Tag: Birthday

Birthday Crawls & Pizza Fries

Everything else tasted fine, but the pizza fries were really good. They’re “I still think about them today” good.

The pizza fries adventure all started with my mother-in-law. Every time it’s one of her family member’s birthdays, she’s bound and determined to arrange a celebratory dinner at a restaurant. But, not just at any restaurant, or even one our favorite restaurants.

The birthday restaurant must include the name of the birthday person in it.

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Jake’s Birthday Tradition & A Visit To Mason City Brewing

Jake and I don’t have many traditions.

Since we got married, we’ve lived two-three hours away from our families who both reside in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan area. Sometimes they visit us, but mostly we visit them. Holidays are weird for us. We spend them all in the Twin Cities and our folks go to great lengths to decorate their homes and treat us to holiday meals. Therefore, I don’t bake many Christmas cookies or put up Christmas lights. It’s kind of OK and it’s kind of bittersweet.

Our one and only Christmas tree adorned our old Bloomington condo. We picked it out ourselves at a tree farm and Jake tried to trim the trunk with a cheap, serrated kitchen knife. I’m sure you can guess what happened next. Injury, blood, and a tree that dried out quickly and dropped pine needles everywhere. It sure did smell good, though.

I’m grateful we can still share our parents’ traditions, but have also realized that just because we don’t have kids doesn’t mean we can’t create our own traditions. After Christmas, I’m going to prepare a post-Christmas dinner for two in our Mason City home and am intrigued by a friend’s idea of hosting a Febgiving in February.

Jake’s birthday does involve a tradition. Ever since we started dating, my birthday gift to him is a home-cooked meal of his choice. He requested Pad Thai, lasagna, and chicken enchiladas for his last three birthdays. This year he went easy on me and chose gyros. For birthday dessert, Jake always chooses the Fruit Crisp from the Cafe Brenda Cookbook. This crisp is different from any other. The crumble is prepared from roasted and ground oats which makes it taste more like the most delicious oatmeal cookie in the world and it’s minimally sweetened with thickened apple juice. You’ll have to check out the book find the full recipe.

Apple Crisp 2014 wm

The gyro meat was not as au natural.  I was surprised to find it at Fareway for about $6.99 per pound.

I like Fareway’s meat counter. The majority of their meat is not prepackaged and its quality and price is better than the typical grocery store’s. You place your order the old-fashioned way; from men in paper hats and white jackets who take your order and wrap everything in butcher paper.

When I visit Fareway’s meat counter, I can’t help but to gaze at the dizzying array of retro meat products, many of which I recognize from my school cafeterias. If you are seeking a taste of nostalgia sold by the pound, you’ll find chicken crispitos, pizza burger patties, and what my grade school referred to as “Mr. Ribs.” The butchers treat all of their meat with the same dignity. They carefully measure and wrap everything from Mr. Ribs to bone-in ribeyes in tidy little packages.

Once home, I was faced with this quandary: “What is the best way to cook thawed gyro loaf slices that have the texture of paste?” I’m not sure if there’s a great answer to this question. When I delicately placed the gyro slices in my Foreman grill, they sizzled and shrank at an alarming pace. I had to empty the drip tray twice and feared the worst. Fortunately, the gyro meat tasted like typical gyro meat. With homemade pita, fresh vegetables, and Wanderlust Kitchen’s Authentic Greek Tzatziki sauce, Jake’s birthday gyros were a success.

Gyro Collage

I may return to Fareway for a retro meat product tasting extravaganza.

The Every Bar In Mason City Crawl: Mason City Brewing
Our birthday weekend in Mason City wouldn’t have been complete without an Every Bar In Mason City Quest stop. We’re embarrassed to admit that this was our first visit to Mason City Brewing. We kept asking ourselves why we hadn’t visited earlier, as I’m sure many of you are.

The brewery’s space downtown is beautiful. Staff were hospitable and happy to answer questions. Thoughtful touches like live music, board games, decks of cards, a big bowl of pretzels, and a nifty hot/cold water dispenser with cups encourage customers to linger for a while.

We shared this beer sampler of the brewery’s current offerings.

Mason City Brewing wm

The sampler tray numbered each sample which corresponded to a handwritten list a bartender kindly provided. Jake gravitates towards bitter beers while I prefer lighter ones. Both of our beer tastes intersected at the sweeter Barleywine and Brown Porter which had a coffee note. We look forward to returning to the brewery soon.

Brewery Collage Pretzels mw

The bar quest will take a detour this week. I’ll join the North Iowa Bloggers at Carson Tree Farm in Hampton where we’ll learn how to make holiday wreaths. I’m the least crafty person I know, so I’ll consider the class a success if my wreath doesn’t end up looking like a big, green blob. I don’t often buy things I can’t eat, so I welcome these types of opportunities that challenge me try new experiences. Following the class, we’ll dine at West Fork Wharf in Sheffield, a reader-suggested restaurant. I’m driving so it’s a mocktail for me.

This Saturday, I’ll join six North Iowa Bloggers on a road trip. Deb of the Webster City Chamber of Commerce invited us to spend the day in Webster City where we’ll meet the mayor, visit local shops and restaurants, and tour the historic Jane Young House (among other activities).

As always, I enjoy hearing about your favorite restaurants and bars. What are your favorite holiday traditions? I’m curious; married folks, when did you first start your own holiday traditions? 

When You Celebrate A Birthday At Joe’s Crab Shack

Photography Disclaimer: If you have a low tolerance for lousy phone food photography, avert your eyes after the section about Joseph’s Grill. This post is chock-full of bad phone photos. Pinky-orange crab, yellow-tinted whites, neon cocktails + a blurry, self-gratuitous selfie all bathed in the jarring lighting at Joe’s Crab Shack. I wanted to keep Martha Steward on her toes. Frankly, perfection bores me. If you feel the same way about food blogs, then this post is for you. 

How does one describe my mother-in-law?

Well, for one thing, she really likes themes. Like, really, really likes themes. Theme parties have become such a normal part of Jake’s existence, that he hardly bats an eye at her newest schemes. He smiles as he recollects a childhood of flower parties, color parties, first or last initial parties, and happy pumpkin parties.

On the other hand, my family didn’t give much thought to themes. They took it as far as asking me what I wanted on my birthday cake and possibly finding matching invitations, but no further. It’s no wonder that themes kind of frighten me.

We returned to the Twin Cities last weekend to celebrate Jake’s dad’s big 60th birthday and the theme was “Joe” since his hame is Joe. When I first caught wind of the themed weekend my mother-in-law hatched, I experienced a wave of anxiety. We were supposed to eat at three Twin Cities restaurants with the word “Joe” in their name, all on one day.

The restaurants chosen were Joseph’s Grill, Joe Senser’s, and Joe’s Crab Shack. Until this day, I had never visited any of these places.

We convened at Joseph’s Grill Saturday morning. Dreading two more Joe’s stops later that day, I kept it simple with poached eggs and a virgin Bloody Mary. Jake ordered the Greek Florentine Omelet filled with lamb, feta, tomato, onions, spinach and topped with tzatziki sauce. I’m sure it’s no surprise his entrée was more exciting than mine and, so I kept stealing bites of his lamb. If you go to Joseph’s, try something with lamb.

Joseph's grill collage border Collage

All in all, everyone was satisfied with their first Joe meals. Our server was friendly and served with finesse, portions were large and we were full.

My mother-in-law broached lunch at Joe Senser’s on the drive home and nobody bit. “What about if we just stop there for appetizers before dinner,” she asked? We groaned and arrived at the group consensus to strike on less “Joe restaurant” from the itinerary.

And then there was Joe’s Crab Shack. My first thought was that Joe’s Crab Shack looks like a space ship. Or at least, something can could be seen from space.

Joe's outside

The interior of the restaurant is as festive as the exterior. Bright lights, tropical stuff mounted on the walls and even an in-store gift shop.

Joe’s Crab Shack doesn’t waste time with napkins. Each table receives a big roll of paper towels. I was in the restroom when our server introduced himself and reacted with confusion when I noticed the roll. “Who the hell is Andrew and why is his name written on a paper towel?” I asked, before it dawned on me.

Paper Towels watermarked

Andrew did a great job taking care of our table. Joe’s is located near Northwestern College & Bethel. Many of the restaurants in this part of Roseville employ students from these colleges.

Because we were celebrating a special occasion, one of Jake’s brothers treated us to a variety of appetizers. My favorite items were the crispy hush puppies which arrived in a metal bucket along with ranch dressing. It can’t be hip to enjoy ranch as much as I do.

And then there were the drinks. A few people ordered the Category 5 Hurricane, a cocktail with a disclaimer. The menu states that each customer may only order two which is a good rule because the drink’s not only goblet sized, but strong. Plus, there’s no telling what might happen if a drunken brawl erupted at Joe’s. There are just too many mason jars and pointy marlin fish on the walls for anyone to be safe.

hurricane waternarjed

On the other hand, my margarita was weak. I know this to be true because I am the epitome of a lightweight and if I can’t feel a cocktail it’s weaksauce.

Those of us who ordered crab experienced a moment of surprise when servers approached our table to tie paper bibs around our necks. Mine said Hottest Legs Around. I could not complain because at least it wasn’t decorated with an STD joke. The rest of the bibs said things too ridiculous to mention here (nod to Marilyn Hagerty with my use of the word ridiculous).

“Help,” scream my eyes.

Bib watermarked

Of course Jake and I ordered crab at Joe’s Crab Shack. We split a Classic Steampot for two.

I was delighted that our steampot contained two, separate, perfectly symmetrical mesh bags because it meant we wouldn’t have to fight over halfies. Each contained two queen crab leg clusters, a handful of shrimp, one ear of corn, halved red potatoes, and a sausage.

Crab Pot watermarked
Customers can choose from six different flavor options for steamed seafood, but we kept it simple with Old Bay. If you want drawn butter with your crab, you have to request it. Joe’s serves it in small plastic cups that cool quickly into solid masses. I did not let this slow me down.

Jake ate slowly and avoided the “filler” items, hoping I’d leave him some crab. He waited in vain as I ate every single thing in my bag.

Crab Remains photo

The crab legs weren’t particular meaty, but tasted fresh enough, unlike crab legs I’ve ordered at similar (and nicer) establishments that reeked of ammonia. I assumed the sausage would be a bland filler, but found it to have a pleasant snap and flavorful spicing.

And then my father-in-law turned into a bird.

Chain restaurant birthday rituals are their own strange bird. They always seem to involve things like balloons, marching in single file lines, clapping, and singing and this was no exception. Joe’s took the restaurant birthday thing one step further by dressing Joe up as a bird with a styrofoam beak and wings and encouraging him to flap around the dining room. I don’t know if my memory of this incidient is hazy from too many sips of Jake’s Hurricane or a possible retreat into my happy place, but I have this picture so it must have happened.

Bird watermarked

My father-in-law was a great sport.

Joe wasn’t the only birthday boy in the shack. Shortly after, staff led another birthday charge. While they didn’t give the next birthday boy the royal bird treatment, they showered him with a procession of singing and clapping. A birthday celebration at Joe’s Crab Shack is perfect for those who want everyone to know it’s their birthday or tolerate mild form of public humiliation. Everyone else will want to die.

At the end of the evening, Joe declared that this was his favorite birthday of all time. 

The zany restaurant crawl was not made in vain and we could feel confident our dirty-joke bibs were worn with honor. The weekend served its purpose to celebrate Joe and launch him into his 61st year surrounded by family. Someone else’s birthday is never really about us, anyway.

Is Joe’s Crab Shack for everyone? Probably not. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a darn good time.

A Surprise Birthday Party & Third-Life Lessons

This year I was honest about my age. Mostly honest.

I did try to blow out the candles on Gabe’s cake that said 25, but other than that.

My in-laws planned a surprise party for my brother-in-law and I at their house in East St. Paul. If there’s anything you should know about my mother-in-law, it’s that she has a long, sordid history with popping surprise parties on people. She absolutely loves throwing surprise parties. The boys literally grew up with a childhood full of surprise parties for themselves and everyone else, so it’s their norm. Gary Chapman might as well add throwing surprise parties to his five love languages.

Anyway, they really did plan one heck of a party and we were honored to see so many of our family and friends.

Happy Birthday

There were margaritas and a feast of tacos and enchiladas from Acapulco. And cheese sauce. Lots and lots of cheese sauce. I knew we had an epic weekend when I had trouble finding clothes for the ride back home not splattered with queso.

I was especially taken with the “Jennifer book” my folks made for my birthday. It was both touching and hilarious.

Birthday Book Collage

So much tie dye and even a Blossom hat. I never did inherit my mom’s love of gardening, but I have fond memories of helping her tend the church’s, which was sadly paved into a parking lot.

This might be my favorite page.

Does anyone else remember attending a birthday party or school field trip at the Diamond T Ranch in Apple Valley, MN? 

Watermark fun page

So I’m 30. Probably not an age traditionally associated with sharing words of wisdom, but I’ve made enough mistakes to dispense a few pearls. We’ll see what I come up with in the next 30 years, but, for now, I’ll continue to work on these:

Learn How To Say No: I lived for 24 years unaware of my choices and that I could say no. I’ll never forget when someone I looked up to asked me why I considered everyone else’s feelings more important than my own and that changed my life. With practice, I now feel freer to say no and it’s very liberating.

Of course, I don’t want to say no all of the time; sometimes we do need make sacrifices to help others and attend certain events, but we should be aware of why we’re saying yes or no. Also, saying yes doesn’t equate writing someone a blank check. We can still say yes with boundaries and we don’t necessarily owe others explanations for our choices.

Don’t Burn Bridges. Not with people, not with companies. With few exceptions, how can we be 100% sure that we won’t ever need to cross them again?

Overestimate & Over-Insure: If you plan to purchase a fixer-upper house, gather estimates on the work that needs to be done and double them.

Forgive Yourself. Why do we find it easier to forgive other people than ourselves? Apologize to those you’ve hurt and give yourself a break.

Say Yes To Wanderlust. If you are like me and feel that restless urge to explore new places and veer from the beaten path, give in. Wanderlust has taken me on some of my greatest adventures.

Step Outside Of Your Comfort Zone: I’m an introvert who prefers one-to-one interactions, but I’ve learned that good things can happen when I step outside of my comfort zone. Sometimes it’s necessary to be the one that puts the effort into driving to a new place or attending an event of which you don’t know the other attendees. My friend Sara speaks from experience in her blog post Stepping Outside of Your Comfort Zone when she writes, “It’s up to you to make things happen in your life, nobody else can do it for you.”  She’s absolutely right.

Meet people online: I am a child of the 90’s when we first started chatting with people online and meeting them was initially considered dangerous. The first time I met people online was in 2008 at Qoraxlow, a Somali restaurant, where I attended a Chowhound meetup. This experience was exciting and slightly scary, but I had a blast trying new foods with new people.

Social media interactions have connected me with real life opportunities to meet people I wouldn’t have met in my day-to-day interactions and helped me become more outgoing and confident. I even met my husband online. [Of course, it goes without saying that one should always exercise common sense].

From my experience, social media friendships have always translated to real life friendships. I’ve had the time of my life exploring Iowa with a new group of friends that I met online.

Accept Food Hospitality: I’ve always looked up to Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. If you watch their television shows you’ll notice how they always accept the food hospitality from others, unless it poses a serious health risk. People put their hearts and souls into their cooking. That brownie or casserole isn’t just a snack, it’s someone’s pride and joy. Or possibly an attempt to welcome or nurture. Food has the amazing ability to bring people together and build bridges. When someone offers you a gesture of food hospitality, consider accepting it, or at least take a small bite.

Be Wary Of Extremes And Work With Those Who Demonstrate Kindness: During college, I got caught up in choosing sides and surrounding myself primarily with those who held the same religious and political beliefs. It’s not that I don’t hold values anymore, but feel that my life is richer now that I’ve broadened my interactions to people of differing viewpoints. Those who cling to extremes often set themselves up for failure, as extremes leave little room for hypocrisy.

Anthony Bourdain said, “I don’t have to agree with you to like or respect you” and I’ve adopted it as one of my mantras.

I love seeing people find their passions and 100% support the act of advocating for what we believe is good and just. I just don’t believe any cause gives someone permission to be mean. After watching people on every side of every food issue throw stones at each other, I made my rule short and sweet: I’m open to collaborating with people who treat others with respect.

Ask For Help & Don’t Be Upset With Others For Not Having The Ability To Read your Mind: Take the time to figure out what you need and what you want. And remember there isn’t anyone in the whole world who doesn’t need support to get through difficult times. I struggle with asking for help, so I try to remind myself that if the tables were turned and a friend asked me for help, I would want to be there in a heartbeat. I would never look down on a friend for asking for or consider them weak, so why would I expect a friend to respond to me any differently?

Do What Makes You Feel Alive: Because life’s too short. When I tune in to activities and people who make me feel alive, I have an easier time making decisions and find myself saying “I don’t know” less often. I feel most alive when I seek new experiences and travel to new places (even if they aren’t very far away), walk my dog, and spend time with people who make me feel comfortable being myself.

What lessons have taken you your whole life to learn? What experiences or people you feel truly alive?

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