Foodventurous: Olive Oil in Lazio

Which travel personality are you? Are you the laid-back, we’ll-figure-it-out-as-we-go type? Or are you like me … Type A, FOMO (fear-of-missing-out), Google-obsessed planner? You can imagine then that a trip to Rome as the master-planner for 6 people might send me into overdrive. It did. Prioritization became a must … “everyone pick ONE thing you REALLY want to see/do.” Thanks to my relentless Google/Pinterest/travel guide browsing, I knew that we would be in Italy during the heart of the olive harvest and I wanted to see it.

After eliminating a few tours based on location and price, and browsing through the results of google and Pinterest searches, one name kept popping up: Johnny Madge. Phrases like “world expert”, “judge”, and “expertise” led me to google him and find his website. This Englishman lives in  Italy and judges olive oil competitions all over the world. After exchanging a few e-mails with Johnny, I knew we were in good hands. My choice for the ONE thing I REALLY wanted to see/do in Italy was booked.

We were to take a train from Rome to Fara Sabina (about 45 minutes NE of Rome) and Johnny would meet us at the station with a passenger van. After two cancelled trains and one arriving 20 minutes late, we were on our way.

NOTE: In Rome, Train and bus schedules, as well as most parking and driving “laws”,
are more like suggestions. Scheduled routes are subject to strikes and cancellation
without notice. If a smart car can fit in a spot, it will. Three lanes of traffic will likely
result in four (with a couple of vespas thrown in for good measure). Accept it. 

Worried that Johnny would be upset by our late arrival, it was instantly obvious he was quite accustomed to it. Not flustered or upset in any way, he found us quickly and with a smile said the most beautiful word I’ve ever heard …


Am I blushing?

That English accent transformed my name from a heavy “uh-nee-duh” to a light and melodic sound. This was going to be a GREAT day! We all introduced ourselves to Johnny and in no time we were on the road to Selci to begin our lessons and tastings.

While riding in the van and taking in the gorgeous countryside, Johnny filled us in on what we could expect for the day. Because of our late start, we would begin with lunch and our lessons on tasting olive oils. We pulled up to a quiet and incredibly charming place, La Vecchia, that turns out to be the bed and breakfast of my next trip to Italy (fingers crossed).

We walked through one dining room, another small dining room, and into a private room, complete with fireplace and a family style table. Before eating, Johnny tutored us on quality olive oils and how to taste them. Here’s a YouTube video of Johnny describing differences in olive oils as well as the best way to taste test them making lots of “stupid noises”.

As we were concentrating on identifying certain nuances of the oils (aromas of tomato, citrus, pepper, etc.), this incredibly sweet man named Giuseppe showered us with bottles of wine and plates of bread and the parade of food continued for well over an hour.

Johnny continued to share stories and information about olive oils and his experiences and, as each plate arrived, we were encouraged to drizzle the food with olive oil to have the full concept of how it can brighten or highlight the flavors. After about 12 different “antipasti” plates (roasted vegetables, meats like prosciutto and head cheese, breads, etc.), the platters of crepes and ravioli and pasta arrived one after another.

For dessert, we were given a choice of Nutella panna cotta (yes, that is olive oil drizzled on my dessert) or tiramisu cake, served with a wine cookie (ciambelline al vino), espresso, and/or grappa (a wicked strong after-dinner alcoholic beverage meant to aid in digestion). Every bite and sip were amazing.

Before leaving La Torretta, we were treated to a tour of the kitchen and the biggest wood-fire oven I’ve ever seen (indoors or out). If you notice, the people who are cooking for us and serving us are well past traditional retirement age. These people move around like twenty-somethings who just want to make guests happy.

Well done, my friends … well done!

You want to give me a bottle of locally produced wine before we leave? I love these people!

Resistant to leaving this quiet, lovely place, we returned to the road and wound our way through the countryside to a local olive grove where harvest was in progress. Olive trees remind me of a crab apple tree in size and shape but the leaves are long and slender and have a silvery hue.

The olives are harvested by hand using a tool that looks like a small rake. Some producers will mechanically harvest the olives but many have found that to be much too damaging to the fruit. The rakes are drug through the branches to knock the olives to the ground which has been covered with fabric or blankets.

Once the fabric is gathered, the olives are added to large crates and taken to the processing area. They pass through several stages of sorting to remove the stems and leaves before they pass through the press. Within minutes, a gorgeous chartreuse liquid is pouring out of a spout.

This might be my favorite (non-family) picture of our trip.

Our final stop on this trip was to see an olive tree that is nearly 2000 years old. 

This is the tree in the picture at the beginning of the post. We were surrounded by history all through our trip but there was something about walking around a tree that was beginning its life about the same time Jesus was teaching about peace and harmony on earth. What a wonderful way to end our day.

I cannot say enough about the quality and value of this tour. Johnny is the ideal guide: accommodating, patient, attentive, and funny. He will be the first to admit web design is not his forte but to his credit, he is on top of his e-mail and will make the process easy.

For more of our food experiences in Rome, check out my first post here.
To find out more about Johnny’s tours, click here.
Want to try some truly high quality Italian olive oil? Click here.

All this talk has made me hungry … Mangia!

Note: I am not receiving payment of any kind for this post. My family lists this tour
as one of the best things we did during our week in/around Rome. 

Join me as I relive our tour from Rome into the countryside of the Lazio region to see the olive harvest and pressing, to sample some of the finest olive oils, to eat traditional Italian food, and to learn from an olive oil expert and genuine great guy, Johnny Madge!

Foodventurous: Rome

Just how exactly does one put Rome into words?

Even if I narrow it down to “food in Rome”, it is still an overwhelming task.

Having just returned from a week in Italy and placing a magnificent check-mark next to one of my upper-tier bucket list items, I find myself trying to pick just the perfect pictures and words to do it justice. The story could be told chronologically, or by food type, or even through recommendations and reviews. But it has to be so much more than just a retelling of what we did … it needs to be a collection of food related experiences and lessons. I have more than enough material because I took advantage of every opportunity to ask questions, sample the unfamiliar, and learn from “mistakes” made along the way.

The first thing you need to know is my new favorite word: Mangia!

It means, “Let’s Eat!” 


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds


LESSON: Carbonara is the new pasta dish-of-choice in our family.

Our youngest son has been in Rome since August, spending a semester studying Graphic Design. He “discovered” carbonara soon after the semester began and quickly started making it for himself. Wanting to try something new but not taking too much of a risk, four out of six of us followed him in ordering it and the two of us that didn’t, wished we had. What we ordered was delicious, but the carbonara was just that good! It’s a simple dish made with pasta similar (and yet not) to spaghetti, guanciale (pork cheek), eggs, Romano and Parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper. Simple … but impressive.

I’m not sure if it was the third or fourth time we had carbonara on the trip when an important tip was revealed to us: more egg yolk (4) than egg white (1). If the recipe you decide to try doesn’t follow this tip, look for another one.

We left our son at the end of the week and that very night he made … you guessed it … carbonara with the egg adjustment.

Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

If you are lucky enough to be invited to the kitchen to see a wood-fire oven and pasta being made by hand, you have found authenticity.



Chicago has deep dish. New York has giant, thin slices you fold in half lengthwise. Pepperoni is a staple for pizza everywhere … well, not EVERYwhere. Certainly not in Rome … blew my husband’s pepperoni-with-tomato-sauce-and-mozzarella-lovin’-mind. If you ask for pepperoni pizza in Italy, do not be surprised when you get a pizza LOADED with peppers … like bell peppers. So what is pizza like in Rome?

I am a researcher at heart and I know that the results are only as good as the sample size. I couldn’t come back and report to you on pizza after only trying one or two slices … or one or two pizzerias. I’m devoted like that.

We ate pizza all week … breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert … by the slice and whole pizzas … square, round, “sandwiched”. In my extensive research, I found two types of crust: thin, crispy, wood-fired and a slightly thicker, but not dense, focaccia-style. Toppings are kept simple and feature a lot of vegetables (zucchini, mushrooms, artichokes, tomatoes, fennel, and potatoes). Sauce and cheese are minimal but of high quality and flavor.

My personal favorite was tomato and green olive pizza on the focaccia-style crust. I should say that was my favorite non-dessert pizza. You can’t put dessert pizza in the same competition with non-dessert pizza … especially when that dessert pizza involves gooey Nutella and powdered sugar!


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds


Technically, this section should have been placed before the PASTA section as that is what antipasti means: before the pasta. The best way I can describe this is to ask you to imagine an appetizer party: a party where everyone brings one appetizer and you put them all together and graze on the variety instead of having a meal. But that doesn’t work either because antipasti is just what’s before the meal.

We experienced this phenomenon twice on our trip: a parade of small plates filled with marinated and/or roasted vegetables, cheeses, prosciutto and salumi, meatballs, beans, breads, and olives. I appropriately call it a “phenomenon” because they actually expect you to eat a main course (or two) and dessert afterwards.

LESSON: Let’s say there are four of you at a table and you manage to order antipasti. If the waiter asks if you want antipasti for 4? Or for 2? Go with 2. If, after you have given the antipasti your best effort, he/she asks if you are ready for pasta, and you say “a little”, you will still get more than you can eat. True story.


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds


This is a good time to introduce the equivalent of to go: “take away”. When I ordered my first morning caffe latte, it didn’t even occur to me that it might not come in a disposable cup … and it didn’t.

LESSON: The proper way to order something “to go” is to say “take away”.

Apparently the only thing more eye-roll worthy than forgetting to mention that you wanted “take away” is to then not care if they pour your latte from the ceramic cup into the disposable cup, completely disturbing the froth factor.

I would have thought it was quite apparent I just needed some caffeine!

If “to go” is replaced by “take away”, what’s the equivalent for “doggie bag”? Would you be brave/stupid enough to ask?

Awww, you know me so well!

On one of our day trips, we were treated to a private meal at a restaurant/bed and breakfast north of Rome. This beautiful place in the country is run by the most hospitable couple who happen to be in their 70’s but with energy that puts my day-to-day efforts to shame. This was the site of our first experience with the antipasti phenomenon, followed by savory crepes, ravioli, and a large platter of pasta. When we didn’t empty those plates/bowls/platters, we were asked if we were ready for the next main dish or if we wanted to move on to dessert. We opted for dessert as we were already quite satisfied (i.e. stuffed). What we didn’t know until later was that they had prepared a suckling pig for us and we were too full for it to even make an appearance. I could tell that Giuseppe (that absolutely was his name) was disappointed that we hadn’t even finished the pasta and afraid maybe we didn’t like it. The idea that we might leave this sweet couple with anything but appreciation and admiration was not something I could do.

So I asked our guide, if it was appropriate to ask for a “doggie bag”? I knew I was risking a faux pas … AGAIN … but I’m pretty sure Giuseppe understood immediately because his face brightened and his shoulders squared and off he went. We were soon on our way, after dessert and grappa (an after-dinner drink referred to as “rocket fuel”) and espresso, with a bag of “take away” containers that would serve us well back at the Airbnb later in the week.


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds


True or False: Italian Dessert = Tiramisu

Trick question. Yes it’s a traditional Italian dessert. Yes, it’s delicious. But it is far from the only option. I still had it three times in the week I was in Rome. Three times … three completely different versions … all amazing!

Let me introduce you to my new friends: gelato, chocolate salami, and ciambelline al vino.

Gelato is ice cream. It is not exactly the same as the ice cream I buy in the grocery store, just as grocery store ice cream is different from the ice cream I make at home. What I loved about gelato in Rome:

  1. Flavors: pistachio, chestnut, hazelnut, coffee, pomegranate, chocolate, dark chocolate, biscotti, mint, speculoos (ginger/cinnamon shortbread), lemon …
  2. Combinations: you can combine 2, 3 or even 4 flavors
  3. Location: you can’t walk one block without passing a Gelateria

LESSON: Be careful when choosing a Gelateria. If you look at the gelato display and you see colors not known to nature or big, billowy mounds of “gelato”, keep going. The best advice we received was to think about banana gelato: what color is an actual banana? Not the peel … the banana. Well made banana gelato should be almost white, not neon yellow.

I’m going to miss you, speculoos gelato!

Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

Chocolate Salami sounds like an oxymoron or an evil trick but it is not. Imagine fudge, with nuts, dried fruit, and even cookie bits, rolled into a log, dusted with powdered sugar, and tied with kitchen string to look like a salami. It is then sliced for serving with whipped cream and, if you’re lucky, drizzled with more chocolate. This picture conveys how decadent this dessert is but to get the full effect, check out this website with the recipe that I will be trying in the near future!

Ciambelline al Vino, or sweet wine pretzels, grabbed my attention (and heart) when presented to us as part of our dessert with Giuseppe (mentioned previously in the take away/doggie bag incident). Beautiful, doughnut shaped cookies sprinkled with sugar were passed around and, luckily, before I could try to take an enthusiastic bite, I was warned that these are very hard and meant to be … wait for it … dunked in your wine! Not only are they made from wine, they are to be eaten with wine!

What could be wrong with that?

Apparently, for a number of the members of my family, it is the addition of anise seed. I am not a big fan of the flavor of anise (or anything close to black licorice) but it did not bother me one bit in these cookies. It was not something that they would choose to have again. But the beauty of trying these things and liking at least part of it is that you can adjust the recipe. Instead of anise, perhaps I will use cardamom … or nutmeg … or allspice.

LESSONIf you are going to try to make a cookie that is meant to be dunked in your wine, make sure you make it small enough to fit inside the glass!



Speaking of glasses … raise yours and say “salute” (sah-loot-teh). The equivalent of our “cheers” but  I love it because it translates to English as “health”. A glass of wine, a wish of good health, and time with simple food, good company, and in a comfortable place …

… my Italian picnic!

Farm Crawl 2017

Farm Crawl 2017

Whether you consider it a “crawl” from farm to farm because of all the gravel roads and traffic, or a “crawl” because that’s all you can do at the end of the tour, it doesn’t matter. A beautiful fall day spent touring farms showcasing Iowa agriculture, arts, people and food is a good day.

I had heard of a “Pub Crawl” before (we won’t get into that here) but never a “Farm Crawl” … and I grew up on a farm. When I saw an announcement at one of the stands at the Downtown Farmers’ Market for this event, I had to ask.

And then I had to go.

The tour included seven farms, in a loop, about an hour SE of Des Moines, near Knoxville.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but when I pulled off one of the main roads onto my first stretch of gravel and saw the pretty countryside, creek beds, and fields, I was hooked. It was a perfect, fall day in Iowa and, by that, I mean cool and rainy, followed by warm and sunny, and low winds. Everyone here knows that a fall day in Iowa without snow is good weather.

Coyote Run Farm

My first stop was at Coyote Run Farm just outside of Melcher-Dallas where I was greeted with an invitation to help myself to some homemade Vegetable Beef Borscht Soup (recipe), cookies and drinks … for free! Stomach full, I walked around the farm to see the horses and chickens, high tunnel and garden, and their rehabilitated barn.


I left the farm with my hands full of tiny potatoes, 3 types of garlic, a few heirloom tomatoes, and a jar of local honey. Hmmm … how many more stops did they say there were?

Six …


Trojan Iron Works

As I pulled up to the next stop, I realized it was the parking lot of a church, filled with so many kids! And the kids weren’t just participating, they were running the show! Trojan Iron Works, I would find out, is a student-run business at Pleasantville High School making custom metal signs. They paired up with the school’s FFA chapter and provided live music and games for the younger kids including calf roping, cheese and cracker “welding”, germination necklaces, and face painting. Again … for free. They also had a concession stand, were selling beef jerky and granola made by the Home Economics class, and were taking orders for pork and beef raised at the Pleasantville FFA Teaching Farm.

I’m sure they were present, but I didn’t see a cell phone in the hands of a single kid or student.


Heading to my car with my beef jerky, it didn’t even dawn on me that I didn’t take a single picture of the metal projects. Click on the link above to see lots of pictures of the students at work and of their art. 

White Breast Pottery and Weaving

As I get out of my car at White Breast Pottery & Weaving, I see this …

… and I hear this …


… which leads me to this …


… along with a basket weaver/maker, a group of 4-Hers selling concessions and baked goods for their club, and a rug weaving demonstration.

It just wasn’t possible for this 4-H girl to pass by the concession stand, so a hot dog in one hand and a beautiful woven rug in the other, I move on down the road toward the apples.

Schneider Orchard

Apple picking, giant slingshot apple shooting, a tree house (complete with suspended bridge and slide … sadly, no adults allowed), wagon rides, apples, and a menu of sweet treats that’s worth the long line kept Schneider Orchard buzzing with activity. (That’s a pollination joke, folks.)

Apple pie for me, and peach for my guy at home, plus a bag of Jonathan apples (my favorite baking apples), and one or two caramels rolled in pecans.

What? It’s not like I bought the fudge too!

Oh, but I wanted to!

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get full (stomach AND car)!

Blue Gate Farm

The next stop was home to the reason I was even on this tour, Blue Gate Farm. It was at their stand at the farmers’ market that I found out about the Farm Crawl. Having stopped many times before, I noticed the sign advertising the event and asked Jill about it. Her enthusiasm for the opportunity to show people their property and practices in naturally grown gardening was contagious.

I arrived too late in the day to get one of “Aunt Louise’s Cinnamon Rolls” but I was not too late to get a tour from Jill. Rotation practices, high tunnel extended seasons, 1950’s era planters and cultivators, the rabbits, alpacas, bees, and, of course, the land itself, were described with passion and pride.

Knoxville’s own Peace Tree Brewing Company was present and a “cold one” sounded really good right about then. Unfortunately, but understandably, they were sampling root beer and selling their beer (at room temperature, not cold). That “cold one” would just have to wait until I got home.

Pierce’s Pumpkin Patch

What would a Farm Crawl be without a stop at a pumpkin patch? Linus would be most content in this one. With 145 different varieties of pumpkins and gourds, your every decorating, carving, and baking need was covered. And, if feeling a little full from the other stops, the maze of giant round hay bales might just help you make room for the BBQ concessions.

Can you find the people in the maze?

Also included in this stop was a sawmill demonstration … huge tree trunks being positioned and trimmed to fit through a machine that cut them into boards … and wine sampling from Nearwood Winery. Again, I was too late to sample most of their wines. One must be very strategic in planning your tour stops … or understanding … that works too!

Crooked Gap Farm

My greatest disappointment in this whole tour? That I missed out on my very last stop … Crooked Gap Farm. I had been looking forward to this one for their hand-crafted soaps made from products of their farm (or as local as possible) and their cattle, pigs, and lambs. I was driving away from the pumpkin patch, looking for the next turn on the loop, and before I knew it, I missed it.

My only defense is exhaustion. It had been six hours since I left on my foodventure. I had absorbed as much information and consumed enough food in an effort to support the farms and organizations as I could and I was tired.

I think they’ll forgive me. As long as I start on their end of the loop next year!


How’s that for some beautiful souvenirs?

Are you like me and disappointed you didn’t know about this years ago? At least now you can make plans for next year:

  1. Follow Farm Crawl on Facebook so you don’t miss out on next year’s event.
  2. Mark your calendars in advance … this event is held the first Sunday in October.
  3. Don’t wash your car … enjoy the drive.
  4. Bring cash. Some places take credit cards and some don’t. There is no admission fee for any of the farms on this day.
  5. Bring the kids … it’s an education that feels like a vacation.
  6. Practice your parallel parking …



You can take the girl out of the farm …

Photo Credit: Joe Murphy

… Picturesque …

Photo Credit: Joe Murphy

… Quiet …

Photo Credit: Joe Murphy

… Idyllic …

This is my home. This is Iowa. This is farm country.

These pictures show the beautiful scenery here. What they do not capture is the less-than-glamorous side: the hard labor, the investment of time and money, the nurturing of plants and animals (24/7/365), the fear of uncontrollable variables, and the never-ending piles of dusty, dirty laundry.

My husband and I were happy to be selected, along with about 50 other people, to go on a two-day tour of farms in SE Iowa. This trip was organized by the Iowa Food & Family Project to provide an opportunity for people to experience and learn about agriculture in Iowa. This year’s trip focused on farms near Pella, Oskaloosa, and Iowa City with stops at grain, pork, dairy, and turkey farms.

If you’ve been following along with my blogs, you know that I am a devout Iowa State Cyclone and St. Louis Cardinal fan. This portion of the state is NOT my comfort zone. This is Hawkeye and Cubs territory. You should be very impressed with my devotion to my blog …

What I learned on this tour is that farming in NW Iowa is exactly the same as farming in SE Iowa.

And it’s not.

The Same.

Faith, Family, Farming – My dad use to say that if you made these things your priority AND you kept them in order, everything would work out. It was clear that the farmers we visited on our tour agree. There was evidence of this from the signs on their walls to the prayer offered before our meal, the 91-year-old grandfather who keeps an eye on the work of his son and grandson while mowing the grass on all their farms, the four children who waited expectantly for us to arrive in our big tour bus to show us their turkeys, and the passion with which they all told their stories of fortune, famine, expansion, community and history.

The other common thread? These men and women love the land. There has been a lot of controversy and media coverage on GMO’s, water pollution, manure management, livestock practices, conservation, and food safety. Farmer’s are under a lot of pressure over these issues. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. The land and the animals are the investment and livelihood of these people. The products and machinery they use are absurdly expensive. They want to protect these things because it is the right thing to do and to not protect them is counterproductive and costly.
  2. Just because a farmer does not shout his/her case in the eye of the media or argue politics on the floor of a government assembly does not mean he/she does not have an educated, passionate answer. An intelligent and considerate question will be answered with an intelligent and considerate explanation.
  3. Technology is embraced by farmers. It is transforming the industry and allowing farmers to know their fields and animals at a much more detailed level than ever before. When a field fire is approaching a hog facility, and the manager of the facility receives notification of the fire and can control the temperature, misters, and, therefore, the comfort levels of the animals immediately through an app on his/her phone, that’s progressive farming.
  4. One bad apple spoils the barrel … and gets the attention of the world. Of course there are farmers who don’t follow the rules and abuse their land/animals. Shame on them. But that shouldn’t tarnish the reputation of the good and honest.
  5. These people invited us onto their property to ask questions. Every single one of them told us that no question was off-the-table. They encouraged us to ask so they could explain. We did and they did. What a concept …

And it’s not.

Farming in NW Iowa is as different from farming in SE Iowa as it is from farm to farm within the same county. Farmer’s are notorious for asking each other “How much rain did you get?” and then shaking their heads that just a mile or two down the road received the exact amount they needed. In the same way, they are grateful when the hail that damaged a field two miles away, didn’t touch a leaf of their crops. Of course, not all their fields are in one area so there’s the post-weather-event drive to check the conditions of the other locations. Unlike most business, farmers do not revel in the loss of their competitors. They mourn it because they are not competitors, they are friends and comrades.

Variability is magnified when you talk about different parts of the state. Soil types, pest problems, flat verses hilly land (no, Iowa is NOT all flat), and climate zones contribute to the science of farming. It is impossible to say that farming is the same all over the state.

And, yet, it felt like home.

After all, when it comes to farmers, it’s a tight community. At our first stop, one of our hosts asked me where I was from.

Me: Near Storm Lake
Tom: Oh yeah? Which town?
Me: Alta?
Tom: Really! Do you happen to know Ernie Glienke?
Me: Yep! He’s my uncle and Godfather!

That’s how it works around here.

Faith, Family, Farming … and FOOD!

As would be expected from a group with the word “food” in their name, we were fed well! Our trip started with a breakfast of yogurt parfait, hard-boiled eggs, and muffins. The parfait were compliments of Anderson-Erickson Dairy, a third-generation, family operated Iowa dairy.







Along the way, local favorites were brought to us … you know, to tide us over! Homemade S’more Ice Cream bars from the Kalona Creamery and kolaches from the Golden Delight Bakery in Kalona.

Blessed with beautiful weather, we were treated to a wood-fire pizza dinner on a farm near Wellman, Iowa. This pretty farm is home to the brick pizza oven of my dreams. Stonewall Pizza fires up the oven … literally … on Friday nights and people come from all around to enjoy their pizzas, yard games, live music, and the peace and quiet of farm life.

I even came home from this trip with a new favorite summer pizza combination: sweet corn, tomato, and bacon! Seriously … is there anything that says “Iowa Farm Country” than that???

… but you can’t take the farm out of the girl.

A recurring theme throughout our tour was established by the “younger” generation who were establishing themselves. I think I heard three different 30-somethings say “When I graduated high school, I was never going to live on a farm again!” They practically blush (men and women) when they say this because obviously the pull of farm life got to them.

As it does me.

I do live in a suburb. When the seasons change, I need a drive in the country to see the crops. I crave a trip back to the family farm to ride in the combine or just eat a meal to the field. I don’t miss the hog production side of things as much, but I sure do miss the bacon … and ham … and chops.

I’m not back on the farm … yet.

Thanks, Iowa Food & Family Project, for giving me a taste of what I miss.

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Foodventurous: Magnolia Market

After a few days of near perfect weather, crazy amounts of food, a headful of blogging information, and making friends with a bunch of lovely ladies from around the country (Foodventurous: Austin), I was not quite ready to go home. There was one more foodventure to take: MAGNOLIA! A bus trip up to Waco, Texas, was offered by the conference organizers and my husband and I are big followers of Chip & Joanna:


The only disappointment of the day was that this was as close as we would come to getting our picture with them!

The words that would best describe this place are “Chip and Joanna”. If you’ve ever watched their show, or read their book, or had any glimpse of these two together, that is the feeling you get on every square inch of this property. The staff is constantly on the move to make the experience as close to perfect and pleasant as possible. The grounds are immaculate. There’s a wide-open play area for kids (of all ages). It is a light-hearted, honest, clean, joyful place. It’s like everyone there was as happy as Joanna when she says “shiplap”!

The property consists of the market, bakery (highly recommend the lemon-lavender cupcake), garden shed, silos, food trucks, and the open-air play area. This is the perfect place for a picnic!


And that brings me around to the picture of the empty picnic table:


These tables lined the area right outside the silos. There were plenty of other tables too, but I kept thinking: “You are Picnic Life Foodie! Take pictures of picnic tables!”

When I looked at my pictures later, I was so disappointed that I didn’t take a few minutes to stage a full picnic on these tables for the pictures. Why hadn’t I implemented some of the things I had learned at the conference?

But the more I looked at this picture, the more I liked it. It represents everything I try to bring to my blog: simple, relaxed, comfortable, open, inviting, innovative.

I like the idea that when you look at this picture, you can imagine YOUR ideal picnic:

  • linen, candles, wine and charcuterie,
  • red gingham, daisies, fried chicken and pasta salad,
  • paper bags, balloons, sandwiches and chips, or
  • live music, a blanket from the car, pizza and beer.

Whatever your preferences, the tables are waiting.

Fill ’em up!

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Foodventurous: Austin

About six months ago, I received an e-mail from my oldest son that said something like, “Hey Mom! This sounds like you!” Attached was a link to a food blogger conference to be held in Austin, Texas. My first reaction was laughter. After all, I’m a rookie. My second reaction was shock. Am I such a rookie that I didn’t even think that there might be conferences for bloggers? And specifically food bloggers? My third reaction was curiosity.

I clicked the link.

April … Austin … food … oh yeah, better check out the agenda!

I expected cooking and gardening classes but found social media panels, SEO management, photography and video editing sessions, advertising and marketing. So many things about which I knew next to nothing.

Isn’t that the best reason to go to a conference?

My husband’s reaction to my idea? “Can I go with you?”

A little over a week ago, we boarded a plane for Austin: warm weather, some time with my cousin and her family, and facing the fear of the unknown.

  1. Would I be the oldest blogger attending? (I wasn’t.)
  2. Would I be the blogger with the smallest following? (Pretty sure I was.)
  3. Would I stick my foot in my mouth? (Yep!)
  4. Would I get to eat my way through a great city? (SO glad I packed loose-fitting clothes.)
  5. Would I learn enough to make the expense feel like an investment? (Definitely!)

To tackle fears head-on, you need to surround yourself with people who will encourage you and tell you to your face that you are being ridiculous … in my case, that calls for family!

When you come from a big extended family, there aren’t many places to travel without family near. For some people this might be a deterrent, but not for me! My extended family is a riot. And one of the best parts about Austin is that my cousin, Nicole, her husband and two adorable boys live there. We spent two nights with them, enjoying their pool and patio, sampling the areas best BBQ (Big Cat BBQ – get the ribs!) and donuts (Donut Crown – get the apple fritters), playing with and reading books to the boys, and catching up.

A mini-family-reunion broke out when Cousin Lynn, who lives in Fort Worth, drove down with her sweet daughter, and Cousin Kevin and his wife, from Austin, came over to see us. Southern hospitality at it’s finest! And laughter … loud laughter. It’s inherited.


Memories are made when you make peanut butter brownies with a 2-year-old in his Superman jammies! This guy has chef skills … he listens well, he is careful, he let me help him, and his mom and dad taught me a thing or two about the culinary world (can you say “sous vide“?).

We said good-bye to family and hello to downtown Austin.

As I mentioned earlier, this conference was not about food but the food of Austin was highlighted at every opportunity. Early registration took place at the Embassy Suites on South Congress where we were staying. It was during this time that all my fears disappeared. After all, I had just entered a room full of food-loving, blog-writing, creative and curious people. The ice-breaking, conversation-starting statement was “So, tell me about your blog?”

It didn’t hurt that the room was also filled with amazing small plates and plenty of adult beverages prepared by the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, SoCo Bar & Bites!

Over the next two days, the organizers of the conference would woo us with incredible amounts of regional favorites: food trucks & caterers, cupcakes and pies, biscuits, fries, and grilled cheese (a.k.a. “melts”). Here’s a glimpse of all the food I ate … I mean, all the food that was offered to us. 😉

Yes, the food was impressive but equally impressive was the venue. Our days were spent at the beautiful Mercury Hall: inside for sessions and outside for breaks and eating.

So the food was great, the location was great, the weather was great … but what about the meat and potatoes (can’t pass up a good food analogy) of the conference? The information, instruction, and demonstrations? We were instructed, encouraged, and challenged by veteran food bloggers, advertising gurus, viral video entrepreneurs, and brand representatives. We were guided through the mazes of SEO (search engine optimization), advertising options, photo and video usage and editing, social media interactions, revenue options, and brand contracts.

After 20 years of owning my role as a stay-at-home mom, my brain was working hard to retain as much of this fast-paced information inundation as possible. I cut myself a little slack when during one of the presentations the speaker asked us to raise our hands if we have more than 100,000 followers and the hands of about half of the attendees went in the air. It was at that moment that I thought: “Girlfriend, you just concentrate on the topics and points that apply to you and your blog right now.” The future will take care of itself!

One of my favorite parts of the conference was when we were given the opportunity to implement the instructions we had received on staging and taking photos of food. We were given all kinds of salad ingredients, placemats and backgrounds, vegetables and herbs, fruits and plates and were asked to build a beautiful plate and take pictures of it. The first picture above was the very first picture I took and the one on the left was the last. Not perfect … but it was very rewarding to watch the pictures progressively improve.

I think the greatest gift of this conference was getting to know some really remarkable women and the ability to follow their blogs, learn from their perspectives and bounce ideas and questions around with them. I can’t wait to try some of their recipes and share them with you via Facebook!

Our evenings were free for us to explore Austin on our own. Downtown Austin is ideal for walking and discovering. The first night we headed north on Congress to a recommended restaurant called Moonshine Grill for some “Classic American Comfort Food”.


Now this place may be described as “Classic American Comfort Food”, but when you see things like “Rosemary Fries” and “Green Chile Cheddar Grits” and “Chipotle Cream Gravy”, you know comfort food has been taken to another level. I debated long and hard on what to order. I was stuck between the Green Chile Macaroni and the Chicken and Waffles.

Any guesses what I had?

I never really understood the concept of chicken and waffles. It always seemed too sweet for me (which is saying something). But this waffle wasn’t as sweet as breakfast waffles and the crispy, light coating on the chicken had a good kick of spice and salt that balanced it out. Fear of it being too sweet did not keep me from pouring maple syrup over it. After all, the chipotle cream gravy had a job to do too.


After all of that comfort food, it was a good thing we had to walk back to the hotel. We had crossed a big bridge on our way to the restaurant and on the way back, that bridge was packed with people. We had heard about a bridge in Austin that housed a bat colony during a certain time of year but didn’t realize it was the bridge a block away from our hotel. Our timing was perfect because within 10 minutes of our arrival, the bats started flying out from under the bridge (in a 4-6′ area) and created a cloud of bats moving through the evening sky.


This evacuation of hundreds of thousands of bats lasted long enough for us to cross the street, walk down the sidewalk to the area where the bats were emerging and find a place directly over the bats where people were already leaving. Over the edge we could see a crowd had formed on the bank of Lady Bird Lake and the cruise boats and kayaks were filling the water with those wanting an extra-special vantage point.

Even if you are queasy about bats, this is nature at its finest. I truly felt like I was witnessing a miracle … the instincts and migration patterns alone are astounding. And we just happened to be crossing a bridge at the exact right moment.

Our second free night, we returned to the north side of Lady Bird Lake and found a contemporary Mexican restaurant with, my favorite, outdoor seating. La Condesa is the perfect place for those with a foodventurous spirit. I will let the pictures and menu descriptions speak for me …



El Cubico Cocktail (pictured below with tacos)

whole leaf tobacco infused cazadores reposado
vanilla-infused brandy
grilled-pineapple juice
mezcal essence
volcanic saffron salt rim





Hamanchi Ceviche

calamansi broth
crispy garlic
charred onion
habanero truffle oil





Conchinita Pibil Tacos

achiote-braised pork shoulder
black beans
pickled red onion
habanero escabeche





Dulce De Leche

dulce de leche pudding cake
sweet corn cream with saffron
cream cheese ice cream
caramelized popcorn

Dining out has become about much more than just eating for me. My best experiences happen when I am captivated by ingredients that are new to me, or the presentation is its own work of art, or the wait staff is visibly pleased to be asked about a menu item. La Condesa provided that kind of experience.  And that’s not just the tequilla and brandy talking. (HIGHLY recommend the El Cubico, by the way!)

It would be safe to assume, after this lengthy description, that this was the conclusion of our trip. But it wasn’t. The amazing organizers of our conference arranged for an optional bus trip to Waco, Texas, to … you guessed it … Magnolia Market! This bucket-list trip and an explanation of the empty picnic table pictured here deserve an independent post.

Foodventurous: Magnolia Market


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