Our Adorable Deer-proof Backyard Veggie Garden

Our Adorable Deer-proof Backyard Veggie Garden

Until this year, our attempts to grow a few tomatoes and peppers in our Pittsburgh backyard have been less than successful. The first year we moved in, Rick popped a couple of beefsteak tomato plants in a sunny corner of the yard and we watched them grow in giddy anticipation of the sandwiches we would make with the fresh-picked fruit. That was before we realized we moved into an area whose deer population rivals that of humans.  (We should have been suspicious when we noticed our neighbors had yard signs reading, “Eat More Venison!”) Just as our tomatoes approached peak ripeness, Bambi came for a visit and ate every last one.

We then tried a motion-activated sprinkler guaranteed to chase the deer from our backyard. We succeeded in inadvertently squirting ourselves numerous times (and a few unsuspecting guests), but did not deter the deer. Perhaps they appreciated the cooling showers as they devoured our garden once again.

Our next attempt at deer-proofing was a pop-up net contraption that I found in a catalogue. It fit nicely over the raised bed garden Rick constructed, and it did keep the deer away. Unfortunately, our plants out-grew the net and before we’d harvested many tomatoes, a windy summer storm blew everything sideways and damaged most of the plants.

Our garden outgrew last year’s pop-up net so Rick cut the top away. This is before the wind blew the whole thing sideways.

So this spring, in the midst of the pandemic quarantine, we decided to build a truly deer-proof and sturdy garden area. I found a kit online that we liked the looks of, but it wasn’t quite the size we wanted and it cost $1,600. Luckily, our son and daughter-in-law are experienced urban gardeners and were willing to help us design and build exactly what we wanted. 

We put the new garden in the same location as the previous one, but we expanded the footprint to eight by ten feet. The growing space is u-shaped with room in the center to attend to the plants, so our actual usable area is 60 square feet. We did lots of sketches on graph paper and then drew full-scale chalk outlines in the driveway to make sure our design gave us access to all of the planting area. Jordan brought his woodworking tools over, including his mitre saw, which made for a really professional looking finish on all of the cuts.

We like to grow our vegetables organically, so we chose to pay more for cedar in place of chemically treated lumber that could potentially leach unhealthy substances into the soil. Altogether, our new garden cost around $900. We spent $600 for the cedar, $100 for wire fencing and hardware, and $225 for three cubic yards of organic soil for the raised beds. The sweat equity of Jordan, Silvan, and Rick was huge. They worked all day and finished up just as the sun was beginning to set.

Since we were doing construction in the beginning of the COVID outbreak, I made us all masks to wear and barked at Rick and Jordan to stay six feet apart throughout the day. (Doesn’t that sound fun? I’m a laugh a minute, especially during a pandemic.)

Rick demonstrating with a tape measure that he is, indeed, six feet away from Jordan.

We planted the garden out with seeds that Jordan and Silvan shared with us and seedlings purchased from Grow Pittsburgh (a great source for heirloom and organic vegetable plants in the Pittsburgh area) and we sat back to watch it grow. If I’m being honest, I’m the only one sitting back watching it grow. Rick is out there multiple times daily babying his plants and texting pictures to Jordan and Silvan to ensure that everything is developing as it should be.

Now here we are at the end of July beginning to reap the rewards of all that work. Earlier this summer, we had a bumper crop of salad greens and radishes and now we’re harvesting cherry tomatoes and peppers, as well as some yellow squash and zucchini that Rick is growing in a local community garden. We have a variety of tomatoes growing, including Sun Gold, Amish Paste, Cherokee Purple, San Marzano and Big Boys; two varieties of peppers, Jimmy Nardellos and Lunchbox, Yukon gold potatoes, basil, and all around the perimeter of the garden we have climbing plants- Kentucky wonder beans, Cannellini beans, Good Mother Stollard beans, and climbing cucumbers. With any luck, sometime in August we’ll be researching canning recipes and filling the new chest freezer waiting in the basement.

We dug the air fryer out of the basement to make a healthier, but every bit as delicious, batch of fried squash! (These were actually grown in the community garden, but I neglected to take photos of the tabouleh we made using tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, and mint from the backyard. Or the pepper sandwiches made with our Lunch box peppers. Or the two batches of pesto made from our basil. I think my blogging skills need a little work.)

If you have any tips for putting up vegetables, or foolproof recipes for pickling vegetables, please share them with us in the comments! Also, if you have any questions about our garden construction, feel free to reach out!

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Beating the Winter Blues…Without leaving the Steel City!

I don’t know about you, but around this time every year, I am done with winter. Through December and January, I’m all about that Hygge life – candles burning, fireplace glowing, cozy throws across my lap – but enough is enough. I’m ready for long warm days, bicycle rides by the rivers, and twilight dinners on the deck. 

Let’s hope that Punxsutawney Phil got it right last weekend with his prediction that we are in for an early spring, but just in case, here are some ways to get a spring-like attitude right here and now:

Escape to the Islands at the National Aviary

It may be going too far to say that a visit to the National Aviary will make you feel like you’ve left wintry Pittsburgh behind for an “Escape to the Islands,” but I’m willing to play along.  The balmy temperatures inside make it easy to imagine yourself strolling in a Caribbean garden – especially while visiting the Tropical Rainforest exhibit with its 15-foot high waterfall and 400 tropical plants including coffee and cacao trees. The beautiful habitat houses an endangered Palm Cockatoo, Great Argus Pheasants, Victoria Crowned Pigeons, and many other birds, as well as a Linnaeus’s Two-toed Sloth.

I’m also a big fan of the Wetlands Exhibit, which features gorgeous pink American Flamingos, Roseate Spoonbills, and Brown Pelicans, as well as many other free-flying wetland birds. The pelicans and spoonbills especially remind me of the gulf coast of Florida (definitely one of my “happy places”).  

Flamingos in the foreground, spoonbills in the back, and a pelican in the tree above.

There are lots of interactive exhibits at the aviary as well. On a previous visit with Jordan and Silvan, they hand fed some of the wetlands inhabitants. Birds flying up to me for a snack is a little out of my comfort level – I blame Hitchcock – but adventurous sorts like our kids will love it.

The National Aviary (and, yes, it’s America’s only independent indoor nonprofit zoo dedicated exclusively to birds) is located in Allegheny Commons Park on Pittsburgh’s historic North Side.

https://www.aviary.org

Get Out of this (cold) World at Phipps Conservatory

Another way to get that tropical feeling is to pay a visit to Phipps Conservatory. What’s not to love about this beautiful Victorian structure filled with flowers and plants? This season features the “Out of this World Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show,” which begins in the Palm Court with an enormous plant covered Saturn-like sphere hanging in the center. Other planetary shaped topiaries are scattered throughout the room along with a collection of slipper orchids. 

When we visited with our grandsons, they absolutely loved the Garden Railroad: Farms, Food, and Family Exhibit. This interactive display has lots of buttons for little ones to push. There are buttons to make the trains run, make the goats bleat, make a tractor circle a hay field, and more! Most importantly, for any little engineers you may know, there are So. Many. Trains!

To get an island feeling, head back to Tropical Forest Cuba for a multi-level tour of the 12,000 square-foot, 60-foot high conservatory filled with lush palm trees, Cuban orchids, unique ferns and rare cycads, as well as gurgling streams and cascading waterfalls. 

Phipps Conservatory is located in Oakland, adjacent to the University of Pittsburgh’s campus.

https://www.phipps.conservatory.org

Drink rum. Lots and lots of rum. Preferably in a coconut.

Another way to attempt to forget about winter: Visit a restaurant with a tropical theme. Believe it or not, we’ve visited two right here in Pittsburgh! Kaya is in the Strip District and Hidden Harbor is in Squirrel Hill. While Kaya’s seasonal menu gives a nod to winter with cocktails like the Red Mittens Mojito and the Frosted Flannel, Hidden Harbor is all about denial. Their cocktails are heavy on the rum with names like Josie’s Faraway Vacation, Golden Girl, and Tropical Itch garnished with beautiful exotic fruits and flowers. Adding to the fun, many of the drinks are made for two (or more) to share and all are served in themed drink ware. We visited Kaya back in the fall, so I can’t really speak to its ability to help beat the winter blues. As for Hidden Harbor, the fun atmosphere will definitely help you shake the blues, but it would have taken a lot more rum to make me forget the sleet and freezing temps just outside the door on the night we visited.

http://www.hiddenharborpgh.com

Endorphins Make You Happy!

Perhaps the best way to fight the winter blues? Get to the gym! As Elle Woods said in Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, and happy people don’t shoot their husbands!”  Whether you’re walking on a treadmill, stepping on an elliptical machine, pumping iron, or taking a cross fit class, anything that has you breaking a sweat for an hour can make a huge difference in your mental outlook.

My absolute favorite gym of all time is Mecka Fitness in Mt. Lebanon (they have a second location opening in the Strip District soon). I take their Body Lab class, which is a mix of cardio and weights set to music, and I am obsessed with it! Through the years I’ve tried just about every exercise regimen known to man, from Jane Fonda and Billy Blanks videos to hot yoga and Zumba classes and while I was always happy to have worked out (and the endorphins kept me non-homicidal!) I never really loved it. Mecka Body Lab, I love.

https://www.meckafitness.com

Hope these tips help you navigate the next few weeks with a sunny attitude! What are your favorite ways to beat the winter blues?

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The Allegheny Observatory: How To Visit Another Planet (or two) Without Leaving the Burgh!

The Allegheny Observatory: How To Visit Another Planet (or two) Without Leaving the Burgh!

We checked yet another item off our summer bucket list! But this one comes with a caveat: If you want to be specific about things, I said we were going to stargaze at the Allegheny Observatory.  Turns out, that is not what you do at an observatory. In fact, our tour guide, (and the facility’s Electronics Specialist and sole full-time employee) Louis Coban, informed me that Pittsburgh’s Observatory Hill might be one of the worst places to look at the stars due to light pollution (this is true of any city).

So enough about what we didn’t see! Here’s what we did see – planets! Jupiter and Saturn were in range on the night we visited and it was a pretty cool experience mounting the stairs to peer through the eye-piece and view another part of our solar system.  Of the two, I would have to say that Saturn was the most impressive since you could actually see the rings around it. Jupiter, on the other hand, looked like a giant full moon.

 The Allegheny Observatory’s beautiful setting is adjacent Riverview Park
The Allegheny Observatory’s beautiful setting is adjacent Riverview Park

We took the tour on a beautiful Thursday evening and we enjoyed walking around the peaceful grounds of the observatory beforehand.  The current building dates to 1912 and the names of influential astronomers are inscribed at the roofline. 

 These may be the reason the observatory still exists.
These may be the reason the observatory still exists.

The tour began with a short lecture about the history of the observatory. Here’s my favorite bit – the telescopes and astronomy may be the soul of the observatory, but if it weren’t for the shrewd business sense of Professor S.P. Langley back in 1867, the whole venture would have gone bankrupt. Using a small transit telescope, he was able to obtain accurate time by observing the position of the stars as they crossed the celestial median. Big deal, you might say, as you glance at the current (absolutely accurate) time on your iPhone or laptop. But back in the 19th century, the era of pocket watches, sundials, and grandfather clocks, the concept was a little more fluid.  Not a problem if it made you five minutes late for a tea party, but a big problem if you were a railroad executive scheduling trains. Langley devised a system to sell time to subscribers through the telegraph, industrialists of the age clamored for the service, and the Allegheny Observatory was made financially sound!

 The 30” Thaw Telescope
The 30” Thaw Telescope

After the lecture we toured the building, starting in the largest dome with the 30” Thaw telescope, the third largest refractor in the United States.  This massive telescope’s primary mission has been to study the distance to nearby stars.  It’s so large that the floor of the dome moves up and down with a pulley system in order to position it! 

 Rick peeks at Saturn
Rick peeks at Saturn

We next moved on to the smallest dome, which houses the 13-inch Fitz-Clark refractor.  Constructed in 1861, it was the primary telescope of the original Allegheny Observatory.  After Coban opened the dome and got first Jupiter and then Saturn in view, our group took turns climbing the narrow stairway to look at the planets.  

We ended the tour with a trip to the crypt. I’m not kidding.  In the basement of the observatory, a few of its most ardent supporters are spending eternity. Early observatory directors, John Brashear and James Keeler, along with their wives Phoebe and Cora and Keeler’s son Henry, are all laid to rest here. (If you’re a fan of Halloween creepiness, you might want to schedule your tour on the last week of October, which is also the last week that tours are available.)


Tours take place Thursday and Friday evenings from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 412-321-2400 between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. The observatory also has an open house coming up on October 4 featuring an expanded tour of the building, additional tour guides and telescopes on the lawn.  For more information, visit https://www.pitt.edu/~aobsvtry/tours.html

Amazing Graze – The Fabulous Sustainable Pittsburgh Farm to Table Event…or why you should totally enter random Instagram contests!


Earlier this summer, I came across a promo on Instagram sponsored by Sustainable Pittsburgh (www.sustainablepittsburgh.org an organization that strives to improve economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental quality in our region). It sounded a little too good to be true: 1. Dine at one (or more) of 150 designated Sustainable Pittsburgh restaurants, 2. Post a photo to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and include #GrazePGH, tag @SPRpgh and tag the restaurant, 3. Be entered to win a unique farm-to-table dinner experience prepared by four celebrity chefs.

What the heck. Rick and I frequent a lot of the restaurants on the list and how hard is it to snap a photo and post it? (Let’s not talk about the times we went out to eat and I forgot to do just that.) In any case, I remembered to post a handful of times and then I sort of forgot about it. Then last Friday, as I scrolled through Instagram, I noticed the little paper airplane on the banner had a number 3 on it. I’m still learning my way around Instagram so I wasn’t quite sure what it meant (please don’t judge me), but I clicked it and, lo and behold, three messages had been sitting out there – one from my daughter, one from a friend, and one from…drumroll…Sustainable Pittsburgh!

 Lots of screaming ensued! I’m so glad I discovered the Instagram message button before the deadline passed!
Lots of screaming ensued! I’m so glad I discovered the Instagram message button before the deadline passed!

Monday evening, we drove to Churchview Farm at the appointed hour and joined the other promotion winners meandering up the twinkle-lit drive to the picturesque “farmette”. We were met at the top of the hill with a champagne and gin welcome cocktail by Events Coordinator Emeran Irby, who invited us to stroll around the grounds and explore Tara Rockacy’s third-generation sustainable family farm.

It was easy to become a part of the farm’s relaxed vibe – taking in the beautiful gardens and scenic outbuildings on the property while sipping our cocktails and listening to live music by local band, The Beagle Brothers. We mingled with the other guests until Tara and Rebecca Bykoski, the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program manager, introduced the chefs and welcomed us all to the table.

 Beautiful scenery in every direction.
Beautiful scenery in every direction.

 Bill Fuller of big Burrito describes one of the dishes he prepared.
Bill Fuller of big Burrito describes one of the dishes he prepared.

As promised, celebrity chefs abounded! Jessica Lewis of Spirits and Tales www.spiritsandtales.com, Neil Blazin of Driftwood Oven www.driftwoodoven.com, Elsa Santos of Azorean Cafe www.azoreancafe.com, and Bill Fuller of big Burrito www.bigburrito.com worked all evening creating the amazing seven (!!!) course dinner that we enjoyed with wine, cider, or beer pairings selected to complement each. I’m going to post the full menu here rather than rambling on about each dish, but believe me, it was a meal like none other I’ve ever experienced. I imagine you might have gotten a similar meal on maybe the Titanic, but this one came without the terrifying iceburg incident after the dessert course.

 Chefs hard at work in the outdoor kitchen. (Yes, I know. My photography skills need a little work.)
Chefs hard at work in the outdoor kitchen. (Yes, I know. My photography skills need a little work.)

 The Beagle Brothers
The Beagle Brothers

The Beagle Brothers entertained all night with their “Bloomfield Sound,” which they describe as a blend of honky tonk and classic country with an accelerated high-energy performance. It was the perfect accompaniment to the evening.


If you would like to experience an evening like this for yourself, there’s good news and bad news. First, the good news – you don’t need to win a contest to make it happen! Now, the bad news – the rest of this summer’s Farm Dinners, Pop Up Dinners, and Happy Hours are sold out. Tickets for the 2020 series of Farm Dinners go on sale on Thanksgiving Weekend and Happy Hour events become available in March 2020. To be on the safe side, you may want to add your name to their mailing list so you can be notified as soon as they are available. I believe they sell out quickly.

Also, there are still tickets available for Festa Della Porchetta on Saturday, August 17, 2019. This is one of the farm’s newer events and celebrates all things pork and porchetta.

For more information about Churchview Farms and the unique dinners and activities they offer, please visit: www.churchviewfarmpgh.com.

 I just have to end with this: Is this not the prettiest outhouse you’ve ever seen? It was adorable on the inside as well, clean and odor-free thanks to the amazing magic of the composting toilet.
I just have to end with this: Is this not the prettiest outhouse you’ve ever seen? It was adorable on the inside as well, clean and odor-free thanks to the amazing magic of the composting toilet.

Step Up Your Culinary Game with Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh

Step Up Your Culinary Game with Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh

Tired of cooking and eating the same old things every week? Or are your cooking skills such that you opt to eat out and let someone else do the cooking? Maybe it’s time to schedule a class at Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh’s Southside neighborhood!

My son, Jordan, and I recently took a class in Cajun Soul Cooking and had a fantastic time while learning some new cooking techniques. We then recreated a few of the dishes at home for the whole family!

 Our team for the evening!
Our team for the evening!

Class started at 6 p.m. with 12 people milling around, but our instructor, Josh (a baker at Oakmont Bakery, previously a chef at Altius), quickly organized us into two teams of six. I had my doubts that we would finish in the allotted four hours of class after Josh handed out our menu and recipes for the night. Each team would be making a six-course dinner consisting of Chicken & Sausage File Gumbo, New Orleans Stuffed Mushrooms, Shrimp Étouffée, Cajun Blackened Fish, Smothered Okra, and Sweet Potato Pecan Pie!

Our team divided the dishes and got to work chopping, weighing, and measuring.  Josh helped each team debone their chicken and then circled the room offering tips. I worked on the pastry for the pie, Jordan chopped veggies and started the roux for the étouffée. With 12 people crisscrossing the room looking for ingredients and cooking equipment, it looked like a very busy ant hill. 

 Jordan attends to the Shrimp Étouffée
Jordan attends to the Shrimp Étouffée

I learned to use a food scale (The pastry called for 4 ounces of butter, which had to be taken from a two pound block. No cutting through the stick using the guidelines on the wax paper.) and I also learned that even when you don’t have exactly what the recipe calls for, things usually work out fine. The industrial-sized bottle of vanilla extract was empty by the time I needed it for the pie filling and I expected the pie to be bland, but it was delicious!

 Josh, pictured right, oversees final dinner preparations
Josh, pictured right, oversees final dinner preparations

By some miracle, every dish was cooked and ready to eat by 8:30 (I want Josh to come to my house next Thanksgiving and keep things moving on time:)). At that point, everyone worked together to convert the counter-height work stations to a long dining table and we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor.  


The next weekend, Jordan and I made the Shrimp Étouffée, Stuffed Mushrooms, and Sweet Potato Pecan Pie. Daughter-in-law Silvan made Southern Collard greens and Cajun Rice and Rick rounded out the meal with The Barefoot Contessa’s Tuscan Chicken on the grill. Also our next door neighbors joined us and brought an appetizer of homemade gazpacho! OMG! I’m making myself hungry just writing about this meal. Is it dinnertime yet? (Checks watch.)

Do any of you have experience with other cooking classes in the Burgh? Please leave us a note in the comments section! We’re always looking for new places to try and foods to sample. I’d love to find a foolproof technique for baking bread. Or maybe we’d even attempt croissants or pain au chocolate! (Who am I kidding? For French pastry, I’m just going to head over to La Gourmandine.)

For more information about Gaynor’s School of Cooking, visit http://gaynorsschoolofcooking.com.  

 Shrimp Étouffée
Shrimp Étouffée

 Putting the Sweet Potato Pecan Pie in the oven. Using a cookie sheet prevents spillover messes in the oven.
Putting the Sweet Potato Pecan Pie in the oven. Using a cookie sheet prevents spillover messes in the oven.

 Our at-home recreation of the Gaynor’s Cajun meal.
Our at-home recreation of the Gaynor’s Cajun meal.

Below is the recipe for Sweet Potato Pecan Pie.  IMHO, it’s better than either pastry on its own.  The sweet potato tones down the sweetness of the pecan pie filling and the pecan pie elevates the sweet potato filling. This is definitely going to join the rotation of Thanksgiving desserts at our house (even if Josh won’t be there to run the clock.)

 Sweet Potato Pecan Pie
Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

Pie Dough

1 C all purpose flour

1/3 t salt

2 T sugar

4 oz unsalted butter, but into small pieces

3-4 T water

Filling 

1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes, baked (enough to yield 1 C cooked pulp)

2 T light brown sugar

1 T sugar

1 lightly beaten egg with 1/2 t heavy cream

1/2 T butter, softened

1 1/2 t vanilla

1/8 t salt

1/8 t allspice

1/8 t ground nutmeg

Syrup

6 T sugar

6 T dark corn syrup

1 egg

3/4 T butter, melted

1 t vanilla

pinch of salt

pinch of ground cinnamon

6 T pecan pieces or halves

  1. Make the dough: Place the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 1-2 times. Add the butter pieces and pulse 4-5 times or until the butter is the size of lima beans. Add the water a little at a time and pulse just to incorporate. The dough should just hold together when squeezed in the palm of your hand. Do not process to a ball. Turn the mixture out onto a floured surface and “frisage” or blend it together with your hands, then form a flat disk, wrap in plastic film and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour.

  2. Once the dough has rested, turn it out onto a floured surface and roll it our to approx. 1/4 inch thick disk large enough to line a 7-8” quiche pan. Line the pan and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

  3. Make the filling: Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth. Set aside.

  4. To make the syrup: Combine all ingredients, except pecans, in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat a slow speed until the syrup is opaque. Stir in the pecans.

  5. To assemble: Spoon the sweet potato filling into the dough, smooth out, then pour on the pecan syrup. Bake in a 325 oven for about 1 and 3/4 hours or until a knife inserted into the pie comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream.

Southside Johnny Brings a Jersey Vibe to Pittsburgh’s South Park

Southside Johnny Brings a Jersey Vibe to Pittsburgh’s South Park

 Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes

We checked another item off the summer bucket list! Allegheny County’s free summer concert series is just awesome! We went to see Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes Friday night at South Park Amphitheater and it could not have been better: Perfect weather, great company (we took a little crew of friends and family with us), Jersey-style rock and roll, and a lovely venue!

We’ve been to Hartwood Acres in prior years – also a great time – but I have to say, I liked the “ambience” at South Park Amphitheater a bit more. Also, for those with mobility issues, the handicapped parking at South Park is super convenient – maybe fifty yards from a good space on the lawn and adjacent the food trucks. (Random side note – when you google South Park your first results will probably be the Trey Parker/Matt Stone cartoon series, which you may or may not enjoy;))

We got to the park at 6 p.m. (we were planning to get there at 5:30, but those of you who know us know we never get anywhere promptly <insert eye-roll emoji>.)  We still had plenty of time to find good parking spaces and set up our picnic blankets and soccer chairs. (The kids are grown and long out of soccer, but the chairs are still going strong!)

 Food trucks included Bruster’s Ice Cream, PGH Halal, Tango, and Doce Taqueria.
Food trucks included Bruster’s Ice Cream, PGH Halal, Tango, and Doce Taqueria.

We packed our own food, wine and beer so we didn’t partake in the evening’s food truck offerings, but they looked delicious and the lines never seemed overly long. Food trucks and craft beer from Hop Farm Brewing are available starting at 6 p.m. at all of the Allegheny County summer concerts in both South Park and Hartwood Acres. 

 Southside Johnny fires up the crowd.
Southside Johnny fires up the crowd.

Although no warm up act was scheduled, Bill Deasy from the local Pittsburgh band, The Gathering Field, started the evening at 7:30 with an acoustic guitar and some easy-to-listen-to music of his own.  Deasy happens to work for Allegheny County in some capacity (sorry, I wasn’t listening that closely) so he also acted as MC for the evening. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes took the stage around 8 and got the crowd rocking. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the band, the sound is similar to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – and for good reason: Southside’s biggest hits (among them “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” “The Fever,” and “Talk to Me”) were written by or in collaboration with Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt. Also, at various times in the band’s 40-plus year history, Van Zandt has been a member and Springsteen and other members of the E Street Band have performed with them. And Jon Bon Jovi has toured with them and points to Southside as a strong influence on his music. Lots of good Jersey sound there, folks:)

Feel free to bring your furry friends…and your knitting. Both South Park and Hartwood Acres boast a very chill vibe and pretty much anything goes. Allegheny County’s concert website lists just three prohibited items: charcoal grills, fire lanterns, and drones.

Bottom line – Allegheny County’s Summer Concert Series is an amazing asset for Pittsburgh residents and one you should definitely check out. There are five remaining Friday night concerts at South Park this summer, and another five Sunday night concerts at Hartwood Acres. For more information about upcoming shows (including the food trucks scheduled for each show) visit:  https://www.alleghenycounty.us/special-events/summer-concert-series.aspx.

Van Gogh in Bloom – The Hottest Show in Town!

Van Gogh in Bloom – The Hottest Show in Town!

Last week, I met a friend at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens to check out their summer show, Van Gogh in Bloom. (One of our Summer Bucket List items.) After we both enjoyed delicious and healthy lunches of salad with salmon in the cafe (named one of the nation’s top museum restaurants by Food & Wine magazine), we took in the show. The creative team at Phipps did a a beautiful job of interpreting the artist’s work. 

Starting in the lobby with Vincent’s self-portrait in a framed garden wall and continuing throughout the facility with room-filling interpretations, the show achieves its goal of bringing Van Gogh’s work to life. I highly recommend you check it out. I also highly recommend you choose a day when the temperature is not hovering around 90. Phipps’ lobby, gift shop, and cafe are air conditioned, but the rest of the rooms are designed to keep the plants happy! Let’s just say we got a little bit wilted at Van Gogh in Bloom.

Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat starts the show in the lobby.  I love how the garden wall mimics the style of impressionist painting with plants standing in for palette knife daubs of paint.  Further back, the form of the “painting” is clear, while close up you notice the individual plants.

 Wheat Fields with Cypresses
Wheat Fields with Cypresses

This scene in the Serpentine Room might be my favorite. The painting is Wheat Fields with Cypresses and I love the way the gardeners covered the far wall with plants that look like the distant hills.

 The Starry Night
The Starry Night

The Starry Night is another home run.  Hanging orbs of flowers stand in for the stars and the moon and swaths of white flowers on the far wall appear to be the swirling clouds of the painting.

 House at Auvers
House at Auvers

House at Auvers fills the South Conservatory and allows you to imagine that you are walking about the property Van Gogh captured in his painting.

You can visit these little fellows in the Butterfly Forest. 

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens are open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. (until 10 p.m. on Fridays) and Van Gogh in Bloom continues through October 6. If you visit with children, be sure to ask for the free activity book, “On the Go with Van Gogh,” which will keep little ones entertained with a scavenger hunt through the displays. Tickets are $17.95 for adults, $16.95 for students and seniors, and $11.95 for children ages 2-18.  For more information, visit phippsconservatory.org

Five Reasons Why We Love Wholey’s!

Five Reasons Why We Love Wholey’s!

Wholey’s has been selling fish in Pittsburgh’s Strip District since 1912, so you know they’ve been doing something right. Here are the top five reasons we love coming to the Strip to shop here:

  1. Cheerful and knowledgeable employees. Wholey’s is a family-owned business and I get the feeling that they treat their employees like family. From the friendly woman serving lobster bisque samples, to the guy who inexplicably bagged a pound of shrimp to the ounce in one scoop, to Sam Wholey himself handing out freshly squeezed orange juice samples, everyone seems determined to make sure you have a good experience shopping there.

  2. Free parking while you shop. If you’ve ever been to the Strip District, you know what a perk this is. Wholey’s lot is directly across the street and you don’t need to wait long for a space to open up.

  3. The widest variety of fresh seafood in the area: gulf shrimp and imported shrimp in multiple sizes, walleye, Spanish mackerel, bronzini, ocean perch, red snapper, king crab, rainbow trout, striped bass, fresh and cooked whole lobster…actually too many to list. And some are still swimming!

  4. It’s not just fish! Wholey’s is a full-service market with fresh produce, meats and poultry, and a great selection of gourmet foods all at reasonable prices.

  5. Free ice! Just beyond the checkout counter is a huge ice cart where you can scoop ice into a bag to keep your fish from getting too fishy:) Planning to do more shopping at the Strip before heading home? Put a cooler in your car to keep everything chilled until you leave.

OpenStreetsPGH in the Strip District

OpenStreetsPGH in the Strip District

We were headed to the Strip District early this afternoon to visit Wholey’s Fish Market for some jumbo shrimp and swordfish- this perfect weather makes grilling dinner on the deck almost mandatory – when we stumbled upon our first Open Streets event. I follow @bikepgh on Instagram, so I was vaguely familiar with the concept, but wow! what a fun time! Penn Ave. and a number of the side streets were closed to traffic and hundreds of people were riding bikes, walking, walking dogs, and just hanging out socializing throughout the Strip. We had to park the car over by the Cork Factory, but it was a quick walk and super entertaining. We encountered a drum line next to Mon Aimee Chocolat, a bluegrass quartet further down Penn and and guy playing an accordion outside of Wholey’s! With our shrimp and swordfish in hand, we weren’t able to check out the entire route, which extended 4 miles from downtown to Lawrenceville, but we will plan ahead in the future.

The next Open Streets event is scheduled to take place Sunday, July 28 and will encompass a four-mile route through Downtown, Uptown, and Southside. I think we may have to load our bikes on the SUV and make a day of it! Visit https://openstreetspgh.org for more information.

 Volunteers were blocking bike traffic, not automobiles!
Volunteers were blocking bike traffic, not automobiles!

In addition to Wholey’s, some of our favorite Strip District establishments are Pennsylvania Macaroni Company (or, as it is affectionately referred to in our household and many others, PennMac), Peppi’s Old Tyme Sandwich Shoppe (where we once ran into a young couple who had come to town for a Steeler’s game and were filling a cooler with Roethlis”burgers” to take home to Kentucky), and In the Kitchen, where you can find every imaginable culinary gadget. I could spend hours in this store.

Since we still have some smoked cheddar and imported brie from our last visit, we bypassed PennMac this time. And since we had the aforementioned shrimp and fish in hand, we skipped In the Kitchen.

 Street-side musicians
Street-side musicians

 More music!
More music!

 Penn Mac!
Penn Mac!