My Kitchen Sanctuary, My Kitchen Temple

Why do so many of us spend time in our workshops or craft rooms or gardens or, yes, kitchens? A longing, perhaps even a NEED, to make something physical. Many of us toil in the knowledge economy (as if baking a loaf of bread doesn’t require knowledge). We write papers or grade them, we balance ledgers, we sell stocks or software. So we carve and paint and plant and, yes, cook. Each act of creation turns us into God. We use our hands and transcend our quotidian human existence in the (realized) hopes that we have gone somehow beyond, even just by a nanometer, to bring forth something new in the world. Sure, we may bake that chicken casserole every Thursday, but it’s never really, exactly, the same. The chicken thighs may weigh a little more or a little less than last week’s. The onions might be oblong, where they were nearly spherical the last time we cooked this. Our senses continue to refine and we decide that sprinkling parsley on top will improve the flavor. In that respect, we home cooks have much in common with the wood carver who, using a new, different piece of wood, may carve the “same” spoon or the “same” toy, but (s)he knows it’s not an exact replica of the previous one. A close inspection—maybe not even a close one—reveals differences, however minute. Yes, our creative godliness is in the details.

We all should have places of respite and places that, regardless of religious or spiritual belief or lack thereof, evoke special feelings in us. For me, it is my kitchen. This is where I create, feel gratitude, share, reflect. The act of cooking, however simple or complex, brings me closer to humanity, a feeling of connection with the world and with the universe. It brings me closer to the farmers, the growers, the producers of my food. The acts of chopping, sautéing, scattering of herbs—the use of my hands—underscores what I believe to be a fundamental truth: that we, as humans, long to create objects and things, that are touchable, tangible.

In the sanctity of the kitchen, for those of us who find cooking somewhat of a contemplative practice, we may find, like an odd but welcome bolt of lightning, sudden realized peace and even joy. I recall washing dishes on one of those bitterly cold, windy Indiana nights, wrist-deep in soothingly warm, soapy water while standing in my kitchen, the warmest room in my house, and suddenly feeling an intense wave of happiness and calm. I didn’t know why, then, and it didn’t matter. I still don’t know why and it still doesn’t matter. Perhaps it was just gratitude for what I had—solid indoor plumbing and a shelter from the elements, elusive to some. I don’t know. But I felt peace. This wasn’t the only time I felt such peace in my kitchen, my sanctuary. I’ve felt it tipping and tailing green beans, a tedious task, as I prepared to cook a batch of loubia, sensing connection with the grower of those beans (in this case, organic farmer extraordinaire Wendy Carpenter of Modoc (IN)’s Christopher Farm).

If my kitchen is my sanctuary, my kitchen is also my temple. On Saturday mornings during the summer, I bicycle to my local weekly farmers market (Minnetrista), arriving as close as possible to the opening 8:00 AM bell. I inhale the atmosphere and the activity, perusing the unusual garlic varieties and eggplants and summer squash. I chit chat with the vendors and friends I encounter, buy what appeals to me or inspires me that week, carefully arranging my wares in my backpack (eggs at the bottom, tender greens and fragile tomatoes at the top). Then I cycle off for a post-market cappuccino, either at The Caffeinery (if the morning is leisurely) or Starbucks (if time is tight). Park myself on an outdoor chair, turn my phone off (completely—no vibrate or silent mode), and for the next 20-30 minutes, I watch the world. And then I head back home, putting the bicycle in the garage and walking into that temple of mine, the kitchen. Off comes the backpack and I unpack—and display—everything I bought on my kitchen island, a veritable offering to whatever culinary gods might be watching (of course, being digital times, I dutifully post a picture, with description, on Facebook). What grinning! What happiness! And then, to complete the Saturday circle, I cook.

Market produce inspector

I don’t really have a good conclusion for this post, other than to hope and wish that you all have your own personal sanctuaries and to let you know that I’ll be returning to this blog, albeit not necessarily on a regular basis (generally with posts about interesting food-related topics about the middle of the country, less often with personal essays). In the next few weeks, I’ll post a recipe for my cherry-sage bread, featuring dried Michigan sour cherries and Indiana sage (“Indiana” because it’s from my garden). There is much to know about the Flyover culinary world and so much to discover. Peace.

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Happy Pi(e) Day! And a Temporary Goodbye

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor

I realize that I haven’t blogged in AGES (this is my first post in 2016, for crying out loud!). The reasons are discussed in the last paragraph. However, I WILL be returning to (semi) regular blogging this summer. Sometimes life gets in the way, but one of my passions is sharing the Good News about the Culinary Geography of America’s Midwest, aka Flyover States. In the meantime, Happy Pi(e) Day! March 14 (3.14, get it?) is Pi(e) Day!

One Pie Discovery in Ohio

To say that the exterior of Henry’s Restaurant is unassuming would be generous, complimentary even. It’s rather more weathered, more punched by life, more beaten, with an almost defiant air challenging people to enter. Step inside and you’re transported into a mainstay of rural agricultural life—the local café or diner, where the worn décor is heavy on Americana and scratches, with waitresses probably named Darlene or Thelma, and the loyal and local clientele is met with conversation that probably began a visit ago and is being picked up again (you can imagine the ends of these coda’ed with “To Be Continued”). Henry’s Restaurant is one of these gems, the kind popularized by Road Food pioneers Jane and Michael Stern.

HenrysOutside1

And Just How Does One Discover a Place Like Henry’s?

I Googled “best pies in Ohio” after my boyfriend told me about a place west of Columbus on US-40 (the National Road, for those interested in historical transportation and geography) that supposedly, allegedly, mythically served Really. Good. Pie. Google, that technological advance that refuses to let undiscovered jewels remain undiscovered, yielded Henry’s Restaurant in the small agricultural village of West Jefferson. Intrepid explorers that we are, the two of us decided to make a pilgrimage to Henry’s for a sampling of those pies.

The Place and the Ambience

Henry’s is easy to miss. And miss it we did at first, the boyfriend saying “that’s it” as we drove past it. Henry’s is not in the middle of the town, but along the outskirts, where its neighbors are agricultural fields and warehouses. A U-turn at the next intersection and then a left turn into the crumbling concrete parking lot brought us to what we hoped would be a pie heaven, pie mecca, pie nirvana. Pie, it seems, does elicit near religious feelings for many (and while its origins aren’t American, it has become a contender for the National Dessert).

ViewFromHenrys

The View Across the Street From Henry’s

To put it bluntly, the place looks like a dump or decrepit aging service station on the outside—peeling, faded, yellow paint on a pair of garage doors. The same peeling, faded yellow paint adorned the main part of the structure, the one housing the restaurant. Two doors, one with the requisite “Use Other Door” posting and the cardboard “Yes, We’re Open” and neon “Open” signs beckoned to us to come in. This place could have looked desolate and forbidding, but the half-dozen vehicles in the lot gave us hope. We figured the place was reasonably popular. So we walked in, looking for lunch and pie.

HenrysOutside2

The décor was honest and cheap and its ten or so tables were half-filled with customers. It’s the sort of place that holds their annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner on March 6 because “we like to do things early here”, as per the waitress. We’d arrived after the presumed lunch “rush”, as it was by now 1:40 in the afternoon. With eyes like a hawk spotting a hapless squirrel, I homed in on the whiteboard listing the day’s eight pies. I may or may not have been drooling as I recited the list to the Boyfriend (henceforth referred to as “BF”). Then the lone waitress called out to me, saying “Honey, that list ain’t up to date”. She erased four of the eight options (bye bye apple pie, sayonara coconut crème), leaving us to choose between rhubarb, strawberry rhubarb, chocolate crème, and lemon meringue. Well, no problem—narrowing my options probably made it somewhat easier to decide (oh, the paradox of choice). This is the type of place that will run out of certain flavors, so it might be best to get there early; indeed, they ran out of two more varieties by the time BF and I got ours.

Seasonal Decor
Seasonal Decor

The Pies

People can make meals out of pie and I was sorely tempted to do just that. But rather than embarrass myself by ordering two pieces of pie (and wanting three), I opted for a cheeseburger before pie (as did the BF, though we did get different toppings). The burger was fine, but that’s not what I was there for (and that’s also not the subject of this post). So Step 2 of the ordering process was at hand. Given that we wanted to try each other’s pies, we ruled out the rhubarb and strawberry-rhubarb combination. BF picked rhubarb (and I KNEW he would). I opted for lemon meringue. I’d been thinking about making a lemon meringue pie for about three or four years and still hadn’t gotten around to it. But I hadn’t eaten one in years and I was ready! BF had the opportunity to get a scoop of ice cream with his (the fruit pies do have a la mode as an option), but he declined. As we waited for our food, we enjoyed the entertainment, namely the other patrons. One kid, who must’ve been all of nine years old, busily darted around the dining area and kitchen, clearing tables and taking them back to be washed. Some high school students (all eating pie!) joked around with each other. And a “Mr. Fisher”, clearly an honored and regular guest, was spoken to by both the waitress and a couple of other customers.

And then they arrived. Substantial slices to go with our decaf coffees. The rhubarb pie was delicious—sprightly tart, yet sweet, without being overly gloppy (as can be the case with so many fruit pies).1 The flaky crust enhanced the fruit, yielding a delicious flavor explosion in one’s mouth. On to the lemon meringue, with its billow of browned egg-white and sugar topping. The meringue was soft, not tough, and the lemon shone through in the custard base without being overly tart. Yes, the Pie Gods had graced us with dessert blessings.

LemonMeringuePie

The Scoop of Ice Cream that Got Away and the Conversations of Others

As noted earlier, ice cream can be served on top of a slice of fruit pie. Two people at another table opted for the dairy enhancement. As the overworked waitress brought the pies to the table, an almost flawlessly spherical ball of vanilla fell off one pie slice onto the floor. She set the pie pieces down and then chatted with her customers for a bit, joking about the ice cream.

Enter stage left. The young boy walked in through the door into the dining room, intently looking at something that was not the floor. BF watched him, saying “he’s going to step right into it”. So we observed silently, waiting for the inevitable. Then then inevitable became the evitable. Into the ice cream he trod, perfectly centering his step into the middle of the scoop. He glanced down, appearing slightly dumbfounded, before continuing on his way into the kitchen, not bothering to wipe his shoe. That was some of the entertainment!

We got to enjoy our pies with Act Two of the entertainment—eavesdropping in on the conversations of others. We (the collective, societal “we”) often listen to exchanges other people make, since, given the volume at which some folks talk, it may be difficult to avoid. Usually these are fairly dull, ordinary affairs. But a couple of elderly friends (one male, one female) about a table or two away from us bantered about, discussing a particular cable channel (Me TV) that specializes in old, very old, television shows. A sample of what we overheard:

Woman: Do you ever watch that Me TV channel? I like that one.
Man: Yes.
Woman: They have all the old shows. I like The Andy Griffith Show. Of course, I’ve probably seen all of them.
Man: I haven’t seen them all. Of course, I’m getting so old that I forget them, so maybe they just seem new to me.

Conversation 2:
Woman: Now I’m not a Trump person, but I really don’t like how Fox News is treating him.
Man: Uh huh.
Woman: He’s running his campaign fair and square.
Man: Uh huh.

Will We Return?

The short answer is “of course”. I mean, there are more pie varieties to be sampled. Next time we’ll probably try to get there early enough to be able to select from the entire pie list. And maybe then I WILL have two pieces of pie for lunch!

And Now for the Temporary Goodbye

ByeForNow

Bye for now! See you in Summer (maybe before!)

Okay, I haven’t blogged in months. My job has me a lot busier than normal (typically busy anyway, but this academic year seems like I’m an order of magnitude busier), and my weekends are pretty booked (for some delightful personal reasons). So (unless I announce something on Facebook), I won’t be getting back to a regular posting schedule until sometime after the semester ends (yes, folks, I’m an academic). I look forward to getting around to more blog posts about the Joys of Culinary Discovery and Geography in America’s Overlooked Flyover States! See you later!

1 Gloppiness and a rubbery texture are a sign that the pie fillings came in a big industrial-sized can.

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Do Not Put This In Your Junk Folder: The SPAM Museum

Spammy

A Museum Devoted to Spam? Are You Spitting Me?

Austin, Minnesota is not Austin, Texas. Tornado-prone and the site of occasional flooding, Austin, Minnesota is the home of the headquarters of the Hormel Foods Corporation, with its brands running the gamut from Dinty Moore (beef stew) to Cure 81 ham to Jennie-O turkey products to Chi-Chi’s salsa to Muscle Milk sports nutrition (Hormel purchased CytoSport). But perhaps no brand or product is as familiar as SPAM, the canned (tinned to Brits) pork found in many a home’s pantry. Whether you love it or hate it (and I tend to fall closer to the “hate” side of the SPAM-tinuum), it’s hard to deny the weird appeal of this stuff. Introduced in 1937, this canned meat helped sustain troops in World War II and stretched the food budgets of many families. Today SPAM is sold in many countries around the world. Additionally, you can find myriad varieties of SPAM—Classic, Chorizo, Lite, Jalapeno, and Teriyaki are but some.

SpamMuseum

Which brings me to the SPAM Museum. Located in Austin, practically across the street from Hormel, the museum is Hormel’s tribute to an iconic product and its fans. The admission is free, but you’ll probably depart with your precious Benjamins in the gift shop. Upon entering, you are greeted by an employee who really, really, really LOVES his or her job. Apparently, these workers are called “Spambassadors”, though I prefer to use the term “Spamdroids”. Anyway, the staff is very friendly and they give you a printed guide to the museum, as well as recipe cards. And a couple of them also wander around with trays like waiters at a catered event: Would you care to try our classic SPAM? Would you care to try our chorizo SPAM?

SpamLobby

The lobby features a sort of homage to the global reach of SPAM, with a background made of SPAM cans. A movie theatre can be found there, with surprisingly well designed doors that resemble a cartoon pig; inside the theatre, you can watch a reel of what must be every commercial for the stuff ever created.

SpamMuseumDoor

Ooh, Tell Me More!

The museum itself tells the history of Hormel and SPAM—from its beginnings in 1891 to its current global reach. There are some hands-on activities for museum guests, such as a timed “pack your own can of SPAM” interactive display; a register will tell you how many cans were packed in the factory during the time it took you to pack a single one. For the record, it took me about 34 seconds to package a single can of SPAM, during which time over 230 cans were packed at the plant. I would suck as a Hormel employee, apparently. Anyway, the museum tour finishes with a screen playing the famous Monty Python SPAM skit. Then it’s on to the gift shop, where you can buy all sorts of SPAMables—baseball caps, beer koozies, mugs, kids’ toys, iPhone cases, even mints (not SPAM-flavored). Of course, you can buy cans of SPAM as well. I think the staff was a little disappointed because I only bought two packs of mints.

Spam Bucket Hat

Above image from the Spam Museum Gift Shop page

Recipes?

I will not be posting any SPAM recipes, as I don’t really eat the stuff. However, if you do, you can find some recipes here. Despite not being a fan of the stuff, the museum itself was fascinating (though they do conveniently gloss over any mention of CAFOs—confined animal feedlot operations.) And the staff are super-friendly and helpful. It’s pretty easy to get there, as it’s just off I-90. But I wound up returning just to get directions to US-218 South (I was heading to Iowa City next), which was considerably more difficult. Fortunately, the nice parking attendant gave me detailed directions (and noted that the return to 218 was “tricky”.) Would I recommend this place? Sure—it’s for anyone who delights in the quirky!

Bad News, Sad News

If you want to visit the SPAM Museum, you’ll have to wait until next spring (2016). It’s being renovated and moving to a new location in downtown Austin, Minnesota. So, readers, let the anticipation build up until you get a chance to visit the new and hopefully improved SPAM Museum!

SpamLobbyUpClose

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All Cherries Considered

Cherry Republic Welcome

Cherry Republic—Not Found in Your Rand McNally Atlas!

Or at least all cherry products are considered. In the middle of the charming Michigan town of Glen Arbor, you’ll find a (semi) sovereign state: Cherry Republic. How can that be, you ask. It’s bounded all around by the state of Michigan. Why would there be a country in the middle of another one? Granted, there are historic precedents—look at a map of South Africa and you’ll see the independent state of Lesotho embedded within. But in the United States?

What Kind of a Country Is This, Anyway?

Okay, Cherry Republic isn’t exactly like other states.1 It has no government, no military, no treaties with other states. It lacks a currency, a foreign policy, a population, an anthem. But what it DOES have is every manner of cherry product. It has an ice cream parlor/café featuring various cheese-themed ice cream flavors. Seriously, every ice cream flavor features cherries! It has a Cherry Spitting Arena. And, if you can’t make it to Glen Arbor, it has a website.

CherrySpittingArena

CherrySpittingRules

The History (Not in a Nutshell, but in a Cherry Pit)

Bob Sunderland, the founder (emperor?) of Cherry Republic began in 1989 by selling tee shirts and, later, the Boomchunka cherry oatmeal cookie (very good!) from the trunk of his car. Eventually, he branched out into other cherry products. Admirably, the company engages in supporting local cherry farmers. And why just cherries? Well, read below (this has been taken directly from Cherry Republic’s website)

But Bob’s 83-year-old mother has another view of why he started a company that only sells cherries. It’s on a t-shirt that she wears when she works at Cherry Republic. It says, “The owner is a simpleton. Selling more than one fruit would be too complicated for him.”

Cherry Republic grew and now has not only the “headquarters” in Glen Arbor, but it is also located in Traverse City and Charlevoix (in Northern Michigan). An outpost is found in Ann Arbor as well. Given that the tart cherry capital of the United States is Michigan, it’s no wonder that Cherry Republic took off here!

Cherry Republic Pop on Ice

The Wares

So, what kinds of cherry things does Cherry Republic offer? There’s the expected: dried cherries (Montmorency and Balaton), canned organic cherries, cherry pie filling. There’s the delightful: cherry-based trail mix, cherry jams, chocolate-covered cherries. And then there’s the deliciously unusual: cherry peanut butter, cherry salsa (in different varieties), cherry salad dressing. Additionally, in a separate building you’ll find cherry libations of both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic sort—cherry wine, cherry cider, cherry sodas. It’s a Cherry Wonderland!

Cherry Republic is just a FUN place to browse and shop. Samples abound and you likely won’t leave empty-handed (though you could leave empty-walleted!) The wares showcase one of northern Michigan’s premier crops—the tart cherry—in ways that I’d never even considered! If you ever find yourself in Leelanau County, Michigan, make a stop at Cherry Republic!

1I am using a political geography term when I use “state”. By “state”, I refer to a sovereign body with actual boundaries, its own laws, and its own government.

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For Leftover Candy–Presenting the Peeps-Nini!

So You’ve Eaten Your Share of Peeps, But Still Have Some Left Over

And you’re wondering–how do I use Peeps culinarily? Okay, maybe you’re saving some until they get nice and stale (hey, connoisseurs like the best this way!) Maybe you have some earmarked for a special meal (I usually eat a sleeve prior to running a half-marathon, because hey, carbo-loading!) Maybe you are keeping some for next year’s Washington Post Peeps Diorama contest. Still, you might have some Peeps that are waiting to be incorporated into some sort of gastronomic marvel. Well, Peep-le, look no further. Presenting the Peeps-nini! This molten version of a peanut butter and marshmallow creme sandwich is just the thing for your Easter leftovers.

And the Flyover Connection is…

None. None whatsoever, except that I first created it in Indiana (though I did subsequently share it on another website). Peeps are actually the product of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Just Born candy company

Peeps-Nini–the Recipe!

This panino (yeah, panini is actually plural, but that “i” sounding like a long “e” just sounds kitschier) is just the ticket when you’re tired of savory dinner and, dagnabit, you just want something SWEET for dinner!

What You’ll Need

  • bowl(s)
  • panini press or heavy skillet (if using skillet, you’ll also need a pancake turner to press down on the sandwich)
  • cutting board
  • bread knife
  • knife for spreading butters

Ingredients

ingredients

  • peanut butter (I like homemade or natural)
  • softened butter (about a tablespoon or two)
  • sturdy bread
  • 4 Marshmallow Peeps

How to Make the Peep-Nini

  1. Cut two slices of bread, if you are starting with a whole loaf (or take two slices from your presliced loaf
  2. Preheat your panini press [or skillet, if using, to medium or medium-high (if using a stainless steel skillet, you can wait on this step until right before you heat the sandwich, as they heat up fairly quickly)]
  3. Butter the outside of one slice of bread and place it on your board, butter side down.
  4. Spread peanut butter on top of that bread slice.
  5. Place the Peeps on top of the peanut butter. DON’T LOOK AT THEIR EYES! Otherwise, you may not have the heart to subject them to the intense heat.
  6. Peeps_2BGrilled

    I said not to look at their eyes!
    setupPeepsnini

  7. Put a thin schmear of peanut butter on the second bread slice.
  8. Place second slice of bread on top of the Peeps.
  9. PeepNini Before

  10. Butter the top of the second slice.
  11. Put the sandwich in the panini press and put the lid down. Cook until the Peeps start to melt and get gooey.
  12. If using a skillet, add some butter to the skillet, then add the sandwich and press down on it (and cook until the bread crisps up). Turn the sandwich over and cook, pressing down, until the Peeps get melty.
  13. GooeyGoodness

  14. Serve immediately.
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