Good Eats

Food-just about the epitome of all joy. Probably the essential factor of any successful trip is the food. It is an entirely uncomfortable feeling to be in a new town and be in the dark of “the place to eat”. Naturally, every other person has a different opinion unless of course there is only one diner in the town. Good eats are imperative to this forum because without this section we would all be lost souls, desperately seeking culinary excitement.

I will very quickly list one of my very favorite dining establishments, and at a later time my other top faves in random order and even more random locales. The first is- The Common Man. It ends up that this place is a chain of sorts, but please don’t mistake this for the epidemic of plastic American chain restaurants. We came across The Common Man in Manchester, New Hampshire. While waiting to be seated we were ushered upstairs to the bar/lounge for some samples of cheese spreads served in crocks and an assortment of crackers. The entire restaurant screamed giddy shoulder-shrugging coziness and homey decor. The food was perfection. The satisfaction of splendid well-constructed dishes can be inspiring to even the canned Spaghettios cook type. My delightful plate consisted of roasted/sliced duck covered in a blackberry cream sauce, crisp garlic-sauteed green beans and new potato mash. We shamefully could not bring ourselves to ordering dessert, yet the server came out with the bill delivery, carrying a woven basket filled with white and dark chocolate mounds. The beautiful server, even though I have no recollection of how she actually appeared, continued to shave off chocolate pieces straight out of Heaven.

There comes a moment in your life when you are acutely aware that you have witnessed true culinary perfection. This was just that kind of dinner.

Oh so Bad in the Badlands

It usually happens when my anticipation is at its highest, barely containing myself to climb in the car and go, when the trip ahead is doomed for disaster. We’ve had plenty over the years, whether a kid is vomiting with a high fever, Nikos and I are arguing about everything including time travel possibilities, we are out in no-man’s land with no stops or a place to set up camp or lodge, the car fails, or its the weather.

We have witnessed too many disastrous trips than I’m motivated to discuss. Yet, they are inevitable and are necessary in order to fully grasp when the trip has been kind. Above, as you can see from the picture, is a representation of our latest disaster. We went on a brief road trip out West in July. We all love the Badlands in this family of five.

We’d arrived and Nikolas was immediately begging to go on the Fossil Beds walk. The kid is very science-oriented and we do try to be encouraging of the children’s interests. We first stopped by the Visitor’s Center and then picked out our campsite. I wanted one in the middle to avoid the lurking rattlers that were lurking out there in the course field. I’m irrationally terrified of snakes. Then, we drove off to appease Nikolas’ desperate wishes.

The kids were way too wild and embarrassing us as they jumped off the walkway and then fell, then were yelling that it was the other who started it. I grabbed both of their arms, pulled them up and dished out my threats. We are always a spectacle wherever we go. I can only imagine what well-behaved perfect kids might be like, but I might be failing in this department. But how can perfect kids come from imperfect parents? It helps lower the expectations, fortunately. Although, I never give up trying.

Nikolas kept running off the trail and I kept my eagle-Mama eyes out for rattlesnakes. Nikos’ forehead was all wrinkled in frustration, clearly wanting all of this to be over. Elizabeth seemed to be showing off and acting like she was going to ascend a vertical crag. Then, he found it. Nikolas discovered a fossil planted smack in the ground, resembling a marbled cow patty. Nikolas was hyperventilating and I thought I saw his eyes roll back in his head. Nikos took some pictures and Nikolas was dancing and grabbing his head and exclaiming how incredible his strike of fortune was, two thousand times. On the way back to the park headquarters, Nikolas said it was by far the very best day of his life. So, how can I place this story in the “disaster”section?

We gave the description to the ranger and Nikolas had to write down the description, location, etc. The ranger said it certainly was a fossil and that it would be documented and labeled. The pride of my sweet eight year old boy was unparalleled to any other great moment of his life.

We headed back to the campground for Nikos to pitch the tent. I set out the camping chairs, and began to enjoy a lightening show. Every time we’ve visited the Badlands, there has always been a spectacular performance of dancing lightening. Elizabeth and Nikolas were squabbling over who got to hold the ladybug kite, while Katerina tried her very best to blow bubbles with her new Dora bubble bottle. All she ended up with was bubble lip gloss and by the look of her scrunched face, bubble juice in her mouth. I was filled with that familiar sense of pure joy when all seems in order at the campground.

Nikolas joined me to watch the nearing lightening streaks, stemming from the sky to the arid earth. Nikolas was asking me endless questions about space and fossils in which 99% of my answers were, “We’ll have to look that up on the internet when we get back”. Nikos joined the girls who were working on the kite, Katerina’s bubbles long abandoned. The kite fell and Nikos mentioned that it was not a good sign that the air had grown eerily still. The wind always blows in the Badlands. Within a mere thirty seconds, the ferocious wind slammed against us. It was frigid, a contrast to the 85 degree temperature just moments ago. The chairs began to fly, the kids fell, and I saw the tent with all of our always too much luggage, began to tear and blow away. I screamed at the kids to get in the car and Katerina began crying. I had to scream three times to be heard to get the baby in the car as Nikos and I used all of our weight (thanks Tudor’s breakfast Sundays) to hold onto the tent and its contents inside. The tent was tearing on all sides like a possessed parachute. Rain began pounding upon us, drenching and cold. A fellow camper, once snug in his camper, kindly came to our aid. If you camp you will understand this precious campground camaraderie.

The storm finally subsided enough for Nikos to drag whatever was left of our tent underneath the heavy picnic table. Once we made it to the car, Katerina was wailing and seemed a bit traumatized. Nikos and I both knew but did not discuss the fact that Katerina would have easily been swept up by that wind. We went to the lodge to eat and the power was off. When it returned we booked a room at the Badland Inn, located just outside of the park. It could not be too bad for $95/night. I felt miserable, wet and cold. Nikos on the other hand, was annoyingly chipper, likely glad that I wouldn’t bug him to camp at least for the rest of the trip.

Dinner was less impressive than our visit the year before. The kids loved the sweet potato fries, at least. We were tired and I was cranky when we pulled up to our accommodations for the night. In one quick word-depressing. As we strolled down the walkway, I noticed a wide open window with a man sprawled out on the bed and two questionable women on the other. One was sporting only a bra and shorts. They were drinking beer and looked about as sorry as slicing into an under-cooked still-frozen turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. I found out the following morning that one of those women was the dude’s daughter! Thanks Nikos for talking to the motel neighbors.

Our room had a kelly green rug draped over a concrete floor, serving as carpet. There were dead bugs scattered about and live ones on the walls. The bathroom wood-sided paneling had streaks of I only hope I don’t know. I slept uneasily while the rest of my family were conked out in minutes.

The following morning we went back to the campground with slumped shoulders and heads hung. A few of the survivors (which were embarrassingly several) came out to talk to us. Nikos went to throw away the tent, and I know he took way too much satisfaction in doing so. I wonder about his ingrained resentment towards my obsession with camping. It just so happened that a meteorologist pilot who works with the government chatted to Nikos while I spoke to his friendly wife. They live in MN. The meteorologist explained to Nikos that what we had witnessed was a series of mini-tornadoes which had touched down on the ground. Nikos seems to still believe that it was the cheap stakes he used.

Two days after arriving back home, I ordered the same tent.

 

 

 

 

Day / Weekend Trips

This section is devoted to some of the sweetest surprises our car has carried us. Day trips can be affordable while managing to get you out of the pit of mediocrity, enough to revitalize and send you back home with hopefully a refreshed spirit.

Our recent day trip was to the New River Gorge, near Fayetteville, WV. It was Labor Day weekend and I could not settle at home knowing every other person was off somewhere. We decided for Sunday and wanted to make it back to the house by eight in the evening to watch “Big Brother”.

The rain clouds were formidable but I wanted to stand up to them and tread on, well drive that is. The 1.5 hour drive was peaceful, none of the kids were carsick, Nikos looked over his shoulder when passing (usually a bickering session ensues if he doesn’t), and Nikolas only needed a bathroom break twice, which means pulling off to the side of the road. I know, we are fancy.

As usual, we couldn’t find the other end of the fishing pole so Nikos stopped in at the Fayetteville Walmart to purchase our 500th pole. Elizabeth accompanied him which was fine because she was beginning to aggravate me, falling into whine mode. Coincidentally, they ran into a a mother of one of Elizabeth’s friends. This must have been the reason it took thirty minutes to buy a cheapo pole.

It began to pour the rain. We stopped by the New River Gorge visitor center. Katerina was way too excited to be out of the car and was bellowing happiness. The Stoufis clan gathered uncomfortable stares as a result. This one lady in particular held such an impenetrable stare that I felt like reverting to seven years old and making my ugly face at her.

My kids have numerous Junior Ranger badges in which they have righteously earned from the national parks we’ve visited. Katerina takes it very seriously. She even shushes us if we talk during the park films. I found it strange that the one badge they have never earned happens to be one of our favorite day trip destinations. I waited in the short line at the ranger station and asked the gentleman behind the desk if he could please hand over three Jr. Ranger booklets. He proceeded to ask the ages, and then nearly reprimanded me that Katerina would be too young for the program, since she was only two. He droned on without pause, therefore I had to hold onto my patience until I finally had the opportunity to explain that the other parks allowed me to help her with it. He handed over a coloring book and talked too much yet again, saying she could not possibly understand the tasks. I am not the “my kid is a genius” type, but I do not believe in never underestimating the capacity of learning at any age. The guy was a volunteer, and I suppose was trying to inflict his unearned authority over me, however, I remained polite and gathered the two books plus a coloring book and simply said, “Thanks”.

Nikos had overheard the conversation and was enjoying the quiet scene. Does he ever come to my aid? Uh, nope. That’s okay. When it’s four a.m. and the kids think it’s a fine time to open the presents from under the Christmas tree, I won’t stop them, even if Nikos was up until two assembling ridiculously intricate toys. Nikos just shook his head, chuckled and said I was a Jr. Ranger psycho instead. I harshly whispered that he would get another booklet or we would not be leaving the visitor center.

We watched the wonderful film, beautifully created. I love visitor center films. Nikos does as well, he gets a solid nap during every single one we’ve ever sat through.

Nikolas begged for a bird call, then a book on fungi, then a gem, all of which I wouldn’t allow. I’d just bought him a book on fungi, he just needs to remember where he left it. Meanwhile, Nikos obnoxiously waved the third Jr. Ranger booklet and I nearly ran out the door. We can mail the booklets in for the kids’ badges.

It was still raining but we drove down the very steep descent to Fayette Station. If you ever make it to this area, be very careful at “Stupid’s Corner”. It will tear up your car if you fail to take the turn carefully.

While assembling a florescent yellow fake worm on our new fishing pole, Nikos ran into the a fellow engineer he used to work with. The guy is second under the commissioner. The drizzle curled up Elizabeth’s and Katerina’s hair which looked very pretty.

Nikolas took off running to be the first to cast, over near the huge boulder. Katerina tripped four times on the rocks and dunked her feet immediately into the river. Elizabeth stepped in dog poop, and proceeded to dunk her shoes in as well, while squeamishly grimacing at her misforutune. Katerina delighted in throwing the heaviest rocks her bay arms could lift in the rushing river. There’s a reason why we never catch any fish. The rafters were banking, and I envied their adventurous rush a little.

The misty clouds rose into the hilltops, providing perfect scenery. The fishing line was caught and broken early on and our fishing for the day was over. The river whispers its ancient secrets and I am always aware, every single visit, that this is truly a special place, forever in my heart.

We headed back up the hill to our favorite restaurant in WV, Smokies on the Gorge. The food is amazing, the view equals the culinary fare, and it is a must for the “Good Eats” section. I gorged at the Gorge (oh that’s some serious cheese!)

Going home with our happy bellies, satiated by our day trip. Katerina fell asleep just before we made it home.

 

 

Campfire Talk

This will undoubtedly be my favorite destination on my website. I adore camping talk! Let’s talk gear while we are together. We have the epitome of laziness tent, the kind invented for the husband who has been coerced, nagged, guilt-tripped, and is entirely unmotivated to go camping with his family.

We recently purchased our second Coleman instant tent, which sets up in a minute by the OCD/neurotic type, otherwise it takes the average individual a mere five minutes to proudly show off their tent-building expertise to the rest of the campground. There is the label on the side, “Coleman Instant” so be sure to find an out of the way campsite if you feel a little humbled.

 

If you are wondering what happened to the first tent, please go to the “disaster vacations” forum. Now I like comfort camping. I prefer campgrounds with clean bathrooms, flushable toilets, a small camp store, a playground, and spacious sites. I am not a “roughing it” type as much as I would aspire to be. We have instant mattresses, which can be deflated in seconds, rolled tightly for space and weigh two pounds. I pack our pillows and sleeping bags, and usually grab a comforter.

A propane stove for me is a necessity. I don’t believe in eating lifeless canned food fare, in which to dread dinner all day long. Campfire food can be entirely as gourmet as you are motivated to cook. I often plan an appetizer before out meal, which might be an olive tapenade with small toasts, following a meal of panko-encrusted chicken with a mushroom cream sauce, served with cilantro risotto and veggie kabobs. If you are the type who needs to carefully measure ingredients out, this could prove problematic for you.

My husband still has quite a bit of neanderthal left in his DNA and therefore feels determined to build the most obnoxiously huge fire in the campground. I remind him but to no avail that that would came from beautiful trees like those surrounding us, and that he is contributing far more to global warming than styrofoam cartons.

The kids play and run around and I am acutely aware of time fleeting before me, forcing me to nostalgically tuck away these wonderful visions of my sweaty smiling children in my special Mama pocket. Inevitably, I grow misty-eyed on every one of our hundred plus camping trips.

 

There is no other time in my life when I feel more alive, happy, and truly grateful for what I have than when I am sitting in my camp chair, surrounded by nature while camping.

Once you have faced the hassle of packing up your house, forgetting a few items, heard your husband struggling and swearing with the luggage, you are there, out in nature. Camping forces you outside. The stars shine brighter, the air whispers freedom, and you are once again in touch with that interconnected instinctual bond with nature.

Smokies on the Gorge

It seems this country is charging forward to the numbing of the senses movement, in terms of eateries.  The chain restaurants are spawning rampantly, appealing to the masses, whose taste buds have grown accustomed to fake food, frozen and artificial.  How many times have you waited thirty minutes or more to get a table, only to be left feeling agitated and forced to endure the pungent smell of sour milk from a table due to being wiped down with a mildewed towel?  I suppose I am sounding melodramatic, however most of us go out to eat as a treat, for entertainment, a break from the chore of cooking at home.  As diners we should not be forced to numb our taste buds and be brainwashed into thinking what lies before us is something edible.  Free yourselves from the chains of chain restaurants, long live privately-owned establishments, who cook with care and from their hearts.  I should note that one of my favorite restaurants is indeed a chain.  So call me a hypocrite, but Macaroni Grill offers some wonderful dishes, all is prepared and cooked on the premises of the individual restaurant.  With that note aside, allow me to introduce you to Smokies on the Gorge!  Nestled in the hills-“mountains” to us Mountaineers, overlooking the New River Gorge is the best restaurant you will find in West Virginia. The interior is reminiscent of an upscale Boy Scout dining hall, encased in wood paneling, and I swear you can still smell that pungent pine scent, and I am not referring to Pine-sol!

There are seats outside as well, and if you are fortunate you can sit directly beside a cliff, and dine with an incredible view as equally fine as the morsels in your mouth.  This establishment is a buffet setting, filled with nothing short of the most scrumptious bites  be it gourmet, unique, and loaded with artistic flair.

I will first let you in on an on-going problem, and as my husband refers to as control issues.  I normally am a nervous wreck at buffets and avoid them at all costs, with the exception of my favorite WV restaurant.  First, all that food arranged like produce or meat at the grocery store, overwhelms me and my mind feels like it’s in a mirror maze and everywhere I turn I am engulfed in hyper-stimulation me mode.  I do my best to resume some kind of mental order by requiring that Nikos and the kids first go up and get salad, fruit and vegetables first.  The kids moan and groan and I am right there with them wanting dessert first.  One day, I promise to anyone who is reading this, I will relinquish my suffocating structure and we will eat dessert first.  Nikos gets his revenge on my bossiness by refusing to get the salad first, and he thinks he’s such a tough guy while he’s muttering under his breath like a kid sent to his room, “I don’t need to get a salad.  You can’t make me.  I am getting a piece of fried chicken and you can’t stop me.”  I suppose he is reigning in bravado to defy me and pick up that piece of chicken before his veggies.  While sauntering up to the salad bar, I am mad and nearly sweating by my mental chaos and Nikos is not helping.  It’s all the food, it’s the other diners, and I just have issues, but I will swallow it all and deal when it comes to Smokies on the Gorge.

The salad bar is a lovely arrangement, like a colorful iceberg of fruits, cheeses, crackers, and salad fixings.  Even Nikos in his acts of spiteful rebellion gets the salad first.  The main fare is cooked by fine chefs, with a multitude of flavors.  The last time they even had wild boar in conjunction with a cherry/brandy chutney. There are usually five or so main entree dishes, some seafood, meats and pasta.  You can expect the vegetables to be sauteed in fanciful ingredients to make any veggie hater a fan.

I am nervous waiting in the brief line afraid that my food will be snatched up by the person in front of me.  I believe I  even despise them momentarily.  Our plates are filled numerous times and the kids are even infatuated by their food. I am in a blissful state of gluttony and the nerves have been quelled.  Then, comes the introduction to the jewels of the evening, dessert.  There is cheesecake, a variety of lemon-filled/chocolate/vanilla custard cannoli, cobblers, and what looks like seven layer brownies.  Every time we have visited, there are different menu items, including dessert.

What you need to understand is that the combination of the scenery, the amazing food, and the ambiance will leave you with a profound sense of satiation with life.