Writing a Book: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Writing our first book, The World in a Skillet, was a great experience. We met wonderful people and ate their delicious food. Now with our second book, Farm Fresh Tennessee, we are meeting even more people and our experiences with them are more participatory. All in all, it has been a fantastic experience.

If there is anything bad, it is the tremendous amount of time we have spent on the road away from our family, which of course includes our pets. So far, there hasn’t been anything ugly, but last weekend may have finally given me something.

The Good

Driving down Steep Rock Hill Road, we got to the intersection at Hardscrabble Lane (No, really, those are the real names.) and saw this in the road:


He got out of the way of our car, but after we passed, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw him just lie down on the lines in the middle of the road. Of course we turned around and went back. He had no tag or collar and he hadn’t been neutered, so we didn’t think he had a home. The absence of nearby houses made us pretty sure. No problem, a stop at the pet store for a collar, a leash, food, and bowls, and he had a home. Since Angela used cheese and crackers to lure an initially shy puppy, his name is Nabs. (Please tell me I’m not going to have to put a glossary on the blog.)

The Bad

Okay, this isn’t really bad, but I need something to help complete my triptych. Since I already complained about long drives, I might as well talk about mountain roads. Our best (worst?) experience has been a 1.5 lane gravel road, a hairpin turn, and an oncoming dump truck. Thank goodness the Prius is small.

On this trip, we encountered a sign that read “Switchbacks next 11 miles: Truckers consider turning around for an alternate route.” Three more “All hope abandon” signs later, and we hit the turns. And the fog. 11 miles later, we drove into the lovely, flat town of Shady Valley, Tennessee. A mile later, as we left Shady Valley, “Switchbacks next 11 miles: Truckers consider turning around for an alternate route.” I think the valley is shady because the sun is scared to come over those roads.

So if there was anything even close to bad (And there wasn’t. We laughed the whole way.), it would be this curve:

Mountain road 1

followed by this curve:

Mountain road 2

in this weather:

Mountain fog

The Ugly

This is the ugly:

Lyme disease

Yes, that’s my belly. And no, that’s not the ugly part. That little red bullseye is a characteristic sign of Lyme disease. According to the CDC and my doctor, I’m not going to die. I get a strong round of doxycycline — “Be careful taking this. It can eat a hole in your esophagus.” Oh, joy.

Ironically, Good led to Ugly. Poor Nabs was covered in ticks. We washed him in flea and tick shampoo as soon as we got home, but that still left plenty of time on the way home for me to get a dread disease. Just my luck. Oh well. If I go to my reward, at least Angela got a replacement for me out of the deal. Plus she gets all the royalties. Hey, put down those insurance forms…

Basic to Brilliant, Y'all

Basic to Brilliant, Y’all

Basic to Brilliant, Y'all

Welcome to our dish for the Virtual Potluck with Virginia Willis. Buy Virginia’s book then fill out this form to get a personalized bookplate from Virginia.

Is it wrong to start this by saying that I really love Basic to Brilliant, Y’all? Because I do. Virginia Willis subtitled this book 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company, and that’s exactly what they are. They’re all great recipes that will make for wonderful meals on your table. That’s the Basic part. Virginia brings the Brilliant part in by giving you a variation or add-on that will turn that better-than-everyday meal into something you’d be proud to serve to anyone on any occasion or to make leftovers into something special.

Virginia shows her heart through these recipes. In her introduction to the Fish and Shellfish section, she talks about going to the beach as a little girl and transitions that into talking about the seafood industry in the South and how important it is to support the industry in the Gulf. The stories she gives along with the recipes give you glimpses into her childhood, her life in France, and some of the challenges that have come along in her career. Mixed in you’ll find Virginia’s answers and advice on questions dealing with everything from choosing the right salt to freezing casseroles to storing fresh mussels.

Behind all these recipes and stories is what really makes this a special book, simply, Virginia herself. Her wit, wisdom, and Southern charm come through loud and clear. And the book is as beautiful as the lady who wrote it. The photos will make your mouth water.

Now, about the food.

We made (Actually, it was Patric who made it because he’s useful that way.) Mama’s Spaghetti Bolognese with Venison first. We sat down and had our first bites. And my dear sweet son promptly said, “I love this spaghetti. This is the best meat sauce ever. Um… I mean, I like yours, Mom, and, um… yours is just as good but different?” Don’t worry. He lived long enough to wolf the spaghetti down before there were any pictures, but that was okay, because I had another recipe in mind to share anyway, but I’m sure Virginia will like knowing that her sauce is the best ever, and that’s just fine by me.

The recipe I really wanted to do was her Mama’s Fried Quail with Cream Gravy. I love quail. They’re one of those things that I wouldn’t eat as a child (along with duck after a traumatizing buckshot incident) but found the value of as an adult. The only real thing to worry about when cooking them is to not overdo it. There’s really not that much meat on there, and it doesn’t take long for them to end up dry and flavorless. But use Virginia’s techniques and times, and you won’t have a problem. These were wonderful.

Paul isn’t a big fan of Dijon mustard, but Patric and I are, so he had to eat it anyway and smile about it. Not really. He liked it more than he had expected. But if someone in your house doesn’t, I think it would be fine to decrease the amount, use a different mustard, or just add a few dashes of hot sauce to the gravy instead.

Disclaimer: We received this book as a free review copy from the publisher.

Mama's Fried Quail with Cream Gravy

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Mama's Fried Quail with Cream Gravy

To make the recipe brilliant, make Virginia's warm mustard relish: Heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon each yellow and brown mustard seeds. When they start to pop and release their aroma, about 5 seconds, add 3 onions, preferably Vidalia, sliced and season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high. Add 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vinegar is reduced and the onions are a deep golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Makes 1 cup. Serve a dollop of the warm mustard relish with the quail and gravy.


  • 10 whole quail
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 sprig thyme, plus more to garnish
  • 1 cup homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream, half-and-half, or whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pat the quail dry; tie the legs together with kitchen twine. Season with salt and pepper. Place the flour in a shallow bowl and season with salt and pepper. One at a time, dredge the quail in the flour, then shake to remove any excess flour.
  2. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon each of the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Without crowding and working in batches with the remaining butter and oil, add the quail and sear on both sides until deep brown, about 3 minutes per side. Sprinkle the thyme over the birds and transfer the skillet with all the quail to the oven.
  3. Roast until cooked through but still pink, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the quail to a warm platter; tent with aluminum foil to keep warm.
  4. Place the skillet on the stovetop over high heat. Add the stock and cream. Stir with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits from the skillet. Bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes. Whisk in the mustard. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
  5. Pour the gravy over the quail. Garnish with thyme; serve immediately.


2011-11-17 03:44:14

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Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All

Bitters cover
Before I embark on a review of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas I must admit to two things. First, I am proud to call the author, Brad Thomas Parsons, a friend. Angela and I lost our chicken-on-a-stick virginity with him and the Homesick Texan at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. Appropriately enough, the theme that year was drinkways.

Second, I am not much of a drinker. Any halfway intelligent and conscientious eater could potentially review a cookbook or a restaurant. How, though, can a cheap-date near teetotaller like myself possibly review this book? I can answer that question — and honestly, give my entire review — with a single word, transformative.

Since I received Bitters, I have purchased a cocktail shaker and both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. I have ordered hard-to-find bitters online. (I mourn all the bitters I can’t afford. Yet.) I have finally cracked open a bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon. I have made my own cocktails at home. To sum things up, Brad’s book has me really excited.

And the thrill is not just for the novice drinker. Anyone with an appreciation of a pleasant adult beverage will enjoy the book. You will learn the history of bitters, how they began their resurgence, who is making the finest craft bitters today, and even how to make your own bitters.

Oh, and there are enough drink recipes to keep you shaken and stirred for some time to come.

We started with a classic, the old fashioned. Given our limited collection of ingredients, we won’t be rushing through all the drinks right away, but I already know that we will be acquiring more. I see a bottle of rye in our near future.

I am really going to enjoy having this book, and you will too, whether you’re just starting to spread your cocktail wings or looking to expand your repertoire. Either way, cheers!

Disclaimer: We received this book as a free review copy from the publisher.


Serving Size: 1 drink

Eight parts rye or bourbon to one part simple syrup seemed like a lot of alcohol to me, but the syrup is a potent sweetener. I didn't add quite enough Angostura my first time. If you're a novice like me, I recommend sipping from your mixing glass the way you would taste from the pot. You can also add an extra drop or two to your glass if you have invested in bottles with droppers like I plan to.


  • 2 ounces rye or bourbon
  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup
  • 3 dashes Angostura or other aromatic bitters
  • Garnish: thick piece of lemon or orange zest


  1. Combine the rye or bourbon, simple syrup, and bitters in a mixing glass filled with ice.
  2. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled double old-fashioned glass filled with large pieces of cracked ice or a large ice cube.
  3. Garnish with the lemon or orange zest.


2011-11-17 03:53:39

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The Casserole Queens Cookbook

“A casserole cookbook?”

Angela was bemused when she opened the mail and found The Casserole Queens Cookbook: Put Some Lovin’ in Your Oven with 100 Easy One-Dish Recipes by Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollock published by Clarkson Potter. Still, it wasn’t long before she had flipped through the book and found at least half a dozen recipes she wanted to try.

Cook and Pollock started a business delivering casseroles in Austin. Over the years, their business grew as did their fame, including an appearance on Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. Flay provided a blurb for the front cover, while our friend Martha Foose blurbs on the back. Martha compares Cook and Pollock to hip home-ec teachers who even provide “an apron pattern right off the bat.” This is one of the rare occasions where Martha misses the mark, though. The first recipe is for the margaritas they were drinking when they came up with the idea for their business. Sorry, Martha, but margaritas top aprons every time. This book really has potential.

For me, a good cookbook goes beyond being a collection of recipes. There must either be a lesson involved or a riveting story. The book does have cute snippets of stories, but its strong point is as a teaching tool. Yeah, okay, like Angela said, “casseroles?” Sure, casseroles are easy. You just mix up some stuff, put it in a pan, and stick it in the oven. But if it’s that easy, why don’t more people do it?

The Casserole Queens teach you how to stock your pantry to make sure you have ingredients for easy-to-make dishes on hand always. They teach you about the gadgets that are worthwhile kitchen additions. Best of all, they give you a simple but invaluable introduction to cooking techniques that will make your food taste great. I’m particularly glad that they talk about putting salt in the water when you blanch your vegetables and cook your pasta. I’m a firm believer that that touch of salt up front is far better for you than salting for flavor at the table.

Yeah, but what about the recipes? Here again the Casserole Queens did well. Casseroles do bring to mind spiral-bound church cookbooks and cream of mushroom soup, and that sort of thing is included with flair. The first recipe we looked at — and made — was the Keep Austin Weird Spam Casserole. We had to make that.

Beyond the kitsch is a collection of gourmet recipes ranging from osso bucco to lobster. Sides, desserts, and breakfasts are included as well. Again, it’s the little extras that make this a winner. Of course you can open a can of cream of mushroom soup for your casserole, or you can make your own with the recipe given. You can also make your own salsa verde, pizza dough, or pickled jalapeños (I can hear Austin singing just thinking about those.). Many of the items you need can be made from scratch if you want, but there’s no shame it taking the easy way as long as you can bring your family to the table.

The only negative I could mention is that many of these casseroles aren’t really one dish meals. Like anything else, there’s always something. Starchy vegetables and pasta need to be precooked; eggs need to be beaten. You’re going to have an extra dish to wash. But don’t sweat it. These dishes are worth it.

Disclaimer: We received this book as a free review copy from the publisher.

The Casserole Queens

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 6 servings`

The Casserole Queens

I don't like cooking spray, so I coated my dish very lightly with butter instead. We had multiple varieties of paprika on the shelf, so we chose to use a half-sharp variety. Sweet paprika would be nice, and smoked paprika would add a whole different dimension of flavor. Cream of mushroom soup would be good for the liquid if you don't care for the flavor of celery. A cheese sauce would be a great replacement, too. You might also consider adding a touch of garlic, toasted onion, cayenne pepper, or any salt-free herb blend. SPAM is salty on its own, so you don't need to add more salt. I would have preferred the SPAM to be in smaller pieces throughout the dish instead of the slices.


  • 2 pounds russet potatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Cooking spray
  • 1/2 cup sliced onions
  • 1 (12-ounce) can SPAM
  • 1 10 3/4-ounce) can cream of celery soup
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
  • Paprika


  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Put the potatoes in a saucepan with 2 cups of water and the salt. Cover the pan and set it over high heat. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 to 8 minutes. Drain well and set aside.
  3. Lightly coat a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish with cooking spray. Put half of the potatoes in the pan and cover with onion. Cut the SPAM into 14 slices and layer 9 slices over the onion. Top with the remaining potatoes.
  4. Combine the soup, milk, and green pepper, and pour over the casserole. Sprinkle with paprika and top the dish with the remaining 5 slices of SPAM. Bake for about 45 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.


2011-11-17 04:01:25

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Food and Archaeology in Okra

Okra screenshot

I had a lot of fun talking to archaeologist Warren Oster of Weaver and Associates and paleoethnobotanist Dr. Katherine Mickelson of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Memphis. I learned a lot too. Plus it’s really cool to see an article you wrote on a scrolling marquee.

To learn what I did, read my article at Okra, then check out the rest of the magazine and its parent organization, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Happy Anniversary, Angela

Nearing the end of our ten-hour drive home from Austin, Texas, and the IACP conference, the lights of Memphis just beginning to brighten the horizon, ten minutes left in our sixth anniversary, Free Bird comes on XM. The ultimate breakup song and I realize why, what it all means. “Too many places I gotta see.” I have it made because she wants to see those places, too.

Happy anniversary, Angela. I love you.

Vito’s Cucina, Memphis, Tennessee

We had an afternoon of errands, and we were starved by the time we headed home. Since we’re heading out in the morning for Austin, Texas, we really didn’t want to cook food and make a mess of the kitchen tonight. And, we’ve pretty much eaten everything we had in the house that isn’t frozen since we knew we were leaving.

So, we had to decide what was for supper. We drive down Walnut Grove all the time, and we’ve watched eagerly as an old shop has been remodeled. When we saw that it was going to be an Italian drive-thru/walk-up, we knew we’d be trying it soon. Since it was on our way home, our decision was made.

Ordering at Vito’s is easy. They’ll help you through the menu and offer suggestions. Their menu is on their website, and I would advise you to take a look before you go. And one note – if you want a whole pizza, call in the order for carry-out, or Vito’s will deliver.

How was the food? Pretty good. We started with the toasted cheese ravioli. These were really well done. The filling is creamy ricotta, and the coating is crisp without being tough or oily. The marinara is bright and not too sweet. Overall, I would happily make a meal of these.

Toasted ravioli from Vito's

Next, we tried the breadsticks. These are nice with a good coating of garlic and parmesan, but they seemed a little under-done to me; I like mine to be a little crisper on the outside, but these were definitely edible.

We split a couple of sandwiches, too. The Vinnie is a meatball sub on good French bread. This was a great sandwich – the meatballs were soft and flavorful, and it wasn’t drowning in sauce. This sandwich vanished quickly into the bottomless pit that is our son.

The Joseph from Vito's

The Joseph is a muffaletta-style sandwich. The olive spread is really good, but I think we would have preferred the sandwich to be heated. I’m sure Vito’s would heat it on request. Hot or not, we enjoyed it.

The centurion pizza from Vito's

Then we got to the pizza. We got a Centurion (Italian sausage, salami, pancetta, ham, cheese, tomatoes, black olives and banana peppers). This is a nicely made pizza. The toppings are generous, and the sauce is just right. Like the breadsticks, we thought the crust was a little underdone, but it was still thin and crisp without getting soggy. And it was probably our fault. We didn’t know that we needed to call ahead for a whole pie, but they took pity on us and made it for us on the spot.

Overall, we had a good meal, and I’m sure that we’ll be dining with Vito’s again.

How to Feed a Hungry Kid from Afar

We’re (well, Paul and I) are getting ready to head out for a 17-day research trip. 17 days of being in a car. 17 days of living from a suitcase. 17 days of pet-free existence. 17 days of a teenager eating alone.

Now, Patric is perfectly capable of handling himself alone in the kitchen. He can follow any recipe that we’ve ever thrown at him, and he likes to be creative and add touches of his own to the things he makes. So, given a well-filled pantry, meat and vegetables in the freezer, fresh vegetables, cheese, and milk in the fridge, he can do just fine.

But we’re parents. We feel guilty about leaving him alone this long. To be honest, if it weren’t for all of the papers and tests he’s getting into for school, we would drag him along whether he wanted to go or not. (For the record, we did give him the choice, and he’s very certain that he doesn’t want to go on this particular trip because we’re going to be going to so many places.) But since he is staying home, we’re making sure that he’s got some of his favorite foods around to keep him company.

There are plenty of food options within walking distance of our house, but we really want him to eat at home while we’re gone with only a few exceptions — Mother’s Day brunch with his grandmothers being one. So we’ve started planning. First up, there was the Costco trip.

It would be very easy to load up a cart with frozen foods to last him for days at Costco, but we do want him to have some less processed options. That being said, there are things that he likes that he doesn’t get often that are sitting in the freezer for him now – frozen pizzas (thin-crust Margherita and spinach paneer on na’an), chicken taquitos (yeah, I know), sausage, egg, and cheese croissants, and hot dogs (kosher). We also loaded up on fruit juice, peanut butter, a big chunk of Swiss cheese, rice, ramen (his favorite very hot flavor), and, as a special treat because we obviously don’t like him at all, a case of Mexican Coke.

We also picked up canned tomatoes to make a big batch of marinara sauce so that he can whip up pasta for something fresher when he wants it. At the farmers market, we stocked up on ground beef, sausage, and bacon for the freezer, and a flat of strawberries (most of those will go into the freezer for him to make smoothies, but there’s always the chance of shortcake). Before we go, we’ll make sure he has some fresh vegetables, cereal, milk, and bread. Luckily, he’s within walking distance of being able to get more of those when he runs out.

We’ve got some great meals planned while we’re on the road, but in general, I think Patric will be eating better than we will. And since there are strawberries, he can make something at home that we can’t make on the road.

Strawberry Shortcake

Yield: 8 servings

Taste your strawberries before measuring out your sugar. Strawberries at the peak of strawberry season will be sweeter and won't need as much sugar.

The shortcake itself is an often overlooked component. If you make them from scratch, they'll be incomparably better than the sponge cake variety you can buy at the grocery store. A simple recipe for shortcake simply takes a biscuit recipe and adds half again as much shortening and 1/2 cup sugar. A sprinkling of cinnamon, nutmeg, or even cardamom can add a great accent to these simple cakes.

If you don't want to use Grand Marnier, you can still add a little of the flavor to the strawberries. Add a teaspoon of orange extract or orange juice instead. If you want a different flavor, minced fresh mint is a good addition to the strawberry mixture. Or you could drizzle over a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. Creme de cacao or Godiva liqueur are good replacements for the Grand Marnier if you don't mind using alcohol. If using a different liqueur, consider omitting the orange zest. Slivered almonds complement creme de cacao well.

The whipped cream also offers room for variation. I like to leave mine unsweetened, but you can add some sugar or other flavoring to it if you like. A little bit of cocoa powder will add a note of bitterness to the dish.


  • 2 pints strawberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1/4 cup Grand Marnier (optional)
  • To serve:
  • 8 Shortcakes or slices of angel food cake
  • 1/2 pint heavy cream, whipped


  1. Hull the strawberries and slice them into bite sized pieces.
  2. In a non-reactive bowl, combine the sugar, vanilla paste, and orange zest. Gently stir in the sliced strawberries, coating them thoroughly with the sugar mixture.
  3. If using, sprinkle the Grand Marnier over the strawberries.
  4. Allow the strawberries to rest, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before serving.
  5. If using shortcakes, split them and layer them with strawberries and whipped cream. If using angel food cake, spoon strawberries over the cake slices and top with whipped cream. Be sure to serve with generous amounts of the syrup from the strawberry bowl.


2011-11-17 04:09:10

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Texts of Familial Love from Mule Day

From a mother to her son:



Thinking of you.

Patric: …
Angela: Did you like the picture?
Patric: Uh… Sure?
Angela: Did you get the picture?
Patric: Yes.
Angela: It’s a mule butt. So it’s like an ass squared. And we thought of you.
Patric: …
Angela: Just no words for how much you love us?




Stripey mule knees. Who knew?
Patric: I’m sure the mule did.
Disapproving mule disapproves of your shenanigans.

Disapproving mule disapproves of your shenanigans.
Patric: Are you bringing an extra mule home with you?
Angela: An extra?
Patric: Well, we’ve already got one.
Angela: I know you can’t possibly be talking about either one of your kind & loving parents.



Patric: No. No, of course not…

Buon Cibo, Hernando, Mississippi

We recently went down to Hernando to visit Josh Belenchia’s new venture, Buon Cibo. Short story: “buon cibo” means “good food” in Italian, and Buon Cibo means “worth the drive” in Mississippi.

The business model is simple, customers order sandwiches, salads, pizzas, soups, and drinks at the main counter, then the servers deliver your food to your table. The simple stops when the food arrives because of Josh’s ingredients.

Buon Cibo Cuban

The Cuban is nice and traditional, served with a goodly amount of pickle. Dexter would be pleased.

Buon Cibo Reuben

The Reuben features thick slices of housemade corned beef. Oh my. I can confidently say this is the best Reuben I have ever had.

Buon Cibo Jackson pizza

The Jackson (Mississippi, not Kramer (I think.)) pizza is also a winner. Applewood smoked bacon, caramelized onions, and sweet potatoes are an unexpected but excellent combination.

Buon Cibo pantry

Josh not only puts local on the plate, he sends it home with you as well. He supports local vendors with his pantry. Diners can go home with McCarter coffee, Delta Grind grits, Groovy Foods granola and more.

Buon Cibo Southern tea

Almost as good as a hearty meal is a hearty laugh. Josh takes care of that all while defending the South.

Buon Cibo knick knacks

The humor reaches each table with Buon Cibo’s collection of salt and pepper shakers shaking things up.

If you knew Hernando back in the day, you’ll barely recognize it now. If you’ve never been, well, you won’t know any different. Either way, head down and check out Buon Cibo

Buon Cibo
Highland Court Shopping Center
2631 McIngvale Road
Hernando, Mississippi 38632
(662) 469-9481

Tuesday – Saturday 11:00 am – 9:00 pm

The Work of Paul and Angela Knipple