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Thursday, January 17, 2008

On Stowie, Our Official Landfill Mascot...

I just read in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (which sometimes even winds up on our doorstep Not Wet) that Stowie, McDowell County's Official Landfill Mascot, went to Charleston yesterday for McDowell County Day. (If anyone out there has good pix of Stowie, please email me & I'll post it). This filled me with such civic pride that I had to write a special post about it. I mean, like, whodathunkit? We have a Landfiull Mascot! How many other places can say that? Charles Owens wrote extensively on Stowie back in October, 2007, as S began to make his rounds thru the county's classrooms, teaching kids to teach their parents not to litter ("Don't Throw It, Stow It" I believe is our new motto), but I somehow missed that article, and only learned of Stowie's existence today after his presence in Charleston made front page news. Actually, as sarcastic as I may sound, I think Stowie is a great concept. He's certainly an um, Unique civic mascot, and he definitely puts McD Co. on the map for Creative Marketing, if nothing else. I can almost see the green Tourist Attraction signs on I77 now: "Exit now for McDowell County, Home of Stowie, the Landfill Mascot!"
I have been begging and pleading with everyone in WV Tourism for 5+ years now to help get Attraction signs on I77 to let tourists know about all the great stuff our county has to offer that's worth taking that Route 52 Exit for: our fabulous ATV trails, the biggest trout in the USA, our wonderful Pocahontas RR, the Kimball Memorial to WWI's Black soldiers and other historic sites, our cool, little golf course, lakes, State Park & Forest, etc.- & have gotten absolutely nowhere. (McDowell County remains without representation on the Board of the SWVCVB, that's supposed to be representing us, because the county still lacks 15 advertisers...) But Stowie, I'll bet, will warrant a road sign PDQ.
As you drive Route 52 from Bluefield towards Welch, at the entrance to the County you will find a small sign proudly proclaiming "McDowell County, Home of the Rocket Boys". This refers to (for the 6 people out there who haven't yet read or seen October Sky), Homer Hickam and his friends, who, back in the 1950s, took one look at Sputnik and were sufficiently inspired and motivated to go from Coalwood to NASA, & other points equally high. Somehow representation by Stowie doesn't have quite the same ring to it...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Foie Gras & Truffle Cheese!

I have just been on the receiving end of Truly Great Customer Service- from www.igourmet.com from whence Dan's Hanukkah present came. (You must remember Hanukkah- it was a couple of months ago...) Back in Nov., with H looming over the horizon, I decided that Chef Dan, a.k.a. "Smokin' Dan", Landgraff's undisputed Master of Smoked Meat & Other Gourmet Things, was a husband Truly Worthy of a gourmet holiday present. This, after all, is the man that one guest said could "kick Bobby Flay's butt" in a Food Network "Throwdown"; the man whose recipes are in the The Great Country Inns of America Cookbook; the man who literally put Landgraff, WV on the map for Fine Dining, the man who cooked Thai Pumpkin-Mango Soup & Herb-Stuffed Cornish Game Hens on "Good Morning West Virginia" television in his Chef's Whites at at 6.a.m. after a 5 hour drive thru an ice storm. This is the man who processed 8 quarts of pesto from a 5-gallon drum of basil leaves, and who can spend 5 hours happily tending his smoker, creating ribs and chops that are almost orgasmic in their delectability.
This is also the man who saved us from a life of me crafting our dinners from tins of soup & bags of pasta. (Note: I believe that everyone has at least One Good Recipe. I have two. I can make a truly excellent 4-Cheese Eggplant Parmigiana that takes me all day to create, & I know how to do Serious Pesto. Yes, I can do a wonderful Chicken Soup with Matza Balls ("floaters", like my Grandma made), Pumpkin Strudel & Flan, and a lot of Sephardic & Mizrahi dishes, but I basically cook from Recipes. This is totally different than what a chef does. Having watched how Dan operates in the kitchen, which is on Another Level entirely (No Recipe Required!), I have learned my limitations, and gladly ceded the chef's toque to him. I have, indeed, been blessed).
This, in short, is a man Truly worthy of an $18 wedge of cheese.
And so I concocted "8 gourmet days" for Hanukkah 2007, including an Ebay garlic roaster, & a gift box from www.igourmet.com full of all sorts of things he'd enjoy cooking with (and testing out on lucky "foodie" me): truffle salt & butters, Italian & Irish cheeses, Spanish Hams, Andouille Sausage, & French pates. All things you can't get at the Princeton Big Lots (where, by the by, we Do get a lot of great gourmet things, such as imported oils, tapenades, condiments, & fancy European cookies...)
Well, igourmet ran out of some of the things I'd ordered by the time they went to ship my gift, so Dan's present wound up lacking several items, & we were both severely bummed. But BOY, have they made it right! I just got an email that the missing white truffle paste is about to arrive - along w/a gift tin of French foie gras! Everything we got from them was truly excellent, from the Italian truffle cheese (grated & melted over gnocchi, w/sauteed mushrooms!), to the Buffalo Mozzarella (w/sliced, fresh tomatoes, pesto, & capers, drizzled w/Big Lots Best Modena Balsamic Vinegar and the Sicilian Olive Oil I brought back from a TJ Max in Kansas I found during a FEMA deployment), to the Serrano ham & smoked pork loin (toasted sandwiches what-to-die-for!). I know this sounds like a paid ad for igourmet at this point, but when you actually find a company that bends over backwards to Do The Right Thing, you want to leap into the air for joy. These folks actually deserve "viral marketing", so here it is. They ain't cheap (but I always shop thru www.mypoints.com so at least I get "points" that we use for Wally World gift certificates & Omaha steaks...), but www.igourmet.com has won our business. When we do have the money for a luscious treat, that's where I'll go to find it. And I gotta tell you: that truffle cheese was Fine...
Back to the kitchen to see what Chef Dan is up to tonight...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Kibbutz Goldstein-Clark...


Can you sing the theme song to "Green Acres" in Hebrew?

The vegetable garden has grown quite a bit since Dan first built it in 2004, & I am ever threatening to put up a sign in Hebrew that states "Kibbutz Goldstein-Clark, Volunteers please go to the Office", in the hope that at least one confused Israeli tourist will stop in...
The "yard" next to the Inn was nothing more than a rock-hard field of coal-lumps, but the Old Aggie in me had visions of a vegetable garden out there, and I began trolling the Internet for the Companion Gardening info I vaguely remembered from John Bowne Agriculture HS. I really had No Clue about the amount of Heavy Labor creating a garden out of a coal field would entail, however, and had I had to do it myself, the lot would still be a field of rocks. To shut me up, essentially, Dan built us a garden there with railroad ties, filling it with several tons of Real Dirt & a lot of eye-rolling hope that something might actually grow... In the spring of 2004 we put in a bunch of strawberry plants, as well as tomatoes and peppers and everything else we could find at Wal-Mart, Lowe's, & Eller's Quick Stop, and I Miracle Gro'd the dickens out of it, and that first summer we were literally giddy from our "harvest"! We not only had tomatoes and peppers, but cantaloupes & cucumbers & potatoes & onions & herbs! I planted giant sunflowers, and they shot up to the sky and rewarded us with something truly lovely to look at from the front porch. I'd be out there weeding the tomatoes in my high-heeled clogs & cars would slow down and honk... What a novelty- a crazy woman gardening on Route 52! Our friends G & M gifted us with a DVD of Green Acre's first season, which was actually pretty much on the money; as a child my "party piece" was to sing the theme song of GA in my best Hungarian accent. (See? Life imitates Art...)
Our friend Kathleen, who has the Gillum House bed-and-breakfast in Shinnston, WV, brought us a dozen oregano plants, we set them in as a border, & they took off like wildfire. It got to the point where we were harvesting a Silly amount of oregano, and by the fall we had so much damn oregano that Dan was creating what would become some of the Inn's "signature" recipes: Oregano-Stuffed Roast Cornish Game Hen, Oregano-Stuffed Roast Turkey... His turkey recipe was indeed inspired: after brining, he stuffed it with whole branches of oregano & garlic & then roasted it, & it was truly Divine... I entered his turkey recipe in Park Seed's Recipe Contest, and he won first prize: a $50 gift certificate with which to buy more plants!
But in 2005 the Japanese Beetles arrived with a vengeance, and literally ate everything in sight. They spent all summer screwing on the roses before devouring all the flowers and leaves, and they demolished the vegetable garden. I was literally in tears, hunting on the Internet in vain for JB Killers and spraying everything with "organic" insecticides (hot pepper/tobacco/dish soap concoctions), as well as Sevin & any other poison I could find. Nothing worked. Our harvest was dismal.
2006 was a continuation of 2005, only worse. My mail-order climbing roses barely survived the Beetle Feeding Frenzy, and the sweet corn was stunted & grub-filled. In May of 2007, with the fruit trees in flower (the apple tree across from the Inn looked like a magnificent, giant white snowball), the roses in bud, & everything green and gorgeous, we had:a ludicrously late frost, 4 inches of snow, & a week of 10-degree weather. the tulips & daffodils went into "suspended animation" and were fine, but we lost roses, butterfly bushes, and eventually our little dogwood tree. I was in tears and close to despair; It seemed like The Garden was nothing more than a toilet down which we were throwing 100 dollar bills & false hope. In desperation I ordered a giant can of Milky Spore and got it down in mid-May, but I didn't have much hope as it's supposed to take several years to get the JBs under control.
But lo and behold,.we didn't see a Japanese Beetle all year!
I assumed it was the Milky Spore, until the fall, when I read some Bird Watcher posts on a WV Yahoo Groups chat room, and discovered that No One in southern WV had seen any JBs... & it occurred to Dan & I that the hated late spring frost may have killed the beetle grubs!
We will know this spring...
The bottom line is that this last summer we had THE best garden ever! I put Cozy Coats & Tomato Cages around our tomatoes and set them out early, and we were rewarded with a bumper crop of tomatoes all summer- 8 different kinds! (The best were the cherry tomatoes which were literally as sweet as candy). . We had hot peppers out the wazoo, eggplants, okra, baby field greens, enough basil to make 8 quarts of pesto, and sweet corn what-to-die-for...
A garden is about dreaming and planning, as well as hoping & praying & weeding & digging & spraying, and so the dismally cold & gray winter is spent pouring over brightly colored Burpee & Park Seed catalogs (and websites), dog-earring the pages of the things you dream about seeing flower in the spring and harvesting in the fall...
We've learned in the last 5 years that some things just will NOT grow here- I've given up on petunias, for example- but that others do amazingly well- oregano & basil, for two. Last year I planted basil all over our property, and we had a Pesto Processing Party, freezing 8 quarts of what I call the "essence of summer". The marigolds, impatiens, & vinca did splendidly, too...
Back to the catalogs & dreams of spring.. and as Eva would say: "Vould you like a Gin & Tonic, Dahlink?"

Let 1000 Flower Bulbs Bloom...


Five years ago when we bought the flooded mess that we (Dan) would turn into the Elkhorn Inn, there was nothing out front and to the sides of the building (as well as inside the building) but mud & debris. And by debris, I mean rusted appliances and moldy furntiure, topped with the heartbreaking remnants of people's lives that surface every time it rains following a flood disaster: plastic silverware, kitchen tablecloths, broken cups, shards of glass, children's toys... (Five years later, things Still surface when it rains here...) The only thing in the door-less, mud-filled building were 6 antique, claw-foot bathtubs, which I, being a NYer, doted on & couldn't wait to soak in- once my husband, (wearing his "plumber" hat), could figure out how to create hot water...
Our basement had 5 feet of mud in it, and Dan, with 2 helpers, cleared it out with shovels during the December 2002 Ice Storm. The truth is that you really don't understand what "5 feet of mud" is until you're eye-to-eye with it, and you're 4'9" tall, and the icy, solid mountain of garbage-studded mud is over your head...
The first thing Dan did that winter was gut the entire first floor of the 90' x 40' building, power-wash it three times with bleach and dry it out to get rid of the mold that went 6 feet up the walls, after which, in January of 2003, we could safely move in. The next thing he did was take the 5 feet of mud out of the basement & install hot water boilers in its place. The next thing he did was crawl the length of the building 12 times during the ice storm, playing "hunt that leak" and repairing three lines of busted plumbing so we could finally fill those Ab Fab claw-foot bathtubs with hot water. (You know how much you REALLY love someone when you're bathing with Clorox Wet Ones for a week. The "kitchen" was so cold that water froze in the sink nightly).
And pretty much the next thing he did that winter was build me a garden in the front of the building. He dragged railroad ties into place for a border, filled it with basement mud topped with pick-up truck-loads of potting soil, and planted rose bushes in it.
I will never forget it, because those rose bushes made my heart sing.
Dan & I both had a "vision" for this place, and oddly it was the same one, but one that no one else could see, so they thought we were nuts & would be gone inside of 6 months. (What they didn't know was that we had no place to go!) Where everyone else saw a slated-for-demolition disaster-wrecked shell, we saw an elegant mansion with flowers out front, and cute umbrella tables and chairs on the patio, where we'd sit with a cup of coffee, watching the birds at the feeders...
(We both, obviously, lead a pretty heavy fantasy life...)
And when Dan surprised me with that first garden my heart literally leapt because I knew not only that our "vision" was for real, and that he'd be able to make it so, but also that he loved me with all his heart.
The "garden" thing took on a life of its own, however, as my Aggie Roots began to reassert themselves. As a teen I had to choose between Art & Agriculture, and temporarily, at least, Ag won. I went to John Bowne High School in Queens, NY as an Aggie. (I still have my blue, corduroy FFA jacket with the big seal on the back, my name embroidered in gold, & my Chapter Farmer pin). My Dream Book was the Burpee Seed Catalog, my hero was Gregor Mendel, and my father built me a Gro-Lamp greenhouse in our attic where I grew gardenias & african violets. My goal, at the time, was to go to Cornell and major in botany & plant genetics, but I wound up at The Cooper Union as an art major after realizing that I Sucked at math, having nearly flunked both HS Algebra & Chemistry. I did, however, spend many months from the age of 16 working on Kibbutzim in Israel, and some of my happiest memories are of riding a tractor through the cotton fields of Givat HaShlosha at daybreak, in my bathing suit, fat & brown & muscled, noting down how many bugs were caught in each of the traps...
But I became an illustrator and a writer, and plants dropped out of my life to the point that I couldn't keep a houseplant going for more than 2 weeks.
And then came West Virginia.
You may be able to drag a girl off the kibbutz, but you can't suck kibbutz out of the girl!
We now had LAND- real land! Not just a postage-stamp-sized yard, either- we had Serious Land! Places for trees and rose bushes and herbs and vegetables... and bulbs! LOTS of bulbs! And so the annual saga of the fall bulb planting began.
I will say that from the beginning Dan backed my gardening obsession, but Very Grudgingly at first. He helped me, brought home Garden Tools & Bulb Food, and even a Giant Insecticide Spray Gun with a back-pack tank, & he did do the Heavy Work, as they say, which involved tilling up the coal-lump filled rock-hard soil with a spade, but he did it with a sour look on his face and only after the ground had pretty much frozen, making bulb-planting a miserable and painful exercise. But we got the damn things in finally, and when April came around it was truly breathtaking. Car-stopping gorgeous. I was vindicated, and so I wanted More- not just in the front of the building, but on the sides, too...
And so Dan (still grudgingly) built us Another garden, this time on the parking lot side: dragging in more railroad ties, hauling in more truckloads of dirt...
With the dirt came the need for annuals, to put in after the bulbs faded, and then perrennials, so we wouldn't have to put in so many annuals each year... Then came the goofy, mail-order 5-fruit tree I'd always wanted as a kid, and the 2 half-dead bargain-bin peach trees from BigLots that we coaxed back to life, and the wild lilies we dug up on the side of highway & replanted on the other side of the buidling, and the Paulownia treelings & the butterfly bushes...
So then Dan dragged in some More railroad ties and several More tons of Dirt and built me (still grudgingly) the veggie/herb garden of my wildest, Aggie dreams, and we planted tomatoes and corn and cucumbers and peppers and basil and potatoes and sunflowers and... (more on "Kibbutz Goldstein-Clark" in another post...) And then the Burpee & Park Seed catalogs started to arrive, and I entered Dan's recipe for oregano-stuffed roast turkey in their contest and he won First Prize, so we had a $50 gift certificate with which to buy still More plants, and then in November bulbs went on Super Sale again at Wal-Mart...
And then Dan attended a WV Tourism Conference and came home with the expression "curb appeal"... And the next thing you know, he was building a ramp (more RR Ties) and another garden (still more RR ties, additional tons of dirt & mulch...), and I was ordering another 35 ton of gravel for the parking lot.
And tho' he still rolls his eyes when Tulip Planting Season arrives, he also comes home from Wally World with flats of annuals and giant, bargain bags of bulbs...




In Defense of Inflatable Decor...

I recently read an article, (in the NY Times, I believe), bemoaning the existence (and popularity) of inflatable holiday decorations, due to the supposedly down-market, trailer park aura they create. This really got my dander up, as my husband & I have become Big Time Inflatable Enthusiasts, and we consider ourselves decidedly Up-Market (not to mention Hip & With-It).
Prior to the arrival of the the Inflatables, we messed with lights, but they rapidly became an endless & heartbreaking nightmare of missing bulbs and shorted, tangled wiring. (I still have a batch of lightless, metal Lawn Deer up in the attic that I am determined to someday fill with Sphagnum Moss & plant ivy in, thus creating Deer Topiaries...) The Elkhorn Inn is a BIG building, and we have a LOT of "yard", and it would take a Helluvalota lights (& a generator...) to Do It Right With Light...
I do have visions of the Inn & Theatre elegantly rimmed with white lights & the trees wrapped with tiny bulbs a la Tavern On The Green, but until we win Lotto (or the Welcome Wagon finally turns up w/a cherry picker in tow...), our Inflatables provide an easily manageable and Extremely cheering sight, especially once winter turns everything Out Here In The Country a depressing and leafless brownish-grey. (And in the snow they look Absolutely Fabulous!) Tacky?! I think not!

When we first arrived in McDowell County, after the devastating 2002 floods, there were no lights- & I really do mean No Lights. There were literally no holiday decorations, and hardly a light on in a window between Bluefield and Welch. In the last five years, more and more holiday decorations have appeared in the mountains, and the giant, glowing Inflatables are the happiest and most cheering of them all. (There is Nothing sadder than holiday lights missing 1/2 their bulbs...) The Inflatables constitute "Martha Stewart For Idiots": you plug 'em in, the little fan starts whirring, they immeditely light up & blow up, & Voila!: Instant Joy!
We started with the Giant 8' Snowman, and he was such a success (you can see him from Way Down Route 52, towering over our sign!), that we rapidly acquired (thank you, eBay!) a veritable Hallmark Calendar of discounted inflatable decor: Valentine's Bear, Leprechaun, Motorcycle Bunny, Uncle Sam, Scarecrow on Pumpkin, Turkey, the 8' Hanukkah Menorah, NASCAR Santa, and our newest on-sale acquisition: Airplane Santa. As it's now January, we are about to take down our Festive Winter Decor & put up "I Love You" Bear...


NOTE: We are still seeking the following giant, inflatables, which even I, eBay Queen of Landgraff, have been unable to locate: an ATV, a Coal Miner, a Dreidle, a Shofar, a Lulav/Esrog, something for Purim (a giant, 8' inflatable Gragger?), and a helicopter, as a special treat for my US Army Aviation Retired husband...) And don't forget President's Day & Labor Day & Veteran's Day, and...


It's my understanding that it's now only acceptable in this PC world to use "plug-&-play" inflatable decor if it's done with a heavy dose of Irony, & so Ironically I am posting pix of the Elkhorn Inn's Winter Wonderland in all it's glory, including our new string of "Remington Shotgun Shell Holiday Lights" (made from real red & green shotgun shells! In China!), 3 of our Hanukkah Menorot in the windows, and "Hot Tub Hanukkah"...


A Water Story...

The pictures below tell a story. Look at the pictures and see if you can figure out the story. Then scroll below and read the story and see if you were right!
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a Prince and his Princess in a Big, Old Castle*. The Castle was on one side of a creek, but the water meter for the Castle was on the other side of the creek. For five years the Prince and Princess had asked the various Kingdom Water Companies to move the meter over to the Castle where it belonged, but you know how Kingdom bureaucrats are! So for five years the Castle had a Big Hose that draped over the creek and brought water to the Castle. This didn't look very Princely, and it gets so cold in the Kingdom in the winter that their first winter in the Castle the water froze in the Big Hose and the Prince had to go thaw it with a blow torch. The Prince repeatedly replaced the Big Hose, once by tying it to a rock and flinging it over the creek to the Princess (the Prince has pretty good upper-body strength), and once by getting down into the creek (which made the Princess scream). The Prince insulated the hose, wrapping it in foam, putting it in a white plastic pipe, and all sorts of other magic things, but in the winter they always left the water running a bit in the Castle so the Big Hose wouldn't freeze and there would be running water for the guests from Far Away who came and paid to stay in the castle. And then one night, right before New Year's Eve, when it was very cold and snowing, the water in the Castle just stopped.
The Prince & Princess had guests in the Castle that night, and when the the guests arose in the morning, they found that they couldn't bathe or brush their teeth, and the Prince and Princess couldn't even make coffee for them before their departure! This was a Very Bad Thing,.as the Prince & Princess depended on their Castle's income to keep them out of the Poor House.
The Prince and Princess made many telephone calls to the Kingdom's Water Provider, but none were returned. They then learned that the Kingdom's Water Provider had a Big Problem, for many other people in the Kingdom were without water, as well. But when the Princess finally reached the Manager of the Water Provider, she was told that it was their problem- that even with the Castle taps running, the water must somehow have frozen in their Big Hose, and they would either have to replace the Big Hose themselves (in 18 degree cold during a snowstorm) or "wait until the temperature rose and the hose defrosted itself".
The Princess nicely explained that this Problem was the Water Provider's responsibility, as they'd already had 5 years to move the meter across the creek to the Castle, and that the Water Provider must have let the pressure get too low again for it to have frozen, even with the Castle's taps running, but the Water Provider kept repeating a passage from her Guide Book to the Princess, insisting that they didn't have to do anything. The Princess then actually begged for help putting a new hose across the creek, explaining that she had had a heart attack, and that the Prince had ruptured discs and a pinched nerve in his back and was in a lot of pain, but the Manager just read from her script again, word for word. The Prince and Princess waited, in the hope that someone would come to help them, but no one ever did.
Naturally, the Prince and Princess didn't want to stay dirty until the spring thaw, so the Prince went to Wal-Mart and bought a very long, green garden hose.
Then he fetched the Castle's fishing pole, and taped the end of the fishing line to the golden head of a magic, red arrow (1).
Then he jammed the fishing pole into the waistband of his jeans (2),
and he and the Princess, clad in Very Warm Clothing, went outside in back of the Castle (3),
whereupon the Prince shot the arrow across the half-frozen creek with his hunting bow! (4)
Then the Prince (whom the Princess- and a few other people- refer to as "McGuyver") cut the fishing line from the pole & tied the end to a rope (5),
and the Princess tied the rope to the garden hose, and the Prince went to the other side of the creek and found the magic arrow (6),
and pulled the hose across the creek (7, 8), and connected it to the water meter.
And that is how the Castle got it's water back!
And then Lo! The Prince and the Princess Bathed, with much Pomp (& bubble bath) and great gladness in their hearts, and they washed dishes and did laundry with great joy, and clad themselves in clean & festive garments, and there was merrymaking throughout the Castle, after which the Prince took a bunch of Tylenol.

But the water froze in the Big Hose the next day Again, because the pressure was too low, and Prince "McGuyver" went out there with his bow & arrow & fishing rod & another damn garden hose & did it again.
And again.
And again.
And the Princess, who by this time was truly ready to slam her head into a wall, e-mailed everyone she could think of (including the newspaper journalist) in the hopes that Someone in the Kingdom would give a hoot & McDowell County (oops- The Kingdom!) might see running water before the tulips came up & Wal-Mart ran out of Tylenol.
And so they lived happily ever after!
The End!
*The Castle is the Elkhorn Inn & Theatre, in Landgraff, West Virginia: www.elkhorninnwv.com