Thursday, January 8, 2015

Confessions of an accidental Elvis fan

Happy Birthday to The King!

Many people might groan and roll their peepers at this sincere well wish. Why celebrate the birth of Elvis, an overweight has been, who died while sitting on the toilet? A most undignified way to go no matter how many records you've sold or Hollywood starlets you've banged.

I remember where I was the minute I heard it announced on KJR radio that E had really, truly left the... well, you know how the saying goes. I was driving fast, past my old high school with my first college boyfriend. We rolled down the car windows and yelled to nobody in particular: Elvis is dead! Elvis is dead! Long live The King!! Typical journalism students, we wanted to spread the news.

Then, I don't remember giving the man and the myth a second thought. Well, at least not until I moved to Memphis in 2004. Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, a 60-minute drive from M'Town, but it was in the Bluff City where everything good and very bad happened to him. He was discovered by Sam Phillips, the owner of the legendary Sun Studios. Elvis pestered him until he let him record a song for his mama's birthday. Elvis was a real mama's boy, and a twin, though his bro, Aaron died at birth. His tombstone is in the family plot at Graceland, the "mansion" Elvis purchased when he hit it big.

It was Graceland that first cracked open my cold, cold heart and let the spirit of Elvis inside. Let me explain. After my family moved down South, we had plenty of visitors and guess where they wanted to go? I'm a good host, so I obliged and before you can say Don't be Cruel, I had been to this time warp home/museum, tourist attraction, over-the-top tribute to the art of sequined jumpsuits a half dozen times. Each visit, I learned a little bit more.

Bet you didn't know that Elvis was one of the first celebrity philanthropists. There's a wall in one of the rooms in Graceland plastered with cancelled checks signed in his neat script to various worthy causes. Guess the fact that he kept all those checks means he was a bit of a packrat, too. I can relate.

Elvis probably could have wiggled off the hook when it came to serving his country in the military, but he went. He put on a uniform, unlike a lot of our politicians. He served. So, it wasn't tough duty and it was in Germany that he put the moves on an underage gal who later became his wife, but the man served. When he came home, reporters asked: What did you miss about Memphis? He answered in that sweet, sheepish way: I missed everything about Memphis. That clip loops in the nearby building that was his father's office. The main thing he missed in Memphis was his mother's passing. Cue the gospel music. Seriously, I haven't been to church in decades, but when I hear Elvis sing gospel, I want to join the choir.

No big shocker, my favorite room at Graceland isn't the much-written-about Jungle Room, but the kitchen. All the rooms are caught in a time warp, circa 1977, but the kitchen has a timeless charm. I can totally picture E hanging with his crew, drinking Pepsi. He might have been a pill popper, but he wasn't a boozer. Much has been made about his obsession with fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but meatloaf was his first love. Sometimes, he ate it every day for weeks on end. Which explains his expanding waistline.

While living in Memphis, I learned that Elvis impersonators are called Tribute Artists, and every August during "Death Week",  I saw a parade of good and pretty bad singers dressing up as the young Elvis, the old Elvis, the uniform-wearing Elvis. Very entertaining, but so not Elvis. I even dressed up as Elvis for Halloween and I've sung Viva Las Vegas at karoke in Atlanta, a very bad choice of song. It's way too fast. Should have gone with Heartbreak Hotel.

That might sound wacko, but when I was dressed up as Elvis, people showered me with love. They hugged me, took photos of me, playfully asked for my autograph. It was pretty dang cool, and, yes, a little strange. Elvis once fed David Chang mole salumi and he loved it. He later signed a book for me, addressing it to Elvis.

OK, that's about it. Oh, except that I'm making a return visit to Graceland very soon. My brother, a longtime fan of E, is turning 50 and I'm taking him on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Or as Elvis might have said TCB! Taking care of business.

Monday, September 2, 2013

50 Things I LOVE about Maui!


Grown on Maui Farmers Market at Whaler's Village.
I've spent the past week in paradise, on a hosted trip to the second annual Ka'anapali Fresh: A Culinary Experience. It's a delicious celebration of the growing local food movement on the island, a welcome move toward sustainability.

Maui is one of my favorite places in the world, an incredible combination of beautiful beaches, historic towns, gorgeous hikes. The last time I was here, I hiked into Haleakala National Park, a once in a lifetime experience I'd love to repeat someday. And, of course, there's the food! AMAZING!! All those things and more are what keep me coming back to the Magic Isle.

Here are the 50 things I love about Maui:

1. The macadamia nut pancakes with coconut syrup at Pioneer Inn.

2. Spicy ahi tuna poke from Foodland. Heck, all the poke at Foodland. Yes, I've tried them all.

3. Geckos.

4. Spam macadamia nuts. OK, I've never tried them, but the idea that they exist cracks me up.

5. KPOA, 92.9 FM. Love the mix of old-school island music and contemporary tunes, too.

6. Aloha Fridays! No work 'til Monday.

7. Swimming in the super mellow waters off Airport Beach.

8. Plate lunch from Da Kitchen and Honokowai Okazuya. Chicken katsu pictured here.

9. The Korean seafood pancake at Japengo.

10. Yoga with Karen at the Hyatt Regency. She's a gifted teacher and a massage therapist, too.

11. Speaking of massage, can I get an aloha for the oceanside lomi lomi by Helena at Spa Moana? Pure bliss by the sea. Truly.

12. Sleeping with the slider open and listening to the sound of the surf.

13. The crab-stuff Kona shrimp at Pulehu Italian Grill at the Westin Oceanside Villas.

14. Hawaiian Sun guava nectar.

15. Roadside stands selling coconuts, especially the ones that have a box where you pay. The honor system is alive and well on Maui.

16. Banana bread from Leoda's Kitchen and Pie Shop.

17. Hello Kitty soft coolers from ABC Stores.

18. Wearing my swimsuit all day long.

19. The cookout culture. Love the fat camps people set up at the beach parks. Just saw a guy using a boogie board to try and get some charcoal going! Not this guy, he obviously knows what he's doing, prepping for a luau.

20. Longboard Lager.

21. The sound of keikis splashing in the ocean. Reminds me of coming here with my kiddo many years ago, back when she was just learning to swim. Wonderful memories.

23. Boogie boarding at Fleming Beach Park. Got my butt kicked this trip! Still a blast.

24. Kokohead's smoked ahi spread from Foodland. Great on crackers, but I also made a killer tuna melt with it.

25. That friendly aloha spirit. It's not put on for tourists. Promise.

26. No shirt, no shoes? No problem! Especially dig restaurants where there's soft sand on my feet and a cold bev in my hand.

27. Taro chips with poke on top.

28. Snorkeling at Kapalua.

29. Rainbows.

30. MauiGrown's awesome coffee! Thanks for the plantation tour Kimo!!

31. The scents of the tropical flowers.

32. Sticking one of those beautiful-smelling blossoms in my hair.

33. Leis. This trip, I got a gorgeous lei for being a judge at the Ka'anapali Fresh Festival's chef competition. Win!

34. The deep, deep blue of the Pacific Ocean.

35. The red, green and black sand beaches in Hana.

36. Anthony's Coffee in Paia.

37. Drinks with paper umbrellas.

38. Baby Beach.

39. Running into my brother's buddies. He lived on Maui for 25 years and his friends miss him.

40. The crazy-fun DIY cocktail class with the charming Chandra Lucariello.

41. JAKE! Absolutely blown away by the magical performance of Jake Shimabukuro, ukulele rock star. What a joy to watch him!!

42. Meeting the farmers at the market. So, so impressed by Ono Farms, Surfing Goat Dairy, Hana Fresh, Ho'O Pono Farm, Hana Herbs and Flowers, Olinda Organic Farm, Evonuk Farms, Otani Farm, Kula Country Farms and the righteous microgreens from Napili Flo Farm.

43. Sitting at the bar at Mala. (Where my bro, Chris, used to work.)

44. Sitting at the bar at Mala. (Where my bro, Chris, used to work.)

45. The seafood! Monchong, mahi mahi, uli and especially ahi tuna.

46. Papaya. I don't eat this fruit anywhere but here.

47. Maui Gold Pineapple! Especially when somebody else is cutting it up.

48. Sugar cane swizzle sticks.

49. Rainbows.

50. The way people say "aloha" instead of "hi" and "bye."

And speaking of so longs, I hate to leave, but as they say in the islands, a hui hou! Until we meet again.






Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Few Things About Me That Have Nothing Whatsoever To Do With Food

"You're all about the food," my darling ball and chain reminded me for the millionth time. He said it in response to my pointing out Arnold Palmer on the tee-vee. "There's the guy they named the iced tea after," I cried.

Yes, I watch golf. (That's No. 1 thing that is non-food related.) Especially enjoy watching The Masters. I actually used to play golf. Like a lot. When we lived in Spokane, Johnny and I frequented the beautiful public courses like Indian Canyon, Hangman Creek, Esmeralda. We'd get in a quick nine holes after work. Twilight golf. But that was all BC, Before Claire. Golf takes up a helluva lot of time, something you don't have a lot to spare when you're new parents. Best case scenario is four hours, and that doesn't count time spent bending the elbow at the old 19th hole. My favorite part of a round on a hot afternoon. Now, I'm just an occasional spectator, though I might take it up again one of these days.

I'm also an accidental Mariners fan. That dude I've shared my home with for decades bleeds Mariners blue, through bad times and good. He really should have been a color man, considering the dead-on commentary he runs while watching games, either at home or in the stadium. (It was a rough one last night, as we were part of the smallest crowd in the team's history, and they lost. By a lot.) Over the years, I've been swept up in the drama and the characters on the team. I've seen the guys of summer play at Arlington in Texas and in the old Yankees stadium. And, last week, I got to meet one of the legends of the game. I gushed like a 10-year-old version of myself, telling Edgar Martinez he has always been my favorite Mariner.

Speaking of 10-year-old versions of myself, my nickname around that time was Bullfrog. Because I could burp louder than anyone in my class. Still can.

Later, when I was doing a college internship, working at The Leavenworth Echo newspaper, I became known as Big Salmon. Because of my uncanny ability to leap out of the Wenatchee River like one of those fish. Still can.

Back when I lived in Leavenworth -- from fourth to eighth grade, when we (briefly, thank god) moved to the hell hole known as Marysville -- I went to camp at what's now Sleeping Lady. One year, I was named top camper in our lodge, an honor that meant I had the cleanest fingernails and the smoothest sleeping bag. At Camp Field, we sang neat songs like "What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?" and I also won a pie eating contest. Still could. (And, yes, that last one is about food, but also sports. If you consider competitive eating sports.)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the dinner that never was...

Here's a story I wrote in 2005:


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - legendary civil rights leader, electrifiying preacher, foodie.
King was famous for his key role in the struggle for equality through nonviolence and for sermons that inspired a nation. His good works are well-documented, with more than 900 book titles listed on amazon.com.

But there was another side to King that's seldom discussed, a side that loved down-home Southern cooking such as pork chops, catfish, fried chicken and peach cobbler.

"Oh, he was a big eater. He never shied away from the table, " said Dr. Bernard LaFayette, a distinguished scholar-in-residence at the University of Rhode Island, who worked closely with King as a student volunteer and Freedom Rider, and later as national coordinator for the poor people's campaign King launched just before he was killed. "Growing up in the Baptist church, so much centered around meals. The church was an extension of your home."

LaFayette said during that tumultuous time food was often eaten on the run. "We ate a lot of Vienna sausage and potted meat out of a can, with soda crackers, " he said.

Food - and lack of access to it - played a pivotal role in some of the most memorable civil rights struggles including the sit-ins at "whites only" lunch counters around the South.

Monday, April 1, 2013

This Is No April Fool's Joke!

Four years ago today, I went to work in professional kitchens, starting with the Dahlia Bakery. It was quite an experience, one I documented in a regular column called Critic-Turned-Cook, which appeared on Serious Eats for more than a year. I was planning on turning this culinary adventure into a blockbuster movie -- Susan Saradon would play me -- after my memoir became a best seller, but, well... could never get an agent interested in pitching it. That's the way it crumbles, cookie wise.

Anyway, what the heck, I recently re-read this section of my sample chapter and still think it's pretty fun:


My eyes open just before the alarm was set to go off. Groan. It’s 4:47. I barely slept. I am so excited about my first day on the job in Tom Douglas’s pastry kitchen, I feel like it's Christmas morning.
After I got my food handler’s card, I had filled out the necessary paperwork, studied the company handbook and spent hours practicing my knife skills. “Pretend like you’re shaking hands with it,” one You Tube video instructed.
Still, I wonder if I can cut it. I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen. I feel like I’m bringing my kazoo to play with a symphony orchestra. But I do want to play. I’m game. That should count, right? Showing up is half the battle.
At 4:49, my poor husband, John, is finally sleeping after hours of wrestling the insomnia demon, so I quickly and quietly dress in the dark, go downstairs and guzzle a cup of dark roast before starting the 25-minute walk downtown to the restaurant, past the glowing Space Needle and homeless men sleeping in doorways. A cyclist blows past, his headlamp illuminating the rain-filled potholes on the street.
It’s April Fool’s Day. How fitting I begin this kooky quest on this silly holiday. I feel like the set-up to a bad gag. “A washed-up critic walks into a kitchen…”

Friday, March 22, 2013

Craving A Taste From Childhood

Nostalgia can be so bittersweet, especially when it's unexpected.

This morning, I dropped my car off for service in Ballard. There was an hour to kill, so I walked to Honore, a lovely bakery that makes beautiful and delicious pastries. And, boom, I found myself on the street where my great grandmother, Signe, lived when I was a little squirt.

We called her GG, which sounds vaguely French, but she was straight-off-the-boat Swedish, one of those big, soft, old-world women who smelled like lemon drops and moth balls. There, on my morning walk, I spied the kitchen window I had looked out of many years ago while drinking coffee with cream and three teaspoons of sugar. At that sturdy table, she fed us damn fine fried chicken. Sheee-con, she pronounced it. She used to buy a live bird at a butcher down the street. They'd slaughter it and she'd bring it home and bread it and fry it and -- not really sure why -- she'd finish it in a pressure cooker. It was tender, but soggy. Like the pork in sweet and sour pork.

Walking past that house stirred some powerful memories. Of riding the bus downtown with her, of being slightly embarrassed because she seemed addled with age. Of watching her make delicate cookies at Christmas and of the feud that simmered for years between she and her daughter, my grandmother, Sigrid. The true story of their festering rancor is buried with them. There's nobody left to illuminate the hurt. When GG died, she left her daughter $10 and said it was because she had been to see her once in the past 20 years. She actually put that in the will. That had to burn my grandmother because she cared about money so deeply.

GG left me and my sister and brother a whole bunch more than that, to be in trust for us until we turned 21. The $12,000 I received was like a fortune back then and I put it to good use, traveling around Europe after college, discovering so many incredible flavors and having a mostly wonderful time. That gift sent me down the path that I'm still on today, the never-ending search for food made with love and the stories behind the people who grow or make that food.

I ordered a croissant at Honore, and it did take me back, flashing on the first time I had a real French pastry on my very first trip to Paris. It sounds so corny, but that bite changed my life for the better.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Enter Kingford's One-Bite Challenge

At most barbecue competitions, the focus on cooking tough pieces of meat low and slow. The embers of charcoal and/or wood coax maximum tenderness from shoulder and brisket after a long, long time. Pitmasters stay up all night, making sure the fires burn evenly. That's true commitment and you can taste the love.

That's probably why I respect and admire these slow cookers so much. There are no short cuts, no tricks they can play to create the most memorable bites, what they hope will be a grand champ after the meat has been turned in, tasted and judged.

But there was a delicious detour from the low-and-slow agenda at the first-ever Kingsford Charcoal Invitational, held last fall near St. Louis. The teams gathered to cook in this competition represented the best of the best, the ultimate battle of the Grand Champions, and it was so on. While this was by far the smallest competition I've ever witnessed, it was also the most dead-serious. Sure, a few beers were enjoyed, but everybody brought their A games, many hauling their custom rigs great distances to participate.

The warm-up to the big show, the tasty tease, if you will, was the One-Bite Challenge: Prepare an appetizer lickety-split using just five ingredients, grill it and wow the distinguished panel of judges, including my pal Amy Mills. I'm not going to reveal who won the One-Bite because it's all going to be featured on an hour-long show March 17 on Destination America -- part of a BBQ Pitmasters marathon! I'll just say that I was completely in agreement with the judges.

Now, here's something very cool: You can demonstrate your considerable cooking chops by entering Kingsford Charcoal's One-Bite Challenge. Winner gets a trip to Memphis in May's World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, aka the Super Bowl of Swine. (I'll be there this year!)

It's easy to enter. Just submit your five favorite ingredients and a recipe name to Grilling.com. Entries are accepted until April 15. Oh, and here's a fantastic recipe from that challenge cooked up by the reigning barbecue queen, Melissa Cookston. Go Yazoo's Delta Q!!

Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Shrimp

Makes: 20 servings
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 5-10 minutes

YOU’LL NEED

20        Gulf shrimp
20        slices pepper-cured bacon
1           8-ounce rectangular package cream cheese
1           jar whole pickled Jalape├▒os
             Thai sweet chili sauce

INSTRUCTIONS

1.       Preheat a grill to medium-high heat using Kingsford® charcoal. While grill preheats, peel and devein shrimp, leaving tails on.
2.       Cook bacon directly on the grill grate until it is close to being fully cooked, but is not crispy. Set aside.
3.       Slice cream cheese into 1/4 x 1/4 x 1/2-inch long slices. Select pickled jalapenos that are roughly the same dimensions as the cream cheese. Remove stems and seeds.
4.       Place one strip of cream cheese and one jalapeno piece on each shrimp, then wrap with a slice of grilled bacon. Secure with a toothpick, then place the shrimp with tails on the cool side of the grill so they won’t burn.
5.       Cook for 2-3 minutes until bacon is crispy and the shrimp is pink throughout. Remove from fire, brush liberally with Thai sweet chili sauce and serve.

Recipe created by the Yazoo’s Delta Q competition barbecue team for the One Bite Challenge category of the Kingsford® Invitational.