Books & Barley Swine: My Birthday in Photos

Seriously, I thought my birthday was a week ago, then I looked at the calendar and realized it’s been two weeks. This is my life right now: time disappears. But stories about books and food are always fun, right? Even when they’re two weeks late. And I have some very sexy books and food to share.

So… here are snaps and stories from my birthday celebration on Tuesday, May 1 when I turned the thoroughly unglamorous and unremarkable age of 44.

Even though I said I don’t do that whole “birthday weekend celebration” thing, I actually did start celebrating a little bit early with a trip to Half-Price Books on Sunday. I had just finished reading the thoroughly suspenseful Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr. It was jam-packed with Nazis and intrigue and beautiful women and plenty of noirish wise-cracking. I devoured it and decided I needed to read the Berlin Noir trilogy immediately. So off we went to Half Price Books, where I scored as if the store knew it was my birthday and wanted to play along.

I find a lovingly used copy of Berlin Noir (for $5!) — the pages of which make a perfect crackling sound when flipped because they’re both very thin and already broken in — as well as a $7-copy of This Body of Lies, #16 in  Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series (another favorite of mine).

But the best of all might be what I found in the Bargain Books corner: six installments of the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series for a measly $1 a piece.

A few months ago I read some blog posts about other foodies’ affection for these books — like this one and this one — and decided I need to read them. They’re hardcover and photographed in lurid, saturated, full-on 1970s style. Written as travelogues with recipes, they document the beginning of when American cooks started to become interested in learning about other cultures through their cuisines. The books are out of print, but show up in sets and singles on eBay fairly regularly. I decided to make it a non-urgent hobby to see if I could find them and bam! the birthday spirits threw six of the 27 titles in my path. (Curious? Wikipedia has more details.)

Here’s my stack which includes Middle Eastern, Russian, Chinese, Germany, American: Creole and Acadian, and the piéce de resistance: A Quintet of Cuisines which covers Switzerland; The Low Countries; Poland, Bulgaria and Romania; and North Africa. The introduction to the book describes — in hilariously, stiff prose — how these four regions came to be lumped together. I’m sure I’ll be sharing bon mots from these books in the future. For now: feast your eyes.

And this is just one breathtaking page from inside Middle Eastern Cooking:

OK! Now… imagine that thing they do in movies where everything gets all swirly to indicate we’re traveling through time… swirly, swirly, swirly…

It’s May 1! My birthday! The plan was to get up and take a walk around the lake, then go out for lunch, take a nap, and head to kundalini yoga. But the best thing about having a birthday is that on your day, you get to do whatever you want, so I changed my mind.

We did take a walk around the lake, and here’s proof:


 A ducky mom and babies!

After a leisurely brunch at Habanero and a short stint on the couch to watch Hell’s Kitchen while Dave wrapped my presents, I decided that rather than meditating at kundalini, I wanted to put on some eyeliner and heels to sip champagne.




We went to Opa!, a lovely wine and coffee bar in South Austin. The chairs are comfy and the soundtrack was all ’80s music. I kid you not, when we walked in, Duran Duran was playing. Birthday magic! I opened my presents from my parents (gorgeous wind chime, Well Fed floor mat for my kitchen) and Dave (totally badass rimmed baking sheets, the game ChickenFoot, an armband for my iPhone so I can run from the zombies more efficiently, and two books: a collection of essays called A Moveable Feast: Life Changing Food Adventures Around the World and Mana’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen.)

Continuing the Bday magic, when we were getting ready to leave for dinner, we were gifted a lovely piece of baklava from the barista. Which I ate. As an appetizer. Before dinner at Barley Swine. ‘Cause it was my birthday.

Halfway intoxicated on champagne and sugar, we posed for self-portraits…

And headed off to Barley Swine…

The accolades for Barley Swine are very impressive — GQ named it one of the top 10 restaurants in the U.S. and Food & Wine designated chef/owner Bryce Gilmore one of the best new chefs of 2011. But that made me nervous; Austin has been known to not live up to the hype. Man, I love it when I’m wrong! Every moment of our Barley Swine experience was as perfect as it could be. The atmosphere was energetic but chill. The service was first-class but friendly. And the food was not only “an experience,” it was delicious.

Hang on, it’s a bumpy, non-paleo roller coaster ride, but it’s all kinds of fun.

First, the menu. I took notes about each plate while Dave snapped pics with his iPhone; click the photo to enlarge, if you want to see my (increasingly drunken) scribble.

They’re small plates, so we ended up ordering all but three things on the menu. It was a non-stop parade of deliciousness…

#1. Beets, mole, grilled greens, goat cheese, popcorn
(Notes: “OMG. Popcorn!”)

When our server saw me trying to scoop up the last bites of yumminess left on the plate, she awarded me with this tiny rubber scraper so I didn’t have to humiliate myself by licking the plate.

#2. Scrambled duck egg, morels, green beans, goat feta, pecans
(Notes: “Holy shit. The pecans and feta make it.”)
This was Dave’s favorite dish of the night.

#3. Gulf shrimp, mango, pork fat, radish
I got to eat this all by myself ’cause Dave’s allergic to seafood.

The fried head was the best!

#4. Foie gras, rutabaga, pickled strawberry, parmesan
(Notes: “OMG. Parmesan.”)
My champagne and Dave’s beer forgot to remind us to take a photo of this plate before we decimated it. Sorry!

#5. Chicken fried chicken egg, grilled rabbit, mustard, hay grits
Our server explained to me how they fried the egg, but if I tell you the secret, I’ll have to kill you. You can barely see it under the greens in the photo — it’s that tan-ish orb in the background. It was crispy-fried on the outside, like fried chicken, and inside, the yolk was still tender and slightly runny. AMAZING!

#6. Pork belly, zucchini, pine nuts, nicoise olives
(Notes: “Best pork belly I’ve ever eaten.”)
The olives were dried and powdered (!) so they were like black diamond dust. The flavors were all perfectly balanced, and the pork belly itself was meaty and tender.

#7. Grilled quail, duck liver dirty rice, charred leek, hoe cake
This was my favorite dish of the night. I usually shy away from quail because, honestly, eating a tiny bird kinda freaks me out. BUT, the dirty rice plus corn cake won out over squeamishness, and I’m thrilled that it did. That tasty little thing was stuffed with the most luscious dirty rice, and the crispy bits of bird with tender, sweet hoe cake was… sigh.

#8. Coffee rubbed brisket, barbecued beans, slaw
(Notes: “I looked at the meat, and it fell apart.”)
The description on the menu didn’t get me super excited. I mean, there is BBQ EVERYWHERE in this town. But Dave said something, like, “Don’t you think if they put brisket on the menu it’s going to be something special?!” So we ordered it. We are geniuses. The other scribbled note on my copy of the menu says, “I would murder someone to get to it.”

When the savory hedonism was over, we moved on to dessert. And in my champagne-impaired state, I didn’t protest when Dave ordered all three of the dessert options.

Dessert #1: Chocolate swiss cake roll, barley ice cream, hazelnut
Yeah, those are some kind of candied macadamia nuts.

Dessert #2: Cornmeal shortcake, strawberry, buttermilk gelato
(Notes: “white chocolate dust”)

Dessert #3: Ste. Maure goat cheese, grilled zucchini bread, chamomile
(Notes: “Life changing.”)
This was my favorite dessert, and I wish we had lick-o-vision, so you could try it (and I could eat another plate of it right now). The goat cheese was so pungent and the zucchini bread was just the right amount of sweet and buttery.

And there you have it — every single decadent bite of our epic dinner. But before I wrap up, I need to show you the wonderful people that made this one of my best birthdays ever.

This is Billy. We sat at the bar so we could watch the action in the kitchen, and she took our order and made sure we had a good time.

And these are the completely badass chefs that worked their magic in the kitchen…

Should you find yourself in Austin, please do yourself a favor and eat at Barley Swine. For real.

Dave and I have already decided we’re going back for our anniversary in July — and there was some discussion of monthly Smudge Publishing “morale-building events”…


  • ashley hibbitts says:

    Happy Belated!! You crack me up. The rubber scraper- lol. I would totally do that;) ANd lick o vision- wish I had it too. I think for dessert number 1. Looks like a fabulous birthday. I am thankful for you – your blog, your cookbook, your sense of humor, and your ZEST for life!! You rock! (My latest Well Fed recipe was pork carnitas. Made a double batch and took 1/2 to my sweet neighbors that just had a baby.) My husband remains ever thankful that “that AUstin girl” develops fabulous recipes. Here’s to your best year yet!!

  • Avonna says:

    Looks like a fantastic night!! Love the book score! I’ve got 120+ cookbooks and have some old classics (my mother’s books from the ’60’s)

    Fun stuff! Happy 34th! 🙂

  • Irena says:

    Wow,everything looks delicious. I have to say that besides dessert, there didn’t seem to be too much grain based food. Did you ask them specifically or was that their normal menu? I giggled at the menu scribbles cause I sometimes do that and I’m glad I’m not the only food freak doing that sort of thing. 🙂

    • Mel says:

      That was their standard menu, and I suspect it wasn’t too bad on the gluten end of things, but there were plenty of luscious forms of sugar.

  • Beca says:

    Opa and Barley Swine are on my list! What does Opa have?

    Happy Birthday!

    • Mel says:

      Opa has a full cocktail bar and coffee bar, as well as some Greek snacks. Great place for a lazy afternoon or quiet evening. Gorgeous outdoor seating and lots of cozy nooks inside.

  • aseafish says:

    A most delightful post. I definitely smiled a bit at your hesitance with the quail and what appeared to be happy anticipation of the shrimp heads. I know both had to be wonderful.

    Your ability to pain such a lovely picture is a gift.

    Happy birthday. It is still May, and some people I know really love the idea of a birthday month.

  • melephant says:

    That meal looks amazing, beginning to end. But OMG your shoes are crazy … I love them in all of their bejeweled glory!

  • Ivarr says:

    Those were lovely pictures and a very nice description of the food. My lady and I do the same sort of thing when we dine in a nice restaurant.


  • Donna Hall says:

    Happy Belated Birthday!

    I loved your dinner recount! I’ve added Barley Swine to my list of restaurants to visit… definitely looks like it’s worth the cheat and we’re not that far away!

  • So drool-worthy. BTW, my sis’s chef mentor is Donia Bijan — small world. Hugs!

  • Ehsa says:

    HB, and it looks like a fab HB it was! You have such a wonderful husband and group of friends, not to mention great places to go out to dins with them … Would say more, but I am still recovering from (1) your link to Kathleen’s meditation post on her blog which led me to read/love/learn-from her entire archive (how about a playdate with Smudge and Scooty Boots & Dinah, although perhaps Dinah would rather stay home and meditate by herself … luvs the kitties!) and (2) your Well Fed salmon North Afrique (sp?) recipe (will I ever cook anything without that marinade again? Total Woof! No coriander on hand so doubled the cumin .. OMG was it out of this world!)

    Apropos of your wonderful & upbeat birthday post … the only kind of gift I might give to you is the hope that you realize that all your posts (funny, serious, insightful, soul-searching, delicious, etc.) bring such joy to the lives of your readers (or this reader, anyway) … every word you write is so appreciated by somebody, somewhere, at sometime, and my birthday wish to you is that you know that what you do has such a positive effect on Teh* World.

    * Ya learn so much from Teh Internets … before I was cool, I used to spell Teh as The (thx from Teh Bobbie’s comments on Kathleen’s blog).

    • Mel says:

      Ehsa, you are just the most thoughtful, sweetest ever. Thank you for this lovely comment… truly.

      And yes, Kathleen is truly fabulous.

      Re: the salmon. I 100% approve of doubling cumin — pretty much all the time 🙂

  • happy belated birthday! looks like so much fun! i love that you had a really fun day and don’t take every single meal too seriously. its supposed to be fun right? hope this is the best year yet for you!

  • LauraG says:

    I have some friends currently boondocking in Austin. I’m going to point them to this post for restaurant recommendations (and just cause it’s an awesome post!).

  • Wendy says:

    Happy Here I Am Day! 44 is the best, my lucky number is 4 and you get two of them! Don’t worry, 55 is even better. I did not believe I could feel so good at this age, but it keeps getting better. Must have something to do with diet and exercise or something. Thanks for sharing your gastro-indulgence with us, sometimes you just gotta say what the bleep.

  • Lydia says:

    This post is made of the most awesome that ever awesomed. That is all.

  • Danielle says:

    As I looked at the pictures and read your notes I found myself exclaiming “oh!”. It’s crazy how delicious well-composed salads can be. Mel, if ever you find yourself in NYC make sure you hit up The Redhead, a VERY delicious little joint in the East Village that I think would be right up your alley.

    Like you, last month I spent my birthday getting silly with my husband on cold sake in Kyoto – when you’re well-matched there’s nothing better! (Not sake, not even Kyoto – I mean spending a birthday alone laughing with hubby!)

    Thanks for sharing! You have one of my favorite blogs. So happy you’re based in such a cool city, too. And you’re an ass-kicking fortysomething paleo tattoo girl like me! Honestly, I am LOVING grabbing this life by the horns and riding it! Have an awesome year. 🙂

    • Mel says:

      1. I looked at your site. You are the cutest!

      2. Thanks for the recommendation of The Redhead. We might be going to NYC this summer, so we’ll check it out!

  • Natalie says:

    I don’t know, I think there’s something glamorous & remarkable about 44, but then I was always someone that looked forward to turning 30. Looks like you had a lot of fun. Which everyone should on their birthday.

    Love the heels & the tattooed feet, btw 😉 xo

  • Robyn says:

    Oh my gosh, I should not have looked at these pictures while hungry. Each dish looks better than the last!
    And you, by the way, look fahhhbulous.

    • Mel says:

      We drive by Barley Swine our on way to the craptastic gym and yoga, and ever time, I wave and say, in a sad voice, “Hi, Barley Swine!” because I know it’s going to be a while before I can eat there again.

      And thank you for the compliment. I must give credit for my appearance to makeup and Instagram 🙂

  • Jenny Nagel says:

    Wow, epic!!!

  • Melissa says:

    Happy Belated Birthday!

    I’ve always wanted to go there, I’ve read nothing but great reviews on it.

    I want to go to Contigo too. I know one of the chefs there, it’s on my list too