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the earlier they go to bed, which is why it is crucial for those of us on the East Coast who have occasional night owl tendencies to have friends in more westerly time zones. Don’t get me started about chat rooms or online crapola. I want actual conversation with people I actually know and like.

Leaving Martin’s last night near 10 p.m. and in a chatty mood precisely because I had hours of work ahead of me to meet today’s deadline for finishing the Insiders’ Guide to Richmond galleys, there was absolutely no one among my acquaintances and relatives in Richmond (except my daughter and husband who have no interest in listening to me ramble on since we live in the same house) whom I could call without getting in big trouble for waking them up. Good thing my son is in Chicago and good for chatting and good thing Nancy O’C is in San Francisco.  Pal Miriam in Chicago will be pissed off if I don’t say good thing for her, too, and it’s true, but it’s almost more fun to mess with her than be nice. Guess that’s why we’re friends.

After this scintillating bit, I know it will be hard for you to wait for the book’s publication to see my fascinating take on Richmond nightlife.  I did actually write an entire chapter on it–found much more to highlight than the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitor Center Bureau’s Web site managed. Oy.  And I did stay up till 2:30 a.m. this morning, so don’t tell me I don’t know nightlife.

Sure, cupcakes are all the rage now, but Sally Bell’s Kitchen at 708 W. Grace Street has been whipping up scrumptious cupcakes since before those frothy over-the-top (often tasteless) overly decorated cupcakes were born. And Sally Bell’s cupcakes are iced upside-down, so the sugary smooth icing is everywhere you bite. It’s a tiny place in the Fan with just take-out for the heavily loaded $8 boxed lunches that give you more options and food than you can handle, including a deviled egg. Chocolate cupcakes with mocha icing are the bomb though some prefer the crushed almond or caramel or fruity ones.

Carrying home one dozen of Sally Bell’s cupcakes in their cute and classic boxes is actually a little-known workout. Those suckers have some weight to ’em.

It used to be that Richmonders had to hit up Sally Bell’s during the week or else we’d be sad all weekend, but in an exciting new development, Sally Bell’s is taking over concessions at The Landing at Fountain Lake in Byrd Park. Tuesday through Sunday they’ll be serving their typical menu and some extras like ice cream, hot dogs and the like for the pedal boat set. Call (804) 204-1501 or see the menu here. Total yum. One of the best public/private partnerships in the city ever! Cupcakes can cure all sorts of society’s ills, except obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. I wish Sally Bell’s well and have to thank Director of Richmond Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, J.R. Pope for adding such a classic and classy amenity to the city.  

While you’re in the neighborhood, you might want to try a cupcake taste test and head over to Carytown Cupcakes to give them a try. I was blown away by their pistachio and chocolate combo when I was doing due diligence for the bakery section of the Insiders’ Guide to Richmond. The carrot cake was no slouch either and if I recall correctly, I had half of another really good one, too. That was my favorite day of eating, I mean writing. Beautiful and delicious. One of the owners is also the owner of the Grace Manor Inn, a lovely B & B in the Fan. You might be lucky enough to score a cupcake as part of a healthy breakfast there. They don’t have a lake, but there is a gorgeous pool available for guests. I’m hoping Richmond is a big enough town for all yummy cupcakes to live and laze in harmony.

I realized the other day that I should be responsible for approximately 10 square feet of the world. I think I could handle that though right now I would be hardpressed to locate 2 square feet in my home, yard, or car that I am responsible for that would make anyone think I should be in charge of more space.

Perhaps it is just the typical procrastinating going on now that the galleys for the Insiders’ Guide to Richmond were emailed to me the other day by my editor and I have until Tuesday to get them back in perfect order, that I feel the desire to bring perfect order to very small bits of my universe.  It suddenly seemed important to buy the equipment to wash every window in our house, clean out my grody car, and transplant every daylily on the property. It never seems important enough to tame the paper tiger that rampages around in my office. In fact, until I finish re-reading my manuscript, there won’t be time to do any of those jobs that seem appealing only when I am tied to a computer and completely unable to attempt them.

I never caught on to that square foot gardening craze–perhaps because I have a large yard and think in terms of large swaths of plants and larger swaths of weeds usually, but this year there is one tiny little bed of flowers in my backyard that gives me a feeling of ahhhh rather than ARRRRGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!. It’s not exactly Southern Living material, but it’s a sweet little spot–emphasis on little. Some artemisia, vinca, caladium, hosta, sedum, and perhaps more mulch than is a good idea, judging by this photo, hang out under a redbud. 

sweet yet sad

No doubt, it’s less than 10 square feet, but it’s a start. If only it could be a finish.  But there are compacted clay areas to revive and a creek to line with spiderwort and daylillies, and ivy overtaking everything. Perhaps I need a grid–10 square feet at a time.

I woke up before 5 this morning–a combination of nursing the ankle-impaired guy in bed with me and hearing my daughter getting ready to run out to her insanely early morning babysitting job, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. In fact I didn’t want to. I felt a little tug towards the computer, a little sentimental about the crazy old days when I needed to be up so early to transform the whirring in my head into the durned Insiders’ Guide to Richmond in between running around to wineries, Civil War battlefields, and restaurants.  

Ah, to work in the hushed, dark morning when the phone wouldn’t ring and when I couldn’t possibly have to call 500 people to fact check everything–such a relief. To see the empty cans piling up by the sink, and at 3 in the afternoon I’d pad out to the recycling bin in my pjs and chuck ‘em in. I think it was the only time in my life I felt a kinship with those gin-swilling, smoking fiction writers who  go on benders. I didn’t leave the house much either for days at a time, but the difference is the cans were sparkling water and what was hanging out of my mouth wasn’t a cigarette but a chocolate bar.

I was so efficient back in the day–the writing while sleeping, editing while peeing—time-saving multi-tasking. I never quite got to the point where I ate in the bathroom and I never figured out how to write in the shower, but it was close.  I do remember really missing the outside world–my yard, my weeds–anything tactile besides the keyboard and candy wrappers.

And now I’ve gone back to a semi-normal existence of not getting a damned thing done and there are still people at James River Cellars , just a few miles away, making wine today. I could use a bottle of their Chardonel (what they call their Hot Tub wine) right about now.

One month after turning in the durned book, I am really and truly tackling the mess of an office I spread out in for the four month project of writing the Insiders’ Guide to Richmond. Though I am terrified that I might throw out some piece of paper that could prove that I wasn’t making up out of whole cloth those 135,000 words yet not plagiarizing either, I am determined to at least get the papers and brochures and maps off the floor. Lofty goal.  My children return from school in the next week and I would like the house to be shipshape for the moment they walk in the door and deposit all of their dorm and apartment crap here for the summer.

De-shitifying is one of my favorite things to do in a certain mood, and not just because during the process today I came upon the first book I wrote, an autobiography for a 6th grade English assignment, appropriately titled, ME.  Here’s a taste of the sort of top-notch writing that I was typing back in the day: “In third grade we had Sister Charlene. She was alright.” (I was being generous–she was unhappy in her work. I’m still being generous.)  That was from Chapter III, Grades One to Six. Sorry to have left out the completely fraudulent Ancestry chapter and Chapter II, The First Five Years. From Chapter IV, Things I Enjoy Doing:  “In the summer I love to get up at Cape May and either see doughnuts from Kokes’ Bakery or ride down on a bike and get some. Really Kokes’ doesn’t sell doughnuts, but it does sell buns and other things. Another bakery sells doughnuts, but they are not very good.”  Guess there’s no need to thank any of my English teachers up to that point in time.  Ouch. But it’s all in there–the biking, the doughnuts, the getting some, the honesty, and the idiocy.  The past really is prologue. Frightening. 

The dedication is especially troubling: “This volume is dedicated to my parents, who gave me the information I needed to finish this book on my family and me.” I was a heartless kid unless you happened to be a doughnut. Then the feelings (and crumbs) really spilled all over the page.

I am now the proud owner of an ISBN of my very own.  Actually none of that previous sentence is true since the aforementioned ISBN that’s attached to the yet-to-be-published (or finished, truth be told) Insiders’ Guide to Richmond is a work-for-hire project, so I don’t own a vowel, much less a number associated with it, but Amazon and Barnes & Noble and all the rest are listing the book as an actual  book that will actually be published Sept. 1, so they must know more about the work habits of my editors than I do.  ISBN-13: 9780762760206. Such a nice number.

The disconcerting thing about being named Maureen Egan is that an unsuspecting reader could think I wrote Healthful Quantity Baking by Maureen Egan and others, Chocolate Cherry Tortes and Other Lowfat Desserts and Low Salt, Low Sugar, Low Fat Desserts. That doesn’t sound like me at all. That other Maureen Egan could ruin my reputation before my next book comes out: Really Bad for You, but Damned Good Baking in Large Enough Quantities to Kill Everyone You Know. I just did some baking last night, ostensibly to welcome friends back to our neighborhood, but really so I could shove oatmeal chocolate chip raisin bars into my mouth for breakfast. With fruit on the side, it’s almost not the worst thing I could have eaten, except that as of yet, I haven’t gotten around to the fruit.

Kentucky Derby day does two things to me–makes me think of my long-gone, obese grandmother who would make one of her ornery grandchildren drive her to the Oblates’ Derby party where the old people and priests would get smashed. She was too frail and hobbled to go to church, she somehow spun it, but she could make it up several stairs to bingo in church halls and parties anywhere.  You gotta believe.

The other thing the Derby brings to mind is a mint julep though I must admit, the only mint julep I’ve ever had was a wonderful bit of artisan chocolate from  Gearharts Fine Chocolates on Libbie near Libbie and Grove.  I was slogging through writing the shopping chapter of the Insiders’ Guide to Richmond last month and was nearly comatose after slinging words around about jewelry and shoes and other things I care nothing about when I realized that the gift section could be salvaged by the insertion of two chocolate shops–Gearharts and For the Love of Chocolate in Carytown. I perked right up. I pretty much had the inventory of the latter shop memorized from my many visits over the years–have the smell memorized, too–but had never been to Gearharts. A field trip was in order–such a dedicated journalist–and bought a selection of their intriguing chocolates.  A definite yum among many. The mint julep started off minty and chocolatey as expected, but that bourbon snuck on in and stole the show. My tongue was drunk, but I managed to behave. A sloppy chocolate-eater is as unappealing as a sloppy drunk.

Perhaps it wasn’t the brightest idea for me to leave the restaurant chapter of the Insiders’ Guide to Richmond till the bitter end, but in my defense I did add to it all along during the four months I was working on the book. I was uninclined to wax poetically about a place only to find it closed the next week as happened to quite a few fine restaurants around here this past winter. Not barbecue places, though. Those have staying power.

No doubt the restaurant critics and food bloggers around town will have a field day, crucifying me for what I put in and what I left out, and I suppose I will never get a reservation in my own name at several of the fine establishments that I couldn’t fit in due to space restrictions, but I hardly ever eat out anyway… and as my daughter likes to remind me, “No one will read it anyway.” Kind of comforting in a fearful, self-loathing, depressing sort of way….

A couple of things I learned while writing the restaurant chapter–barbecue restaurant owners are the friendliest folk. They also have the most pride per pound of pork served–just bursting with it. It seemed so real I could almost top it with slaw.  It was fun to talk with and in some cases meet the owners of cool, little places and really see how the right restaurant in the right spot with energetic and far-sighted ownership can be an amazing tool of community revitalization. Alamo BBQ on Church Hill   (get some ) comes to mind.  I suspect Pescados on Oregon Hill, when it opens this summer  (Pescados in midlothian now) will do the trick as well.  

By the time I had written the more than 120 restaurant, coffee shop, and bakery entries, I had no words left and no appetite for eating anything in my own paltry cabinets. I am most proud of my Asian section of the restaurant chapter because I was able to sneak in a line about faux pho–hardy har har. I stayed just this side of sanity by not employing the best word I’ve ever made up–noodleific.  It says it all. It’s going somewhere; I just couldn’t bear to give it away in  a work-for-hire project, so it’s mine, all mine.

Lately I’ve been asked by people I don’t really know what’s the most interesting thing  I’ve learned about Richmond while writing the Insiders’ Guide to the aforementioned city. Of course, my first answer is that I already knew everything, but that’s not exactly the truth. I do want you to pay my publisher the big bucks to find out most of what I learned, so in advance of the Sept. 1st  publication, let me share not so much what I learned about Richmond as what I learned about me. Totally worth the price.

First, I learned that I need to get out more. In the 18 years I’ve lived in Richmond, I have cooked too many dull dinners and eaten too many leftover lunches at home. There are too damned many fabulous restaurants that I still haven’t eaten at even though I picked up the pace a bit these last four months. When I do go out, I tend to go to the same few places. I need to insist that we mix it up to hit the more than 140 restaurants I included in the durned book. 

Second, I learned again that I am a bad mother. That’s one lesson I learn over and over. Why did I never take my children to Drewry’s Bluff when they were younger? I drove past the sign on I-95 dozens of times on the way to and fro soccer games. I wondered about it. I just never took them there. (I blame the damned soccer games. Screwed up many an otherwise pleasant weekend.) Yes, Drewry’s Bluff is a Civil War site, but that doesn’t make it dull or  make you or me a weirdo for being fond of it. It’s a great little winding walk in the woods to a beautiful overlook high above the James River. And there’s a cannon there–suitable for climbing on. Besides learning a bit about the first battle of the war near Richmond, you’ll learn about slaves who escaped from Shirley Plantation to join Union naval forces. It’s possible I learned that last bit somewhere else on my journeys, but unlike a certain governor, most anyone visiting Civil War sites in the area will realize that the Civil War is about more than the Confederacy.  McDonnell and his crew are making Richmond look like the Confederacy of Dunces.  

I'm sparing you the shot of me straddling the cannon....

But back to me–I also never took my children to the Metro Richmond Zoo. It was kind of lame back in the days of their youth, and expensive, especially to someone used to the National Zoo like I was, but still. Mistake. Mea culpa.  Nothing like writing a guidebook to make you feel inadequate and nothing like having an idiot governor to make you feel superior and sad.

For the first day in months, I haven’t spent most of my waking hours at this desk, having turned in the two dozen-plus chapter manuscript of the Insider’s Guide to Richmond yesterday. I am four months worth of  tired today.

Most people’s reaction to hearing I was writing a guidebook was something like, “Oh, how exciting!”  Who wouldn’t want to visit wineries, restaurants, and museums and such? 

pining for wine at New Kent Winery

 I certainly did some of that during the last four months, but mostly I gathered more material than I could possibly use. I even read some of it. And the computer has been my constant companion. We’ve shared a lot of mediocre meals together, especially cruel as I was writing the restaurant chapter. So now that I’ve done what I’ve done, I think it’s more accurate to say regarding writing a guidebook, “Oh, how mental-illness-inducing!” I’ve been single-minded–all Richmond all the time–yet at the same time my mind has been racing in many different directions simultaneously–architecture and NASCAR and boat ramps and art galleries and antique shops and battlefields and jewelry stores. Which means the day-to-day reality looks  a bit more like this:

looks good to me

Reading the newspaper makes you smart.

The scary thing is that when I took these photos in late February, I was horrified at how the office looked–too much like my brain–but the next month only intensified the messiness in both places.  I don’t feel the need to post proof of that.

I’m back!



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