The Kitchen Sink

The other day, I took a cue from my smart, stylish neighbor and found a new home for the dish soap at my kitchen sink. It’s an incredibly tiny tweak to this constantly used space, but it makes me really, really happy.

My problem:  I just didn’t like seeing the dish soap on a counter that I work hard to keep clear and neat. I never could find a pretty dispenser that would hold up to frequent use, and reaching into the under-sink cabinet every time I needed the soap just annoyed me.

So I bought a small jester’s crown fern (just a little six-inch pot) and put it into a copper container. Then I put a small bottle of dish liquid in there with it. Just the 8-ounce bottle that I can refill when necessary. The nice, fluffy plant hides the utilitarian soap container beautifully and adds some living greenery to the kitchen.

Win. Win.

 

Pound Cake: It’s Good Enough, and It Tastes Great

I am no baker. My grandmother, one of the most intuitive and clever cooks I’ve known, was no baker. She did make great biscuits, but those were biscuits. That’s different.

In fact, whenever Grandmother needed a cake made, she would call Aunt Mayretta and have her do it. Aunt Mayretta was known for her cakes, especially her pound cake. (Her real name, I discovered as an adult when reading her tombstone, was Mary Etta.)

Mayretta had a really great pound cake recipe, and she never altered it. She didn’t share it either.  Her pound cake was always deliciously the same–dense and rich and just sweet enough. You could taste it at a potluck, sitting there with three or four others, and instantly know it came from her kitchen.

My grandmother gave me a Tastes of Tallassee cookbook years ago, and said that Geneva Messer’s Cream Cheese Pound Cake recipe was as close to Mayretta’s as I would get.

Trust me when I say it is plenty good enough.

Here it is for you:

3 cups sugar

3 sticks butter

8-ounces cream cheese

6 eggs

3 cups cake flour

1 dash salt

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

 

Have butter, cream cheese and eggs at room temperature. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Cream the butter with the cream cheese. Add sugar, a little at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Sift flour and add a little at a time to the mixture. Beat until blended. Add salt and vanilla. Mix well.

Pour into a greased and floured tube pan (I use a silicone pan set on a baking sheet) Bake at 325 for 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Never open the oven door for the first hour when baking a pound cake.

Also, the pretty pan I used is a Flexipan. It’s the Daisy shape. I think you still can get it from http://www.sasademarle.com  You will have to download the catalogue, and it is way down in the pages under large molds.

Alabama Eats: Nicks in the Sticks

Nick’s Original Filet House (aka Nick’s in the Sticks) is one of Alabama’s oldest restaurants, serving great steaks at fantastic prices for more than 75 years.

Photojournalist Brittany Faush and I went there for dinner recently, and we share our experience on Alabama NewsCenter.

You can read our entire story here.

My biggest takeaway (other than a perfectly cooked filet) was what owner Carla Hegenbarth told us:

There’s a “closeness” here, a sense of “togetherness,” she says. “When people come in here, they talk to each other. They don’t get on their phones; they don’t watch TV. They talk to each other, and they talk to the other people around them.” This “bonding experience” is what makes the long waits seem less long she says, adding, “the Nicodemuses don’t hurt.”

Nick’s is known for the filets, the onion rings and a rum-punchy drink called the Nicodemus. I tried them all. My four-ounce filet, served with a side and a salad and some bread, cost only $10.50. In fact, dinner that night was less than $20 … with a nice tip.

You should know that if it’s your first visit to Nick’s you’ll get a complimentary onion ring appetizer!

 

 

 

Update Your Space in One Afternoon

I had the opportunity to sit down with Birmingham design expert Lisa Caldwell Flake for a story in Portico Mountain Brook. Lisa has a stunning sense of style, and she comes by it honestly. Her mother, Mary Ruth Caldwell, is a designer, too. The mother-daughter team at Caldwell Flake Interiors works to uncover the character of a home and then express that unique character through the people who love to live there.

Lisa is known for adding exciting pops of color to the rooms she styles. “I always say I like to have a ‘wow’ in each room,” she says. “I like for you to know that I’ve been there, but it’s still my client’s house. I want them to be comfortable living in it.”

Read the entire story here:

Inspiration can come from anywhere, Flake says. An iPhone snapshot from a Santorini vacation— where whitewashed houses cling to cliffs above a sparkling blue Aegean Sea–was the inspiration for her own living space, which juxtaposes bright white with a spectrum of brilliant blues. Two huge and stunning cobalt blue Moroccan vases shine on the dining table. There are vibrant splashes of turquoise in a large abstract painting by Atlanta artist Cynthia Knapp. Rich sapphire art glass from Prague sparkles like a fantastic jewel on a small table across the room.

We can’t all create a room like that, but Lisa did give me three quick, inexpensive tips for updating your own space in as little as one afternoon:

  • The easiest way to freshen up a house and make it look more current is to update lamps and pillows.  “Spend your money there,” she told me, “because you don’t have to spend a ton to make it look better.”

    In my own family room, I’m enjoying these pillow covers from Pottery Barn. The sofa is from there, too. It’s covered in the company’s Performance Everydaysuede, which is awesome. Nothing sticks to this fabric–even bicycle grease (don’t ask) comes off with a little diluted Dawn dish liquid. Richard Parker’s fur just wipes right off, too.
  • Clean up the bookcases. Consider arranging your books by color.  Then use extra space on bookshelves to display a few things you really like. Start with something big, and then remember that less is more, she says “One big bowl looks neater than a lot of little things.”  
The books in my library look like literary wallpaper now. I only kept a few extra items mixed in.
  • Don’t let a collection become clutter.
    I put a small collection of wooden canteens, gathered during a trip to Turkey, on the mantel in the family room. They are an unusual reminder of an amazing trip.

    If you have a collection of something, don’t scatter it all over the house or even all over a room. Group those things together in one place, Flake says. “Display your collection in a way that’s purposeful.”

 

 

 

Local Bites: Tropicaleo

Gabriel and Maria Isabel Marrero whetted Birmingham’s appetite for Caribbean foods with some highly popular pop-up shops. Now their Puerto Rican kitchen, Tropicaleo, has a permanent home at 4426 4th Ave. S. in Avondale. This is a bright, cozy space serving authentic Puerto Rican cuisine made with fresh, Alabama ingredients. It’s a perfect fusion of the tastiest aspects of these two cultures, and the hospitality at Tropicaleo is immediately recognizable.

There is something here for everyone, including vegan and gluten-free dishes.

Kids can eat a grilled cheese or chicken and rice for $5. Lunch specials, available Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., include the popular Tropibowls ($7) with a choice of protein (chicken, pork or eggplant), a base of rice & beans or spinach, a choice of sauce (house, spicy vinaigrette or tamarind vinaigrette) and a drink.

There are several sandwiches available including a pulled pork with sweet guava bbq sauce; a Cubano with pulled pork, provolone, pickles, mustard and house sauce; and the Vegano (grilled eggplant, spinach, tomato and hummus). Mofongo ($15) a traditional plantain dish made with mashed, fried plantains comes with a choice of protein and rice. The Carne Frita version, made with fried pork, and the Carne Mechada, with pulled beef steak, are popular choices. Tostones (fried and seasoned green plantains) and amarillos (fried sweet, ripe plantains) are must-have sides.

Late night (the place is open until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday) sees small bites and appetizers ($4-$12) including empanadas (beef, chicken or guava and cheese); crostini with honey, goat cheese, mixed berries and balsamic reduction; platanutres (fried green plantain chips); loaded platanutres with with pork, chicken or eggplant; and sorullos (sweet, fried grist sticks).

Brunch on Saturday and Sunday is served 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. with an impressive range of dishes, from a caballo (white rice, egg and bacon) to bruschetta (goat cheese, tomato, aioli and balsamic vinaigrette) and even Insta-perfect unicorn toast (goat cheese, blackberries, strawberries and Nutella).

You’ll want to go for more than just the delicious food at this family-friendly eatery. There’s a children’s book club every Sunday at noon. It’s BYOB (bring your own book). Adults can play (or learn to play) dominos at the same time.

Tropicaleo

4426 4th Ave. S.

Birmingham

205-499-7990

Hours:  Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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A DIY That Should Have Been Done Already

We have a wall full of folk art, which my husband, Rick, and I have collected over the past 30 years. We started our collection with a piece by famed Montgomery artist Mose Tolliver. It’s called Fountain Ducks with Eggs, and it was an engagement gift from our colleagues at The Alabama Journal.

We lived a few blocks from Mose, so I visited with him occasionally. Sometimes I bought something; most times we just talked. One day I wanted to purchase a painting that was hanging above the bed that Mose was lying in at the time. He told me:  “Well, honey, just climb right on up here and get it!”

Since then, wherever we’ve lived, we added to our collection whenever the time (and the piece) felt right.

We have two works by the late, great Howard Finster. We first met Howard in 1986 after he had done the album covers for Talking Heads‘s Little Creatures and REM‘s Reckoning. Rick and I drove up to his Paradise Garden in northwest Georgia with every intention of buying some art. But the reverend wasn’t in the mood to sell. He asked us what we had to trade, saying he had traded one painting to a guy who put a new roof on his house and another to a man who gave him a case of King B Sweet Twist chewing tobacco.

We left empty-handed that day, but several years later we went back with our three-year-old daughter, Allison, who totally charmed Finster. He heard her skipping around in the next room and said, “Hark, I hear an angel. Where are you, angel?” And she replied, “I’m right here!” Then she went and sat with him while we browsed. That day we bought one of Finster’s Trumpet Angels and a House Divided (cautionary art to keep our own home united).

These days our wall features a few more pieces from Mose T. We added a cross by the late Birmingham artist Chris Clark, a fabulous dog from D.C. artist Dan Kessler (some of his pieces were reproduced several years ago for Target; imagine my surprise when I happened upon them). There are a few crows on the wall by Laddy Sartin. Those were gifts from our dear friend Tom Gordon. I added a piece  our younger daughter, Eleanor, painted when she was in elementary school. It’s called Tricked-Out Capybara.

This art wall has been in place in our current home for some 20 years. And sometimes when I looked at it, I would think, “I really don’t like the light switch plate on that wall.” But I never did anything about it. Until now.

One afternoon I grabbed some acrylic paints from the craft closet, took the switch plate off the wall, painted a sunset on it and drew a silhouette of Birmingham’s beloved Vulcan statue.

 

(I didn’t plan on making this a silhouette, but then I messed up the face.) My little art project took all of 45 minutes, including drying time for the acrylics.

 

 

When I put the switch plate back up, the wall finally felt right.

My own folk art.

Why not?

It makes me happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day Trip to Unclaimed Baggage

A couple of my kids are great thrift-store shoppers, so I took them to the thrift-store mecca Unclaimed Baggage Center. This huge store in Scottsboro, Alabama, is where unclaimed bags and cargo from all over the country eventually end up.

“You never know what you’ll find,” is the logo of this store. It’s an understatement. We found (among too many things to list) David Yurman jewelry, a glittery ice-skating dress, hundreds of sunglasses, an Escada jacket, Tag Heuer watches, a Gucci dress, lots of Michael Kors handbags, a men’s Givenchy cashmere coat that was one of the most beautiful pieces of clothing I’ve ever seen, furs, Burberry trench coats, Beats headphones, iPads, iPhones, Kindle Fire tablets, MacBook air computers, wedding dresses, camping equipment and soccer jerseys. Ironically, or maybe not, there were lots of suitcases, too.

We bought:  Two Kindle tablets, Ray-Ban sunglasses (aviators and Wayfarers) with cases, a soccer jersey from Burkina Faso, a men’s Levi’s denim jacket, a few sweaters, men’s dress socks, two 90s-era windbreakers and a pair of Adidas hightop sneakers that were so ugly they were beyond cool. We spent less than $250.

In business since 1970, Unclaimed Baggage is one of Alabama’s top tourist destinations. It’s been featured on NBC’s Today show, in The New York Times and in Smithsonian magazine. There’s a cafe in the store (serving Starbuck’s coffee) if you need a little space in the 40,000-square-foot store (which covers more than a city block).

According to the company’s website, they’ve opened luggage to find:  a Versace gown straight from the runway, a full suit of armor (replica), a Las Vegas showgirl costume (not a replica), a 5.8 carat diamond packed in a sock, a 40.95-carat natural emerald, a platinum Rolex worth more than $60,000, a bearskin packed in salt, a camera from the Space Shuttle (which they gave back to NASA), a live rattlesnake, an ancient Egyptian burial mask, a Limoges vase (it sold for $80 and later was appraised at $18,000) a painting that sold for $60 that actually was worth $25,000 and a missile-guidance system for a fighter jet (which they returned to the Air Force).

In 2016, Unclaimed Baggage earned the Alabama Retailer of the Year Gold Award. The store is open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.. It’s closed on Sunday.

Unclaimed Baggage is about two hours from Birmingham and is worth the drive. Especially if you make it a day and have lunch at 50 Taters.

 

This casual restaurant features all sorts of comfort food. You can’t go wrong with the fried catfish here, and the stuffed baked potatoes (we filled ours with pulled pork) are huge and delicious.

 

Tips for shopping at Unclaimed Baggage Center:  Go in with a set amount of money and spend just that. You will be tempted to spend more. You can call ahead and reserve time with a personal shopper. In any case, do stop by the customer service area for a map of the place. And be sure to spend some time in the smaller store called Etc. This is where the biggest bargains live (including lots of stuff for kids). Also, this is where the famous hourly “Roll-Outs” happen.

 

 

Art Lessons with Beverly Erdreich

I had long been a fan of Alabama artist Beverly Erdreich when I got an assignment to interview her. Funny how things work out that way.

This was for the first issue of Portico Mountain Book, and while this happened a while ago, I’d still like to share the story. You’ll need to scroll to page 54, but I hope you do.

Beverly is known for her beautiful abstracts,

Unmapped Journey by Beverly Erdreich

but a several years ago she started painting differently.

She told me she had always been most intrigued by abstraction but then the wider world invaded her quiet, light-dazzled studio in Mountain Brook, Alabama, and made her look far beyond her treehouse-view of the surrounding woods. Her art took a decidedly different turn with pointed emphasis on subjects like school shootings and AIDS and war and religious turmoil. The result was Metaphor Boxes and Drawings, which depicts some of the most important social and political issues in our modern world in handmade boxes full of found objects and her art.

Beverly told me that working on the box project was cathartic for her. “The point was not really to make a statement about (the issues) but to make people think about things and come to their own conclusions.”

After that she created a self-published children’s book made especially for her own grandchildren. She said it was the hardest thing he had ever done. “I didn’t know the first thing about how to merge illustrations with text. It made painting look really easy.”

The Line That Learned a Lesson began with a Line that wanted to write the names of Erdreich’s granddaughters, but some of the letters in those names required that the inflexible Line learn to bend.

“The Line is, by nature, ridged,” Erdreich said. “But then there are all these things it wants to do but can’t because it won’t bend. We can’t expand and learn new things if we can’t change. The Line ends up finding out it can change but still be true to oneself.”

 

Dinner at My House: Put an Egg In It

We made Melissa Clark‘s shakshuka from the New York Times Cooking website all fall, and this North African dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce had become my go-to. Wanting to change things up a bit, I decided upon the Southern Italian version of this, Eggs in Purgatory. Then I got sidetracked by Ande ki Kari, the Indian version of eggs in a spicy tomato sauce.

This recipe, also by Melissa Clark (love her!) on the Times Cooking website is a winner. It doesn’t take too long to put together, and the house smells heavenly while you do.

 

Tip:  I peel my ginger with a spoon; it takes just the skin, leaving more of the ginger behind. Also, Melissa says you can make the eggs and the sauce the day before and put it all together at the last minute. I served it with some rice to lengthen it a bit.

I did use canned tomato puree since that’s what I had on hand, and fresh tomatoes this time of year are … well … awful. Just one woman’s opinion.

Here’s how it all came together for us:

 

 

Fox 6 Books: January

Here are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6‘s Good Day Alabama on January 2.

MissingThe_PBThe Missing (William MorrowIn this twisty thriller by C.L Taylormade highly intriguing by an unreliable narrator, a teenager goes missing from a family with lots of damaging secrets. The story is told from the perspective of Claire Wilkinson, who is sure that her missing 15-year-old son, Billy, is still alive somewhere. Each member of Billy’s family feels guilty in some way for his disappearance, but are they really to blame?

 

 

 

 

Book Cover Updated (1)White Girl in Yoga Pants: Stories of Yoga, Feminism, & Inner Strength (self published)  Melissa Scott’s series of smart, authentic essays are mostly about yoga but really about much more—body image, social media, the beauty of being strong, racism, violence against women, friendships, diversity, and the current political climate. Scott understands firsthand how yoga can change lives and bring people together.

 

 

 

 

The Rules of MagicRules-of-Magic.jpg (Simon & Schuster) Alice Hoffman’s millions of fans are pretty happy right now. Her highly anticipated newest book is the prequel to her 1995 bestseller, Practical Magic (which was made into a movie starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman). Readers of that book will remember that the Owens family’s troubles began in 1620 when Maria Owens was charged with witchcraft. Now, hundreds of years later, her descendants struggle with a curse against anyone who falls in love with a member of the family.

 

 

 

9781101911532The Stranger in the Woods (KnopfThe subtitle of Michael L. Finkel‘s book is The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, and this book combines science, travel, and psychology in a strange, personal story like none other. In 1983, a smart, shy young man named Christopher Knight left his family’s home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the woods. For 27 years, he lived in a tent (even through the incredibly harsh winters) figuring out ingenious ways to stay alive.

 

 

 

 

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and Books, The Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center or visit my local library.