Eatin’ Out in the ‘Hood

New Year’s Eve is not only a celebration of a new year for me. Well, really, the last time I got excited about a new year I was 13. I think after that I was too jaded to care.  So, it’s a good thing my wedding anniversary is on New Year’s Eve. This way, jaded ol’ me has something to celebrate. This is the 33rd, in case you are wondering.

So, what to do on the 33rd anniversary? It’s been a busy week and economically my choices lately are limited, so we went with a sort of different kind of eating out. We live in what I call the exciting part of town and I don’t like to be out too late on a – uh, drinking holiday – so we went to a seafood place about a mile from home.

I have to say I love this place. Not because it’s the best seafood around, although it’s not bad. It just has the coolest – in a different sort of way – atmosphere. Kinda’ gives me the feeling I’ve left the country without having to mess with airport security.

A lot of people came here from Vietnam after the War. This is a shrimping area and a lot of them went into the business. Then these little fast food seafood restaurants sprang up. This particular one is owned by a man who grew up here in this town. His family had a convenience store in this end of town when he was growing up, so he learned about running a business that way. His mom loved this country, and she wanted to open a shopping center with a washateria, and she wanted it in this neighborhood. To expand her business was her way of showing her appreciation for America. And for this end of town, which she said had been good to her and her family. Unfortunately, she became ill and died before she could follow through on her dream, so her son picked up the dream, and he has done it. He built a shopping center full of businesses, including a washateria. Some of the businesses are run by his family. The front of the shopping center is yellow with the names of the businesses in red. The owner is a Buddhist, and in the middle of the parking lot, he has a statue of Buddha, along with an American flag, a flag that was made for the shopping center, and the flag of South Vietnam. Oh, and flowers, too. Each year at Christmas, there are inflatable snowmen, and an inflatable Santa and his sleigh on the roof, along with other Christmas lights and decorations. The decorations are still up and it’s quite a sight at night with the spot lights on the flags and the Buddha.

So, this is where we got shrimp, oysters, fish, french fries, salad, a little white roll (these places always serve a little white roll that I think they all must buy from the same place), and two drinks for less than $25. Along with that we had ketchup, tartar sauce and Asian hot sauce. REALLY hot. All this was served in styrofoam boxes with compartments and plastic forks. I noticed they had new folks in the kitchen this time. And in this Asian-owned business, in a predominantly black neighborhood, there were Hispanic folks speaking Spanish in the kitchen. Oh, and we’re white. In the corner there’s a TV, and we got to listen to Sponge Bob Square Pants while we ate. Not that I’ve ever seen the show; it was just part of the whole experience.

When we walked in and ordered our food, our plan was to take it home and eat. But it wasn’t dark yet (that makes a difference around here) and I was just sort of overcome by soaking up the unusual cultural flavor of this place, so we stayed. My New Year’s/Anniversary celebration meal wasn’t exactly at the most upscale place, but I hardly think it could have been more interesting.

Note: The flag of South Vietnam was flown until April 30, 1975, when the country fell to the communists. Vietnamese immigrants still fly it. Wikipedia has a very interesting article on this at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_South_Vietnam

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Not the Usual Cat and Bird Sightings

It’s been an interesting week for wildlife around here. A big cat and an unusual bird were both sighted in the same week.

Day before yesterday my son looked down the street and saw a couple critters in my aunt’s yard. She lives across the street a couple houses or so down from us and next to the woods. The critter that was being followed is unidentified but the second one… My son thought he was looking at a cat but then realized it was too big to be a house cat so it must be a dog. No. Not a dog. Didn’t look like a dog. Sure is a big cat! He said it had a funny way of moving it’s tail and it disappeared behind my aunt’s car before he could tell what it was for sure. He went online and looked at videos of bob cats and it seems that is what he saw.

We have seen tracks over the years and when my son was a teenager, he and I made plaster casts of deer tracks and bob cat tracks. Apparently, the bob cat was trailing the deer. Bob cats will mark territory by scratching trees just like house cats do when they tear up the furniture. This sighting makes me want to go look for scratch marks. And all this happened the same day I learned that a chicken tractor doesn’t have to be big; it can be small enough for just a couple of hens.  I think I want to build one. For several years I’ve thought it would be cool to have my own chickens. I think bob cats like chickens.

Over the weekend I got reports of a humming bird at a feeder down the street and it wasn’t a Ruby-throated. The neighbors (who are also my parents) didn’t think it was a Rufous either. I had given up on having a Rufous and took my feeders down long ago but when I heard about this bird I put them both back out. It took a few days, but today he showed up at the feeder by the kitchen window. I quickly eliminated the usual suspects. When I got the binoculars I could plainly see a pinkish-orange bill. We have a bird here that is rarely seen in these parts! Three of us (my dad, our friend who is really good at this and I) have come to the same conclusion. We have a Buff-bellied hummingbird.  My dad has a better camera than I do so he plans to come down here and get some photos. The lighting isn’t working out at his house. If they turn out I’ll see if we can figure out how to put them on here so you can see them.

When I told my friend I also saw a Wilson’s warbler the other day at the edge of my yard by the woods, she said I really ought to sign up for ebird so I can report what I see. She said it’s free to do and not complicated. I’ll have to look into that.

So, one thing leads to another, and sometimes we’re led to some fun things, right? Look for cat scratches and sign up for ebird. I guess if I do build a little chicken tractor for my little garden I might have a bob cat in my own yard. That could be a problem.

Our Traditional Christmas Meal

This year I’m not up to making the traditional Christmas meal, but I was just looking at the cookbook that has my gumbo recipe. Gumbo is our tradition. Looking at the cookbook brought back memories.

I bought my cookbook at Don’s Seafood & Steakhouse one day when a friend and I had lunch there. The year was 1977, and I paid $1.95 for it. There are some good Creole recipes in this book and we like the Shrimp and Okra Gumbo. We only use fresh Gulf shrimp after trying that farm stuff and finding out it has no flavor whatsoever. I don’t think there’s enough crab boil in the world to help it either. I also make the roux according the cookbook directions.

Another thing we traditionally have is Key Lime pie. The recipe I use is not the real way it’s made with eggs, but it’s really fast using whipped topping, lime juice and condensed milk. I wondered why I stick to that recipe when the cooked one looks really good? I think the reason is tradition, and the recipe came from the same lady I was with when I bought the cookbook. I think of her every time I slice into the pie. Oh, I did make her pie today. It’s in the fridge waiting and we’ll dig in after tacos and tamales tomorrow.

There’s comfort in our traditions. I like being reminded of my friend. And I don’t think there’s a problem at all with food being a comfort to eat. I think it’s a gift from God that we ought to rightly use and enjoy. Funny how a friendship can influence a family for years.

Feeding and Watching Birds in December

Thought I’d give a little update for those of you who watch birds and like to keep up with what other folks have at their feeders. I’m in Southeast Texas, in case you are a new reader.

Finally, I have been seeing chickadees and tufted titmice at my feeders. I don’t know why their numbers had decreased for a time, but I’m glad to have them back. Sparrows are here in abundance. I’m still watching for white-throated sparrows because they come for winter but I haven’t seen any yet. We always have the bright red cardinals and, although not high numbers of them, I’m glad for even just a few. The blue jays have left and I miss them. They are so colorful and sassy. I think they are hilarious to watch as they practically yell to announce that they are coming to the feeder, and then they try to act like they own the whole place.

Yesterday and today I sat in my backyard for a bit to watch for warblers and other birds that don’t come to the feeders. I saw a Wilson’s warbler yesterday and another bird that I think was some type of vireo but I couldn’t get a good enough look at him. I also heard an owl in the woods both days. Someone out there is waking up early!

I’ll be glad when the gold finches show up. They are close, so it’s just a matter of time.

In case you wonder what I’m feeding everyone, it’s mostly black oil sunflower seed. I put out some mixed seed that has dried fruit and nuts in it, but no one at my feeders seems to be interested in dried fruit and nuts right now. This reminds me that next spring I want to put a feeder closer to the back of my yard near the woods to attract orioles. Orioles will eat dried fruit and nuts. They will also eat oranges and grape jelly. My husband saw an orchard oriole last spring in the woods, so there’s hope that we can draw at least one into the yard.

I make up suet blocks sometimes with shortening or lard, crunchy peanut butter, cornmeal, quick-cooking oatmeal, a little flour, mixed bird seed, raisins and if I have them, I’ll add other dried fruits. There are recipes for this at http://www.birdsandblooms.com. You don’t have to have all of those ingredients either. I feed more suet in the winter so the birds can get the extra calories to help them stay warm. In spring and summer, I occasionally put crushed egg shells (from boiled eggs) on the platform. The calcium is good for them because it helps to strengthen their own eggs shells.

If you are new to this, just set up a feeder in your yard and put out some black oil sunflower seed. That is all you need to get started as most birds like that seed. And you don’t need binoculars just to watch them at your feeder. You may be pleasantly surprised at who shows up in your yard. If you see a bird that you don’t recognize and you don’t have a field guide, http://www.enature.com has online field guides, including the songs of some birds. Happy birding!

Uncle Sam’s April Fool’s Joke

Remember the stimulus money that we got from the government in 2008? They wanted us to spend it in order to stimulate the economy, but most of us used it to pay off existing debt or saved it. Since we foiled their plan and did what made sense, this year they came up with a new plan. Remember that? On April 1, withholding was changed on our paychecks. If I remember correctly, they said the average person would have $20 less per week withheld for federal income tax than usual. The thinking was that if we got stimulus money in small increments we would not have the discipline to use it wisely. Uncle Sam wanted us to spend it.

I noticed the difference on my husband’s first paycheck in April. I saw a potential problem and I sure am glad I did. I figured that my paycheck was probably not considered when this was done. I was working on contract at the time and had to do my own withholding. So, I began to put what normally would have been kept out of my husband’s check into a  savings account, just in case. Later, we changed his status on his W-4 so they would take out more. I wasn’t sure what they would do if we owed a lot of money over a long period of time. They do have penalties for that, you know. And I could just see me having a huge argument with them.

Well, guess what? I got this little email from H&R Block the other day inviting us to go see them next year for our annual blood-letting. And guess what they said? Fifteen million taxpayers may have a surprise come next April because of less money being withheld from their paychecks. Seems like Washington’s little plan not only doesn’t take into account a contract paycheck that a spouse may have. It also doesn’t account for a second job that a person may have, or any other income a household may have.

It’s all going to hit the fan in 2010 when people start filing taxes. Some folks won’t get back as much as they usually do and some who always get money back will end up owing. So much for stimulus. And Happy April Fool’s Day to us, huh?

“Good Night. Have a Good Day.”

Last night I was talking with a friend on the phone who is a night owl. She asked if I am, too. I told her I used to be when I was young, but now it doesn’t matter much; I can sleep anywhere at any time.

I told her about one day when my husband and I were at the library. I was ready to go, but he was still looking at books or music or something, so I sat down on a couch to wait. I got sleepy waiting and closed my eyes and fell asleep. I was awakened by a lady who was pacing the floor a few feet in front of me. She was fussin’ and cussin’ at someone that she seemed to think was right next to her. Listening to her was like listening to a one-sided conversation. She saw me looking at her but I didn’t look eye to eye. I didn’t want to become the actual person who would take the place of her imaginary person. Anyway, I saw that the librarian at the desk nearby was exchanging looks with the librarian at the check out desk. Once I saw that they were going to do something about the situation, I didn’t wait to see what. I just closed my eyes and went back to sleep. When I woke up all was well.

This morning when I got up with my husband to fix his breakfast and lunch I could tell I wasn’t ready to stay awake for a whole day. As I was telling him “Good bye,” what came out of my mouth was, “Good night. Have a good day.” I just sort of laughed and set my tea kettle timer for about an hour, and after he left for work, I went back to sleep.

My Yard a Week After Snow

A week ago today we had huge snowflakes falling in our yard. The temperature was somewhere around 28 or 30 degrees F last week. Since then it went up to the mid-70s and back down to the low 30s. Today’s temps have pretty much hung around 40-50 degrees, I think.

I worked outside this afternoon, cutting things in my front yard that were done in by last week’s snow and cold. The Turk’s cap and four o’clocks were casualties. The fern is all brown and the elephant ears are just plain icky. I’m still working on those. Everything will come back next spring.

We had some yucca at the corner of the house until one of them bloomed. They die after they bloom but I didn’t expect the whole group of them to crater. I’m not sure why that happened. Now we have this open space…hmm. We could plant more yucca from the backyard or we could put something else there.

Our Lantana didn’t look right this year. The ends of some of the branches seemed to be malformed and the blooms weren’t normal. I think it may be a virus. I read someplace that some bright person thought it would be a good idea to turn a virus loose on Lantana where they are considered a nuisance. The ones in my yard were not a nuisance, thank you! I found a few branch tips that were protected from snow and I plan to take them to the County Agriculture office and see what they think is the problem. I hope these bushes will be OK.

I ripped out all the potato vine that I could find. This plant seed was given to us a couple years ago. It makes a huge vine with heart-shaped leaves and has seed pods look like potatoes hanging on the vine. The way it came back this year had me wondering. It seemed like it had quite a bit of gusto for a plant that is easy to control. I have since found out that is because it’s not easy to control! I think I won’t let that one grow next year but will plant moon flowers and morning glories instead.

My husband wants to plant another fruit tree. He has a satsuma and wants to add a peach tree. I don’t want to give up any more garden space to a tree, but it would be nice to have peaches off our own tree, so we are looking for a good place to put it. I thought I could move one of the lantanas (if they survive whatever is making them look funny) but that spot is not protected from the north wind. However, at the corner of the house where the yucca was might be just the perfect place. Away from wind and squirrels, too.

A few days after the snow I wandered out back to see how things looked. My banana tree is a mess. It ought to come back. I’ve never tried to grow one but I’ve been told they are hard to kill. That’s the kind of plant I need. They aren’t a true tree either, but are technically an herb. That sounds weird when I think of what most herbs look like.

My husband’s lipstick plant was so pretty with bright green leaves and red flowers and snow falling on it. It’s not so pretty now; just sticks with dead leaves and flowers hanging on. In most places in the US, the lipstick plant is a houseplant. It’s a type of hibiscus and we grow those outside here in Southeast Texas. We should have protected it but forgot. I was so excited about snow I forgot to do anything for the plants in the ground, but I did bring the ones in pots inside. Oh, the pansies are loving this cold weather! And my buttercrunch lettuce looks great.

I really hope to get the peach tree site chosen soon and get one planted. Also, I want to rearrange my front yard. I think it will be a much bigger job than just moving furniture!