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I write a lot of  140 character bursts for my small biz, Real Richmond Food Tours, and though it makes sense that food comes up often, as it does on part 1 of my Holiday Gift Guide for Richmond, art and nature are other themes that show up. Makes sense, since those are some of Richmond’s strengths and what is such a pleasure to tout on our tours and on Twitter. Here’s #1-13 for 2013.

#1 Art abides: a membership to Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is one of the best gifts (and best deals) in #RVA.

#2 Gift baskets from Little House Green Grocery full of Hispania Bakery , Blanchard’s Coffee & more treats!

#3: Tix to Virginia Rep’s Fiddler on the Roof! For Hannukah or Christmas +pairs w/ #rvadine meal. (Ok, so it’s late for Hannukah now!)

#4- Fun food-related utensils and books at Quirk Gallery.

#5  Create burger heaven w/ gift certificates to Station 2, Burger Bach & Belmont Butchery. #diditlastyear

#6  Blue Bee Cider will put a shine on somebody’s apple! I’m a fan of Aragon + the Reserve!

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#7 Help Cucina achieve world soup domination by buying Mulligatawny or Chorizo Black Bean soups at St. Stephen’s Farmers’ Market Saturday, 9-12.

#8 From the warmth of your home, get someone James River Park System license plates! Support an #RVA park.

#9: Beard Foundation Dinner tickets  Jan. 18th at Lemaire with chefs Bundy, Reitzer, Gregory, Alley and Sparatta!

#10: Animal masks from Big Secret  atBizarre Market upstairs in Chop Suey Books!

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#11: Bacon Bender– Housemade from Belmont Butchery ties  at Fountain Bookstore, mug from Rostov’s Coffee & Tea.

#12: Pick up some local art and food at Art & Food at Huguenot Springs Sat. 10-4 w/ @Manakintowne 

#13  Something your heart/art desires at Handmade Holiday at Dogtown Dance Saturday, 11-5 + Bainbridge Art Center Sat. & Sun.

Richmond.com just published this interview with me today. 5 Questions with a Foodie. I would never say I’m a foodie or a native Richmonder, so let anyone come at me with their knives sharpened. As Stephen Robertson pointed out (ha!), sharp ones are better than dull ones.

To further prove (or undermine) my food credentials, here’s a sampler of older, food-related posts. I do keep coming back to food, one way or another. And I did shop at Ellwood Thompson’s today, so nuf said–or spent.

Where Health Food Goes to Die,  September 2010

The floor refinishers needed a 220 outlet to plug in the floor sander, so the hunt began. The very hung-over guy tasked with plugging in the machine dismissed the plug behind my dryer–too hard to get to–and instead wanted to know where my stove was.  I cringed because though I know it isn’t all that hard to move the stove out from the wall, it gets done approximately once a decade, so I knew the floor beneath my stove would bring me down–kind of the opposite effect of the wind beneath my wings though actually that song brings me down, too. But I digress.  The guy with the phlegmy, hacking cough taught me something that morning–there’s no need to move the stove. Turns out the oven drawer can be removed quite easily, exposing both the 220 outlet and the detritus of my life.  Who knew it was that easy?

With trepidation I got down on the floor to inspect the scene–more chocolate than you would think I would’ve let get away. The theme was surprisingly outdoorsy–a combination of  trail mix and dust bunnies too laden with grease to hop far. It was interesting to note (and almost thrilling to clean up) that health food doesn’t live under the stove–it died there. It belongs in the great outdoors or in my mouth. I am happy (ok–bursting with pride is more accurate) to report that no insects or animals were spotted, and two cake pans long assumed lost in the wild reappeared. I know I’m a bit of a braggart.

Older Butt Wider, November 2010

One of my favorite bits, coined decades ago by one of my high school friends. It’s so much easier to get wider than wiser, she said as she remembered with delight the exquisite dark chocolate (fair trade) with mint bar that she bought today.

Herewith the shorthand recipe for the delish Cookie Cake my daughter invented:

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Halve the Nestle’s Semi-Sweet Chocolate Toll House Cookie recipe on the back of the package, spread batter into a greased, 8 inch round cake pan and bake for 14 minutes….maybe more, depends how gooey you like the middle. Deirdre often ices it with vanilla buttercream icing as she did yesterday and then saved me a piece, thank goodness, but I am quite content to eat it sans icing. So good warm.

I will now wax poetic about cookies:

“Got a cookie in my hand, warm, on my lips, mmmm, in my mouth, oooh, on my tongue, yum, in my teeth, munch, down my throat, aahhh, in my gut–gone! Hey, that’s not enough. (It’s a hand-to-mouth existence, but that’s ok with me.)  …One bite, one taste, one swallow, one nice big cup of milk, one lick of my lips and I knew what to do–try, taste, chomp! From a package or a pan, I don’t need to waste a plate; crumbs in teeth, on shirt, in hair. Where’s my cookie?”

A multi-media approach to eating too much chocolate. I’m going to run now.

Driven to Eat May 2011, 

After driving 600 miles from Nashville to Richmond last night and and today, I was reminded that highways are very long and skinny food deserts. And there’s no dessert worth eating along them either.  Sure there are “restaurants” at many exits, but they are almost all some sort of fast food or fake-y, family-friendly chain and I’m fairly sure  their definition of food and mine don’t jibe. Not something I want to eat.

We were interested in making time, so hardly stopped at all, and didn’t time things such that wandering a little off the beaten track to find something interesting and not gross was possible, and it was disconcerting to see so little local flavor near the interstates. I’m sure most smaller spots have been blown off the road by the chains. I’m tempted to say that honest-to-goodness local barbecue is still one temptation still out there in some hills and hollows, in the south at least, that weary travellers might come upon, but even that is threatened by Famous Dave’s and Red, Hot & Blue.  Don’t let that happen! It’s up to us to eat local barbecue early and often. Keep sauce alive! Imagine the drive along I-64 without Pierce’s. Perish the thought. Or Richmond without Buz & Ned’s. Don’t let that happen. Richmond restaurants have spoiled me and I like it like that.

Putting Food First,  February 2012

So I agreed to moderate a Writing Show panel for James River Writers this evening. It’s about food, drink, and romance in writing. You had me at chocolate chip cookie. I am thinking hard about what food I should bring with me to stuff into my mouth in order to prevent me from saying something really dumb. Dark chocolate could do the trick, but it’s so unseasonably warm today, it might melt all over my hands and then I’ll get chocolate all over my notes and then I will have to rely on my brain to come up with something to say of its own accord and there we are back at the saying something dumb issue.

A chocolate for my thoughts?

A vicious circle. That reminds me of cupcakes.

The mocha/chocolate one is my go-to cupcake.

There is no photo of an actual cupcake because as soon as the box gets opened, it’s not a pretty picture anymore. Actually, I have learned to show enormous amounts of restraint leading Real Richmond food tours around town. I don’t partake of everything at every stop. For me to spend time in a cupcake joint, inhaling the aromas of chocolate, coconut, and other good/evil things and not eating a bit is proof of something–I’m just not sure what. It is weird beyond belief, but some of it is vanity. Knowing that putting cupcake to mouth would leave too much evidence on my clothes, in my teeth and around my lips–not to mention elsewhere–helps in the self-restraint department. And then when the tour is over and I walk past said cupcake shop, I pop in and buy a 4-pack to take home. The Virginia General Assembly would do better to focus on issues such as banning driving while eating cupcakes than some of the other things they’ve been messing with. Three panelists, Michele Young-Stone, Andrew Fox, and Kit Wilkinson will be on tonight’s panel. All are novelists, but different genres: Michele writes adult fiction; Andrew sci-fi/fantasy, and Kit Christian Romance and suspense.  There is a joke to be made about Christian Romance and what the Republicans in the General Assembly have been up to of late. I will try to show restraint tonight and not blurt one out. Cupcake, anyone?

With the passing of dear Mary Shumate, who lived and loved the house and yard I’ve lived in 16 years, I’ve been appreciating her handiwork with a sharper eye. She and her dear husband Stuart built this house and fashioned this yard starting in 1955.

Mary's garden still grows.

It helps that the lamium and azaleas and vinca and phlox and dogwoods are all blooming exuberantly, and that I finished clearing the paths she and Stuart laid out and lined with cobbles decades ago and lined them with pine straw the past week. I tell myself it doesn’t much matter what’s going on on either side of the path as long as it looks well-tended. It’s not true, I know, but thank goodness the phlox are bobbing along here and there to take one’s eye off the ivy explosion. If it is a sin to plant English Ivy, that’s on her, God–not me! She just kept it under control better than I do. I’ll take the heat for that.

A good path to follow

During the service for her yesterday, her own exuberance was still quite evident since she had planned it–so many references to the natural world: For the Beauty of the Earth and Let All Things Now Living made me smile–which doesn’t often happen to me in church. And then there was the particularly well chosen Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

All that she planted and plucked, all those stones she lugged up from the creek, all the banks she built up, all the times she made her kids and grandchildren hate the gully (since she made them weed it for 5 cents a bushel, I heard yesterday! I offered them a quarter), and all the love of beauty she shared–they’re all evident right outside my window. And I am so grateful to be able to see her hand and eye at work still–even if I can’t keep the yard up to her standards.

Not sure she was much for keeping silence, but it was so much fun to listen to her that I think she was the exception to that rule. I’m happy to hear her voice in my head through the seasons.

DaVinci Does Cadiz

Zoom with a View

This summer while I was visiting Cadiz, Spain I went to Torre Tavira, the tallest point in Cadiz. It’s a tourist attraction for the views from the top of the tower and for the camera obscura guided exhibit that costs 5 euros.The 20 minute visit with the camera obscura show was entertaining and a great way to get one’s bearings. 

http://www.torretavira.com/en/camaraobscura.php  The youtube video gives a sense of what you’re looking at. They limit the tour to 18 people at a time and run it several times a day.

Basically, using mirrors and lenses and a concave viewing area in a darkened room, we were able to see what was going on at street level and rooftop level 360 degrees around. Our guide could swivel the camera and zoom in and out and we had an amazingly clear view of the entire city. He pointed out architecture, historic spots, natural features, and people walking on the street that moment. It really had a magical feel to it. Our guide conducted the tour in several languages, which was entertaining as well. We saw a lot for just standing still.
Here in RVA, City Hall has the viewing platform already but it is woefully inadequate as a tourist site as is. With the addition of the camera obscura, a guide could tell the whole story–the then and the now of Richmond. The rapids and rocks, Native American history, Christopher Newport, colonization, Patrick Henry, Gabriel, liberty and slavery, TJ’s Capitol, Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew, Jackson Ward, Maggie Walker, VCU, Monumental Church, CenterStage, on and on, all the way to RIR .  Zoom in on former tobacco warehouses now with pools on top, zoom in on Hollywood Cemetery. The juxtapositions could be dizzying.
Since DaVinci was one of the major forces behind the development of the camera obscura and given that VCU has a DaVinci program that brings together their engineering and art schools, I think there might be a way to get some funding from them. It could be a good way for VCU to show its creative and technical sides in a new way downtown.
It’s a remarkably simple concept–see what’s going on all around you in one place–but with the right guide and tour, there was quite a wow factor. Leading food tours walking around Richmond with Real Richmond , I see how hungry people are for cool things to do in town. People want to learn more, want it to be easy to see what the city has to offer, and don’t want to have to figure everything out on their own. This could be one-stop gawking. I don’t know what height building suits a camera obscura, the cost, or if there would be a better choice than City Hall, but I think it’s something Richmond ought to look into it, so to speak. We’ll see if the Mayor’s Tourism Commission, of which I’m a member, has any interest….

There is such a thing as seeing too much

I gave a 5 minute talk last night at Midlothian Middle School to middle schoolers, their parents, teachers, and other book-loving folks, sharing the stage with much better known and accomplished writers Sheila P. Moses, Sue Corbett, Brooks Smith, Connie Lapallo, and Gigi Amateau. It was a most pleasant way to spend an evening, full of stories and inspiration. Look these other folks up and buy their books at your local bookstere. You won’t be disappointed.

I focused on the part of writing where I’m not stuck with the seat of my pants in a chair. Made me think I need to take my own advice! Here’s more or less what I said. Those Midlo folks are chomping at the bit to come into Richmond and take advantage of what it has to offer. That’s exciting to me.

Not me ziplining across the river (which would be cool, but isn't possible yet!), but a WIld in the City guest ziplining across Belle Isle Quarry. I had the pleasure of that trip another time.

I’m doing a couple of things this week that might rattle some nerves—public speaking and rappelling down a 25 storey building downtown as part of Over the Edge, a Special Olympics extreme fundraiser.  I’m doing both of those heart-pounding things this week because I’m a writer. And I feel very lucky to be doing both.

Chester Filbert in Nothing Ever Happens on My Block—one of my all-time favorite picture books– has a perpetual sneer on his face. I’ve been known to have that look, but there’s a big difference between me and Chester Filbert—he doesn’t see what’s all around him—he can’t get outside of his head—of his preconceived notions of how dull his life and his neighborhood is.

Chester says longingly, “Some places have marching bands or haunted houses, courageous hunters hunting, ferocious lions and tigers, pirates and buried treasure…” on and on..  He’s so busy wishing for what he doesn’t have that he misses what is going on right in front of his face.  Disgusted with his lot in life,  he finishes  with “But nothing ever happens on my block., and snarls, “When I grow up, I’m going to move.”

It’s easy to think our lives are dull and boring and for some stretches they are, but here’s the thing. Something is happening on everyone’s block—you have to be out there and be open to seeing it.  To be an effective writer, I need to spend some time stuck inside my head for sure—contemplating, questioning, revising, but I NEED to get outside my head and my house even more—meet people, ride horses, ask questions, rappel, go rafting, try new things, look at art, eat at cool restaurants, explore what’s around. All that feeds my writing and my life.

When I wrote Insiders’ Guide to Richmond, I was well aware that many people say nothing ever happens in Richmond a la Chester Filbert. It’s not D.C. or New York or Chicago.  It’s stuck in the past, dull and boring. Who would ever want to visit? There’s nothing to do! I’ve heard it all. And I don’t believe it!

So I drew on my experiences living here 19 years, being an outdoorsy, involved, art and history-loving, quirky and curious type and wrote an upbeat book that makes it easier to find the good stuff in our city and region.

WIth apologies to Ellen Raskin:

Some places have a free and fantastic Folk Festival along the river, –did you go?! Class IV and V whitewater you can raft through downtown, one of the 50 most beautiful buildings in the country, awesome mountain biking and multi-use trails. Some places have torchlit walks on a Slave Trail, and herons roosting along the Pipeline, a Final 4 basketball team, artsy and involved universities, a Native American village to visit, bald eagles soaring above  the James, one of the best art museums in the country that’s open every day and free!!! And will be full of MUMMIES next month, a creepy crypt under a historic church, sites related to revolutionaries you’ve heard of:  Patrick Henry and GW and  Thomas Jefferson, and sites related to ones you might not have: Gabriel, Maggie Walker, John Mitchell, John Jasper. Some places have a one night internationally-curated light exhibit INLIGHT this Friday night at Tredegar!!!!  NASCAR, recreational tree-climbing, even Mid-lothian Mines Park where 9 year olds once worked down in the shafts doing the dirty work  And that place is Richmond. (And I could go on. For another 300 pages, but I won’t! I didn’t even mention that war you might have heard about….)

Chester Filbert said “When I grow up, I’m going to move.” Once again poor Chester has it all wrong!.  Don’t wait till you grow up to move. Move NOW!  Don’t worry–I don’t want you to move away from home or away from Richmond! I mean MOVE! Don’t stay in one place! Don’t say there’s nothing to do or sit staring at computer or television screens. Get out on your block in your neighborhood, in the city and the region and be active and involved, observe and experience. Think outside the block! Be a part of the world—not apart from it.  Be a part of Richmond–not apart from it.  And if you’re in Shockoe Slip Thursday around 3:45, look up at the SunTrust building and wave!  That’s where I’ll be hanging out.

Hope to see you around town!

After signing a bunch of books and talking to the people at the event, I know I will see them around town. Cool!

One of the many benefits of leading food tours in Richmond is that I get to eat a little at a lot of places. Sometimes I eat a lot at just one place. Today on the Shockoe Slip: Capital of Cuisine tour, we could have ended the tour at our first stop, La Grotta. Tony Capece, the chef and co-owner with his adorable wife, Andrea (who says she’s allergic to the kitchen), brought out two pasta dishes–Duck Ravioli in a Tomato Sauce and Beet Fettucine w/ Asparagus, Shitake Mushrooms and the Best Damned Sauce I’ve ever Tasted.

The pasta is made in-house at La Grotta.

There was Duck Ravioli and then as if we needed anything more, Tony brought out enough Strawberry Grand Marnier Cake and Chocolate Cream Caramel to make me consider ending the tour right then and there from overwhelming fullness.

Chocolate Cream Caramel at La Grotta is divine.

I am finicky about chocolate desserts. Or should I say, I will eat almost anything chocolate and then complain that many of the things I’ve devoured are tasteless and  disappointing. Let me be clear–La Grotta’s Chocolate Cream Caramel was eye-poppingly delicious. The only thing disappointing was to be a good tour guide rather than a good glutton, I had to leave 3 of the squares on the platter as I shooed my tourgoers out the door and on to our next stop. Business before gluttony, like I always say.

In today’s Washington Post Travel section, here’s an article I wrote bout fun times in River City. Fairly predictably, the online version is entitled A River Runs Through It–Outdoor Adventure Capital but when I picked up a paper copy today, quite oddly enough it is titled A Freeway Runs Through It: Natural Richmond. Really? My suspicion is some headline writer had a bad experience on I-95 on his way through town and never got over it. I can only assume he averted his eyes upon nearing a river view. I am not amused. It’s the sort of cheap shot that could start a war or something….

After driving 600 miles from Nashville to Richmond last night and and today, I was reminded that highways are very long and skinny food deserts. And there’s no dessert worth eating along them either.  Sure there are “restaurants” at many exits, but they are almost all some sort of fast food or fake-y, family-friendly chain and I’m fairly sure  their definition of food and mine don’t jibe. Not something I want to eat. 

We were interested in making time, so hardly stopped at all, and didn’t time things such that wandering a little off the beaten track to find something interesting and not gross was possible, and it was disconcerting to see so little local flavor near the interstates. I’m sure most smaller spots have been blown off the road by the chains. I’m tempted to say that honest-to-goodness local barbecue is still one temptation still out there in some hills and hollows, in the south at least, that weary travellers might come upon, but even that is threatened by Famous Dave’s and Red, Hot & Blue.  Don’t let that happen! It’s up to us to eat local barbecue early and often. Keep sauce alive! Imagine the drive along I-64 without Pierce’s. Perish the thought. Or Richmond without Buz & Ned’s. Don’t let that happen. Richmond restaurants have spoiled me and I like it like that.

Some weeks lend themselves to getting out and about and appreciating the spring thing. This is not one of them, so I will cheat and throw in photos from a week or two ago when the Cherry Blossoms were in full swing down on Brown’s Island.

Pink Island

The weekday I was wandering around on Brown’s Island and Belle Isle I ran into at least 3 people I knew out taking in the spring splendor in the middle of the day. Playing hookey, perhaps. We couldn’t have picked a better place to do it though in my defense, I was working on a new and exciting route for Real Richmond, my food tours (& more) biz.  I even ran into a gal who had been on the previous week’s food tour of Shockoe Slip. She was there with her Goochland Elementary School’s 4th graders, taking in the Civil War museums at Tredegar and she told me that because our tour had taken her to TJ’s Capitol, she’d asked the bus driver on her school field trip to take the class there for a class picture. Hope they return for the full-fledged visit soon.

Old stuff is cool.

One of the flaws of the very worthwhile Tredegar area is that there is no place to buy snacks or lunch there. There’s space for a small cafe and perhaps one day it will appear, but until then, you will have to be resourceful like I am and either pack your own chocolate chip cookies or do what I won’t tell you you can do because I’m about to launch a new Real Richmond product that will be really fun but I can’t tell you what it involves quite yet. That is mean. Oh well. I’m really very nice and generous on our actual tours–but they’re only 2.5 hours, so that explains that. There are tickets available for this Saturday’s 2-4:30 p.m. tour of The Wards–April 2nd. If you email me at tours@realrichmondva.com mentioning this blog post, you’ll get a two-for one deal, while supplies last.

Running this new food tour biz around town, Real Richmond,  has been lots of work and lots of fun. But until this moment, our tag line–food tours & more–has been less than accurate.  Food tours of Shockoe Slip, Shockoe Bottom/Church Hill, VCU/Fan, Carytown/Museum District, and The Wards are all well and good (and they sure are good), but where’s the more?

I’m working on it.  I’ll be sure to let you know when I put tickets on sale for my newest tour: Secret Basements of Stratford Hills–not to be confused with Cramped Closets of Westover Hills or Real Housewives of Stratford Hills. Just give me time. You’ll see the hoarders, the varmints, the occasional pinball machine, and lots of things I threw in the van as we were emptying my mother’s house in Maryland. You’ll hear stories of sewer line back-ups, burst pipes, and bat attacks–perfect for Halloween. To add a little history, we’ll dine on Paw-Paw fruit (in season–just as George Washington did), meander by that purty river and see who is grilling what illegally (and ask them to share or we’ll call the cops), and investigate the canned goods stockpiled in crazy people’s basements. Trust me, we won’t have to walk far. In the summer we could easily make it a beer crawl–just along Riverside Drive.   Sounds like a great tour. Scary thing is I bet some people will want tickets….

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