Florida Vacation + Tropical Lemonade

Florida Vacation

The day after we arrive in Florida, we’re laying by the water in Bradenton Beach, listening to the sounds of the waves and the seagulls, our four chairs propped up in soft white sand alongside a tall umbrella and a cooler and bags packed with books and snacks and iPhones, and I think to myself, you know, there’s just something about the ocean.

beaches

We’re here on a four-day getaway with our friends Terry and Carrie, who had a client who had a house who’s now sharing it with us, giving us her keys and her fridge and her pool and her king-sized beds and balconies, and, free of charge, letting us call them home for the weekend. This vacation, a sort of a belated birthday present for Tim whose one birthday request was a trip with these friends, is the longest vacation and first time we’ve been back to beaches since our honeymoon, and we almost can’t believe it’s happening.

back of the beach house

The thing I always feel when I stand next to the ocean, hearing the lapping waves and staring out at the unending blue-green waters, is how small I am compared to it, how barely noticeable. It’s like driving through a hailstorm or watching a flood: what you’re looking at is so much bigger than you are, it’s almost overwhelming—but in a way that humbles you and makes you feel grateful rather than make you feel insecure.

beach house windows

I say to Tim when we’re driving in on Wednesday, It’s weird to think I lived here once, for my entire freshman year. We go up to Clearwater Beach on Friday, the beach I used to drive to with friends, and I think of my old Volkswagon Jetta, the one with maroon paint and a broken bumper that I’d have to pull off the road to re-duct-tape when it came loose in the wind. We find the spot where Terry and Carrie got engaged, and it’s just behind Leverock’s, a now-closed restaurant in St. Petersburg that I used to go to when out-of-town friends came in to visit, long before I knew them, before I knew Tim. We drive through my old campus, and I see the dorms that gave me bed bugs and the dining hall where I made waffles and the field where I watched soccer games my roommates’ boyfriends played in.

pier on the canal

Seeing these old sites is a little like looking at the ocean or, flipping through old yearbooks or, mentally going back in time: they remind me of my small place in this world, of how hindsight often dwarfs things, of how some memories get cloudy with time. It’s also like looking at a former version of myself, one that was terribly unsure of life, of the future, of what she would study or what she would pursue, and feeling glad to be different now, with degrees and a job; yet at the same time, looking at her and feeling sad to be in many ways the same, sometimes unsure, sometimes wondering where I belong.

tarpon springs

We visit Tarpon Springs, a town I remember for its historic town square and Spanish moss trees, but today it gives us sponge docks and tourist shops and a wide stretch of Greek cafes that remind me of the Mediterranean. I think about how different things look when you’re 18, when you haven’t traveled much outside of a high school trip and vacations with your family. I think about the gift of learning to explore and how that gift gives you new eyes and perspective, enough that it changes places you thought you knew.

eco bean cafe

We scout out cool places to eat, from smoothies at Eco Bean Cafe, 501 North Pinellas Avenue, Tarpon Springs, to fresh orange juice from a random roadside stand that puts orange grove in quotation marks.

orange shop in Florida

There’s dinner one night at The Refinery, 5137 North Florida Avenue, Tampa, where the dining room is fully booked but we have our pick of seats at the empty upstairs patio off the bar.

The Refinery Outside

plates at the refinery

And my favorite meal, hands down, is Saturday night at Mi Pueblo, 8405 Tuttle Avenue, Sarasota, a Mexican restaurant that offers both a traditional and an organic menu, as well as a festive interior of star lights and Mexican tiling and bold colors everywhere you turn your head.

Mi Pueblo outside

Tim and I split a burrito made of sunflower seed “beans” and vegetables in a citrus sauce, wrapped in a giant collard leaf that makes me feel like I’m eating a garden, and we drink a Licuado de Chocolate made of macadamia nuts, cacao, banana and spices.

Mi Pueblo inside

We read and we watch a movie and we walk a few blocks from the house to see the sunset along the water, and our pace slows down as life becomes more simple.

And Tim takes my hand and I tell him, I’m thankful for the ways God changes us over time. I’m thankful for the ways He still will.

ginger pineapple limeade

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Raw Berry Cream Pie + Raw Chocolate Crust

raw berry pie + raw chocolate crust

There are days when a story chases you, when you feel like it’s falling out of you or like you have to write it, in that moment, before it’s gone; and then there are days when it doesn’t, when you sit, staring at your keyboard and photographs, searching for words like you’re hunting for lost gold.

All it means is that you’re a writer.

1_berries

Everyone from Anne Lamott to Elizabeth Gilbert will tell you this. For most of us, creativity is less a kitchen faucet, turned on and off like we please, and more a gust of wind, unpredictable and sometimes violent. While there are those of us who tap it well, who know how to do their rain dances of disciplined writing times and creative writing exercises to produce results, for a lot of us, it’s not as simple. We stare at a lot of blank screens, spend a lot of afternoons escaping for want of inspiration, do a lot of wrestling with paragraphs like we’re fighting stubborn pieces of clay. That’s how it goes.

2_ingredients

Because I’ve heard them say it, I know it’s true of authors and journalists as well as it is of, say, self-employed copywriters and Nashville food bloggers. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing someone else’s story or your own: you can still feel that same pull, that same hard-won fight and effort. You listen back to your interview, you look at pages of notes, you stare at your WordPress dashboard and you feel the familiar desire to write, the need to write and yet, all you hit is a wall. Words won’t come.

So here’s what I’d love to know: what do you do about it?

3_foodprocessor

The answers out there, like the writers, vary greatly—I recently wrote about this for my day job—and I think in having the discussion, we have a lot to offer one another. Some writers draft outlines; some riff on previous work; others leave the screen altogether, opting instead for a run in the park or conversation with friends to get their creative juices flowing.

In the more specific realm of food bloggers, sometimes it’s less the writing that’s difficult but more the coming up with topics—those of you who blog, do you feel that way? Dianne Jacob writes that finding inspiration as a food blogger may mean thinking outside a traditional recipe post, opting instead for a round-up of products you like or a new series that will set your topics for you.

4_pie

I tend to be of the camp that free-writes, that sits down and starts writing everything in my head without edits or backspaces, whirling along until something valuable appears, and, three or four or five paragraphs in, it usually does.

5_pie

Today, for example, this post originally began with “So I want to write about berry cream pie” and progressed into a few lines about Tim Riggins’s dad showing up at his football game (side question: television on in the background while you work—white noise or distraction?) and eventually became a more sculpted set of paragraphs about our living room and the ottomans we bought at T.J. Maxx.

forks and raw berry pie

It was only several paragraphs later that I hit on another approach, the direct one that this post has become, wherein I felt like I didn’t know what to say and so, said exactly that.

last plate of raw berry pie

What about you? How do you approach the writing process? Whether you write newspaper articles or nonfiction essays or poetry or blog posts or in the journal on your nightstand, what does it look like for you?

It’s true that writing can be a lonely business, but it’s less so when you invite others in.

That’s why I’m doing that here, sharing a little of my writing process, asking you to share yours—because I think, maybe, when we share our stories, we not only gain community but also, we help each other grow.

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Second Harvest’s Generous Helpings Event (Nashville)

Second Harvest's Generous Helpings Event in Nashville

It’s just after half past five when we pull into the Nashville Farmers Market parking lot, a usually packed space that tonight has empty spots. Moving past men in polo shirts and khaki shorts who check our IDs at the entrance, we step out of the sun and into the high ceilings and white string lights of the Generous Helpings event—an annual affair benefiting Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee, a nonprofit dedicated to solving hunger issues in the community.

bread

The event works like this: tickets buy you admission inside ($40 ahead of time, $50 at the door) where what is usually the farmers market food court now houses 31 tables of small plates, in addition to live music, two bars and a silent auction. The tables are hosted by locally owned restaurants and food companies as diverse as Jeni’s Ice Cream and Kroger Chef Shoppes, and all proceeds from the night go towards Second Harvest’s mission to provide food for those who need it (which, last year alone, was over 15 million meals).

secondharvest_localtaco

After being given our programs and a map, Tim and I begin to work our way around the increasingly crowded room of tables arranged in a large, U-shaped pattern. And as we receive samples of tequila lime chicken tacos (from Local Taco) and pure coconut water (from Turnip Truck) and ginger limemade (from Marche), we see this event is not only raising money to combat hunger but also to raise awareness, with fact-filled hunger stats spread throughout the space.

coconut water_limeade

I hold the camera and Tim holds our tastings, and we take one bite after another, greeting the restauranteurs who are contributing to this night, finding out what they’ve made, what’s inside, taking their creations as we mill through the crowd.

amfm_1

He likes the “bold” olive tapenade bruschetta from AM@FM; I rave about the crusty sourdough (baked fresh that morning) and sauce from Bella Nashville.

secondharvest_bella3
breadandsauce

There’s a happy buzz in the air not unlike typical marketing events, where business owners are promoting their goods and hoping to be noticed, but there’s more than that, too. Although this is a great way for restaurants to gain exposure and publicity, it’s exposure and publicity with a purpose, one that benefits someone else. And as we taste biscuits topped by Delvin Farms strawberries and a Tayst lemon cake we come back for twice, Generous Helpings has us looking at more than just restaurants; it has us looking at community.

biscuits

secondharvest_cafenonna

One of the things Tim and I have talked a lot about recently is the self-promotional nature of the blogging culture. Why do we blog? Why do you, if you have one? Are people helped by what we’re doing, or are we just trying to promote ourselves, our brands, just looking to see what we can get out of it? What once felt like a friendly community today often feels like a million voices all demanding to be heard. And in this big realm of those of us who blog, where we’re offered free books and food and trips and validation, how are we using those things to serve someone else?

sweet16
taystlemoncake

I know that Second Harvest’s Generous Helpings was the kind of event that made me think about that, that made me wonder how much better it is to give than to receive.

secondharvest_PBlights

At its very core, Second Harvest is about volunteers. It relies on a network of people and organizations and companies who give their time, money and food that is then turned into food boxes, which their over 400 partner agencies can give to the hungry. Relying on a variety of different charitable programs and initiatives, Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee serves 46 counties in the state. And whether or not you’re from Tennessee, it’s a good example of how there are places like this, all over the country, that you can help in one way or another, by spreading the word, by giving your time, by contributing.

jenis

Actually, it’s a good example of how there are many ways to give: by participating in an event like this as a restaurant, by sponsoring a company like Second Harvest, by promoting someone or something that is not yourself.

secondharvest_bandsigns

We’re thankful for the reminder.

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Foolproof Homemade Cheesecake with Pecan Crust

foolproof homemade cheesecake with pecan crust

“The feelings of being loved and being listened to are so similar, most people can’t tell the difference.” David Augsburger

Before I say anything else here today, I have to say this: thank you. To every one of you who read the last two posts, who heard my heavy thoughts, who voiced your own perspectives on making friends and being real and people-pleasing, who listened, thank you.

I have so many things I want to say to you today, so many thoughts on intimacy and friendship and identity, but the truth is, part of learning to love is learning to listen, really listen, and so right now, listening is the thing I most want to do.

So today, I bring three simple things: a Nashville announcement; a list of recent inspirations (i.e., places where I’ve been listening lately, where my soul’s been stirred); and, a recipe, for foolproof homemade cheesecake with pecan crust.

I hope you’ll enjoy them, too, and know, I’m sending them with a heart full of gratitude.

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Gluten-Free Tabbouleh

quinoa

It doesn’t matter if I’m with you in the kitchen making quinoa or talking to you through the lens of a computer screen, telling you I’m having a hard time making friends is one of the fastest ways I know to bring back all the emotions of second grade P.E. class. It’s humiliating—kind of like announcing you’re the kid no one wants to sit next to on the bus or that the guy who’s taking you to dinner is only doing it because his mom knows your mom. Over and over again the last few days, when this topic has come up in conversation with acquaintances and friends, I’ve been shocked at how humbled I’ve been to simply state the truth, how much I’ve wanted to color it with less emotion and try to hide the fact that I crave deep relationships. I feel so embarrassed to say it, like I’m asking you to pity me and tell me I’m wonderful and invite me to your dinner party, but I force myself to do it anyway because it’s true and I want to say what’s true, and also, I want to fight the urge to only tell you what I think you’ll think sounds good. I’m too good at that already.

soaking quinoa

Sometimes when Tim and I are cooking together, I’ll ask him how he wants the vegetables chopped, and he’ll say fine and minced, and he’ll ask me how I want the table set, and I’ll think, I wonder what he would want me to say? before I answer him. I don’t always do this, mostly because he’s helped me see how unhelpful it can be, but sometimes I still do because it’s a deep habit, one so ingrained in me that I fall back on it without meaning to.

I grew up what some people might call a people pleaser. I studied what the crowd around me liked and wanted, and I worked very hard to make myself fit their desires. I didn’t get in trouble, I said kind things, I learned to ask you more about your life than I’d say about mine—constantly working to gain your approval, whomever you were, so that you would like me, so that you would say something that would make me feel OK inside.

chopping herbs

In many different types of society, people pleasers hide really well. They’re not the ones parents worry about or the ones dealing with failure—they’re usually, on the outside at least, fully functional, engaging, pleasant people to be around, successful in work and at home and in churches. But the thing is, trying to please everyone else is a mask. Keeping it up isn’t just impossible; it’s exhausting. And sooner or later, you start to see that it’s nuts.

tabbouleh ingredients

Early when Tim and I were dating, we talked about this and about how I’d spent a lot of my life thus far trying to be exactly what I thought people wanted me to be. I didn’t know how to say no without guilt or how to willingly disappoint someone without anxiety, and so I started to ask myself why. Maybe it was because I was afraid of loneliness? Maybe because I liked the illusion of control? But mostly, I think it was this: maybe I was trying to fill my soul with their acceptance.

quinoa with add-ins

I recently finished the book “Grace for the Good Girl,” written by Emily P. Freeman who blogs at Chatting at the Sky. It it, she says this:

Life behind a mask may feel right and may even be fun for a short time. After a while, though, recycled air becomes stale and the effort it takes to continue trying to be someone you aren’t becomes a burden rather than a game. Only in returning home, taking off the mask, and being you again will you find relief.

holding bowl of tabbouleh

The lie of seeking people’s approval is that it will actually satisfy me, that it will actually fill me up. And I am repeatedly, regularly capable of hiding who I really am because I think that will give me what I think I need: your acceptance—even here on this blog when I talk about recipes for cauliflower rice or grass-fed pot roast or raw brownies or sauteed Brussels sprouts. There’s something really, really appealing about feeling well-thought-of or appreciated or valued.

quinoa tabbouleh bowl

And so part of learning, slowly learning, to stop hiding yourself means learning instead to do the opposite: to speak the truth and to be embarrassed and to, when you boast, boast of your weakness (or in the One who has none). Otherwise, it’s a treadmill that never ends and worse, it’s impossible to ever lose sight of yourself enough to do what really does satisfy: to taste and to give real love.

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Cauliflower Fried Rice

cauliflower fried rice

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you sow.” Robert Louis Stevenson

pureeing cauliflower

I hate to admit this but: I think the flowers on our front porch are dying. I know. I bought them back in March, for $7, on a hot and windy day where I had to hold my skirt down just to keep it from blowing, and I repotted them next to our welcome mat, in a place where you could see them from the road, hoping their bright pink buds would add just a tiny bit of color to the green landscape that surrounds our little house.

Since then, there’s been watering, sometimes, like when I’ve looked at them out our dining room window and realized it’s been at least a few days of forgetting. But there’s also been heat, lots of it, enough to make the edges of the flowers brown—just at the tips—prompting me to water them again, until I’d forget again; now, they’re dry and crisp-looking.

I’m a terrible gardener. And not just of flowers.

cauliflower rice and cashews

In an email the other day, my friend Kendra used the phrase “filling my soul” to describe something she was doing, and it struck me: it doesn’t matter if it’s a pet or a person or a $7 flower pot, life needs nurturing. It’s through the feeding and the watering and the loving and the connecting that living things grow. And, while I love seeing pretty flowers or rich harvests, the ugly truth is that I don’t always love the day-to-day work of planting seeds and watering them and, waiting.

Ashley of Not Without Salt posted some beautiful thoughts about vulnerability yesterday, describing how hard it can feel to expose yourself, without pretense and without walls, especially when you don’t know how someone will take it. I read it and liked her more than ever—that’s what vulnerability can do, right? build intimacy. I thought how necessary authenticity is to any kind of meaningful connection. And I thought about how I’ve been blessed to see this here, many times, as you’ve welcomed me in with open arms as I’ve poured out my heart about missing what’s familiar or a period of depression or how much I love my husband, and you’ve told me your stories, and I’ve tasted something nourishing, something real.

But what about when that nourishing response isn’t immediate? What about when you have to take the risk yourself, over and over, and then, wait?

cauliflower rice on stove

I hate waiting. If the minute I planted a seed—or took a friend to lunch, or told you the truth about my insecurities, or admitted the thing about which I’m most afraid—I saw results, some connection, well, then that would be different. That would be easy. That’s what I like about cooking: when I go to the kitchen, throwing oil and spices in the skillet, adding ground cauliflower like it’s rice, I’m almost guaranteed that, win or lose, there’s going to be something to show for it: dinner. Even if it’s a terrible dinner, at least it’s something I can see, something I can look at as proof of my effort.

But when I make the little investments of trying to build new relationships, of putting myself out there to be vulnerable, on the other hand, something I’ve been going at since I moved last year, sometimes all it feels like is slow. Slow and pointless. Slow like it’s never going to bear fruit. Slow like why-can’t-I-go-back-to-the-already-tended-and-thriving-gardens-I-left-in-Chicago?

cauliflowerrice_inbowl

I’ve wanted to stop trying. Just talk on a surface level or, better yet, retreat to my introversion and stay tucked in at home with Tim—and sometimes I do.

As I was thinking about these things this past Sunday, I flipped through a free magazine and, providentially, saw the Robert Louis Stevenson quote posted above, reminding me to measure the seeds, not the harvest, of my days.

The seeds, not the harvest.

Those words brought real relief. All creation cries it out! This is His promise! Be not weary in well-doing, because, you can believe it, seeds will bring harvest, nurturing will bring life, you will reap if you faint not. Waiting may be the hardest part, but you won’t wait forever; just as there are seasons of planting, there are seasons when you watch things grow.

I’m hanging on to that promise today, as I keep on watering and waiting, watering and waiting, and I don’t just mean the plants.

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Dole Salad Summit in Monterey

Dole Blogger Summit

On this cold, clear blue day, the ground beneath my feet is damp, muddy, covered with bruised leaves and discarded cores, and I have to concentrate on each step to make sure my shoes don’t slip.

Dole farm

It’s morning, the time of day when this work is usually done, although it typically begins hours before the sun comes up, and Tim is just ahead of me, moving towards the low rumble of a wide, slowly rolling machine where workers are pulling green globes from the ground by hand, cutting out each individual core with a single swift stab, scraps falling to the field as fertilizer behind them, then washing the lettuce and placing it on a conveyor belt that takes them to boxes bound for processing.

dole lettuce fields

We’re in California, about an hour outside Monterey, standing, along with a dozen or so other bloggers, in the middle of one of Dole’s iceberg lettuce fields.

lettuce

A tall man in blue jeans, Mark Pisoni, tells us he’s a third-generation farmer providing produce for Dole. Another man, from Dole, demonstrates, corer in hand, how lettuce harvesting is done, pulling one head after another into his arms.

DOLE_farmers

Dole’s already told us at their Monterey headquarters that they work with over 9,000 small growers, many of whom they’ve had decades-long relationships with, and now they’re showing us. Pisoni’s family farms 500 acres of iceberg lettuce, romaine, celery, broccoli and cauliflower in the Salinas Valley, working on land that’s been in his family for close to 100 years.

Dole visitor tag

They take us to a Dole processing plant, where we see the same kinds of lettuce that was just harvested get washed, chopped and packaged.

DOLE factory

We brush up on our salad knowledge through a “name that lettuce” quiz I was sure Tim was going to win (who knows the difference between red tango lettuce and Salanova? Turns out my husband does!). We are briefed on Dole’s Salad’tude campaign—a new marketing approach that centers on finding your own personal salad style, and we’re asked for our thoughts on salad/vegetable trends and what we see happening in the industry.

Monterey sights

All of this happens in and around Monterey, California, a beautiful oceanside city with the feel of a rich, temperate beach town. And now that I’m seeing all the natural beauty (and bounty!) northern California offers, I’m totally understanding why everyone wants to live here.

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