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.

Share

It’s Better with Butter

My Favorite Fat

Butter had been removed from the list of Worst Dietary Offenders some time ago. I’d certainly done my time in the Low Fat Prison System. But much research since then indicates the benefits of fat (and yes, your body needs fat) as part of healthy diet. But as much as I love a good olive oil, it doesn’t hold a candle to my favorite fat—good, delicious butter! That’s great, because I certainly missed it!

When I talk of butter, though, I DON’T talk of mass-produced varieties, the kind sold in your supermarkets and trumpeted as a loss leader during holiday baking season (which, by the way, is rapidly approaching!) No, I’m talking about creamy, high butterfat varieties, preferably cultured. Indeed, favorites of mine include Organic Valley’s Cultured Butter or their Pasture Butter, though the latter isn’t cultured. Well yesterday I made an acquaintance with Tulip Tree Creamery’s Cultured Butter with Sea Salt. Suffice to say, I am in major Flyover Foodie crush mode!

Because Everybody Needs a Little Culture!

So, what exactly IS cultured butter? No, it doesn’t mean that the tub has a subscription to the symphony and reads literary classics. Rather, it’s butter to which some cultures (like the cultures one finds in yogurt) have been added, either naturally from the bacteria present or from an external source. Cultured butter, common in parts of Europe but not in the United States, has a slight tang to it, courtesy of those flavor-enhancing cultures. Your standard supermarket butter isn’t going to have this.

A most delicious buttery experience awaits the person who removes this lid!
A most delicious buttery experience awaits the person who removes this lid!

Enter Tulip Tree Creamery’s Butter

Tulip Tree Creamery, located in Indianapolis, is a relative newcomer to Indiana’s cheese landscape, having been established in 2014. But don’t assume that this “baby” is a baby! Tulip Tree Creamery is the brainchild of Fons Smits, whose cheese pedigree includes Cowgirl Creamery (Point Reyes Station, CA), Trader’s Point (Zionsville, IN), and Ludwig Creamery (Fithian, IL). The charming Mr. Smits, whom I was fortunate enough to meet, took time to answer my questions. At some point in the future, I’ll write a full blog post about Tulip Tree, though given my current schedule, I can’t say when that will be!

So, the butter. Tulip Tree is not a farm, but they source their milk (and the attendant cream) from a family farm located about 50 or so miles south in Seymour, Indiana. This farm refrains from using antibiotics or growth hormones. The butter produced by Tulip Tree is an artisanal product, traditionally crafted. The butter, besides being marvelously delicious, is truly a seasonal product, an exceptional expression of the cows’ diets. During the milder seasons, the milk reflects a diet of pasture greens. The cream in this luscious product is enhanced by the addition of sea salt, generating butter that is especially addictive. Yes, I can eat this plain!

And Eating the Butter?

Well, I haven’t gotten beyond eating the bread on butter (plain or with a slice of Tulip Tree’s beer cheese). Okay, I lied—I have also licked it off the knife! Anyway, I think this is a butter that is best enjoyed simply, with bread or perhaps garnishing some steamed broccoli or asparagus. I think it would be a shame to use this in a way that would mask the rich flavor of this butter.

Readers, you owe it to yourself to try Tulip Tree Creamery’s Cultured Butter!

Share

On the Paucity of Posts

Life, they say, happens when you make plans. And my plans were for more regular posts. But life has intruded, so they are going to be a bit sporadic for a while. Lots of work pressures/deadlines (good thing I love my job!) as well as some (absolutely delightful!) personal reasons. But have no fear, Flyover Tapas will return.

In the meantime, it’s starting to become autumnal here in Indiana. Though the landscape is still largely summer green, the leaves are starting to show their fall clothes. Harvesting of crops is going on and finally (FINALLY!), the summer temperatures are moderating into the crisp cool ones that I so love. I’m buying pumpkins and winter squash at the market and starting to look at soup recipes in my cookbooks and magazines.

So, please check back periodically. I have so much to share, but not enough time to write it up!

Share

Down on Main Street (with apologies to Flyoverian Bob Seger)

Diner Culture

Interior1

Okay, diners aren’t unique to the Midwest and Plains. Indeed, diners were a staple eating destination when I lived on the East Coast. Additionally, some famous diners can be found on the West Coast (e.g. Rae’s Restaurant). So it appears that The Diner is an integral part of American culinary culture.

What Is It About Diners Anyway?

Simply stated, it’s the food. Honest, unpretentious, leveling-of-the-playing-field food. Eggs, bacon, biscuits, sausage, pancakes, coffee—the great equalizers. There isn’t any need to impress or up the ante with fermented artichoke reductions or hand-crafted miniature watercress-and-olive latkes, to say nothing of the odd foams found on the menus of molecular gastronomy eateries. No, the diner—which clearly has a solid foothold in the hearts of Americans—may well be one of the most endearing (and enduring) landmarks on the American gastronomic landscape. People from all walks of life can find themselves seated in the booths or counter stools at a beloved local diner.

Maybe the “Local” is the Key?

To me (and I’m the arbiter of Midwestern culinary geography on this blog!), a good diner needs to be part of a local community. And to me (again!) it needs to be independent. Yes, IHOP has its place—I eat their Harvest Grain and Nut pancakes, loaded with syrup but no butter, the night before running a half-marathon almost as a religious rite, a conjuring of the gods so that I can finish the race. But IHOP still has the chain restaurant feel. It may be IN a community, but it is not OF the community. The profits go to wherever IHOP (or Denny’s or Waffle House) is headquartered. But the money generated by a beloved local place? Well, that STAYS local!

Main Street Diner in Richmond Indiana

Exterior1

I recently had a late breakfast at the Main Street Diner in Richmond, Indiana, the county seat of Wayne County. This charming restaurant is small in size and big in delight. There’s a definite retro vibe, with old-fashioned counter stools and comfortable booths. Exposed brick walls and a fifties-look clock (Coffee!) add to the nostalgic feel. In short, I had landed in True Dinerland. I felt welcome in this independent eatery from the time I stepped inside.

Interior2

Well, the service was friendly. Our waiter took our drink orders and gave us time and space to peruse the menu which, while not extensive, covers all the basics one knows and loves about breakfast; they serve lunch as well (the place is open from 7:00 AM to 2:00 PM), but since my dining companion and I were there at 10:00, it was breakfast food for us. The service was pleasant and attentive, without being overly solicitous or hovering. We placed our orders and waited for it to be prepared (and yes, you might wait a little because this is fresh, not from some SYSCO cartons in a freezer).

I’d read some reviews online and, being a pancakes person, ordered the sweet potato pancakes with a side order of bacon (crispy!) My dining companion ordered the special—eggs, hash browns, biscuit and gravy, and bacon. When the food arrived, I was first surprised by how substantial the portions were! The bacon arrived crispy, just as I’d requested. The sweet potato pancakes—a stack of three—were flecked with actual, identifiable bits of sweet potatoes. The pancakes were also quite thick, almost double the thickness of the ones I’d get at IHOP. Because pancakes need syrup (and I sometimes refer to them as syrup reservoirs) , the Main Street Diner supplied the syrup in a small ceramic pitcher set alongside the plate with the pancakes and bacon. I found it to be a really nice touch. The pancakes were subtly spiced, which complemented the sweet potato while not masking its flavor. The bacon was a deliciously salty, fatty counterpart to the carbohydrate-rich hotcakes. I was certainly satisfied with my meal and I will definitely be making a return trip (btw, Muncie, where I live, is about an hour’s drive north of Richmond).

Sorry about the blurriness of the picture--I thought I took a couple of shots,but apparently I did not. Suffice it to say that I am not the best photographer, at least not when using my phone! But the breakfast was divine!
Sorry about the blurriness of the picture–I thought I took a couple of shots,but apparently I did not. Suffice it to say that I am not the best photographer, at least not when using my phone! But the breakfast was divine!

Coming Full Circle

I do love diners (and one of these days I’ll write a blog post about the Bluebird Diner in Iowa City, a place where I’ve enjoyed eating breakfast as well.) Truly independent, locally owned and operated places have a special place in my heart. They add to the fabric of a community in a way that your IHOPs and Cracker Barrels and Denny’s(s) don’t (and because of the corporate structure, CAN’T). I’ll end this blog post with a plea: If you find a local place that you love (and yeah, it can be a type of restaurant other than a diner), please support it. These eateries can’t compete with the economies of scale that the corporate giants do, but they take pride in what they make and serve, with the end result being markedly better tasting and fresher food than the industrial behemoths. So yes, Support Your Local Diner!

Share

The Not-So-Lonesome Prairie: Goats!

Oh, Capricorn

WhiteGoatWithBrown

Perhaps when you think of “goat”, you think of Capricorn, the zodiac sign (Caprinae are the class of animal that includes goats and sheep). Not me. When I hear the word “goat”, I think of cheese, delicious goat cheese. And because of that, and my interest in the culinary geography of the Midwest and Plains, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, a goat creamery just outside of Champaign, Illinois (home of the University of Illinois’ main campus).

About Goat Cheese

Goat milk and goat dairy is preferred in some parts of the world. And that includes goat cheeses, which are typically piquant. Many people are familiar with fresh chèvre, the spreadable goat cheese that vaguely resembles cream cheese. Chèvre is creamy, tangy, sprightly, a delightful minuet on the tongue. But goat milk is employed in many other kinds of cheeses. Bûcheron, for example, is a semi-aged cheese, with an edible white bloomy rind covering a firmer ivory layer which in turn encases a softer white, lemony cheese that is spreadable. There are even firm aged goat cheeses.

Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery

On a pitch-perfect summer morning, with clichéd cloud-free sky and low humidities, I navigated the detours on N Lincoln Ave to make my way to Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. I arrived at the farm, only to find a “Closed” sign. Well, this was not good. After all, I’d not only messaged them on Facebook to make sure they’d be open, I actually spent the previous night in Champaign to be able to visit them the next day. Undeterred, I drove in and parked my car. The creamery door was closed, but not locked, so I just walked in. And it was devoid of people. I snooped around a bit and finally saw a young woman with an infectious smile on the other side of the glass, working with cheese. She came over to help me. I explained that I was assured they’d be open. The young woman, Lynn (see photo below), was one of the cheesemakers and she, in turn, assured ME that they were certainly open. That they’d sell me some cheese and that I could wander around the farm. Fridays, she said, were less formal. So, we commenced with the tasting (and in my case, the buying!)

Lynn

My Cheese Haul

I tasted a number of wonderful goat cheeses. And I BOUGHT a number of wonderful goat cheeses—Little Bloom on the Prairie (a bloomy rind cheese—think Camembert); Angel Food (another bloomy rind goat cheese—in small rounds); Moonglo, a firm, aged cheese which has a washed rind (a brine is used to bathe the cheese); goat feta (deliciously creamy and tangy); and fresh chévre (which I’ve been enjoying by the spoonful!). Prairie Fruits also makes a raw milk goat cheese call Huckleberry Blue, which is a seasonal product. I didn’t get any because it wasn’t the season!

CheeseHaul

And Now for Something Completely Different: Goat Gelato!

Yes, you read that right. Prairie Fruits makes goat GELATO. As in the frozen dessert. Okay, it was brunch time and I hadn’t eaten (mostly in anticipation of this!), so I was all set to eat some gelato. There were about ten flavors available and I choose individual servings of Espresso and Peaches and Cream. Both were delicious, but the Espresso was especially exquisite! I sat down on one of the farm’s picnic tables to have my late breakfast. I would encourage anyone to swap out their oatmeal or bagel for some goat gelato to start the day!

20150807_105732

Wandering the Grounds

Both Lynn (the cheesemaker) and her colleague Sarah suggested that I wander around the farm. They told me to go visit the barns and see the milking does and the young kids (actually, teenagers by now). So I did (and I am sharing a few photos with you). I got a chance to see the pen where the retired does were frolicking as well. The goats’ eyes were soft, yet animated.

Goat2_RS

A Chat with Wes Jarrell

Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery is owned by the husband-and-wife duo of Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperbrand, former academics (see, friends, there IS life after academe! Rich life, too!) While I was enjoying my gelato, Wes came over, sat down, and chatted with me for a bit. That’s how I found out he had been a professor (even a department head at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I believe). We talked about the farm, about people not understanding (or paying for) the true value of food (remember that a lot of what you eat is subsidized and benefits big corporations). He told me about the gelato (how they had someone go to Europe to study gelato-making); the gelato, I found out, was a pretty new product for them. We talked about agricultural sustainability and organic farming (and they are NOT necessarily synonymous!) Mr. Jarrell was very, very generous with his time. He also shared with me that Prairie Fruits supplies the restaurants of Rick Bayless, the noted chef with some stellar restaurants in Chicago. With this kind of background, I knew I’d be enjoying those cheese very much upon my return to Muncie; it took a fair amount of willpower not to pull the car off the interstate and dig into my purchases.

Will I Be Back? In a Word, YES!

I should have bought more cheese. I know I’ll run out soon. That makes this Flyover Tapan sad. BUT, I will be back, maybe with some friends of mine! People, if you are at all interested in local and regional products and you love food, you owe it to yourself to visit Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery.

Little Bloom on the Prairie
A runny Little Bloom on the Prairie
Share