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Source: Deep Into Tomato Season

  1. Stop and smell the roses. When I was trying to “have it all,” crazy busy with work and family, Mom constantly counseled me to “stop and smell the roses.” I didn’t, of course. Then all the busy-ness faded away, and I realized what Mom was talking about. I have a ‘life’ now. I smell the roses all the time. Thanks for your persistence, Mom. I finally understand.
  2. Values. Every Sunday my mother shuttled us all to church. The teenage years must have been the worst, when we grumbled and complained and napped through sermons. But over the years of catechism and church, important values seeped into my heart that make me a better human being. Thanks for raising us under God’s watchful eye, Mom.
  3. The satisfaction of growing things. As Father John describes it, “Your mother’s green thumb.” I grew up on a farm, surrounded by growing things, but it was my Mom who instilled a love of gardening. I think of Mom always when I am nurturing my flowers; I still have nothing that comes close to her beautiful iris garden, which was so pretty we took our wedding photos there. And she is the inspiration for the spirited veggie gardening competition among her children. (Just ate the first garden radish, sibs!)
  4. Try something new. Mom is the champion of trying new things. Her natural curiosity leads her to strike up conversations with perfect strangers. She went back to college in her 50s and earned a master’s degree. She loves to try ethic foods, new “taste sensations,” as she calls them. One piece of advice: Never stand between my Mom and any sweet made with coconut.
  5. Savory memories. By the time I could reach the stove (8? 9?), I learned how to cook from Mom. This is pretty funny in retrospect, because she didn’t learn how to cook until she was married. But Mom patiently taught me how to make the perfect flaky pie crust (her secret was lard!) and meatloaf and other staples. When I left for college, she gave me a Betty Crocker illustrated cookbook that I still use for classics. She bakes tastier French bread than the French.
  6. Savor memories. Every summer, my raucous gang of siblings chews over family lore from decades ago. No memory is left unturned, as we tell and re-tell stories about growing up. At the center of this gathering is Mom, chuckling even when the stories grow a tad risque for her 83-year-old ears. It is a testament to Mom that her far-flung children still like each other, indeed, love each other.

204584_189765237736368_7208097_o So here’s to you, Mavis Benner Johnson – your children may be far away but we carry you in our hearts.

ISO Dumplings.

It took three trips to the Gothic quarter of Barcelona before I found La Boqueria. Granted, the first two were evening dinner forays where I simply explored the old city and enjoyed tapas and gelato and cava with a wandering eye that did not land on the market.

I knew I had to make a dedicated trip to find the ancient market because my friends were insistent that it was a must-see on my trip to Barcelona. So glad I made that third foray!photo (44)

La Boqueria is simply astounding, a covered market with hundreds of vendors. It dates to the year 1217 when farmers sold their produce on the outskirts of the old gated city. The current structure was built in1840.

Today’s vendors artfully arrange their goods, a feast for the eyes to tempt the belly. Each vendor has its specialty. Spices sold by the kilogram. Eggs sized from tiny quail eggs to softball-sized emu. Iberian ham stalls where the butchers patiently explained the origins of the much-coveted pork while carving paper-thin slices. Pate stands. Beautifully packaged salt flavored with provencal herbs or chilis or lemon. And of course more veg and fruit stands than you could count.

These vendors know their tourist audience. They package many items for people on-the-go: papayas halved and wrapped with plastic with a tiny spoon, paper cones filled with jamon ham slices or cheese wedges, plastic cups of colorful fresh-squeezed juices chilled on ice, skewers of all combinations, and empanadas to eat out of hand.

At 10 am, people were bellied up to a handful of tapas bars within the market, sitting at counters to watch the creation of their small plates.

And what I really loved was the little old Spanish ladies doing their daily marketing, nimbly navigating the narrow passages and towing a small cart to stow their purchases. La Boqueria is a ‘supermarket’ for the ages.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

If you lived in the Washington, D.C. area on June 29, 2012, you remember exactly where you were when the derecho steamrolled through.

We’d never heard of the meteorological term until afterward. The National Weather Service had warned of severe thunderstorms, and I stood in the doorway mesmerized by the trees swaying and the rain pounding the patio with a fearsome backdrop of lightning. Then I heard a loud crack, and jumped back into the house. It was a transformer blowing, and so we joined 4 million people who lost power for days.

One good thing came out of that storm. A fledgling craft brewery in Alexandria, Port City Brewing Company, lost power and thought its full tank of beer would go bad. Instead, the beer simply fermented at a higher temperature. Thus was born the Derecho Common beer. The brewery smartly marketed the beer as “the storm’s gift,” and just this weekend released the third annual Derecho beer.

CRR's Growler

CRR’s Growler

For you beer aficionados and home brewers (JJJ take note), here’s how Port City describes it: “Deep golden in color, and has toasty, biscuit malt flavors. It is medium bodies with an assertive hop profile. It is dry hopped with Amarillo hops, which give it a spicy, citrusy hop kick on the finish.” Alcohol 4.8 percent.

It took us some time to find our way to Port City, which turns out to be practically in our back yard in Alexandria. Sam got CRR a growler of Port City brew for Christmas, and we’ve been back several times since.

Take the tour: for $10, you can schedule a tour of the backlot of the brewery and get five tickets for 6-ounce pours of their microbrews. My current favorite: Tartan ale, a hearty beer that falls between the lighter IPAs and the stouts. CRR recently came away with a growler filled with Colossal Two, a smoked imperial stout. “Hints of bacon”, for real!

Port City’s fame is growing — Chef Geoff of the eponymous restaurant chain just commissioned a beer named Northwest — so go soon before the line is out the door.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

 

The first beets are in! After lording it over my gardening sibs (who demanded time-stamped proof), what to do with the first beets of the season?

I love all-things-beets. But the first beets get the unadulterated treatment. I simmered them til almost tender, skinned them, and ate a bowlful for dinner. That’s all: Beets, a spritz of butter, a sprinkle of salt and pepper. You can almost feel the iron coursing through your veins. Move over Popeye! (and if you know who Popeye is, well, you’ve dated yourself)

One lone beet survived the initial beet-fest. I thought through my beet possibilities. Beet goat cheese dip, from our friends Ruth and Tim? Mandoline-thin slices of beet topped with salad and goat cheese? Or perhaps a knockoff of a quinoa salad I had at Virtue Feed & Grain in Old Town Alexandria?

Done. I love quinoa and the Lone Beet provided the excuse to reinvent Cathal Armstrong’s recipe.

Beet Quinoa Salad

Cook one cup quinoa according to package instructions. Allow to cool. Meanwhile, dice one beet into small ruby-colored cubes and snip a handful of chives. The restaurant’s recipe calls for paper thin slices of radishes, but I substituted apple slices since my radish crop had ended. The former gives the salad a peppery bite; the apple instead added a little sweetness. Mix up a lemon vinaigrette. Gently mix the quinoa with the other ingredients, salt & pepper to taste. Then sprinkle with goat cheese. Enjoy. Serves 4 as a side dish.

Share your favorite beet recipes, because we are about to come into a beet bonanza!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA. Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

When I worked in Penn Quarter a few years ago, there was a homeless man who hawked a newspaper called Street Sense. He wasn’t giving it away; he was selling it for a suggested donation of a dollar or two. He was a friendly guy and many of my colleagues knew him by name. I would occasionally give him a buck but wave away the paper.

A year or two went by, and another colleague, Robin Heller, told me the back story of Street Sense. The newspaper is written and published by homeless people in Washington who are trying to get back on their feet. As “vendors,” these people pay 50 cents for each copy of Street Sense and keep people’s donations as their salary. They earn an average of $45 a day. Robin was on the board of directors and passionate about the cause of giving homeless people back their dignity by helping them earn some money. So I started making occasional donations.

A Street Sense vendor is often posted at our Del Ray farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. One recent Saturday, I gave him $2 and he handed me the paper. As I walked away, the front page photo caught my eye –- it was President Obama. The headline read, “Dear Mr. Denny … President Obama responds to Street Sense poet David Denny.”

Inside was a heart-warming story about a poem Denny wrote about being black in America. A regular Street Sense reader sent the poem to the nation’s first black president, and Obama responded by letter to Denny.

“We need to change the statistics for young men and boys of color,” the president wrote. “If we help those young men become well-educated, hardworking, good citizens, they will contribute to the growth and prosperity of this country.”

Denny’s poem, titled “Commentary to a Black Man,” starts like this: 

“This is a commentary we must all face,

of the devastation we have caused on our race.

We blame the white man for everything and all,

But on our streets we make the call.

We drive by and shoot to kill,

And sell all the drugs that make our community ill.

There’s a queue at the morgue for the black who are dead,

But who really cares? It’s just a crackhead.

Martin Luther’s dream is a vague shadow in a lost yesterday,

For all of his efforts this is how we repay

Can you imagine the tears on his face,

From the devastation we have wrought on our own race?”

Next time you see a Street Sense vendor, often identified by their yellow vests, you’ll know the back story. Consider giving him (or her) a dollar or two as a small step toward giving a fellow human being his dignity back.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

 

Did you visit a state park over the Memorial Day weekend? You might be interested to read about the financial pressure on parks after legislatures cut parks’ general revenue funding. My latest story for Stateline

The Idaho legislature whacked state park funding by 80 percent at the height of the recession, leaving the Department of Parks and Recreation with little choice but to think outside the box.

Parks officials decided to replace the old $40 season pass with a $10 “parks passport,” good for admission to all 30 state parks. Under the new system, they automatically put the passport option in front of Idaho’s 2.5 million vehicle owners as they renewed their license plates each year. The gamble paid off: Last year, 95,800 people opted to buy the $10 passports, compared to 15,000 who used to purchase the $40 season pass each year. So far, the new passports have generated more than $1 million.Image

“We’re able to reach more people,” Jennifer Okerlund, communications manager for the parks department, said of the Department of Motor Vehicles opt-in. “Selling it for the discounted amount is very attractive to Idahoans, and they’re taking advantage of it.”

As the Memorial Day holiday opens the 2014 summer vacation season, state parks have had to get creative about ways to raise money because budget officers are being chintzier with tax revenue. State general revenue for parks has plunged from a nationwide average of 59 percent of park funding in fiscal 1990 to 33 percent in fiscal 2012. Read more here

You may have heard: Washington DC is full of snow wimps. Even the threat of snow prompts schools to close and governors to order a state of emergency.

Here in Alexandria, Winter Storm Pax has dumped eight inches of snow, which is now being crusted over by sleet and rain. Ugh, some heavy-duty shoveling awaits.

But today’s snow is just a blip compared to some of the worst snowstorms we’ve weathered here. A recap, with thanks to NOAA — and apologies to my friends and family who live in REAL snowbelts. The difference is that you can handle it. Here, not so much.

January 7-13, 1996. NOAA calls it the Great Furlough Storm because it came on the heels of the infamous federal government shutdown. Just as federal workers were about to return to work, Mother Nature intervened. By the time three separate storms blew through, Washington was buried under up to 3 feet of snow. At our house, Will’s friend Nick came for a sleepover and wound up stranded at our house for several days. Fond memories of seeing those childhood buddies romping in the snow.

February 15-17, 2003. Call this one the President’s Day storm. Much like the current storm, this one started down south and moved up the eastern seaboard, dumping 16 inches to 26 inches of snow. Will and Sam built snow caves in the front yard.

February 13-14, 2007. The Valentine’s Day sleet storm. Snow turned to ice which knocked out power. Sam was visiting a friend at Boston College by way of Jet Blue. The airline canceled hundreds of flights and stranded Sam, who wound up taking the train home on a trip that took 12 hours. Jet Blue took years to recover from an operational and PR disaster.

December 18-19, 2009. The Christmas Eve storm dumped 16 to 18 inches of snow on all three area airports at the start of the holiday travel season, snarling air traffic for the rest of the holiday.

Snow Men

Snow Men

February 5-10, 2010. This storm spawned the nickname Snowmageddon. It was really two back-to-back storms. The first dumped 18 to 32 inches of snow, followed a few days later by another foot. The one-two punch broke the previous record set by the Knickerbocker storm of 1922, infamous for a collapsed theater that killed 100. At our house, we were relieved that Sam was still home for an elongated holiday break before he went abroad for a semester. Young strong shoulders.

What are your most vivid snow memories?

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

 

I was talking with my mother, cell phone in hand, idly straightening things as I walked around the main floor of our house. Then I walked past the living room window and froze: A police car circled our cul-de-sac and parked in front of our house. Followed by a second police car.

I hastily bid adieu to my mother (sorry Mom!) and hollered to CRR, “There are two police cars parked out front!”

Why the panic?

A seemingly random killing in Alexandria had occurred two days earlier, following another in November. Both within a mile of our house.

We like to think we live in a small town. Alexandria, Va., has fewer than 150,000 people, and the fabric of this city is still as tightly woven as when George Washington called it home. Many conversations include the phrase, “You know so-and-so, right?” and the answer is usually yes.

So these two recent unsolved murders in a neighborhood where crime is almost nonexistent, following on two earlier killings since we moved here, have rattled an entire community. The murders have this in common: The victims were shot in broad daylight in the entryway of their homes, either suggesting they knew the killer or unhesitatingly answered the doorbell as most people do in this area.

Or did, past tense. We are all paying attention to our surroundings now.

We talk about the oddball connections with the victims. The latest, Ruthanne Lodato, is the sister of my longtime gynecologist, who lives just a few blocks over from us. The November victim, Ron Kirby, was a respected transportation planner who was known by several friends and colleagues. One of the earlier victims, Nancy Dunning, was a real estate agent who wanted to sell our house on Windsor Avenue at a price we deemed too low (turned out her estimate was spot on, ruefully). Another was Robert Rixse, a doctor in our pediatric practice.

If you live in a minority or poor neighborhood of Washington, murders happen all the time and rarely break into the Washington Post metro section. But these killings made the front page, occurring as they did in an affluent neighborhood where everybody knows your name, as the “Cheers” TV slogan went.

It is a comfort to know that Alexandria is such a caring city, even as we mourn the dead and speculate about the possibility of a serial killer.

Back to the police presence on Sunday. I walked out and asked the three policemen what was going on. They said they had a “message to deliver” to my next-door neighbor. It probably wasn’t good news, but it was a relief to know it wasn’t related to the murderer in our midst.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening