Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Link Corral: Back to Writing News

For those who like to plan ahead, here’s a nonfiction class in DC that sounds interesting:

Place Called Home: A Creative Non-Fiction Writing Workshop

When: Saturday, December 8, 2012; 9:30 AM – 12:30 PM
Where: Source, 1835 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC (located near the U Street Metro)
Cost: $49

Learn how to capture readers’ imaginations and stimulate their curiosity with authentic descriptions of places and settings. You will explore the spaces you call “home” in this workshop, which blends elements of non-fiction, poetry and fiction writing. Home is a place, a memory, a feeling. Travel to the spaces you know best and discover just what it is that makes them special. 

The workshop will be led by Willona M. Sloan, who is a local writer and editor, and a recipient of a 2013 Artist Fellowship award from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.


Feeling down in the dumps about your writing and/or writing life?  I promise that no matter where you are in the grand scheme of writing—unpublished, published—this piece that I found via literary agent Janet Reid’s blog will speak to you:
Let’s say you are a young person, yes you are still young, because youth is relative, and so what if your siblings and friends have what they call “careers,” and marriages, and lives—you have something greater, something that exactly suits you. Your art, which fuels you, yes indeed it does. But unanticipated challenges have cropped up. Making rent. Paying bills. And something else which you are loathe to admit, but let’s be honest, here goes: in the dark and lonely hours, you’ve written short stories that you have submitted to some literary journals. And you’ve had some rejection, it’s okay, you knew that going in. You’re no dummy. A writer’s life is full of disappointment and rejection and criticism—and isolation, that too, and worse perhaps, unacknowledgment, editors and literary agents who don’t even have the courtesy to reject your work, but simply let it languish on their desks or hard drives forever without a reply. I mean, you’re okay with this. You knew what you were getting into when you signed on for this, a writing life.


Writer Clifford Garstang’s blog Perpetual Folly tabulates the literary journals that get the most attention from the Pushcart Prizes over the past ten years.  It’s a great way to see which journals are the places you want your work to be published in and to see which journals are trending.  Or as Heidi Klum might say, “Who’s in, and who’s out.”

Here’s one link that will get you to any of the three categories:  Fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bye-Bye, Sandy!

The chipmunks were the first to return to the front yard, and then the birds and the squirrels followed.  It’s a busy little world out there now, everyone running around, filling up with the ba-jillion acorns suddenly on the ground.  It’s not remotely sunny, and rain and drizzle comes and goes, but what a lovely sight.

The power is on, the trees are still standing, and the basement stayed dry.  We caught up on some reading, some TV, and some movies.  I’m happy we spent the $$ to get the trees trimmed in the spring, because this was some kind of wind.  And some kind of rain.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a noisy storm for such an extended period of time.

There is a stubborn roof leak now affecting the living room ceiling.  Third time’s the charm in getting the repair done right, right!?  Well—as they say, it could be much worse.  All in all, feeling lucky.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sandy...Knocking at the Door

Still here, still with power, though I see the wind picking up.  Since this was the year of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I'm reminded of my favorite, The Long Winter.  A hurricane isn't a blizzard, but last night, sleeping fitfully, anxious about what would happen in the day ahead, it was easy to relate to Laura and her family out in De Smet, SD.

But even after Laura was warm she lay awake listening to the wind's wild tune and thinking of each little house, in town, alone in the whirling snow with not even a light from the next house shining trhough.  And the little town was alone on the wide prairie.  Town and prairie were lost in the wild storm which was niether earth nor sky, nothing but fierce winds and a blank whiteness.

For the storm was white.  In the night, long after the sun had gone and the last daylinght could not possibly be there, the blizzard was whirling white.

A lamp could shine out through the blackest darkness and a shout could be heard a long way, but no light and no cry could reach through a storm that had wild voices and an unnatural light of its own.

The blankets were warm and Laura was no longer cold but she shivered.

Laura could have used a good dose of Facebook, which I do find comforting during a time like this.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Not sure what the next few days will hold...despite her cute-as-a-button name, Sandy is apparently going to be a mean girl.  I will post when I can, but all indications are that power outages will be widespread.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed on that front...and also that the giant oak tree next to our house lives to tell the tale of surviving yet another storm.  We take care of our trees--and this big one is beautiful!--but this is not a fun time to live on a wooded lot.  How I long for those flat, empty vistas I saw this summer in De Smet, South Dakota!


And if you get the chance, check out the new poem posted on Redux, by Philip Belcher, one of our Converse low-residency MFA grads!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Joe Schuster's The Might Have Been

I recently read an excellent book by one of my friends, Joseph M. Schuster (who is on the editorial board of Redux and who is, alas, a Cards fan).  The Might Have Been is a haunting combination of baseball and midlife…though a reader really doesn’t have to be overly knowledgeable about baseball (or midlife!). 

From a writing standpoint, I admired the vast story we get through deft use of a jump in time.  The first half of the book covers the big moment of chronic minor league ballplayer Edward Everett Yates, when he makes it the majors for a brief, shining moment.  The second half of the book jumps forward thirty years, and we see who Edward Everett has become.  The writing is smooth and assured; I felt as though I was in the hands of a real storyteller.  (Read an excerpt here.)

From a story standpoint, this is the story we all live (or most of us, I suppose):  what do you do when the “dream” dies?  In this regard, it’s not really a story of midlife, since for many (most?) of us, those early dreams shift and change all along the way.  It’s rare to have a defining moment where the dream dies, as Edward Everett does.

I’m inspired by Joe's writing process.  Here, he discusses how long it took him to write this book, his first, and that long journey: 

Schuster worked on writing “The Might Have Been” for nearly 10 years. He said even though he’d worked on stories before, this was the first one he saw finishing to the end. His first draft was approximately 1,000 pages, then cut to 500 and eventually shrunk to about 370 pages.  (Read the whole profile here.)
And here’s an interview that will give you a good flavor of the book and why the reviews that I checked all seemed to include that word I went to, “haunting”:

I think one of the primary reasons many people aspire to dreams, especially dreams that may be beyond them, is because they want to avoid being “ordinary.” One of the things that always captures my attention are those early episodes of each season of shows like “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent,” particularly those aerial shots we see on-screen of thousands of people lined up outside convention centers or theaters, waiting to see if they will even get thirty second to perform in front of the judges and maybe end up on television. Most of those thousands really believe they have the ability to become a star – how many times do we see someone sing off key and have a judge tell them they are horrible and then the person breaks into tears or rage? Those performers do not see themselves as convenience store clerks or elementary school teachers or cell phone sales associates; they see themselves as having the potential for greatness, they expect someone will elevate them out of the ordinary.

Part of the pull, of course, is they want to be lifted out of the World, where everyone else lives.

You see this in baseball all of the time. I’ve come across a lot of players who had a brief taste of the major leagues and then hung on in the minors for years after, thinking they’d get back to the major leagues, but they never do.  
Read on.

And for fun, here’s Joe’s playlist.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut Letters: "Spiritually Pooping" and More

I was lucky enough to get a hot-off-the-presses copy of Kurt Vonnegut Letters, edited by my Converse low-res MFA colleague Dan Wakefield.  Dan and Kurt were friends, both born and raised in Indianapolis. 

From Dan’s warm and personal introduction:

I first heard the name Kurt Vonnegut in the spring of  1950, my senior year at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, when I admitted to a teacher that I wanted to be a writer. His brows furrowed in concern,  he rubbed his chin for a moment, nodded, and said, “Well, there’s one boy did that—boy named  Vonnegut.”
The letters are arranged chronologically, and even just my first perusal shows a wide range of recipients:  family, friends, writer friends, former students, editors, the musical group Ambrosia…!  Humor and compassion mingle with sharp insight on varied topics.

Here’s a cute one from 1976, to Cindy Adams, the gossip columnist for the New York Post:

I am charmed and amused that you should want me to be a judge in the 1976 Miss USA Beauty Pageant.  I blush and laugh.

I decline your flattering invitation with best wishes and thanks.  If your girls are as fond of my words as you indicate, then they will surely understand my feeling that judging them is somehow not something I should do.

Give them my love.
I wonder what questions he might have asked the contestants!

I dipped into some of the letters from the 1960s, when Vonnegut was teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. 

From a letter to Carolyn Blakemore:

The Iowa experience is wearing thin.  Two years will be plenty, I think, unless a really whopping offer is made to make me stay.  It is spiritually pooping to care desperately about student work that probably isn’t worth caring about….Vance Bourjaily is the only writer really at home out here…Others stay one or two years, then flee, tearing their hair.  They tear their hair because they haven’t done any of their own writing while here.
On the other hand, here’s a section from one to Paul Engle, the director of the program:

…I’ve had a couple of classes die on me recently.  That makes me feel lousy—a show that fails.  I’m crazy about the workshops and the consultations.  The academic classes are something else again, since I don’t really know anything.  Up to now, my ignorance has made me strong.  Now I don’t feel so hot about it.  A lucky crapshooter is what I’ve been….Your workshop is an amazingly beautiful gift to the world.
And here’s a bit from a letter to Dick Gehman, who will be joining the faculty:

…You’ll be an excellent teacher.  Your ego will demand it, and so will your students.  You’ll have an appalling number of real writers entrusted to your care.  The classes don’t matter much.  The real business, head-to-head, is done during office hours in the afternoons….Forget your lack of credentials.  The University is perfectly used to barbarians in the Workshop, thinks nothing of it.  I have no degree.  [Writer Richard] Yates has no degree….The former head [of the Workshop], Paul Engle, is still around, is a hayseed clown, a foxy grandpa, a terrific promoter who, if you listen closely, talks like a man with a paper asshole….Graduate assistants write his books for him.  Burn this letter.
Lucky we are that the letters were not burned.  Unlucky we may feel years from now, when we look back and wonder what riches may have been lost in our texting, tweeting, emailing world.  I agree with the book jacket:  “These letters comprise the autobiography Kurt Vonnegut never wrote.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fresno, Barstow, San Bernadino...Get Your Kicks!

Two at the Most
a semi-regular column about classic cocktails

by Steve Ello

 If you ever find yourself motoring West along the part of old Route 66 that runs through Albuquerque, New Mexico (now called Central Avenue) I encourage you to find the time to stop for a while, relax, and enjoy the sunset and a cocktail at the unique, luxury Hotel Parq Central’s Apothecary Lounge. 

Specializing in pre-prohibition era cocktails (Sazerac, Pink Squirrel, etc.) it is a beautiful spot to enjoy a well-crafted cocktail in a historic building (originally a hospital for railroad employees). Dating back to the 1920s, the hotel has been completely refurbished and then reopened in 2010, incorporating elements of the building’s past  with a clean modern vibe.  After checking into a beautiful corner junior suite (at $135, a steal!) I made my way up to the Apothecary Lounge.

Looking west from the open rooftop along Route 66 off into the horizon, I swore I saw a light blue ’62 Corvette rag top pulling into the parking lot and imagined myself swapping stories with Todd Stiles and Buzz Murdoch at some point in the evening. (See footnote below.*)

Better order my cocktail now. 

Since, in my mind, all classic cocktails begin with gin, while the sky was still blue, I started the evening with an Aviation--Gin, lemon juice and creme de violette. Up.  As the sun began its slow golden descent, I moved onto a Martinez, featuring  Old Tom Gin, sweet vermouth and maraschino liquor. Watching the sun fade into the horizon and feeling a little chill in the air I left my last cocktail up to the mixologist.  I think she could tell I was old school, and I finished the night with a Manhattan made with rye, sweet vermouth and bitters. Excellent, top shelf ingredients in each expertly crafted cocktail.

In homage to both Todd’s light blue Corvette and the brilliant New Mexico sky, I think a recipe for an Aviation would be appropriate.  I find this cocktail tart and dry and the crème de vilolette gives it a light blue tint.  A little different without being difficult to make or difficult to obtain the ingredients.

1 ¾ oz gin  (Tangueray or Beefeater/dry gin, not too floral)
¾ oz fresh lemon juice, strained
½ oz Luxardao Maraschino Liqueur
¼  oz Crème de Violette

Stir vigorously and serve up with a lemon twist!

As always, two at the most…unless you are actually staying at the Hotel Parq Central.


*Editor’s note:  The column’s author—my sweet husband—is slightly obsessed with an old TV show called Route 66, which even I enjoy watching now and then:  two cool guys drive all around the country in a very cool car.  It was one of the first TV shows at the time to film on location, and the scenery is great.  And the car!  Did I mention the car?


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Quebec, Eh! (part 2)

            It’s been a while since I wrote about my recent trip to Quebec.  (Here’s Part 1, if you missed it.)  Luckily, every meal remains imbedded in my mind.  And luckily for my waistline, there were some non-eating moments to report, one of which was on Thursday, with pouring rain.  We ate the special bagels from Montreal—which were delicious, which are being mail-ordered to our house in Virginia as we speak—and stared at the rain.  And stared.  And stared.  Finally—at the moment at which it was at its worst, we decided that would be exactly the right time to venture forth and walk through town, down a steep, scary staircase, and wander around, lost-ish, looking for the Musee Canadien des Civilisations.
            Haha.  The rain looked like it was clearing up until the exact moment we stepped outside, feeling committed, which is when it turned into a drenching downpour.  Anyway, we made it to the museum and spent several hours learning about Canadian culture and history through a rather sociological approach.  For example, there was a lovely (and semi-relaxing) exhibit watching a video about the influence of winter on the culture, with the steps of dealing with winter outlined like this:
--horror/fear: unprepared people freezing/starving, etc. in the very early days
--a sort of surrender: because winter was a time of shutting down, there was nothing to do but go to parties and hang around the house, waiting to see if  your neighbor needed you (lots of sleighs and fireplaces and pots of soup and maple trees…roughly the late 1800s-1920s, it seemed
--fighting winter with fierce desperation:  a modernized society can’t shut down because of snow; lots of snowblowers, car wheels grinding on ice, cold people waiting for buses…looked very grim and depressing…our current state
--and the final stage, one we are advised to move toward:  acceptance.  Winter is a part of life, and we will not conquer or prevail in the long-term.  Pretty scenes of snow-covered trees.  Reflective music. 
            After the museum, we (I) made a rare food misstep.  Even though I KNOW that restaurants smack in the tourist district are often crappy, and I KNOW that it’s very easy to make bad crepes, we went to a crepe/fondue restaurant smack in the tourist district.  I’ll let it slide by namelessly, but when you see it, you’ll know the one I mean.  If you accidentally end up there, maybe try the fondue, because how can anyone screw up melted cheese?
            Anyway, the main food event was dinner at Le Saint-Amour, sitting in an interior garden, contemplating how many ways one might eat foie gras.  I had it seared, and Steve had it five ways.  Oh, yum!  Steve had lamb three ways, and I had sweetbreads (I know, again! But trust me when I say this isn’t a dish I make often at home, haha), served with shrimp and a mushroom sauce.  Oh, yum!  For dessert, Steve had a dessert that was basically chocolate five ways, and I had cheese.  Oh, yum!  Not a cheap place, but a place where the food exceeds expectations, and worth a splurge.
            Friday we took a tour of the Citadelle, a star-shaped stone fort on the top of the bluff.  Beautiful views of the city.  It’s still a working military base, so a sweet young woman led us on a tour.  My favorite part was the last building, which remained from the previous French fort, the building of last resort where soldiers who were about to be overcome were supposed to run and stave off the invaders through tiny, slit of windows cut into five-feet thick walls.  This is where I want to be when the zombies attack—and there was an interesting museum inside, with artifacts from various wars.
            Since it wasn’t raining, we took that opportunity to walk through the park, The Plains of Abraham, and check out some more city views, and then we wound our way through some residential and city neighborhoods, away from the tourist zone, ending up in a cute restaurant with a pig on the sign:  steak frites and a smoked meat sandwich.  The fries were a little disappointing, but both meat products were excellent.
            This dream of mine isn’t up there with winning a Nobel Peace Prize or anything, but I had always wanted to see a Canadian junior hockey team play.  Think of the way small town Texas views Friday night high school football and this is my perception of the general approach to Canadian junior league hockey.  So we got tickets to see the Remparts, Quebec’s team of 16-20 year old boys, and they were GOOD!  If the NHL ever gets its act together and ends the lock-out, I’m certain some of these kids will make the grade.  It was interesting to be way, way out of the tourist zone and to see how some hockey traditions transcend nations:  I assumed the (avid!) fans would yell in French, and there was that, but the main cheer was one you hear at any hockey rink, “Let’s go, Remparts!”  Of course, “Remparts” is shrieked with a beautiful French accent.  The Remparts kept their winning streak alive and won in overtime—after tying the game in the last few minutes!  Very exciting!  Yes, shirts were purchased…  (While in Canada, one of the books I was reading was a hockey anthology called Riding on the Roar of the Crowd, compiled by David Gowdy—highly recommended for fans of old-time hockey!)
            Oh, what’s sadder than the last day of vacation?  We decided to wander around town, agenda-less beyond a desire to buy another round of maple products, and on the spur of the moment, we hopped onto one of the small electric buses that circle the tourist area to see where we’d end up.  What we hopped into was an amusing and embarrassing discussion between a perky Quebec woman and a tight-lipped American Republican couple who didn’t care for her comment:  “You have the most amazing president, Barack Obama.  I am in love with him!” delivered in a charming, effusive, French accent.  After the Americans explained that he spent too much money, she noted, “Oh, but was it not Mr. Bush who spent all that money?” and the Americans noted that, in fact, all the money was spent by Bill Clinton.  (??)  The Canadian woman did not miss a beat and effused, “Oh, but I am in love with Bill Clinton too!  I am simply blind to his flaws!  I love Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both, equally!”  The Americans finally realized they were beat, and exited the bus, good-naturedly (or else filled with stories about that evil socialist country to the north).
            I was able to give directions to another American couple on the bus, which made me feel as though I was a real insider.  Isn’t that the mark of any successful vacation?
            We hopped off at the lower city, deciding to pop into some of the charming antique shops lining the street.  Steve managed to find the only vintage cocktail shaker for sale in the whole city, and I managed to find the CUTEST vintage figurines of the mascot of Quebec’s annual winter carnival, Bonhomme, which will make adorable Christmas ornaments.  (This link to eBay will give you an idea of exactly how CUTE I’m talking!)
            We were near the farmer’s market, Marche du Vieux-Porte,which was much more crowded on a Saturday, filled with tourists off the cruise ships seeking maple anything and Canadians buying produce for Monday’s Thanksgiving dinner.  We bought bread and cheese and maple products and a tiny slab of foie gras.  Of course we had to try a hot dog since there was a stand that sold several varieties.  Ours was spicy, with a grilled bun and sauerkraut.  I could have eaten two without batting an eye…but I didn’t.
            Some more walking and shopping and admiring the St. Lawrence River, then we went to sit at the bar for a last drink and snack at Aux Anciens Canadien before it filled up.   Sortilege for me (I’m sad to say that I immediately recognized the bottle behind the bar!) and another plate of smoked eel and sturgeon; Steve tried the famous grand-mere pea soup.  Back home to pack and enjoy a late dinner of cheese and foie gras from the market.
            You won’t be surprised to hear that at the Montreal airport, we stumbled into a smoked meat restaurant, which eased our way out of Canada and back home.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Agony & the Ecstasy: Creativity & Writing Biz (you decide which is which)

We had a great prompt group this morning—I wrote about some unsettling characters that continue to tug at the corners of my mind—and we spun off into an interesting discussion about the writing process, how on the first go-around, our words often seem so dull, and our ideas and situations feel so clichéd.  That can be a roadblock.  Revision, of course, is one answer, we decided, and a reframing of the issue:  it’s not a cliché, but a universal truth—you’re tapping into something deeper because it’s something that affects all (or many) of us.  The trick is then to make that universal truth yours in the telling.  In the end, only you can tell the story YOUR way, from the unique and individual view of your life, life experiences, and perspective.

One prompt was two beautiful pieces of artwork, not mine, so not translatable here on the blog, but the other prompt was a fun one that generated some good stuff: 


Fifteen go!


And on the business side of the writing life, here’s a great piece about what an author website should accomplish, with specific tips and action items.  (Thanks for the link, Lori!)

Many authors have a website simply because they have been told that they should have one as part of their online marketing strategy. The problem is, there is very little strategy involved at all; rather they build a site without really knowing why they’re doing it.

Without truly understanding why having a website is necessary—or what its full potential is—a site will collect virtual dust. In some cases having a bad website can be worse than having no website at all!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Flex Your Creative Muscles with Me at the Writer’s Center Class on Saturday

No, no sweating involved.  Instead, this is one of my favorite Writer’s Center classes to teach:

Flex Your Creative Muscles!  A One-Day Workshop

Spend the afternoon doing a series of intensive, guided exercises designed to shake up your brain and get your creative subconscious working for you.  You can come with a project already in mind and focus your work toward a deeper understanding of that—or you can come as a blank slate (that will quickly fill up!).  Fiction writers and memoirists of all levels are welcome.  Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a computer with a fully charged battery. 

The Writer’s Center
10:00 A.M.–4:00 P.M. (w/ a break for lunch)
Saturday, October 20, 2012
I promise that you will return home with ideas hopping and popping…and several half-written pieces to pursue on your own time—at least, that’s what has happened to me every single time I’ve taught this class.

Space is still available.  For details, go here and scroll through; there isn’t a dedicated link to my class, alas.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Link Corral: Redux Open for Submissions; Free E-Book About Living with Cancer

Part 2 of my Quebec eating experience—I  mean, vacation—will have to wait a day or two, so in the meantime here are a few items of note:

--Don’t forget that Redux, the online journal of previously published material, is open for submissions until October 31.  You can find more information here.

--Speaking of Redux, there’s a new story up by Tamra Wilson, “Nora”:

When Nora had all she could take of life, she doused her hair in kerosene and ran down the road swaying and hollering like a branded calf before she finally crumpled to meet her Maker face down.

Hal and Billy were there and they couldn’t forget the sight of their big sister turned into a heap of smoked meat, and it bothered them for weeks and months afterward. They’d wake up nights in bawling fits about a booger, and it about drove Mama distracted trying to quieten them down. (Of course, I was only a baby then, so I couldn’t have no such recollection of my own. I’m just relaying what folks said.) Mama thought maybe all this happened according to the Good Lord’s plan being as how Nora had been an odd sock, but it didn’t matter then; Nora was as dead this way as any other.

--Tracy Krulik, one of the members of my neighborhood writing prompt group, is offering free e-copies of her memoir on Friday and Saturday: 

Told with both frankness and humor, I Have Cancer. And I've Never Felt Better! is the everyman's (or woman's) Lance Armstrong story. It's one woman's wild journey from unraveling a medical mystery that took nine years to solve, to navigating the science and art of medicine in search of the right treatments, to finally awakening to a healthier, more balanced life -- with cancer.

Just as millions of people live healthy lives with chronic diseases like diabetes and even HIV, Tracy Krulik shares how she learned to do the same in her fight against cancer -- using her bike and a plant-based diet as weapons.
You can visit the book's site on Amazon at and download it Friday and Saturday free of charge to your Kindle or Kindle reader, or on your phone, tablet or computer.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Quebec, Eh! (part 1)

We recently returned from a week in Quebec City, so of course I have to report on every last thing I ate.  Okay, I’ll edit…but with such a great food city as Quebec, it will be hard to leave out one tiny morsel!

            Actually, we arrived in driving rain.  Ugh.  The condo we rented in the old city was right next to a convenience store that, conveniently, had a nice selection of beer, so as we unpacked and settled in, I enjoyed a beer that I discovered at a tasting while “working” in the Converse low-res MFA residency period at Pinecrest Inn:  Le Fin du Monde.  The end of the world.  It felt like it, with all that rain.  Nothing is gloomier than rain on vacation when all the buildings are grey stone and it’s a very dark 6PM.
            How to rally?  Luckily, we were only around the corner from Aux Anciens Canadien, a famous French-Canadian restaurant in a historic building.  (Standards for historic are high in Quebec—we’re talking the 1600s.)  We ran over and got a cozy table for two in a nook upstairs and had just a few “snacks,” since it was late and the restaurant is known for gigantic portions:  I had a plate of smoked eel and smoked sturgeon that was excellent and a (giant) (appetizer) piece of meat pie.  Steve had escargots—I believe it is physically impossible for him to turn down escargot on a menu—and boar and wild caribou rillette (like pate).  We shared our first poutine in Canada (French fries with gravy and cheese curds).  For dessert, a delicious maple syrup pie…the piece was the size of a hubcap.  Yum!
            I won’t go on and on about the weather, just to say that there was more rain throughout the week than one would want unless one was a duck.  Oh well.  We both discovered that some shoes previously thought not to be able to handle puddles actually could!
            Our first full day we walked around and tried to get a feel for the city.  There’s a convenient tourism bureau with very helpful people, though clearly this is not the unbiased tourist bureau that we encounter here, as each window was someone shilling for their own company.  Still, it was helpful to find them all in one place, and we set up a walking tour AND a food tour for the coming days.  (The company we liked was Voir Quebec.)  Whew…time for lunch!
            We found ourselves in the lower part of Quebec at lunchtime.  I really wasn’t prepared for the many and massive hills that make up the old part of the city, and being constantly confronted with a steep staircase every which way (or should I say, my platform shoes were not prepared).  On the plus side, hiking up and down burns calories!  We found L’Echaude, a lovely bistro a bit off the tourist track, that offered a nice lunch deal.  I had salad topped with beautiful slices of smoked duck and Steve had an omelet with amazing smoked salmon.  And wine, of course!  (In a moment of poor French execution, I thought I was ordering French fries—frites—for an appetizer, but in a happy turn of events, they ended up being fried oysters!  Steve thought he was ordering beef carpaccio, but it was actually beeT carpaccio, with goat cheese, and it was fabulous!)
            Since we were too full to climb back up a staircase, we decided to wander the lower city and eventually made our way to the farmer’s market—Marche du Vieux-Porte—which is truly a sight.  Aisles of produce and ice wine and maple products and spices and foie gras and on and on.  We bought some wonderful apples; the girl who explained the different types to us had definite opinions on which she liked (don’t ask her about Spartans!), and when I said, “It seems you’re in the right job,” she laughed and said, “I am loving the apple!”  Cheese from Quebec (you know, the soft, unpasteurized, raw milk kind the US won’t allow imported in), bread, maple-coated popcorn, a maple-oatmeal cookie (as I noted to Steve, “I am loving the maple!”).  After the market, we wandered in desperation looking for a state-run liquor store—SAC—along a major thoroughfare during rush hour—score! success!—we headed home for a relaxing night of wine, bread, and cheese.
            At breakfast, I went for takeout breakfast pastries (do you think maybe there was a croissant in that bag!?) at Paillard, and then with a bit of time to kill, we explored the beautiful lobby of the castle-like hotel, Le Chateau Frontenac (if you’re not familiar with it, check out the picture!) and found time for a Bloody Mary/Bloody Caesar at the wood-paneled bar.  Time for our walking tour, which was excellent.  We learned about the history of Quebec City (founded on fish and furs!) and the battles between the French and English.  Our guide was especially good at creating an enthralling atmosphere for the story of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.   Home to relax before setting out for dinner, at a newish restaurant I had read about:  Chez Bistro Bouley Boreal, which features ingredients from the north and is run by a chef who was in the “Top Chef” of Canada (be still my heart!).
            Oh, my…what a menu!!  It took forever even to make a drink selection from the interesting cocktails.  Steve ended up with a drink based on a gin made in Quebec, and I ended up with something that seemed to be Canadian whiskey with a rich, dark, earthy broth.  (Maybe we can get Steve to expand upon my lame drink descriptions in an edition of “Two at the Most”?)  We went all in on the Nordic concept with our food choices:  I had salmon tartare to start, and he had bison tartare.  Oh, divine….  (And don’t they say that raw food is healthier?)  For dinner, I went with one of the specials, sweetbreads with root vegetables in a delectable maple syrup reduction, and Steve had a fantastic black cod with a celery/salsify puree that had him sopping up every drop with bread.  Dessert:  cheese course for me, and Steve had something that is rather untranslatable, but which turned out to be yummy:  “nougat glace,” sort of a non-ice cream sundae.  At the end of the trip—a trip filled with fabulous food—we both decided this was easily our best meal, and one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten.
            Forging on the next day:  pastries from Paillard and then I took a walk up to Parliament Hill and to the Plains of Abraham, which now is a lovely and large park.  There were special displays of Halloween decorations in the Joan of Arc garden, and behind the museum there were several groups of schoolkids practicing with a “regiment” for a re-enactment of the battle.  The “French army” was practicing running forward with their bayonets, and the “British army” was practicing falling down dead one after the other in a Radio City Rockettes-style chain of gore and death (not to fear, Anglophiles, the British ended up winning this battle and control of the city).
            What can I say about the food tour except that every city should have one (and I should lead the one here in Alexandria)!  The combination of exercise while eating is super-smart!  While I wonder a bit about the pay-off angle of the stops chosen, there’s no denying that what we ate and what we learned was all wonderful and a bit off the beaten path:  cheese, pate, a dizzying array of maple syrups gulped from a series of small cups, crepes, chocolate, ice wine, maple-laced Canadian whiskey…oh my.  Clearly our guide loved food, and his passion showed.  Our favorite stops were the SAC (the liquor store!), where I discovered a highly dangerous product, Sortilege—a liqueur of Canadian whiskey and maple—that I am now seriously addicted to; the crepes at Casse Crepes Breton; the maple store whose name escapes me; and the gourmet food at the specialty grocery store, J.A. Moisan Epicier (since 1871; the oldest continuous grocery store in North America).  Could we really eat more cheese and bread for dinner?  YES.  After the tour, we loaded up on my new favorite drink at the SAC and then a bagful of cheese, bread, and pate from the Epicier.  Steve also found some excellent Montreal bagels there that he was familiar with, so that put an end to my morning trips to Paillard. 
            Since it wasn’t raining, we decided to go for a walk to see the scary Halloween decorations at night, along with the five year old Quebec children.  On the way back up to the Plains of Abraham, we were lucky enough to stumble into a branch of Chez Ashton’s, a Canadian fast-food burger place which, according to our food tour guide, was the first place to serve poutine.  Of course we had to try a “mini”—which was about the size of a trough—and here was the promised land of poutine.  Cheese curds squeaked, gravy was assertive, and fries remained crisp.  Go to the source!
            Waddled home for a relaxing dinner of cheese and pate, if you can call watching the presidential debate “relaxing.”
            I think I’ll have to break off now…probably you need a snack to fortify you for the adventures ahead, including the big foie gras event!  To be continued....!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.