Like Hungry Dogs Staring In The Meat Market Window

We were eating supper with relatives at a mid-range restaurant in Memphis when a solitary man sitting across the aisle from us had a cupcake with a lighted birthday candle delivered to his table. He looked at it for a while, paid his tab, and left. We thought the who thing seemed rather sad and discussed what it might mean. The wait staff passed the table several times, ignoring the cupcake but not the tip.

Finally, the aunt in our family group leaned over, snagged the cupcake, blew out the candle, and polished off the cake. What else could one do? Is there any finishing school etiquette about this?

I tend to notice when nearby restaurant patrons leave with their meals largely untouched. That’s like going into a place like Antoine’s in New Orleans, ordering the best meal on the menu, and then deciding you need to go see a man about a dog–without bothering with a carryout box.

The worst incidence of this happened at a fancy restaurant on I-85 south of the Jefferson exit. Okay, it was at the Chateau Elan Winery & Resort, a nice place that we only went to a couple of times while living in Jefferson since the cost of a meal there was outside our comfort zone.

A nearby table of ten people had a decent meal, then paid their tab and left with about twelve bottles of pricey wine sitting there hardly even touched. Looking at it, we discussed whether we could talk over and take the wine or if a waiter might do it for us. We felt like hungry dogs looking through the window of a butcher shop. We were too stunned to move because there was about $500 worth of wine on the table.

The wait staff didn’t touch it. Seeing it there while we ate just about ruined our meal. It’s been a while since this happened. The fact that I remember it so clearly tells you that it was one of those defining moments in my life–as Dr. Phil might say. I don’t know what it taught me other than don’t gunger after what you can’t have.


Sunday’s mixed bag.

  • This peacock is one of our frequent visitors from the farm across the road. He looks for bugs while we’re mowing the yard or soon after. Often has several peahens with him. The focus is a bit off because he was so close I had to take the photo through the dirty windows on the front door.
  • Since I like going grocery shopping on Mondays, Mother Nature likes scheduling the heaviest rains of the month on Monday. Looks like that’s going to be the case tomorrow. Drat.
  • Our unopened backup jar of Jiff peanut butter is included in the batch being recalled. I’m happy we hadn’t opened it yet. I’m unhappy that the solution is to throw it in the trash.
  • Every time I read about the Korean war, I’m stunned by how badly General MacArthur managed the war from Tokyo. He kept saying that the Chinese troops south of the Yalu rive were simply the remains of a regiment that came across the border into North Korea–nothing to worry about. So he sent army and marine divisions up to the Chosin reservoir where they were outnumbered five to one by a massive number of Chinese who were there in strength just waiting for the Americans to walk into their trap–which they did. They were lucky to get out of there to a port city where naval and merchant ships evacuated them.
  • While waiting for Alice Hoffman’s The Book of Magic to arrive, I pulled my copy of the 1992 Richard Powers’ novel The Goldbug Variations off the shelf thinking I’d re-read some of it. Hmm, perhaps not. I thought it was weird in 1992 and I still do, so I doubt I can stay with it even though I have no trouble staying with Pirsig and Joyce. In its review, the New York Times said, “In his third novel, Richard Powers is up to something very unusual. “The Gold Bug Variations” is a little bit like Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in that it carries us on a cerebral quest for a philosophical heffalump; it’s a little bit Borgesian in its love of the complex and cryptic; it’s a little bit Joycean in its size and difficulty. It’s a “science” novel, but closer to science fiction in its inventiveness, its hardware vocabulary and software characterization, and in the uncritical pleasure it takes in the purely clever, the nifty.” Maybe I’ll just read cereal boxes for a few days.
  • I’m tempted to buy How the World Really Works, and since Kirkus says it’s “An exceptionally lucid, evenhanded study of the scientific basis of our current and future lives,” that means I might understand it without a little bit Borgesian complexity muddying the waters. My novels are usually magical realism in style, but I never cared for the work of Jorge Luis Borges. (I do like the music of Muddy Waters. I grew up listening to the blues, not that that has anything to do with Vaclav Smil’s book.)
  • The grocery store nearest my house has a decent selection of wine in the low-price (swill) category, plus a few other red wines that I actually like. However, the store is discontinuing Yellowtail shiraz. This is almost as bad as Outback Steakhouse taking Black Opal Cabernet off the menu.  I contacted customer service to suggest that they keep the wine in stock. Yeah no, like that’s going to happen. The wine goes well with steak and typing blog posts.


Memories in the Wine: Scuppernong Grapes

Possibly the oldest cultivated grapevine in the world is the 400-year-old scuppernong “Mother Vine” growing on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. – Wikipedia

Yesterday, I learned in a Facebook conversation that both my publisher and I grew up with a love for Muscadine grapes. In my case, it was Scuppernongs, a distinctive variety of Muscadines. I grew up in the Florida Panhandle where many of my junior high and high school friends’ parents had small farms or large rural backyards. Every fall, we ate Scuppernongs right off the vines, usually on ancient, falling-down trellises.  While Muscadines are generally purplish red, Scuppernongs are greenish bronze.

Scuppernongs – Wikipedia photo

The grapes make great jams and jellies–and wine. (Here is one of the many online recipes for Scuppernong jam.) The old-timers had many regional names for Scuppernongs, including “sculpins” Oddly, I was the only one in my family who liked these grapes; my brothers and parents found them too tart and didn’t like chewing on them and having to spit out the skins after all the juice was gone–sort of like chewing on unpeeled kumquats. (I was also the only one in the family who loved boiled peanuts and chewing on the sugar cane sticks that used to be sold in those days by street vendors.)

I normally drink only non-sweet red wines, but while working on my recently released novel Lena, I chilled several bottles of Scuppernong wine to bring back childhood memories. I actually sipped the wine while working on the book because the characters were drinking, as I called it, homemade sculpin wine. It was nostalgic writing a story about a farm with sculpin grapes while drinking a glass of wine made from those wonderful native grapes

Duplin Winery photo

As for that mother vine, I’d love to taste the wine still being made from this ancient vine in North Carolina. As Duplin Winery describes its MotherVine Wine, “This sweet white wine is made from the Scuppernong grapes of the Mother Vine. The Mother Vine is the oldest Vine in the world, and is still producing World Class Wine!” The label shows a photograph of the vine itself which looks quite a bit different than the vines I saw in Leon County, Florida.

Writing the three novels in the Florida Folk Magic series has brought back a lot of childhood memories. First, the people, many of whom still call me “shug (for sugar), as in “Shug, how’s it going?” Second, the wiregrass and longleaf pine ecosystems and the nearby blackwater rivers and Gulf of Mexico coastline. Third, so many of the foods, from rosin-baked potatoes, mayhaw jelly, hush puppies, fry bread, and catfish.

That Scuppernong wine, though, was pure liquid memory, rather like the now-legal moonshine you can find in most liquor stores. (There’s a Mason jar of shine in my pantry.) Now that the folk magic series is complete, I feel like I’ve just stood up and stretched after reclining on a psychoanalyst’s couch, for the writing was indeed a trip back in time where I found many outrageous things I shouldn’t have kept silent about for so many years, and many joyful childhood moments that made me feel as ancient as that mother vine.


When it comes to wine, I’m probably drinking cheap swill

Whether you buy your wine at the gas station, the grocery store, or an upscale booze emporium, you know that–other than those disgusting boxes with faucets on them–most wine comes in the a 750 ml (standard) bottle and a 1.5 L magnum bottle.

After the harvest. Wikipedia artwork.

Other than an occasional glass of scuppernong wine, I drink nothing but red wines: Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Shiraz, and Cabernet Savauginon. I don’t drink Merlot because it tastes like the original Vick’s Formula 44 from my childhood, nor do I drink Port because it just tastes gosh awful.

But, I digress. I buy wine in the 1.5 L size because the standard 750 ml bottles are (according to me) a rip off and environmentally irresponsible. That is, two of them usually cost more than one 1.5 L bottle. So, I’m paying for extra glass. What a waste.

What tells me I’m drinking swill is the fact that wine clubs and other forms of advertising are telling me what a good deal it is for me to buy (from them) a 750 ml bottle of whatever for, say, $15 to $25 dollars. Excuse me. I don’t even pay that much for a 1.5 L bottle.

The 1.5 L bottles of red wine that I normally buy sell from about $8 to $12 dollars. So, telling me that half as much wine at twice the cost is not going to get my attention. I’m sure those with refined tastes can probably list all the aromas and influences in every glass of wine they drink while being able to identify whether it’s Shiraz or Zinfandel with their eyes closed.

I’m grateful that my tastes are less-well defined because, while I appreciate the complex makeups of various wines, I don’t need them any more than I need coffee from Starbucks where one cup costs more than I spend in a week when making coffee at home. (My favorite restaurant coffee is what I get at Waffle House, so that probably tells you all you need to know about how much I’m willing to pay for something to drink.)

I remember the “old days” when cigarettes were starting to get expensive and people were figuring out just how much a person spent on tobacco every year if they smoked one, two, or three packs a day. I feel that way about wine and coffee. I want it to taste good, but I seriously don’t see the point of paying more per year than my house is worth just so I can brag about and show off my favorite premium brands.

However, what I would like wineries and wine distributors to do is stop selling those puny 750 ml bottles as standard. They are a waste of money when you consider how much packaging is in them compared to the larger bottles. This argument ought to appeal to those who drink swill and to those who buy wine at $100 per bottle.





Finding Thomas Hall – Author Beth Sorensen Discovers Her Passion in a College Course


Today’s guest post has been contributed by Beth Sorensen, author of “Crush at Thomas Hall” (Chalet, August 2010) and “Divorcing a Dead Man” (Chalet, August 2011). My review of her romantic mystery, “Crush at Thomas Hall” appeared here on Malcolm’s Round Table in September 2010. Sorensen lives in Delaware with her husband and three children.

Finding Thomas Hall

When I sat down to write Crush at Thomas Hall, I already knew I wanted my story to take place in Virginia. I was born and raised there and the eastern coast of the commonwealth as only a native would. Most people, however, would not necessarily associate wineries with this part of the United States. And until I was in my mid-twenties, neither did I. Until I returned to Old Dominion University in the mid-nineties, to finish a degree I had started six years earlier. My interests had changed and so did my major. I enrolled in the geography program and set myself on a track that included taking classes year-round.

As a single mom, I often took a night classes. I was fortunate to have the help of family with my son and I could knock out a three credit class while only being away from home one night a week. In the summer of 1996 I enrolled in the geography of wine. Sounds like an easy class, right? Wrong! It turned out to be two nights a week of six weeks. One night lecture, the other lab. Okay, so the lab was fun, but lecture was no joke. The history of wine, wine in early America, how and what type of grapes are grown, how wine is made, stored, and sold were all topics on the syllabus.

I fell in love with every part of the class and when I went out on our field assignment, this was a 400 level class; I fell in love with wineries as a location. I had the great pleasure of spending several hours at Ingleside Winery with their then wimemaster Tom Payette. The day left me with a true sense of what vineyard and winery life was like. I visited others that summer and discovered that they were all beautiful and romantic with a touch of mystery. And for our final, we had to design our own winery and defend its practicality.

So when it came time to choose which winery to use as a setting for my romantic mystery series I knew exactly where it would take place. A winery of my own design, named after my great-grandmother’s maiden name, Thomas Hall.

Protagonist Cassandra Martin from “Crush at Thomas Hall” returns in “Divorcing at Dead Man,” available in Kindle and trade paperback editions.

Cassandra Martin’s life is bordering on perfection. She has settled down in the Northern Neck of Virginia and has an amazing job running a winery. In addition, she plans to marry the man of her dreams, sexy billionaire Edward Baker.

However, in Cassandra’s world, perfection usually means the earth is about to drop out from under her and this time is no exception. What starts as a series of prank calls, soon reveals her abusive, late husband, Tony Martin, is very much alive and looking for her, three weeks before she plans to remarry. Now she must do the unthinkable as a devout Catholic, divorce Tony. When secrets  alienate her from her fiancé, Cassandra begins to question the advances of a man that wants more than her friendship. And when she wakes up after having been  drugged and kidnapped, Cassandra begins to wonder if she’ll live long enough to decide whether or not she wants to walk down the aisle.