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

A Rare Non-Food Related Post: Prairie Lights and Independent Bookstores

I suppose that I can make a tenuous connection between the subject of today’s post and the theme of this blog, that connection being that Prairie Lights bookstore sells cookbooks and has a café on the second floor. It’s a thin, gossamer thread, I know, but I really want to write about both this bookstore in particular and independent bookstores in general.

PrairieLightsFront

Those who know me (and now, those who don’t) have heard me rail about the alleged demise of reading anything long-form, as well as the Amazonification of the American—and, increasingly, global—retail experience. Between a populace that can’t seem to read anything longer than a Facebook status update or a tweet, along with our “get it cheap, cheap, cheap, all other costs be damned” mentality, I fear that the future will be nothing more than a contemporary Bread and Circuses, in this case the bread and circuses being Chinese-made electronics at rock-bottom prices and following the Kardashian sisters. This is why I support independent bookstores, especially general purpose ones.

I live in East Central Indiana, a reasonably close drive from Indianapolis. Indiana has a dearth of such havens, even (especially?) in Indy (the CAPITAL, for chrissakes). Barnes and Nobles, plus some niche and/or used bookstores, yes, but where is the general bookstore, the one where a customer can wander in and serendipitously encounter a new author? I am well aware that one can do this at Barnes and Noble—given the paucity of other bookstores, I choose to visit them regularly—but it feels much more corporate and sterile. I yearn for a place that not only fills me with joy, but is also a part of the local community.

I lived in Iowa City for a year about a decade ago. While finishing up a Ph.D., I took a one-year contract faculty position at the University of Iowa. It got me out of Delaware. Once in Iowa City, I discovered Prairie Lights.

Where I taught my first class during my Iowa Year.
Where I taught my first class during my Iowa Year.

Prairie Lights is a welcoming haven, complete with a knowledgeable staff and an excellently varied selection of books. A café on the second floor (with Stumptown Coffee) serves one’s coffee/tea/pastry needs, as well as offering patrons beer and wine.

Latte

Regular readings by authors are part of what Prairie Lights presents. This place was one of my favorite haunts when I lived here. And I always make sure to visit it when I come back for a visit.

Be subversive. Read a book. And buy it from a local, independent place, if possible.

Share

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

Share

Saying “No” to Monsanto et al: Cedar Grove Cheese and rBGH-free Cheese

What is rBGH?

The term rBGH stands for recombinant bovine growth hormone, a piece of lab-produced genetic engineering that spurs lactating cows to increase their milk production, often with some nasty side effects. The “recombinant” comes from a particular DNA technology that permitted this hormone to be synthesized in the lab. Initial approval for this hormone was granted to Monsanto, although other companies (e.g. Eli Lilly) also produced this hormone.

The Controversy

One of the most controversial aspects of treating cows with rBGH concerns its linkage to increased episodes of mastitis, in which the udders become inflamed. This causes the cows not only serious pain, but it can also be fatal (though this is not typical). Additionally, while negative effects on humans have not been definitively proven, the potential for adverse health effects on humans has led many countries to ban rBGH, including Canada, Japan, Australia, Argentina, and the European Union countries.

Enter Cedar Grove Cheese

Truck

Located in the small town of Plain, Wisconsin, amid the hills and valleys of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, Cedar Grove Cheese has been producing rBGH-free cheese since 1993. In fact, Cedar Grove was the first cheese producer in the United States to insist on rBGH-free milk from the farmers it purchases its milk from. The farmers have pledged to meet this criterion and all Cedar Grove cheeses are rBGH-free.

Cedar Grove’s health and environmental passions are evident in ways beyond rBGH-free cheese. Their wastewater is treated by something called a “Living Machine”, which combines plants and microbes to cleanse the water so that it can be safely let into nearby Honey Creek. From the Cedar Grove Cheese website:

LivingMachine

The Living Machine

The Living Machine is designed to be a working ecosystem. It uses natural microbes and a collection of hydroponic plants. Washwater is biologically processed back into clean water that is discharged into Honey Creek.

The Cedar Grove Cheese washwater comes from cleaning milk trucks, tanks and cheese making equipment. This includes the pasteurizer, cheese vats and cream separator. This water contains soaps and chlorinated, acidic and caustic cleaners, and some cheese particles, milk and whey.

The washwater is collected and mixed in an underground 6,000-gallon equalization tank outside the factory. The Living Machine handles an average of 7,000 gallons of washwater per day.

It takes 3 to 4 days for water to travel through this system. Each tank extends four feet below gravel level, and holds approximately 2,600 gallons. Tanks are connected by 4 inch pipes a foot beneath the gravel. Water flows through the plant by gravity.

The water first flows through closed aerobic tanks, where bacteria and other tiny organisms begin to break down the residues and particles. The next tanks add wetland plants, whose roots trail in the water and provide a new ecosystem for more diverse microbial populations. The plants also use the nutrients in the water to grow. After this process, the solids are allowed to settle. Much of this residue is used to fertilize fields. The remaining clear water is run through filters several more times before flowing into nearby Honey Creek.

The Living Machine uses a natural process in washwater treatment. It is able to remove 99% of the biological oxygen demand, 98% of the suspended solids, 93% of total nitrogen and 57% of phosphorus.

The Cheeses

Tank1

Cedar Grove produces a variety of cheeses, with many of them being familiar varieties (e.g. Colby, Havarti, Monterey Jack). You can find these listed on their website. These are traditional cheeses, ones that most consumers would be aware of. I’ve sampled some of these when I visited and they are tasty. But Cedar Grove also produces artisan cheeses!

Ah, the artisanal varieties of Cedar Grove’s cheeses. Interestingly, not all are made from cows’ milk! Their Banquo, Fleance, Montague, Donatello, and Feta are sheep milk cheeses. They make both a goat milk cheddar AND Capriko, which is a cheddar-style cheese incorporating both goat and cow milks. But that’s not all! Cedar Grove even produces a water buffalo cheese, the water buffalo mozzarella!

I Curd It Through the Grapevine

Okay, prior to my visit to Wisconsin last summer, I’d never actually had cheese curds. Cheese curds are a product of cheddar-making (and cheddaring itself is a type of process used in making cheddar cheese). Remember the Little Miss Muffett nursery rhyme, where she’s “eating her curds and whey”? Curds form when a coagulant is added to the milk, which causes a separation of the whey and the solid curd. These particular curds are basically fresh cheddar cheese before it is removed and processed into blocks or slabs. Well, Cedar Grove sells a variety of curds (very fresh!—if you get them at a supermarket, they are likely fairly old). And they sell flavored varieties. I decided to make a lunch of cheese curds (hey, I was in Wisconsin), so I bought the Tomato and Basil variety. Let me tell you, these things are mighty addictive. I pulled over at a rest stop along I-90 in Minnesota to eat my curds (I’d bought a pound) and half of that bag disappeared entirely TOO quickly.

Anyway, this blog post serves as your introduction to Flyover Country’s Cedar Grove Cheese, as well as providing some insight into their role in providing consumers with rBGH-free cheeses. Go to their website or, even better, stop by for a visit!

Share