Worth the Sweat: My Renegade Dinner Review

This past Saturday night I strayed from my normal Mexican food binge and, instead, dined inside the garage at Performance Car Audio. That’s right. You aren’t imagining things. I ate at a garage. A huge, hot garage that was apparently owned or operated by a hunting enthusiast. One of the walls above our heads was lined with twenty-three deer heads (I counted twice), one buffalo head (with an arrow through his skull), and an antelope head (that looked out of place). If I hadn’t had two glasses of white wine and that Texas Sweet Tea concoction handed to me, I don’t know if I could have eaten my Tangy Jicama Salad and Grilled Fallow Deer without a tinge of guilt. Call it the “Bambi” effect.

This was the fifth of Chef Monica Cobb’s notorious “Renegade Dinners.” The concept is simple. You make a reservation ahead of time (or have friends do it for you. Thanks Celine and Bruce!). Then, a few days before the event, Chef Monica posts the menu, which always sounds delicious and fancy even if you aren’t a foodie. What makes these dinners so exciting and appealing is that 1. The menu is primarily composed of local food items that were grown or shot or fished by someone locally, and 2. Only on the day of the event is the location posted.

I’m going to be honest. The garage atmosphere didn’t immediately jumpstart my engine. Neither did the heat. But, I think that’s the point. It’s like having a high-class adventure. Going hiking in high heels.
The table settings were lovely. The bright yellow carnations, along with the live music really brightened up all that cement. The only thing that struck me as odd was the masseuse, but I’m not super refined. Okay, enough about all that jazz, let’s talk about the food.

As we sat waiting, we snacked on “Chili-Bacon-Maple Popcorn,” which was perfect. It didn’t fill you up, but kept you from cursing. I hadn’t eaten since noon, and it was eight thirty at this point in the evening. The bits of bacon were the best part.
When we sat down, there was a double-shot glass filled with an orange liquid. I waited until I saw other people take a sip before I tried it. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I’m always “off” when it comes to etiquette and didn’t want to down mine at an inappropriate time. It turned out to be the “Roasted Red pepper & Biscamp Pear Gazpacho. It was tasty and peppery and out of my life too soon. Is it white trash to say that I’d love to get the recipe and throw some vodka in it? Probably.

Next.

The first course was the “Wild Silver Salmon Tar Tar, Jalapeno-Sriracha Aioli, Black Hawaiian Sea Salt, & Panko-Fried Grit Cake.” Did I mention that I don’t like fish? Well, I don’t. Never have. But this didn’t taste fishy. It tasted salty and the texture wasn’t like the slimy or dry fish I’d had before. If I could describe it in one word, it would be simply “fresh.” In two words: “hella fresh.”
The “Bambi” salad, aka the “Tangy Jicama Salad & Grilled Fallow Dear” followed the salmon was sweet and spicy. The pineapple really added a little pizzazz to the dish, and the deer meat was very well seasoned, like soft beef jerky. I really wish I had a more refined vocabulary for this. My apologies. I say things like “omnommy,” so I can’t really reach for the stars here.

The main dish was my favorite: “Blue Corn Crusted Gulf Caught Reds, Specs, & Snapper, Skinny Fried 1015 Onion Straws, & Guacamole & Red Chili Roasted Tomato Salsa.” All the tastes in this dish were so different yet so complimentary. You had the sweet of the onions, alongside the zing of chili salsa, which brought out the flavor in the fish. And once again, I’m not a fish lover. I ate nearly every bite.

The dessert, which was eaten on an already full belly, was “Pear & Plum Crumble, with Dietz Honey & Mirabelle Chevre & Kirbow’s Sugar Cured Pork.”
It tasted like a richer and more decadent version of a regular fruit crumble. The fresh plums and pears really made it tart, but not overly tart when combined with the cheese and the pork.

So, there you have it. My Saturday food adventure. Let me go ahead and apologize for the pictures. I’m not a food reviewer or a food photographer. I just like to eat.
For more information on the renegade dinners, visit Chef Monica’s blog.
If exercise is worth the sweat, so is eating.

My First (fun) Book Review

I’m going to be honest. This is my first book review that hasn’t been forced upon me, and I’m no pickygirl. After finishing up my MA in English this past May, reading for fun, well, just didn’t seem like fun. In fact, after finishing my thesis, I decided to do more productive things. I bought a variety of plants and murdered them. I tried sewing (again). Failed. I wrote a few depressing songs. In the end, the one thing that became a sort of replacement was obsessive cleaning. I’d try to read, to pick up an old favorite like Jane Eyre, but I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. I’d grab a Philip Larkin poetry book, a David Sedaris memoir, anything that didn’t require too much time.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog  is the first book that has cured my need to sweep up the dog hair in my house, every five minutes. (If you clicked on the image above, you can’t really “LOOK” inside. Sorry. I couldn’t figure out how to properly link it. Doh!) I read it in little bits over a three-week period. My mom and I had one of those dinner/date nights, followed up with a trip to the bookstore. We decided to pick a book and read it at the same time. This isn’t fascinating. I just thought I’d share how I came across the book. It’s cover won out. It had all the elements that make me pick up a book: nice color (dark blue), simple design (I hate all those busy and overly ornate covers), and an amazing title. In bright yellow, centered above a plain girl in boots who is pictured walking absentmindedly forward, the words, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, struck me. I’m all about weird titles and weird animals. My heart is forever open to all sorts of rodents: possums, rats, and even hedgehogs, all of which have found homes in my house at one point in time. I know. I know. Blame it on the “Ivy” life.

At first it took me a while to get into the book, but then I started digesting the language. The ideas are lofty. From Kant, to Marx, to Tolstoy, it took my little pea brain a while to wrap my mind around these “profound thoughts” being tossed around by the two narrators, a Parisian concierge named Madam Michel, who is secretly found out to be an “erudite princess,” and a young, overly intelligent and rich girl named Paloma, who also feels like an outsider at number 7 rue de Grenelle. Their friendship is based on their love for Jasmine tea, art, and their ability to see and understand beauty in the world, a beauty they feel is lost to the other inhabits of the building.

Here is one of my favorite passages, describing a moment where Paloma witnesses a moment of beauty (I’d indent it ten spaces like I should, but the formatting won’t allow me to):

There was a little sound, a sort of quivering in the air that went, “shhhh” very very very quietly: a tiny rosebud on a little broken stem that dropped onto the counter. The moment it touched the surface it went “puff,” a “puff” of the ultrasonic variety, for the ears of mice alone, or for human ears when everything is very very very silent. I stopped there with my spoon in the air, totally transfixed. It was magnificent.

A few lines later, she contemplates this image and the power it holds over her:

In the split second while I saw the stem and the bud drop to the counter I intuited the essence of Beauty. Yes, here I am, a little twelve-and-a half-year-old brat, and I have been incredibly lucky because this morning all the conditions were ripe: an empty mind, a calm house, lovely roses, a rosebud dropping.

After you read this book, which you most definitely should, I want to talk about the camellias, and how we’ve lost sight of them, how we’ve lost sight of that beauty found in passing moments like these.

Mr. Ed 101: A Horse is a Horse

For the past few years, I have had these iconic visions of seeing myself riding horseback. There I am, atop a black or white stallion (I’m not even sure of the difference between a stallion and a plain old horse at this point), with the wind gently blowing through my hair, and a soft spray of freckles making an appearance across my slightly sun-kissed face. It’s a feminine and healthier version of those Marlboro ads that used to be littered throughout magazines.

The only thing I have to go on right now, in terms of reality, however, is the advice given to me minutes ago by a “Miss Jerry” from the “Rock-N-Dollar Ranch” who says, “Just wear some jeans and a boot with a small heel,” in a warm southern accent. I’m not going to lie. I was really hoping the name of the place would be something like “White Stallion Stables” or “Red Barn Pastures.” I’m such a romantic. “Rock-N-Dollar Ranch” sounds A) a bit aggressive and B) a tad too “give us your money.” But, hey, I called at ten and she said, “Come at noon.” So, it looks like within the next few hours, I will finally have a chance to fulfill my dream. When I return with sweat dripping from every pore, dirt in my hair, and a sore bum, I can give you the real life version of how it feels to learn to ride a horse.

I’m twenty-seven, and I’ve never actually ridden a horse before. The closest I have been was in the early nineties. I was five or six. A guy came to the house with a pony of some sort, a squat, black and white spotted thing, and convinced my mother that she should allow us to “experience” putting on a cowboy hat, a pair of chaps, and a vest. We then posed for a picture that looks far from authentic. There was also a generous sum involved, I’m sure.

It’s funny because when you travel, people assume that as a Texan, you have access to green pastures and horses and cows and whatever else they can drum up that goes with the whole “bigger and better” package. I don’t personally know a single person who owns a horse. I looked. I asked. The one girl I found that rides horses and said I could come along lives in Louisiana. I had to resort to the yellow pages. In fact, my image of the term “cowboy” comes from one Western movie that I watched with my dad and brother when I was a little girl called, “My Name is Nobody.” The guy was dirty, fished with his hands, and was one with nature. Right now, in my mind, horses are damn near close to unicorns. Even without the cool, spiraled horn, in my eyes, they are magical creatures. Because I, of course, am romanticizing the hell out of them, they represent freedom, a spiritual connection to the earth.  Have you ever seen that photography collection by Keith Carter called “Ezekiel’s Horse”? Take a look at it. I think he does an excellent job at capturing the essence of that strange, mysterious aspect of their nature in those images. I especially love the photograph called “Freckled Nose.”

* * *
Never walk behind a horse. Do not squat or sit by a horse. These are two bits of information that frighten me. Reality is a bit different, topped with more flies.
When I drove up to the Rock-N-Dollar Ranch, it was pretty picturesque. There were green pastures, little man-made ponds, complete with a winding, unpaved road. At the end of the road there was a giant, log beach-cabin-like-structure in the middle with a very organized looking stable with various signs around that say things like, “Do not leave gate open.” I can handle that.
Miss Jerry is a brunette in her thirties, and I trust that she knows what she is doing. She is tan, her boots are worn, (mine are from Brooklyn and don’t have the same worn-in look at all) and I like her immediately. As I sign the form that says I won’t sue if I get kicked in the head or some such thing, I take a look around.

There is an old man sitting at the table next to us that I assume is another horse handler, and later Miss Jerry tells me that he is one of the best. He looks it. If anyone is the Marlboro man around here, he is. There is a small orange and white hen that is walking around my feet. Yes, this is what I imagined. Next step: prove that I am a natural at all this.
Miss Jerry first takes me into what I think she called the “tack room,” where a hundred or so saddles lined the walls. It smelled of sweat and leather, but I immediately wanted to grab my camera and take a picture. I contained myself. I wanted to let Miss Jerry know that I meant business.
My horse, also known as “Bug” was 27-years-old, with giant brown and white spots covering his body. He was gentle, but a bit stubborn. Before I hopped on the saddle, here is step-by-step of the process (from what I remember).

1. Spray the horse for flies. The flies don’t seem to bother the horses, but I suppose they would have bothered me.
2. Brush the horse to make sure there is nothing poking him when you put the saddle on.
3. Place saddle blanket on horse; leave a little hole between blanket and horse so that it doesn’t stretch the horse’s skin when you are sitting in the saddle.
4. Place saddle on horse. Unpack saddle.
5. Tighten girth (but not too tight).
6. Make a strange, tie-like knot with straps and whatnot.

I hope I didn’t forget anything.

Well, after the ceremony of preparation, I grabbed the reigns and hopped atop my lumbering beast, very carefully.
For the next thirty minutes I learned to stop, go, and turn. My main problem was that I didn’t want to hurt the horse, so I was barely tapping him with my heel when “aiding” him to turn left and right. “You aren’t going to hurt him. He’s a giant,” Miss Jerry kept saying. At one point, “Bug” decided to ignore me and just started following Miss Jerry around, which probably wasn’t a great thing.
So, I guess I’m not a natural. And, in case you are wondering, a stallion is the same thing as a stud: a male horse that hasn’t been neutered. The rest are called geldings.
Well, I’m not running through green pastures yet, but it was a great start. Next thing you know, I’ll be wearing a cowboy hat and going to rodeos. We’ll start small. The August heat keeps the ranch closed for the month of August, so in September, I’ll let you know how round two goes.