My Hometown

When you’re raised with a parent in the military, you move around a lot.  As a consequence, you don’t really have a hometown.

Until college, The Kid lived in the same house and had the same bedroom since birth.

By the time I’d moved out of my parents’ home when I married, I’d lived in ten different houses in five different cities.Military brats get to choose their own hometown.  It might be where we were born.  Or maybe the hometown of our parents, normally visited enough to instill both history and familiarity.  For some kids, it’s the place we were living when our parent retired from the military.  Others choose the town where they lived the longest, or went to college, or vacationed as a child.

I chose the place I fell in love.Or rather, I chose the place I fell in love with.

In 1986 Petey and I were living in Elizabeth City.  We’d been married three years, and I had an opportunity to move to the heart of Carolina for a job promotion.  I wanted to come, Duke hired my awesome husband, so we pulled up stakes and moved.

Nationally, the economy was stagnant.  Locally, things were worse.  A huge, historic industry was undergoing massive changes which translated into widespread plant closures and exploding unemployment.Always more lunchbox than three martini lunch, the small city suffered mightily.     Stores and homes went vacant, became boarded up, and fell into decline.  Crime went up, and its reputation, already less than glamorous, plummeted.

But just because everybody from away was writing eulogies, and reading epitaphs, didn’t mean my fellow residents and I were wearing black and picking out coffins.The heartbeat of this town is the rhythm of people from all different races, classes, religions, and philosophies.  Living together, working together, and getting along together.  It wasn’t all Kumbaya all the time, there were disagreements, controversies, and tragedy.But through it all, the citizens of this town kept talking.  Sure, sometimes it was a shout, and sometimes it was through gritted teeth, but there was conversation.  And there was laughter and tears, but they were shared, which magnified one, and minimized the other.Then something happened.

The residents voted in leadership that was passionate about turning the little burg around.  Unlike some politicians, they weren’t in it to amass power and shore up their bank accounts.  Not everything they did worked, and not everything they did made all of the residents happy.

And it took time. But, thirty-two years after we made the move, my hometown is one of the coolest, friendliest, most diverse, and economically viable cities in the South.  My quirky little metropolis has won awards and accolades from all over the world.  But it still keeps that bohemian, working class, wealthy retired, soccer mom, hipster, hi-tech, low-pretension vibe that made me fall in love all those years ago.The other night I walked out of a funky new restaurant into a bustling, revitalized downtown.  The strains of a solitary saxophone floated through the streets like an incandescent ribbon.  I was so proud of my hometown, I almost cried.

And of course, life means change.  Right now, there is real concern that gentrification is altering the balance of the have-a-lots, and the haves-not-so-much.  Real estate has skyrocketed, and both taxes and the cost of living is going up.It’s the very definition of, “Be careful what you wish for.”

But my hometown still has the collective wisdom to choose thoughtful, compassionate leaders who understand and deeply believe that a public servant should actually serve the public.

We should all be so lucky.Thanks for your time.

A Tale of Three Cities

My folks just got back from Pittsburgh.  Dad’s from there and they went up to visit his sisters.  They drove and stayed at his big sister’s house.

They came home a day early.

When we were kids and took vacations, we always stayed with family.  Our sojourn would turn family out of their beds, find us sleeping on the floor occasionally, and line up for the bathroom.Now when Petey and I go out of town, even to see friends and family, we stay at a hotel.  Everybody has a happier visit.

But not everyone has the time to go away for days or weeks, or can afford multiple days at the Friendly Arms.

A day trip is a terrific way to go interesting places and sleep in your own bed afterward.  I’ve chosen three places that are close enough to do in one day, and have great food and unique things to do.From east to west;

Durham.  The Bull City has enjoyed a renaissance, and if you haven’t visited lately, you owe it to yourself to go.  Downtown has the Durham Bulls Ball Park, Central Park with its Saturday morning and Wednesday afternoon farmer’s market, and the Carolina Theater, with both indie movies and live entertainment.

Can you even?

Shopping is terrific downtown.  Vert and Vogue has unique, beautiful clothes.  If you love gorgeous fashion, but have limited funds you must stop at Fifi’s on Main.  Chet Miller has unique items and thoughtful gifts.  It’s owned by Jennings Parker, who has an awesome aesthetic, and also owns one of the best lunch places in town; Parker and Otis.When you get hungry, try Elmo’s Diner, Toast sandwiches, and Watts Grocery on Broad St.  If you’re feeling indulgent, try the Cupcake Bar or The Parlor, for amazing made in-house ice cream.Greensboro.  Try the Greensboro Science Center or the Greensboro Children’s Museum.  For a scary good time, take the Ghost and Vampire walking tour.  Elm Street downtown has numerous cool little independent shops, including a bookstore that serves beer.  There are numerous parks, including Bur-Mil with tons of attractions, including a working grain mill.Friendly shopping center has plenty of mall-type stores and also some nifty locally owned businesses, including one of my very favorite kitchen stores, The Extra Ingredient.Grab some eats downtown at Crafted, an artisan taco stand/burger joint.  And right down the street is my newest, most delicious find; Cheesecakes by Alex.  They’ve got around twenty different cheesecakes, but I beg you, try the lemon/blueberry layer cake with yummy buttercream.  Two other eateries I recommend are Monterrey Mexican (try the street style carnitas tacos), and Jam’s Deli, with awesome sandwiches and one of the best restaurant potato salads I’ve ever had.Boone/Banner Elk area.  Mast General Store in Valley Crucis.  You can easily spend a day here and need to come back again.  At the corner of Highway 105 and Broadstone is The Ham Shoppe.  These guys will put together a terrific picnic for you.  Plus they have lots of local treats like cake and mountain made butter.Blowing Rock is an adorable village that’s better experienced on foot.  Tons of shops and great places to eat.  Plus, there’s a Kilwyn’s with all the fudge and ice cream that implies.  Their blue moon has been my very favorite since childhood.

Blue moon, or more correctly, blue bubblegum makes me as happy as the kinda creepy face in the ice cream.  It’s a good thing I don’t get to Kilwin’s very often.

In Banner Elk you must get a meal at the Banner Elk Café.  Good food and nice folks.  The best activity in the high country is just to drive around.  You never know what the next bend in the road will bring.Thanks for your time.

So very proud in Durham

Cumulatively, in my entire life, I don’t think I have been thanked as much as I was yesterday afternoon.

Caution: Subject may appear way nerdier than he actually is.

I hung out with Maxie, one of my oldest friends.  We met in high school.  Doing the math yesterday, we realized we’ve been friends for thirty-seven years.  He is basically the nicest guy on the planet–I’ve never even seen him cranky.

Maxie and his husband Mark were at Durham Pride.  Pride is a weekend of activities celebrating, advocating, and supporting the LGBT community.  Through their church, Calvary United Methodist, they would hand out bottles of water to parade participants.  I joined them.How to describe the scene?  Well, imagine if colors, glitter, and feathers had rained from the sky, and this rain not only coated everyone, but made everybody it touched into best friends.  The air was thick with love and fun.  It was a grand example of the brotherhood of humanity.  I felt lucky to be there.


In our shade-less spot it was hotter than deep-fried fire.  We were passing out bottles of water as fast as we could.  I’ve no idea how many bottles went through my sunburned paws, but in return for each and every one I received a giant smile and heart-felt thanks.

This was my favorite float in the whole parade.  If I live to 1000, I’ll never be as fabulous as the sisters.

We ran out at least twice, and volunteers made a run to Harris Teeter.  By the end, 2100 bottles had been handed out.  And I had a blast.

Afterward, the three of us were famished, so we walked up to Dane’s Place (754 9th St) for lunch.  Everybody ordered cheeseburgers, and nobody was disappointed.  They have about twenty possible toppings, so our every whim was satisfied.  I had cheddar, grilled onions, and tomatoes, slathered with way too much mayo, just the way I like it.  They also have a really good fountain Coke, and the best tater tots in town.


Here I am in Dane’s, the filling in a man sandwich.  Check out that glitter on Mark.

After lunch, I ran a couple of errands on the way home.  First I hit Whole Foods.  After that meal there was no way I was making a big dinner for Petey and myself, so I picked up one of my spouse’s favorite dinners from their grab and go section.

That man loves Whole Foods burritos.  His traditional fave has been chicken adobo.  But recently it’s been AWOL and in its place they’ve had chicken mole.  Mole’s a complex sauce with seeds, nuts, spices, and usually some unsweetened chocolate.  From the way he devoured it, I don’t think he misses the adobo one bit.After that stop I was starting to hanker for chocolate.  Since I calculated that during my stint as water girl I’d worked off forty or fifty pounds, I headed to one of my favorite stops for sweet self-indulgences; Parker and Otis.

Luckily for my waistline, fate had different plans.

They had many gorgeous, delicious-looking treats on offer (six kinds of cupcakes, blondies, brownies, and assorted cookies), but they also had my favorite P&O summer-time treat: fresh corn and tomato salad.  They cut the fresh corn off the cob in big pieces and mix it with assorted small tomatoes, red onion, and parsley, all tossed in a simple oil and vinegar dressing.  Instead of sweets, I bought a half pound of summer salad.  But I could happily eat a bucket of it.While I was waiting for the salad to be packaged, I wandered around their autumn and Halloween displays.  Store owner Jennings Brody has curated a seasonal collection which includes everything from mallow pumpkins (my personal favorite) to very exclusive hand-crafted chocolates. If you need a dose of either sweets or fall inspiration, Parker & Otis is one of the best spots in Durham.  Regardless of the temperature outside, you’ll leave with the rustle of fallen leaves in your head, and the desire for a cozy sweater to wrap around your shoulders.So, although yesterday was an entirely new experience and one of the most fun days I’ve had in a long time, it was also a typical day in Durham.

Because even though Pride is only one weekend each September, our Bull City is an off-beat, charming mix of diversity, acceptance, and friendship, with a generous helping of delicious, unique food every single day of the year.

I just love this twisted little burg.

Thanks for your time.

The Cupcake Column

The Kid has a pretty dim view of cupcake shops.

cupcake lady

After watching many episodes of “Cupcake Wars” on Food Network, a conclusion has been reached; a disheartening percentage of those batter and frosting folk are a mite squirrely.

While they may actually be perfectly nice people, many seem high strung and theatrical.  And worst of all, not very good bakers.


But, The Kid (and The Kid’s mom) absolutely adores The Cupcake Bar (101 E. Chapel Hill St.).  I asked for an explanation for this exception.

“Because, they’re real.  They’re Durham.”

There is absolutely no higher praise that my born, bred, and Bull City super booster can bestow.  Besides, it’s true.

What sisters Anna Branly and Katie Braam have created in their odd little triangle-shaped space downtown is nothing short of miraculous.  They were pioneers of the downtown renaissance.


Jessica (left) and Anna packing up a dozen minis for me–after my “shift”.

The space itself is a sunshine-drenched hybrid of history and sleek modernity.  It looks like a bakery and it looks like a slick martini bar, but it also looks like a vintage soda fountain.

The vibe is a combination of casual friendliness and efficient professionalism that works like a buttercream-covered charm.

Then there’s the always scrumptious baked goods.

Each day eight imaginative, playful varieties of cupcakes in both mini and standard-size are baked, frosted, garnished, and put on display.  Offerings such as Mexican chocolate, blueberry (!), or cosmopolitan tempt the senses.

Today I got up early to hang out with owner Anna, and baker Jessica Morek at The Cupcake Bar.  They kindly allowed me to slow down their well-oiled machine and “help” them.  I garnished every cupcake, except for the instructional samples and three  minis that I totally missed.  I only ruined four, or maybe it was five (don’t ask).


…and I helped!

Here are a few things I discovered.

Anna’s vegetarian, and Jessica doesn’t eat wheat.  Every Wednesday, and sprinkled throughout the week, there’s a gluten-free option.  Vegan show up often, and they’re always meatless.

Co-owner Katie has come up with a genius idea.  When the buttercream’s been made, it’s spooned onto a piece of plastic wrap and then closed up into a large lozenge shape.  When it’s time to pipe, they just drop the whole capsule into a bag and go to work.  The plastic wrap opens inside the bag.  This means easier cleanup and no awkward, messy attempts to fill the pastry bag.  Plus, it saves probably 30 minutes per batch.

This recipe is inspired by the mad scientists at The Cupcake Bar.

Colonial cupcakes with brown butter frosting

Makes approx. 2 dozen standard-sized or 3 dozen minis.



2 ¼ cups cake flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup butter, softened

¾ cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375; line muffin cups with papers.

Cream butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time.

Sift together flour, salt and baking powder.  Add to batter alternating with milk.  Beat well, then stir in vanilla, lemon zest and nutmeg.

Fill the cups ¾ full and bake for 18 minutes (10-13 for minis), or until toothpick comes out moist but clean.  Let cool in pan.

Brown butter frosting

brown frosting

4 cups powdered sugar

½ cup brown butter, softened

¼ cup milk (or as needed to thin to piping consistency)

To make brown butter, melt butter in small saucepan on medium-low. Keep cooking until butter smells nutty and the solids are caramel-colored.  Watch it closely; it will go from browned to burned in literally seconds. 

Put butter in a bowl and refrigerate until chilled solid.  When ready to make frosting, remove from fridge and let come to room temperature.

Mix the sugar and butter well.  Add milk a bit at a time and mix on high until fluffy (2-3 minutes).

Spread or pipe onto cooled cupcakes.


I had a full-on blast today, and I shocked myself; rather than devouring a whole bowl, I only had one tiny taste of frosting.

And did you know they’ve only been in their building four years?

I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Cupcake Bar in my life.

Or maybe I just don’t want to.

Thanks for your time.

Happy to meet you

Today was a red letter Durham day.

Petey and I ate brunch at Watts Grocery.  I am a huge fan of Chef Amy Tornquist’s restaurant and her brunch is just about the best one in town.

But it was our lunch companions who were the big story.

About three years ago, I wrote about one of the more painful experiences of my life.  It was the night Petey took a friend and me for one of his favorite dishes.  It’s an extremely regional dish called yok.

Yok is basically spaghetti topped with a volcanic, almost caustic sauce in which Texas Pete plays an essentially solo part.  It’s gleefully tortuous entering your body and enthusiastically anguish-inducing when exiting.


After the column appeared, I was contacted by a reader.

Donald Long is the director of solid waste management for Durham.  He is from Elizabeth City and graduated from the same high school that I did.  Confusingly and dishearteningly, he’s also a fan of yok.  I guess like Petey, he enjoys playing practical jokes on his mouth.

We’ve emailed back and forth since then, and last Christmas he reached out to me.  While racking his brains for a present for his wife, Autrice, he had an idea—and it involved me.

Since his wife also reads the column, he wanted to introduce his home girl (me), to his bride (Autrice).  Could I share a meal with them?  I was to be her holiday gift.

xmas list

Until I heard from Donald, I would’ve put myself at the tippy-top of the list above…

That poor woman.  I’d rather find socks under the tree or even a subscription to Cat Fancy magazine.

But Donald assured me that I wouldn’t be the coal in her stocking—he actually thought Autrice would like it.

Frankly, I was taken aback.  Donald knew and acknowledged the request sounded a little out there.  But he assured me that he wasn’t a resident of a mental health facility, he was gainfully employed, and his wife was an actual living person—neither invisible nor a volleyball sporting a wig and lipstick.

I decided to do it, and boy am I glad I did.

They are a delightful couple.  They are warm, interesting, and like me, lovers of food.  We laughed throughout brunch, and practically shut the joint down.  Autrice is a member of the AKA sorority (in college, all my best girlfriends were AKA).  They’re friends with Durham’s cutest couple; Jose and Becky Lopez with whom, a couple months ago, I had a food chat.

Donald belongs to a kind of steak-of-the-month club.  April’s cut is a tomahawk or cowboy steak.  It’s a ribeye steak, usually very, very thick.  The bone is about 6-8 inches long, left exposed, and Frenched (stripped and cleaned), which gives it its eponymous shape.

I gave him my technique for making a cheap steak taste expensive, and taking an expensive cut of meat to a whole new level.

Home dry-aging

Freeze the steak completely.  Three or four days before cooking, heavily salt frozen meat on all sides.  Very loosely wrap in three or four paper towels, place on a plate and put it on lowest shelf of the fridge.  Take it out of the refrigerator an hour before cooking so it can come to room temp.  The meat will look dried out, but that’s exactly what you’re looking for.

This is a dry-aged prime riib, from where the tomahawk comes.  See how the meat is darker and there’s no blood?

Season with freshly cracked black pepper and cook it in some butter in a smoking hot cast iron pan using a weight on the steak so the entire surface will have contact with the skillet and develop a beautiful crust.  Check interior temperature with a probe and flip when it gets close to 100 degrees.  Cook to 135-140 for medium rare. Let it rest 5-10 minutes out of the skillet before serving to let the meat relax and the juices to redistribute.

Sitting on the couch in my sweats this column is written in a kind of a vacuum.  But I love it when readers contact me.  Especially when they are as kind and funny as the Longs.

But maybe he really isn’t the picture of total mental health he said he was, because at one point during lunch, Donald, with a completely straight face, referred to me as a celebrity.

This, Donald, is celebrity.  I think I’ll pass…

I think the man needs to get out more, and maybe watch a little TV.

Thanks for your time.

The runaround


So after we voted on Election Day, Petey and I took care of some errands around town.

We headed over to King’s Red and White to order a nice, big, Daisyfield ham for Easter dinner.  This year I’m doing a honey glaze with a chopped peanut coating.

Regina Hicks, an institution at King’s, and I always take a few minutes to catch up.  I discuss my plans for the ham, and she always tells me what she’s really liking in the meat case, and gives me some great ideas.

Regina pointed out a cut I’ve never used before.

But the funny thing is, a week ago I saw it in another supermarket and pondered buying it but didn’t.  It was pork chops, but chops that had been cubed.

Just like beef cubed steak, these had been run through a machine fitted with multiple spikes that pierce the flesh, which tenderizes, and to a certain extent, flattens the meat.  Because of the needling, it cooks fast, which is why another name for it is minute steak.  I use cubed steak for country-fried steak with cream gravy, and country-style steak with brown onion gravy.

Regina said the pork could be used the same way, but suggested another preparation.  She lightly sprinkles a seasoned salt on it, then cooks it briefly in a skillet, melts some cheese on it, and puts it on a bun with sliced tomato.

Even before I cooked it, I knew it would be good, ‘cause in all the years I’ve been shopping at King’s, Regina has never once steered me wrong.

Cubed pork chop sandwiches

cubed pork

2 pork chops, cubed (1/4-1/2 pound each)

1 teaspoon seasoned salt (or just salt and pepper)

1 tablespoon butter

2 very fresh Mexican Telera rolls (or another soft sandwich roll)

Butter lettuce

Shaved red onion


Dijon mustard

Preheat a cast iron skillet on medium for 5 minutes.  Pat meat dry with a paper towel and season both sides.  When good and hot put butter in pan and let melt.  Lay in chops and cook on each side for about 90 seconds.  Remove and let sit for 3 minutes.

Split rolls in half and spread Dijon on one side, and mayo on the other.  Cover the bottom slice with lettuce.  Place on pork and cover with shaved onion to taste.

Serve with cole slaw and chips or fruit.

After we left King’s, we went down Roxboro make a stop at the CVS.  But on the way, I saw the TROSA thrift shop at 3500 N Roxboro St, where the Walmart used to be.  I asked Petey to pull in.

Recently I’ve begun visiting the Durham Rescue Mission thrift shop on highway 70.  I’ve been collecting cute little Corning Ware baking dishes, and they usually have them.  And they have a huge selection of books for almost nothing.  Also, I’ve been helping The Kid set up housekeeping and had found a Frugal Gourmet brass pepper mill for less than $10, and my very best find; a like-new bread box that Williams Sonoma sells for $120.  I paid just SEVEN DOLLARS.

That’s right, seven dollars, I swear.

At TROSA I found some more books and a couple of Corning baking dishes.  But both stores are treasure troves of furniture, housewares, appliances, and more.  And by shopping there you’re helping out really worthy organizations.  It’s also fun, like a scavenger hunt.  You never, ever know what you’ll find.

Our next and last stop was the main library at 300 N Roxboro to pick up the new Christopher Buckley that I’d reserved.

Drawers full of good eats.  Can you say that about your own drawers?

Up in the reference department, in an old wooden card catalog cabinet is one of the library’s newest, coolest additions.  They have started a seed collection.  They have close to 100 different plants; veggies, herbs and flowers.  I got enough for a full herb garden: two types of parsley, three kinds of basil, thyme, chives, and dill, plus five different flowers.

These are all free; they just ask that if you are able to harvest seeds, bring them in to share.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but I am so grateful for this amazing town of ours.

Next week I promise; we’ll leave the city limits.

Thanks for your time.

Fifth annual love letter to Durham

Growing up my dad was in the Coast Guard, and we moved every few years.  Some places I liked, some not so much.

This was just another day at the office for my dad…

But thirty years ago, a young couple moved to the Bull City.  And like kudzu, Durham has crept through me and wound itself about my heart.  This town is funky, fierce, and fabulous.  And I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world.

Saturday I had lunch with two high school friends, Lucy, and newlywed Maxie.  We try to set everything else in our lives aside once a month, and meet.

This week was Lucy’s pick.  She chose Dame’s Chicken and Waffles (317 W Main St, Durham).  Fun fact: contrary to my assumption, Dame is not a woman,.  It’s actually the nickname of owner, Damion Moore.  Another fact: they are always swamped.  The wait for a table on a Saturday afternoon was an hour and forty-five minutes.   You can make a reservation online.  Do it.


Come hungry and wear comfortable shoes, or–make a reservation.

It was the first visit for all of us, so we each ordered something different to get a bigger sample of the menu.

Here is my biggest takeaway.  Somehow, it was as if they had turned the flavor volume up to 11.  The taste of everything was bright and vivid.  I had macaroni and cheese, which was some of the best I’ve ever eaten.  I could actually taste the pasta; it wasn’t just the scaffolding supporting all the yummy cheese.  The chicken (Lucy and I had fried breast cutlets, Maxie had fried legs) was moist, deliciously crunchy, and tasted like chicken—it wasn’t just texture.

The waffles were really good—crispy on the outside, soft and tender inside.  And each plate came with something they call a schmear.

A schmear is Dame’s take on compound butter.  Here again, the flavors somehow seemed cleaner, brighter and stronger without being overwhelming.  I had almond vanilla, Lucy orange honeycomb, and Maxie had maple pecan.  There was no mistaking any of them.  Each was a delicious example of the respective flavors.

I begged Ms. Ella, who runs the kitchen, for recipes.  No dice.  I even got shot down when I asked which herb was used in the chicken and macaroni and cheese.  Still no dice.  But I really like the idea of the schmear, so I came up with my own, Dame-inspired butter.

Pistachio/Honey browned butter spread

pstachio butter

2 sticks of butter

4 tablespoons finely chopped pistachios

3 tablespoons strongly flavored honey (like buckwheat)

Pinch salt and pepper

Melt butter in a saucepan, and let cook until it’s foamy and starts to brown.  When the solids are a warm caramel brown, take it off the heat and stir in the honey.  Pour into a bowl and let cool and harden.

When the browned butter has gotten to room temp, place into the bowl of a mixer.  Beat the butter, adding the pistachios.  When the butter is fully incorporated either place in a bowl and refrigerate or place onto parchment paper and roll into a log and chill.

Make about 1 ¼ cups.  Use on breakfast carbs, or melt a tablespoon onto a grilled piece of chicken or a pork chop.

After lunch we hauled our over-stuffed, bloated carcasses down the street.  We stopped at Letters Bookshop (313 W Main St).  We each picked up a couple of books, and wanted more.

We then turned to Dolly’s Vintage (213 W Main St), a fun, colorful, whimsical shop full of adorable, affordable second-hand clothing and quirky new items, including a large selection of Durham merchandise.

We then walked around the corner and ended our day together at The Cupcake Bar (101 E Chapel Hill St).  I love this place.  They have 300 hundred flavors and 75 cent frosting shots, for dog’s sake.  I went home with chocolate stout, Irish coffee, and double vanilla minis.  And of course, as always, they were scrumptious.

Five Points was fun and busy, just what a downtown should be.  It made my heart full to be a part of it.  And girl, those folks were turned out.  I saw more cute sweaters, adorable boots, and fashionable outfits than an issue of Vogue.  They were representing Durham right.

Gosh, I love this town.

Thanks for your time.