Sunday, July 31, 2011

Best. Dinner. Ever.

We've spent a lot--even too much--on foodie dining this year, but nothing beats the private "underground" dining experience we had Saturday night at One Sister chef Iliana Regan's apartment. Josh recruited 3 other couples from among our food-loving friends, and the 8 of us were joined by 2 other couples at a square table for 12, cordoned off from the living room by a curtain. The dinner started at 8 and went on well past midnight, but I felt like it flew by. Surrounded my many of my favorite people, drinking amazing wine and experiencing over a dozen delicious dishes--each one unlike anything I've ever eaten before, many originating in either the chef's backyard garden or family farm in Indiana... it will go down as one of the best, most memorable nights of my life.

And the most amazing thing? The price tag. It was just $90 per person plus gratuity and another $35 or so per couple for the wine Jay picked out at a wine store familiar with One Sister's menu.
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Sunday, July 24, 2011

A love letter to my community

There I was this afternoon, sitting with my daughters in the front row of the Oak Park River Forest High School theatre for the final production of "Annie." The orphans on stage and orchestra members in the pit below were belting out "It's a Hard Knock Life," and tears were pouring down my cheeks.

I was overcome, not by the sad lives of Depression-era orphans in New York City, but by how much eye-popping talent surrounds my children and how much I love the community in which we are raising them.
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Yesterday was our annual summer block party. It was a more laid-back affair than in years' past because the self-proclaimed block captain was on vacation. At her request, I organized the dinner, and it was a success, with 6 banquet tables full of people chowing down on hamburgers, mini Vienna Beef hot dogs and a smorgasbord of side dishes.

The kids ran free, playing with their neighborhood friends from 2 until I finally hustled them home and hosed them off in the backyard around 8. And you know what they were doing when I finally located them and took them home? They were in a neighbor's basement. A was playing with one of her best friends and Z was playing hand clap games with a circle of 8th graders, one of whom is a regular babysitter of ours. It warms my heart to know that in a world of Facebook bullies and girls growing up too fast, my kids are getting exposed to good-hearted, multi-talented teenagers they can look up to and adults who immediately rallied to find a missing Dad.

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After "Annie," we drove straight to another neighbor's house. Unfortunately this family is moving west, but they were hosting one last party in their beautiful home. One more opportunity to gather friends and neighbors for stories, laughter and wine. Another last chance to watch our children race around in loose packs, roughly divided by age and gender, but with a lot of overlap. While A and her BFF were inseparable (and looking remarkably like twins with their wavy brown hair, brown eyes and tanned skin), wild-haired Z was off playing ball in the alley with a group of boys.

I was fortunate to have the worldly upbringing of a Foreign Service child, but in many ways I feel like my children are luckier. They are growing up in tight-knit community where they run into classmates at the library, fellow gymnasts at the park, neighbors at the pool, and our family doctor at the farmers' market. My childhood was one of intermittent loneliness and feeling left out, and while I know that friendships will wax and wane and school yard drama is probably in their not-so-distant future, so far my girls feel like great friends live around every single corner.
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I'm cheating here--this was actually Thursday night

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Which wich is be-wichingly clever

The best compliment one marketing creative can give to another? The jealous feeling of "Damn, I wish I did that."

You may profess, as many of my non-marketing friends do, that you "don't care about marketing and signage and all that branding nonsense," but you're probably lying. Overall, Americans have become more appreciative of design in recent years. We want the products we use and the places we go to  have a personality and a nice aesthetic. Is anyone mourning the loss of the old, cluttered, dimly lit McDonald's restaurants?

Anyway, my go-to lunchtime sandwich joint has long been Potbelly, which has the whole rustic chalkboard with a side of live music thing going on. But I was intrigued by the arrival of Which Wich to Block 37 and headed out for a brief walk in the heat to give them a try today.

So glad I did. Not only do I love all of the choices and customization options, I like the whole setup. Mark up a paper sandwich bag using a red Sharpie, pay, and watch as your bag slides along a clothesline from prepped to finished. Actually, it is tough to tell which bag is yours because the marked-up side faces the sandwich-makers. Next time I'll doodle on the back before I turn it in so I can see how close my tasty buffalo shrimp sandwich with blue cheese, buffalo sauce, ranch dressing, lettuce and tomato is to ready. If you can't visit a location, their website does an excellent job of mimicking all of the shop's key components: the bags, the clothespins, the bold "hand-crafted" yellow and black iconography.

Incidentally, while I'd ordered my sandwich "untoasted," the guy behind the counter accidentally toasted it and begged for my forgiveness and patience while he made another. I told him it really didn't matter, toasted sounded good to me (and it was), but he pushed a free drink on me as compensation.

Incidentally, Which Wich encourages back of bag doodles and displays them in store.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Behind the scenes at Sprinkles

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I was on a conference call today, explaining to a client what drives word-of-mouth. One of the keys to creating buzz about a brand is offering something worth talking about. If you give shoppers a sneak peek at something new or exclusive access, they can't help but want to talk about it. Think about it: no one wants to be the fifth person to recommend a cute cupcake bakery to our friends ... If we can't be one of the first, we probably won't make a point of bringing it up in conversation.

Sprinkles, the Beverly Hills cupcake bakery that arguably began the cupcake craze, opened its Chicago location in the Gold Coast last year. While it's as delicious as ever, it's no longer new. So it was a stroke of genius for the bakery to host an in-kitchen cupcake and Champagne reception for local mom bloggers. We headed back, behind the counter and through the kitchen doors to an immaculate work space where dozens upon dozens of cupcakes are mixed, baked and frosted.

Our hosts were the Sprinkles founders Charles and Candace Nelson (you may recognize her from the Food Network show Cupcake Wars). My co-worker Laura and I got to taste their cupcakes, try our hand at frosting one ourselves and talk to Candace about her business, her life and her inspiration. It turns out the couple were victims of the early 2000s dot-com bubble. She got laid off, went to pastry school and decided they should open a bakery. Candace lives in LA, is mom to a 4 year old and an 8 month old, and somehow balances parenting with a TV show and her growing cupcake empire.

Having turned out so many no-so-pretty cupcakes for A's birthday party last weekend, I asked how they managed to make all of the cupcakes exactly the same size. She said they use an instrument that's basically the size of an ice cream scoop, but that a city's heat and humidity affect how much batter they need and how long it needs to be baked. "We're always making adjustments."

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I went home with a small box of cupcakes and shared them with my favorite foodie. "Don't take this the wrong way," Josh said, "but these are really good. I like them better than your cupcakes."

Sprinkles cupcakes retail for $3.50 each, which is pricey. But the ingredients are top-notch and the taste is incredible. If I had to pick my favorites, I'd say the Key Lime, the Salty Caramel, and the Vanilla.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The birthday party

"It's really fun being 4." That was the last thing A said before falling asleep tonight, and that's not surprising given the awesome day she's had.

It started with an early morning birthday gift scavenger hunt (a tradition I started on Z's 5th birthday) and ended with a girls-only dinner at Duckfat (Josh was rocking/broiling at Pitchfork) and an outdoor bath in the kiddie pool. In between there were chocolate-chip pancakes, finger and toenail painting time, a date with Mommy (we rode my bike to Red Hen and split a scone) and her much-anticipated birthday party at the River Forest Community Center (the same place we celebrated Z's 4th birthday).

Although the party had more than its share of wild older boys and bratty little girls (including one who said "I can't believe there isn't any pizza. That's weird."), the kids had a great time and no one got injured.

Oh, and the 36 vanilla cupcakes I'd made and frosted with purple buttercream Friday afternoon were delicious (if not as Martha Stewart-beautiful) as I'd hoped.


You can see all the photos here

A's previous birthday parties
A budget friendly birthday party in Berwyn
Cupcakes rule
Mmm... cake

Friday, July 15, 2011

Happy 4th Birthday, A

Longwood GardensDear A,
You've grown and changed so much in the last year, but you're still very much my affectionate little girl with her flair for the dramatic.

You've grown taller and your hair's grown longer and you've lost your baby chub, but you're still a peanut according to the AAP (you measure in the 5th percentile for height and the 25th for weight.

You've always been loud and dramatic and you figured out how to make believe at a young age, tagging along as a willing participant in your big sister's imaginary games, but now it's so much more intense. You can entertain yourself for 90 minutes all by yourself, and when others are around you, it seems every sentence that comes out of your mouth starts with "Let's pretend..." Only you pronounce it "pee-tend." Just this month I've watched you pee-tend to be animals (snakes, cats, and lions), a princess, an evil stepmother, a mean mommy, a nice mommy, a babysitter and a baby.

Longwood Gardens
Your relationship with your big sister Z has become more complicated. While you still look up to her and want her as your constant playmate, you can't resist pestering her with a poke or a kick or a "what's that supposed to mean?" I thought it wasn't something you could help, but then I heard you advising another younger sibling "If she won't talk to you, you should annoy her."

This year was full of firsts for you. You started Montessori school, gymnastics and art classes and nurtured a large circle of friends--mostly girls. You can identify all the letters in the alphabet, count up to 20 and perform some very basic addition and subtraction. You can tell by the sound of the word what letter it begins with and you can spell some basic words on your own. You love to be given jobs, whether it is making my bed, grinding the coffee beans or pouring your own milk into your cereal. Nothing makes you more upset that hearing your sister swoop in to give the answer you're still formulating.

And you're brave! Without a tear in your eye, you yanked up your shorts for a shot at the doctor's office. You'll jump into the pool and go right underwater. You loved the thrill rides at Dutch Wonderland and would have willingly gotten on the large roller coaster had you been tall enough. You're not afraid of strangers ("Bad guys are just pretend," you've told me) or new situations, but flies, bees and spiders freak you out.
But the most you part of your personality is your outgoing nature. You'll strike up a conversation with anyone. Similarly-sized kids on the playground, your friends' parents, grandparents, the cashiers at Trader Joe's, doctors, dentists, babysitters and neighbors have heard your anecdotes, many of which you plunge right into without too much context. "We're growing sunflowers in our back yard. Come and see," you'll say to our next door neighbors as you grab them by the hand and lead them past the grill and into our back yard. "We're having burgers and pineapple on the grill. With big pretzel buns! Do you like hamburgers? We're growing so many things in our garden."

I remember loving age 4 with Z. I can't wait to see what you will bring to the coming year.

Happy 3rd Birthday, A
Happy 2nd Birthday, A
Happy 1st Birthday, Baby A

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

About those little baggies of pre-cut apples

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A, eating a bag of pre-sliced Crunch Pak apples
You heard it here first: pre-sliced apples are the new baby carrots.

As most people know by now, baby carrots are really ugly carrots cleaned and shaved down to a handy snack size.  Their popularity took carrots out of the so-called "drawer of death" and onto appetizer platters and packed lunches. Now, to maintain momentum, one of the biggest carrot sellers in America is trying to market them like junk food. You can see some of their efforts at

Now while carrots might be a popular produce item, I'm fairly confident in stating that apples are pretty much Americans' favorite fruit or vegetable (not including the french fried potato). And unlike traditional carrots, which require scrubbing/peeling and cutting for maximum enjoyment and portability, the regular old apple is pretty darn convenient. I typically rinse an apple (Honey Crisp is my favorite) under running water, wrap it in a napkin and pop it in my lunch bag.

But kids. They want a sliced apple. And they want those slices as white and crispy as the moment they were cut. The apple processing company Crunch Pak figured out how to cut, preserve and bag fresh apple slices years ago, and they've made it big selling their processed fresh produce product (how's that for a mouthful) to McDonald's and other fast food restaurants.

As a mom, I'm delighted to be able to choose apple slices instead of fresh fries, but I've held off on buying pre-sliced apples for home use. It just seemed like such a luxury. I can hear my own mother's voice saying "Just sprinkle a little lemon juice on the slices and pop them in a baggie. That's what I did and it was good enough for you."

Well you know what? I tried that and my daughter sent back the whole bag, uneaten. "It's brown and slimy," she complained.

But Crunch Pak apples? I've offered them as a snack at home, on a bike ride and in her packed lunch, and each time my 3 1/2 year old has eaten every last slice. You see, I was sent some free samples of Crunch Pak's new Disney-licensed line, and while A only showed a passing interest in the Cars 2 characters on her apple baggies, she went nuts for the Mickey Mouse-shaped snack pack with apples, cheddar cheese cubes and baby pretzels.

And the most I thought about it, the more I realized that by buying pre-sliced apples (or baby carrots, for that matter), I'm not paying a premium for fresh produce--I'm using convenience food funds that might otherwise pay for chips and crackers for something with equal kid appeal and a lot more nutritional value.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Interview with an (almost) 4 year old

On the MetrobusIn honor of A's approaching birthday, I conducted a casual interview over dinner.

What's your favorite color? My best favorite is dark purple.
What's your favorite animal? Unicorn.
Your favorite TV show? "Arthur."
What about your favorite thing to wear? Dress.
What's your birthday wish? A princess doll.
What do you like to do at school? Go outside.
What do you like to do at home? Dress up.
Who are your best friends? My bestest, bestest friend is Greta.
What do you want to be when you grow up? A mommy. Um, actually? A dentist.
Do you want to have children when you grow up? Uh, yeah.
How many children will you have? Five.
Boys or girls? One boy and four girls.
Pets? I am going to have a pet. A dog. Aren't you going to ask what my name is going to be when I grow up?
What will your name be? Tyna. What about what's my favorite thing to do at the pool? Play with toys.
What do you like about your Mommy? When I cuddle with you.
What do you like about your Daddy? When he lets me hug him.
And what do you like about your sister?  When she lets me kiss her. Ask about Oscar.
What do you like about Oscar? When he drinks water. What about birthday parties? Cake! No, wait, say cupcakes so that people know that I'm going to have cupcakes at my party.
Where are you going to live when you grow up? In Mexico. Will you visit me in Mexico? Maybe I'll be a grandma.
What's your favorite sport? Soccer, cause it's funner than basketball.
Is gymnastics more fun than soccer? I like both!
What would you like to do when you're four years old? I would like to ride in our bike trailer when we get it back.

Interview with an (almost) 6 year old
Interview with 4 year old Z

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Practically a second honeymoon

Josh and my 12th anniversary is tomorrow, but we've already celebrated. We paid one of our favorite babysitters, who is home from college for the summer, to watch the girls from 3:30 on Saturday until nearly noon on Sunday. Josh and I went into the city, where we checked into the Hotel Allegro.

Not only is the Allegro a charming hotel with a good location, they offer wine, sangria and snacks from 5-6pm and free coffee (and the Sunday New York Times) in the lobby in the morning. After getting acquainted with our small but luxurious room (a comfy bed and Aveda amenities for the win), we enjoyed our glasses of wine and walked east to State Street. We popped into Zara, where I bought Josh a new dress shirt and tie (his dressy wardrobe is very limited--not surprising for a SAHD kind of guy).

Our dinner reservations were at GT Fish and Oyster, an easy walk to River North. Since we hadn't called far enough in advance, our options were the communal table or the bar. Seeing a family with sippy cup-wielding kid at the former, we opted for the bar. Turned out to be a great choice as our bartender was friendly, knowledgeable, and easy on the eyes in a George Clooney kind of way. Also? The food and cocktails were delicious and they sent us a free cheesecake pannecotta for dessert.
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We walked around the downtown area, pausing over the bridge to gape at all the boaters--everything from posh party boats to speedboats full of sunburned families. We headed back to the hotel giddy with excitement and a sense that we were really getting away with something. After all, we didn't have to put anyone to bed! And no one was going to wake us up at 6am!

But the anniversary surprises didn't stop coming; we opened the door to our room and found a bottle of bubbly and a box of chocolates, courtesy of the management. I think I have the front desk guy to thank for that. He asked if we were checking in "for any special occasion," and I said "Yes, our anniversary." Both he and the bartender at GT looked surprised when we told them which anniversary we were celebrating. And I guess by today's standards I was something of a child bride.
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The next day was just as glorious. We slept in, read the newspaper and bused it over to The Publican, one of our very favorite restaurants (and scene of last year's anniversary) for their Sunday brunch. If you get there right at 10am, you can be seated right away (we got a choice table outside). There's also ample free parking there at that time.

The kids did just fine--they had so much fun, in fact, that they didn't want their sitter to leave.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

I paid for peace in the car

Hurray for happy travelers
Some may call it bribery, but I prefer the more corporate incentivizing. You see, on this last road trip I paid my kids $1 an hour for good behavior in the car. I started halfway through the outbound trip and only rewarded them for car rides lasting more than 1 hour, but they each made about $16 and I bought priceless peace for myself and Josh.

My hope was that the girls would save all of their dollars for a souvenir of some kind, but apparently money burns a hole in the pockets of the young. They would scan the displays at rest stop convenience stores, wide-eyed in wonder at all the items for sale. Z got to buy Gatorade (something I won't pay for) and sugar free gum and A treated herself to a box of animal crackers. Later they both sprung for single serve bags of Cheetos, a purchase they savored as they sucked the bright orange powder out from behind their fingernails.

In any case, I fully plan to make the road trip reward system a regular feature of our trips. I won't get pestered by whining or fighting in the car (and asked to buy junk every time we stop) and they can indulge themselves silly...or (hopefully) learn the value of a dollar saved.

Monday, July 04, 2011

My fancy china

First we bought the big dining room table, and then we got a buffet. Now we've got the china to put put both to use! My mom's been after me to take her Royal Doulton wedding china for years [oops, turns out she didn't have wedding china; this was purchased by my mom in 1979], but until this road trip, we'd had no way of getting the service for 12 from Virginia to Illinois.

I just unpacked the dishes, which have been in storage for years--probably at least since I was in high school. And only one dish (a salad plate) was broken.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Dutch Wonderland, my new favorite amusement park

We've been mourning the loss of Kiddieland, but a visit to Lancaster's Dutch Wonderland earlier this week gave us the dose of tame amusement park rides we've been missing. We met up with my high school BFF Franny and her family, who were visiting family in Harrisburg, and together we went from 5:30 until the 8:30 closing, taking full advantage of our discounted "twilight" tickets (along with--hold on to your yarmulkes--what appeared to be an entire Orthodox Jewish congregation).
A proved quite the daredevil, going on every ride she was tall enough to board--even riding in the front car of the roller coaster with her tiny hands up. Z preferred the swings, riding them 3 times in a row. (One of the advantages of going at the end of the day is that there are no lines and the worn out attendants are perfectly happy to let kids just stay on as long as they like.