Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Nebraska-- Part Deux

Each year, my family goes back to Nebraska. This year we went at Memorial Day. In addition to eating great food and visiting relatives, we went to the small cemetery in Table Rock where my ancestors are buried. My father and grandmother are buried there, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, aunts and uncles all the way back to 1880. We planted begonias at my father’s grave, and geraniums at my grandparents’ tombstone. There are tall pine trees in the graveyard, and it’s shady and cool, even on hot days. It’s peaceful. I am comforted visiting the graves of my people. I will be buried next to my parents: about two years ago I bought a small granite marker with my name and birth date. At this point, more of my immediate family members are dead than alive, and I want to be with them when I am gone. I understand that strange “vampire” longing to lie in my native soil. The earth of Nebraska is my flesh, the trees are my bones, the cool creek is the blood that rushes through my veins.

Life and death are difficult topics. It’s hard to talk about deep things, and the longing I have for Nebraska is complicated. It’s a place of happy memories, and it’s tied to my family, my childhood, and the land itself. Years ago I heard a Nebraska artist say that Nebraska is pretty, not beautiful. It’s understated. I think I know what he meant. The landscape isn’t the drama of the Rockies. It’s the soothing calmness of green rolling hills, trees, and creeks. They say the Platte River is a mile wide but just a foot deep.

Some of my happiest memories are visiting my grandparents’ farm. It is small: by the time I was born they were no longer to make a living from it. My grandfather was older, and it would have taken a large capital investment of expensive new farming equipment to make the small acreage profitable. In the 1960’s, many small family farms were abandoned, and agribusiness was born. The farm house was left standing for about 10 years after my grandparents moved to town. It was vandalized, and my grandmother’s collection of pink Depression glass, which she didn’t have room for in town, was all broken. Reluctantly they tore the house down. The old place was said to be haunted. As a child, it both thrilled and terrified me. There were old bookcases filled with old books, a few bedstands, and lots of small, worn out toys from all the children who had played there over the years. I would walk through the mostly empty rooms of the old place, and bring an old book or toy back to town when the visit was over.

In summer, my grandparents, along with my grandmother’s parents, would take picnics down to the creek near the farm. I was lucky enough to have my great-grandmother alive till I was 30; my great-grandfather passed when I was 8. My grandmother baked homemade bread, and packed sandwiches of summer sausage, the bread slathered with butter. They were delicious. I can still picture those picnics in my mind. We would ride together down the dirt road to the empty farm house, and park the car next to the creek. Then my grandmother or her mother would spread out a large blanket, and we would enjoy the feast she brought. What happy times, what blessed memories.

When we go to the farm now, I become melancholy. I think of those old times. I have regrets, and wish I had been more attentive to my older relatives. The only consolation I have is the thought that “without remorse there is no virtue.” That line, from a poem by Elena Rivera, consoles me with the thought that because I have regret, maybe at least I have become a slightly better person than I was then. Small comfort such selfish thoughts are.

This year the farm has been planted with wheat. For the last several years it has had acres of corn, but apparently that is less profitable. The nation’s food policy is a mess: crop subsidies favor large agribusiness. A few companies like Monsanto set the country’s policy, and are largely responsible for our obesity and poor health. The food that is the cheapest is the least nourishing and our consumption of corn and wheat is responsible for both our girth and diabetes. The farmer that plants the crops for my mother is a kind, good-hearted man. Most all the people in Nebraska are good and decent. They will gladly give directions if you are lost, are eager to engage in friendly small talk, and will always be helpful and generous. Yet the minute the conversation turns to politics, these good folks will spout nasty right wing talking point. Don’t even bother to ask what they think of President Obama. It wouldn’t be fit to print. Yet these same farmers see the mess created by Republican economic policies. But the smirking monkey George Bush did no wrong, and the Dems can do no right, even when they do the right thing. It’s hard to reconcile the kindness of these good farm folks with the ugly politics they spout.

Tom Frank’s book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas” offers an explanation of how and why good, decent people will eagerly vote for a corrupt party whose economic policies hurt them. Republicans have successfully used social issues like gays, guns and abortion as hot button topics that get otherwise sensible people to vote against their own pocketbooks. You see the same thing even in mainline churches. Conservatives use the issue of gays to divide and change religion. In my grandmother’s small American Baptist church, a new pastor came to town and tore her church in half over the issue of gays. Now, how many gay people actually live in Tecumseh, Nebraska, and just how exactly do gays pose a cataclysmic threat to the rest of the town? Please, please explain it. My grandmother stopped going to church, and never went back. She knew the brouhaha was ridiculous, a tool used to create a diversion from more pressing social issues.

After visiting the cemetery and the farm, I went with my mother to her ?th year high school reunion (she wouldn’t be happy if I told what decade it was). There were 24 in her high school class. The school was so small they hold all the reunions together. The oldest alumnus was from Table Rock High School Class of 1936. The event was held at the Table Rock Hotel, where the downstairs once housed the movie theatre. Unlike most banquets where you choose between leathery steak and tough chicken breast, the meal featured both meats, and both were delicious. There was an actual salad, not just a wedge of iceberg lettuce. There was fresh fruit. The cost was $11. The caterer was the same person who cooks the lunch at the senior center, where those well-fed oldsters can eat for $3. The conversation was fine as long as we stayed away from politics. One old geezer felt compelled to say how much he supported Arizona’s discriminatory SB1070. He had nothing to worry about, this old white guy driving a Buick.

There was an “illegal” immigrant scandal recently in the Nebraska state prison. It turns out they had been hiring undocumented Eastern Europeans as guards, and one was a drug-dealing kingpin. These immigrants, however, where white, so I guess that made it OK. People in rural Nebraska tend to look alike: big, tall, stocky, white, elderly. Nebraska is one place I can go to and feel young. I also feel elfin, as most folks tower over me and outweigh me by a hundred pounds. They are mostly blond, and it’s creepy being surrounded by giant Aryans. I have to confess that those Gerber blonde hair blue- eyed babies chill me to the bone. Yikes.

Mostly, Nebraska fills me with a sense of loss. I miss my loved ones who have passed on. My great-great grandparents moved to the state in 1871 to build a Utopian paradise. My great-grandfather was an officer in Nebraska’s Socialist party in the 1930. Those days are long gone, ended with the hysteria of the McCarthy years. Looking across the gentle, rolling hills, I feel a deeper loss. The state was founded on a forgotten crime. The land never belonged to the Europeans. It was stolen from the Indians. Abraham Lincoln, the sainted man, enacted the Homestead Act shortly before his assassination. It was believed that the native peoples didn’t deserve their land because they hadn’t developed it. Sure, they had lived there since time immemorial, but they hadn’t made any capital improvements. Where were their houses, factories, farms? And now the peaceful Ponca, the hunting Pawnee, the colorful Lakota are gone, all gone.

The prairie grass is mostly gone. When the native grasses were gone, the buffalo disappeared. The first nations were rounded up and exiled to Oklahoma and the Dakotas. Now the land is dotted with farms. You can see where the small farms are: they are surrounded by trees. There are few native trees in Nebraska, tree were brought in by the legendary Johnny Appleseed and other Europeans. The majority of the old farm houses are in disrepair, and the land is dotted with crumbling houses and barns. Small family farmers have left, replaced by factory farming and agribusiness. Sadly, too many have gone along with these changes, and even voted for the politicians that displaced this way of life.

In the last hundred years, two ways of life have left the prairie. The Indian nations were displaced by small family farms. Small family farms have been replaced by agribusiness. With a smile, we’ve voted for gangsters who have stolen the land yet again, diverting us from their crimes by telling us the real problem is gays and abortion. So we’re eating poisoned food, and spreading pesticides everywhere. But at least the gays and “illegal” immigrants have been put in their place, thank God. At this rate, all life will be gone from the prairies in the next hundred years.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Eating My Way through the Heartland

It’s easy to discount the Midwest. Flat, boring, rural… Every year, my family goes to Nebraska. My family has lived there for over a hundred years. Almost 50 of my family members are buried in a small, lovely cemetery near Table Rock. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I love Nebraska. Here’s a rundown of my annual trip there, which I call “eating my way through America’s heartland.” Let me point out that, sadly, I receive no compensation for plugging some outstanding restaurants. I think they owe me some free meals!

Omaha has a lot of great places to eat. The steakhouses are best known, but there is so much more. I have to confess I’ve never been to a steakhouse in Omaha. Growing up, we ate a lot of Nebraska beef. In Nebraska, cows outnumber people 4 to 1. Try the other restaurants. I recommend Big Mama’s first. It serves some of the best soul food I’ve eaten. Big Mama is the name of the cook (Big Mama is Southern for Grandma). Big Mama learned to cook from her grandmother, Miss Lillie. It is housed in a community center, and is hard to find, since you can’t see the street number of the community center. The fried chicken is famous. The batter on the chicken was really good, but mine wasn’t piping hot when it was put on the table. I asked for dark meat, but got white. The specials are excellent, though, and I recommend them. I had the oxtail soup. It was the best I’ve ever had. It’s a lot of work to make, and mine isn’t as good as Mama’s. Be sure to try the fried green tomatoes. You will thank me for recommending them. I love the atmosphere of Big Mama’s. Nebraska tends to be white, conservative, and the demographic changes the rest of the country has experienced haven’t reached Nebraska. Why is it that African Americans and Latinos are so much more welcoming than white people? If you want hospitality and friendliness, you will find them at Mama’s. It’s nice to be in a place where interracial couples and friends of all kinds can be together.

No stop in Omaha is complete without going to the Bohemian Café on 11th Street. (Czech out their website for the exact address and hours.) The atmosphere is relaxed and European. It’s been family owned and run for almost 50 years. The décor is charming, and the food is great. In any restaurant, you’re advised to try the special. We were there on Thursday, and the special was grilled chicken. It was tender and full of flavor. Every entree comes with side dishes that are a meal in themselves. The Czech kraut wasn’t as good as I remembered it--- it was a little sweet. The bread dumplings are unique. I’ve tried making them, but I have never been able to make them as well as the Bohemian Café. They also serve duck (delish!), and Czech goulash made with pig’s cheek. The chicken liver soup is excellent. Look, you’ll be stuffed, so don’t even try to eat it all. Take a box home. NO meal would be complete without a kolacy. I like the poppyseed best. Mmm. They can even package them to take back on the plane with you, and we usually do. A kolacy is a pastry made with yeast dough and filling, like a hamentoshen made with yeast dough.

Before I stop my happy tales of good food in Omaha, let me give two more recommendations. Goldberg’s Grill never disappoints. There are 2 locations, I like the downtown one. We started going there originally because we thought it might be a kosher deli, it isn’t. The atmosphere is lively; last time I was there the woman at the next table was talking about the 9/11 “conspiracy.” You don’t expect that kind of conversation in quiet Omaha! I always get the Montana Reuben, a Reuben made with turkey instead of beef. It comes with their home fries, but I am usually too full to eat them. For dessert, try the bread pudding. I’ve never paid $10 for a delicious meal at Goldberg’s. Once you go there, you’ll be hooked.

Runzas are a specialty of both Omaha and Lincoln. There are a lot of fast food runza places: if one is better than another, send me an e-mail. Runzas are a kind of beef sandwich casserole, like a Cornish pastie. Yummy!

There are a lot of restaurants in the old town area of Omaha. It’s pretty, all the buildings date from the 19th century, and are made of brick. The crowd there in the evenings is sometimes a little rough. I have no problem with bikers, but there was a biker group there last time I visited that made me uneasy. There are white supremacists in Nebraska, just like there are in California and Texas. Maybe the times I visited the old town the crowd wasn’t typical, but it’s not fun to be the only yellow-skinned gay gimp half-Jew at a Klan picnic.

Before leaving Omaha, visit the Joselyn Art museum. It’s a beautiful building, and they have a lot of art that features native Americans of the region. One 19th century collection of native Americans was donated by Enron. It’s nice to know they were using all that money they stole from California consumers went for a good cause…
Omaha can be paradoxical. It’s the birthplace of both Malcolm X and Gerald Ford. You have wonderful, welcoming Big Mama’s Café, and then you have racists and tons of Republicans. The people are kind and friendly, but I heard more Rush Limbaugh talking points spouted in Nebraska than I heard in the South. The metro area has almost 800,000 people, but it feels like a small town.

But back to food. I’ve spent most of my time in southeast Nebraska. After Omaha, we ate our way to Lincoln. The old town area of Lincoln, called the“Haymarket,” is small but nice. Again, it features lots of restaurants and shops. It’s brick, 19th century, and you can visit the train depot. Go to the state capitol. Its style is art deco. We had a young, enthusiastic tour guide, which made it even more enjoyable. Nebraska is unicameral, no state assembly, just senate. It’s a pay-go state, so the capitol took 10 years to complete. I can’t really comment on the restaurants in Lincoln; usually we eat wonderful home cooked meals with relatives.

There are excellent restaurants in small, southeast Nebraska towns that deserve mention. In Auburn, check out Arbor Manor. It’s housed in a Victorian mansion built in 1910, and there’s a hotel and bar adjacent to the old house. The fried chicken is served hot, and it’s delish, with a light batter. I also recommend the spaghetti. Most salad bars in Nebraska will give you iceberg lettuce, and Arbor Manor is no exception. The soup of the day, though, never disappoints. When we went, it was tomato and pasta. Very nice. When I was a child, my grandparents took my parents there for their anniversary, and it was too special for us children to go along. (My brother is horrified to think that the folks left us alone, but they did. We were 12 or so, why not?) Most any place in Auburn will serve homemade onion rings and deep fried mushrooms--- you can get those at the equivalent of any Dairy Queen. You won’t be disappointed, but you’d better be prepared to loosen your belt.

Some final notes on eating in Nebraska. If you find yourself traveling down Hiway 50, stop just north of Tecumseh at Frazer’s Café. It’s known and loved by all the locals, with good reason. Go with the daily special, but I don’t think you can get a bad meal there. I usually associate the South with fried food, but the Midwest shouldn’t be overlooked. The onion rings at Frazer’s are superb, as is the fish and chips. The food is served piping hot, and everything is homemade. The pies are fantastic. It was started by a couple of friends who do all the cooking, and has the feel of a family place. In Nebraska, most people are friendly, and will strike up a conversation. Frazer’s is no exception. People will be glad to recommend items on the menu, and tell you which meals are their favorite. Our waitress was a beautiful young woman from Tecumseh. She’s leaving, though; she joined the army so she can go to college. I wish her well--- safety and godspeed.

When you visit southeast Nebraska, be sure to visit the town squares of the county seats. Tecumseh is the county seat of Johnson County, and has a picturesque red brick Victorian courthouse. The streets are cobblestone. There is a nearby Walmart, so many of the shops along the square are closed. It’s a shame, and the pattern is repeated in every small town. Pawnee City, the county seat of Pawnee County, is also charming and has a great local café. My great-great grandfather was a k’nocker, and was some kind of county commissioner as well as the superintendent and meteorologist. He was also a surveyor, and laid out all the roads in Pawnee County. I’m proud to say that the roads are good and straight.

Lest it seem that all I care about is food, in Part Deux of Eating My Way Through The Heartland, I’ll offer some reflections on life and attitudes in the Midwest.