Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Have Faced My Ultimate Temptation

Those of you who've been hanging around this site for the past few years might remember that in the summer of 2007 I wrote about how I hardly ever go to the grocery store. Peapod delivers everything to me.

Now, this used to be because my husband and I didn't have a car. Here in Chicago, you don't really need one. If we didn't get groceries delivered, we'd have to haul our nerdy granny cart several blocks -- usually in either below-zero or above-ninety temps... there never seems to be an in-between anymore -- in order to get what we needed. But in February, someone from my husband's sales team left the firm and my husband was given his company car. Bonus! But guess what? We still don't go to the grocery store -- Peapod's just too convenient.

However, that doesn't mean that I don't LIKE roaming around in a supermarket when I get the rare chance to do so. That's the only way I can learn about the latest and greatest snack innovations that the food-marketing geniuses have come up with. Like yogurt with a little bowl of crushed Oreos included on top (defeating the entire purpose of yogurt, right? Isn't it supposed to be semi-healthy?). I couldn't believe this when I saw it in King Kullen out in Hampton Bays with Miss M a few weekends ago. I came across waaaay too many curious new items to mention in this post, though... especially since the point of this entry is something else entirely. I'm writing to let you know that I have faced what is perhaps the biggest temptation I could ever be faced with, and I have emerged victorious. Victorious... and stronger.

Here is my biggest temptation: an entire WALL OF ICE CREAM TOPPINGS.

Sure, I'm smiling and appear happy in the photo above. But inside, I am fraught with conflict. How could I face this Wall o' Toppings and NOT lose all self-control and break into one of the jars or bottles and dump it all over my face? Further, how could I calmly peruse the offerings and then walk away... with nothing in hand?

It was tough... but I did it. Maybe it's because I knew that the S'mores treats I wrote about yesterday loomed on the horizon -- I was confident there would be chocolate and marshmallows pumping through my system within a matter of hours. So I was able to take a deep breath and continue on to aisles that harbored no such siren calls. Aisles with stuff like, you know, butter or cold cuts.

Are you proud of me?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

S'mores, Minus the Campfire

One of the coolest things Miss M and I did during my trip to New York was make s'mores. But there wasn't any chopped wood, fire or long twigs involved -- we cooked them indoors with the help of her ingenious S'mores Maker.

At the trendy restaurant N9NE in Chicago, Vegas and Dallas, you can make s'mores for dessert using a similar set-up, but Michelle found the home version. You just light a little Sterno thingy and voila! You're ready to roast some marshmallows without having to smell like smoke and ash for the rest of the day.

Sometimes the marshmallows would catch on fire if either of us held them in one spot over the grill for too long. After a few milliseconds of panic, you realize all you really need to do is blow on the flaming white gob and the fire would go out. Then you'd be left with a nicely charred treat.

The end result is below. I downed two of these bad boys within minutes. Yes, I felt kinda ill afterward -- should've paced myself. But I have no regrets.

We used dark chocolate, which I highly recommend. Because, you know, it's healthier.

I had the urge for another s'more yesterday and went to get one at this crazy candy/ice cream shop by my place that I've passed on the sidewalk countless times over the past 14 years and never went inside until last week. Bad move -- now I'm in there all the time. Anywhoo... they have pre-made s'mores that are ridiculously expensive -- like $4.50 for one. But because I'm a fool for sweets I bought one last night, took it home, microwaved it for 10 seconds and then devoured it before my dog even got a chance to fully sniff at my plate and try to figure out what was going on. Same consequence as before: I felt kind of sick later. I need to learn to slow down when I eat dessert. But anyway, it was still tasty, though I prefer the "real" kind of s'more that I made with Miss M. That's as close as I'm ever going to get to cooking something.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tide to Go Pen: Where Have You Been All My Life?

Many women like to shop. I am not one of those women. But this past weekend, Miss M and I visited the Tanger Riverhead Outlets on Long Island and I went all out. You must keep in mind that I really haven't bought anything for myself in nearly a year because I've been in lockdown writing my manuscript, so when I had nearly every major store at my fingertips on Saturday, I became a woman on a mission. I bought: new workout gear, three pairs of shorts, a jean skirt, a comfy nightgown, a Coach bag, a few Christmas gifts (yes, already!), a bathroom rug and two washcloths, and a bunch of totally random kitchen gadgets (those will get their own post one day). Here's the best part: on top of everything already being marked at outlet prices... that weekend all products in the entire complex were another 40 - 50% off. WHAT?!?!


It was awesome.

We were on our feet for a total of 5.5 hours, during which I sorely regretted wearing flip-flops instead of my tennis shoes. About halfway through our excursion I had to stop and refuel with a big ol' waffle cone of ice cream. Once we were on our way again, I looked down at my light-colored shorts and realized that I had dripped chocolate all over them.

"Awwww, CRAP!" I whined to Miss M, and was then surprised to watch her whip out a Tide to Go pen within seconds. "I always carry it with me," she explained.

I'd heard of these miracle-workers, and had even tried to find them in Chicago probably over a year ago, but for whatever reason I never could. I don't know if they're only carried at big grocery stores in the suburbs or something, but they're never at Walgreens or available through Peapod or at my neighborhood mini-mart. (I just checked again on Peapod and there's only something called "Swash by Tide"... which looks like it's supposed to accomplish the same thing as the Tide to Go pen, but on the Tide web site they are listed as separate products. Anyone know the difference? I also see there are Tide to Go Mini pens. Cool!)

Anyway, I'm sure a bunch of other shoppers wondered what in the heck we were doing, because right there in the middle of the sidewalk Miss M started rubbing the stain on my upper thigh with the Tide pen. Eventually we realized that I could probably do this myself, and so she gave the pen to me to continue the effort. Now, yes, it looked like I'd peed my pants for the better part of the next half-hour, but who cares, because the stain came out completely! It was like it never happened. I was truly amazed. And I am hardly ever truly amazed.

At the end of my multi-night stay at her place in NYC -- even though it was HER birthday -- Miss M gave me a brand spankin' new Tide to Go pen of my very own. Now I want to pour something on myself just to watch the pen work its magic once more.

I'll close by saying that if you do not own one of these pens, stop what you're doing and go get one. You will not regret it, especially if you're prone to clumsiness and spills like I am.

Friday, July 09, 2010

e's Out East

I flew to NYC yesterday (and was only 35 minutes delayed -- a near miracle when both O'Hare and LaGuardia airports are in the mix...) and will be here until late Tuesday night. I'm running around like crazy trying to get some freelancing gigs lined up, sort out some things related to my book, and of course meet with friends and family. So I just didn't want you to think I'd thrown in the towel on this blog and had disappeared forever. That will not happen! But I probably won't be able to write again until I'm back in Chicago.

Last night I met up with my uncle, my cousin and his fiancee. We all watched the ridiculous LeBron James spectacle together and had some take-out pizza, so that was fun. Today I went back to The Man I used to work for from '03-'06 to talk about a potential freelancing project. It was kind of surreal to be in the building again, but thankfully I didn't have a meltdown or anything. Probably because I was meeting with the people I liked working with the most back in the day.

Then I caught up with my literary agent, and we realized the only other time I'd actually talked to him in person was in March 2007 when I originally tried to pitch him my proposal. Yes, that means I've been working on my @#)$*#%* book for OVER THREE YEARS. But the end is nigh, my friends. Oh yes, the end is nigh.

Next, I returned to my friend Miss M's place in the West Village (where I'm staying), dropped off my laptop, changed into casual clothes, went out to a diner for lunch and then got two cupcakes -- one with vanilla frosting and one with chocolate -- at the famous Magnolia Bakery. They were good... but of course now I'm regretting eating both within an hour of each other.

In about 15 minutes I'll be headed to Penn Station to start the trek out to the Hamptons for the weekend. I join my friend at her family's place out there each summer, and it's one of the things I look forward to every year. There's an EXCELLENT Whole Wheat Everything bagel place we go to in the mornings... there's the beach... there's shopping. It's usually the most relaxing Saturday and Sunday I have the entire calendar year.

Monday and Tuesday I'm booked solid with social and/or work stuff, so I'll be back with stories from my trip after I'm home on Wednesday.

Until then,
- e

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Taste of Chicago 2010

Another Fourth of July has come and gone, which means I've made my annual trek to the Taste of Chicago, as this event is always held the week before and week of Independence Day.

This was the first year that I was joined not only by Nerdy P (who is usually with me), but also her parents and her son. I think they might've been a bit overwhelmed by the heat and the crowds, but Nerdy P and I are old pros and can whiz in and out of the masses like nobody's business. So much so that we had one round of snacking on Friday and then a second with our remaining food tickets on Saturday.

Here's me with a very high-end salad that I absolutely loved. It was from The Grill on the Alley, and its official description was: "Grilled Anjou Pear salad with walnuts and maytag blue cheese." Good lord, it was awesome.

Nerdy P tried some gazpacho ("with avocado and chopped chives") from this same station and really liked it. Here she is with a selection from Carbón -- a restaurant that has never had a booth at the festival before.

It's kind of hard to see, but it was a tilapia taco. It looked really good -- and she confirmed that it was.

Other things I had were some of my old standbys -- deep-dish spinach pizza, cheesy garlic bread, baklava -- as well as some newbies like an upside-down caramel cupcake (awesome), the aforementioned salad, and a popcorn ball from Chicago's famous Garrett's Popcorn.

After we'd had our fill on Friday, we walked off the calories by trekking over to Navy Pier. I thought it would be a 15-minute stroll and it ended up being much longer -- oops. All the more reason for me to get an ice cream sandwich along the way!

Once at Navy Pier, Nerdy P, her son, her mom and I went on The SeaDog. If you don't remember what The SeaDog is, you can read my prior post about it here.

I don't know WHAT was going on that day, but we ended up getting thoroughly soaked. I've been on this speedboat ride several times, and this has never happened. It was seriously so crazy -- at first I was covering my head with my arms and mock-screaming over the loud, blasting '80s music they play... but then I just started laughing. It was pointless trying to fight it. I was worried Nerdy P's son would either be scared or mad because he got drenched, but as you can see from this picture, he was like a little puppy with its head out of the window during a car trip. He couldn't get enough of it and didn't seem to be too jazzed whenever the boat slowed down. Ah, to be young.

Once back on land, we rode the Ferris Wheel. It was a beautiful, sunny day and there's no view of the Windy City like the one from 150-feet above the ground.

Another successful holiday weekend! I hope Nerdy P realizes that I expect her to continue this annual tradition until we're in our eighties and hauling our walkers through the crowds...

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Last October I was sent a review copy of Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, shortly after it came out in hardcover. I had a chance to read it a month later when on vacation in Turks & Caicos -- when I should've been working on my own book. (I had this brilliant idea that a change of scenery would inspire me to write... when all it did was inspire me to want to lay under an umbrella, drink fruity drinks, gaze out at the beautiful ocean and do anything BUT write.)

I truly enjoyed this book, but once I returned home I had no choice but to kick my manuscript-molding efforts into high gear and so I never got around to reviewing it. When I heard that Mennonite came out in paperback a few months ago I made a mental note to myself that I had to remember to tell my fellow book-loving peeps about it. And so now I finally will.

Allow me to steal a line from Publishers Weekly's review in order to summarize the plot: "At first, the worst week of Janzen's life—she gets into a debilitating car wreck right after her husband leaves her for a guy he met on the Internet and saddles her with a mortgage she can't afford—seems to come out of nowhere, but the disaster's long buildup becomes clearer as she opens herself up." The crash Janzen survived was truly horrific, and it forced her -- a woman in her forties -- to move back in with her Mennonite parents. The narrator had long ago left the religion in which she was raised, but this didn't seem to be something that bothered her parents -- or at least it didn't bother them enough to refuse to help her in her greatest time of need.

I was most interested in this book because -- truth be told -- I had no idea what a Mennonite even WAS. I probably should be embarrassed to admit that, but I'd rather be honest because I have a feeling I'm not alone in my ignorance. Since much of the book involves anecdotes about the Mennonite religion and culture (there's even a very fun "Mennonite History Primer" included at the end), I'm not going to attempt to explain it here, except to say that this particular Christian Anabaptist denomination is kind of known for its nas-tay food. And seriously, some of Janzen's descriptions of certain dishes had me gagging.

The best character in the book is Rhoda's mom Mary, who is totally blunt and has a thing for singing songs, passing gas and never thinking twice when it comes to talking about bodily functions or parts. She is an unfailingly optimistic rock star, and in many ways she reminded me of my own mother-in-law, who has the uncanny ability to always, ALWAYS look on the bright side of life. We need more people like that in the world. But of course Rhoda's mom also has her own opinions about her daughter's checkered romantic past and what kind of man she should now be looking for. Apparently her first cousin Wally, who "drives a tractor in his spare time," was a top pick.

So here are three reasons why I think you should check out Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: 1) You will learn a lot -- but in a subtle and fun way, 2) you are guaranteed several laugh-out-loud moments -- stories from Janzen's childhood are particularly chuckle-worthy, and 3) no matter what might be going on in your life that you wish you could change or improve, you will feel better about your situation after reading this book. It's crazy how many hits kept coming for Rhoda -- the things that happened to her would most likely be unbearable to a lot of people -- but this is by no means a "poor me" memoir. If anything, the author uses the book as a chance to dig deep within herself to figure out how she can do better going forward.

There were only two things that bugged me about Mennonite, one moreso than the other:

1) A lot is made of the fact that Rhoda's husband left her for "Bob, the guy from Gay.com." It's sad-funny the first time you read it, but she repeats it A LOT throughout the book, and (spoiler alert... skip to #2 if you don't want to know, though it won't ruin the book for you...) then much later in the story she reveals that she actually knew her husband had been in gay relationships before she started dating him. I felt a bit misled in that the earlier chapters had really made it seem like Rhoda didn't see her husband's affair coming at all, when in fact there had been several, several clues all along -- his dating history being the biggest.

2) Rhoda teaches English and Creative Writing at Hope College in Michigan, and I can only imagine that's the reason why every once in a while she would throw in some big fancy word that I'd never seen before. Now, I know that's my own damn fault that I'm not word-savvy enough to understand all of the terms she included, but she did it enough that I started noticing it, which I view as a negative thing -- I felt distracted from the story because I was like, "What in the hell is THAT word?" I'm sure the more literary types out there, however, might actually enjoy having a few new words to haul out the ol' dictionary for. And feel free to shame me for listing this as something that bothered me, especially since I'm a writer -- I know I deserve the lashing.

If you end up reading Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, make sure you come back here and tell me what you thought of it. And if you feel you need a bit more info before making a purchase, you might want to visit:

- The New York Times book review (they loved it)


- An excerpt from Chapter One (you'll have to scroll down on the page I linked to, because it also includes a lot of other cool nuggets about the book -- like a few of the author's remaining tour dates in the Midwest. I already have plans the night she's in Chicago, or else I would've tried to attend.)

Finally, I must admit that even after learning all about Mennonites, I still have absolutely no desire to try -- or even come near -- borscht.