Thursday, August 27, 2009

I ♥ Pittsburgh

The craziness (the good kind) is peaking over here, as I prepare to leave for my final hurrah of the summer: a weekend in NYC!

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, I must tell you about the wonders that Pittsburgh had to offer last weekend.

I should start by admitting that my preconceived notions about Pittsburgh were totally wrong. It's a really nice city. And very green (as in trees, although I heard that it's also trying to be more eco-minded).

But before I tell you about the treasures we discovered, I should say that the real reason the trip was so fun is because of the company. BFFs + a birthday to celebrate = a fun weekend anywhere, probably, but these girls were awesome.

Thanks, Rachel, for having a birthday that gave us a reason to plan the trip. And extra thanks to Amy and Gerra, for jumping full force into tourist mode with us. Not only were these girls up for anything, they drove us to an entirely different state and wouldn't even accept gas money. And when a Starbucks detour almost left us stranded in suburban Pittsburgh for eternity, I don't even think they held a grudge. That's friendship.

Alright, so the trip. Those of you in the Twin Cities who might be pondering such a vacation should know that if you fly NWA/Delta, you will ride in a tiny plane and they will snatch your carry-on luggage from you and stick it under the plane. (I would have appreciated such a warning.)

Luckily, all of my anxiety and confusion about the tiny plane and the "plane side" luggage procedure were quickly swept away when I saw Amy and Gerra's smiling faces greeting us at the airport. I was even happier when they brought us immediately to Church Brew Works.

It once was a church, but now is a brewery/bar/restaurant. Amazing grace and all that. Genius? I believe so. And I forgot to buy a commemorative pint glass, so if you go, please bring me one.

The afternoon also included a stop at Oh Yeah!, an ice cream joint that allows you to choose your ice cream flavor and then select from a list of what seemed like a bazillion mix-ins. It's like if Cold Stone Creamery had a soul. They've got everything from balsamic vinegar to Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. I guess I went the boring route, only having sweet cream ice cream with bananas and caramel, but it was delish.

Later that night, we decided to try out the brand new all-slots The Rivers Casino in downtown Pittsburgh. It made me giddy upon entry, as the familiar clinks and beeps transported me to Las Vegas, but once we realized that none of our favorites were there (except for one bank of Monopoly slots, which were occupied), our hostesses decided that a trek out to The Meadows Casino was in order. They were totally right.

The Meadows had everything I could have hoped for in a casino: Monopoly, The Price is Right, Deal or No Deal, video blackjack...I was even introduced to a new favorite: Hot, Hot Penny. Sadly, my Vegas luck did not follow me to Pittsburgh, so I did not win any money. Still, the mini-Vegas vacation was good for my soul. (Trust me, my soul works like that.) I can only imagine what my life would be like if I lived so close to that place.

The next morning was the big day: Rachel's birthday and our road trip to Cleveland in pursuit of #26 on my 40 by 40 list, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum.

I had been told that I would probably be disappointed with the museum, but I wasn't. Trusting the layout, the first thing we did inside was watch the "Mystery Train" film, which documents the evolution of music, starting pre-rock and roll, and ends with interviews from musicians talking about how music saved their lives and why it's so important. It makes you realize how much passion went into founding the museum, which puts you in exactly the mood you need to be in to walk through rooms of rockstar memorabilia.

So yes, there was a lot of clothing and guitars. I found the hand-written lyric sheets much more interesting, but I enjoyed all of it. Also interesting was the Rolling Stone magazine exhibit and seeing Pink Floyd's The Wall reconstructed (the actual wall) with the gigantic. psychedelic, inflatable "teacher" looming over it. Trippy.

And, even though the sandwich itself was quite mediocre, I did appreciate the way the museum consistently applied its theme, even in the cafe. (Lest you think the sandwich was the only thing I found interesting enough to photograph, I should mention that photography is not allowed in the museum.)

So yes, The Presidents of the United States of America (and Drew Carey) were right: Cleveland does, indeed, rock.

After a rousing game of "I'm Going on a Picnic" (btw, I'm bringing an avocado, a blanket, cards, dogs, elk meat...I forget), we were back in Pittsburgh and ready for a celebratory dinner at Soba. Have you ever eaten such a fine chunk of ahi tuna? Well, now I have.

Even though we had to leave the next day, we still managed to pack in a morning visit to the Strip District, where I fell in love with the Leaf & Bean, which provides a Jimmy Buffet-esque oasis, only they serve espresso rather than margaritas. We also had a fabulous lunch at the Penn Avenue Fish Company (I can recommend the Happy Jack).

Not ready to say goodbye to Pittsburgh yet, we rode up Mount Washington on the Duquesne Incline. That's the cable car-like contraption that was built to bring people up and down the mountain back before you could just drive. It was fun in a historical kind of way, and it allowed for the lovely view of the city that you see at the top of this post.

And with just a little more time before we had to head to the airport, we made one final stop: The Beehive, a charming coffee shop/hangout, where I was able to have a mini pineapple pie a la mode! Tiny pies are almost as good as cupcakes. This was definitely an excellent send-off treat.

I ♥ Pittsburgh.

And now it is time to shift my sights up the coast. New York, here I come!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

#26 is Complete

Yes, it's true, #26 on my 40 by 40 list is complete! It was awesome. More to come on my fabulous Pittsburgh (and Cleveland) adventures...for now, let us just bask in the glory that comes with accomplishment.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Off I Go

I am off to Pittsburgh tomorrow with a BFF, to see a BFF. This is summer girls' weekend #2. (Yay!)

I have never been to Pittsburgh. For no good reason, I always envisioned it to be a gray, industrial, vaguely-depressing place - not nearly as sparkly as the photo above - but I am ready to be pleasantly surprised.

Plus, in preparation for my arrival, Pittsburgh recently opened an all-slots casino! (Thanks, Pittsburgh!) Perhaps a visit to this mystical place will provide temporary relief from the jonesing I've been doing for Las Vegas (I mean, come on, it's been 8 months). Better yet, perhaps I will win a million dollars in nickels. You just never know.

But the big news for this trip is that I will be accomplishing one of my 40 by 40 goals by visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum!

Yes, that's right, we will be leaving the fine city of Pittsburgh to drive to the equally sexy city of Cleveland. I'd like to say that I will also be visiting one of Iron Chef Michael Symon's fine establishments while in Cleveland, but alas, the timing just isn't right. Will I ever get back to Cleveland? Well, you know, maybe...if I one day become BFFs with either of the Cleveland Michaels (Symon or Ruhlman), then maybe they will invite me to visit them and I'd have a reason to go back.

So, no, probably not.

Anyway, I am looking forward to a relaxing weekend with the girls. And I get to miss work on Monday, which is always a bonus. Even though I don't get paid vacation, it's still a bonus.

Tune in next week for the Pittsburgh/Cleveland recap!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Another Place I Don't Want to Die

I did not have a near-death experience today. For that, I am grateful.

However, I didn't know that I wouldn't be having a near-death experience when, while sitting in a windowless conference room in the basement of an office building having a meeting about nothing all that important, an announcement came over the intercom telling us that a tornado warning had been issued and we should all take cover.

Now, I'll pause to admit that I understand how people who live in the Twin Cities metro area can become blasé about tornado warnings, as twisters rarely seem to hit us here - instead, gravitating toward the outlying towns. Still, it's not all that often that the weather becomes bad enough that we actually have to take cover, so I tend to take a "better safe than sorry" approach to such warnings.

Thus, I felt a little dismayed when the person leading my meeting today didn't even flinch at the intercom announcement and instead went on telling us about the process to make a request to start a process.

The second announcement about taking cover sounded slightly more urgent. As I reached for my cell phone, only to realize that it was sitting back at my desk, which was in the entire next building, I felt a flutter of panic.

I don't want to die here, was my first thought, quickly trumped by, I need to get out of here so I can be with my kids.

Obviously I wanted to be with my kids in case they were also in bad weather and were scared, but I've also found that there is something immensely calming about having to be the one who doesn't panic. I guess having to keep them safe in crisis situations has the side effect of making me feel like it's within my power to do so.

At this point, the power went out, interrupting a riveting Power Point presentation. The conference room phones are apparently hooked to the generators, because all we could see was the dim glow of the phone display. I took this opportunity to lunge for the phone, paying little attention to the rest of the meeting attendees who looked on quizzically.

The thing about those conference room phones is that they only offer speakerphone mode. I can only imagine what my colleagues (all but one of whom I had only just met 20 minutes early) were thinking when they heard me say, "Mom? Were having a tornado warning and I can't leave."

But no, I was not running to mommy in an emergency, I was letting my childcare provider (a.k.a. my mom) know what was going on, as I was supposed to be home in an hour and that was looking unlikely. Still, it was awkward.

After using the phone, we finally filed out into the hallway and our dedicated meeting host resumed our meeting, as if nothing had happened. As if we weren't in a dimly-lit basement hallway, surrounded by 50 computer programmers, all cradling their laptops. God forbid something should happen to your company-issued laptop!

As soon as we got the all clear, I bolted from that basement amid promises of setting up a follow-up meeting, and made it back to my desk. There I was met with a second tornado warning, but at least this time I was able to wait it out with my department mates rather than being trapped in an indestructible meeting. Once that was over, I fled the premises and made it safely home despite the torrential rain.

Now, I know that the idea of avoiding situations in which you don't want to die isn't a realistic way to live your life (I'm pretty sure most of us would never go to work...or to the dentist...or to the DMV), but I don't think it's too much to ask that when an actual emergency situation arises, everyone drop the corporate robot act and be human. Or, at the very least, enjoy the disruption of the corporate monotony. Geez.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Kinder, Gentler (read: Less Insane) McCarthy?

When I got my new issue of Cookie magazine, I sighed at the sight of Jenny McCarthy on the cover. Great. Now I'm going to have to cancel this subscription too.

I really like my Cookie magazine, as it allows me to peer into this fantasy world where people buy their babies designer clothes and move their families to exotic islands on a whim...oh, and a lot of times, the articles are pretty good.

I figured that Cookie needed to run Jenny's counter argument to their earlier cover story in which Amanda Peet referred to unvaccinated children as "parasites" (which I didn't find offensive, as I understood her point, but whatever).

So I read the article about this self-declared supermom, prepared to throw my magazine across the room at any moment.

The verdict? The editors at Cookie are clearly better than I even thought, because Jenny doesn't sound crazy in this piece. Actually, if I hadn't already been exposed to her delusions, I probably would have wondered what all the hype was about.

In this article, Jenny backs off both the "vaccines are evil" kick (she is now pushing delaying them vs. skipping them entirely) and her claim of having "cured" her son of autism, now choosing the more acceptable "recovered" term (she provides no explanation for her earlier claims of curing him).

I want to believe that all of this means that she's become better informed. However, I suspect that she simply has a smarter PR team behind her. I'd still rather have Jenny-free media, but barring that, I'll at least take a toned down, slightly less smug Jenny. (And who knows, maybe as she continues to learn things, she'll find out she has no place educating people about anything.)

So as long as they don't offer her a monthly column, I'm keeping my subscription to Cookie. Close call.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Miracle Treat Day

Once upon a time, I gave birth to tiny babies. They each weighed 2 lbs. 4 oz. They had to be resuscitated. They had to be hooked up to ventilators. They had to be fed through feeding tubes. Were it not for the amazing NICU staff at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis, my babies would not be here today.

Every year, DQ sponsors Miracle Treat Day, which supports Children's Miracle Network, an organization that supports children's hospitals throughout the country. That day is TODAY!

It's as easy as this: You buy a Blizzard and DQ donates money that ultimately helps save children - including tiny babies like mine.

When else can you feel that good about eating a Blizzard? Go now! Bring friends!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Food Adventures in the Windy City

Is it possible that summer actually picks up speed toward the end? That the space-time continuum actually contracts just a bit so that we (in Minnesota, at least) get hurdled at 400 mph, clear over fall, straight into the cold depths of winter? It's just a thought I've been having as it is somehow August and the first day of school feels like it will be tomorrow, well, tomorrow, which means Christmas must be like a week from Friday.

This is all really to say that I went to Chicago last weekend - actually, I returned a full week ago today - and yet I am only now getting around to mentioning it. I contemplated not mentioning it at all, except then I wouldn't have been able to tell you about this:
Or this:

Or this:

And really, I couldn't let that happen.

So, yes, Chicago. This trip was a long-awaited girls' weekend...really an elaborate plan to give one of my friends her first baby-free weekend ever. (I feel that it's important to point out here that her "baby" is now 3.)

You might think from those photos up there that all we did on this girls' weekend was eat and you would be almost correct, except you'd be leaving out all of the wine. Ok, and we walked a lot, too. Walk, eat, drink. Repeat. It's a can't lose formula - go ahead and try it on your next getaway.

So yes, three of my friends and I set out for Chicago last Friday morning with the intention of spending some quality time sans children. Now, seeing as I'm already a week late on this and not interested in pouring my heart out about how great it was to have uninterrupted time with my friends, let's stick to the food highlights, shall we?

As with every destination these days, I knew we'd need to hit at least one great foodie locale in Chicago. As soon as I saw Graham Elliot Bowles on Top Chef Masters, I knew it must be his restaurant. (and my fellow Top Chef devotees agreed) The first photo above is what I had for dinner there: miso grilled lobster with yuzu bubbles.

My overall review of the restaurant is that it's awesome. The ambiance is perfect (even the 80's Prince songs sort of work) and the menu is approachable, but surprising. The popcorn they deliver to the table instead of bread is so good that I had to make myself stop eating it before I ran out of room for my meal. And the corn chowder is a masterpiece.

Still, I have to admit that my entree didn't blow me away. It was good. It was inventive. It was pretty, for sure. But I guess when I eat lobster, I expect it to taste decadent, and the flavors here were just too subtle (and I had a lot of trouble wrangling the lobster out of its shell). However, my friends had the seared Alaskan halibut and the wild king salmon and gave them rave reviews.

Plus, the desserts made up for any of the lobster's shortcomings. The dark chocolate cake looked nothing like you would expect, but was every bit as delicious. And the big surprise was the sesame shortbread, which involved prickly pear and something called "homemade halva," which is spun sugar, only instead of being like cotton candy, it's like hardened's something you must experience. Love.

That was Friday night. Saturday was spent in Millennium Park, with a pit stop for a perfect macchiato at the Intelligentsia Cafe (which cleared the wine fog from the previous evening), and then a trip to More, the adorable cupcake place we'd stumbled upon the day before, but passed up at that time due to making an ill-advised cupcake trip to Bombon as soon as we'd arrived in the city...

That second picture up above is of More. Have you ever seen such an artful display of cupcakes? I wanted to give them my money just to show my appreciation for their appreciation of cupcakes. Ah, but it turns out the beautiful shop is just the beginning. Once inside, you realize they have what seems like a bazillion flavors, everything from straight up Chocolate Chocolate to some imaginative savory creations, such as Maple Bacon.

I admit that I went into a bit of a trance at this point, but I managed to emerge from the shop with a box of four full-sized cupcakes (just for me!): White Velvet, Salted Caramel, Margarita and Peach BBQ. My plan is to return to the shop until I have sampled every flavor. I think that given the 400 miles between us, it should take me approximately 10 years. Or one really, really sugary trip that ends in my diagnosis with diabetes - you know, whichever.

That Salted Caramel cupcake was to die for. The Margarita, which has tequila frosting, was so much like a margarita, it was weird - in a good way. By this point I was beginning to sweat buttercream, so I thought I'd bring the other two home for my boys...this required me to lug them around for the next 24 hours and home on a plane, only to have the boys declare the White Velvet to be too sweet for their teeth. The Peach BBQ seemed like it was going to be good, but by the time we got to it, was getting crusty and I was too full of sugar to eat it. Lesson learned: Eat all cupcakes immediately.

Somehow we regained our appetites by dinner time, so we ventured out to Frontera Grill/Topolobampo, home of another Top Chef Master, Rick Bayless. (In case you haven't heard, Topolobampo was named something along the lines of best restaurant in the country.) We decided to try our luck at the packed bar and order appetizers. It didn't look promising, but the Top Chef gods were with us and we eventually found a tiny ledge on which to balance our margaritas and order the appetizer platter (see picture three, above). Ceviche, guacamole, taquitos, oh my! It was amazing. I will definitely be making a reservation on my next visit to Chicago.

So, yay for Chicago! And yay for Top Chef! And extra yay for having friends who will indulge and share my reality TV-inspired food adventures! I will now be fasting until my next girls' weekend (with different girls), which is a stupidly soon less-than two weeks away.

But, you gotta squeeze in the summer getaways before the season slips away. Come to think of it, I should probably get started on my Christmas list...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Happy Anniversary

Eight years ago today, I was an idealistic 24-year-old putting on the only tulle I've ever worn, in preparation to walk (barefoot) down the aisle to wed my similarly-idealistic, purple-haired (dyed to match the bridesmaid's dresses) love.

I know that it's not terribly creative, but is there a better word than "amazing" to describe how quickly eight years can pass? In less than a decade, I feel transformed. Jobs and houses and motherhood and death and more love than I knew was possible. I've aged and grown in mostly all good ways. Still me, but better, or so I'd like to think.

And we are better, too. Maybe not always as passionate or spontaneous, but more assured and united. More solid. More relaxed. More connected than we could have imagined back then. For better or worse.