Sunday, February 28, 2010

No Business Like Snow Business

I’m not sure who peed in Mother Nature’s Cheerios, but with all the attitude of a drag queen who’s lost her eye shadow, she unleashed a whole season of snow on us just in the month of February. As a Michigan native, I’ve gotten used to the long slog of Great Lakes winters. And we’ve had some doozies. I remember the blizzard of 1978, where cars were literally buried in the streets, schools were closed for almost a week, and my brother and I lightened the money purses of a lot of old Polish women in our neighborhood who relied on us to shovel their driveways and keep them connected to the rest of the world.

Most of them didn’t need to get out, a lot of them couldn’t, but all of them were starving for the company of other human beings, even if it was a couple of pre-pubescent, snot-nosed entrepreneurs. Mrs. Brysniak lost her husband years before she retired from the local garment factory, so in addition to being lonely, she was also rich, at least by our thinking. She paid us each five dollars every time we shoveled. We’d have to come in afterwards and sip hot cocoa while she reminisced about her son, who died in Vietnam, but it was worth it. We provided not one but two valuable services, and in return we were well paid for our work. Mrs. Brysniak was always first on our list to get her sidewalk shoveled.

Most of our customers weren’t as well off, so the monetary rewards were rarely bigger than a buck or two, but our pay was often supplemented with some of the tastiest sweets I’ve ever had as a kid. Mrs. Patulski made some delicious raspberry swirl shortbreads, and while she only paid us in coins, we didn’t care because those cookies were golden. And then there was Mrs. Smyzinski, who made soft batch peanut butter cookies with Hersey’s kisses stuck in the center. We considered her the original creator of the Recess Peanut Butter Cup phenomenon.

The greatest reward after a morning of hard labor, though, was coming home for lunch. The smells that greeted us from my mother’s kitchen were as comforting as they were inviting. Homemade cinnamon rolls with raisins, creamy potato soup with cloud-like dumplings, pot roast with all the trimmings. My mother’s food always helped take the sting out of the brutal Up North winters. Some of that warm fuzzy feeling returned for me last week when, in the waning days of snowy February, Stephanie and I stumbled onto the most charming little Mexican restaurant. In Mt. Morris.

El Adobe Mexican Restaurant & Drive-thru is a small log cabin-looking structure that sits on a big open lot on North Saginaw Street just north of Mt. Morris Road. From the outside, the wood building, with a covered patio for warm weather dining, looks a lot like an upper peninsula getaway. Well, except for the coat of bright orange paint and the “mountain with cactus” mural covering the top third of the building, One wants for a hint of color, after all.

The inside is even even more charming than the outside. The outside color scheme of course is continued throughout the dining room, but with enough dark brown trim, and big windows, it didn’t’ feel over the top or campy at all. That certainly can’t be said for some of our more colorful Mexican eateries. In addition to the three giant windows at the front of the building, two more formed an internal wall, which split the dining room into two smaller, manageable spaces and cut down on the noise from a nearly full crowd of diners.

Thank goodness they had an adequate sized staff because with so many diners, it could have created some serious problems. As it was, our server was prompt, attentive, and though a bit shy he was quite friendly. It didn’t hurt that he showed up at our table with an overflowing basket of chips and a pleasant looking house salsa. The chips didn’t look like they were made on site, but they were still fresh and hearty. The salsa was good, but it really didn’t stand out and distinguish itself as “hey, you gotta try El Adobe’s house salsa.” We requested a hotter version, which was chipotle based and drew the same reaction from Stephanie and me as the house salsa. That said, they were both made better when we slathered them over the top of our entrees.

Even before our food arrived, I was already falling in love with this place. Every aspect of our experience within the first five minutes of being seated was not only positive, it was happy. The robust conversations at all the tables, the steady stream of lunches coming out of the kitchen, and the almost choreographed movement of the staff around the dining room created an ambiance that almost made me forget the heaps of snow piled up outside and the new snow that was beginning to fall again. I could have stayed here all afternoon. In fact, Stephanie and I hung out and chatted for well over an hour. If there had been a fireplace off in the corner, we probably would have curled ourselves up around it and stayed even longer.

Our entrees arrived just as we were finishing our white cheese dip. I read several customer reviews that all mentioned how out-of-this-world delicious the cheese dip is. Maybe I’m just losing my zip for dip, but I wasn’t as blown away by it as my fellow diners. One reviewer thought it must have been “goat cheese or something” because the taste was so unique. After sampling ours, I asked the server if he knew what kind of cheese was in the dip. He looked at me like I was a little nutso for asking, and simply said, “It’s white American.”

Another online reviewer said “This is the best Mexican food I’ve ever tasted. And I’m Mexican.” These words ran through my mind as our server delivered Stephanie’s Beef Enchiladas with Green Sauce and my Baja Chimichanga—perhaps the coolest name ever given a chimichanga. While I share the online reviewers sentiment that the food at El Adobe is pretty darn good, I’m not sure I can declare it the best ever, but then again I’m not Mexican.

Nonetheless, Stephanie and I agreed that this is definitely a place we’d want to come back to again and again. She loved her enchilada platter, which was served with lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and rice. She ordered a side of beans to go with it because, oddly enough, they were not included with her dish. The ingredients here are fresh, the presentation bright and inviting, and the taste of the food is just plain satisfying.

My Baja Chimichanga was no exception. Loaded with beef, beans, cheese, and a host of lesser ingredients, it was wrapped in a light flour tortilla that was deep fried just enough to give it a crispness but retain its pale color. Topped with a thin white cheese sauce and a bed of lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and cheese on the side, it was just enough to fill me up, even though it was not served with rice or beans. It was so good, in fact, that It is now officially a nominee for the coveted TTC Best Chimichanga in Flint award.

Food, service, and ambiance this good should cost much more than it does. The prices are low enough that even if you’re living off the money you make from shoveling driveways, you can afford to eat at El Adobe. Our combined lunches, with the white cheese dip and drinks, was only twenty two bucks. If you haven’t ventured to Mt. Morris for lunch, and if you want to feel well taken care of while you eat really good food, then shake off the winter blahs by paying a visit to El Adobe. You’ll be glad you did.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Pork Chops and Poetry

I attended a poetry reading in downtown Flint Saturday night for the first time in years. It was an intimate affair at the Buckham Art Gallery on Second Street. Jan Worth-Nelson, a writing instructor at The University of Michigan-Flint, gathered her creative writing class to stage a group reading of the work they had created over the course of the semester. The readings were inspirational, the crowd spirited, and of course there was food and wine.

In addition to being a wildly talented writer and outstanding teacher, Jan is also an avid supporter of the local community and, dare I say, a good locavore. She noted at the beginning of the night that the wine we were drinking came from D’vine Wines, A Flint Farmer’s Market vendor, and the food came from Hoffman’s Deco Deli in Carriage Town. I highly recommend both places, if you haven’t tried them.

As the first group of readers presented their poems, I started thinking how important the connection is between cultural events and food. The two seem to create the ideal match. How many times have you gone out for dinner before a play or an art opening or the symphony? And how many times have you gone to the Torch or The White Horse after a poetry reading or an Art Walk?

On this Buckham poetry night, Philip, Stephanie and I had an early dinner at Blackstone’s Pub & Grill in Downtown Flint. It was nice to see Stephanie because I’ve had to cancel our lunch two weeks in a row (that’s why I’ve taken a brief hiatus from our Mexican Lunch Tour). She and Philip hadn’t seen each other in ages, so it turned out to be the perfect dinner reunion.

I know Blackstone’s has been reviewed to death and is the new darling of downtown, but bear with me as I put my own twist on what I see as the place that tries to be everything to everyone. And I don’t mean that as a critique; I really think they’ve designed the restaurant to cater to multiple audiences at the same time. I think it’s a unique concept for Flint, and judging by the size of the crowd every time I’ve been there, they may actually be on to something.

As their web site states, The 6,600-square-foot Blackstone's Pub & Grill, one of a series of Uptown Reinvestment Corp. projects that are reshaping the downtown area, opens in what used to be a men's clothing shop that bore the same name. The pub and grill, with an Irish-American motif, maintains the building's authenticity with exposed walls and an original steel ceiling that soars 23 feet above a stained concrete floor.”

Indeed, the place is huge. But it doesn’t feel cavernous. The beautiful wood bar running almost the length of the restaurant not only creates its own space and atmosphere,. but it also helps define other spaces in the gargantuan dining area. There’s a more “quiet” space toward the front of the restaurant that includes the windows overlooking Saginaw Street with a baby grand piano in the corner. I say “quiet” because that word is relative in Blackstone’s. It’s a noisy, bustling place. Again, most likely by design.

The middle section of the restaurant is sort of the centerpiece where a majority of the tables are arranged. It feels like a dining room within a dining room. In the back is another, smaller group of tables, a pool table, and a couple of big screen televisions (two or three more are hung above the back wall of the bar), which creates a mini sports bar atmosphere. The genius of their space designer, though, is the incorporation of six feet long half-walls on wheels, which allows for a complete reimagining of the total space based on the needs of any given group of customers. The movable wall concept can accommodate big parties, while still maintaining a nice dining room atmosphere, and while preserving the bar/sports bar ambiance, which is why Blackstone’s succeeds at being everything to everyone.

The real reason to come to Blackstone’s, however, is for the food. I’ve heard some say it’s too expensive, some say the food isn’t always very good, and some say it only draws an upper class crowd, but I have almost a dozen trips to Blackstone’s under my belt, I can say with some authority that those criticisms are not totally accurate. The food is a bit pricey, but for the quality, I don’t think it’s unreasonable. I might not have liked everything I ate, but I wouldn’t say the food wasn’t good. The ingredients are fresh, the flavors and textures are exciting, and the overall dishes are generally quite successful.

The one area where I might agree with the critical voices is the clientele, but not in the way you might think. While Blackstone’s definitely caters to Flint’s bourgeois, it also caters to the rest of us. One can sidle up to the bar and chat it up with the polite and friendly bartenders, shoot pool and drink bud light in a bottle, or just have a sandwich with some friends. The problem I have is that Blackstone’s does not include the college students in their mix of patrons. Most college students couldn’t afford to eat here, and unless they sit at the bar, have one beer, and listen to the occasional band, this really isn’t their scene.

Blackstone’s isn’t alone in this area by any means, but I’m not arguing that we hold them responsible for catering to more populations than they probably can. The new places that have sprouted up in the downtown district have been great for the community and have drawn people back to Flint from the suburbs, especially after five o’clock. But aside from The Loft, The Torch, and Churchills, which are more bar than restaurant, there isn’t a quintessential college student restaurant yet along Saginaw Street. That’s not to say the college kids don’t go to places like The Lunch Studio, Brown Sugar Cafe, or any of the other hangouts, but what I’m suggesting is that if we’re going to create culinary niches in downtown, let’s make one or two for the college kids, who represent a pretty big percentage of the permanent downtown population.

As I said from the outset of this post, I have a love for food and a passion for the creative arts. Perhaps some of our best and brightest culinary and creative minds will come together to create the perfect storm of a vibrant and collaborative food and creative arts scene in the middle of our beloved city. I think we’re actually closer to this realization than we think.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Snack Pimp (a love story)

I fell in love for the first time in 1974. I was barely ten and didn’t know squat about sex, so I’m sure it was platonic love or puppy love or some other clumsy form of the affection, but nonetheless it was love. And leave it to me to fall in love with someone who couldn’t possibly return my affections. I had fallen head over heels for Gilligan. Not the show. The character.

I’d come to realize as an adult that I’m attracted to the skinny, awkward, boyish type, so in retrospect it makes perfect sense. At the time, it didn’t. I just knew then that as soon as Bob Barker’s show Truth or Consequences was over at 6:30 every night, I would get to see Gilligan. My favorite scenes were at night when he’d crawl into his hammock and have some bizarre dream. I just wanted to crawl in there with him and spoon until morning when I’d sneak away before the skipper woke up.

I began drawing pictures of him in my Trapper Keeper and scratching stuff in the margins like BB + G. I never knew his last name. Eventually, I just started writing B+ G to keep It simple. I knew I was smitten when one Saturday afternoon, I took my dad’s eight-track of Neil Diamond out to his truck, popped it in the tape deck, and sang along to Song Sung Blue, which I dedicated to my love.

Back then I had the attention span of a gnat (some today would call it ADD), so by the end of summer, I was completely over my lovable idiot and ready for something new. I still felt a void in my life, so at the start of fifth grade that fall I took a job. I thought it would clear my head and give me a fresh new start. I got hired to work in the cafeteria at Madison Elementary School.

I didn’t take the job because I wanted to work. I took the job because I was poor. I wasn’t paid with money, but that was ok because the pay was something far more valuable: Food. My parents were poor when I was a kid, and with four of us, they couldn’t afford to sign us up for hot lunches. But we weren’t poor enough to qualify for free lunches, so we were stuck taking our own. I was in fifth grade and already aware that I was living in a class system. And within the class of you’re-so-poor-you-have-to-pack-you-own-lunch, I was also at the bottom. Most kids who brought their own lunches had lunch boxes. GI Joe, Barbie, Bugs Bunny, and each one came with a matching thermos. I brought my lunch in a brown paper sack.

Every morning when I got up for school, there’d be four of them lined up on the counter, our names neatly printed on them in black marker. It couldn’t get much more humiliating than that. Well, until you had to open the bag and take out the contents in front of the other kids at lunch time. Every one of my lunches up to that point was a variation on the same sad theme: A sandwich, a fruit, and some cookies. The staples were bologna sandwiches, bananas, and windmill cookies.

I could live with cheap bologna sandwiches instead of ham or even pickle loaf that the other kids brought, but those windmill cookies with slivered almonds pressed into them were the powdered welfare eggs of cookies that no kid would ever choose on their own. There was a segment every week on the Bozo the Clown show called Bozo’s Bucket Bonanza, where kids would stand in front of a row of six buckets and drop ping pong balls into them one at a time. Every time you got the ball in the bucket you won a prize. Believe it or not some kids were so uncoordinated they couldn’t even get a ball in the first bucket. And then Bozo, trying to make them feel less stupid than they probably were, would say, “Hey, you’re an almost winner, and for that, you get this free package of Archway Windmill Cookies!”

So working in the cafeteria got me free access to all the food I could eat. It also put me face to face with a woman that I would come to love as much as my own grandmother. Mrs. Rice, the head of the kitchen, ran a tight ship. She was the Maitre d' of the school cafeteria. Stay out of her way and do the things she asked, and all was peaceful. But screw up even once and you could find yourself back in the lunch line, or worse, lugging your own brown paper sack of crappy food to school.

I got on her good side as soon as I could. I sprayed every crumb off the trays, I sorted the silverware with precision accuracy, and I always put things back in the their place. The only time she came unglued at me and went off like a crazy lady was when I rinsed the pots and pans in cold water. Apparently that leaves spots on the pots, and Mr. Rice did not like spots on her pots. The way she hollered and jabbed her finger at me made me want to turn on my heels and flee. Instead, I went to my happy place and thought about hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes until the fury had passed. A few minutes after I corrected my mistake, she was right there to hug me and tell me what a good boy I was. Looking back, I was probably in my first abusive relationship, but I didn’t care. I loved her.

Eventually I worked up to assistant server, which was the crème de la crème of the school cafeteria. You got to see every kid coming through the lunch line, and if someone had done you wrong that day, you could short change them on their fruit cocktail. It was a form of power that garnered a certain respect from the other kids. One of the kids who came through the lunch line every day was a girl named Debbie. I looked forward to seeing her every day because she always had a smile and always seemed to be quietly happy. And because she always had snacks.

Snacks, like lunch boxes and hot lunch tickets, represented another sort of status symbol. Kids were allowed to bring a snack to school and eat it during afternoon recess. Something to hold us over till school was out for the day. I rarely brought snack because, beg as I did, my mom couldn’t afford the mini variety pack of potato chips or candy bars or Crunch N Munch. By afternoon recess, I was starving. But Debbie brought snack every day. So I made my move.

I sucked up to her and showed a great deal of personal interest in her so she would share her snack with me. She thought I was funny and loved when I paid attention to her. With little effort, I was able to get a portion of her snack almost every day.

The routine became predictable. I’d see her by the coat rack in the hall right after the recess bell rang, fishing around in her bag for her Fiddle Faddle, and then I’d move in. My powers of persuasion and her inability to say “No” were a perfect combination. After awhile, I got more bold, and I’d weasel more and more of the snack from her, until eventually I made an all out push to commandeer all of the snack for myself.

My mom worked in a World War II era garment factory and made all my clothes with scraps of material she brought home at the end of the day. The shirts she made me were outrageous even for the fashion crazy 70s. So as I was beating down this poor helpless girl, I must have looked like a flamboyant snack pimp, a ten year old boy wearing a horizontal striped, six colored turtle neck (which made me look thin, by the way) and taking the goods away from his baby.

I worked in the cafeteria for the rest of my time at Madison Elementary. And when I wasn’t busy pilfering Debbie’s afternoon sustenance, short changing my enemies of their lunch food, or wiping the spots off the pots and pans, I was learning how to be a good cook from my beloved Mrs. Rice. After I finished my B.A. at Alma College in the mid 80s, I moved back to my home town, got a job at the salt factory, and rented my first apartment. It was one of six apartments in the building, a downstairs unit, with an upstairs apartment right above me. On the day I moved in, I noticed an old lady sitting on her upstairs porch drinking a cup of coffee. As I got close enough to say hello, I realized it was Mrs. Rice.

She had lived in the apartment ever since her husband died, and at 77 years old, she was long retired and enjoying the slow pace of life that seemed pleasing to her. We often sat together drinking coffee and reminiscing about our time at Madison Elementary. She taught me a great deal about how to get around in a kitchen, but she also instilled a set of values in me that I have embraced my whole life. She passed away several years ago, but every time I go back home, I make it a point to drive by my old elementary school and share a story or two with whoever’s with me about the woman who helped shape my culinary life.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Eulogy (part 2)

Stephanie and I made the grim discovery that Los Cuatro Amigos had gone to that great taco stand in the sky when we paid them a visit last Thursday. We knew before we even got out of the car that something was terribly wrong. No lights. No movement. Nothing. This was actually my first visit to the Amigos. I had been meaning to stop by for the longest time, but other restaurants always seemed to get in the way, and I just never took the time to get there. Standing before the dark windows of Los Cuatro Amigos, I felt touched by the cold hand of survivor’s guilt.

In my eulogy post the other day, I relied on a familiar form of ritual to help ease some of the guilt I was feeling for never making it to the Amigos for lunch before it closed for the last time. I believe in ritual because it’s an important way to heal and to come to terms with grief. As it turns out I’m not the only one whose been engaging in mourning rituals lately. My Unitarian Church staged its own impromptu grieving ritual on Sunday to mark the passing of a long time contributor to the Church.

The service began with a quiet dirge playing in the background. Most of the parishioners were wearing black arm bands as a symbol of their unified grief. The ushers came forward with a black shroud which they draped carefully over the Church Copy Machine. It had died earlier in the week. Displayed at the front of the sanctuary just below the pulpit, it looked like an awkward coffin. The copy tray was extended and held two burning candles on either side of an empty wicker basket. We were all invited, as part of the ritual, to come forward, pay our respects to this old work horse, and drop an offering in the basket to help pay for its replacement.

Back in the parking lot of Los Cuatro Amigos, Stephanie and I were feeling cold and hungry. Somehow we needed to find our own ritual to help fill the hole in our stomachs left by this terrible tragedy. So we did what Los Cuatro Amigos would have wanted us to do. We went somewhere else for lunch.

We drove to the other side of town to El Charrito’s on Richfield Road, just off Dort Highway. If you remember my post from last fall, we already visited El Charrito’s, but that was the downtown Davison restaurant. We were less than impressed with that experience, but the Richfield Road El Charrito’s is not owned by the same family. This one is unrelated and independent. And so was our dining experience.

The hustle and bustle of the crowd of people already seated by time we got there was definitely a good sign. Steph and I have been to enough lunch places to know that if you get there before noon and a crowd has already gathered, then the food is probably going to be pretty good. Within minutes after our arrival, the place was nearly full. It was comforting to be among noisy happy people, and by the time our sever got to our table we had forgotten all about the depressing episode we had recently left behind us.

The appetizer menu listed some of the usual suspects, like nachos, taquitos, quesadillas, and of course, chips and cheese. Just below that part of the menu is the complete list of side orders. In addition to French fries, you can also get a bowl of sour cream for a buck and a half, green sauce for a buck and a quarter, or a bowl of guacamole for two bucks. First of all who would ever order a bowl of guacamole, and second who would pay two bucks for it when a lunch special only costs five bucks? Stop nickel and diming us to death already. (no offense intended, Los Cuatro Amigos).

We settled on the chips and cheese, which was served like it is at so many other places—Wrigley Field pumped from the can style. It wasn’t bad, but I’m beginning to realize that the number of places that serve real cheese dips and sauces is really minimal. Our appetizer was accompanied by a really good house salsa made of a fresh tomato puree with a slight peppery undertone. The hot salsa was quite simple, a cup of freshly minced jalapenos. This approach could go either way in the flavor department, but we got lucky because the jalapenos had a great fresh taste with a great heat level. It also made the perfect topping for our entrees.

While we waited for our very busy, but very friendly server to take our orders, I started making noise to Stephanie about ordering a salad. I never do that in a Mexican restaurant, but I was thinking that maybe something a little lighter might be nice. It only took one well-placed Really? from Stephanie and I came to my senses and ordered the Seafood Burrito Plate, a two pound platter of three burritos, a small mountain of beans and a generous pile of fried rice.

Stephanie ordered a combination platter that was served with a taco, a tostada, a cheese enchilada, and a cheese tamale. All of that was joined by beans, rice, and the best beef stew I think I have ever tasted in a Flint Mexican restaurant. The meat practically melted in your mouth and the sauce was slightly thickened with an earthy, smoky heat to it. I still need to get back to El Nopal to taste theirs again, but in the meantime, this beef stew is on the list of contenders for the coveted Tater Tot Casserole Award. I could have been happy ordering a bowl of that for lunch and waiving the other pound and a half of food that came with it.

Our dishes were served on metal plates inserted into a hard plastic liners to protect us unsuspecting diners from burning the hell out of our fingers. The choice of plate is wise considering each entrée is placed under a broiler after being assembled, and the result is an attractive, well browned topping on each plate of food. This struck me as a little odd at first, but my rice had a slight crunch to it that mingled with the softer rice underneath to create a unique texture that worked really well.

For a Tex-Mex diner, this El Charrito’s really came through for us in our time of need. And judging by Thursday’s huge lunch crowd, I don’t think they have to worry about facing the same future as Los Cuatro Amigos, whose memory will live on in all of our future Mexican lunches.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Eulogy (part 1)

We gather, loyal readers, to say good bye to a dear friend of Flint. Well, four of them, to be exact. We gather to say good bye to four dear friends of Flint. Amigos, really. Or, as their known in the local community, Los Cuatro Amigos. Yes, in the dead of a very cold winter, one of our Mexican restaurants has gone belly up, bought the farm, cashed in all its chips.

The hand written sign on white board sits in the front window like a suicide note: “We are close.” (That’s not my typo). You are close, Amigos. You may not be close to our wallets anymore, but you will always be close to our hunger for the perfect enchiladas with green sauce. We’ll hear you, Amigos, in the crunch of every hard taco, with or without cheese that may or may not cost extra. We’ll see you in every house salsa, be it pureed, chunky, bland, peppery, green, red, or some in-between brownish color.

Let us honor the memory of our fallen comrades with a reading of the 23rd Psalm (with some minor revisions).

The lunch is my special I shall not miss.

It makes me mow down on warm tacos.

It leads me beside hot salsas

It quiets my hunger

It guides me in its paths of burritos

With cheese toppings.

And yea, though I walk

through the alley of Tex-Mex

I shall fear no charges

(for what should be free anyway).

Your beans and your rice

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

with a basket of tortilla chips.

You anoint my bowl with cheese dip.

My soufflé cup overflows.

Surely the heat of Serranos will follow me

the rest of the day and the night

and I will dwell on the taste of Sangria


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dinner on the Down Low

When I saw Meryl Streep in Out of Africa in 1985, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The way she delivered the line, “I once had a farm in Africa,” with her low, throaty accent, made me want to get up off the couch and plant a big wet kiss on the TV screen. It’s the only time during my formidable 80’s life that I was in love with a woman.

Out of Africa won twenty-eight film awards that year, including seven Academy Awards. Streep was nominated for Best Actress, but in an all-too-common miscarriage of Oscar justice, she lost to Geraldine Page, who played Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful.

(Speaking of injustice, remember Judy Dench’s 8-second performance in Shakespeare in Love where, as Queen Elizabeth, she waltzed across a wood plank over a mud puddle and walked away with the Best Supporting Actress Award for it? Vanessa Redgrave, who turned in a stunning performance in Gods and Monsters, was the victim of an Oscar robbery that year.)

But I don’t hold grudges, and time has healed most of my bitter wounds. Besides, the 2010 Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, and guess who was on the list? Meryl Streep. For Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Julia Child in Julie & Julia. Stanley Tucci also received a nod for Best Supporting Actor. Amy Adams was, unfortunately, not invited to the table. She’s young. She’ll have other chances.

Meryl Streep already won a Golden Globe Award for her role in the film, but this is the Oscars, and she starred in a movie about food! How freakin’ cool is that?! If you’re a foodie and you haven’t seen the movie, a) shame on you, and b) put on your mukluks and Parka and go the video store right now. Philip bought the DVD for me for Christmas as insurance in case I didn’t buy it for him. Good call on his part.

In a nutshell, the movie is based on two true stories: One about the life of Julia Child and her quest to become a respectable French Chef and write the definitive French cookbook for Americans; the other about a woman who cooks her way through Julia’s famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in one year, blogging about her experience along the way. The two stories are presented in parallel, and Julie and Julia never meet, but I became so invested in the two characters that I found myself wanting them to sit down and share a meal at the end of the movie.

After seeing the movie for the first time, I had two very strong, very different reactions. First, I fell in love with Meryl Streep all over again. Dan Aykroyd’s version of Julia Child on Saturday Night Live was awesome, but Meryl Streep was awesome and a little more believable. She was spot-on as the nutty, vulnerable, self-confident, strong Julia Child that I remember from my childhood. And she made such a daunting acting challenge look so easy. I’m pretty sure she won’t win the Oscar this year, but now that she’s at least been nominated, I'm gonna go out and buy the best bottle of bubbly I can find, which I will get totally goofy on during the Academy Award ceremonies next month.

The other reaction I had to the movie involved the Amy Adams character. It wasn’t so much that I was inspired by how she challenged herself to cook her way through Julia’s book in 365 days, which is about 550 recipes thick, in case you haven’t seen it. I was more impressed that she documented her quest by blogging about it and sharing her experience with the rest of the world. I was really taken by the idea of inviting the whole cyber world to peek in on you and share your adventure as it unfolds. I bent Philip’s ear all the way home from the movie theatre about how cool that concept was and how I wanted to do something like that. Julie & Julia was, in fact, my inspiration for starting Eating Flint and joining the ranks of what I call the exhibitionist writers.

I can only make this claim anecdotaly, but I'm pretty sure the Julie & Julia movie has created a whole new blogging genre. This quest to accomplish some task, profound or mundane, in a set period of time, usually 365 days, can be found all over the web. I’m following a blog, for example, that started at the beginning of the year called Fed Up: School Lunch Project, where a teacher in suburban Chicago is eating the daily cafeteria lunches that her students eat and then blogging about the experience. It’s sort of like the documentary Supersize Me only staged in a public school lunch room.

Local food blogs are popping up more and more as well. I’m currently following Hannah Fralik’s blog Flint Foodie. Hannah is a vegetarian who writes passionately about food, our bodies, and multiple concepts of nourishment. Emma Davis’ A Taste of Flint focuses on the food scene in downtown Flint. And Zac (I think that’s his real name) writes a blog called Pizza Time. All the Time. Check them out when you’re browsing the web. These folks love to talk about food, and they’re committed to supporting the city of Flint with their blog projects.

Beyond the plethora of food related blogs that have hit the internet since the release of Julie & Julia, another phenomenon is drawing national attention that may or may not be related to the release of this movie: The underground supper club. Often referred to as culinary speakeasies, they are, according to an article in Sherman’s Travel magazine, “a kind of professional dinner party masterminded by a talented (and often amateur) chef bringing together a group of strangers, usually in a private home.” By going underground and staging their dinners in private places, these chefs/hosts can operate without licenses or inspections. It’s really an old school idea that’s all of a sudden back in vogue.

The term underground supper club is kind of a paradox because it’s becoming the worst kept secret since Liberace’s sexuality. Just do a simple Google search for “underground supper club” and you’ll see what I mean. The allure, in part, for me is that getting a seat at one of these dinners is somewhat of a game. One supper club even has a web site with a full menu and pictures of the food. Included is a short note from the chef that reads:

“Fabulous Friends!
Join me for the Taste of Pace Underground Supperclub in Hollywood on Saturday, April 11th at 6:30. I’ll send out details for the exact address a few days before the soiree. I will be featuring a variety of delicious SoCal produce from Santa Barbara to Santa Monica and farms in between. The event is BYOW (Bring Your Own Wine).”

I’m not aware of any supper clubs operating in Flint, but I’d be the first one to sign on if one did surface. Or better yet, I could try to convince Philip that we should be trend setters and host one of our own. And to bring our little scheme full-circle, we could push for our Underground Flint Supper Club concept to be made into a movie. Sort of a 21st century twist on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? And if I invited my parents to come up from Florida to be a part of the adventure, I could move ever closer to my ultimate movie dream: Meryl Streep playing my mother and Robert Redford playing my father in the comedy hit of the year, Dinner on the Down Low. If that’s not Oscar worthy, then I don’t know what is.