Monthly Archives: February 2017

Bringing Down the House

Community Groups in Action
Gypsy — 1992 (Fitz-Symms photo)

Gypsy — 1992 (Fitz-Symms photo)

The longtime executive and artistic director of Augusta Players will take a final bow this spring

Martinez resident Debi Ballas cannot remember a time when she wasn’t involved in theater.

“When I was 8 years old, I turned our garage into a theater,” she says. “The garage door was the curtain.

Ballas, who was born in Hollywood, California but spent her formative years in Boston, used to ride her bicycle through her neighborhood to pass out fliers and invite friends to her performances. As the executive and artistic director for Augusta Players for the past 19 years, she no doubt has adopted more sophisticated marketing techniques. However, she is stepping down from her post at the end of the season, which concludes with a production of “Beauty and the Beast” in May.

Evita — 2004 (Fitz-Symms photo)

Evita — 2004 (Fitz-Symms photo)

“We did things we never thought we could do. It’s been so fulfilling,” she says. 

Timing is Everything
Ballas, who participated in theater during high school and college, first became involved with Augusta Players when she played the part of Mama Rose in “Gypsy” in 1992. In the mid-90s, she played Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

In 1998 Augusta Players board members approached her about replacing the theater group’s longtime executive director. In addition to her theater background, Ballas, whose husband Chuck owns Luigi’s restaurant, knew what it took to run a business. 

And not only could Ballas act. She could sing as well. (She met Chuck at age 20 when she was singing in a band on Miami Beach.) After she got married and moved to Augusta, she sang with a band called Vanilla in Georgia and the Southeast. “I sang Top 40 cover tunes for years, and when disco became popular, I started singing piano bar and jazz,” she says. 

Hello, Dolly! — 2008 (Fitz-Symms photo)

Hello, Dolly! — 2008 (Fitz-Symms photo)

And timing certainly factored into her acceptance of the Augusta Players position as well. “I had raised three daughters, and the opportunity came at the perfect time in my life when I was ready to do something,” Ballas says.

Several years into her tenure, she also took on the role of artistic director. At the time she was hired, she says, “Augusta Players hired directors and paid them an honorarium.” When the economy faltered, she added directing duties to her administrative tasks. “To ensure the continuity and the quality of the Augusta Players, it was important to have one vision,” she says.

Gypsy — 2010 (Marian Lambert Yu photo)

Gypsy — 2010 (Marian Lambert Yu photo)

Ballas, who says her father and “The Judy Garland Show” inspired her love of theater, has difficulty trying to pinpoint moments in her career that stand out above all others.

“I can’t single out any one production,” she says. “Any time you have the opportunity to take something from its rawest stage and bring it to life, it’s magic.”

Augusta Players has done repeat performances of many productions, which Ballas says is typical of musical theater. However, she says, “Every time we do a production, it’s like doing it for the first time. It’s a living, breathing thing. Everyone who plays a role brings a little bit of themselves to it, so it’s never the same. 

After a 19-year career as executive and artistic director of Augusta Players, Debi Ballas (third from left) will retire following a production of “Beauty and the Beast” this spring. She was celebrated in February at a gala concert, and is pictured with her daughters, (from left) Penelope Stewart, Claudia Latch and Bebe Kent. “The outpouring of love was overwhelming,” she says of the gala. “It was one of the most beautiful, special and memorable events of my life.” (Marian Lambert Yu photo)

After a 19-year career as executive and artistic director of Augusta Players, Debi Ballas (third from left) will retire following a production of “Beauty and the Beast” this spring. She was celebrated in February at a gala concert, and is pictured with her daughters, (from left) Penelope Stewart, Claudia Latch and Bebe Kent. “The outpouring of love was overwhelming,” she says of the gala. “It was one of the most beautiful, special and memorable events of my life.” (Marian Lambert Yu photo)

Sharing a Vision
Ballas has enjoyed performing on stage as well as working behind the scenes, and she is grateful for the opportunity to inspire audiences and actors.

“I love to perform. I love to sing. I also love talent, and to be able to help performers showcase their own talent is special and meaningful,” she says. “It has been great to see young performers grow up in the theater and go on to have successful careers.”

Whether she is performing or directing, Ballas is well aware of the responsibilities of her role.

“When I’m performing, I’m worried about myself and my performance, and I feel the pressure of doing my best so I don’t disappoint the audience,” she says. “When I’m on the other side, I have more than myself to worry about. I’m responsible for making 20 or 30 people do their best. When you’re directing, you have to have a vision, and you have to help everyone share in that vision. When it comes together, it’s magical and exhilarating.”

Augusta Players showed its appreciation for Ballas in February with a gala concert to celebrate her career. The evening included performances by Augusta Players actors to highlight the shows that Ballas produced and footage of old performances that she thought had been lost.

“I’m not often speechless, but it definitely rendered me speechless. The performances were magnificent, and the outpouring of love was overwhelming,” says Ballas. “It was one of the most beautiful, special and memorable events of my life. I’m going to miss all of these wonderful people.” 

Raspberry & White Chocolate Buttermilk Scones

  • Photography by Gary McLaughlin

    Photography by Gary McLaughlin

    4 cups self-rising flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • Handful of white chocolate chips, plus extra to drizzle
  • Handful of dried or fresh frozen raspberries
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon of water, to glaze

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Sift together flour, baking powder and sugar in bowl. Rub butter into mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in center of dry mixture, then set aside. In another bowl, combine eggs and buttermilk; then fold all at once into dry mixture. Stir until moistened, then knead 4 or 5 times to create dough. Using your knuckles, create large pocket in center of dough, filling it with raspberries and white chocolate chips. Gently knead to combine. Use floured rolling pin to flatten dough to about 1 inch in height. Cut scones using 1 1/2-inch fluted pastry or cookie cutter, and place each cutout on large baking pan. Brush tops with egg glaze using pastry brush. Bake for 15 minutes until scones are light golden brown, turning pan around halfway through baking time to ensure evenness. Allow to cool, then drizzle melted white chocolate on scones. Serve with Easy Raspberry Freezer Jam (recipe below). Makes 12-15 scones.

Easy Raspberry Freezer Jam:

  • 1 1/2 pounds red raspberries, crushed
  • 2 1/4 pounds fine granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup liquid pectin

Crush raspberries and stir in sugar. Refrigerate overnight, stirring occasionally. Add pectin and stir fruit mixture until fully incorporated. Pour jam into clean, sterilized glass jars or plastic containers. Allow jam to set for a day at room temperature before freezing for up to 1 year. 

Recipe by Judith McLaughlin

Georgia Peach Fool Shots

Photography by Gary McLaughlin

Photography by Gary McLaughlin

Popular in Ireland, a fruit fool is a creamy dessert that is made with poached fruit. The name probably comes from the French word “fouler,” which means to crush or squash.

Peach purée:

  • 6 peaches (fresh or canned)
  • 3 tablespoons peach-flavor liqueur
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons water


  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup mascarpone cream
  • 1/2 cup fine granulated sugar
  • Mint springs for garnish

 If using fresh peaches, remove skins with sharp knife and remove stones, then combine peaches, sugar, and water in small saucepan. Cook on medium heat to gently poach for 8–10 minutes or until peaches are tender. Cool and then chill in refrigerator. When peaches are cool, add peach liqueur to mixture and purée in food processor. (If using canned peaches, drain syrup from can using a sieve then purée with peach-flavor liqueur.)

Beat whipping cream and sugar in electric mixer until it forms soft peaks. Soften mascarpone cheese by beating gently by hand then fold it into fresh cream, being careful not to over-beat mixture. Try to ensure a smooth, creamy texture. Gently combine about one third of purée, leaving swirls of peach purée. Spoon cream mixture into piping bag with large nozzle. Spoon 1 1/2 teaspoons of reserved purée into bottom of each glass and then pipe some cream into individual glasses. Place second layer of purée on top, followed by cream, then finish with a little more purée. Pipe final decorative swirl of cream on top. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Garnish with tiny sprig of mint. Makes 10 shots.

Recipe by Judith McLaughlin

Irish Spring Lamb Stew

  • Photography by Gary McLaughlin

    Photography by Gary McLaughlin

    2 pounds gigot or shoulder lamb chops, bone-in
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 pounds (about 6 medium) potatoes
  • 4 medium carrots, peeled
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
  • Parsley, finely chopped
  • Olive oil, to drizzle

Peel and cut carrots into 1 1/2-inch chunks. Peel and cut potatoes into 1-inch chunks. Place carrots and potatoes in bowl of cold, salted water. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Trim off any visible fat from lamb chops. Combine flour, salt and pepper in bowl and coat chops in flour mixture. Heat oil in large, ovenproof skillet and braise chops in small batches. When done, transfer meat to an ovenproof dish. Sauté onions, in same skillet used to braise lamb, for 3-4 minutes to soften and lightly caramelize. Transfer onion and half of potatoes on top of meat. Add 2 cups of water. Cover and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Add carrots and remaining potatoes. Simmer with dish covered for additional 30 minutes until vegetables are tender. To serve, remove bones from chops and stir meat and vegetables together. Place in individual bowls; garnish with sea salt, rosemary and chopped parsley. Drizzle with olive oil. Makes 4 servings. 

Recipe by Judith McLaughlin

Irish Wheaten Bread

Side Dishes
Photography by Gary McLaughlin

Photography by Gary McLaughlin

This brown soda bread is full of fiber, yeast-free and so simple to prepare. If you can find Irish imported brown whole wheat flour, you’ll get the best results. 

  • 3 cups coarse whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 1/4 cup oats
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 cup wheat germ
  • 3/8 cup sugar
  • 3 ounces butter or margarine
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3 cups buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon honey

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease and flour three 8-by-4-by-2-inch loaf pans. Measure all dry ingredients in large bowl. Rub in butter with your fingertips and create a well in center of mix. Beat egg in small bowl and mix with buttermilk and honey. Add to dry ingredients and mix well with large spoon. Transfer dough to floured surface and knead gently with floured hands. Divide dough into loaves and place each loaf into a pan. Using knife, cut line down center of each loaf. Bake for 40 minutes to deep golden brown color, or until base of loaf sounds hollow when lightly tapped. Makes 3 loaves.

Recipe by Judith McLaughlin


Apples to Zinnias

Apples to Zinnias

Photography by Addie Strozier

With an abundance of produces and free-roaming livestock, a local Certified Naturally Grown farm is the cream of the crop.

Imagine spending your days on a farm surrounded by peanuts, poultry, porches, peaches and pears. For many people, the thought sounds like something straight out of their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ playbook.

For Laurie and John Ritchie, it’s a way of life. The couple bought 14.5 acres of Hephzibah farmland, which they named J and L Farm and Stables, nine years ago. 

“We knew nothing about farming. We had to read and learn a lot and talk to other farmers,” says Laurie, a retired high school English teacher whose husband is retired from the U.S. Navy but works at Fort Gordon. “We had always thought it would be great to retire on the water somewhere, but it’s a little expensive. We were living outside of Atlanta at the time, but land was expensive. Someone told us to try the Augusta area.” 

Sign-Farm-nameFood for Thought
The Ritchies are only the third owners of the property, and the original owner, Pete Fulcher, lives on a farm next door. “We have tried to use much of the farm as it was,” Laurie says.

She says they got interested in farming because of their daughter-in-law, who is particular about the food her children eat.

“John and I were like lots of other people. We didn’t realize what was happening to our food supply. We just bought food and didn’t think about what was happening to it before we bought it,” says Laurie. “It’s just really important to me that we wouldn’t sell anything that we wouldn’t eat ourselves.”

The Ritchies have a Certified Naturally Grown farm. CNG farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers or genetically modified organisms, and CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture with space that allows for freedom of movement. CNG’s certification approach is based on the participatory guarantee system model that relies on peer reviews in which inspections are typically carried out by other farmers. This model also encourages farmers to share best practices with each other and fosters local networks that strengthen the farming community.

In addition to peaches and pears, J and L Farm has plums, apples, figs, blueberries and strawberries. With grafts, they also grow two types of apples and pears from the same tree.

Peanuts-(I-love-this-pic!)“It’s hard to find organic fruit in this area,” says Laurie. “It’s hard to grow organic because of pests and diseases. One of the things about organic is there are things you can do, but you have to do them more often – every month or two weeks instead of once a season.”

Vegetable crops include squash, corn, tomatoes, beets, pole beans, kale, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli, garlic and turnips. “We planted turnips last year because they are very popular and because you can use the turnip and the greens,” says Laurie.

In their herb garden, they grow oregano, thyme, basil, lemongrass and rosemary.

“We plant what we like and what we think will do well. We also try to grow things that other people are not growing,” Laurie says. “In this climate, you can plant many things twice. Beets, carrots, kale and onions can be planted in the spring and fall.”

They also have a pecan tree on the farm, and four years ago, they started growing Tennessee Red peanuts. “Our pride is our peanuts,” says Laurie.

Garden-CafeIn addition, Laurie created Huddy Buddy’s Butterfly Kisses Garden last summer in memory of her son’s friend’s little boy, Hudson Taylor Sylvestre, who died of a heart ailment at the age of 10 months.

Healing Farm
J and L Farm sells its goods on the Augusta Locally Grown website. From April through October, the farm also offers its products onsite every Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon and at the veggie truck on Broad Street across from the Kroc Center from 4:30 p.m. until 7 p.m. every Tuesday.

Farm-owner-lady-&-CharlieLaurie, whose niece Donna Cote also lives and works on the farm, made one of her best finds at the veggie truck in October 2015. She overheard someone who specializes in finding work for people with slight disabilities say, “I wish I could find an outdoor job for him.” Laurie immediately said, “I’ll take him.”

Charlie Jones has been working at the farm three days a week ever since. His main job is to take care of the chickens, which includes 200 laying hens. He feeds them, makes sure they have clean water and cleans the chicken coops.

“Our chickens are pasture, so they have no limits on where they can go,” says Laurie. “They lay eggs for an average of two-and-a-half to three years.”

Charlie’s favorite task is caring for the chickens. “I learn different things every week,” he says.

Donkeys-(I-love-this-pic!)He plants flowers and feeds the horses – Dixie, Lady, Rescue and Oscar. Two of them are rescue horses, and the farm also has three mini Jerusalem donkeys – Jessie Mae and her two daughters, Liza Jane and Cassie Mae. “They’re called Jerusalem donkeys because hair on their backs grows in the shape of a cross,” says Laurie.

Charlie has taken on additional duties as well. With grant money from Georgia Organics, which promotes sustainable food and local farms, he started a mini farm called “A Healing Farm” on the Ritchie’s property last year.

“We want Charlie to be able to teach other people,” Laurie says. “Our goal is to have 1,000 square feet of growing space for Charlie to be in charge of a helper. They would sell the food, and the money would go back into seed to make it a self-sustaining movement.”

Last fall he planted arugula, spinach, radishes and beets. This spring he will plant cucumbers, yellow squash and sweet peppers.

“His work coaches are amazed by the changes in Charlie and the way his confidence has grown,” says Laurie.

Charlie also has a flower garden where he plants and cares for zinnias, which attract bees. John has honeybees on the farm, and last year was the second year they got honey from the hives.

Farmhouse.Tea Time
The Ritchies enjoy having visitors at the farm, but they ask people to call first. Visitors have included home school groups, Augusta Locally Grown groups and a class from Helms College. Laurie, also a former caterer, puts those skills – along with a ritual from her childhood – to use as well.

She serves afternoon tea on the back porch of the house any day except Tuesday. Reservations are required. The menu includes a couple of different teas, tea sandwiches, scones, Devonshire cream, sweets and seasonal fruit.

Laurie also has a cottage food industry license so she can sell healthy food such as granola with local honey and organic butter, glutton-free peanut butter cookies and sweet pickles that they make from their cucumbers.

Visitors to the farm quickly gain insight into its growing philosophy from a series of signs along the dirt driveway that say, “Being Organic Means Being Untidy.”

“We don’t kill things or cut them down just to make things look better,” Laurie says. “There’s a reason why something is there.”

By Morgan Davis 

Empty Bowl

Community Groups in Action

EMPTY BOWL CALLING POST The 16th annual Empty Bowl, a joint fundraiser for Golden Harvest Food Bank and Augusta Jewish Community Center, will provide local families with hours full of fun. This year’s event is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. Sunday, March 5 at the Legends Club, 2701 Washington Road, Augusta.

“It’s always amazing to me how Golden Harvest can leverage every donated dollar into tens of dollars of much needed food. Teaming up with groups like the Jewish Community Center to raise funds makes the process even more effective” says Phil Alexander, Founder & Community Sponsor of Calling Post. 

The fundraiser features an all-you-can-eat, soup kitchen-style buffet of soups, breads and desserts donated by area restaurants, food companies and caterers. Child friendly hot dogs and macaroni and cheese will be available as well.

Each ticket holder can select a handmade ceramic bowl created by a local student or artist to take home as a reminder that sharing in the event helped to ease someone’s hunger. Additional bowls can be purchased for $10 each. 

Other activities include a You “Can” Help raffle for a bike from Chain Reaction Bicycles in which a ticket can be “purchased” in exchange for a can of food and a silent auction from 10:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. A Kids’ Korner will feature Lady Bug the Clown, balloon animals, face painting, singing, dancing and story times. 

EMPTY BOWL CALLING POSTGolden Harvest Food Bank serves the hungry in a 30-county area in eastern Georgia and western South Carolina, and AJCC provides educational, social and cultural programming for local residents of all ages. 

Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door for adults and $5 in advance or $7.50 at the door for children ages 2 to 10. Admission is free for infants and toddlers under age 2. Tickets are available at a number of area establishments including Augusta Jewish Community Center, Cudos2u and That Place Coffee in Columbia County. They also can be purchased by calling (706) 228-3636 or by emailing

For more information, visit

Ulster Kitchen Signature Butter Shortbread Cookies

  • Photography by Gary McLaughlin

    Photography by Gary McLaughlin

    1 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup rice flour
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, to sprinkle over baked cookies

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy with electric mixer. Measure flour, cornstarch and rice flour together, then slowly incorporate dry ingredients into creamed butter and sugar. Mix until fully incorporated. Place dough onto floured surface and use lightly floured rolling pin to roll out dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into desired shape with cookie cutter and place on baking sheets. Bake for 12 minutes until edges of cookies are light golden brown. Sprinkle with sugar while still warm and cool in pan for about 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container. 

Recipe by Judith McLaughlin