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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

At a holiday party, one of the guests regaled us with stories about her neighbor, a famed pastry chef at the French Embassy in Washington. Arnaud Herodet had chucked his glamorous career after tiring of being on call at all hours for M and Mme Ambassador and opened a catering business out of his home.

Here was the clincher: Arno also sells his classic French pastries every weekend at a roadside stand at Gilbert’s Corner, a notch in the road (U.S. 50) half way between Washington and Middleburg. This called for a road trip.

So today Chris and I drove out to Arno’s stand, a couple of tables stacked with pastry cases beneath an awning – open to the bracing 45-degree weather and downwind from the BBQ smokers that also sell on the corner. (Arno says the lobster stand there will re-open in March, followed by a produce stand in April)

Arno stood alone behind his glorious offerings, and told us about each pastry as we oohed and aahed. It was almost too painful to choose, but between the two of us, we pretty much got one of each. French pastries always sound sexier in French, so I’ll crib liberally from Arno’s brochure.

  • Tarte Citron Meringue (lemon tart with a brulee’d meringue)
  • Tarte aux Fruits Frais (tart topped with custard and fresh fruits)
  • Tarte Linzer ala Confiture de Framboise (tart with custard topped with raspberries)
  • Choux au Caramel (Pastry filled with rum cream topped with caramel)
  • Tarte Boudaloue aux Peches (tart filled with cream topped with peaches)
  • Tarte aux Noix de Pecan et Rhum (tart topped with pecans and rum-soaked raisins)

There were another dozen varieties – all painstakingly constructed pastry masterpieces. My mouth was watering as I picked out five. As Arno placed them carefully in a box and I pondered the remaining empty space in the box, Arno gently pointed out that I had neglected the chocolate offerings. Ah! So a piece of the Tarte Chocolat Pistache (chocolate crust filled with pistachio chocolate cream topped with chocolate curls and whipped cream) joined the crowded box.

amazing pastries aux Arno

amazing pastries aux Arno

Then Chris picked out her boxful of exquisite pastries along with two bags of macarons (too many flavors for me to even recall).

The gallant Arno showed us his Facebook page, chatted about his business, and sent us away with brochures describing his catering service. You can find him every Saturday and Sunday at Gilbert’s Corner, selling pastries to the Middleburg elite and just plain hungry folks like us. Oh, they were delicious!

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