A Special Christmas Giveaway from AKT Designs

Not too long after we moved to Birmingham – way back in ye olden days of 2000 – I met my friend Alison. It would take me thousands of words to explain what she and her sweet parents (her daddy used to be my boss; her mama is my Bible study leader) have meant to me over the last 11 1/2 years, so just suffice it to say that I can’t talk about their family for very long without fighting back tears. I will never, ever forget the countless ways Alison and her precious mama welcomed me to this city; their friendship is one reason why Birmingham immediately felt like home to me.

You may be picking up on the fact that I just love them to pieces.

A few years ago Alison started her own floral design business, and I am consistently blown away by her work. She’s so creative, so deliberate, so thoughtful in everything that she does, and she has such a gift for taking ordinary objects and using them in surprising, extraordinary ways. Lately she’s been doing lots of weddings in and around Birmingham, and during the holidays she branches out (is that a bad pun? I do apologize) and makes the prettiest arrangements for mailboxes (and front doors! and mantels! and dining room tables!) that you ever did see. As a matter of fact, last year I loved the arrangement on our mailbox so much that I left it up until ’bout near February.

TAKE THAT, HOMEOWNERS’ ASSOCIATION.

I’m only half-kidding.

Because just look at how pretty these are.


In the interest of spreading a little Christmas cheer, Alison has graciously agreed to give away one of her original designs for a lucky blog reader’s mailbox. Obviously she can’t travel to, you know, WISCONSIN, but she’s definitely willing to travel within a 60-mile radius of Birmingham in order to deliver the winner’s prize. So let’s say that our giveaway borders are Cullman to the north, Tuscaloosa to the west, Montgomery to the south, and Oxford to the east. If you live within that great big circle, you’re good to go giveaway-wise.

(By the way, I don’t have any idea how many Birmingham-area people read my blog, but in my head it’s somewhere around seven.)

(Given that, I think the odds for winning this particular giveaway are mighty strong indeed.)

(Also: if you don’t live in this area but would love to try to win the giveaway for a friend or relative who does live here, that is totally fine with me. Just please make sure that the person lives within a 60-mile radius of the ‘Ham.)

(And if your house doesn’t have a curbside mailbox, Alison will make an arrangement for your front door. Which is pretty sassy if you ask me.)

If you’d like to win one of Alison’s custom greenery designs for your (or a friend’s) Christmas mailbox, all you have to do is leave a comment on this post that answers the following question: what are your favorite colors to use when you decorate for the holidays? Are you a traditionalist who likes red and green? Do you throw a little turquoise or hot pink in the mix? Maybe a hint of lime green? Or are you more of a metallics girl?

I’ll leave the comments open until Monday, December 5 at noon central time, at which point I’ll draw for a winner using random.org. I’ll notify the winner via email, and if that person doesn’t respond within 72 hours, I’ll draw for another winner.

Merry Christmas, y’all!

Just so you know: this is not a sponsored post. Nobody gave me anything free in exchange for this post. Unless you count all those times that Alison and/or her mama hosted Bunco back in 2001 and we had some really good snacks. The end.

This giveaway is now closed.

Because You Can’t Fight Your Calling

Some people blog so that they can encourage you in the faith.

Others want to show you how to have a more warm and welcoming home.

And some folks love nothing more than sharing recipes that will make feeding your family easier.

But me?

Well, I consider it my personal mission to keep you abreast of the latest developments in the field of snack crackers.

Yes. I know. It is an intimidating assignment. But sometimes the Lord calls us to uncomfortable places, my friends.

And listen. The last week has been rife with opposition as far as snack crackers are concerned, as evidenced by the fact that a certain eight year-old recently asked me to please buy Cheese Nips at the grocery store. I was totally puzzled by his request since everybody knows that Cheez-Its are far superior to Cheese Nips, so I said, “Hey, buddy – I think you meant Cheez-Its. The ones that we usually get.”

“No, Mama,” he replied. “I really did mean Cheese Nips. I think they’re cheesier. And better.”

I stood still as a stone for a second, and then the emotion of the moment took over.

“I’VE FAILED!” I cried. “I’VE FAILED AS A MOTHER! I HAVE A CHILD WHO DOESN’T APPRECIATE THE CHEEZ-IT! A CHILD WHO CHOOSES CHEESE NIPS! I’VE FAILLLLLLLLLLLED!”

And then I collapsed in a heap in my kitchen and was only brought back to consciousness when my husband opened a fresh box of Cheddar Jack Cheez-Its and waved them under my nose.

The little man and I really did have a big laugh about the whole Cheese Nips vs. Cheez-Its debacle, and I think he’s since fallen under fresh conviction about the error of his ways. But then – THEN – the most unexpected thing happened. A few days after we set the record straight about our cheese cracker preferences (I recognize that everybody has the freedom to make their own cheese cracker choices, but as for me and my house, we will purchase the Cheez-Its), we were in the Walmarts and saw something that we’d never seen before.

They’re Ritz Munchables Pretzel Rounds. I was immediately intrigued, because was it a cracker? Or a pretzel? Or a cretzel? Or a pracker? I NEEDED TO UNDERSTAND THESE THINGS.

So we bought a box. And OH, MY. I picked the Cheesy Sour Cream & Onion flavor because honestly that particular flavor combination seemed so wrong that it had to be right, and can I just tell you that THEY ARE DELICIOUS? They’re very crackery on the front end, almost to the point that you can envision eating them with a slice of cheese, but then suddenly the pretzel part kicks in and your mouth gets a little confused in the most delightful way because guess what? YOU’RE TOTALLY EATING A CRETZEL.

I haven’t found any sort of dip situation that would be complimentary to the Ritz Munchables – at least not to this flavor – but they’re so tasty on their own that you don’t miss the dip. They remind me of these really good seasoned oyster crackers that my mama makes sometimes, and there’s an element of Chicken In A Biscuit, too. But I’m telling you: it’s that cracker-to-pretzel metamorphosis that really makes these prackers special. I will most definitely buy them again.

Have y’all tried them? And if there’s another cracker / pretzel / salty snack food that you’ve tried recently, BY ALL MEANS share the name of it with the class. Don’t hide your snack cracker light in a bushel – let it shine!

And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

And they also said, “Pass those crackers.”

Or at least I like to think that they did.

I Think Mamaw Would Like ‘Em, Too

When I was a little girl, one of the dishes that was just flat out REVERED in my family was my Mamaw Davis’ chicken and dumplings. Except that we never, ever pronounced the “g” in the word “dumplings.” We said “dumplins.” Still do. So just know that from here on out I’m gonna type it like I say it. Chicken and dumplins.

Well.

Earlier this week I was temporarily overtaken by the plague, and on Wednesday, when I actually wore clothes that were not pajamas and started to emerge from my plague-induced haze, I decided that I had to have – HAD TO HAVE – chicken and dumplins for supper. I always think of chicken and dumplins as the Southerner’s answer to chicken noodle soup, and in light of the week I’d had, it sounded like the world’s most perfect food. So I went to the store, rounded up all the ingredients, then headed home to try to honor my sweet Mamaw’s memory.

I should probably tell you that I’ve tried lots of different chicken and dumplin recipes over the years. I’ve gone the totally-from-scratch route; I’ve gone the add-some-cream-of-something-soup route; I’ve gone the make-dumplins-from-canned-biscuits route. But Wednesday night, I have to say, is when I think I finally hit on the perfect combination of convenience and made-from scratch goodness. Because the chicken and dumplins? THEY WERE TASTY. And the next time I decide to cook up a batch, I’m going to make them the exact same way.

So on the off chance that anyone, you know, CARES, I thought I’d share the recipe. It’s a combination of (no kidding) about three different recipes, and for whatever reason, it works. Be advised that we don’t really enjoy it when vegetables interfere with our chicken and dumplins, so you won’t find any of them in this particular mash-up. You could definitely add them, though.

All righty. Here you have it.

My Favorite Chicken & Dumplins

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1 teaspoon table salt
1 cup buttermilk
(if you like fluffy, biscuit-y dumplins, add 2 teaspoons of baking powder – but we like dense dumplins around here)

*****

2 fully cooked rotisserie chickens
1/2 stick real-live (salted) butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 box chicken stock (32 oz. – I like Kitchen Basics)
2 cups water
1/4 cup half and half
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste

*****

In a mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour, 2 beaten eggs, salt and buttermilk. Once mixture is blended, cover the bowl and set aside. Don’t over mix – it’ll make the dumplins tough.

Pull meat off of rotisserie chickens. Chop into cubes, then set aside.

In a Dutch oven, melt butter over low heat. Once all the bubbles are gone, start sprinkling the 1/4 cup of flour into the pot. Add a little, stir to combine, then add a little more, stir to combine, etc. Once all the flour has been incorporated, continue to stir over low-to-medium heat until the mixture starts to turn a golden color. You don’t want it to get brown – just golden. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.

Once you see that golden color, start adding liquid to the mixture. Add about a cup of chicken stock, whisk it well so that everything combines, then add half the water, whisk to combine, more chicken stock, then whisk – and continue until all the liquid has been mixed with the flour and butter mixture. Turn the heat up to medium and continue to whisk frequently to ensure that you don’t have any lumps.

This is a great time to taste the stock mixture, by the way – the butter and stock already have salt, but you’ll probably need to add more salt and pepper to taste.

Let mixture simmer for about 10 minutes – until it’s thicker and not quite so brothy. Add Worcestershire, garlic powder, half and half and chicken. Stir to combine everything, then taste again. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.

Once the whole mixture is simmering and is season just like you like it, drop the dumplin dough into the pot by spoonfuls. It’ll start to look crowded, but that’s okay. Once everything is in the pot, let the dumplins simmer (uncovered) for about 15-20 minutes. They’ll cook through, and once they’re done, take the whole pot off the heat, cover it, and leave it alone for about 15-20 minutes.

After 15-20 minutes, take off the lid, grab a ladle, and serve the chicken and dumplins in some oversized bowls.

Be prepared for your people to pledge their undying and eternal devotion.

I’m just sayin’.

Because these chicken and dumplins are slap-your-mamaw good.

(But by all means, please don’t slap your mamaw.)

(I don’t think she would appreciate that.)

(Not to mention that it would be sort of tacky.)

Enjoy, y’all!

I Don’t Know What Can Possibly Top This, But An SEC Championship Would Be A Nice Place To Start

I was 11 or 12 years old, I think, when I discovered that the Sunday sports section was a gold mine of information during the college football season. My little hometown paper didn’t necessarily have loads of coverage, but the Jackson paper, the Clarion-Ledger, always devoted at least two full pages to each Mississippi team. So on Sunday mornings in the fall, I’d gather up four quarters (or ask Daddy for some) and carefully put them in the newspaper machine outside the Jitney Jr. on the way home from church. I can still hear the “plunk” of those quarters hitting metal and the creak of the newspaper machine door as it opened. Even now I think it’s what anticipation sounds like.

After Sunday lunch – or sometimes even during Sunday lunch – I’d open up that newspaper and read every single word about Mississippi State in the sports section. I saved all the stories that I loved in a brown photo album with a fancy fake brass binder. I soaked up every single word of Rick Cleveland’s columns and wondered how he learned to write like that. Same for Orley Hood, Billy Watkins and, in my grown-up years, Sekou Smith, Ian Rapoport and Kyle Veazey. Even though they have no idea, those men have been some of my very best writing teachers. I respect their work so much.

So a few weeks ago, when a blog reader-turned-friend who works for the Southeastern Conference asked me if I’d want to tag along with her during SEC Media Days, I was thrilled. THRILLED. Because yes, I love college football, and I especially love SEC football, and I especially especially love Mississippi State football. But no kidding: on equal footing in the thrill department – at least for me – was the prospect of seeing sportswriters that I’d read and admired for years in their element. In their natural habitat, if you will. LIVE AND IN PERSON. I couldn’t wait.

Since I already had plans to be out of town last Thursday and Friday, I could only make it to the first day of media days last Wednesday. I made a not-so-quick stop to get my driver’s license renewed on the way to Galleria (media days are at the Wynfrey Hotel, which is connected to the Galleria), and as I pulled off the interstate and onto my exit, I couldn’t help but think about all the times I’d been to that big ole mall in high school and college, wondering what sah-weet treasures Express and Espirit and Benetton might have to offer. There’s just no way I could’ve known that a trip to the Galleria at age 41 was going to blow that sassy safari t-shirt I bought from the Galleria Banana Republic when I was 17 STRAIGHT OUT OF THE WATER.

I couldn’t decide where to park once I got close to the mall, but I finally opted for the parking garage next to Sears. I have no idea why, especially since it’s not particularly convenient or, you know, CLOSE to the Wynfrey, but it wasn’t crowded and I was nervous and I felt a little better knowing that maybe I could CALM DOWN A SMIDGE on my walk to the hotel. Plus, I discovered as I walked through Sears that hammerhead auto-hammers were on sale for $99, and I would’ve completely missed that critical piece of info if I had parked, say, by the Belk’s. Or with the hotel valet. So clearly I made the right decision.

Also, I took this picture on my way to the hotel, but again, I have no explanation why.

Apparently I was feeling very impulsive and devil-may-care-ish last Wednesday.

I think we can all feel better now that we’ve seen such a stunning glimpse of Indoor Mall Architecture of the mid- to late- 80s. I know I do.

When I walked in the hotel there was all manner of activity going on in an area that’s called “Radio Row.” About 20 sports radio stations set up shop in the entry of the hotel during media days, and walking between all those tables is like being in a movie scene where all the supporting characters voice their opinions while rotating around the main character’s head. And I know that I’m probably not explaining that well, but four of you totally understood what I was trying to say, and I’m just as grateful as I can be for that. Apparently you four watched just as many John Hughes movies as I did.

After walking around for a few minutes I found my friend K at the registration tables, and I told her to put me to work – otherwise I’d just stand there and stare. She asked if I’d mind helping with lanyards and name tags, and of course I didn’t mind because I WAS JUST SO TICKLED TO BE THERE. Within five minutes I’d seen one of the men I mentioned earlier, another reporter who’s a bit of a legend in these parts, and a radio host/blogger from another state (known by Sister and me as the Chief Pot Stirrer during all the Cam Newton stuff). I didn’t say a word to any of the media folks, of course, mainly because I think I would have scared them if they knew how much I love to read what they write. And they probably would’ve thought I was a stalker. And then they might’ve called security. And what good is attending your first SEC Media Days if you have to be escorted back past the hammerhead auto-hammers as the nice men with badges are seeing you to your car?

When the registration stuff was almost over, we walked down the hall to a BEAUTIFUL lunch from the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism Bureau, a new corporate sponsor of the SEC. It was a big ole seafood spread, and oh, it was tasty. I happened to be sitting with some State fans at lunch, and it was big fun to talk about All Things Bulldogs over some fried shrimp, crabcakes and iced tea.

(Come to think of it, that last sentence could be the foundation of a pretty good country song.)

(Only the country song would have to be about beer and not iced tea, but DON’T TELL THE BAPTISTS OR THEY’LL KICK ME OUT.)

(Oh, I kid.)

(They’ll only kick me out if I’m dancing.)

After lunch we went upstairs to where all the coaches and players were speaking. The line-up for Wednesday was Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi State, and if you think I wasn’t over the moon about getting to see that last school, then perhaps I should introduce myself. As well as my MSU crazy.

Since I’d never been to media days before, I didn’t have any sort of frame of reference for the size of the event. And that’s why I was a smidge surprised when we walked into the room where the coaches were speaking and I saw how many reporters were in the room.

We rotated in and out of the big room for the rest of the day; we’d listen to a coach speak, then head in the direction of the conference rooms to watch the players move from TV interview to TV interview. The whole process is a well-oiled machine; it’s really well-done and so respectful of the coaches’ and players’ time. It also felt a little bit like a giant family reunion since a lot of the media relations people, reporters and SEC people have known each other for years. The SEC staff members were incredibly gracious and welcoming to everybody; it was impressive, really, to see how organized and efficient they were without seeming the least bit stressed or hurried.

Also, did I mention that I got to see the MSU quarterback? Because I totally got to see the MSU quarterback.

I have a feeling that he’s going to do great things for the Bulldogs this year.

The very last speaker of the day was Dan Mullen, MSU’s head coach, and to my credit I did not ring a cowbell (aye, and loudly) when he entered the room. I thought every coach did something really well when he spoke: Bobby Petrino maintained a calm optimism throughout his speech, Will Muschamp showed that he’s not afraid to coach with the big boys, Steve Spurrier won over every single person in the room with his dry wit and self deprecation.

And Dan Mullen? Oh, mercy. He proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s the best PR machine that Starkville and Mississippi State have ever had. I lived in Starkville for six years when I was in college and grad school, and by the end of Coach Mullen’s speech, I was ready to go home, pack some boxes, load up the family and move back to Starkvegas. He and his wife love it there, and their enthusiasm for Mississippi and her people is totally contagious.

Once Coach Mullen’s speech was over, my friend K gave me the best parting gift ever: a box filled with media guides for every single SEC school. You can imagine my delight. And you can also imagine that once football season starts I will DRIVE MY PEOPLE CUCKOO when I pull out the media guides for whatever two teams happen to be playing. Because Mama here will want to SHARE SOME PLAYER NAMES AND STATISTICS. Oh yes ma’am I will.

All in all it was an absolutely incredible day. I got to see so many writers I admire, and I also got a little spring in my step when I realized that FOOTBALL SEASON, IT IS UPON US. I cannot wait. And while I’ve always been proud to cheer for a school that’s part of the SEC, I think I’ll be even more proud this year. Because the folks that I met at media days? They’re good people. They work hard. They work well.

And they work with their sponsors to make sure that there’s an endless array of fountain drinks and Golden Flake potato chips right outside the print media room.

Honestly, what’s not to love?

Go ‘Dogs.

A Milestone

I know – I KNOW – that I’ve blogged a whole lot about fried chicken over the last 5 1/2 years. I’m guessing that the only topics I’ve mentioned more are bacon and Mississippi State. And I imagine that if I ever find myself in a situation where I experience fried chicken, bacon, and a Mississippi State sporting event all at the same time, my head will spin around in circles and steam will pour out of my ears while I ring a cowbell with one hand and wave a chicken leg with the other.

Well.

I’m in Charlotte for a few days, blogging and helping out at Living Proof Live, and last night I went to supper with a group of friends who are also here for the event. We had reservations at a place called The King’s Kitchen, and before we got there I was so excited, mainly because I’d heard what they are all about – and that they serve local Southern food.

And also because I didn’t have lunch yesterday.

And also because I was burning up hot and really, really wanted some good iced tea.

Well.

As soon as I saw the menu, I knew that we were in for a treat.


I mean, listen. There’s no way to go wrong with something called “Aunt Beaut’s Skillet Fried Chicken.” So that’s exactly what I decided to order – with creamed potatoes, fried green beans, and collards. I didn’t even know what fried green beans would taste like, but the menu said they were “Rosa’s Fried Green Beans,” and in my experience a Southern dish that has someone’s name attached to it is almost always worth a try.

I was also encouraged by the restaurant’s slogan at the bottom of the menu:

OH, COME ON. Yes ma’am. Eat some chicken and feed somebody. Yes ma’am. That is a noble calling. I almost had to pick up my white napkin and wave it in the air.

Our waiter (who was darlin’) brought us biscuits and cornbread before the meal, and they were delicious. But would the fried chicken live up to my expectations? Would the food be underseasoned? Would the creamed potatoes be the real deal?

So the food arrived. I spent about a minute just staring at it.

And y’all – oh my goodness. It was the fried chicken of my life. OF MY LIFE. It reminded me so much of my Mamaw Davis’ that I felt a little teary-eyed. The chicken had the perfect amount of crust on it, and it had been dredged in some well-seasoned flour. I’m almost positive that it spent a day or two soaking in buttermilk (and maybe a little hot sauce) before it was fried, too. The creamed potatoes were buttery and delicious, the collards were fresh and hadn’t been cooked down so far that they’d lost all texture, and the green beans were perfection. I think they’d been cooked like normal in a pot, then reheated in a hot skillet.

Just FYI: I’d give anything to have a whole pot of them right about now.

Dessert was homemade banana pudding – complete with homemade vanilla wafers – and I have to quit talking about it because I’m making myself way too hungry.

So, to sum up: 1) incredible meal 2) fried chicken of my life and 3) FRIED CHICKEN OF MY LIFE.

I never even saw it coming. But oh, I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.

Hallelujah and amen.
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It. Was. Glorious.

Today I went to SEC Media Days for the very first time. It will probably come as no surprise that I loved every single second of it. And I have every intention of boring you to tears (TO TEARS) with all my pictures and thoughts and favorite moments and etc.

But right now I’m wiped out, not to mention that I need to finish packing for my last bloggy trip of the summer and a flight that leaves early tomorrow morning.

So consider this post a bit of a placeholder. But if you’re an SEC fan, you can watch the Media Days coverage live tomorrow and Friday on the SEC Digital Network, ESPN3, or via the free Watch ESPN app. The festivities start in the morning at 9:30 eastern, I think.

All righty. There you have it. It’s been a good, full, happy day.

Go ‘Dogs.