In Search of Hot Brown

Barbaro Statue @ Churchill Downs

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It is Kentucky Derby week, and while mint juleps and big hats abound in the Derby City, inspiring many a local color blog this week,  my memories of Louisville start with Bourbon and end at the Brown Hotel.

Louisville is called a lot of things–the northernmost city of the South, or, the southernmost city of the North depending on your political stripes. Locals can’t even agree on the correct pronunciation of the ‘burg–some opting for the Bourbon-dripping “Luh-Vuhl”, or the casually-tossed “Louaville.” I have always preferred the way I learned it from an FBI field officer–the textbook Midwestern “Lou-WEE-ville” with just enough of an upswing on the Louie to feign a knowledge of French diction. After all, the town was named for King Louis XIV back when Kentucky was just another piece of New France. Louisville doesn’t show off her French pedigree like St. Louis or New Orleans. Louisville, detached from empire, sitting on the old antebellum superhighway known as the Ohio River, has aged gracefully. She is a southern belle known for hospitality, horses, Bourbon and most recently, basketball. While the home of Colonel Sanders, Muhammad Ali, and the Louisville Slugger, I was in search of another native on this trip, Hot Brown. While Hot Brown would be an excellent name for a racehorse, the name has been taken by a comfort food dish instead.

The Hot Brown is nothing special. Wars are not going to be fought over it, nor will a Cordon Blu bedeck it. The Hot Brown has its roots as English pub food–a “knife and fork” open face sandwich, deconstructed well before “molecular gastronomy” was in vogue. The dish was first offered on the dinner menu at The Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville around 1923. The Hot Brown was offered up as an alternative to the sauce-and-cheese-sodden Welsh Rarebit. The Hot Brown–with its carved turkey breast, white sauce and bacon–is more of an upscale chipped meat and gravy over toast, known to the colorful GI’s of the “Greatest Generation” as “Shit On A Shingle.” My Appalachian dad’s version was known as the more kid-friendly “Gravy Bites.” In all of its forms, the open faced sandwich is comfort food. And here in regal Louisville, I’d find the Triple-Crown Hot Brown, somewhere.

But where to find the Hot Brown?  To my knowledge, the old Brown Hotel was now a Hilton, whose history I will discuss in a moment. With the old Brown Hotel off my radar, I made the slightly careless assumption that the official dish of Louisville could be found in most sit-down restaurants. After all, in other cities around the US, I can find rival claims to the best interpretation of the local classic–Chicago’s deep dish, Philly’s cheesesteaks, and New York’s pizza. My first go at the search was not in Louisville at all,  but across the river, at the casinos over in Indiana. A foolish error. What Caesar’s Palace food trough would bother to keep the dish close to authenticity, where the goal was quantity over quality? Certainly the Caesar’s mealy-mouthed version was not the prizewinning Hot Brown of lore?

4th Street Live

Back in the Bluegrass State, I redoubled my effort, by trekking through Louisville’s main pedestrian drag–4th Street Live. 4th Street Live is a unique redevelopment–a giant glass canopy shields several blocks of Louisville’s main artery, creating a quasi-open air mall feeling along the old corridor. By day, the corridor is a simple road with a lid. By evening, the road is closed off, and the masses come out under the glass and neon. In concept, the pedestrian feels welcome to wander through. The area is a gathering place for big events, like the city’s Halloween and Derby weekends and free concerts. However, in execution, 4th Street is awash with the usual travel dining suspects–Hard Rock Cafe, TGI Fridays and the newer national chains, such as Howl at the Moon. The Maker’s Lounge–the local pub run by Kentucky’s own Maker’s Mark could offer me dishes as exotic as Hasenpfeffer and Elk, but no Hot Brown. None of those options would lead me to the local delicacy. However, I was starting to wonder if the Hot Brown could be called a local delicacy if no one served it. I continued my amble out of 4th Street Live and into (at the time) a less gentrified segment of downtown Louisville, quickly realizing that I had left the crowds behind. However, by happy accident lay before me the Brown itself, restored to its former glory.

Brown hotel lobby
After the Brown Hotel gave to the world its Hot Brown sandwich, the establishment withered and disappeared. The Grande Dame of all hotels in Louisville, hosting Queen Elizabeth, Harry Truman, Elizabeth Taylor and Muhammad Ali in its heyday was not a tourist draw by the 1960’s. Tourists stayed closer to Churchill Downs, and aside for that first week in May when the horses run “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” few travelers made Louisville a destination. Hard times shuttered the doors in the 1970’s, and the building became the local school district headquarters. For decades, the Hot Brown was homeless. And like the Dodo bird of sandwiches it is, it almost became extinct. The building became a hotel again in the 80’s–a Hilton–but only in 2006, the time of my visit–did I discover the Brown Hotel, almost like a mirage turning into brick and stone, a ghost back from the dead.

In the lobby bar of the Brown, I found everything I desired in this Kentucky dining excursion. My choice of Bourbons proudly distilled in the Commonwealth began the meal. While everyone knows Maker’s Mark is a go-to on the top shelf, I have always liked the modest complexities of Buffalo Trace–an excellent alternative to Maker’s and a few bucks cheaper. Usually I might cut it with ginger ale and a twist of lime (also known as, snobbishly, an Intellectual), but I sensed I might offend a Kentucky Colonel or two if I did so. So, the beverage came neat. Louisville is the northernmost Southern city after all, so I knew I could sip at the bar without the concern of a busy barkeep to keep the seats and tabs turning over.

Opening the pub fare menu, there before me was the object of my desire, front and center:

THE HOT BROWN $17
A Louisville Tradition since 1926
Roasted Turkey Breast and Toast Points Covered with Sauce Mornay, Pecorino Romano Cheese
Baked Golden Brown and Finished with Bacon and Tomatoes

I can offer no better precis of the dish. Caesar’s Palace over in Indiana erred with a bland sauce topped in Cheddar. Others in Louisville substitute a Cheese-whizesque goo. The Mornay sauce–with a Bechamel base of butter and flour with the cheese folded in gently–offers a aged and musky complexity that helps to embellish the broad canvas of turkey breast. The toast points sop up the sauce, the bacon and tomatoes with their smoked fattiness and acid are a fine garnish that you are welcome to eat. The entire enterprise is baked in a shallow dish. Indeed, a pub food cleaned up for the supper crowd.

The famous Hot Brown

However, this invasive platter is designed to put its host organism into a coma. Carbo-loaded bread and gravy, Tryptophan-laced turkey, and the Bourbon cocktails were enough to put down this race horse before the witching hour. Which is fine, as Louisville doesn’t offer much at that hour to begin with, the southern bells retiring for the evening when it is “sleepy time down South.” Or is that “up North?”

Barbaro Photo credit: @bdthomas / Foter.com / CC BY

Hot Brown Photo credit: Pete Karl II / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Brown Hotel Lobby Bar Photo credit: Retromoderns / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

4th Street Live Photo credit: bigwoodie / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Big Hats Photo credit: L.Burchfield / Foter.com / CC BY

http://www.brownhotel.com/

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Duke Chapel

Duke Chapel in fog

The chapel on Duke University’s campus is a rarity in America–a true-to-form Gothic cathedral built in the resplendent manner of those spires and arches of Old Europe. Only a handful of American church buildings reach the grandeur of their European cousins–the Washington National Cathedral in DC, the unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, St. Patrick’s also in New York, and the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.  Cathedral building was a deliberate enterprise in the Old World. Generations of nameless ancestors toiled to finish mere yards of the building in their lifetimes. They knew that history might not remember their names, but their deeds and the work of their hands, their effort would survive the millennia. In the US, the adolescent impatience of the new American gentry saw to it that cathedral building was done in mere decades. The Washington National Cathedral–the 10th largest in the world–was finished from cornerstone to finial in 90 years, and Duke University Chapel, in three.

While the American spirit has always been forward leaning, the reach back to pre-colonial building vocabularies is very rare. All of those aforementioned cathedrals share in common a similar starting date in construction–the years of the “Gilded Age” through the “Jazz Age.”–1880 to 1920. American wealth had come onto the world stage during that time, and its tycoons were looking to emulate those patrons of Europe’s old towns, using the ancient vocabulary of English Dukes and Earls to etch themselves into the ages. The Rockefellers and others would build their cathedrals ostensibly for the Glory of God, so long as they received a “modest” second billing.

Duke University Chapel has similar beginnings, as the apex of the Duke family legacy as chief benefactor to the then-named “Trinity College.” So generous were the descendents of George Washington Duke that the trustees of the University changed the name of the southern school to honor their patron family. Duke University Chapel would serve as a monument not only to the Church’s Methodist heritage, but also as a monument to the Duke family.

I am a sucker for college campuses. I was nostalgic for my universities before I even left them. At semester’s end, when my studies were done, I would turn to my universities’ libraries and pick through the rare and historical book stacks, looking at the old images in dusty centenary yearbooks. I would stick around my various campus apartments after my peers returned home, wandering those campuses in solitude, taking the pulse of the history around me. No longer a big man on campus, I am just an outsider looking in. However, when I travel and a campus is nearby, I throw on my most casual wear, a tattered baseball hat and for a moment, pretend to be in my 20’s again, taking in a college yard.

For this trip, I was in Raleigh, and I knew that Duke and her chapel were not far away.  I had but an evening to spend in the Raleigh-Durham area, and felt that I couldn’t pass up a stroll around one of America’s most beautiful campuses. The whole of Duke’s campus is in the “collegiate Gothic” architectural style that can be found at colleges across America, although only Duke, Indiana and Princeton really mastered it. The tall vertical spire is placed at the highest point of Duke’s campus, providing the focal point of this university and an easy landmark to find while trying to find the campus without the use of some GPS gizmo.

At the time of my visit, students at Duke and across the nation were enthralled by art that was more horizontal. Tucker Max, the former Duke student who became the sage of the debauched, released his second book, “Assholes Finish First,” about the time I was in town. Max was the innovator of “fratire”–the definitive libertine or depraved par excellence of the 2000’s–and held more interest with the student body at this point in the Annals of Duke’s history. It is a rare talent–if one can call it that–who can raise smut writing and misogyny to a new offensive benchmark. Max somehow did it. A former Duke law student, he wrote in graphic detail of his years as a student by day and Lothario by night. And he wasn’t alone. In response, a co-ed kept her own exploits via a Powerpoint presentation that was leaked by peers, detailing her own conquests like a lab experiment. Despite the shadow of cathedral Gothic over the private dorms and quiet quarters, Duke’s students–or at least the most vocal of them–were followers of Bacchus.

Walking amid the cloistered quarters of the old campus, I am reminded of my own naivete when I first shuttled off to college years before, expecting that the halls of academia were for the monastical solely devoted to the liberal arts and cultivating the seedbed of inquiry. Duke’s students had other ideas about seedbeds, as do most who ply in the college humor trade. Duke’s grand campus is a homage to a long-lost era of learning–a time when a universities had honor codes and the deans could act in loco parentis–in the place of parents–on students’ social matters. American benefactors were trying to create little Oxfords all over the country. Those donors perhaps forgot that Oscar Wilde was a graduate of Oxford. Not even the granite could stand the erosive spray of effulgent cheap wit that comes with every wave of freshman. You might take me for a prude at this point, however, I do not seek a return to that Pollyannish era of honor codes and phony purity.  How could anyone judge, when so many virile and nubile youth are sequestered behind glass and stone? To each his own.

Duke University Chapel Durham North Carolina

Entering the Chapel, the vast maw of the nave opens before me, right to the grand alter in the cathedral choir. The soaring groin vault seems to have its own atmosphere at its height. I try to erase any ideas of Tucker defiling some conquest on the altar, and recalibrate for a moment. I know a few Duke grads and native sons, and many of them have fond memories of the time the spent in the Chapel, for services, commencement and classical music concerts. One friend took his commencement walk here in high school  with the students processing to the only music that can really fill the vast interior choir and nave–Wagner. Other peers have sung Beethoven’s 9th, another earth-moving force of nature, within those limestone walls.

Of course, I can’t judge Tucker very harshly, as even the chapel was built on the back of older bad habits and sophomoric past times–the American tobacco obsession. The Duke family acumen took the winnings of their tobacco farms, produced Lucky Strike cigarettes and later diversified into to what is now Duke Energy. Now, one has to be careful to judge the Dukes–while tobacco use was an abomination to the temperance pushers–the Dukes did not know that tobacco was such an unhealthy habit.  But I detect that this building may belie a slight remorse. While Methodist Episcopalian in belief, the Dukes seemed to carry the Catholic desire (or guilt?) for leaving good works behind–in this chapel.  But when I turn the corner, I am disabused again. A side chapel serves as the Duke mausoleum. The Dukes are entombed under Michelangelo’s prized Carrera marble under effigies equal to the Renaissance master by Charles Keck.

I take a seat alone in the Chapel, looking around me, thinking of how under-used this old stone behemoth was in the center of campus. Perhaps the outsized presence of a holy place is the yin to the yang of the recent exploits and conquests of both sexes on campus. Clearly, the life of the campus was teaming elsewhere. All the students would pass from this chapel and through these cloisters into the world, already more worldly.

Side Entrance to Chapel

Duke Chapel in Fog Photo credit: Theomania61 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Duke Chapel interior Photo credit: Captain Kimo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Duke Chapel side entrance Photo credit: Compulsion / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Gypsy Chickens of the Conch Republic

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Key West shares a distinction with the other hard-to-reach places in the remotest corners of America, such as Alaska, Hawaii, the San Juan Islands of Washington State, Maine, and even Guam. The locales are so far removed from the American nerve centers of commerce and industry that those places take on a deep and rich regionalism of their own. Why do people seek to be “away?” A quote from the 2002 movie, Insomnia, bounced through my head to help me answer:

“Two kinds of people live in Alaska. Those who were born here. And those who are running away from something. I was not born here” says the hotel manager to the visiting FBI man, hot on a case.

Perhaps we do flee from our routines to the corners of America for solace–whether vacationer, retiree or a fugitive. When not traveling for work, I try to get as far away from my workplace as possible. Key West is at least as south as I can get without leaving the US.

True locals to these remotest places know a foreigner when they see one. In truth, everyone in Key West is from someplace else. The first waves of immigrants were loyalists to the crown during the American Revolution, then waves of Spanish seeking refuge from the mainland annexation of Florida by the US, then Cubans, then itinerant writers like Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, and even the eventual poet laureate of Key West, Shel Silverstein. Generations of irascible, life-loving hedonism has given the island a fierce independent streak.

In Key West, the native born are happy to call themselves Conchs (KONKS) after their preferred name–the Conch Republic. If some locals had it their way, they would separate from the Union. In fact, the locals celebrate April 23 as their Independence Day, after a 1982 highway construction dispute with the U.S. Department of Transportation caused the island to be cut off from the mainland by road for a bit. This was followed by a misunderstanding with the U.S. Department of Defense, who planned to conduct a simulated island invasion without telling the locals beforehand. Island lawyers cite the both the highway separation and invasion by the federal government as “de facto” independence, but I digress.

Welcome To The Conch Republic

The Conchs have their own symbols. Their flag honors the pink shell on a field of navy. They issue their own passports. The airport has a “Welcome to the Conch Republic” sign on the tarmac. And their national bird? An easy choice–the feral cocks of the Florida Keys, and I am not referring to the drunken men, scrappy vagabonds, Parrotheads and Hemingway look-a-likes that populate the island.

You cannot go anywhere without seeing roosters and hens in Key West. Feral roosters revert to their un-domesticated, natural state quickly, roosting in the banyan trees, crowing at dawn (a perfect alarm clock on vacation if there is such a thing), and fighting for their territory around downtown.

The Gypsy Chickens, as they are known, are as much a Key West icon as the Hemingway House, Sloppy Joe’s Bar, and the Southernmost Point in the Continental US. Like most origin stories, the tale of the exact arrival of the gypsies is foggy. Most stories point to the emigrant Cubans to Cayo Hueso (the Spanish name for Key West). In the 1840’s, refugees from the hostilities in Havana brought to Key West their cuisine, cigars and cock fighting. Cock fighting was a legitimate past time of the Key until the 1970’s, when the practice was banned. As a result, many disgruntled gamblers released them into the wild.

Technically, the chicken is an invasive species in the Key, and locals are split on whether they are nostalgic or a nuisance. The debate has achieved conflagration into a flame-broasted full scale argument that the Conchs call the “Chicken War.” For those whom the bird is more popular than Jimmy Buffett (perhaps why he never penned “Chicken Sammich in Paradise.”), the cocks are living history, and augment the eccentricities of the island. Those opposed cite the constant damage to property, bird poo on their cars and havoc to the ecosystem. The nays had an advantage in the 2009 flu pandemic, saying that the islanders might be at risk from a bird flu. Opponents also prefer the chickens as an entree over entertainment.

The island tries to control for population, sending off captured and noisome cocks to the mainland for “retirement.” When the locals became worried that “retirement” meant boarding in a bucket KFC value meal, the Key West Wildlife Center was established. The Center sends off the surplus birds to mainland refugee ranges. The keepers on the mainland will allow tourists who desire to take home a bit of the islands to adopt a chicken for a modest fee. (Interested? You can email SallyDIABLO@aol.com for your very own gypsy chicken.)

Most tourists in Key West seek out the Jimmy Buffett experience–sun-bleached clothes, open container laws, island shabbiness, and the free spirit that the island has always offered the libertine vagabond. Older tourists in elastic waistbands eschew the margarita for Key Lime Pie. I find the definition of Key West not in the Hemingway Cats or Conch fritters but in those feral chickens. They sum up the history of the island–Cuban refugees, low-brow entertainment, invasive species, independent spirit, and national emblem of the Conch Republic.

For more reading, check out these blogs, who do greater justice to their beloved gypsies than I do (and provided some sources for this post).

Explore Key West History

The Real Key West

Gypsy Chickens

Photo Credit: The author, January, 2011.

Mom and Chicks Photo credit: SimonM. / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Conch Republic Photo credit: ksr8s / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Old Country: River Rats, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania

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Some immigrant families to the US talk of life in the old country–the ancestral homeland. They speak of their family traditions and culture, and often highlight the best of their old traditions that do not translate well to the American lifestyle. As the migrating generation becomes a parent, then a grandparent, those traditions fade. For the new generation, at some point they may ask questions about the homelands, and hope someone can answer them.

Most people do not know too much about their grandparent’s grandparents. As living memory departs, only the detritus of their lives remains. Photos and newspaper clippings, old deeds and lock boxes, obsolete watch fobs and old clothes are left to reconstruct the story for the young generations who care to listen. The only connection we moderns might have to our ancestral homelands is to actually go there, to see the same vistas that perhaps our grandparents did, to walk in the woods that they too might have walked, to find neighborhoods and street addresses and take in a scenic site that might have been around in their time.

Americans whose families have been here awhile do not have those immediate stories of  the old country. They have been stewing in the great American melting pot for so long that any unique heritage has been well-boiled. Surely, we know that we are from some place “over there,” and maybe an odd tradition or foodstuff is still used in the home.

My family roots in America are older than the Republic. My pioneers became farmers, then smithies, then coal miners and factory shop guys. They are all Scots-Irish. My ancient kin were the kind of Scots that no one wanted around. First they were kicked out of Scotland by the landed gentry, then off the Ulster plantation because they couldn’t get along with the Irish. They found their way to the ends of the new world at that time, the Appalachian Mountains and in the valleys of what would become Western Pennsylvania in the 1760’s. And in those hills they named their villages after the towns in their old country that showed them the door–Donegal and Somerset, and after the people who expelled them, Lords Pitt and Westmoreland.

My old country remains the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. On a clear evening, up in those old, withered mountains, you can keep an eye on the city folk in Pittsburgh, the peaks of the PPG crystal castle sticking up over the horizon. General Washington had a similar idea 237 years ago, when asked what he might do if the British won the war:

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If defeated everywhere else, I will make my stand for liberty among the Scots-Irish…”

Washington knew that from this vista, he might see the British coming. And given the Scots-Irish were born fighting, from the Scottish lowlands, to Ulster Ireland, to Colonial America, it must have seemed to Washington like the best way to go. Intriguingly, thirty years later, the wily Scots-Irish rebelled against father Washington himself, when the federal government proposed a whiskey tax here in these foothills. Perhaps Washington remembered his allegiance to the Scots-Irish, for when he quelled the Whiskey Rebellion, he pardoned many of the fighting Scots-Irish, and left them to their hollers and hillsides.

The Laurel Highlands are still peppered with those descendents. The mountains get their name from the “Mountain Laurel”–the spoonwood plant. Mountain Laurel is a signature plant in the Appalachia, growing along the mountain range from Georgia to New York. The waxy leaves cover up old logging in old growth forests. The people in those hills have been called a lot of things over the years, “Hilljack” being the most pejorative. Some of us got off of the mountain, and are barely recognizable to those family we left up there. But we share that old country, and that vista.

Mountain Laurel in Bloom by a Little Waterfall

River Rats

Before the age of amusement parks, people had to find their fun for free. And in the Laurel Highlands, locals headed to the watering holes that can be found all over southwest Pennsylvania. Ohiopyle, a small village of 59 people in Fayette County, still offers those experiences. Ohiopyle is a river rat’s home. Canoing, whitewater rafting and cheap beer–Stoney’s, Straub and even Iron City–by the case (as that is the only way it is sold in Pennsylvania) abound in this country corner. The summers are cooler in the mountains, the water runs briskly. Ohiopyle offers the water slide enthusiast a singular experience–a “natural waterslide” carved into the creekbeds around the Youghiogheny River.

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Fallingwater

Before too long, the city slickers found out about the whitewater, and with the advent of the automobile and the transcontinental Lincoln Highway, they arrived. The most famous of the new money to find their way to Ohiopyle was Edgar Kaufmann, the owner of a major department store in downtown Pittsburgh. His family set up a modest campsite at Mill Run, just outside of Ohiopyle. Kaufmann decided to set up a more permanent weekend retreat, and connected with an architect looking to re-start his career as the eminent architect of his, or any era. Kaufmann’s wallet and Frank Lloyd Wrights ceaseless creatively created one of the most famous residences in the world, Fallingwater.

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Fallingwater earned Frank Lloyd Wright world-wide acclaim. Franklin Toker, in his book “Fallingwater Rising” points out that so much of this house’s international acclaim was due to the efforts of Kauffman himself to promote Wright’s work to William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce–media moguls who spread the word about this oddity in Hearst’s newspapers and Luce’s Time magazine. In the years that followed, celebrities and global personalities would make the winding trek to Fallingwater to experience high architecture with nature running through it. What the hilljacks must have thought when Albert Einstein rolled past the one-stop-light towns, perhaps stopping for gas, hair akimbo, seeking directions to Kaufmann’s house at a local general store.

For this trip to Ohiopyle and Fallingwater, I teamed up with the Elder Eclectic–my dad. These woods and hillsides were his homeland. Yet, in the fifty plus years of his life, he never managed a visit over to Fallingwater.

“Too fancy,” his response.”But Ohiopyle has some nice campin’.”

It sure does. Ohiopyle State Park surrounds the little town, and offers a lot of seclusion under the mountain laurel, easy access to those natural water slides, and if you clean yourself up, a visit to Fallingwater once dry.

Cucumber Falls, long exposure, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

I did get my dad in the front door of Fallingwater despite the fanciness. That Scots-Irish DNA is indelible. Suspicion of those gentry in any century, and a love of the outdoors. When Kaufmann built his dream cabin, few homes in the Laurel Mountains had indoor plumbing, let alone running water or electricity. Those cabins might have had a few rooms, maybe. The city slicker built a pleasure dome for himself right in the middle of the Lost Tribes of Scotland.

Many a tourist has written their impressions of the home, and I will offer a few of my own here. The building is an engineering marvel, cantilevered into the bedrock, the floors are the burnished cliff side, Mill Run flows right through the house. Wright constantly plays with the senses of where nature ends and where the home begins. The tour ends with a women’s committee–the city folk–making a pitch to save Fallingwater and other Wright treasures in the region. I have to say, this bit of the tour falls on deaf ears, as any donation to southern Pennsylvania might be better spent at a food bank or shelter. Wright has global support, the Scots-Irish do not.

PA - Mill Run: Fallingwater - Dressing Room

Many tourists march through my old country without taking much of that scenery in. That is their folly. The reason Kaufmann built the house in the Appalachian foothills was because he was seeking the vistas and solitude it provided. He wanted that experience in the woods as well, just on his terms. As for Fallingwater, to best understand Frank Lloyd Wright, you have to appreciate his effort to blend all of his architecture into its natural surroundings. Wright’s first homes evoked the horizontal line of the Midwestern prairie. His Arizona homes would never be built taller than the Saguaro cactus or as he called it “Arizona’s skyscraper.” Both Kauffman and Wright loved the nature that surrounded Fallingwater as much as the building itself.  To visit there without keeping that in mind is to miss the whole spirit of the place.

Fallingwater remains the reason why most tourists will bear the descent from the civilizing Pennsylvania Turnpike into hollers and ravines and into towns where even fast-food hasn’t penetrated, to get a glimpse of Frank’s masterwork. Yes, dear reader, it is a draw for this collector of the eclectic as well. But as the tourist holds onto his lunch, praying for the hillside drive to end quickly, I take in the vistas, the streams, the mountain laurel, the cold mountain air of my old country. And if you allow for a moment, it can be your adopted old country as well.

Laurel Mountains Photo credit: macwagen / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Pittsburgh vista photo credit jmd41280 / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Fallingwater Photo credit: pablo.sanchez / Foter.com / CC BY

Natural Waterslides Photo credit: y0chang / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Cucumber Falls at Ohiopyle Photo credit: Alaskan Dude / Foter.com / CC BY

Fallingwater Interior Photo credit: wallyg / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Mountain Laurel Photo credit: Thruhike98 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The Billy Goat

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In 1978, the Saturday Night Live writer Don Novello created the “Olympic Cafe” sketch for John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Akyroyd. In the sketch, the trio play a family of short-order cooks at the busy cafe. As customers arrive, the cashier brothers and short-order cook cousins shout down the customer’s orders, by repeating the only three items that the cafe carried…

“I’ll have a grilled cheese, fries and a coke.”

“No grill cheese, Chee-borger!”

“A coke?”

“No coke! Pez-zi!”

“Fries”

“No fries! Cheeps!”

The Olympic Cafe is a real place. Novello based his sketch on the Billy Goat Tavern, the simple Chicago cafe and burger joint founded by Billy Sianis in the 1930’s. The original tavern relocated under the elevated Michigan Avenue in the 1950’s. Situated in the epicenter of the Chicago publishing complex, the pub was a frequent haunt of Tribune and Sun-Times newspapermen, including the legendary columnist Mike Royko and film critic Roger Ebert. The place probably hasn’t been renovated since the 1950’s.  Encased under years of grill smoke, grease and grit is the history of 20th century Chicago–newspapers, accoutrements, and photos of favorite sons. Royko, Sianis and many old Chicago personalities are all gone, but their ghosts linger in the old wood panels, Formica and linoleum of the grotto where the original Billy Goat Tavern thrives.

Over the years, the Billy Goat has become a required stop for aspiring politicos, hungry locals, and camera-happy tourists. Certainly the business has suffered from the “observer-expectancy” effect in psychology–when someone thinks they are being watched, they change their behavior. I say suffer in that, the cantor’s bellowing of “chee-borger, chee-borger” might just be for show now. After all, business is good. Billy Goat has franchised the original, opening locations in the tourist trap Navy Pier, and even as far afield as downtown Washington, DC for Chicago ex-patriots. I opted for the original venue on my last Chicago excursion. Does the original Billy Goat ham it up for the crowd, I wondered?

Taking the stairwell below street-level, I leave the bright sky and pantheon of Chicago’s sky scape for the dark Chicago netherworld, a complex, tiered roadway that keeps downtown Chicago moving beneath the sidewalks above. A flickering streetlight casts a harsh beam onto the sidewalks and the riveted steel trusses above me. It could be any time of day upstairs. Immediately off the stairwell, hanging over the sidewalk and the front door is the tell-tale sign. I’ve arrived. Time for my SNL debut.

Entering, the lights are dim. People wait in line, but it is moving, jogging almost. Aside from the sizzling of the beef, the next sound I hear is:

“Chee-Borger! No fries, chips! No Pepsi, Coke!”

Was this a tourist ruse? Or, was the admonishment authentic? Billy Goat always served Coke, unlike the SNL sketch.

The line has to be moving faster, as I didn’t give much thought to what I wanted, but again, there were only a handful of choices. It seems the Billy Goat now has a variety of chips, and Coke products. And Schlitz Beer!

“Double chee-borger! Fries! No Coke, Schlitz!” I proclaim.

“Schlitz at the bar!” comes the retort.

I hand over my credit card.

“No credit, cash!”

Yikes. I didn’t recall that rule from the comedy sketch. Fortunately the prices were low enough that I did have some cash and change on me. Who can beat a $3 beer on a July evening in a big city? My burger arrives, glistening and naked on an over-sized Kaiser. There is a modest toppings bar to the side. The cashier has met his responsibility. Cheeseburger. Chips. For the fixin’s, you are on your own. Onion. Pickle. Lettuce.

No tomato, ketchup.

I take my burger to the bar. There, Billy Goat has their own brew. But for me, I couldn’t dare pass up on a Schlitz–an old Midwestern classic. Many a brewery were started by the sons of German immigrants to the Midwest. While Budweiser and Miller grew into behemoths, a few smaller  breweries did survive intact. In the case of Schlitz, nostalgia and venture capitalism saved the brand, being bought out by Pabst in the 90’s. Like Pabst, Schlitz is not anything special. However, it is the beer of the heartland, and a fine, clean lager suitable for washing down a greasy-spoon legend.

Across the way, I catch a glimpse of a women, mid-30’s, who’s a bit embarrassed by her company. The midlife crisis she came in with is a little deep into his bar tab. He hyper-extended his presence into the room, and unleashed through his Gary Busey-esque maw of teeth the words:

“Ask Not! What your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Ignoring the grammar of the famous line, Busey’s utterance, unexpected by the crowd, was silently acknowledged. A slight nod came from some before they returned to their private conversations.

A bit later, Busey rises for another:

“Ask NOT!…”

The bartender sees my perplexions, and offers “He’s an old navy guy. Loves America.”

Of course he does. His presence was a reminder that the Billy Goat has always been a Democrat’s tavern. During the 1944 Republican National Convention, Billy Goat hung a sign proclaiming “NO REPUBLICANS ALLOWED.” Busey seemed to have taken up the role of unofficial town crier, or Kennedy Cuckoo Clock, with his timely:

“ASK NA-HT!”

What was patriotic has now turned embarrassing for everyone.

“No kidding,” I mutter, “Another Schlitz?”

If you ever wanted to actually be in a sketch off of Saturday Night Life, step into the Billy Goat Tavern. Of course, the Billy Goat offers up more entertainment than just television impersonation. The original is far-more rewarding than any comedic or franchised facsimile.

Billy Goat Photo credit: Frank Gruber / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Sundance

Image

Nestled in the Wasatch Mountains, between Salt Lake City and Provo, and well above the valley, Robert Redford found solace under the shadow of Mt. Timpanogos. Redford bought 5000 acres around the mountain in 1969–a former small-time ski resort. Through good stewardship and a love for natural beauty, he achieved a work-life balance like few others have. Redford makes his home here, a progressive enclave surrounded by conservative Utahns. Of course, the politics of one of Utah’s most famous residents rarely seem to intertwine with state politics. Redford is an international man. And his Sundance Film Festival generates considerable revenue for nearby Park City (where the festival is now held). As Robert Frost observed in his poem “Mending Wall,” “Good fences make good neighbors.” Utah and Redford benefit from the relationship.

Sundance Resort offers the skier challenging runs on it slopes, as does many a Utah ski resort in the Wasatch. Redford offers more than just skiing at his home–he offers a retreat for aspiring artists in the studios on site. The resort is a sort of art-commune utopia fueled by high-end ski bunnies and Hollywood A-listers. The Sundance Institute–Redford’s vehicle to drive independent film–was founded here. The Institute was conceived by Redford to be a sanctuary for the independent auteur to practice his craft–putting original stories to film away from the intrigue of corporate Hollywood and the nattering of the political class.

The art-making at Sundance is not just limited to high art film. Classes for beginners and day-trippers include wheel-thrown pottery, jewelry making, and glass blowing. On-site artisans working in reclaimed and recycled materials make crafts from the used liquor and wine bottles from the resort’s kitchens. The whole aura of the place seems to keep in harmonious accord the will of an American film legend, the majesty of nature, the muses of the arts, and the ambition of capitalism. As Redford said of his Sundance:

“This place in the mountains, amid nature’s casualness toward death and birth, is the perfect host for the inspiration of ideas: harsh at times, life threatening in its winters of destruction, but tender in attention to the details of every petal of every wildflower resurrected in the spring. Nature and creativity obey the same laws,
to the same end: life.

Sundance Resort

My business partner and I were on a scouting mission of sorts. We were seeking a venue to host a corporate retreat, and Sundance was in the process of expanding their facilities to better accommodate corporate retreats for their off-season. We alighted right from the Salt Lake Airport, and this road trip marked my first visit to Utah.

Aspen Glade

I was completely unprepared for the vast contrasts in nature in Utah. The valley was reading 100 dry degrees in orange desert heat on the car thermometer. To the west was the Uinta mountain range, and to the east, the Wasatch. From the desert floor, at sea level, the highest ski resorts in those mountains reached 11,000 feet. And the difference in temperature could be as much as 60 degrees from the valley to the highest peak. Snow capped, those mountains are in July. In between the snow caps and the desert lie verdant hills of Aspen and Cottonwood, poking out of the karst. No wonder when Brigham Young saw the vista for the first time, he proclaimed: “This is the place.”

The roadway up to Sundance passes by icy mountain streams and a Piedmont filled with white-barked Aspen. I was there in summer, before the aspen leaves turned their signature golden hue. The road meanders up to the entrance, a monolith carved with the eponymous name greets us. We have arrived in a private, secluded place. A retreat.

the creek

Like any ski-resort, Sundance is trying to find a summer economy. However, unlike nearby Snowbird, this resort’s owner is a bit of a recluse. People do make the trip up to Sundance with the hope of getting a glimpse of Redford’s greying auburn locks, but they’ll have a challenge. Redford isn’t a hermit, but he is not the star attraction. Who is? The question is not who, but what. The resort is the draw. Our resort contact, let’s call him McKay, was there to give us the tour.

As we walk the grounds, the big nature is impressive. Timpanogos is a great proscenium for the stage play below in the valley.

“This is Mr. Redford’s favorite view,” offers McKay.

In the lunchroom, we are treated to a real west-coast-meets-mountain-man menu. Fish tacos with local caught trout, hand crafted wild berry lemonade with the little bits of berry tickling the tongue. Fair trade coffee and tea. And local goat cheese.

“Mr. Redford loves goat cheese” says McKay.

I am starting to detect a rather saccharine and slick strategy here.

“Do you have to say that? Mr. Redford loves this or that?” I ask.

“Well,” admits McKay, “Mr. Redford is part of the marketing.”

Redford doesn’t sell the place on me; the resort itself does. The main dining room, the “Tree Room” has an old oak trunk in the middle of it, piercing the roof. Taking his cues from Frank Lloyd Wright, Redford didn’t want to cut down the tree to make room for the new addition. So, he built around it. The tree itself is long dead. Its husk remains the centerpiece of the room.  McKay offers that it is the most likely place Redford will be if he is in Sundance, taking his dinner, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, among the guests.

“Do people bug him?” I ask.

“No, most guests understand that this place is Mr. Redford’s home and respect his space,” McKay admonishes.

I take him at his word. After all, Robert Redford is an actor of a different era. He has not been tabloid fodder in my living memory. He is also not a no-talent celebutant. Hollywood autograph hunters are not going to venture into the deepest parts of Utah and take on the expense of staying at Sundance just to get a glimpse of the man. You can sense that the guests have an initial frisson upon arrival that is replaced by serenity. While you might be a paying customer at Sundance, you get the feeling that your presence is a privilege–a chance to share in the aesthetic of this particular artist.

We walk from the agrestic lodge to the meeting rooms, adorned in reclaimed and re-purposed materials. The screening room has all of his films on original reel-to-reel, and they are scheduled for the guests. The room was the home of the first few years of the Sundance Film Festival, before the event became so large and clogged with internationalists and bi-coastal Learjetters that the works had to be moved to Park City. Now, the screening room is used by filmmakers in residence, who study film in a retreat setting, collaborating with Redford and resident artists to hopefully launch their careers.

Off to the junk piles in the back, where the artisans are hard at work turning the Tree Room’s refuse into art. Glassblowers take old liquor bottles–green Tanquary, blue Bombay Sapphire, nougat Amarillo and Bourbon, and orange Cointreau and spin out wonderful new glass works. I pick up a paperweight as a memento from my visit. I feel that taking pictures would be inappropriate, as if I were defiling a sacred space. (The photos in this post are the work of other shutterflies).

Parting company with McKay, I felt as if I just completed a day spa or a pilgrimage of a kind. I didn’t get a glimpse of Redford the man that day, nor did I get to meet him in spirit. The stress of my flight, the rocky ride up the mountain, and the business meeting melted away. All that was left was Redford’s gift, a communion with nature.

Creek Photo credit: Joi / Foter.com / CC BY

Resort Photo credit: drdad / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Aspens Photo credit: outdoorPDK / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Timpanogos Photo credit: debaird™ / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA