Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween! I just got back from a day of pumpkin chunkin' (yes, people really do launch pumpkins out of cannons at dilapidated cars and such), lunch with the rents, and shopping in Frederick, MD. For those of you turned off by the pumpkin cannon concept, fear not. Though it may seem like a fitting hobby for hill-billies, it's actually a fun fall activity that the whole family can enjoy. Though I do find it wasteful to launch pumpkins at structures for the very purpose of smashing them to smithereens, I try to justify my actions a bit - these were smallish pumpkins and would likely have been used as jack-o'-lanterns or for similar decorative purposes otherwise, only to be thrown away as they grew moldy. And sparing a few pumpkins for some entertainment isn't the worse thing I could have spent my day doing.

Anyway... here's a delicious recipe for roasted pumpkin seeds that is sure to please after a nice day of carving jack-o'-lanterns, pumpkin-chunkin', or preparing for trick-or-treaters! These roasted pumpkin seeds are a great snack, salad topper, or as a garnish for seasonal dishes. Crunchy, salty, and delicious, they are perfect for any October occasion!

Salty Cinnamon Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

  • Pumpkin seeds from 1 pumpkin, rinsed & dried
  • 1 Tbsp canola oil
  • Salt
  • 1 Tsp cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Spread pumpkin seeds over baking sheet.
3. Drizzle with olive oil and generous amounts of salt.
4. Roast for about 12 minutes, checking for a golden brown color.
5. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with cinnamon and more salt. Enjoy!


Photos from a Perfect Fall Day

Today I ventured out on my own to capture the beauty of fall in Kingsville, MD. The weather was delightfully crisp, the sun perfectly bright, and the trees all around bursting with the colors of the season. Not a bad set up for a photo shoot. Here's a taste of what I came up with.


Christmas Cookie Countdown #1: Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies

First of all I want to thank all of my new followers! I've nearly doubled my number of followers (I know, not hard to do when you've only got 3 to begin with) but there are some really talented bloggers out there and I'm flattered that they have an interest in what I've got to say, so thanks and welcome! Now for the deliciousness that is this recipe...

In case you haven't noticed, I have a bit of a thing for pumpkin and all the other flavors of fall. I've tried my hand at plenty of pumpkin-flavored treats, but never a pumpkin oatmeal cookie. I found this recipe on
My Baking Addiction and it reminded me of one of my favorite holiday cookies, a Cranberry Oatmeal Cookie dipped in White Chocolate that I found in a Southern Living Christmas book. This recipe has a really similar flavor palate, made all the better with the addition of some lovely seasonal pumpkin.

Great for the holidays or throughout the season of autumn, these cookies can be made months in advance and then frozen, allowing you to get a taste of the season a little early, and then pass it on in cookie form once Christmas comes around. And as a testament to their deliciousness... I baked these up about a week and a half ago. I came out with about 50 cookies, all of which I stuck in the freezer. Since then, just between Mike and myself, I think they've dwindled down to about 15... They're just too delicious, even when half-frozen!

Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies with Cranberries and White Chocolate

adapted from My Baking Addiction
makes approximately 48 cookies

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups old fashioned oats
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup white chocolate chips (optional)
  • 1 cup dried cranberries (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper or spray with cooking spray.
2. Combine flour, oats, baking soda, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, and salt.
3. Beat butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Then add pumpkin, egg and vanilla and mix until well incorporated.
4. Gradually add flour mixture, until all ingredients are all thoroughly incorporated.
5. Mix in white chocolate and dried cranberries, if desired.
6. Form tablespoon-sized cookies and arrange on baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between rows.
7. Bake 12-14 minutes.
8. Allow cookies about 5 minutes to cool on baking sheets, then remove to wire racks to cool completely. Enjoy!


Some Call It Rushing the Season...

I call it being prepared and doing what makes me happiest - baking Christmas cookies! I have plenty of favorites and, similar to Food Network's 12 Days of Cookies (a highly anticipated holiday e-newsletter featuring the best of the best cookie recipes), I'm going to countdown my favorite Christmas cookie recipes with you, my readers, as I make them in my own kitchen. In order to stretch out the season and save some time as December 25th grows closer, I like to start my holiday baking in mid-October and freeze big batches of cookies as I go, saving a few to nibble on now and again, and the rest for giving out once the holiday gift season is in full swing.

In the next few months you have these delicious and timeless recipes to look forward to. There's something here to satisfy any kind of sweet tooth!

  1. Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies with Cranberry and White Chocolate
  2. Chewy Coconut Macaroons
  3. Swedish-style Christmas Sugar Cookies
  4. Magic in the Middles
  5. Iced Shortbread 
  6. Hazelnut Cookies
  7. Snickerdoodles
  8. Molasses Ginger Cookies
Keep your eyes peeled for the first recipe, which will be posted tomorrow, and the rest of these which will be popping up in the next few weeks!


Celebrating My Etsy Anniversary with A Sale and A Giveaway!

Since my one-year Etsy anniversary falls on Tuesday, November 2nd, I've decided to celebrate with a giveaway and a week-long 25% off sale in my shop.

The rules of the game are as follows. All of my current followers and anyone who becomes a follower of this blog by midnight on Monday, November 1st will be entered into a drawing. The winner, who will be announced on Tuesday, November 2nd, gets a free item from my Etsy shop - any card entirely of their choosing (only single cards, no sets - sorry!).

Even if you are not the lucky winner, you can still shop my store and earn a cool 25% all items from the 1st of November up until midnight on Saturday, November 6th.

As encouragement to enter the giveaway, click here to visit my shop and see what you could take home for free!


Hoisin Orange Eggplant

I love eggplant but usually use it in more traditional Italian dishes, incorporating the flavors of tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. This recipe, however, is a delicious diversion from the norm, drawing on a more Asian flavor profile. 

I came up with this recipe the first time I had Hoisin sauce, an Asian barbecue sauce of sorts. I was trying it with everything and thought the combination of the Hoisin barbecue with the sweetness of mandarin oranges would make for a nice sauce. With a background of chicken and eggplant, I'd come upon a delicious and flavorful new quick dinner sauce. I just made it with eggplant this time, but it can be made to work with all sorts of vegetables and proteins and is also delicious over rice or barley. Simply allow the sauce about 10 minutes to come together and thicken up, then serve it atop whatever you fancy. And if you want to retain the texture of the mandarin oranges, add the juice as instructed but hold the oranges themselves until just a minute or two of cooking remain. 

Hoisin Orange Eggplant

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium eggplant, peeled and diced
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 Tsp hoisin sauce
  • 2 Tsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1 15 oz. can mandarin oranges with juice
  • 1 Tbsp fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tsp sesame seeds, garnish


1. Heat oil over medium heat. Add eggplant and garlic, and season with salt.
2. After 2-3 minutes, add hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and mandarin oranges and juice.
3. Simmer over medium heat about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Season with salt and pepper and mix in chopped basil. Garnish with sprinkle of sesame seeds. Enjoy! 


Take the Handmade Pledge!

With the holiday season and the New Year right around the corner, I think it's a great time to look into the Handmade Pledge - buy only handmade goods for yourself and as gifts, while encouraging others to do the same.

I actually gave myself a similar challenge around this time last year (though in all honesty, I copied from my friend Sarah, who had the idea and has stuck to her handmade pledge for over one year). I vowed to buy only handmade or secondhand items, or to make things by hand. Though I have had a few lapses, for the most part I adhered to my challenge. Christmas gifts and cards were mostly handmade. "New" clothes were only new to me, as they were purchased from secondhand stores. I saved money, challenged myself creatively, and learned new skills I may never have thought to otherwise learn.

Beyond these immediate personal benefits, however, you're also doing good for human rights and the environment. In helping to reduce the purchase of clothing made in sweatshops, you are making a statement to hopefully reduce the occurrence of sweatshop labor. In reducing new production, fewer materials are being wasted (ie. packaging), fewer environmental damages are occurring to transport goods, and fewer new items are being put on the market when perfectly good used ones exist.

It's a bit daunting at first, but in my opinion totally doable to not purchase a single new Christmas gift. Making things by hand is always a great option, whether that means knitting someone a sweater or giving them a homemade candle. Preparing easy-to-freeze meals, jams, cookies, and candy are all great ways to give someone a gift without worrying that it will end up in the trash in a few months or never be enjoyed. Secondhand stores are great places to seek out clothes and jewelry that can be further personalized (maybe with a little screen-printing detail or embroidery) or gifted as you found them. Used DVDs and CDs can also make great presents. Rather than spending $20 on one brand new DVD, spend a fraction of the cost on an assortment of perfectly good, used DVDs. Gift cards to local restaurants are a great way to support local business and ensure your loved ones are eating well.

Making a vow to avoid the mall forces you to think creatively and, in the process, often get more personalized and memorable gifts for everyone one your list. The possibilities are endless once you start to think about what people really love (not just what they would buy for themselves if they had some extra income) and how to give it to them during the holidays.

And even if you don't think you're up to the challenge for all of your holiday shopping, trying to buy handmade for yourself is a great resolution to make for the New Year.

To learn more about how you can help to fight sweatshop labor and unfair working conditions by making smart purchases, visit Behind the Label, Green America, and the AFL-CIO's Corporate Watch.


Provencal Chicken

I've had this recipe for a Provencal Chicken from some long lost cooking magazine for a long time now. I love red onion and black olives and don't use them nearly enough in my cooking, so when I came across this more traditional dish, I decided to finally go ahead and embrace the sweet red onion and salty black olive alongside my chicken.

Bursting with flavor, you really can't beat this meal. Great on its own, with some bread for dipping, or overtop some pasta, the Provencal sauce is bright and delicious, and can be paired with nearly anything, so don't feel confined by the chicken.

Provencal Chicken
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 chicken breasts, room temperature
  • 1/2 medium red onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 red pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 cup black olives, pitted and sliced in half
  • 1 medium tomato, chopped
  • 1/4 cup cooking liquid (water or broth will do though I used the liquid used for packing roasted red peppers)
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, if desired        


1. Heat olive oil in pan over medium heat.
2. Season defrosted chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Place seasoned-side-down in oil.
3. After about 3 minutes, add red onion and season with more salt and pepper.
4. Once onions are golden brown and chicken is no longer sticking (about 7-8 minutes total), flip chicken breasts and add garlic.
5. Wait another 2 minutes, then add olives, tomatoes, and cooking liquid.
6. Remove from heat once chicken is cooked through and some of the liquid has evaporated, about another 5 minutes.
7. Add basil leaves and sprinkle with cheese, if desired. Enjoy!



One Week

While playing a rousing game of Scrabble this weekend, Mike and I stumbled upon a little gem of an indie flick called One Week. Starring Joshua Jackson of Dawson's Creek fame, this Sundance film was too riveting to watch while engaged in a board game, and we were quite pleasantly surprised by the overall effect of the film.

Narrated by Campbell Scott, the film follows Jackson's character Ben Tyler as he embarks on a Canadian motorcycle trip after being diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer. The devastating prognosis shakes Ben to the core and wrecks havoc upon his relationship with his fiance, Samantha. Atop his newly purchased vintage motorcycle, Ben takes in the natural beauty and quirky landmarks of Canada.

In time, Ben finds the answer to the question "what would you do if you only had a week to live?" As he tells Samantha in the film (this is paraphrased from my somewhat full memory so bare with me) "I lived a new lifetime each day." Though in print it sounds a bit tawdry, Jackson delivers this line with the same poignancy and grace that underscores the entire film.

Though the plot may be slightly formulaic, One Week provides a fresh, insightful, and more intelligent take on the typical "bucket list" film. Stunning scenery, interesting characters, a touch of irony, and invigorating road trip montages abound, without being overly cheesy. Backed by a solid soundtrack and a strong performance from Jackson, the relatively slow pace of this quiet movie doesn't leave viewers feeling bored but rather more introspective and reflective. Well-acted, beautifully-shot, and deeply-felt, this film is an all-around success. The perfect movie to end a crisp fall day, there is no better way to describe how I felt when the credits began to roll than decidedly content.


Garlic Lentils

Even though Rachael Ray is one of the most polarizing names in the food world, I've got to give her some credit. In my experience, lots of foodies have little respect for the Food Network star, morning talk show host, cookbook author, etc. because of her lack of formal training and sometimes dumbed-down recipes to appease the masses who hope to recreate her menus in their own kitchen.

But I think Rachael has a few great things going for her. First of all, she has no formal training and points mostly to her family as influencing her propensity toward all things culinary. One of her greatest selling points is her innovation. Though I don't love everything she creates on her shows, she never does the same thing twice and is always creating new methods for eating some of the same items. Though she may not have as comprehensive a grasp on classic cooking methods as a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, she hides it well by bringing accessible and creative ideas to the kitchen. Rachael Ray makes it easier for modern families to come to the dinner table together by providing a wide array of quick, do-able, and delicious recipes for viewers to draw from.

I recently caught a few moments of Rachael's "30 Minute Meals" during which she made Sausage with Garlic Lentils. I am always trying to find some new way to make lentils in my own home. I guess part of it can be attributed to my repeated failures. Though I've enjoyed lentils before (prepared at the hands of others), I usually find myself disappointed whenever I use them in meals in my own home. There's also the adventuresome side of me that likes to use new mediums to support my meals - rather than rice give me barley, rather than beans I want lentils.

So I was intrigued when Rachael raved about these garlic lentils once served to her at a restaurant before orders were placed, when most establishments bring out the bread. She served them with sausage which may have been a better pairing than the fried egg that I used, but it had been a sausage-heavy week and I liked the way the tomato and garlic lentils worked for each other. Though I didn't follow her recipe to a T, she has here a pretty good method for infusing some real flavor into the ever difficult lentil that I challenge you to try.

Garlic Lentils


  • 1 cup pound lentils
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • 1/2 medium onion, peeled
  • 5-6 garlic cloves, grated or minced
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


1. Put lentils, bay leaf, and half onion in pot. Cover with 2 inches water and cook over high heat, bringing to a boil.
2. Boil lentils 20-25 minutes, until they become softer but still have a bit of a bite to them.
3. Combine garlic and olive oil in large mixing bowl. Let stand for at least 15 minutes.
4. Discard bay leaf and onion.
5. Drain lentils and add to olive oil and garlic mixture. Add parsley, salt, and pepper, and toss mixture to coat. Enjoy!

Served with room temperature tomatoes, these garlic lentils make for a delicious Mediterranean side dish!


The Beatles: The Biography

Though I grew up listening to the Beatles, I really knew very little about the Fab Four, Beatlemania, their rise to "the toppermost of the poppermost" and subsequent split. I'm almost ashamed of my ignorance of this most famed of groups that did so much to shape popular music - the way it is created, recorded, packaged, shared, consumed, heard, viewed. But all that has changed after challenging myself to the task of reading all 856 pages of Bob Spitz's The Beatles: The Biography.

I can't really say much about this biography - it's subject matter is too vast, it's content too exhaustive. I can, however, speak to the impact this book had on me. I've gone all my life listening to the Beatles with the understanding that they are one of if not the most loved, revered, respected, and talented of all rock'n'roll groups. Though I had a great appreciation for them musically, I don't think I ever could have fully appreciated the Beatles if it weren't for Spitz's biography. Now I can truly speak to how revolutionary the Beatles were, how crucial their impact. Though the Beatles were only together for a mere 10 years, the significance of what they accomplished and created in that time is still being realized anew some 40 years later.

I won't bore you with details that you may or may not already know about John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but I will recommend that you take a crack at this lengthy page-turner. Any reader, from the most devoted of Beatles fans to the most clueless and apathetic music listener, can find something to appreciate within its pages because of how broad this story is. There's a touch of history, the most wonderful of underdog stories, pandemonium, a bit of musical study, some love, some craziness, cameos, drugs, cut-throat business deals, peace love and sunshine, comedy, drama, romance. The story of the Beatles isn't just about music, but also about being propelled to unprecedented levels of fame, sorting out relationships both creative and personal, finding an identity amongst a group of peers, and pushing the limits of experience.

Spitz writes a riveting, albeit lengthy, report on the rise and fall of the Beatles that rather toils through the slow and tiresome rise to fame, whips through the highlife of an international musical sensation, and abruptly comes to a dissatisfying end as did the Beatles' musical career together.


My Workspace

Whenever creating something, it is truly important to be in an inspired space. I find it so much easier to collage and write and craft when I'm in my house now, filled with all of my favorite pieces of art and memories than when I was living in a dorm room, with the cold cinderblock walls closing in on me from all sides. Even re-decorating my childhood bedroom over the years took on cathartic proportions when I got older and more creatively-inclined. As soon as I returned from a 3-week study-abroad trip to India, I got to removing all vestiges of the pastels that reeked of my girlhood years and covered my bedroom walls with bold and flavorful colors to assert my maturity and inspire further creativity.

And this leads me to the real reason for my post... my current workspace. When my fiance Mike and I first moved into our current house (which is actually the house that my mother grew up in), we had three bedrooms upstairs. One was ours for the usual purposes, the second was deemed our "creative room" where Mike could work on his movies and I could pursue my crafts, and the third Mike shunned as the "creepy room" mostly because of it's 70's-era wallpaper and minimal furnishings. For a while we shared a creative room and things were great, but then I started to get to work on making our creepy room a little less so. And the more I improved the room that was once our most reviled, it became a sort of retreat for me, a nice little idyllic spot where I could sit in the window and read or spread out all my latest pieces of inspiration and keep them all a mess as long as I preferred.

So it came to be that I moved my section of the creative room into our much smaller but also more quaint creepy room. Though the original name stuck, the atmosphere of old has sure been lost. Now the space is one where I can relax and be productive, sit back and take some time for myself or buckle down and focus on applying for jobs or blogging or paying my bills.

My most favorite thing about this room, as both a creative and a calming space, is my "inspiration" wall. I know it's got a cheesy name but stick with me here. I've seen tons of photos of beautiful workspaces on blogs of all sorts, some with walls full of clipboards full of ideas, others with infinite shelving and drawers for every last material they could possibly need. I don't have the space or the money for either of these refined and aesthetically pleasing methods of organizing my creative space. I do, however, have enough wall space and enough cash, to hammer a few nails in place, hang a few strands of string, and clothespin some of my favorite photographs, images, and ideas to display. This is a simple way for me to keep some of the pieces and ideas I love the most close at hand and right in plain view. Most of my collage materials get lost amongst each other, separated into shallow plastic drawers by a very arbitrary and simplistic system. This way, I have a visual that generates the flow of creative juices while also serving as a pleasant and unconventional artist piece to suit the other purposes of my room.

I wanted to post about this idea not only because it is so effortless, so inexpensive, and so great for anyone trying to maintain a positive workspace, but also because it translates well to other rooms and other materials. I could easily imagine a few rows of string displaying photographs in a dining or living room area, or carrying this idea into the kitchen by hanging recipes on clothespin lines. This concept could also be applied to weddings and events (I'm sorry, I've just got wedding ideas on the brain lately!). Place cards could be arranged this way with each table number belonging to a particular line. You could also create a non-traditional guestbook by hanging blank notecards on rows of string for family and friends to write messages. Photographs of the couple could also be displayed in this way to document their life together without damaging any important photos.

Never thought you could do so much with a few nails, some string, and clothespins, now did ya?


Pumpkin, Barley, and Sage Soup

When I first came across this soup on Noble Pig, I was mostly drawn to the recipe because, for once, I already had all the ingredients on hand. But then I realized that it also sounded absolutely delicious - sage goes so well with all the flavors of fall and barley is my favorite grain so I use it whenever and wherever I can. So I guess it goes without saying that I had to try this one.

This is the perfect soup to warm up the first cold days of fall or to get into the spirit of the new season. The warmth of the flavors and the myriad of textures make for a delicious soup that stands up on it's own - there's no need for bread or garnishes to help bolster this one because it makes a meal all in itself. The soup isn't overly heavy, but rather strikes the perfect balance between a full-bodied chili stew and a smooth, flavorful first-course soup. And another great plus - it's a one-pot meal!

Pumpkin, Barley, and Sage Soup
(adapted from Noble Pig)

  • 8 oz. sausage links
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp fresh sage, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 cup pearled barley
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 15 oz can pumpkin puree
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • Salt and pepper to taste


1. Heat oil in large soup pot over medium-high heat. Add sausage, onion, and sage until sausage is browned on all sides and onions are warm and fragrant. Remove from heat.
2. Once sausages are cool enough to handle, slice them and then return to the pot.
3. Add barley, stock, and water, and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to medium and cook at a simmer for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Stir in pumpkin, vinegar, and honey. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes, just enough for the flavors to mingle. *This makes for a pretty thick soup - if you want to thin it out, add another 1 cup of liquid (stock or water will do) with the pumpkin.
5. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve. Enjoy!


What Makes Us Smile?

One of my very favorite things about Baltimore is the vibrant art community that holds a huge place in this small city. With a renowned art school (Maryland Institute College of Art) and innumerable museums and art districts, it is quite a haven for the artistically inclined. One of my favorite hallmarks of this venerable art scene is the American Visionary Art Museum, which I lovingly refer to as the AVAM and was lucky enough to visit yesterday for my birthday.

The very premise of this museum is that the art contained therein is the work of untrained artists, people who were compelled to create by some personal vision that may not even have been considered artistic in nature by the creator. Every piece and every artist has a unique story to tell. Some of the most compelling and heartbreaking are those of people who have traveled paths of extreme hardship and turned out a beautiful creative piece in catharsis. The most recent show, which just opened up for a year-long exhibition on October 9th, is a bit of a divergence from the sometimes saddening stories behind great art. Entitled "What Makes Us Smile?" this year's body of work focuses on laughter, tickling, farting, smiling, horror, Christmas, and everything in between.

The first floor of the main museum building contains permanent pieces that rarely are rotated through, as well as the amazing SideShow gift shop which is reason enough on it's own to visit the AVAM. The second floor is where all the real exhibit action occurs. On floor three are the library (available for visit by appointment only), Mr. Rain's Fun House (the museum cafe), and a single gallery exhibit, often devoted to the work of a single visionary artist.

Inside the Jim Rouse Visionary Center

Then there's the Sculpture Barn (where I'll be getting married in just about 8 months!), which hosts events and also contains large-scale sculpture. The final building, the Jim Rouse Visionary Center, holds more large-scale pieces, including a ball of bras 5-feet in diameter! The exterior of the buildings themselves feature mosaic art, a bird-nest balcony, and an 11-foot golden hand, among other fun touches.

Baltimore Oriole Mosaic Sculpture

Bird's Nest Observation Balcony

One of my favorite things about AVAM exhibits are the quotes that cover the walls. For every exhibit, the curators select a variety of quotes relating to the exhibit, I guess in the hopes of furthering their message and helping visitors to connect to the work in another way.  This is usually one of my favorite parts of each exhibit, and this year was no different. My comedian fiance, Mike, is usually not crazy about the AVAM but this year, with wise words from George Carlin adorning the walls and artwork about farting, he felt right at home. And that is why I think this exhibit will be so successful. Co-curated by Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, there is a bit more universality and accessibility to the concept and content of "What Makes Us Smile?" Even the person who isn't quite an art museum junkie can appreciate what all this art celebrates - joy, smiles, laughter.

Detail: What Me Worry? bed by Patty Kuzbida
So now to the meat and potatoes of the exhibit - the art. There were videos of stand up comedians, a section on our human obsession with scaring ourselves, funny secrets revealed to PostSecret via postcard, cartoons (some political, some not), comic embroidery, toy assemblages, a Whoopie-cushion bench, etc. With the exhibits included therein donning names from "Toot Suite" to "Ho-Ho-Ho Ha-Ha-Hanukkah," "What Makes Us Smile?" is a fun and inventive homage to those things that universally make us feel good, leaving no medium untouched. You'll learn some crazy facts about laughter, find yourself inspired by the thoughts and quotations posted throughout, laugh aloud at some of the art, and depart with a childlike sense of fun and a joyous demeanor.

The one thing that struck me as being a bit out of the ordinary was the lack of context on the artists. Often the AVAM includes a paragraph or two of background for each artist since most of them have incredible stories of the twists and turns that brought out their included creation. As I said, many of these stories can be upsetting, which would put a damper on the happy go lucky mood of this exhibit. But this is also, to me, an integral part of the magic of the AVAM. It forces visitors to recognize that you don't need to attend an expensive art school or have formal training to create something of beauty, worth, and meaning.

Nonetheless, the art in this exhibit speaks for itself and impresses upon visitors the whole message of the AVAM, though perhaps not as forcefully as usual. Maybe it won't force you to think as much as some past exhibits, but "What Makes Us Smile?" is definitely in line with the playful and visionary aesthetic unique to the AVAM (and it's Mike's favorite exhibit thus far which is great since it will still be up come wedding time next spring!).


Sag Harbor

I'm surprised I'd never heard of Colson Whitehead before I started his most recent novel, Sag Harbor, just a few days ago. A Brooklyn-based writer, Whitehead has a whole host of accolades to his name and was even a Pulitzer Prize finalist. I'm not really sure where I heard about Sag Harbor or what compelled me to request it at the library. No matter what means it took, I'm glad it found it's way into my hands.

Whitehead recreates for us 1980's Sag Harbor, a summer retreat for upper-middle-class New York African American families, a tight-knit social circle whose interactions fall primarily between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Fifteen-year-old Benji offers us his eyes into this world. Back at home, Benji and his brother Reggie play the role of the token black students in their schools, which makes their sudden immersion into black culture each year at Sag Harbor more of an adjustment than it is for most. Benji is a self-described dork though he takes pains to hide his more embarrassing character flaws from his Sag Harbor friends, such as his penchant for horror films. Benji considers himself the boy who is always one step behind everyone else, following the trends once they've already been set, figuring out the appropriate social actions long after everyone else seems to have magically intuited them.

The summer of 1985 is one of typical beach antics and newfound freedoms. Benji's parents are strictly weekenders, leaving him and Reggie to reign the house Monday through Friday. As some of the boys in his crew start to drive and receive generous and faithful gifts from their parents in the form of automobiles, a whole new type of adventure opens up to these vacationing teenagers. And Benji enters the world of work in the form of serving frozen ice cream treats to ungrateful beach-goers.

Sag Harbor stands as an eloquent testament to growing up, to savoring those dwindling summers before adulthood sets in, to the moments when you think you have it all figured out and have entered a new realm of cool, only to make a complete and utter fool of yourself. Whitehead's novel is a humorous and vivid account of one confused black American teenager's coming-of-age story, complete with elaborate depictions of the disdained Hamptonites, the tacky boat tourists from Connecticut, the mysterious girls that offer Benji just a glimmer of hope of fulling graduating from childhood, and the African American professionals who call Sag Harbor their summer home.


Kitchen Decoration Inspiration

I agree with the old adage that the kitchen is the heart of the home. This fact, however, makes it one of the most difficult rooms in the house to decorate. To make a space both functional and beautiful, while housing all those cooking tools, dirty dishes, and other debris that build up in this room make it quite the decorating challenge.

It took me so long to get around to finishing my kitchen up when I moved in. First of all, the cabinets were hideous. Up top, I had steel cabinets painted white, while the bottom cabinets were a heavy and dark wood finish. The knobs didn't match either, though I guess the fact that the cabinets themselves didn't match was a larger problem. Then there was the backsplash - a faux (but very very unbelievable) marble laminate that spanned the entire wall behind my sink and stove, and graced the counters as well. A major re-do was in order.

Enter paint, paint, paint! First of all, the cabinets all got a nice coat of a matching paint dark sage color. Then I found matching hardware - just simple black knobs and handles to create a more classic feel. But the real savior of my kitchen was countertop paint. Though there are a few scratches here and there, this paint has held up remarkably well for how thinly it goes on and how much wear and tear it takes. A nice coffee colored paint for the counters really calmed down all the mismatched patterns and resulting confusion that made my kitchen such an eyesore previously.

Luckily, the off-white I used on most of the walls of the room covered the laminate "backsplash," while a deep red accent wall provides just enough color to give the room some life. It truly is amazing how much a little bit of paint can do. But anyone can paint a kitchen and still have a mess. Here are a few more of my ideas for maximizing your space and keeping things organized. The major rule of thumb, everything needs to have a place it belongs. The clincher is being creative about making space.

1. Short on cabinet space? Display some of your groceries decoratively in clear glass jars. My major baking staples (sugar, flour, etc.) are in large glass containers, mixed in among jars of dried beans, pastas, and grains. The jars are a mix between brand new (from Ikea) and old of the Mason and Ball jar variety.

2. Shelving! I installed a shelf above the countertop where most of my food prep work takes place and lined my jars up there for easy access and a bit of visual interest. This frees up a lot of space both in my cabinets and on my countertops. I also installed another shelf for my cookbooks, since these ever-important items take up lots of space but are kitchen essentials. You've got empty walls - make them functional!

3. An easy way to de-clutter your counters when you're cooking a new recipe: a cork board. I keep one just above my main workspace countertop (below the glass jar shelf) and tack whatever recipe I'm using on to it - this way I don't need to worry about losing or dirtying the recipe amongst my ingredients or losing space to it. Everything is easy to view by looking straight ahead. Though you could go out and buy a cork board, you could also make one out of old wine corks (for instructions visit this post) or you could use cork squares that come ready with wall adhesive strips and are smaller than most cork boards.

4. Baskets, baskets, baskets. In all the rooms of my house, I have receptacles for everything. I have traditional baskets, bowls made out of paper, glass bowls covered in fabric, decorative sushi plates, and all sorts of other sites for collecting various items. If it seems that wallets, keys, receipts, notes, etc. are all ending up in disarray throughout your kitchen (or your house), getting some sort of basket or bowl to throw these items in could be a real lifesaver. Even if the other members of your household continue to insist upon emptying their pockets onto the kitchen table, having a place where you can remove all these necessaries to is a great way to keep your kitchen organized and de-cluttered.

5. Keep room-temperature produce around the kitchen. The centerpiece of my small kitchen table is a produce basket. This way I don't have to figure out or spend the money on something else to give my table some life, and my bananas, tomatoes, apples, etc. are right at hand. I also love hanging chain-link basket tiers and it makes storing onions, garlic, potatoes, etc. so much easier. When all of these items are visible, it also makes constructing a grocery list that much easier because I can tell what is and isn't in stock in my kitchen.

6. Windowsill herb gardens are great - as long as you have a well-lit windowsill (something that I, unfortunately, don't have). Keeping those fresh herbs in your kitchen makes them easier to access when you need some fresh additions to your meals. But it is also likely that you'll take better care when you see them multiple times throughout the day - then there is no excuse to not properly water your herbs.

7. A few years ago butcher block islands were all the rage, but I'm still on that bandwagon. If you have the space for an island, these mobile counters are a great way to add some countertop space and some shelving. Even though my tiny little kitchen leaves no room for an actual island, I stow my small butcher block island right next to my other counters and to house all my small kitchen appliances. A microwave and toaster oven fit perfectly atop the butcher block, while the shelves below house my bread machine, food processor, juicer, and a lazy susan carrying my oils, vinegars, and other baking supplies. Even this small added counter and shelving space helps me free up countertop and cabinet space elsewhere.

8. Hang pots and pans, oven mits and pot holders. I use a peg board to easily access these oft-used kitchen items but hanging pots and pans over an island is another popular option. Keeping the things that are used daily in close reach is an easy way to free up cabinet storage and make cooking easier on yourself.

I've learned that giving everything its own space is of the utmost importance in keeping a clean kitchen.  Making it look good doesn't hurt either, and that is where paint plays a huge role. Here are a few more touches in my kitchen that, though not necessarily functional, make it look nicer now that I have the basics covered.

I used vintage napkins in brown and pink (to match my cabinets and accent wall) as simple valance curtains. I simply folded them over a curtain rod and used pins to keep them in place.

Cork boards are a wonderful way to keep all sorts of odds and ends in one place and I like having this one back in the corner. It doesn't assault you with it's overwhelming amount of notes, invites, coupons, etc. because it is tucked away, but it allows me to keep these things visible in a confined area so I don't forget about them all.

Kitchen mats are a great thing. Even if you don't have beautiful hardwood floors or the most current tiling, you can mask ugly floors or simply play up boring flooring by some well chosen kitchen mats. I suggest bamboo or at least something braided and easy to wash, rather than something fluffy that could eat up lots of crumbs.


In Defense of Food

I am a sucker for a good read about food. Whether a cookbook, a memoir in meals, or a series of essays on the benefits of healthy eating habits, a book whose sole purpose is to get me thinking about eating in any way, shape, or form is my kind of read. After all, I'm a fairly adventurous foodie with the sensibilities of a health nut and an awfully big sweet tooth. I can appreciate Barbara Kingsolver's quest to embrace a food culture that is healthy for both the eater and the earth, while also indulging myself in stories of the rich and chocolatey dishes that have defined the most important memories of Molly Wizenberg's life. And so it was no surprise to me that, once I finally got around to delving into one of Michael Pollan's much-buzzed food books, I was totally engrossed.

True, this is a book that is more about the food industry and nutritionist science than food itself. Nonetheless, In Defense of Food makes me think about what I goes into my body in a whole new way. Pollan expounds upon the benefits of home-grown produce, of eating real food, of the pleasure of a completely home cooked meal from seed to table for reasons that go beyond popular nutritional science. I lead a relatively healthy lifestyle and a big part of that is I owe to my love of cooking. I do also have a sensibility about food well-aligned with the tenets of ayurveda that what you put into your body has an enormous impact on how you feel. And if you're struggling to improve your health, change your diet, or ward off disease, I have found the perfect prescription - read In Defense of Food. Even though Pollan doesn't write with the intention of creating a new diet trend, what he has to say will change the way people think about, and thus how they eat, food.

Pollan advocates eating real, whole foods, not the processed, refined, and heavily marketed "food-like substances" that line the aisles of your grocery store. He provides countless pieces of evidence to prove how much more healthful life was before the introduction of the Western diet. Many of the diseases with which we are most plagued today, including obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, and cancer, are nearly if not entirely absent in native populations that have never encountered refined carbohydrates or processed fats. No matter if these populations depend on lots of meat, high dairy contents, or primarily fruits and vegetables, their food culture is immune to the unhealthful byproducts of processing and their people healthier because of it.

While nutritionists search for the most important power nutrients and slander the ones to avoid, Pollan advocates for a new kind of food science that focuses on actual foods and total diet, rather than individual nutrients. Nutrition science is far from a well-understood science, but rather an ideology that narrowly views food as merely the sum of its nutrient parts. Many nutritionists fail to acknowledge the healthful synergistic reactions that occur in the human body when consuming whole foods and adhering to traditional diets. The interaction of various types of food, the ways in which whole foods have repeatedly proven themselves better for our health than processed foods with the same exact nutrient makeup, the fact that populations following traditional diets have lower incidence of chronic diseases than those with Western diets - these trends all point to the need for an important change in the Western food culture. Yet nutritional science steers popular thinking about food in Western society, espousing particular nutrients as good and bad rather than taking in the larger picture pertaining to what we eat as a whole, how we eat it, when we eat it, and how we think about it.

Pollan's book is a fairly easy read on the most essential aspect of human life: food. And his conclusions are alarmingly simple. The steps that we need to take to improve our lifestyle as it pertains to food can be summed up quite simply by Pollan's 7-word adage to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." In another sense, we need to eat more like our ancestors, to un-learn what has been taught to us by the food industry and re-discover our sense of food. The implications of these potential changes are enormous for our health and well-being, our environment, politics, and economy. Unfortunately, the possibility of seeing such a massive refashioning of the food industry, however, is highly unlikely with so much damage already done and so many market interests at stake. The most we can hope for is that Pollan's cause be spread. Once people start to think more about their food, how they prepare it, where it came from, how they will eat it, etc., hopefully small changes that occur on the level of the individual will gradually accumulate to the larger, society-level adjustments that are necessary. In Defense of Food won't scare you like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle - this isn't propaganda - and Pollan won't encourage you to take on a fad diet that will only last until nutritionists discover a new super-food of the moment. Rather, Pollan erects a thorough, nearly impenetrable argument for changing the Western way of thinking about food in order to improve multiple aspects of life on levels both personal and cultural.


The Social Network

I saw The Social Network this weekend (for only $5 before 12:00 noon, weekends at AMC!) and never imagined there was so much to the story of facebook. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, it's adapted from the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich which chronicles the creation of the social networking site. Though I cannot speak to how accurately the film (or the book) portrays real events, the movie tells a riveting story of the controversy surrounding ownership of the idea for facebook, the precarious nature of friendship when intermingled with business, and the ensuing legal battles once contentions arise.

I first want to make it a point that this movie contained very few, if any, redeemable characters and yet it was still thoroughly satisfying. I tend to find it difficult to view a film positively when I can't say the same for it's main character. Not the case with The Social Network. With winning performances delivered all around, this riveting film successfully accomplishes the daunting task of creating an entertaining and enjoyable story played out by a cast composed by some extremely polarizing characters.

A Harvard computer programming student, Mark Zuckerberg (portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg) is one of the co-founders of Facebook. Zuckerberg is the man behind the actual development of the website and all its trademark features. His best friend, Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield), is the business man behind the enterprise, as well as the initial source of all Facebook funding. Though Facebook is not the first controversial website to Zuckerberg's name, it is by far the most famous and tendentious. Fellow Harvard students Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Diyva Narendra approached Zuckerberg with an idea for an elite social networking site following the model of myspace or friendster. The clincher, however, was that you would need a Harvard email address in order to join the site. After a drunken internet stunt attracts attention to Zuckerberg's programming talents, they enlist his help to transform their idea into virtual reality. Before long, however, Zuckerberg has independently created his own social networking site originally entitled The Facebook, without contributing to or acknowledging the Narendra and the Winklevosses.

Obviously the site grows beyond the Harvard community to include the Ivy Leagues and then all college students, and now admits any user with an email address. Zuckerberg becomes the youngest billionaire in history, but along the way he is sued by the Winklevoss twins and Narendra for stealing their idea and then later by his former best friend Eduardo once business deals go awry. With appearances from Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) who created Napster and a cameo from Bill Gates, the film carries Zuckerberg out of his elite intellectual East Coast hub and over to the West Coast where the behind the scenes action grows increasingly wilder and more expensive. The fast-pace of The Social Network mirrors the speed with which Zuckerberg was propelled to an unprecedented level of virtual fame and fortune.

Told along a compelling time-line, the film doesn't broadcast the complete story in chronological fashion. Rather, the legal repercussions of Zuckerberg's actions before fulling disclosing how they came to be. But the solemnity of dual legal battles with an ex-best friend and fellow Harvard students are cut by hilarious one-liners thrown by the curt Zuckerberg. Though I'll offer you the opportunity to form your own opinion regarding the film's central character, I do think that his portrayal allows room for sympathy, if not a laugh or two at his attitude of such disinterested haughtiness.

Whether you're a Facebook user or not, The Social Network is a story that defines our current generation, not only because it provides the history of the definitive virtual fulcrum for social experience, but also because never before has our world been conditioned for people so young and inexperienced to amass such exorbitant amounts of money off such an intangible, and yet for many of its users, vital product.

Images from Social Network and Digital Trends
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