Movie Food, or Why I Should Get Out More

This is what happens when you live in a small town and you don’t go to the movies very often: You are amazed at the new Coke machine in the Malco lobby, with its touch screen and ever-changing video display with enticing buy-Coke-products ads. And then there’s the adjacent candy vending-machine, perfect for creating your own movie-watching snacks. My movie-lobby dream machine? One from Starbucks that lets you brew and enjoy your favorite espresso or coffee drink — or at least get a chilled DoubleShot.

Friends

You think you can trust your girl friends, right? You think that the people who are with you through thick and thin — literally — wouldn’t turn on you. You think that the only people — besides maybe your husband – who know what you look like without makeup would not set up a trap for you. But that’s exactly what happened to me: Three friends turned on me … and forced me to learn how to play bridge, a game I had long declared to be on my list of things-I-hate-more-than-lima-beans. Go to my weekly TimesDaily newspaper column at http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20091127/ARTICLES/911275000 to find out how I was the victim of a (friendly) bridge-napping.

Haunted Houses — and History

Florence, AlabamaSweetwater Mansion in Florence, AlabamaI do not like scary, bloody or gory stuff. I can barely sit through a CSI or Shark Week episode. Okay, that’s a lie — I cannot sit through a CSI or Shark Week episode. This is why I stay away from the “haunted houses” that open up during October around here. Other folks love to pay good money to scream and run away from axe-wielding zombies and come-to-life mummies, but not me, thank you very much. So when a haunted house opened up in Florence, Alabama, with the promise of only slightly spooky stories and a tramp around the grounds of a historic mansion, I was in. This is the HistorySweetwater Mansion, home to Robert M. Patton, who completed the home in 1835 (his father-in-law had started it a few years earlier). Patton was Alabama’s governor from 1865 to 1868. Sweetwater was a showplace that once included 3,800 acres of land and played host to many Civil War politicians and officers. Today, it’s neglected and deteriorating and surrounded by traffic and development — there’s a convenience store practically in the front yard. Owned by Susan Smithson, a former Shoals resident now living in Atlanta, Sweetwater and its remaining 22 acres are for sale, priced at several million dollars. Volunteers have banded together  to raise money for historic repairs and renovation and are sponsoring a haunted house this month. Some friends and I bundled up, fortified ourselves with a thermos of hot coffee and paid our $20 each. Our tour guide took us to five storytelling stations around the house and grounds (including the family graveyard), where we heard creepy ghost stories that scared us just enough and got close-up views of the house, the kitchen and the repair work that was underway. One of my friends took photos that showed spooky sort of orbs floating around. I didn’t get any of those on my photos — but losing this historic gem is scary enough. Learn more about the Sweetwater mansion at http://sweetwatermansion.com/

Renaissance Faire

Alabama Renaissance FaireThere is only one spot this weekend where you can converse with a Renaissance Fairetroll, dine on a roasted turkey leg and be presented to royalty: The Alabama Renaissance Faire in downtown Florence. And, why, you may ask, does Florence host the official Alabama Renaissance Faire? Well, for one thing, Ferdinand Sannoner, an Italian who helped surveyed the town in 1818, named it after Firenze, the beautiful Italian Renaissance city built around the River Arno just as the present-day Florence is situated on the Tennessee River. And for another, this is Ren Faire Alabama-family-style. There’s no drinking and no R-rated entertainment. You can bring both your grandmother and your grandchildren here without fear of embarrassment. In fact, education is a major part of the faire. Throughout October (and really all year long), Ren Faire volunteers visit local schools and give programs on life in Renaissance times. There are art, sonnet and chess contests for students, and high-schoolers get to help out at the faire for extra credit. Plus, the Faire is free, it’s in a small confined space — downtown’s Wilson Park, turned into the Fountain-on-the-Green for the duration — and it’s full of child-friendly crafts, food and fun. If you’ve ever shied away from a Ren Faire because you envisioned drunken pirates and way-too-buxom maidens running around, then this is the place you need to be — 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 24 and noon to 6 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 25. Go to http://www.alarenfaire.org/ for more info on the Alabama Renaissance Faire.

Madison, Alabama

Madison Street Festival Saturday, the town of Madison, Alabama, officially welcomed fall with Madison Street Festival the annual Madison Street Festival. A gorgeous early-fall day brought out thousands of folks to shop arts-and-crafts booths, eat that tempting fried festival food (funnel cakes, anyone?), catch up with their neighbors and be entertained by folks like Older Daughter, who performed with her Huntsville belly-dance troupe. She is an awesome dancer (and that’s not just maternal pride Madison Street Festival speaking), and the group’s repertoire included a piece she had choreographed herself. Even 18-month-old Capt. Adorable seemed to recognize his mom onstage. At least, he sat still and watched in his stroller for about 15 minutes. Or maybe he was just fascinated with the balloons we tied to the handles. Balloon-decorated strollers were everywhere, as you can tell by the line parked outside the festival’s raptor show — balloons and pets were prohibited, although I guess young children were considered safe! Capt. Adorable almost came home with a pet, since he made friends with the oh-so-adorable puppies at the animal-shelter’s booth. I’ve got a feeling there may be a new addition at the Captain’s house soon. Read more about the festival at http://blog.al.com/breaking/2009/10/madison_street_festival_draws.html and http://www.madisonstreetfestival.org/

Cajun Week

L'Auberge du LacThis past weekend  I had the great good luck to Casinosbe in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Some friends and I drove down to Cajun Country for a wedding and stayed at L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort. You know that in Louisiana (and Mississippi), gambling places by law L'Aubergehave to be on water, so L’Auberge — billed as a “riverboat casino” — is built on a bowl-like structure that’s in the lake but you’d never know it. In fact, with the hotel’s dark wood and metal Arts and Crafts-like decor, you’d never know you were in Louisiana. I loved the massive fireplaces and the solid oversized furniture, but it reminded me more of the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, than a Cajun casino. But then this was the first casino I’d ever been to, so what do I know? Since my only casino experience is from Ocean’s Eleven, I really didn’t know what to expect. The hotel part, however, was lots of fun. The two rooms we four women were in were lovely, with wonderful bathrooms (you know I always love a good hotel bathroom) and especially luxurious bed linens and mattress — a good thing, too, because due to an apparent twist of the air vents, we could hear everything said and done in other rooms somewhere in the hotel. Every. Little. Thing. Not so noticeable during the day, but at 4 a.m. when a bunch of drunk females wandered back to their room in a loud and feisty mood? Extremely annoying. We didn’t Lake Charles, Louisianaget much sympathy from hotel management, either. Oh, well. Isn’t a hotel stay always a gamble? And speaking of, I did try my luck in the casino under guidance from my more experienced friends. Unwilling to risk anything more than what it would cost to eat at McDonald’s, I plopped down in front of a 1-cent slot machine, making $1 last about 20 minutes and losing a total of $1.76. I just don’t get gambling, although I thought I had an addictive personality since I cannot leave any Mint Milanos in the bag and have been known to sit through an entire day of America’s Next Top Model reruns. Maybe if I knew how to play something that involved some skill, such as craps or 21, I might like it better, I think — although my husband was glad to hear that I found my gambling experience sort of boring. However, I did pick up some helpful gambling tips: Always get the machines close to the door, because they pay off more. Always get the machines farthest from the door, because they pay off more. Always get a machine that’s been paying off, because it’s hot. Always get a machine that hasn’t paid off, because it’s time is coming. Always play for big money, because you’ll win big. Always play for small money, because you won’t lose much. Good luck!!!

Check out the Web site for L’Auberge du Lac at http://www.ldlcasino.com

Music

Handy Week Oh my goodness. In my town of Florence, Alabama, the W.C. Handy Festivalannual W.C. Handy Music Festival is the party of all parties. It’s a full week of music and dancing and getting out and being friendly with folks you may only see during Handy Week. You probably Handy Festivalassociate Handy with Memphis or St. Louis, but the Father of the Blues was born in Florence in 1873. In 1982 some local folks Microwave Dave (right) and Phil Weaver, guitaristsformed the Music Preservation Society to remember and honor the favorite musical son. The first Handy Festival was a weekend of music featuring Dizzy Gillespie. Now, it’s a week-long celebration of jazz, blues, gospel, country, rock-‘n’-roll and things I don’t even really understand but enjoy anyway. Music is everywhere during Handy Week — or just “Handy,” as the locals say. You can hear performances at restaurants, in parks, in stores, on sidewalks — anywhere a musician can set up. Most of Handy is free, although a few concerts have admission. Handy Week wraps up on a Saturday with a New Orleans-style street strut through downtown. Folks deck out themselves and their parasols — many marching for a cause such as breast cancer awareness — and strut their best stuff. So much fun! The two things I like best about Handy Week are 1) You can park yourself somewhere and sit and enjoy free live music for hours and 2) Everybody — and I mean everybody — gets out and has a good time. Tentative dates for 2010 are July 17-26. Put that on your calendar and check the W.C. Handy Music Festival site, http://www.wchandymusicfestival.org, for info and the TimesDaily site, http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20090725/VIDEO/907252012# for a video of the strut.