Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Cookies are Crumbling (But That Doesn't Stop Us From Eating Them)

My love of baking comes from my Aunt Dot. She owned one of those 1950s era Betty Crocker cookbooks bound in a three-ring binder with full color spreads of the most beautiful food I have ever seen.

Otherworldly, fanciful delicacies that I as the daughter of Chinese parents never saw. I was far more used to rice and duck and soy sauce chicken and bitter melon soup. Not rows upon rows of iced cookies shaped like snowmen and bells and rocking horses; or three-layer yellow cakes iced in white with flaming peaches on top; or brunches with fat doughnuts, sugar and nut crusted coffee cakes and pancake stacks heavy with syrup and butter.

My mom, being from Hong Kong, cooked mostly traditional Chinese meals; my Aunt Dot did too, but Aunt Dot had a strong streak of Southern in her. Aunt Dot wore printed shirtdresses, sounded like a Southern farmwife (she called scuppernongs scuffledimes) and introduced me to fried chicken dredged in a batter of flour and water then fried in an inch of oil. I loved her very much.

She was also the one who introduced me to the sweets I salivated over in her Betty Crocker cookbook. Having a sweet tooth herself, Aunt Dot's favorite Saturday afternoon pasttime was making cookies and I was always her willing assistant.

One of her best cookies was actually a recipe that didn't come from Betty Crocker. I'm not sure where it came from, but we still have the original, written in a flowing cursive with a slightly shaky hand. I love how she instructs us to bake the cookies at 350 or 375 degrees. These were the cookies she made for each of us during holidays or as college care packages.

I made them recently again for the first time in years. Pulling the sheets out of the oven with their familiar brown sugar, nutty smell brought back memories of Aunt Dot, all buttoned up in her red and blue kitchen smock, with a spatula in hand and a big smile on her face.

Cornflake Cookies

1 cup of unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 cup of white sugar
1/2 cup of brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp of vanilla
1 1/2 cups of flour
3 tsp of baking powder
1/2 tsp of salt
1/2 box of cornflakes
1/2 cup of nuts

Preheat oven to 350 or 375 degrees (or compromise like me to 360 degrees).

Cream softened butter with both sugars. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well. Add flour, baking powder and salt and mix. Add cornflakes and nuts and mix one more time. It will seem like there are way too many cornflakes for the batter, but don't worry! It will mix in.

Using a large tablespoon, drop half spoonfuls of cookie dough on baking sheets. I usually fit 12 to a sheet. Bake for 15 minutes; cookies should have flattened and be lacy and golden brown.

Cool for a moment then remove from baking sheets. Yields about 4 dozen crisp, crumbly and delicious cookies.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Writing Envy

I wish I had written this:
"But my husband has seen me at my worst, at my most vile. And he has seen me at my best. He knows the things I don’t tell anyone, and the lies that I tell everyone but him. I have made sacrifices for him and been angry about it. Sometimes his flaws are so egregious, so blatant, they are all I see. And sometimes his kindness is so stunning that I am humbled."--Sarah Healy, "When the Words Don't Fit," New York Times

And this:
"I must learn to love the fool in me--the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self-control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries. It alone protects me against that utterly self-controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbor and who would rob me of human aliveness, humility, and dignity but for my fool." -- Theodore I. Rubin, MD

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chasing Chitlins: A Thanksgiving Folk Tale

A couple years ago, I worked on a travel story for a local magazine. I had always wanted to attend the annual Chitlin Strut in Salley, SC, and this offered the perfect opportunity.

The chitlin, for the uninitiated, is the intestine of a pig. Rinsed, scrubbed, this white rubbery organ (I hesitate to call it meat) still is never quite released from the pungent odor that you might imagine it would hold after being intimately associated with, let's face it, pig poop. Yet, roughly 25,0000 people descend on Salley (pop. 398) every year at Thanksgiving time to ride carnival rides, shop for arts and crafts, and eat literally miles of the stuff.

As Asians, you can imagine we've dined on our share of innards. My aunt and mom have served us pig stomach (tripe), chicken feet (with the fingernails still on!), deeply burnished ducks that stared back out of one glaze-covered eye. My mom once gave my husband, who is not Asian, a pig tail in soup, and like a trooper, he ate it.

So the whole family caravaned to Salley to try our luck at chitlins. As we crept along downtown Salley's narrow streets, narrowly missing striking pedestrians, my husband rolled down his window and shouted out to the crowds filing past, "Where are the chitlins?" And they shouted back, "This way." "No, over there." "Try that church over there, they're the best!" We were surrounded by hordes of helpful tourists who seemed to know what they liked and were eager to initiate us.

We soon found ourselves standing on a crowded lawn ringed by food vendors of all description, but classified in that category known as fair food. Where were the chitlins? While my husband and brothers went to investigate, the rest of us scoped out and staked our claim on a patch of green grass.

Success! in a rectangular styrofoam box! And terror! as my sister exclaimed, "Oh my gosh, I thought that smell was the port-o-potties, but it's the chitlins!" Yes, the rank smell that we had caught a whiff of every now and then was eminating from the innocent and attractive box of deep fried nuggets (with a side of hot sauce).

My sister, my brother and my husband all made it through one bite and one hard swallow. I spat out my mouthful after two chews. My second brother on the other hand, snacked his way through an entire chitlin nugget and even went after more. My sister, looking at the photos later, said, "He smiles his biggest smile ever...while he's eating a chitlin?"

Yes, the fair food was there to wash down the taste once you tried the chitlins. Yet we couldn't tear our eyes away during the first annual Chitlin Eating contest, where contestants were given small buckets of boiled (yes, not even given the helpful flavor and crunch of breading), bare, hideously white chitlin tubes, that they shoved down in massive quantities.

The Salley Chitlin Strut is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity--not to be missed, for the bragging rights alone. But the takeaway? Know your limits, always carry hot sauce, and when in doubt, don't stand downwind.

The 46th Annual Chitlin Strut takes place in Salley, SC, on Saturday, November 26. The event features a parade, bands, carnival rides, tractor show, chitlin eating contest, hog calling contest and strut contest. For more information, visit their website at

Monday, September 26, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Even though it's still pushing 90 degrees here in Augusta, I'm unabashedly embracing fall, pulling out my sweaters, thinking about soups to cook (already made my first bouillabaise!), and looking forward to the holidays.

Two of my favorites--which you won't see on any calendar--are "Leaf Day" and "Bird Day." I was so thrilled when I found out my husband had already found out about these holidays. There's always one day every fall when suddenly the air is full of falling leaves. I've been lucky enough to be outside for this day only a few times in my the house where I grew up, at recess at school, even at college. But it's been years since I've caught that day.

The second is the day when birds flying south for the winter decide to make their pit stop in Augusta, and suddenly our yard, our neighbors' yards, and the grassy median in our section of Olde Town is full of roosting, calling black birds.

I'm full of anticipation--maybe this year will be the year that I'll get to enjoy both! Do you have any special traditions or "holidays" you celebrate this fall season?

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Year Full of Happiness

Last year, I read "The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin, a popular blog-become-book chronicling Rubin's pursuit of happiness. One idea I took away from her experiment was the importance of chronicling and really experiencing those happy moments that happen each and every day, but are so easy to forget.

About a week later, I was at the Country Living Festival in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where one of several freebies was an adorable pink and purple Remember Book, a mini daily journal, from Dress Barn. It felt a little like fate when I opened it, and read, "Memory is how we hold on to the things we love, the things we are, the things with which we never part." I started that weekend to collect those meaningful moments in my daily life, beginning with "Taste of Atlanta!" and "Country Living Fair, Stone Mountain" and "my new typewriter key necklace."

Over the past 11 months, I've jotted, crammed and sometimes struggled to fill each daily line with a true moment of happiness. Some days I can only work up to the happiness of "Coming home...and porkchops," while other days are gems of memory: "Laughing with Sean in the water at the lake," "Everyone loved the caramel cake," "Snow day!", "Finding Adam and Morgan the perfect wedding gift", "Laughing with Jamie and Becca; with Chris and Andy." And some sad, rollercoaster times: "No more pain for Uncle Robert," "The girls...during a stressful day," "The struggle to be good!". During this year, I also went through the stress of a reorg at work, an outside job offer, doubts, and second thoughts. While I made my choice, it wasn't without regret at any pain I caused, especially when I read, "I do like the girls!" and "R.S. and S...they're so nice!" and "Nice conversation with A.W."

I still have a month left before my little Remember Book is complete. And I find myself asking the same question that Gretchen Rubin did at the end of her Happiness Project: Am I any happier? Some days the answer would be a loud No! But I think I've come to the same conclusion she did: I'm more aware of my own happiness, and when it comes, I take the time to revel in the fullness of that feeling, be it something as simple as "The rain smell" or as complicated as "Little boy who looked like Harry Potter--I told Sean, 'Look, there's Harry Potter,' and he looked down all pleased."

I wonder what I will do now, without my little pink and purple friend on my bedside table? It's become a ritual, me laying on my belly, propped up on a pillow, thinking over the day and jotting down the one--or three--things that filled me with joy. As I look for replacements for my little book, I think--I hope!--I will keep it up. Because even on the bad days, now I can look back and remember, at least there was that smell of rain.

Friday, September 9, 2011

It's Fall!

The other night as we were walking to the car to head out to dinner, I stretched out my arms and spun for the sheer pleasure of feeling the cool air. Have you felt the chill in the mornings? (can you believe it?) It's fall! I'm ready to luxuriate in sweaters, the rich smell of fall leaves raked on a Saturday morning, and crisp days punctuated by blue skies behind orange trees.

The perfect fall outfit:

Where I'd love to visit this fall:

So welcoming!

Even more than spring, fall to me feels like the start of something new. Can you feel it?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

DIY: In Which I Craft a Birthday Gift for Sean That Will Make Half of You Go "Awww" and the Other Half Go "Urgh"

It's always hard for me to think of great birthday gifts, especially for Sean. But I recently signed up for Pinterest and came across an idea I loved. I'd always wanted to do some sort of scrapbook illustrating all the reasons I love Sean. This was a scrapbook in miniature, using a deck of cards as the base. I also used images that I printed from the web, clippings from magazines and stickers to illustrate the "52 Things Dani Loves About Sean."

The end result: Sean was thrilled and I was happy to give him a unique and memorable birthday!

What You'll Need:
* Deck of cards (52 cards plus the two Jokers to be used as covers)
* Hole punch (I punched one hole but you may want to punch two...just punch one card and use as the template for the others)
* Binder ring (I recycled one I already had) or ribbon
* Resume paper (just something a little nicer than plain ol' computer paper)
* Color printer (if you're grabbing images off the web), magazines, stickers, photos, scrapbook paper...anything that you could use to illustrate
* Glue stick

The Process
Coming up with 52 things to say can seem somewhat daunting, but you'll be surprised how easily it flows once you start jotting them down. I did a mix of serious and sweet, silly and fun. Just depends on the "tone" you want for the book.

Type them up and play with the fonts until you find one(s) you like. I used 20 pt Copperplate (title) for the cover, and 18 pt Perpetua (bold) for the reasons.

Note that a deck of cards is roughly 2.5 by 3.5 inches, so size your images and the length of your lines accordingly. I also did at least a double space on my reasons so they'd be easier to cut out.

Stumped on clever ways to illustrate what you're trying to say? Just Google search images based on your reasons for ideas...for example, for "You're green," I used a comic book image of the Incredible Hulk.

Finally, have fun! This doesn't have to look fact, I think the rough look of it adds to the charm!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Eat Me: Pho Bac

My friend Grace has a million friends, always wears the prettiest dresses, and has the most adorable daughter on the planet. So when she said that we had to try a new restaurant called Pho Bac, I knew it had to be good.

This Vietnamese restaurant, tucked just off Washington Road (if you're heading out to Evans, turn left at the McDonalds in Columbia Square), offers heaping bowls of pho--rice noodles in broth with veggies and protein--along with rice plates, Vietnamese sandwiches and so much more.

Seven of us--Grace and her family, our friends Connie and Jake, and Sean and I--went there recently to celebrate Sean's birthday. The fact that our waitress stumbled over a name on the beer list ("We have Bud Light and M-Mish-lob? I don't know how to pronounce it, I'm only 18") only added to the charm.

Sean ordered something off the Beef Stew section of the menu; when it arrived, it turned out to be nothing like beef stew, but was instead a richly flavored mix of shrimp, beef, chicken and vegetables atop noodles lightly coated in a brown sauce. My spring rolls (whole pink shrimp and green lettuce and herbs peeking out through translucent rice wrapping) and salt and pepper squid (perfectly cooked calamari coated in crispy crumbs flavored with salt and pepper, and sitting on a bed of onions and jalapenos) were light, fresh and just right.

It was a long night of laughter and stories, with more Mish-lob ordered, and cupcakes at the end (from Sundrees downtown market, but that's another story). Pho Bac is a little hard to find...there's no sign on Washington Road to direct you, and you have to really look to see it, which is a shame since the staff is sweet and the food is authentic, or so it seems to this non-Vietnamese Chinese girl. And did I mention the karaoke?


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book Review: The Paris Wife

In Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, one of my favorite novels, Hadley Hemingway is a strong, straight presence, all tan limbs, but not sexy, just motherly, and strong. I always liked her and felt for her. After all Hemingway ultimately leaves her, and she commits an almost unforgivable deed--en route to Switzerland to meet him on vacation, she packs, then loses every copy of the manuscript of his novel, as well as all the stories he was working on. I say almost unforgivable...but I don't know, for a writer, if a screw up of that magnitude could ever be forgiven or forgotten.

The Paris Wife is a new novel by Paula McClain that tells the story of A Moveable Feast from Hadley's point of view. Aside from aping Hemingway's style of writing from the earlier novel (which I find a little annoying), the story is fascinating. And the later chapters, as Hem and Hadley's relationship begins to fall apart and Hem falls for Hadley's friend Pauline, broke my heart.

A Moveable Feast was always an idealized memory of a time long past--with the bad bits (and Hemingway's own fault in them) glossed over. Or at least that's what I always thought. A Paris Wife gives us a another viewpoint...that perhaps that's how Hemingway viewed himself during those tumultuous months...a victim of circumstance. But at the end, McClain grants him awareness as well as absolution, before the final tragedy of his death by suicide.

A Paris Wife is a vividly drawn recreation of life in Paris, and those early passionate years before Hadley's husband became Ernest Hemingway.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Permission to Scream Out Loud

There's a scene in Coyote Ugly that a friend once said reminded him of me.

Violet (played by Piper Perabo) is a songwriter with big dreams...and stage fright. But (naturally) the only way she can get someone to pay attention to her songwriting is to sing. Her waiter boyfriend works with her patiently to help her build her confidence. In the end--the genre being what it is--she overcomes her fears, belts it out, and lo and behold, her song is picked up by Leanne Rimes, and she and Leanne and Violet's dad, played by John Goodman, end up performing and prancing around together in the Coyote Ugly bar.

Me, I'm a pretty reserved person. In fact, when I was younger, I was shy to the point of being voiceless in a crowd. But this friend, and others, helped me come out of my shell. My own Coyote Ugly experience came one night at a local tavern when friends catcalled my name until I got on stage and did a 30-second booty shake in front of EVERYONE. It's a night that my now-husband, then-friend, says he still thinks about regularly. (Take that, Piper Perabo!)

But, I still get shy sometimes, feeling too serious and too grownup for silly fun. At concerts, I usually stand and do the body twitch in time to the music, along with all the other 30-somethings. So it's awesome when a band like Cowboy Mouth comes along, as they did during the recent opening of our local Kroc Center, and gives you permission to act out. Drummer, lead vocalist and band founder Fred LeBlanc won't let you take yourself too seriously. Right at the start, he jumped off stage and began cajoling, then ordering, "Come a little bit closer, come on, come a little bit closer. Hey you! in the Hawaiian shirt! Come a little bit closer!" until we were all moshed together near the stage. "I promise you, you will leave this concert feeling 100 percent better than when you came!" Then, as the thrumming of the guitars grew louder, "Come on, give me some rhythm, give me some rhythm," and once we were all clapping in unison, "Now, jump up and down and scream like you are five years old and you've had way too much Kool-Aid!"

I have to admit, I fell a little bit in love with Fred LeBlanc that night. He was brash, he was sweaty, he was loud, but he sure had passion for what he was doing. And for the hour and a half they played, so did we. Jumping up and down under the stars, screaming until we were hoarse.

Photo credit: