Monday, December 16, 2013

Wanna play? Tortoise at Boyd Hill Preserve

Two gopher tortoises at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St Pete, Florida. Just after this photo, they "raced" off to their underground burrow. We had either disturbed them or perhaps they had a nap in mind.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Sharks, Seahorses, and Somersaulting Otters, What Could Be Better?


 A 10-year old boy giggled while he took a video of a playful otter turning somersaults over and over and over and over. The only thing that separated them was a glass panel and a few inches of air space. The otter played and the boy was entranced. It was just another day of magic at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.
     Designed to take visitors on a journey from Florida’s fresh water springs to the open water of the Gulf of Mexico, the aquarium is a great opportunity for young and old alike to learn about Florida and the bounty of its waters and related habitat.
    There are otters and turtles, roseate spoonbills and ibis, small fish and large sharks. Ethereal jelly fish, no bigger than limes, float and dance in darkened tanks. Seahorses glide through coral curling their tails around branches and each other. Divers swim with sharks while chatting with an attentive audience gathered in front of the big tank.
     The Aquarium also provides the opportunity to get outside on Tampa Bay with dolphin cruises throughout the day in search of the 500 wild dolphins that call Tampa Bay their home.
     For children who want to have an adventure of their own, there is an outdoor play area complete with shooting fountains of water, waterfalls, mist areas, and a giant sand box beach.

     Covered patio areas with tables provide comfortable spots for lunch. Food (hamburgers, sandwiches, pizza) and drink are available.
     The Aquarium is located on Channelside near the SS American Victory Museum Ship (Station 7 on the Teco Streetcar Line). Convenient parking is adjacent to the aquarium.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Oxford Exchange: My New Favorite Spot in Tampa

The Oxford Exchange is my new favorite place in Tampa.

First, there are books. Not just any books, but a well curated selection of books on interesting subjects well displayed with helpful hints from bookstore staff. The room is light filled and comfy chairs give you a spot to peruse your selections. I couldn't leave without at least a couple new books to add to the pile on my bedside table.

Then, a walk down a richly, wood paneled hallway leads to a coffee/tea bar featuring local favorites Buddy Brew Coffee and Tebella Tea. There are large sofas, comfy chairs, high top tables, and bar seating. There was a nice vibe in the air as friends and associates chatted over a cup of brew. Jerry and I sat at a high-table and enjoyed an espresso and iced coffee before heading to ...

...the restaurant. Chef Erin Guggino creates fresh, simple, flavorful meals served in a high-ceilinged, high-windowed room or the adjacent atrium. The menu emphasizes seasonal, local, and organic ingredients. Currently, it is open for breakfast and lunch (I bet regulars secretly hope they start opening for dinner).  Jerry had the chicken chili. I had a delicious, light fish soup. And, we shared the spicy fried chick peas. Yum.

And last, but not least, are the treasures waiting to be found at the Shop at Oxford Exchange. The shop has a smart collection of home d├ęcor pieces, vintage finds, and gifts.  

The Oxford exchange is located in a lovingly restored old building across the street from the University of Tampa at 420 West Kennedy.  Parking is available on the Grand Central Avenue side of the building.  The Oxford is open until 5:30 PM, Monday - Saturday and 5:00 PM on Sunday, so no date nights for us there...yet. 

For more information as to hours, menu, and offerings: Visit them on twitter at @oxfordexchange. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Watch Baseball in Comfort in Downtown St Pete.

Don't let the baseball purists tell you otherwise. Watching the Tampa Bay Rays play baseball in the air-conditioned  Tropicana Dome is pure comfort!

Our crazy section attendant Eddie, during the 7th inning stretch

Players may like real grass. Some fans may believe that it is part of the game to sit in heat and humidity or endure long rain-delays.

But not these fans.  And fans we are.  We're season ticket holders who even when traveling follow games on and twitter. We love our Tampa Bay Rays, we just don't love sweltering in the sun or huddling on a concourse while a thunderstorm passes.

There is nothing, nada, not a thing pleasant about sitting in a stadium on days when it is 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity outside. And, we're happy to be inside on those afternoons when pop-up thunderstorms, pop up right over southern Pinellas County sending lightning, hail and water spouts right into downtown St Petersburg.

Lucky for us, all we have to worry about is the walk to and from where we parked the car.

Once in the Tropicana Dome, we can head straight to Section 301 with a few detours for beignets, BBQ pork and hand-carved turkey sandwiches, and fresh squeezed lemonade. 

The Trop is a great venue for visitors to enjoy baseball. Rays fans are in general a friendly bunch (except to loud-mouth Yankee fans...sorry if you are one of them...consider yourself warned).

Rusty Kath provides entertaining in-house emceeing (listen for his occasional pithy remarks dropped in among the latest announcement of who has won Pepsi Bottle Race). 

Rays players often sign autographs right before the game down by the Rays dugout.  On Family-Day Sundays, there may even be autograph tables set up at the edge of the field for the latest favorites. 

The price of tickets is very affordable especially compared to many other stadiums MLB.

Food is good baseball park fare. We love the BBQ pork sandwiches from Everglades BBQ or the fresh carved turkey sandwiches from The Carvery.

Come up to Sections 300, 301, or 302 and join legions of season ticket holders who know the best kept secret in the Trop. High seats behind home plate? You can see everything! The prices are great and we have the craziest section attendants!

Parking is available at the Trop and at private lots north of the field.  Parking on 13th Street north is free if you get there early enough to get a space. A free shuttle is available from downtown St Pete parking structures (about 1 mile down central) with parking at the downtown lot just $5.

Check out the Rays website for special concert nights during the summer. Have small kids? Most Sundays are Family Days. Kids can run the bases after the game.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Ribs Were Worth The Fall

Let's just say I'm happy that there was no one with a video camera in front of Fred Fleming's BBQ last night. 

Driving home from the airport we decided to pop into Fred's BBQ for take-out ribs, beans and slaw. It was late, we were hungry, we'd been traveling most of the day, and neither of us remembered what was in the refrigerator, if anything. 

I was hungry, so I over-ordered. 

So there I was with two big sacks full of ribs and things and sauce. 


Thunderstorm just off to the north. 

I was practically skipping out of the door to the car,  when in the dark I did not see the BRIGHT yellow line denoting the edge of a small curb. 

Jerry said, "I saw you coming, and then all of a sudden, you weren't there anymore. I thought, did she forget something?"

Then he saw the top of my head, then my nose, as I pulled myself up by the door handle of the car, gingerly testing if ankle and knee still worked.

"What happened?" It was all I could do to keep from saying "whaddya think?"

Instead..."I knee hurts...but I saved the ribs."

(p.s. bruised, scraped, sore, but I'm all in one piece. the ribs? worth the fall)

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sounds of the Old Port of Montreal

     The window is open in our living room with a cool breeze flowing in under gray skies. Sounds from the old port of Montreal float in on the breeze keeping us company as we read. 

     The Holland America Line's Maasdam just left the old Port. With three long mournful bellows from its horns it pulled slowly away from the Quay Alexandra.  Hundreds of people lined the decks under colorful maritime flags flapping from lines draped across the ship. The big liner headed north for its seven-day journey down the St Lawrence River out to the Atlantic Ocean and then to Boston. 

     Shortly after the echoes of the ships horns had quieted, the bells of the Basilica of Notre Dame peeled celebrating a wedding. Children chased each other around the pond across the street, squealing and giggling as they played a version of catch-me-if-you-can. A little girl stood alone to one side twirling an umbrella shaped just like a giant ladybug. 

     The sun has now set although the sky is still light even at nine o'clock. The symphony of sparrows, blackbirds, and robins has ended with the coming darkness. I hear the hum of cars, the bass beat of car radios, the whistle of a traffic cop directing traffic down at St Laurent, and the clip-clop of a horse pulling a bright pink caliche filled with tourists chatting in a language I don't recognize. A neighbor carries on a conversation with his labrador retriever on their last walk for the evening. The murmurs and laughter of friends and lovers, parents and children, tourists and neighbors dance up in the air making for a pleasing evening chorale.

     We sit and listen, aware of our good fortune to be in this place at this moment, enjoying the sounds of Montreal


Eating Our Way Through Montreal, So What's New?

It is summer and we are in Montreal, escaping for a few weeks the heat and muggies of St Pete, FL. There are many things we love about Montreal: the weather, the charm of the city's streets, the musicality of the French language, and the walkability of the many diverse neighborhoods. But the thing we love the most about Montreal is its love affair with food.  From the bounty of fresh products at the City's many farmers markets to the incredible diversity of offerings at restaurants, we love to eat in Montreal.  We've been in Montreal for just shy of 3 days now and already we've tried out some of the new food trucks that have hit the street scene in Montreal this summer, perused new fine food boutiques, and revisited some of our favorite markets. Here is a quick review of our far.

We arrived in Montreal on a cool, drizzly night. Hungry, we parked our car, and set off for a light dinner before unloading and settling into our flat. 
A block away is Communion which is set in the corner of a 150-year-old stone building facing onto Rue de La Commune. We had a light dinner of a mesclun salad with candied walnuts and a delicate balsamic vinegarette. Jerry thought it too plain, I thought it just right. We shared a charcuterie plate of slices of chorizo, blood sausage salami, liver pate salami, cornichons, bits of lardon, and a fresh baguette.
There was a pleasant, friendly hum to the place.  Light jazz mingled with happy conversations. The glass of Clockspring Zinfandel was the perfect companion for the evening's meal. 
Happily fed, we walked to our flat hand in hand in a soft rain.  Montreal had once again welcomed us with good food and safe haven.  
Satay Brothers,  Atwater Market, and Rustique Pies
We slept in late after the previous day's long journey.  After a cup of coffee and the Montreal Gazette, we set off for the market.
Marche Atwater is located along the historic Lachine Canal in an art deco building built in 1933 for the market. Open year round, the market is at its most beautiful in the summer.  Plant nurseries set up shop with hundreds of blooming plants for gardens and terrasses.  Quebec berries are at their best and stalls are laden with tiny strawberries, plump raspberries, and firm blueberries, freshly picked and trucked to market.
Under brightly colored tarps, the outdoor food stalls serve up sausages, freshly squeezed juices, nuts, pastries and at Satay Brothers...satay. Our first experience at Satay Brothers was in their "winter" brick and morter shop on Rue St Jacques.  But come fair weather, Satay Brothers move their operation back to Marche Atwater where it all started.
We had 6 skewers of the Satay du Jour (chicken) and their pork bun sandwiches.  Refreshing and tasty.  Good as we had remembered. We'll be back. 
After a walk through the market buying tomatoes and a basket of berries we were off to the St-Henri neighborhood of Montreal to my favorite pie shop, Rustique Pies. For my previous post on Rustique, click here.
We sat in the sun at a small round table set just inside the big storefront window and ate three small round delights: Banana cream, lemon meringue, and peach cobbler pies. As good as I had remembered.  We bought six to-go, with plans to return for more on the weekend.
No, I never lose weight when visiting Montreal.  Its a good thing we walk a lot when we visit.

The Best of Italy in Montreal's Little Italy

Nicola Travaglini opened his fine food boutique last fall hoping to share the delicious bounty of Italy with the food lovers of Montreal. He has succeeded and then some. Travaglini and his business partner Domenico Armeni have created an inviting corner shop located near Marche Jean Talon in Montreal's Little Italy.

Shelves are stocked with the best pastas, sauces, tomatoes, and spices. Delicious breads and pastries are made on the premises. An excellent selection of salumi and speciality cheeses decorate well-lit cases. Two large communal tables in the center of the store hum with the chat of contented lunch-goers as they enjoy pastas, soups, or sandwiches. 
We had the chance to chat with the effervescent Domenico Armeni, born in Calabria Italy but a long-time resident of Montreal. Armeni was chef-owner of Lucca's in Little Italy until he sold it a few years back. He was in his element as he strolled through the shop chatting with customers. He is clearly proud of what they have created at Nicola Travaglini.
I asked him about a delicious looking "something" in the pastry case. Armeni explained it was a Crostata e Noci, a thick crusted Crostata filled with a concoction made of caramel, hazelnuts, almonds, pistaccios and raisins. He leaned forward and almost in a whisper said, "even better than the filling? the crust...I love the crust." crostata to go!
And we'll be back.

The Food Truck Army has landed in Montreal

Dim sum, gourmet hot dogs, pad thai noodles, meatballs, sausages, grilled cheese sandwiches, Vietnamese spring rolls, flaky pastry treats...all this and more will be served via food trucks this summer in Montreal.

After a 50 year ban on street food, the City of Montreal has joined the latest culinary trend. Twenty seven trucks have been approved by the City and will be allowed to serve from 7am to 10pm in nine pre-determined spots around the City. The food trucks will rotate on a selected schedule available at the website listed below if you want to know who is serving what and where.

This year, the food truck "season" will be from June 20th to September 29th.

We arrived in Montreal for a two week visit and made a beeline straight to the small group of trucks located at Mill and Rue de La Commune along the Lachine Canal in the Old Port of Montreal. First up, was Le TukTuk serving delicious Thai fare. We tried the Pad Thai poulet (chicken) and the Green Papaya salad. Both were delicious.

We ate on a picnic table conveniently nestled under a group of trees near the trucks. While eating, we watched hungry eaters line up at the Montreal Dim Sum truck. After polishing off the generous portion of Pahd Thai, I couldn't resist. The "trio" of dim sums were fresh, hot, and scrumptious. 
So, we're two down and only 25 to go. We've got our work cut out for us on this trip.

Jerry's Favorite Treat: Fresh Sausage on a Stick

Whenever we visit Montreal, we always visit Marche Jean Talon within the first day or two of our trip. Why? Because Jerry needs his sausage-on-a-stick fix. 
We also go for the eggs, the berries, fresh asparagus, crepes, coffee, mushrooms, and more. But that is another story. This story is about sausage.

We have two favorite spots in the market that are conveniently within a couple stalls from each other.  
La Volailler du Marche offers 100% natural sausages made from boar, beef, pork, chicken, duck, deer, and lamb. The sausage can be purchased as single 2-inch lengths on a stick or as a "kebab" with 8 different types of sausage on the stick. We opted for the 8-on-a-stick which was a good way to sample all the different types of sausage they sell.

Balkani's serves large "hot dog" sized grilled sausage. They are served either on a bun or on a stick. Varieties vary. Today's offering were "spicy" or "sweet". Jerry opted for spicy. The sausage was juicy and full of flavor. Just the right meal for a cold, rainy day in Montreal.



Friday, June 21, 2013


Where can you find thousands of snowy egrets nesting on man-made stilt platforms, a rock salt deposit as deep as Mt Everest is tall, and a factory producing over 700,000 bottles of a fire-hot, red sauce a day? Only one place in world, Avery Island, LA, home to the world-famous Tabasco sauce. 

Located three hours west of New Orleans through hilly, marshy Cajun Country,  Avery Island is where Tabasco sauce was created in 1868.  Edmund McIlhenney, a banker, married into the Avery family and settled on Avery Island in New Iberia Parish. Given some exotic pepper plants by a friend, McIlhenney experimented with creating a spicy sauce that would liven up often mundane fare. In 1870, he patented his special recipe and process that is still used today to create the red hot sauce sold in over 165 countries around the world. 

Still family-owned and operated, the Tabasco factory is open for tours (free of charge).  The factory produces over 700,000 bottles of the red (and now sometimes green) sauce four days a week. The sauce is bottled after it has aged in white oak barrels previously used to make whiskey at the Jack Daniels Distillery. 

The tour provides a short and interesting video about how (and where) the peppers are grown, harvested, turned into mash and then sauce for bottling.  If you visit on bottling day, you can watch the busy bottling room as all that fire-hot goodness is poured, capped, and labeled in those trademark long-necked bottles.  

The last room has an interesting exhibit of old advertising campaigns and a chance to get up close and personal with the pungent pepper "mash" that eventually becomes Tabasco sauce. 

A country store with a broad veranda and chairs for sittin' is filled to the rafters with Tabasco brand clothes, tchochkes, and foodstuffs. Tabasco bottle earrings anyone? How about a string of Tabasco bottle Christmas lights?  Yep, I bought them both. 

After visiting the Tabasco factory, it is a good time to drive around the "island" a bit.  Avery Island is actually a series of hills that rise up above a vast marsh wetland. Underneath Avery Island is a vast deposit of rock salt that is estimated to be as deep as Mount Everest is tall.  Mining of the salt deposit has been ongoing since the late 1800s and is expected to continue into the long-distant future.  As it is on the "other" side of the hill from where tourist visit there is no visible sign of the salt mine operations. 

Just a short 2 minute drive from the Tabasco Factory is Jungle Gardens with its famous Bird Island. In the late 1890's the founder's son, E.A. McIlhenney created what is now known as Bird Island.  He raised snowy egrets in captivity on Avery Island and then set them free to migrate. Each year a group would return to nest on the island.  McIlhenney created a series of nesting platforms that rise up on stilts over the bayous. Over 120 years later, those first eight egrets raised by McIlhenney, are now thousands of snowy egrets which mass each spring in a squawking community of white to raise their young safely on a sprawling network of reed platforms.

As we walked out to the platforms, we could hear the birds from over 300 yards away in the parking lot. Squawking and squabbling in low-guttural tones they provided the background to the more refined tones of the frogs in the adjacent reeds. There were the "banjo plunking" frogs and the "sounds just like a sheep" frogs. It made for quite a rare, nature symphony.

Bird Island is on one side of Jungle Gardens also created by the McIlhenney family over the years. Its 170-acres sprawls along the Bayou Petite Anse.  Massive oak trees and thick stands of bamboo provide shade and cover for local birds, deer, and raccoons.  Small lagoons contain small alligators and turtles. The gardens of camellias and azaleas were not in bloom when we were there, but given the extent of the gardens and the size of the plants, it must be spectacular in season. 

It's possible to make a day trip to Avery Island from New Orleans if you leave early.  A more leisurely two days would give you the opportunity to linger a bit in New Iberia and Breaux Bridge in the heart of Cajun Country.  A loop tour is possible by traveling via Hwy 90 and Interstate-10. 

For more information about Avery Island and Tabasco products check HERE.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Shacking Up in the Cradle of the Blues

Me: Honey? Can we stay in a sharecropper’s shack when we’re up in Clarksdale next month?

Husband (looking up over his book): Does it have air conditioning?

Me: Yes, I see a window box a/c unit in the picture.

Husband: OK, if it will make you happy.

And that is how we came to spend two nights in a shotgun-style shack with a tin roof and Mississippi cypress walls on the Hopson Plantation just 3 miles east of Clarksdale, MS. And next to the plush Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, it was Jerry’s favorite stay of the trip.

The Shack Up Inn developed over the past 15 years on the Hopson Plantation in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of Blues music. Located just 3 miles east of Clarksdale, MS, there are over 30 “units” sprawled in a ramshackle fashion. They have been modified just enough so as to provide the modern amenities of an indoor bathroom and shower, heat and air conditioning, and coffeemaker/fridge/microwave and sink.
A visitor can stay in a former sharecropper shack, seed house, old tractor shed or in one of the newly created "bins" in the old cotton gin.

We stayed in the two-room Pinetop Perkins shack, named in honor of the legendary Blues pianist of the same name. A tall upright piano stood in the corner of the front room with a life sized mural of Pinetop smiling from the opposite wall. There were “dishtowel” curtains and old Mississippi license plates nailed down over holes in the bare wood floors. There was a  screened porch with rockers for sittin' which made for a fine early evening spot to wave to our neighbors and read in the fading light.

The Ground Zero Blues Club operates out of one half of the big old Cotton Gin building offering smokin’ blues and zydeco several nights a week. Donuts and coffee are available in the morning, beer and wine in the afternoon after 5 pm. The old gin has seen a lot of living and hard work in its decades of use. Now it provides for a place to sit, play and listen to the music that grew up out of all that living and hard work.

The complex is littered with ancient Ford and Chevy pick-up trucks, colorful bottle trees, a windmill, silos converted to shade structures, and even one of the first mechanized cotton-picking Int'l Harvesters.

The bottle trees (or “haint” trees for some) are common to the south and are believed to be a tradition brought by slaves from Africa. Now used primarily for garden decoration, the original belief was that a bottle tree outside of a home would attract evil spirits with the sunlight shining through the bottle. When evil spirits followed the light into the bottle, they were trapped and could do the house no harm. Blue bottles were thought to be the most attractive to the evil spirits.
We heard tell that when a strong wind is blowing that the bottle trees moan and whisper with the wind. Not hard to understand how some would believe they were filled with evil spirits. Now the colorful hand-made trees stand on the grounds of the Shack Up Inn dedicated to honoring the hard work and music of the Mississippi Delta, so perhaps now those bottle trees are simply joining in to sing the Blues.
From the Shack Up Inn it is an easy 3-mile drive west on Hwy 49 to Clarksdale's legendary juke joints and the Delta Blues Museum, Abe’s BBQ, and the childhood home of Tennessee Williams.

 More about all that in another post. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Kayaking In a Mangrove Tunnel, Weedon Island Preserve, St Petersburg, FL

There is more to the St Petersburg/Clearwater area than beaches and boating. There are quiet pockets of nature filled with beauty and wild creatures. Weedon Island Preserve is one of those spots. Located on the northwestern shores of Tampa Bay, it is a quick 20 minute drive from downtown St Petersburg. Its 3190 acres is made up of marine ecosystems accessible by kayak, boardwalk, pier, and a small system of upland trails.

One mild November morning, I met my friends Tim and Lisa Salt from the UK at Weedon.  They had arranged to rent kayaks for a half-day paddle through a well-marked water trail. Sweetwater Kayak Rentals delivered the kayaks to the water’s edge and provided life vests, paddles, and good advice. For the kayaking novice, Sweetwater will provide an escorted kayak tour, but we have all had our hands on a paddle before, so with a bit of a shove, we were off onto the waters of Weedon Preserve.
We paddled in sheltered bays watching American oystercatchers and egrets scavenge for food. We pulled up near a sandbar, "rafted" together and had lunch in the sun. The sand bar marked the entrance to one of many of the sheltered mangrove "highway" tunnels.  We glided through the earthy-scented mangrove tunnel where the outside world melted away into quiet paradise

Jerry and I enjoy driving to Weedon in early evening. We like to watch the sunset from the fishing pier. On our last visit, a Great Blue Heron walked along one railing while we leaned against the other, content to savor the late afternoon light. A swish in the water marked a small group of dolphins, one a youngster.

Weedon also has a 45-foot observation tower nestled along one of the upland paths. A walk up the observation tower is rewarded with an expansive view of the mangrove “islands”.   The sun shimmers off the waters that surround the dense, lush mangrove jungle.  The downtowns of Tampa and St Petersburg are just a glimmer on the horizon and seem a world away. 

For more information about Sweetwater Kayaks, check here:
For more information about Weedon Island Preserve, check here:

Monday, June 17, 2013

Peaches, Peaches, and More Peaches at Dickey Farms in Musella, GA


There were peach jams, peach/fig preserves, peach salsa, peach hand pies, peach ice cream, peach slushies, and peaches by the peck or the bag. There were hats with peaches, tshirts with peaches, and earrings made out of grits in the shape of peaches.  There were peaches rolling along a conveyor belt and boxes of peaches being loaded into a truck bound for Boston.  White rockers lined the wide, shaded veranda of the Dickey Farms packinghouse and sales pavilion.  Huge ceiling fans provided a breeze as we sat in a rocker and enjoyed a just-picked, juicy, ripe Georgia Peach.

Started in 1897, Dickey Farms  is located about 45 minutes west of Macon, GA, on Old Hwy 341 in the small “blink and you’ll miss it” town of Musella.  The white, clapboard packinghouse is the oldest continuously operating packinghouse in Georgia, built in 1936. We stood on the veranda and watched as workers sat in the shade and inspected peaches for blemishes while the mechanical part of the system sorted for size and delivered uniform peaches to workers who boxed them up for shipping.  Once boxed up, the boxes of peaches were placed on pallets and a forklift loaded them into a Dickey Farms truck for shipping.  I watched one of those peaches enter the system and end up on a pallet, I would estimate it took less than 10 minutes to get packed and within an hour that peach had made it from field truck to shipping truck.

The farm maintains 110,000 peach trees in orchards sprinkled over a 20-mile area.  They have planted multiple orchards in varied locations to diversify exposure and safe guard against disastrous losses during late freezes.  They grow 19 different peach varieties which ripen at different times in the season. Each tree is picked three times, only picking peaches when they are ready.  From mid-May to Mid-August, you are pretty much guaranteed a ripe peach on the porch at Dickey Farms.

The third-generation peach grower Mr. Robert L Dickey greeted visitors to the veranda which overlooked the sorting and packing area.  He and his son, Robert L Dickey, III run the farm now. But we got the sense that Senior Mr. Dickey’s most important job now is greeting visitors and sharing his enthusiasm for peaches and peach products.   Mr. Dickey was clearly proud of his peaches and was particularly fond of the peach fritters available for sale.  The fritter was good, but the peach hand pies were exceptional (and it didn’t make it very far down the road).

Dickey Farm ships many of their products year round.  Fresh peaches are shipped starting around June 15 when the free-stone varieties ripen.  Peach season is usually over by the middle of August.

Did you know?
-The first known peach came from China.

-A medium peach has only 38 calories.

-The Georgia peach production started between 1870 and 1875

-There are three general varieties of peaches, clingstone (early in the season), semi-free stone (mid- season), and free-stone (from middle of June to end of season in August).

-When buying peaches you should avoid rock-hard peaches and select ones that yield slightly to pressure along the seam.

-If the peaches aren’t ripe, don’t put them in the refrigerator. Just put them on the counter at room temperature.  Once ripe, then you can place them in the fridge. To accelerate ripening, put the peach in a sealed paper bag.

For more information on peaches and on how to order products and peaches from Dickey Farms check out their website at

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Small Pies with the Perfect Crust, Betcha Can't Eat Just One!


Who needs cupcakes or doughnuts when there is pie? Especially when the pie comes in four-bite-sized portions.  The tiny pies come a variety of ways: double crust, cream, and meringue and in a variety of flavors: fruit, pecan, key lime, lemon meringue, coconut cream, chocolate cream and more. 

Advertised as a "A Country Pie the City", Rustique Pie Kitchen opened in the St-Henri neighborhood of Montreal in February. Through a fortuitous heads-up from @ToulasTake on Twitter, we were there opening day. The winter sun streamed in through large store-front windows. The smell of butter, baking pies, fruit, and espresso wafted through the air. We sat at a small wooden table, drank good espresso, and ate six of the small pastry jewels. Our two favorites that day were the lemon meringue and pecan pielets with apple a very close third.
Two days later we headed for the airport to fly home to Florida. We asked our taxi driver to stop at Rustique where I got a box of six small pies for the flight (they were consumed long before I walked through Gate 82). We tipped him with a bit of cash and a pie. He took a bite, his eyes popped open wide, and he said "I'm taking the kids there tomorrow".
Rustique also sells full-sized pies, cookies, bars, cakes, marshmallows, barks and brittles. Everything is made on the premises. Locally grown/produced ingredients are preferred when available.
They are happy to cater events with as many teeny, delicious pies as can fit on a platter. Wedding Pie anyone?

photo by Jason Baesel

For more information, store hours, and directions please click here: Rustique Pie Kitchen 

Monday, May 20, 2013


Two broad snouts snuffle up from the water at the edge of the walking path along Coffee Pot Bayou. A manatee and her baby drift over to the storm drain to drink fresh water coming down from nearby Lake Crescent. The baby cuddles close. A small group of locals lean over the edge of the concrete bulkhead to watch "their" manatees. They speak in happy whispers and take photos with their cell phones to send to friends in colder climes.

Common to the bayou for most of the year, manatees are almost an everyday sight during the cooler winter months when colder waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay drive them to the shallow warmer waters of Coffee Pot Bayou. As spring approaches groups of courting manatees can be seen rolling around each other in the shallow waters.
Keeping them company are statuesque Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, shy Green Herons, and gregarious Laughing Gulls. Red-ear slider turtles can often be seen popping their heads up in the water or sunning themselves on boat ramps. Even a dolphin or two join in on the fun.
The broad sidewalk along Coffee Pot Bayou is part of a 2-mile walking/biking path that extends from downtown St. Petersburg following along the edge of Tampa Bay before entering Coffee Pot Bayou. It is a safe, well-lit path with fantastic views, comfortable benches for resting, access to a small beach off of North Shores Park, and opportunities for fishing.
Our manatee spot is at Coffee Pot Blvd and 23rd Ave NE.  There is a small area for parking. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013


When he entered the large, brightly lit room, Rob Ward stopped a moment to savor the heady scent of butter, apple, almonds, citrus, chocolate and cinnamon. Along the walls of the room were over 300 pies lined up like beads on a jeweled necklace.  With a broad smile he nodded hello to fellow pie lovers as he threaded his way through 19 tables to table number six, where he would sit for the better part of three hours tasting over a dozen cherry pies. For the seventh year in a row, Ward would judge, along with 100 others, the amateur division of the American Pie Council’s Crisco National Pie Championship in Orlando, Fla.
In its nineteenth year, the National Pie Championships has grown from a series of small regional pie competitions to a single large national event held every April.  At this year’s event pies were judged in five divisions: commercial, independent/retail bakers, amateur bakers, professional chefs, and junior chefs.  Competitors and judges came from over 40 states.  Nearly 1,000 pies were judged by 200 volunteer judges over three days of competition. Gift baskets were awarded to the winners of various pie categories and the Best of Show winner in each division received a cash prize.
It is not difficult to understand what brings bakers to the competition. They love to create an original recipe they hope is worthy of recognition and prize money.  Most competitors enter pies in many different categories and return every year hoping for fame within the pie community. Winning pie recipes are published on the American Pie Council’s website. A new cookbook, America’s Best Pies, edited by Linda Hoskins the executive director of the APC contains 200 of the best recipes from past competitions.  
But what brings people like Rob Ward back year after year to judge those pies? There are no prizes or accolades for the judges. They pay for their own transportation and lodging. No one writes stories about them in the local paper. They give up a weekend to sit inside a windowless, air- conditioned convention center eating pie until their loose-fitting clothes aren’t so loose fitting anymore. So why do they do it? The answer is simple, it is their passion for pie.
Ward recently retired to Sarasota, an easy two-hour drive to Orlando. But for the first six years he judged at the National Pie Championships, he would close his lucrative orthodontic practice in Illinois for several days. He would fly at his own expense to Orlando from Chicago and judge pies for three days. He said his wife would often ask him why he wanted to make the effort to judge for free and without recognition.   He said his answer was always, “Because I can”.  He loves the camaraderie of the judges, seeing good friends year after year, and tasting many different pies.
His favorite pie is cherry, preferably a double crust, the category he judged at this year’s championship. But his earliest memory of pie was his grandmother’s apple pie.  He would sit on a well-worn stool in her kitchen in a small house in upstate New York. “I was around eight or nine watching her work her magic … I still have that stool.”
His enthusiasm for the pie championship was so great that one year he took the idea home with him.  He and his wife lived on a close-knit cul-de-sac north of Chicago. He hosted a friendly neighborhood pie competition where everyone brought their favorite pie, whether they baked it or bought it.  With Johnny Cash’s song Pie in the Sky playing in the background they sampled pies, Ward “judged” each pie, and everyone got a prize. It was the talk of the neighborhood for years.
Across the table from Ward sat a trim, talkative woman who has driven from Jupiter, Fla, for a half dozen years to judge the amateur division. A red, white, and, blue “I Love Pie” sticker stood out on her bright red jacket.  She is an avid baker who bakes pies, cakes, cookies, and breads almost every day. When her tablemates asked how she keeps so trim and fit, she replied “I give away most of what I bake, to the local fire and police stations and my neighbors.” She just loves to bake, especially pies. There were at least several people at her table who expressed the desire to be one of her neighbors.
Like several other judges around the table, she was disappointed there weren’t more classic, double-crusted cherry pies in the competition. She considers herself a purist.  If it says it is a cherry pie, it should have lots of cherries. Her opinion of the cherry cream pie that got high marks from several other judges? Not enough cherries, too much cream cheese, she marked it down for that.  But with six judges with different tastes and opinions, the pie still won third place.  The winner? Mamma Mia’s Cherry Pie.  It had lots of cherries and no cream cheese.
Judging at the pie championship requires more than just the love of pie.  It also requires organization, attention to detail, and confidence.   There were six judges at a table with each table judging an entire category of pie.  There were typically 12 to 25 pies in a category. A score sheet was filled out by each judge giving points for appearance, overall taste, balance of taste, mouth feel, crust quality, creativity, after-taste, and more.  During the tasting process for each piece, no communication between judges was allowed.  But in between pie slices, conversation was often lively and varied.  “Didn’t you think it tasted like lavender soap?” “What was that spice? Whatever it was, there was too much of it.” “What was that golden cherry? It was perfect.”
Judging attracts pie lovers of all ages. A frail, silver-haired woman with a whisper of a voice has judged at the pie championships for so long she couldn’t remember how many years, at least 11.  She spoke of a sweet potato pie from her childhood in the backwoods of Louisiana during the 1940s. Her delicately, weathered hand tapped on the small round pin on her lapel that announced, pie judge. The family’s housekeeper would make the pie.  She said, “I never saw her use a recipe and I have never been able to make that pie”. The closest she has come was from a recipe she found in a southern cookbook from 1764.
Sitting at the raisin pie table, Judy Hynes proudly wore her American Pie Council Pie Police t-shirt. She drives an hour from DeBary, Fla, all three days of the competition. In addition to judging, she volunteers at the American Pie Festival in Celebration, Fla, that runs concurrently with the National Pie Championship.  The most demanding job? “The pie slicing tent at Celebration, hardest job ever.”  
 Her earliest memory of pie is her mother’s peach pie.  She prides herself on her lemon meringue and chocolate pies. In past competitions, she has entered pies for judging, but never won. But, her days as a competitor will soon be over. Her son is marrying into pie royalty.  This summer he will marry the daughter of Rich and Linda Hoskins the founders of the American Pie Council and the National Pie Championships.  When asked whether there will be cake or pie at her son’s wedding reception, she said, “That is so funny. Pie of course!”

The Pie Judges of the Classic Cherry Pie Category (Amateur Division)

The Pie Judges of the Raisin Pie and Innovation Categories (Professional Divison)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Manatees, Egret, and a Lynx (of sorts): A Winter Day in St Pete, FL

This is high season in St Petersburg. 

The snow birds, both human and feathered, are in town.

The days are mild, sunny and blessedly humidity free. 

Downtown hums with happy locals and tourists sitting in sidewalk cafes, strolling the waterfront, visiting the museums, and shopping in the shops.

Neighbors stop to chat on the sidewalks which are filled with walkers, runners, bicyclists, dog walkers, and kids being pushed in strollers. 

Last Sunday Jerry and I went out for, as we like to say, an explore. First stop...our "manatee station".

This time of year, manatees often spend time near us in the shallow waters of Coffee Pot Bayou (a channel lined with homes, boat docks, and remnants of mangroves). They like the warmer water, vegetation (to eat)  on the channel bottom, and the fresh water (to drink) that comes from storm drains that drain upstream ponds and lakes. 

We walked out our front door and across a broad grassy center parkway. We walked under our neighbors gigantic pink flowering Tabebuia tree and across  pink brick streets to the sidewalk and bulkhead of Coffee Pot Bayou. No more than 300 feet. And there they were: two adult manatees and a baby. 

After getting our manatee fix for the day, we drove down to see the Tallship Lynx moored at the Harbourage Marina in Port of St Pete just south of downtown. The Lynx is an historically accurate re-creation of the Privateer Lynx that served in the War of 1812 for the United States. 

For more information on the construction and history  of the Lynx please check out: Privateer Lynx

The Lynx is visiting St Pete from Fort Myers, FL where she is staying for the winter. Tours and sailaways are available in Fort Myers through at least the end of March. 

The Lynx was moored near the mouth of Salt Creek where it enters the waters of the Port in St Petersburg. Standing on a floating pier, was a stately Great Blue Heron taking a sun bath and preening before getting back to the business of channelside fishing.

We meandered back through town to our home in the Old Northeast. On our way, we spotted the newly named Samson, our neighbor's "pet" egret. He's taken to perching on their roof and keeping their lawn and bushes free of large bugs and small lizards. (I think there may also be little pieces of turkey involved in the bargain). 

A perfect Sunday afternoon in the dead of winter in St Petersburg, FL.