Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

It’s Madison Craft Beer Week!

wide-eyed

We stopped at Next Door Brewing after work to get something to eat and OH MY GOODNESS I’VE NEVER SEEN IT SO BUSY! The place was wall-to-wall beer-drinking and conversating customers! We had to wait at the bar for a table, but only for fifteen minutes or so and, as always, the food was worth the wait. And the beer.

surfacing

Craft Beer Week | 8:08 am CDT
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Saturday, April 26th, 2014

The Crazy Legs Classic is on today. Not that either My Darling B or I will be running in it. We won’t even be in one of the fund-raising groups wearing tutus, drinking beer and walking at the very end of it, although the idea does have a certain appeal (anybody wanna join us next year?), but we did get stuck in it when we visited the Dane County Farmer’s Market this morning. Or not exactly in it, but the sidewalks were choked with people much fitter than me wearing spandex with big numbers pinned to their shirts, looking for their place in line. The faster, more in-shape people start at the front of the line; the beer-drinking tutu-wearers tended to filter all the way to the back (the lack of pressure to be in any kind of a hurry or even to finish makes the back of the line all that more appealing to me).

We got our eggs and salad greens and trail cookies and then got out of there toot-sweet, well before the racers filled the streets and made things really crazy.

crazy | 12:08 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, farmer's market, food & drink, play
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Sunday, April 13th, 2014

The grill! I fired up the grill! It’s grill time again! Oh happy day! These are the rites of spring I dream of all winter long! Wadding up the paper, piling up the charcoal, striking the match, tending the red-hot coals. The meat patties sizzling as they grow plump on the grille. I am so giddy now that it’s time for this again!

spring, omnipotent goddess, thou dost
inveigle into grilling burgers and franks the
hopeful cheesehead and the grateful dinner guest.


cookout | 7:32 am CDT
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Saturday, April 12th, 2014

cheater's witte beerThis is the batch I was sure I’d ruined last week by mashing it with water that was too hot. When I measured the temp of the mash just before I drained the sweet wort, it was about 170 degrees, maybe a little less. It was the first time I’d seen mash temps that high and I was pretty sure the batch was ruined, but I’d already put all that time and effort into brewing the batch, so I pitched the yeast into it anyway to see what would happen.

When I checked it the next day it was fermenting so vigorously that the air lock was full of foam and I had to replace it with a blow-off tube! So maybe not the complete failure I thought it was after all! Remains to be seen how it will taste, though, and I won’t know that for at least five, maybe six weeks.

Cheater’s Witte | 8:33 am CDT
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Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

brewing a batch of beerI cribbed the grain bill for this latest batch of beer from the menu of Next Door Brewing, a brew they call Wilbur because of the oats they add to the mash. My Darling B says it’s her favorite of all the beers they brew, so I’m going to see if I can make some for her, too.

No worries, Next Door. We’ll keep coming back!

Wilbur | 9:34 pm CDT
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Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

When I was a boy, our family used to pile into the car about once a month and make the two-hour drive from our home in central Wisconsin to visit my father’s parents in Door County where, mere minutes after we got out of the car and were welcomed at the door, my grandmother would begin to stuff us with food. And that woman could set out an impressive spread: baked hams, roasted chickens, mashed potatoes, corn and beans, dinner rolls and kolaches, and I don’t know what all else. She was an old-school housewife of Bohemian extraction who could pile on the hospitality like nobody’s business. If we arrived early in the afternoon she often had a lunch waiting for us, too, and at the end of the day as we packed up to go, she piled leftovers on a plate for us to take home. I didn’t think I would ever be fed like that again.

Until last night. We ate so much food last night that I’m pretty sure I won’t have to eat again until July.

Stalzy’s Deli, one of our very favorite places to eat, as well as one of the best places in town to stock up on lunch meat, bread and beer, set out a couple tables for dinner with food so delicious and plentiful in its variety that I couldn’t stop eating, even though my stomach threatened me with retribution of biblical proportions. “Just one more bite,” I kept assuring it.

We showed up to the party shortly after six to find they’d rearranged the tables. There was one long table in the front of the dining area and another in front of the beer coolers; we sat at the end of the table in the front and were immediately served a couple glasses of freshly-brewed beer from Next Door Brewing. The beer from Next Door is always fresh because brew master Keith Symonds is always brewing up a new batch of it in the neck-high stainless steel kettles that crowd one corner of his brew pub. From there, it goes straight to the cooler and gets drunk almost right away by the thirsty customers who throng the bar nightly. Keith was at the dinner to serve brews they’d chosen to go with each course. These beer-pairing dinners have become a thing around here, and I hope they continue to be a thing for many years to come.

The first round of beer was Wilbur, a cream ale made with rolled oats to give it a smooth, sweet flavor to go with the plate of pickled veggies they brought to our table: mushrooms and Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, onions and what looked like scapes. I tried a little of everything, and more than a few of the mushrooms because, you know, mushrooms. Well, maybe you don’t. My Darling B, a dedicated foodie, won’t have anything to do with mushrooms. She’s gamely tried a few but they don’t taste like anything to her, she says, so she won’t touch them. Or Brussels sprouts, but I understand that has more to do with a bad childhood experience. I’m not a fan of Brussels sprouts either but I enjoyed some last night, maybe the only time I’ve eaten Brussels sprouts that didn’t taste like rubber bands.

The veggies were just a small part of the “welcome course,” the rest of which included a plate of Russian rye bread and a bowl of duck liver mousse to spread on the rye, so rich that I probably shouldn’t have eaten more than a spoonful of it, but by the time I realized that it was way too late. Oops. There was also German flammekuche, a sort of bialy with carmelized onions in the center; and Latvian piragi, little buns stuffed with BACON! And what’s a welcome course without a plate of assorted Wisconsin cheeses: yummy fonegreek gouda, MonteAmore, muenster and a bowl of garlic cream cheese. B loved the cream cheese as much as I loved the duck mousse.

For the second course they brought out plates piled high with spaetzel and mushrooms in montchevre goat cheese, German-style green beans (BACON!) and boiled, sliced Yukon gold potatoes, which they paired with a foamy glass of Munchkin Rye. By the time I finished my moderate helping of spaetzel I was already feeling I might be in trouble by the end of the night because the third course was Ente gekocht in fett (which is German for “duck cooked in fat.” Those Germans don’t get too frou-frou with the names of their dishes, I guess) and smoked Labelle duck breast, served on a bed of braised red cabbage. There was no way I was missing any of that. The smoked duck breast, cut into thick slices, was almost sweet and yummily smoky. And they served the duck in duck fat as a whole leg of dark meat so tender that it fell off the bone at the slightest touch. I should have maybe nibbled just a bit of each to get the gist, but as soon as I got a taste I ate every damn bite, groaning with pleasure as I did. To go with the duck, Keith poured glasses of Sevex Ale, still my favorite Next Door brew.

Finally, each table got a Black Forest torte, four layers of chocolate cake with a deep, dark chocolate layer on the outside, whipped cream and cherries in between layers and plenty more on top and around the base. Wow. I mean, WOW! As if that wasn’t special enough, Judy, the maestro who thought up this delicious treat, told us she made it with cherries from the tree in her yard. It was fantastic, and it was the only thing I absolutely could not finish because by that time I was full to bursting. If I’d dared to eat it all, I feel confident in saying I would have literally busted a gut. My stomach still feels a little sore this morning just thinking about it.

What a night. We’re so looking forward to Stalzy’s next dinner, although we might have to go a little easy on the portions next time to make sure we can enjoy them all and still be able to get to the car without waddling.

hospitality | 10:33 am CDT
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Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

“Bottle Bomb” is a term in the homebrewing hobby that refers to beer so enthusiastically carbonated that it blows the cap right off the bottle, and sometimes even bursts the bottle itself. I haven’t brewed a batch yet that produced a bottle bomb, but I came pretty close with a batch I brewed last July.

It was my second all-grain batch that I brewed from a recipe I found in an on-line forum, but I didn’t notice until after I’d finished that the grain bill was for a ten-gallon batch. I brew five-gallon batches, so I should’ve halved the recipe. It was supposed to be a light, refreshing summer beer but ended up being a high-gravity cauldron of too-sweet witches’ brew, something close to barleywine but not as tasty.

Seven months later, it’s still way too sweet to drink but home brewers as a rule don’t pour any of their creations down the drain if there’s any chance of saving it. Trouble was, the brew was not only too sweet, it was way over-carbonated. I’m pretty sure now that I bottled it before fermentation was complete because every bottle I opened erupted like a volcano, spewing foam from its neck for several minutes, and after I poured it into a glass it had a head several inches thick that wouldn’t go away. The bottle I opened a couple nights ago sounded like a small cannon and foam jumped several inches straight up from the neck. These were bottle bombs just waiting to go off! I didn’t want to dump them but I had to come up with some way of saving them to avoid a big mess in the corner of the brewery where I stockpile bottled beer.

Beer isn’t quite as explosive when it’s cold as it is when it’s warm, so I chilled three twenty-two-ounce bombers, then opened them and let them stand in the sink for about five minutes so they could outgas a bit. All three bottles barfed up a lot of foam, one vigorously enough to bring up the sediment from the bottom of the bottle. After five minutes there was still enough beer left to fill a swing-top growler I had on hand, pouring it carefully down the side to avoid making any more foam. The idea is to leave it for at least another month before opening it again. If I bottled it before fermentation was done, this should give it more than enough room to finish conditioning in the bottle so it’s something drinkable in the end.

foamy | 9:10 am CDT
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It’s been kind of a long week, so it wasn’t surprising that last night after we got home, we kicked off our shoes, found a couple of cocktails and settled in to the most comfortable furniture in our Little Red House to watch Rio Bravo.

I’m sure something’s wrong with the commas in that sentence, but I can’t figure it out right now and anyway, My Darling B will drop me a note with all the necessary corrections after she reads this.

The work last week wasn’t particularly grueling, but there was a lot of it, so knowing that we wouldn’t have to go back for a couple days was a special kind of relief, and we celebrated it with something like cosmopolitan. I have no idea what a cosmopolitan is other than a cocktail that was apparently made famous by its association with the television series Sex And The City, or maybe it was Sex In The City. That particularly crucial cultural touchstone didn’t get touched by me, so all I know about it is that it has something to do with sex and cities and maybe cocktails.

The cocktail My Darling B mixed wasn’t quite a cosmopolitan because she was missing one or more of the ingredients, so she improvised and christened it a Mononapolitan. It was tart and it had a lot of vodka in it. I had just one. One was enough. Two or more of those and I probably would’ve ended up sleeping on the bathroom floor. I’m too old for that shit.

But I did pop open a beer just before we started watching Rio Bravo, because we rustled up some grub from the chuck wagon just before we hit the trail. If that sounded really corny, it’s probably because it’s a really corny movie. Wikipedia says Rio Bravo is considered Howard Hawks’ best film. I haven’t seen a lot of the films Howard Hawks made, but I would guess there weren’t any cornier than this one, so I’d change “best” to “corniest.” And I mean that in a good way.

It’s also the longest western I think I’ve ever seen. No, wait, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was way longer, by about forty-two hours. That’s got to be the longest movie ever made. But Rio Bravo is plenty long for a cheeseball western. They could have easily shortened it to two hours if they’d cut the musical numbers – Dean Martin sings a duet with Ricky Nelson, then Ricky sings a duet with Walter Brennan; I told you it was corny – but then you would’ve had a movie starring Dean Martin without a Dean Martin song, and what sense would that make? Or they could’ve cut the many scenes where Angie Dickinson sashays around the room in her underwear, but same thing about not making sense.

Altogether after the long week, the Mononapolitan, the long, cheesy western and the beer, I was ready to hit the hay. And I’m here now to tell you that hay was well and truly hit.

cheeseball | 7:58 am CDT
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Saturday, February 1st, 2014

At the Central Waters Brewery 16th Anniversary Party last weekend:

barleywine

“What are you drinking?”

“Barleywine.”

“May I try some?”

“You don’t like barleywine.”

“Maybe I do.”

She didn’t.

barleywine reaction | 6:24 am CDT
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Friday, January 24th, 2014

I was up about half the night after I made the mistake of popping open a bottle of my most recent homebrew. The mistake was that I had just come home from Sardine, one of our favorite restaurants, where my sufficiency had already been serensified so my belly really didn’t need all that beer. On the upside, after bottle-conditioning for four weeks, this batch of California Common is the best batch of beer to come out of the new brewery setup to date, if I may say so myself. I’m well chuffed.

But back to Sardine, our next-to-last night out during Madison Restaurant Week, and one of our favorite places to visit because overall its such a wonderful experience. The food’s good, the service is good, and the location is comfortable and inviting. B ordered the cassoulet, as is her custom, because she doesn’t believe in messing with a good thing, while I enjoyed the grilled Norwegian salmon, because salmon.

Dessert was the most delightful surprise of the evening: Gianduja Crunch, a chocolate hazelnut ganache on a crunchy feuilletine crust. What that translates to in Midwestern English is, a super-rich bar of chocolate pudding served on a crust of chocolate with a dab of caramel sauce on the side, as if it wasn’t decadent enough already. My mouth did somersaults with every bite.

Sardine | 6:09 am CDT
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Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

It was cold enough to freeze my beard to my face as we made our way across Campus Drive to Steenbock’s on Orchard, where we had a dinner reservation this evening, our third night out during Madison Restaurant Week. Everything that was on the menu sounded really good so it took us forever to decide what we wanted, but in the end …

B had: Fagioli for starters, rabbit pot pie for her entree, and carrot cake for dessert. The fagioli was delicious. The rabbit tasted like chicken. No, really. That would’ve been my first guess, and if you’d told me it was chicken, I would never have known. It was still really, really good, but it was uncanny how much it tasted like chicken.

I had: Roasted chicken risotto for starters, halibut for my entree, and molten chocolate cake for dessert. We both loved the risotto. The halibut was a touch overdone, but it came with a generous helping of ratatouille, so I still finished every bite.

And molten chocolate cake! Wowzers!

molten chocolate cake | 8:26 pm CDT
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Finding places like Plate & Barrel, in Sun Prairie, is why we like going out for Madison Restaurant Week so much. The only trouble with finding yet another place that has good food and great service is finding the time to visit again. But I’m pretty sure we’ll go back.

Plate & Barrel serves tapas-style meals, just the kind of thing My Darling B goes for. Her plate, for instance, was a couple of lamb meatballs, stuffed piquillo peppers, and a big old mushroom cap stuffed with polenta. She liked it so much that she even nibbled on a corner of the mushroom to see if maybe this was the one that would get her to want them. I have to report with a tear in the corner of my eye that she still does not get mushrooms.

Plate and Barrel | 5:55 am CDT
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Monday, January 20th, 2014

What I did with my Sunday:

Well, first I made a big, steaming pot o’ joe, same as I always do. Always. The day doesn’t start without a pot o’ joe. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that. If you have, and you’ve been wondering why your day didn’t start as early as every other day, it was because I got up late. Now you know.

Then, I ate some oatmeal and drank my coffee while I read the morning news. Took me hours. Because Sunday.

At about ten o’clock, My Darling B reminded me that we had a date for eleven o’clock at a restaurant on Park Street called Inka Heritage, our first meal to kick off Madison Restaurant Week, one of our very favoritest festivals. I may be remembering this wrong, but I think Inka was the first restaurant we visited when we started going to Restaurant Week many moons ago, and I think we’ve been starting the winter version of Restaurant Week every year by going to Inka. Even if I’m not remembering that right, I’m pretty sure this is the third time we’ve been there and I know I haven’t been disappointed by the food yet. I don’t know why we don’t go more often. Probably because it’s not in the neighborhoods we usually visit. We should get out more.

We both had the fish, by the way. Scrumptious.

Then I spent all afternoon in the basement throwing crap out, putting away the stuff I couldn’t make myself throw out, and finally knocking together a work bench where I could work on choo-choo trains. I used to make a temporary work bench by throwing a board across an open stretch of the layout, but there aren’t any open stretches any more, and I still needed a place to solder track together or whatever.

I had an old pine shelf that came out of one of our closets, and a dozen or so sawn-off ends of two-by-fours I could knock together into brackets. Took me a little longer than I thought it would to knock them together, but then it always does. Once the braces were up, all I had to do was cut the pine shelf to length and screw it down. The shelf was too long to cut it with the table saw, so I clamped it down to my Black & Decker WorkMate 200, with a board across the top to act as a guide, grabbed my circular saw and got ready to make some serious noise.

The clamp was in the way. It usually is. I don’t use the circular saw very often, so I usually make this mistake. As I was repositioning the clamp it seemed there was something about the way I’d set up the cut that wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t quite figure out what was bothering me about it until I was just about to pull the trigger on the saw, and then I saw it: The line I’d planned to cut was laying right across the middle of my WorkMate. If I’d gone and made the cut, I would’ve sawn the WorkMate in half.

It wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve abused it that way. One end of the WorkMate’s front jaw has been shorter than the back jaw (the top opens like a vise) ever since I sawed it off the same year I got it as a Christmas present, and the tops of the jaws are pockmarked with holes where I’ve drilled through work that I was sure was too thick for the drill bit to get all the way through. I’ve known for years that I’m probably going to saw it in half eventually; it’s pretty surprising, really, that I haven’t done it already. And yet somehow I avoided doing it yesterday.

With the shelf cut to length, all that was left to do was screw it down and cover it with a whole bunch of crap. And done.

setting up shop | 7:53 am CDT
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Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Yay. The cat has finally curled up in my lap. Can’t do a thing while he’s turning in circles, looking for the right place to settle down. Can’t type a word, can’t sip my coffee, can’t even set down my coffee cup within easy reach because he would just keep sticking his snotty nose in it. I have to just sit here, waiting until he stops. So who’s the mammal in charge here?

image of B hugging Sean

Sean is home for Christmas. Touched down at Dane County Airport shortly after eight, where we scooped him up and motored into town to have dinner at Next Door Brewing. He pronounced himself very pleased with the taco plate. I had the Atwood Burger, delicious as always, and B loved her salmon sandwich. And of course there was beer. Can’t go to Next Door without partaking of a refreshing libation. B was especially satisfied with the Festivusale, but just a little saddened that the staff apparently forgot to provide her with the grievance form that was supposed to come with each glass. She was looking forward to hanging her grievance on the Festivus Pole.

Aargh! | 8:19 am CDT
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Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Tornado Room, Madison WIFor our last Friday the 13th dinner of the year we decided to dine at the Tornado Room on Main Street in downtown Madison. This was our first time at the Tornado despite having heard nothing but good things about it and telling each other for the past six years that we would have to eat there sometime soon. Don’t know why. Wasn’t trying to avoid the place. Just kept slipping our minds. But we had to come up with a legendary restaurant to eat at this Friday and for some reason the Tornado popped to the top of our list, so I committed by making reservations Thursday afternoon.

And a good thing I did, too, because the place was booked solid. I’ve heard that it was a hugely popular place to eat, and it was Friday besides so there were probably a ton of people there for fish fry, which tempted even me. You can’t tell me you’ve got pan-fried perch on special and expect me not to show at least a little interest, but I went there for steak & potatoes, and steak & potatoes is what I had for dinner. After I gobbled up some of the warm, fresh bread off the bread plate, scarfed down three jumbo shrimp from the shrimp cocktail I shared with My Darling B, and finished off a bowl of French onion soup. Good thing I decided against the 14-ounce cut of sirloin and went with the 8-ounce cut instead. I did a respectable job of eating a bit more than half of it and all of the potato. Poor B was nearly full even before she took her first bite. Doggie bags all around.

tornado room | 8:25 am CDT
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Monday, November 25th, 2013

The headline I had to click on today: “Scientists make cheese from human toe jam”

Selfmade is an exhibit that hosts a number of cheeses crafted from cells collected from human bodies. Part art, part science, it’s the work of Christina Agapakis and Prof. Sissel Tolaas, who sampled microbes from human mouths, toes, navels, and even tears to craft a set of 11 unique cheeses.

*bleh*

Part of me – most likely the part that is lactose intolerant – doesn’t even want to know what these smell like, much less taste like.

toejam | 6:12 pm CDT
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Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

I’ve been on the road for a couple days in the service of the Great State of Wisconsin, which means that I haven’t had a decent cup of coffee until just this morning. The hotels we stay in on these trips are all the kind that serve a complimentary breakfast of dried cereal or make-your-own waffles, and the coffee they set out for us comes out of a great big stainless steel urn. I was very hopeful the first time I saw that. Although coffee that’s been stewing all morning in a great big urn does not always taste the best, it’s usually strong enough to strip the paint off the sides of a battleship. Alas, chain hotels have apparently figured out how to water down urn coffee so it wouldn’t wake up a light sleeper if you poured the whole thing on his head.

I’m a light sleeper, but I’d like a strong cup of coffee in the morning, preferably two. That’s just not happening, not at the hotel and not anywhere near the hotel. The off-ramp territory where chain hotels are built seems to be the last places on earth where Starbucks fears to tread. I don’t like the coffee Starbucks makes; it all tastes burned to me, but at least it’s strong. I’d trudge a quarter-mile on foot and gratefully slug back a cup of their French Roast if I could just get my hands on one, but no joy.

There’s usually a McDonald’s nearby, but I won’t set food in a McDonald’s again until after the apocalypse.

Which reminds me: Whatever happens, even if the zombie hoards are overrunning the city, do not resort to drinking the stuff that comes out of those toy coffee makers in hotel rooms. Not only is that stuff not coffee, it’s not drinkable. It may even be injurious to human health, but I’m not saying anyone should be forced to drink it just so we can find out.

javaless | 9:40 am CDT
Category: coffee, food & drink, random idiocy, travel, work, yet another rant
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Sunday, October 20th, 2013

beerBeer’s ready!

It’s been at least four weeks since I’ve cooked up a batch of home brew, so I wanted something special. A porter seemed just about right for the cold days coming up, and I found a recipe that seemed to be not only very popular, but easy to tweak as well. Several people who tried it added their suggestions for turning it into a vanilla porter, which sounded like just what the doctor ordered. So here it is, a batch of porter, rather darker-looking than I thought it would be, and I’ve got a couple vanilla beans in a bottle filled with 8 ounces of vodka, an infusion that I’ll add to the porter three weeks from now when I’m getting it ready for bottling.


fillerup | 5:58 pm CDT
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Sunday, October 13th, 2013

drinkingBShe only has two hands, but that doesn’t stop My Darling B from being a three-fisted drinker! We were at the Great Amherst Beer Festival, hosted by Central Waters Brewing yesterday when B found herself trying to juggle three cups of beer while we took photos of the goings-on. She turned out to be one of the goings-on.


beer juggling | 1:05 pm CDT
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Funny thing: I’ve been to two beer festivals in two months and at both of them I’ve seen bluegrass bands that made me, and I mean made me tap my feet. Last month it was The Material Guys at the Dilly-Dally, hosted by Karben4. This month, it was Horseshoes & Hand Grenades at the Great Amherst Beer Fest hosted by Central Waters. It gets me to thinking I ought to look for more live performances of bluegrass bands, but then I wonder if it would take the wonder out finding them by accident.

horseshoes & hand grenades | 8:34 am CDT
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Monday, October 7th, 2013

Quick and Dirty version of our trip to California last week, typed up from my notes because I’m not sure how long it’ll take to expand on them and I’ve got lots to do this week but I wouldn’t want to deprive you. So:

Got into San Francisco in the afternoon on Friday. Taxi driver gave us a lively commentary while he narrowly avoided causing several accidents. After dropping bags at the hotel, walked down to Louis’s for an enormous sandwich. Wanted to go to bistro at Cliff House but there was a wait. Kind of hoity-toity, too. Then a walk to the point of Lincoln Park to see if the Golden Gate bridge was visible – it was, beautifully. That turned into a walk through the park. Didn’t stop at the overlook where several people have fallen to their deaths. By the time we came out the other side it was six thirty so we hopped the first bus into town. Bus driver a cranky old man because passengers kept getting on w/o paying. Got off at Hyde & rode a cable car to the waterfront. Wine tasting. Host was a world traveler, been to 31 states and 50-something countries, showed snapshots of trip to Cambodia. Good salesman: we left with 200 in wine. Long bus ride back to the hotel. Went to bed right away and slept the sleep of the just.

First stop Saturday morning was breakfast at Sweet Maple where the coffee was strong and the bacon was one inch thick. We got there just before the morning rush of very fit-looking people showed up. By the time we left, the line was out the door. From there we headed to Pier 39 to see the sea lions. There are a whole lot of floating docks moored off the far end of the pier so that dozens of fat sea lions will loll there for the benefit of tourists, instead of all over the docks where the expensive boats are tied up. After “see the sea lions” was checked off our bucket list, we wandered along the wharf toward Ghiardelli Square looking for the kiosk where we could buy a Muni day pass for the cable cars and buses. The kiosk turned out to be at the end of the Hyde-Powell cable car line. We planned to take the cable car to Lombard Street but went to Ghiardelli Square to do a little shopping first and ended up having ice cream for lunch! Back at the cable car, we tried to beat the long line of tourists waiting to get on at the end of the line by walking up the road a couple blocks and waiting at the next stop for the next car that came along was packed and the driver didn’t even pause long enough to flip us off. We wandered around until we could find a bus to take us back to the top of Lombard Street. Lots of tourists! The locals must love that! Then it was on to Telegraph Hill; easier said than done. B wanted to see the parrots but was not going to climb the hill; neither of us was in shape for it at that point. We had to circle around Union Square a couple times to figure out which bus to catch and where. When the bus finally dropped us off at the base of Coit Tower we were there barely five minutes before we saw the parrots of Telegraph Hill. Check off another item from our list. Walking down Filbert Steps was a huge disappointment: expected it to be a lot more scenic but it was more like a back alley. Stopped to quaff a couple of well-deserved cold beers at a bar in Union Square before walking up to Mason St to catch a cable car to the cable car museum. First cable car blew us off. A nice older lady, obviously a local, gave us advice on how to be more aggressive about making the driver stop. The next one stopped and the driver shouted, “Four! I can take four! There and there!” pointing at the fender. We jumped on and clung to the posts as the street car started up the hill, cars whizzing past us seemingly inches away. The trip to the museum wasn’t long but it was terrifying, or exhilarating, I’m not sure which. After wandering around the museum a bit, we caught a bus downtown to get a beer at a brewpub called The 21st Amendment which was unfortunately right down the street from the baseball stadium and a game had just let out; the place was packed! No quiet moment to be had there. We downed our beers and got out of there as quickly as we could, catching a street car across town, the intention being to get some dinner at a restaurant called The Social Kitchen. The streetcar dropped us off well short of our destination in a residential neighborhood where we had to wait about 20 mins for the next train. The brewpub was well worth the wait; good food and good beer. B sampled all their brews in a flight and I had just one glass before we ventured forth to catch the bus back to the hotel, which dropped us off short of our destination in a residential neighborhood! We just couldn’t catch a break with the transportation that day.

Picked up the camper van Sunday morning. Actually, I picked it up while B waited with the bags at the hotel. I left about 8 and got there about 10 riding bus, trains and walking about three blocks through a section of town that looked pretty sketchy, lots of old warehouses mixed with empty lots, but lots of new construction, too. The camper is really a minivan tricked out with a mattress on a fold-out plywood base, not very good for a camper as it turns out but very good considering the price. We drove north from SF across the Golden Gate bridge, through Marin to the Marin County Farmer’s Market where we whiled away a couple hours wandering around the vendors picking up some grapes & dates & some other tidbits to eat. A quick stop at Sears after that to pick up a blanket before we headed north to the Anderson Valley, where our first stop was the Lone Oaks winery. The lady there was very chatty and gave us several good tips for other places to stop while she poured us samples of her wine. Our second stop was Yorkville and our last stop at a winery that day was Bing. We stayed the night at Hendry Wood campground where it rained all night. I set up the rain fly so we could enjoy a picnic dinner of wine, crackers with hummus and some olives before turning in.

Monday morning we got some coffee at the historic Navarro general store then drove through the Navarro River Redwood Grove before stopping for breakfast at the Little River Inn, one of the good tips we got from the lady at Lone Oak. Then on to Mendocino, a hippy-dippy crafty town where we wandered from shop to shop for about an hour. A little further up the road I pulled off to see the Cabrillo Lighthouse on a whim; thought it was right there but turned out we had to hike about a mile through tick-infested grassland to get down to the point and back. Still had a nice time. We were almost killed in Ft Bragg when a truck driver who didn’t know the rules of a roundabout failed to yield to us. Turned on to the coastal highway which turned out to be one block long. Further down the main drag of Ft Bragg we stopped at the much-anticipated tasting room of North Coast Brewing, which is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Make a note. The gift shop at the brewery was open, though, and the nice lady there tipped us off to a restaurant in the harbor where their beer was served, so we went there for beer and macho nachos, a plate of nachos so big it takes macho men to eat it, or two hungry middle-aged travelers. We demolished that thing. Up the road a bit to make a stop at a the Pacific Star Winery, perched on the cliffs over the ocean where hundred-foot-tall breakers crashed ever so picturesquely against the rocks. Stayed overnight at MacKerricher state park where we could hear the surf crashing all night long, and I do mean crashing; it sounded like a continual train wreck out there and it seemed to get louder as the night went on. The gal at Pacific Star Winery said they had a big storm a day before and until then the ocean had been perfectly flat.

Got up about 8 Tuesday morning, showered & went in search of coffee. Couldn’t find any at the roadside stores & B didn’t want to go back to Ft Bragg so we went on. Found a campground at Westport where a nice woman gave us some coffee in tiny little cups but no lids so we couldn’t drink it while driving and we had some miles to put behind us that morning. Guzzled as much as we could, dumped the rest and went on. First stopped at the world-famous drive-through tree park. As we would find out later, there are about a gojillion world-famous drive-through tree parks. This particular one was the Chandelier Tree. We didn’t actually drive through it because it didn’t look like the van would fit. Bought a souvenir post card and moved on up scenic Highway 101 through Avenue of the Giants, stopping to gawk & take snapshots of the tall trees. Finally got some coffee & something to eat at the Avenue Cafe in Miranda, first meal we’d eaten since the plate of macho nachos we gobbled down at Silver’s in Ft Bragg the day before. I had the Philly cheese steak sandwich and can recommend it. Way too big. Ate the whole thing. B had jalapeno poppers, her very favorite appetizer, and a gigantic calzone. Couldn’t finish it. Wimp. Continued along Avenue of the Giants but had to double back where the road was closed for construction. Stopped at Meyer Flat so B could do some wine tasting at the River Bend Winery, then on to make a short stop at the visitor center on the Avenue of the Giants before a longer stop at Founder’s Grove to hike the loop trail & see the Dyerville Giant, a fallen redwood big as a battleship. Contemplated the grandeur of the grove, took lots of photos. On to Fortuna to sample the beer at Eel River Brewery, America’s first organic brewery but even more importantly home to some of the most delicious beers we sampled on this trip. We got a flight of a dozen beers, all they brewed. Yum. Every table had a basket of peanuts. Shuck them and throw the shells on the floor, because if you try to pile them neatly on the table the waitress will just sweep them off when she brings your beer. Spent a lovely hour or so there, then on to Trinidad. We were shooting for an RV park called Sounds of the Sea. When we got there, the lady who came out to check us in looked around and asked, “Where’s your unit?” Oh, we just have the van, I told her. “We only have spots for RVs.” Well, we just need a place to park it, don’t even need hookups. She looked at me like I was talking crazy talk, so I excused myself, got into the van and we drove a little further to Elk Country Lodge, and a good thing we did because we would’ve missed the herd of wild elk that traipses through the park morning and night. Wouldn’t have had our little dinner party of crackers and olives and wine in the laundry room that night, either.

Elk Country was a special find because we saw the herd of elk on the way in, then the herd came back Wednesday morning while we were showering & getting ready to go. They hung out in the meadow right next to the woods where we were camped. I followed them around & came back to the camp to find B had shut herself up in the van when she thought they were going to come right up to her. We left camp around eight-thirty to look for some breakfast. Stopped at the Redwood National Park entrance and picnic area to snap photos of ourselves next to the sign and the notice that the park was closed as a result of the federal government shutdown. All my life I wanted to visit Redwood National Park, and when I finally get here, what happens? We had breakfast at the Palm Cafe, and what an amazing breakfast! B had biscuits & gravy, her very favorite, and I had a stack of the fluffiest pancakes I’ve ever been privileged to stuff myself with. From there we went straight north, not making many stops until we got to Crescent City to fuel and another stop at Medford to visit the Apocalypse Brewery. It’s really hard to find because it’s in the back of a business park, looks like one of those U-Store-It units. The garage door was up but they weren’t open, didn’t open until four o’clock, so I can’t say anything about their beer, too bad. On to Ashland for a much-deserved beer and some food at Caldera, a brewpub in a cavernous metal barn where hundreds if not thousands of beer bottles are lined up on shelves up the wall. No two alike? Couldn’t tell. Checked in at Glenyan campground, then into town at about six to see the opening band before sitting down to watch Cymbaline at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. The show was on their Elizabethan stage, meaning the seats encircled the stage like the old Globe Theater and it was open to the weather on top, so naturally it rained on us. We had seats right up front by the stage which would have been the greatest if they hadn’t been right under the open roof. We got them switched for a couple seats in the balcony where it was covered, which would’ve been great if we’d started out there and hadn’t gotten wet right off the bat. We slowly froze solid in our seats until intermission, then ducked out to head back to camp where we huddled together under the quilts for warmth.

Got up Thursday morning after it rained normal rain and acorn rain on the roof of the camper all night, stopping just before daybreak. Coffee & pastry at Mix in Ashland. Picked up more picnic food at the local co-op before heading out of town to search for more vinyards. Found Dana Campbell, Grizzly Peak, Thistlecroft, and Bella Fortuna – all closed until we got to Weisinger, which was just opening their tasting room. Sampled a few, bought a few and even got them to ship all the wine we’d collected up to then. Drove on to the town of Weed, stopped at Mount Shasta Brewing for a beer & souvenirs. Mount Shasta attracted the attention of the feds back in 2008 with their motto, “Try some legal Weed,” almost got shut down until the story made national news and popular opinion swung in favor of the brewer. From there we went to the Dunsmuir Brewing Works for a bite to eat and another lovingly-crafted microbrew. Would never have found this place without GPS; it’s all but hidden in a small storefront building that was maybe once a gas station and almost looks to be shut up and abandoned. Glad we made the effort to find it. I had a ploughman’s platter that filled me up: salmon that was smoked in-house, sausage, shrimp, peppers, two kinds of cheese and a hot demibagette with butter. B had an elk burger, perfectly grilled medium rare. Finally, drove up to Lake Shasta to look for a camp site. We wanted a camp fire that night but the first place we stopped was way back in the woods & had no fire rings. The next place was in a national park but appeared to be open anyway. We checked one more place that wasn’t as nice, so back to the national park after stopping at a gas station to fill up the tank, a bag of marshmallows and enough fire wood to build a roaring fire that burned long after the sun set. Toasted marshmallows are delicious with Sangiovese.

Up early Friday morning, stopped at a strip mall in town for coffee and a breakfast sammie. Had to hit the road and drive drive drive to get to Chico in time for Oktoberfest at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Checked in to a hotel, cleaned up, walked down to the bus stop to pick up the shuttle that Sierra Nevada was running all evening. Got there about a half-hour before the fest opened, guy who was taking tickets chatted us up, was pretty surprised when we told him we came all the way from Madison. Great time. Food, beer & souvenir mug included in the modest price of the ticket. Drank plenty of beer, but not too much. Danced the chicken dance. That’s apparently a must at this event. Went back to the hotel around ten and slept like a baby, and how did that come to mean a good night’s sleep, by the way? Our boys slept in fits and starts and hardly ever through the night. Weird.

Saturday morning we booked a room in San Francisco. We talked about this the night before while we were getting cleaned up before Oktoberfest. A hotel room near the airport would make everything so much easier: we could drop off our bags at the hotel, return the van, spend a little time in the city, then catch an airport shuttle from the hotel. And that’s what we did. After dropping off the van we rode the light rail train into San Francisco to see a little more of the town. Went to the Thirsty Bear for a rack of tasters, the world’s greatest nuts and B’s favorite, duck sausage-stuffed olives, fried. Then on to Southern Pacific in the section of the city that was all warehouses surrounded by razor wire. Not sure if they were trying to keep something out or in. Didn’t look like a bad part of town, just not a populated part of town. Southern Pacific was on a dead-end street where a casual stroller would never find it. In spite of its location, it appeared to be one of the most popular hangouts in the Mission District. Got carded at the door; long time since that’s happened. Also a long time since I’ve been to a bar where Devo was playing on the stereo. After wolfing down a basket of fried washed down with house-made heffe and pilsner, our challenge was getting back to the hotel. Had to walk ten blocks through deserted streets of the warehouse district to a bus stop where we waited for almost an hour watching the wrong buses pass by. Finally our bus showed up twenty minutes late. After a thirty-minute bus ride we jumped off and still had to walk a block and a half to our hotel.

Packed Sunday morning after complementary breakfast in the lobby. Thought we did a pretty good job until we checked in at SFO & were told our check-through bag was overweight. Get it down to fifty pounds or pay $100, they said. We got it pared down to exactly fifty pounds. Then off to find a pub where we could finish our trip the way we started, with the now-traditional Bloody Marys. L’chaim!

SF vacation | 10:18 am CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, travel, vacation
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Sunday, October 6th, 2013

The very best thing about staying the night in a hotel on the last day of your vacation, in case I haven’t said it enough, is getting a good night’s sleep on a real bed, then a hot shower, and finally not having to clean up the mess you make. Not that we make a huge mess, it’s just that I get a real bang out of not having to clean up the bathroom. I’m easily amused.

One of the worst things, and sometimes the very worst thing about staying in a hotel is the complimentary breakfast in the morning. I’m grateful that most hotels offer one, because it means there will at least be coffee, but at a lot of the hotels I’ve been to they barely make a token effort, and at a few the effort has been not just wasted but actually seems to have been counterproductive. One place we stayed at had nothing but multicolored kids’ breakfast cereal, spotted bananas, and a tray of soggy doughnuts.

But most of them at least have a waffle iron, which I’ll always line up for because it makes probably the safest food in the place, and also because waffles. Who doesn’t like waffles? Stupid people who don’t know how to properly butter them, then drench them in way too much syrup. I like banana slices on top of mine so I can pretend I’m eating something that’s good for me, but I’m okay without the banana, just so long as I have enough syrup. And by “enough,” I mean the whole damn pitcher of syrup. Don’t even ask if I’m done with it. That’s the one thing majorly wrong with the waffles that come with the complimentary breakfast at hotels: those teeny-tiny little plastic cups that the syrup comes in. I have to open at least five or six just to get a corner of the waffle damp enough so I can start eating.

Our cab ride to the airport was positively batshit crazy. It wasn’t supposed to be a cab ride, for a start. The hotel advertised that they had an airport shuttle that would pick us up at the front door and deliver us to our airline check-in desk. There was even one of those double-wide shuttle buses parked right outside the window of our room, so naturally we assumed that’s what would meet us at the curb after checkout shortly after eleven o’clock. While we were waiting at the curb, though, an all-black minivan, with the oddly incongruous name of the Yellow Cab company painted across the door, pulled up to the curb, and out of the driver-side door popped its Asian-American driver. Remember Egg Shen, the wizard slash bus driver in the movie Big Trouble In Little China? This cab driver was Egg Shen’s spitting image.

“You going to the airport?” he asked us.

“Well, yeah, but we’re waiting for the hotel shuttle,” we answered.

“To the airport?” he repeated. “You going to the airport?”

“Is this the airport shuttle?” My Darling B asked him.

“To the airport, right,” he confirmed.

“So, just to make sure, ah – how much?”

There was no charge. It really was the airport shuttle. Egg was a contract driver who came with his own transportation. The shuttle bus parked out front of the hotel was apparently just for show.

Egg loaded our bags into the back of his van and, after we climbed into the passenger seats, he took off down the road like he was driving the getaway car for a bank heist. Then, while he was evasively weaving through traffic at high speed, his cell phone rang. He casually flipped it out and started jabbering into the bluetooth earpiece sticking out of his right ear while almost, but not quite managing to keep the van between the white lines of whatever traffic lane he may have believed he was driving in. When he was done with that call, he picked up his cell phone and made another call, and then another, talking with who I can only presume was his dispatcher. He kept up a constant patter with his caller as we approached the airport and hardly missed a beat as he made a dramatic entrance by swerving at the very last moment through a gap between a couple of concrete Jersey barriers. I was sure he’d gone too far, maybe even gone past it and would have to find another gap, but he was just as sure – well, turned out to be a bit more sure than sure that he was going through it. I clenched my teeth for the impact that never came. When I opened my eyes, we were parked curbside and Egg was getting out to unload our bags.

I should note that we were smugly self-satisfied all morning about the fact that we were able to pack all the crap we’d collected during the past fortnight into our luggage. That sweet smugness quickly evaporated when we tried to check our bags at the airline counter and were told by Edward, our very helpful agent, that our check-bag was twenty-five pounds overweight. We could pay the overweight charge and check it as is, or we could slip out of line to redistribute our belongings among our carry-on bags if we liked.

“How much is the overweight charge?” My Darling B asked, just out of curiosity, I guess, because I knew she had no intention of paying it.

“One-hundred dollars,” Edward informed us brightly with his best, most professional smile.

So we stepped out of line, dragging our overweight bag to the empty end of the airline counter, cracked it open and laid it, open-faced, on the floor, then stepped back and rubbed our chins in deep thought. Kidding. We pretty much gutted it without thinking much, gouging great big wads of dirty clothing out, collecting all the printed matter in a heap, then divvying up the souvenirs. If you’re thinking that “souvenirs” might be a euphemism for “beer,” you know us too well. The biggest troublemakers were three full twenty-two ounce bottles of high-gravity beer, or “bombers” (thank goodness I didn’t slip and call them that in the airport), and an empty sixty-four ounce flip-top growler. Once they were safely parked, we stuffed the wads of clothing back in basically as padding.

Because we were at an unused station at the airline check-in counter, I laid the suitcase on the scale as we stuffed everything back in, keeping one eye on the readout to make sure we didn’t go over the magical hundred-dollar limit. When we were within a pound or two, we would try to latch the bag shut, fail and have to re-shuffle the contents a bit, try to latch it again, fail, re-shuffle, and repeat until those latches finally clicked shut. Then we had to find a place in our carry-on luggage for all the stuff that was left over. It was pretty simple, really: What we absolutely had to take back went in the bags, and anything else made a one-way trip to the garbage can. Done.

After checking our bag and shuffling through security in our stocking feet, we hiked to our terminal, found our gate and let out a deep, exhausted sigh, wondering what to do with the next couple hours we had before our plane boarded. Lucky for us there was a bar next to our gate where we could not only soak up a couple Bloody Marys, the drink that has become traditional at the beginning and end of each of our trips to the farthest reaches of these United States, but there were also electric outlets close by so we could plug in our phones and live-blog our little party to all our Facebook friends.

The last glitch in our trip home was that we weren’t seated together on the plane and no amount of sweet-talking from My Darling B could get the good employees of American Airlines to rearrange the seating assignments. I sat directly behind B, so I entertained her and my fellow passengers during the four-hour flight home by doing things like sticking caterpillars down the back of her dress and dipping her pigtails in the inkwell.

California Day 10 | 6:00 pm CDT
Category: food & drink, travel, vacation | Tags: ,
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Saturday, October 5th, 2013

Another change of plans – not that we ever had a solid plan to begin with, but when we flew out to California, the rough idea was that we would stay in a hotel in San Francisco for the first two nights. Then, after we rented a camper, we would overnight at state and national parks as we drove north up the coast and south back down to San Francisco. We believed this was extraordinarily clever of us, because state and national parks are cheap. Yeah, when they’re open.

We scoped out all the parks along our route so we could easily find a place to stay no matter where we ended up on a particular day. And we even stuck to our plan for the first couple days, but we can sometimes be kinda inconsistent, and then there was the government shutdown thing. Actually, I’m going to blame it mostly on the government, just out of spite. Why not? But according to the plan, we were going to camp right up to and including our last night in California, somewhere near San Francisco, then get up in the morning, clean up as best as we could, drop the camper off and call a taxi to the airport.

Well.

After getting a good night’s sleep on a real bed in Chico, we talked it over for, oh, maybe a solid two or three minutes, and discovered that we were both of a mind to get another good night’s sleep in a hotel in San Francisco, preferably one that was close to the airport. We could drop off the camper as soon as we got there, spend the rest of the day in the city, be guaranteed a hot shower in the morning and head straight to the airport. Done deal.

But before we left Chico, we had to off-load a whole bunch of glassware that we’d collected along the way as souvenirs. A wine glass here or there doesn’t seem like much, but altogether it weighed a shit-ton and took up way more space than we had in our suitcases. Not a problem, though. We, in our cunning little minds, had already anticipated this. We found a UPS store in a strip mall in Chico, stacked all our glasses and bottles on the counter and asked the guy to send it back to our little red house in Wisconsin.

He seemed puzzled by our request. Not because we asked him to put stuff in a box and have it delivered, but apparently because of the shear volume of stuff. It was obvious that this was the first time anyone had ever asked him to do anything like this. It took him ten or fifteen minutes to wrap his head around the project before he began to arrange the glassware on the countertop, fitting them together like puzzle pieces. Then got out his tape measure to see if he had a box big enough to hold them. When his first try didn’t satisfy him, he rearranged everything, measured it again, shuffled a few pieces around and re-measured, et cetera forever and ever. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to take as long as it did. I figured we’d drop it off, he’s say “fifty dollars” or whatever, we’d pay him and that’d be it. When he was finally confident that he could pack it, he rang up an estimate of a hundred twenty dollars. We were visibly deflated, but by then we’d been standing there watching this guy for about an hour, and we knew we weren’t going to get it into our bags, so we paid him just to get the hell out of there. And that’s how we ended up with a collection of the most expensive wine glasses and beer glasses ever purchased by anybody anywhere.

Finally on the road again, B searched teh intarwebs for hotels while I drove back. She could do that because we set up our phones to be wifi hot spots. It was an arrangement that worked really well: B could navigate by keeping one eye on the little blue dot that crawled across Google maps as we drove down the road, or she could open a browser window to ask The Google where we could get a cold beer, a hot meal, or camp supplies, or even try to find out what the hell that big ugly animal in the road was, and so on.

B found a hotel that was not only close to the airport and offered a complimentary taxi ride, it was also about fifty yards from a bus stop and B could book a room on-line. Score! As we got closer to the city, we pulled over at one of those do-it-yourself car wash places to clean out the van with a giant super-suck vacuum cleaner, then went on through Oakland and crossed into San Francisco across the bay bridge. With B navigating from the right seat, finding the hotel was quick and easy.

After checking in and dropping our bags and assorted junk in the room, we drove across town to drop off the van. This was B’s first visit to the part of town called Dogpatch, mostly abandoned lots and warehouses that were slowly being taken over by growing businesses. We were supposed to leave the van in the lot behind a warehouse and drop the keys in a drop box, but the keys were attached to a fob that was too thick and wouldn’t fit through the slot. Funny, they didn’t mention that when they gave me instructions for returning the van. Somebody else must’ve noticed that before. I tried calling but there was no answer, so we left the keys locked in the van and walked back to the nearest streetcar stop.

A Flight of Beers at the Thirsty Bear brewpub, San Francisco CA

There were a couple of brewpubs in the city that we had pegged to visit: Our first stop was the Thirsty Bear, because B said they had the world’s greatest nuts. It had something to do with the way they were glazed. I thought they were okay, but give me a dish of roasted pistachios and I’m pretty happy with that. A dish of nuts wasn’t going to hold us over until we got something else to eat, though, so B asked for a plate of fried olives stuffed with duck sausage. I like to try new things, and I like just about anything with duck in it, but that sounded to me like the cook was just trying to be weird. Nothing weird about the beer, though. That was just tasty.

beer and fries at Southern Pacific Brewery San Francisco CAOur second stop was Southern Pacific Brewing somewhere in the heart of what must have been the industrial center of the city. The brewery itself occupied most, if not all of a former warehouse and was surrounded by other warehouses that have not been altered much since they stopped being warehouses, if they ever stopped, except that maybe one or two had a new coat of paint or a new fence topped by freshly-strung razor wire. We saw very few other people as we wandered the streets looking for the brewery, and I got the unsettled feeling that we were in a part of town that we should not have been in, but B kept telling me to relax as she pointed us down one street after another, The Google guiding us to our destination.

Southern Pacific was on a dead-end street; a casual stroller would never find it. In spite of its location, it appeared to be one of the most popular hangouts in the district. A block away, I got the impression that we were in a mostly-abandoned part of town, but as we turned the last corner we were suddenly swallowed up by a converging throng of smartly-dressed people heading in the same direction. They were almost all young people; B and I both got carded at the door. It’s been a long time since that’s happened. It’s also been a long time since I’ve been to a bar where Devo was playing on the stereo.

The place was packed, inside and out. Even so, B somehow managed to snag a table on the patio. It was a beautiful night, just warm enough to relax under the stars with a couple glasses of house-made heffe and pilsner and a basket of fried noshies to share between us.

It was fully dark by the time we left. Getting back to the hotel didn’t seem like much of a challenge at first: We had to walk maybe five or six blocks to the nearest bus stop, and the rest was virtually automatic. The streets around the brewery seemed even more deserted than before, though, and we saw nobody except for the occasional axe murderer hanging out in a doorway, or serial killer pushing a grocery cart stacked with body parts. B told me I was being paranoid, but she was walking as fast as I was.

We cooled our jets for a little more than an hour at the bus stop, watching every bus but the one we wanted whiz by, one after the other. When our bus finally showed up, it was twenty minutes late, or at least I think it was. The schedule apparently wasn’t worth much. After a thirty-minute bus ride we jumped off and discovered that we had to walk a block and a half to our hotel. Not too bad, but not as close as we thought. Whatever. It was still a good day.

California Day 9 | 6:36 am CDT
Category: beer, brewpubs, food & drink, travel, vacation | Tags: , , ,
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Friday, October 4th, 2013

Shasta Lake CA

Had to hit the road as early as possible this morning and drive, drive, drive to get to Chico in time for Oktoberfest at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Quite a lot of our drive took us through the area around Shasta Lake, gorgeous to look at but it’s part of a national park, right? Everywhere we went, we saw rangers standing vigil over sawhorses draped with signs that all said, “Go Away! Your government doesn’t want you to have fun today.” So hitting the road was about all we did until Chico. No sight-seeing today.

After a week of sleeping on the lumpy futon in the little hobo camper, we decided last night that we would splurge when we got to Chico and check into a hotel, where we could have an indecently long, scalding-hot shower before we went to the festival and sprawl on a king-sized bed when we got back. It would probably have been the best plan we made all week, if we hadn’t already planned to spend the day at the Sierra Nevada brewery, drinking beer and eating bratwurst with lots of sauerkraut. I had the sauerkraut. B doesn’t like sauerkraut, so her plan wasn’t as good as mine was.

The good folks at Sierra Nevada chartered a bus that ran from downtown Chico to the brewery and back, so all we had to do to get there was take a short walk, maybe four or five blocks through what looked like the central shopping district of the city. As we ambled slowly toward the bus stop, we notice a surprisingly large number of people camped out on the pavement. What was especially odd about them was that almost none of them asked us if we had money. They just watched us, very intently, as we walked by. Turns out this creeps me out way more than when they ask.

The bus that picked us up was one of those fifteen-passenger vans that hotels use to drive you to the airport. There was almost nobody waiting for it when we got there, but by the time it left, it was chock full o’ people. The driver dropped us off at the brewery about a half-hour before the fest opened its gates, so our busload ended up at the front of the line. A guy who came out to take tickets and put wristbands on us so we could waltz right in when the gates opened. He chatted us up while he worked and was pretty surprised when we told him we came all the way from Madison for this.

The fest was in a big tent set up behind the brewery, and when I say “big,” I mean it’s one of the man-man objects that can be seen from the moon. Off-the-scale big. Vast would not be too much exaggeration. I didn’t take the trouble to count, but I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that there were at least two hundred picnic tables in there, and there was still room left over for a stage up front where three or four bands took turns playing, to say nothing of the tables and booths in the back where they were selling merch. Really, really big.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Chico CA Oktoberfest

The tent was in a field alongside the brewery and the end of rows of hop poles that stood empty this late in the year. One side of the tent, the side that was facing a semi trailer where they were dispensing their beer, was open to the field. We each collected a big glass mug as we entered and something like five or six tickets, made our way straight through the tent, out the side and across the field to the trailer where nice young people were tapping beers and handing them across trestle table set up all along the side of the trailer. If memory serves, I asked for a glass of their Märzen first, the brew that they and every other brewery sells as their Oktoberfest seasonal. Sierra Nevada makes a Märzen that is even more deliciously refreshing after you’ve been driving all morning.

We found a seat at a table along the open side of the tent where we could hear the band, watch people go by, and watch the sky slowly fade from bright blue to twilit shades of purple and navy blue. I got my mug refilled twice (I’m pretty sure), once with a crisp lager and later with more Märzen; they both went down well. I’m sure there was a brat in there somewhere. Right after we came in, I think, but who cares? We were there for the beer.

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest Chico CAThe beer, and the chicken dance! The highlight of the night was when I got to dance the chicken dance with My Darling B. Apparently it’s as much a tradition at this event as the beer is. I think every band that climbed up onto the stage played it at least once; I think one of them played it several times. Turns out I’m pretty bad at doing the chicken dance; I keep mixing up the order of the flapping and the cheeping and whatever else it is you’re supposed to do, but I always got the part right where I linked arms with B and ran around in a circle, and that was the most fun anyway, so I win.

We went back to the hotel at around ten and slept soundly as a couple of babies. Tell me, how did that come to mean a good night’s sleep, by the way? Our boys slept in fits and starts and hardly ever through the night. Weird.

California Day 8 | 8:34 pm CDT
Category: beer, festivals, food & drink, travel, vacation | Tags: ,
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Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

All night Wednesday and into Thursday morning it rained two kinds of rain: normal rain and acorn rain. We were parked at a campsite under an oak tree, y’see, and it was autumn, so every time the wind came up even just a little bit, the roof of the camper was pelted by a hail of acorns. It was like trying to sleep inside a snare drum. And yet, we still managed to sleep somehow.

After checking out of the campground, we went back to Ashland to look for a place to get some breakfast. There’s a kind of trendy coffee shop in Ashland called Mix Sweet Shop. We knew it was trendy but we like trendy so we went there anyway, ordered some sticky sweet morning rolls and a couple big mugs of coffee. After filling our bellies and warming up on java, we both decided we’d have to give it rave reviews, just like all the other Yelpers, but at the same time we felt a little underdressed in our rumbled sweatshirts and blue jeans, like maybe we should have been wearing yoga pants or spandex running gear.

We had to spend one more night in the wild, and B wanted to make s’mores over a camp fire, so we stopped at a local co-op before leaving town to pick up picnic food, marshmallows and graham crackers. B was – how shall I say this without getting pelted by rotten cabbages? – a happy camper.

Then we went in search of more vineyards. And we found, oh, a few: Dana Campbell, Grizzly Peak, Thistlecroft, and Bella Fortuna – but they were all closed, apparently because it was too early in the morning or too late in the season. But when we pulled up in front of Weisinger vineyards they were just opening the doors to their tasting room, so we hung around there for a while, sampling their wine and buying a few bottles of the ones we liked best. Bonus points to Weisinger: They ship wine, and they don’t care where you bought it, so we dredged all the bottles out of the bilge of our camper and brought them inside, where they packed everything up, took down our address and promised us we’d get our wine delivered to our door. And we did, all in good shape, a little more than a week after.

Mount Shasta Brewing Weed CA

After that we hit the road and drove for a while, crossing over the border into California as far as the town of Weed before we stopped at the Mount Shasta Brewing Company to stretch our legs and maybe quaff a beer or two. Because it’s in the town of Weed, Mount Shasta has adopted the motto, “Try legal Weed,” which apparently attracted the attention of the feds and almost got them shut down until the story made national news and popular opinion swung in favor of the brewer. Now they put it on all their souvenir t-shirts and hats.

From there we went a bit further on to the Dunsmuir Brewing Works to get a bite to eat and another lovingly-crafted microbrew. We would never have found this place without GPS; it’s all but hidden in a small storefront building that looked like maybe it was once a gas station and still kinda looks a lot like it’s shut up and abandoned. Good thing we made the effort to find it, though. Their ploughman’s platter filled me up in the best way: salmon that was smoked in-house, sausage, shrimp, peppers, two kinds of cheese and a hot demibagette with butter. B had an elk burger, perfectly grilled medium rare. And, of course, beer.

It was getting late by the time we hit the road again, so we drove up to Lake Shasta to look for a camp site. We wanted a camp fire that night but the first place we stopped was way back in the woods & had no fire rings. The next place, Antlers RV Park, was in Shasta-Trinity National Park – still closed by the feds, remember? BUT it appeared to be open. We checked one more place that wasn’t as nice, then went back to Antlers after stopping at a gas station to fill up the tank and grab a bundle of firewood. It was open! There were four or five other campers there, and they said that before the rangers left, they could stay as long as they wanted. So we slipped thirty dollars under the door, picked out a nice camp site not too far from the bathroom (it pays to plan ahead) and built a roaring fire that burned long after the sun set. We had one bottle of wine set aside in the camper that we popped open and shared as dusk deepened into night and all the stars came out. Turn out that toasted marshmallows are delicious with Sangiovese.

California Day 7 | 8:13 pm CDT
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Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Woke up this morning, rubbed the sleepers from my eyes, tumbled out of the van and went staggering up the road to the office-slash-general store to get a cup of coffee.

Halfway back to our camp site I slowed to a stop as I caught sight of B standing just outside the van, binoculars in hand, getting quickly back into the van and closing the door behind her.

Turning to see what she might possibly be looking at that would make her seek the safety of the car, I noticed an elk standing among the trees. Then I noticed a couple more elk just beyond the edge of the treeline. And then, finally, I noticed there was a whole freaking herd of elk slowly making its way through the field just beyond the edge of the RV park. Okay, so I missed them at first. I bet you’re not exactly Old Eagle Eye before you’ve had your coffee, either.

We found out later that they come though almost every day. And they’re used to having lots of people around. They weren’t in the least spooked by us, and a few of them came startlingly close as they made their way through an open field to the trees on the other side.

elks

Elk, by the way, are huge. You don’t realize just how big they are until one of them is close enough to spit in your eye. Or stomp you like the bug you are.

After the excitement was over and we had all our crap packed up, we hit the road to look for some breakfast. On the way, we stopped at the entrance to Redwood National Park to take a few selfies with the notices that the park was closed due to the federal government shutdown. I was on vacation, so why did I care? Oh, I am so glad you asked. Because: Of all the places in California I’ve wanted all my life to visit, Redwood National Park was in the top five. This was my third visit to California, but only the first time I was close enough to the park to stop by. And what happens? The doot-brains in Washington get into a pissing contest and shut down everything, even the parks. When the feds shut down a park, they don’t just tell the guys in the Smokey hats to take the week off. No. They make the rangers set up sawbucks to block the entrances, then stand outside them and turn away visitors. No trees for you! Natural beauty is off limits this week! Thanks, federal government, for availing yourself of yet another opportunity to reinforce my opinion that you’re a sack of bastards.

You know what? We camped in one of your goddamn campgrounds anyway. Up yours!

government shutdown

Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself. We stopped at Antlers the last night we camped in California and found three or four other campers at the site who said all the forest rangers packed up and left when the feds shut everything down. Before they left, though, they told the campers that what they didn’t see, didn’t happen. The bathrooms were open and the lights were on, so we slipped thirty bucks under the door of the office and stayed for the night. The photo I took of My Darling B expressing her outrage at The Man for shutting everything down was too good not to share it with you at this point in the story, though. Now, back to Wednesday.

We had breakfast at the Palm Cafe and Hotel in Orick, and it was amazing! Their hospitality was top-rate from the moment we walked in the door. The host greeted us right away and showed us to a table by the window in the morning sunshine where he poured us a couple mugs of hot coffee and made sure they never got cold the whole time we were there. B zeroed in on the biscuits & gravy, her very favorite thing to order any time it appears on the menu, and she was very happy with the freshly-made biscuits and generous portion of gravy she got. I had a stack of the fluffiest pancakes I’ve ever been privileged to stuff myself silly with. We were both well and truly serensified by the time we climbed back into the van to hit the road.

Welcome to OregonFrom Orick we went straight north, or as straight as the twisting road would let us, planning to make as few stops as possible until we got to Crescent City to fuel. We made a hard right turn onto State Highway 199 out of Crescent City and crossed into Oregon shortly afterwards, making a big loop just over the border through the town of Grants Pass before heading south again.

Grants Pass, by the by, is probably not a place that you’ve ever heard of but was made famous, or maybe infamous, by the initiation of Tony Roberts into a club known as Mountain Man Anonymous in 1993. To become a member of the club, Tony let one of the club members try to shoot a one-gallon fuel can off his head with an arrow. The arrow went a little south of the mark. “Surgeons removed the arrow from Anthony Roberts’ head by drilling a larger hole around the tip at the skull’s back and pulling the arrow through,” the AP story explained, which has to be the single most ewww-inducing sentence ever printed in an Associated Press news item. I used to carry it around in my wallet for years so I could read it to people just to watch them squirm.

We did not plan to go to Grants Pass just so I could be in the place where this happened; it was just a lucky accident.

We made one stop at Medford to visit the Apocalypse Brewery, but they weren’t open, darn it, and didn’t open until four o’clock, too late for us to hang around and still make it to the show in Ashland we were headed for, so I can’t say anything about their beer, too bad. If you go looking for it, it’s really hard to find because it’s at the back end of a business park in what looks like a U-Store-It unit. Don’t give up until you check behind the fast-food store.

Caldera Brewery Ashland OROnward to Ashland where, after driving all freaking day, we stopped for a much-deserved beer and some food at Caldera Brewing, a brewpub in a cavernous metal barn where hundreds if not thousands of beer bottles are lined up on shelves up the wall. I spent way too much time searching them to see if I could find two that were alike, then gave up after the food arrived.

Before heading into town to see the show, we checked in at Glenyan campground, an old KOA that still has the easily recognizable teepee-shaped front office. I still feel a happy little twinge of nostalgia whenever I see one of those. My family used to stop at KOAs whenever we went on our annual winter camping trip to the warmer climes of the southern states. A lot of the campsites at Glenyan were occupied by big RV trailers, most of them with pop-outs and most of them more or less permanently affixed to the property, making the tightly-packed grounds seem even cozier, but we were there just to stay the night. All we wanted, really, was a place to park and go to sleep. They let us use the rec room to charge our phones and tablets even though everything else was shut down or turned off, so bonus points, Glenyan, and thanks!

The show we were going to see in town was Cymbaline, just one of the many shows being staged at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. We picked Cymbaline because we hadn’t seen it before and because it was presented on their Elizabethan stage, an open-air theater encircled by the audience seats, sort of like the old Globe Theatre in London. Figured that would be a more authentic Shakespearian experience, somehow.

There was a stage just outside the theater where a local and apparently well-loved band was performing a few of their own numbers just prior to the start of Cymbaline, so we hung around outside the doors to see what they were like. I’m not sure how to describe their music without resorting to clichés like “drug-induced” and “hippy-dippy weirdo with a side order of dissonance.” I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I can’t say it bothered me, either. Mostly, I was just bored with it. Not so the gathered crowd; they lapped it up and cheered for more, which made me feel as though I was somehow missing something. I kept listening for it, whatever it was, but I never got it.

Because the theater was open to the weather, naturally it rained on us. Quite a lot. We had seats right up front by the stage, which would have been the greatest if they hadn’t been out in the middle of the open roof. “I’m sure it’s going to stop any minute now,” B kept saying to me, as we were slowly being soaked through to our bones, and once or twice it did seem to be letting up just a bit, but then it would start coming down again, and of course it seemed like it was coming down a little bit harder, but that was probably only because we were already wet, chattering and miserable.

We eventually found an usher and begged him to change our seats for a couple in the shelter of the balcony, which would’ve been great if we weren’t already sodden as disrags, but since we were, we slowly froze all the way through to our cores as the first two acts played out. At intermission, we ducked out to the car, cranked up the heater as high as it would go and headed back to camp where we huddled together in a tightly-knotted ball under the quilts. I didn’t start to feel warm again until just before daybreak.

California Day 6 | 8:06 pm CDT
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Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Humboldt Redwoods State Park CA

Tuesday morning we managed to pack up all the camp stuff and take a shower without the benefit of coffee. One of the challenges of camping is testing yourself to the extreme and finding out what you didn’t know you could do, like getting out of bed without an alarm clock, communicating a coherent thought before coffee, or taking a shower outdoors.

Okay, the showers weren’t technically outdoors. There was a bathroom outbuilding, the kind that’s pretty standard at just about any state park: unpainted cinder block construction with no windows, unless you count the screened-over vents between the tops of the walls and the edge of the roof as windows.

This is going to sound really weird, but actually I enjoy a hot shower a lot more when I’m standing on a cold slab of concrete in a shower stall made of cinder blocks. I don’t especially like the part before, when I have to very carefully hang everything up so it won’t get wet or dirty; or the part after, when I have to step gingerly through cold puddles of water as I’m trying, and failing, to dry myself off. Why is it you can’t get yourself completely dry when it’s cold outside, anyway? I wish I’d paid more attention in physics class. Whatever. That part in the middle, when I’m standing in a spray of scalding hot water while I’m surrounded by cold and more cold, is just golden. I don’t want to do it often, but when I get to do it, it’s bliss.

After the chores were done and all our gear was packed up in the van, we hit the road in search of coffee. We combined the high-tech and old school methods: I used my Mark One eyeballs to scan the roadside for any sign of a coffee shop or diner while My Darling B searched teh interwebs on her tablet. After driving a few miles up the road, success! We pulled in at a campground at Westport, because every private campground’s going to have a coffee maker in the office, right? And as a matter of fact, they did. The nice woman at the desk gave us two piping-hot coffees in tiny little cups but didn’t have any lids for them. It turns out that you can’t drink coffee in your car if the cups don’t have lids. You think you can hold the cup steady, but you can’t. Physics again. Science is such a bitch.

We had quite a few miles to put behind us that morning, so we pulled to the side of the road, guzzled a couple mouthfuls of coffee, dumped the rest and went on.

Chandelier Tree Leggett CAOur first planned stop of the day was the world-famous drive-through tree park, although, as we found out later, there isn’t one world-famous drive-through tree park; there are about a gojillion world-famous drive-through tree parks. The particular one we picked out of the guide books was the Chandelier Tree near Leggett. And I didn’t drive through it, because it didn’t look like the van would fit. I got the front end in before I chickened out. If it had been my car, though, I wouldn’t have hesitated to put a few memorial dings in it. After snapping the obligatory vacation photos of the tree, we visited the gift shop to buy a souvenir post card.

Our high-priority destination that day, the one we got out of bed for, was The Avenue of the Giants, a road that runs parallel to State Highway 101 but up the opposite side of the Eel River. It’s twisty and narrow and you really can’t go any faster than about thirty miles per, which is great if you’re a tourist but not so great if you’re driving a dump truck and you’re trying to get to the construction site up the road through all the tourist traffic. These were big dump trucks pulling a dump-truck trailer, and the drivers had no qualms at all about tailgating. Ordinarily, I would have gone all passive-aggressive and slowed down to twenty-five or twenty, but because I was on a stress-free vacation and it was a sightseeing day, I pulled over to the shoulder every chance I got to stop to gawk at the big trees, take snapshots and, not incidentally, let the dump trucks pass.

We passed several hours winding our way up The Avenue of the Giants until, about halfway up the road, we finally came to the Avenue Cafe in Miranda, where we could sit down for the first meal we’d eaten since the plate of macho nachos we gobbled down at Silver’s in Ft Bragg the day before. The gal who took our order at the register warned us that it was lunch hour for the local high school and the place was going to be chock-full of teenagers in about fifteen minutes. She wasn’t kidding. They started to line up at the front door right after we sat down at our table by the window, and they were there until just before we left. Nice kids, though. It’s not like they were any trouble. There were just a whole lot of them in a tiny little restaurant. And a pretty great place to eat, by the way. I had the Philly cheese steak sandwich and can recommend it. Ate the whole thing, even though it was big enough to feed two people. B had jalapeño poppers, her very favorite appetizer, and a gigantic calzone that she couldn’t finish. Wimp.

Back on the Avenue of the Giants, we eventually got to the place all the dump trucks were headed to, a stretch of road that was all dug up. We had to double back and find a bridge to cross over the river, which happened to be at Meyer Flat, which happened to be the location of the River Bend Winery, which happened to be a winery B wanted to visit. We spent close to an hour there; the owner was pouring the samples and he liked talking about his wines.

A little further up the Avenue of the Giants we pulled off to check out the visitor center because they had one of those cross-sections of a redwood log with labels pointing out rings that corresponded to the beginning of the industrial age, the signing of the declaration of independence, Columbus’s discovery of America, and so on. Speaking of which, why is Columbus still the discoverer of America? I thought it had been proven six ways from Sunday that at least three other famous explorers discovered America before he did. I think it’s about time to re-label the redwood rings, don’t you think?

Founder's Grove, Avenue Of The Giants, California

Just up the road from the visitor’s center, we pulled off at Founder’s Grove to hike the loop trail and gawp at some big, big BIG trees. One of the biggest was nicknamed “the Dyerville Giant” because it was between 360 and 370 feet tall when it was still standing. Unfortunately, it’s not standing any more. It got knocked over by another falling redwood in a storm, and when they both hit the ground there were people in San Francisco who stopped what they were doing and said, “What the hell was that?” I took quite a few photos of it from various angles, up close, farther away, panoramic, but none of them captured the sheer size of this monster. Unless you’re standing right next to it, feeling like a bug, it’s size doesn’t register. The best I could manage was a photo of My Darling B looking like a pixie at the foot of the giant.

On to Fortuna, the home of Eel River Brewery, America’s first organic brewery but, even more important, home to some of the most delicious beers we sampled on this trip. We got a flight of a dozen beers, a sample of all the beers they brewed. Yum. And the pub itself was a lot of fun, too, and clearly very popular. Every table had a big basket of salted-in-the-shell peanuts. You were meant to shuck them and throw the shells on the floor, as everybody else was doing. If you tried to pile them neatly on the table, the waitress would just sweep them off with the back of her hand when she brought you your beers, or stopped by to ask if you needed anything. We passed a leisurely hour or so there before we moved on to Trinidad.

We were hoping to stay overnight at an RV park called Sounds of the Sea. When we got there, the lady who came out to check us in looked around and asked, “Where’s your unit?”

“Oh, we just have the camper van,” I told her, waving in the general direction of our conveyance.

She gave it the hairy eyeball. “We only have spots for RVs,” she informed me in a tone that suggested I was not of the body.

“Well,” I offered, “all we need is a place to park it for the night. We don’t even need hookups.”

She looked at me like I was talking crazy talk.

“Or if that’s too much trouble,” I went on, “I can just look for another place.” I thanked her for her time and excused myself.

As I was climbing into the driver’s seat B asked me what was going on. “They don’t take our kind here,” I told her, starting the engine.

“Our kind?”

“Hobos who camp in vans.”

Driving just a little further on, we came to Elk Country Lodge. Three guesses why they call it that. Hint: There was a real live elk in the driveway when we drove in. Just standing there, looking majestic, surrounded by tourists standing just outside their cars taking pictures. Signs in the office warned us that elk often wandered through the campground, and that we should give them plenty of room because they are wild animals. Some people need to be told that. Actually, some people need more exposure to wild animals and, if it results in a little natural selection, so much the better.

Elk Country RV Resort turned out to be a great place to stop for the night because we had the campground almost to ourselves. Not that we wanted to stay up all night blaring music on the radio and dancing on the roof of the van or anything like that; just that we liked the peace and quiet. As the evening closed in, we popped open a bottle of vino we bought during our drive up the Anderson Valley, and sat in our camp chairs snacking on the noshies that were still left from our visit to the farmer’s market. When it was finally too dark and a little too cold to sit outside, we retired to the laundry where we surfed the internet while washing underwear. It doesn’t take much to please us.

California Day 5 | 8:03 pm CDT
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Monday, September 30th, 2013

We woke up Monday morning with a deep, gnawing craving for coffee and no way to make it, something the guys who converted our van into a camper overlooked. A Mister Coffee in place of the sink in the back would be a huge improvement, I would think. Meant to leave them a note about that but I’m pretty sure I forgot.

After packing up, we left Hendy Wood Campground to search for a coffee shop or a diner open for breakfast but couldn’t find one within a stone’s throw of the campground, so eventually we settled for the boiled coffee they served at a roadside general store in Navarro, good enough to hold us over until we stopped for breakfast.

Navarro River Redwoods State ParkWe were traveling the road to the coast up the Navarro River valley. The road was narrow and winding, and redwoods grow thick and tall on both sides. This is the Navarro River Redwoods State Park, probably the longest, thinnest state park we’ve ever visited. On the map, it’s a long, green strip just a little wider than the road. It might have extended to either side of the road only as far as we could see, but while we were driving through it, it seemed as though we were deep in a primeval forest. Well, one that had an asphalt road laid through it, but still. We pulled off to the side of the road several times to crane our necks upward and gape in slack-jawed wonder at how tall the trees were. We found out later that these were just the babies; the really big ones were up the road further.

We stopped for breakfast at the Little River Inn, a hotel and restaurant on the coast just south of Mendocino that the friendly lady at the Lone Oak winery recommended to us, one of the better tips we got on this trip. It’s a beautiful place and obviously very popular; there were a lot of people in the dining room for breakfast who drove there just for breakfast. The main dining room’s got big picture windows looking back into the forest, and the small dining room that we sat in had a view of the coastline. Most of the rooms are strung out along a long porch that overlooks the coast, too. It’d be a beautiful place to stay the night.

After breakfast, we drove on just a couple miles to Mendocino, a hippy-dippy crafty town where we wandered from shop to shop for about an hour. The touristy part of town is just a few blocks facing the coastline and all the shops are crafty. It’s like being in a Ben Franklin’s that’s as big as three or four city blocks.

Point Cabrillo LighthouseA little further up the road I pulled off to see the Cabrillo Lighthouse on a whim. I had never heard of it before; we were on our way to Fort Bragg to see Glass Beach; but lighthouses always look so romantic and lonely and historic that I couldn’t just drive past the road sign pointing the way without thinking to myself that I would always wonder why hadn’t stopped, so off we went.

I had the impression in my mind that it would be right off the highway, because we were within eyeshot of the coast; I could see waves and water from the road, and the sign didn’t say it was miles away, which it turned out it was. We went humming along a twisting backroad for so long that I started to feel that maybe someone had played a joke on us with that road sign, until we came to the parking lot where we had to leave the van and take a mile-long hike through tick-infested grassland to get down to the rocky point where the lighthouse stood. Really, there were signs everywhere warning us to stay on the path or be ravaged by ticks. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing left and right off the path, my eyes searching the more prominent grassy patches for exsanguinated corpses.

The lighthouse is a museum now but, sadly, you can’t go up the stairs to the light and stand by the rail to get a view of the coast. You can get dangerously close to the rocky cliff’s edge to take a selfie while the breakers undermine the ground beneath your feet, though. After reviewing the exhibits explaining the history of the lighthouse and the people who tended it, we opted to return to the parking lot up the road that we could have driven down to get to the point but somehow overlooked. Not that we regretted it. It was a beautiful day and we poked our heads into an outbuilding stuffed full of aquariums filled with starfish, snails and crabs, and I toured the house where the lightkeeper lived with his family.

The day’s biggest letdown was Glass Beach, really the only tourist destination we had planned to make on this leg of the trip. It’s advertised as a magical place where glass from thousands of broken bottles has washed up on the shore, then were pounded into multicolored pebbles by the waves. In all the tourist books, it’s described as one of the must-see places along the northern California coast, but either we couldn’t find it in spite of detailed signage and well-worn pathways, or years and years of visits by sticky-fingered tourists have resulted in the disappearance of all the glass. We looked up and down the beach for any sign of glass, but could find only sand, rock and kelp. No joy.

Glass Beach, Ft Bragg CA

Our visit to Ft Bragg started with a dump truck driver who didn’t know how to drive through a roundabout and nearly ran us over. Welcome!

Further down the main drag of Ft Bragg we stopped at the much-anticipated tasting room of North Coast Brewing, which is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Make a note. The gift shop at the brewery was open, though, and the nice lady there tipped us off to a restaurant in the harbor where their beer was served, so we went there for beer and a menu item called “macho nachos,” a plate of nachos so big it takes a busload of macho men to eat it. Or two hungry middle-aged travellers. We demolished that thing.

Just a little further up the road, we stopped at the Pacific Star Winery, perched on the cliffs over the ocean where breakers that appeared to be about a hundred feet tall crashed ever so picturesquely against the rocks. The gal pouring samples of wine said they had a big storm the day before that churned the sea up a bit. Before that, it had been flat as milk on a plate.

Stayed overnight at MacKerricher State Park, where we could hear the surf crashing all night long, and I do mean crashing; it sounded like a continual train wreck out there, and it seemed to get louder as the night went on. After hiking all day in the fresh air through tick-infested meadows and along the glass beach that wasn’t there, we were tired enough that it didn’t matter, and slept just fine.

Pacific Coast

California Day Four | 6:30 am CDT
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Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

image of MHTG brew schoolOn Wednesday nights, the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild usually meets at the Wil-Mar Community Center to, y’know, learn more about beer. Last night, though, they met on the premises of Madison’s newest brew pub, Next Door Brewing Co, to learn about their beer. Next Door is so new that all of their beer was still fermenting, but Keith Symonds, Next Door’s brewmaster, was happy to talk about the beer he’s making as the MHTG members crowd into his kitchen to listen.

Brew School – Next Door Brewing | 5:53 am CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play, restaurants | Tags:
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Monday, August 19th, 2013

image of hopsRiding my bike to work this morning, I spotted this towering pillar of hops growing in the community gardens just off Atwood Avenue. Some enterprising homebrewer is making the most of his garden plot! Wish I knew who he was so I could ask him how to tend a hop plant as successful as this one is.

I rode the 6.5 mile commute in just under 30 minutes and only three bikers passed me along the way. Of course, I saw only five or six other bikers the whole trip, but still.

I pedaled like a maniac on the way home trying to better my time but the best I could manage was 27 minutes. Got home before B did, though.


Tower of hops | 6:53 pm CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, garden, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Sunday, August 18th, 2013

image of home-brewed beerAnother brewing day. This time I’m trying to brew an ESB, which stands for either extra-special bitter or extra-strong beer, depending on who you ask. I’m going to go with extra-strong, but only because I was careful to cut back on the bitterness. My Darling B doesn’t like bitter beers and I want her to like this one.

She surprised the hell out of me by liking the last one I brewed, a heffeweizen that I bottled yesterday. There’s always a little left over in the bottom of the pail that I pour into a glass and drink. It’s flat and it’s warm, but it’s beer and I don’t like to waste good beer. And I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was, actually, pretty good beer. When B brought some veggies into the basement from her garden to lay on the drying racks, I offered her a sip.

“What’ve you got here?” she asked, and after I told her I was trying to make a heffeweizen, she got her nose in the glass and gave it a good sniff. Her eyebrows shot up. “You know, it smells like a heffe.” Holding it up to the light, she said, “It even looks like a heffe.” Then she took a sip, sloshed it around in her mouth a bit and said, “I think you might have done it, dear. I think you may have made a heffe.” She won’t bullshit about how beer tastes, so I felt well-chuffed about that.

brewing up an ESB | 5:02 pm CDT
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Sunday, August 11th, 2013

attending the Great Taste of the MidwestTime once again for the Great Taste of the Midwest, the very best beer fest anywhere in the world, as if that has to be said. We’ve been going to the Great Taste every year for seven years now but this time around there were two significantly different changes to the way we attended.

The first and most amazingly fun change we made was that we invited Sean and Nikki, his significant other, to the event. We snagged a few extra tickets and were trying to figure out how best to spread them out amongst our friends and acquaintances when My Darling B hit on the idea. To sweeten the pot, she bought the plane tickets for them, too, and we offered to put them up in our guest room while they were here. Not too surprisingly, they snapped at the offer, arriving the Friday night before the festival.

The other big difference is that last winter I became a member of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, the group that organizes the Great Taste, mostly because I’ve really wanted to help out at the event and I’d heard that I’d stand a better chance of being allowed to volunteer my time if I was a member, so I paid my dues, waited for the call for volunteers and raised my hand high in the air when it came. And you know what? Not only did they give me a chance by letting me help the vendors set up, they let me in with the rest of the members an hour before the gates opened! Now My Darling B wants to be a member and volunteer, too. I can provide her with a good character reference if she needs it.

At the Great Taste of the MidwestI think Nikki and Sean enjoyed it more than we did, as hard as that might be to believe, although B had a pretty darned good time this year as well, disappearing into the crowds with Nikki to look for more delicious beer whenever Sean and I got distracted by bacon on a stick or an appearance by Mama Digdown’s Brass Band. Then we’d all meet up again by texting each other on our cell phones or, later in the day when our eye-hand coordination had deteriorated to the point where some of our text messages became mostly nonsense (and here I’m thinking of the already-legendary “BACON MEAT IN OUR MOUTHS!”), by agreeing that we should all meet at the picnic blanket if we got split up.

When the taps ran dry and the people began to make their way home, the two youngest members of the tribe, still full of energy and just getting their weekend started, caught a downtown shuttle to join a dance party on the roof of the Children’s Museum where one of Nikki’s friends was DJing. Wow. I probably could’ve done that when I was thirty, but we’ll never know now. The two older members of the O-Folks headed home via the taxi queue where we waited in line for the better part of an hour before being packed tightly into a Toyota Prius with two other people headed back to their hotel room in Monona. We were practically sober by the time we returned to Our Humble O’Bode and ordered the customary after-fest pizza.

Many, many thank-yous go out from Drivel HQ to Nikki and Sean for coming all the way to Madison to make our visit to the fest this year extra-special.

Great Taste 2013 | 2:42 pm CDT
Category: beer, festivals, food & drink, Great Taste of the Midwest, My Darling B, O'Folks, O'Folks friends, play, Seanster
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Monday, August 5th, 2013

This evening I found the batch of beer I brewed yesterday standing in a puddle of its own puke. Sometimes even beer itself has trouble keeping beer down.

I’d loaded the beer – wannabe beer, really – into a great big glass bottle that should have had enough room in the neck to hold every burp, belch and backwash that the gurgling brew could have thrown up it, or so I thought, but at some point during the day it suffered a case of reflux that a dump truck full of Zanax wouldn’t have been able to control.

Cleanup required a hose, a pre-soak and a green scrubbie. That beer had better taste good.

splooey | 9:03 pm CDT
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Saturday, July 27th, 2013

hot dateDinner Wednesday night at The Wise was pretty awesome, probably because I had a hot date. Also, the food was tasty. But don’t forget the hot date. Here’s a photo to remind you. Wowzers, eh?

The Wise is a very hip restaurant in the lobby of Hotel Red, which I didn’t know was a hotel even though I’ve driven past it dozens of times. It looks an awful lot like an office building. A Japanese office building, to be maddeningly precise about it. B didn’t seem to get this impression but I did. Okay, glad I got that random observation out of my head.

After we were seated, the waitress came around to welcome us and ask if we’d like to start off with any drinks. I asked for a martini. When she answered, “What kind of martini?” I wanted to go all Denis Leary in a coffee shop on her, but I didn’t. I played nice. “Gin martini,” I told her. And it was a pretty good one, too, so I’ll let them off the hook for not defaulting to gin when making a martini.

When it was time to order for the meal, I started off with a salad of field greens. That means rabbit food. Dandelions and water cress and stuff like that. You can’t call it “field greens” if the chef so much as thought about iceberg lettuce while he was preparing it. Which is not to say I don’t like field greens – I love ’em. I gobble them up like, well, a rabbit, especially when they’re drizzled with a yummy topping the way this one was. But I love making fun of them, too. If I had a restaurant and they were on the menu, I’d call them “rabbit food,” because that’s what it is and who can object to that? You want to eat healthy food? Eat like a rabbit. Honestly, it doesn’t get any more frou-frou than that.

B’s starter was gazpacho. More rabbit food. Everybody thinks gazpacho is just cold soup, but it’s not. It’s pureed veggies. A zucchini smoothie served in a soup bowl. B loves gazpacho.

All that rabbit food left plenty of room for the entree: short ribs for me, pork tenderloin for B. All free-range and grass-fed. B was the tiniest bit disappointed in her tenderloin; it was just a bit too overdone and beginning to dry out. Still very enjoyable, but not as good as it could have been. The short ribs, on the other hand, were more delicious than I could have imagined. The yummy glaze made with Guinness stout was an especially nice touch. And because presentation is everything and they wanted this to be the hippest dinner we would eat all week, the entrees were served on pieces of slate about the size of record albums, instead of on plates. Slate, as in the stuff that roofing shingles and blackboards used to be made of. First time I’ve ever eaten off a slab of slate.

Dessert was a chocolate truffle tort for me. I was going to have the citris olive cake because it was billed as “our famous citris olive cake” and I would normally try whatever dish the restaurant was famous for, EXCEPT WHEN THERE’S CHOCOLATE TRUFFLE TORT ON THE MENU! NOM NOM NOM NOM! Besides, B ordered the olive cake and she let me try a bite. It was yummy.

the wise | 7:34 am CDT
Category: festivals, food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, play, restaurants
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Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Sardine is one of our top five favorite restaurants in Madison. It’s also the one we never go to. The last time we visited, which was also the first time we visited, was two years ago during restaurant week and we’ve been saying “We gotta go back to Sardine” ever since, but for some reason we never did and I don’t know why. It’s a lovely place. The food is delicious. I was going to say “exquisite” but I didn’t want to sound pretentious. But it is. The service is absolutely top notch. And the restaurant itself is gorgeous, all done up in old wood and shiny white tile.

Last night we were lucky enough to snag a couple of seats at a table on the patio overlooking Lake Monona. The patio is a walkway just wide enough for one row of small tables screened from the parking lot by planters hanging from the handrail. The weather was so close to perfect that it makes no sense to describe it any other way: It was sunny and warm, a few fluffy clouds hung in the sky and a very light breeze kept the bugs away, if there were any.

For starters I chose the smoked whitefish croquette, even though I had no idea what that was. Something with fish in it was my guess, and a pretty good guess it was, too. I love fish, especially when it’s as tender as this creamy little chunk of flesh was.

For the entree, I had grilled salmon served on a square of fried polenta, with some grilled fennel on the side. When I cook salmon on the Weber, I put a piece of tinfoil over the grill so the meat stays nice and juicy, but the tinfoil means I don’t get that browned cross-hatching that makes it looked like it was grilled. I don’t mind, but I guess people who go to restaurants expect that, so restaurant chefs slap it right on the grill. The good ones can get away with that, but in a lot of places I’ve been the grill was so hot that it charred the outside of the meat and dried out the inside, leaving a blackened orange-ish puck with really great cross-hatching and almost nothing in the way of taste. Lucky for me the guys in the kitchen at Sardine didn’t do that. The salmon was tender and flaky and full of flavor. I even liked the fennel, and I’m not what you’d call a huge fan of the stuff.

B enjoyed the duck confit. Really enjoyed it.

I had the blueberry crostata for dessert and it was so good that I can’t remember what B had. I’m looking right at the menu this very minute and I couldn’t tell you whether she had the profiteroles or the strawberries and shortcake.

Back to the excellent service: After I finished my main dish I sat back with wine glass in hand and gazed out across the lake. The waitress happened by right about that time, stopped when she saw I was no longer eating and asked me, “May I take that away?” instead of, “You still workin’ on that?” She got an extra five percent just for that.

Sardine Madison Restaurant Week Summer 2013 | 6:02 pm CDT
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Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Porta Bella is one of the restaurants we’ve been saying for the past five or six years we have to visit, yet somehow we never got around to it until yesterday, the first night of Madison Magazine Restaurant Week, when we finally went. And, just like all those other restaurants, after our sufficiencies were serensified and we were waddling out the front door, we wondered why it took us so freaking long to get off our lazy asses and try out such a wonderful place.

First off, coat hangers: They had lots. Thank you Porta Bella, for all the coat hangers. This is a thing with me that I think we’ve already covered, but in case you came in late, I give bonus points to restaurants that have coat hangers because most of them don’t any more and there’s nothing I hate more than being forced to drape my coat over the back of a chair or on the seat of a stool, forcing me to sit on it. Nothing. Literally. Not even baby-eating politicians. And if you know anything about me, you know how much I hate those guys. So good on ya, Porta Bella.

Second, the water situation. Both My Darling B and I think it’s pretty darned important not to let a customer’s water glass go dry, and technically our waiter did manage to save his butt at the very last minute by swinging by our table with a pitcher to fill both our glasses, but just as technically My Darling B’s glass was, ahem, empty. It only cost you a point or two, but I feel obliged to point it out because I’ve dragged other restaurant staff over the coals for this, and I don’t play favorites.

(That’s a load of bullshit, for your information. I totally play favorites and I don’t care who knows it, especially if somebody feels like comping me a meal or two. Just saying.)

Now that that’s out of the way: I can’t remember when I’ve been to a restaurant that was quite like Porta Bella. The interior is all dark wood, the booths are upholstered with overstuffed brocade fabric and curtained with heavy velvet draperies, and you have to walk a labyrinthine path to get to any table in the dining room. It wasn’t just a dining experience, it was like playing Dungeons & Dragons for food. Italian food. Good Italian food.

We both ordered the bruschetta for starters. I have to say, I was a teensy bit disappointed. My Darling B thought it was delicious, and she’s got the refined palate of the family, so I bow to her pronouncements when it comes to tastiness, but I like bruschetta served on very crunchy bread, the way My Darling B makes it. This was on a very limp, not at all crunchy bread. When we go back, I’ll try something else for starters.

For the main dish I had the seafood tetrazini. In a word, Wow! When I first laid eyes on the browned cheese slathered over the broiled shrimp that crowned the dish I thought, Oh, man, those are going to be the chewiest, most overcooked shrimp EVAR, but I was as wrong as a big, fat wrongness can be. The shrimp, the scallops, the lobster and whatever other seafood was in there was cooked to perfection! Props to the cook.

B ordered the steak braciola. She even let me taste it. It was good, but I preferred the tetrazini.

For dessert, I gobbled up a slice of the toasted almond cake and washed it down with a cup of strong black coffee. Really, that’s the only way to eat dessert when you’re out on the town, but don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. You might disagree with me, but I doubt it.

B had the strawberry and almond cannoli and hungrily devoured every bit of it.

There’s really no better way to start off restaurant week than discovering a new favorite place to eat. We’ll be going to back to Porta Bella soon.

Portabella | 7:15 pm CDT
Category: festivals, food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, play, restaurants
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Saturday, July 20th, 2013

filling bottles with beerBottling Day! The second all-grain batch of beer is in bottles: six bombers and twenty pints, a respectable haul.

Still not sure what to all this batch. I’m not very good with names. It’s the batch that was supposed to be Centennial Blonde ale but I forgot to halve the recipe, so it’s a little sweeter and a lot more potent than it was supposed to be. Maybe Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster?


PGGB? | 2:36 pm CDT
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My Darling B at the farmer’s market this morning.

B goes to market

B goes to market | 11:47 am CDT
Category: farmer's market, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play
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Saturday, July 13th, 2013

Brewing Day!

brewdayThis will be my second try at brewing a light ale called Centennial Blonde. I brewed a batch of this about a week ago but forgot to halve the recipe (I was making a five-gallon batch versus the ten-gallon batch the recipe was written for), ending up with a powerfully strong soup that will I fear will be a lot more like barleywine than beer, not that that’s a bad thing. I fully intend to drink every drop of it, but I had my heart set on a batch of that blond ale so I stopped by the store on Wednesday and filled out my grain bill, half of it this time. Started in brewing this morning after coming one from the farmer’s market and finished up just in time to fire up the grill for dinner!

Centennial Blonde take two | 4:14 pm CDT
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Friday, July 12th, 2013

We just had to eat dinner at Grampa’s Pizzeria last night because it’s on Willy Street and it’s new and we’ve been chomping at the bit to see what it looks like inside and we love pizza and we were out shopping for furniture and we hate shopping and it was guy night and I didn’t have the slightest idea what to make for dinner so pizza.

Grampa’s pizza is da bomb, especially when paired with a glass of Argentinian merlot. There, that’s out of the way.

Grampa’s Pizzeria used to be Grampa’s Gun Shop. I’m not sure but I think Grampa used to live in the back and work in the small shop in the front of the building where he had a work bench set up in front of a picture window so you could see what he was working on. In all the years walking by that place, I never once spotted Grampa at work. The bench was usually strewn with tools and usually a light was on over the bench, but that was the only sign I saw that Grampa was at work in there.

When Grampa retired the place was almost immediately sold, the picture window was papered over and hints began to appear in the news that it would be turned into a restaurant. I have to admit I had my doubts. The place looked tiny. What kind of a restaurant could they possibly put in there? But we heard that Gil Altschul, the new owner, was the kitchen manager at Mickey’s Tavern, one of our favorite Willy Street hangouts, and after we heard it would be a pizza place I made sure I strolled past it every couple of days during my lunch hour to see when it would be opening so we could be one of the first customers to try it out.

The place is a lot bigger inside than I thought it was. They gutted the whole thing and the rebuild looks great. The place in the front where Grampa’s work bench used to be is a party room now; we ate dinner there last night at a communal table that appeared to be made out of six-by-six hardwood lumber salvaged from, I don’t know, a barn? A Great Lakes schooner? It was pretty substantial and pretty old, whatever it was. There’s an old-timey tin ceiling and some pretty art on the walls, and the big picture window lets in lots of light. It’s a very friendly space.

The service was great and the staff gets big bonus points for never letting our water glasses go dry. It’s a small thing but we’ve learned that there really is no better way to gauge the level of attention the staff gives you.

We ordered a pork confit for starters and that bottle of merlot I was talking about earlier. They let you cork the bottle and take it home, so we splurged and just bought the whole thing. The confit was about a dozen chunks of artisanal pork in a tiny cast-iron frying pan served with mustard and peppers, and would have been a good, light meal in itself if we both hadn’t brought big appetites. Watch out for those peppers. They seem mild at first but they sneak up on you and take you by the throat if you’re not careful.

And back to the pizza. After a bit of haggling we chose the peperone and it was awesome because it wasn’t buried in cheese, the crust was thin and crispy and the ingredients were delicious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen olives so green or tasted sauce so tomatoey, if that’s a word. Autocorrect says it isn’t, but to hell with that.

If I were forced to complain about just one thing, and unfortunately for me I rarely have to be forced to complain even a little bit, I’d have to say that the piped-in music was too loud. It was delightful, it complimented the place very nicely, but background music should never be so loud that it forces me to repeat myself while carrying on a conversation with my date. We who are trying to woo women do not appreciate that.

But that’s a nitpick. The experience of dining at Grampa’s left us both so supremely satisfied that we couldn’t stop telling one another how satisfied we were. Mazel tov, Grampa’s! Well done.

grampa’s | 6:48 pm CDT
Category: food & drink, Guy Night, play, restaurants | Tags:
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Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

fermentation chamberMonday night we went to a concert in the park and didn’t get home until around about nine-thirty, so I didn’t have time to work on my newest beer-making gadget until last night.

Harmonious Wail came to Monona to play a free gig in the park. If you ever get the opportunity to see them, even if you have to pay for it, I’d recommend that you go. They were a lot of fun. There’s Jeffo, the guy who plays bass – a bass guitar or a bass fiddle, depending on the mood I guess – and Sims, the other guy who plays either a mandolin or a guitar of one kind or another. Then there’s Maggie, who sings and plays just about anything she can lay her hands on. “Is she playing a cardboard box?” My Darling B asked me as the concert began. Yep, that’s what she was playing.

But anyway, back to the beer.

After dinner I made a trip to the store to bring home some foam insulation. I swear, the people they hire at that store are getting dumber every time I go there. The big four-by-eight sheets of pink extruded foam used to be inside the store where they keep the pre-cut plywood but apparently when they made the store bigger there wasn’t any room inside for the foam any longer, so they moved it. “Where do you keep the extruded foam?” I asked a guy at the service counter. “Uh,” he answered. “I”ll have to ask.” And he went to get somebody. Or you could look it up, I wanted to say. You’ve got a computer RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!

To get the foam home I had to cut it into two-by-four-foot pieces because that’s what fits inside the car. I’m not one of those guys that goes tootling down the road with four-by-eight sheets of plywood and other building materials laid on the roof of my car, holding on to it with one hand through the driver-side window. So with each sheet on the floor of the barn I marked off each two-foot length, scored it with a craft knife, then stood it up and snapped off the pieces while every single mosquito in Dane County zeroed in on my exposed legs. It was a close thing toward the end there whether I would be able to finish before they drained me of my last pint.

Back home I began to slice up the foam into pieces that would fill the odd-sized space under the bench. I cobbled the bench together from wood that was left over after I knocked apart an old home-made bar that came with the house and, as a consequence of trying to make the most out of a limited amount of wood, it’s sort of an odd length. I cut two pieces to double-insulate the end where the coil will be mounted, but only one layer for the back because the bench is standing against a cement wall that never gets very warm anyway. There’s just one layer on the bottom and I’ll cut just one layer for the top, too, because if I installed two layers there wouldn’t be enough space inside for the carboys to stand up.

And that’s about as far as I got last night because I forgot to buy glue when I went to the store. *facepalm*

foamy | 4:42 am CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Sunday, July 7th, 2013

Brewing the last batch with the new brewing equipment went much more smoothly than the first time. If nothing else, I spilled a lot less beer, thanks to an afternoon I spent the weekend before with a guy named Charley. I watched him connect a hose from the mash tun to the pump, then connect another hose from the pump but wait until he let some brew drain down through the hoses to prime the pump before he connected it to the brew kettle. Well, dammit, I thought. Why wasn’t I able to figure that out on my own?

Charley brews beer with his dad in his parents’ garage. He also works at The Wine and Hop Shop, a store on the west side of town that sells supplies for making, well, wine and beer. If it were on my side of town I’d shop there all the time, but as they’re so far from where I live, I get over there only every once in a while, or shop their store through the internet. Luckily, I happened to check out the web site a couple weeks before they offered an all-grain brewing class, and because I was just about to start doing that, I signed up.

Eight other guys showed up at noon in Charley’s dad’s garage to watch Charley and Charley’s dad brew beer, listen to Charley give some pointers and ask a lot of questions. I asked a lot of questions that I hope weren’t too obnoxious, but I really wanted to know what was going on and I think what I took away helped quite a lot when I brewed this last batch. It certainly made me feel a lot more comfortable about the process. Brewing beer feels like magic to me, an art that can be truly known by only the few. I may or may not be one of the few, I don’t know, but each time I do it I learn a little bit more and the process becomes a little less daunting than I thought it was before.

Centennial Blonde Ale | 7:20 am CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Friday, July 5th, 2013

brewing beerGuess what I brewed a batch of today?

Still trying to figure out what I’m doing. The gadgets work fine, it’s the process I’m still trying to get hold of in my brain. I got nearly everything right today, except for one small mishap with the hose connections. What a mess that was.

The one big thing I got wrong was the grain bill. I bought enough grain for a 10-gallon batch, then mashed it as if it were a 5-gallon batch. And the thing of it is, if I’d realized what I’d done before I drained it all out of the mash tun and started boiling it, I could’ve fixed my mistake by simply brewing a 10-gallon batch. *facepalm*

I need a beer. Oh, wait. What’s this?


brew day! | 3:46 pm CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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img of washing bottlesIf you asked me, Is there at least one thing about brewing beer that you dislike, kimo sabe? I would not hesitate a moment to answer: Washing the bottles, no question. A necessary task but a giant pain in the ass. There has got to be a robot out there to do this for me.

It’s time to bottle the hot mess that I brewed two weeks ago to find out what it tastes like. I really have no idea. I followed a recipe, sort of, but so many things went wrong that the final outcome is going to be nearly a complete surprise. It’s going to be beer, that’s all I’m sure of. Whether or not anybody besides me will want to drink it remains to be seen.

Updates to follow.

washed up | 9:22 am CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Thursday, July 4th, 2013

I am officially too tired to type, so this would of course be the perfect time to blog because why would I want this to make sense? See if you can follow me all the way to the last full stop.

My exhaustion stems from waking up sometime shortly after three o’clock this morning. There was a pot luck at work yesterday with so much good food that I have to admit that I overindulged a tad, leading to an after-midnight bout of indigestion. I sat up for a little more than an hour drinking glass after glass of water which eventually cleared my stomach and quieted my gut, but when I crawled back into I couldn’t get back to sleep. Also, I had developed a case of positively toxic gas that I had to release, but I didn’t think it was fair to do that to My Darling B, even with the ceiling fan going, so I got out of bed again just before five o’clock and put the kettle on to make a pot o’ joe.

After a cup of coffee I hopped on my bike and had a ride over to Save Big Money At Mendard’s. They opened the store as normal at six o’clock this morning but will be closing early at eight o’clock tonight due to the holiday so their employees can spend quality time with their families. I may have been the only customer in the store. I didn’t see anybody but employees, but it’s a big store, so there may have been one or two other customers hiding out in a far corner, several miles away.

My mission at Menard’s was to find brass fittings for my wort chiller. What’s a wort chiller? It’s anything you can use to bring the temperature of boiling wort down to room temp so you don’t kill the yeast that turn wort into beer. When I brewed on the stove top in the kitchen, I simply filled the kitchen sink up with water and ice and plopped the kettle in it. Later, I made a wort chiller out of 25 feet of copper pipe by wrapping the pipe around a paint can and running cold water through it.

I’ve still got that wort chiller and it still works great, but I made it for a kettle that’s just ten, maybe twelve inches deep. The electric brew kettle I use now is at least twenty inches deep, so I had to straighten some of the pipe to make a neck long enough to stick out of the top of the kettle. And it leaked, which was not a problem before because all the water dripped outside the kettle, but I didn’t want to count on that kind of luck after I re-engineered it. Hence, the search for proper brass fittings to make a leak-free connection.

I’ve complained before about how hard it is to find anything in Menard’s after they expanded the store to make it approximately as large as Montana so they could fill it with aisles and aisles of snack food and toilet paper. I wandered around for about ten minutes before I found what I was looking for. Mind you, that’s ten minutes of wandering around in the plumbing section. I wasn’t randomly wandering the aisles over in gardening, or electrical.

fittingsWhen I finally found the brass fittings, I had to figure out what I needed, which was a compression fitting that would screw into a hose barb. A compression fitting is a ring of brass that slips over the copper pipe and gets compressed by a nut that you can tighten over it. After everything’s screwed together, the pipe doesn’t leak. It’s a kind of plumbing magic that I don’t question. I’m just happy it works.

A hose barb is a brass tube that fits inside a hose on one end, and on the other end screws into a compression fitting. Or it should. Funny thing about compression fittings: The hose barbs aren’t made to screw directly into the nut. They’re made to screw into an adapter, which is made to screw into the nut, so hand over an additional two ninety-five, please. I’m sure there’s a good reason for doing it that way, other than to screw me out of a couple extra bucks. Maybe someday I’ll find out what it is.

Back at home I put everything together, hooked it up to the spigot and ran cold water through it full-blast to see how much leakage I would get. Result: None! Much happiness and joy followed. I will be even happier after I brew beer tomorrow and can dunk a drip-free wort chiller into the brew kettle.

I was finished with that before eight o’clock this morning. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so productive on a day off. But it was way too early in the day to take a nap, so I hopped on my bike again and headed north through Monona to see what kind of goodies were on sale at Batch Bakehouse. They had lots, but I had to go with my favorite, a raspberry oat bar, which I ate at one of the tables out front and washed down with a cup of freshly-squeezed orange juice before I got back on my bike and headed home.

I hadn’t intended on riding all the way around Lake Monona, but I was already halfway there so why not? Instead if turning around and heading back I went on up Williamson Street into town, around Monona Terrace and down John Nolan Drive to go home through the Waunona neighborhood. There’s a lot of places around here named with what appear to be random vowel strings.

Got home at nine-thirty. Mowed the lawn. Nothing much to tell you about there. Bet you’re relieved as hell to hear that.

After a few more chores around the house, I finally laid down around noon to see if I could get a nap. Nothing doing. How can that be? I’m dead on my feet and I can’t get some shuteye?

I laid there for an hour or so before I gave up, rolled out of bed and banged out this drivel. You’re welcome. How’d I do?

limping along | 3:24 pm CDT
Category: beer, entertainment, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

amwheat001Just pulled the switch on my first-ever all-grain brew, an American wheat beer for the hot, hot days of July that are almost here already!

Wait, half the summer is gone? What the hell?

Whatever. I got the recipe from an on-line forum and from all reports it’s eminently drinkable. Well, duh. It’s beer. But more important than that, it’s simple. Mash the grain, boil the wort, add the hops, done. Leaving me plenty of time to pat myself on the back for doing it right but also, as I so often do, to fret over what I may be doing wrong.

The first thing I did wrong, for instance, was that I didn’t crack open a brew to properly inaugurate my basement brewery. I’m probably never gonna forgive myself for that.

Anyway, wish me luck. Updates when I can make them.

amwheat002Update #1 – Lessons Learned:

1. With 5500 watts of blistering electric heat, this kettle can BOIL! THE! SNOT! out of any wort I can put into it! So it’s very important not to position it beneath the air conditioning ducts where condensed water will rain down on the kettle and all that yummy beer cooking inside. Yeah. Remember that. If I’m going to keep on doing this in the basement, and I certainly aim to, then I’ll have to find an exhaust fan that can move a shit-ton of very humid air out the window very quickly.

2. Keep track of your hops. I dropped a hop sock with 1/3 ounce Magnum hops into the boil kettle, my usual practice back in extract-brewing days, and never saw it again. When I was boiling in a two-gallon kettle, I had no problem finding a lost hop sock with my stir spoon. In a 10-gallon keggle, very big problem. Insurmountable problem, really. I was a little worried it would get hung up on the heating element and burn, but I kept checking and never found it there, so fingers crossed it didn’t hurt anything.

3. Find another way to estimate the amount of water I need. I used a calculation I found on-line to figure that I needed 10 gallons of water due to grain absorption, boil-off and so on. I didn’t need anywhere near that amount. I ended up with 8.5 gal in the keggle so I ended up needing to boil the wort one hell of a lot longer than the 1 hour that the recipe called for.

amwheat003Update #2 – Lessons Learned:

4. When walking through all the steps to make beer, don’t forget the one that goes, “Then cool the wort down from boiling to 70 degrees F, because BOILING wort kills yeast, and dead yeast don’t make beer!” How did I forget that? Or, to put the question more accurately, how did I forget to make sure I’d be able to do that step? Because I have a wort chiller, and I knew I would have to use it, but I neglected to see if it would fit inside my boil kettle, which it does, and still stick out the top, which it does NOT. If the hoses don’t stick out the top, it doesn’t work. (There’s a more technical explanation that involves melting vinyl and off-flavors in your beer, but I’m trying to keep it simple here.) So when I got to the part about cooling down the wort I had to kind of wing it, draining it into the fermentation bucket, then plunging the wort chiller into the bucket and hoping like hell it would work that way. It did. But my nerves won’t be able to take winging it no more, so I’ll have to find some other way.

And then, the cleanup. I could do without that part. Haven’t figured out how to talk somebody else into doing it for me, though.

American wheat | 9:36 am CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

There is an unresolved argument in academic circles about whether the invention of beer was the primary reason that people in Mesopotamia, considered the birthplace of Western civilization about 10,000 years ago, first became agriculturalists.

By about 3200 BC, around the time the Sumerians invented the written word, beer had already held a significant role in the region’s customs and myths. But for all the notes that Sumerians took about the ingredients and the distribution of their libations, no precise recipes have ever been found. Left behind were only cuneiform texts that vaguely hint at the brewing process, perhaps none more poetically than the Hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer.

– For Its Latest Beer, a Craft Brewer Chooses an Unlikely Pairing: Archeology, NY Times, 6/18/2013

The Sumerians worshiped a goddess of beer? Clearly this is a civilization I must learn more about.

the reason we’re here | 6:39 pm CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Friday, June 7th, 2013

Just one more reason in my very long list of reasons not to move to Mississippi any time soon.

reason


Screen shot taken from The New Yorker’s interactive map of craft breweries across the US.

just one more | 8:07 pm CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, play
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Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

Lake trout grilled on the trusty Weber for dinner tonight. I laid out two fillets on a sheet of tinfoil with a dollop of butter – *bliss!* There was a moment of doubt when it seemed as though the fire was too hot to do a proper job of cooking the fillets all the way through without burning the skin, but as it happened I caught the mistake just in time, smothered the fire and brought the Weber down to just the right temp to finish the job. My Darling B brought a dish of steamed potatoes with dill to the table. What a team we make.

lake trout dinner | 9:20 pm CDT
Category: cook-out, food & drink, play
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Well, I did not do hardly anything I planned to do today, except go out to breakfast with My Darling B, and drink beer. So the day’s not a total loss.

We went to Eldorado Grill for breakfast, first time we’ve ever been. It’s one of those places we’ve driven past almost every day for the past five years and said, “We’ve really got to stop there one of these days.” So this morning we were trying to decide whether to try some place new or revisit a trusty old favorite, and while B was looking at restaurants on Willy Street, she recalled that Eldorado was at the top of our short list of the very next place we were going to visit. Okay, no it wasn’t, but only because we don’t actually have a list. We’re not nearly that organized. But if somehow we were, Eldorado would’ve been at the top of our list.

After close examination of the menu, I chose what I like to think of as a good old American breakfast: two eggs over easy, pan-fried potatoes, bacon, and buttered toast. It’s hard to screw that up, but it’s easy to do an excellent job of preparing that, which, I’m very satisfied to say, they did. I happily devoured the whole thing.

B saw something on the menu with biscuits & gravy and ordered it because biscuits & gravy is like an irresistible impulse with her, so they pretty much had her at hello. Then they brought the dish to the table and she nearly fainted. The biscuits turned out to be the size of hubcaps and there was enough gravy to lubricate every colon in Texas. Try as she might, B could not put so much as a dent in her breakfast, and she tried. She tried very hard.

The beer-drinking wasn’t part of a party or a festival, I just like drinking beer and, as it happens, we had some in the fridge. So I drank it.

Eldorado | 6:29 pm CDT
Category: food & drink, play, restaurants
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