How To Have A Great Block Party

ScrumptiousIf I could, I’d put a pig roast in every book I write. That’s how much I love them. However, I think you can only pull the trigger on a pig roast once, and I put one in SCRUMPTIOUS. So for any of you out there wondering why the HELL Joe and Marlene drove to Kentucky to have a pig roast, now you know. My books are a big ole reflection of my life in food! And speaking of pig outs…

My kids went hog wild with cupcakes!
My kids went hog wild with cupcakes!

Last weekend was the Fourth Annual Pig Roast Block Party in our neighborhood, an event that our kids call “The Best Day of the Year!” Part of what makes it so special is the pig, of course. It’s a novelty, and it gives the neighbors a chance to hang out and socialize for up to twelve hours while it cooks. My husband Ben is the Pig Master and our next door neighbor plays Games Master. There are at least 80 kids on our street, and while they like to squeal about the pig on the spit, they need lots of activities to keep them entertained. The adults manage just fine on their own. 😉

8 hours in!
8 hours in!

You certainly don’t need to go the pig route to have a great block party! (However, if you do want to roast a pig, this post covers our process.) Here’s how to work block party magic before, during, and after the event. (Disclaimer: I asked Ben what is the single most important thing for a good block party. His response: the uncontrollable…weather. About a month before the party, he becomes a weather worrywart, checking the forecast every few hours. OMG, the torture. There’s nothing you can do about the weather, but here’s how to plan for everything else we can think of!)photo(47)

Big Picture:

  1. If you want to roast a pig, source the roaster and book it as soon as you have a date. Crazy people like us book months ahead of time.
  2. Distribute the flyer to all the neighbors about a month in advance.
  3. Call the town or whoever is in charge of allowing you to close down the street, and get that set up. The town drops off the barricades, and we close off the center of our street for as long as we are permitted. Guess what? Kids LOVE to play in the street!
  4. We also request a visit from the local volunteer fire department. As it turns out, it’s even MORE FUN to play in the street when it’s flooded! It helps to know someone in the department, and we feel very lucky to have such a good neighbor. If you are as lucky as we are, don’t forget to take up a collection for the fire department!Pig cookies

The Food:

  1. We charge a per family fee to cover the pig, the roaster, prizes for the games, ketchup, mustard, BBQ sauce, rolls, plates, forks, napkins, and ice cream novelties (unbridled access to ice cream sandwiches=awesome).
  2. Everyone brings a dish. Ben refuses to micro-manage this, so some years everyone brings pasta salad…and some years there’s a great mix of dishes.
  3. BYOD – Bring your own drinks. We do solicit a donation from Pepsi because a Pepsi guy lives on our street. YAY! (Click the red box below for the rest of the post!) Continue reading “How To Have A Great Block Party”

Sale! Score! Soar!

Once upon a time, a writer had a glass of wine with her agent in Anaheim, CA, at the Romance Writers of America National Conference, and her agent said, “I think you should write a super-sexy contemporary that I can submit to Entangled’s Brazen line.”

And the writer said yes. And she wrote the book.

And the agent submitted the book. And Entangled bought the book. And two more books.

And the writer was happy freaking thrilled, over the moon, joyous, jubilant, elated and psyched!

I love a story with a happy ending. *squeak* And I love my agent. And I love my new book and my new editors and my new publisher and my life and chocolate and wine and YOU because you are reading this and sharing my glee! Thank you for tuning in. 🙂 Lila and Jack’s story is slated for June, and I had the best time writing it. I can’t wait to share more details with you.

Speaking of sales, SCRUMPTIOUS is .99 for Kindle at this very moment, so get it while it’s cheap! And buy it for your friends! And your mom! And your dad! And your dog! My dog loved it!Just kidding! Scrumptious

Joe Rafferty is just as mouthwatering as the food he cooks. But if he thinks he’s going to waltz in and take over her kitchen, he’s denser than a thick slice of chocolate ripple cheesecake. Marly has invested too much of her life in Chameleon to hand off the restaurant to someone else—especially a cocky–as–all–get–out superstar chef. But there’s no denying the man knows how to light her fire. Question is: Can she have the sizzle without feeling the burn?

“In the small but expanding niche of foodie romance, Usen’s debut rules the kitchen with lip-smacking prose and rowdy protagonists who put Iron Chef to shame.” – Publishers Weekly

I’m going to expand that niche a wee bit more, and keep my rowdy chefs cooking. Hooray!

How To Roast A Pig

Luscious is coming! July 2012!

If you’ve always wanted to know why there’s a pig roast scene in Scrumptious, this is why.

But first, a little housekeeping – Jessie won the mini-offset spatula, which is now winging it’s way to her. I hope she loves it! The Boat of Hope benefit, put on by Naturally Chiropractic, raised $5806 for the Dragon Boat Racing Team. That will buy a lot of gas to get that boat on the river! I had a wonderful time at the event handing out hors d’oeuvres and chatting about gluten-free cooking. All the recipes can be found here. Finally, Luscious is coming out in July! Hurray! It’s been getting good reviews, which delights me to no end. Here’s one of my favorites:

“Usen expertly blends engaging characters with a swoon-worthy Italian setting right out of Under the Tuscan Sun (1996) and an abundance of delectably described Italian dishes to create an irresistible literary treat for fans of sizzling hot contemporary romances.”

— John Charles, Booklist

John Charles, I think I love you.

If you want to Pre-order Luscious, go here. And thank you!

With that said, Pig Roast 2012 dawned a bit drizzly, which always drives my husband nutso. He begins weather-watching a solid month before the block party, driving ME nuts comparing Accuweather, WIVB, Weather Channel and more. He’s relentlessly optimistic, one of the things I love about him, and he believes it will burn off soon. Such is the power of his positive energy, the rain stopped when he turned on the rotisserie. 😀

Step 1: Find a deli or grocery that will know what you are talking about when you say you want a whole pig. A 100-110 pig will feed at least 50 adults and various and sundry children. (Although we always get hot dogs too. The kids might have fun daring each other to eat the eyeballs, but they don’t actually want a pulled pork sandwich.) Ben orders his pig about a month ahead and tells them he wants it half-thawed. That means they’ll get it in the week before and let it sit in their walk-in to slowly defrost. Then Ben picks it up the day before the roast and lets it sit in our garage over night. It stays below 40 degrees, wrapped in plastic in a cardboard box. It’s easier to put a mostly thawed pig on the rotisserie than it is to try to winch a stiff pig into submission. He’s learned this through trial and error. This is the third pig he’s done for the block party, but he’s done a few in the backyard for friends too. That’s why we started to do them for the neighborhood – it takes a lot of people to eat a whole pig! (For those of you inferring we don’t have enough friends to eat a whole pig *snort!*)

My Pig In A Box (Eat your heart out, Justin Timberlake!)

The Rest of the Roast

SCRUMPTIOUS Is Available Now!

I was buying pajamas for my nieces when I received a text from a friend in Canada, saying that she was standing in Barnes and Noble looking at my book. Scrumptious had been delivered early and was on the new romance display in the excellent company of Allison Brennan! I begged for a photo. My friend’s cell phone camera was broken, so she asked a total stranger to snap this for me:

A dream come true. My book is on display with the romance writers who inspired me to write in the first place. So far the reviews of SCRUMPTIOUS have been fantastic, another dream come true…

“In the small but expanding niche of foodie romance, Usen’s debut rules the kitchen with lip-smacking prose and rowdy protagonists who put Iron Chef to shame…the pacing, emotion, and erotic exuberance all sparkle.”
Publishers Weekly

“In her superbly crafted debut, Usen blends together two realistically complicated protagonists, a well-realized culinary setting (complete with mouthwatering descriptions of food), and plenty of incendiary love scenes. The resulting literary dish is a smart, sexy, simply irresistible contemporary romance.”

“The title perfectly summarizes the feel of this book. Both the main characters and the culinary dishes are described in such a way that readers can practically taste, see and feel every word. Usen has a way with words and it translates to a solid storyline with great sex scenes.”
RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars

There is some serious hootin’ and hollerin’ going on at the Usen house. I’m trying to simply enjoy the moment (without obsessing over non-glowing reviews, without watching the numbers go up and down) because to sell a book is a grand thing. And to see it on the shelf is astonishing! *Happy dance*


SCRUMPTIOUSI love cupcakes and man candy!

My culinary romance SCRUMPTIOUS will hit the shelves in January, and things have been heating up! I am thrilled to have my recipe for Thai Pot Stickers featured in December’s issue of Romantic Times Book Reviews Magazine and delighted that the accompanying Sweet and Sour Peanut Sauce recipe was on the RT Blog, too. That is sweet!

I have loved Thai dumplings ever since Corey Griffith, my first chef boss at the now closed Cakewalk restaurant in Nashville, TN, introduced them to me. It boggles the mind that I didn’t have Asian food until I went to college, but it’s true. I’ve made up for lost time since then, and I make dumplings a lot. I can never decide on just one way to cook them, either. Steamed, fried or potstickered – my family loves them all. I stand at the stove cooking, and they sit at the table eating. No one keeps count of how many I make or how many they eat, dipped in ginger-soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, hot mustard and, of course, sweet and sour peanut sauce.

In SCRUMPTIOUS, Marlene and Joe make dumplings twice – once for each other and once for a food critic paying a surprise visit to the restaurant. Ever since my creative writing classes in college, I’ve been told “write what you know.” In SCRUMPTIOUS, I write what I cook. All of Marlene’s desserts were featured on the menu when I was Susan Spicer’s pastry chef at Bayona in New Orleans circa 1998. The cheesecake in Chapter Two? Best thing I make. I won a trip to Toronto with that recipe!

The dishes Joe and Marlene cook, I’ve cooked or watched my husband cook, while offering helpful advice *giggle*. I hope you’ll be inspired to try a few of my recipes. If I post them, they are tried-and-true keepers. However, if you have any trouble with them, I’m happy to give you cooking advice, too. As my culinary students know, I believe the measure of a good chef is the ability to learn from mistakes, fix them, and if you are in the biz…sell them!

Reclaiming The Kitchen

Reclaiming is not the perfect word for what I am doing. Reclaiming implies someone took the kitchen from me. That someone would be my husband, and it is simply not the case. I gave it up. Willingly. Gratefully. Necessarily.

You see, ten years ago, I had my first child. She was perfect and beautiful and I nearly died. I lost a lot of blood. A lot. Of blood. Babies two and three didn’t go much better. I won’t go into details because this is not a blog about postpartum hemorrhage and complete placenta previa! Feel free to send an e-mail if you want to chat about those unappetizing topics.

Because it took all of my energy to nurse my babies and come back to life, I stopped cooking dinner. I pretty much stopped cooking dinner for ten years. Oh, I  made guest appearances – dumplings, spring rolls, vegetarian dishes and desserts. I made some intense birthday cakes, but my husband cooked our dinners. And did the grocery shopping. And enjoyed it. In the decade I spent at home with the kiddies during the day and working part-time at night decorating cakes, he worked as a chef. The man can cook. Fast. Clean. And to the tastes of both adults and children. And he looks like this when he’s doing it. Why on earth would I want to disturb the balance of what seems like a very cushy arrangement?

Hot Chef*Shrug* I like to cook. However, I am not as well-behaved as my husband. He’s a crowd pleaser. The kids always eat what he makes. I like to cook spicy and piquant foods. Give me sriracha, vinegar and preserved lemons (maybe even all together). If I cook, sometimes I have to make two meals – one for us and one for the kids. (Yes, we do that. We are short order cooks. Judge us.) If I start doing the grocery shopping, it will cut into my writing time. If I start cooking dinners again, it will also cut into my writing time. My husband is a kick-ass chef. (Yes, fine, I admit it. Joe in SCRUMPTIOUS was modeled on my husband. Hot chef in the house!) Why on earth do I want to rock the boat?

*Shrug* I like to cook. I want glass noodles and peanut butter on my chicken occasionally, okay? And I want to make it myself. Our last birth disaster is five now, and he just started kindergarten. There is room for two in this kitchen, and I have more writing time while all the kids are at school. Surrendering the kitchen made me feel incapable, even though I juggled five part-time jobs and my uber-husband was happy to run our kitchen. Cooking is part of who I am and it is giving me great satisfaction to get back to the stove. Expect the recipes section of my blog to grow. Come into the kitchen with me. Own it. Work it. Cook it. Claim it!

Plan B

First, although I stand behind my aforementioned faith and optimism, March, April and half of May rattled the heck out of me. I was teaching community college pastry arts classes full-time, SAT prep classes on the weekends and trying to achieve grand daily word count goals so I could finish my book on time. I almost lost my faith, my optimism and my marbles too.

I always think if I can just make the perfect list, the perfect schedule, if I’m a good girl and I do everything perfectly –  then I can get everything done. You know what? When in doubt, examine your premise. Some plans aren’t reasonable.

I dearly love my projects. All of them. I know for a fact I seek a certain level of crazy-busy because when I finish one thing, I start something else, even though I’m still in the middle of four or five other things. I planned to do a little bit of work on each project every day until everything was done. It was a shock to discover that creating a five-week, four-team, thirteen-person production schedule for my first class required my full attention. I began to panic. If I couldn’t multi-task, I couldn’t succeed. What about my second class, a higher level pastry class than I had ever taught? What about the edits on Scrumptious that I was expecting any day? What about finishing my book? My wheels began to spin. My gears ground to a halt and then… the mother of all head colds turned my brain to fudge.

Absolute, total meltdown.

My daughter made me cookies.

My husband got down on the floor with me, where I lay gibbering and snotting, and said these magic words: just do one thing at a time.

Not my usual MO, but I didn’t have a choice. My plan wasn’t working.

I focused on the project with the closest deadline, and ignored everything else. Bit by bit, class by class, I made progress. As time passed and I got more done, the panic dissipated. The anxiety that had paralyzed me eased up considerably. I wish I could say it went away, but I haven’t finished the book yet. 🙂 And when I do finish the (damn) book, there will be another one, soooooo… I’ll have to remember what I’ve learned.

Anybody other than me shaking their head and thinking Yeah, like that’s gonna happen? Because I think that’s what I learned. Apparently, I run full-tilt until I hit a wall, fall down and watch the birdies sing. This spring, my husband suggested I get up and jog parallel to the wall instead. Changing my approach was the difference between success and what felt like certain failure, but it doesn’t come easily to me. I’ll probably hit the wall again. There will likely be gibbering and snot. I’ll find myself on the floor, eye to eye with my husband, who will again say: just do one thing at a time.

The really beautiful thing I learned this spring? I can do it! One thing at a time works, too. Hello, Plan B!