Beer and Peanuts

Where to eat in Starkville, Miss., home of Mississippi State University, bulldogs and cowbells? For the best college-town experience — and some great beer and burgers — head to Mugshots Grill and Bar, in a restored brick house on a downtown historic-district corner. Husband JP and I headed here recently after a basketball game, based on several recommendations that all mentioned the good food and the iffy service. We agree on both counts. Love the decor and atmosphere — exposed brick, gorgeous woodwork, fireplaces and authentically worn floors. And then there’s the menu. You’ve got all the usual suspects, but with a twist. The fried cheese wedges are made of actual real cheese lightly breaded in maybe panko crumbs so you get more of a cheese flavor than a greasy taste. Sandwiches are on fresh-tasting sourdough buns and come with crunchy and potato-y beer-battered fries. (Why is this the first time I’ve ever eaten beer-battered fries?) Burgers come in all your favorite variations: blue cheese,  sauteed mushrooms, barbecue sauce, hickory-smoked bacon … and peanut butter. Yes, peanut butter. Stop laughing. I now will never eat a good real-meat grilled hamburger again without spreading on some rich and creamy peanut butter and maybe some sweet berry-filled jam.  Also, plenty of decent draft choices. Was all this worth waiting more than an hour for and listening to two — TWO! — stories of kitchen woes from our waitress to explain our missing food. Since the end result was beer-battered french fries and a peanut-buttered hamburger, the answer is “yes.”

Start Your Engines and Eat Some Cake — Happy Daytona 500 Day!

You know that when Wal-Mart makes cakes in its honor, you’ve got a holiday on your hands. Today is the day for  “The Great American Race” — NASCAR‘s Daytona 500 (which for some strange reason I always thought was in Ohio). I have to go on record here: I know absolutely nothing about racing and never ever watch it on TV or in person. But to be honest, that’s probably because I secretly like the thrill of watching high-speed collisions and just don’t have the guts to admit it.

Books and Food and Friends

In my four-woman book club, we rotate host duties for the monthly whenever-we-can-get-together meetings. The hostess chooses the book and decides where to meet — usually her house — and what kind of food to have. Because reading and eating are some of my all-time top favorite things, I’m not ashamed to admit that when it’s my turn to host, I usually choose books I know I can get a great menu from. And I hit the jackpot with my most recent pick, “Suite Francaise,” by Irene Nemirovsky. This is a powerful unfinished work about the German occupation of France during World War II. Nemirovsky, a well-known writer at the time, was from a wealthy Ukrainian family that fled the Russian Revolution when she was a teenager. The family settled in Paris, where she married and had two daughters while building her career as a major novelist. Because of her Jewish heritage, the French government refused to grant her citizenship in 1938, although she converted to Catholicism the next year. As the Germans approached Paris in 1940, she and her husband, also a Jew, fled with their children to a French village. Nazi control made life for Jews increasingly dangerous, and she sent her children to live with their nanny. She was arrested in July, 1942, at age 39 and gassed at Auschwitz, where her husband was sent and killed a few months later. The amazing thing about this story is that while watching her life and her family and her country — all the things most precious to her — destroyed all around her, she was writing a novel about it. “Suite Francaise,” made up of three novels of a projected five, follows fictional French characters as they are faced with the same unbelievable and unbearable circumstances Nemirovsky herself was facing at the exact same time — and, of course, without knowing the ending. You MUST read this book. It’s that good. And, since it’s about France — even France at war — there naturally are some excellent food references. I had great fun shopping for and putting together a menu: Shortbread, cream puffs, chocolate truffles, bread, cheese, olive oil and herbs for dipping, peach jam, sliced apples, cold sliced ham, mustard, pistachios, oranges, grapes, French-press coffee, French wine, Perrier and some little wine biscuits I found in the TJ Maxx food section — the best place for affordable gourmet. Impressed? Don’t be — the most I had to do to get this food on the table was open boxes and packages, although I did actually slice up the apple. I think. But for dessert, I actually made a cherry tart by my very own self. It smelled delicious while it was baking. How did it taste? Well, let’s just say that plenty of homemade vanilla-flavored whipped cream covers all mistakes.

I Love Presents. And My Daughters

Gift-giving is an art. Some people just naturally know how to do it right and always give the exactly right thing at the exactly right time. People such as our two daughters. I’m not sure how or from whom they learned the subtleties of perfect gift-giving — it’s sort of how they inexplicably learned to do hair and make-up so well that our house always was crowded with girls on prom afternoons wanting my daughters’ expertise while my approach to hair and makeup pretty much is a comb and maybe some mascara. But, happily for me, my daughters graduated beyond my meager attempts at gift-giving brilliance and excel on their own. Of course, Older Daughter knows that any gift involving our two grandsons — almost 4-years- and 4-months-old — makes me melt into a puddle of grandmotherly love, so naturally the collection of photo books she’s been giving us on gift-giving occasions is on my Things-To-Take-Out-of-the-Burning-House-After-the-Cats-But-Before-My-Shoes. Younger Daughter, however, doesn’t have adorably precious babies (yet), so she has to rely on her own natural creativity and sweetness when coming up with presents. And for this past Valentine’s Day, she truly outdid herself. My gift bag included coffee beans she knew I’d love, a smooth and silky dark-chocolate bar and two oh-so-cute gifts a couple of her friends made — a jar of chocolate body scrub and a tiny notebook from recycled paper and discarded boxes of tea, tied with a scrap of found ribbon. Love, love, love. Both daughters and gifts.

If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Mardi Gras

Have fun letting your good times roll today — whether you’re eating King Cake (watch out for that baby) or pancakes or paczki or your completely-bad-for-you pastry of choice. Of course, nothing goes better with eating rich fried sugary food than our other favorite activity: shopping. Younger Daughter and I spotted this could-be Mardi Gras wreath in Nellie Mae, an adorable boutique in downtown Tuscumbia, Ala., that’s owned by classmates of Older Daughter. And that sort of threw me. I mean, I’m used to my children’s friends being old enough to check my teeth and fill my prescriptions and give me speeding tickets, but buying clothes and jewelry from people I used to chaperon on field trips takes some getting used to. (Stay tuned for more Nellie Mae photos and other downtown-Tuscumbia finds — so cute!)

Spelling Bees and Me

Why I now will mark “be a spelling-bee moderator” off my list of  “Things That Sound Really Easy and Fun and I Bet I’d Be Good At.” — from my upcoming column in the Daily Corinthian’s weekly Community Profiles edition

She said it was going to be easy. She said I wouldn’t have any problem at all.

“All you have to do is read the words,” my friend said. “Just read the words. Easy, easy, easy.”

Of course, when somebody works this hard to convince you that something’s “easy,” you perhaps should ask questions.

But I was so flattered she’d asked me to call the words at the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools district spelling bee in Columbus that I said “Sure! I’d love to!” before I could spell out “maybe I should think about this first.”

I’ve always been fascinated with spelling bees because – and I’m embarrassed to admit this – I’ve never been to one. When my daughters, 27 and 25, were younger, the hours we’d spend studying weekly spelling lists turned them off spelling for fun and they consequently avoided any chance of getting caught up in a spelling bee. So without any real-life experience, my only knowledge came from TV, where stern and somber-looking adults quizzed children relentlessly, and the Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” where people jump around and sing a lot.

I hoped my spelling bee would fall somewhere in the middle – while leaning toward the jumping-around and singing side.

Turns out, though, I was the one meant to provide the fun and good cheer.

“We need somebody who’s sweet and nice to call the words,” my friend said. “We don’t want to intimidate the children. You are the nicest and non-scariest person I know.”

Completely captivated by the image of myself as a smiling and benevolent word-giver, charmingly patting the grateful children on their heads, I couldn’t wait until the competition.

And here let me say that I thoroughly intended to carefully study and research every word on the list my friend gave me a few days before the bee. I did look over the pages and I did pronounce the words … to myself … in my head … well, most of the words. But since the words got progressively difficult and folks assured me the student spellers rarely got to the most advanced level, I didn’t worry about the super hard ones. I mean, what are the chances I’d have to correctly pronounce the words “hoomalimali,” “pickelhaube” and “Baedeker” and use them in sentences?

If I started stumbling, I told myself, I’d fall back on my role as the sweet smiling non-intimidator.  Surely that would be enough.

Nope. It wouldn’t. Because these kids meant business. We quickly found ourselves in the advanced, extremely difficult, you-will-never-ever-use-this-word-in-real-life sections. And they were smarter than me – at least, they apparently had studied the list instead of watching reruns of “The Office” and “Cougar Town” as I maybe did.  One speller after another questioned my definitions and corrected my pronunciations – even familiar words such as “taupe” and “ersatz” are minefields when you have to enunciate them in front of eagle-eared parents. The intimidation factor rose steadily as the spellers looked at me pityingly and proceeded to demolish every advanced word we had. The organizer had to call spelling-bee headquarters for more words and I wondered if I should retreat to the snack room and let one of the kids take over.

Thankfully, we took a half-time break and the judges gave me a pep talk.

“You’re doing fine,” they said. “But toughen up. Don’t smile so much. Be a little intimidating.”

Their advice worked. When I stopped tentatively requesting that the students spell a word and started authoritatively telling them to do so, the competition flowed much more smoothly and everybody seemed happier.

But I think I’ll rest “a spell” before I try this again.

Woo-hoo for Wu!

Anybody still yearning for some Jason Wu should go to the Target in my town of Florence, Ala., where there still is plenty to choose from -- although, naturally, not the gold peplum top and blush lace skirt that I wanted. I did get the gray t-shirt with the lace print on the front, just because it fit and I liked it, as evidenced by three similar ones already in my closet. But I couldn't not buy something, you know. The dresses and tops were a bit too young and a bit too unstructured for me, but adorable just the same.