Do you ever just need to leave town? I’ve been traveling so much over the past year that I almost never feel that way anymore. Generally it’s the opposite—I just want a chance to be in my own house over a weekend and do some laundry. However, this past weekend was an exception. It’s not that I’ve been in town for weeks on end or anything, it’s just that there are two places I really wanted to be and couldn’t: St. Louis, MO and Lake Forest, IL.
My sister and her friends/old roommates throw a giant holiday party every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas called Fakesgiving. They go all-out with all kinds of delicious food and get at least a keg for the occasion. It’s something I’ve wanted to attend forever (along with their famous St. Patrick’s Day 5k + Brunch extravaganza in March) and this year should have been my year. Kiley (the esteemed sister) tried to get me to take a full week off before Christmas to attend this party in St. Louis, then go home with her and my brother-in-law John to Columbia, MO and see their new house/life before driving home with them for Christmas. I should have figured out how to make that happen. Instead, I’m working until right before Christmas and sulking my little heart out the whole time, resenting all of my graduate student friends and their cushy breaks.
Meanwhile, my wonderful mother, my cousin Johnny, and my aunt Kelly spent the weekend drinking Prosecco and hanging out making ravioli at my parents’ house in Lake Forest. My mom’s side of the family has homemade ravioli for Christmas every year, and we’ve discovered that our quality of life improves 70% the few days before Christmas when we’ve made the ravioli ahead of time and just have to cook it on Christmas day. We used to make our own pasta with a fancy pasta-roller and everything (I believe with an old family pasta recipe handed down from Nona—my mom’s grandmother, but I may be romanticizing the past) but now we just use pre-made wanton wrappers with the delicious cheese and spinach filling. And by we I mean my mom, aunt, and cousin—because I’m still in Texas! So depressing.
Which brings me to the fussy attitude of needing to get the hell out of town. Late Friday morning I found myself taking a quick break from editing an article to check last minute flights to St. Louis that very evening. Shockingly, they were extremely expensive. Over lunch I texted my friend Maria (previously discussed) in Austin to see what she was doing. She was working the whole weekend like a loser. So I texted my friend Hope in Houston (previously discussed) to see what she was doing. (You’re not on C team, Hope; the drive to Houston is C team.) She was having a potluck dinner party! And told me I should come!
I was so antsy that I spent the second half of my lunch break frantically packing an absurd combination of clothing from the tiny remnant of my wardrobe that doesn’t need to be washed and a few essentials (like leftover biscotti) before heading back to my office. After getting time-sensitive things done I did some time math, gathered all of my portable editing, and asked my boss if I could leave early and finish a few articles on Saturday while Hope graded papers for the classes she teaches at a community college.
I got to Houston just in time to almost miss traffic. Houston traffic blows. I used to think that Houston was the worst, but then I learned that (like any city—even the ones you think you hate) there are parts that don’t suck even a little. It’s the sprawling, highway-riddled, Galleria-producing, mansion-suburbia atrocity of the greater Houston-as-a-whole that whispers “I’m a monster…let me die.” But that monster has a heart of gold; it’s called Montrose, and a few other neighborhood names I don’t know, and it has some amazing restaurants. So, once I managed to escape the dragging claws of early Friday evening I-10, I entered the heart of that happy heart, which has to be Hope’s house—affectionately called the Nevadapada. The Nevadapada is one of my favorite houses ever. It has a really weird layout, a great back porch, it’s covered with orchids and succulents, and decorated with Hope’s charming more-is-more aesthetic (countless world-travel souvenirs, friends’ artwork, an impressive face-mug collection, creepy Narnia statues, books and books and books, etc.).
Upon letting myself in, I was greeted by the happy kitchen bustle of Hope and her awesome roommate Holly, listening to Father John Misty and cooking pulled pork, spoon bread, chocolate chip pumpkin muffins, and my very own fall tarts (making me feel famous). I was immediately set to work helping with the tarts, drinking wine, and loving my impulsive decision to visit Houston. Pre-party kitchen hangouts are probably my favorite genre of hangout. You get all of the behind-the-scenes back-stories of the night; like the near-disaster pumpkin muffins saga which I shall now regale you with.
The muffins (read: decadent cupcakes called muffins) Hope wisely decided to make have a special place in my food-heart. Their full name is Duff’s Pumpkin Muffins because my old roommate Meredith (aka: Duff) brought them into our lives. I don’t remember where she got the recipe, but they were a staple of our freshly-post-college life when Duff, Maria, and I lived in a duplex we called Austin House. (I realize I’m throwing a lot of names and nicknames around, and I apologize. Honestly, it’s surprising that it took so long to get to this point. I’ve never even written about DUP! DUP (pronounced dupe) is the name of my college house, and now what we call the group of girls who lived there (including Duff and Maria). I’d go on, but this story is getting out of hand. Soon; soon I shall tell you about DUP.)
Traditionally Duff’s Pumpkin Muffins were made in Maria’s William Sonoma (no longer available) Pumpkin Patch Plaque mini cakes pan: the most appealing unnecessary bakeware of all. Hope made them in muffin pans, and for some reason they stuck/fell apart when we tried to get them out. They still tasted as luscious as ever (does that sound gross? It’s kind of how they taste, though.) but they were not fit to be seen on a platter. Ever quick on my kitchen-feet, I saw in this potential disaster not failure, not tragedy, but opportunity! (Side-note, I am not always quick on my kitchen-feet; if I had started the pumpkin muffins and had a stubborn desire they be as they ought, I probably would have just pouted and eaten handfuls of muffin-pieces when they didn’t turn out).
Since the muffins still tasted great, I suggested making the pieces into a trifle instead of a pile of muffin-pieces. Apparently no one knows what a trifle is; but they trusted me. So, the excessively hospitable Holly ran to the store and bought me whipping cream and powdered sugar, which I then whipped up with some cinnamon. I alternately layered the muffin pieces and cinnamon whipped cream in a tall, straight-edged crystal dish (naturally available in the Nevadapada), topping with a whipped cream layer, which I sprinkled with extra cinnamon. And thus evil was again turned to good. Seriously, I didn’t think the pumpkin muffins could get any better but they totally did. The only danger is that now I want cinnamon whipped cream all the time. Success!
I like how certain foods take on associations with the time or people that produce them. (Ravioli=Cashmore Christmas; Jello Mold=Thanksgiving; Excessive Crescent Rolls=DUP; etc.) Turning Duff’s Pumpkin Muffins (circa 2007) into a new creation made me think of Austin House and how much has changed but how much I still love Duff and thinking about Duff while in a really different life, hanging out with Hope and Holly in Houston. I’m not going to get so sappy as to suggest you “make a trifle out of your past” or something, but also I am. It’s important to think of new and good ways to use what you’ve got. Truth from food. #foodtruth
Anyway, thanks Houston for a lovely weekend. The potluck was mega fun, as was the brunch excursion, coffee shop work time, and everything else. PS, Hope and I are pretty good brunch companions; I always look forward to the new places she’ll take me to when I visit. This time I called for a good bloody mary and she delivered. If you’re ever in Houston check out the Down House for solid brunch fare (I recommend the Vermonter), Hughes-approved bloody marys, and bizarre but attractive Darwin-themed decor.