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Just Exploring Wintery Washington

 

When you’re walking outside with your coat open because 30 degrees feels like spring, you know it’s been too cold. 

Since coming back to D.C. from Houston holidays, we’ve mostly stayed indoors, on our couch, under two or three layers of clothes. Our apartment doesn’t heat well, but at least it offers shelter from the wind that turns 4 degrees into “feels like -11.” 

Last week, a broken water main at work extended my winter break by a few days. Back to the couch! But cabin fever is real (the term turns 100 this year), and after seeing photos of the frozen reflecting pool, I wanted to witness some of the winter-transformed city. What I learned from that endless 2015 Boston winter was getting outside helps winter blues, as long as you bundle correctly. 

Here are a few photos from the times we’ve dared venture out. 

  Meridian Park fountain

Meridian Park fountain

 
 
  Joan of Arc  

Joan of Arc 

 
  "Stay off"

"Stay off"

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This Christmas display was on W between 15th and 14th Streets NW last week. I hope it morphs into a Valentine's Day decoration in the next few weeks. 

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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: 
“...my 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. 

Favorite D.C. Places: Cherubs and Goose

Here are some cherubs strangling a goose. 

  What did that goose ever do to those cherubs? 

What did that goose ever do to those cherubs? 

This fountain is in one of the two main floor atriums in the National Gallery's West Building. The weirdness of the statue makes this atrium superior to its east wing counterpart, which is identical but for the blander fountain. I saw both statues last weekend, and I can’t remember what the other one is. It’s definitely not angels roughhousing with a goose. 

When taking visitors to the National Gallery, we always go to the rotunda, whose Italian marble pillars, dark floors, and Pantheon-inspired dome always get a "Wow." But the garden courts are cozier, and the skylights, greenery, and Goose and Cherubs put this particular indoor courtyard among my many favorite spots near the Mall. It’s a perfect place to hide from the weather, if you can soldier through the summer humidity or the dreary winter to get to the museum. The chairs around the atrium mean you can sit, people watch, eavesdrop, or read a book for as long as the museum is open. It’s full of light, it's free, the landscaping around the fountain changes every few months, and you’re surrounded by art.

And at least last weekend, it was relatively empty. The tourists were all lined up down the street at the Natural History and American History Museums. 

The State Fairs are Coming!

State fair season is upon us. And there are a bunch of state fairs kind of close to D.C..

The size of states in the Northeast still thrills me. Drive four hours in the right direction and you’ll probably pass through as many states. Drive four hours north from Houston and you’ll be in Dallas. When I realized how close all these states are, I put together a spreadsheet of state fairs within a five-hour drive of D.C.  If I’m going to get to all 50 states’ fairs, it will require planning. As a side note, I haven’t figured out what to do with the states that don't have an official state fair, like Pennsylvania. 

  Judges at Maryland State Fair failed to award Cthulhu hat a ribbon

Judges at Maryland State Fair failed to award Cthulhu hat a ribbon

Anyway, in 2016, I checked Maryland and D.C’s fairs off my list on the same weekend. I'm updating my spreadsheet to make my attack plan. Here's a run down, in chronological order: 

Delaware State Fair: July 20-29, from 8 am - 11 pm, except on opening day, when gates open at noon. The Delaware State Fairgrounds are at 18500 S Dupont Hwy, Harrington, DE 19952, approximately 2 hrs from D.C. Tickets are $9 at the gate for adults and $4 for children. This list of 98 things to do at the 98th Delaware State Fair really sells their fair. Free samples of Cheerwine? Yes please, I just heard about this soda (not wine) and have never seen or had it. Walk among butterflies and learn to repair a butterfly wing? Hold a baby chick? Sheep and Wool Ambassador Contest? I want to do all these things. I’m sure some of the other state fairs offer similar activities, but kudos to Delaware for the list.

New Jersey State Fair: Aug. 4 - 13 at 37 Plains Road, Augusta, NJ 07822, about 4.5 hrs away. They're open from 10 am - 10 pm, except on the last day, August 13, when the gates close at 5. Tickets purchased before August 4 are $9 for adults and $5 for children. 

State Fair of West Virginia: Aug. 10-19 at 947 Maplewood Ave, Lewisburg, WV 24901. This fair is four hours and 40 minutes from D.C. Gates open at 2 p.m. on August 10th; otherwise, they're open from 9 am - 11 pm. Adults pay $11, or $9 in advance; children 12 and under get in for free. 

  Calf at Maryland State fair

Calf at Maryland State fair

Maryland State Fair: Aug. 24 - Sep. 4 at 2200 York Road, Lutherville-Timonium, MD 21093. This is about an hour and 15 minutes from the city. They have yet to post their hours and ticket prices, but last year, my ticket cost $8. 

DC State Fair:  September 24th from 11 am - 8 pm at Waterfront Station, 375 and 425 M St. SW. It's free. 

State Fair of Virginia: Sept 29 - Oct. 8. Hours are 10-10 Friday and Saturday, 10 - 9, Sunday - Thurs. It's at 13111 Dawn Blvd, Doswell, VA, 23047, an hour and 45 minutes from D.C. Tickets for adults are $15, or $12 in advance. Kids are $11, or $8 in advance. They advertise "sliding ducks," so Virginia tops my list this year. 

Have you been to any of these state fairs? If you're from one of those state fair-free states, is there another fair or event you recommend? What are you most looking forward to at your state's fair? I'm looking forward to all your state fair pictures, especially any of duckling slides, impressive quilts, elaborate cakes (especially if they're moldy), and weird art submissions.  

Happy state fair season! 

A Weekend of State Fairs

Over the weekend, I went to the Maryland and D.C. state fairs, and I realize I've been spoiled by Kentucky and Texas. 

Maryland’s state fair takes place in Timonium, about an hour and half from D.C. It covers the essentials. You can eat corn dogs, something called a pork sundae, deep fried cream cheese, cinnamon rolls, Oreos, or my favorite fair food, the giant turkey leg. Their Home Arts building includes quilt, crochet, photography, cross-stitch, and various baked goods contests. There’s a Horse Center, which my allergies and I avoided, a Cow Palace, and other livestock barns full of goats, alpacas, sheep, pigs, and newly hatched chicks. We visited the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ exhibit, where we pet a rat snake and learned you can eat the invasive snakehead fish at a Baltimore restaurant called Alewife. In the Agricultural Center, I sampled alfalfa honey and admired prize-winning but normal-sized pumpkins and eggplants.

The fair program advertised a Negro League Baseball exhibit in the Exhibition Hall. In the back of the room, next to a balloon display and the entrance to a bulk candy shop, we found a gentleman with a what seemed to be a personal collection of Negro League Baseball articles, plaques, and posters. The rest of the hall was retail and political booths. Thankfully this section was small compared to Kentucky’s — no t-shirts of mascots brutalizing each other. But there was also no Raptor Rehab booth, and not an oversized pumpkin or watermelon in sight. This was the most ornate cake we saw: 

  Pig in a blanket cake

Pig in a blanket cake

Maryland’s fair has most of the things I love. D.C’s state fair is a one-day affair in a parking lot. We’re not a state, so it’s unfair to ask too much of our fair (do you like how much I’m using the word “fair”?). In the line of food trucks, one offered deep-fried desserts. They had various contests, and we endured the heat long enough to see the winners of the longest, heaviest, and funkiest vegetables. At 27 pounds, the D.C. pumpkin beat out all the ones we saw at the Maryland State Fair.

They also had a new-to-me fair feature: a towering marijuana plant, discounts on medical cards, and a booth on growing your own plants at home. 

But I miss the 1000-pound pumpkins, the weird and fabulous poultry, the duck-herding border collies, and of course, the duckling slide. Virginia's state fair starts in late September, and I see they have poultry, giant pumpkins and watermelons, AND "always-popular sliding ducks." That sounds promising.  

The Burro Lady is Real

I was looking for an old rough draft on one thing and found this instead. I wrote it about a year ago. As I haven't posted anything in months, now seems as good a time as any. Happy Friday. 

There are a few moments I think I’ve dreamed. 

The caged tiger at the Louisiana gas station off I-10, where we stopped to refuel in the middle of the night on a family road trip. 

Getting lost in the Basel alleys early in the morning during carnaval and repeatedly running into groups of masked, drum-and-pipe-toting revelers. 

These memories, like most, need verification after a while. I pull out a journal, contact a friend, or in the case of the tiger, confirm with Google. 

Of all my uncertain, dream-like memories, none is more surreal than the woman on the burro. 

In 2002, three high school friends and I convinced our parents to lend us a truck and their trust to drive around Texas on spring break. We left Houston for Dallas on a loop that took us north to Amarillo, west to the Davis Mountains and Marfa, then south to Big Bend. As we drove from Marfa to Terlingua, through scrubby desert and the starts of mountains, the woman on the burro appeared, heading towards us on the road shoulder, gone almost as swiftly as we registered her, probably because we were speeding. Had three other people not seen her, I would swear I dreamed her; even though three other people saw her, I still recalled that memory with a twinge of doubt. The woman on the burro felt like a ghost. 

A few weeks ago, a friend from that trip shared this article on Facebook with me, confirming the burro lady is real, not a shared hallucination. 

"You were in the middle of telling your mom, your friend, your lover—whomever—the kind of story you tell on a road trip. Your eyes light on an unexpected shape on the roadside ahead, and as you get closer, spinning along at 70 mph, you stop talking, your mom or your friend or whoever is looking now, too, at the elephantine hump that’s moving steadily down the bar ditch, and you realize, “Hey, that’s a woman on a burro."

It was exactly like that. 

My first reaction to this post, “OMG, you found her! SHE’S REAL.” Before I could finish that thought, I opened the link, and all my excitement faded. The article that brought the burro lady back to me immediately took her away. Burro lady died. In 2007. 

But y’all. The burro lady is real. I kept this to myself for at least an hour or two after finding out, because saying, “The burro lady is real,” sounds idiotic, a point that was emphasized when I finally told my husband, who said, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” I’ve tried for weeks to put into words how much this news, despite its age, meant to me. I think about Terlingua often. It’s a lonely place, but knowing I know someone in that cemetery, even if I don’t actually know her, makes me want to go back. 

What memories do you think you've dreamed? 

You Should Read "Lafayette in the Somewhat United States"

If you’re obsessed with the musical Hamilton and want to learn more about “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman,” now is as good a time as any to take a break from spreading the Hamilton gospel to your co-workers to read Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. 

I am well aware how embarrassingly little I know about history. Vowell, in a conversation with Quakers, helped me realize a potential reason for my disinterest in the history I learned in school. She visits the Birmingham Friends Meetinghouse near the Brandywine Battlefield in Pennsylvania, where Lafayette got shot in the leg. After telling her new acquaintances that she’s researching Lafayette, one of them says, “We understand our history as war.” 

“Yes,” I thought, remembering my history education as notebooks filled with battles and dates, the only one of which I can clearly recall being 1066, William the Conqueror. No wonder I thought history was boring for so long. I don’t care about battles.

Reductive as that may be, I do care about people, and Vowell, with huge doses of snark, presents all these historical figures as imperfect humans. Yes, George Washington led the Continental Army to victory, but he had a lot of help (and slaves). Yes, a very young Lafayette crossed the Atlantic a few times to help the United States in their fight against Britain, but to do so, he deceived his in-laws and pregnant wife. Yes, the Continental Army triumphed against its colonial oppressor, but man, were they a hot, underfunded, unshod and barely-clothed mess.

 Lafayette and some friends at Lafayette Square. Photo by Gabe Bullard. 

Lafayette and some friends at Lafayette Square. Photo by Gabe Bullard. 

Now for some highlights of the many, sarcastic gems from the book.

-On Lafayette’s seasickness during the boat ride to the United States: “He spent the miserable voyage learning English, presumably mastering how to conjugate the verb ‘to puke.’” 

-Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s assessment of the American soldiers’ bayonet skills before he taught them Bayonet 101: “'the American soldier, never having used this arm, had no faith in it, and never used it but to roast his beefsteak.'” 

-On Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first draft of Notes on the State of Virginia while the Continental Army struggled to defend his state: “Basically, the governor of Virginia had thoughts on everything but how to arm and feed and reinforce the soldiers risking their lives to save his state.” 

-The horror expressed by a French officer dining in Washington’s tent when the general failed to serve the meal “in a succession of courses like in civilization. Apparently Washington ‘gave, on the same plate, meat, vegetables, and salad.’ On the same plate? Were these Americans people or animals?” I think the French are still wondering this now that the doggy bag has found its way to their country

If I included all the parts that made me laugh, there would be little left for you to read. Overall, I was left feeling admiration and some warmth toward our Revolutionary War heroes, plus a desire to read more of Washington’s correspondence. I also added several more places to visit to the Travel List, like Lafayette’s birthplace and the cemetery in Paris where he’s buried. 

I’m working on improving my loose grasp on history. Hamilton and books like Vowell’s help immensely. And actually, it’s really easy to read this book and also annoy your coworkers about Hamilton.  

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?