Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Art of Travel: Becoming an Elegant Vagabond

How is your new year coming along?  It is usually about February for me, after the busyness of the holidays and subsequent January recovery, that I begin to get the urge to travel.  How about you?

Travel, I find, is an excellent thing to do early in the year because the right kind of travel can significantly impact how the rest of the year unfolds.  The right kind of travel?  I know you know what I'm talking about.  The kind where you pack a small bag, grab your passport, your MasterCard and your spirit of adventure and head out of Dodge.  The kind where you pick someplace you've always wanted to see, and enjoy that delicious feeling of being anonymous for a day or a weekend or a week, in a place you've never been before.  Have you ever done that?

Throughout my ramblin' life I've made it a point to ask for tips from people I admire, whom I know to be accomplished travelers.  Here are five of the best pieces of advice that I've received.

Tip #1  It's a big world out there.  You cannot possibly go everywhere, do everything, or see everything on earth in one lifetime, so it is of vital importance that you craft a world travel experience that is meaningful to only you.  Instead of buying a guidebook and then doing whatever the writer believes is a "must-do," think about what really interests you, and focus your travels on those things.  If you like biking and learning about wine, don't spend your trip to Italy mindlessly bussing from one museum to the next.  Are horses your passion?  Equestrian friends of mine took lessons at a famous dressage school in Portugal, and the next year rode through the French countryside staying at small inns along the way.  The following year they worked with cowboys on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. You'll learn more, have more memorable experiences, interact more with the local people, and be a better traveler if you do things that you are passionate about.  In the words of the poet Mary Oliver, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Tip #2  Do not reinvent the wheel every time you travel.  Spend some time after a trip figuring out what worked, what didn't, what you wished you had brought and what you wished you had left behind.  Plan on walking through a downpour to get to your transportation, plan on snowstorms and flight delays, running into your old college flame, or friends who want to stop someplace swanky for a cocktail.  In short, come up with a reliable travel uniform that looks respectable (and respectful) and is comfortable, versatile and practical.

Tip #3  Be curious, friendly and humble.  If you are not, by nature any of these, it will be difficult to manifest these characteristics for travel.  However it is almost certain that your travel (and life?) experiences will be the better for it.

Tip #4  Do not be in a hurry.  To hurry when traveling invites difficulty as surely as washing your car invites rain.   It is also impossible to be elegant and be in a hurry.  You have all the time in the world because you know that travel is by definition about the journey, and so you leave plenty of time to get to the airport, to make flight changes, to arrive before your tour, or cruise or meeting.  And if you are early, see Tip #5.

Tip #5  Bring a good book and a snack.  I always have something with me that I am looking forward to reading.  I might purposely save a great book, or cut out articles from magazines that I squirrel away just for traveling.  I also download magazines and movies onto my iPad, and heaven knows there is always Pinterest.  But since one can never be assured of WiFi or cellular service, or the opportunity to re-charge, I also have a few things to read the old-fashioned way too.  I didn't always bring along a snack, but since it usually doesn't occur to me to eat until I'm completely famished, now I always have something healthy like a few packs of almonds and an apple in my bag.

How about you?  Please share your hard-won lessons and favorite travel tips!

Images:  1.  www. louisvuitton.com 2-3. www.pinterest.com 4. www.theladyslife.com 5. Pinterest via www.beautifulnomad.com 6-7. www.pinterest.com

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Food to Die For

We don't die in the South, we pass, and almost no one passes without a reception following the funeral, at which three things will surely be present:  Fine china and polished silver, tomato aspic with homemade mayonnaise, and a casserole.  Southern women approach bringing food to the bereaved with the determination and commitment of a civic duty, like voting or wearing pearls.    Food to Die For: A Book of Funeral Food, Tips, and Tales From the Old City Cemetery, Lynchburg, Virginia gives an interesting history of funeral customs, great recipes, advice on transporting a meatloaf and how to write an obituary.  Written with warmth and humor by experienced cook and hostess Jessica Bemis Ward, the book contains 180 pages of recipes, etiquette and anecdotes, benefiting the Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg, Virginia.

In Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide To Hosting the Perfect Funeral, inveterate hostess and Mississippi resident Gayden Metcalfe is chock full of Southern customs and literary pathos, sort of like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, except with humor and Coconut Cake.

And my last recommendation is The Southerner's Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life, a compilation of excellent articles curated by the editors of Garden & Gun magazine.  From how to tell a great story, to how to rock a pair of white bucks, the book is filled with more than 100 narrative essays by some of the South's finest craftsmen, hosts and writers.  Want to know how to fall off a horse?  Wear Seersucker?  Make a perfect biscuit?  It's in there.  A great book for a nip of bourbon and a rainy evening's reading.  Oh, hold on, that reminds me.  Speaking of rainy day reading, there's more book I've been meaning to tell you about that I think you'll like...

Nestled in the deep South, The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits was founded in 2011 by Lee Manigault and Suzanne Pollack to instruct aspiring domestic divas on all aspects of gracious living at home.  I especially love their recommendations for throwing a great party.  Among their wise advice to hosts is what to wear and how to start the party right by greeting your guests as though they are the person that you most want to see in the world.  They have terrific ideas for organization, ambiance and food, and their advice to forget the e-vites and either use written invitations or call your guests on the phone, is spot on.  If you can't attend their seminars in person, this "Handbook of Etiquette with recipes"is the next best thing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Southern Summer Bar

This is an adults-only post, so if you are not over 21 (and you know who you are) please move along, there is nothing for you here.

According to fourth generation New Orleans bartender Chris McMillan, "Southern bartenders need grace, decorum and a sense of theatricality," (Garden & Gun, February 2013)

When planning your home bar, keep in mind that it isn't necessary or desirable to mimic the selection or atmosphere of a commercial establishment.  A home bar can be as simple as spirits and mixers in a basket on patio, or you might eschew variety all together and become known for a "house" drink, like fresh whiskey sours or mojitos with mint from your garden. 

In any case, whether or not you choose to serve alcohol at all, in the South, entertaining is about being a gracious host and making guests feel special.  A little planning, tools at the ready, and high quality ingredients on hand make graceful entertaining a lot easier to accomplish on the spur of the moment.  Check out Blackberry Farm's recipe for a refreshing Sorghum Mint Julep, here.

The Lewis bag is an essential tool for serving drinks in the heat and humidity of a Virginia summer, because the bag keeps ice dry while you crush it.  A carpenter's joiner mallet works fine- a flat striking head is much more effective at banging ice than a rounded one.

A bar spoon is about the size of a teaspoon but has a long handle that can reach to the bottom of tall glasses.  This one is especially nice with its perforated bowl.

A stainless steel muddler mashes fruits and muddles your mint in a jif,

and a jigger is helpful for measuring.

Cocktail shakers are useful and sometimes pretty.  There are shakers with a strainer lid (which have a tendency to leak, so be sure to read the reviews before purchasing one) and

Boston shakers, which require slight of hand or a separate strainer tool.  These are less likely to leak, but do take a bit of practice to master.  

Love this do-it-all malachite bottle opener.

Linen cocktail napkins are festive and always appropriate, and since we monogram everything but the dog here in the South, these would be right at home on a Southern bar.

If linen is (understandably) too much trouble, paper is a fine option, and a trip to Charlottesville would not be complete without a visit to Caspari to see their vibrant seasonal patterns.  I love this one, appropriately named "Endless Summer."  Find it here.


Stocking a home bar seems endlessly complicated, but it doesn't have to be.  The editors of Martha Stewart.com, here, suggest fewer varieties of the highest quality.  After all, you're not running a night club. 

The List:

You may love big, intensely flavored gin so filled with complex botanicals that it tastes like the floor of a forest, and there are gorgeous aged tequilas for $600 a bottle, but for simplicity's sake, the spirits we've reviewed below, while not avant-garde or wildly expensive, are noted for their quality, smooth taste for sipping, clean flavor in mixed drinks, and somewhat universal appeal.

If your friends love trendy martinis and flavored liquors, a festive way to offer them at a party without going broke buying large bottles of things you'll never drink again, is to pile a selection of mini bottles in a basket or crystal bowl.    

Important--In the classic bar manual American Bar, Charles Schuman cautions hosts that a good cocktail is not necessarily a large one, and it goes without saying that one should drink and serve responsibly, and never, ever drink and drive, or allow guests to do so.  

It is absolutely not necessary to serve alcohol to be a good host or to have a good time.  There are thousands of articles on the internet that advise hosts how to recognize the limits of guests and prevent them from over-indulging, as well how to know when guests have had too much and what to do about it.  It is important to check the regulations in your state for drinking and serving alcohol to guests.  MADD reminds hosts not to rely on coffee to sober-up guests, and because only time can make someone sober, recommends closing the bar at least 90 minutes before the party ends.  Read their safe party guide by clicking here.

Basic Bar:

Vodka-  Hangar 1 Straight vodka is distilled in small batches from Viognier grapes and wheat right here in the U.S.  Ultra-smooth with no burn, it's sippable, and also makes a super martini.  Note:  We're keeping things simple but it would be a grave injustice not to mention Hangar 1's Fraser River Raspberry vodka.  I don't generally like flavored vodkas because they taste weirdly chemical to me, but this one tastes like fresh raspberries, albeit with a kick.

Rum-  Do not skimp on quality here.  The best rums will transport one (taste-wise anyway) to the islands.  The cheap ones will transport one to a back alley.  This Zaya 12-year old rum will make a rum and Coke that will knock one's socks off.  A luscious blended rum with flavors of maple and vanilla, smooth enough to drink straight.

Gin-  The perfect gin and tonic should be clean, dry, crisp and fresh.  Tanquery No. Ten makes a good dry martini and an excellent gin and tonic.  And here's a little secret, if you normally make your G &T with 2 oz. of gin and 6 oz. of tonic, for a slightly drier, cleaner taste, try using half tonic and half club soda and see what you think.  Rub the wedge of lime around the rim of the glass and give it a squeeze before you toss it in.

Tequila-  Tequila lovers recommend that if one is going to buy Tequila, buy 100% blue agave, or just skip it.  Tequila comes in four official aging categories, which are determined by how long the tequila is rested before bottling.   Unlike some other spirits,  a longer resting doesn't necessarily determine the quality.  I choose a "Reposado," which is tequila aged from 60 days to year.  This generally mellows the agave without obliterating the flavor with massive oakiness.  Herradura Reposado has the color and slight flavor of butterscotch and is smooth enough to drink neat but clean enough to mix, at a reasonable price.

Whisky (or Whiskey)-  Hard red winter wheat, malted barley and yellow corn, with no rye, make this bourbon distinct.  Delicious and smooth, Maker's Mark has a hint of spiciness and a mellow carmelly-vanilla, creme brûlée flavor without being too sweet.  A classic bourbon for mixing or drinking neat.  I also keep Jack Daniels, a Tennessee whiskey, on hand.

Kahlua- Kahlua is a versatile liqueur.  It makes several notable cocktails, a grown-up version of hot chocolate or adult's-only dessert-in-a-pinch over ice cream.

A bottle of something with a unique flavor for mixing your favorite "house" cocktail, perhaps Campari, St. Germain, Midori or Amaretto.  Right now St. Germain is popular and the beautiful bottle looks nice too. 

Additionally, one might consider stocking bitters, a dry vermouth for martinis, small bottles of good club soda and tonic water, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Ginger-ale (Schweppes!) and cranberry juice cocktail.  

An ice bucket and pitcher will be handy for serving cocktails or lemonade and iced tea.  This 18/10 stainlesss steel ice bucket from Calphalon is double-walled, keeps ice frozen for hours, and has a plexi-glass top so it's easy to see when ice needs to be replaced.  The perforations on the scoop are a useful feature.  Find it here.  One might also stock some good olives and fresh fruit (lemons, limes, and oranges) for fresh juices, as well as beer, and red and white wine.  Ina recommends keeping bottle of good champagne in the refrigerator.

How do you like to entertain?  What are your bar basics?  Do you have a favorite house cocktail?  Recipes, as you know, are always welcome...

Further Reading:


1. via Pinterest 2. via www.Veranda.com, photograph by Sarah Dorio 4. Bar spoon from Everythingbutwine.com 5. Crate & Barrel 6. Pinterest 7. William Yeoward Kelly Shaker 8. Pinterest 9. Malachite corkscrew from Alliance 10. 11. Caspari 12. Photographed by David Fuller  13. Grey Goose Vodka 14. Zaya 12-year old Rum 15. Tanqueray No. 10 Gin 16. Herradura Reposado Tequila 17. Maker's Mark Bourbon 18. Kahlua 19. St. Germain Elderflower liquor 20. via Pinterest