Family Ties: A Snapshot of my Grandfather

Pictures are like a time machine for feelings, because with the snap of a camera you can freeze a moment in time, and no matter how much time goes by, when you look at it again, some of those same feelings come rushing back to you through the memory, which is why a Christmas gift from my aunt Tracy is one of the most meaningful and special things that I’ve ever received. She put together a photo album for me and the eight other grandchildren of my grandparents, a personalized memento to remember our granddad, who passed away about two and a half years ago. When I say put together, I’m speaking literally, as the cover of the album is made up of neckties that belonged to my grandfather, neckties that I’ve seen him wear countless times, some ties that I’d actually worn before when I was on the debate team in high school, and I stopped by his house on Friday’s, the day of the debate match, so he could tie the tie for me. Before I even opened the photo album, just holding it in my hands and stroking the silky smoothness of his ties, I knew that this was special.
Inside the memories came flooding back, from the very first picture, one showing my granddaddy asleep in a lawn chair, hat pulled low on his head, chin angled down toward his chest, as he napped in the driveway of a beachside vacation rental home. Of the countless things to admire about that man, his ability to nap anywhere would certainly make the list. While you or I would probably get bored or restless waiting outside for your family to get ready to go down to the beach, my granddad, always the one to go with the flow, took the waiting in stride and decided to get a little rest and relaxation. Next was the picture of me with him and my two uncles, standing outside dressed in suits and ties, even me, who would have been no older than three at the time, either before or after going to church. I always enjoyed going to church with my grandparents when I was younger, because granddaddy was the preacher, and everyone there wanted to talk with him after the service and shake his hand and compliment him on his sermons. He was a rock star, and as his grandchild, I was a rock star by association, everyone shaking my hand and being friendly with me as I stood next to him in the foyer of the Southwest Church of Christ.
There were pictures of their new house, the one they built on “the farm” as we called it, ten acres of land that they bought just outside the Little Rock city limits years ago. Their previous house was only about two minutes away, and I remember after they bought the land, going over there with my granddad when that’s all there was and riding the four wheeler around on that blank canvas that would eventually hold their home. While they built the house, my grandparents lived in a mobile home on the property, one that would eventually be occupied by my great grandmother, grandma Laird, the mother of my granddaddy. The structure of the home was up by the time Christmas rolled around, so it was decided that we would have our first Christmas in the house, and it’s definitely near the top of my list of Christmas memories. There was no electricity or furniture, so extension chords were run through the house to light the giant open space that would one day become the living room, and folding chairs were brought in, arranged in a circle for everyone to have a seat, because nothing was going to stop our family from having a special Christmas together in that new house. I remember sitting around later that night, drinking apple cider for what I think was the first time, and listening to my Gran-Gran, my grandmothers mom, play her mandolin, and I was genuinely happy in that moment, sitting in the warm, comfy glow of the lamplight surrounded by family and lots of laughter.
Then there were the vacation pictures, from all the many trips my granddaddy generously took the family on over the years. There was the picture from our trip to Yellowstone, where we stopped somewhere along the way in the mountains to take some pictures, and I, excited upon seeing snow in the summer, ran over to it, then slipped on it and fell, covering the lower half of me in mud. In the picture I’m standing behind a wooden bench, which means that the picture was taken after the fall but before I got back to the car to clean up and change clothes. Before photoshop and airbrushing, there was standing behind large objects to hide things you didn’t want anyone to see. There were pictures from North Carolina, when we went to the Outer Banks, and one from when we stopped on the way in the town of Mount Airy, the town where Andy Griffith was from that inspired the fictional town Mayberry in his television show, which was my granddad’s absolute favorite. Finally there was a picture of the whole family in Destin, Florida. It was the last vacation we ever took together, the last time I ever saw my granddaddy. It was a good trip and I spent a lot of quality time with him, sitting out on the front porch in the morning, drinking coffee, reading, and just talking. I have so many great memories of my granddaddy through the years, and thanks to my aunt, I now have a time machine back to those great times and feelings we shared while he was still with us, something I will cherish for the rest of my life.IMG_4672


Food and Football: The Perfect Night

I’m exhausted today, like trying not to fall asleep at my desk tired, but that’s okay, because it is totally worth it. You see, I didn’t get much sleep last night, because I got home late and then once I got home I was too excited to fall asleep, so I tossed and turned for hours, and eventually got a few hours of rest sometime between the hours of 1:30 and 4:50 this morning. I may be tired, but I’m very happy, still living off the high from last night. I’ll explain.
Last night my wife and I went over to my grandparents house about six o’clock for dinner with them, my dad, and my uncle Brett. My grandparents had just gotten back from Orange Beach, Alabama earlier that afternoon, and brought back with them some shrimp fresh from the gulf of Mexico, a delicious and succulent treat that everyone was looking forward to. Mimi had made some potatoes and corn on the cob to go along with it, which were good, but the shrimp, as I sat there taking bite after bite dipped in cocktail sauce, seemed to be the very best thing I’d ever eaten in my life. We ate and ate until we could eat no more, easily one of the best meals I’ve had in a while, and while the food was great and we all enjoyed ourselves, that really wasn’t why we were there. We had serious business to attend to.
Throughout the college football season, it is mandated in the Curtis Family Creed that we must gather together and watch the Crimson Tide of Alabama. In good times and bad, we stand by our team, although admittedly it’s been a lot more good than bad lately, which definitely makes it a lot more fun, and last night was no exception. We sat in the dimmed light of the living room, my grandpa on his throne, the leather recliner that sits to the right of the couch, where my wife, Mimi, and myself were seated. In the rocking chair sat my dad, the perfect seat to for letting out all of his nervous energy in the form of rocking, and on the other side of my grandfather sat my uncle Brett. By halftime we knew a change needed to be made, because our offense was stagnant and with short, three play drives that ended in punts, our defense would no doubt grow too tired to continue putting up a fight pretty soon.
For weeks now, at our football gatherings, we have talked about wanting our backup quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, to get some playing time, because clearly, between him and our two year starter, Jalen Hurts, Tua has the much better arm, able to zip passes across the field with pretty good accuracy, and last night we finally got our wish as he ran out onto the field to start the second half. From the first touchdown drive that Tua lead, hope re-entered my grandparents living room and we started to believe again that we could actually win this football game. It wasn’t easy, or all that pretty at times, but Alabama eventually won the game in overtime, and it was glorious. Everyone jumped out of their seats, high-fiving and hugging, basking in the victory of our favorite team. I told my grandpa, who records all the games, not to erase this one, that way I can come back later and relive that wonderful night all over again. As we left, I told him “let’s do it again next year” and hopefully we will. I don’t know when our good fortune is going to come to an end, but I know that for right now, we’re enjoying every minute of it while it lasts.

My Wife’s Birthday Dinner

Never in my life had I ever uttered the words “too much beef,” and before yesterday, I would have thought it impossible for those three words to exist next to each other, because in my experience, beef is good, and more beef is better, but it turns out there’s actually a limit, and I happened to reach mine last night. My wife’s birthday is on January 4th, so my dad took us to dinner last night to celebrate, and my wife chose to Playita Mexicana, my favorite Mexican restaurant. Although it wasn’t my birthday, I was pretty excited about the night; a free dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, what’s not to love? We arrived around seven, and my dad was already waiting at a table for us, and as soon as we sat down, a server took our drink orders, as well as an order for some cheese dip, or as I like to call it, white gold. The server returned with our drinks and cheese dip, and took our order, the red snapper for my dad, carne asada for my wife, and the combination number (numero) eleven for me, which included a burrito, enchilada, and a taco. We talked and laughed and my wife opened up the birthday gifts my dad had brought for her, and in no time, the entrees arrived, piping hot from the kitchen.

The other dishes looked good, but I didn’t spend much time admiring them, because lying right before me, was the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on, a plate of food, covered in white cheese dip. Sure, I’ve had enchiladas and burritos topped with the queso before, but in those instances I normally have to pay extra to substitute cheese sauce for the traditional red sauce, but not at Playita where they don’t even bother making you choose between the queso and the much more inferior, red sauce, plus out of all the Mexican restaurants around, their cheese dip is my favorite, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to have it basically covering my plate. Now, when people talk about how they feel the first time they hold their baby in their arms, I’m going to be able to relate, because I’m sure it’s the same way I felt looking down at the plate. I took a bite of the enchilada first, then the burrito, and finally the taco, and individually each one was good, but together, it was just too much.

I didn’t realize when I was ordering that everything on the plate would have beef inside of it, and it did seem somewhat unlikely given that basically a taco, burrito, and enchilada, consist of the same ingredients, figuring that there would be some chicken or steak somewhere to break up the monotony of tortilla, ground beef, and cheese, but unfortunately there was not. Granted, none of the tortillas were exactly the same, the enchilada made of corn, the burrito and taco made of a flour tortilla while the burrito was fried so it was almost like a chimichanga, but it did seem to be too much of the same thing. About halfway through my plate of food, I realized that it was just too much beef, and knew that I would never order the combination number (numero) eleven ever again. My dad and wife liked their food, and my dad let me eat one of the fish eyes, which is something I’ve wanted to try for a while, although it didn’t taste that great or anything. To me it basically just had a fishy taste, so personally, I don’t get what’s so special about it, but I finally tried it, and that’s the important thing. All in all it was a really good dinner, with good food and good company, and while I won’t be ordering the same thing ever again, there’s no question about whether or not I’ll go back; Playita Mexicana is still my favorite Mexican restaurant in town.

Eat and Eat and Eat: A Christmas Story

IMG_4601 Christmas is one of my favorite days of the year because it combines two of my favorite things in the world, family and food, and yesterday certainly had plenty of both. I’ll tell you all about it. For as long as I can remember, on Christmas morning when I’ve been at my mom’s house, we’ve always had a big christmas brunch. Now, there’s nothing inherently christmas themed about the brunch, but I call it a christmas brunch because of the day on which that meal occurs. Moving on. Yesterday after waking up and exchanging and opening gifts with my mom, grandmother, wife, and two younger brothers, plus a stocking for my mom’s dog, coach, which was kind of odd because Santa didn’t fill a stocking for our dogs, Jack and Mocha, maybe because they’ve been bad dogs this year, we all settled around the table to enjoy brunch. As many pictures as I take, I know you will find this surprising, but for whatever reason, I didn’t snap any of the breakfast food, but you can take my word for it, everything looked delicious, except of course for the poppyseed muffins, that only my brother Logan eats, despite the fact that that is one of the worst and most vile tasting foods I’ve ever tasted.

The spread was huge and I loaded my plate with breakfast casserole, a delicious blend of sausage, egg, and cheese baked to perfection, biscuits and gravy, a blueberry muffin, as well as sausage and some bacon. Everything was really good, and if you’ve never had breakfast casserole, try it sometime, because when you’re having a terrible awful no good very bad day, you can take solace in knowing that there is something as amazing as breakfast casserole in this world, a thought that should brighten your day instantly. My plate was so full that I didn’t have room to put any cinnamon roll on my plate, so I went to get some of that, and figured while I was up there I might as well get some more bacon and another muffin as well. It was a great decision, possibly the best I’ve ever made. The cinnamon roll that my mom makes is easily the best I’ve ever had, with a sweet icing and pecans on top for a nice, soft crunch.

After eating brunch at my mom’s in Searcy, Arkansas, my wife and I hit the road and got back to Memphis in time for christmas dinner at my grandparents house last night with my dad, aunt Kathryn, uncle Jimmy, and cousin, Bailey. Again, there was nothing christmas themed about the dinner, and I only called it that because of the day on which we ate. I’m not going to explain this anymore. If you can’t figure it out for yourself from now on, get off my blog! Anyway, that spread, like the brunch in Arkansas, was enormous, and it too looked delicious, which you can see for yourself since I did remember to take a picture at dinner. For the second time that day I loaded up my plate, but instead of breakfast casserole and biscuits, I filled it with green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, ham, and last but certainly not least, a dinner roll. My cousin Bailey (which when said aloud reminds me of the great movie titled “My Cousin Vinny”) made the sweet potato and green bean casseroles, and she, a reader of my blogs where I sometimes write food reviews, asked me to give an honest opinion of those two dishes, so I did.

My first bite was of the sweet potatoes and they were delicious, my exact words, I believe, were “so good.” Next I put a bite of green beans in my mouth, and for some reason, I hesitated and failed to give a response with as much gusto as I had for the previous bite, so she thought I didn’t like them. I actually did enjoy the green bean casserole, but as much as I tried to convince the audience of people around the table of this fact, it didn’t seem to sink in. I messed it up even worse for myself later in the dinner, when it came back up again, and again I tried to explain the hesitation. I started by saying, “normally green bean casserole is my favorite dish” and would have continued to say that the hesitation was because I was judging it against others I’ve had so I could give an honest answer about what I thought of it, but I didn’t get a chance, because my wording made it seem like I was saying “normally green bean casserole is my favorite dish but this is horrible.” It was all in fun, but for the record, Bailey, I did think your green bean casserole was good, and I actually ate some leftovers from lunch today (not pictured).

The mac and cheese and mashed potatoes were really good. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the mashed red potatoes but it was a nice change from the traditional mashed potatoes and I really enjoyed them. Some people spend lots of time cooking turkey or ham for christmas, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it seems like a wasted effort when you could get a ham as delicious as the one we had last night which my dad got from One and Only BBQ in Memphis. You could taste the smoky flavor in each bite, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that that pig came from a barbecue restaurant. I haven’t been to One and Only yet, but I’ve heard good things, and if their barbecue is anything like they’re ham, I’m going to love it. Yesterday was a full day, full of lots of fun with the family and lots of really good food. It’s a good thing Christmas only comes once a year, because I’m going to need a solid 365 days to work off the weight I likely gained yesterday.

El Porton: A Family Dinner

If there’s one thing my family loves, it’s Mexican food. Okay, I’m sure they love more than just that, like me, for instance, but in terms of things you eat, Mexican food is pretty near the top of the list. It seems like whenever we all go out as a family, which is generally to celebrate a birthday, we always end up at El Porton, which is how we ended up there on Wednesday night. We were having a birthday dinner for my uncle Brett, and a welcome to town dinner for my Aunt Kathryn and cousin Bailey who just got to Memphis from their home in Greenville, South Carolina to spend the holidays. If you were closely studying our family’s restaurant dining habits, it would be clear that we eat at El Porton much more often than anywhere else, and you might draw the conclusion that surely, by now, we would have grown tired of it, but you would be wrong. My grandpa sometimes says that he could eat Mexican food multiple times a day and still not grow tired of it, and I would have to agree with him, because, in my humble opinion, there is no greater food in the world, except maybe breakfast, but we can talk about that later.

No matter how many times I eat at El Porton, I always have to spend a few minutes looking over the menu, because unlike a lot of my other favorite restaurants, I rarely get the same thing to eat here very often, not because it wasn’t good food or anything, but because there’s just so much to choose from, and I want to try it all, or at least most of it. I’ll pass on the menudo. I’ve been to so many Mexican restaurants and have tried so many different varieties of salsa that it’s hard to keep them all straight, differentiating the ones I like from the ones that use too much cilantro or those that are too chunky, so I don’t remember if I’ve always been a fan of the salsa at El Porton, but Wednesday night, it was really good. It was very smooth with no overwhelming flavors, and while I wouldn’t have minded it being a little spicier, it was nice and mild. After looking over the menu, and changing my mind seventeen times, I finally decided on the combination number eleven, something I don’t think I’d ever gotten here before. I guess you’re probably wondering what the combination number eleven is, and I guess I’ll tell you, even though it’s obvious that you don’t go to El Porton as often as you should. Amateurs.

What I ordered was a plate with an enchilada, a beef burrito, and a taco. I’m not a big fan of crunchy tacos, so I asked to substitute the hard shell for a flour tortilla, and because you only live once, I willingly shelled out an extra dollar fifty to have my plate topped with cheese dip instead of red sauce. The food arrived and the waiter made sure to warn me that the plate was hot. Gracias amigo, but this isn’t my first rodeo. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a plate of Mexican food topped with cheese, but if not, the only word to describe how it looks, is heavenly. The sight is so aesthetically pleasing, that there’s a good chance by the time you’re reading this that I’ve put the picture of my queso covered plate as the lock screen photo on my phone. I took a deep breath, and dug in, first starting with the enchilada. I didn’t specify what I wanted inside the enchilada, but I figured it would be beef like the burrito, which turned out to be a wrong assumption. It was filled with cheese sauce, the same kind of queso that was covering the exterior of that very enchilada, making it possibly the cheesiest thing I’d ever eaten. There was so much cheese sauce that it thickened and stuck to my gums, caking the inside of my mouth. Having a lifetime of things stuck to the inside of my mouth, most disgusting and ibuprofen tablet that got caught between a dental spacer and the roof of my mouth where it had to stay until it dissolved, cheese dip is easily one of the least offensive tastes.

The burrito was great, full of seasoned beef and topped with the queso, and was the best thing on the plate. The taco on the other hand, could have been better. One would assume that the same ground beef from the burrito would be used for the beef taco, but the taco meat lacked flavor that was abundant in the burrito. Everything else about the taco was good, the flour tortilla that was heated to the perfect temperature of warm, but not so hot that you couldn’t pick it up, and the cheese was melted over the beef. If the meat had been seasoned properly, I would have said it was one of the best tacos I’d had at a Mexican restaurant in Memphis, but it wasn’t so I won’t. All in all it was a pretty good meal made better by the addition of cheese sauce, but the best thing about that dinner at El Porton wasn’t the food, but the family that I got to sit around the table with. I’m a lucky guy.

Thanksgiving on Sunday: A Redemption Story

IMG_4502This Thanksgiving we did something that my family has never done before, and went to a restaurant for the traditional turkey dinner. There were some parts about it that were nice, nobody having to spend hours cooking or cleaning, and some of the side dishes were good, but the turkey, the traditional focal point of any good Thanksgiving meal, left a lot to be desired. Aside from that major downside, the meal was pretty good, though it didn’t really have that Thanksgiving feel. It was a nice meal, but something was missing, and I’m not the only one in our party that felt that way, because the next evening, I got a phone call from my grandpa, inviting my wife and I to Thanksgiving dinner at their house on Sunday evening. The wheels of redemption were set in motion.

It was an unexpected and welcome surprise, knowing that my grandparents would be hosting a Thanksgiving dinner after all, which worked out perfectly for us, the recipients of a somewhat disappointing meal on Thursday, as well as my uncle Brett, who had a similar lackluster experience across state lines at a nursing home in Mississippi, so we were all in need of a do-over. Just before six my wife and I walked through the door of my grandparents house on Rose road, welcomed by a hug from my Mimi, delicious smells coming from the kitchen, and a crackling fire in the living room. This felt like a holiday. We sat around in the living room and talked in front of the fire while the finishing touches were put on our Thanksgiving dinner, and as the clock chimed six o’clock, the six of us, my grandparents, dad, uncle, wife and I, all gathered in the kitchen to load our plates up with the delicious bounty laid out for us.

I started with a few spoonfuls of Mimi’s dressing, then added some chicken, which I drizzled with some of the homemade gravy that sat on the stove. Next was a good generous portion of green bean casserole, followed by at least three big spoonfuls of sweet potato casserole, and a dinner roll, which I liberally spread with butter that melted instantly against the warm bread. Once seated at the table there was more food to be had, cranberry sauce and some kind of marshmallow/pistachio/pineapple “salad” that sounds weird but is delicious, and probably what I ate more of than anything else. I know I’ve talked about turkey being the staple food at Thanksgiving, but I have to say, I don’t think I would mind if chicken replaced it on the menu permanently, because it’s obviously the better tasting bird, and it didn’t hurt my feelings at all that that was the case this year, besides, it Thanksgiving had technically passed so it wasn’t really even “Turkey Day” anymore.

The green bean casserole may be my favorite Thanksgiving dish. I really love it, but for some reason, I never eat it at any other point throughout the year, simply because for some reason, I never even think about it. It’s surprisingly easy to make, so it’s not like I don’t have the time to throw it together every once in a while, but unless it’s Thanksgiving, green bean casserole never even crosses my mind. The sweet potato casserole was good, done the right way with toasted marshmallows on top, a simple gesture that elevated the dish passed the casserole of the same variety that was served to us at Frank Grisanti’s on Thanksgiving day. All in all it was a great meal, one that my grandparents didn’t have too cook, but did so anyway to ensure that we had a good Thanksgiving dinner to look back on in 2017, even if it did come on a Sunday.

Frank Grisanti’s: A Thanksgiving Feast

IMG_4491In all of my previous twenty-six Thanksgiving’s, for as far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a home cooked meal. It hasn’t always been at my family’s home (the Florida years), but I’ve eaten a Thanksgiving meal cooked at somebody’s house, but all that changed today, when, in my twenty-seventh year of life, I went out for Thanksgiving. Sure I’ve been to restaurants on the fourth Thursday in November before, but never has it been for the main meal of the day, the traditional Thanksgiving feast, and to be honest, doing so seemed depressing from afar, sitting in a restaurant amongst strangers, having the biggest family meal of the year, but the last couple of years have been somewhat tough, with the responsibility of cooking the turkey on my wife, and myself trying to cook some of my favorite side dishes. Those were great meals, and we don’t regret them at all, but between us doing some cooking, and my mimi doing some as well, we all needed a break this year, hence the restaurant.

We met at Frank Grisanti’s restaurant, my grandparents, my dad, my wife, and myself, at two o’clock this afternoon, to do something we had never done before, have Thanksgiving dinner cooked by strangers. Located on the ground floor of the Embassy Suites hotel, Grisanti’s is an Italian restaurant, but today, spaghetti and meatballs were not on the menu, replaced by a typical Thanksgiving day spread. It was a three course affair, and there were two options to choose from for each course, the appetizer, entree, and dessert, which went over well with Leticia and myself given that we aren’t the most apt at making decisions, so choosing between two things was easy enough.

The first course was a choice between a sausage gumbo and a salad, and given my proclivity for staying away from vegetables, the decision was an easy one, ordering the gumbo without hesitation. I’m not sure what gumbo was doing on a Thanksgiving day menu, but being a much more appealing option than salad, I was happy to see it there, and once it arrived and the first spoonful was tasted, it didn’t matter that it didn’t belong on the menu because it was absolutely delicious. It had a nice spice to it and there was plenty of meat to get some in each bite. I’m not sure if the gumbo is normally on the menu, since I’d never eaten here before, but I would be more than willing to go back to Grisanti’s just for that, because even by itself, it would make a fantastic meal.IMG_4488

The entree choices were between turkey and dressing, with cranberry sauce, and blackened salmon, both with side items. Under normal circumstances I would have chosen the salmon, but given the day in question, it would have been criminal of me to order anything but the traditional Thanksgiving fare, so I went with the turkey and my two side items of sweet potato casserole and mashed potatoes. I almost went with the squash casserole instead of the mashed potatoes so as not to have two potato dishes on my plate, but when my wife told me she was going with sweet and mashed potatoes, I did too, taking solace in knowing that I wouldn’t be the only one. The star of the course was the sweet potato casserole, which was as good as any that I’ve had homemade, and the mashed potatoes were good as well, although the temperature of the latter wasn’t as hot as I would have liked. The cranberry sauce was good, although I don’t recall ever having cranberry sauce that wasn’t, but in my humble opinion it would have been nice to have a little bit more of it, only given a small cup that wasn’t even a third of the way full. The dressing or stuffing, whatever you want to call it was okay, but not great; my mimi definitely makes it better. The turkey, ah the turkey, the centerpiece of an American Thanksgiving meal, left a lot to be desired. Two thinly sliced pieces of turkey that one might find at the deli counter of your local grocery store didn’t resemble what you’d hope to find on your Thanksgiving day plate. At least it wasn’t too dry, thanks in part to the gravy that it was doused in.IMG_4489

For desert, the choices were for pumpkin cheesecake or pecan bread pudding with a bourbon sauce. I got the cheesecake, and it was a great way to end the meal. It was very sweet and flavorful, the traditional pumpkin pie merged with the always delicious cheesecake. After eating that, I don’t think I could go back to regular pumpkin pie, not now, knowing that there is a much better option out there. The appetizer was great, as were the side dishes and desert, but the turkey, the Thanksgiving day staple was mediocre at best. It was nice to have a break from cooking, but I just don’t know if it’s worth it given the state of the turkey. I don’t know if we’ll ever be back at Grisanti’s for a Thanksgiving meal in the future, and we have a year to weigh out the pros and cons of home cooking versus going to a restaurant, but something tells me my wife will be making the turkey next year, and it will be delicious.IMG_4490