A Pastel Pumpkin Field and My Rib Shack

Illinois Pumpkin Fields Canned Pumpkins

So my wife and I went on a mini road trip a few weekends ago to visit an apple orchard two hours from home and then another 45 minutes to The Bar-B-Q Rib Shack in Galesburg, IL. On our way between the orchard and the rib shack we were surprised to pass two huge fields filled with what barely looked like pumpkins.

The pumpkins were so pastel I couldn’t believe it. I had to pull the car over and go in for a closer examination. How could someone mistakenly planted a huge field full of an unseemly variety of seed. My wife suggested they were for canning, which made more sense. But had we stopped our adventure right there, I’d have seen just about everything.

Pumpkins for Canning Illinois Fields

But we didn’t. We continued on to the rib place I’d talked up to my wife since we met but only fantasized taking her. Now the time had come, I imagined, where she might appreciate the unique charm of this place. When we first met, I was relatively certain, however, that she’d have found the neon sign, the mere idea of ribs, and the community seating a little more than off-putting.

To me, this rib shack is just about everything. The food is phenomenal. And the seating, unique. The small town picnic table seating, when packed, has you enjoy your meal side-by-side with complete strangers or soon-to-be new acquaintances.

The Rib Shack Neon BBQ Pig Sign

I was a little nervous. I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to everything I remembered and relived since I’d eaten there last. I was really hoping that their glory was real and not existent only in my head created by time and wishful thinking. The Rib Shack Galesburg IL Community Seating

Luckily, my fears were completely unfounded. It was everything I’d remembered and more. The lady who waited on us made us feel at home. The ribs were beautiful. Succulent, zesty, and not a bit greasy. I was proud as a peacock that my baby lit up and enjoyed herself thoroughly. She loved the slaw and she loved the ribs. I don’t think she would have appreciated The Rib Shack when we met but it made me feel good that she did now.

BBQ Ribs The Rib Shack Galesburg IL

B-Q Rib Shack on Urbanspoon


Louisiana Plate Lunch Mecca

So, growing up in the midwest, I’d been accustomed to school and work lunches consisting of not much more than a cold cut or a PB&J. On my own, I’d grown to like taking left overs from the previous night’s supper for lunch at work. It was, at least, a step above a cold cut.

Louisiana, however, had me one-upped. There, along with the south more generally, seem to be the last remaining hold-out of the sit-down hot lunch. In the south, food and rest often take precedent to work. To say things are laid back, would be an under statement.

My wife and I soon learned of the plate lunch phenomena. Leave work with your colleagues around lunchtime and come back an hour later. Or leave and come back with stacks of styrofoam to-go containers for yourself and everyone else. Though we forwent the ritual during the week to save money and heath by packing our own lunches, one weekend, outside of Beaux Bridge, we managed to enjoy the best plate lunch place I can imagine. Period. We spotted the above white sign, and knew we had to stop. We found Glenda’s Creole Kitchen definitely tops the who’s who of southern creole cooking.

So the hot lunch is alive and well in the south. It remains largely the last holdout in the nation practicing the tradition of the hot lunch.  The southern hot lunch phenomenon was recently chronicled in an episode of the NPR radio program The Splendid Table. Feel free to click on the above link for their take on it.

We pulled in five minutes after two. Coming up to the door a kind middle aged lady opened the door and greeted us as if she’d been expecting us and was glad to see us. “Are you Tony?” she said. After the initial confusion, we learned Tony’s loss was our gain. Where we otherwise would have been there after close, we were able to buy the phone-in order Tony hadn’t picked up.

Every day has a set menu. They make large batches of two or three dishes, sides, and desserts. The hours are from 10:30 am to 2 pm but when the food is gone, Glenda’s done. Amazing business model. Amazing food. We were there on a Sunday and Sunday means BBQ. I had the BBQ stuffed brisket, my wife the BBQ half chicken, and we both got another chicken for the road.

The dirty rice was so rich and tasty. The creole flavor’s so foreign to my tongue. It was reminiscent of the bahamian rice we’d had on vacation the year before. Whatever mashed animal parts and seasons make there way into that rice are heavenly. The cornbread stuffing was good, too.

The brisket and the chicken were delicious. The brisket and the rice went well together. Juicy, tender, and tasty. I’m now scheming how I can make it back every day of the week to get to enjoy the whole menu. Only problem is, it’s a thousand miles further.

Glenda's Creole Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Our Not-So-Camping Experience at Wyalusing State Park

So my best friend from high school and his wife live up in Minnesota and went to a woodsy far northern university for college. They are outdoorsy and do some pretty serious camping on their time off with their old college friends.

When we knew we were moving back from Louisiana, I gave him a call to suggest we plan a weekend this summer for my wife and I to go camping with them. They had a pretty tight schedule so it worked out that the weekend after we moved up here was the best time for them. So up to the Wyalusing State Park it was.

I was excited to see the Native American effigy mounds and the view from the top of the five hundred foot high palisades overlooking the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.

We all arrived at 11pm on a Friday. I soon learned that when I suggested we should go camping together, I hadn’t really meant camping per se. But camping we were.

My wife and I had a never-opened two person tent she bought in college while thinking to the day she would be backpacking alone in the mountains of Thailand. I had mentioned to my friend I was considering picking up an inflatable air mattress, but he made fun of me so I foolishly scrapped the idea.

There we were with our tiny tent, no mattress, no pillows–we had forgotten them–and a complete lack of ventilation that made it so hot we were practically naked on top of the sleeping bags trying to get to sleep. They, on the other hand, brought a 5+ person tent with plenty of ventilation, a double air mattress, and no intention of inviting us over.

Two of the most sweaty, miserable hours ensued. We shifted from position to painful position and vacillated through all levels of consciousness yet never reaching that most coveted of levels: sleep.

The weekend before we pulled an all-nighter driving 18 hours back to Illinois and I was not about to endure another all-nigher, knowing it would make it impossible for us to function the next two days.

This was precisely the moment I realized that when I had suggested we meet up to go camping, I had really envisioned staying in a hotel or couchsurfing. I couldn’t take it any longer. I told my wife it wasn’t worth it and asked if we could go to a hotel. She said she could make it through the night but said she thought she was going to be the first one to crack. I insisted, both because I was about to go insane and because I didn’t want the smoke building up in our tent from the surrounding campfires to upset her asthma.

We sent a quick text to their tent to inform them we were heading out to Prairie du Chien to find a hotel and would be back for breakfast.

Now although it felt like we were wussing out on our friends and had failed to impress them with our ruggedness, I suggested that while they live in the suburbs and occasionally go camping, perhaps we’d been the ones to live a little too rustically for the past three years. Their tent, I noted, was more bug proof than our shotgun house in Louisiana and I’m sure they’ve never had a bug in their house. I for one, felt we were okay.  Our friends, initially gave us a little flak, but understood and had a good time with us.

The weekend went on. We enjoyed hiking, the views, and the park’s observatory where we caught an impressive view of Saturn in the night sky. I learned that polaris will only be our north star for another 10,000 years or so. Not to worry, it will return as the north star in 35,000 years.

We ironically caught Prairie du Chien’s 2nd annual Cajun Fest and ended up making some great pizza sandwiches on the campfire with square sandwich pie irons. Take that marshmallow roasting sticks! So all in all, all’s well that end’s well.

Savory Nawlins Alligator Cheesecake and the Pursuit of Phò Tàu Bay

So the minutes are counting down. I’m scrambling to squeeze in a couple final hurrah’s in Louisiana before we head out the state Wednesday. I’m pleased to report I got in one item I thought there’d be no way for me to get: Alligator cheesecake.

Enter my beautiful, brilliant wife. She suggested we drive the hour and a half to Gretna for lunch the next day at Phò Tàu Bay. It’d be our last chance to pull it off and complete some unfinished business, as we’d tried unsuccessfully to eat there twice before.

I was stoked. Not only would I get a sexy date with my wife and the best Vietnamese food in Louisiana, but also I could–just maybe–pull off sneaking in the piece of savory cheesecake I’d previously thought impossible.

Though I’ve always loved cheesecake, now that I know there exists more than just dessert cheesecakes, I really love cheesecake. New Orleans is home to variations of shrimp, crawfish, and alligator cheesecakes. These savory cheesecakes are typically lighter than their dessert brethren, being made from Ricotta or Curd cheese rather than Philadelphia cream cheese.  I imagined experiencing a piece of such cakes would give me a good starting point for my own culinary foray into the realm of the savory cheesecake.

This whole endeavor was risky business. My wife doesn’t like seafood. I had a delicate mission. Get the cheesecake without ruining the date or her good favor. I accomplished the former but barely salvaged the latter.

We got down there and, against all odds, our Vietnamese restaurant proved out of our reach once again. It had closed an hour before for a private party. Though we were tempted to try to bribe a member of the party, we moved on to another Vietnamese restaurant in the area. The grilled pork spring-rolls were phenomenal but the chicken in the pho was suspect.

It was fun. The day had been beautiful. We enjoyed the time to talk and smile at each other on the drive. So we got back in the car as the sun was beginning to move lower in the sky, making everything more golden, especially my wife’s beautiful eyes and wavy hair. On our way through New Orleans, I called Jacaque-Imo’s to order a piece of the alligator cheesecake to-go.

We drove along the street cars, under the live oak covered streets, and past the unique old New Orleans architectural homes. Strike one, was piggybacking a quest for anything seafood onto our date. Strike two, was parking the car in a slightly no parking zone. Strike three, was stinking the car up of alligator cheesecake.

My only salvation was that the bartender generously gave me three cornbread muffins with my order. The muffin satisfied her where the pho and our original restaurant had failed. So my savory cheesecake was just that. The cheesecake had a nice light texture  with a rich smoked Gouda and light goat cheese flavor. The alligator added the slight seafoody taste I can’t help but seek in most every meal. It added chewy bites to the cake. Though imagine the alligator could have been more tender, I appreciated the slightly extra time it took to chew. Bits of Andouille added the expected creole flair as did the creamy remoulade-like sauce under the cake. Topped with a couple sprigs of baby mixed lettuce and grated parmesan, it did me right. I enjoyed every last little bite of it and even enjoyed the smell of car the next day.

I was relieved to have gotten my first piece of savory cheese cake, a pretty good cornbread muffin for the misses, and a golden drive back through the cypress trees in early summer. Here’s to inspiration, realized dreams, and a few of the finer things in life.

Louisiana Calls the Empanada Its Own

So in Natchitoches Louisiana they lay claim to the empanada. But they don’t call it an empanada. There, empanada means nothing. In Natchitoches, they are called meat pies.

A meat pie is a half moon filled pastry made with a tasty beef, pork, onion, celery and spice mix. If it has a crawfish étouffée-like filling, it’s technically called a crawfish pie. The meat pie differs from most empanadas in that it is deep fried rather than baked. Additionally, it also lacks the sugar or glazed coating of some South American empanadas.

Now, when it comes to Natchitoches meat pies, there is none other than Lasyone’s. They are made by hand, daily, and they are good. Though the crust is quite thin, a beautiful duality exists in that pastry shell. It somehow manages an outside crunch and a fragile, softer, calzone-like inner softness. Their crawfish filling is rich and tasty. There are a sufficient number of tails, they are good size, and their flavor comes though the sauce. And surprisingly, they’re not a bit spicy. Just delicious.

With my meat pie gone faster than I would have liked, I was tempted to double back for another but instead I enjoyed waking along Cane River Lake enjoying the old  French Quarter style buildings along Natchitoches’s historic Front St. It being Memorial Day Weekend, I was able to enjoy the avenue lined to one side with the swaying of bright American flags and to the other with beautiful, pure Magnolias in bloom. What luck.

Lasyone's Meat Pie Restaurant on Urbanspoon

A Drive Up Through Cane Country

So I got out of work this week absolutely exhausted. Ending things proved more difficult and stressful than I’d imagined it would be. Wednesday night we had a rainstorm and put down sheets of water and took the power out for the evening. I took nature’s heed and went to bed for the night. I needed it. Waking up the next morning, I felt my body had gained some ground toward being repaired.

Come yesterday morning, I was ready to hit the road. Last May, I drove the 15 hours to Dallas and back to pick up a fish tank off Craigslist and see some discus fish. This May, I felt I needed another drive for sanity. I thought I’d take a scenic route through the Louisiana cane fields of Pointe Coupee and go the back way up to my favorite little town of Natchitoches, pronounced NACK-a-dish.

Last weekend, my wife and I went up to visit my grandmother’s sisters who live in northern Louisiana, and while there, my great Aunt mentioned the pies and ham of Lecompte, Louisiana and asked if we’d ever had them. We hadn’t. She said what everyone seems to say: They’re good, but they’re expensive.

While I was on my drive though the cane, in a tiny bout of serendipity, I came upon the little town of Lecompte, pronounced luh-COUNT, and Lea’s Lunchroom. Skeptical it was the best place to get pie in the town, I drove around until I found an older couple sitting on their porch who I asked where the best place to get pie was in the town. The said that outside of their own kitchen, I’d have to try Lea’s. So I did.

A handmade neon orange sign on the door proudly announced in teen calligraphy the presence of dewberry pie. I didn’t know what it was but if they were that excited about it, so was I. I was impressed at the quantity of pies they seemed to produce and sell. My little piece was good. The crust was more gooey than flakey which was perfectly fine by me. The berries whole, rich and firm. Best of all there was almost no crust. To me crust is the purgatory of pie. Usually I’m too preoccupied with how to ethically dispose of the crust to even enjoy the pie. Here that was not a problem. Just one enjoyable 10 am snack.

Back on the road, I made it up to Natchitoches. Though I sometimes lament that anywhere America is beginning to look like everywhere America, void of local variation,  Louisiana’s still got it. On a main drag in Natchitoches, where strip malls and fast food chains otherwise dominate, a giant crawfish stands atop a seasonal crawfish eatery in proud testament to local flavor. To the outsider, the universal and unwavering local pride shared by Louisianians is as amazing as it is perplexing. Though the outsider can’t quite fully adjust to the ubiquitous use of the fleur-de-lis or seeing grown men dress in purple and gold without thinking a second thought about it, one comes to value how Louisiana is preserving a vibrant and unique identity in the face of ever greater pressure toward homogenization.

I didn’t get any crawfish at the Crawfish Hole, both because it was closed and because I’d just eaten a crawfish meat pie. I stopped to get a stainless steel roux spoon for later home cooking, and then started back home.

When I first drove through cane fields a few years ago, I couldn’t identify what I was seeing. I thought I’d recognize a cane field if I saw it, but I didn’t. In the field, the cane is covered in so many long grassy leaves, it looks like rows of grass and not the long thick bamboo-like stalks I envisioned.

I passed steel grey field buildings who’s sharp angels and perfect proportions contoured aesthetically with the horizon and melded into the pastel greens of the cane.

Another appeared other-worldly. The overhang wrapped around the entire barn, undoubtedly to keep the inside cooler by keeping the sun off the sides of the building.

I crossed a bridge over the Atchafalaya River, pronounced a-Cha-fa-Lie-ah, back into Pointe Coupee, stopped at a bait shop for a pack of frozen alligator to try my hand at blackening latter this week, and crossed more cane to get back to my baby.

So she got her day at home in peace, able to enjoy reading without hassle, and I got my drive. My chance to go and to see. Days alone like this are a blessing. We’re able to do what we enjoy and then we’re ready to appreciate being back together. And appreciate being back together, we do.

To the Northwest with My Love

So we got to Portland hoping to get a sense of whether or not we could see ourselves moving there in the future. We thought we’d like that its chill, the weather doesn’t get too extreme, and that people value a healthy environment. Our major concerns were cloudy, drizzly days and the potential difficulty of finding jobs.

When traveling we like to couchsurf when we can. With couchsurfing, you make a facebook-like profile telling a little about yourself and your interests and offer to host travelers in your area and/or request to crash with locals when visiting somewhere else. It is one of the most incredible networks of the the most incredible people on the planet. You get to know a place from the inside out and connect with others in the process.

We landed in Portland, and our couchsurfing host offered to pick us up at the airport at 2am. Gave us a quick tour of his literal little mansion and oriented us on how to navigate the public transit to get to and back from downtown the next day.

We spend the next couple of days taking it easy enjoying the food carts, window shopping, drinking coffee and browsing the world’s largest independent bookstore. We stayed until Saturday to catch the artisan market, grabbed a maple bacon doughnut at Voodoo Doughnut, rented a car and headed out to our next couchsurfing host out on the Oregon coast.

We spent two lazy days on the coast doing a whole lotta not much. Caught a sweet vegetable quesadilla in Seaside and then headed down the coast to see the California Redwoods and to see if we needed to consider moving to one of Oregon’s sleepy costal towns.

It took us two days of winding roads along the costal cliffs and strong winds to make it down to Eureka. In Eureka we stopped at a Oaxacan Mexican Restaurant where I came from their Garlic Prawn Quesadilla. Definitely try that at home! We ventured down the Redwood scenic highway and it was amazing. It was like being in another age. It was sorrowful to feel how disconnected life is from the earth. I hope we can soon settle closer to the earth and stars and past.

After leaving the Redwood Forests we drove up through Grants Pass to Eugene where we stayed one night with a middle-aged couple with three smart, quirky kids. We shared their chili, talked young adult lit., and learned about the Mrs’ invention and production of the fold-flat lunchsense lunchbox. Eugene was a cool town, but we learned that come spring it has the worst grass pollen counts in the world, potentially knocking it off our to-live places because of my wife’s asthma and terrible allergies. Allergy shots could be in the cards.

They thought we might really like Bend, Oregon since my wife and I are particularly attached to the sun so we decided to drive the two hours out to Bend on New Year’s Eve and then make it back to Portland the next day to fly out. How could we justify not seeing Bend if we were this close, plus I knew there were hot springs on the way, I just maybe could convince my wife to stop at. Turns out Oregon has a pretty strong culture of enjoying the state’s many hot springs nude. I have had a thing for hot springs since visiting a 16th century Turkish bath in Budapest a handful of years back. This definitely had potential.

We stopped at the hot springs. When we pulled up there was a cute young couple outside their station wagon. It was exciting not knowing what lay ahead. I imagined it could be spiritual/semi-erotic/healing experience as American Natives may have enjoyed the warm waters for thousands of years.

With it being unknown and a certain time of the month, we decided to play it safe and wear swimsuits. Reaching the springs therewas a mix of older men, a few middle-aged women with boys and a couple asian tourists. Suits were a good option, though I would have been more aesthetically integrated to have worn my black boxer brief trunks rather than a big pair of surf shorts. Oh well. We enjoyed the waters, walked back through the forest to the car and headed off at dusk for Bend. 

Reaching Bend we got Papa Johns, messed around in the pool at a Quinta Inn, and rangin the New Year by holding our breath and each eating a dozen green grapes before 12:01. The next morning we drove around, stopped at REI, but couldn’t quite imagine living there. It seemed surprisingly average and unimpressive for supposedly having the most millionaires per capita in the whole US. I didn’t actually fact check that claim. I could potentially see living there to raise vicuñas but otherwise not really.

We left for Portland taking the quickest route back across the high desert and unwisely–we would learn–across Mt. Hood on Sunday, New Year’s Day. The mountain was terribly icy and all the city skiers were trying at once to get back to the city for Monday. We were at a standstill for over three hours not making three miles progress on the mountain. Coming on six o’clock we began to worry we’d miss our eleven o’clock flight.

Soon after seven we made it to the point where we were freed down the mountain and hurried on in to return the car and catch the red line to the airport. We were exhausted but thrilled to have had so much time and fun together. I must say the neon Portland sign was a welcome sight. Up until that day the trip was relaxing but that day gave me the weight of travel.