Thursday, May 30, 2013

Y'all Come On In: A Visitor's Guide to the South

Hey darlin'! How's your mama and them? To those of you who didn't bat an eyelash at that greeting, you are undoubtedly from the South, have lived in the South for quite some time, or have Southern friends who have tutored you in the ways of the more genteel parts of our great nation. And for those who are puzzled, or just need a refresher course, let's talk about the way we do it around here, south of the Mason-Dixon line.

While visiting the South, you will immediately notice that we have our own vocabulary. Ma'am is standard issue, and 'g's are optional (think laughin', smilin', eatin'). Don't say we talk funny while you are here; it's exactly how it's supposed to sound. While you are visiting, you are the one who is talking funny. Now, take a lesson and feel free to make one syllable words into two, such as "Good morning, Bi-ill!" There, you're starting to blend right in.

And it's not just the way we say it, often times you may be surprised by what it is we actually say. One of my college roommates, Jackie, was from New Jersey and was baffled when I mentioned getting a buggy at the grocery store. That's right, we have buggies, also known as carts, and we don't go 'food shopping' like Jackie used to say. You will also frequently hear things such as:

 I reckon
Well, I never
Shut your mouth
I might could
I'm fixin' to
Mean as a snake
Slower than molasses (not to be confused with slower than cream risin' on buttermilk)
Stubborn as mule
That dog won't hunt
More often than all of these, you will hear "bless your heart!" You may think that this is being said sweetly, but I can tell you that we generally bless people's hearts when they are doing something stupid. Allow me to use it in a sentence for teaching purposes: "Bless his heart, he shot himself in the leg during church service!" See what I mean? Bless your heart can also be turned into a double whammy, see also: "Bless your heart! Poor old thing!" Make no mistake, at this point the odds are high that you are being ridiculed. It's being done in the nicest possible way, but that is exactly what is happening. Stop what you are doing and consult your Southern visitor's guide to find out why everyone is laughing.

Our food is very important to Southerners. You may encounter some delicacies that you don't immediately love, but you'll warm up to them, trust me. Down here, we like okra. Don't say it's slimy or gross; you probably haven't had it made the right way (fried, duh). Same goes with grits--we love them, and if you have them the way the Lord intended (with lots of butter and/or cheese), you will soon be hooked. We are also not fond of serving our vegetables naked; we much prefer them in casseroles, accessorized with creamy soups and breadcrumbs and here come the butter and cheese again. Is your mouth watering yet?

When you get ready to wash down all that goodness, you will want to get yourself some tea or a Coke. No, it's not soda or pop, it is Coke no matter where you are or what brand they may be serving (even in North Carolina, the home of Pepsi). If you ask for tea, you will get a glass of syrupy sweet iced tea that will, in all likelihood, make your teeth ache from the sugar content. If you want something else, you will need to specify that your Yankee self likes unsweet tea, or you wanted a cup of Earl Gray to soothe your nerves.

And while we are a friendly place, please be aware that we can, and do, judge people by their clothing choices. Anyone with face piercings obviously has mother issues. Short shorts signify daddy issues. Men without shirts and/or shoes are probably just Gamecock fans, dressed in their best attire for a special occasion. Bear in mind that we can and will monogram anything that stands still long enough, and stay away from "critter" pants--embroidered with lobsters, bumblebees, whales--they are bad enough in their natural Southern habitat, but I can't in good conscience let you take those things home with you and have them spread to other regions. We do not need a critter pants pandemic.

When choosing your outfit, be sure to remember the three types of summer weather down South: hot (which will cause you to "glisten," a Southernism for sweat), hotter (watch me fry an egg on this sidewalk, y'all), and hottest (Lord have mercy on your sweltering soul). Get yourself a glass of tea and head on off to the lake. When winter rolls around, if more than two snowflakes hit the ground simultaneously, we come to a screeching halt. Better safe than sorry. Look at it this way: instead of putting chains on your tires and slip sliding for hours to get to work, take the day off, grab some hot chocolate, and build a snowman. Don't you just love it here?

So now you've had your crash course in visiting the South. It's by no means everything you need to know--we spend our whole lives perfecting being Southern ladies and gentlemen, but it will help you decipher your surroundings and make the most of your time in God's country. So come on out to the front porch and grab a rocking chair close to the bug zapper. We'll make you feel right at home.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mercy, Merci!

Ah, Paris. Gay Paris, the City of Light, the city on the Seine. Growing up, my mother frequently spoke French around me and the language sounded beautiful, almost magical. I took two years of French in high school and was convinced that I was in love with France and that all things Parisian were the epitome of style, class, and culture. When the stars aligned and Mom and I had the time, the money, and a guided trip all planned out for us, we ecstatically booked our tickets and were giddy at the idea of finally strolling the Champs-Elysees! This was going to be the trip of a lifetime. And then our plane landed.

My first inkling that all was not as I had dreamed was on the shuttle from the airport. I leaned against the window, waiting to see the beautiful French countryside--perhaps cobblestone streets and flower carts as we got closer to the city--and instead was greeted by prefabricated metal warehouses and overpasses littered with gang graffiti. The shuttle dropped us off somewhere near/close to/around where the driver thought our hotel might be, since he had never heard of the place. As it turns out, no one had. Thank God for all those French lessons Mom and I had under our belts, because we stopped every person on the street we could flag down in search of what our guide had told us was a  small, "boutique" hotel right off the Champs Elysees. Two hours later, we stumbled up our *very* modest accommodations.

As it turns out, "boutique" in this case was a term descriptive of Motel 6 quality lodgings. The Ritz Carlton it was not. The elevator was only big enough for two people at a time, so we took turns going up to our rooms, which were just large enough to hold a set of twin beds and about a foot of space around the perimeter to navigate. I was glad to have small feet, because anyone with a shoe size of 8.5 or greater would have struggled for a foot path. I won't even get started on the bellman who lurked around every corner giving us long, disturbing stares (you had to be there and feel him literally breathing down your neck). Even still, we were in Paris! Let the sightseeing begin!

The trouble with the sightseeing is that our very expert guide, who had (allegedly) visited Paris  numerous times, got us lost every time we ventured out of our hostel motel little boutique hotel. Even in my (ahem) stylish touristy walking shoes, we trudged exhaustively through that city from tip to tail and back again. Every. Single. Time we went out. I have seen alleys and side streets and avenues that are oblivious to the average Parisian visitor. We would walk north for 20 minutes, only for our guide to "remember" another route and then we would U-turn and walk south for 35 more minutes before finally arriving at our destination. The City of Light can be quite taxing that way. Do you remember the Family Circus cartoons that showed Billy's footprints all over the place during the course of his day? I shudder to think of what ours would look like if they had been documented.

But all that walking would help burn off the wonderful French food in which we were indulging, right? Only our breakfasts consisted of dry toast at the Motel 6 (also known as the Hotel Galileo, if you are ever looking to punk someone who is traveling to Paris. Be sure and tell that bellman I sent you). Someone had taken all the small jars of jelly as souvenirs, and no one thought fit to put out any more, and so we enjoyed plain toast or a bowl of Raisin Bran (ooh, la, la: how French!) before each glorious day's adventures commenced.

Here we are at the Eiffel Tower. On the outside: smiling. On the inside: dy-ing.

I have heard that there are wonderful open air markets all over Paris where one can buy fresh baguettes and cheese, but they were but a rumor during my trip--we searched but never came across one. Almost every lunch and dinner had been prearranged by our savvy tour guide, and we were left without any choice of what we would dine on at every meal. Apparently, salmon served very rare (read: still swimming) is a popular cuisine in Paris, or at least it was for our group. Salmon for lunch, salmon for dinner, bon appetite, repeat. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the McDonald's corporation for their franchise located on the Avenue de Champs Elysees, or I might have died from starvation. The Royal with cheese was a true lifesaver, and worth every euro I paid for it. By day four, I thought it only fair to warn our travel companions that I would kill a man with my bare hands for a Little Debbie snack cake.

On the last night of our long, strange, trip, our guide had arranged for us to see an authentic French cabaret show. She deemed the Moulin Rouge too seedy and instead booked us a "much classier" evening at a place called the Lido. If you have never been and are yearning to go, let me help you travel vicariously by setting the scene: this classy show we were treated to consisted of women of every shape, size, and color dancing, jumping, bouncing, and jiggling wearing nothing but headdresses and bedazzled thongs. And I'm pretty sure that the table mates next to us who were joyfully ogling this very tasteful display were Saddam Hussein and his cronies. That, mon amies, is entertainment.

I could go on and on (and on), but there are so many details from our French fiasco it would take days to fully disclose. And I'm afraid that if I delve too deeply, my post traumatic stress might come back. It has been five years next month since we took that fateful trip, but we still grimace when someone mentions it as if it were yesterday.

Maybe you went to Paris and you loved it. Maybe, like us, you begged the customs officer to please, for the love of God, let you back into the good ol' USA. I did get to see the Mona Lisa, Napoleon's tomb, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. I also got to see plenty of bums, pickpockets, dilapidated buildings, and Parisians who openly scoff with disdain at Americans. Quaint, it ain't, madams and monsieurs. If you still haven't been and you want a genuinely unforgettable experience, I have just the travel agency for you. And take it from someone who has been there: pack a few Little Debbies in your carry-on. My hairdresser summed it up perfectly when she heard about the trip and said, "Girl, I knew if Carrie didn't like it on Sex and the City, it couldn't be much." Carrie and I are in total agreement on this one.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Because She Said So, That's Why

She was the first person to see you naked, your very first life coach, number one fan, chef, chauffeur, confidante. Let's face it: moms make the world go 'round. And no matter what your age or where you live, I'm willing to bet your mom used the same Momisms raising you that mine used with me. I think on the day a mother brings her baby home from the hospital, she is given a list of these 'isms that she is required to use with the child as often as possible.

And even though some of these little reminders don't seem to make a lot of sense, I've learned over the years that mothers (mine, anyway) have an uncanny way of being right. About everything. So always listen to your mother: she knows her stuff, even if you can't see it/understand it/handle it at the moment. In honor of Mother's Day, let's review some of Mom's favorite pearls of wisdom, shall we?

Don't run with scissors. This one, probably the most common, is a bit bizarre for me. What kind of crazed, deranged kids are running around with scissors to begin with? I supposed you could also add not running with knives, switchblades, hedge trimmers, sickles, spears, forks, or other dangerous objects with the ability to impale. Or you could just use my philosophy and not run at all. Safety first, people.

Wait 30 minutes after you eat before swimming. I don't know if swimming too soon after eating will actually cause a cramp and put you in danger of drowning, but it absolutely will make you look chubby in your swimsuit, so this one is a gem. It's nearly impossible to strut your stuff poolside while rocking a Buddha belly, so unless you're planning to go old school "but I've got a bad sunburn" and swim in your t-shirt, lay off the buffet before taking a dip. For everyone's sake.

"Everyone" is doing it? Well, if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too? Sadly, in the age that we live in, probably so. Because if everyone did it, it would make a cool Facebook picture/viral video/flash mob, and lately that's what it's all about. So at least if you're going to join the masses in their bridge jumping and other trending tactics, be sure to follow Mom's next piece of advice:

Be sure to wear clean underwear. What will people think if you get in an accident? Do you think that, if moms everywhere hadn't stressed this one, we would be a society full of dirty underwearers? Was the temptation so great to not change one's drawers that our mothers had to nag to get it done? I shudder at the thought. But in the era of Britney and Lindsay and those celebrity commando photos, I think just "be sure to wear underwear" isn't necessarily a ridiculous suggestion. Bonus points if it's clean.

Don't slouch. Your mama (all of ours, actually) was your first yoga instructor. Before it was popular and you started schlepping your own mat to classes full of hipsters seeking zen, Mom was telling you to keep your head up, shoulders down, stand tall, and you would look and feel better. And sure enough, she was right. Just ask Rain, your Bikram yoga guru. She'll vouch for it.

Elbows off the table. And while we're at it, cell phones, too. If it's so important that you just have to text about it, then do your tablemates a favor and leave. Trust me, they would rather look at an empty chair than watch you message back and forth with your friend Mary Helen about her night last night--"OMGeeee! She stayed out how late? Nooooo!" Forced to choose, we'd all rather you put your grimy elbows up.

Don't talk with your mouth full. I'm not going to get into a whole laundry list of table manners, but this one is important. Don't ever do it--unless you are yelling "fire!" When I worked at Cubicles Incorporated (or Satan's Lair, whichever nickname you prefer), one of my rather large, food-loving coworkers downed a chicken salad club sandwich and had not quite finished the last bite when he simply had to discuss a project with me. I still remember looking at that food dancing around in his mouth...and then he burped, right in my face. The sheer force of the bacon-scented belch blew my hair back away from my face. You do not want someone telling stories like that about you. Chew, swallow, chitty chat away.

It's all fun and games until someone pokes an eye out. As a Barbie doll playing, inside-loving child, I can't relate to this one very well. What in the world were the rest of you doing while I was playing Nintendo that gouged out eyes? If some of you are reading this with the one good eye you have left, I would love some feedback about what fun and games turned so horribly wrong it cost you an eyeball. Still, as a scare tactic, it is highly effective. I'm blinking like a maniac just thinking about it.

Mother's Day is Sunday, so make you sure you take a moment to appreciate your mom. After all, she raised you, fed and watered you, made sure your underwear would pass public inspection, and kept you from cutting yourself to shreds running with sharp objects.

Happy Mother's Day to my mom, who put up with, policed, and sometimes even participated in, all my hijinks, shenanigans, and tomfoolery over the years. Practically everything I know about being a belle, I learned from her. Love you, Mom!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Big Weekend in the Big D

They say everything is bigger in Texas. That statement alone has made me always want to go there. The glamour, the cowboys (the men, not the sports team), the food, all of it has been calling my name for years. Finally! My mom and I flew to Dallas last Thursday to spend a long girls' weekend with my cousin, Lana, who wined and dined and chauffeured us around her native city in the highest fashion. I haven't stopped smiling yet, and my pants are still too tight from all the amazing food--both of those situations will probably linger a while longer. I don't know if it really is bigger, but everything is awesome in Texas, I will vouch for that.

As we walked off the plane when we landed, a flight attendant turned to me and asked, "Is this home for you?" Sadly to say, it is not home for me, but I consider that high praise. Thank you, sir, for starting my trip off right. Giddy up.

I come from a family of foodies, of awesome chefs and cooks and restaurateurs, and when we get together you can bet you will not go away hungry. We lunched at the Zodiac Room at Neiman Marcus (popovers with strawberry butter, anyone?), ate our weight in Tex Mex at El Fenix (well, I did anyway), and had the most amazing dinners I think I have ever enjoyed.

Our first dinner was at the top of Dallas's Reunion Tower, at 560 by Wolfgang Puck. Wolfgang did us right with an assortment of awesome including, but not limited to: shrimp and lobster spring rolls, pork belly dumplings, and a chocolate soufflé the size of a cantaloupe (although much, much tastier). The revolving restaurant gave us a view of the entire city of Dallas, even if we were talking and laughing so hard we barely noticed it.

 After a hard afternoon of shopping, the following night led us to Al Biernat's, a Texas institution for seafood and steaks. Hey, if it's good enough to have gotten a visit from William and Kate (and it did), it's perfectly fine with me. We took pictures, but apparently laughing like hyenas does not a great photo shoot make.

After our Tex Mex feast on Saturday, my Dallasite cousin made the ultimate sacrifice and toured Southfork Ranch with us. Folks in Dallas cringe over Southfork and the TV show sharing their city's name, mainly because it makes everyone think that Dallas is filled with cowboy hats, huge belt buckles, and Cadillacs with horns on the front. Personally, I love all those things, but to each their own. I have loved Dallas since I was a kid, have watched reruns of the original series for years, and now don't miss an episode of Dallas 2.0, mainly out of loyalty to the its predecessor.

We probably didn't look like renegades when they snapped our souvenir photo, but boy, did they underestimate us. I am not just a tourist, I am The Tourist, velvet ropes and boundaries be damned.

I feel 99% certain that after we got through with the tour of Southfork, they either decided to close it to the general public or add another chapter to the tour guides' handbook on how to deal with crazed visitors who shun all the rules.

Just because we decided to sit ourselves at the dining table set with Waterford crystal and Noritake china is no need to get all testy and nervous. One member of our party may or may not have also tried using a not-so-public restroom, located right off of "Bobby Ewing's" bedroom. I can still hear one of the guides screeching, "Please don't do that! Please, do NOT do that!" and then, in a very strained and exasperated voice: "Do we need to flush?" That moment alone was worth double the price of admission.

Here are just a few of the pictures we took; please note that we are clearly behind the scenes and have made ourselves right at home, much to the chagrin of the Southfork staff.

*insert Dallas theme song here*
You can't see my grin, but believe me, it was ear to ear.
Note the velvet rope--and the fact that Lana is tickling the ivories on the wrong side of it.

Cozying up in the Ewing den. Don't mind if I do.
Care for a bourbon and branch?
Apparently, this table setting is "irreplaceable" and they did not like our photo op.
I think the picture is pretty priceless.

Join us out by the pool?

This table is one of the few original pieces of furniture remaining from the original Dallas set.
I'm probably sitting in Miss Ellie's chair.

After we played renegade ranch hands for the afternoon, Lana took us to Dean Fearing's restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton. My great uncle Jack was President of the Texas Restaurant Association and Lana is the Creative Director of Culinary Media for Twisted South magazine, so needless to say, we got the VIP treatment.

Chef Fearing came to our table and introduced himself, then proceeded to send us the most amazing "specialities" over to try: wild mushroom soup with spare rib, lobster coconut bisque with a lobster potsticker and sizzling rice, a delicious 30 year old dessert wine, and even a blondie for each of us to go after we finished our meal (never mind that we already had a dessert or two)! Not to mention that he kept popping over to our table to ask what we thought of all the deliciousness he insisted on lavishing upon us--believe me when I say it is good to be at Lana's table. Wash all that down with (this belle's very first) Cristal champagne, and you are having yourself a not-too-shabby evening, indeed.

So there you have it: three days of shopping, laughing, eating, laughing, talking, touring, and laughing. We came, we saw, I suppose you could say we messed with Texas, and we loved every minute of it. And I'm pretty sure Texas liked the attention, too.