Here’s how international travel taught me to save money on food

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That’s me, escaping to Hogwarts because America is on some BS right now.

I’ve traveled a lot during the past few years, thanks to a surprising number of technology and appliances trade shows that I cover for CNET. But don’t let the increased number of stamps on my passport fool you: I’m still cheap AF. Hunting for food on an international level has made me double down on my “filet mignon taste, dollar menu budget” motto, especially when I’m in places where that dollar doesn’t stretch as far as I’d like.

What’s fascinating about food culture on an international level is that a lot of the same tricks you can use to find good, cheap food in the US apply to other countries. Here are some tips to take along with you on your next vacay:

Trust the locals. Last year in Berlin, one of my co-workers walked up to some strangers on the street while we were on the hunt for dinner.

“Do you speak English?” Andrew asked.

“Yes,” they said.

“Where’s a good place to eat around here?”

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Burgermeister ranks in the top 5 best burgers I’ve ever had. So simple, so great.

That bold-to-me/natural-to-Andrew exchange led us to Burgermeister, a former public toilet that’s been converted to one of the best damn hamburger joints I’ve ever encountered. Sure, we might’ve eventually found Burgermeister on the internets, but having a local co-sign on the deliciousness affirms food choices. Don’t feel like you have to walk up to random folks on the street, though (notice it was Andrew, not me). Ask around on your social networks to see if you know someone who knows someone who lives in your travel destination.

It’s OK to deviate from your original plans. While I was in Berlin this year for IFA, I told Jon, a colleague from CNET’s London office, that I was about to visit his city soon. His advice when it came to food was to find a pub in which to have a Sunday roast and make sure the meal comes with Yorkshire pudding. Unbeknownst to him, I’d already made reservations for a Sunday roast at a restaurant that looked like it would be right at home on East Market Street here in Louisville. “Any pub worth its salt will have a proper Sunday roast,” he said.

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My British Sunday roast — half a chicken, veggies, a Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Lots and lots of gravy.

Taking my own advice to trust the locals, I canceled the reservation at the fancy restaurant and found a pub. The meal was simple, hearty and delicious, and it came with a cheaper price tag than my first option.

Hole-in-the-walls are the best. We all know there’s a difference between a place that’s a little shabby versus a place that looks to be violating about a dozen or more health codes. Some of the best food I’ve had on international trips have been in pubs, out-of-the-way cafés and family-owned restaurants that I would’ve missed if I’d been staring at my phone.

Carry snacks to fight off hanger. Listen: Hanger is real, and it is vicious. That’s why I always pack snacks. Yes, I have the purse of a much older woman, but you better believe I keep an emergency Snickers bar on hand. This will save you if it takes a little longer to get to your next meal than you anticipated, and it will keep you from biting the head off your travel partner.

Save money by eating breakfast in your hotel or rental. My husband had the foresight to buy a box of Kellogg’s Fruit ‘n Fibre (two of my favorite things) and milk to keep in our Airbnb. This kept us fed on the days when we weren’t ready to head out super early to find food. Consider some light grocery shopping so you can eat a few meals back at your spot during your trip.

Don’t feel guilty for eating McDonald’s. Sometimes, you’re going to find yourself in a pickle, specifically, hungry and snack-depleted. It’s OK to pop into an American fast-food restaurant for something to hold you over.

Kroger ClickList will change the way you grocery shop

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Thank you, Lisa. You made my week.

Remember how I gushed that Kroger ClickList inspired me to get back on here?

Let’s get back to that real quick, Q&A style.

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What’s Kroger ClickList?

Short answer: Game changer.

Long answer: It’s the grocery store’s online ordering and pickup service. You order groceries online, and go pick them up at select Kroger stores.

How does it work?

Easy peasy, that’s how. After you sign up online, you grocery shop on Kroger’s ClickList website. You can shop by category if you want to browse, or you can search for specific products if you know exactly what you want. You can also see what’s on sale that week and apply digital coupons. As you select the items that you want, the site creates a running list.

At some point, you have to select a pick-up date and time to get your groceries. You can schedule your pickup for up to a week in advance. The times are separated into hour-long blocks during which you can pick up your stuff.

When it’s time for pickup, you find the designated ClickList parking spaces (I felt very much like a VIP) and call the number that’s on the parking space sign. A couple of Kroger employees will come out, and run through your order to let you know if they were out of a product and had to make substitutions. You give them your card, they give it a swipe, and BOOM, they’re loading your groceries into you car.

No stalking fellow shoppers for a parking space. No maneuvering a cart through throngs of people on a crowded Saturday. No standing in line. No fumbling with coupons.

Like I said, easy peasy.

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Are there drawbacks?

Well, Mx. Rain on My Parade, I guess there are a few.

  • You have to use your debit or credit card — no cash or check. And ClickList doesn’t accept WIC and SNAP for payment, either.
  • There’s a service charge of about $6. Kroger waives the fee the first few times you use it.
  • You rely on someone else to pick your produce, which is a trust fall you might not be willing to make with an unknown Kroger employee.
  • You can’t make an order and pick it up the same day — you have to order at least a day in advance. In the age of Amazon Prime same-day delivery, this jarred my I-need-it-right-now-dammit-this-is-America mindset.
  • And speaking of produce, you have to be VERY specific with how much you want. You can add special instructions with each product you select for your list — this is where you’d say that you want six bananas or three pounds of onions. Just make sure that your instructions are crystal clear. For example, I ordered shallots, and put “two” in the instructions. When I got home, I had two pounds of shallots (by the way, anybody need a shallot?). And one of my friends (hey, Katie!) had to make a return trip to Kroger when she got home and discovered that they had given her 40 limes.
  • ClickList spots can take up valuable space if you’re at a Kroger with a small parking lot. We can all agree that Louisville Kroger parking lots are already THE WORST.

 

You’ve found a lot of stuff to not like about ClickList. Why are you so in love with it, again?

Why you gotta be so negative?

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*cues another bulleted list*

  • It’s convenient. Listen, I love grocery shopping as much as the next food-loving gal. But some days, I just don’t have time to grocery shop. Kroger ClickList helps me save a lot of time when I know it’s going to be a busy week.
  • THEY PUT THE GROCERIES IN YOUR CAR FOR YOU. Yes, I realize I have to bring them in when I get home, BUT STILL.
  • This can be a big help to folks who can’t make it around the store easily.
  • I didn’t stray from my grocery list. There weren’t any flashy displays or ice cream aisles to distract me while I shopped. I went down my grocery list, selected what I wanted and avoided a lot of temptation.
  • It was easier to stay on budget. It’s hard to keep a running tally of what you’ll spend while you’re shopping in the store. With ClickList, I see right away how much the groceries will cost, and I can make adjustments or switch out products if I need to.
  • THEY PUT THE GROCERIES IN YOUR CAR FOR YOU.

 

Is Kroger paying you to say all this?

NOPE. I just like the service. It could use some improvements, especially when it comes to taking WIC and SNAP, but I see this as a great tool for busy folks, people with disabilities, older adults and anybody who just doesn’t feel like fooling with Kroger.

Has anybody else adopted Kroger ClickList as their preferred way to grocery shop? Take it to the comments.

 

 

Thank you for the inspiration, Kroger ClickList. It’s time to blog again

Scene: The Hubs, aka Mr. Eats, aka Legal Boo, sits at one end of the dining room table. I sit at the opposite end of the table. I talk with my hands, and he nods as I recount the adventure I began the day before called Kroger ClickList, an online feature from the grocery store chain that lets you select your groceries online and pick them up at the store. I pause so he can appreciate the enormity of the discovery I’ve just made.

“I haven’t seen you this passionate in a while,” he says. “You should blog about it.”

So here I am. Not just to tell you about Kroger ClickList (which is, indeed, a game, nay, LIFE changer), but to dust off the old blog and remind myself that I’ve still got it.

I’ve taken breaks from Ashlee Eats before. Sometimes, it was for personal reasons, like a hefty quarter life crisis. Other times, I stepped away to work be a student. And then there was the time I wrote a book *cough cough Louisville Diners is still available online and in stores cough cough*.

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But this last absence was different. For me, it felt like the end.

Nearly two years ago, I got what would be my dream job at CNET where I review ovens and cooking gadgets and write about smart city efforts in my hometown. With the position of senior associate editor at the top of my resume and the accompanying glee I felt every day going to work for CNET, I thought I was done with Ashlee Eats. The blog had kept me sane for a good chunk of my adult life. It gave me a reason to get to know Louisville again, and fall in love with the city. It gave me a voice during times when I was overwhelmed, lost and wading through my 20s. And most importantly, it connected me to readers who turned into friends and helped me find a community of people who love food and Louisville as much as I do. I began as an AmeriCorps intern, and now I was an author and editor. I thought I was too busy to be a blogger, too.

Then, I turned 30. Pardon my language, but shit got real. We bought a house. We put our beloved dog, Roscoe, to sleep after an illness that came quick and left us devastated. We want to start a family in the next few years. I worry about things like 401Ks and life insurance and remodeling. I call my congresspeople and attend rallies and host fundraisers and do whatever it takes to try to make my country a better place. For God’s sake, I eat shredded wheat for breakfast — AND I LIKE IT. If that’s not being a grown up, I don’t know what is.

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In all of the madness that came when I embraced adulthood, I lost the slice of freedom this blog gave me. This was where I could focus on two things I love: food and Louisville. This was where I could share the adventures I had while I ate my way through the city. I could be myself here, and I didn’t have to worry about the rest of it.

It turns out that I need the blog now more than ever to balance being an adult. So I’m back. I won’t make any promises about frequency of posts because I still have to find a place for Ashlee Eats in my schedule — blogging and working a full-time job in which you want to invest your energy isn’t easy. But I have to do this for myself. I have to reclaim that fun, creative part of my life that this blog created for me. And honestly, I just need a place to gush about all the cool foodie finds I discover, like Kroger ClickList. Seriously. Remind me to tell you more about it later.

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Scarlet’s Bakery provides hope, second chances and bomb cinnamon rolls

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Inspiration for blog posts reaches me at the oddest moments, like a couple of weeks ago when I was trapped in the hell that is the Shelbyville Road Plaza parking lot on a Saturday afternoon. There was a segment on NPR about the memorial service for the anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan. A friend once asked Berrigan what the meaning of life was. His response: “If you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things.”

That’s a pretty heavy observation on a Saturday in the suburbs.

Berrigan’s instruction about hope made me think about a local business I had just visited the day before: Scarlet’s Bakery in Shelby Park. This new sweet shop and café blends baked goods and business acumen to give women an opportunity to improve their lives and, in turn, build hope for a better future.

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Scarlet’s Bakery is a brick-and-mortar culmination of “Scarlet Hope,” a non-profit organization/ministry that began eight years ago that “helps women in Louisville who have been victims of trafficking and exploitation,” WDRB reported. Women from that program work at Scarlet’s Bakery to learn work skills that will help them build new careers. 

I can’t speak to the business savvy these women learn at the bakery. But I can comment on the area I know best, aka the end results of their labor: baked goods.

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On my first visit to Scarlet’s, about a dozen different kinds of pastries covered the gleaming white countertops. There was a little something for everyone, from the bite-sized doughnut holes that would fit perfectly into the hands of Scarlet’s youngest customers to the more grown-up, savory combinations like the spinach-feta turnover or bacon-cheddar-chive muffins. Though I was there in the morning, selections such as bourbon-ball macarons and horseshoe-shaped iced sugar cookies made me think ahead to afternoon snacking opportunities.

I thank the pastry gods for leading me to the cinnamon roll that day. I could barely see the cinnamon swirl of the roll through the hearty schmear of cream cheese frosting. Each bite was as smooth as velvet as my teeth sank into the airy dough. It was a rich pastry, but managed not to be too sweet. This cinnamon roll was the perfect sort of decadent to get a good day started.

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Everyone who is a part of Scarlet’s Bakery should be proud of the work they do. It turns out that hope is a dish best served sweet (or savory, if that’s what you’re into).


Scarlet’s Bakery

741 E. Oak St., Louisville

Closed Mondays and Tuesdays

For more information, visit the Scarlet’s Bakery website or Facebook page

Want to learn about food writing? Join me for a workshop tomorrow at Butchertown Grocery

I’ve been writing about food for six years and counting. Now, it’s time to pay it forward.

I’m co-leading a food-writing workshop sponsored by Louisville Literary Arts (I’m on the board of this great non-profit) from 5 to 7 p.m. tomorrow, May 14 at the restaurant Butchertown Grocery. Author David Domine and I will teach participants about what makes good food writing and how to improve your own skills. There’s also some hands-on (read: EDIBLE) writing activities.

There are a few spots left, but hurry because we’re keeping the workshop small and intimate. I’d love to see you there.


A Writeable Feast: A Food-Writing Workshop

When: 5-7 p.m. Saturday, May 14

Where: Butchertown Grocery, 1076 E. Washington St., Louisville

Cost: $40 (includes appetizers and jokes from me!)

For more info and to sign up: Louisville Literary Arts website

Four ways to improve your grocery shopping

 

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An oldie but goodie: My haul during one grocery trip in which Cherry Coke Zero was on sale.

I take grocery shopping seriously. I’d often join my mom when I was a kid, following her around Kroger, grabbing things on lower shelves, checking out the latest Little Critter book in the magazine aisle.

Then, I became a grown up. I had to buy my own food. I learned a valuable lesson during my first trip to Kroger on my own during my first summer internship away from home: Food is expensive. I lived on chicken and potatoes that summer, mainly because they were filling and relatively inexpensive.

It’s been *gulp* 12 years since my first solo grocery shopping trip, and I’ve honed my habits like an athlete. By doing so, I’ve been able to save a lot of money for the Thompson Wolf Pack (aka me, Rob and Roscoe).

And the truth is, I love to shop for groceries. I like surveying the selection of food, imagining all the things I will cook and how we won’t have to eat out and, therefore, will save money. And for someone who loves food as much as I do, being in a store full of it is heaven. And I think I’ve turned it into a personal challenge in which I have to figure out which items to get at which stores for the best value.

Sift through your cookbooks and Pinterest boards

Before you get your grocery list together, you need to decide exactly what you want to cook. Yep, I’m talking meal planning. DON’T PANIC. It’s really not as hard as you think.

Take some time the day before your grocery trip to sift through your favorite recipes or look on the internet for something new. Don’t forget to take your own schedule into account when you’re planning your meals for the week. If you have plans most nights of the week, forgo tedious recipes for simple ones that you can make ahead of time and/or quickly. Hint: breakfast for dinner aka brinner aka some bacon and fried eggs is always a good option.

Bring a list or GTFO

Forgetting my grocery list is amongst the worst things in life, right up there with making a sandwich with the end pieces of bread or your DVR clipping off the end of your show. A list keeps you on task. It’s like a set of rules when you go to the grocery store. True story: I’ve been known to turn around and go home if I pull into a grocery store parking lot and realize that I’ve forgotten my list.

I picked up this little tip from The Kitchn blog: I created a template of the basic groceries I get (not name brands just types of products). I organized the items on the list by where they are in the store (yes, I know the layout that well). But I also leave some blank spaces.

A list centers me. It’s easy to get distracted by everything going on in a grocery store, especially as they keep getting bigger and bigger to load in more merchandise that has nothing to do with eating.

Order of operation is key

Remember when you had to learn which order to solve math equations – everything in the parenthesis first, exponents, etc.? Well, there’s a rigid order I follow when it comes to which stores I visit first. I always start with the basics, so Aldi is my first stop. I tend to do the bulk of my shopping there (my love for this store runs deep, y’all), but it’s a good first stop because it’s the cheapest place to get staples like flour, sugar and canned goods. But as much as I love Aldi, I know I can’t get everything there, especially personal hygiene stuff I like, certain cleaning supplies and good coffee (no offense, Aldi). That’s when I head to other grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s, Lucky’s, Paul’s Fruit Market and Kroger to fill in the blanks. And we’re also dipping our toes into farmers’ market season, so keep that in mind, too.

Over time, you’ll eventually learn what you like from particular stores and whether or not you’re willing to make a special trip to get it. For example, the Italian sausage from Lucky’s is HEAVENLY, but I only stop there if I have other items to make the best use of my time and gas money.

(Blogger’s Note: For those who follow me on Twitter, you know a post about grocery shopping across Louisville is coming. I just needed to crank this one out first.)

Decide what’s important to you

Some of you might be giving me some mean side-eye right now. Lists? Planning? Multiple stores? I get it, y’all. Time is a limited resource. We’re all super busy. Take a moment and decide what matters to you and your household when it comes to groceries. Is saving money the priority? Buying local? Organic only? A combination of all three? None of the above? Once you have your grocery priorities in check, it will be easier for you to develop your own game plan.

 

Event alert: Celebrate great black women of Kentucky tonight at the Clifton Center

It’s way past my bedtime, but I wanted to get something up quick about an event from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a social justice organization that’s doing good work for folks in the state.

Tonight is the third annual We Are Kentuckians: Celebrating Our Common Heritage, a bash that brings together art, music and food in celebration of the people of the Commonwealth. This year’s gathering specifically focuses on lifting up black women in Kentucky (*clears throat* YAAAAAAS).

Here’s a blurb from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth:

We Are Kentuckians honors Black women in Kentucky through music, dance, spoken word, and storytelling. The evening lineup includes: musicians Committed, Cynthia Fletcher, and DJ Alli; dancers Dionne Griffiths and Cynthia Brown; poets Hannah Drake and Robin Garner; and storytellers Kristen Williams, Taylor Little, and Andrea Massey.

This event is open to the public with a suggested donation of $10 to $20, which includes delicious food from Dasha Barbour’s Southern Bistro and Louisville Vegan Kitchen. There will be a cash bar and silent auction.

There’s still time to buy tickets to the event here. You can also learn more about Kentuckians for the Commonwealth here.


We Are Kentuckians: Celebrating Our Common Heritage

When: 7-10 p.m. Thursday, March 10

Where: Clifton Center, 2117 Payne St., Louisville

Cost: $10-20

For more info: We Are Kentuckians website

It’s that time of year: Join me at the Desserts First fundraiser for Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana

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It’s that magical time of year when Girl Scout cookies and top Louisville chefs come together for Desserts First, an annual fundraiser for the Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana. At the event, which takes place this Wednesday, chefs have to create appetizers, drinks and desserts that incorporate Girl Scout cookies. This year’s participants include:

Arctic Scoop | Bake My Day | Bernoulli Small Batch Ice Cream | Bill’s Famous Spreads  | Bristol Bar & Grille | Cellar Door Chocolates | Corbett’s: An American Place | Feast BBQ | Flour de Lis Bakery | Four Roses Bourbon | Gary’s on Spring | Jack Fry’s | Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon | Ladyfingers Catering | Louisville Cream | The Melting Pot | RedHot Roasters | Roux | Scarlet’s Bakery | Teacups & Bombshells Cafe |  Terri Lynn’s Catering by Design | Varanese | Vincenzo’s | Ward 426

Winner gets glory and maybe a little indigestion from all those cookies.

I love Desserts First for a couple of reasons. I’ve volunteered with Girl Scouts since my boisterous Brownies were dainty Daisies (about three years in non-Scouting terms) AND I get to be a judge at the event for the second year in a row. Wait, one more reason – tasty treats.

There’s still time to buy tickets to the event online. If $65 isn’t in your pre-income tax return budget, consider buying a box from the next Girl Scout you see stationed around town.

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10th Annual Desserts First fundraiser

When: 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24

Where: Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center, 1860 Mellwood Ave., Louisville

Cost: $65

For more info: Desserts First website, Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana

 

Leslie Knope and me

For the past year, I’ve felt a lot like Leslie Knope, post-Harvest Festival.

I’d like to assume you all watched Parks and Recreation, one of my top 10 favorite sitcoms of all time. If you don’t, you need to get on that immediately (just skip season one). In the meantime, I’ll break it down for you: Leslie Knope, the plucky assistant director of parks and recreation in Pawnee, Ind., planned the Harvest Festival to help her city recover from financial trouble. The festival was a hit, but Leslie panicked soon after because she didn’t know how she could follow up such a successful project.

I know Leslie’s anguish. I spent five years building a career as a Louisville food writer right on this blog.  Then, I got the chance to write a book that focused on the topics about which I cared the most: frugal, local eating. Louisville Diners was like my graduate thesis, my chance to showcase a segment of this city’s food scene. I was thrilled when it came out last March, but with the publication came a new worry: What comes next? Specifically:

  • Would I write another book? If so, about what?
  • What else could I do with Ashlee Eats?
  • There are so many good food bloggers and Instagrammers and whatnot documenting the Louisville restaurant scene, was my voice even necessary or interesting anymore?
  • Should I just focus on my day job and wrap up this blog?

On Parks and Rec, Ron ended up locking Leslie in a closet to force her to sleep and shut down her brain. The next day, she had ideas out the wazoo thanks to that mental reset. I don’t have any problems getting enough rest (napping is one of my favorite hobbies), but after a year of worrying, I’ve decided I need my own reset.

I’ve grown a lot since I started the blog in 2010, and so has Louisville. I started the blog to chronicle my adventures in frugal eating. Now, it’s time to think bigger. It’s time to be loud. And it’s time to dismantle my own insecurities about living up to the unreal expectations I loaded onto my own back.

Like Leslie Knope, I love my city. But we both know that our towns aren’t perfect. I want to do more to make Louisville a better place. I want to continue to explore the corners of our city that don’t get nearly enough attention when you see write-ups about the joys of Louisville’s eats. I want get readers out of their neighborhood comfort zones in search of a good meal. I want to talk about what we as a community can do to address the fact that 53,400 Kentuckians have to visit a food bank each week. I want to highlight the wonderful diversity in our city’s food scene that you can access for less than 10 bucks. I want to support worthwhile charities. I want to show this city some love but hold folks accountable for the problems in getting people access to healthful food. And I just want to eat and write about it.

After the Harvest Festival, Leslie ended up having a full career that maybe even culminated with the presidency (curse you, ambiguous ending). I’m not running for office, but I can see that my career is just ramping up. I just have to take a note from Leslie and Ron and get out of my own way.

 

Come to the Moth tonight, and bring some mittens, too

I’ve been involved with Moth StorySLAM events at Headliners Music Hall for about four years, and one thing that’s kept me around is the sense of community among the storytellers and attendees. There are the folks I can always count on seeing on the last Tuesday of every month, the newbies who leave gushing about how much fun they’ve had, and the storytellers who impress me with their honesty and bravery to tell their own stories to a room full of strangers.

Tonight, it’s time for our Moth family to come together and give back. We’re collecting clean, gently used (or new!) children’s clothing for the JCPS Clothing Assistance Program. Here’s a blurb about the program, courtesy of Louisville Moth producer Tara Anderson:

The CAP helps make sure families get clothing they need, especially during the cold winter months. Sweaters, pants, hats and gloves are especially appreciated.

Worthy cause, yes? Then bring that sweater that’s two sizes too small and join me tonight for some good stories. I’ll be holding down the mic as host, so I’d love to see you there.


The Moth StorySLAM

When: Tonight, Dec. 29; doors open at 7 p.m., stories begin at 8 p.m.

Where: Headliners Music Hall, 1386 Lexington Road, Louisville

Cost: $8

For more info: The Moth website