Friday, November 11, 2011

My Favorite Holiday ... Halloween

For the past six months, I have been attending Toastmasters meetings twice a month.  While I had participated in some of the roles during the meetings, I hadn't yet gotten up the nerve to do my first speech. In Toastmasters, they call this the "Icebreaker Speech," and the target is to speak for 4-6 minutes about the topic you know most about - yourself.  For my speech, I chose to talk about my favorite holiday, Halloween.

When I sat down to write my speech, I wasn't sure how to get started. So, I decided I would pretend I was writing a blog entry and go from there.  I present to you my Icecreaker Speech, which I presented to my Toastmasters group on Thursday, October 27. Final time was 6:38 so it was a little too long, but otherwise it was a success!

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What is your favorite holiday? Though I love the anticipation of Christmas and the lazy warm Fourth of July weekend, there is one holiday that stands out for me as the most fun. It is a holiday to look forward to, one to plan ahead for, one to get really excited about. I love Halloween.


As a child growing up in a small town in South Dakota (population 742), what I remember the most about Halloween was going out Trick-or-Treating with my friends. I must have been 9 or 10 I suppose for the Halloweens that I remember, but we would get all dressed in our costumes, and the goal was to hit every house in town. We didn’t even use those little plastic pumpkins – they didn’t hold enough candy - we used pillowcases. And sometimes, we had to stop back at home to drop off our loot before heading out to hit the rest of town.

One thing I remember about bringing home all of my candy, after visiting as many houses in town as we could, was that my sister and I would sit in the middle of the living room floor and dump all of our candy out in piles. We had to keep our piles separate of course, because it’s not like we wanted to share any with each other. Mom and Dad would come in and check out everything that we got. My dad always suggested that we take all of the “good” candy bars – you know the ones, the Snickers, Kit Kats, Butterfingers – and put them in a freezer bag to go in the freezer for safekeeping. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that I didn’t remember ever eating any of those candy bars out of the freezer. Turns out we gave our parents a secret stash of frozen candy bars. I guess they ate them at night after we went to bed.

In my family, we never carved pumpkins … but my Mom liked to do crafts, and she would always paint funny faces on pumpkins for our front porch.

Through high school and college, Halloween didn’t seem to be that big of a deal. I remember one year in college, we found a box of my aunt’s old clothes from the 70s and we all dressed up like hippies and went out downtown. Otherwise, my love for Halloween didn’t really resurface until after I was out of college.

A good college friend of mine, Leslie, and I moved to Galveston, Texas after we graduated from college. The first Halloween spent in Galveston, we had this big idea to carve pumpkins to decorate the front step of our apartment. In South Dakota, where it is in the 30s and 40s in October, people always carve pumpkins up to a couple weeks before Halloween. Since it is so cold outside, the pumpkins stay preserved and still look great by actual Halloween. So, at some point in the middle of October we set out to carve pumpkins. Now, remember I never did this as a kid – so this was my first pumpkin carving experience. We were so proud of our pumpkins. Unfortunately, in Galveston in October, the temperature is more like 70 every day – not 30 … so our pumpkins didn’t even make it to October 20.

After living in Galveston for 2 years, I moved to North Carolina with my boyfriend at the time, who was in the Coast Guard and got transferred to the Outer Banks. For three years, I lived on Hatteras Island – and one of the best parts about it was the local bar’s annual costume party.

One year on Hatteras Island, I shopped on eBay for us – brown polyester Levi’s and a disco shirt for my boyfriend, and a brown and orange checkered polyester dress for me. His costume was accompanied by a black curly haired wig, and mine a long blonde haired wig. We looked groovy.

The next year, I wanted to be a saloon girl, and he was going to be a cowboy. I shopped on eBay for the perfect dress, and got a little too competitive one night – I spent way more money on my dress than I had intended, but I was determined that was my Halloween dress, so I “won” the auction. Meanwhile, we bought some red and brown canvas fabric for him, and a friend I worked with made him a red cowboy shirt and a brown trench coat. We got a leather cowboy hat at the local beach souvenir store.

After three years of living on Hatteras Island, my boyfriend and I parted ways, and I moved to Wilmington. I bought a house, met my current boyfriend, and started thinking of my next Halloween costume. Two years ago, I found a light pink and white polka dotted prom dress at the thrift store, and I was a psycho prom queen. Last year, I missed Halloween due to a work trip that took me to San Antonio, so I am extra excited for Halloween this year.

I decorated the house last weekend, complete with Halloween-themed paper blacking out my windows, with orange lights behind that make the pictures in the window glow on the outside. We have a few ghosts hanging in the trees, and the candy bowl is ready for Trick-or-Treaters.

I bought us two pumpkins that are perfect for carving, but I learned years ago, you can’t carve them too early when you don’t live up north, so we plan to carve them this weekend. Saturday or Sunday I imagine, so they still look good for the Trick-or-Treaters on Monday night.

To make up for missing Halloween last year, I am going to have three different costumes this year. Friday night, I am going to play Bunco with some girlfriends. The theme is “pink,” to support Breast Cancer Awareness month, so you can wear any kind of costume you would like, as long as it is pink. I am going with an 80s punk look, with pink hairspray, a pink striped vest, black skirt, black nail polish and pink leg warmers. On Saturday night, our neighbors are having a costume party, where I will be dressing in a black robe and going as an insane clown (like the infamous band Insane Clown Posse whose popularity peaked in the 90s), with white and black makeup and spiked braids in my hair. Sunday night, there is a break in the action, but I may dress up as something anyway.

Monday, the grand finale, brings us to actual Halloween. To prepare for the Trick-or-Treaters, my Monday costume is going to be a zombie. I have my outfit nearly ready, with some embellishments from the fabric store waiting for final assembly. My boyfriend is also going to be a zombie, so we have our fake blood and cream makeup ready for application.

We have two dogs – a golden retriever and a beagle. On Halloween night, we sometimes have up to 100 Trick-or-Treaters, and 100 doorbell rings is just too many in one night for the dogs to handle, so we usually just sit on the front porch and wait for the kids to come. We take the CD player outside and play my “Monster Hits” Halloween CD. On repeat … over and over, until there are no more kids.

So, whether your favorite holiday is Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Fourth of July, or another holiday, I suggest to you this – don’t forget Halloween. Wear a costume, decorate your house, bake something with pumpkin in it, carve or paint pumpkins, buy candy for the Trick-or-Treaters. It’s so much fun!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Groceries, Recipes and Dinner

I seem to be addicted to food. Not in an "I can't stop eating" problematic sort of way, but a "my fridge is always full of groceries I bought or things I made and my collection of recipes may one day take over the house" sort of way.

First, let's talk about shopping for groceries. I'm a bargain shopper. I buy lots of things in bulk at Sam's Club, I love Big Lots, the bins and endcaps of things at the grocery store that are on sale, clipping coupons, and we can't forget about Super Double or Triple Coupon week at the local Harris Teeter! I also recently discovered you can buy grocery coupons on Ebay for super cheap - we're talking $1 for 100 coupons or something with FREE shipping. I haven't bought any yet, I'm waiting for my pantry supply to go down a bit before I start buying coupons on Ebay.

Which brings me to my pantry ... how do we store these groceries? I have a small house. At 1300 square feet plus a storage shed, it's large enough for my boyfriend, my two dogs, me, my home office, and all of our "things." This includes all of my cookbooks (we'll get to that in a bit) and other collections, and Marshall's "room" full of tools and hunting and fishing gear. None of these things can go in the shed because the shed is not climate-controlled, so if you come visit, I hope you don't mind sleeping in a room that smells like boys and has fish and squirrels hanging on the wall. We won't even talk about what's in the closet in there. But wait, I'm getting off track. Back to the storing of the groceries.

I have a cupboard in the kitchen with spices, pasta and rice. Our fridge sits in a little alcove in our kitchen that used to be the pantry. A wise former owner of my house turned the pantry into a home for the refrigerator, and there was plenty of space above and beside the fridge that was being wasted. Marshall built a really nice custom shelving unit around the fridge, which has a big shelf above for miscellaneous things like cereal, cookie sheets, the rice cooker, and all the other random stuff that gets used once a month and takes up a bunch of space. Beside the fridge, there are five shelves that store canned goods, snacks, and other bargains I find while I am grocery shopping. In my office, I have a large cabinet that also stores food, as well as a shelf that stores more canned goods. We also have a chest freezer that struggles to have enough room for ice cream, as well as a refrigerator freezer that also is stocked.

For a certain amount of time, I kept a spreadsheet on my computer that had an "inventory" of the food that was in the freezer, as well as on the pantry shelves. Although I am an organized person, I am also busy ... and this proved to be just a little too much for me to maintain, so we no longer have a spreadsheet. However, I do clean the freezer out every other month or so and take note of things that should be used, and I clean out the pantry and cabinets every few months and check for things nearing expiration so I can add those to the "needs to be used" section as well.

Anyway, let's talk recipes for a few minutes. When I first started cooking for myself when I was in college, I made the basics. Meals I had watched my mom make, things I liked ... macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, tater tot casserole, meatloaf, cheese burritos. As time passed, I started experimenting a bit with new recipes here and there. Today, I have a large collection of cookbooks (should we say 100 or so?) and when I sort through them to see what I can take to the used book store, I end up convincing myself that I NEED them all.

I also have magazine subscriptions. Taste of Home, Cuisine at Home, Rachael Ray Magazine, Food Network Magazine, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens. I'm letting some of the subscriptions lapse ... but I won't be able to get rid of Rachael Ray or Food Network. Or Real Simple. Or Cuisine at Home. Ok so I can keep those four, right? When I read my magazines, I clip out the recipes that sound good that I want to make. I try to be selective, and clip only the ones I think I need (for example, a recipe for a three-cheese pasta? Probably can figure that one out without a recipe.) However, I find myself with a never-ending box of "recipes to be glued" onto cards ... which are stored in photo boxes. I currently have two photo boxes full, and at some point in the future I think I may need to add a third.

I also watch the Food Network. My favorite show is Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (DDD) with Guy Fieri. I also like watching Heat Seekers, and some of the other shows. Again, recipes I see on the Food Network I can go to FoodNetwork.com and search for them and print them out.

And, after all of these cookbooks, magazines, TV shows, websites, and recipe clipping and gluing, what do I do when I make dinner? One of two things:
  1. Make whatever I am making without using a recipe.
  2. Go to AllRecipes.com or Google.com and search for what I want to make, and use a recipe from there. (And I print it out and add it to my 'to-be-glued' pile.)
I also recently purchased a small magnetic white board that lives on the refrigerator, where we note "meal ideas." I tried a scheduled meal calendar for awhile, but that didn't work (again not enough time to maintain it.) But, posting a list of "ideas" of things we want to try or make for dinner soon seems to be working well. I can also post things I find in the freezer or pantry that need to be used soon on here so we can use them in upcoming meals.

After all of this food shopping and storing and recipe gathering and menu planning, we usually eat at home. It saves money, and it's so much healthier. If someone asked me what restaurant they could get me a gift card to, I think I would prefer a gift card from the grocery store. :) Sometimes we go astray with a dinner out at El Cerro Grande or Outback Steakhouse, or a take-out pizza from Papa Murphys, but most of the time we cook. We try to cook healthy as well, with lots of vegetables, beans and whole grains. But I can't do without cheese.

Anyway, all this talk about food has made me hungry. I think I'll go choose something for us from the mass of food I made over the weekend that is sitting in my fridge: cheeseburger soup (A DDD recipe), chicken curry, grape and blueberry chicken salad, or Salisbury steak with mushroom cream gravy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Stay Tuned ... a Sneak Peek of What's to Come

Tonight, I’m announcing a return to my blog. As I stated in one of my last posts (which I am a little ashamed that readers can see how long ago that was), I had intentions of wanting to do one post a week. I stated that after working at the computer all day, I struggle to sit here and write a blog entry.

However, I’ve been thinking about blogging again lately. Thinking of ideas of what I could write about, what I could share with my followers (and my non-followers who read my posts anonymously). So I’m back. And I’m going to try to do better. I can’t guarantee one post a day. I can’t even guarantee one post a week. But I can say I’m going to try to do better.

What should I write about in my more frequent posts, I wondered. Well … here are some ideas.

• I love to cook. I have subscriptions to several cooking magazines, own several (to say the least) cookbooks, and also make up my own things sometimes. Maybe I’ll share some recipes and/or cooking tips on my blog.

• I am a money-saver. I’m on a budget, which needs to be followed. I am a faithful Sam’s Club shopper, where I buy things in bulk and freeze in smaller packages as needed. I visit the local grocery stores during double and triple coupon days. I look for clearance sections and I go to discount stores. Yard sales and thrift stores? Love those too! Maybe I’ll share some of my bargain finds and money saving tips on my blog.

• I have two dogs. They are the coolest dogs ever (though doesn’t everyone say that about their pets?) I have a 7-year old golden retriever named Dakota and a 2-year old beagle named Mattie. These guys are so entertaining and funny. Maybe I’ll share some stories about them on my blog.

• Family and friends have told me that they love my writing. They tell me that I should write a book. I think you have to do a lot of magazine articles and columns – really get your name out there – before a publisher wants to look at a manuscript you wrote. But … some magazines I subscribe to have some writing contests coming up, and I’m hoping to enter them. Maybe I’ll share some of my contest entries on my blog.

• My boyfriend and I try to be very eco-friendly … or “green” as they are calling it these days. We recycle – and the trash company doesn’t pick it up for us each week. We separate it ourselves, we put it in our cars and drive it to the recycling bins down the road, get out of our cars in the 100-degree heat and throw all of the recyclables in their appropriate bins. We feed the birds, we have a compost pile, and we have barrels that collect rainwater so we can water the garden. Is there more we could do? Probably. Are we doing our part to save the planet? I think so. Do I think other people could do more to do their part? Yes. Maybe I’ll share some eco-friendly tips on my blog.

• The other night, our neighbors invited us to a concert downtown. Hayes Carll, a Houston native, was coming to town to share his (awesome) Texas music. It was held in the Brooklyn Arts Center, which was a dilapidated old church that someone decided to turn into a performing arts center. How cool. There are also live music performances held at local parks and other venues throughout Wilmington. We had a great time, and may be attending more of these events with our neighbors in the future. Maybe I’ll share some of these experiences on my blog.

• Lately, I’ve been trying to find ways to relax. My job has been really busy and stressful, and I’ve had some trouble “winding down” after a day of work. A few things (in no particular order) that I’ve found help me to relax: crocheting, reading, cooking, painting (art … not walls), walking in the woods. I’ve heard that yoga is very relaxing, though I’ve never tried it. Maybe I will. And maybe I’ll write about it on my blog.

How is that for a teaser of what’s to come? Please stay tuned …