Taste of Richmond

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A true bon vivant relishes good food, and the inaugural Taste of Richmond did not disappoint. While the event took place weeks ago, I figured it was better to post late than never. The historic John Marshall Ballrooms were packed with the top restaurants in Richmond. Many were still riding the wave of romanticism surrounding New Southern cuisine, which has swept the nation. There were gourmet samples of shrimp and grits and pork belly macaroni and cheese.

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But to further prove that Richmond is a foodie town beyond Southern fare, there was 14 carat gold-flecked sushi. And the best amuse bouche was being dished out by the stellar Indian restaurant Lehja. I can’t remember what they called it. But it was heaven.

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It was a way for Richmonders to sample all the places we’re been meaning to try but hadn’t had a chance to. There was a cooking show by Comfort’s Jason Alley, winestopper party favors and that overall glow from being well-fed.

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Socialite Obsession: Susan Strasberg

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True socialites believe in discretion. They believe in being written up only twice; their birth, death, and if they make the cut, their wedding announcement. It was easy to live by his maxim before the Internet. Blogs and social media provide freeways of information that didn’t exist in the days of the Vanderbuilts.

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Thankfully, socialites get written up for career accolades these days. University isn’t used for sharpening cocktail banter and finding husbands, but to practice law and run fashion houses. Actresses however, aren’t allowed into the fold. Susan Strasberg was an exception. Perhaps she was accepted into the upper echelons for being the youngest theatre actress to score a Tony award, for The Diary of Anne Frank. It also helped that her father was the famous acting coach Lee Strasberg, noted for his “method” acting style. Al Pacino, Daniel Day Lewis and Jack Nicholson are noted method actors, following her father’s lead and moving on to win Academy Awards.

Ironically, Susan’s father never trained her, which was well-known among his devotees. Her critical achievements were a thorny subject for their already-complicated relationship.

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Strasberg and Monroe

Marilyn Monroe was  a devotee of Strasberg’s, and became part of the family. So much so, that she and Susan had a sibling rivalry of sorts, as described in Susan’s book,  Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends. It was a bestseller, as was her second book, Bittersweet. 

Former suitors include Richard Burton, Warren Beatty and Cary Grant. Her natural talent ushered her from theatre to the film world in the blink of an eye.  The camera loved her incredibly delicate bone structure, which was an amalgamation of Lee Bouvier and Natalie Wood.

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With her much-older beau, Richard Burton

Like many socialites who needn’t follow the rules in order to be accepted, she indulged eccentric passions that social climbers would be afraid to touch. One of which, was new age spiritualism. She meditated, practiced yoga, worked with spiritual healers and sought alternative treatment for her breast cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer consumed her before she could complete her last book, Confessions of a New Age Heretic. 

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Strasberg in the 1950s

Hollywood Noir

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There are two versions of Old Hollywood. One is the rat pack at the Coconut Grove, Clark Gable driving his Deusenberg down Hollywood Boulevard and all things Liz Taylor.

The other Old Hollywood is a bit darker. It’s the Black Dahlia and zoot suit riots. It’s the debauchery of silent film stars in the roaring twenties, lasciviously described in Hollywood Babylon. This version was the theme of our recent rental in Los Angeles, and it created an atmosphere around our trip. The built-in bar was red, as were the leather bar stools. It was eclectic and full of secrets. A stolen street sign from Hollywood’s famous Cherokee Avenue loomed over the bar. There was a old pay phone (a relic; no dial tone), neon signs and vintage bar mirrors.

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If these walls could talk…

Instead of running around town to see old friends, they came to us. They took refuge in the dark recesses of the place. Huddling at the bar, rifling through the book collection and gathering by fire pit out back, where cotoyes howled all around us.

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At the base of the Hollywood Hills, this is where it all began. Looming over landmarks such as The Knickerbocker and Capitol Records, this home was built back when Pacific Palisades was “out in the country.” If walls could talk, there’d be tales of wannabe starlets who didn’t make it, hippies who had chance encounters with the Manson family and screenwriters working their way up at RKO.

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If you want to be surrounded by Mexixan kitsch, pin-up girls and a print of Krampus, this Airbnb rental will give your entire trip a once-in-a-lifetime feeling. To rent this place, click here.

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A house full of friends

Airbnb has truly saved us. We spend good money to travel someplace new, only to end up in a hotel that could be in any city.  You’re remote, with just a bird’s-eye view of the place you really want to be. The only place where giant hotels give you a feel for the town, is Las Vegas.

The other option used to be just bed and breakfasts. While they emote a local feel, the breakfast is always served too early and you’re forced to make pre-coffee conversation with strangers.

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Like many homes at the base of the Hollywood Hills, the yard is sloped and lush from mountain run-off

Thank goodness Airbnb swept in, with  rentals that range from log cabins in Colorado to five-star yurts in Nigeria, designed with tlc by the locals who own it. They fluff your nest with their old silverware and mix-matched dish sets. You use the towels from their old color scheme. Even if you never meet them, they were all around you. And if you pick carefully, it feels kind of great.

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Ecuadorian Feast

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“Friends with benefits” should include friends that cook. When my friend Jackie entertains, guests are spoiled rotten. Picking up your finished plate will earn you daggers.

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First, you’re served a hand-muddled cocktail, made with small-batch tequila, lime and sugar.

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While you sip, you can linger in Jackie’s spotless kitchen and steal plantain chips fresh out of the fryer.

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Buen provecho! Shrimp ceviche, home-fried plantains, tortillas and homemade salsa are served fresh.

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After the meal, guests are offered shots of  MamaJuana, an earthy libation from the Dominican Republic that’s said to cure any ills, from digestion to libido.

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Dessert is a tres leches-style cake with fresh fruit. The creaminess tempers the heat from our spicy meal. Not too sweet and 100% delectable.

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Every time we leave Jackie’s home, we’re left wondering what we could have done to deserve such star treatment. But we keep that to ourselves. We wouldn’t want Jackie to start wondering that too.

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Cheers!

Virginia Wine Country

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Veritas Winery

Virginia had been quietly making wine for centuries, but lately, it’s been hard to contain the enthusiasm. In the past 20 years, Virginia has become the 5th largest wine-producing state in the US, and many claim (including Forbes) that it’s becoming the Napa Valley of the East Coast.

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Central Virginia, particularly the Charlottesville area, is considered Virginia Wine Country. The rolling hills are lined with rows of grapevines, and set against the backdrop of mountains, it easily mimics Napa in the summer.

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Tasting at Blue Mountain Brewery

Gourmet grocery stores spot the landscape. They’re quaint, with chalkboard menus and outdoor tables shaded by umbrellas. And like the wineries, they have their resident dog. Benign but watchful, sweet but aloof. These small markets are packed with truffle pate, French bread and an array of cheeses for impromptu picnics.

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Many dirt roads lead to intimate, family-owned wineries.

Both wineries and breweries feature local farm-to-table menus. The nearby farms that supply them sell peaches and strawberries at dusty, roadside stands. The mountains offer getaways for wine enthusiasts, and range from rustic cabins to elite ski chalets. In the winter, the area is bustling due to the ski resorts. But in the summer, the area accommodates wine lovers and the endless stream of wedding guests who attend nuptials at the wineries.

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Running free through vineyards, careful not to crash any weddings

The difference between Virginia Wine Country and other wine regions would have to be history. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is at the heart of wine country, and Monticello grows grapes too. Tours are available, from his gardens, to a specialized Slave Tour that sheds life on the Hemings family, his direct descendants. Dave Matthews owns a winery next door. There are old plantations, Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields and many museums.

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Gathered with friends for a relaxing wine country weekend

Visitors have long been coming from Richmond and DC. Lately however, it’s opening up as a national destination, and for good reason!


The Countess Who Flew From Her Gilded Cage

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The famous photo of her, taken by Avedon

Countess Jacqueline de Ribes didn’t wear outfits. She wore costumes. She made these fantasies by hand and drew audible gasps when entering a room. It wasn’t because she was classically beautiful, but because she was creative. She made parties famous simply by attending them, even if only for a few minutes.

Her fashions are currently being showcased at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until February 21st at the Anna Wintour Costume Center.

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Wintour isn’t the only Vogue editor that had fallen under her spell. Diana Vreeland spotted the countess at a party and scrambled to have her photographed the very next day by Avedon. Thinking that she needed to dress up, de Ribes went to a salon for false eyelashes and to have her hair curled, only to have Vreeland (then editor of Harper’s Bazaar) insist  she change back to the more natural creature she saw the day before. The eyelashes came off, her hair was put into a braid and the photo became famous.

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Though already a countess at birth and accustomed to some formalities, Jacqueline felt caged in my her titled but conservative husband and in-laws. Living with this extended family on a lavish estate, the stern and emotionally distant extended family were oppressive figures for Jacqueline, who longed for a creative outlet. She lived her adult life going against the tide, carefully choosing where and when to steal small freedoms. She refused to be a well-dressed wife and mother in a gilded cage. These always made the most boring of socialites.

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Once when trying to hold her husband’s hand as they were strolling Champs-Elyssses, he shook her off and told her to stop acting so “common.” Since divorce was out of the question, she weathered the cold in her marriage. Perhaps her difficult childhood helped to manage her expectations for future happiness. Jacqueline had a harrowing childhood. Her mother kissed her but once and often admonished her for her large nose and giraffe-like physique. He grandfather raised her, but died of cancer when she was but a small girl. Desperate to keep her grandfather alive, she even dressed as a nurse, a child pretending to work alongside the team of medical professionals who tended to him.

After he passed away, WWII broke out. She grew up parentless with a nanny on a remote property in France. They holed up in the cramped concierge’s quarters when the Gestapo took over the main house. They bricked in Jacqueline’s bedroom window to construct a torture chamber, and the young girl spent years hearing prisoners’ screams of agony. Not to mention seeing truck beds filled with prostitutes arrive every weekend for the Nazi soldiers.

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One of her most famous handmade costumes, from Le Bal Oriental

She was married soon after, fulfilling the role of loyal wife and loving mother. And not without providing disappointments to her in-laws with small acts of independence. Her dramatic creations for costume balls got her invited to all les grand bals, pulling her into the stratosphere of the European jet set. But perhaps the most upsetting news to her in-laws was the fact that she liked to work.

She collaborated with Pucci, was a ghost designer for Oleg Cassini and even hired a very young and penniless Italian to sketch her designs. That Italian was Valentino. She produced TV segments and created UNICEF variety shows that featured the likes of Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She even took over the International Ballet of the Marquis de Cuevas – fulfilling her life-long love for the ballet (something her mother wanted her to take no part of).

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We can tell which one is the Countess by her air of regality

Once Jacqueline’s father-in-law passed away, she took advantage of it. There was a lift in the old-fashioned and oppressive atmosphere at the de Ribes estate. The Countess sat her family down and told them she was going to do something that was long overdue. At 53 years old, she was striking out on her own as a fashion designer, and no one would talk her out of it. Her debut fashion show was a resounding success, Women’s Wear Daily adored her. Saks Fifth Avenue immediately signed up for her collections. Dignitaries, celebrities and then-First Lady Nancy Reagan wore her designs. Joan Collins of Dynasty fame was instructed to fashion her persona after the Countess de Ribes.

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Wearing one of her own designs, in the 1980s

Vanity Fair has described her as the Last Queen of Paris. But her reign is still current. If it weren’t for the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Countess de Ribes would have made the opening at the Met. This show is not to be missed, and will be gone in less than a month.

Prom Night in No Man’s Land

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What happens when the band plays Freebird

If one wants an edge when navigating fashion, they need to learn how to mix the high and low. If one wants to eat well, they’ll appreciate a white truffle pate as much as a street taco. And if one wants to live a good life, an appreciation of the high and low is also necessary.

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This isn’t the ballet. This is a true tale of a commune in the California desert. Off the grid with no electricity and running water, it’s a refuge for those fleeing regular society. Not even the police monitor the activities in Slab City, which got its name from the giant slabs of concrete on the ground. It is the site of a former military base. Barbed wire still blocks off the edge of town, which is said to have been a bomb test site.

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Chris McCandless, the young man who inspired the true story Into the Wild, lived in Slab City for a spell. Sean Penn even visited this collective of trailers and man-made dwellings to direct the film version of the book, using the real location and residents for authenticity.

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On Saturday nights, Bill the Builder flicks on a generator, and residents begin to shuffle into the center of “town.” As the desert heat gives way to cool air, they gather at The Range, built by Bill the Builder. He’s the unofficial father to everyone there. There’s a stage, and seats torn from Greyhound buses.  A string of lights hangs above the live band, diffused by plastic paint buckets. Residents drink hooch and sing prion songs.

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Inventive seating at The Range

Retired “snow birds” from cold climates drive down in their RVs to ride out the winter in California, and they often pull in to enjoy Saturday nights with the locals. But the year-round residents can seem menacing on paper. They’re often ex-convicts and people suffering from mental illness. But most are kind, scratching out a living off the refuse of others. Fences are made from mattress springs, and they all bathe in the nearby sulfur-tinged hot springs.

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“Slab City Carol” reigns as prom queen!

How I found this place is another story. I’m here to share prom photos. Once a year, people come far and wide to dance to the live band’s rendition of Freebird with reckless abandon. They dress up and take prom photos. They drink Wild Turkey and wait for the king and queen to be announced at the end of the night. It’s a bucket list event for adventurers, road trippers and of course, les bon vivants!

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Kim Burke-Connors (pictured left) and myself pose under the prom arch.

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Laissez les bon temps roulé!

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As the night goes on, more clothing is lost.p

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Never leave yourself vulnerable in Slab City!

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Residents pull out their hidden daggers, just in time for the photo!

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The local lothario, who invites girls to his “temple”; an upturned septic tank from the military base, which is shaped like a temple.

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It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

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If you’re throwing a holiday party, rest assured yours will be one of many during the season. What can you do to make your party stand out? Everyone will have cocktails and a nice spread, but I’m all for an activity that keeps people engaged, whether they’re laughing or crafting. A cookie decorating area with to-go bags add more to do and an instant party favor.

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The Spiked Peppermint Cocoa was adorned with a candy cane in each cup.

This year, I put together a photo booth at my Christmas party. Holiday-themed props are easy to come by; Santa hats, reindeer andlers, red nose etc. I threw in a couple of converation pieces, such as a plastic butcher knife from Halloween. It guarantees funnier photos.

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And along with my friend Jules, we hosted a Yankee Swap (or, a White Elephant Exchange). All guests were encouraged to bring a wrapped present, unmarked. All presents were piled under the tree, and people drew numbers. Guests took turns picking out a gift, and the following players had the opportunity to steal a gift they coveted.

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Grinch santa hats

From stacks of lottery tickets to a box full of DVDs, guests laughed, lamented and stole items from one another – multiple times. From the next room, it almost sounded as if I had a movie theater in-house, as all the reactions were loud and silumtaneous. As the exchange got more heated, I passed out slices of pumpkin pie and refilled drinks, such as Jules’ spiced mulled wine and my spiked peppermint hot cocoa.

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Happy holidays to all!

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Hamilton helping with the set-up

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Part of the fun is destroying him

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Canapes: Mexican polenta bars and artichoke parmesan spread over toasted baguette slices

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Yes, someone brought a case of beer to the Yankee Swap

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The Yankee Swap gets heated!

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Before I die: The Grand Bal

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Marlene Deitrich at the Waldorf-Astoria’s annual “April in Paris” ball in 1951 – Paris’ 2000-year birthday

Much ado has been made of the world’s response to our dear City of Light being terrorized. Support has poured in worldwide, but some question why our response to Paris being attacked is so emotional, when things like that happen in other parts of the world all the time. These critics are right, but one must acknowledge that the world has always had a love affair with Paris.

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The Imperial Grand Bal in St. Petersburg, 1903

The French brought us lingerie, croissants, Coco Chanel, the ballet and much more. Even in Paris’ darkest hour since World War II, nothing can vanquish the City of Light. I’d like to bring attention to one of the many things that makes Paris so brilliant – Le Grand Bal.

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An Asian-inspired theme – the food and costumes must have been to die for

What is a Grand Bal?

It’s the party of a lifetime. It’s an event you tell your grandchildren about. While it’s always black tie, the best ones are costumed or masquerade balls. It started centuries ago when Louis XIV held a Grand Bal at Versailles to demonstrate his power. Noblemen and dignitaries far and wide gathered to pass messages and spread influence.

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Louis XIV’s Grand Bal costume

Czars in Russia did it, and during the gilded age in New York, Caroline Astor hosted them. The tradition may have jumped from royalty to socialites hosting charities, but the goal is the same: establishing social and political power. Truman Capote held a black and white ball and these were so influential, that uninvited couples left New York for the weekend, so to appear unavailable for the invite. Famous hostess Elsa Maxwell (who lived in the Waldof-Astoria for free) hosted the annual April in Paris Grand Bal on-site. It was the place to see and be seen.

One day I’ll throw one as well. Costumes, Champagne fountain and other Gatsby-esque frivolities. My theme will be the roaring 20s.

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Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball

Bringing the party back to Atlantic City

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With DC chef Christina Berrios (pictured left)

I’ll never forget that episode of Sex and the City, were Charlotte goes trashy to appeal to the blue-collar patrons of Atlantic City. That show is iconic, but poking fun at Jersey is like grabbing low-hanging fruit. Not as low-hanging as Florida, but still.

If East Coasters don’t feel like springing for Vegas (or even better, Monaco) we do Atlantic City. Is the place a bit declasse? Just ask the guy selling No Fat Chicks tees on the boardwalk. Is it fading? Absolutely.

But if Atlantic City is dying, why not infuse some life into it? If it’s tacky, embrace it! Our family does it in a big way. My uncle George and Aunt Nancy, with the help of their kids Rammy, Christina and Kelly, throw an amazing party. They have been hosting day trips to AC with a party bus you wouldn’t believe.

Here’s how to do it like a boss:

Get a party bus, send out invites, and fill it with people who like to party!

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They start you off at the bus site with  fresh Dunkin’ Doughnuts coffee and snacks, and homemade sandwiches for close friends and family. Then, they get the gambling started early, by passing out lotto cards, playing bingo, and giving fast cash prizes. They’ll offer $5 to the first person to pull out a bottled water, iPod, etc. They encourage folks to grab the mic in front of the bus and tell jokes.  The crowd is pumped by the time we arrive in Atlantic City!

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Bring a flask and pass it around.

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Bring CASH!

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Get a thematic Jersey manicure!

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Only a fool would pass up a Dolly Parton slot machine!

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Go on the boardwalk and be silly! Avoid the vulgar beach tees but keep on the lookout for sundresses, cheap sunglasses and quirky toys.

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Go on the beach. Yes, there are gangsters and perms out there, but so is the fresh salt air and warm sun!

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Get away from the din below in a cool penthouse, where you can wash the sand from your toes and the cigarette smoke from your hair (yes you can still smoke indoors in Atlantic City). Enjoy a nice scotch before descending.

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For the adventurous, visit that sacred floor between the casino and hotel rooms. Giant party rooms await you, hosting events. See were the party is, and go for the trifecta: open bar, buffet and loud music. Sneak in on the fun, Wedding Crashers-style!

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There was some kind of disco here!

Margaritaville may be a chain, but the menu is excellent and so is Jimmy Buffet. Get ridiculous drinks with fruits in them. Props to any establishment who tries to make the Northeast look tropical.

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And maybe, juuuuust maybe, you’ll get LUCKY!

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My husband scored this on the PENNY slots!