Postcard from Dollywood

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Dolly Parton is a national treasure. Dollywood has been on my bucket list for years, and I hoped it would be a down-home, campy place. Dolly even she knows she’s camp; everything about her looks personifies the need for exclamation points. To quote her, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”

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There were some down-home aspects, but it was anything but camp. In fact, it’s gone Disney. Not full-Disney, with obnoxious vendors selling LED-lit swords and princess paraphernalia. But Dollywood is a well-oiled megaplex. Vast parking lots, tram system, and roller coasters.

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But Dolly never forgot her roots. They do a beautiful job embracing the scrappy, Smokey Mountain lifestyle. You can watch up close, as a gristmill breaks up grain. The warm smell of cinnamon wafts through the air as ladies make cinnamon rolls from scratch, right from the flour ground on-site.

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Wooden aqueducts wove overhead, showing visitors how water was transported. There’s killer fried chicken and biscuits. As sparks flew around the room, blacksmiths hammered out homemade signs and mercantile goods for folks to take home.

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A steam engine train pulled guests past weeping willows and magnolias. The landscaping was impeccable, surrounding wood cabin structures throughout the park. Fiddlers sat on rocking chairs on small stages that resembled covered porches,  delighting us with the sounds of Appalachia.

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It was thematic and beautiful. My only wish is that I saw a little more Dolly.

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extravagant mother’s day brunch takes the crepe

Mother’s Day is a holiday that touches everyone. Whether you have a mother or lost one, you are a mother or admire one, it’s thoughtful to set aside time to nurture a nurturer.

That’s what stylist Kristy Kostyniuk did when she and her friends Jennifer Miller and Rose Steed hosted a Mother’s Day Brunch that included not just their mothers, but a curated catch-all. Friends who were far from their mothers, lost a mother, and friends who happen to be moms happily accepted invitations.

crepes, waiting to fulfill their destiny

The ladies spent hours pouring batches of buttery, paper thin crepes. The elaborate spread featured sweet and savory options. There were small-batch jams from local farms, sliced fruit, Nutella, dark chocolate and homemade whipped cream.

Before brunch began, there was a very European spread of croissants, rugalas and scones, all displayed on vintage trays and eye-catching textiles.  Baby pink peonies and fuchsia daisies were everywhere.

On the savory side there were eggs, cheeses, bacon, cured meats, potatoes and more. We lounged and sipped mimosas, swapped stories and repeatedly excused ourselves with a, “Just one more crepe.”

When we couldn’t fit in another bite, the overlapping conversations made their way to the backyard. We sunned ourselves and watched the children dart around  chasing butterflies. Their faces were stained and hands sticky from popsicles. It was an afternoon of leisure and guilty pleasures. As if being a mom weren’t a gift enough.

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The gracious host, Kristy Kostyniuk and her mother

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sweet as pie

Cotton Candy Party!

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For hosts obsessed with themed parties, kid birthdays are an excuse to go over the top. This year Hamilton asked for a cotton candy party.

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To save my house from destruction, I opted for a party in a local playground, and under a patio roof in case of inclement weather.

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For decor, I pulled stuffing from retired outdoor cushions. I wound it into big oval puffs and glue-gunned them into place. I then spray painted them in blue and yellow swirls. You can also dip the stuffing into dyed water to change the color. Once dry, you glue gun cones to the bottom, and paint swirls on for effect. Then, burrow your finger through each puff to draw yarn through and string up!

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Instead of renting,  I bought a mini cotton candy machine – pink and vintage carnival style. Modest in size, we only used it to make on-site cotton candy. So I wouldn’t be preoccupied with making goody bags instead of socializing, I bought pre-packaged party favors from Rainbow Cotton Candy – with a personalized message on them!

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For kids getting antsy in line at the cotton candy machine, we laid out a colorful display on silver platters. We even served cotton candy soda! And so we could even out the inevitable sugar rush, we laid out healthier options, like crudites and sliced oranges. For anyone hungry for a meal, we offered an easy classic: pizza.

As us parents watched the kids burn off energy on the playground, we sat in the shade sipping La Croix, listening to a custom soundtrack I whipped up, and caught up over pizza. The day turned out as sweet as its theme.

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Postcard from Chicago!

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room with a view, and a full moon

When I was a kid, my grandmother owned an apartment building by Wrigley Field in Chicago. Back in the 80s Wrigleyville was a little rough, and we loved it. We were from the suburbs and sheltered, so our idea of fun was to sit  on the front stoop and take in the sounds of domestic violence, set against the white noise backdrop of screaming crowds at Wrigley Field. The couple across the street fought viciously with their windows open.  We never saw their faces but we heard them year after year, screaming every combination of filth imaginable. Annually, we’d ask our cousins, “Are they divorced yet?” But to our amusement, they were inseparable. Sometimes we’d get cocky on the stoop and imitate them, shouting up at their window. Sometimes they’d yell, “Hey F*** YOU kids!” and we’d scramble inside the building.

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the view

We also marveled at the idea of a candy store just sitting across the street from where my grandmother lived. Except it was a liquor store. They were all liquor stores, but we kept our eyes on the prize. Our parents handing us a dollar and waving us off seemed unreal. Without an adult driver, we had no access to candy in Annandale, Virginia. We shrieked and darted into to the liquor store. Our Chicago cousins shrugged us off as amateurs.

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hotel-hopping for brunch

Then things changed. My grandmother sold the building and moved into a modest home in the suburbs, and the rest of the family followed. As I got older and visited for weddings, Chicago became a blur of suburban hotel chains and stadium-sized banquet halls.

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white pumpkins

For the latest wedding, I decided we were going to see Chicago in style. I wanted to experience the city the way I did as a child. When the evening skyline made me breathless. When we found a 24-hour White Castle for a midnight snack.  We stayed in the Magnificent Mile. In the heart of downtown off Michigan Avenue, we chose the historic Warwick Allerton, built in the roaring 20s. While a skyscrapaer, it had all the trappings of a boutique hotel. We were upgraded to a giant suite that oversaw Michigan Avenue, glittering below us.

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magnificent urns

It was just a short walk to the John Hancock building, and Lake Michigan, which locals like to call “the beach.” I kicked off my shoes and took a long walk in the sand. There were actual waves! I marveled at the skyline, and the gorgeous floral arrangements at the luxury hotels.

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no hotel could touch The Drake

The Drake was by far the most striking hotel, and I fell in love with the architecture (pictured above). Though built in the Italian Renaissance style, it screamed Art Deco to me.

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barefoot stroll by Lake Michigan

It was nice to be back into the fold of classic Chicago, with the skyscrapers larger than life. The air smoky with Polish sausage vendors. I can’t wait for the next wedding.

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Chicago weddings

The Night Princess Di’s Chef Cooked Me Dinner

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Now when I hear people say they’ve had a meal fit for a king, I know that I win because I did, literally. Chef Darren McGrady has cooked for Queen Elizabeth and the Royal family. But most notably, he became the personal chef for Princess Di, and her sons William and Harry.

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He was in her employ on the night she died, and decided to move to America after the tragedy. In the states, he’s been a star chef, writing cookbooks and making appearances. Luckily he came to Richmond this week. I was honored to be a part of an intimate dinner for 20. Before we ate, he charmed us with a food demonstration peppered with royal gossip and funny anecdotes. The talented Catt Levesque snapped these photos while we indulged, and is credited with every amazing photo here.

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In the elegant and newly-renovated Mise En Place, he served recipes from his new cookbook The Royal Chef at Home.  We enjoyed a tangy kale quinoa salad with blueberries. There were Stilton and preserved fig canapes, served with fresh grapes. Fiery shrimp and grits, oozing with cheese. To top it off, a buttery bread pudding that’s so exquisite, my words would do it no justice.

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We ate like royalty, and he made us feel like royalty. This night was one for the books.

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I’m Dreaming of a Vintage Christmas

One of the best things about Christmas is how old-fashioned it is. We indulge in pastimes that we’d never do outside the holiday season. We listen to Bing Crosby, make gingerbread houses, trim a tree and drink eggnog.

The Vintage Home Market celebrates all the things you can do to warm up your home when it’s cold outside. From glittering garland to vintage sleighs, this place will make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

BBQ tacos – heaven

Owners Heidi and Jason McNamara threw an amazing VIP opening night, where shoppers could get first dibs. There was live music, kickin’ BBQ, cold beer and a photo booth so decked out, it makes the step and repeat obsolete.

Owners Jason and Heidi McNamara – pros at making magic

Some standout vendors include:

The Naked Goat Soap Company – soaps, lotions, candles and more. The best part? It’s made locally by Heather, who lives on a Hanover farm with her goats and happy family. The Gather-scented candle smells of balsam pine, and is everything.

Burlap, Booths and Southern Roots

The name alone, am I right? It’s a one year-old store run by a feisty blonde and filled with the kind of boots that become heirlooms. They also sell jewelry, farm tables and boho-chic threads.

Then there’s Chocolate Moonshine Company.  Their assortment of chocolates stirs the imagination, with cherry bourbon, dark chocolate pistachio and rum. Free samples and some of the best chocolates I’ve ever had.

There’s still one day left.  Catch the event this Saturday, November 11th from 9a-5p at Richmond Raceway.  Happy Holidays!

Smoke on the Water

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Blade and Bow served smooth bourbon

It’s not often that I write about food and have no photos to show for it. But I was in the thick of it, eating ribs and overstuffed sliders. I was all sticky fingers.

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Even the chestnuts roasted on an open fire

 

Fire, Flour & Fork  returns to Richmond this week, and the series of (almost 40!)  food events include dinners, cooking demonstrations and plenty of booze. The theme this year? Globally Inspired, Locally Made. To kick off the end of a long work week, we attended Smoke on the Water, a Global Barbecue.

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Fall foliage on the James

From Jamaican jerk to lamb sliders, Vietnamese banh mi to low country ribs,  smoke filled the air as chefs served their own version of BBQ. Fall foliage lined the James River beside us, and a full moon rose over the skyline. Live music played as we sipped Belle Isle honey habanero moonshine to wash down the goodness. Thanks to The Virginia Beef Industry Council and other sponsors, this event was outstanding. Perhaps too outstanding, because ZERO food photos.

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oysters and vegetarian options made it an event for all

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Paisley and Jade warmed up the space

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Full bellies, full moon

See a Sinking Island Before It Disappears

IMG_2500I’ve often romanticized Tangier. The tiny island on the Chesapeake is so isolated, that locals retained a hint of a British accent from colonization hundreds of years ago. This remote fishing village has been visited by linguists from around the world, eager to study the phenomenon.

And the island is disappearing. Almost 70% of its landmass is gone, along with the population. Global warming and rising sea waters have encroached upon this island, which will be uninhabitable and fully underwater in about 50 years.

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We had to see it before the ocean swallowed it whole.  Just getting there was an adventure. The boat was  surprisingly fast, and saltwater sprayed our skin as we sunbathed on the upper desk. It was about an hour each way from the mainland.

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The second best part of the day was sampling a local specialty – crab. And my plate of cheesy crab fries disappeared in a blink. We caught a hint of a strange accent from our server, but everyone else sounded a variation of Southern. “It’s the Internet,” one local explained, “They routed in a microwave cable, and ever since, our accents started disappearing.” I’m sure TV ate away at it as well.

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Talk about stepping into the past.

We toured around the island in a golf cart. But while our guide was friendly when selling us on the tour, she was hasty zipping us around the island. She pretended not to hear us when we asked her to slow down for photo ops, eager to hustle the next boat of tourists. As was a young girl we met loitering outside a gift shop. She was eleven years old, and somber as she spoke to us about collecting seashells to sell to tourists for a quarter. Sometimes she can’t find seashells, and rummages through her home for other goods, like canisters of gritty Play-Dough and kitchen snacks. In mid-conversation, she saw a new boat docking and sped off, barefoot.

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The gift shops were sparse. You could get a bottle of Tylenol or a plastic dolphin for the kid, but there were no regional must-haves to speak of. We strolled along the quaint downtown streets, which are car-free, and visited a charming ice cream and candy shop, painted pink with checkered floors, playing a 50’s juke box and nostalgically steeped in the past.

We came with high expectations, hoping for an other-ness that you sometimes find in American towns, such as New Orleans. While it felt more familiar and tourist-driven than we had hoped,  it’s still the closest thing we have to a modern-day Atlantis.

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Seven Ways To Make Your Home More Inviting

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the welcome wagon

Don’t you love how rearranging a room feels like a fresh start? Everyone wants their home to be inviting, but some just don’t know where to begin. Here are 7 quick things you can do to bring back that feeling, without all the heavy lifting.

  1. Always Have a Spare Toothbrush

Whether it’s a friend who’s had too many Bellinis or a cousin for the weekend, be prepared for overnight guests. Always have a spare toothbrush on hand, leave freshly laundered towels in their room and if you know they’re coming ahead of time, fresh flowers takes it up a notch.

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Our L.A. cabin always looked best during Christmas

2) Firestarter

If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, don’t let it sit dormant. Safety first: call in a pro chimney sweep. They’ll make sure the structure is sound, fix cracks and clean out leaves. Once you build your first fire, there’s no going back. The campfire smell, the sound of wood crackling, the mood. Another perk? You can cut down on your heating bill. Even better are the endless posts on Craig’s List, with people practically begging you to take firewood off their hands. Once the fire dies, remember that wood fire ashes are one of the best fertilizers on earth. And speaking of fire…

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Our backyard bonfire featured hot dogs roasted on sticks, s’mores and a blanket on every chair.

3) S’mores. Always.

Keep a s’mores kit on hand, in the case of an  impromptu gathering. Marshmallows, graham crackers and Hershey bars have a long shelf life, not to mention being serious crowd pleasers.

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Don’t toss your mums – place a dying plant in the ground and it will bloom the following autumn. Give it a head start by surrounding it with compost, then mulch for winter.

4) The Eye Has to Travel

Ever wonder why so many homes have bushes flanking their porch? It’s not a coincidence. As Diana Vreeland once said, “The eye has to travel.” The sight of a house jutting from the grass is too stark. You need to soften the lines, and cover up the inevitable dirt and mud on the bottom edges of  your home. Bushes do this, gradually taking the eye from nature to architecture. But don’t stop there. Tasteful greenery adds curb appeal, and will fill you with a sense of pride as you pull up. Flank either side of your front door with an urn, and plant something beautiful. Make sure the plants are symmetrical. If you have a covered porch, hang ferns and burro tails.

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a dimmer with dinner

5) Be Enlightened

Unless it’s recessed lighting, overhead lighting tends to be harsh. I’m talking dressing room harsh.  On low ceilings, LED lights can be too bright, casting an industrial grey glow. Switch to lamp lighting. Use a mix of tabletop and standing lamps to distribute the light evenly. You can customize and enjoy the golden glow.

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my limelight hydrangeas

6) Cutting Garden

Flowers may make a house a home, but a cutting garden makes it an estate. Buying fresh flowers adds up, so decimate the costs with some plantings. I simply step into the yard with scissors and snip what’s blooming. I have roses in full sun, hydrangeas in partial shade and a range of unusual flora in between. From spring to fall, I almost never buy store-bought flowers.

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debutante camelias in vintage bud vases

7) Bring the Outside In

Plants soften corners and bring life into a space. Not only with beauty but with its oxygen boost. Place tall plants in empty corners, put leafy, interesting varieties on dressers and tabletops, and forego standard terra cotta. Place them in interesting pottery that compliments your design scheme.

Once you start making small tweaks, you may find yourself taking on ambitious home improvement projects. Any proud homeowner knows that a house is never “done,” but a constantly evolving quest for beauty, function and comfort. Enjoy the quest!

vintage Christmas lights are kind of my thing

a cue from the nora ephron playbook

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Nora Ephron was  more than a brilliant screenwriter and author. She was a legendary hostess. She was witty, and a ninja in the kitchen.

In fact, countless websites have posts dedicated to her quotes about food and entertaining. But she’s too funny for me to be satisfied with the Internet’s CliffsNotes. I’ve read every book cover to cover, and came away with some serious wisdom. One memorable dinner party tip: people love to play with their food.

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guests under our pergola, loaded with concord grapes

Whether it’s a mashed potato bar with all the fixings or a Bloody Mary bar with an endless array of hot sauces and pickled veggies, people like to play, build, switch things up.

Since Vietnamese is my one of my favorite cuisines, I decided to host a dinner party where guests could build their own bun cha bowl. Like Chipotle but tastier, and you have total control. We were celebrating the return of The Langes, who got hitched in our own backyard but moved to San Francisco soon after. It was a mini reunion with many of their attorney friends, and members of The Order of the Cincinnati Society, whom meet at our home every Wednesday night.

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When serving food others may find exotic, help them out with a little sign

Scented candles were lit, Chet Baker played on the stereo and after dinner, guests were treated to an array of Asian desserts. Everything from Pocky to coconut rolls. And here’s a tip: guests will feel luxuriously catered to if you pass around a tray with multiple options. The smile on their face when it’s their time to be served is worth a little heavy lifting.

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Hamilton going for the orange creme cookie

It’s my hope that this hospitality will bring The Langes back again as houseguests, and soon!

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on the outside looking in