Con Kasterborous 2014

Hello everyone. I’m being pestered to do a write-up of Con K in Huntsville from last month. I wasn’t able to get many pictures on the second day of the con for reasons I’ll explain later in the tale, but I’ll post what I do have.

The tl;dr version: Con K is a very new, Who-centric convention that is going through some growing pains but has a lot of potential to be a really fun event if organizational and venue issues can be resolved.

If you’re not interested in my adventure in getting there and problems with the hotel, skip to Part The Second on page 2.

Part The First: The Trip

You just know it’s going to be one of those trips when the day before you leave you get an email from your credit card company telling you that your card has been placed on fraud alert. At least this time, the card company had the courtesy to tell me; last time they froze my account I was mid-air on my way to Calgary, only to find when I landed that both my credit card and my bank card had been frozen. Not fun. So instead of getting some rest and packing, I spent the day on the phone with the credit card company and my bank, making sure the travel notices were set up on the cards, and ensuring that the charge for the hotel would go through.

Then, when I finally did make it on the road, about an hour outside of Huntsville something smacked into my windshield and cracked the glass.

Then, just as I turned into Huntsville, the heavens parted and I was in the middle of a deluge, driving on an unfamiliar interstate, with a cracked windshield, and rain so hard I could barely see the car in front of me. It took forever, but I did eventually make it to the turn off–and then couldn’t find parking at the Westin.It took another good half hour of driving around to find where I was actually supposed to park, and I was dripping wet by the time I get to the desk.

The person at the desk was very cordial to me, until he saw the reservation and that I was with the con. Immediately his demeanor changed, and he became very condescending. That was not the first time that the staff at the Westin Huntsville behaved in such a manner. There were at least four instances, directed at me by three Westin staff, during my stay there, and in chatting with other con goers, I heard that some of them were treated even worse. Most of the issues seemed to focus in the bar and grill area, where I personally overheard one of the staff make fun of con goers while talking to other patrons. This is completely unprofessional behavior. I have had excellent experiences with the Westin in the past, and I was very disappointed to observe this kind of behavior in Huntsville.

That said, it’s still a Westin, and you’re guaranteed a decent bed and a great shower. So I blew off the snarkiness and went to my room to sleep for a couple hours.

The Huntsville Westin, like the Westin at Lombard, is situated next to a mall. That means that you are not trapped in the hotel for the whole time, you can get out, take a walk, try out other restaurants, do a little shopping. That’s exactly what I did on the night before the con. I was pretty excited when I saw the mall directory and realized that there were several establishments that offered gluten-free options, but disappointed to find out how long the wait was at the restaurants.

So after I finished my shopping, I put my purchases in the car and went back to the hotel for supper. I ordered the steak with mushroom risotto and a glass of the house merlot. The merlot was actually pretty decent. Unfortunately, the steak and risotto were not. I had ordered the steak medium rare and they sent me well-done. The outside was charred black, and the meat was tough and stringy. I should have sent it back–but I was so hungry I ate it anyway. I might as well have been eating leather. The first few bites of the risotto were fine, but then I started picking up the saltiness–way too much salt for my preference. But at least I got my tummy full and I called it quits and went to bed.

Please scroll down to click on the link to Page 2.

Review: Walmart’s Gluten-Free Beef Stroganoff Mix

After discovering last year that I was gluten-sensitive, I basically gave up on bread, and pasta, and cookies, and cakes–well, you know, anything that had flour in it. The mixes that were on the market that were gluten-free were barely edible, and I have been so busy I have not had time to track down all the different types of flours and learn all the new ratios necessary to try to replicate my favorites.

Plus, five dollars for a cake mix that will only give me one layer? That’s simply insane.

It was with great joy that I found recently that our two local bargain grocery stores–Walmart and Aldi’s–had started carrying gluten-free mixes and items at a far more reasonable price. I’ve stocked up on items from both stores, and as I try them, I’ll post my reactions and results.

First up–Walmart’s Gluten-Free Beef Stroganoff.

This is a Great Value (Walmart store brand) version of the Hamburger Helper Beef Stroganoff. Having seen the design of the Aldi’s G-Free box mixes, the Great Value box immediately leapt out at me on the shelf. It’s not close enough to be accused of copying, but similar enough that for someone familiar with the Aldi’s brand, the association is made.

Just in case you are curious, here’s the Great Value box:

stroganoffpackage

 

And here is one of the Aldi’s box mixes:

aldipizzabox

The box contains exactly what you would expect in a Hamburger Helper box–a packet of sauce mix and a bag of pasta (in this instance rice rotini).

The instructions are also very similar to Hamburger Helper: you cook it exactly as you would the original formula.

The rice pasta cooked up well. I find rice pasta can sometimes be too chewy, while other times it loses integrity and falls apart. This pasta was very soft, and it also tasted like real pasta.

The problem, however, was the sauce.

From the very beginning, the sauce did not mix well with the water.There were grainy lumps among the ground beef. Milk did not help either. Even after vigorous stirring, the sauce remained grainy and lumpy. I covered the pan and hoped that it would come together on the simmer.

It didn’t. After nearly fifteen minutes, instead of a sauce I had a watery mess. I got down the cornstarch from the cupboard and added nearly two teaspoons before the sauce finally came together.

Here’s what it looked like after the cornstarch and a few more minutes of simmering:

stroganoffpan

Was it worth the effort?

Not really.

The sauce was very, very bland and extremely salty. I am not exaggerating when I say that it tasted like salty cardboard. I added sour cream on the plate, and that gave it some taste, but on its own, I can’t recommend it. For heating up the leftovers, I’ll throw in a can of mushrooms to see if that helps give the sauce a little more body and flavor, but unless Walmart dramatically changes its formula for the sauce, this is yet another GF product I won’t buy again. Even if it takes more time, I’d rather try to make my own sauce than fight with this one again.

Here are the Nutrition Facts for the Beef Stroganoff. The sodium level is high, but I suppose not unexpected for packaged food. I eat so little packaged food, however, that perhaps what is too salty to me will taste fine to someone else who is used to it:

StroganoffNutritionFacts

And, finally, the ingredients. I am not thrilled that there is corn syrup in this, but avoiding corn syrup is a personal choice on my part and again maybe not an issue for someone else. Supposedly the sauce has cornstarch in it already, so I’m not sure why the sauce didn’t take.

StroganoffingredientsCost:

The stroganoff mix was $1.48.

Ground beef was $ 4.98

Milk (organic 2%) $1.035 (half gallon was $ 3.68. 2.25 cups/8 in a half gallon=28%. .28x 3.88 = 1.035)

The total then is $7.495. At five servings per box, that comes out as $1.50 per serving.

 

The Effect of Wine and Cheese Before Bedtime. . .

. . . seems to be the first semi-narrative dream I’ve had in several months. I still have no idea what it means, but at least it’s more than just the flashes of weird images I’ve been having recently. Logged for your amusement/analysis–

I’m on a street in a large city outside what looks like a mall. There are lots of people milling about. It looks to be Christmastime; people are wearing jackets and exchanging gifts. A guy I went to school with named Jack is handing out some kind of little baked goods wrapped in cello paper. He hands me one. It’s the letter B made in chocolate cake, with a bit of chocolate glaze drizzled over it. I’m a bit offended–I’m only a B? Not an A? Well, I think, at least he doesn’t think I’m an F. I say to him, “I don’t know if I can eat this.” He says “It’s allergen-free.” I turn it over and read the ingredients, and it seems to be safe. I put it in my pocket and thank him.

Then I turn and go into the building. I’m expecting shops or some kind of seating area, but instead I am in the bedroom of an apartment. John Cusack is sitting propped up against the headboard of the bed. There are a lot of people there, which I think is weird for a bedroom. A guy comes and sits next to him on the bed. Cusack grabs a big coffee-table book off the bed and opens it and starts showing him pictures from it. He is talking like it was a movie he was in, but as I am looking at the cover it clearly says Get Smart. I don’t think he was in that, was he?

Then I’m out on the street. Cusack and the guy are in a car driving away, but somehow the guy gets out of the car and people swarm him. They all seem to know him and want to talk to him, which I think is odd because I have no idea who this guy is, but in the car is Cusack for God’s sake. Cusack yells at the guy to get back into the car, but the guy doesn’t (or can’t–I can’t tell which), and Cusack drives off. I think this is weird because somehow I know this is Cusack’s brother. But in real life he doesn’t have a brother, does he? So who is this brother or what does he represent?

As I’m standing there trying to figure it out, I realize that  I am now outside another building. It seems to be a duplex. I lived here, I guess, and I’m getting ready to move. I’m at the back door getting ready to lock it, and as I look into the back door, someone is moving furniture by scooting it across the hardwood floor in the hallway toward the front door. I yell at them and pound on the door and tell them they are going to tear up the hardwood–and they ignore me and the hardwood just peels up behind them like shavings from a sharpened pencil as they scoot a bookcase toward the door. I scream and pound on the door–why I don’t unlock it, I don’t know, but I just yell and throw up my hands. I’m gonna lose my security deposit. Damn it. I stomp down the concrete steps to the car that is waiting for me. In the dream, I know the person in the car, but I can’t remember now who it was. I get in the car, and then I wake up.

First Spring

Spring is coming later this year. Or maybe it’s right on time and we’ve had early blooms so often we’ve forgotten the usual cycle. The dogwood has finally burst open in the front yard but the tulip tree is taking its sweet time. Wherever I go in town I see magnolias in bloom but not in our neighborhood.

So I’ve consoled myself with the little presents Mother Nature has hidden in the yard.

Like the sweet little periwinkles winding their way around the house and pond.

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Or these adorable little violets I found peeking up by the deck.

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The blackberry bushes are starting to wake up too.

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And the lily pads are starting to peek out of the murk. We only lost one koi, the big old fellow. Considering how awful the winter was, we were lucky.

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But what really made me squeal with joy was when I opened the shed this morning and looked at my bulbs. With the freeze last week I had to bring them back inside and they hadn’t even started to bud yet.

They are now!

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The daffs were supposed to be pink! But they’re still daffs, and they are my birthday flower and I love them all.

Some day an entire section of the yard will be filled with daffodils and tulips and lillies! I already know where. And each year I’ll add a few more until the entire fence line erupts with joyous color every single spring.

This is coming up our first year in the house. There is still much to do, especially in the yard, but already it’s become much more than a house.

It’s a home.

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Surprises, Both Pleasant and Not

I am walking up the stairs in our house. Just as I get to the top, I hear a crash outside. I run into the bathroom and look out the window into the yard. The neighbors have pulled a section of the fence down by the shed and a dog runs into the yard through the gap. I think at first it is my dog and then realize it is a younger (maybe around a yearish) dog of the same breed. My dog runs over to the younger dog and they start cavorting around the pond.

I run down the stairs and out the back door. I am mad as hell. Why are they tearing down my fence? I run over to the gap and stick my head through and yell at the boys in the yard. As I am chewing them out, I hear a voice call out that they should go out to the farm and get fencing to replace what they tore down.

That voice sounds familiar. As the boys are going out the gate at their house to get into their truck, I squeeze through the gap into their yard.

There is a man leaning against the brick on the backside of their house. I walk over to him. He has his hands jammed in his jeans pockets and a baseball cap pulled down low. The hair is different, really long, and there is a full beard and not the usual stubble, but I know that silhouette and that voice.

I reach him and intend to give him a good what for, but I can’t help myself. My arms go around him and his around me. I don’t know what he is doing in the neighbor’s yard or why he is dressed like this, but I know my Sweetie and he knows me. My hand accidentally brushes his ass as I hug him. Reflexively, I tell him I’m sorry. He lifts his hand to my chin and raises my eyes to him.

“No, you’re not.” And we both laugh.

“You’re right,” I admit, and reach down and give his ass a good hard squeeze.

He responds by moving his hand to the back of my head and pulling me in for a hard kiss.

Time stops as it always does when we are in each other’s arms. When we come to our senses, it is night.  I still don’t know what is going on or why he is dressed like he just climbed off the combine. But none of that matters.

“I’m tired,” I say. I nod to the hammock in the back of their yard. “Let’s go lie down.”

And we do.

I wake up, disoriented. I am standing up, and there is something hard and sharp pressing against my bum, We’re embracing again, but not for a kiss. I’m leaning against a shelf. I try to get my bearings, realize I am surrounded by cuttings starting to bloom. They are neatly arranged by group and by tiers. We’re in a greenhouse? What the hell?

Then he pulls away and I look around. It looks more like the floral section of the grocery store, but why they have cuttings instead of flowers is a mystery. I look down the aisle and see that this section is connected to the pharmacy. Odd. It looks like our grocery store but the layout is different. It should be the bakery to the right.

On a dolly is a giant burlap bag. I assume it is a rootball, but it looks like branches have been jammed into it. I walk over and start to untie it. A shoot starts to, well, shoot out of the top.

Suddenly, an angel with a sword leaps in front of me. “No,” it says. “It cannot get out.” He beats the shoot down with the flat of his sword and reties it. Whatever is inside the burlap bag starts to writhe and growl. “Go back,” he says, and I run back into the section with the cuttings.

We suddenly realize that there are angels everywhere, with swords drawn, facing outward to protect us. Now we are both scared. What is going on?

We see that a senior citizen is coming down the pharmacy aisle in a scooter chair. As he gets closer, we see that he is not a senior citizen but a zombie senior citizen! Great! Now it’s devolving into a nightmare. As Zombie Grandpa starts to zoom towards us, his scooter chair hits what seems to be an invisible force field across the aisle a few feet in front of us. The scooter chair bounces back several feet. The force of the hit startles us, and it seems to startle Zombie Grandpa too.

We run to check to see if we are protected on all sides. Is that invisible force field there? Are the angels still there, even if we can’t see them?

And then, we wake up.