.

She had begun it as an exercise for herself and become so caught up in remembering that she'd elaborated on it and decided to have it bound and present it to him as a New Year's gift.

The idea seemed romantic to me (well, given the absence of my own love life status, it would), so I asked the female half of another couple if she could pinpoint the top four days from their relationship's first six months.

With some thought, she came up with her own list: the day trip to the swimming hole when the car got stuck on the low road, her birthday weekend away with the endless Prosecco, an early-on meal at a local restaurant while snow came down outside and he wooed her inside.

Her S.O. made a few suggestions, but, as I pointed out, I was looking for her fondest memories at the moment, not his.

After all the sex toy talk, I was really just interested in hearing about some classic romance and with so many of my friends currently in relatively new relationships, they're full of the sort of stories worthy of a good true romance comic. You know the kind.

Her: (hand on forehead woefully) "Gosh, why hasn't he called yet?"

Him: "Golly, I'd really like to talk to her, but my tongue's exhausted!"

I feel quite sure they'll live happily ever after.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Frog Leg-Lover

Scene 1: An apartment in Jackson Ward, about 6:45 p.m.

Enter a woman, clumsily trying to dress herself with one hand. If the tights take her five minutes to put on, the jean skirt takes at least ten. She is winded and frustrated when the phone suddenly and unexpectedly rings.

Woman: Hello?

Man: Karen? It's your French friend. Want to meet me at Empire?

Well, it certainly wouldn't be her first choice of locations, but she considers the offer for a moment. She was dressing to go out to dinner alone and this is guaranteed conversation.

Woman: Okay, sure.

Man: I have to shave, so I'll be there in half an hour.

Woman: Well, I don't have to shave, so I'll be there in 45 minutes.

Actually, she had tried shaving earlier and it was even more difficult than one-handed shampooing, but infinitely easier than one-handed lotion application afterwards (where is a good lotion applier when you need one? Probably closer than I think).

And that's how I ended up at the unlikely destination of Empire for the evening. The Frenchman was availing himself of the $1 PBR special (the bartender gestured to the case full of iced PBRs, saying, "It'll be empty by the end of the night.").

Looking around at the two other customers, I had no reason to doubt him. Tequila, please, and black bean nachos.

My French friend is an interesting juxtaposition of his Gallic roots and his long-time American home. He's been in this country for over 20 years, but his accent is still a delight and he continues to search for just the right phrase in English on occasion. He's also adept at adopting an accurate but awful American accent, occasionally even sliding into a Southern drawl for comic appeal.

And he's a stereotypical Frenchman in that he loves women, complimenting us, and tonight me, wildly (my hair! my skin! my clothes! my nose?) throughout the evening. Every girl likes to hear that stuff, but preferably from a suitor.

But he's an avid reader, a devoted film buff, and an excellent conversationalist. Because his time in RVA predates mine, he can also share great stories of venues and shows long before I came to town.

Tonight it was about Wendy O. Williams performing in a black leather bikini at the very space in which we were sitting. Those were the days.

And speaking of music, the old-school stuff the bartender was playing was not doing it for me, so when he suddenly came into this millennium with Pinback's "Autumn of the Seraphs," I told him how much better I liked it than the previous stuff.

"You don't like Otis Redding?" he mocked. Sure, for the first twenty years perhaps, but it's getting a bit tired for me now. He grinned and told me how impressed he was that I recognized Pinback. Aw, pshaw, don't challenge me to talk music, my friend. Or, better yet, do.

The Frenchman is in the process of moving out of his house so that it can be gutted and renovated over the next four months. He was trying to explain how difficult it is for him to know what to toss out.

His girlfriend is much less a hoarder, so they finally settled on her doing the winnowing and packing and him doing the heavy lifting and shlepping.

It was those chores which had occupied him all day today and he showed me his cold-chapped hands, looking for sympathy. He lost any chance of that when he suggested that he could put runs in my tights just by rubbing his rough hands all over them.

You can take the Frenchman out of France, but he's still going to want to play friendly footsie with every nice pair of legs he befriends.

Tant pis.

If It Weren't for Bad Luck...

...I'd have no luck at all. At least it seems that way today.

Finally exiting my abode and breathing fresh air for the first time since Christmas Eve, I put clearing the snow off my car at the top of my to-do list (wishing, of course, that I had a honey-do list instead) for my first day back in the real world.

As I moved around the car grateful for the dry texture of the snow and easy removal factor, I had an oh-no moment. One of my rear tires looked suspiciously close to flat; given that I'd just put air in all the tires before my last road trip, this did not bode well.

So my daily walk was going to be postponed while I took the car in to have the tire repaired/replaced. No biggie; I'd walk back after dropping it off and continue with my day. If only.

I didn't even get out of the garage's parking lot before taking a spill. A thin metal sign had fallen out of its frame and onto the sidewalk and, with snow and ice covering it, become like a banana peel in a comic strip. Down I went.

My feet went out from under me and as I did the grand sit-down in the icy slush, I remember thinking, "I must have plenty of padding 'cause that didn't even hurt." But while I was priding myself on my backside, my left hand had instinctively taken the fall.

If my wrist could have screamed out loud, it would have at that point. A guy driving by who'd seen my graceless descent stopped his car and asked if I was okay. "I am but my wrist hurts like hell," I told him. "Can I help you?' he kindly asked, opening his car door.

Guessing that he didn't have any dry yoga pants or a wrist splint with him, I thanked him and said no. I then gathered my soggy body and throbbing wrist as gracefully as I could under the circumstances and began the walk home, thinking that this was another fine mess I'd gotten myself in to.

I briefly considered going to have my hand x-rayed, but then did what any good 21st century klutz does and went online to research my pain.

It sounded like I had sprained it, so with my car in the shop and an ice pack on my hand to reduce swelling, I called my guardian angel to bring the truck and take me to the drug store for painkillers and a wrist support with splints. That ought to do it.

I hope.

On the minor plus side, my tire merely had a nail in it, so that was a cheap and easy fix. Leaving, Guardian Angel said something about napping and having a nice quiet evening resting my wrist.

After two days at home? It is to laugh (out loud even). I have to go out tonight for sanity's sake. I'll just have to figure out which tights will best accessorize my charcoal gray wrist support.

Fuchsia, I'm thinking.

Take the Weather with You

Despite the decidedly messy forecast for today, I had plans in place to go to a friend's house for a post-Christmas dinner and then on to a show at the Camel tonight.

But once my stressed-out friend called and cancelled the dinner after driving back from North Carolina in snowy/icy weather so bad that it had burnt out the motor in one side of her windshield wipers, I was faced with a dilemma.

Should I stay or should I go? I decided that she had given me a reason to stay in, a rarity for sure in my life. But what to do?

While I was willing to stay in, I wasn't willing to go it alone, so I e-mailed some nearby friends and asked them if they wanted to do a potluck with me tonight. Bring anything edible, something drinkable and your best get-out-of-the-house attitude.

Four friends were game and we were on. It wasn't tough for me coming up with food because I had tons of leftovers in the fridge from the past two nights. I did some crostini with braised short ribs on top and a pomegranate salad (all made from leftovers).

I pulled out some of my most winning mix tapes, put three on and set the rest nearby for later and I was as ready as I was ever going to be for this get-together.

My friends brought three kinds of cheese and crackers, white chili, ham biscuits, roasted vegetables and artichoke dip; like me, several had just used the remains of their holiday meals (or the dregs of their kitchens, however you want to look at it). I put out an array of Christmas cookies for afterwards and everyone brought way more libations than we could ever hope to drink.

But we were an ambitious bunch. The evening began with a cocktail hour, followed by dinner and tales of Christmas Present. Bratty nieces and nephews jacked up on holiday sweets, forgettable presents and endless afternoons with cranky families all came out. Along with more to drink to ease the pain.

Once everyone had had their cathartic moment, we moved on to some party fun of the old-school variety. We played charades using only song titles (I was awful at this, but then a lot of them were popular music, not my strong point), and thanks to a guest with the foresight to bring a large pad, we played Pictionary (using only movie titles this time).

Once everybody was thoroughly lubricated, I had everyone write down five things about themself that they didn't think the rest of us would know. We then each took turns pulling one out of the bowl and all guessing who it might describe. I'm not going to over share here, but I learned some remarkable things about my friends tonight. Remarkably interesting and remarkably scary.

It was a good thing the people who live under me are away for the holiday, because the music kept getting turned up louder every time someone heard a great song (a live acoustic version of "13 Valleys" by Big Country and a cover of "This Charming Man" by Stars both killed) and the voices rose with the amount of spirits consumed. If my house had been a cartoon, it would have been moving side to side with noise and inebriated energy.

Amazingly, nothing on the Christmas tree got broken and only one red wine glass was harmed in the enjoyment of this party. My apartment, however, is looking a bit on the rode hard and hung up wet to dry side. But that's tomorrow's problem.

And for the first time in memory (since I had pneumonia anyway), I didn't leave the house for two straight days. Why, that's practically a Christmas miracle.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

So You Think You Know Me? Okay, You Do.

What I don't know if my friends even realize is that it's not the gifts they give that I truly appreciate (although of course I do), it's what their gifts say to me about how they see me that is my favorite part.

A friend gave me two tickets to any production at Barksdale. Upon seeing the two, I made a joke about such optimism (like I'm going to be able to scare up a date for the theater?). "Well, you'd be just as happy seeing two plays by yourself anyway," she said. "So shut up." Nothing I can say to that argument.

From a long-time friend I got a gift certificate to Chop Suey. Since you get to choose the paperback cover that the gift certificate comes on, she'd specifically chosen Dickens' Hard Times, knowing I'd get a kick out of the reference.

After all the conversations we've had about my hard times of the past two years, it felt like an inside joke. Besides, she assured me that 2011 will be much better for me and I believe her. They don't call me Pollyanna for nothing.

As much as I love collecting local art, I couldn't have been more thrilled to receive a piece by a a little known Richmond calligrapher from a friend. I told him that for me, the true pleasure comes with deciding where to hang it. Maybe near the Adam Juresko? Or over the Chris Milk Hulbert? This may take an enjoyable while, deciding where its place of honor will be.

Then there was one of my favorite musicians and conversationalists, who gave me a digital holiday present, an end-of-the-year mix featuring some of his favorite music of 2010 and a brand new song of his. I wasn't surprised at Spoon or The Books (he knows I will always give him crap for going to see The Books without me), but Benoit Pioulard and Marni Stern? Be still my musical heart.

One of my very favorite people in the entire world gave me a book called Bad Girls: The Most Powerful, Shocking, Amazing, Thrilling and Dangerous Women of All Time. As a huge fan of non-fiction, I know it'll be right up my alley. Even better was the inscription:

To my favorite "bad girl" - Keep up the good work! Love you with all my heart!

That's the kind of Christmas gift that makes a girl feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Even a bad girl.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Knotty, Not Nice

It must be Christmas Eve because I spent the whole day baking and cooking. The only other day that even comes close in terms of that kind of labor for me is Thanksgiving, but even then there's no baking involved.

And there wouldn't have been baking involved today if I hadn't been so incredibly busy this week, which necessitated me putting it off again and again.

But three kinds of cookies got baked today, so it all worked out fine (except when I had to reach an upper cabinet and grabbed a stool to do so only to crack my head on the open cabinet door on my way up; the knot on my head has been throbbing ever since).

I only mention this because between the cooking and baking, once I got back from my walk, there was no leaving the house until after dinner. Way too much to do before my five guests arrived.

But arrive they did and seemed to enjoy all the food I'd made for our dinner, the preparation of which had consumed my day. I was just glad I don't have to do all this again until next November.

Post-dinner we met friends at the Byrd Theater for their annual screening of "It's a Wonderful Life" and a singalong with Bob Gulledge on the Mighty Wurlitzer. I don't want to upset anyone who wasn't there, but you missed the canine chorus to "Jingle Bells," a new addition to Bob's repertoire.

One of my friends who saw the movie for the first time only last year, asked me if I still enjoy it after seeing it every Christmas Eve for the past fifteen years. And I do.

I will always enjoy Jimmy Stewart's superb performance. As I've mentioned here before many times, I'm a huge fan of period details and this film spans 1919 to 1945, so it's full of them. High school students wear tuxes to their graduation party, Italians are referred to as "garlic eaters." and toll collectors wear change holders on their belt, much the way ice cream men once did. It's like a cultural history lesson.

Honestly, I doubt I could ever tire of the sweet story of how one person's life affects so many others. Despite not feeling connected in ways that wish I were now, I know better than to think that everyone would have been better off if I'd never been born.

Based on what I've been told, I know a few people who would have lost their best audience with my absence (entertain me and I can really laugh).

And if nothing else, I hope somebody would have missed my winning smile, can-do attitude and cute tights. Maybe the tights manufacturers?

Christmas Eve Walk on Grace Street

Hard to know what to expect on Grace Street on a day like Christmas Eve.

The only thing I had going for me was that I hadn't gotten up until 11, so I wasn't walking until noonish, so I figured at least a few people would be out and about. Had I walked in the morning, I wouldn't have been so sure that that would have been the case.

And I would have been mistaken, at least at Sally Belle's Kitchen. The sign on the door said, "Open at 11. Numbers handed out prior." Good god, you need numbers to get your Sally Lunn bread and cheese wafers? Who knew?

Well, apparently everyone but me, or at least the long-time Richmonders knew. The place was abuzz with activity as I approached it. People were going in the door empty-handed and harried-looking as fast as others were coming out of the other door, arms laden with white boxes and bags.

I stopped and played doorman for a minute, partly to be helpful and partly to be nosey (imagine!). Everyone was friendly, many of them gratefully wishing me a Merry Christmas and everyone I asked was willing to tell me what they'd come in for.

Lemon chess pie was high on the list. Sally Belle's iconic potato salad got mentioned a lot. The pecan pie was popular. That Sally Lunn bread (which I don't even care for) and those cheese wafers, too. All the things that have made RVA Chrsitmas dinners what they are for decades.

A woman waiting at the bus stop wished me a Merry Christmas and asked if we were going to get the big snow she'd heard about (you know, because I look like a meteorologist). She was excited at the prospect, saying she couldn't remember a white Christmas in her lifetime.

Up near Meadow, a guy wished me a M.C. and asked if I'd been naughty or nice. Not sure where he might want to take that conversation, I just laughed and said that was someone else's decision to make. He chuckled and wished me luck with that.

Nobody was politically correct abut saying "Happy holidays" instead of M.C. until I was a block from home. A smiling man missing his two front teeth approached me and did a sweeping bow, saying "Happy holidays, miss!"

"Same to you," I said. He did a little dance step and looked at me saying, "I got the Christmas SPIRIT!"

That or some mid-morning nog.

Absinthe is for Birthdays

I got invited to not one, but two birthday dinner celebrations tonight. I ended up going to not two, but one celebration and enjoying the hell out of it.

Since it was to be a surprise, we were told to report to Julep by 7:15, with the birthday girl to arrive at 7:30. The party was being held at Julep's bar, with master mixologist Bobby providing our every need.

What turned out to be great entertainment was when a customer would come in and approach the bar to order a drink and be informed that the bar was a private party only tonight. People don't like being told they can't hang out at the bar, I noticed.

The birthday girl and her party-planning beau arrived and when she entered the room, she immediately saw me at the center of the bar.

The funny part was that my presence raised no suspicion in her mind. Oh, Karen's here, the boyfriend must have invited her to join us, she later told me she assumed.

It took her a minute to look around and spot all the other people whom she had not expected to see and at that point her face took on a look of complete surprise.

She muttered something to her man (which, considering he had told us all that she might kill him for doing this, we presumed to be his estimated time of death) and then the party began.

For our eating pleasure, there was fried calamari and remoulade, lamb chop lollipops, shrimp and grits and pasta Bolognese. Everyone stood around awkwardly, eager to dive in but not willing to be the first.

With no such compunction, I got things rolling by helping myself to a couple of lamb chops as well as everything else.

I took my plate to a seat at the bar between the handsome baker (who thanked me for referring to him that way in an earlier blog post) and the reserved couple who had hired a babysitter for a rare night out.

Not wanting to appear like the biggest eater in the room, I waited until they went back for a second plate (small plates, that is) to refill mine.

However, I did not wait for them to go back a third time before doing my own plate Part Trois. The lamb chops were out of this world and I sucked many a bone (okay, five) in my enjoyment of them.

The party guests included as many non-American born people as native born, making for multiple accents, perspectives and life experiences.

When my host offered me a taste of his cocktail, I took a sip and then offered it to another guest, a charming man with a smile that could win awards. Handing it to him, I jokingly asked if he was worried about cooties since he would be the third person to put his mouth on it.

"I'm from a third world country," he said. "I'm immune to cooties." Handsome and clever; too bad he was married.

His wife, who was originally from Ohio, and I had a most interesting discussion about how when you move to the south, if you're smart, it also requires learning about the south. Or it does if you want to better understand your new home.

Much the way I go to lectures and make field trips to historic sites, she and her husband make a point to get out and about in the Commonwealth, taking driving tours to battlefields and visiting historic locations, to better understand its history and legacy. I think that makes them good come-heres.

The birthday cake was courtesy of the handsome baker's shop, India Pastry House. This was my third time having baked goodies from his place and it's hard to even describe how wonderfully different they are than typical American baked goods.

Tonight's butterscotch cake had the lightest crumb with a delicate and not overly sweet frosting that was so light and exquisitely flavored that, upon finishing mine, I asked for a second slice.

One guest even had a third. The birthday girl had a slice, then had a plate of pasta and then another slice of cake. Clearly this cake was not easy to walk away from.

Bobby was an integral part of the party, telling stories and ribbing guests ("Way to bring down a party," he told me sarcastically after I shared a death story).

He told his roommate that he was going to give her his cats for Christmas. Apparently she already does a fair amount of their upkeep, so she asked, "How will that change anything?"

"I won't have to love them anymore," Bobby quipped. "Come to think of it, that happened a long time ago." Cat lovers at the party were not amused. I was.

My host insisted I tell the group the gall bladder story, here, which I hadn't realized was a favorite of his. Its charm seems to be in hearing about someone so oblivious so late in life.

And speaking of oblivious, absinthe seems to be on everyone's lips lately. I heard a great absinthe story at lunch Wednesday and it came up last night with my new friend at Secco. Tonight, several people were drinking absinthe cocktails (69%!), so I got to taste a few.

Mixed properly and exactly, as Bobby's drinks were, the seductive taste of absinthe conjured up stories of absinthe bars in Paris, hallucinogenic nights lost to it and the risks of overdoing it.

I shared the story I'd heard the other day, which ends with an absinthe-drunk woman bleeding, laughing and needing four stitches.

It wasn't that I didn't want to make it to the second party. I was just having too much fun to notice that it was time to go.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

There, There, Tell Me All About It

Feeling somewhat better now, thank you.

Despite the wind that was blowing so hard that I actually felt sharp things hitting my face as I walked, I hoofed it over to Garnett's to meet a girlfriend for a catch-up/feel-better session and lunch. The food was negotiable, the talking was not.

We were both surprised at how busy Garnett's was; a table barely emptied before a new party was sitting down at it. When I walked in the counter was full up and five minutes later completely empty. I scored a couple of stools before that changed again.

I won't repeat what I said when my friend came up and asked me how I was, but let's just say we dove right into it. I ordered a Cobb salad, told her what was up in my world (like she didn't already know) and she gave me her take on things.

A server I know came in and sat next to me and we laughed about a mutual friend who has a new girlfriend. He was recently boasting about having finished his Christmas shopping for her.

Turns out he bought the exact same thing for her that he bought for his last two girlfriends: a cardigan, a record and a piece of jewelry. The women can change, but the present list remains carved in stone apparently. Definitely laugh-worthy.

Jenny, my talented baker friend, and her husband came in in between baking jobs and we chatted about the hustle-bustle that's everywhere right now. I could have kissed her when she touched my shoulder and said, "You look so pretty today." Kind words, just what I needed to hear.

Another friend and her wine rep husband were next, taking a respite from having just been over on Midlothian Turnpike, which they described as a zoo. They'd tried Black Sheep (long waiting list), Harrison Street Cafe (already closed for the holidays) and then decided on Garnett's.

Until recently, they lived a few blocks from Garnett's, so it was like coming home for them. I usually only run into them at wine events, so it was an unexpected pleasure to see them and talk today.

I met one of the guys from One Ring Zero, who was down from NYC visiting his sister. I'd heard lots of good thing about him from my girlfriend and he turned out to be a most interesting guy. He had the mistaken notion that I was an acocuntant (!) so I clarified my skill set for him.

My Cobb salad had set a sort of salad trend, with the couple at the end of the bar getting the same and the girl next to me having the spinach salad. She commented that no sandwiches were allowed at the lunch counter today, which I think points to the fact that the salads at Garnett's are as good as the sandwiches. And for that triumph, credit goes to Mac the Magnificent.

And speaking of, I felt a hand running down the back of my jumper and turned to see the great Mac himself, coming by to save the day. As of next week, he'll be back at Garnett's full time, which means we'll have way more time to talk again. I love Mac's laid-back take on life (not to mention his culinary skills) and he's always giving me advice on men. Mostly to avoid them, but still.

Before leaving, my girlfriend did a wrap-up of our discussion (no Power Point, but close), making sure I took into consideration what I was dealing with. Yes, oh wise one, I get it.

Walking home, the sunny sidewalks had been replaced with shady ones, but I actually felt a little better about things. Not to be corny, but it kind of felt like I'd been embraced by caring friends, which I had, both literally and figuratively.

Onward and upward.

"Let Me Show Off My Stuff"

If ever I needed four glasses of wine plus a generous tasting, it was today/tonight. I was in full surrender mode.

My evening got off to a practical start with some Christmas shopping in Carytown. Packages in hand, I went to Secco, where there was only one bar stool unoccupied.

I asked the guy in the adjacent stool if it was taken and he said that it wasn't; he also initiated a conversation immediately, always a fine start to an evening.

The coincidence was that when he introduced himself, I recognized him; I had done video work for him at Media General maybe three years ago. Once I reminded him, he remembered me (or so he said).

He, too, was no longer in the grip of MG, having moved on from MG. We could compare notes about the oppressive atmosphere of recent years there and revel in being away from the depressing pallor that hangs over that place as it slowly dies.

I looked at the wine list and decided on the 2006 Benotto Monferrato Rosso "Nebieulo," causing him to say, "A woman after my own heart." I took this to mean that he was also a Nebbiolo fan, a fact confirmed by both him and our server. Okay, so he was also a Secco regular. I was learning a lot about him quickly.

After the arduous (and detested) Christmas shopping, all I wanted was food, so I ordered the mixed field greens, Caromont chevre and pistachios with lemon-thyme vinaigrette, to be followed with the oxtail ragu, potato gnocchi and house-preserved lemon, all the while keeping up with the discussion of taking a c0mpany private, the importance of early-morning posting and the pleasures of morning bike rides.

My publishing friend seemed much more personable tonight than I remembered him from staff meetings, but that may have been due to his change in marital status since the last time I spoke with him. Availability does bring out the best in people, no?

My mother would have been appalled, but since he had already eaten, I dug right in to my salad (especially savoring the chevre and pistachios) as I answered questions and posed a few of my own. There was only one question he was unwilling to answer; it was one, he said, he intended to answer the next time I saw him. Well played, I thought.

I was impressed with the oxtail/gnocchi dish (and when was the last time I was lucky enough to have oxtail twice in two days?) for its comfort food feel and pillowy gnocchi.

Meanwhile, the two of us talked about our favorite restaurants, a topic which inevitably leads my conversational partners to observe, "Boy, you do know every place." No, not every place, but certainly most of the city places.

He was surprised with my familiarity with Fredericksburg and Charlottesville restaurants (and it turned out that we'd both gone to shows in C-ville alone recently, whatever that means). Come on, what else do I have to do besides eat?

My new friend showed off his new Mac (he got points for the Hopper screen saver) and I showed him my blog. He disputed my self-described nerd status and noted that he had already observed the quality of my legs when I'd gone to the bathroom. Maybe some things are better in person.

The lovely Sara was kind enough to change the music to my mix (hello Spoon, welcome Interpol); it's always a pleasure for me to hear the music I've chosen.

He countered with insisting I taste his favorite white wine at Secco, the 2007 Cistercens "Coenobium" Vino da Tavolai Bianco, as unusual a white as I've had. A smokey element and layers of complexity made this the best nun-made wine I've tasted in many a moon.

And then back to the Nebbiolo. A DJ friend joined us for a discussion of illiteracy, short attention spans and the future of publishing. He also showed me pictures of his beagle, knowing my affinity for them, and then showed me some amazing photographs from the 19th century.

I tasted the aerated chocolate dessert and, as promised, it was a mouthful of chocolate that disappeared in my mouth. No long-term commitment there.

Right now, momentary pleasure seems good enough. I can't believe I'm writing that. but then I'm not really myself today.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Donate and Get a Free Tattoo

We're inviting you and a few others of the region's most read bloggers to ask for your consultation on an initiative that CultureWorks is launching in January. ~John Bryan

And that's how I ended up at Positive Vibe Cafe for lunch today. I'd met CultureWorks president John Bryan at one of the Gallery 5 after 5 events and thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with him. I knew we were kindred souls at the tarantula lecture when we both wrote down, "Don't eat me. Let's mate" at the same moment.

When I got the invitation, I admit I was curious, too, about what this cultural initiative might be. And I always look forward to meeting new people, so that was appealing. Free lunch didn't hurt either. I RSVP'd at once.

It turned out to be a most satisfying get-together. Lunch was a buffet of fire-roasted tomato bisque and a selection of vegetarian wraps and assorted Christmas cookies. The bisque, covered in grated cheese, had a lovely texture and fresh tomato taste, warming me up in no time (unfortunately, my cold hand had already shaken all the hands in the room).

With no real idea what was inside the selection of wraps, I grabbed the gooiest, cheesiest looking one which turned out to be full of avocado, tomato, pesto mayo and cheese. It was a most excellent choice, despite its contents being a complete surprise.

After lunch and while the cookies were being passed, John began explaining their truly brilliant idea. For a donation of $150 or more to CultureWorks in 2011, the donor will receive a free tattoo. Oh, yes, and a lapel pin, but that's been done before. But a tattoo? That's a hell of a donation souvenir.

Being CultureWorks, they had done their research on tattooing, one of the very oldest art forms, and chosen the oldest possible design they were able to find. It comes from one of the many tattoos discovered on a 60,000-year old body that was unearthed. It's small, a tad bigger than a quarter and simple. But it's a tattoo.

The campaign will kick off with ten well-known but un-inked Richmonders receiving the tattoo. And not just any locals, but hopefully some of the most unlikely people imaginable. Notable, but ink virgins.

And they're taking suggestions from the public about who should be in that top ten. We brainstormed more than a few ideas: suggestions of Mayor Dwight Jones, Pam Reynolds, Trani, and any Ukrop all got enthusiastic support.

Both CultureWorks president John Bryan and board chair Brooks Smith will get the tattoo (both were ink-free today). Bryan said, "And I'm getting it done in a place where people other than my wife can see it." Smith promised the same. Now that's cultural devotion.

The idea is that people will get the tattoos as a way of saying that they're committed to the importance of a vibrant cultural scene in Richmond. Committing to the tattoo is an analogy for committing to RVA's cultural growth. I have to say, I'm terribly impressed with the idea.

As the nation's third most inked city, finding willing donors who want to be inked in the name of culture will certainly be easier than, say, it would be in conservative Washington. I can almost seeing it become a badge of honor amongst the culturally devoted. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours."

Ink for the arts! Richmond just keeps getting better and better.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dizzy, but No Sardines

Here's the thing about the holiday season: the music dries up but the food and parties are endless.

Sunday, which wasn't that long ago, was the last time I heard live music, but there's no more on my horizon until at least this coming Sunday. I'll manage, with the help of get-togethers with friends and parties to fill the non-musical time, but I'll miss it. I may even go into withdrawal.

Tonight got started at Six Burner with a long-time friend and wine, plenty of wine. I had loads of news and she had some new developments in her relationship, so we had plenty to catch up on.

As we chatted, the restaurant did the December fill-up, including a couple of guys coming in for the Chef's tasting menu and lots of gift certificates going out the door. Lots.

After the abundant lunch I'd had at Amuse earlier, I had no right to eat again on December 21st, but managed to anyhow. We wanted to order the grilled sardines with gremalato, but they were out of them. Sad faces all around.

Instead we got the pork belly with fresh navy beans and spicy jerk sauce and, once again, the snail risotto with garlic, parsley and Parmesan (we both love that risotto).

As a proud eater, I'm ashamed to say that I could only eat a couple of bites of each before hitting the wall (but not before noticing how perfectly cooked the beans were and how decadent that risotto still is).

I rationalized my inability by thinking that at least I was leaving more for my friend, but I felt like a food failure. The Cotes de Ventoux Grenache/Syrah, however, was going down just fine.

Our server wanted to discuss the new Cinebistro with us despite neither of us having been there (nor had he), but she rarely goes to the movies and I rarely cross the river. He said he especially liked the idea of being able to lounge on a couch. I'm still not going to Stony Point.

We talked about going to big parties where there's such a din that the best you can do is smile when the speaker smiles and raise your eyebrows when they do because you can't hear a thing.

She did this recently at a party and her significant other stood on the other side of the speaker and mouthed the words, "Fuck you" to her in an attempt to inappropriately crack her up.

Or, as The National so eloquently put it (and stole my heart when they did):
I want to hurry home to you
Put on a slow, dumb show for you
Crack you up

I'm inclined to think that trying to crack someone up makes for true love.

From there, I went to Sprout for a Winter Solstice holiday party, which was in full swing when I arrived. Long tables were covered in Virginia food I wanted to eat but was too full to try. It kind of broke my food-loving heart. Local ham, pumpkin, tofu and a whole lot more were being gobbled up as I went to the bar for a beverage.

Bordeaux in hand, I began making the rounds of the party, always an enjoyable way to meet new people. I met Suzi of Farm to Family, who said they'd sold their last Christmas tree Laurie and Jamie, Sprout's owners. We talked about how intoxicating a fresh tree makes your house smell (I'm loving it every time I come home now).

I met a former Philly girl who had heard I was a writer/blogger and we had a great conversation about the WPA, public fruit trees, Southern food and the pleasures of Richmond.

We were joined by an occasional moonshiner (causing her to say, "I love the South!"), who told us about his 'shine exploits and closet storage of Mason jars.

At one point the volume of the music seemed to drop and I asked a stylish server why. His quick response, "It's just a low rent party. Low rent!" was hilarious and spoke to the fact that when he's not waiting tables, he's an excellent DJ, mainly of 60s and 70s music.

But tonight it was owner Jamie who played DJ and with plenty of volume and vintage cherry-picking of music. He's got such a great record collection and I always end up hearing something I haven't heard in eons ("Dizzy" by Tommy Roe?). I may have been too full for food, but when do I ever get my fill of music?

It may not have been live, but it certainly came close to scratching that itch. The musical itch, not the other one.

The Gift of Lunch at Amuse

I neither need nor expect gifts, but when given the perfect one, it's hard not to revel in it.

That was the case today when I met a favorite couple for lunch at Amuse and gallery strolling afterwards. To my great surprise, the luncheon was a gift to me in honor of the holidays (which they care nothing about and don't celebrate). And what a gift for an eater!

First, when my my thoughtful friend made the reservation, he had asked for a table away from the fray, so everyone else (median age: white hair plus) was on the far side of the dining room and we were situated at a table near the bar with a lovely view of the grounds. The reflecting pool was half frozen and we saw a woman take a spill on the ice; our vantage point was ideal for an observer type like me.

My present contained everything I could want in a gift of lunch. First there was a bottle of Sette Ventiquattro (also known as 24/7 never-ending pleasure), a Prosecco-style Italian sparkler full of fruit and froth and ideal for toasting one another. Amuse's always-excellent herb bread arrived and we were off and running. The three of us can eat like champs.

Our first course consisted of duck pate with onions, cornichons and micro-greens on perfectly seasoned crostini and lacquered quail with ginger-pineapple pickle. Both beautifully plated, the duck pate sang with the addition of onion and the smokey citrus taste of the quail was unlike any quail I've had. If the meal had ended right there, it would have been memorable.

But instead, we continued with the three most interesting entree options: Oxtail chili with cornbread croutons and cucumber/chive sour cream, mint and oregano-braised lamb, pappardelle, rapini and stewed tomatoes and, finally, jumbo lump crabcake with bacon and white sweet potato hash and apple horseradish slaw.

It was when our entrees arrived that we began playing pass the plates. I started with the chili and it was winter-time wonderful. Perfectly cooked beans, tons of oxtail, croutons to die for which perfectly complemented the chili and a generous glob of sour cream, with a taste reminiscent of tzatziki. If we hadn't planned to trade plates, I might have kept this one for myself.

Until I tasted the crab cake, hash and slaw combo, which took the ubiquitous crab cake and elevated it to a whole new level because of those unique sides. The hash had as much bacon as potato, so you know I loved it and the hint of horseradish did wonderful things for the sweet tartness of the apples. Okay, so maybe I should keep this plate.

But then the lamb arrived and the ribbons of pappardelle wowed me, as did the sheer amount of perfectly cooked lamb. Okay maybe this one was the keeper. This was like a gift where you keep finding more and more things in the box.

And then we did another round of plate sharing until we had finished everything. And even after much discussion, we couldn't declare a winner because all three were so outstanding. Since it was my friends' first visit to Amuse, they were full of superlatives; having been there on many occasions, I knew enough to expect an extraordinary meal.

Despite all the food consumed, none of us hesitated on ordering dessert (you see why I love this couple?), although we did compromise by only getting two instead of three. For seasonal reasons, we got the gingerbread with pumpkin ice cream and pecan sauce and for tradition's sake, the flourless hazelnut chocolate torte. Both came with abundant amounts of freshly whipped cream.

I come from a family of chocoholics who frosts their gingerbread with chocolate ganache (I know, right?), but this combination of pumpkin ice cream and pecan sauce was every bit as good. And, as my friend pointed out, the chocolate torte was loaded with hazelnut pieces, making for an unexpectedly nutty texture. Both were keepers, so to speak, since we devoured them.

There are a lot of things I could be gifted with and love, but a superb meal with good friends is certainly one of my favorites. It may not have come gift-wrapped, but the pleasure of sharing great food with great conversationalists more than makes up for that.

Even if they don't really celebrate the holiday for which they were gifting me. Thank you, my friends.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Unlocking the Secret at Rowland

It was that kind of day.

Uncharacteristically early wake-up call (8 a.m.). Meeting in Northern Neck (83 miles each way) to discuss writing and consulting work. Lunch with the parental units and hours spent wrapping presents for them while listening to unusually loud Christmas music. Drive home into blinding sunset followed by darkness.

I had barely set foot in my apartment when the phone rang and a friend suggested dinner at Rowland's. I could have kissed her - if I hadn't had to shower and get ready to be somewhere in an hour. It wasn't just that I was ready for a meal out; it was that I needed a major exhale.

My day had been alternating stretches in the car (where, for the first time in years, I revisited my love for the BoDeans. Is there a more poignant love song than "Forever On My Mind" or a better kick-ass road song than "Dreams"? Not today there wasn't) with non-stop conversation, both business and family. I was ready for something different.

I love that the holidays guarantee a full restaurant house on a Monday night. I walked into a bustling Rowlands where the Pandora music was perfectly suited to my taste (Yea, Yea, Yeas, Passion Pit, MGMT) meaning I had to know what the starting point band was (The Knife). My friend was there, the wine already ordered and opened and waiting for me. Already I felt better.

The spring roll of the evening was carnitas and while that doesn't exactly make sense to me, we ordered them anyway. The filling of braised pork, onion, cilantro and cumin was further enhanced with a spicy tomatillo sauce that had my friend requesting more (she even got another order to take with her).

Next up I had the shrimp Creole with scallion polenta, the perfect base for the mouth-watering combination of tomatoes, onions, peppers and hot sauce. Call me a heretic, but I prefer my Shrimp Creole over polenta rather than rice, but then I'm of neither French nor Spanish heritage, so what do I know?

For a millisecond I considered dessert, but decided wine would do me more good. Meanwhile, my friend was telling me about the progress of her fairly new relationship. In an effort to ensure (to the best of her ability) a long-term relationship, she has started asking long-time couples what the secret to their successful partnerships is.

Time and time again, she said, they have told her that the secret is not going to bed angry, something she doesn't quite understand. "What if you're tired? What if you want to wait till morning to discuss it? Why do you have to resolve it before bed?"

Unsure, I took these as rhetorical questions since clearly I have no idea about such things. She doesn't either, having been single for the last two years right along with me. In fact, her point was that going to bed angry would be of no concern to her simply out of gratitude.

"I'd be so happy just to have someone to go to bed mad with," she said by way of explanation.

I have to say, I'm with her on that. Besides, it takes a lot to get me mad, so it might be better if I looked for another secret to a successful relationship.

My long-time happily married Dad told me it was lots of sex. I think I'll go with that instead.

I'm Not EatingRichmond's Type

It's not them, it's me. I just don't fit in.

You'd think if I was going to be unceremoniously removed from, it would be because I'm not a food blogger. But no, it was my prolificacy that made me a problem.

I kid you not.

I haven't found a solution for keeping your blog on the EatingRichmond aggregator. My web guy is copied on this message. I really think your restaurant visits are addictive reads for Richmond's dining obsessed (including me). So I want to keep it on the site somewhere. If only there was a way for EatingRichmond to subscribe to a weekly digest of I Could Go On and On. Maybe a frequent poster spot is the answer (you don't really have any peers in that category at this point). In the meantime, I've taken your blog off of EatingRichmond until we can figure something out.

Luckily I only get about a hundred readers a day from eatingRichmond, so it's far from the primary way people come to me. But I'd be the first to admit that quite a few of my most regular readers and most frequent commenters discovered me there amongst the true food bloggers.

As Jason told me last March when he was trying to persuade me to put my blog on the site, "All u have to risk is more readers."

Well, that and the heartbreak of being dumped.

Not fitting in seems to be my forte'.

Imagining the Bass Line

After such a traditional and wholesome Christmas show this afternoon, wouldn't you just know I'd have to swing completely in the other direction tonight? Come on, you did, right?

Firehouse Theater was presenting Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge as a staged reading and the ten-buck ticket price included an adult beverage. The house was nearly full.

The story, a takeoff on A Christmas Carol was so politically incorrect, so irreverent and so funny that I felt it more than canceled out any sweet, wholesome Christmas vibes I had absorbed earlier today.

The performance had plenty of wicked asides as well as commentary about the play itself (the young Jacob Marley asking, "Why don't I have any lines?" after a long discourse by other characters).

The Ghost of Christmases Past, Present and Future is written for a black women and at one point Scrooge tells her, "I don't think there even were any Negro people in 1842." Ouch.

Mrs. Bob Cratchit turned out to be a miserable woman who hated her life and was always leaving to get drunk and jump off of London Bridge. She belittled her children mercilessly, ignored their requests for food and barely tolerated her sanctimonious husband and his delightfully overboard accent.

In a play full of references to other times, she bemoaned the absence of feminism. "I wish it were 1977 so I'd be admired for my unpleasantness," she wailed. No feminist stereotype there.

But eventually Clarence, the angel from It's A Wonderful Life, came along to help out the ghost and solve both Scrooge's attitude problem as well as Mrs. Cratchit's misery in a novel twist that landed the two of them in, when else, 1977.

After a skewering of Christmas like that, I couldn't resist a little offbeat Christmas music to close out the evening. Commercial Taphouse was hosting Glows in the Dark, RVA's premiere free jazz practitioners, doing their Christmas show.

I generally feel like I have no business in the Taphouse (except to eat ribs) given my lack of appreciation for suds and such. But their beer menu has such wonderfully clever beer descriptions that I make a habit of reading it anyway. And then I always order tequila, which I did again tonight.

Next to me was a beer geek who, as part of a beer collective (how did I not know there were such things?), spends his Sundays, not watching football, but brewing and geeking out about beer. When I asked, he did admit they they occasionally detour into talk of "our ladies and stuff." I thought that was adorable.

He was full of great stories about the mishaps of brewing; today's had to do with the propane tank and sloshing it around. "I saw fire fall," he said, obviously still incredulous. Really? Can't say I've ever seen fire fall myself, but then I don't spend my Sundays in a garage.

I still have fond memories of Glows in the Dark's Halloween show two years ago when they did all music from John Carpenter movies, so there was no way I was missing their Christmas show, especially when I'd heard rumours of music from the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

Scott Burton started off by telling the audience, "We're down a bass player. He's really sick. So you'll have to fill in the bass parts with your mind." A musician friend nearby assured me this was quite doable, but I'm sure Scott also made some modifications in his guitar playing to compensate.

They began with an original non-Christmas piece and then launched into a superb rendition of "Little Drummer Boy," which they topped with Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" from A Charlie Brown Christmas. "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" was next and the crowd was just eating it up.

Christmas music never sounded so good as when played by trombone, saxophone, guitar and drums with the bass line in the crowd's head.

At least that's the way it felt tonight.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I'm Dreaming of Enough Bathrooms

Bob: Have you ever figured out women?
Phil: They're smarter than we are and they have longer hair.

A friend wanted to take me to see "White Christmas" today at the Empire Theater and it was impossible for me to pass up a chance to see someone I knew, a former actor-turned-restaurateur-turned-actor, do musical theater.

Of course I'm talking abut Barry Pruitt, the original owner of Davis and Main and the recent seller of White Dog. My best memories of White Dog are of late evenings with Barry belting out Sinatra and show tunes to whomever was at the bar, so I'd be the first to acknowledge that he had a great voice.

Barry was playing the General Waverly character and acquitted himself admirably in a production full of big dance numbers, frequent costume changes and classic Irving Berlin songs.

At the big Christmas Eve finale when it finally starts snowing at the inn, the audience got to share the experience as fake snow was blown out over us during the singalong to "White Christmas." Truth be told, I was a fake snow virgin before today; it falls prettily enough, but it doesn't amount to much.

During the singalong, I kept my singing to myself (my grandmother used to tell me that I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, so I know better than to inflict my singing on others), but the older woman next to me had a beautiful voice and was belting it out.

As a theater lover, I was happy to see that the show was all but sold out, happy except at intermission when the bathroom lines were so long that I knew I had no chance of using them. Giving up on bodily functions, I opted for a piece of coconut cake instead, courtesy of Rostov's Coffee.

The white-haired gentleman who sold it to me advised me to eat quickly and then leaned in and said, "Really you have four to five minutes once they call you back in." No doubt that would be so that the bathroom goers had a fighting chance of seeing the opening number of the second act.

Inadequate bathrooms aside, the production was very sweet, even if it bore very little resemblance to the classic holiday movie of the same name. Fortunately, when they didn't use the original snappy 50s dialog, they made up something almost as clever.

Betty: Let's just say that Bob wasn't the man I thought he was.
Judy: What man ever is?

Some lines are timeless...and always get a big laugh.

Staying for the Talk

I know it's a good night when I'm willing to forgo music for good conversation, which is exactly what happened tonight.

After a busy afternoon stalking the wild Christmas tree with a guy friend willing to do the heavy lifting for nothing more than sharing a bottle of wine with me afterwards, I was ready for dinner out and some music.

I made Bistro 27 my destination because I hadn't seen those guys in a while and I'm never disappointed when I go there. I arrived around 8:30 to a ridiculously busy dining room and it didn't let up for another hour. Sitting down at my usual stool (at an empty bar), I was immediately greeted by all the guys who make my visits so enjoyable.

Chef Carlos came over for his requisite kiss, Dave made a smart-assed remark, Ron was friendly and flippant, Billy was his usual polite self, Richard gave me a half bow and Frederico smiled and gave me his shy greeting. Even Wilbur waved from the kitchen. I felt properly welcomed.

Just to get things started, I ordered a glass of Tempranillo while I looked at the menu. A regular came in to sit at the bar and when Carlos said hello, the guy let him know that he had a kiss on his face. "That's her," Carlos explained, gesturing at me and grinning. I have a reputation for leaving lipstick marks on men (among other things).

Because they were mobbed, it took Ron a good while to take my order (although in the meantime, he gave me my first taste of hot buttered rum), which suited me fine because I had time to do some crowd-watching and eavesdropping. The couple at a table near me were explaining to their sever why Florida didn't suit them.

"It's all newlyweds and nearly deads," she told him. "Except Key West." I'm sure my recently-transplanted-to-Key West friends will be glad to hear that, being members of neither of those two groups.

I finally decided on the flash-fried sweetbreads over local oyster mushroom ragout and polenta, topped with a port wine reduction, because it sounded like the kind of comfort food dish I was craving on this cold evening.

Carlos brought the generously-sized portion to me himself and the smell was enough to assure me that I'd chosen the right thing. Rich and earthy, the dish satisfied on every level. I have a restaurant friend who insists that Carlos' polenta is the best in town and she'd get no argument from me.

Along about that time, Carlos came over and insisted I try the Alexander Valley Lowry Hill Cabernet Sauvignon; and why not? I trust his taste, I had a plate full of sweetbreads to eat and I like big reds. Pour on!

One of the guys was telling me that his girlfriend has generously offered to support him so he can pursue his artistic dreams. "I got a sugar mama!" he bragged, causing me to ask where I might find a sugar daddy so I could do the same. His response, which I won't share, involved elements of my past, but was very funny for how quickly he came up with it.

At one point, Ron looked at me and asked,"Is there music?" not an unusual question for me to be asked. I thought he was asking about shows tonight, but what he really meant was could I hear the restaurant's music, which I could not and told him so.

He scurried off to make an adjustment, making for a huge improvement in the ambiance once I could hear what was being played (Marvin Gaye, Johnny Hartman & John Coltrane, even, gasp, vintage Hall & Oates). Must have music.

My next issue was whether or not I wanted dessert, so Ron brought me a menu,over which I could ponder. My next pour was the bold and beautiful Lodali Nebbiolo D'Alba, easily my favorite of the night (and I stayed with it) and undoubtedly part of the reason that I never made it to Balliceaux.

After close to an hour with the dessert menu (and even having to share it with the lipstick spotter), I finally ordered just as the kitchen was closing up shop. It worked out well because one by one the staff sat down at the bar with me to drink and chat as we watched some of the local cross dressers parade down Broad Street on their way to better things.

Carlos got the conversation started with reminisces of living in DC in the 80s, allowing the two of us who had also been there then to share memories of neighborhoods, bars and the mood of the city back then, very different from how it is now.

We three shared some of our favorite Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle stories, only to discover we had been moving through a lot of the same places at the same time. And oh, the rent prices back then! Those were the days.

As is often the case when you're talking to a half dozen guys, there were some tangents about girls who can't get enough sex, guys who date them and the surprising things you can see when an elevator door unexpectedly opens.

Like I said, I meant to go to Balliceaux for music, but every time I thought I could walk away from this group and their wild conversation, I was sucked back in. How does that happen?

To quote Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn, "The lady must have been willing."

She was that.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Have a Shot and Pass the Cookies

Holiday Inn
Open tonight
Don't ask, just go and God bless America!

It's a week away from Christmas, so it's kind of tough to get away from it at this point.

Not that I was trying to by going to the VMFA to see "Holiday Inn," the 1942 Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire movie that debuted the Christmas classic "White Christmas." Sure, I'd seen it before, but I hadn't heard WCVE's jazz DJ Peter Solomon talk about Irving Berlin and his music, which sounded pretty interesting to me.

And it was surprising to learn that Berlin couldn't read music and could only play the black keys of the piano (always playing in F#), which would explain his having a secretary write down the music he conceived of...for his entire career and he lived to be 101.

Two hours of Bing singing and Fred dancing would be enough, but when you add in the snappy 40s dialogue, it's a little slice of heaven for a wordy bird like me. A perfect example is the scene where the manager is ordering last-minute flowers from the flower shop girl for the demanding diva.

Her: What would you like?
Him: Orchids, the finest you've got.
her: Corsage?
Him: No, no. A dozen loose, looking like they don't care.

That line makes perfect sense to me; I only wish I'd thought of it first (and maybe that someone would want to send me carefree-looking flowers).

I decided against staying for the post-film discussion, not that I wouldn't have enjoyed it, but I had a cookie exchange party to go to out in the sticks. Well, the sticks to me anyway; it was over near Tan-A, way out of my comfort zone. And then I got lost and had to call for directions (from a pay phone, no less), making me even later.

But it didn't really matter because there were still plenty of cookies and people left when I arrived, including my smitten couple friend who'd come to make eyes at each other while staring at the fake fire on the TV screen.

This is my second year for this party and once again there was an embarrassment of cookies laid out. Whoopie pies, pistachio/craisin, chocolate with caramel and salt, red velvet crackles, Mexican wedding cookies, shortbread, snickerdoodles and at least a dozen other kinds were spread around the kitchen and living room.

My hosts were serving cider and eggnog, so naturally I went with the more decadent nog, nicely spiked. One guest, who had been unaware that the nog was already fortified, had been helpfully serving it and adding booze at that point. Needless to say, those who got the "double shots" were feeling the effects in no time.

Because my hosts blog and tweet, there were a fair number of the same at the party. One guest told me he followed me on Twitter and I had to correct him (you may read my blog, but I'm not a 140-character kind of girl). A coffee fanatic, he was also incredulous that I don't do coffee or tea. But what pushed him over the edge was my lack of a cell phone.

He could not comprehend how I live without one. "I'm touching mine even as we talk," he said by way of explanation, his hand deep in his pocket. "How DO you communicate?" I don't know, but somehow I manage, I told him. Later he made a big deal about my tights, though, so I forgave him the rest.

It was great fun being with a different crowd than the one I usually hang out with. The merits of the McRib were debated, bad penis jokes were delivered and closet organization skills were surveyed. There was a shirt-folding demonstration. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of laying out sushi on a naked human body rather than a plate at a soiree (coming soon to a party near you).

At one point, a guest brought in gifts of airline bottles of Jose Cuervo, which the recipients decided to do as body shots (something I'm proud to say I've never done). Unfortunately, the host had no limes (although he did have sea salt flakes), but the group made do with Real Lemon juice, you know, the kind in the plastic pseudo-lemon squirter bottle.

So, yes, they licked the expensive salt flakes off their hands, shot their cheap tequila and then squirted lemon juice down their throats ("It doesn't help," one girl exclaimed afterwards). It was mildly disturbing to one who truly appreciates good tequila (which this was not) and, on the other hand, it was some of the best entertainment of the evening. Especially with a Southpark carol playing in the background.

In fact, the party could have been written up much the way Holiday Inn was in the "newspaper blurb " from the movie that began this post.

A & K's Annual Cookie Exchange
Happening tonight
Don't ask, just go and Chef bless America

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fruit is Rusting on the Vine

A friend who, like me, prefers to communicate in writing, finally asked what phone number he could call me at. I gave it to him, clarifying that it was my only number.

Friend: I know that's your only number, Ms. Smarty pants. It never hurts to ask though. You could be at a different location. Could've run into a tall, dark and handsome man last night...the possibilities are endless you know.

Me: All the good ones are taken, haven't you heard?

Friend: I still hate to tell you the right one is tough to find. And you don't strike me as a simple, one-dimensional, compromising type of woman.

Me: So I'm going to be partner-less for the rest of my life, aren't I? (You can consider that a rhetorical question if you like)

Friend: Would be much easier for you to find this person in NY, CA, DC or Europe. In Richmond, you will have to adjust your criteria. I might have 77 things on my perfect woman spreadsheet, but you have at least 10-15 things on your list. Just sayin'.

And, yes, he really does have a spreadsheet (I consider it one of his many charms) and a girlfriend who meets more of the 77 criteria than anyone else he's ever met. They're one of my favorite couple dates since they're great conversationalists and eat out as much as I do (and like me, eat anything).

It hadn't even occurred to me that I had criteria, except that I do want a talker...and someone who likes to go out as much as I do...and loves to eat and drink...and they have to read...and be a good kisser...

So I'm not the spreadsheet type, but maybe I do have a few criteria in mind, meaning I will have a hard time whenever I do start dating.

Friend: Yes I was being kind with the 10-15 things :)

I am not making a spreadsheet. Presumably I will know if I ever meet the right person. And hopefully that will be when, not if.

I certainly hope I don't have to leave Richmond. Yet anyway.

J-Ward Represent

Jackson Ward knows how to throw a party, let me tell you.

Tonight was our annual Christmas soiree at Club 534 and, having attended last year (and being J-Ward Girl), I knew enough to be there again to eat, meet neighbors and enjoy the distinctive DJ stylings.

A writing assignment made me later than I intended to be, so the party was in full swing when I arrived. Friends had saved me a spot at their table, also where another couple was sitting.

Coincidentally, he was a guy I see at shows all over town but I had no idea he was from the Ward, and we'd never met. That was corrected, followed by him complimenting me on my tights. The night was off to a good start.

I had to play catch-up, though, so I began by going to get food. They'd already run out of crab cakes, but I loaded my plate with carved turkey, bean cakes and salsa, veggies, meatballs and cheeses. My association dues at work.

When I went to the bar to get a drink, the bartender told me she wanted my pink scarf. A woman standing next to me said, "If you could see her legs, you'd want her tights." The bartender craned her neck to check me out.

Without missing a beat, she said, "If I had a bottle of vodka, I'd get those tights from her." Yes, well, I'm not exactly sure what that meant, but it was probably just as well that she didn't have that bottle with her, whichever way that was going to go.

My favorite part of these parties is after dinner when the DJ cranks the music and the dancing starts. J-Ward is full of rhythm and practically everyone there was a terrific dancer. From little kids who knew all the steps to the gray-haired crowd who danced song after song, these people were all about the dance floor.

And every year my neighbor Larry, an enthusiastic and excellent dancer, insists that I dance with him and every year I remind him that I'm a white girl and not worthy.

It's almost a Christmas ritual for us. This year he actually reached under my armpits to lift me out of my chair as he insisted. That's a man who loves to dance.

When it was time for me to leave for my next destination, the dancing was still in full swing and Luther Vandross' "Never Too Much" came on, delaying my departure while I listened to a song I hadn't heard in a million years, but which I recognized from the first note. That's some classic r & b, in my humble opinion.

Stop number two was Six Burner for music. The show, originally scheduled for 10:00, had been pushed up to 8:00 because of the snow. When I arrived, Josh told me it had been moved back to its original time.

Luckily I had good company to keep me occupied until whatever time the music might start, including tonight's performer David Brookings ("Haven't we met before?") and his Dad.

Brookings was apparently an active part of Richmond's music scene about ten years ago and many of the other musicians who were part of that scene showed up tonight, making for a reunion of sorts. He had long ago moved to Memphis where he gave tours of Sun Studios until he was recruited to move to San Jose and work for iTunes. So this was a homecoming show.

Bartender Josh had long ago given me one of Brookings' CDs (he has five, two of which are out of print), so I knew to expect sunny, poppy songs with some excellent guitar work. He introduced one song by saying, "There are only two songs I get minor royalty payments from and this is not one of them."

Josh looked at me and responded, "That's some random shit." Indeed it was and Josh should know; he produced some of David's albums.

One of his best intros was, "If someone held a gun to my head and said 'Play the best song you wrote that doesn't suck' this is the song I would play." High praise, I thought, as he launched into yet another catchy little number.

Prabir and part of the Goldrush (Matt and Treesa) had come in to join the crowd and Prabir always adds a certain wild card element to any evening. After an old-fashioned, he asked Josh for a drink suggestion, requesting something "tasty," whatever that means in drink terms (obviously I have no idea).

Josh suggested a 1930s cocktail, the Godfather (Amaretto and scotch), and when he delivered it, announced that it might taste like "band aids and candy." It was not to Prabir's taste, but a nearby musician tasted and praised it, saying "These vintage cocktails always have great texture."

Brookings is on day 158 of a 209-day project to record every Beatles song and post it on youtube. At this point, he's halfway through the White album and tonight's song, recorded live, was "I'm So Tired."

Naturally, this led to a Beatles discussion amongst those around me: Sgt. Pepper vs. Magical Mystery Tour and Rubber Soul vs. Revolver (the same arguments Beatles lovers have been having since the albums came out). I shared my opinions and then backed away from the fray to mingle.

A friend told me about his idea for the ultimate RVA bar (it would be in Carver), a sous chef neighbor I hadn't seen lately told me about his upcoming gig and a musician I met tonight gave me credit for skirts and tights in this frigid weather, after asking if I had any sweat pants (I don't).

In a late discussion of neighborhoods with both a Church Hill and a Union Hill resident, I was asked where I live. "Jackson Ward," I told them proudly.

"And that's why you're so awesome," James said.

But not nearly as awesome as my neighbors who can really dance.