#3 Beer, BBQ, and the Biltmore

I’m not sure when or where I first heard about the Biltmore Mansion, but it was probably almost 20 years ago. I’ve wanted to see it ever since.

When I came up with the idea of emptying the bucket list this year, I knew I had to make it to the Biltmore. Since moving to Nashville, Asheville was so close… but yet I still hadn’t checked the Biltmore off my list. While many of the things I’m emptying off the bucket list were already planned when I came up with the idea, this one was legitimately planned for this year. Time to empty the bucket. So I mentioned it casually the night of my birthday. “Has anyone ever wanted to go to the Biltmore?” Luckily, a few friends were game.

Asheville was…an interesting place. We stayed about a half an hour away, up in the mountains, in a house fit for a party. But we planned so much in our days that we didn’t have much time to party back at home. It was rainy and cold all weekend, but we still managed to have a good time.  I’m a big fan of craft beer, so I managed to hit up four breweries, although I wouldn’t mind going back and trying some others.

But for all the craft beer and bbq (which I’m also a big fan of, and we visited two places- Luella’s and Buxton Hall), it was the Biltmore that was our real destination.


You have to go. If you haven’t been, you should definitely put it on your own bucket list. It’s worth it to get the audio tour – I’m usually ambivalent about those sorts of things, but I’m happy I spent the extra money. It was worth it to know what I was seeing and not just wander around some big house following everyone in front of me.


I can’t imagine living in the place.  It was absolutely beautiful. I can’t imagine hanging out there in my jammies, though, so maybe it’s not the house for me.

The audio tour did a great job of reminding us how philanthropic the Vanderbilts were. They not only employed a lot of people, they took care of them. They cared for their families, giving them Christmas presents or delivering baskets when there was a new baby or sickness. They paid their servants New York wages, unheard of in North Carolina at the time, and for many of their servants, this was the first time they ever had a bedroom to themselves. We can tend to assume, seeing the opulence, that the rich always take advantage of the poor. But it reminded me of the scene in Downton Abbey when Matthew doesn’t want a valet, and he has to be reminded that by having a valet, he’s giving someone a livelihood.

Naturally, I was reminded of Downton Abbey a lot. A certain Brit I know didn’t think highly of the wannabe-British-estate, but hey, it’s pretty much the closest I’ll come to having a glimpse into the classic upstairs-downstairs life. I’d like to go back and do the specialized upstairs-downstairs tour.



They were having a special exhibit at the time – Designed for Drama – that featured costumes, displayed throughout the house, from movie adaptations of George Vanderbilt’s favorite novels.

“Inspired by George Vanderbilt’s love of literature, Designed for Drama showcases more than 40 award-winning movie costumes from films based on favorite books in his collection. Vanderbilt amassed a personal library of more than 22,000 volumes at his North Carolina home alone. He also counted leading authors of the era as personal friends, including Henry James, Paul Leicester Ford, and Edith Wharton—all of whom stayed at Biltmore House as guests. That literary connection is brought home in the exhibition with the costumes accompanied by the original books from Vanderbilt’s library that inspired the films.”

It was such an added treat to see that display. The library was one of my favorite rooms by far. (The balcony even had little secret doors so that guests could access the library from their rooms and then head back to their bedrooms with a good book! Maybe I could hang out there in my jammies.)


But what was even better? In the awesome library were two outfits from the BBC Pride & Prejudice – including the famous shirt Mr. Darcy took a little swim in. ha!


Even though it was a little chilly and rainy, we walked around the gardens a bit, taking in the gorgeous roses and other flowers that were in full bloom. We missed the azaleas at their peak, although we saw a few of the last ones to bloom.


I insisted on visiting the Creamery (natch), but I was pretty bummed to learn the ice cream was no longer made with milk from the cows on the premises. For some reason that bummed me out more than learning that most of the wine wasn’t made with grapes from the premises. But maybe that’s because the winery offers unlimited samples during the wine tasting, and that made me a pretty agreeable visitor.


All in all, I was really pleased with the Biltmore. While I never felt rushed and I feel like we did the entire place justice, I still feel like I could go back and see more — maybe to see it decorated for Christmas, and maybe to do one of the specialized tours. Most of Asheville I could do without – I found it a wee too liberal for my tastes – but give me some bbq, craft beer, and the Biltmore, and I was pretty happy.





#1 Dinner at Besh’s

If you have even just glanced through this blog, you know that I love great food. It’s not just that I love to eat, it’s that I love to appreciate food.  Perhaps you could say that I love to appreciate saporific beauty.

I heard of John Besh several years ago, but since I still haven’t made it to New Orleans, I just assumed I probably would never get to enjoy his food.  After marking eating at a Bobby Flay restaurant off my bucket list three years ago, I thought I had pretty much emptied that bucket (that’s in the running for the name of this project… #emptythebucket). But there’s something alluring about John Besh, and suddenly he showed up on this not-bucket-list-but-something-list.  Perhaps it’s because he’s not your typical “celebrity” chef.

Or perhaps it’s because he’s Catholic.

Yes, I admit it. I wanted to eat at a John Besh restaurant because he’s Catholic. Because he’s on the board of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. Because he likes St. Josemaria Escriva.

Come on. If I can enjoy incredible food and also support a Catholic, I’m in.

So when he opened a new restaurant in Nashville, Marsh House, despite the fact that I had heard nothing about it, good or bad… I knew I needed to convince Manda to go there for our annual joint-birthday dinner.  Lucky for me, she wasn’t hard to convince.

The restaurant is attached to a hotel, which for some reason normally would kind of turn me off. But I was pretty set on liking this place, so I pushed that aside. The two hostesses were wearing adorable blue wrap dresses, and a nice man in a suit showed me to my table. He later stopped by to chat while I waited for Manda, just to make sure I didn’t need a drink while I waited.  I appreciated how down-to-earth the wait staff seemed, while also remaining completely professional.  (Like the wonderfully perfect gesture of folding your napkin for you if you left to use the restroom. Always a nice touch.)  We later found out that the nice man in a suit was the sommelier.

The menu is seafood-based, and the majority of it consists of small plates meant for sharing. There are also several meat and seafood entrees, and a raw bar menu that features a selection of oysters.

We both ordered cocktails – mine was whiskey-based and Manda’s had prosecco.  Both, while very different, were nicely suited for the cold weather.


The one article I read about Marsh House was an interview with Besh where he spoke highly of the gumbo, stressing that he had worked with the chefs to make sure they got his recipe – or rather, his mother’s recipe – just right.  So Manda and I split the gumbo (which they dished up beautifully in separate bowls for us).  Manda also ordered oysters, and loved them. I passed.


For dinner, I was excited to see swordfish on the menu, so I couldn’t pass that up.  Swordfish isn’t a fish I generally see at the places I frequent. I distinctly remember the first time I had swordfish – it was in 2001 at a restaurant in Rome in a neighborhood near the Aventine Hill. I was told that it had a more meat-like texture than most fish, and I ordered it on a whim… and loved it. Since then, I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve had it, and I was anxious to try it again.

This didn’t disappoint. There was a nice light breading on it – more of a slight crust than anything – and it was served with winter greens and a tomato jam. Manda ordered the stuffed flounder, and it looked pretty incredible- almost a work of art, and probably more worthy of a picture than my dish. Oh well.


We both saved room for dessert, of course… and when we couldn’t decide between the opera cake – a buttermilk chocolate cake with ganache and espresso – and the pumpkin cheesecake with cranberries and brittle… we ordered both.


Good night. They were both incredible, but the pumpkin cheesecake was simply out of this world. I was afraid it would be a bit cliche- a concession to every PSL lover and a throwaway tribute to fall. I was wrong. Manda hit the nail on the head when she said it was more of a mousse than a cheesecake.  It was exactly what you wanted out of a pumpkin dessert – enough spice to bring home the pumpkin (since pumpkin doesn’t actually have much a flavor by itself) but a lightness that left you completely content and not overwhelmed.  The brittle and toasted marshmallow on the top were the companions you would expect – but surpassed expectations – and then the cranberry drizzled around the plate was a completely unexpected guest but rounded out the dessert without being a strange forced reference to Thanksgiving dinner.

IMG_7197 (1).jpg

The atmosphere of the restaurant gave me the same feeling I had at Bar Americain – it was more relaxed than I expected, and there were people in jeans — but it was just the right mix of classy and casual – definitely an elevated feel that was comfortable without being ostentatious.  Our waitress mentioned that the decor was supposed to evoke a train station (which it did, without being over the top) because of back in the day, that’s what used to be in the neighborhood.  Any indication that a place recognizes the history of Nashville gets props from me, especially in a neighborhood like the Gulch that is congested with brand new restaurants, condos, and bars that are trendy today and will probably be closed tomorrow. So many of the places – and people – that have come to Nashville seem ignorant of the true charm of the city, which is quickly disappearing as it grows faster than is probably healthy.

How many of these new places are worth the hype?  Probably very few. But, while I admit I went in tonight pretty biased … I’d like to see John Besh’s place stay. The menu was elevated without elevating anything just for the heck of it.  Most of the ingredients were recognizable, and while brussels sprouts and beets made an appearance, the menu was largely devoid of the trendy ingredients that people probably only eat because the person next to them told them they should.

First item of the list complete.  The only thing that would have made it better would have been if Chef Besh had come out and talked with us about Josemaria Escriva. Maybe next time.

Not coincidence, but grace

This blog post from Bishop-Elect Barron is excellent (shocking, I know), and got me thinking about all the threads in our lives that are woven together in ways we can’t see. Our decisions can affect people generations later.  Events in our lives can put us in the path of others or connect us to other people or events later.  What some people would call coincidence, we would call God’s Providence.

Even with things on a less dramatic level as Father Barron’s connect-the-dots, I like to think of the quirky connections in our lives that just show God’s sense of humor.  Like when I’m walking through Target and think of being in that same Target over 15 years ago with my sister (pre-convent), never dreaming that some day I would live in this city and shop at that Target.  But God knew.  And I like to think of Him laughing to Himself, thinking, “If she only knew…”

On one level, thinking about these things should give us confidence and peace of mind, knowing that He sees the end of it all.  Even though we can’t see the picture on the tapestry that all these crazy strings and knots are making, He can.  And as out of control as it all seems sometimes, He’s always in control.

On the other level, it can just make us smile and laugh.  For example…

Today is my friend’s due date.  (It’s not likely the day her baby is actually going to be born, seeing that she’s at work and feeling great.  But still, it’s her due date.)  Many years ago, when I was visiting Rome for John Paul II’s feast day, I prayed in the Church of Sant’Agostino for this friend.  You see, there’s a famous statue in the church, Madonna del Parto, where Roman women go to pray for pregnancies.  When their prayers are answered, they put pink and blue ribbons near the statue (or pillows or baby booties or pictures…) to thank Our Lady for her intercession.  (You can see a picture of it in this post.)

Well, my friend and her husband announced several months later that they were expecting!  She ended up giving birth to a wonderful little boy on the feast of John Henry Newman, which also happened to be their year anniversary of coming into full communion with the Church.

Last December found me back in Rome, and I was armed with several intentions for Madonna del Parto, both intercession and thanksgiving.  Just like 2011, I prayed for Liza and Paul.

Did I mention that Liza took the name Augustine when she came into the Church?  And did I mention that she had recently also been praying to Augustine’s mom, St. Monica?  And did I mention that Monica just happens to be buried in the same church where the Madonna del Parto can be found?

….And did I mention that today… her DUE DATE… is the feast of St. Monica?

And up in heaven, God laughed.  He’s got this.

St. Monica, pray for us!
Madonna del Parto, pray for us!

A quick catch up, plus a new writing gig

It’s always a good rule of thumb to blog when sleep-deprived.  You get the craziests posts that way. I actually just typed Hello, royal leaders! instead of loyal readers… and then ended up scrapping the whole paragraph I wrote.  Let’s try this again…

So we missed Easter and the entire Easter season, huh?  Now I’m back and it’s mid-June and I have a phone full of food pictures and a head full of blog posts, none of which have been written.  So here’s a quick rundown of what’s been happening.

I just got back from San Francisco, which deserves its own post.  The trip was incredible, even though the trip home was more eventful than it should have been.  (After being delayed out of San Francisco for no apparent reason, our connecting flight at O’Hare then left 5 minutes early…which turned into 12 hours of airport fun, as we tried to get home through weather delays, air traffic control messes, and a variety of standby flights.)

This summer I’m a regular blogger for a great site called Integrated Catholic Life. Check out my posts every Friday.

We had a little mini bourbon retreat last month, because that seems to be our Pentecost weekend tradition now. We hit up Barton’s, home of one of my favorites (1792) and Willet. Someday soon we want to visit Buffalo Trace, because I haven’t tasted much out of Buffalo Trace that I didn’t like. (Anyone have an extra bottle of William Larue they want to give me?)

May was also filled with fun events like Steeplechase and even a Rennaissance festival.  One week I was cheering on thoroughbreds while wearing a fascinator on my head, the next week I was watching jousting surrounded by people in costumes. Life is never dull unless you choose for it to be.

At work, we are the in the process of moving to a new building — hundreds of people in four locations moving to one single enormous complex on the other side of town. If it sounds eventful and crazy, it is.  Most of my stuff is over at the new place, but I’m staying in my old office for another week.  I’ll probably head over there next Monday and begin to make the new place home.  I’m grateful for the opportunities that the new complex will give us- like the 800 seat auditorium that is right next to my office.  The commute will take awhile to get used to (which is why I’m still working here for now!) but I think the future is exciting.

That’s it for now.

comfort food to comfort

Today was a rather blah day. The kind of day you’d rather me not blog about.  If I was poetic, I would come here and blog about my problems in such a beautiful way you’d be moved to tears and find answers to unasked questions in your own lives through my metaphors.  But I’m not a poet.

Instead, I came home and decided I wasn’t going to dwell on my problems.  I was going to do what JoaninOrdinaryTime does best.

I was going to go out to dinner.

Okay, so I had already decided to go out to dinner, but if I hadn’t, I would have.  Or should have.

Good thing it’s everyone’s favorite week of the year… restaurant week!

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t as excited at the offerings as I have been in the past, but Manda and I knew one restaurant had never disappointed. Flyte.  Even their menu didn’t look very exotic this time around, but we knew that they delivered quality no matter what.

So I put on some makeup, threw on a cute pair of crazy pants, and went out for a single gal’s night on the town.

Course 1: Caesar. grilled anchovies / local romaine / black garlic


Verdict: It was better than this picture.  I was initially going to pick the turnip soup option, because Caesar salad seemed a little boring to me. But our waiter (who was great) sold me on it — and not in a used-car-salesman type of way.  I decided the black garlic (that’s what you see smeared on the side) and the white anchovies were daring enough to merit trying the “boring old Caesar salad” option.  And I was glad I did – it was delicious.  It was just elevated enough — not too crazy so as to cease being Caesar salad or look like they were trying to hard, but raised to the next level so that I didn’t feel boring eating Caesar salad during restaurant week.  The white anchovies definitely tasted like anchovies, but not in an oily, I-feel-like-I’m-licking-the-bottom-of-a-boat type of way.  They had been in vinegar rather than oil, and their distinct anchovy taste was far more gentle than what you’d expect.

Course 2:  Bear Creek Bourguignon. cippolini / root vegetables


Verdict: Again, not too adventurous, but again, delicious.  The meat was so very tender and the root vegetables were soft inside with a seasoned almost-crust on the outside.  Everything was on top of a whipped potato puree that I wish I would have had more of.  This was comfort food at its best.

Course 3: “Creamcicle” Parfait. blood orange / vanilla cream/ orange lace


Verdict: It tasted like a orange pushup from the Schwan’s man, topped with a little whipped cream.  Only a million times better.  It’s only now that I’m blogging about this meal that I realize the unwritten theme of it all was “traditional favorites, elevated.”  The blood orange dots on top were incredible.  I probably would have licked my plate if I could have.  The orange lace was a little disappointing… sure, it’s elegant and fun, but I didn’t taste any orange. Just some caramelized sugar.  But it didn’t matter. This thing was good.


We didn’t get a little “taste” at the beginning of our meal, but instead these little treats came with the bill.  (always helps with sticker shock).  Passion fruit tarts and Italian wedding cookies.  Let’s just say you can tell Flyte has a pastry chef.  Good night.

Of course, all of this was accompanied by a flight of three red wines from Europe.  Go big or go home, right?

So while I don’t have any grand life lessons at the end of this day, I do have a full stomach and a grateful heart. Thanks to Flyte, for turning this day around with your attention to detail, wonderful service, and delicious food.  And thanks to Manda, who is always willing to wine and dine with me.


One Night in the Life of Our Book Club

Twenty-five years ago, young newly-wed Molly Sullivan was at a dinner party with her in-laws.  Now, dinner parties hosted by your in-laws could go several different ways.  But if your father-in-law is author and literary critic Walter Sullivan, well, dinner parties just might include William Faulkner, Wendell Berry, and Walker Percy.

So I exaggerate.  Walker Percy probably wasn’t there.  And Faulkner was dead.

But I don’t exaggerate that much. Berry might have been there…if he had a phone to get the invite. But I digress.

At the dinner party, the topic of conversation was naturally Southern fiction. That’s what you get when your father-in-law is a founding member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.  As Molly wandered from conversation to conversation, looking for something to peak her interest, she joined a conversation between Walter and Jill McCorkle.  They were discussing the first line of Anna Karenina.

And thus an obsession was born.  Forget the melancholy of Southern literature.  This Alabama belle needed more exotic melancholy.  Let’s read Tolstoy. And Dostoevsky. And Chekhov. Why not some Solzhenitsyn?

Fast forward 25 years.  Last night, that Southern belle hosted her own dinner party, where we discussed Russian literature.  More precisely, we discussed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich with Solzhenitsyn’s biographer.  Discussing a pivotal figure of the 20th century with someone who knew him personally?  Not bad for a Tuesday evening.

I think Walter Sullivan was smiling down on his son and daughter-in-law.

And next time Joseph Pearce comes to book club, I’ll read the book.

 russianchocolateThere were even party favors!
Everyone had a Russian chocolate bar at their place,
and to find out where we were sitting, we drew a Russian saint from a hat
and found them by our plate. Kudos to Molly!

Past and Present

Welcome, 2015.  So far, you don’t feel much different than 2014. Last year ended well — a beautiful trip to Rome and then a great trip home with all the siblings together under Mom and Dad’s roof for the first time in a long time.

At some point, we all grew up.  I’m not sure how it happened.  My brother and sister both have families of their own — children who aren’t babies anymore.  My sister is a principal and is in charge of stuff.  I can call myself a “director” of an office on the diocesan level.  When did this all happen?

For the most part, I’m at peace with it all.  I’m at peace with where I am and what I’m doing.  But last night I was feeling particularly lonely.  It was a combination of a few things, all of which I can identify and explain, but it was still hard.  My roommate is moving out next week, and while the whole situation was always temporary and the poor thing has been living amongst my junk for the last five months, it will still be really hard to see her leave.  I know it’ll be lonely at night, knowing there’s no one coming home from work to eat dinner with me or talk about the day’s ups and downs.

This morning I headed over to the Opryland Hotel, which is the home of this year’s national FOCUS conference.  That translates into the fact that there are over 9,500 Catholics hanging out there, which means the odds of me running into friends is pretty high.  So I texted a few friends and headed over there to see who I could see.

It was wonderful — even just sitting on a bench talking to a dear friend, a number of people passed by and stopped to say hi.  People I hadn’t seen for years, people I never expected to see.  Friends, people I knew through friends, and Catholic “celebrities” — it was a joyful, small-Catholic-world morning.

On the way home, Tenth Avenue North’s “No Man is an Island” came on the radio.  And I realized that no matter how I “feel” — whether there are nights I’m eating dinner alone, there are days when no one can understand the messes of life, or there are struggles I carry alone … I’m not really alone.

I have incredible friends.  Today I saw people from every stage in my life – from childhood, from college, from graduate school, from my work here in Nashville.  I saw friends who have gone on to enter religious life, friends who have gotten married, and friends who are living lives similar to mine.

And I realized it’s not that God gave me all of these friends to be with me during those lonely nights or days.  Instead, He gave me those friends to show me that we are all in these struggles together, although apart.  On a lonely night, I wish my friend Megan could come sit on my couch with me and eat peanut butter and have a great girl talk.  But guess what?  On that lonely night of mine, she’s feeling overwhelmed trying to mother her three children.  She doesn’t have time to talk on the phone, much less come to Nashville to sit on my couch and talk. But that’s okay.  We are all members of His Body, so while we’re carrying different crosses, we’re carrying them together, because we’re carrying them with Him.

We are not islands.  It doesn’t mean that we’ll never be alone. It doesn’t mean that we’ll always have a friend physically by our side.  It doesn’t mean that we’ll always feel comforted.  It may feel lonely at a particular time in life, but when we cooperate with God’s plan, He gives us what we need to get through it all.  Even if it’s simply the grace of knowing others are out there carrying their crosses too.

I recently saw a movie – and I won’t mention the title so that I don’t need to put a “spoiler” warning – but the gist of the ending was that we save ourselves.  The future and the past are not that far apart, and our past selves can save our future selves.  Now, that’s pretty much a bunch of bunk, and no one can save themselves and I’m sick of that trend in movies right now.  But there is Someone for whom the past and the future are not that far apart… in fact, they’re both actually the present.  And that’s God.  And guess what?  He saves us.

It’s not that our past selves somehow save our future selves, but that every moment is the present in Him.  And maybe the gift He gave us ten years ago can build us up today.  Maybe running into the guy with whom you studied in Rome and seeing him with his pregnant wife and his little boy can remind you that God was there for you then and He’s here for you now.  Because you were there for Him then — you were listening to Him and wanting to do His Will.  You were trying to be faithful to Him and trying to live a life worthy of the Gospel.  So ten years later, while you might wonder somedays if fighting the good fight is really good, He gives you a little nudge, a joyful reminder that He was there then, He is there now, and everyone who is striving to do His Will is fighting this fight together.

(And sometimes He does give you the consolation of friends physically by your side — like this coming week, when my other Megan-friend is able to come to Nashville to visit me!)