Ah yes, a brown holiday season, but still chilly. Not Minnesota at its finest, I must say. Yes, I'm still hoping against hope for some of the white stuff (and I started to type "shite stuff") before Christmas rolls around.
But, if you have to be out and about, and you're cold, and it's Friday or Saturday, can I make a recommendation? Stop by Quang on Eat Street. You can start with this, if you're really hungry:
Fresh spring rolls with shrimp, pork and vegetables. Yum.
But they won't warm you up, even though they'll make you happy. No, what you need is this:
Bun Ca Kieng Giang--or sea bass and shrimp noodle soup, served only on weekends. I've heard so many people rave about this sea bass soup, but either I haven't been in the 'hood on a Friday or Saturday, or the weather was warm and I didn't want soup. So when I recently found myself nearby with time to spare, an appetite, and bundled up against the cold, I decided to check it out.
The fact that the menu lists it at "market price" gave me pause; I asked what the day's price was, and it was $13. For a bowl of soup. Still, sea bass is expensive, so I splurged.
You know what? Worth every damn penny. The bowl is huge, so I took home half, along with half a spring roll. There was a surprisingly good amount of sea bass in the soup, and oh my, it was so good. So good. It just melted in my mouth, and gave the broth a wonderfully warm and comforting flavor, not at all fishy. I did eat all the sea bass while at Quang, as I wasn't sure how it would reheat. The broth and noodles reheated most excellently, and a little dash of Sriracha sauce livened it up even more.
Minneapolis Holidazzle Dec. 15-18 Truly a parade of lights, with life-size fairy tale characters decked out in splendid lit-up costumes. Allow extra time for traffic and parking, and if you’re planning on dining before or after, make reservations.
Scandia Annie’s Swedish Jul Coffee Party Dec. 17 A three-course Swedish coffee party, with the opportunity to learn about Swedish Christmas traditions, at the Gammelgarden Museum.
St. Paul Hill House Holidays Dec. 17-18 Costumed actors portray servants at the lavish James J. Hill House, giving living history tours from both “upstairs/downstairs” perspectives. The house alone is well worth a visit, but when you add in holiday ambience, you’ve got an extra special tour.
Duluth Holiday Brunch at Glensheen Dec. 17-18 Enhance a tour of the gorgeous Glensheen estate with a festive brunch, complete with wassail toast.
St. Paul Victorian Christmas Stories Dec. 18 Experience the ambiance of the fully decorated James J. Hill House while enjoying costumed actors doing holiday readings from Mark Twain, O. Henry, Willa Cather, and of course, Charles Dickens.
Clancey's naturally raised beef burger with one of four options--in this case, bacon and cheddar.
Oh, this--I will so badly miss this. A sandwich of Fischer Farm ham, spicy giardiniera, garlic aoli, and Jarlsberg cheese.
Not to mention those homemade potato chips that come with both sandwiches with that perfect blend of crisp and grease.
And how about a perfectly poured Surly Dark?
Not to mention the spicy pork in adobo. Or the zesty tuna melt. Or the cornmeal-crusted walleye sandwich. Speaking of which, I hear I'm going to be sad I never had the chance to try the Friday night fish fries. And I haven't even mentioned the soups yet. Or the desserts.
What's making me sad? That this place has lost its lease and is closing on Dec. 31:
Cafe 28 in Linden Hills. If you haven't been, you have just over two weeks to do so. And as you can see, you might need to make several trips.
The holiday jollity continues for the week of Dec. 8-14.
St. Paul A Victorian Christmas at the Ramsey House Dec. 8-11, 14 How did the Ramseys celebrate Christmas? This is the time to find out. And hey—your tour includes cookies baked in the home’s wood-fired stove.
Stillwater Holiday Lights Tour Dec. 8 Take a guided limo tour of the best-dressed homes and B&Bs in Stillwater, followed by dinner. Reservations recommended.
St. Paul A Christmas Memory Dec. 8-9 Visit the James J. Hill House and witness the beloved Truman Capote story performed by a reader’s theater, including music and a tour of the house. Reservations recommended.
Minneapolis Holidazzle Dec. 9-12 Truly a parade of lights, with life-size fairy tale characters decked out in splendid lit-up costumes. Allow extra time for traffic and parking, and if you’re planning on dining before or after, make reservations.
St. Cloud 9th Annual Winter Nights & Lights Parade Dec. 10 Bring your camp chairs and a thermos of cocoa, and usher in the holiday season with Santa and the Grinch. Stores open for your shopping pleasure.
Sandstone Sandstone Ice Festival Dec. 9-11 Chili cook-off, nature walks, winter camping, fireworks, lighted ice climbing in the quarry (training provided), gear swap, and skijoring. These people know how to make the best of winter.
Red Wing Holiday Celebration of the Arts Dec. 10 Check out Red Wing’s Anderson Center for this 10th anniversary of this celebration, showcasing more than 60 artists with studio tours, demonstrations, and readings.
Scandia Annie’s Swedish Jul Coffee Party Dec. 10 A three-course Swedish coffee party, with the opportunity to learn about Swedish Christmas traditions, at the Gammelgarden Museum. Reservations required.
Lucia Dagen Dec. 11 Celebrate St. Lucia Day the Scandinavian way at the Gammelgarden Museum. Arrive early for church, followed by a Swedish breakfast bord and St. Lucia Day program.
Duluth Holiday Brunch at Glensheen Dec. 10-11 Enhance a tour of the gorgeous Glensheen estate with a festive brunch, complete with wassail toast. Reservations recommended.
Hastings Victorian Holidays Dec. 10-11 Take in a holiday-themed tour of the beautiful and historic LeDuc House.
Elk River Christmas on the Farm Dec. 10-11 Explore the historic Kelley Farm with a 75-minute guided tour with hike and horse- or oxen-drawn bobsled or wagon ride. Reservations required.
St. Paul Hill House Holidays Dec. 10-11 Enjoy a tour of the James J. Hill House, provided by actors portraying servants of the period, telling stories gleaned from actual Hill House documents.
Once There Were Castles by Larry Millett. Oh, what a luxuriously gorgeous book this is. It'd be a shame to classify it as either history or architecture, because for many people (um, me) that might make it sound dry. Instead, this is a sumptuous, wallow-around-in-it kind of book, especially if you're a fan of old-style mansions from long ago. I am; I love any excuse to drive along Summit Avenue in St. Paul and various spots in Minneapolis, seeing the grand dames of great days gone by. But I never realized how many more there were, once upon a time, until I had a chance to peruse this coffee-table-sized book.
Author Millett has done considerable research, learning about these lost mansions, who they belonged to, and why they're gone. It's not always a case of "knock down the house to build something modern." Sometimes houses were torn down to build even bigger houses; sometimes they were moved when owners decided to use that particular piece of property for other reasons, such as commercial.
Plus there are the architectural oddities: who knew that octagon-shaped houses were once in fashion?
But this book is really enhanced by the photographic evidence. Those of my readers who have been to Seven Corners in St. Paul, does this look even remotely familiar?
Look carefully--towards the back, you can see the beginning of mansions on the bluffs.
How's this for a ballroom, in the Gillette House, formerly of Minneapolis:
I think it's safe to say that the corner of 39th and Bryant Ave So in Minneapolis doesn't look a thing like this anymore.
This is a lovely book, not one you sit down and read straight through, but one you're proud to have on display and can dip into any time you need a break from current times. It's ideal for people interested in local history or people anywhere interested in long-gone home architecture, or for anyone who just likes to imagine life long ago.
My thanks to the University of MN Press for sending me a review copy.
At first I wasn't sure I should mention this book, because the author is a friend of mine. Maybe it looks suspect when I say it's her best book yet (and I've liked all her other books), even though I really do mean it, and anyone who's talked to me about it in person knows I rave about it.
Breadcrumbs is a lovely story inspired by the Snow Queen tale of Hans Christian Anderson. Hazel lives with her divorced mother in frugal circumstances, but she doesn't care, as long as she's still friend with Jack, her best friend since they were six. Jack has some family issues of his own--his mother is sinking deeper and deeper into depression, and both kids are subject to taunting at school. But as long as Jack is her friend, Hazel can cope.
Then one day Jack suddenly wants nothing to do with Hazel anymore. There was no fight, no clear issue. Even though Hazel's mom tries to tell her that this is what happens when boys and girls who are friends reach the age of eleven, Hazel is heartbroken and doesn't believe it. As it turns out, she's right to put faith in Jack: unbeknownst to any of the grownups, Jack has had his heart frozen and has been spirited away to live in an ice palace, deep in the woods.
When Hazel learn what's happened, she is determined that she must save him, no matter how difficult the journey may be. Because that's what friends do for each other: they know the truth about each other, and they will do whatever it takes.
Like the books I talked about yesterday, the magic of this story is tempered with its grounding in reality. There's a wry look at the way adults interact with kids, such as when Hazel's mom decides to have a teachable moment regarding the scientific makeup of snowflakes:
"People were always doing this sort of thing to Hazel. Nobody could accept that she did not want to hear about gaseous balls and layers of atmosphere and refracted light and tiny building blocks of life. The truth of things was always much more mundane than what she could imagine, and she did not understand why people always wanted to replace the marvelous things in her head with this miserable heap of you're-a-fifth-grader-now facts."
Hazel's journey to find the ice palace and rescue Jack is fraught with danger, and she also meets up with various fairy-tale characters. Even in this hallucinatory place, there is a correlation with reality:
"She had stepped into the woods in the park and landed in an entirely different place. She knew this might happen. She'd been to Narnia, Wonderland, Hogwarts, Dictionopolis. She had tessered, fallen through the rabbit hole, crossed the ice bridge into the unknown world beyond. Hazel knew this world. And it should have made this easier.
"But it did not."
Beautifully written, haunting, wistful--this is a good one not just for middle-grade readers, but for everyone.
Let's talk about those middle-grade and young-adult readers now. Especially boys. Minnesota seems to have an affinity for writers creating stories for these ages, and I say, keep it up. We need more books for boys to read.
Kurtis Scaletta's newest novel, The Tanglewood Terror, is every bit as fun and engaging as its cover makes it out to be. Thirteen-year-old Eric's family life is disintegrating, with Dad wanting to reclaim his lost youth as a musician, leaving his family behind in Maine to pursue his passion in Boston. When Eric and his younger brother Brian discover glowing mushrooms growing in the woods behind their home, it seems odd and unsettling--especially when the mushrooms continue to grow at an unearthly pace, crawling across yards and up the sides of houses overnight and covering the town's football field in short order. And yet, the townspeople don't seem as worried about it as Eric is--or as worried as runaway Mandy is. Together, she and Eric struggle to learn what's behind this menacing, glowing growth.
What I really liked about this book (besides the fun plot and brotherly interplay) is that, for all its supernatural occurrences, the book is rooted firmly in the real world. Family problems; issues at school; fear of Halloween haunted houses--these are all very real and obviously have a huge impact on kids. Adding the creeping (and creepy) mushrooms underscores Eric and Mandy's realities.
The same could be said of this book.
The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill. How great is that cover?? And yes, it fits the story. I love this novel's epigraph: "There is no utter truth or utter falsehood in this world. There is only mostly. Which part of mostly you choose to accept, well, that much is up to you."
Jack's family is falling apart. His parents are splitting up, and he's become nearly invisible to them. To make things easier (for them, not for Jack), they're shipping him off to his aunt and uncle in Hazelwood, Iowa. Could things possibly get any worse?
Well, yes. There's Clayton Avery, the town bully. And Clayton's father, who is every bit as bad--and maybe worse--than Clayton. But there's also Wendy and Anders, and his peculiar aunt and uncle who nevertheless seem to like him--at least he's not invisible anymore. But with weird, unsettling things happening at his aunt and uncle's house, and a mysterious deserted schoolhouse with decidedly unusual properties, maybe being invisible isn't so bad after all.
Like The Tanglewood Terror, the supernatural elements in The Mostly True Story of Jack serve to underscore the all-too-real things that are happening to Jack and his friends. Kids will enjoy the books, a but don't rule out grown-ups reading them too, with a different appreciation.