Monthly Archives: December 2019

2019: year in review

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Cheers to 2019, and all of fun we’ve had all year!
Here’s a quick recap for you all — in pictures!

We can’t wait to see what fun we can expect in 2020!

Top 10 Foods of 2019

It’s been another year full of fond memories and good food. I’ve taken a look at the memorable things we’ve had to eat throughout the year and narrowed it down to this top ten list for 2019.

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#10. Baked Camembert Fondue

Vivian prepared this little wonder in her cast iron skillet, which consists of four blocks of camembert stacked on top of one another and baked inside a pastry crust, surrounded by baby potatoes (for dipping). I’m not actually fond of camembert, but it was a delightfully fun thing to bring out at our cheese party this year.

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#9. Dad’s smoke-ringed hamburger

My dad absolutely loves his smoker, and all throughout the year he’ll be smoking one thing or another for us to eat in his backyard. Though I love ribs, my favorite smoked treat this year were the hamburgers grilled Labor Day weekend, which were smoked so thoroughly you can see a “ring” around the meat when you take a bit out of it. This was a burger that tasted more like a steak. The best part, however, was being able to eat it after a mere ten-minute walk from our house with the kids.

Polpetti at Amato's
#8. Amato’s Polpetti

Among the many restaurant casualties Omaha suffered this year, Amato’s was one of the hardest. We’d gone there for ricotta pancakes and homemade sausage many, many, many, many, many, times in the past, often because they’re right around the corner from where I work. The last time I ate there with Vivian, we decided to get “polpetti” along with our meal, which was a kind of meatball covered with cheese and red peppers. It was tasty enough we bought some of Amato’s breadcrumbs to make some of our own after they closed.

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#7. Donna’s Mother’s Day Chocolate Pie

Absolutely decadent, from the whipped chocolate cream topping to the Grand Marnier soaked into the cake itself, this cake was absolutely amazing. Nothing quite says “I love you, mom” than a chocolate pie like this.

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#6. Gerda’s Schnitzel and Späetzle

Another restaurant we were sorry to lose this year was the legendary German restaurant Gerda’s. I’d been there a handful of times before, and every time was a treat, but I always liked their breaded pork schnitzel and späetzle. It was a shame to lose this place.

As I understand, when Gerda passed away, the new restaurant regulations that her restaurant had been able to avoid by being “grandfathered in” were about to take effect, and they couldn’t afford to pay for all the upgrades needed to comply.

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#5. Vala’s Bucket o’ Chili & Cheese Fries

A visit to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch is usually a very long and exhausting day walking from one end of the park to the other with the kids, checking out every attraction along the way. Down by the corn bin (next to the jumping pillows) is a stand where you can buy a “bucket o’ fries” for a few dollars, and add chili and cheese for a few more. Most of the food at Vala’s is fairly expensive, but this is an affordable mid-day energy boost, quite necessary before hurrying on to the pig races.

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#4. B&B Hot Dogs’ Mac & Cheese dog

This year, Bellevue lost a charming little place called B&B Grill and Arcade, which was like a down-scaled Dave & Buster’s with video games and a variety of hot dogs and deep-fried appetizers. The food was all creatively-themed junk food, but the noisy experience combined with video games made this place particularly special. And what better way to eat a one-pound hot dog than with by slathering it with macaroni and cheese?

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#3. Ceviche

Making the list once again is my homemade ceviche, which i made up for Cinco de Mayo. It’s not terribly difficult to make, but oh my goodness it’s the best thing to happen to raw fish since sushi.  Vivian and I together devoured an entire two pounds of the stuff while watching the Three Amigos, and we probably had room for more.

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#2. Vivian’s baked brie and garlic on baguette

Vivian and I stayed up late on a chilly evening to see a rare blood moon total lunar eclipse back in January, where a full moon was devoured in shadow and then turned ominously red. It was bitterly cold outside, and nothing could warm us up better than roasted garlic and baked brie on a baguette, which Vivian and I enjoyed in every bit of its gooey goodness in-between the stages of the eclipse.

Father's Day Dinner 2019
#1. Father’s Day Dinner

Looking back on 2019, my most favorite food was the dinner Vivian and her mom prepared for Jack and me on Father’s Day. All my favorites were there — prime rib with mushrooms and garlic, a loaded baked potato, roasted asparagus, homemade cheddar jalapeno bread, and shrimp salad (off to the side). There were so many things I liked to eat all at once they couldn’t all fit on one plate (or in one picture).

This was a particularly happy Father’s Day for food, which included burgers with my dad the day before (and another burger for lunch at Don & Millie’s on Sunday). Nothing can quite compare to this meal, however, which happily sits at the top of the list.

I’m already getting hungry looking forward to 2020.
Bon Appétit, everybody!

Merry Christmas, 2019!

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you all had as wonderful a holiday as we did here. The Christmas season always seems so busy and stressful getting ready for the “big day” that it can be sometimes hard to remember how wonderful the day itself truly is once you finally get there.

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I worked half a day on Christmas Eve and then did some last-minute grocery shopping before hurrying home to start preparing food and things for Christmas Day.

Then we took Hannah and Aaron to the 4:30 Christmas Eve service at Wildewood Christian Church. The place was absolutely packed wall-to-wall with near standing-room-only conditions by the time we arrived and got settled. We had an hour long service of scripture reading and Christmas songs, and then the kids were called up front to wave some special Christmas Light Sabers to celebrate the light coming into the world, per John 1:5.

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After the service, we headed home and had a lovely Christmas Eve dinner of beef and pork with Vivian’s folks. Then our kids got to hang their stockings and open a few special Christmas presents — their new 2019 Christmas Jammies and some new Christmas ornaments, which they immediately hung on the tree (with some help from daddy).

Once the kids were all snug in their beds, the grown-ups got to have some egg nog pie and spend a little opening “stockings” with one another, which included new ninja masks, beef jerky, and a talking boxing Trump pen for daddy. We were just about exhausted at the end of the night, but we spent a few last minutes getting the tree and presents all ready for the kids to discover at two in the morning. I also nabbed a few “beauty shots” of our glowing jewel (and the bunny ears) in the living room as the clock struck midnight.

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Christmas Morning came bright and early as the kids were up right at six,and mom and dad staggered behind to get the coffee going before opening presents. Among the loot were some reams of paper (for drawing), new dragon toys for Aaron, a FlipaZoo for Hannah, a new Chromebox computer for Jack, any number of food items for the grown-ups, and literal crap (i.e. manure) for Donna. Even our new guinea pig (whose name now seems to be “Harold”) got a gift or two on his first Christmas.

I also got some fun electronic gadgets like a wireless keyboard/trackpad for my Raspberry Pi and a WiFi AC outlet, which I’m currently using to annoy the kids by remote controlling our lamp.

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At some point mid-morning, we took a break as I made some quiche, which we ate together for brunch before opening some more presents. Things wound down for a few hours in the afternoon as the kids played with their new toys, and I got play Minecraft with Aaron and set up a new computer we got for Pop-Pop.

Then mid-afternoon, we showed a home video of Vivian’s 1986 Christmas with her family in Petaluma. I played the video on my Raspberry Pi in our living room with Jack’s new monitor, which gave me an excuse to try out my new “remote control” keyboard, which worked like a charm. Mommy had a plate of snacks for us in the meantime followed by some candy cane pie from Village Inn, just to ensure we didn’t go hungry for even one second on the way to Christmas dinner.

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A little after four, I took the kids on a walk-walk to spend the rest of Christmas with my parents a block away, where dad’s lawn flamingos greeted us in all their festivity. It was a lively 56 degrees outside and barely cold enough for a jacket as we strolled on over as the sun went down. Vivian had brought over a ham earlier (i.e. my Christmas Bonus from work) for my folks to warm up in the oven, and I’d made a potato casserole that Vivian finished baking in the oven before joining us. Both Uncles Nathan and Jonny were also there to join in dinner, with Nathan bringing along some vegan penne pasta that wasn’t nearly as bad as he said it was.

We ate and then spent some quality time opening even more presents afterward, which included a variety of gifts the kids bought at Dollar Tree for everyone along with more toys and drawing utensils for Hannah and Aaron. The big item of the night was a KitchenAid mixer for Vivian, which I’d managed to keep secret and hidden for the most part at my parents’ house and only brought out once all the other gifts were open.

We finished off our holiday with pie (mincemeat and pumpkin) before heading back home to crash. The kids were remarkably happy and well-behaved all day, which was a joy to see. As for mommy and me, I think I may take an extra day or two off from work next year to clean house and recover from of all of our Christmas cheer.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Holiday Lights & 13 First Dates

Christmas is almost here! That means we have only a few days to check a few more traditions off our Christmas list, including sending out a much belated Christmas letter (with a fresh family photo).

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On Saturday night, we decided to take a tour of some of the lovely Christmas lights in our are. We have a very festive house up the street that seems more crowded every year with illuminated Christmas statuary. We also took a trip up the street to Wood River Drive, which was lit once again this year but sadly lacking a candy-cane bearing Santa (who was sick, according to a sign).

The most impressive display we saw by far was Washington Park in Olde Town Bellevue, the majority of which was decked out with multi-color LED displays, all timed with music that was playing throughout the evening. The park even had its own Santa sitting in the pavilion waiting to greet us, though he didn’t stick around long enough for a proper picture. I took plenty of photos of the park, but still images can’t do it justice — you have to visit it yourself to get the full experience (or maybe play my video below).

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Then on Sunday, Vivian and I celebrated our 13th First Date Anniversary a day early so we could in on the last holiday light bus tour of the season. First, we dropped by Hunan Fusion, celebrating our sushi anniversary a month early with some tempura appetizers and sushi for two. We drove down to Oak View Mall and boarded our bus for a two-hour tour of Christmas lights in West Omaha. We drove through Linden Estates, Arbor Oaks, and Champions Run, criss-crossing streets around Dodge and Blondo to see various streets and houses lit up for Christmas.

We passed a few familiar streets we’d seen in years past but got to tour many we haven’t. The most impressive street by far — and the most crowded — was Larimore Ave., which had cars backed up for blocks inching east and west down the street. It was a seizure-inducing party somewhere around 135th street, with houses on both sizes all decked out like the Griswolds. Santa and his elves were even on hand to greet those who abandoned their cars and decided to take the street by foot.

The trip was more fun than I expected, since we had a driver to navigate the streets for us while Vivian and I were both able to sit back and enjoy the lights. I even made notes of the streets we took so we could potentially retrace the route with the kids. We just have to be prepared for the long crawl of Larimore — and get everyone a bathroom break beforehand.

Next stop — CHRISTMAS!


Christmas at Washington Park in Bellevue, Neb.

T’was the Week Before Christmas

Christmas is a week away, and that means we’re counting down all the various annual events and traditions on our way to the Big Day.

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First up for the Institute’s annual Christmas Party, this year held down at Wheatfield’s at One Pacific Place. It’s the one time out of the year Vivian gets to mingle with many of the folks I work with all year ’round. Vivian also got to meet my co-worker’s new baby, who will be hanging out in our workplace for the next year or so. Of course, we also had dinner followed by dessert (but not Grinch Cookies) and some music from the talented Stephen Tefft in-between. Dr. Hilgers said a few words as well and handed out work anniversary plaques, per the norm.

I’m reminded every year how nice it is to work somewhere that not only has these kinds of festive events but also has employees who genuinely seem to enjoy participating in them.

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Then on Sunday, we dropped by the Children’s Museum so the kids could spend a few minutes with Santa, along with Rudolph, an elf and an Ice Queen (definitely Not-Elsa, per Disney’s lawyers). Hannah and Aaron got to see the usual exhibits afterward, such as the balls and the animal slides, but they spent most of their time in a weird hybrid exhibit upstairs that combined dinosaurs and construction equipment. That meant they played inside a prehistoric shark submarine, dug for fossils with bulldozers, and decorated a gingerbread house… because I guess that’s construction related? I’m not even sure. In any case they had fun, and we stayed all the way until closing time.

We’ve had a few hints of a White Christmas so far, but nothing major for snow other than some hazardous, slippery roads. We’ve still got a few more stops before Christmas Day, though, so hang on until then. (And get your shopping done!)

Birthdays and Guinea Pigs

It’s been a busy, busy week, with multiple church programs, birthdays for both my parents, a new candidate running for office, and a new family member for the Johnson family.

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On Friday night, I got to attend the campaign kick-off for Robert Anthony, who’s running for the State Board of Education in the Second District. Because Board of Education districts are different from both congressional and school districts (and since it overlaps with other counties), I had to do a bit of research first to make sure I could vote for him. We had some barbecue from Big Bubba’s Que and talked a bit about educational issues before he gave his stump speech. He’s a strong conservative and actually home-schools his own kids, so he’s tuned in to the sorts of needs homeschooling families likes family would have, and that was encouraging. It’s safe to say he has my vote.

Because I wound up being the one guy with a “Real Camera” for the evening, I wound up snapping a few photos of other guests with Robert before calling it a night. The kids were both asleep when I returned home, and Vivian made up some ahi tuna and scallops for dinner before we watched A Christmas Carol.

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On Saturday, we celebrated my dad’s birthday with the gift of “face time” — i.e. going through a trunk of memorabilia in the basement, looking at some groovy old photos in a few photo albums, and watching a couple old home movies. I was surprised to find a few unique treasures among the family photos and college art projects, including an autographed picture of Mr. Rogers, original campaign posters for Barry Goldwater, and some original artwork from Tribune editorial cartoonist Wayne Stayskal. My dad was friends with Staysakal and apparently gave him ideas for multiple cartoons. When this happened, Stayskal would often send my dad the original artwork, which he kept. (The funniest cartoon, of course, came in the form of a homemade birthday card from Nathan, circa 2002.)

I spent nearly the whole day at my folks’ house, taking a brief break for Arby’s at lunchtime and then heading home as the sun went down.

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On Sunday evening, we had a Christmas program at Wildewood Christian Church (titled “A Country Christmas” for some reason). It was very brief, with just 15 minutes of setting up and decorating a tree interspersed with kids singing a few Christmas songs (with obligatory Christian Hand Motions™). All four grandparents were able to come and see the program, and even Aaron was able to sit still for all 15 minutes of it.

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After the Christmas program, we dropped by the Mills house to meet the newest member of our family — a new baby guinea pig! The Mills had adopted their own guinea pig (named “Ginny”), who unbeknownst to them was already pregnant! She popped out a little baby boy who’s now been weaned and ready for a new home. I’d gotten a cage with bedding and food recently and we were able to set it all up and take our new little pup home that evening. We’re still settling on a name, but Hannah is leaning toward “Scratcher” at the moment.

In the meantime, our poor cat Zoey doesn’t know what to make of this strange creature, who could just as easily be food as a friend.

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And because one birthday visit wasn’t enough, we dropped by my folks’ house again on Tuesday. I made my dad some barley bread, which he’d said a while ago he wanted to try. His father (my grandfather) had mentioned having to eat it during World War I because of food rationing and never liking the taste. Since barley bread is hard to come by, my dad had wanted to try it, so I managed to find some barley flour at Natural Grocers and made him a loaf. It was all right, similar to brown bread or corn bread but much more crumbly (with no gluten holding it together).

We stayed long enough my my folks to open some presents and had a hand-drawn birthday card from Hannah before calling it a night.

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Then on Wednesday night, Hannah and the rest of her friends from MPact had a mid-year awards ceremony in the basement chapel. It was a shorter ceremony than in years past, as the groups didn’t all perform skits or sing songs to show what they’ve been learning so far this year. Everyone on stage got a certificate, and then we stayed just long enough for some punch an cookies before heading home.

Hannah’s been a part of this group since she was a Rainbow, and it’s so nice to see her growing up with all her little friends together!

Thanksgiving, Christmas Kick-Off, and Corn Pops

The Johnson Family got to enjoy a fun four-day weekend here in Omaha doing all our traditional favorite Thanksgiving things — eating too much food with family, seeing Santa at Union Station, and decorating for Christmas. I also got to meet Joe and Jill Biden right before he went viral for nibbling her finger.

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We kicked things off on Turkey Day watching the Macy’s Day parade before breaking out the hors d’oeuvres — and for the first time, Hannah and Aaron were both interested in watching. I also kept the kids distracted by introducing them to Minecraft on my Raspberry Pi. They immediately fell in love getting me to build underground “houses” for both of them with tunnels and paths connecting everything together.

Jack and Donna came over to help get Thanksgiving Dinner ready in the meantime, and my parents and brothers joined us after that to dig in later that afternoon. We had all the traditional foods, from Taber Salad to Pumpkin and Pumpkin Pecan pies for dessert. Other than loads of dishes to do afterward, it was a nice, quiet holiday — something I’m quite thankful for.

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It was cold and rainy on Friday, so we stayed inside drawing and doing laundry for the most part. Then that evening we made our annual pilgrimage to Union Station to see Santa. Grammy and her confectionery crew were decorating cookies again, and Vivian and I got to take the kids on an extensive tour of the trains and activities downstairs. A traveling exhibit had some political memorabilia that include Joy Villa’s famous Trump Dress, and while they kids liked the model trains and old trains and trolleys on display, they gravitated toward a magnet board and set of toy trains for a good portion of our visit.

Then upstairs, the massive crowd pressed in for some caroling with Camille Metoyer Moten following by a tree-lighting with Mayor Stothert. We saw a few other familiar faces during our visit, including the other Johnson Family and the Mathis Family. I’d hoped for another nice Christmas picture with the tree but had to settle of a quick selfie instead as one of our kids was too tired to stay much longer.

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Then on Saturday, Joe Biden came to Council Bluffs to kick off his “No Malarkey” bus tour — getting some viral coverage for a painfully outdated slogan and nibbling his wife’s finger, among other things. It was a remarkably small crowd for a former VP and front-runner, with only around 100 people in attendance (in my vague estimation). A few regulars showed up as well, including Tom Becka, Fake Security Guy, and AP photographer Nati Harnik. After a few words of introduction, Dr. Jill Biden took the stage with her husband Joe to introduce him.

Then Joe stood up to give a very brief, ten-minute stump speech before working the crowd for around half an hour more. As with his last visit, he stayed to meet and greet just about everyone who wanted to say hello. Several people wanted autographs, and I brought along a box of Corn Pops hoping he’d sign it (if you don’t get it, watch this). Unfortunately, his staff took the box away and though he wound up not signing the box, I did get the cereal back.

I didn’t pay much mind to Biden’s speech itself, but I enjoyed seeing him interacting with attendees, even taking a phone call with someone’s grandmother who wasn’t able to attend. I’m not sure why the crowd was so small — folks could have been turned away by the cold and cloudy (and somewhat rainy) weather or busy with Thanksgiving weekend, but the vibe I got was that Joe was past his prime and folks were looking for someone younger and fresher for the nomination this time around — someone who doesn’t use words like “malarkey.”

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I also spent some time putting up our Christmas decorations during the sunnier moments on Saturday. Then on Sunday Vivian and I put together the tree and our house a bit more ready for Christmas. That included setting up the tree and breaking out Santasaurus and a few of his friends. Even Hannah got into the act with her Calico Critters decorating their own house.

We have a very short season this year, but putting anything up before Thanksgiving still felt wrong, so we had to get the house a bit more festive before the weekend was over.

Let’s get this holiday started!


Christmas at Union Station