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Monday, December 10, 2007


I never thought there would come a time when I could write a blog post with the title "Pralines," but here it is. A couple-few years ago, I promised Mr. Chalmers I'd never again attempt to make pralines due to the terrible black cloud that descended and hovered over the household during my third, fourth, fifth, and sixth complete failures in the space of about a week and a half. I fully intended to keep my promise, but something about my circumstances this year emboldened me.

At the end of a day of high-volume cookie baking this weekend with friends, one of them stuck her ex-boyfriend's praline recipe on the wall above the stove and proceeded to show me how it's done. The recipe was from Southern Living, 1959. First of all, I love the ingredients: sugar, baking soda, light cream, butter, and pecans—there's no corn syrup crutch (so many praline recipes call for a whole cup of the stuff, which makes the praline mixture—note I did not say pralines, because what I've made in the past would not be recognized as such anywhere south of I-60—it makes it taste not so much like sugar as like corn syrup). Second, the recipe contained one vital piece of information other recipes I've tried did not: if the damn candy mixture starts to harden before you've hurriedly gotten it all scooped out of the pot, just add a tablespoon of hot water and keep going. Genius! Third, and most important, the pralines taste wonderful and have a creamy, smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture.

After seeing it done on Saturday I decided to try it all by myself on Sunday. Success:

From Southern Living, via my friend Regan

2 cups sugar
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup light cream or evaporated milk
1½ tablespoons butter
2 cups pecan halves
  1. Get everything ready in advance: Put a cup of cold water in the freezer for the cold water tests, lay out a big sheet of waxed paper or parchment right next to the stovetop, measure the butter and pecans and have them next to the stove.
  2. Combine the sugar and soda in a deep 3-quart saucepan [4-quart worked fine]. Mix well with a wooden spoon, then add the cream. Stir carefully to keep the sugar crystals in the bottom part of the pan [Not sure what this means]. All the crystals should be dissolved before the mixture boils—this helps make it smooth and creamy.
  3. Bring to a boil over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally [I'd say frequently] to prevent scorching [I stirred up little browned bits from the bottom and sides, and was worried, but it all evened out toward the end]. When the mixture starts to boil, it bubbles high in the pan, so reduce the heat and continue stirring to keep it from boiling over. Cook to about 234 degrees F., until candy forms a soft ball when tested in cold water [I pulled my pot off the heat at 230 or even a bit lower, trusting the color and the soft ball test more than the thermometer]. Test several times; read the thermometer while candy boils, but remove the pan from the heat during the water test so it won’t overcook.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in the butter. Measure accurately—too much butter may keep the pralines from firming up. Add the pecans and beat until thick enough to drop from a spoon, 2 to 3 minutes [I beat for less time; don't let it thicken too much; it'll thicken as it drops from the spoon]. Candy thickens rapidly with beating.
  5. Drop candies onto waxed paper. Add 1 tablespoon hot water if necessary to keep the candy at the right stage for dropping from the spoon.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Pandoro + Danish = Babka

Here's my version (only a little simplified) of my mom's version of Mario Batali's pandoro and Craig Claiborne's danish. (For all the Craig Claiborne fans out there, have you seen his newly reissued book of Southern recipes? Did you know he was from Mississippi? I did not.)

Cheese Babka
For the yeast mixture:
1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (I used instant)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

For phase 1:
3 cups all-purpose flour
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup room temperature water

For phase 2:
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup room-temperature water
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup golden raisins (I used black)

For the cheese filling:
1 cup cottage cheese
1 large egg
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon butter
Zest of 1/2 lemon

For the topping (optional):
1 large egg, beaten together with 1 teaspoon water

Make the yeast mixture: In a small bowl, combine the water, yeast, sugar, egg yolk, and flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 2 hours, or until doubled in bulk.

Phase 1: In a medium bowl, beat together all the ingredients. Add the yeast mixture and mix well. Gradually stir in the flour to form a sticky dough. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes, or use the dough hook attachment on an electric mixer (which I don't have; use those arms!). The dough should remain somewhat tacky, unlike bread dough.

Butter a large bowl and add the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 2 hours.

Phase 2: In a medium bowl, beat together the flour, egg yolks, egg, sugar, salt, water, and lemon zest.

Punch down the dough from phase 1 above and pour in the egg mixture, stirring and cutting slowly to break up the dough. The texture of this mixture will appear strange, but will smooth out after the addition of the flour. Gradually add the flour and mix until thoroughly incorporated. Knead for an additional 10 minutes. Place in a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for 2 hours. Punch down the dough and knead in the raisins.

Make the cheese filling: In a food processor, process the cottage cheese until very smooth, then add the egg, sugar, butter, and lemon zest and process to combine.

Shape and bake the babkas: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter and flour 2 large coffee cans (I used cans that were 6 3/4 inches tall and 6 inches in diameter, but you can get creative here and use 3 smaller cans, or tall cake pans, or whatever; just adjust the baking time and watch them closely).

Divide the dough in half. On a lightly floured surface, pat out half of the dough into a rough rectangle about 6 by 12 inches. Spoon half of the filling over the rectangle and do your best to roll it up and get it into a coffee can. It may look as messy as this:

But don't worry. Do the other half of the dough and filling. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes. Bake for 35 minutes, until nicely browned on top, then brush with the egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Return to the oven for 5 minutes. Let cool on wire racks for 10 minutes, then loosen the edges with a thin knife and remove from the cans. Let cool completely, then slice one and give one away.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sleepy Cozy

One of my new favorite things to do with the bug is to take her over to Watson Mill Bridge State Park, which is about three miles from our house, to go for long morning walks in the woods. The last time we went, it was before naptime and I thought the one-and-a-half-mile loop would make her nice and sleepy. I didn't expect it to put her to sleep half a mile in—I carried her the rest of the way. Before I lost the use of my arms I took some pictures along the trail.

In the evenings now that it's cold, I've been warming up the bug's bedtime milk with a pinch of cinnamon, a tiny bit of nutmeg, and one small drop of honey. She breaks out into a huge smile after every gulp, but it's always too dark to take a clear picture unless she's absorbed in her cup.

It's drizzly and chilly this morning (okay, not that chilly—45.2 degrees), but I might go ahead and bundle us up and go out. It's either that or hibernate.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Better Late

The Chalmerses set out Wednesday morning for Pittsburgh, for no other reason than we've been wanting to see it together—I'm interested in Rust Belt ruins, and Mr. Chalmers reminded us that Pittsburgh was the setting for Wonder Boys, which was not so good but which showed the city in a way that was attractive to both of us.

The bug was wonderful and sweet in the car, reading her books and hugging her animals, in particular Grandma Bear:

We stopped in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, for a light lunch outdoors (pizza margherita), and walked around marveling at the tall buildings and feeling like country come to town. The bug had a ball peeking through holes in various public statues and structures. It was windy, but not too cold.

By evening we'd reached Wytheville, Virginia, a small town in the far southwest corner of the state, where Interstates 77 and 81 intersect. It's been the setting for many a fantasy of the Chalmerses ever since Mr. Chalmers passed through it on a cross-country trip many years ago; this was my first time there. It's hard to imagine that it could have exceeded my expectations, but it did: it truly is the most beautiful small town I've ever seen. Here's the main drag (the moon is in the upper right corner):

While strolling down the sidewalk looking in shop windows (many of the the shops were open for business, amazingly), we saw: a man asleep at his desk in what I think was an insurance company, a huge pencil advertising a stationery store, people (oh, let's call them neighbors) putting up holiday lights on the streetlamps, and an almost full moon (the bug is very excited about the moon these short days). The small but perfect public park was an idyllic glade of bright-yellow-leafed trees lining a babbling brook with wooden footbridges. We had a tough time convincing the bug to come down off the big rustic outdoor stage (think Shakespeare in the Park). We walked through a pretty neighborhood, and were passing a big old Victorian house with a crazily overgrown wooded yard as people were just arriving—Thanksgiving guests. It was lovely.

We had supper at a place on the main street called Troy's, which was a New York–themed Philly cheesesteak joint:

My cheesesteak was excellent, which is good because Troy's was about the closest we got to eating in the North on this trip.

Coming down a mountain into West Virginia that evening, on a curvy, fast highway, we had an honest-to-god blowout. Within twenty seconds our tire was completely gone. Mr. Chalmers very carefully pulled over right next to the guardrail beside a sheer dropoff. With trucks and holiday traffic whipping past us, we got the car jacked up, but we couldn't get one of the lug nuts off—it just kept spinning frustratingly. The bug was asleep. Mr. Chalmers started walking back up the mountain, where we'd passed an exit about a mile back. It was cold and windy. About an hour later, a courtesy patrol truck stopped, and the man used special tools to get the tire off and the spare on, then he went to look for Mr. Chalmers, because he said there was absolutely nothing off exit 1. Half an hour later he came back—without my husband. The courtesy guy called up to the mountain tunnel people—nobody had seen him. He called the state troopers—no luck, but they'd go out looking for them when they could spare a car (apparently there was a big domestic disturbance in the next town, ten miles down the road). Just then a truck pulled up with Mr. Chalmers in it. He'd walked (and run) eight miles, to the nearest business, a liquor store, and gotten a ride back.

By that time, the hazards had run down the car battery, so we had to jump start it with the courtesy truck. It was after 10 when we got to a motel with an available room and started trying to put the bug to bed. We were all exhausted. The bug, however, would not sleep. She was delirious with excitement about being in a new place, and insisted on exploring the new place until 3:30. So we slept off and on from then until she woke up for good at 7:30. It was actually a relief to be out of the bed with that little kicker—if she wasn't kicking us in the throat we were getting it in the face.

In better spirits now with a few hours of sleep under our belt, we drove slowly to the Wal-Mart and got a new tire put on—we were all set by 8:30 in the morning. Thanksgiving morning. Pittsburgh would've been a possibility if the specter of at least two more sleepless nights in a hotel room weren't looming over us. So we drove home. It was a pretty drive, and thankfully uneventful. The bug was adorable, of course, and perfectly sweet. She's a good road-tripper but a very bad co-sleeper.

It's Saturday now. The first thing I heard this morning when I woke up was Mr. Chalmers and the bug outside cleaning the smoker getting it ready for a turkey breast he'd put in a brine yesterday afternoon. We had just the right size pot:

We've been making food since yesterday, eating each dish as it's ready and not worrying about Thanksgiving traditions or getting everything on the table all at once. (Mr. Chalmers told me we can do anything I want for Thanksgiving each year as long as he gets to smoke turkey.) So I made Polish food.

First up, pierogies. I'd never made them before, so I pretty much followed this recipe, which worked well, though the dough was a little doughy—roll it thinner than 1/8 inch. For the filling, I boiled 2 1/2 pounds of potatoes (mixed varieties), had Mr. Chalmers rice them (even though I've been boxing, his arms are still stronger), then beat in 1 minced sautéed onion, 4 ounces grated Cheddar cheese, some chopped parsley from the yard, and salt and pepper.

I'm a fried pierogi type, as you might've guessed. I boiled them till they floated, drained them well (till they were a bit dry), then fried in butter with onion.

The bug had her own little bowl. She especially liked the applesauce her grandma from Washington made for her.

Ever since I saw a picture of a plastic to-go container of cabbage rolls (in my Pittsburgh research online), I'd been craving them.
Thanksgiving cabbage rolls (mostly from Joy of Cooking): Cut out the core of a green or Savoy cabbage and put it in a large pot of boiling salted water for 5 minutes or so. Meanwhile, mix together 1 pound ground turkey, 1 large egg, 1 grated carrot, 1 diced onion, 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup raw white rice, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Pull a leaf off the cabbage and put the head back in the boiling water. Slice the back of the center rib off to make the leaf flexible. Set the leaf on the counter concave side up and put a 1-inch-diameter line of the turkey mixture at the core end. Roll it up like an eggroll, somewhat loosely (the rice will expand). Repeat with the remaining filling.

Chop 1 cup of the remaining cabbage. Heat some olive oil in a large sauté pan and add the cabbage and 1 diced onion. Cook until lightly browned, then add 1/2 cup wine (I used red; it was open) and cook until it's evaporated. Add 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes in puree and break up the tomatoes a bit. Add some water, about 1/4 cup brown sugar, some raisins, 1/2 teaspoon citric acid (I couldn't find any, so I used Fruit-Fresh, which contains ascorbic and citric acids, plus about a tablespoon of sherry vinegar—?), about 6 ginger snaps, and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange the cabbage rolls, seam side down, in the sauce, cover the pan, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.

Serve with sour cream or crème fraîche.

Somewhere in there we also had sausages. Oh, and I made a plain old apple pie for dessert.

Today, of course, will be turkey, and I also want to make my mom's cheese babka, which is sort of a mash-up of a Mario Batali pandoro and a Craig Claiborne cheese danish. Mr. Chalmers kindly consented to using preground coffee for the forseeable future so that I'd have two big cans to bake the babkas in. They've been emptied and washed, so stay tuned.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Regular Food

Hi! The recipe-testing job is over, and of fifty-four dishes I managed to take pictures of about six. Sometimes I'd make a dish, put it on the table, then start the next one without stopping. And sometimes they just weren't gorgeous, or it was still dark and the pictures would've been bad anyway. Here are a couple, though:

Crunchy fried smelts with a chickpea and beet salad—the dressing was simple and tangy (lemon, Champagne vinegar, olive oil, Dijon), which offset the richness of the smelts nicely. The fish were fried in a very light tempura-style batter. They could be eaten bones and all.

This is one of I think four racks of lamb I grilled in the last month. This one was sprinkled with coarse sea salt, then basted as it grilled, first with soy sauce, then miso paste, then mirin to glaze it a bit. I had to test it twice (poor me).

Here is the bug digging into one of the less successful dishes. The recipe was fine; it just wasn't a good concept for a dish: morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), onions, smoked paprika, and squid, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. The squid didn't go so well with the sausage. I gather it was supposed to be a riff on a Hawaiian lau-lau.

I made a lot of crêpes in the month of October (by which I mean I made a lot of batter, and my mom made a lot of crêpes). The last one of the batch is always the funniest. Halloween crêpe!

Braised oxtail on puff pastry, with sweetbreads sautéed in browned butter, with shallot and olives and white wine. This was the second of two sweetbreads dishes. (Note to Athenians: Because of me, Justin at the East Side Publix has about a case of sweetbreads he'd love to sell you. Enough sweetbreads for anything you'd like to make will set you back about $1.29. Email me and I'll send you some recipes.)

One of the last recipes was a pan-roasted quail with a cherry-Port jus, fresh herb spaetzle, and seared foie gras. Mr. Chalmers was out of town and the bug was asleep when I made this lovely, rich dish. At the very end, I seared the foie gras, set it on the counter, then made myself a quesadilla for supper. I was so sick of foie gras.

It was the best quesadilla ever, incidentally, with Monterey Jack and some quick-pickled vegetables left over from an earlier recipe.

I'm happy to be back to making normal food, although so far I think I've been overcompensating: generic Cheerios, grilled cheese, cinnamon toast, hamburgers.

Here the bug is eating dry cereal with diced pears, but she won't let go of the half pear long enough even for me to cut the core out. I love her fall work shirt and her very serious expression.

Here's a corrective to the preceding picture.

I was unsuccessful in my attempts to explain to her why it wasn't a good idea to play in the pile of ashes in the backyard.

Yesterday I finished up some copyediting work, then the bug and I went into town and bought something I've wanted for a long time:

A heavy bag! And heavy-bag gloves and hand wraps (which, I learned the hard way yesterday, are necessary).

I wanted one with a Puerto Rican flag on it, but all they had in my size was plain black. Perhaps that's a good thing. Back when I was working as a cook, I used to hit a funny homemade bag in the garage every night after work, and it really helped me sleep (the sous chef, if I remember right, recommended it as a way to wind down after doing three hundred covers in three hours). I'm not having trouble sleeping now (last night is an exception—the bug and her crazed shouting might've had something to do with it), but it sure is fun. The whole lean-to feels like it's going to come down with just the slightest tap (from, say, the bug).

Also, it's fall:

Monday, October 15, 2007

Testing, Testing

I'm in the thick of a kind of over-the-top rush recipe-testing job, but I wanted to give some sense of the kinds of things happening here lately. Before I started the testing last week, I went ahead and made b'stilla, because I'd been craving it for some reason.

Buttery phyllo dough pie filled with shredded chicken thigh meat (traditionally squab), egg, almonds, cinnamon, parsley, onion, and topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon.

I haven't been able to take pictures of everything I've been testing, but in the first week I've been called on to poach an entire rack of lamb by submerging it in duck fat (three-plus pounds thereof); make sausages out of scallops, shrimp, and sea bass and grill them with a sweet chili glaze; thinly slice raw beef and roll each slice around a watercress leaf and homemade lemon mayonnaise and fried capers, set it in a Chinese soup spoon with a bit of broth made from the trimmings of two to five pounds of shiitake mushrooms, and top it with parsley sauce and a flatbread chip (this is a one-bite hors d'oeuvre); and do spherification to make coffee "caviar" as a topping for chocolate mousse:

I got everyone to try the syringing, and Mr. Chalmers (above) and my dad were by far the best at it. Most of my eggs had a little tail. This was just coffee and a bit of sugar mixed with sodium alginate, heated and cooled, dropped into a calcium chloride solution, then rinsed.

The spherification worked very well, but I would've liked a more intense coffee flavor. Some of the balls, probably the ones that spent less time in the calcium chloride solution, did have a little burst of liquid in the center. You can see what was probably one of my tadpole-shaped balls in the front.

Two dishes so far are tied for most difficult: (1) the duck breasts cooked sous vide, thinly sliced and place atop sautéed wild mushrooms with shallot and foie gras, in a truffle-scented foamed broth; (2) a three-part dessert for eighteen consisting of pastry puffs filled with lemon-thyme custard and decorated with white and bittersweet chocolate, paper-thin slices of mango wrapped around pillows of coconut-milk-cooked tapioca with cilantro and spices and placed on top of a pumpkin seed "gelee," and shots of cold hot chocolate layered over mango puree and diced strawberries and topped with cayenne-cinnamon whipped cream and shaved chocolate.

Even with a lot of help in the kitchen from my mom, I only had the energy to plate up about four servings of this, and couldn't be bothered to find matching platters or glasses or take a really nice picture.

The dessert took me all day Sunday to make, and it was our supper. Mr. Chalmers had grilled a bunch of hot dogs—with buns and everything!—for lunch, and it was the most comforting and satisfying thing I've eaten in seven days.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Makeshift Teepee

Is there any other kind? Not today there isn't. It was gorgeous outside—low-seventies, sunny, breezy—and my latest knitting project is on the skids (don't even ask about the knee-high slippers I was trying to design and knit), so I made a little tent out in the yard for the bug. It's especially fun when the train goes by and makes it seem even more like the wild west out here. I cut down four straight-growing privet bushes, trimmed the poles up, and tied them at the top with some twine, then covered them with four lengths of fabric basted together. I didn't want to cut the fabric so I could use it again for other purposes—it's all material my folks brought home from Thailand and/or Singapore and/or Suriname—like a more polished version of the teepee pictured here. So: branches, some cloth, a little thread, four safety pins, and three bricks (the breeze occasionally turns to wind) . . .

A while back I made a couple of dining room chair cushions, but I don't like them very much so I tied them back to back and the bug uses it as a pallet, sometimes propping one half up on a wall and sitting on it like a chair.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Finished Quilt

On a foggy morning, shot through a peanut butter–smeared camera lens, it doesn't look too bad:

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Fall's here at last. My amazing husband Mr. Chalmers gave me a haircut out on the front steps, and I like it a lot better than any haircut I've had in the last three years. It took him three minutes, and he cut about four inches off (in places). Here it is after much blow-drying and ironing:

Along the main road to our house today, between the road and the railroad tracks were drifts of ragweed or goldenrod (I don't know which is which) interspersed with the fire red of turning sumac leaves. There were dark storm clouds and bright sun, and it was windy. Mr. Chalmers made an excellent tri tip, Santa Maria–style, and I made the traditional salsa to go with it (the salsa includes celery, oregano, and Worcestershire sauce, among other things). More on that tomorrow, I hope—we plan to grill another one.

The days are still a bit warm, but the mornings are chilly, so we put the big wool quilt on the bed, and last night I finished up a little quilt—my first real quilt—to curl up on the couch with. It's just four-inch squares, and I was so careful about cutting them all the same size and keeping my seam allowances even and uniform, but somehow they got all off-track as I sewed the strips of squares together. It was only toward the very end of the process that I realized that stitching with the new strip, the one I was attaching, on top made the seams line up, while putting the new strip on the bottom made them shift. And while I'm not a fan of machine-sewn binding, the hand sewing was taking me much too long, so I just ran it through the old Bernina, prettiness be damned. So it's not well constructed, but I think it looks okay, plus it was cheap to make (all of scraps and some leftover muslin, though I did use a good cotton-poly batting), easy to work on in short batches, and just what I needed for fall in a drafty old house. Here's a picture of it in progress:

Drafty, as it turns out, isn't the half of it. When it rained hard last week the water was coming in the bedroom ceiling like there was no ceiling there at all to slow it down. The floor afterward looked like someone had poured a couple gallon jugs of water on it. The next day, I went out and did an inspection, and just for the heck of it I cleaned off the leaves and pecans that had collected in the valley over the leak. Sure enough: hard rain that evening, and no leaking. How do you learn about things like leaves on the roof and that they need to be cleaned off? It probably hasn't caused too much damage, given that our walls are so drafty—they must dry out fairly quickly.

In other home maintenance news, I learned how to glaze a window. We have these old wood six-over-six windows with (mostly) original (or at least very old) glass, and two panes broke recently. I replaced one, but haven't gotten to the second because it's high up and I need to do it while on a ladder, and I've been waiting for a long nap from the bug to tackle that one.

And speaking of the bug, she just finished her third week at daycare! She goes two days a week to a place in the next county over, where they have a shrine to GWB and Jesus in the lobby and they sing a blessing before every meal. We've all had colds of varying degrees ever since her very first day, but otherwise it's working out well and allowing me to do a lot of freelance work I would not have been able to even consider doing before. She has not learned to talk in any meaningful way yet; so far she's only learned two things from daycare that we know of: when she waves now, she doesn't just flop her arm around, but rather holds her hand up and opens and closes it; and she shakes her head "no"—emphatically—when she doesn't want something.

Because she's gone two days a week, the days she and I have together now are more relaxed, and I don't find myself worrying about work I'm not doing or trying to work and not doing it well. We do things like make bread and messes. The other day I gave her her own bowl and put some ingredients in it and let her do whatever she wanted. She really tried to stir and knead the way she saw me doing it, and didn't let me touch her ball of dough. It turned out really well. Future posts will be more informative, perhaps with recipes and everything, but for now here's the bug making bread:

The bug mixing up her dough, standing on the window seat as usual.

The bug kneading her dough.

I helped shape it into a ball, and we let it rise.

We put it in a pan and into a cold oven.

It's still hot, but she wants to try it right away. She says "Hot" when she touches it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Impromptu Chicken Tour

On Friday we were, as Mr. Chalmers would say, staring down the barrel of a long, hot weekend without Internet access, and we needed to get out of town. So we boarded the dogs last-minute and took off before dawn on Saturday, heading in the general directions of north and west, and not sure how far we'd get (the bug has been somewhat terrible in the car lately, because it's hard for her to fall asleep in her very upright front-facing car seat, she can't get comfortable, she wants to be driving or something, and all of this makes her angry). She did get a few good naps in, though:

On a whim, we splurged on tickets for the Chattanooga aquarium thinking it'd be dull but maybe fun for the bug, but it was much better than we'd anticipated. I guess the elder Chalmerses hadn't been to an aquarium in a while, because the sharks and penguins and jellyfish and whatnot were really impressive. And of course the bug got a kick out of it.

Our first food stop was in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the Slick Pig. I'd never had their famous smoked chicken wings before, and Mr. Chalmers wanted us to try them. Here they are:

They were remarkably similar to his re-creation of them, but they seemed to have been smoked a bit longer and there was something slightly spicy in the marinade—maybe just a little black pepper? Anyway, they were great, and the bug was happy with that slice of garlic toast and a few bites of intensely flavorful chicken—we'd been feeding her car-trip snacks to keep her calm (-ish) on the road: steamed zucchini chunks, rice cakes, graham crackers, oyster crackers, grapes.

We made our way to Nashville, walked around downtown in the incredible heat awhile, then drove around trying to decide what to do. Of course there was only one thing we could do, and that was make a stop at Prince's Hot Chicken Shack—none of us had been there before, but we'd read plenty about Nashville's hot chicken. This was some weird stuff:

For the life of me I can't figure out how it's done. It's fried chicken—very expertly fried chicken, crisp outside and moist inside, freshly made and probably not in a deep-fryer—but it's got these spices . . . sort of attached to it. Some of the spice mixture is in the dredge or batter, but most of it seems to be added after the chicken is fried, which results not in a sauce exactly but in a spicy, hot paste all over the crust. Served on top of white bread and topped with pickle slices. The woman behind the counter insisted we get "medium" spiciness on our first visit, and move up to hot or extra-hot the next time we came. The medium was not too spicy, but it was good anyway. I would've liked more salt in the spice mixture, though, which I think would have brought out the actual flavor of the chiles rather than just the heat. It was a bizarre experience all around: grim strip mall, no air-conditioning (it was about 108 degrees out that late-afternoon, and the sun was streaming in the front window), a guy sitting next to the garbage can for no apparent reason other than to make sure you got all your bones and paper plates in the can, and there were two hipsters (for lack of a newer word) heading in as we were leaving.

We stayed in Clarkesville, Tennessee, had a couple of beers on the patio of a strange Korean-Chinese restaurant across a vacant lot from the motel, and I have a question for any parents who might be reading this: How on earth do you get kids to fall asleep in a motel room? The bug eventually did, while watching my new favorite show, Ice Road Truckers, but her four hours of sleep came at great cost and we were up at 3 a.m. Central Time, before anyone in Clarkesville makes coffee to sell to travelers like us.

We took the mountainous small-windy-road route on the way home yesterday, stopping for lunch at the Hole in the Wall diner, in Blairsville.

The bug's dress is buttoned up like that so that the car seat strap wouldn't irritate her neck. Her dad had the special catfish, which was fried, of course, but in a dark-brown caramelized batter rather than the usual (in Georgia) cornmeal crust. The waitress specifically recommended the Reuben, and since I'm a fan of the sandwich I had to order it. Fantastic. The perfect Reuben, you might even say: good corned beef (I'd prefer to save pastrami for a plain old pastrami sandwich on rye with mustard), super-tangy sauerkraut, Swiss, old-fashioned Russian dressing, and buttered toasted rye. It wasn't overstuffed, either, so it was all too easy to eat.

We stopped for a death march—excuse me, short hike—at De Soto Falls, and the bug liked running along the trails so much that I've been fantasizing about taking her on a real hike sometime soon. When fall comes.

As it should be with all vacations, we're glad to be home and glad we left.