Sunday, January 31, 2016

Dismals Canyon

I crave green this time of year.  Leafy greens on the plate, verdant surroundings (or memories of  'em) - I can't get enough.  So I've been reminiscing hardcore about our time at Dismals Canyon last summer.

Dismals Canyon is a privately owned Natural Conservatory and National Natural Landmark in northwest Alabama.  The "Dismals" in Dismals Canyon stems from the presence of bioluminescent creatures known as Dismalites that make their home on the canyon walls.  

While outdoor activities in Alabama in June tends to be a sweaty mess, one of my favorite things about this location is that the temperature drops by ten degrees or more as you descend the steps into the canyon.  Couple that with the guarantee that you're going to dip your toes and wade through the stream that flows along the canyon floor, and it's actually a pretty comfy place to hang out in the hotter months.  

This probably goes without saying, but if you go, definitely wear clothes and shoes that can stand a little dirt and water because you're going to want to be able to do this:

Stop in at the soda fountain before you leave.  Canyon exploring is thirsty work, and they make a yummy limeade!  

Night tours are also available if you want to see the Dismalites in all their glowy glory, but we stuck to the daylight hours.  The photos you'll see below represent the two different day trips we took to the canyon in June 2015.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Heard Around the House

Our little man turns five soon, and it's kinda freaking me out.  

Five feels big.  

The last night of our Disney trip, I scooped him up as we walked through the Magic Kingdom and choked back a little sob because it struck me that I'd likely be unable to carry him in that same way the next time we walked those streets.

So because 2016 is shaping up to be a barrage of reminders that life is fast and impermanent and unpredictable - and because I know I'm incredibly lucky - I'm hanging on tightly to this season our family is in right now.

And because, quite frankly, I could use a laugh (and maybe you could, too), I've rounded up some of the silliness heard around our house these days. Hope you enjoy!

Me: I heard you made a new friend at Lunch with the Ladies.
Matt: I did!
Me: Who's your new friend?
Matt: I don't have the slightest idea.

Me: Matt, please remove your sword from the table so we can eat dinner.
(May there always be swords cluttering my table. Amen.)

Beard: Matt, what happened to the frost?
Matt (quizzical look): ...
Beard: This morning when we were outside, there was frost on your tricycle. What happened?
Matt (inspecting seat): The frost melted!
Beard: It melted?!?! How'd that happen?
Matt: How'd that happen, you say? (points to the fiery ball in the sky) Thanks to the nice, warm sun! The frost all melted away!

Matt: That game we have plugged in right now is pay-to-play. We all know this, Mama.

Chef Matt: May I take your order?
Erik: I'll have the Peace & Quiet.
Matt: Nope, all out.  We only have the Wild & Loud.

Matt: "Shake It Off" is all over the internet. It's crawling everywhere.

Erik: What are you made of, kid?
Matt (folding himself into a pretzel): Gelatin, silly!

Me: That's a cool lightsaber you've got there, bub.
Matt (very seriously): It's not a lightsaber. It's a training saber. I. Am. A. Padawan.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Lunch at Delta Blues Hot Tamales

Until I watched Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt: The River Run, I had no idea that tamales are kind of a big deal in the Mississippi Delta.  It might feel kind of random that this Mesoamerican dish gained a foothold and developed its own character in the southeast.  But one story suggests that migrant workers from Mexico who shared fields with African Americans also likely shared foodways.  Another possibility is that American soldiers who fought in the Mexican-American War brought the recipes back with them.  Either way, they're in our neck of the woods (or near enough), and they're worth checking out.

Here's a bit more about Delta tamales from the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Since watching The River Run (so... since roughly 2007), I've been meaning to make a day trip over to the Tamale Trail to give them a try, and I've done a horrible job of achieving that goal.  It's still on the list for a future food adventure.

Last weekend, though, we took a quick trip to Birmingham for lunch at Delta Blues Hot Tamales.  The spot opened on Cobb Lane in December, serving tamales by the half-dozen or dozen and tamale plates with additional toppings, along with other offerings like tacos and jambalaya.

First of all, I love the location of the place.  We're not especially familiar with the Five Points South area yet, but tucked in just off a little cobbled street it feels a tiny bit hidden away and special.

We started with fried dill pickles.  The first time I ever had this appetizer was at Green's Barbecue in Gantt, Alabama.  Combined with their dipping sauce, they were exactly the right combo of salt and sour and ranch for my sixth grade self.  The Delta Blues version topped them because they were crinkle cut, hamburger dill chip-style, the better to hold that extra-crispy breading, and they were served with comeback sauce.  I most definitely believe in the power of comeback sauce.

Matt demolished an order of catfish strips, and Erik and I each ordered a tamale plate.  We preferred the pork tamales over the black bean, though it's great that there's a vegan option.  I definitely recommend the M'sippi Melt, which comes topped with crossroads queso and charred corn relish, adding a bit of crunch, sweetness, and creaminess to balance out the heat of the tamale.  So good!  I also appreciate that the tamales are cooked in corn husks, not paper.  They're unwrapped for easy eating, but laid out on a husk on the plate, and you can still see the pattern of the husk on each tamale.  We ordered the small plates, and each came with a side, so we got the corn macque choux.  It was perfectly seasoned and delicious - definitely worth ordering again.  We were so busy tasting and talking about the food that we forgot to take any photos after the starter!

We weren't certain how kid-friendly the place would be, though the inclusion of a kids' section on the menu certainly gave us enough confidence to make the drive.  Turns out it's a great spot for families: one of the staff pointed us toward a collection of toys near the entrance (we declined, but it was nice to know they were there), and the service was quick and friendly.  Our server interacted directly with Matt, chatting with him and offering him the check at the end of the meal.  Engage my kid - score big points with me.

We're definitely going back. It's a part of our southern culture and heritage, and it's really yummy, too!  I can't wait to try the Tamale Pie and Ragin Cajun.  And also perhaps talk them into selling macque choux by the bucket.  If you're in the area, definitely give them a try!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Walt Disney World Trip Report: Animal Kingdom

When we knew we were doing three days of park tickets, it took us a long time to decide whether that third day would be Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios.  Because of the number of closures that happened at Hollywood Studios throughout the year, though, we finally felt confident in skipping it and committing to a day with the animals.

We arrived at rope drop after the longest bus stop wait we experienced during the whole trip (45 minutes), then made our way over to DinoLand while the crowd headed, I'm guessing, to Expedition Everest.  We figured we'd do Triceratop Spin and poke around in this part of the park until the Boneyard opened up a bit later, but Matt wasn't having it.  Since he so quickly vetoed Dumbo, his anxiety about Triceratop Spin wasn't unexpected, but we wanted to give him another shot at a ride geared more toward little ones.  This was not at all wasted time, even though we didn't ride anything, because the theming here, like everywhere else in the park, was excellent.

We worked our way back toward the Tree of Life, and Matt decided he was up for It's Tough to be a Bug.  Having read that it's a pretty intense attraction despite being inspired by a kids' movie, I had reservations, but he thoroughly enjoyed it.  He's establishing a pattern, I think: intense storytelling, yes; heights and speed, not so much.

After the show, we walked over to Harambe Market and grabbed a little snack at Zuri's Sweets Shop.  I have to say, I was a little bummed back when the animal poop treats were discontinued so quickly.  I think Matt was their target audience and would have loved the concept.

We were in no rush to get anywhere in particular, so we walked across to the seating area to share our snack.  This was actually one of my favorite parts of the entire trip.  The area was completely empty at this time of day, and we were able to hang out, have a quiet moment as a family and really take in all of the details of the market.

I loved everything about this place: the color, the signage pasted on poles and walls, the lived-in feel even though it's a relatively new spot, the pieced-together-from-what-we-have nature of the structures, the luggage and odds and ends piled up on the Wilderness Express Train cars as they rumble by.  Pretty much perfect.  And it was equally awesome, albeit very different, when lunch time livened it up with a bit of a crowd and the smells of cooking meat.

We had a bit more time before our FastPass for Kilimanjaro Safaris, so we took a stroll through the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.  I was basically ready to move in at this point.

After our trek on the trail, we queued up for our safari.  Matt let out a spirited "Roll Tide!" when the guide pointed out the elephants, and we saw tons of other animals along the way.

For lunch, we boogied on back to Harambe and tried the sausage fried in curried corn batter.  We enjoyed our corndogs, but an unexpected surprise for me was the roasted broccoli and tomato salad served on the side.  I had written it off as filler on the plate, but it added some brightness and contrast to the fried meat stick.

Our next stop was Festival of the Lion King.  I'll be honest here and say that The Lion King was never really my thing, but I was unprepared for my emotional state during this show.  I was feeling just a little bit like this:

We wrapped up our time in the park with a walk through the Maharajah Jungle Trek, where I was once again completely in love with the theming.

After a little rest back at the hotel, we hopped on the bus to Animal Kingdom Lodge for dinner at Boma.  Our favorites from the buffet of African-inspired dishes included the watermelon rind salad, fufu, pap and chakalaka, and all of the soups (so good!).  Boma was a fun way to try a few new foods - particularly for Matt - and a tasty way to end our Animal Kingdom visit.

See the links below to read about the first few days of our trip:
Planning & Arrival Day
The Magic Kingdom

Monday, January 4, 2016

Red Lentil Soup

When I was nineteen, I spent ten days in Egypt with a group of professors and grad students from my university.  I was the farthest from home I'd ever been.  I didn't really know anybody, and that first night in Cairo, I was both jetlagged and apprehensive when our guide slid a bowl of lentil soup to me from across the table.

"Eat this," he said. "It will help."

He was not wrong.  It was one of the simplest, best meals I've ever had.  Since then, this soup has always been one of my favorite comfort foods.  So because it's cold outside today in that always-winter-but-never-Christmas way that only January and February know how to do, I'm sharing a recipe that approximates the bowl of comfort offered to me that night.   

Red Lentil Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
a few dashes crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chopped onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound red split lentils (soaked)
8 cups chicken stock
lemon wedges
fresh pita, naan, or similar

In a large pot heat the oil. Add the pepper flakes, cumin, and turmeric, and fry until the spices are fragrant.  Stir in onions and garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until the onions soften, then add the lentils, cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add broth and bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes or until lentils are broken down and soup's texture is nearly smooth. Taste for seasoning, then remove from heat and cool slightly before serving with a squeeze of lemon and fresh bread. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Walt Disney World Trip Report: Epcot

We began our day at Epcot in Future World, arriving before park open.  Cast members let guests in through the front gates, but areas of the park weren't open yet, so we hung out with the crowd until everything officially kicked off, then headed to Test Track.  So did everyone else.

We ultimately decided to skip Test Track and made a u-turn, heading instead for the Character Spot, where Matt got to spend a little more time with Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy.  These character interactions were excellent - another thing that was not in the plans but turned out to be awesome.  Going in with a plan but being prepared to chuck it from time to time in favor of something that fit us a little better served us well throughout this trip.

Next we made our way to The Seas with Nemo and Friends.  There was zero line here, presumably because everyone else in the park was at Test Track.  We hopped in a clamshell and toured through a mix of animated fish (Nemo, Marlin, Dory, Bruce, et al) and real ones.  Who's ready for Finding Dory?  I am, for sure!

After that, we checked out the rest of the Seas, which included some big tanks with sharks, turtles, fish, rays, and a dolphin.  Also, a giant, climb-in-able Bruce-type thing that is both hilarious and a little bit terrifying.  Moving on...

We had a FastPass for Turtle Talk with Crush for 9:40, but there was no standby line, so we skipped the FastPass and went straight in.  It was similar to Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor in that animated characters interacted with the audience in realtime.  The kids sat on the floor up front, and Crush talked to them.

While we waited for the show to start, I changed our Turtle Talk FastPass.  The only real option was Journey into Imagination with Figment, but we didn't need the FastPass here either.  After we rode it, I understood the lack of demand for this attraction.

Next up, we headed to the Land pavilion.  We had some time before our Soarin' FastPass window, so we did Living with the Land.  The standby line was short and moved quickly, and Matt really liked getting to see inside the greenhouse.

Once it was over, we walked a few steps over to the Soarin' entrance.  The FastPass line seemed crazy long, but we started moving quickly.  The standby line was 60 minutes at that point.  We had a little wait, but it was so worth it.  Soarin' is awesome!  We wanted to ride it again immediately, but that was definitely not an option given the long standby line.  I cannot wait to go back and do Soarin' Around the World once it switches over.   

We grabbed some lunch at Sunshine Seasons next, then made our way over to Spaceship Earth, our last FastPass for the day.  When we first walked into the park, Matt seemed really anxious about the giant golf ball and did not want to go in, but he professed the ride's awesomeness as soon as it came to a stop and was very pleased with himself for going into the park's icon.  

After Spaceship Earth, we stopped in MouseGear, where Matt got his sorcerer's hat Mickey ears, then we caught the bus back to the hotel to rest up before returning to spend some time in the World Showcase.

Our plan for the evening was to enjoy the holiday goodness in each pavilion, grabbing a few small bites for dinner along the way.

We began in Mexico but not before grabbing a device to participate in Agent P's World Showcase Adventure.  We weren't quite prepared for how time-consuming it would be, but we loved how the mission was integrated into the Mexico pavilion, and Matt was thrilled to send Doofenshmirtz packing.

Over in Norway, we stopped in to share some school bread.  This sweet pastry filled with custard and topped with coconut lived up to the hype in our opinion.  Definitely worth the snack credit.

In China, we watched some acrobats perform and hung out with a friendly dragon.

And in Germany we listened as Helga shared Christmas stories.  She and her nutcracker friend chatted with Matt for a few minutes after storytime.

As we made our way out of Germany and into Italy, it was starting to get dark, and we didn't accomplish a whole lot more after that.  We listened to La Befana tell her story for a few minutes in Italy, ignored the America bit, blitzed our way through Mitsukoshi in Japan, and ultimately decided to sit down for a bite to eat at Tangierine Cafe in Morocco, which was an absolutely tasty decision.  Erik and I both got shawarma platters - he got the lamb, and Matt and I shared the chicken.  Both included hummus, pita, tabouleh (more green than grain - yay!), and couscous.

Truth be told, after dinner we skated through France, the UK, and Canada without doing much more than window shopping.  Next time, I'd love to start early and spend more time exploring the World Showcase in the daylight.

Worn out from our around-the-world adventure, we made our way back to the hotel via several hops:  Epcot monorail to the Ticket and Transportation Center (our one and only monorail ride of the trip), then ferry to the Magic Kingdom (for our first glimpse of the park lit up at night), and boat back to Wilderness Lodge.

Stay tuned for my Animal Kingdom write-up next!
Other posts in this trip report: Planning & Arrival and Magic Kingdom

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Walt Disney World Trip Report: The Magic Kingdom

To continue the rundown of our holiday trip to Disney World, here's what we got up to on our first day at the Magic Kingdom.

Matt was wide awake around 5:30, and we wanted to get to the park in time for the opening ceremony, so we had breakfast in the room, achieved a reasonable level of caffeination, then headed to the bus stop.  It was 7am.

At this point, I wasn't sure about the timing of Disney transportation, so the goal was to have plenty of cushion.  The bus arrived at 7:23, and we pulled up at the Magic Kingdom at 7:30.  The park opened at 9.  Needless to say, we had cushion to spare.  The good news is that there was plenty of people watching to do before park opening, including some awesome DisneyBounding.

One of the things I was looking most forward to was the Magic Kingdom opening.  In the months that led up to our trip, I couldn't manage to watch it on YouTube without crying.  You know how emotional reactions often diminish with repeated exposure?  Not so for me and Disney, it seems.

Here are a couple of clips from the show.  You'll notice that the crowd MOVES pretty much as soon as Mickey stops talking.

And we were off, heading into the park, down Main Street, and into Fantasyland.  We started at Peter Pan's Flight and walked right on.  The interactive queue was fun - Matt recognized characters from the movie and chatted about them the entire way through, and Erik's shadow experienced some trouble with a lantern.  When it was our turn, Matt was nervous about the flying boats, but he felt secure knowing that we were all able to sit in a boat together.  The ride tells the story of the animated movie.  It's super quick, but I love how the boats fly you over both London and Neverland.

Next up was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  There was a short, quick-moving line here that didn't feel at all like a wait.  My favorite bit was that the queue showcases one of the best parts of the Winnie the Pooh movies - the interaction within the pages of the stories themselves.  Into a hunny pot we went and through the story of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.  Matt wasn't wild about the heffalumps and woozles dream sequence, but he loved the part where the track is designed so you feel like you're bouncing along with Tigger.

Back from the Hundred Acre Wood, we strolled over to Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid.  The best part here was the way the cars and visuals create the feeling of going under the water; you ramp down and backwards as sea foam is projected onto the ceiling.  Scuttle's commentary bookends were cute, too.

Even though we had a FastPass for Enchanted Tales with Belle for later in the day, there was no wait time when we walked by.  It felt as though we were making really good progress, so we decided change our FastPass and  visit Belle while we were right there.  Belle has always been my favorite Disney princess.  She's odd and always has her nose stuck in a book; that's pretty much my jam.  So I got a little dust in my eye when the mirror transported our group to the day Belle and the Beast fell in love.  Anyone who wants one gets a part in the show, and all three of us ended up participating.  Matt volunteered to be Philippe the horse, Erik got picked to be a suit of armor, and I was picked to be the wardrobe.

I was thrilled that all the planning with the intention of avoiding lines and long waits was actually all working.  But my enthusiasm was starting to read like "LET'S CHECK ALL THE THINGS OFF THE LIST!"  so we stopped in at Gaston's Tavern for a little break.  We ordered a LeFou's Brew and a cinnamon roll the size of my head to share and found a cozy spot amid the antler decor.  LeFou's Brew is slushy apple juice with toasted marshmallow flavoring and passion fruit-mango foam on top.  The drink was intensely sweet.  I'm glad we gave it a shot, but I'm certain it won't become a must-have for us on future trips.

Attitude adjusted, we headed to Storybook Circus.  However, after a brief inspection, Matt was decidedly not down for Dumbo, so we skipped it.  He expressed interest in meeting characters, so we walked a few steps over to Pete's Silly Sideshow and hopped in the line for Minnie and Daisy.  The wait was long, though, so Matt decided fairly quickly that he wanted to do something else.

After a chat outside, we decided to  do the Barnstormer.  I'm still trying to understand the logic that went into Matt's giving Dumbo a thumbs down and yet being cool with the Barnstormer, but I was super proud of him for giving it a try.  It was the little dude's first roller coaster! Super cool!

On our way to Columbia Harbor House for lunch, we stopped in at Mickey's Philharmagic.  It wasn't on our list, but it was a fun little show, and I'm very glad we did it.  Matt developed an immediate interest in the sorceror's hat, and when he got one with mouse ears later he took great pleasure in pretending that it was mischievous and in need of a proper chase.

Lunch was yummy.  I was excited to try the lobster roll because I'd never had one before.  I still feel like I really haven't, but it was a pretty tasty seafood salad sandwich.  If you visit, definitely find a table upstairs away from the hustle and bustle.

We made our way to Adventureland after lunch.  By this time, lines were starting to get long, so I was really happy to have our 12:15 FastPass for Pirates of the Caribbean.  I'd made a note not to sit in the first two rows since people have been getting soaked on the ride since the refurb, but we ended up being put in row 2.  Fortunately, there was just a little splash, and we were in good shape.

The afternoon's plans, it seems, led us to do a bit more crisscrossing than I'd recommend.  Our next FastPass was Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, so we headed over to Tomorrowland.  We had lots of time to spare before our FastPass window opened up, so we did Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor.  Erik was onscreen a lot as Sully, and he played the part very well.  Very funny and unexpected - another one I'm definitely glad we did.  By the time we were done, we could head over to Buzz Lightyear.  Although Matt didn't seem wild about it at all, he repeatedly said later that Buzz was his favorite part of the day. 

We decided that our FastPass for the Jungle Cruise would be our last thing in the park for the day, so we walked back over to Adventureland with lots of time to kill.  We stopped by the hub briefly to take a few pictures of the castle and the Partners statue, then decided to get a Dole Whip from Aloha Isle.  This treat has a cult following, and, like the LeFou's Brew, I'm glad we tried it, but I don't know that I'll need to grab one again.

Since we still had time to spare, we checked out the Enchanted Tiki Room.  I'm honestly not sure what to say about it.  We all sort of wandered out of there with "what just happened?" expressions.  Birds, man.  It was so weird, I think we're going to have to do it every trip.

Tiki shenanigans complete, we took a trip through the Swiss Family Treehouse, and then it was time for the Jungle Cruise, or Jingle Cruise since it was wearing its holiday gear.  Our skipper was funny and punny, and I'm so glad that's how we ended our day in the park.  I can't wait to go back to try out the Skipper Canteen restaurant, which opened shortly after our trip.

We walked back through the park to the Wilderness Lodge boat, catching a bit of  a parade on our way down Main Street, and ended the day with a reservation at Whispering Canyon Cafe.  Matt still occasionally bellows for the ketchup at dinnertime.

Next up: Epcot!
In case you missed it: Planning and Arrival Day