Thursday, August 30, 2012

Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

In 1995 -  and with little experience - Cheryl Strayed made a drastic decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone from the western edge of the Mojave desert in Southern California to the Oregon/Washington border.   

Wild is the memoir of her incredible 1,100-mile journey.

The idea of the trip actually started in Minneapolis, where Strayed was living at the time.  She was standing in the checkout line of an outdoor store waiting to purchase a foldable shovel when she noticed a book called The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I, California. 

She casually picked the book up and scanned through it, learning that the Pacific Crest Trail runs along the crest of nine mountain ranges and is 2,663 miles long.   It starts at the Mexican border, running through California, Oregon, and Washington, and ends just over the Canadian border. 

Strayed looked at the pretty picture of a lake on the front cover of the guidebook, which was beautifully surrounded by boulders, and then placed the book back on the shelf.  She paid for her shovel and left.  Shortly after, she returned to the store and bought the book.

At the time of her unexpected purchase, Strayed’s life was a mess.  She was ending her marriage. Her mother had recently died of cancer.  She was shooting heroin, and she was having casual sex with men she barely knew.  

Strayed knew her life needed to change.  She also needed time alone - to think, to heal, to regroup and to figure out what she wanted from life.  So, naively she acquired all the equipment she thought she would need for her adventure and headed for Mojave, California and the Pacific Crest Trail.

From the first day, the journey was much harder than Strayed ever expected.  She struggled to carry her huge backpack, which she nicknamed Monster, and she quickly discovered she was less prepared than she could have every imagined.  Even so, she wasn’t going to give up.

Her three-month-long trip was grueling, challenging, emotional, and fascinating.  Along the way, she encountered wild animals, extreme heat, snow and ice, new friends, physical hardships and memories that she would never forget. 

Wild conveys Strayed’s difficulties, fears, and struggles, both on and off the trail, with painful accuracy.  In fact, to describe Wild as a “feel-good” book would be misleading.  It is more of a “feel real” book because of its raw honesty. 

Especially in the beginning chapters of Wild, its brutal openness makes you want to just shake Strayed and say, “What’s wrong with you?”   

But partway through the memoir, you find yourself appreciating her candid words.  Her realness about herself adds to the meaning of her journey and the importance of her success – on the trail and within herself. 

What’s even better is that at the end of the book, Strayed describes her life now and discusses what happened to a few of the people she befriended on the Pacific Crest Trail all those years ago, giving the book and her excursion a sense of completeness.

Today, Strayed is a successful author who lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and children.  She has also written the books Torch and Tiny Beautiful Things.  

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Art of Storytelling Is Alive and Well In Kansas CIty

The Uptown Arts Bar at 3611 Broadway
Uptown Arts Bar Hosts Eclectic Monthly Story Slam

Looking for something interesting and different to do in Kansas City?  If so, I've got a great idea.

On the first Friday of every month at 8:00 p.m., you can find some of Kansas City’s best storytellers gathered at the Uptown Arts Bar in Midtown for a fun, unpredictable, and definitely entertaining story slam. 

The rules for the event are simple.  Each story slam has a theme.  August’s theme was “Things You Never Told Your Mother.”  Anyone who wants to tell a story has five minutes to take the stage and share a personal, true experience. 

Fables and fairy tales are not allowed.  Neither are props, puppets or notes, and if you go over six minutes, you get the hook! 

Gary Kuntz
At the end of the slam, everyone votes anonymously for the first, second, and third place winners, who each receive a prize. 

The August winner was Gary Kuntz with his humorous tale about turning back the odometer in his father’s car when he was a teenager.

The event is sponsored by the River and Prairie Storyweavers, and it brings some of the best talent in the area together to show off their mesmerizing oral skills.

Brother John Anderson
This past month's storytellers also included Brother John Anderson, a local talent who often performs at area libraries and other venues.  He told a story about the eight things he would never confess to his mother. 

Steve Otto
 Professional storyteller Steve Otto, took us back to the unconditioned summer of 1954 in his steamy tale.

Joyce Slater, a Kansas City actress, playwright and co-founder of Potluck Productions, confessed about her teenage experiences at the Lakeside Ballroom, while pulling double duty as the emcee of the slam.
Joyce Slater

There were also crazy stories about strip volleyball, brothers in trouble, beer in China, family vacations and more as the evening went on.   

Everyone who attends is made to feel welcome and encouraged to give storytelling a try, even if you have no experience doing it before.

The Stage at the Uptown Arts Bar
Additionally, the Uptown Arts Bar is the perfect place to hold the slam.  The venue is cozy and comfortable and even offers free popcorn. 

A big thank you goes out to Greg Patterson, owner of the bar, who also brings writers, poets, musicians, dancers, comedians and other talent together at the Uptown for all kinds of interesting events.

If you get a chance and want to have a new experience, the story slam is worth checking out.  It only costs a $5 donation fee for an evening that is spirited, enlightening and full of surprises.

Plus, if you go and get hooked on storytelling, you can always attend the big River & Prairie Storyweavers Chicken Festival  coming up in Emporia, KS, during January.  It is a two-day event which takes the art of telling stories to a whole new level!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Port Fonda Creates A Whole New Twist On Mexican Food In Kansas City

Port Fonda Mexican Restaurant
Port Fonda Moves From Food Truck To Full-Scale Restaurant

Many Kansas Citians are already familiar with Port Fonda because of their popular food truck.  It offered loyal and often inquisitive customers a unique spin on tacos, cemitas (Mexican sandwiches) and more.

I never experienced Port Fonda's street eats, but when they decided to move up from a food truck to a full-scale restaurant in Westport, I wanted to give their "much talked about food" a try.

My first attempt at visiting Port Fonda was a bust.  I thought I would try them for lunch, but when I got there, I was disappointed to find out that they are currently only open for dinner.

However, undeterred and excited about the good things I had been hearing about them, I made a second attempt at Port Fonda's last Friday night.  I arrived shortly after they opened at five o'clock with a friend, ready to have an "unusual Mexican food experience,"  and that is exactly what I had.

We were greeted at the door by the question, "Do you have a reservation?"

When I replied, "No, we don't," we were told we had two seating choices.  We could either sit at the bar or at the community table (with everyone else who didn't have reservations.)  Personally, I've never sat at a community table in an upscale restaurant before, so I thought, "Why not?  It could be interesting."  We were then led to a large wood table surrounded by barstool-style chairs and seated.
The Community Table

The other diners we encountered around us were friendly and pleasant to be around, but the chairs were a different story.  The seats were very small, uncomfortable and hard on the back.  

We then received our menus, and after one look, my head started to spin.  It was not the typical Mexican restaurant menu.  I barely knew what anything was, and we couldn't even begin to pronounce most of it.

Somewhat intimidated and overwhelmed by all the unusual items on the menu, we were finally forced to admit defeat, and we called our server over to interpret for us.  I was impressed because she knew the menu quite well and was able to answer all of our questions in detail. 

Chips and Two Types of Salsa
As we sat pondering the menu, we kept expecting the free chips and salsa to show up in front of us, like it does in most Kansas City Mexican restaurants, but again, Port Fonda is not your typical Mexican restaurant.  They don't offer free chips and salsa. They are a menu item, though, so we started by ordering that as our appetizer, which was $5.

When I tasted the chips, I must admit, I died and went to  Mexican food heaven.  They were some of the best chips I have ever eaten.  They were warm, freshly made, and crunchy delicious.  We also received two types of salsa, tomatillo-habanero and tomato-serrano.  Both salsas were quite different, but fairly tasty and fun to try.

Next came the main dish. I ordered Diesmillo, which is a bowl of braised beef chuck roll, chipotle-cheddar bechamel (cheese sauce), grilled sweet onions, salsa ranchera, and jalapeno. I also received four warm flour tortillas, which tasted homemade.  My entree cost $13, and although unlike anything I have ever eaten, it was absolutely divine.

As for my food mate, she decided on the Camarones En Pipian for $14.  It consisted of a bowl of grilled shrimp, green peanut mole, grilled green onions, and crispy potatoes.  It also came with four flour tortillas.

Camarones En Pipian
The first problem with the Camarones En Pipian was that the shrimp had not been peeled.  That would have been fine, but it was covered in mole and was going to be quite messy to prepare for eating.

The second problem was that my friend took a bite of her food.  She controlled herself from spitting it out, but she did say "It tastes like grass and dirt!"  Now, I don't know how she knows what grass and dirt tastes like, and I thought maybe she was just being dramatic, so I decided to try it for myself.  She was right.  The mole was bitter and ruined the dish for both of us.

When we told our server about the situation, she handled it beautifully.  She quickly took the dish away without charging us for it and allowed my friend to order something else.  Since my dinner companion had sampled and liked what I was eating, she ended up ordering the same thing and was quite happy. 

Throughout the meal, our service was very good and the staff was very attentive.  Our drink glasses were never empty and we never had to ask for anything.  One thing that did bother me, though, was that our meals were not served at the same time.  I received my food almost five minutes before my friend, which was uncomfortable because I did not want to be rude and eat in front of her, but at the same time, I did not want my food to get cold while I waited for her entree to arrive.  Other groups at our table also had the same experience.

A Glimpse Inside Port Fonda
As far as the atmosphere of Port Fonda, it was very chic and modern.  The decor was a mix between rustic desert and urban southwest.

The music, on the other hand was an issue.  There was loud rap music playing, and it was full of four-letter words, which I found a little offensive for a nice restaurant.

Another thing you should know about Port Fonda is that they do offer outdoor sidewalk seating, but all the seats face the west.  In the evening, if you sit outside, you will have the sun shining right in your eyes until it sets behind the buildings across the street.

So, would I go back to Port Fonda?  Yes, I would.  My food was extremely tasty and made my trip to Midtown worthwhile.  I wanted an "unusual Mexican food experience," and that is exactly what I got. However, would I make this a place I visited often or put on my list of absolute favorite go-to restaurants?  Probably not.

To find out more about Port Fonda, which is located at 4141 Pennsylvania, you can visit their Facebook page, which also has comments and up-to-date information about their hours and menu.

Port Fonda on Urbanspoon


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Taking A Tour of the Historic Thomas Hart Benton Home And Studio In Kansas City Is An Intriguing Way To Spend Some Time

Thomas Hart Benton Home
Kansas City overflows with great art and  historic homes.  Recently, I was lucky enough to experience both when I toured the Thomas Hart Benton Home in Kansas City's Midtown Roanoke neighborhood.

Located at 3616 Belleview, the Benton Home is a 2 1/2 story late Victorian-style house made from quarried limestone.  Sitting majestically on a slight hill above the street, it almost seems like part house and part castle when you look up at its sturdy rock structure from the road. 

This architectural gem was designed by George Mathews and built in 1903, coincidentally the same year which Mathews tragically died in a Kansas City streetcar accident.

The Carriage House
The first occupant of the home was Walter Kirkpatrick, who was the Secretary-Treasurer of the Kansas City Electric Light Company.

At the time Kirkpatrick lived in the home, it was illuminated with gas lights, and the carriage house also served as a horse stable.

However, by the time the Benton family moved into the house in 1939, it had electricity, and Benton soon converted half of the carriage house into an art studio.

Known as the man who created breathtaking murals inside the Missouri State Capital in Jefferson City and the Truman Library in Independence, Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri.

As a teenager, he briefly worked as a cartoonist for a Joplin newspaper before leaving the area to serve in the Navy and to study, create, and teach art in places like New York, Chicago, and Paris.

Entering The Benton Home
By the time Benton settled in his Kansas City home, he was already an artist who was well known for his murals and Regionalism art-style.  He also taught at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1935 to 1941 where Jackson Pollock was his most famous student.

The Benton Living Room
Tours of the Benton Home are conducted on most days and  begin on the screened-in porch at the side of the house.

From there, you enter the home through a set of wooden double  doors and step into a very traditional-looking living room. Benton's bright and beautiful art adorns the walls, adding color and personality to the otherwise muted palette of the room.

The Benton Family
A photo of the Benton family  also sits on the family piano, giving the house a very personal feeling and comfortable vibe. 

The Benton Home Entry Area
Leaving the living room, the tour moves into the front entry area where a white brick fireplace, with its exposed chimney extending up into the second level of the home, is a prominent feature.

Customers who were interested in purchasing artwork from Benton were usually greeted in this space by Benton's wife, Rita, who was his business manager.

The Benton Dining Room
Next on the tour is the dining room with beautiful cut glass windows and more of Benton's stunning paintings.

The Benton Kitchen
From the dining room, you even get a glimpse into the fairly small and simple kitchen of the home.

The Benton Library
The Benton Master Bedroom
After viewing the dining room, you are then escorted upstairs to view the second-floor open library and the home's bedrooms, including the master bedroom.

Self Portrait With Rita
Again, the walls are decorated with Benton's distinctive colorful paintings, including "Self Portrait With Rita," which humorously portrays Benton as big and muscular, when in reality he was a small man.

Inside Benton's Studio
After seeing the inside of the home, you are then led out to the carriage house and into Benton's cluttered studio.

Benton died here in 1975, but the studio remains exactly as he left it.  You can feel his presence and almost envision him at work as you step into his personal creative space.

It is filled with coffee cans full of well-used brushes, tools, a canvas waiting to be painted and more as you look around and try to take everything in.

Benton's Art Studio
A close look at the walls even reveals a photo of Benton with Harry S. Truman, who was a personal friend.

The Benton property was purchased by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in 1977, who opened the house and studio to the public.  It is a state historic site and on the National Register of Historic Places.

For more information on tour days, hours, prices, parking and more, visit the Missouri tourism website.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Visiting My First Kansas City Food Truck For Lunch Is A Tasty Experience

DECO "Street Eats" Food Truck Proves To Be A Good Choice For Lunch

DECO Street Eats Food Truck
Recently I found myself in downtown Kansas City during the lunch hour.  I was hungry but also looking for something different to eat, so I decided to visit my first food truck. 

I wasn't exactly sure where the trucks would be located, but I thought somewhere around the Jackson County Courthouse would be a good guess.  I was right.  Lined up on the street behind the courthouse was a row of food trucks offering Kansas City's  urban population a variety of lunch options.  

For a few minutes I walked back and forth in front of the trucks, scouting out what choices were available.  The most popular option by far was BBQ, but something about the first truck in line, the DECO Street Eats truck, caught my attention.

I walked back to their big red truck for another look at the summer menu.  It was then that I noticed their logo, Fresh + Simple = Delicious.  That sounded pretty good, and I didn't really want anything greasy or fried, so I decided to put them to the test.  

Their menu included turkey, roast beef, Mediterranean, buffalo chicken, BBQ pork and chicken salad sandwiches, along with chicken club wraps and a variety of side items like garden and Caesar salads, fresh fruit, coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans and macaroni and cheese.  They also had cookies for dessert.  In other words, they were an upscale deli on wheels.

By the time I decided what I wanted to eat and stepped up to their window, I was ravenous.  When I ordered, however, I received my first lesson about food trucks.  Get there early or they will run out of certain items.  I was crushed that I didn't get to sample the macaroni and cheese for that reason, but I was still determined to try one of their tasty-sounding sandwiches.  

1/2 of a Woodsman sandwich with chips and drink
I selected The Woodsman, which was freshly-sliced roast beef topped with caramelized onions and creamy horseradish sauce, served with my choice of cheese and bread.  Their sandwiches also came with one side item and a drink, so I chose chips and a soda.  

And how did my sandwich taste?  Just like they promised - Fresh + Simple = Delicious.  

Classic Turkey sandwich with potato salad

My sister, who was with me, ordered the Classic Turkey sandwich, which included freshly-sliced, honey-smoked turkey breast and cranberry aioli (mayonnaise) with her choice of cheese and bread.  She picked the potato salad for her side item.  

So what did she think about her lunch?  She was somewhat neutral about the potato salad, but loved her sandwich, especially the fresh cheese, and she decided she would definitely try DECO Street Eats again. 

As far as price, each meal was $7, which we thought was reasonable for what we received.  Side items purchased on their own were between $2 and $3, and the cookies were two for $1.50.

While waiting for my food, I did speak to the gentleman working inside the truck to find out more about DECO Street Eats and Catering.  I discovered that they do not have a regular street food route as some trucks do.  They are sometimes at the courthouse or at First Fridays (in the Crossroads), but more than anything, they cater for special occasions, corporate events, and weddings.

This makes it hard for me to tell you exactly where you can go to sample their yummy deli selections, but you can contact them at their DECO Catering website if you want further information about where they might be in the future.  

As for me?  If I happen to see their food truck again, I will be a repeat customer.  Their food was fresh, slightly different (in a good way), and a much healthier choice than a lot of other food trucks for a quick and delicious lunch.

DECO Street Eats Truck

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Looking For A Good Kansas City Farmer's Market? Check Out The One In Overland Park, KS

Produce From the Overland Park Farmer's Market
The Overland Park Farmer's Market is One of the Best in Kansas City

I love a good farmer’s market, and one of my favorites is the Overland Park Farmer's Market (located in downtown Overland Park at 7950 Marty)

Fresh-baked Breads and Jams

Filled with delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, the market, now in its 30th year, is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays and also offers a variety of fresh-baked breads, herbs, pastas, honey,  natural sea salt flavorings, jams, dips, soaps and more.

Most of the produce for sale is local, and some of the MO/KS area farms and businesses with stalls this season include Schenker Family Farms, Heritage Acres Farm, Heartland Honey,  Dragush Produce, Clevenger Farm and BakeryBush Farms and Landeria Farms.  

The O.P. Farmer's Market Smells Wonderful
You'll find that going to the Overland Park Farmer's Market early in the morning is like stepping into agricultural heaven.  The smell of newly-picked fruits, veggies and herbs flows through the air as farmers set out their brightly-colored produce and lots of samples (which I rarely turn down!)

Walking Through The O.P. Farmer's Market
Wednesday mornings is the best time to go because it is less crowded than on Saturdays, and you don’t have to fight your way through such a mob to actually reach the produce.  Granted, there might be fewer vendors there on Wednesdays, but having a smaller crowd, especially early in the morning, makes it worthwhile.

A Food Demonstration
The market also offers frequent food demonstrations and live music in a nearby covered area (under the clock tower), and there is often even entertainment for the kids.  

Making Balloon Animals
 Last time I was there, a Whole Foods chef was giving cooking tips to an interested audience and a talented vendor was making balloon animals for the little ones.  Children were also allowed to play in the small water area. 

Children Playing In The Fountain
This quaint Farmer's Market is set up under a 12,000 square foot pavilion and offers everything you might need.  

You will also be glad to know that according to a recent report by 41 Action News, Overland Park keeps a close eye on the vendors at their market. 

The news article specifically stated, "Overland Park  inspects vendors to make sure they are growing the produce sold.  In addition, the market manager told us they require vendors to have general liability insurance, temporary food permits from the city if they serve food or samples, commercial kitchen licenses, the appropriate licenses from the Kansas Department of Agriculture for whatever product they sell, and vendors must label all pre-packaged items."

If you're thinking about visiting the Overland Park Farmer’s Market, their dates and hours are listed below. 

The Overland Park Farmer's Market
- April and May (Saturdays only)


- June through September (Wednesdays and Saturdays)


- October (Saturdays only)

The hours of operation for the Farmers’ Market shall generally be as follows:

- Wednesdays, 7:30 a.m. until 1 p.m.


-  Saturdays, 6:30 a.m. until 1 p.m.