Now that’s Service

It's really hit or miss. When bike touring, we don't plan very far ahead. A day or so for lodging and hours or minutes prior to looking for a meal. Google reviews or consulting TripAdvisor is sometimes helpful, but nothing is guaranteed to be accurate. So finding those hidden gems with folks who deliver exceptional service is often pure happenstance. And we've had a run of good luck recently.

Take The Cake Lady. Her bakery café in Mt. Vernon was the only place we found open, so our breakfast decision was made for us. The spotlessly clean and spare room bore no hint of the quality of the meal to come. Everything was simple but home made, down to the freshly chopped and cooked potatoes which Rich declared the “best ever.” I gratefully accepted the healthy alternative of fresh tomatoes, which was a nice touch. But the best was yet to come. With our large, moist biscuits hot out of the oven, she brought out a large canning jar of strawberry jam – from freshly picked berries and made just the night before. It was like spreadable sweet sunshine atop those tasty biscuits. I just had to request a second one.

Just outside of Clarksville, we came upon yet another Historical Marker. But this one was unlike all the other anonymous plaques. Flanked by both US and Texas flags, and adorned with the bountiful rose trees we have been admiring, we had to stop and check it out. This one was dedicated to Police Officer Tippet, who was gunned down by Lee Harvey Oswald when he stopped him for questioning after JFK was shot. The sight was near the farm where he grew up. This man who gave his life in the line of service was well worth commemorating.

Approaching our last night in Texas, we found little to recommend the motel on the outskirts of Clarksville, and independently we each mentally justified the alternative of staying in the town's B&B. It was conveniently located in town and we looked forward to the splurge after some grim motel rooms. We were greeted with great enthusiasm by Perry, the owner of the Courthouse Inn B&B and instantly knew we'd made the right choice. It was more like being welcomed into his home than a formal guest scenario, as he heartily encouraged us to bring our bikes right on inside and saw to our every need.

When dinner time approached, Perry came through with a wonderful recommendation for the Italian Bistro down the street. There the young owners not only served up a delicious meal, but provided the best service we've ever had. In fact, they colluded with Perry to make it an extra special meal for us. It was such a mild evening that I returned to the front porch of the inn to read until bedtime, while Rich captured the inn, courthouse and me in some fantastic night time photography.

It was a luxury indeed to relax the next day while the overnight rains continued into the morning hours. Perry doled out equal amounts of entertaining conversation and story telling with his cooking, and assured us we could hang out as long as needed.

They say good service is hard to find these days. We've certainly gotten our share lately. Thanks, folks!



Thimble Berry Jam

There is something irresistible about berries.  Especially those growing of their own free will, just steps from our doorway.  Begging to be picked.

IMG_1416We’ve seen the thickets of thimble berries growing in “our woods” every summer.  And each year the birds, critters and perhaps other berry lovers have gotten to them first.  This year appears to be a bumper crop.  Loads of big red berries hang from the branches, with many more promising to follow.  We promised ourselves that this year we’d pick them and make jam.

Thimble berries take me way back.  Julie, one of my best friends in school, went blueberry picking each year with her family, and I went along.  Not being a real lover of blueberries at the time, I was lured away by the sight of huge red raspberries not far away – something I truly adored.  I picked and picked and returned to the others quite smug and victorious.  That is until I was informed that I had picked thimble berries, not raspberries.  I’d never even heard of them before.  I quickly learned that they were not so tasty for eating.  But to make up for it, Julie’s mom turned my cache of non-raspberries into a delicious jam.

IMG_1411A few days ago it became clear that the time was NOW.  At least for the first round of picking.  Each bush had one or more perfectly ripe berries.  So Rich and I ventured out to see what we could gather.  Although it meant only a berry here and a berry there, the bushes were plentiful enough to make it a worthwhile hunt.  Moving across the road, we reaped even more berries – enough to come up with 4 1/2 cups between us.  And judging by the remaining unripe berries, we could easily duplicate that several times if we keep diligent watch.

IMG_5146I had to hunt down a recipe for jam, and was surprised just how simple it was.  Only two ingredients in equal quantities – thimble berries and sugar.  It also warned that cleaning the berries was as time consuming as picking them.  I won’t argue that point.  And picking was a lot more fun.

I dug out my canning supplies, bought more canning jars and IMG_5149reacquainted myself with the process.  Then I dug in.  (Notice “we” became “I” at this point…)  Soon the house was redolent with sweet berry smell as the mixture simmered on the stove.  It wasn’t long before it began to thicken and resemble jam, and filled more jars than I expected.

Somehow getting something that good from free fruit is deeply gratifying.  Now I suppose I’ll be expected to share it.  And why not – there’s more where that came from.

Thanksgiving Kindness

Like any family, as our kids have gown into young adults we have had to learn to share them. Particularly on the holidays. With our oldest married for five years, we are well versed in the trickiness of spreading their holiday time between multiple families, and have tried to allow them to make guilt-free decisions.

With one far-flung son out in Washington DC comes the added complexity of travel and extra vacation time required for these occasions. We fully understood when he chose to spend Thanksgiving with his long distance girlfriend, rather than making the trip home. But what came as a complete surprise was her family’s invitation to all of us to join them. Not just Rich and me, but the rest of our kids and grandkids as well. It was an act of sincere kindness that humbled and excited us. We happily accepted.

Joining forces with as-yet-unknown-friends proved to be seamless and heartwarming. I maintain that it’s not all coincidence. Carl undoubtedly is drawn to a young woman brought up with similar family values. Enveloped by their warm hospitality, we felt right at home and enjoyed sharing many common experiences, not to mention a wonderful multi-generational Thanksgiving dinner.

As if that wasn’t enough, their generousity enabled us to stay for on an additional day to stretch our scarce time with our son. Many games were played, football games watched, Christmas lights installed (with the help of a tractor – we were in Iowa, after all), walks taken and stories told over more meals shared around the table.

wpid-Photo-Nov-29-2013-1154-AM.jpgwpid-Photo-Nov-29-2013-252-PM.jpgThis Thanksgiving gave us many new reasons to be thankful. For wonderful new friends. For sharing the strength of family. For gathering together from far and wide. For those reaching out with acts of kindness. And for Carl and Chelsea, for being the reason it happened.

Rainy Day Activities

What to do when the weather’s cold and miserable?  It’s that terrible in-between season.  Too cold for comfortable cycling.  Too soon for snow and skiing.  I’ve returned to my old faithful running routine to fill the gap and get in shape for the ski season.  Fortunately, I’m fine with running in marginal weather.  In fact, once I get out there I rather enjoy pushing through the dreary skies and wet pavement and enjoy running for the pure exercise.

But days on end of gloomy weather do invite restlessness.  With few mid-week offerings on the cultural scene, I decided we should make our own fun.  What better cold weather activity than making homemade pizza?  Normally, it’s reserved for our traditional dinner on Christmas Eve.  I know, kind of strange for the Christmas holidays.  But the boys love it, and request it every year.  So when they read this, I’m sure they will be envious!

It’s really not all that difficult to make, so I’m not sure why we don’t do it more often.  I rounded up the ingredients, and prepared the dough.  From there, it was a group activity, layering on the toppings and shuffling the pizzas in and out of the oven.  Voila!  Homemade pizza dinner and a good evening’s entertainment.IMG_4804 trimmed IMG_4803 trimmed

Another rule of pizza, at least when it’s just the two of us – we settle ourselves by the fire in the great room, in more relaxed environs rather than the dining room table.  It all started when we were first commuting up to Duluth.  We’d arrive in the evening with hot pizzas straight from Sammy’s that we’d consume as soon as we carried in our worldly goods.  Now that we’re permanent residents, it’s a ritual we have continued.  A good one.

The weather is still gloomy, but we did enjoy our pizzas.  In the event that the sun doesn’t shine for a few more days, here is my recipe for homemade pizza, adapted from a Blackwoods Restaurant recipe.

Homemade Pizza

This is a version of the recipe you can print or save: Homemade Pizza

Fall Farmers’ Market Fun

I figured it was nearing the end of the Farmers’ Market season.  But having been gone for the height of the growing season, I was drawn to the 100-year old institution to make up for lost time.  I figured it would be quiet, with a few vendors and fewer customers at this time of year.  Boy was I wrong!

IMG_2742I arrived to discover that the parking lot was crammed full of cars, and quickly exited the melee to vie for the elusive street parking spots.  Returning to the long red wooden building, I found cider making in process outside the center door.  It was apple cider production at its very basic best.  A load of apple chunks were dumped into a wooden press, and as they were compressed apple juice streamed out the bottom into buckets.  After the initial turns of the circular crank on the press, a long wooden bar was fitted to the top and several eager young boys were recruited to turn it.  Round and round they IMG_2745walked, pushing the bar and enjoying the work, much like young Tom Sawyers.  Adults and children alike gathered to watch the process and line up for the freshest cider in town.

Inside, the booths were filled with vendors and their was an air of festivity to the fall showing.  Tunes from a dulcimer player situated in the center aisle mingled with the murmurings of customers as they moved among the colorful produce.  Only a few summer vegetables lingered among the offerings, with the preponderance of space dedicated to pumpkins, gourds and squash.  Their hues reflected the brilliance of the fall leaves outside.  The baked goods were tempting, from whole grain breads to gooey rolls, sweet breads and giant cookies.  And a variety of jams and canned goods were on hand to sample and purchase.  It was truly a feast for the senses.

IMG_2747  IMG_2748IMG_2749I made the full circuit of the prolific booths before making my selections.  Filling my bag with peppers, baby potatoes, squash and tomatoes, I felt good about supporting our local farmers and looked forward to cooking with my fresh produce.  I resisted the baked goods, knowing I’d enjoy making them myself at home, and brought home fresh inspiration for baking projects.

I’m so glad I didn’t ignore the calling.  The season appears to be far from over.  I can’t wait to go back next week.

Eat, Eat, Eat

There’s no doubt about it. Cycling burns a lot of calories. Especially when that’s what you do all day long, covering an average of 50 miles. For weeks on end. Throw in hills and wind, and the effort and calories required are multiplied.

Take two people who set out on a 2,400 mile cycling trip. Both are already in good physical shape and don’t carry any extra weight. They trained diligently for the physical exertion of cycling. But nothing prepared them for the amount of food it would take to sustain that level of activity.

That’s us. Rich and me on our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour. We thought we were eating enough, but three weeks into our trip we stepped on the scale at our host home. Rich had lost 10 pounds and I’d lost 5. That’s over 5% of body weight for each of us. It was quite a wake-up call. We just weren’t keeping pace with the calories we were burning.

A few days later, we arrived at another host home to find out that they had prepared a huge mid-day meal for us. Having just eaten lunch an hour earlier, we thought we’d never be able to face it. But with one bite, our appetites returned and we thoroughly enjoyed – and did justice to – the wonderful home cooked meal. And we did the same again that evening at supper. It showed us just what we could eat when it was put on front of us. And we probably needed it.

Ice cream stops are our favorite perk

Ice cream stops are our favorite perk

It’s a rough problem to have, right? Needing to eat more and more? I’ll admit that it has its perks. We regularly stop for ice cream breaks in the afternoons, and I don’t feel at all guilty picking up a KitKat bar now and then or indulging whenever I can find a bakery. I’ve never enjoyed breakfast more than the thick stack of raspberry pancakes I demolished this morning.

I’ve had to adjust my eating habits in general. My preferred diet is heavy on fruits, vegetables and bread and low in fat. But that just doesn’t provide enough fuel. I’ve had to adjust to heartier breakfasts and make sure I have snacks. I’m not a fan of energy bars or Gatorade-type drinks. But granola bars work well for me. And I always carry my bagels and peanut butter. Even if my family made fun of me for packing that peanut butter into a backpacking tube.

Squeezing peanut butter onto a bagel

Squeezing peanut butter onto a bagel. Looks funny, but tastes good!

What amazes me is that I wake up hungry every morning. I’m used to working out before breakfast, and even on the days that I don’t, my body isn’t interested in food right away. But on this cycling trip, no matter how big the dinner the night before, I’m ready for breakfast as soon as I’m dressed. And I can eat a lot. I’m sure it is a good coping mechanism kicking in.

Rich has allowed himself huge omlets with all the trimmings and generous portions of French Fries (I still can’t go there). Gatorade is his choice of energy boost, particularly on the hot days when he needs extra fluids. We both find ourselves slathering jam on our toast – something we never do at home.

I’m not convinced we’re winning the war on calories. We haven’t seen another scale since that first one. And judging by the way our clothes fit with nary a bulge, I’m sure we’ve both lost more weight.

What really concerns me, however, is what happens when we finish the trip. No longer will we need the humongous amounts of energy when we scale back to cycling, running or skiing for just an hour or two a day. Will we be able to readjust to our former eating habits? I have no doubt that we will put the pounds back on and return to our normal weight. But hopefully we will be able to stop there. We will just have to remember we can no longer just eat, eat, eat.

Lobster – From boat to our dinner plates

It started simply enough, with a request for lodging with a Warm Showers member – the organization for cyclists hosting touring cyclists. Bill and Marilyn graciously accepted our request, and we were pleased to know we had a place to stay a few nights hence. But it only got better. Bill's follow-up email could not have been more unexpected or exciting for us: “I'm a lobster fisherman. Would you like lobster for dinner?” The response was a resounding YES!

We arrived at their home mid-afternoon to find a note from Marilyn. Informing us that the lobster boats returned to the wharf around 4:00pm, she provided us with a little map and planted the idea of watching Bill's boat come in. It didn't take any convincing for us to follow her suggestion. After all, we're two Minnesotans who know nothing about catching lobster. Soon we were cycling down to the wharf.

Bill's lobster boat

We arrived just as Bill's boat was approaching the dock. Trying to make ourselves inconspicuous and stay out of everyone's way (not exactly easy being two city dwellers on bicycles…) we watched the day's catch being unloaded and weighed. Bill was quick to come greet us, and took some good natured ribbing from the others on the dock. It was all finished very quickly and efficiently and soon we were heading back to the house, followed by Bill with about a dozen lobsters in tow.

Cooking the lobster proved just as fascinating. Bill set up a propane burner in the back yard, with a huge pot of water on top – strategically placed outside due to its size and the smell. Clearly he was well practiced at this operation. While waiting for the water to boil, Bill gave us a lesson on lobster anatomy – how to tell the males from the females and their molting process. And just like I'd always heard, the lobsters transformed from their dark color to a brilliant orange when they cooked. We loved hearing the details of lobster fishing and were amazed to learn that the dock price of lobster – what the fishermen earn – is only $2.50 per pound. What a difference from the pricy restaurant meals down the line!

Cooking the lobster

A cozy table awaited us inside for our feast. Bill and Marilyn were patient and helpful at instructing us in the art of extricating the lobster meat from the shells. I think we managed pretty well for our very first time handling whole lobsters. In fact, Rich got so good at it that he consumed four of them! We had a wonderful time sharing delicious lobster, wine and companionship around that table. While we have had many opportunities to eat lobster on this trip, none will ever compare to that experience!

Marilyn demonstrating her craft

Before leaving in the morning, we were treated to yet another feast – this one for the eyes. Marilyn is an artist who hand paints beautiful designs on silk. She took us into her back yard studio which was filled with sunlight and gloriously colored images of the local coastline and nature hanging on the walls. Framed with wood from old lobster traps, they were captivating. Ever curious, Marilyn showed me how she paints the silks, all of which she designs herself.

Who knew, from that initial request just what a delightful experience awaited us? Meeting people, learning about their life work and gaining some appreciation for the local customs and trades is one of the best parts of this trip. And we'll never see lobster again without thinking of our evening with Bill and Marilyn.