Behind the Apron: Thanksgiving!

I would be hard pressed to identify another holiday that I love as much as Thanksgiving.

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This is 8 parts because I’m a foodie, and 2 parts because I love preparing and sharing a big meal. You’re wondering .. you don’t love your family? Nonsense. I love them just fine, but I don’t need a Thanksgiving meal to love my parents. For the record, we are usually a quiet threesome with a table full of awesome.

Thanksgiving 2010 was spent in Spain, with a flat full of fellow teachers. We had a pueblo turkey, pot-lucked sides and a loud, perfect home. We also hosted two Spaniards that needing some navigating around our dishes (see: sweet potatoes with colored marshmallows, a result of in-country shopping) and our table (the everlasting meal). Nothing says America like Thanksgiving, right?

Thanksgiving 2012 will be spent here in Charleston. I know, you’re freaking out. Don’t worry, I’m not cooking for myself. I’m cooking for myself and my dear friend, Holly. With work and the price of flights, we are too tired and too broke to head home, so we’re calling this a down home Illinois holiday.

So what’s on the menu:
* Turkey + gravy (yes, Holly is a vegetarian but I am all about leftovers)
* Stuffing
* Mashed potatoes
* Sweet potatoes
* Green bean casserole
* Copper pennies (carrots + brown sugar + butter)
* Scalloped pineapple
* Cranberry sauce
* Homemade bread

Anyone who has any qualms with the amount of food listed here, has never seen Holly and I eat. Oh, and there’s more.

* Pumpkin roll
* Pie .. apple? tbd.
* Pie .. imported from Springfield bakery Incredibly Delicious (because it is)
* Cranberry bread (the morning after, of course)
* Apple cider, mulled wine .. where was I? Oh right, PIE.

Here’s to you and yours this holiday – give thanks, eat up and save room for dessert!


[guest blog] From North to South

This guest blog is brought to you by Natalie of crumbcastle. We met via CouchSurfing in 2010 and became fast friends over food, art and language. As the old ladies of the auxiliares hoard (then 27), we spent a lot of time in observation of our compatriots and our adopted country. Natalie’s first assignment was in Northern Spain: Vigo, Galicia. Her second assignment led her to my own backyard: Andalucía (Aracena, Huelva). Below she shares her thoughts, and original artwork.


Yes, last year was a bit of a disaster. I wouldn’t trade it out for the world, but … it was A BIT of a disaster.

My first year abroad as an auxiliar de conversación had high hopes I would be living in a corner of Spain unknown to most travelers, a place with a rich culinary tradition; I would be learning Spanish, exchanging cultures, gaining a new skill set as an English teacher; I could buy manchego and chorizo in an old supermarket.


cheese with your English?

Galicia did live up to most of these things, but two factors effected them tremendously.

1: my job. Crippling disorganization, miscommunication ran rampant; I anticipated cultural exchange, they preferred to keep things strictly British.

I was once told to talk about Pancake Day… “What is that?”
I asked to show the kids Schoolhouse Rock. “What is that??” (request denied).

Of a staff of about 10, I still think some of them had no idea that my home was an ocean and a continent away. When a girl moves abroad for the first time, a surrogate sense of family really does wonders for her transition. Bless ’em, I was the first auxiliar they’d ever had; I couldn’t be mad at them, but I could be bummed.

2: the weather. Sorry. I’m a sundress and sandals girl. Winter is “sweater weather”; rain coats, fashionably ironic; sunglasses, a mandatory part of my waitress uniform. I had never gone weeks or months without seeing a bright blue sky and Galicia soon taught me just how much that sky can effect my countenance. I was pretty grey and bleak until the sun finally came out .. two weeks before I left.

If rose-colored glasses make people think everything around them is fabulous, my pair of steely blue ones – no matter how I tried to tear them off – were casting serious shadows over my idea of cultural exchange in Spain.

rose colored glasses

not so rose-colored glasses

Luckily, in an attempt to turn grey-blue into rose-violet, I enrolled in a Spanish class at the Official Language School in Vigo. These schools are throughout Spain for inspired adults to learn a language.

We were inspired; our teacher, an inspiration. She vetoed the usual plague of flash cards and drills. Instead, she carefully directed what felt like a hilarious, addictive forum for us foreigners to go stumble around Spanish. Somewhere amid the laughter and after-school beers, I learned Spanish and found Spain.


caña? so que es?

… All well and good until the grim morning reminder of my day job. The reason I was in Spain. To renew my job for a second year would mean subjecting myself to another year of students who had no desire to learn any English beyond “toilet please.”

Yes, the possibility was powerful repulsive. At least it was only a POSSIBILITY – I could technically get placed anywhere…

Out of pure, morbid curiosity, I reapplied.

You know how sometimes your brain files a memory of a conversation under “Kind of Interesting, Soon to Forget” only later to realize it should have been filed under “Totally Creepy and Foreboding”?

One regular escape from Vigo, I happened to be on the same bus to Porto as my Spanish teacher; we got to talking about my “future plans.” This particular topic has the curious effect of turning my brain into a buoyant cloud, no matter how much I’m sure I could use the advice.

A month later, I had in my hands a teaching placement in an official language school in Andalucía. My teacher’s brief, freakishly relevant advice came crashing back: If you get placed in a language school, don’t even hesitate, just go.

before and after

The thing is, it’s really hard to ignore advice once it takes on that creepy forebodingness.

I finished off the year, spent the summer in California .. in search of a job .. in denial .. The hideous .. heart. beat.

By September, the morbid curiosity and creepy foreboding had me boarding a plane back to the scene of the crime.

It’s now April. I feel very confident I have stumbled upon a new scientific proof: If plain old curiosity kills, then morbid curiosity must create a nullifying double jeopardy where everyone walks away intact – life, cat and all.


curiosidad del gato

Truth be told, I blame it all on that most Spanish of mystery spirits: duende. I wouldn’t have been lured back at all if I hadn’t caught a glimpse in Galicia of the duende that attracted me to Spain in the first place. That spry little gnome-spirit led me on her chorizo-laden trail, then slacked off .. just so slightly out of reach …

But it’s not every day a duende clues you in like that – Who would I be to give up looking after only eight measly months? I wouldn’t be Uncle Jesse, that’s who.

Turns out I just had to look to the South to find mine – to Andalucía. To Aracena.

Here, I work with people who invite my weird California slang and pumpkin pie recipes. My students, too, are just as eager to learn and share, and I’m fortunate to call them my friends. Best of all, I get to pass on the wisdom of my Spanish teacher: it’s now my turn to lead the random forum of language-learners, to show the fun in speaking and stumbling around English together.

Call me drunk on ham and Andalu hospitality, but I actually love my job.

As for the rain? Well, I can count on two hands the number of days it’s rained in Aracena. This unusual dry spell is the talk of the pueblo. I would celebrate my great weather karma, except that this rural agriculture community I adore needs the rain for ham .. business.

Today, it finally came. I’m looking out onto a grey, dank sky, remembering my time in rainy Vigo – how different it was, how different I am. I put on the boots I bought there last year and head out, glad – READY – for the splash underfoot. Bring on the rain, Spain! This year, I came armed with wool socks. And I learned where my duende lives.


Mad about #Madison

Three cheers for friends in cold places.

Kelli & Piercen recently relocated to the Frozen North, giving Holly and I a grand opportunity to uproot our Midwestern selves and go forth to über liberal and devastatingly awesome Madison, Wisconsin.


Beef-a-Roo: Roadside cuisine

A five hour schlep from Springfield, IL the directions are simple (as ever): turn left, keep driving, arrive at your destination. Sure enough after traveling on flat, straight, Illinois roads we arrived at the state line and Beef-a-Roo. Don’t worry, we opted for the Subway instead. Upon arrival we dined on homemade pizza and caught up on life, having not seen each other for several months.

Saturday dawned cloudy and cold, but the thrifting team of Kelli and Holly was not to be deterred. We saw two huge thrift stores – organized, clean, gigantic. The most stunning find was a wooden house from the Moravian College collection out of dear old Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Holly snapped it up for her office for less than $1 and we smiled about the coincidence.

We toured the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus, which is widespread and beautiful. A quiet weekend for students, the cold driving them indoors. After sifting through bright red Badger wear in the University bookstore, we stepped out onto State Street and I lost my mind.

insult candy

it's not you, it's me

Between the Urban Outfitters, American Apparel and the Gap sit tiny ethnic eateries, various pubs and independent bookshops. After being stranded with Walmart in Charleston, I was wide eyed and eager for some city living. State Street, as you would expect, leads directly to the Capitol building – dome and all. We dipped into a sweet shoppe, with insulting sweets (see photo) and gourmet cupcakes. We marveled at the outrageous amount of popcorn produced in several stores advertising toppings on their windows: WARM CHEESE! I tweeted a wonderful quote from the door of a bookshop: “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” H. W. Beecher

After the required photo in front of the capital, we detoured to a coffeeshop: Michelangelo’s – reportedly one of “the oldest coffeehouses in the Midwest.” We didn’t know this at the time, but our desire to be in a warm place with a cup of coffee steered us in the right direction. Black Forest Mocha Cherry Magic Something or Other really hit the spot.



A specific store shouted to us from it’s perch on State Street, and with all the paper goods visible from the window, I could not ignore the call. Anthology is a small but mighty shop brimming with colorful pieces: handcrafted art, posters, jewelry, paper, you name it. From Great Lakes art to political posters – this shop is #1 in my book. I also made the great / grave discovery of the owner’s Pinterest page .. and only recently emerged from the depths.

Of course I have food recommendations for you from this beautiful city: a Himalayan / Nepalese restaurant, a local vo-tech community cafe and a perfectly delicious ice cream stop.

  • Chautara is a restaurant promising Himalayan / Nepalese cuisine, located on State Street. We went all out and made our way through appetizers (fried this, battered that, vegetable something) and came to the realization that dahl is soup, and not bread (we were thinking of naan). Everyone had an equally delectable entree and we could barely move by the time the last diner had surrendered their fork. Lamb, pork, fish .. you will not be disappointed.
  • Ironworks Cafe, located at the Goodman Community Center, is run entirely by teenagers. I understand that this might induce panic, but restrain yourself. As a function of the local high school’s vocational-technical program, a group of teens works to bring fresh, local goods to the table and learn about the restaurant business in the meantime. We had breakfast here .. scones, tea, a ham & gruyere sandwich that I’m still thinking about, and huevos rancheros that dominated an 8″ plate.
  • nutrition facts

    you want nutrition? eat carrots.

    Arguably the most important in “America’s Dairy Land” is The Chocolate Shoppe – home to Wisconsin-Made Ice Cream. Why I like them? Mainly for their straight forward nutrition facts, pictured here. A hand scooped pint of Hailey’s Comet (chocolate, vanilla, caramel, happiness and joy) was approximately $4. The next time I’m in town, I plan to high-five a cow, as I hear they are marginally responsible for the magic that is this ice cream.

For a breath of fresh air, brilliant company and some civilization – Madison really takes the cake. I am already plotting my return (you know, when it’s warm.)

How Facebook changed the face of Study Abroad

At the risk of sounding like an old biddy, “Back in my day.. (2004) there was no internet.” That’s a lie of course. The world wide web had the globe in its silky grasp, but had yet to slip into every home. I left for Spain without a laptop and went to live in a flat with no internet connection. Not even the whirring, beeping cacophony of dial-up.

I don’t remember this being a life-altering detail at the time. The computer lab at the Center for Modern Language was the size of a bedroom, with three old dinosaur PCs. The hard plastic chairs in front of them were consistently full with a rotation of students, basking in the monitor’s blue glow. I settled for a nearby Internet cafe for my online needs –  which back then were 75% uploading photos and the other 25% sending emails.

Yes, emails. No status updates or tweets or instagram photos of my every waking minute overseas. Just long awaited hellos to friends and family, and the sending of photos to share my travels.

Last year when I visited with my former Resident Director she told me, over a plate of churros, that every host family now had wifi. This blew me away. Every house? What a terrible idea! It reportedly stemmed from a significant list of parents who demanded that their children be awarded the necessity (not the luxury) of connectivity at home. No more walks down to the Internet cafe, and you can forget going online at school. Sit in your señora’s flat with your earbuds in, chattering away on Skype from your bedroom. Almost like you’d never been gone at all.

And you haven’t.


courtesy of

If you spend the majority of your time overseas plugged into your American life, you are missing out. On everything.

Picture yourself a giant: standing tall, straddling the Atlantic. One foot is cushioned in the US – with news of home, drama from school, TV shows and local sports crawling up your leg. Your other foot is perched carefully on the Rock of Gibraltar, scaring away the tourists, not speaking the language and slowly crushing the immersion out of your study abroad experience.

We teach our students about culture shock. Up with the honeymoon stage – joy and bliss abound. Down with the rejection stage – depression and homesickness lie in wait. Then you adjust, adapt, and re-enter. When do you think students are inclined to log on the most? Think of it as a budding relationship. You will gush to your friends about the new and wonderful in fits and starts – you are so consumed by your love that you hardly have the time. Then when it starts to fade, your friends hear countless sad tales and horror stories, so that they soon echo your sentiments: “its awful” .. “how terrible” .. “you must hate it.”

Do you? I didn’t. But living abroad last year there were times when it was just easier to crack the open the mac and Gchat with my mom, or Facebook my best friend about my woes. No longer was it about getting news from home, but a lifeline. I’m in crisis – hang on to me, via this internet connection. Instead of seeking support from those around you in times of need, it is so much easier to reach back to where you came from, and the comforts of home.

Social media is not the downfall of study abroad. If you know me at all, you know its one of my major platforms. I will tweet, post and blog to my heart’s content in an effort to share study abroad with anyone that cares to listen.

Social media is not the downfall of study abroad, but it has changed the way we do things. For the better? Perhaps. But the next big challenge is in the balance – teaching students to be socially responsible with their media (and fiscally, if they tend toward that $700 iPhone bill).

So put your phone down, and close your mac. My blog will be here when you get back. So will your parents, and your cousin’s new house, and your friend’s engagement ring. Disconnect yourself for a while, and you’ll see just what you’re missing.

#NOLA: Worth the weight

The only proper way to kick off a year of domestic travel is to go somewhere new. In this case.. the Crescent City: New Orleans. Better known to some (myself now included, as foodie paradise).

* all restaurants mentioned are listed below the post

chicken waffle

wings & waffle

Thursday. With a belly full of chicken & waffles (and my first ever grits) from Breakfast Klub in Houston, Thao & I set out on I-10, to a chorus of text messages from friends and family making sure we weren’t in the epic 40 car pile-up further down the freeway. On the outskirts of the city, we stopped for gas and Thao pointed us toward a nearby grocery / food stand for boudin and cracklin’. A few exits prior, I pointed at a billboard with those very words on it and said: “what’s that?” Turns out I do like boudin (deep-fried sausage and rice balls), but cracklin’ (fried pork fat) is a bit too much.

The weather alone was enough for me: sunny, 65 degrees – all thoughts of snow banished from my mind. We strolled Canal Street and wound our way around the city, eventually heading to Deanie’s for dinner where I tried my first bowl of gumbo (delicious). We walked off our dinner and made our way to Frenchman Street, stopping at Maison for some local jazz. Far too relaxed and full, the night ended early and I went to bed dreaming of food.

jambalaya omelet

jambalaya omelet

Friday. Consulting a 4-page list of recommendations from our friend Patricka, we went to Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe at the Whitney. Settled in a beautiful old bank with big ceilings, a comical mural and heavy leather chairs, I watched our jambalaya omelet being made just a few feet away. Paired with the best biscuit I’ve ever had and two huge glasses of orange juice, I was in heaven. Thao and I launched the first of a record number of meals with a rule: entrees are made to share. Easier on our wallets, and our stomachs.



Late morning was spent on the St. Charles streetcar ($3 for a day pass), taking a trip to the Garden District. We wandered Lafayette Cemetery #1 and soaked up the sunshine among the old stones. A glass of crisp sauvignon blanc and some people watching at Commander’s Palace preceded a life-changing sandwich a few blocks over. I had my first muffuletta at Stein’s Deli on Magazine Street (gracias, Natalie). I don’t care who else makes these things, I’m never going to eat them anywhere else (Apologies, Central Grocery). I should also point out that this is a legit Jewish deli, far from the owner’s homeland of Philadelphia. What’s on this sandwich? Several deli meats, cheese and olive salad on delicious bread. I inhaled mine with Zappe’s tabasco chips and Maine Root ginger beer.

beignets and cafe au lait

beignets & cafe au lait

Keeping with the theme of famous NOLA food we returned uptown to the well known Cafe du Monde for beignets and cafe au lait. Thao kept our place in line while I ran up the promenade to see the mighty Mississippi. Deserted wooden benches were surrounded by piles of powdered sugar, evidence of beignets to-go. CDM has the beignet market on lock – we saw the line ebb and flow around the block every day of our visit.

crab legs

crab legs

I made room for a praline at Evans (I found I prefer the chewy variety). Walking back on Decatur Street, a promo girl for Sailor Jerry spiced rum stepped out of a silver Airstream trailer (really) and offered to take our photo. We hopped into the trailer and grabbed some props for a hysterical photo and a free drink ticket, which ended up in the trash a few blocks away. The Palace Cafe provided our dinner – crab legs to start, andouille crusted redfish to split and a flaming bananas foster for dessert. The wait staff were eager to please, and split our entree onto two plates prior to serving.

duck waffle

duck waffle

Saturday, New Year’s Eve. Another huge breakfast to start the day, a short drive away. Elizabeth’s Restaurant is compact, hip, and made for hungry people. As a group of three we ordered three entrees, with a side of their famous praline bacon (!) and a starter of boudin. The result was beyond words. Shrimp & grits, crabby eggs and a duck waffle. Duck Waffle? Right. A cornbread waffle with a scoop of duck and sweet potato hash with pepper jelly. Believe it.

cheeseburger poboy

cheeseburger po'boy

By some miracle, I was ready to eat again by lunch time after some shopping on Royal Street. We stopped for po’boys at Johnny’s – Thao for the win with a cheeseburger po’boy; my shrimp po’boy paled in comparison. Next time – Mother’s? Street performers were everywhere – our favorite a female duet on Royal, one on guitar and the other on violin. They drew a crowd and played an endless set of Santana and other tunes. A brass band brought me to the door of a shop with their rendition of “Come Together” – brilliant.We gave in to the New Year’s craze and picked up a mask and some beads for the evening. Already the streets were full of drunken revelers, and the noise level on the rise.


balcony view

The real miracle was the fact that we got a second floor table for two on the balcony at Royal Oyster House on New Year’s Eve, without a reservation. We spent our meal joking with the waiter about the parade of humanity on the street below. Down the block a severely packed Bourbon Street bumped along to brass and sirens, while the occasional party-goer stumbled toward Royal Street, weighted down by beads and Jim Beam. The meal itself was perfection: crawfish cakes and the Taste of New Orleans (gumbo, crawfish etouffe and jambalaya). Yet another famous dessert followed: homemade bread pudding. Roll me out to the river.


fleur de lis drop

We rang in the new year along the banks of the Mississippi – not one for a ball drop, NOLA drops a fleur de lis from atop Jax Brewery. Fireworks boomed over the river and the hundreds of people cheering for the new year. The departure down Decatur was an absolute crush of bodies full of glitter and music and, strangely, cries of “Waldo!” heralding the fellow cleverly dressed in red and white stripes, and glasses.

Sunday. A final breakfast waited for us on Rampart Street at the Decadence Shoppe. We went in for coffee and a bagel and ended up with a fierce egg scramble, full of andouille sausage (my new favorite meat) and spices. It breathed life into our sorry souls, and sent us motoring home to Houston where of course … we ate again (duh, Tex Mex).

A huge thanks to NOLA natives and aficionados who provided us with a long list of to-do’s and must-see’s. Once I return to my regularly scheduled gym sessions, I’ll be sure to make a return tour!

Breakfast Klub, Houston – 3711 Travis Street
  • Deanie’s Seafood, NOLA – 841 Iberville Street
  • The Maison, NOLA jazz – 508 Frenchmen Street
  • Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe at the Whitney, NOLA – 610 Poydras Street
Commander’s Palace, NOLA – 1403 Washington Avenue
  • Stein’s Deli, NOLA – 2207 Magazine Street
  • Cafe du Monde, NOLA – 800 Decatur St
Evans Famous Creole Candy, NOLA – 848 Decatur Street
  • Palace Cafe, NOLA – 605 Canal Street
  • Elizabeth’s Restaurant, NOLA – 601 Gallier Street
  • Johnny’s, NOLA – 511 Saint Louis Street
  • Royal Oyster House, NOLA – 441 Royal Street
  • Decadence Shoppe, NOLA – 806 N Rampart Street