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Photo courtesy of Atkinson Candy Company

The best part about serving two days of jury duty in Madison County, Alabama? I found a source of Chick-O-Sticks.

Chick-O-Sticks, for the terribly undersnacked, are orange sticks mostly made of peanut butter, granulated sugar and corn syrup. Dusted with ground coconut, they taste like the orange insides of a Butterfinger, for lack of a better comparison.

They’re crunchy and delicious, and they used to be much more widely available. Lately, they seem to only pop up in small, locally owned grocery stories and Mississippi gas stations.

You’ll find the large, cigar-shaped variety of Chick-O-Sticks in downtown Huntsville across from the courthouse at Harrison Brothers Hardware, which is part museum, part store. They’re displayed with a bunch of other old-fashioned snacks, including MoonPies and Necco Wafers.

I’m excited to see that the Atkinson Candy Company is still making Chick-O-Sticks in a variety of sizes and packaging options; hopefully that means they’ll be around for a while. Because there’s nothing like a taste of childhood on a hot summer day.

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Katie is the only tiger that Tigers for Tomorrow has purchased (the group always has to raise money for the transport and care of each animal, but usually doesn't pay a fee for the animals). Katie was bound for an exotic animal auction, and some of the bidders were rumored to be buying animals for canned exotic animal hunts.

Several months after I moved to Huntsville, I cut out a picture of a woman holding a tiger cub and secured it to my refrigerator. The accompanying newspaper article described a relatively new exotic animal preserve called Tigers for Tomorrow, which rescued animals from private owners, carnivals and canned hunts.

Five years later, I finally got around to visiting the rescue preserve, located in Attalla, Ala. — a mere two-hour drive from Huntsville. The husband and I spotted an announcement about special spring break educational tours and planned a quick day trip.

Wilbur McCauley, Director Of Animal Care and Operations, led a couple dozen visitors around the preserve the day we arrived, sharing information on the characteristics, instincts and natural habitats (or, more likely, the shrinking natural habitats) of several animals.

Tigers for Tomorrow houses more than just tigers — you’ll find lions, bears, cougars and wolves in addition to smaller animals such as goats, miniature horses, emus and even a zebra.

McCauley explained that each animal has its own unique personality, and none of them illustrated this better than Yonah, a grizzly bear that arrived at the rescue when he was 6 months old. When Yonah realized that McCauley wouldn’t be coming into the enclosure with him, the young grizzly started making a growling/purring noise that McCauley identified as a self-comforting behavior. A self-comforting behavior that sounded like a two-stroke engine.

Yonah was used for promotions in North Carolina until he got too big (he'll eventually weigh up to 800 pounds). Yonah, which is Cherokee for "bear," doesn't know how to socialize with other grizzlies because he was raised alone as a pet before he was rescued.

Make no mistake: This is an educational tour, not a zoo visit. You’re going to learn about the histories of several of the rescued animals. These are not happy stories, but they have happy endings.

A friend asked me if Tigers for Tomorrow was sad. My reply was that it’s sad that a place like this has to exist, but the preserve itself isn’t sad at all. The animals enjoy large enclosures, an appropriate diet and loving caretakers. There’s no evidence that the animals are uncomfortable or unhappy; one black wolf circled the perimeter of its enclosure almost obsessively while we were nearby, but McCauley assured me that this behavior was the temporary result of encountering such a large crowd of people.

Tigers for Tomorrow is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a board of directors that guides the rescue’s decisions. This rescue is not in danger of becoming what I would call a “hoarding” or “collecting” rescue; the group only adopts a new animal after sufficient funds are raised for the transport, housing and care of that animal.

Kazuma was the group's most expensive rescue. He was part of a circus near Antigua, Guatemala, when CONAP (the same as our U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) informed the owner he had to improve the lion's conditions (he was living in a small cage). The owner ran away with the lion, but CONAP eventually found him and moved Kazuma to La Aurora Zoo to await rescue.

One of the factors that prompted me to take advantage of the spring break tour promotion was the knowledge that I would be able to take photographs. McCauley explained that visitors on regular “walkabout” tours of the reserve are no longer allowed to take photographs because some people were tossing items at the fences to get the animals’ attention for better pictures.

Seriously? People visit a wildlife preserve and aggravate the wildlife? I’m not shocked, but I am disappointed.

Spring break tours are running through April 12 (I know, short notice). Gates open at 1 p.m., and the tour begins at 2. Children can feed the animals in the animal contact area (goats, calves, emus, etc.) before the tour. Tour admission is $10 for ages 3-11 and $15 for ages 12 and older. (Tours are usually $25 a person).

Head to the Tigers for Tomorrow website for the most up-to-date information on hours, tours and prices (hours are limited, and the preserve isn’t open every day). And GO. You won’t be disappointed.

Tigers for Tomorrow raised the money to fly Kazuma from Guatemala to Atlanta, then drove him to the rescue facility. He's still working to develop his leg muscles, which had atrophied after living in a small cage when he was part of the circus in Guatemala.

At some point, the husband started calling the organization Tigers from Tomorrow, as in tigers from the future. Because who wouldn’t want to meet tigers from the future? That would mean that there are tigers IN the future, after all.

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I spent last week in Biloxi with my mom and had every intention of blogging about my adventures. I quickly figured out that I’d rather be having said adventures than blogging about them, however, thus the weeklong absence of posts.

Let’s start with the journey. Having discovered the amazing lunches at Birmingham’s Culinard Cafe a few months ago, I decided that I simply had to start my journey early enough to make it there to test-drive the breakfast menu.

The breakfast menu is significantly smaller than the lunch menu, but it still lists enough items to make anybody happy. It boasts three breakfast sandwiches on ciabatta bread, all featuring scrambled eggs: hot ham and Swiss cheese; bacon and cheddar cheese; and Southwestern chorizo, sautéed onions and peppers and jalapeno cheese. All are priced between $3.35 and $3.65.

My instinct pointed me toward the spicy chorizo sausage, but I’m still getting to know chorizo, so I chose the hot ham and cheese sandwich instead. I also ordered a small serving of loaded grits ($2.10).

My meal arrived with a surprise hashbrown pattie (a surprise only because I hadn’t really been paying attention to the menu details).

Just like the irresistible flat-iron steak sandwich that the husband and I have split a couple of times at the Culinard Cafe, the ham, egg and cheese sandwich was big enough for two people. Alas, I was by myself, but I did my best.

The bread, as usual, was spot on: thick and sturdy enough to safely encase the slippery ingredients, but thin and soft enough to bite through without too much effort. The eggs were cooked to perfection and then wrapped around the ham and gooey cheese.

The grits? Oh, the grits.

Loaded grits usually arrive with grease pooled on top, a consequence of adding more cheese and butter than necessary in an attempt, I presume, to fully “Southernize” the dish.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There were no greasy pools in these loaded grits. They weren’t laden with butter or unmelted cheese. The grits were light (not so light that I thought they were baked with eggs in a casserole, however), and filled with small pieces of bacon — real bacon, not fake bacon bits.

The grits alone made the early departure worthwhile. I didn’t even have to stop for lunch (I actually tried to find lunch, but you know that span of I-65 between Montgomery and Mobile? That happened.)

If I have to plan a trip through Birmingham, I’m totally planning it on a weekday during this restaurant’s business hours.

 

 

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My favorite part of blogging? Not the groupies (please tell me there are groupies) or the riotous after-parties (again, please let there be after-parties).

It’s the site stats. Definitely the site stats.

The myriad ways that people find this blog are simply fascinating and, sometimes, completely random.

The most popular search terms aren’t the ones that interest me, although it is flattering to know that I’m one of the top 3 Google results for “little debbie banana pudding rolls.”

The more rarely used search terms tell more interesting stories.

For example, over the past two years, six people have arrived at this blog using the search term “two headed angel.” The related post describes a craft project gone wrong due to wine and impatience, but seriously, WHO is typing in this search term and what are they looking for?

My absolute favorites, however are the weirder, more mysterious search terms:

  • llama sunset (pretty sure it leads here)
  • pete \”wet dawg\” gordon (I have NO idea)
  • Revenge of the king cake babies (probably leads here)
  • 2 other uses for star crunch pies (totally did not address this topic)
  • fun weird things to do on a first date (I know a few, but haven’t written about them)
  • model of land tortoise house (I’ll build you one for a price)
  • uah nerdy (you have no idea)
  • two-headed (likely)
  • how to stop 25 things (you can’t)
  • used mattress alabama (not recommended)
  • he was adequate for her (so far)
  • dogs texas “avoiding snakes” (not likely)
  • sherbet cigarettes (I’m in)
  • wide cats (overrated)
  • is it too late to by butterfly bandages for my laceration on my arm? (yes)
  • cow child (guilty)

Until the groupies show up and take me to the after-party, this is as good as it gets.

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I am at a loss as to what to say about the recent tornadoes that carved a path of destruction throughout north Alabama. Our home is fine, but I have the same feeling that I had after multiple hurricanes took aim at Mobile, Alabama, when we lived there: It’s as if Mother Nature has drawn a bead on me and the people I care about.

But whining and worrying don’t do anybody any good, and they’re both really just luxuries when my own home remains standing. There are entire communities of people and animals that need help, and helping others can be so exhausting that you don’t have the energy to wallow in your own fears.

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After enjoying the flat-iron steak sandwich at the Culinard Cafe in Birmingham two times within two weeks, I knew I had to start experimenting. The combination of creamy goat cheese and whole-grain mustard was simply magical, so I decided to start with condiments.

The first sandwich I had to work with this week involved ham, however, and I couldn’t envision goat cheese complementing ham all that well (I may be wrong about that). But thanks to a trip to Trader Joe’s in Atlanta on Tuesday, I had a fresh jar of whole-grain mustard ready to go. (I don’t know what other people do on vacation, but we go to grocery stores.)

It’s like I’ve been making sandwiches wrong for YEARS. The whole-grain mustard simply transformed the ham and provolone cheese; lightly toasted on the Foreman Grill, the sandwich was melty, spicy perfection.

Never doubt the power of new and exciting condiments.

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The husband and I stumbled on a culinary treasure in Birmingham last week, a restaurant that made the trip to drop off his mother at the Amtrak station more than worthwhile.

I spotted the Culinard Cafe between the interstate and the station and looked up the menu on the iPhone. It was a nice distraction as I hunkered down to wait for the 12:05 to arrive while trying to avoid the headache-inducing flicker of the overhead light. The restaurant is associated with the Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Birmingham and provides a working and learning environment for students.

The husband’s only concern was whether the menu held a ham sandwich. It did.

The lunch menu boasted a wide variety of sandwiches and salads, including some pretty fancy combinations (salmon & brie salad, anyone?).

My first choice was the Southwestern chicken wrap (it had me at “chili spiked mayonnaise”), but when I turned the menu over I spotted the flat-iron steak sandwich. Its menu description was pure culinary seduction: “Sweet chili roasted flat iron steak with grilled onions, Alabama Belle Chevre Goat Cheese, lettuce, tomato, and whole grain mustard and spicy aioli on Ciabatta.”

Goat cheese, whole grain mustard AND spicy aioli? You have GOT to be kidding me.

I chose the black bean salad for my side so I could compare it to my recipe. (Their version was more complicated, but I like mine better.)

The sandwich was simply divine. I actually put it down after the first bite and said, “I need to contemplate this sandwich for a minute.” The steak was cooked to tender perfection, and the goat cheese and whole-grain mustard added an unexpectedly creamy and tangy element (admittedly, the aioli seems to have gotten lost among the rest of the flavors).

Walkout price for this thing of delicious beauty? $7.95 before tax.

Oh, and the husband enjoyed his ham & Swiss sandwich with fries.

We are SO going back to this restaurant for lunch if we find ourselves in Birmingham on a weekday. You should, too.

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You don’t realize how much you miss a good fried shrimp poboy until you only get to eat one or two a year. And, apparently, you don’t realize that fried foods provoke headaches until you eat fried foods only once or twice a year.

Anyway, I had a superb shrimp poboy and cup of gumbo at Huntsville’s Po Boy Factory with MrsDragon and company in celebration of The Dining Dragon’s 6-month anniversary. I had been meaning to eat at the Po Boy Factory for the last couple of years, but somehow never made it there except to buy a king cake.

This will not be my last meal there.

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The “Do One Thing” series chronicles my yearlong effort to tackle one project every day to organize my life and home.

Day 13: Reorganized a particularly troublesome kitchen cabinet area. My house in Mobile, Alabama, had laughably little cabinet space, so I’m still getting used to maximizing the larger space I have now. I have this obsessive desire to keep all the baking items (mixer, cake pans, muffin tins, etc.) close together, but that just doesn’t work. I accept this limitation, and now I can reach the small loaf pans without interference.

Day 14: Cleaned out a box of hair accessories that was mysteriously stored in the nightstand in the guest room. Discovered that elasticized hair bands deteriorate and lose their stretch when stored in stupid places for long periods of time.

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In the end, I had no choice but to open the window, pop out the screen and lean outside to take this photograph, 25 degrees or not.

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