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Why We Love State Fairs

After my state fair post a few weeks ago, someone mentioned that they had never been to a state fair. When I love something a lot, sometimes it’s difficult to explain in detail why I enjoy it so much, beyond, “IT’S AWESOME, GO!” So I asked some friends and family why they like their state fairs. Here they are: 

Laura Ellis says the Kentucky State Fair is her happy place: 

Just waiting for some pigtails. 

Just waiting for some pigtails. 

"When I was growing up, the Kentucky State Fair was always the last hurrah of summer, right before school started back up, and my parents took us every year. My mom says one year when I was around 4, we were looking at the goats, and she glanced away, and when she looked back, a goat was eating one of my pigtails — so I have to think the fair is at least partially responsible for my lifelong love of interacting with all manner of animals. Besides childhood memories, I think I love the fair because I relate to it so much; the fair is this weird, boisterous, musical, kitschy, kind of redneck, eclectic, country-ish entity that just happens to be in the middle of a city... like me!” 

This year, Laura takes home the Most Hardcore Fair Fan for living at the fair during its 11-day run as part of "a special embedded journalism project". 

Trevor Zickgraf, on the California State Fair: 
“ favorite part of the California State Fair is the plethora of craft beers. California has become increasingly crafty when it comes to suds so being able to sample all that the Golden State has to offer is great. The food choices are also good but honestly, why go to a fair and try anything other than fried food. The best thing I've tried is the fried grilled cheese sandwich. Strangest fried item: Fried Kool-Aid. Finally, our fair does a great job with music. You won't find any A-Listers but acts like Belinda Carlisle and Blues Traveler were there this year. There's also this Queen cover band whose lead singer is a dead ringer for Hot Space era Freddy Mercury.”

Several years ago, I saw Boyz II Men at the Kentucky State Fair. There were only three Men (or Boyz?), and traffic to the fair meant we arrived in time for the last two songs. Still worth it. Then we wandered into the ticketed Def Leppard show, so I consider that a successful evening of fair-going. 

Riding the Texas Star in 2002. 

Riding the Texas Star in 2002. 

Michael Golden (full disclosure, he’s my brother) on the Texas State Fair: 
"Lots of state fairs have Ferris wheels, but I doubt many have ones like the Texas Star. Despite the cliche, it's not the biggest in the world, or even in the States, but it still gives a great view of the festivities. There's nothing like rising high above the noise and chaos to find a bit of peace and perspective. It's always worth the wait, and if the line is too long, it's just an excuse to grab a turkey leg (2nd favorite thing!) and join the queue.”

Emily Beliles (more full disclosure, she’s my cousin) on the Virginia State Fair: 
"My favorite part of the Virginia State Fair is definitely the pig races. Watching little, happily squealing piglets fly around a track is pure joy. The bigger the pigs, the slower the races, and inevitably there's one or two hogs that get sidetracked by something interesting they find to sniff along the way. Sitting on hay bales and listening to the announcer's intense introductions and moment-by-moment Nascar-like descriptions of each race is half the fun. It's definitely the one show I never miss!” 

Fried everything, turkey legs (my favorite fair food), livestock, animal shows — these are some of the things that make me want to go to the fair every year. Plus, tickets are cheap, so you can spend all your money on Grater Taters, food on sticks, and beer. I particularly love the craft contests, both for the range of skill and strangeness on display. Someone made an intricate, flowery quilt; someone else made a horse out of seashells. Winners, all. 

So go forth and find a state fair to attend. If you’re in D.C., there are still at least five coming up in the next few weeks that are kind of close. 

Sea horse. 

Sea horse. 

Just Exploring Pie Baking

I started making pie last fall because of Whole Foods, specifically because of a chocolate pecan pie Houston-area Whole Foods stores carried in the early 2000s around the holiday season. The choir director at my family's church used to buy these pies for the choir, to which my mother belonged. Because pecan pie was not part of my Swiss mother’s baking repertoire, this was my first pecan pie experience. I loved it. 

From then on, every time I ate regular pecan pie, I thought about the chocolate chips and striping on that store-bought pie. 

“I should learn to make that,” I thought. Every year, the motivation disappeared almost as quickly as my dessert, only to return at the sight of the next chocolate-free pecan pie. 

Last year, away on our fairytale fellowship year in snow-buried Boston, I warmed the kitchen with lots of baked goods. Three-layer chocolate cakes, king cake, coconut cake, carrot cake, pear crostata, chocolate-chip cookies, hazelnut-Nutella cookies, plum tortes, profiteroles, and lots of chocolate mousse (not baked, but awesome)… it was a lot. But no pie. 

One afternoon, two three-layer, frosted chocolate cakes. I will not do this again. 

One afternoon, two three-layer, frosted chocolate cakes. I will not do this again. 

Then we moved to D.C., where I got a job in a library, where one day, I spotted The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie waiting to be re-shelved. I flipped through it and found a recipe for a chocolate maple pecan pie. Its name was "Jeffersonville Pie.” Jeffersonville, Indiana is across the Ohio River from Louisville. I took this as a sign that I needed to not only make this pie, but also master pie-making.

I borrowed the book from the library, read and reread the steps to flaky pie crust, then made my first chocolate maple pecan pie. It was a mess — the chocolate striping was more splat than stripe, and holes in the crust led to filling leakage. It was still delicious, because the leaked filling caramelized, and more chocolate is rarely a bad thing.  

I used the leftover pie dough to make a quiche. Then I tried the pecan pie again. It looked nice enough to take it to Thanksgiving dinner.

Chocolate maple pecan pie, attempt number two -- Thanksgiving dinner-worthy. 

Chocolate maple pecan pie, attempt number two -- Thanksgiving dinner-worthy. 

Between borrowing the first pie book and Thanksgiving, my baking books somehow quadrupled. After accomplishing a decent-looking pie, I returned my books to the library and took a break from pie. In retrospect, I spent that break baking Christmas cookies and profiteroles and thinking about how I wanted to make the salty honey pie recipe from the Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book

It took me almost a month to get to that recipe. The lovely thing about pie is you can make one in steps and spread it out over several days. I divided butter at the end of December, made the actual pie dough a week later, and a week after that, finally made the pie. I interpret the instruction to put something in the freezer for 30 minutes but preferably overnight to mean “put it in the freezer for as long as you need.” It's worked so far.

Yesterday, I made another Blackbirds recipe — the Black Bottom Oatmeal Pie, which comes recommended as a substitute for a chocolate pecan pie. It’s oats and pecan pie ingredients on top of chocolate ganache. After a mishap with the ganache (added a cup too much heavy cream and made drinking chocolate instead of ganache), it turned out well. I won't be invited onto the Great British Baking Show anytime soon, but I'm no longer threatening to toss the pie crust before it makes it to the pan. 

I’ve been using the “basic flaky pie crust” recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible. If you decide you too need to master pie, I recommend first reading the Hoosier Mama’s prep instructions. They go step-by-step, and the book includes pictures of everything from rolling out the dough to crimping, where Beranbaum jumps around in a way I find confusing. That said, I prefer Beranbaum's crust recipe. 

I’m slowly getting better at pie crust and look forward to one day rolling out a circle of dough instead of a weird blob. I’m going to try Beranbaum’s Honeycomb Chiffon Pie next, complete with the honeybee decoration. I anticipate another mess, but the messes are still tasty. 

Do you have a favorite pie recipe or book? Tips on rolling out circular pie crusts?  

Two Hot Chickens and a Hot Curry

New York Hot Chicken

At the end of May, we took a trip to New York. A few months before, a friend sent me this recipe for the hot chicken at Peaches Hothouse, a place in Brooklyn. We added the restaurant to our New York To Do list and headed there on a Friday night. 

We ordered the hottest level of chicken. It looked more like regular fried chicken than the usual hot-chicken shade of dark red. I judge hot food by the number of beers I drink during the meal. Hattie B’s painfully hot chicken usually requires two beers. By the end of our meal at Peaches, I was still drinking the same beer. The chicken was tasty, and there was a heat that built up gradually. But instead of a table-banging, nose-sweat-inducing heat, this heat was manageable. I wouldn’t call it Nashville-style, though. Maybe spicy chicken. I would eat it again. 

New York Hot Curry 

The next day, another friend mentioned an Indian place that offers a hot curry challenge and a certificate if you finish your food. She really likes certificates, and I really like challenging myself with hot food, so we decided we should eat hot curry for dinner. 

Four people from our five-person party took on the "Phaal Challenge" at Brick Lane Curry House. We had to sign waivers saying we realized we were silly and would not hold the establishment responsible for any physical or psychological pain (I’m paraphrasing). When the food arrived, our waiter let us know we had 30 minutes to finish. 

Photo by Lauren Reid

Photo by Lauren Reid

I do not recommend trying this hot curry at all. Not only is it painfully hot, it’s bad. Curry is typically delicious. This “curry” can only be called that because it seems to be a blend of every hot pepper around. It was hot peppers and nothing else. I finished it with the help of two big beers. I got the certificate, but that was a wildly unpleasant experience. 

(If this was a piece for Upworthy, the headline would be: I completed the Phaal Challenge. You’ll never guess what happened next). 

If you decide to destroy your innards with this curry, my hot tip (pun intended) is to eat as little rice as possible. It only takes up stomach realty needed for more bad curry. 

Boston Hot Chicken

One of the 31 things I said I would miss about Louisville was its proximity to Nashville and hot chicken. While writing that post, I found a place that does hot chicken near MIT. Last night, we decided to see if their “Nashville-style” hot chicken was really Nashville, or New York.

Two things: 

1. We visited State Park’s sister restaurant, Hungry Mother, this weekend to pick up some pimento cheese for an event. We told the gentleman who assisted us that we wanted to try State Park’s hot chicken.

“I will never eat that chicken,” he said. 

2. When we ordered, our waiter asked me, “Have you ever had the chicken prepared that way?” 

“Yes, in Nashville.” 

“Great. That’s the best answer I’ve ever had to that question.” (I didn’t ask him how long he’d worked there). 

The chicken came on a slice of white bread with a few pickles on the side. It was dark red. It was hot — but not esophagus-burning, ear-popping hot. Hotter than Peaches, not as hot as Hattie B’s. It reminded me of the first hot chicken we ever had, from Bolton’s. I only needed one beer, but I think the one-beer level is the level for me. State Park, your hot chicken is perfect. We will be back.  

31 Days of Louisville Love: Comfy Cow

Before we got a Comfy Cow at Eastern and Bardstown, I had visited them two times, once at their Westport location and once at their Frankfort store. With the new location, I have close to tripled my visits in the last few months. 

I have a terrible sweet tooth, and it has its own soft spot for ice cream (and flan and creme brulée). Every walk past that intersection is a temptation now. Before Comfy Cow’s arrival, we stopped occasionally for frozen yogurt, but even with Lula’s endless topping options, for me, it doesn’t compare to an ice cream cone.

I love going into Comfy Cow, reading through all the flavors, trying a few, and making a mental note of what I’ll get next time. I love walking by and reading that month’s flavors on their chalk board. It took me most of June to finally get in and try the Hazelnut Crunch OMG (I think the OMG was part of that flavor’s name?), but the wait was worth it. It may have even made it better. This month, I’ve got to get in to try the Peachy Keen. 

I know there are delicious ice cream parlors all over, and I try to visit as many as possible. I’m excited to find one in Cambridge. I’ll miss Comfy Cow, but honestly, not having ice cream on my walk home may be a good thing.  

31 Day of Louisville Love: The Back Door

The Back Door is a windowless dive bar in a strip mall. I love it.

It’s a strange place and a required stop for our out-of-town visitors (well, not my parents). It’s open until 4 a.m., though I’ve only made it to 3:30. They have strong, cheap drinks — there’s always a $2.75 special — and good food. My go-to is the quesadilla, though I’ve had a tasty lentil soup, and I hear good things about the tuna steak. Their wings aided my fall from vegetarianism. But if you leave your id at home, no wings or $2.75 drinks for you.  I’ve never seen anyone get past the doorman without their ID. 

If you go to the Back Door enough, you may never leave. The faces of the most regular regulars have been painted on the walls and smile down on you as you drink your Old Forrester or sprite-and-tequila margarita. Sometimes you can spot someone from the wall in the crowd. Should looking for wall people amongst the real people not be enough entertainment for you, there’s also a little Back Door lending library, a shelf of books by the entrance. Or, try your hand at some Skeeball. Or pool, darts, or video game golf. 

While I’ve certainly made the Back Door my first and sometimes only stop in a night, it’s really a place you go at the end of the night, after the last place closes. It was the second stop on that bridal/bachelorette party, on birthday parties, barbecues, and on regular Saturday nights. You think you’re about to go home, but then… "Back Door?"

One of my favorite Back Door experiences happened on a Derby night. We were there with a friend, and it was packed. I ordered an Amaretto sour, and when the bartender brought it to me, I said, “That’s so pretty, if it had a beach umbrella, it would really be a party.” She held up a finger, stepped away, and when she came back, put a drink umbrella in my cocktail. On Derby night, while it’s crazy, she went and got my drink a silly decoration. I’m still touched. 

Happily, one of the people I most associate with the Back Door has already tipped me off to his favorite Boston bar. I’m sure it will be good, but I bet it doesn’t have paintings of its regulars on the wall. 

Back Door, I will miss you.  

31 Days of Louisville Love: El Camino

Remember the game I mentioned in the Drafthouse post, where you list the businesses you wish would move into a newly vacated space? I wished for Mexican food and margaritas closer to the apartment for a long time. That wish came true when El Camino opened, basically in my backyard.     

The rumors had it opening in time for Derby 2013. When it finally opened five months later, we were there on opening night. Tacos! Tequila and rum drinks! Flan! Surfing and luchador movies! 

That was a Tuesday night. Gabe and I went back for dinner that Friday night, then met friends at another bar. Then we went back for a final drink at El Camino. And then we crossed the street, crossed a bank parking garage, crossed the alley and were home. 

It’s dangerous living so near to tacos and tequila drinks. Friends can text to let you know they’re there, would you like to join them, and yes, of course, you would. It’s right there! In cooler months, if it’s not freezing, the fire pits mean you can still enjoy that wonderful patio. And brunch on the weekend means you could go in the morning and just stay all day. 

I spent a good amount of time at El Camino this winter. I can’t decide if the bright decor and surf videos make me sadder or happier in the cold (sad because those beach videos drive home the lack of warmth outside; happy because it’s so cheery). But this winter’s going to be worse in the Northeast, and I’m definitely going to miss walking out the back door, scurrying across a block, and receiving a plate full of tacos. 

31 Days of Louisville Love: Bardstown Road Farmers' Market

Louisville has a number of farmers’ markets, but there are only two within reasonable walking distance of our apartment. Since the Bardstown Road Farmers’ Market is closer, it became our default. Every few Saturdays, we’ll walk up Bardstown, walk through the bank’s drive-thru for cash, and see what fresh produce and treats we can buy.

Peaches and wit at the farmers' market

Peaches and wit at the farmers' market

Flowers from the market

Flowers from the market

I would be lying if I said I was drawn to the market for the fresh produce. The highlights for me are the Harvest omelette stand and the Perennial Favorites Flower Farm. We get produce, too, but I really just want the flowers. They sell bouquets, but I prefer picking through the buckets of individual flowers. I can make a small bouquet for usually less than $5 (or for $1.40) and divide it into vases throughout the apartment. 

And then there are the omelettes. Those farmers’ market Harvest omelettes are so tasty. I don’t even know what’s in them besides catfish and cheese, but the vegetables are crunchy, the cheese is melty, and it all comes on a crusty piece of bread — so good. Plus, they have a very spicy hot sauce, which I underestimated last time.When you get the right amount, it’s perfect, but I slathered it all over my omelette and ruined breakfast. Take care with that hot sauce.

More farmers' market flowers

More farmers' market flowers

Because we’re not early-risers, sometimes we get to the market after the omelettes are gone. Part of the pleasure of farmers’ market Saturdays is the walk. We wave at the guys in Parkside Bikes, and sometimes pop in to ogle those lovely Linus bikes. Whether or not there are omelettes, we usually stop by Java for an ice coffee or crepe (on the non-omelette days) on the way home. Maybe it’s so hot we need to stop by Cumberland for a beer. A walk, flowers, and produce are just a good way to start the weekend.  

31 Days of Louisville Love: Grind

When I moved here, I was mostly vegetarian (I ate seafood, and after Peace Corps, turkey on Thanksgiving). Then I decided I would occasionally eat meat. Hot wings were my downfall. Then ribs. And brisket. Basically, my meat-loving past caught up to me. My mother used to call me a “fleisch mutti” as a kid, which literally translates to “meat mother” and figuratively means “meat lover.” I think. Swiss German is weird. 

But I have never been that big on burgers. Gabe took me to a some restaurants that are said to have Louisville’s best burger, but I usually felt I would have enjoyed something else more. And then I had my first non-veg Grind burger. I don’t remember what it was — probably the B&B (Brie! Still my favorite) — but I liked it. I didn’t regret the stomach space or the money spent on that burger. And I’m a repeat customer. And Liz knows how well we like our burgers done.

Now, because Grind has converted me on burgers, I will occasionally order a burger elsewhere. Those other burgers frequently leave me wishing they were Grind burgers. I’m excited for the brick-and-mortar business, because now I know where I can find the Huots and don’t have to chase the truck. But knowing where a Louisville restaurant is won’t help me get a burger fix in Boston. So who’s going to fill the Grind-void in Cambridge?