Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Consigned to this fair land

It seemed like another lifetime, tinted with a faint sepia tone like an old faded photograph, impossibly distant, but not so distant that its details failed to surface as we replicated each somber step of the journey.

Ours was a slow and stately procession, or would have been if not for the road’s adherence to the contours of the land and the Jeffersonian grid that doubled the length of our passage to that of a crow’s flight. Headlights burning, dust churning, we snaked down sunbaked backroads toward the Winkler cemetery in northern Riley County, the powdery dust so thick at times that the leading vehicles faded into invisibility with only a glint of reflected sunlight to mark their veiled and unseen presences. The sun burned like liquid fire as we huddled at the gravesite while beneath the sheltering canopy the immediate family stewed in a sweltering humidity that soaked shirts and flattened hairdos. I can still feel the bony shoulder of Lori’s grandmother as I stood behind her, see the terse face of Lori’s father as he struggled for control and the faces of strangers and old friends and relatives as they circled us looking on as if we were the ones on display and foreign to their eyes. The ceaseless wind howled from the south, billowing women’s skirts, rocking cars, lashing the oaks and mulberries, kicking up a spume of dust in the fallow field to the north. Overhead the canopy snapped and bucked and tore at its reins like a wild stallion.

We were brought together from far-flung regions to meet at this lonely place and say our final goodbyes to Lori’s grandfather, Bruno. To temporarily conjoin in a semblance of family cohesion. It was a rural setting, at once alien and unfamiliar but achingly beautiful, and all the while I studied the farms we passed, calculating their geographical setting in relation to potential tornadoes and prevailing winds, relief from the afternoon sun and proximity to the innumerable creeks and gullies. I wondered whether we could someday fit into this land as natives by blood relationship and history rather than by birthright, if such a thing was possible. And like anything else there was so little time to reflect upon it while caught up in the procession, the scripted rotes and the chaotic gatherings shadowed by a cloud of tension and grief.

It was early summer, 1999. What I remember most was staring at a distant ridgeline with an unquenchable yearning to live there. We had talked about it for over two decades, always with the stipulation that we’d escape the city while her grandparents were still alive to be with them in their declining years. And here we were: one down and the other in failing health, our plans as yet unborn. Too late.

Death has a way of reminding us of our shortcomings.

We met again last week under similar circumstances. Those, I should say, who remained. A decade plus two had engraved lines, bleached hair and robbed mobility, but for the most part we were strangers no more. I might not have been able to put names to all the faces, but I had a good idea which branch of Lori’s family tree they descended from. 

What surprised me was how our roles had changed. Rather than being counted among those flooding in—problems to be surmounted—we were the problem solvers. We arranged lodging and pallbearers, choreographed various funeral details (as well as the inevitable, if not comical, snafus), proofed obituaries and prepared meals. Much of it fell on me by dint of association and to alleviate the pressure on my wife. Friends dropped by with enough food to feed an army. The outpouring of sympathy was staggering.

On the morning of the funeral I lapsed into an inescapable sense of déjà vu. The procession left the same red-roofed country church to zigzag down the same bewildering maze of gravel roads, the dust white and powdery and smothering, fires scorching the prairies on all sides and the ascendant sun bloodred from the smoke. Our little knot clustered around a steel-gray casket, heads bowed against a wind that snapped and cracked the canopy, thrummed through the guy wires and whisked away the words of the preacher as if they were not meant to be uttered. Above the distant ridgeline a pair of vultures kited on heated updrafts and rose and fell as they passed from thermal to thermal. An eastern meadowlark whistled, its cheery see-you-see-yeer too upbeat for the occasion and yet oddly reassuring.

My eyes were once again drawn to the greening valley and the bare tentacled arms of the oaks mantling the small clear stream below the cemetery. Everything looked the same but wasn’t. Much had changed, not the least being the loss of the last of our respective grandmothers, now consigned to this fair land. But the consignment worked both ways. For even as Ilda was lowering into the fertile ground Lori and I became part of it, native in heart if not in a birthright spanning a century and a half. We weren’t successors, we were inheritors, and this time we weren’t too late. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The world’s first but not the last

If the new metropolis is a cultural stew, rural America, at least in my neck of the prairie, is a goulash. 

Frankly, this surprised me. From what I’d seen over two decades of annual visits, northeast Kansas was predominantly white, Protestant, friendly and Republican. (Which proves that there’s no free lunch.) There were a few characters, oddballs and doofuses, mostly harmless but steadily racking up frequent flier miles in the local hoosegow, familiar to every town. Their significance depended less on their actions than on population density, which in the hinterlands was something of an oxymoron. 

Once we settled in on the edge of town, a clearer image emerged. That the bulk of the demographic was Anglo-Saxon was indisputable, but it consisted largely of the latest generation whose forefathers settled the area in the mid to late 1800s. Not only were there Swedes and Germans and Czechs, there were little pockets of French and Welsh and Poles and Lutherans. A little sleuthing revealed that at one time nearby counties were segregated into cultural enclaves, each nationality striving to retain its identity, if not purity, in the face of an overwhelming polyglot amalgamation. To some extent the idea continues to this day though based on religious dogma rather than race.

Immediately apparent was that someone from the Southwest didn’t fit. While the various and sundry nationalities had inevitably mingled together through intermarriage and interfaith, certain traditions survived more or less intact. They usually involved culinary matters, with each group holding in high esteem their own specialized offerings and not a little disdain for everything else. That, too, continues to this day.

Outwardly, traditional rural Kansas fare is grease and gravy, or g&g in short. The designation includes hamburgers, that iconic American staple, French fries—only now lapsing to their original name after an unfortunate bout of Francophobia in the aftermath of 9-11—fried chicken, fried pork tenders, fried pork links, fried sausage, fried chicken wings, fried bacon and fried eggs with a side of fried hash browns, mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuits and gravy, chicken fried steak smothered in gravy, roast beef smothered in gravy, chili dogs and sauerkraut dogs. Oddly, one finds with distressing regularity hamburgers served completely naked. No condiment, no lettuce, no tomato, no onion nor any other topping that might add flavor is included unless specifically requested, and then the request is greeted with suspicion, as if you’d admitted to cruising online porn sites or had a thing for women’s underwear. So virulent is this response that I suspect its roots lie in a particular severe religion whose tenets deny pleasure of any sort, even gustatory. 
Thankfully a few eateries take a more adventurous approach toward hamburgers. Parkside Cafe, a small mom-and-pop restaurant just south of downtown Pawnee City, Neb., is an exemplary example of refined taste. Their Dallas burger, a heady handful of a barbecue sauce, crisp bacon and grilled bell peppers and onions atop a third-pound slab of quality beef, is perhaps the finest of its kind in the entire Midwest, and well worth the drive. 

Occasionally one finds regional oddities such as tacos-in-a-bag (also known as Frito pie), a bastard fusion of g&g-meets-Tex-Mex-meets-vomit, and of course every restaurant in every town no matter how slight or insubstantial hosts its very own Mexican night.

The less said about Mexican night, the better.

For a card-carrying chilehead, Kansas has been a sore trial. I’ve learned by trial and error (mostly error) to avoid Mexican restaurants at all costs, especially when (A) they’re run by white people and (B) sanchos are on the menu. “Authentic” Mexican food sometimes is indeed authentic but unfortunately it’s not New Mexican cuisine but farther south, across the border into the nether reaches of our neighbor. As I grew up in New Mexico, that state’s signature style is the pinnacle of perfection, closely followed by variances found in Colorado. Here, I’ve had to do it myself, but fortunately I’m a good cook.

Friends and prairie relatives have questioned my taste in food since we first began coming here. I’ve gone along with their good-natured ribbing even while trying to mask my horror of their own favorites. Not long after moving here it seemed everybody was trying to foist bierocks on us, a German pastry filled with beef, onions and cabbage. When I balked—I don’t do cabbage—I was treated to a supercilious air of snobbery. There was nothing to do but fight back.

And I did. For the church cookbook I submitted several killer recipes including green chile potato soup and green chile stew. I dropped the term green chile whenever appropriate and often when inappropriate, just to remind them that their ways are not my ways, that there are other cuisines and other ways of eating. And though it was a hard, long slog, I’m finally getting some respect.

So it was that when my wife was coerced into leading a class on making kolaches, I decided to add my own signature ingredient.

Kolaches, for the uninitiated, are one of the other infamous regional pastries notoriously popular in these parts. Instead of meat filling they’re topped with apricots, prunes, cherries, peaches or poppyseed, and often iced or sprinkled with powdered sugar. Several distinct varieties exist, with each side snubbing the other as complete idiots. You can imagine my delight when I informed them that I would create the world’s first green chile cheese kolache.

One of the two chefs teaching the class thought the idea so outrageously wacky that he immediately signed on. 

“That’ll blow their minds,” he said.

An entirely subjective and non-scientific poll among friends, people on the street, employees at various businesses and homegrown relatives revealed an overwhelming bias against the undertaking. For many, it wasn’t just revolting, it was almost sacrilegious. It was as if I were suggesting adding green chiles to communion wafers or something. A few, maybe five percent of the total, thought the idea had merit. One or two actually wanted to try them.

At the last minute, the willing chef dropped out with a nasty cold. At least that was his excuse. That left me alone in a room of Kansas women busy mixing dough, preparing fillings and weighing alternate structural methods such as folding versus rolling out. And when I brought out a package of cream cheese with diced Sandia chiles, their looks were mutinous.

“How many do you intend to make?” they asked. I don’t think they had a real problem with my making green chile cheese kolaches, they just had a problem with me using their dough. 

Nevertheless, I convinced them in the name of fusion cooking (Czech-Mex) to share eight dough balls.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The kolaches were light and buttery. The topping added zest. I shared five and gobbled down the rest, and whether from the heat of the chiles mingling with the semi-sweet pastry or from divine revelation instantly saw myself opening a small taco-cappuccino-green chile cheese kolache stand on the town square, with little covered tables out from and a drive-through on the side for Highway 77 traffic and mariachi-Czech music blasting from speakers. Those that tried them wanted more—lots more. Blue Rapids would be the center for fusion cooking! 

And why stop there? With crystal clarity I could see my next challenge: green chile cheese bierocks...

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Why I'm here, why I'm not

“They’re just a big pile of rocks,” my friend said. “What’s the big deal?”

Responding to such a concept—that the Rocky Mountains were nothing more than a jumble of boulders—left me all but speechless. My friend, a man just turned 35 years of age and never having once seen a mountain or a foothill, was heading to Colorado for a short, fast vacation. His destination wasn’t merely familiar to me, it was a place steeped in memory. As much as I envied him, I wished more to see the expression in his eyes when the snowy mountains rose from the ruler-flat  horizon to forever inhabit his consciousness.

In the weeks leading up to his departure he cajoled and kidded about the trip. He dreaded eastern Colorado, asking if it was really flatter and more desolate than western Kansas. (It is.) Should he expect winter or spring temperatures? (Winter, always.) Would he see a dipper, a bird that flies underwater? (Maybe.)

Just before leaving, he surprised me by saying, “I might like it so much that I have to ask you what you were thinking of when you moved here.”

And then he was gone. I followed his exploits through sporadic comments and photos on Facebook, impatient for more. One image showed a broad flat valley ringed with misty peaks, light snow raking across the sagebrush. It was so evocative, so real, that I could feel the cold. I could taste the pine-scented air.

We talked at length on his return. The trip changed him, as all such journeys do when we navigate beyond the fields we know. It wasn’t so much the questions he asked that signaled a quantum psychological shift but the plans he was already drawing up for another outing. High on his bucket list, he said, was to learn fly-fishing. He couldn’t believe how clear the streams were, how icy cold, how beautiful. I told him I’d teach him.

The question came near the end of our last conversation. “After that,” he asked, “what did you see in Kansas when you first came here? How could you leave that?”

Though I’d half expected it, I was still caught off guard. In one of those psychic flashbacks where everything reels past like an old grainy slideshow, I was hurled back to 1974, newly married and exploring a world I never knew existed, that of small rural towns and friendly people and a landscape devoid of mountains. Our visit was transformative but not without concerns that continue to trouble me, namely weather that can kill you. We fished the Big Blue and small farm ponds, toured the unpopulated country, met a slew of new relatives who welcomed us with open arms. We were introduced to humidity so intense that it felt as if we were underwater. And yes, one evening we stood outside watching the sky turn the color of an old bruise and sirens roaring to life and I asked what was going on, what should we do, and they said they didn’t know. That they never knew. 

“I couldn’t live like that,” I told Lori. 
But it would not let me go. Enough so that for the next 26 years we discussed leaving the mountainous west for the Kansas tallgrass prairie, almost serious but not so serious that we were willing to write resignation letters to our respective employers. It was more of a pipe dream, wishful thinking kept carefully reigned in. That it took so long, and with so much anxiety, had less to do with successful careers, raising a family and comfortable niches than it did with the mountains themselves.  

They had always been there serrating my horizons, drawing the eye, snagging clouds, a constant interplay of light and shadow. To give them up for a place devoid of even small hills seemed not just impossible but soul-killing. And yet there was something about Kansas that immediately appealed to me, some ineffable quality I could no more define than I could explain. 

Though I tried, of course, to relatives and friends, to coworkers who questioned my sanity. My explanation ran through the usual themes of rural existence, of long dusty roads, sluggish creeks and sun-dappled woods, of a sense of freedom I’d never encountered in cities. My ace was the local phone book, a slender volume encompassing more than two dozen towns, which when placed beside the Denver metropolitan directory, all three volumes of it, would unfailingly trigger a dawning of awareness in their expressions. I’d tell them that the place didn’t have rush hour, it had rush minute, that the entire county had exactly three traffic lights, and the county immediately to the west had none. That kind of population scarcity was nearly impossible to fathom for those used to flourishing cities, and if at first they acted incredulous, scoffing at the lack of jobs, fine restaurants and recreational opportunities, it was really just a charade. At heart we’re all rural.

Harder to explain was how I felt at home there, as if I’d been away for a long time and only recently returned to the realization of how much I’d missed it. 

Maybe Kansas is a state of mind more than a state of place. Maybe it’s not something words can convey. After a decade of living here I’m still struggling with questions that should be easy to answer but are not, so that when my friend asked that fateful question I was left mute, and could only shrug and tell him that the transition was easy, that it was the hardest thing of all.

Sunday, April 03, 2011