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.