In the Corn Kingdom: Des Moines

Frank Lloyd Wright, upon seeing Arizona for the first time, commented that the saguaro, the tall cacti found among the scrub and desert, was the “natural skyscraper’ of the Southwest. He refused to build any higher than the noble cactus. Fifty years before that, Frank got his start in the Prairies of the United States, creating an architecture that complemented the flat, fertile vistas of the Midwest. When I think of the vast American breadbasket, I expected to find in Iowa nothing much taller than the cornstalks, perhaps the skyscrapers of the prairie. That ideal was put to rest, upon discovering the Des Moines, the capital of the corn kingdom of Iowa, was far more than granaries and pastures.

The Monks

Surprisingly, Des Moines is hilly, not steep or varied, but rather a rolling heath in the Des Moines River valley. I suppose I was expecting a great flat expanse. And nestled in that valley, Des Moines has the feel of a real city, with several buildings over 25 stories in the downtown core. Looking westward from the steps of the Iowa State Capitol, atop a modest hill overlooking the Des Moines skyline—yes, skyline, with the setting sun over the waves of grain, you get a sense of the tremendous pride Iowans have for their agrestic American Alsace.

Des Moines has of course, a decidedly un-English name. And like many Midwestern words, it is unclear how the river for which the city is named got its handle. One story recounts that the French explorers named the river for the monks who settled nearby—La Riviere des Moines. Others suggest the name was taken from a local tribe, called Moingona by settlers (but translating into horrible slang, according to scholars.)

When it comes to the locals today, Midwestern nice continues to expand westward. Having recently put myself through a self-imposed French diction boot camp (for mastery of singing in French as well as learning, finally, how to pronounce “Café au Lait), I couldn’t help but cringe when hearing the locals say:

“Welcome to DEE MOYN.”

“Certainly, you mean “Dey MWAHney?”

Really Big Ag

For outsiders, the emphasis on farming and corn in particular in Iowa seems cliché, or at least, the perpetuation of a stereotype. Not so. At a meeting as far removed from the campaign trail as possible, I heard both the governor and lieutenant governor weave corn and agriculture into their speeches—required homages and deference in a land where one out of every five ears of corn in America is grown in Iowa, one out of every 9 eggs and one of every three hogs.

It is for that reason that major companies like Archer-Daniels Midland, Monsanto, Cargill and Quaker Oats are among the Big Ag corporations operating in Iowa. And it is also why, once a year, Des Moines is on the international stage as the home of the “World Food Prize.” The Prize is regarded as the “Nobel Prize of Food,” founded by Norman Borlaug in 1986. Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his research and contributions to the “Green Revolution”—the increase of agricultural production through cross-breeding, fertilizing and hybridizing plants like corn and wheat for faster growth. Borlaug’s work specifically in wheat production is credited with saving nearly a billion people in the Indian subcontinent in the 1970’s. His legacy lives on in the Food Prize, even as the occasional protestors gather in Des Moines to rage against genetically modified organisms, pesticide producers and other first-world problems in a world where, as Borlaug put it “they have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger.”

Where else should a World Food Prize be in the world really? Chicago is too cosmopolitan, too much of a regional hegemon. This isn’t a culinary award, this is about agriculture at its core—the feeding a lot of people. Agriculture is, after all, how we evolved from hunter-gatherers into suburbanites. Food is, at this fundamental level, about survival. And for a planet that continues to add billions of mouths at an exponential rate—food here is about quantity.

More than Meat and Potatoes

This is not to say that Des Moines is bereft of a local food scene, where the locals are crafting the raw material of the harvest into something delectable. Court Avenue seems to have the happy hour pulse of Des Moines down, with local pubs as varied as Wasabi Tao and the Whiskey Dixx. For me, I was looking for some remnants of the old German populations that settled in Des Moines, and that took me to the Hessen Haus, an old train depot station repurposed into a beer hall. With just the right amount of grit and age, some may sneer at the place as a dive. But the charm of the building is in the old wood and brick of the depot, as well as the excellent German pils on tap and decent Jaegerschnitzel.

As for the new world, you will not want for modern, as fusion is alive and well. One place, Fong’s Pizza, is as fusion as you can get, with Crab Rangoon Pizza or Kung Pao Chicken on a thin crust. Opened in 2009 in the location of the oldest Chinese restaurant in Des Moines, the pizzeria has kept the décor and parts of the menu in a fit of creativity usually reserved for the Food Section of the New York Times.

Children of the Corn

My visit coincided with the return of the Kansas City Royals to the World Series. Forgetting that I was in a state without a major league sports team, the sentiments in Des Moines seem split between the Cubs and the Royals. I had never seen a Royals fan in the wild, not at least since the days of Bo Jackson or George Brett. Des Moines and baseball are things of legend. A very young Ronald Reagan called Cubs games on the local radio. And Bill Bryson, famous travelogue and favorite son, recalls in his memoir:

“My dad was a sportswriter for The Des Moines Register, which in those days was one of the country’s best papers, and often took me along on trips through the Midwest. Sometimes these were car trips to places like Sioux City or Burlington, but at least once a summer we boarded a big silver plane—a huge event in those days—and lumbered through the summery skies, up among the fleecy clouds, to St. Louis or Chicago or Detroit to take in a home stand. It was a kind of working holiday for my dad.

Baseball, like everything else, was part of a simpler world in those days, and I was allowed to go with him into the clubhouse and dugout and onto the field before games. I have had my hair tousled by Stan Musial. I have handed Willie Mays a ball that had skittered past him as he played catch. I have lent my binoculars to Harvey Kuenn possibly it was Billy Hoeft) so that he could scope some busty blonde in the upper deck. Once on a hot July afternoon I sat in a nearly airless clubhouse under the left-field grandstand at Wrigley Field beside Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ great shortstop, as he autographed boxes of new white baseballs (which are, incidentally, one of the most pleasurably aromatic things on earth, and worth spending time around anyway). Unbidden, I took it upon myself to sit beside him and pass him each new ball. This slowed the process considerably, but he gave a little smile each time and said thank you as if I had done him quite a favor. He was the nicest human being I have ever met. It was like being friends with God.”

–Bill Bryson, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid”

Bryson was an early inspiration for this blog, especially in his craft and pen, an exceptional travel writer with a wit that was forged in Des Moines. The thing about flyover country is, that so many voices of Americana learned to speak here, in a Midwestern dialect. Mark Twain (Missouri). Carl Sandberg (Illinois). Ray Bradbury (Illinois), Toni Morrison (Ohio), Sinclair Lewis (Minnesota), Kurt Vonnegut (Indiana), Sherwood Anderson (Ohio), Jean Shepard (Chicago), Bob Dylan (Minnesota) among others. And so did Bill Bryson. There is something to this agrestic lifestyle—the right balance of sturm und drang (albeit, too much sturm in der Sommer). Having recently re-read Bryson’s memoir of his childhood, I felt a particular impulse to explore his old environs, around Drake University, and the streets on his newspaper route. But in my re-reading, Bryson himself catalogs all of the places of his youth now gone, those formative parks and theaters, corner groceries and even newspapers, are no more. In another way, even Des Moines cannot claim Bryson anymore, his Midwestern dialect burnished by 40 years of living in rural England, sounds exotic. But his tone, in his writing, captures the certain levity that I experienced in meeting Iowans at the pub, in conference rooms and on the street. In a recent speech at his alma mater, Bryson offered a valedictory, through a well-worn device, “you know you are from Iowa if:

“You can find nice things to say about Herbert Hoover.”

“No matter how small the plate is at the salad bar you can get 400 items on it.”

“You don’t think there’s anything funny about the name ‘Des Moines International Airport.’”

“You don’t freak out when you hear: ‘Tornado’s coming.’”

“You are out of state and meet someone else from Iowa and you both get really excited.”

Of the last wisecrack, I have a first hand account. When in grad school, a fellow student hailed from the Cornhusker Nation—the University of Iowa. When she introduced herself at a conference reception in a major coastal city, she shyly, almost apologetically offered that she was from “I-uh-wa.” A government official from Ames piped up from the back of the room, giddily,

“Don’t say it like that! You are from IOWA! And say where too!”

Photo Credits

Iowa Corn:

Skyline: Wikipedia

Borlaug Medal:

Fong’s: Dan V Food Blog:

Hessen Haus:


On Being Normcore


Finding myself on the other side of the professor’s desk for the first time in my life, I realized immediately, as I looked at a regiment of Millennials with the harsh white light of their iThings reflecting off of their whitened teeth, that in fact, I have become old. Well, older at least. All of us would like to think that, upon our triumphant return to the old college stomping grounds, that in fact, one can be the BMOC again. Alas, having been born in the Carter era, this is a lie. To use the parlance of poker, there are four or five “tells” that give away decrepitude—pudginess and crow’s feet, graying and/or thinning pompadours, and attire.

Attire is perhaps the controllable variable, but to what end? My intention is not to blend in with the student body, but to stand before it. What was the grunge of the 1990’s became the 2000’s emo and hipsters of today. And throughout those trendy times, there has been a persistent American uniform, usually adopted about the time one realizes they are too grey, balding or weighty for The Gap or Abercrombie, or wherever the tweens shop anymore. Gone is the conspicuous consumption, the brandishing of designers and their logos.

I didn’t always embrace the idea of a brand-less, statement-less way to engage fashion. In fact, I was runner up for my graduating high school class’s superlative for “best dressed,” having to settle for “Most likely to be President.” In fact, I did not realize how far I had in fact fallen from the runway and catwalks until my sister’s boyfriend, upon a recent visit, remarked that I was “normcore.” And of course, not speaking a word of Millennialese, I consult Wikipedia first:

Normcore is a unisex fashion trend characterized by unpretentious, average-looking clothing. “Normcore” is a portmanteau of the words “normal” and “hardcore”. The word first appeared in webcomic Templar, Arizona,[1] and was later was employed by K-Hole, a trend forecasting group,[2][3][4][5] in an October 2013 report called “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom”

The arbiters of the popular language christened this look, this lifestyle, as “Normcore.” The portmanteau of 2014 borrows of course from the words “normal” and a separate slang “hardcore” to describe a certain ardor for the ardorless. It is like a koan. And a runner up for the O.E.D’s neologism of the year, normcore was reviled by year’s end by the chattering classes; a witty meme that had burnt so brightly in the social media sphere to expire before its zenith. By the time people like your author use the word, it is already out of style. But that is what happens when the trendsetters invent a word—it is no longer theirs. The culture will steal one’s darlings, and put them to its own use.

Thus, as it is now commonly understood, the “normcore” aesthetic is really just polo shirts and tee shirts, khakis and jeans from what I can tell. The devotees are unadorned, with no attempt to draw attention to oneself. It’s ball caps, sans logo. It’s striped regimental ties. It’s the Land’s End catalog, every last page of it. In fact, I’d imagine that most people who reach for this “fashion” are not doing it consciously, or rather, conspicuously. It is an understated consumerism.

But the truth is, this silly word was meant as a joke, an east coast irony, as tweens mock the timeless quality of simply not standing out in attire. It is Zen, a non-trendy trend. The absence of trend. Yet out here in the Midwestern trenches, what separates the Duck Dynastics from the college bubble is a buffer zone of normality—where normcore flourishes.

At some point, there are diminishing returns in the chase of high fashion, the fleeting feeling in clothing that is not designed to survive the season, the peacocking required to win the affections of another, the poor ROI when one tries to sell last season’s Michael Kors to Plato’s Closet. Yet there is a season for that, the hedonistic bacchanal of their twenties. It makes no sense for the single guy to embrace Land’s End Outfitters in their twenties.

There may be other, more nefarious reasons that normcore has evolved de facto, if not by a name. A recent article from the Wharton School suggests that minorities, immigrants and nouveau riche tend to grasp at the status symbols and labels to project success in a consumerist economy. But this of course ignores a lot of facts about who is doing the buying of the Brooks Brothers and the Jimmy Choos. It is youth, more than race, in this author’s opinion, that eschews the normcore asthetic.

Some of the world’s greatest innovators and big personalities embrace a “normcore” mantra, to save the big decisions for well, big decisions. Avatars of the normcore look include Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK, and even Bill O’Reilly. A real panoply. The late Steve Jobs is a prophet of normcore, having ordered dozens of custom mock black turtlenecks as his daily uniform. Back in my performing days, the monkish Christoph Eschenbach of the National Symphony Orchestra would lead us in nothing but mandarin collar dress shirts and dark slacks. Even the great Zuckerberg limits his dress to grey tee shirts. All of the above branded themselves without wearing a label. And even President Obama is on the record on pairing down his suits to grey and navy (and the occasional tan).  In a 2012 profile in Vanity Fair, the president remarked:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

The reduction of complexity seems to be the “core” of normcore—the need to simplify in an increasingly cacophonous world. There is Buddhist-like quality to normcore. Like the Buddha remarked, upon giving up his possessions, “To want is to suffer.”  This is a particularly hard path to follow in the West, but it seems to reduce complexity, to allow focus on the more important things.

My path to normcore-mality (?) (Why not, made up words should have cognates), began with the simple idea that I did not want to wear college-branded apparel of schools that I had not attended. It seemed the act of a poseur to don a Harvard sweatshirt just because I have been there as a tourist, conventioneer and online course addict. From there, the downward spiral into normality began. I found that classic British regimental ties made more sense than the latest seasonal color. I could mix and match without much thought–all the more essential when toddlers manage to consume those moments once reserved for pairing ties with pocket squares and tie clips. I also found that indestructible Birkenstocks outlasted any pair of trendy dress shoes. I found that khaki, striped oxford shirts and blazers never, ever change and never ever go out of style. I then discovered the benefit of this simplicity, the ability to move my money into other things, like experiences and learning. And family.

But maybe the normcore aesthetic isn’t about simplicity at all. Maybe it is a quiet resignation; the first deference we give to the next generation of whippersnappers who now inhabit “the twenties.” It is like a former craven boss of mine said to me about drinking habits. As I quaffed my beer, he ordered a Scotch, neat.

“No beer?” I ask.

“I used to drink beer, but then I grew up.”

I hadn’t the life experience yet to suffer  appreciate Scotch then. Or normcore. I do now.

And so, unbranded v-neck sweater and all, I stood before my class the first day of the semester, confronting the horde of fashion before me. The only distractions would come from their peers, not a dandified professor before them. Those students are staring into their future, et in Arcadia ego, a normal, normcore future. But of course, their kids will call it something else.

Photo Credit: Huffington Post. Larry David.

2014: in review

The stats minions prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. In seeing it, I am reminded that even a well-forme habit can erode with time. Life gets in the way sometimes. For me, taking on a adjunct professing gig at a local university sidelined me. But, we all need escapes. And so, I will endeavor to make room for a mere 1200 words a week. See you in 2015, with new adventures and obsolecences.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,400 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 40 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Alte Milwaukee: Kapital des Deutscheramerikaner


“Old Milwaukee,” as a naming convention, is much more than the handle of a rather cheap beer. No, Old Milwaukee is also known as the German Athens. My first impressions of Milwaukee were fermented over a decade ago, a bit before the Renaissance of the downtown core with its cosmopolitan Riverwalk, shiny new sports arenas and the Calatrata-designed art museum, and clean Business Improvement Districts, all of which making for a pleasant business-trip experience. However, what struck me was how Teutonic the old city remains–the enduring influence of immigrants who contributed mightily to the American experience and the love of their sons and daughters of their German heritage.

die Grosses Auswanderung

German immigration to the US came in waves over the 19th century, each wave met with a nativist scorn that remains an undercurrent in contemporary, impolite society. Early German settlers landed in Pennsylvania (the Amish) and other colonial areas. But by the 19th century, Germans, fleeing the world of Prussian and Bavarian princes in great migration, settled farther afield from the eastern shores to the Midwest. The greatest concentration of those German Americans are found in Wisconsin, as nearly 68% of the region can claim German ancestry.

Wissenschaft, Technik, Kultur

German science, methods and culture influenced American society in myriad ways. The whole re-ordering of America can be understood through the direct influence of German-Americans, as they both assimilated and contributed in a very unique way. Our public schools are based on the Prussian model–compulsory, professionally-led, and segregated by grade levels. Not to mention Kindergarten–the first German word every America learns. The Lutheran protestant theory of individualism and personal relationships with deities fuels evangelical thought to this day. Prior to the arrival of brewmasters like Anheuser and Pabst, the choice of beverage for the quaffing in the US was hard cider. All of that changed with the German love of fermented grain. Food-wise, the Hot Dog is the son of the German Wiener or any other encased meat on a bun. And the craft of public administration was also a German invention, efficiencies perfected by Max Weber.

Beer Steins Are Raised as the Concord Singers Practice Singing German Songs in New Ulm, Minnesota...

Untergang und Auferstanden

The survival of German culture in America is a testament to the resilience of its people. Prohibition wiped out beer culture for a generation in the United States, shuttering beer gardens and breweries nationwide. Few were able to thrive in other ventures, or survive at all. Concurrently, Germany was the antagonist of two World Wars. And so, the love of German culture in America declined precipitously. German families were accused of Kaiserist or Nazi sympathies depending on the conflict. Names were Anglicinized. Beethoven, Bach and Brahms disappeared from radio. German was discontinued in public school education. Lutherans stopped preaching in their native tongue. Yet the concentration of Germans in Milwaukee were able to withstand the bigotry. After all, those German Americans were far removed from, and fled the persecution of, Imperial Prussians and Fascist Bavarians.

The Milwaukee City Hall

Milwaukee, heute

Today’s Milwaukee is of course, a frisson of the old world and new. Its town hall is modeled after the grand German Rathaus found in Hamburg, Nuremburg and Munich among other town centers. Old church steeples pepper the industrial and modern skyline. Brewery building stacks add to the cityscape. The Milwaukee Courthouse, a massive WPA era stone building, has a perfect sightline to the old Rathaus, and reminded me a bit of the “Maximillianeum“ in Munich—a palace on a hill.

Old World Third StreetOld World Third Street

Alte Welt Strasse

Old World Third Street preserved a strip of German-American bierstuben. The Old German Beer Hall serves up German food and the Royal Bavarian Hofbrauhaus beer. Having been to all of the new Hofbrauhaus breweries in the US, the Old German Beer Halll has the history and authenticism that the sterile, Bavaria-meets-Disney locations cannot emulate. The latter are, this author is sad to report, an antiseptic corporate pastiche; a pale copy of the Ur-pub–the Hofbaruhaus am Platzl in Munich. These places appeal to the for the venture capitalist that thinks those new pubs are what Germany feels like, or what Americans must think Old Germany feels like.

Meanwhile, in the Old German Beer Hall, locals walk in, hailed by the bartender, as their personal stein is pulled down from the rack. You cannot recreate the glory and honor of being welcome at the “Stamtisch” table—regular’s table—overnight. Those seats and steins are earned, week after week, decade after decade, father to son.

Beste Wuerst

Across the street from the German pubs is Usinger’s—a family owned sausage shop in business since 1880. Their buildings are painted in folk art with brick streets surrounding the deli. Finding it impossible to pass on the array of natural casings and fine grind, I couldn’t leave such delicacies behind. I found that Usingers will package cases for the road, with ice packs. They’ll even ship.


Farther afield is the gem of the German revival in Milwaukee, the first public beer garden in the US after 90 years of meaningless exile. A mere nine-minute drive from downtown Milwaukee is Estabrook Park, a riverside emerald glen hugging the Milwaukee River. In 2012, after years of lobbying, the Parks and Recreation department opened bids for the creation of a beer garden as both a tribute to the city’s German heritage and an obvious source of revenue. The Biergarten is in its second season of providing the community with Gemütlichkeit–a German word with a poor English translation of “cozyness.” I prefer to describe it as “existential merriment.”

Based exclusively on the design of the beer gardens found throughout Germany, the manager told me they spared nothing to get the feel exactly right. German tables and giant glass Masskrugs for the beer are ample. Garten-goers make a deposit to drink from the 1L glass steins, and return the stein and token for their deposit as they leave. The ATM sign is in German, and the signage feature the “Fraktur” font that the world knows as “Old German.”  Linden shade trees, common to Europe, are replaced with native trees–Maple. Locals not only play accordion and polka tunes, but the crowd knows the words—and sing along. Their grandparents certainly passed on the old songs to them. all of my travels, rarely does the word “transcendent” come to mind as it is a worn, cliched word. However, the closest I have ever felt in the US of being transported someplace else, someplace familiar and beloved, was here in the Biergarten. I could have been in the Englisher Garten along the River Isar, or the Spree under the linden trees if not for the nasal WisKAHNsin dialect around me. I was somehow in Munich again, absent the flight. Wanderlust fulfilled. If only Americans could embrace this aspect of German culture more openly—the love of nature, of enjoying the craft of the beer for its quality and simplicity rather than a vehicle for drunkenness–we’d be a happier Volk. Here, in Old Milwaukee at least, that spirit thrives, from the downtown preservation, the artistry of finely crafted food in the old style, and in the spirit of friendship and camaraderie at the beer garden table.

Grinning German American Boy, Milwaukee Germanfest Photo credit: Chris Totsky / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Immigrants Photo Credit: Public Domain published in Harper’s Weekly, (New York) November 7, 1874

Milwaukee City Hall Photo credit: Jim Bauer / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Old German Beerhall Photo Credit:

Old Third Street Photo credit: puroticorico / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Beer Stein Singers Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives / Foter / No known copyright restrictions

Mader’s Photo credit: kke227 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Usinger’s Photo credit: .michael.newman. / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Usinger’s Brats Photo Credit:

Estabrook Biergarten Photo Credit: Milwaukee Parks Department



The problem with business travel is that leisure time comes few and far between. So many road trips have derailed my dispatches by a bit. I will soon clear of the travel fog, and file reports soon. Stay tuned for Minneapolis food, Columbus’s German Village and Keeping Madison Wisconsin Weird.

Vonnegut’s Indianapolis

Vonnegut’s Indianapolis

Kurt Vonnegut

For me, Indianapolis is my home airport, my closest major city, and it is a city that I know relatively little about. I adopted Indiana as a homeland in my mid-twenties during a victory lap in college (grad school), and in doing so, came to the Hoosier heartland at a disadvantage, having not been raised on the cultural touchpoints and local sports teams.  Upon my return to the Midwest, I didn’t settle in the city, but out in the environs in a college town. True to the name alma mater, the college town can suckle all of its denizens quite well–providing forever-young energy, cosmopolitan culture, intelligent conversation and sporting events. There is no need for the big city here. Unlike Columbus, Ohio or Lansing, Michigan; Indianapolis just doesn’t have that same energy–despite its three major universities and vibrant bar scene in Broad Ripple. Perhaps I was missing what is appealing about Indianapolis, save for that rat race around the oval every Memorial Day weekend?

My critique of Indianapolis ends where the mural above begins, a homage to one of the greatest American writers, Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut. This town produced that talent. Was it something in the water? Anyone who has seen the White River might not sip so deeply to find out. When it comes to Indianapolis, Vonnegut didn’t shrivel from showing his affections, nor sneer down an intellectual nose at his provincial origins. In fact, he credited so much of his world view, his empathy and pathos, to the Circle City. This is quite unlike his near-contemporary John Steinbeck’s disdain for his homelands. Of the Hoosiers, he reflected on what all Midwesterners know; a vibrant social and intellectual life lives in the Heartland. He said:

“It was all here for me – music, science, people so smart you couldn’t believe it, people so dumb you couldn’t believe it, people so nice or so mean you couldn’t believe it.”

In preparing for a business meeting, I found a gaping hole in my schedule, leaving me abandoned in Indianapolis for the afternoon. And I decided to fill that time with a “reality tour” based on the author of Slaughterhouse Five. I found very little in the blogosphere about Vonnegut’s Indianapolis, except for some major touchstones. Several other authors didn’t get why the worldly Vonnegut liked this vanilla fly-over capital at the Crossroads of America. I’d have to investigate more closely on my own.

The Vonneguts in America

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was a fourth-generation German-American. His great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, owned a modest hardware store in post-bellum Indianapolis. His son, Bernard Vonnegut, became an architect and the creator of many Victorian-era buildings in Indianapolis, including the Athenauem (above) and the Student Building at my alma mater, Indiana University. The Athenaeum was known in Bernard Vonnegut’s day as Das Deutsche Haus, serving as the town hall for the German-Americans who called Indianapolis home. The building looks as if it was salvaged from Dresden and relocated to the Midwest. The building was a community center–home to beer gardens, club meetings and weddings and special events. During the anti-German years of World War I, the building was renamed, its Teutonic decor muted for a bit. Today, the building is again in service as the home to social clubs (the Y, Rotary International) as well as a fine German restaurant, the Rathskellar, which serves some of the best wuerst this side of the Rhine. When in Indianapolis, this is one of my favorite retreats, just east of the city off of Massachusetts Ave. (Nearby is another Indy landmark–the Murat Temple–a moviehouse-mosque now used for touring musicals–the German Townhall across from the Ottoman Mosque give the impression of meandering through Epcot Center.) Deep in its cavernous interior is a quiet meeting room, dedicated to the Vonnegut family. The room is actually named for the architect Grandpa Vonnegut. But Kurt’s bronze noggin smirks over the head of the table, keeping watch over serious diners and ready to spear them with his quick wit.

Kurt’s Childhood in Indianapolis

Vonnegut’s childhood neighborhood was in Indianapolis’s Butler University area–a neighborhood still noted for stately homes–and near the State Fairgrounds. Kurt’s father, Kurt Sr., took over the family architectural firm in 1910. Kurt Sr. married Edith Lieber, the wealthy daughter of a local brewery owner, and Kurt Jr. was born into a well-to-do family in 1922.

Nearby was Vonnegut’s old high school, Shortridge High. Shortridge was among the oldest public schools in Indiana. It was also built by his grandfather. Reopened as a Magnet school for public policy, the school works to add another generation to its noted alums. Vonnegut said of Shortridge:

“[Shortridge is] my dream of an America with great public schools. I thought we should be the envy of the world with our public schools. And I went to such a public school. So I knew that such a school was possible. Shortridge High School in Indianapolis produced not only me, but the head writer on the I LOVE LUCY show [Madelyn Pugh. And, my God, we had a daily paper, we had a debating team, had a fencing team. We had a chorus, a jazz band, a serious orchestra. And all this with a Great Depression going on. And I wanted everybody to have such a school.”–Now: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. PBS.

He repeated the sentiment, in his essay collection Fates Worse Than Death:

“That city gave me a free primary and secondary education richer and more humane than anything I would get from any of the five universities I attended.”

The Great Depression wiped away much of the family’s successes and lead to family tragedy, as Edith killed herself after Mother’s Day, 1944. Yet it is clear from his reminiscences that time left only good feelings for Indianapolis. Nonetheless, he would not make Indiana his home again. Shortly after his mother’s death, Kurt Jr. was off to the Battle of the Bulge, imprisonment, surviving the bombing of Dresden, and then, to acclaim as a writer.  After the war, he worked as a reported in Chicago, then he settled in the east, first as a failed car dealer in Connecticut, then to New York City. And it seems that Indianapolis had forgotten about Vonneguts for awhile as well.


In 2011, the Indianapolis Star explored the love-hate relationship that Indianapolis had for it’s wily native sage. Vonnegut never really changed from his high school years–an erudite pacifist full of contradiction. However, Indianapolis did change, from a town of German immigrants to a segregated community, from a pro-union Democrat town to a Nixon stronghold. Lost was the Gemütlichkeit of the old German hall replaced with open warfare between urban decay and the white flight to suburban Carmel. As retold from the Indianapolis Star:

“On May 2, 1969, acclaimed writer Kurt Vonnegut sat at a table at Indianapolis’ top bookstore, pen handy, copies of his new best-seller handy, fully expecting to move some merchandise. His “Slaughterhouse-Five” had just been released, a book that would be hailed as one of the greatest books ever written using English. Vonnegut already had published five novels and was “an unimitative and inimitable social satirist,” Harper’s Magazine said at the time. He was “our finest black humorist,” Atlantic Monthly said. Vonnegut lived in New York but had returned to his hometown, to the L.S. Ayres bookstore in Downtown Indianapolis, in triumph. It was a perfect spring day, warm and dry, and Hoosiers were certainly up and about. A sellout crowd of 1,300 filed into the Murat Temple’s Egyptian Room for the annual “500” Festival Breakfast, where Mayor Richard Lugar handed “the key to the city” to, for reasons that are today foggy, TV actor Clu Gulager. Several blocks away at the Vonnegut appearance, however, not one person showed up. That’s not quite true — not one person outside Vonnegut’s family showed up.Vonnegut was crushed and wrote a note to his friend and fellow Indianapolis-born novelist, Dan Wakefield: “I sold three copies — all of them to relatives, I swear to God.” — The Indianapolis Star, Nov. 10, 2011.

While the old L.S. Ayers–the location of the episode above–is long gone, the tea room, built by his dad’s firm, still stands and serves up 20th century chicken pot pies and chicken velvet soup at the Indiana State Museum.


Prudes explain that the whole of Indiana may have been turned off by Vonnegut’s love of the four-letter vernacular, or perhaps his cartoonish “Middle City” in his Breakfast of Champions, believed to be Indianapolis in caricature. It is true, perhaps. Vonnegut was banned in schools for many years, the coarse language, the irreverence, the truth-telling, the anti-jingoism. That sort of thing plays well in the salons of the elites on the coastlines, but in flyover-country? Emily Post, not Gertrude Stein, reigns.

Day 9 (Indianapolis, IN): Vonnegut Museum

“We Hoosiers got to stick together.”  —Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut


Certainly by the end of Vietnam and Nixon era, when authors and pacifists were proven right in the end, did Vonnegut’s reputation repair in his native land. And by 2007, the City of Indianapolis returned to its senses and honored the contributions of their native son, and family, to the community, and to the world. Mayor Bart Petersen declared “The Year of Vonnegut.” The accolade left Vonnegut, in his words, “thunderstruck.” In an 2007 AP interview, Vonnegut noted that:

“This Indianapolis thing, it’s a charming thing because it’s about books and it’s about reading. They’re able to build it around me, so I’m glad to be a convenient hitching post for that…”

In addition, a downtown library, the Vonnegut Memorial Library, opened in his honor, now serves as a living memorial. Visitors are welcome to sit in his chair at his writing desk and type out a note. His beloved Pall Malls are nearby, as well as his Red Rooster Lamp and personal artwork.

Indianapolis Skyline

“To all my friends and enemies in the Buckeye State. Come on over. There’s room for everybody in Shangri-La.” —Deadeye Dick, Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s character in Deadeye Dick was speaking of the Himalayas, but I think he meant Indiana. No matter the tug that takes you from your home, home is always home. His son, Mark, told the New York Times in 2010 that his dad remained “the kid from Indianapolis.” He also offered an epitaph of a kind, saying:

“I think his values are very much in line with the Midwestern values of Abraham Lincoln,  Carl Sandburg and Mark Twain.”

When I begin to loathe the monotony of the endless horizons of flat cornfields in the Heartland, my peers on the eastern seaboard have corrected my attitude.

“It’s not boring, it’s liberating. No people, no traffic.”

I am not sure everyone from Boston to Washington DC pines for zen-like vistas, but there is truth to that idea. Cornfields can make the largest of egos feel small. And as Vonnegut would say:

“So it goes.”


Vonnegut Mural Photo credit: Jared Cherup / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Vonnegut Memorial Library Office Photo credit: UAJamie1 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Rathskellar Indianapolis

Vonnegut childhood home

LS Ayers Tea Room

Indianapolis Skyline Photo credit: MCC_Indianapolis / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)



To Cannery Row

To Cannery Row

There is only so much of any city I can take before it comes time to get out, and get some context. True, a lot of people call the urban environment home. For a time, I did too. However, one of the great human ironies is our want for the other side of the fence. Urbanites run to the countryside to take in the vineyards and hillsides and terrior. Country folk marvel at the oddities of the city life, the cost of a coffee, the window shopping. Suburbanites are caught in the middle, lost among the Stonehenge of ranches and split-levels, looking north to the city and south to the country. In San Francisco, locals flock to Napa, or southward to the rugged coastlines, to Monterey and onward still to Big Sur. Monterey is just far enough afield of San Fran–2 hours or 120 miles depending on your measure–that you can take in a fair amount of the region, and see a bit more of Cali than the oddities and predilections of the City by the Bay.

Garlic Fries

Getting to Monterey requires a brief sprint down through Garlic Country, of which Gilroy is the capital. Most of the nation’s garlic comes from this corner of fertile California, just south of Silicon Valley. Not even the most powerful air filter will keep the bouquet of that favorite foodie flower from your nose. Garlic fries, a regional staple, bring together the great snack food of America with the regional favorite. Garlic fries proper will include a healthy dusting of flat-leaf parsley. This is one San Fran to Monterey predilection I could not pass up. As a courtesy, you ought to share some with your friends, especially if they are driving you on a two hour jaunt to Monterey.

I may have neglected to do so, causing for a few subtle offerings of Mentos and Altoids in my general direction.

Monterey, of course, is also a city by a bay, a very large bay that used to be full of sardines. Changing sea currents obliterated the sardine industry there by 1940. John Steinbeck wrote an homage to the gritty fishmonger’s life in his Cannery Row novella. Of Cannery Row, he said:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”–John Steinbeck, Cannery Row.

2011-08-20 Monterey County 102 Monterey, Cannery Row

Cannery Row nowadays is embalmed, the old grit made glossy, the stone pavers a bit too clean, the air crisp. The whore houses, those Maison Derrieres, are now B&B’s. The old canneries are monuments, with their old owners names repainted on the clapboards.

Steinbeck didn’t have much love for his homeland, often critical of the region. The creative lot never do settle for provincialism. Small towns, with their clannish and gossipy citizens, chase out those sons and daughters, those oddballs that try to make something new. I always find it an bit cannibalistic when a small town shuns a freethinker, then tries to cash in when the weird boy made good. In my corner of the map, you see those towns…Salem, Indiana preserved the birthplace of Lincoln’s aide and former Secretary of State John Hay (though Hay never returned there, preferring the Society folks in and around Lafayette Park and the White House). Lincoln’s boyhood home in Indiana, his Springfield, Illinois manse, and his Kentucky birthplace are memorialized even though he too never looked back. Same for Hannibal, Missouri (Twain) or Gary, Indiana (Michael Jackson). Mother irony had the last laugh on the native Steinbeck too, as a Monterey museum in his honor smacks of revision and hagiography; the wax figures of the man kept as a roadside oddity.

DSC26366, Cannery Row, Monterey, California, USA

Do the locals know they lost the character of the place? Does anyone morn the loss the old Cannery Row? The preservation of the look, the ruins of the industry, allow for local color to remain in the background of a revived destination, its survival based on the sole source of tourism. Some say this resurrection of the waterfront saved Old Monterey from becoming a sterile, glass waterfront of condos, the bay closed off from public viewing. Cannery Row as a concept, as a destination, thrives with its new symbiont dwelling inside the old host. Sardines out, Sales in.

Cannery Row could not survive as a singular draw to the region. Not even the modest legion of Steinbeck fans, who perhaps first read The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, or Travels with Charley in high school could not support the local economy, especially in pricey California.  Monterey Bay is an Avalon, raining, if ever, in the morning; 65 degrees year ’round and sunny. Pebble Beach Golf Course is over the hill, and Carmel By the Sea provides the yuppies their share of boutiques. Seafood is fresh and plentiful. Cannery Row then survives on the back of other regional tourism, unlike other small towns who have tried to build an attraction around a famous son, like Buffalo Bill’s Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado, or the James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, Indiana.

Sea lion yoga, among the redder ones anyway.... IMG_0047_2

Despite this assessment, it is hard not to like Monterey Bay, the vistas azure, the hills rolling into the sea. I have yet to meet a Californian from this part of the country in a bad mood, and how could you carry on when a breezy, sunny day awaits you. Coastal life is right in town, the sea otters, sea lions and harbor seals basking on the break walls and the leviathan grey whales making their sojourn through the off-shore sanctuary. My focus and joy in this Disneyfied re-creation was learning about, and eating some of, the marine life of the region.

Attack of the Jellyfish

The Monterey Aquarium is worth the trek around the Bay. Ocean lovers should know that this aquarium is among the very best in the nation, with enormous tanks that give the impression of standing before, and under, an endless sea. Indoor and outdoor exhibits help visitors to better understand the region’s diverse ecology. In addition, the Aquarium puts out a dining guide, Seafood Watch, for which marine life to indulge, which are over-fished, and which are full of mercury. Taking my little guide, I met up with my travel companions at the Fish Hopper, perhaps the only restaurant on the Cannery Row strip that was not a chain (Bubba Gump) or a chain in disguise (the Chart House). (There is alas, another location in Hawaii) Every last seafood house, regardless of how large or small, proudly supports the neighboring aquarium’s recommended eating list.



Marching up the gangway of the kitschy foyer, I announce “I’ve been waiting all day for this!”

“Except for that garlic fries binge.” reminded my driving co-worker.


“I thought you were vegetarian?”

I wasn’t going to allow that interrogation to stand.

“Sort of, my wife is okay with my seafood eating.”

“How’s that work?”

“Dunno. Perhaps it is because they had a fair fight, and lived in the wild rather than in a feed lot.”

There sat before me in the menu the Dungeness Crab, market rate. And, the crab made the Seafood Watch list of being a “best choice.” Being more of an East Coast pescatarian at the time, I never really had a chance for fresh caught Dungeness as I did Maryland Blue Crab. There is of course, no comparison–Maryland Blue Crabs are runts compared to the armored tank Dungeness. Those spikes along the legs make for a meal that fights back. As the plate arrived, the setting sun over the Monterey Bay, igniting the harbor below, all cantankerous thoughts about the mummification of the old Row faded away. I imagine for Steinbeck, he’d be okay with this transfiguration. After all, he called cosmopolitan New York City, not provincial orange groves, his home. Aside from his countenance modeled in wax for the tourist crowd, the nearby National Steinbeck Center provides those devotees a more sophisticated shrine. Perhaps the new Cannery Row may have suited him well.

Steinbeck Wax Photo credit: jimg944 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Cannery Row Today Photo credit: Allie_Caulfield / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Old Cannery Row

Garlic Fries Photo credit: youngrocky / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Monterey Aquarium Photo credit: Schill / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Fish Hopper Photo credit: davidandbevtravel / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Monterey Sea Lions Photo credit: wbaiv / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)