Charleston + Savannah

Charleston   Bike | FoodLovesWriting.com

Tim and I spent this past long weekend in Charleston and Savannah, with my brother, who flew down from Chicago and met us there. We’d booked the tickets back in October, when Southwest ran a deal that turned the total cost of two round-trip flights into a price lower than my dream cardigan (half that, actually), which was a deal hard to pass up. Charleston’s long been Tim’s favorite city (while I’ve never been) and we’d been wanting a chance to travel with Adam, with whom I used to take yearly trips.

Bridge and Beach in Charleston | FoodLovesWriting.com

But mostly, there was the fact that, even months ago, from the perspective of warm and sunny October, we could anticipate the coming January, post-holiday, pre-spring, and the way this month tends to push a person to constant dreams of sun and sand.

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Cheesy Scrambled Eggs & [Another] Quick Trip to St. Louis

St Louis | FoodLovesWriting.com

The last time we went to St. Louis, Tim and I were young and in love, just a few days from the night we’d sat on a bench in downtown Glen Ellyn, the Metra train sailing by, and I’d uttered the words I’d been waiting months to say (which those of you who’ve read the ebook will remember in detail). After he’d left Chicago, Tim got a random gig delivering gear for some musicians, sending him to St. Louis for a night the following weekend, and, when he told me this on the phone, I immediately Googled the distance between Chicago and Nashville, exclaimed, “I want to come meet you!” and our trip was born. (In those few days between seeing each other, I also went and chopped off ten inches of my hair to send to Locks for Love, a decision that, at the time, felt so drastic and permanent, I still reach to the back of my neck to feel my hair when I think about it. I never could have imagined a time two years later when I’d return, married, with hair as long and heavy as it once had been. Life lesson: hair grows! time heals! thank God!)

Anyway, that short trip two Julys ago was such magic, such away-from-it-all bliss, that I always think of St. Louis as a city of good things. That’s one of the many reasons we were so glad to take a lightning-fast trip there this past Saturday and Sunday, to see our dear friends Joanna and Brad.

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to greet it with a smile on my face

Bon Secour Water

Hello from the land of my thirties! I entered this new decade Saturday, in beautiful Gulf Shores, Alabama, where Tim took me away two days before, as a way to jump up and meet Thirty with a smile on my face, exploring and discovering instead of pining and reminiscing. I don’t know what it is about these big birthdays, the ones that end in zeros, but so many of my female friends have had terrible times with them. In fact, after talking to one friend in particular last month, I burst out crying to Tim about how everybody treats aging like such a bad thing, and so was I going to sink into a depression on August 25 this year? Would I miss my family more than I usually do? Should he brace himself now for the drama? Thankfully, in our case, that outburst seems to have been all the drama and sadness I needed—and also, my husband is a kind, generous soul who responds by telling me he’ll handle everything for my birthday and I can just relax, which, if I’m being honest, is probably exactly why I felt (and feel) like turning thirty is such a good gift.

Gulf

Last year at this time, while Tim and I were planning our wedding, picturing our life together and discussing our budget, we would have told you travel wasn’t on the table. We took a killer honeymoon (gifted from my parents) and then came back, settled in down in Tennessee, thankful. Sometimes we talked about his days of touring with the bands he used to manage or my old days of that full-time salary in my early twenties, but mostly we put travel in the mental box that holds children and home ownership and writing a book someday, and then we sealed it up tight. Someday, we’d love to take some trips. We’ll see.

But then, my friend Kim gave us a night in an Atlanta B&B. Dole sent us to California. A crazy generous friend of friends unexpectedly lent us her beach house in Florida. My parents took us with them to their Wisconsin cabin. Now here we are, married less than a year, and we’ve traveled together to half a dozen different states—all because other people have made it possible. And last week, for the weekend in which I turned thirty, we took the first trip we planned and paid for, we meaning Tim, who surprised me from beginning to end: we headed south.

GULF shores, alabama

I don’t know about you, but, growing up in the Midwest, when I heard Alabama, I thought, I don’t know, Reese Witherspoon and college football and farmers living in the backwoods. But driving through the state, top to bottom, last weekend, I saw Alabama is both charming small town and beautiful coastal paradise, not to mention hot, hot sunshine that makes flowers and Spanish moss trees and pecan orchards grow.

We stayed in Bon Secour, a former French fishing village whose name means, literally, “safe harbor.” Our bright blue stilt house was right on the bay, filled with furniture out of a Pottery Barn catalog and featuring entire walls of windows facing the water. Friday night, we slept with the bedroom shutters open so I could wake up with the sun, watching it slowly light up the waters and turn the sky pink, drinking in the quiet and the beauty before me on the first day of my thirties. There were shrimping boats sailing by and alligators near the dock and hundreds of seagulls flying back and forth above the calm and tranquil inlet.

Also, southern Alabama is conveniently right between Mississippi to the west and Florida to the east, giving us the perfect opportunity to tour the South.

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Nashville Food Trucks: local meets mobile in Tennessee

[It’s a little ironic to be posting something I like about Nashville right when we are miles and miles away from it, but, nonetheless, while I’m showing Tim that quiet place where time slows down, we’re showing you something about the place we call home. We’ll be slower to respond this week (no Internet at the cabin!) but we’ll be back here as soon as we can.]
wanderlandwsign

Here’s the thing about Nashville: it’s not Chicago. I mean, I’ve liked Music City since the day I came but, besides Tim, there’s little about it that feels like home. It’s smaller and it’s hotter and you can drive 30 minutes in almost any direction and end up in the kind of empty town that feels like someone must be pulling your leg. Everyone’s a hipster. Or a hippie. Or a musician or a writer (!) or a debutante. And there are a lot of times I have someone who’s not from here ask me what it’s like to be from here, and I want to say to them, who me? I’m not a local! except in one case, and this is probably the only case: when they ask me about the food.

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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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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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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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