Killer Shrimp – A Love Story

Author: Kirsti Kay, Dinner, Entertaining, Food, Food & Drink, Nostalgia, Pop Culture, Recipes, Savories

Original Killer Shrimp menu.

Shrimp and bread, shrimp and rice, shrimp and pasta. Along with sweet potato pecan pie, those were the only items on the menu at Killer Shrimp, a restaurant that opened over 20 years ago in Marina del Rey, CA. The shrimp was thrown, to order, into a spicy sauce that the restaurant says is simmered for 10 hours, and comes with fresh French bread to dip into the magical elixir. To say this dish is thrilling is no exaggeration.

I lived in the San Fernando Valley and would often make the hour-long drive to eat at this punk rock homage to shrimp. The restaurant in the Marina was on the 2nd floor of an ugly 1980’s mini mall, but inside it was dark and cool and they played rad music—the kind you played in your room on vinyl after riffing through the import section at Moby Disc. No one played music like this in restaurants back in those days. Then again, no restaurant had only three things on the menu either. Killer Shrimp was more like a club than a restaurant. We even waited in line to get in. It felt a little dangerous, but exciting. Kind of like the way it felt to go to Melrose Ave. in the early ’80s when it really WAS wild to see someone with pink hair and a nose ring.

The original Killer Shrimp in Marina del Rey, CA.

Then, as if my dreams became real, they opened a Killer Shrimp in the Valley. The Valley restaurant was also very dark, but much bigger, and all the servers could have been in fashion spreads for The Face. They all wore black and, according to my friend Christy who worked there, the girls were required to wear Viva Glam red lipstick from MAC (the very first Viva Glam). It was a microcosm of cool in the Valley that hadn’t existed before or since. What all self-consciously cool restaurants these days aspire to be, Killer Shrimp simply was.

Even though there were three items on the menu, the ONLY acceptable order was shrimp and bread. Seeing the oversized bowl before you—hot, scented with rosemary and cayenne, and swimming with colossal-sized shrimp—was, in a word, exquisite. The bread that accompanied the shrimp was fresh and chewy and perfectly soaked up the sauce without becoming soggy, but we have to talk about this sauce for a minute.

The flavor was so complex, with layers of richness and spiciness and herbiness…you would have to resist the bowl-licking urge with all of your might. There are many ingredients in the sauce, including butter (a lot of butter—just deal with it), Worcestershire, lemon juice, and beer, but even though the restaurant simmers their sauce for 10 hours, you can whip this recipe up in about 15 minutes with the same glorious results. I truly cannot overstate the majesty of this dish. It makes every annoyance in life tolerable. It makes me believe in a Higher Power. It proves, without a doubt, that food is more than fuel. It is the meaning of life in a bowl.

Killer Shrimp eventually closed all of its restaurants. There was a hole in my heart the size of a giant crustacean. I searched many times online for the recipe to no avail. Several years ago, they opened a new Killer Shrimp back in Marina Del Rey, but it is not the same. It’s more of a sports bar with a huge menu and no MAC red lipstick in sight. I can’t go there. Then, one day, my sister-in-law Stacey invited my husband and me over for dinner. She had found a recipe online claiming to be as good as Killer Shrimp and was going to make it for us. I was excited, but I didn’t have much hope that it would come close to the singular deliciousness of the original. Luckily, I was wrong. It tasted, well, KILLER.

And now, for those of you that have missed Killer Shrimp for all of these years, the recipe is now yours. And for those who have never tried it, I wish I could be with each and every one of you as you taste your first bite. Maybe when your mouth explodes with fireworks of pure umami and your brain recognizes the profoundness of the moment, you will think of me.

I may just have a tube of the original Viva Glam lipstick still in my makeup bag. I’m going to turn off all the lights, blast The Clash (on import vinyl) and and serve my husband some shrimp—dressed all in black, of course—and pretend that all is right with the world.

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Adapted from a recipe found on the Internet many years ago
Serves 2 (can be doubled)

¼ lb. plus 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1½ tsp. finely chopped garlic
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp. ground cayenne pepper (can be doubled if you like it really spicy)
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper
½ tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. dried rosemary
1/8 tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground pepper
1 lb. colossal shrimp in the shell (known as Original), or peeled and deveined
½ cup shrimp, chicken, or vegetable stock
¼ cup beer at room temperature
French baguette

Combine ¼ lb. butter, garlic, Worcestershire, lemon juice, and dried herbs in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook for about 4-5 minutes to soften garlic, but be very careful not to brown or burn garlic and butter. Add shrimp and cook about two minutes (it is important not to overcook the shrimp in this dish). Add the last 2 Tbsp. butter and stock. Shake pan back and forth for two minutes. DO NOT STIR, only shake skillet, which breaks down the butter and liquid and emulsifies the sauce. Add beer and cook for one minute more, until shrimp are just cooked through.

Pour into two large bowls and serve sliced baguette on the side.

Cue The Clash and shove your face in that bowl.

You’re welcome.



Pétillant Child

Author: Kirsten K., Food & Drink, Nostalgia, Spirits, Wine

kirsten-in-3rd-gradekirsti-in-3rd-gradeToday is a special day at The Swoon Society, because it marks the anniversary of the day Kirsti and I first met. I won’t say how many years ago that was…but it’s a lot! Although it took us four years from that first meeting to become close friends, this is a milestone anniversary, so we wanted to toast it properly. We got together this past weekend and decided to celebrate early by popping open the bottle of pétillant naturel that I gave Kirsti for her birthday.

A French classification meaning “naturally sparkling,” pétillant naturel wines (pét-nats, for short) originated in the Loire Valley from a fermentation technique that pre-dates the méthode champenoise. The process involves bottling and capping unfinished wine so that it can complete fermentation in the bottle and develop a mild effervescence. It is actually illegal to add sugar or yeast during production of a pétillant naturel, resulting in a wine that is completely natural, unrefined, and occasionally cloudy. For this reason, pét-nats have become trendy in recent years among hipsters and those seeking a more handcrafted, authentic wine.

les-pions-petillant-naturel-1Kirsti and I read about pét-nat wine for the first time last year, but didn’t take the plunge until I decided to purchase a bottle for her as a gift. Her house is built into the side of a hill and has a secret storage area that looks like a wine cave, both because you can see the exposed hillside and because it’s filled with bottles of wine. But despite having an enviable collection, she did not have a bottle of pétillant naturel, so it was “naturel” that I should remedy the situation. There was only one selection at our local wine shop, so the choice was easy: Ludovic Chanson Montlouis-sur-Loire Pétillant Naturel Les Pions 2011. (Let’s just call it Les Pions, shall we?)

The tasting notes* included with my purchase cited a bouquet “wafting from the glass in a mix of apple, quince, bee pollen, bread dough, chalky soil tones and a bit of citrus peel in the upper register” and referred to the wine twice as “snappy.” I’m no connoisseur and am generally of the opinion that, to quote writer Nick Tosches, the tasting of wine falls into one of three categories: “‘good,’ ‘bad,’ or ‘just shut up and drink.’” However, I felt immediately that this wine was different, with its earthy flavor and lively bubbles. A Monet-like image sprung to mind of French peasants resting against haystacks to enjoy a simple lunch of crusty bread, cheese, fruit, and a bottle of rustic wine.

les-pions-petillant-naturel-2I was somewhat disappointed that this pét-nat wasn’t cloudy, but rather than sulk like a petulant child, I’ve decided to embrace my pétillant child and seek out other varieties. While Les Pions is 100% Chenin Blanc, pét-nat wines can be made from both white and red grapes. The unpredictable nature of the fermentation process means you’re never sure what you’re going to get, but the low price point (generally under $30) means that it’s a risk worth taking.

As with Kirsti and me, it’s best to make the acquaintance of a pét-nat when it’s young, so don’t wait for a special anniversary to enjoy it. Get to know your new “pét” immediately, and who knows? It might just be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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Ludovic Chanson Montlouis-sur-Loire Pétillant Naturel Les Pions 2011


*By John Gillman in View from the Cellar.


Flying Under the Radar

Author: Kirsten K., Books, Literature, Nostalgia

No Flying in the HouseKirsti and I met in third grade, which is notable for both the beginning of our friendship and our introduction to the book No Flying in the House. Our teacher, Mrs. Jansen, would read a few pages from the book each day after the lunch recess, and students impatiently lined up at the classroom door to hear the next part of the story. Today is the birthday of the book’s author, Betty Brock, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 80, but will live forever in our childhood memories and in our hearts.

No Flying in the House tells the story of Annabel Tippens, a young girl who mysteriously appears one day on the terrace of wealthy Mrs. Vancourt accompanied by her guardian, Gloria—a talking dog just three inches high and three inches long. Although the formidable lady has no interest in children, she is an admirer of small things and wants Gloria for herself, so she accepts them both into her home. But when a talking cat named Belinda causes Annabel to question her origins and abilities, will Gloria be able to protect her secret?

The ShadesI have reread the book a number of times as an adult and it is still as captivating as it was in third grade. First published in 1970, No Flying in the House delighted a generation of children, but seems to be flying under the radar today. Kirsti and I marvel that it hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Betty Brock wrote only one other book, The Shades, which is equally fantastical and worthy of its own adaptation. The books are both suspenseful and even mildly frightening at times, which is what kept me on pins and needles as a child, but it was No Flying in the House that first inspired my imagination to take flight.

On this special anniversary, I want to honor all of the teachers and authors who shaped my childhood and introduced me to the infinite wonders that can be found within the pages of a book. You wove your own special brand of magic and created swoon-worthy memories that will last a lifetime. Thank you.

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No Flying in the House


No Flying in the House and The Shades can both be purchased from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


Aptitude Adjustment

Author: Kirsten K., Nostalgia, Self-Improvement
First Day of School

The first of many first days of school.

When I was growing up, the school year always started the day after Labor Day, but I know several people (including my sister, a teacher) who have already resumed classes this month. Whether you are a teenager returning to school, the parent of a student, or an adult pursuing a higher education, you may be familiar with aptitude testing. (If the mention of school and testing just took you from swoon to yawn, sit up and pay attention! You might learn something. 😉)

Unlike academic exams, which often make people feel anxious and frustrated, aptitude testing can actually be fun. I remember taking aptitude tests in elementary school and thinking that they were a great way to get out of class. Comprised primarily of multiple choice questions, they took no more than an hour or so to complete. Afterwards, students would add up their answers from the various columns to learn their particular set of skills and which profession(s) they were most suited for…but the playground called (Red Rover was about to send Kirsti right over) and my own results were promptly ignored.

Graduation Day

With a degree, but without a clue.

In college, my major was undeclared until the last possible moment, when I was required to choose one by the university (I’m terrible at making decisions!). Unsure of what I wanted to do, I opted for a subject that could be generally applied and focused solely on obtaining my degree. Without any specific direction for my future, I simply wanted to finish school and get out into the “real” world, but after years of struggling to find my niche, a friend suggested I speak to her neighbor, who’d had a positive experience with aptitude testing through the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.

As an employee of General Electric in the 1920s, Johnson O’Connor sought to increase workers’ efficiency and satisfaction by placing them in positions best suited to their natural abilities. The program he developed was so popular that employees asked to have their children tested, which led to the creation of a Human Engineering Laboratory that officially became the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation in 1939. Today, the Foundation has testing centers in major cities throughout the United States.


I made an appointment for two days of testing at the Los Angeles center, where the atmosphere was casual and welcoming. After a brief interview, I was led through a series of tests, beginning with an assessment of my dominant hand, arm, leg, and eye (apparently, I’d have made a good baseball player), and proceeding through evaluations of memory (my highest aptitude), color vision, motor skills, auditory discrimination, clerical speed, and even innate hand strength (which, I was told, mysteriously correlates with certain professions that don’t require hand strength). At the end of the second day of testing, I was given my results.

Inventory of Aptitudes and Knowledge 2

If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought the administrator was psychic. He began by saying, “You love to walk into chaos, because you immediately begin to sort things and attempt to create order.” Bingo! Then he noted, “You probably play a musical instrument well, but you have trouble following along with the sheet music, so you learn a song and then play it from memory.” Cue the Twilight Zone theme.

Inventory of Aptitudes and Knowledge 1While aptitude testing does not equate to career counseling, there are specific kinds of work suggested by your pattern of aptitudes. It turns out that the first one listed under my summary of test results was the college major I’d so “randomly” and belatedly chosen. Also of interest was the fact that I tested below average on spatial ability. My father was an aeronautical engineer and I’d briefly considered pursuing the same career, but my aptitudes revealed that I was unsuited to that profession. How many children thinking of following in a parent’s footsteps would reconsider after having their aptitudes assessed?

Unlike grades in school, there’s no judgment associated with aptitudes (in terms of one being better than another). Someone with a low IQ or who struggles academically can still have aptitudes that make him or her well-suited for certain vocations. Aptitudes are also stable over time. A person who is tested at 15 will have the same results if tested again at 65, which means that early testing is recommended. Had I been assessed before going to college, I would have structured my education differently and probably had a greater sense of satisfaction and purpose.

Wordbook 1But it’s never too late! My cousin went back to college in her 50s and got her Master’s Degree with honors. One of the stories in the Foundation’s newsletter that convinced me to get tested as an adult involved a successful surgeon who decided to take the tests along with his teenaged son. He discovered he had an aptitude for music and began to take piano lessons in his free time, providing him with creative fulfillment outside of work. Plus, the one ability tested that CAN be improved upon is vocabulary, which allows people of any age to have greater success in expressing their aptitudes.

If you are about to embark on a new phase of your education, are having trouble choosing a direction for your life and work, or want to change professions, but aren’t sure where to focus your energies, aptitude testing might be right for you. The investment of time and money is minimal when compared to the value of understanding and applying your natural abilities. At the very least, consider an “aptitude adjustment” by building your vocabulary using the Foundation’s list of resources, because with the right aptitude, you can go all the way.

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Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation


When a Costume Comes Along, You Must Whip It

Author: Kirsti Kay, Entertainment, Music, Nostalgia, Pop Culture

DEVO 1I think most of us have a pivotal moment where we are living our young lives, oblivious to everything except Saturday morning cartoons and making sure your mom bought Hostess Fruit Pies for your school lunches. And then one day it happens. You realize there is something more out there, that there is a whole world filled with movies and music, art and culture (and, better yet, counter-culture). For me, music was the thing that woke me up, made me take notice and understand there was something great and magical outside of my Valley suburb. Music made me realize I was alive.

I remember the day it happened for me. The year was 1980. MTV had not launched yet. I was listening to KROQ (back when they really played alternative music) and “Whip It” by DEVO came on. I stopped what I was doing and stared at the radio, unable to move or breathe. I’d never heard music like this before. I felt crazy excitement—a buzzing inside my body that made me want to run through the streets and be wild. I felt free. I felt like I had found my tribe. I also felt a little afraid, as if, in this very moment, my life was changed forever and I could never go back to the way it was.


The first time I actually saw what DEVO looked like, I was babysitting and they were on The Merv Griffin Show. I knew I liked their music, but when I saw them, my jaw dropped and I gasped. What was going on with the weird red hats (called Energy Domes) and the jerky dance moves? Why are they all wearing the same outfits? What are those noises they are creating that I’ve never heard before? And—holy crap!—is that guy playing a keyboard like a guitar? I was swirling with questions, but there was no Internet to ask. I was giddy with delight, but there was no Instagram to document my happiness. I was alone in a strange living room with all this excited emotion and I didn’t know a soul who would understand how wonderful and important this moment was to me.


“Whip It” good in this DEVO costume from Atom Age Industries.

These days, I have a DEVO poster framed in my office and a DEVO action figure on my desk, and when I wear my DEVO t-shirt, I can’t help but feel happy. Recently, I found out that Atom Age Industries is making a fully licensed “Whip It Outfit and Energy Dome.” Not only can I be the uncontested darling of ANY Halloween soirée, I can look incredibly cool walking my dog and freaking out my neighbors. If they ask me what’s up with my outfit, I’ll just say, “We are DEVO. D-E-V-O.” That should put them right at ease. And the entire delicious ensemble comes in a super cool retro box that you are going to want to keep out in plain view for others to covet. At $40 for the whole shebang, I’m going to stock up. If there is ever a zombie apocalypse, I’m sure they will pass me over, because they will understand that I’m just way too awesome to gorge on, and they will probably want to come over and listen to some of my records. Atom Age Industries also has a RAD Booji Boy mask and many other trinkets and baubles to help you Devolutionize.

I still feel that buzzing inside whenever I hear a DEVO song. It is a good reminder that I am alive. If you need me, I’ll be the one in the red Energy Dome running wild through the streets.

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DEVO “Whip It” Costume



Idol Away an Evening

Author: Kirsten K., Entertainment, Movies, Nostalgia

The Idolmaker 1The weekend is almost here, which for many of you means heading home to Netflix and ch…ow, so whip up some pasta marinara, break out the Chianti, and beg, borrow, or buy the DVD* of this little-known gem to idle away an evening. The Idolmaker is the story of an Italian-American from Brooklyn named Vincent Vacarri who has the musical chops and songwriting talent to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, but lacks “the look,” so he mines a couple of diamonds in the rough and sets about polishing them into teen idols. In a kind of 1950s version of Cyrano de Bergerac, they perform his songs and speak, dress, and act as he dictates so that he can live vicariously (Vacarri-ously?) through them.

The film is loosely based on the life of Bob Marcucci, a rock promoter who discovered Frankie Avalon and Fabian, managing their careers and guiding them to stardom. Directed by Taylor Hackford (Mr. Helen Mirren) and starring Ray Sharkey in a Golden Globe-winning performance, the movie also features a young Peter Gallagher in his film debut and boasts a soundtrack of catchy original songs that will have you humming along with the musical numbers.

The Idolmaker 2

This poster from the film hung on my sister’s door throughout the ’80s.

This movie holds a special place in my heart. Growing up, my middle sister and I were friends with a girl who lived across the street, and when she and my sister were in their early teens, the girl’s brother-in-law recruited the two of them to be extras in a movie he was working on called…you guessed it…The Idolmaker. They spent a day acting(?) the part of screaming audience members in a concert scene for the film, which I heard about for weeks afterwards. Forlorn at having been too young to join them, I hung on every little detail.

When the film was released in November of 1980, my sister and I saw it multiple times over the months that followed, excited about the fact that our friend could be seen during the performance of “However Dark the Night” wearing my mother’s red sweater. At home, we acted out the musical numbers and must have made our parents crazy with the constant repetition of the soundtrack LP on our turntable. I was already friends with Kirsti at the time and dragged her with me to see the movie on more than one occasion. She still has my handwritten lyrics to some of the songs, which I gave her to memorize.

The Idolmaker 3Nowadays, Kirsti and I have a group of friends who trade off meeting at each other’s homes for dinner and a movie. Whoever hosts gets to choose the film. Last month it was Kirsti’s turn and, with my encouragement, she chose The Idolmaker. Despite receiving two Golden Globe nominations (Best Picture and Best Actor – Musical or Comedy) and one win, we rarely encounter anyone who has seen the film, so we weren’t surprised that most of the group hadn’t heard of it, but one person had not only seen the movie, he’d loved it enough to purchase TWO copies of the DVD. Even Kirsti’s husband, a camera assistant and film buff, hadn’t known about the movie until he’d met her, but he became a fan after finally viewing it with the group.

Much like the St. Francis Dam disaster, The Idolmaker was an important part of my childhood that seems to have been lost to history, but it’s worth reviving. Kirsti and I agree that, after the passage of more than three decades, the film holds up. It’s still as thoroughly entertaining to us as adults as it was when we were tweens, so if you’re stuck indoors this weekend with some idle time, make time for The Idolmaker and you’ll be seeing the stars.

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The Idolmaker


The DVD of The Idolmaker can be purchased from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and stores like Best Buy, Fry’s, and Wal-Mart.


*The Idolmaker is not available for streaming, so unless you can find it for sale at a brick-and-mortar store, you’ll have to purchase it online or order it from Netflix on DVD and idle away a few days until it’s delivered. Until then, watch the trailer.

A Flood of Memories

Author: Kirsten K., Books, History, Literature, Nostalgia

When I was a child, I had a series of recurring dreams about being caught in floods and tsunamis that were so vivid and frequent, I can still remember them in detail. My waterlogged nights were the reason that, while visiting my Auntie Jo as a young girl, I plucked a book off her shelf about the St. Francis Dam disaster, kindling a fascination with the story that continues to this day, because today marks the 88th anniversary of the collapse: the deadliest American civil engineering disaster of the 20th century.

A Flood of Memories 1

The St. Francis Dam in February 1927, a year before it failed. At the time, the St. Francis Reservoir was the largest lake in Southern California.

Shortly before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, suddenly and catastrophically collapsed, sending the 12.4 billion gallons of water in the St. Francis Reservoir racing down San Francisquito Canyon and across the Santa Clara River Valley to the sea. In its path were families asleep in their beds, colonies of migrants who worked on local ranches and farms, camps of powerhouse and railroad workers, and untold numbers of animals, all swept away by a wall of water that reached 140 feet at its peak. When it was over, more than 400 people (and possibly as many as 600) were dead, the second largest loss of life in California state history.

A Flood of Memories 2This past January, a new and exceptional account of the disaster hit bookshelves. Floodpath is the result of more than 20 years of meticulous research by author and documentary filmmaker Jon Wilkman. It chronicles the rise of Los Angeles, the life and career of William Mulholland, personal stories about the night of the flood, and details of the aftermath and investigation in such a way that the book reads like a novel. Since the author may have been the last person to interview some of the remaining eyewitnesses and survivors before they died, this is likely to stand as the definitive account.

The chapters in Floodpath describing the night of the collapse are gripping, detailing events of the disaster from the first ominous rumble at 11:57 pm to the last rush of water and debris that entered the Pacific Ocean five and a half hours later. The floodwaters had scoured a path through the canyon and down the valley for 54 miles, destroying property and lives and changing the landscape of Southern California in more ways than one. Equally compelling and tragic is the story of William Mulholland, the self-taught engineer and architect of the St. Francis Dam who had been lauded as a hero for bringing water to drought-parched Los Angeles, but who ended his life a broken man living in seclusion after the failure of the dam.

A Flood of Memories 3

All that remained after the collapse was this center section of the dam, nicknamed the Tombstone.

Because I’d known about the St. Francis Dam collapse since I was young, I didn’t realize until reading Floodpath that the disaster has been virtually forgotten by all but civil engineers, L.A. history buffs, and dam enthusiasts. Jon Wilkman lays out some possible reasons for this “historical amnesia” in his book, including a campaign by civic leaders to whitewash what had been an embarrassing misstep in the aggressive growth of Los Angeles, but it was still a shock when driving through San Francisquito Canyon this week to encounter not one sign leading to the site or marking its location. The only indication that the area had witnessed the greatest man-made disaster in 20th century America—second only to the San Francisco earthquake and fire in terms of Californian lives lost—was a single plaque behind a chain link fence at Power Plant No. 2 that I stumbled upon when I stopped to take a picture (the former powerhouse at that location having been completely washed away in the flood).

St. Francis Dam 1

The site of the St. Francis Dam today looking east. The five steps protruding from the dirt once led up the front of the Tombstone.

The classic film Chinatown popularized the California Water Wars, but even though the St. Francis Dam failure is alluded to in the movie (as the Van der Lip Dam disaster), the collapse has slipped from public consciousness almost as quickly and completely as the waters of the St. Francis Reservoir slipped past the remains of the dam. With our aging infrastructure and shortsightedness in preventing another such disaster, this cautionary tale could not be more relevant. Hopefully, Floodpath will revive interest in this important chapter in the history of Los Angeles and unleash a flood of memories for those who can’t afford to forget.

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Floodpath can be purchased online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bloomsbury, IndieBound, and Powell’s.

Jon Wilkman is currently working on a documentary about the St. Francis Dam. Read more about this project on his website.



Update 3/13/16:

Yesterday, while my pre-scheduled post about Floodpath was going live, I returned to San Francisquito Canyon for a tour of the St. Francis Dam site through the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. This annual tour on the anniversary of the disaster was led by Dr. Alan Pollack and Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel with an assist from Evan Decker. It began in the Saugus Train Station at Heritage Junction Historic Park with a one-hour lecture and video presentation about William Mulholland and the California Water Wars, the construction and collapse of the St. Francis Dam, and the resulting flood with its deadly consequences.

On the way to the site, we passed the former location of Hollywood cowboy Harry Carey’s Indian Trading Post, a popular tourist attraction that had been swept away by the floodwaters, as well as a private cemetery on a hillside in the canyon where seven members of the Ruiz family, all victims of the flood, are buried. We also walked farther down the floodpath from the dam site than I’d gone on my previous visit, seeing large blocks of concrete from the collapsed dam that had been borne downstream by the water (new picture gallery below). The most powerful moment for me came while standing by Power Plant No. 2, where Dr. Pollack pointed up the hillside to indicate that the floodwaters had reached 3/4 of the way up the canyon walls. Referring to the powerhouse workers and their families, who lived in a small community across from the plant, he lamented, “They never had a chance.”

The SCV Historical Society is actively pursuing legislation to designate the dam site as a National Memorial and Monument and grant it federal protection. Despite the fact that the City of Los Angeles and the L.A. Department of Water and Power seem to prefer that the St. Francis Dam disaster remain a distant and fading memory, this event in our history is of significance not only for Southern California, but for the country at large. Lessons learned from the collapse of the St. Francis Dam helped to improve the building of dams nationwide, and the tragedy should be acknowledged for its role in strengthening our infrastructure and contributing to the growth of this country.

For more information, visit the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.


German on the Mount

Author: Kirsten K., Holidays, Nostalgia

German on the Mount 1While Christmas has been celebrated for close to two thousand years, many of our modern Yuletide customs originated in Germany and Austria less than two centuries ago. From Advent calendars and Kris Kringle to evergreen trees and Silent Night, several Christmas traditions we hold dear in America actually have Germanic roots (although, the pickle ornament appears to be a myth).

I am German on my father’s side and all of my Christmas memories are infused with the sounds, smells, and flavors of Germany. German on the Mount 2To this day, I place my order for lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) and stollen (fruit cake) with German Deli in October and pick up a seasonal stash of marzipan (sweet almond paste) from World Market each November in preparation for the holidays. On cold December evenings, I enjoy mugs of hot glühwein (mulled wine), and I always listen to my favorite Christmas album, Fröhliche Weihnachten mit den Westfälischen Nachtigallen (Merry Christmas with the Westphalian Nightingales), while decorating the tree.

German on the Mount 3Since I was a child, I’ve had the task of arranging the celestial orchestra of hand-painted wooden Christmas angels that come from the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) in Germany. My family’s collection began with a gift of three angels—one each for my sisters and me—from our German nanny. Every Christmas after she returned to Germany, she’d send us three small figurines from Wendt & Kühn in the mountain village of Grünhainichen to augment our display. In those early years, Erzgebirge angels could only be found in East Germany, so each diminutive gift was a rare treasure. Not realizing their value when I was young, I would often play with the cherubic figures, resulting in some chipped paint, a broken arm, and a missing wing among the heavenly host.

German on the Mount 4Artisans from the Erzgebirge region also make wooden holiday pyramids, smokers, nutcrackers, and ornaments that are sold at many an outdoor Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market) in Germany from late November through December, but I have a particular fondness for the childlike cherubim. Today, Erzgebirge angels are available online and come in a wide variety of colors and styles, from bakers with gilded wings to long-skirted forms in natural finishes, but the tiny musicians from Grünhainichen with their polka-dotted green wings will always hold a special place in my heart.

Whether or not you have German ancestry, consider giving a nod to the culture that redefined Christmas by starting your own collection of angels or other handcrafted wooden curios from the Erzgebirge. It may become a new holiday tradition that gives flight to a child’s imagination and one day inspires divine memories of Christmases past.

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Wendt & Kühn Grünhainichen Angels


Grünhainichen angels can be purchased in the U.S. from Foster’s Imports and The Wooden Wagon. To browse a large selection of handcrafted items from the Ore Mountains of Germany, including a range of painted angel figurines, visit the Erzgebirge Palace.

The Salty Road to Deliciousness

Author: Kirsti Kay, Food, Food & Drink, Nostalgia, Sweets

Salty Road 1I think, when all of us were kids, we thought that saltwater taffy was made with actual water from the sea. The very thought of taking a bite of THE OCEAN made the treat much more interesting and delicious than it would have been otherwise. I was always pretty sure I tasted the brine somewhere in that little fluffy pillow, but I also believed in magic and fairies and the goodness of people, so it wasn’t that big of a stretch for me.

Salty Road 2Later, when I found out the “salt water” in saltwater taffy was marketing, I was disappointed—much like poor Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he finds out his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring is a crummy commercial (be sure to drink your Ovaltine!). But even at that young age I did appreciate the genius behind the idea. So, when I discovered that Salty Road Salt Water Taffy has actual salt in it, I had to try it.

Salty Road Salt Water Taffy is made in Brooklyn with all natural ingredients and a lot of love. Not only does their taffy have salt in it, they use a coarse salt that gives the taffy a really addictive crunch, making eating only one piece almost impossible. Salty Road 3Combine the salty goodness with unique flavors such as Bergamot, Chili Chocolate, Sour Cherry, Peppermint and Salted Mango Lassi, and you have got yourself one perfect bite of pure deliciousness.

With holiday flavors just released, like Snow Mint, Pumpkin Pie, and Eggnog, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. A chewy, salty, awesome Christmas.

I still believe in magic and fairies and (mostly) the goodness of people, but now I am definitely sure I taste the sea in my taffy…or at least the salty tang of Brooklyn.

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Salty Road Salt Water Taffy

Cut the Gourd

Author: Kirsten K., Holidays, Inspiration, Nostalgia
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These faux pumpkins can easily be mistaken for the real thing.

I love Halloween. When I was little, I’d start planning—and sometimes making—my costume in the summer. My crowning achievement occurred in 8th grade. I’d seen and read Gone With The Wind months before and decided I wanted to dress up as Scarlett O’Hara. I made a petticoat out of an old bed sheet and attached a hula hoop and two macramé hoops underneath to give it the proper bell shape. I couldn’t fit down the narrow walkways at a few of the houses, so Kirsti (dressed as a Playboy bunny) had to trick-or-treat on my behalf.

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“Isabel” looks innocent enough by day on a tiny Tiger Cub Fun-Kin…

Carving the jack-o’-lantern was part of the fun, but it was almost an afterthought. My father did the actual carving while my sisters and I sorted through pumpkin guts to extract the seeds for roasting. I remember the large knife and how difficult (and dangerous!) it was to cut the classic face of three triangles for the eyes and nose plus a grinning mouth full of jagged teeth. Then, just as I began to outgrow trick-or-treating, Pumpkin Masters came on the scene and changed everything.

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…but the night reveals that inside she’s a bad (pumpkin) seed.

My sister Heidi was the first person I knew to carve a pumpkin using a Pumpkin Masters pattern and tools. Blown away by the precision and level of detail, I thought she was an artistic genius until she explained the simple process. After that, my obsession switched from costumes to pumpkins. I’m no artist, but I can follow a pattern like nobody’s business, and this method seemed foolproof for someone with a steady hand and a little patience.

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This real pumpkin was only five inches tall, so I dubbed it Mini Mo.

Each year I’d search out new patterns to carve and marvel at the effects that could be achieved with just a few judicious cuts. I also became fixated on carving smaller and smaller pumpkins (the hollowing out of large pumpkins being my least favorite part of the process) and using increasingly complex patterns. When I’d see my hard work begin to shrivel up within 24-48 hours, I would always become a little wistful, but I took pictures of each carved pumpkin as a memento. I briefly considered soaking my pumpkins in bleach to make them last longer, but it seemed wrong to defile an organic substance that way. Better to let nature take its course and be Zen about the whole thing. That is, until I became a victim of “Skullduggery.”

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I went out on a limb for this “Skullduggery” design, which led me to branch out into faux pumpkins.

Last year I attempted my most ambitious carving. Years before, I’d discovered the witty and macabre designs known as Killhouettes when my sister gave me one as a gift. I thought they’d make perfect pumpkin-carving patterns, except for the fact that most of them seemed too complicated, but I finally decided to take a stab at the one titled Skullduggery. In the picture, two men in bowler hats face off with knives drawn behind a picket fence with a lamppost in the center, creating a skull in the negative space between, while tiny tree branches stand in for cracks in the forehead. I painstakingly cut the pattern and was pleased with the result…until I took it out of the fridge mere hours later to find that the delicate branches had shriveled up before the first trick-or-treaters had even arrived!

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This skull at Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns was created entirely with Fun-Kins.

I’d heard of Fun-Kins, which are faux, carvable pumpkins molded from living versions, but I considered myself a purist and only wanted to use the real thing. Not anymore! I was ready to trade in my environmental principles for the unspoiled glory of polyurethane foam. When Kirsti and I recently went to Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns at Descanso Gardens, I asked an employee if the large and elaborate displays were made from faux pumpkins, and she confirmed that, while many of the pumpkins throughout the exhibit were real, the showstopping arrangements were composed of carved Fun-Kins. I went home that night and placed my order.*

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Here comes the “Bridezilla”…

The pumpkins are lightweight and hollow with walls about half-an-inch thick. No scooping required. There was a bit of a learning curve as I got used to this new medium. It is easier to go around tight corners and carve tiny details with a real pumpkin, since the flesh has more give, but a Fun-Kin is more forgiving when it comes to precarious elements that hold on by a thread. I’ve had a few mishaps over the years with real pumpkins where a fragile piece broke off and needed to be staked with a toothpick, but Fun-Kins are sturdy. Based on the examples at Descanso, they lend themselves particularly well to etched designs, but I haven’t yet mastered the art using a linoleum cutter or similar tool to scrape an image into the surface of a pumpkin.

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…all dressed in a white Brookester from Fun-Kins.

This year, I’m already enjoying my pumpkins instead of frantically carving them the afternoon of Halloween or doing so the night before and hoping the designs hold up in the fridge until the trick-or-treating commences. I’ve put them in my front window, each with one of Fun-Kins’ own battery-operated tealights to illuminate the design. I’m still going to carve a real pumpkin to put on the front porch with an actual candle inside. After all, you have to leave something for the juvenile delinquents to smash. But the pressure is off. I can use a simpler design and not worry if it rots or gets destroyed. There’s no reason to limit myself when I have so many choices, because attempting something like “A Rose for Lady Ravencourt” on a real pumpkin? I’d have to be out of my gourd.

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Pumpkin Masters


The “Isabel,” “Skullduggery,” and “Bridezilla” pumpkins are based on designs created by John Fair for Killhouettes. Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns can be seen in New York, San Diego, and Los Angeles through November 1st.

*My Fun-Kins arrived within two days of placing my order, so there’s still time to get yours before Halloween if you order in the next few days.