Wednesday, July 1, 2015

5 Things to Eat in Charlotte

A trip to any southern state is a food trip, as far as I'm concerned. Sweet tea, grits, biscuits, and other fried selections are a must.  If you ever get to Charlotte, NC, here's a few things to try.

Shrimp and grits. This southern tradition is one of my favorites. Its a basic concept - a serving of grits and a serving of saucy shrimp on top.  And from there - it can go all kinds of ways. Every coastal and even not-so-coastal city seems to have their own favorite recipe and "best" variation.  Charlotte's no exception. I had a bowl at Mert's Heart & Soul, a soul food restaurant in downtown Charlotte, a few blocks and a short walk from the Convention Center. Mert's recipe is a brown sauce for the shrimp (I've usually had a red tomato sauce.) Its flavored with tomatoes, peppers, green onions, and a kick of hot-ness. The spiciness is a crucial ingredient for me, without it, there's a blandness to the whole thing. The grits were smooth and creamy.
Shrimp & Grits, Collard Greens at Mert's 
Biscuits & cornbread. You just can't go south and not get some fresh baked bread.  At Mert's, they serve hot mini-loaves of cornbread. Not hot as in warm to the touch, but hot as in steaming when you cut it open and slather it with sweet whipped butter.  We had biscuits at Tupelo Honey Cafe, served with honey and blueberry compote.  I don't usually put honey on my food, but this was a delicious combination.

Biscuits with honey & blueberry
Krispy Kreme. This is a North Carolina tradition and favorite, founded in Winston-Salem. Now, the signature "lights on" causes drooling for hot doughnuts in many cities outside of the Carolinas. Even still, it feels like a requirement to get a box of donuts when crossing the state line.

More grits and other toppings. Can we go back to the grits? Tupelo Honey Cafe, located a couple miles outside of downtown, in SouthEnd, offers a couple variations on the shrimp and grits, and then also a Veggie Bowl. Don't be confused because, for some reason it's listed under Salads on the menu and is served hot. This is essentially the "everything but the kitchen sink" of grits dishes. The base is a serving of smooth, goat cheese grits. It is then topped with black eyed peas (peppery), salsa, sautéed greens (the server said spinach, but I think it was actually kale), and fried okra. Yes - all of that in one big ole bowl. And I had them add shrimp, but really, everything else was more than enough. At first, it's worth it to taste each item to get the full individual flavor. And then, it's got to be eaten all together - the creamy grits, the sharp greens, the spicy black eyed peas, and the crunchy okra.  Delicious.

Then, wash it all down with moonshine or sweet tea - your choice.
Moonshine is a potent liquor, heralding from the days of Prohibition and apparently, one of the reasons NASCAR came to be. (You find out all kinds of things at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.) I had a tasting of Midnight Moon (gotta love the mason jars, right?) The strawberry and apple pie were pretty good. But it's not for the weak. Proceed with caution.
Try a shot of moonshine to complete your trip!
Sweet tea. Any southern state, you can find sweet tea almost easier than water. If you are a native northerner, you may not even understand fully what "sweet" means in this context. Trust me, it does not mean Splenda or any other artificial sweetener. Don't pass it up, whether at a local restaurant or Bojangles. Just be sure you get yourself a glass.
Mert's Heart & Soul
Tupelo Honey Cafe
Eat & enjoy Charlotte!

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Monday, June 29, 2015

Currently: Thinking about Colleges, Hybrid cars, Rest & Food

It's Monday and I'm back home. I went to the National PTA Convention this weekend and my daughters tagged along with me. Yes, it takes special kids to come along to a convention and actually attend some of the sessions.  During the convention, I was the featured blogger for the Family Reading Challenge launch and our family inspiration videos were posted.

Along the way, we stopped by Wake Forest University for a college tour (how did we get to this point already?!)  When I was in high school, I didn't do any college visits, I fully picked my school site-unseen.  Nowadays, however, college visits are expected and encouraged - and lots of them. I know folks who have visited ten, fifteen and more colleges with their soon-to-be-grad.  I don't think we'll do that many, we'll have to find a reasonable number.  If you've got a high schooler or recent grad, how many college visits did you all go on?

I drove a Ford Fusion hybrid for the trip.  Somewhere around 400 miles into the trip, the "E" light finally came on, I pulled over to fill up and with about 11 gallons, $30-some it was full and ready for another 500 miles.  Wow!  I usually drive an SUV (because we have to fit a family of six) so you can imagine the comparative cost and gas-savings.  I've got a while until my next car purchase, but this hybrid movement is something to think about.

When we checked in the hotel, I recalled again, my desire to one day check in to a hotel with no agenda but to get my full money's worth of the room rate. I want to sleep late in the comfy bed under the overstuffed comforters, have lunch on the pool deck, sip a drink during Happy Hour at the bar, sit on my room balcony reading a book.  Generally, I'm at a hotel for a convention or on vacation. Obviously, a convention schedule is crazy packed. And vacation, sometime is not as leisurely as we expect because we've got to get to the thing today before the lines get long.  One of these days, I'm going to stay in a hotel for no reason at all.

I'm recommitting to my workout plan that has sadly fallen to the wayside for no real apparent reason. But after a few days of grits, biscuits and sweet tea, I need to get back on it.  (More on what to eat in Charlotte coming up in separate post.)

I'm ready to cook. After a few days away, it's time to clean out the fridge and cook a meal, gather around the table with my full family and catch up.  Admittedly, it may take a few days for all that to come together with swim practice, PTA meetings, and basketball practice, but we'll get there.

What are you currently up to?

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Vacation Together - Read Together. #FamiliesRead

Join the PTA Family Reading Challenge!
We’ve followed a boy who lives within the gears of a train station clock.  Run with a  boy turned superhero when struck by lightning. Solved puzzling cases with kids in a mysterious society. Cheered on a would-be prince restored to his throne. Cried through a first-love trip to Amsterdam. Looked for the lost class guinea pig with twin sisters.

All from the blanket in the yard, cuddled up in bed, and riding in the car on cross-state roadtrips.

Of course, it’s all through the magic of books.

Since the kids were babies, I’ve read to and with them. I want my kids to share my love of reading, obviously for all the academic reasons – its necessary requirement for school, it makes one a better student, there’s a bunch of reading tests in school – but also because it’s great entertainment. Books are available on every subject imaginable and about all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. They can make you laugh or cry or think or wonder. And they’re portable!  Especially now with all the e-reader options on iPads, tablets, phones - there's really no excuse to not have a book with you.

And summer is a great season to get the kids reading. The long days, hours by the pool, enjoying an ice cream – they all go well with a good book.

As we pack our suitcases for vacation, everyone has two book tasks.
  • Select a book to read, whether a paper book or e-book for downtime.  The books have to be long enough to last past us pulling out of the driveway; other than that, there’s little rules.  Reading is the perfect end-of-the-day, calming activity. Parents can read aloud, or give the kids a turn to do so. Or everyone can read quietly, together.  I always end up packing more books than I can finish in how many ever days we'll be gone, but hey - you've gotta have goals.
  • Select an audio-book for travel time. When we do road-trips, we like a story to pass the hours and miles in the car.  The book has to be something everyone will enjoy, so this causes the most discussion and negotiations.  It also results in us driving around an extra block before parking, just to get to the end of the chapter and chit-chat waiting for dinner as we talk about what character we like (or didn’t) and what we think will happen next.

Selecting a book for family reading, as kids get older and with different age kids, can be a challenge. Here's a few that we've enjoyed together.  Note that with the audiobooks, one of the kids has usually read the "real" book first, then wants to share it with everyone else.
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart - book, audiobook
  • The False Prince (series) - book, audiobook
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick - book (but not the movie)
  • Scumble; Savvy - Ingrid Law - book, audiobook

The girls and I are traveling and listening to The Selection. This story about a girl who is selected, along with 34 others, to vie for the position of princess is a mixture of The Bachelor, Hunger Games, and The False Prince. I am just waiting for the Prince to send them all into the woods, looking for weapons as an archer shoots at them, only to discover one of them is the lost princess. Though my daughter assures me this is not going to happen.

Summer may not seem like the time for academics, but reading is the perfect lazy day activity. And reading together makes it even more fun.  So grab a book, gather the kids and enjoy.

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I’m proud to be taking part in the National PTA’s FamilyReading Experience Powered by Kindle and the Family Reading Challenge.  I’ve always loved reading and am excited that our largest parent advocacy organization is giving parents the incentives and encouragement to get engaged in their child’s education by reading.  
How to Raise a Reader - tips & stats from the National PTA #FamiliesRead
Check out the website - - for more information on the challenge – including how to win prizes for your family!  Share your families summer reading selections and experiences on social media with #FamiliesRead.
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Monday, June 22, 2015

Currently: Reading, Crocheting & Enjoying Snowballs

We have arrived to my favorite season of the year! Sure, the spring breezes and rain showers are nice, and fall crispy cool air is refreshing relief from the heat of summer, and a daily excuse for hot chocolate is great in the winter but give me the season of soaking in the sun, sipping on iced sweet tea, long days of nothing, a pile of books to read, and ice cream.

The longest day of the year, also known as the summer solstice, officially begins summer.  I celebrated with an ice-cold, delicious Baltimore snowball (chocolate covered strawberry, if you were wondering.) I have been derelict in my parenting duties and my kids were under the mistaken belief that the concoction of ice and watery flavor sold on the truck that comes to school picnics was a “good” snowball. I had to rectify that. It only took one sugary flavorful spoonful of a real snowball to make them (well, three out of four) converts.

Borrowing on the idea of The Longest Day, the AlzheimersAssociation used this day to increase awareness this disease, and fundraising for research of and support for those suffering from it and their caregivers.  Participants in the day were encouraged to pick an activity to participate in all day, to “symbolize the challenging journey of those living with the disease and their caregivers.”  I chose to crochet, one of my favorite hobbies and since handcrafts are reported to help stimulate the brain, I thought was a good fit.  Continuing in the idea of charity, I made hats for women going through chemotherapy who may lose their hair. I made three during the day, taking my yarn to the kids’ swim meet, stitching in between making dinner, and while hanging out with the family celebrating Father’s Day. They were so easy, I’m thinking of making some more. Any ideas of where to donate them to – leave in the comments.

In book-nerd fashion, I have anticipated the opening of the new library in my area.  I know – it’s going to have books just like all the other ones, but I’ve still got going to check it out on my list of things to do. And I heard they have a coffee shop!

On a related note, we have signed up for the National PTA Family Reading Challenge. This new initiative encourages families to read together. Okay - we do have a fun, vested interest in the program – we were one of the families selected to be in the “Inspiration” videos. My daughter and I talk about family reading traditions.  We’ve signed up for the summer challenge because I love reading and think its very important for children to not only be literate but to enjoy reading for their own entertainment and education.  I’ve mentioned many times on here about getting kids reading, especially in the summer so their minds don’t turn to mush in the sun.  As the kids get older, the reading together thing gets harder, it doesn’t seem as cool, but in a previous post, I shared some ideas.  Another note on the family challenge –(and my kids favorite part) there’s prizes from Amazon and Kindle.

I’m making good progress in my tidying and decluttering effort. As recommended in the book I’m using as my guide for now, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I’m committing huge chunks of time – cleaning out the kids’ closets and drawers for now. We packed up bags to donate to the local clothes exchange and another pile of bags of trash. At the same time, a friend was looking for donations of old t-shirts and yarn for a summer camp – yay!! We had a pile of all those logo/camp/event t-shirts that I didn’t know what to do with and I had a bag of yarn scraps. Perfect.  I love when I can donate my old things, it seems like such a waste to throw them away. The house is feeling so much lighter, now.

Here’s to summer! Pass the sweet tea and share how you are starting off your summer!

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