Seeking Summer in Minnesota

When we moved to Minnesota, my husband had to leave for a conference just a few days later. There I was in an empty rented house–our furniture and belongings were slated to arrive a few weeks later–starting a new job, knowing no one. Before he left, my husband and I ran errands and set up house as best we could. At the grocery store, he grabbed the latest issue of one of the city magazines. While he was away, I pored over this magazine, trying to get a sense of the personality of our new home.

Almost every page burst with images of summer and a chirpy tone that implied: of course everyone in Minnesota keeps a blanket and picnic basket in the trunk of their car! Impromptu picnics, patios, outdoor movies and concerts–all of these were must-dos, all of these were things every Minnesotan spent summer months chasing.

I sat cramped on the folding camping chair in the living room or sprawled on the deflating air mattress reading these words, drinking in the pictures. I was too timid to venture out much on my own, except for my new job. (I was also sad, as my grandfather’s Pacemaker was slated to give out around this time, ending his years-long experience with Alzheimer’s.)

What I’ve learned in the three years since those sad, quiet days is this: I don’t know anyone who keeps a picnic basket in their trunk, but I do know people who keep collapsible snow shovels in their cars. Minnesotans love walking around their lakes. They love restaurant patios, no matter how small and preposterous. They will find any reason for going outside for an extra hit of vitamin D. They will go to all the outdoor festivals and clog the farmers’ markets and swarm the Stone Arch Bridge and the sculpture garden and the bike paths. Because winters are grueling and long, you look for any opportunity to be outside when you can.

I’ve had to adjust to belated springs. Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, it wasn’t unusual to see snowdrops in our backyard in late February, and I charted the progression of spring from the crocuses outside the front door to the forsythia bordering the woods to the grape hyacinths dotting the grass beyond the porch door to the lilacs near our neighbor’s house.

The lilacs are a constant, I’m glad to say. Here in Minnesota, they bloom and purple the Cities for about a week. Whenever I pass one, I have to stop and bury my face in its tiny flowers. Lilacs love the cold. They’re all over Rochester, New York, too, where my older sister went to college. There, they held a festival celebrating the flowering bushes. As a kid, I loved that idea because I loved lilacs. I loved lilacs because my sister did. Lilacs were a way of connecting with her across our 11-year age difference.

The treasure of lilacs after months of winter and gray and slush and wiping out on patches of ice hidden under fresh snow is like getting a hug from your mother when you need it most.

The blizzard from last weekend is behind us. Most of its snow is gone, and the temperatures this week hover in the upper 60s. It’s a quick about-face. The bare ground looks stricken, all layers of dead leaves and crushed brown grass. Hardly anything is budding, and I haven’t put away my snow boots yet. Fall is only four months away.

You can’t escape talking about and musing on the weather when you live in Minnesota. It shapes and dictates your life and your movement. This is true all around the world, of course, but when we moved here that summer three years ago, I hadn’t known winters like this, winters that come early and overstay their welcome. Winters with air that slaps you in the face and freezes your nose hairs. But I’ve also never known summers like this. Sunny days that rarely hit 90 degrees. Cool nights. Blue skies so brilliant they don’t seem real.

So though I miss the budding and blooming of flowers to mark the progress of spring–bleeding heart and dogwoods and cherry blossoms, I didn’t forget you–the promise of summer is sweet. And the lilacs will be in bloom soon. And when the nights grow chillier in mid-August, I’ll be ready. Boots at the door. Folding snow shovel in the car’s trunk.


ArtsJournal WHAT UP

Sometimes you don’t know you had a goal in mind until you’ve accomplished the thing. Take today. I open the latest installment of Douglas McClennan’s ArtsJournal–a daily newsletter rounding up links about goings-in the arts–and under the theatre section was a link to an article I just wrote, recapping a conference organized by theatre company Ten Thousand Things.

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 9.48.13 AM


There’s been just so much shit happening in the world, and so forgive me for taking a moment to let the excitement of this overtake me. I’ve been subscribing to ArtsJournal since 2011, and I read a lot of the articles McClennan features.

Anyway, this is rambling, but it feels like a moment to reflect on the fact that for me, professionally, 2017 was pretty good. It feels almost traitorous to say this when so many basic services and rights are being threatened and toppled. When people feel pulled in so many directions they don’t know where to give their energy, time, resources.

It’s been said before, but I’ll reiterate. I don’t think it’s bad to remember the good. That’s simplistic, I know, but everyone needs something to counteract the bad in life, whether it’s in watching a silly TV show with their partner or best friend or alone or with a pet, making some brownies, caring for a plant, taking a walk–whatever. This year, for me, was about focusing on my writing, in some way. I feel very lucky and privileged to have had the time and space and support to do that. My husband has been nothing but wonderful (as usual) in cheering me on and reading first drafts and providing edits and making incredible tomato sauce for his pastas. I’ve written and published more this year than I have since college, and it feels good. And I want to keep this up in 2018 and find ways to use my writing to support and promote the people and things I and other folks find valuable in life.

Thanks for reading. Find what makes you peaceful and happy. Fight for it.


Revising Walleye

Recently, a piece of mine came out with the magazine Us of America. They’re a new publication, and each issue has a section focusing on a different state in the US. I squeaked in right at the Minnesota deadline with an article about walleye, Minnesota’s (kinda creepy looking) state fish. By the time I submitted it, I’d been working on that piece for about 11 months. For one article. Maybe some of you will raise your eyebrows while others nod knowingly.

Revision is necessary. It always makes a piece better. If you think your first draft is perfect, that’s like saying a construction worker is done and satisfied with building a house after erecting only the frame.

I wrote the first draft of the walleye piece for a food writing residency I was about to attend. The woman running things, Molly O’Neill, said we needed a feature-length piece on anything relating to fishing or seafood. We should talk to plenty of people, fill this story with characters, go fishing ourselves. I tried all of those things, and not knowing what “feature-length” meant, ended up with 10 pages. Single-spaced. I realized how nutty this was on the first night of the residency when everyone was asked to read their drafts aloud for initial feedback. I barely got halfway through before Molly stopped me. I felt so embarrassed. And also like I hadn’t done justice to the my research at the Minnesota History Center or the interviews I’d conducted. I’d thrown it all on the page to see what would stick. But you have to do that before anything else.

Over the course of the two-week residency, I cut and cut and cut. The other folks at the residency along with some guest lecturers helped me see what really stood out about the piece and what was just filler. I went through seven drafts in those two weeks, hunched over my laptop on my bed in the upstairs dormitory. We stayed in Molly’s house, a Dutch-style affair from the late 1700s/early 1800s. It was creaky, and the spiraling chimney wound through the space. I went to sleep every night feeling the press and warmth of the house’s history.

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 1.00.25 PM

All the walleye files.

After the residency, I kept revising. Three more drafts. After pitching to eight venues, the ninth–Us of America–accepted it. And asked me to write the introduction to the Minnesota section.

I don’t write all of this to sound like some peppy keep-going-you-got-this-see-what-happens-when-you-stick-with-it? talk. Though if that works for you, yes, that is why I wrote this. I don’t really know why I’m writing about this, all these drafts on walleye of all things. It reinforced for me the power and necessity of revising. I knew the first draft was garbage. That’s what first drafts are. They are the drafts that have to come before your pretty, polished piece. It may be dopey, but it reminds me of sculpting: before the finished product, you have to chip away at the stone. Things look rough and blocky and wonky for awhile, but you keep chipping and chiseling until the form emerges, until what you have in your head is finally there in front of you, the product of your work and ideas.

5 Cheap(ish) Places to Eat in Reykjavik

“What time do you think it is? Take a guess.”

It’s June, and the sky is streaked with blue and purple, some pink fading in the west. My husband and I are walking back to our hotel, which is about 15 minutes from downtown Reykjavik. We’re wearing our fall/spring coats. I have on a hat. Still chilly here. He’s just looked at his watch.

“Uh, how late is it?”

“After midnight. 12:30”

We never tired of this.

The perpetual daylight inspired some awe even while it frustrated our jetlag, we were overall captivated by Iceland’s beauty and Reykjavik’s charm. As scads of other tourists have been in recent years. After the 2008 recession, Iceland leaned hard into promoting tourism, with the result that most of Reykjavik is now given over to hordes of folks drawn by the siren song of fresh seafood, jaw-dropping landscapes, and a literary culture that’s hard to beat. While Icelandair flights are direct from a lot of US cities and are quite affordable, the country itself commands rather high prices. Not surprising for an isolated island.

But I’m not here today to explore the effects of tourism on local culture or how one can ethically travel these days (bigger topic for another day). What I’m going to do is embrace the reality that Iceland is popular and folks want to stretch their bucks (or Euros or yen, etc.). Shout-out to Reykjavik Grapevine and my friend, Melanie, for some of these recommendations.

Walking down Laugavegur, the main street through Reykjavik, you’ll see plenty of tourist shops peddling stuffed puffins and Viking-themed shot glasses, but you’ll also spy plenty of little restaurants. One we loved that a friend had recommended was Noodle Station. Their phở is out of this world (and the Twin Cities, where we live, has incredible phở). The broth is dark and rich and overflowing with noodles and tender vegetables and chicken or beef. The meat bowls run you about $15, and the vegetable-only bowl around $9. Compared to bowls of phở in the Twin Cities–which run anywhere from around $7-$10 for the same size–this is pricey. But for Reykjavik, it’s a deal. And it’s delicious.

TB with pho

If you still need more of a noodle fix, head to Ramen Momo near the waterfront. It’s tiny and cozy, which in early June, chilled from our walk over from the university, we needed. You can build your own bowl and then slurp it up at the counter along the window. We chatted for a bit with the woman behind the counter, and she asked if she could take our photo for their Instagram. That’s not why I’m recommending it. It’s a hearty, warming soup for about $18 in a calm atmosphere.

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 10.26.28 AM

OK, but a lot of people don’t come all the way to Iceland to only eat soups, delicious though they are. You probably want some seafood. For a quick bite, head to Sakebarinn or its sister location outside downtown Sushibarinn. Both locations serve reasonably-priced and very tasty sushi, skewers, appetizers, and combos. We found those combinations offered the best bang for our buck. And we also couldn’t help but try their grilled whale skewer. When else can you eat whale? Gamey in flavor like venison but texturally like beef, whale was a delight.

If you end up walking as much as we did, you’ll likely want to take an afternoon pit stop and recharge with some tea or coffee. I cannot recommend Stofan Cafe enough. The building is charming, the staff friendly, the atmosphere restorative. Sal often grabbed some espresso, and I was very content with my giant cups of tea. We also decided to split a large slice of chocolate cake during one of our visits, sitting in their cozy basement. This was not a mistake. Come later in the day, and hang out with a glass of wine or beer. They’re open until 11pm.


View from Stofan Cafe.

Prikið is the oldest bar in Reykjavik. And while its simple, classic burgers aren’t the cheapest thing you’ll find, they are satisfying, especially when washed down with some Viking beer. It’s a great spot to hang out: kinda divey, no one rushing you. And it seems like a downtown bar that local folks still frequent. In the evenings, a DJ shows up, and the disco ball gets going. It’s a tight space, but we didn’t stick around to see how dancers navigated that.


At any rate, I’ll always love Prikið for this sign in their restroom:


I’ve barely scratched the surface. And I didn’t mention hot dogs! There’s a real devotion to hot dogs in Reykjavik, and while we didn’t sample any–afraid it might upset Sal’s stomach–the long lines at several hot dog spots affirmed their tastiness and affordability. I also didn’t go into raptures about Saegriffin, as that spot has been frequently covered, and, I mean, just go there, too. The lobster soup is delectable, and you can sit outside on the water, slurping away. Also, if you continue along the waterfront toward the Maritime Museum, you may happen upon the Fish & Chips Wagon, which served some of the best fish & chips I’ve ever eaten. They’re made better by sitting on the bench in the sunshine.

I urge you to do your research, both in food and in being a courteous and respectful traveler. Reykjavik is an incredible city with excellent museums and bookstores, festivals and theatre.

P.S.: If you’re planning to have at least one or two pricier meals while in Reykjavik, head to Snaps Bistro for French-inflected fare. Get any fish dish. Another spot, Íslenski Barinn, is a tad more touristy, but you won’t care the moment you taste puffin and dig into their fish stew.

Happy Derby!

2016-05-07 17.12.59

Sal mixed us some bourbon cocktails last year, and we donned our Derby apparel for the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Living close to Louisville for a couple of years gave us an appreciation for Derby and how the city celebrates it. My aunts had been telling me for years that Louisville basically shuts down during Derby Days to make time for all of the events surrounding the horse race.

Sal and I were only in Louisville once for Derby, and while we didn’t get to the track, I made a hat (pictured above) and we joined some friends at a bar to watch. I don’t remember anything about who won or what happened, but there is something exciting about the power of those horses and the strategy employed in racing (do read Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit). This was also when I drank my first mint julep, though the friend that mixed it didn’t so much as muddle the mint as drop it into a glass of bourbon. Worked for me.

If you plan to celebrate Derby, get yourself some good bourbon, craft a hat, and have fun. Your city may not shut down for Derby Days, but take an afternoon and pretend it does.


Chicken & Ribs

2016-10-16 17.56.01

Pictured: a close-up of Sal’s fingers covered in barbecue sauce, ribs blurry at the bottom of the frame. We are at Rooster’s, and we are feasting.

Based on a recommendation from a friend, we visit Rooster’s in St. Paul. It’s small, plopped down on a corner in an otherwise purely residential neighborhood. There’s a small garden center just down the block. When we walk inside, we smell the fryers: chicken, batter, potatoes. The old booth we slide into has been worn smooth by hundreds of people passing through. This is more of a takeout place, we realize, but we look through the menu, order at the counter, and wait. It’s agonizing. The smells of freshly fried chicken and sticky ribs cover us, and we stare enviously at the people who come in for their takeout.

When our meals are ready, we stare for a moment at the mountains in front of us. I have a pulled pork sandwich, a mound of meat on a sturdy bun, coleslaw waiting in its ramekin. Sal, more ambitious, has a rib and chicken dinner. He offers me some chicken, and the batter crackles, the juices flow, the chicken–hot, so perfectly hot–slides into my mouth as it falls off the bone. We cannot believe how delicious and perfect this chicken is. It’s the platonic ideal of fried chicken. We could eat here every week but know that it wouldn’t be good news for our arteries.

Not long ago, another fried-chicken joint moved into St. Paul. It’s the second location of a spot in Minneapolis that’s more “upscale,” I guess. There’s a full bar, and there are different kinds of fried chicken, and it all feels neatly packaged and streamlined. The bus I take every day goes by Rooster’s, and every evening I see the place is bustling. Have those people ever been to Rooster’s? Would they be here if they knew they could get tender ribs and flavorful chicken elsewhere without the wait and bourgeois trappings?


Rosé, We Miss You

2015-02-14 21.22.17

When we lived in Indy, a very good liquor store was about a five-minute walk from our house. This was good when we knew we’d have guests and needed to grab something last-minute or when we wanted to drink some rosé with the NBA All-Star Weekend, a tradition begun in 2014 when we learned Drake enjoys rosé.

Anyway, we’d go, and the folks there were so good at recommending things and always offering tastings. I’d been eyeing a bottle of the rosé pictured above, and the guy working there that we always saw said it was delicious as well as a steal. If I remember correctly this bottle didn’t sell for more than $12, and it’s some of the most delicious rosé I can recall. Not too sweet, not cloying, not too assertive. It had a bit of a tartness to it that recommended itself to cheeses. We miss this rosé. We can’t find it anywhere we’ve been in the Twin Cities, so the memory must sustain us.

The Easter Bunny in New York State

A couple of months ago, I finally got a new phone (the iPhone 4 from 2013 is dead!), and while going through the photos to transfer them to the new phone (long live the Google Pixel!), I realized just how many photos I’d taken of food and wine bottles. So, in an effort to preserve the memories those photos were meant to capture, I’ll be sharing those photos periodically with a little note or story to accompany them. Nothing fancy.

2014-04-20 15.50.29

When we lived in Indianapolis, it was a leisurely two-hour drive to visit my aunts in Louisville. We joked that it only took about three turns to get to their house from ours, that’s how simple the drive down 65 was. The view from the highway was mostly idyllic–farmland and trees–and when we took back roads, we wound through tiny towns that weren’t much more than a convenience store, a gas station, and a collection of houses. Southern Indiana was flat and felt very empty indeed.

We’d visit my aunts as often as we could, spending our visits out on the Bourbon Trail, eating good food, and talking about anything and everything. We lent books to each other, went to plays, and stayed up late with glasses of bourbon at hand.

For Easter, my aunt Carrie put out quite the spread, and the Easter Bunny always brought us what I like to call an adult Easter basket. The Easter Bunny, it seemed, shared some tastes with my aunts, namely: New York State wine. My aunts love it. They lived in Rochester for years, which gave them opportunity to tour around and find their favorite wineries. Now they go back a couple times each year, driving their station wagon up and returning with the trunk loaded. Their basement is a treasure trove, their own cave, featuring not just wines, but gins, bourbons, and beers. “We don’t drink it all; we collect it,” my aunt Lee says. They collect it to give it away.

So Easter dinner always featured a couple of New York State wines to go with the ham, the lima beans, and the mashed potatoes. As if that weren’t enough, my aunt Carrie would always make a Mounds Cake. A beautiful monster of a chocolate layer cake with shredded coconut and luscious frosting you want to eat by the spoonful. She gave me the recipe, but I know I could never replicate it. The recipe needs their home, their warmth, their laughter.

Writing about The Sneetches

This past November, my editor at American Theatre reached out and asked if I’d like to cover the world premiere of a musical based on Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches over at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Of course, I said yes. It would be the biggest thing I’d written yet. I conducted interviews, dropped in on rehearsals, and attended the “Sneetch Peek” organized by the marketing team.

From all of this, I learned a lot: what worked in the process as I conducted it and what I would do differently next time. Twenty-two pages of my notebook are now given over to observations about the production, quotations and notes from interviews, my own thoughts.

If you don’t know about the Sneetches, the basic story is this: all these Sneetches live on a beach, but some have stars on their bellies, and some do not. Those with stars oppress those without. It doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to see that this straightforward story has a lot to say about history and about our present moment in the Trump administration. Amidst my notes I find this one:

while riding to rehearsal two days before Obama was to leave office, I listened to NPR, where everyone seemed quietly desperate, unsure of what to expect — the Sneetches’ finale about how to be friends with a Sneetch may not solve everything, but it’s a message of goodness and acceptance and sincerity and joy

I have to take some comfort in the fact that The Sneetches had a very long run, and a lot of children got that message. Even if they’d heard it before, even if their parents reinforce that message every day, I’m glad they got it at the theatre. Theatre doesn’t always set out to teach, but there’s always something to learn. And we need as many messages about goodness and acceptance as we can get.


Cúrate’s Spanish-Inspired Recipes Keep It Simple

One night early in my semester in Madrid, my señora held a dinner in the formal part of her apartment, inviting over two of her friends to join my two flatmates and me. This hushed room had been off-limits, and I was struck by the heavy wooden furniture at odds with the Ikea brightness of the rest of Carmen’s apartment. I don’t remember what she served for dinner that night, but I summoned up enough Spanish to try to communicate that her food was straightforward and satisfying. In English we’d say simple, so I said the same thing in Spanish: simple. The table got a Spanish lesson in response.

En español, decimos sencillo. Simple es como…estúpido. O para algo que no es complejo.

Sencillo is for modest, straightforward, unadorned. The dinner ended, but I’m still thinking about sencillo. I don’t think English has the perfect equivalent, which is why I like to use it to describe Spanish cooking. But words can only go so far. At some point, you have to taste Spanish food to understand.

So, thank goodness for chef and restaurateur Katie Button.

For a full scope on Button’s background, check out this excellent interview she did with Eater in 2014 and then read The Sorcerer’s Apprentices by Lisa Abend. I’ve loved learning about Button’s life because it’s a textbook example of how sometimes you start to unquestioningly follow a path you merely think you should follow. Luckily for us, Button got cold feet about her PhD program and returned to her first loves: food and cooking.

Cúrate, Button’s first cookbook–created with Genevieve Ko–is named after her restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, and offers a survey of recipes that Button has translated from Spain to her restaurant to the home kitchen. It isn’t a super comprehensive, must-cover-everything cookbook (for that, check out The Foods & Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas). But it isn’t trying to be.

Button’s recipes detail Spanish classics like pan con tomate, tortilla, and rabo de toro, preparations that allow their components to shine in true sencillo fashion. Other recipes start with a dish or ingredient used frequently throughout Spain–migas, cod, piquillo peppers–and then add a new twist. Migas matched with Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, fried eggplant with honey instead of cane syrup, adobo sauce used on spare ribs instead of lomo. These interpretations make dishes relevant for American cooks and also point to Spain’s own culinary history, one that incorporated influences from the Moors, the Jewish population, and Spain’s colonies in the New World. The Columbian Exchange gave Spain, and consequently the rest of the Old World, potatoes for patatas bravas, tomatoes for gazpacho, and chiles for salmorejo.

Cúrate will appeal to home cooks of varying skills. The cocktail skewers and lamb chops with olive and rosemary crumble would suit those just getting comfortable in the kitchen while satisfying everyone’s palates. More ambitious projects include making sausages from scratch and breaking down a whole octopus. (The latter directions feature a two-page spread of Button in her kitchen, merrily turning an octopus inside out for butchering.) Through it all, Button offers succinct and sound advice on searching for specific ingredients, whether it’s fresh pork without additional seasonings or anchovies packed in oil (she recommends Ortiz). She recommends wine and sneaks in notes on the origins of certain dishes–such as paella and the role of white asparagus–so that readers have context for the food they’re preparing and, consequently, some fun facts to share when the food goes onto the table and the wine is poured.

As if that weren’t enough, it’s a gorgeous book. Leave it on your coffee table! Flip through it during commercial breaks! Shove it under the noses of your guests! Photos get your mouth watering (check out the luscious chocolate-brandy sabayon and the hearty fabada), while the layout of recipes is uncluttered and direct. This makes sense since so many Spanish dishes tend to rely only on quality ingredients with little more seasoning than salt, olive oil, and maybe some pimentón. That’s sencillo. With Cúrate, Button offers a tight, curated vision for Spanish cooking in the American home, and it is this vision and her voice that guides the reader and creates a cookbook that is warm, approachable, and authoritative.

In her section on paella, Button talks about meeting a cook in Costa Brava, how he went on and on about the importance of the stock in the classic rice dish. She realized, “Spaniards take pride in how long their cooking takes, both in terms of actual simmering hours, but also in terms of the years it takes to master a dish.” While the dishes in this book won’t necessarily demand years of effort before you’re satisfied with them, I like that Button views Spanish cooking as an ever-reaching cuisine, one in which recipes are passed down, shared with family and friends, refined and honed over time. In her introduction, Button describes Spanish food as “simple, comforting food that highlights the beautiful produce, seafood, and meat grown, caught, and raised all around the country.” She says simple, but I like to imagine she thought sencillo.


Cúrate is published by Flatiron Books.