Ishnala, Lake Delton, Wisconsin

We would have never eaten at Ishnala if it were not for the temporary disaster at Mirror Lake yesterday. We were planning on a quick sandwich at a reasonable burger place in The Dells after our long day poking around. We’d gone to the old ruins of a cottage my parents used to own in Rock Springs, a 150 year old cottage swallowed up by the big flood of 2008. I planned to do no more than get out of the car and reminisce melancholy, but I soon find myself scaling the sandstone cliffs behind Guy, brandishing the camera and scanning the ground for poison ivy. And then a herd of deer comes rushing by. Exhilarating. Rushing from, we will discover later on our drive, the general direction of the Big Cat Sanctuary, where rescued lions and tigers roar from their cramped chain link cages. Incongruous in rural Wisconsin. For now, we remain on the bluff for a while, looking wistfully down at the footprint of the ghost cottage.

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We pick ticks from Guy in the car–luckily they prefer him– and head to Mirror Lake. Five bucks buys us  an hour to poke around, and we find the grounds to be lovely enough make us wistful for tent camping. We are having a wistful trip, and the truth is we want to buy hilly land and build a log cabin with a puncheon floor, but we get ahead of ourselves, and here we are at the campground. There is  a wooded amphitheatre, a calm beach resplendent with tadpoles,  twisting trails, gorgeous birds everywhere. The place is teeming with life; it could swallow us whole.  I must keep in mind, though, that school has not let out yet for children, and the wildlife may be forced to beat a quick getaway from the main areas of the state park when the human deluge begins in earnest. Mirror Lake State Park, is, no matter what, just lovely.

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We are raving about Mirror Lake in the car as we head out for our sandwich dinner, and are nearly to our sandwich shop when I notice that my wallet is nowhere to be found. Pull over. Tear the car apart. Shake out pants. Shake out jackets. Check the glove compartment 47 times. Did I leave it in the Ranger’s Station? Guy asks. NO! I know it was in my hands in the car. I KNOW…shit, you aren’t supposed to keep your social security card in your wallet, but mine’s in there, and ALL of our cash, and credit cards and my drivers license! Guy says he’s got a debit card so we can just cancel mine. NO, NO, remember, we took it all out in cash yesterday?!

Oh, shit.

I have eleven dollars in my back pocket. I slowly resign myself to going back to my parent’s new cabin, where we have been staying, to eat oatmeal for dinner and go to bed in a black depression. I’m certain someone will steal my identity and has already charged the credit card to the limit on Culver’s cheese curds and “gentlemen’s clubs.”

We head back to Mirror Lake State Park to report what must surely have been a theft, though we also reserve the hope that I’ve left the wallet in the ranger’s office. I’m speeding. Guy is telling me not to speed. I’m denying speeding. I slow down and accept my new life, identity stolen life. How bad can it be? How very bad can it be?  The sun will still rise.

Guy has jumped from the passenger seat and sprinted to the ranger’s window to ask when I realize the driver’s console has a second underneath part when I flip it open without thought and see, among the pens and old receipts, my darling wallet! I extricate Guy from his ranger conversation, and we readjust our reality. It hurts. Neither of us remembers burying the wallet in the console. Maybe the thief did! We screech to a halt again to check the insides, no everything’s there.

Strange thing with situation stress is that when the situation abates, the stress remains. It needs curing. How to cure it? I don’t know, but food is a way. I’d seen a sign for Ishnala Supper Club as we were speeding back to Mirror Lake just moments ago, and I had been seeing signs for the place since I was four. But I’d never gone. It is time.

The reason I’d never gone, I would soon find out, is because Ishnala is above my lifelong price bracket, but this we did not know as we follow the long and winding driveway to the place. Ishnala is set within the Mirror Lake State Park confines, and it’s about three miles from the main road to the restaurant, the entire curving way full of ferns, birch, oak, deer, ravines. It’s like an palate cleanser for the mind, pre-dining preparation.

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Outside the restaurant is exhibited a Winnebago canoe over a hundred years of age, which was found filled with stones and sunken in the lake near the restaurant. Frank Sinatra croons from outside speakers, and there are replica tee-pees on display. The lake reflects smoothly, and the combination of all of these things should feel like a horrible flea market, dirty types of cultural appropriation, but somehow it sidesteps that. Ishnala was established as a supper club in 1953, and maybe it’s the unawareness of the fifties that clings to it allowing the mashup to work.

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Inside, everything is wood and stone and windows, but not like one of those new log cabins for sale along the Dells strip, no this is like Bedrock, the town of Bedrock. Quite. A stuffed and snarling bobcat peers down on me while I wait for Guy to use the restroom. Just to the right of the cat is an old pump organ. Every table, and I mean every single one, has a view of the lake, and yet the view is horizontal; it’s like you are peering out from your cave. Gorgeous.

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The hostess informs us that we have ten minutes before our table is ready, so we make our way past the great oval bar, the likes of which you could easily imagine Fred and Wilma visiting on their anniversary. Fred dancing “The Twitch”.  We enjoy the outdoor seating and then make our way down to the lake’s edge. It’s simply beautiful with sandstone cliffs, reflective dark water, and darting swallows. No other restaurant exists within the park; this is unique, and that’s a good thing.

I don’t care if the food is horrible, I hiss, it’s worth it to sit and look at this lake. Guy agrees, and we head in for our seats. Upon receiving the menus, our concern becomes less the quality of the food and more whether we can afford to eat ANYTHING for dinner here. The young waitress is training another, younger, waitress, and the one in charge expertly describes the lovely specials, suggesting we try the dinner for two–rib eye steaks and lobster tails with grilled asparagus–for ninety-nine dollars. She also suggests a forty dollar bottle of wine. The menu is made up of 1950s steakhouse standards, good solid foods that Frank S. himself might have enjoyed. People are ordering cosmopolitans and Pink Squirrels, and not to be trendy, no this place has not changed since 1953. It’s a bit of a time-warp. And it’s got is original swank still.

Well, we have budgeted for sandwiches. We ask for two glasses of water and more time with the menus. We ARE going to be that pain in the ass couple, aren’t we? Should we just go? No. No, we should not. I didn’t spend all those years mindlessly watching Rachael Ray eat cheaply across the country for nothing!

When the servers reappear, I honestly blurt out that weren’t going to be having a meal but rather a few appetizers, that we hadn’t planned for a “fancy dinner” whatever that means. Strange things sometimes come out of my mouth. We select breaded duck strips with a handmade honey mustard sauce and bruschetta at ten dollars a piece. We figure we can enjoy these and then grab our sandwiches after all, later, as we will surely be hungry. When they retreat, we ravage the cheese and cracker tray; it’s free.

The bruschetta arrives lovely, and very generous. The sliced ciabatta is perfectly toasted. Truly, it’s the best brushetta I’ve had. The duck strips are not simply glorified chicken tenders but a very different and richer sort of thing. Subtle and really satisfying. We find ourselves quite full after our appetizer dinner, and our servers are attentive and kind. They are gracious despite our ordering neither wine nor entrees and despite what must have been the shocked looks on our faces when we opened out menus. We appreciate this non-snobbery.

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Deciding against later sandwiches, with a flourish, we ask to see the dessert options. There’s been a gorgeous and massive chocolate mousse seen floating to table after table, which probably spurred us both to seek dessert, but dairy is my enemy so I opt for the salted caramel crunch cake and guy selects the cheesecake with a chocolate crust and raspberry drizzle. We each have a cup of coffee, too.  Guy nearly goes for the Pink Squirrel, transfixed by the name, but pulls back at the last moment. My cake is the most delicious cake, the, and I can’t believe it, most transportive, ethereal piece of cake I’ve ever had, and believe me, I’m experienced with cake. Guy says his cheesecake tastes like sugar velvet. The coffee is good too.

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Be the time we leave, our servers, once a bit like skittish does, are hanging out at our table asking Guy about London and discussing lactose intolerance with me, a condition they also suffer from, and how much worse living in the Dairy State?  The main server says she takes a pill every day so that she can eat dairy because going cheese-less here is not possible. She scrawls the name of the pill she takes on the back of a cheque for me to take along.

They hope we come back next visit, and so do we. We tip them well, knowing the tab would generally have been higher, but with frugal folks like us, well, let’s just say we fully enjoyed Ishnala and did it for a pre-tip tab of 46.00. We were just as happy as if we’d popped for the big old steak and lobster, but really, happier. No buyer’s remorse.

When we leave, we have a hard time finding the road out in the dark, but a big fat raccoon leads the way, and we go home happy as high-priced lake clams.

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Heading to Big Muddy

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Well, we planned and took a weekend trip to the Mississippi river, finally. According to Mapquest, that’s a two hour and twenty minute trip, which, of course, is patently false. It took much longer, and we didn’t even get lost or encounter heavy traffic. Food was not the only thing we had on our minds, but it was one of the main things, so this entry, spanning two days time, may get long-ish.We made several stops.

First, let me say that this was to be an impromptu, spur-of-the-moment sort of thing. Just pack a cooler and hit the road, all free and wild. We were telling ourselves that we might even sleep in the car to save money, until we decided, the day before,  to fold down the seats and see if that is really possible. In a Hyundai Sonata, for anyone over twelve years of age, it’s not. I could tell by the grimace on Guy’s face as he lay with the bulge from the bent seats in his lower back and his feet in the trunk. So, the night before I was madly contacting B and B’s up and down the Mississippi River, none of whom had rooms available, all of which looked incredibly lovely. Oh, well, we could always find a motel somewhere.

We packed a cooler with some water and soda and a ham and veggie dinner as well as  sweet potato pie and apples from last week’s trip to a local orchard, feeling quite frugal. We also packed the guitar, some books, a change of clothes, toilet paper, a pocket knife with a horse emblazoned on it, and aspirin. The giant green metal thermos that my grandpa managed to remember to bring to work with him every day as a sheet metal worker, we filled with steaming coffee mixed with honey and forgot on the kitchen table. We got thirsty at about Oregon, Illinois, just as Guy was commenting on the strange marshmallow consistency of the “cloud” that is continuously spun from the Byron Nuclear Plant smokestack. Nuclear makes us nervous and thirsty, so I reached for the thermos that wasn’t there. I ground my teeth.  But out of the corner of my eye, passing it too quickly, I spied a big sign reading Jay’s Drive In, a sign boasting handmade root beer. In the time it took to talk Guy into a root beer and maybe some french fries I’d pulled a u-ey, and was headed back to Jay’s.

What the heck is a twinkle cone?

What the heck is a twinkle cone?

Jay’s Drive In is Americana trying for Americana. A full half of the drive in mics work; we parked in one that didn’t so we had to go inside. Photos of Elvis and James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, The Monkees, The Dave Clark Five– all cheap black and white photos sealed with a bit of fry grease haze hung everywhere. Guy barely glanced at them as he rushed to fawn over the big juke box in the center of the place. “How do you work this thing?” It isn’t that he doesn’t know how to work a juke box, but that this one was not taking money, nor would the knob turn the selections. Because I was feeling like a know-it-all, or like a person who should know, I started pushing buttons with inept confidence. Suddenly, the arm moved and a 45 flipped onto the turn table. The Cavaliers singing “Oh Where, Oh Where Can My Baby Be?” You know, that 1950s little ditty about a terrifying and fatal auto accident, just the thing for the first leg of a road trip.

We shuffled to the counter and ordered one large root beer and a large fry. The fries were good, with bits of skin at the ends and crusty golden. The root beer was simply the best root beer either of us have ever tasted: mellow, spicy, a hint of vanilla, and lightly carbonated. Honestly, the Jay’s root beer alone is worth the trip.

Eventually, Route 64 ended and the hills grew larger as we neared the Mississippi, which, if you grew up in the mid west you must spell out like an idiot in the car to that weird cadence: mi SS i SS i PP i. It’s a thing. We went over the bridge into Sebula, Iowa, the only island town on the Mississippi River. Here, I opened the cooler for a snack of ham, but word to the wise, two ice packs are not enough to keep the pig from going bad. The dinner was a goner.

After a drive through Mississippi Palisades State park and a promise to come back the next day to hike (which we would break), we motored to Galena. I’d never been to Galena before, and why the hell not?!  It’s gorgeous; an old lead mining town preserved beautifully in the bluffs and now given to artsy shops and restaurants. We wound up at the Market Place Restaurant, which felt like it had been a hotel in its past, or maybe, a bordello! But now it’s owned by very religious people; I know this because there is reference to God on the menus and on the walls and in the rest room.  I asked Guy to ask if it was a hotel its previous life–the layout seemed to indicate so. He gets away with so much more–the charming accent. The waitresses, sisters who were also owners, said they didn’t know what it was before. Had no idea.  Or CLAIMED they didn’t. The history on the menu also skipped over any information about what the building was before, fishy I thought, By the time our sandwiches arrived, I had Guy surmising along with me that the prostitutes used to hang their legs out of the french windows on the front of the room, windows we could see by the leftover hinges had once been doors. “So,” he exclaimed, “you’re pretty sure this was a brothel!” People stared at us, but we didn’t care; his chicken salad sandwich was good, and my veggie burger was handmade and lovely, though the portobello mushroom on top was a tough as the sole of a Galena prostitute’s lace up boot. The Market Place restaurant has hand made desserts, including bread pudding. We were too full and though the waitress urged us on, we declined. “You can’t come back tomorrow,” she warned, “We are closed Sundays because people should be in church.”

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We climbed the winding streets, the staircases to the top of the bluff, with our stomachs much too full. It’s a gorgeous place and full of mystery, I think. Then we left, as evening was coming, to find some kind of lodging in Dubuque. Dubuque, a large enough city to have many cheap hotels. The idea of sleeping in the car was now panicking me more than a little. Well, what we didn’t know was that Dubuque was having its annual Octoberfest. We didn’t know, but ten thousand Harley Davidson enthusiasts did, and they’d booked up every hotel room in the area. Our evening hours were spent driving from one nondescript roadside hotel/motel to the next, hoping. No. No. No. No. Almost, at a Motel Six, we almost got a room. But it was a smoking room that stunk to the heavens and had a barking Boston bulldog  in the cell next door. We declined and prepared (mentally) to sleep in the car. There’s no way to prepare physically. But then Day’s Inn saved us. Someone cancelled and we got the last nonsmoking room known to humanity in Dubuque in a gorgeous run down, 1980s style, cheesy, nearly kitschy roadside hovel. For ninety bucks. To celebrate, we left our room for a bit and drove aimlessly, seeking coffee and pie. We found ourselves in a Perkins on the main drag, eating caramel apple pie and drinking coffees. At a tall table, sat seven boy/men who played Dungeons and Dragons and looked like they’d been sitting there since 1992. Happily.  Guy informed me that he’d had a short lived D and D dalliance, his player name having been “the man with no name” back in school. We ate our  pie just as happily as our table neighbors until we found ourselves telling tragedy stories, each of us reciting the tale of a friend who’d been murdered; that’s what you do, I think, over pie and coffee at Perkins when the day is done. You finally bring out the troubles, the real troubles. Coffee and pie places, even chain ones on the interstate, are necessary in this way.

The next morning we slept in so late that we nearly missed checkout, despite the Harleys revving up and down the parking lot, right under the “Falling Rocks!” warning signs.  We also missed the free breakfast. Groggy, I took out my laptop to check for messages from the kids and to spy on my facebook page. In my email I found a message from a beautiful B and B, The Mandolin,  saying yes, they had room for us, and at 80 dollars for a gorgeous room with hand-hewn furniture. A mansion, I shit you not, a mansion! With turrets.  Oh, Dubuque, you slay me. “The Hell?!” I yelled from the bed, why didn’t I check my freaking email last night?” But I could barely hear myself over motorcycles and someone’s car alarm. I have loving husband, though, and he barely wanted to look at the lost B and B. He only laughed.

We poked around Dubuque for a while, lots of interesting but not contrived shops. We headed for the Fourth Street Elevator, which is a train sort of thing that pulls you up a sheer cliff face, and we found it, but it was out of order, with the repairman/ride controller up on a ladder trying to fix it. This did not engender confidence for a future trip.

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Dubuque is lousy with one way streets, so we drove in circles for quite some time before stumbling upon the Sunrise Cafe. Oh, Dubuque, in Dubuque, it’s 1973, and the Sunrise Cafe is at the center of the timewarp. We are seated quickly, and our waitress, though she looks nothing like her sounds exactly like Alice Cramden, exactly. It’s uncanny, and I can’t concentrate on the menu. The menu is yellow, and the writing is some kind of orangey-dark yellow, and the walls are yellow.  Guy orders eggs “easy over” and bacon and toast. Much of which is yellow, and I order roast turkey with dressing and mashed potatoes, which looks like…this:

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The booths are yellowish brown and the people, my god, I swear some of the men are wearing leisure suits. Children are ordering sherbet next to us, and it’s served in those little tin pedestal ice cream cups, which I have not seen since, well, before the bicentennial. I gaze in mild apprehension at my yellow food, covered, just sopped, in gravy. But I can’t send it back for being what it is, and I pick gingerly.  At first it’s only just edible, but then I get to the dressing under the turkey, and it’s godawful delicious, roasted in drippings, I believe. I devour it, trying not to look. We are also holding some kind of important discussion about performance and improvisation in life in general, not just eating yellow food. It’s surreal. This is the last meal of our trip, a trip well worth taking. I don’t want to go home yet, and I’m already planning on coming back to this farmy, slower place.

We stop twice on the way back home, once on the shore of the Mississippi, still in Iowa, to have a cold drink, which we buy in a diner at which a dirty faced two year old balances on his knees atop a spinning stool. We walk down to the river, and I take a little water to put on Guy’s head, to baptize him in the great river. I make the halfhearted sign of a cross and invoke native guidance, with hope if not right. There are metal swinging chairs along the river bank, and we sit there a while though the sun is setting and we should start driving. The little blond boy from the diner, we find, lives only three doors down from it, and when we return to the car, he’s crouched with a wrench near the tires of a pick up truck “wrenching” the lug nuts until his mother comes hollering at him onto the front porch. I hope he doesn’t get too curious about that river across the street.

We have to go home; there’s work and school the next day, so we sigh, as people do when they resign themselves to the end of a holiday, and we make only one more stop, for another root beer at Jay’s; it is on the way home, after all.

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The Freaking Cupcake Truck

Some foods are just too dangerous to keep around, and at the very top of my list is the cupcake. For some reason, I find their little round bodies and papery wraps add to the “mine, all mine!” delight, a vicious delight that nearly makes me squeal, oh, all right, they do make me squeal. For our wedding party I made about a gross of strawberry cupcakes with strawberry icing. Real strawberries in both. I made so many in the hopes that there would be leftover cakies, and there were, Mine, all-mine. I popped them in the freezer and doled them out to myself and my husband with tea and coffee until the bitter end. Then with a sizeable muffin-top to mimic the shape those cupcakes rising over my jeans, I vowed not to bake any more –not for a good, long time. 

Imagine my simultaneous delight and horror when, on a dull journey to Pet Smart in South Elgin, we spied this monstrous thing in the parking lot! What vile sorcery was this? 

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 It was full of cupcakes, and foist upon us, and pink! We stared for a few moments but resisted and marched into the pet store for special urinary-tract-safe catfood. Out of sight and out of mind. But then, the cat food was hard to find, and dogs barked most heinously in Pet Smart. Oh, poor me. The rats peered right into my eyes from their slick glass cages, begging to be brought home and loved until they grew giant tumors like sidecars, which is what rats are wont to do This leaves one paralyzed by the guilt–the guilt that “one” will not pay a vet $200.00 to put down a $6.99 animal even though it deserves it. And then one’s friend says it’s kinder to kill it by putting it in the freezer and one must consider that option, usually late at night, while not having the guts to actually do it—oh, post traumatic pet ownership. 

When we got to the checkout line, I couldn’t find my “special rewards” card and had to punch in my telephone number while a tiny dog in line behind me peed on the tile and, well, I was getting stressed out–and just in time to walk into the parking lot again. I said to the cashier, “have you seen the cupcake truck?” 

“Oh, yes,” she murmured, I have; they are really good.”

That woman was trying to use peer pressure to force me to eat a cupcake. I knew it.Did she think I was six years old ?  How dare she? 

How good? “

“Some people are eating them every weekend for lunch.”

Out we went, and straight to the pink truck. I stood at the window, it’s counter coming up to my chin so that I felt a lovely all of five years old and asked for the double chocolate fudge chocolate cuppy cake. I don’t think I even asked Guy what flavor he might like, though we were to split the cake. I also had an unannounced and unfulfilled plan to swing through a ubiquitous Starbucks somewhere for a hot coffee to go with it. I’m a Scorpio; I get secretive about cupcake plans. Though I’m generous with them, really I am. 

Damn! the greedy swine ahead of me had taken the last chocolate fudge. My face must have collapsed in disappointment because the cupcake purveyor, a harmless looking middle-aged Mrs. Cunningham sort, but more disheveled and with a sugar gleam in her eye, as if she’d been at her own wares all morning, offered up other suggestions.

 “Snickers fudge doodle, caramel sticky sweet?” she nearly sang.

Oreo glistening creamy overkill?”

“No, no, no,” I sighed. I don’t like processed sweets mixed into my real sweets. It feels weird. But I wasn’t going to walk away empty-mouthed. Not with all the justification I had: rats, cashiers, pink, barking dogs…

We settled on the wedding cake flavor–a yellow cake cupcake with good old vanilla butter-cream frosting. Slightly romantic–as romantic as it gets in the Pet Smart parking lot. And handmade. 

It was mercifully and miraculously sub par. A little dry. I wouldn’t become a regular, a hollow-eyed woman cruising the Pet Smart parking lot on long weekends, hoping for the shine of sun on pink metal.  Frosting, a bit grainy. Over sweet. We ate it anyway, right there in the car, listening to the Moth Radio Hour on NPR. We had to eat it; we’d paid for it–another minor psychosis of mine.  It wasn’t worth the $3.25–at home I could have made a dozen for that price, with cream cheese frosting, or melted marshmallows or German chocolate topping. But then again, that’s the point, isn’t it. Pay a few bucks for one, and you only eat one. Make a dozen, you eat a dozen– sometimes, still frozen when staring at them to make them thaw doesn’t work.  I spent a few minutes chewing cupcake and thinking this through, looking as if I was listening to The Moth. Too much thought given to the sinister sweet: cupcake. We were soon off to do the rest of our errands, mediocre cupcake in bellies, which we did not mention again after our initial critique: “meh.”

This week, we had to go to Pet Smart again for both dog and cat goods–special food is a special kind of cost resentment. I’m sure the dog would rather have cupcakes, but there’s the issue of her old hips, and of the cat’s previously blocked urethra causing us to buy food that pound for pound equals the cost of finest Russian caviar. We made our way through the store, resisting the rats in their cages, new rats this time. Actually, Guy has no problem resisting them; he prefers Guinea pigs. He goes for pretty; I go for smart, when it comes to rodents. 

We emerged, laden with bags and cans of animal food and about two cubic tons of special clumping cat litter that could drag a shoulder right out of the socket. We barely looked at the pink cupcake truck, not tempted at all. I tried to conjure up the mediocre taste of the mediocre yellow cupcake and rushed to the car. Truth be told, if I’d have stood gazing at the pinkness of it for a good five minutes, I’d have been back with my chin on the counter asking for a double chocolate, which was the best looking flavor on the signpost today. What happened to the fudge!?

Oh, no!

Oh, no!

 Beware, the pink cupcake truck. If you try it and the cupcakes are good, it could become a habit. If it becomes a habit, there could arise a fleet of cupcake trucks, cupcake trucks parked and panting in the autumn sun outside of the grocery, the hardware store, the dentist, the DMV, waiting patiently, because you know…it’s cupcakes. 

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The Feast of St. Rocco

121Okay, buckle up; this may be a long one, but hell, it’s got firecrackers, god,  filthy lucre, and food! Last year, I attended the Feast of St. Rocco di Simbario, and I wrote about it from my individual whoosh of wow. This year, though, it was a group endeavor. We were  all part of the procession that winds through the Chinatown and Bridgeport neighborhoods of Chicago together: Michael (tuba playing son), Yegong (International homestay student), Guy (husband and new to America), and me.

Michael has been playing with Caliendo’s Banda Napoletana for two summers, and this feast is one of many the band covers, so the rest of us met Michael downtown for the yearly swirl of the sacred and the profane. I was especially curious to see the Italian-esque, Catholic procession through  eyes of an Englishman and a Chinese student. 

Because we live in the Western suburbs, our trip to the procession began on the metra rail line, and on a train that was an hour late due to rail construction. Of course, I’d counseled everyone to forego breakfast so that we could enjoy all of the food in city, so it’s a miracle I wasn’t attacked by my companions while we waited for the train. We could see a Dunkin’ Donuts in the distance, clearly visible from the platform but on the other side of the river. Too far to risk it. Said I.

When we staggered from our cab at Wentworth and 23rd, dead in the heart of Chinatown, we were ravenous, and late morning mass was seeping from the church. After mass, the statue of St. Rocco would make his way down the four hour procession route, stopping regularly to collect cash donations while the band played in gratitude. Oh no! The mass was ending, and we could not possibly walk for hours on empty stomachs, not us, anyway. The people poured out into the street, followed by St. Rocco, high and glorious, his little dog attached to his leg, and we found Michael.

“Sorry, Michael, but we will catch up with you later; we gotta eat”

“Hope you can find the procession, when you’re done,” he sighed. And would you bring me some leftovers?”

Thus begins our adventure: we rush towards Wentworth, for Three Happiness or The Golden Phoenix, but apparently Sunday is Chinatown mob (and I don’t mean mafia) visitation day and there are clumps of the hungry waiting for seats in these well-known Chinatown restaurants. We end up at Seven Treasures.

Seven Treasures is Cantonese style cuisine, which, after living with Yegong for some time, I fully realize, he does not prefer. We do not have time to find a Northern style restaurant; we could hear the Italian band gearing up, so into Seven Treasures we go and begin frantically reading the seven page menu. Suddenly, our young charge takes charge, and orders us porridge with pork and preserved egg, Kung Bao chicken, fried lettuce, and a pot of green tea. The food is fast, hot, satisfying. It is not the elaborate dim sum I’d been hoping for nor the home-style northern fare Yegong (from Beijing ) had been craving when we still envisioned lots of time to eat, but it is beautifully prepared. The porridge is savory and sticky in a pleasant way; the kind of food that could make the ill recover, the sad go on for another day. I’d not had cooked lettuce since my grandmother’s wilted lettuce salads of 1972, and I’d forgotten how gorgeous the texture of properly cooked lettuce can be. In fact, within a day, I will be in my own kitchen making escarole with beans and tomato in what can only be an homage to the Chinese cooked lettuce at Seven Treasures. 

As we eat we worry  about how we will ever  locate the procession after, and we eat too fast, not sure that a twenty piece band accompanied by fireworks will be enough to help us find Michael and the parade. We are, I am now sure, a tribe of worriers.  Slugging down the dregs of our tea, we pay our bill, and lo and behold! The procession comes marching right in front of Seven Treasures. We beat it out the door, Guy with the camera raised, Yegong shoving his cell phone into his pocket, and me glad I’m wearing comfortable shoes. And down the streets of Chinatown we go. Noisy. 

The procession is made up of Italian Americans who would call themselves Italians, but let’s be honest, they are Italian Americans. Mainly the descendants of those who came in the major wave of immigration from Southern Italy around the turn of the century. Most of them likely came from the same village or villages very close to each other. You can see it in their faces. It’s like a crowd of cousins.  My Italian ancestors settled in the Taylor Street neighborhood of Chicago and in Melrose Park (a nearwest suburb). The ancestors of these St. Rocco Italian Americans settled in Bridgeport and what’s now become part of Chinatown. Some of the descendants still live there, but many people in the procession are making a pilgrimage back to the old neighborhood, having left the city for the suburbs long ago. On many levels, this is ancestor worship, and the Chinese immigrants who come to their doors, once we enter the residential streets, sit on their stoops watching the yearly procession. They understand ancestor worship.  The statue borne aloft stops at Italian American familial homes along the way, some of which have poster sized photos of the dearly departed in the windows. Two priests accompany the procession, and they bless the family and talk quietly with them for some moments. They are resplendent in black frocks covered in white lace. One wears an earring, glinting in the sun. 

 

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Whenever the procession pauses and a family offers a donation to the church,  the large man with a large voice, and no microphone, bellows the amount and the sentiment. It goes something like this:  “In memory of Lucky Luciano, two thousand dollars from the Luciano family!” or at least that’s what it feels like, due to the meta influence of mob films, but in reality, the bulk of these families are just regular Italian Americans remembering their lost ones and donating to their church– in a very public way. To get a song, it seems, a family must donate at least fifty dollars. Thus, after almost each donation, the band strikes up, and what it strikes up are not meta songs; Caliendo’s plays real Italian music for processions, music that’s been lost to the world to a great degree. Hand transcribed music, and that’s what makes them perhaps the last real Italian processional band in the country. But that’s another story. Or a book. 

The procession goes on, and everyone murmurs that “Thank god, the weather is cool because last year it was at least a hundred and they are getting too old for that…” Families carry candle boxes, teenagers wearing white walk along, the band marches, babies, wide eyed, don’t even cry, not until they are brought up to touch the priest or the massive statue. At tail end of the procession, there is a big, red, street-car style bus, and the very old people ride along with the windows open, peering out, still a part of it.

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Guy takes photos, I look at everything, and Yegong marches with the band. He is the only Chinese marcher I see, marching past less recent Chinese immigrants, who mainly stand in their doorways. Last year, there was very little interaction between the Italians and the Chinese. Most of the Chinese people I saw looked askance or through curtains in windows, but this year is different: both groups are out on the street. There are some smiles. There are more fireworks, the red popping ones and masses of M-80s that set off car alarms up and down the streets.  A Chinese-American woman rushes out of her house with dollars in hand to put on the saint in memory of her husband. And at this point in writing, I become confused. Who is Chinese? Who is Chinese-American? Italian? Italian-American? The terms arise up, not interchangeably but interchanged. And it’s the same on the street. The Italian American announcer looks surprised only for a moment and then bends down so that she can give him instructions. He announces, the band strikes up, the woman grins, and the statues cape of money becomes larger.

211When the procession comes through Sun-Yet-Sen park, where Chinese men are bent intently over their game boards, it’s smooth and expected, floating, and there are nods of recognition. Why? I wonder, what’s happened here? It’s good, and it’s where we should be going, all of us, we children of immigrants. I want to find the key that has made this change so that we can apply it and re-apply it, but it’s elusive. Particularly at this time, this time of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.  

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Maybe it’s two (or more) cultures recognizing they have things in common, maybe getting used to each other, maybe appreciating that ancestor worship, fireworks, noodles,growing lots of vegetables in the front yard,  well, that’s a lot, humanity. Or maybe it’s just the cool weather that’s made the difference. Whatever it is, it’s between the people, the people right there on the streets, not the politicians, not the institutions, not the media. By “or more” I mean to say how many of the people in Chinatown are not Chinese at all but Laotian or Cambodian or Vietnamese? How do we assume? How do we not? Why should we care? How can we not?

We march on. At one home there is a sweet table. It’s ten feet long and covered with cuccidati, blueberry cake, zucchini and chocolate cake, lemon knot cookies. I ask the cuccidati-lady about her recipe, and she withholds, but I do get it out of her that she too no longer uses lard or shortening but butter. We are changing the recipes, and yet delicious. I see Guy is eating up a cuccidati. I make these fig cookies every year at Christmas, and they are the most labor intensive baking experience one can know. He seems to be enjoying that cuccidati overmuch. Does he like it better than mine? In spite of myself, I rankle. And this food insanity jealousy is…cultural. A birthright. A curse. 

At the sweet table, you take as much as you like, and though we are foolishly full of Seven Treasures, we eat cake. Too much. At another home, they give wine to the procession. Another: meatball sandwiches and cans of Coke. I want to hold Guy’s hand, but he’s snapping away with the camera–great shots of life. He’s like the wind; here and then there, full of energy.

We march over the highway and under the underpass, past Rico Benne’s. We march down a four lane highway–half of it blocked off by police. For us. Only in Chicago, I think, but that may not be true. Or it may. We look into the windows of Sunday drivers, stopped, no choice but to watch us. They appear much less happy than we are. 

The procession stops for cash donations, for food, and at the Croatian church, St. Jerome’s, where Rocco goes in to visit with Jerome for a while, and priests bless all around. We stay outside and admire the way most front gardens are trellised with all sorts of melons and morrows. I recall the horror of friends when I announced early this spring that I planned to plant vegetables among the roses on the side of our house. Their horror will not stop me next spring. We also admire the colorful clothes on the lines, waving in simple cleanliness, and the recycled, white, plastic soy sauce buckets used as planters. The sensibilities of immigrant cultures before they are lost to American ideas of aesthetic and consumerism. 

086At five in the afternoon, the marching is done, and into the basement of St. Therese’s we all go.The band eats first–this is strictly enforced. Don’t ask how I know. It’s Chicken Vesuvio, Italian Beef, mosticolli, bread, salads, Vesuvio potatoes, and more desserts: cheesecake, eclairs, cannoli. I feel that I MUST try it–research purposes, you know. Guy and Yegong say they are already full, no thanks. So I stand in line, and am taken into a group of new-ish Italian Immigrants–first generation– discussing the recent demise of a good friend who dropped dead while on vacation in Italy.

“He walked in the door and dropped dead; his heart.” 

He was in the cinque terre and 70 years old. The cinque terre, for god’s sake.I want to say, “hey, that’s a pretty fine way to go,” but I keep my mouth shut because I know to. We all know you have to go sometime, but we all also know, we are never to be glad of it.  Also, they had pulled me in and seamlessly helped me to cut in line, coerced me almost.

I come back with my plate of food, and suddenly, Guy and Yegong, those naysayers, those two who had looked at me with a bit of holier-than-thou-you-must-be-a-piggy expressions, are in the line waiting for food. Proving that deadly truth: food is still tempting and delicious even when you are not hungry anymore. We eat, and it’s good. The selection is the basic Chicago Italian American favorites. We are, some may not know, the only real home of “Italian beef as well as giardinera” These are foods most Italy Italians would not recognize, but I hazard to guess they would enjoy them. 

Chicago, I think, is a home town city; not just my home town, but full of home. It’s that Midwestern thing. Sure, it’s been called the most segregated city in the nation, with truth, and yet, sometimes you are totally taken in, This time, it was not just me, the Italian American and my Italian American son, which could be expected, but my English husband and my Chinese visitor. And the people on the street. Taken into a culturally and ethnically specific religious festival.

Of course, it’s not all about food, but then again, sometimes it is. What is more basic than feeding people? than eating someone’s offerings? than finding commonality in noodles or sweets? What is more intimate than taking the food of another into your own body, experiencing it, tasting it? 

And so, we pondered some of this as we all waddled out of the church basement, full of the day, and then we crammed into Michael’s car with the tuba for a hair-raising ride home. I did not teach that boy to drive like that
 

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Arcedium in St. Charles, Illinois

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Before Guy came to America, I spent many mornings in Arcedium with my close friend Jackie, both of us hyped up on good coffee and talking at warp speed about our loves, our kids, our jobs, our bodily disappointments, the inane horrors of creeping middle age, our mothers, our fathers, our brothers… Arcedium is the halfway point between our homes, and we used it as that–useful. We snaked our way, Saturday or Sunday mornings, between the men reading their papers, the other ladies gabbing, the hipsters hipstering, the  great-grandmother in leather pants, the spray-on tanning booth, inflated breast and lip St. Charles crowd in angora sweaters, hardly noticing anyone. But when you bring a new person, never mind the love of your life, to an old haunt, you see it with new eyes.

Twenty minutes after we were married ( a beautiful, private, very private (just the two of us) ceremony at the Kane County Courthouse) we were at the Arcedium for lattes. Guy in a vest and trousers, very handsome. Me in a navy blue “French day dress”–that’s what the mail order catalog calls it, anyway, and that title was more than half the reason I bought it.  We were overdressed. We were also beaming, and held our generous white mugs of latte close. We sipped and smiled at each other, and then we floated out and walked along the Fox River, which runs close to the coffee house and alighted at the Beith House Museum next door, where the curator showed us around and took photos of us. 

Over the months, we have gone into Arcedium more than several and less than many times. Iced coffees, hot coffees, sweet snacks, and once, a spinach salad with hot bacon dressing and hard boiled eggs. The place is always clean and buzzing; there’s always a pointy faced girl in glasses at the bar (not the same girl, though) who sighs if someone sits near her and talks; she’s doing very important work, don’t you know? There’s always a business-man-type sprawled over the leather sofa in the back with his papers strewn, taking up the love seat as well. In the center of the main room is a giant coffee processing, roasting, sort of machine. It’s fascinating, shiny, massive, and I have no idea if it actually works, but, well…ambiance, you know. The place is pricey, but aren’t all coffee houses? If you want cheap coffee, often really good, cheap coffee with free refills, you need a diner. But if you want a wireless connection, a load of foam, demerera sugar, and little shakers of nutmeg, cocoa, and cinnamon, you justify the four dollar coffees, I suppose. It’s still a nine dollar outing for two, tops, if you can resist the sweets. And you can. They aren’t that good. What we have taken to doing instead is stopping at The Breadsmith on Rt. 31 first for a lovely cherry almond scone or a zucchini muffin and smuggling those into Arcedium. Erm.  

Recently when we were in one morning, we spied a flyer taped to the door–no real feat there–advertising an open mic for that evening (third Saturday of every month). We decided we would prepare something during the day, maybe a poem for me and a guitar song for Guy, and come back. We took naps instead and arrived at the Arcedium at seven only to watch and listen. There were three people with guitars for the open mic–all from the same family. A teenage girl, her teenage brother, and their grey-haired father. Mom was seated at a table, reading a book and clapping intermittently. The girl sang and played guitar, but her mic didn’t work for the first half of her performance, and when finally it did, everyone wanted it to stop again. Her other little brother sans guitar, sang along, quavering. It was that fearful, first time singing that should be done alone, maybe not even in front of a mirror. Brave, though. They struggled on, and we ate our spinach salad (which we split) and sipped our coffees. It certainly wasn’t The Green Mill or really a very good open mic event at all. My coffee-drinking cynic ran rampant around the rim of my cup.

But then, the father joined his kids near the now-working mic, and he could play well. Suddenly, the little brother found his voice, and the music pulled in more tightly, and then people started smiling, looked up from their Americanos and Cappuccinos, and Iced Chai Lattes with Almond Milk, Pleases. It wasn’t a great performance; it was a song that the father probably sings around the house every day, every night, until the family really can’t stand it anymore, but, here, in the corner of the Arcedium, it calmed them down so that they could make music.Old Crow Medicine Show, stuff, it was.  And my frozen heart melted; Guy was already smiling–most days, he’s quicker to nice than I am. At that moment, I felt better about the place, in general, about the early morning fake boobie desperation women, about the stressed businessmen, about the hipsters and wannabe hipsters, about the whole lot of us that drift down the Fox for good coffee at a place that by default becomes all things to all people. 

Two days ago, we went to the Arcedium for coffees, me; Guy; the kids,  Michael, Matthew; Matt’s girlfriend, Nicole; and our international student from China, Yegong. We were there for a final toast to Michael before he left to drive his decrepit 92 Toyota to New York to see his lady love and then to Cali for his last (thank god) year of university. He’s in New York now, as I write this. He will be furious that I called his car decrepit, again, but… We took up two tall coffee drinking tables, the group of us, all ages, all sizes, coming from three different countries, and true to form, once again, the Arcedium was, in its crazy way, all things to all people and a good cuppa. Safe travels, Michael. 

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El Faro in Elgin, Illinois

There is a rivalry between El Paraiso and El Faro,both rather authentic Mexican Restaurants having placed themselves in a perpetual show down, staring, one at the other,  across the dusty stretch of  McLean Blvd–a rivalry that deserves a score by Morricone. Students in my classes have nearly come to blows fueled by their loyalties to one or the other.  El Paraiso is larger and open 24 hours, and, most dangerous of all, has a drive- through. This means a person could, conceivably and pretty anonymously, acquire a great slab of tres leches cake or a caramel topped flan or a burrito the size of a donkey’s head at three a.m. And that would be deadly.  And ill-advised.  El Faro is a smaller, friendlier place; the TVs are tuned to sports or news instead of novelas that the staff of El Paraiso blares. There are more smiles in El Faro; I’m not sure why. I think the staff of El Paraiso may be overworked with that drive-through yakking at them constantly.

My friend Alisa preferred El Paraiso. She always ordered the Taco Salad, the thing furthest from Mexican food available, because she was “really not that into alternative foods.”   But she knew my fondness for ethnic foods and found her love of the taco salad. Also she always had a big, big iced tea.   We took turns paying for lunch and talked and talked at El Paraiso. We gabbed and kvetched and sighed and laughed. We each knew the other, knew things about the other that I doubt anyone else knew. And surely we each had other friends who knew things about us that we didn’t share with each other. That’s how friendships are, I suppose–diamond portions of knowing. We ate El Paraiso’s fare through our divorces, mine long before hers. We ate there through our trials with teenagers and her mother’s illness and death, through romance and heartbreak and furies. Sometimes we talked about the shooting at NIU because its good to talk about tragedies you share as well as happinesses. Usually, by the time we were asking for extra guacamole, she was nagging me about not letting people run me over, and by the time we asked for a to-go box, I was nagging her to lock herself away and finish that dissertation. She said “yeah, yeah, yeah,” but we both knew that the life of an adjunct leaves little time for much more than hustling from school to school, teaching and grading and driving. I said, “yeah, yeah, yeah,” too.

Guy and I have been out for Mexican at least three times already but always to El Faro. Sometimes with Matthew and Michael (the boys), sometimes alone. What’s consistent so far is that we always order horchatas and split our meal. I like El Faro because they don’t look at you like you are breaking the law for sharing. Guilt free frugality: rare.

Yesterday, we went after school; Guy had just taken his English placement test, and conscientious as he is, wrote a full-fledged essay–I’d guess of publishable quality–taking hours and hours. I had spent the day between my office, getting ready for the semester and running down to peek at him through the testing center window. He never saw me. He also never got up to use the restroom or eat or drink.

Arriving at El Faro, we were famished, so we split tres tacos–one carne asada, one pastor, one pollo, and rice and beans. We also scarfed down the complimentary fresh chips and pico de gallo and a plate of chips/fries ordered by, Guy. The food was, as usual, heartily good. El Faro has some of the best re-fried beans I’ve ever had, and my guess is that this is because they contain a  dollop or two of good old lard. But I don’t want to know. El Faro is not fancy; in fact it’s a bit run-down: sometimes the door doesn’t work and bangs closed so hard that it rattles the entire building, the table tops are worn, some of the floor tiles have chipped. But it’s never dirty. So, yes, I’m recommending El Faro on MacLean Blvd in Elgin, but not as a chic dining spot. I’d not recommend El Paraiso for that either. These are places at which you eat with people you love and trust not to care if you grab a chip from their plate or spill pico down the front of your shirt.

Yesterday, I looked out the window of El Faro at the windows of El Paraiso; It’s harder to see than I would have imagined– construction rampant along McLean.  I miss those days, though, those El Paraiso days. Alisa was so excited about Guy coming. She always urged me to move to London or to kidnap him here; she said I’d better because he was “fricking great” and because he “loves you, really-really.” Of course, I agreed. I knew we three would all have a good meal together at El Paraiso, her with her almost-Mexican taco salad, me beaming with happiness, Guy trying his first horchata in his new country, but it will not be. I feel like I should say “alas” here, but Alisa would not like that.  She died suddenly just weeks before Guy and I began our immigration paperwork. One day we were texting each other on Facebook, the next she was in a coma, the next she was gone. That hard life of the adjunct, in my opinion, is at least partly to blame. But that, is a story for another day. Last week, I was going over the department seniority list, and I had to remove her name.I did it on my copy, and drew a big sad face next to it. When I look at El Paraiso, I know that I can’t go in there without my friend, but I can look across at our favorite lunch place and think, “thank you for being my friend, thank you, and I hope you can see how happy I am and still how much I miss you.”

During my Dissertation

During my Dissertation

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Stockholm’s in Geneva, Illinois

After a doctor’s appointment of the squashing and mashing sort, during which no abnormalities other than normal abnormalities were found, I thought it would be nice to stop at Stockholm’s for a filet mignon sandwich, fries (which I called chips on the way in, trying to help but instead temporarily halting Guy’s verbal movement from chips to crisps to fries…) and some in-house brewed root beer.

Stockholm’s is a straight-up pub carrying Geneva’s Swedish history in its wood plank floors, simple decor, and heavy framed antique local photos. It’s comfortable and there’s always a line of regulars at the bar enjoying the unique, handcrafted, in-house micro-brews. Not deviating from our original plan, despite lots of interesting choices on the menu, we ordered two root beers and a filet mignon sandwich.  The root beer, served in a chilled glass, was gorgeous, smooth, rich, and with a hint of vanilla. No ice. The filet mignon sandwich is a 6 oz tenderloin, carefully and subtly seasoned and topped with sauteed onions and mushrooms. It’s served with a Burgundy wine sauce, good crisp fries, and a cold pickle–not a floppy thing, but a real damned good pickle. Delicious, but a bit pricey at $15.49; we shared, and it was enough for a lunch.

This is a simple sandwich; good meat on good ciabatta, with a little onion and mushroom. We ordered it medium, but it came medium rare at most, which delighted Guy. Well, it delighted us both because though it’s safer to eat medium, we like it bleedy, and because we technically ordered medium, it was in no way our fault that we were devouring rare meat, meat that could have been…risky. But Guy was especially delighted as he’d been trying to get a rare piece of meat in London for some time, but the people there seem to be too kind and concerned to let you go rare, even if you insist. All of his medium rares were without even the faintest blush of pink. Last week, a hamburger at the Assembly in Hoffman Estates proved equally rare. Thus we have come to the conclusion that in America, you have the freedom to hurt yourself with rare meat–and so many other things. It was delicious.

All of Geneva is a bit pricey, so Stockholm’s is not excessively so, and having peeked into the window of All Chocolate Kitchen on our walk over, we felt it quite affordable by comparison. The menu is not enormous, and I like that. There are just enough interesting choices to make it good pub food, maybe a step above the expected. And that root beer…it’s worth the trip just for the root beer.

 

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