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 http://indianapolis-photos.funcityfinder.com/2014/03/21/rathskeller-inside-athenaeum-indianapolis-downtown/

Vonnegut childhood home http://chronicle.augusta.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/superphoto/editorial/images/spotted/19/195898.jpg

LS Ayers Tea Room http://www.indianamuseum.org/host-an-event/ayres-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 http://www.californiaimages.com/PacificCoast/Monterey.html

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)

Sunset http://ourdigitalmind.blogspot.com/2011/04/view-of-monterey-bay.html






Tipple the Hitch

Glass of Scotch

April 13th marks the 65th birthday of the late Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the most prominent polemicist and essay scribbler of his generation. Hitchens was a rakish provocateur in the model of Dylan Thomas’ style, George Orwell’s indignation with a command of English all of his own.

When working in the DC area, I discovered that Hitchens would stop off at the bar in my office building—Johnny’s Half Shell—before and after his appearances on C-SPAN, Fox and NBC News. At that time in my nascent career, I didn’t quite recognize the rumpled, khaki-suited man in the elevator, perfumed in eau de Nicotine. Sadly, that is my only memory of the man in the flesh.  However my co-worker—an intense analyst we dubbed “Lattimer”—was a passionate media junkie and celebrity hound. Lattimer was the kind of guy who’d stop off to offer up unsolicited recitations on his intense weekends.


                “Good morning, [Lattimer].”

Hwaet! What’s with the trench coat and penny loafers, G. Gordon Liddy?”

                “Funny. Don’t you have an education policy to ruin this morning?”

“You won’t believe who I drank with yesterday at Johnny’s”

                “No, I probably won’t.”

“Christopher Hitchens.” he said, allowing the name to resonate in the cube farm. “There he was, and I sat down and ordered him a Scotch.”

                “Expensive date, Lattimer.”

“Worth it.  Worth it. He talked to me for a full half-hour.”

While usually I’d dismiss this as a big fish tale, there is a kernel of truth in this retelling. Hitchens was known for his generosity of time with people, not just fellow intellectuals, but anyone, who could carry a conversation. He was also known for his love of Johnny Walker Black Label. Lattimer was no dumb jock—he knew policy and he knew people. I am sure Hitch would have dismissed him early on if he were boring (which was Hitch’s existential fear, boredom). For the fan-boy Lattimer, he engaged in near pick-up artist tactics to capture a leading mind of our time for a moment.

Hitch’s preferred poison was Johnny Walker Black, cut with Perrier. Like getting into Wagnerian Opera, Slow Foods, and Baseball, Scotch requires patience and perhaps a bit of personal tragedy to enjoy. I tend to look at my own preference for Scotch through the lens of honoring my Scots and Scots-Irish ancestors, as a communion over time, enjoying the same taste experienced by each generation. For Hitch though, Scotch provided inspiration and bestowed panache.

And how should one tipple like the Hitch? Only his own words will suffice the explanation:

“I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No “after dinner drinks”—most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. “Nightcaps” depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.”—“Hitch-22


Martin Amis, Hitch’s best friend in the world, advised him that “making rules about drinking is a sign of an alcoholic,” but nonetheless, rules there were:

“Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night. (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop.” –Hitch-22.

Perhaps too much thought has been given here to something delightful. I don’t particularly find rules and relaxation to go hand in hand. However, for those in the production of the arts—whether essays, music, craft or other culture–letting the rules go and indulging too much has led to exquisite cultural touchstones (The Beatles, Picasso, Oscar Wilde) and conversely I suppose, death (Kurt Kobain, Ernest Hemingway, Tchaikovsky).

Perhaps rules are a good thing, at least for the mixology. What is it about Scotch and soda that works exactly? For me anyway, bubbles are the difference between drinking a glass of motor oil or experiencing something transcendent. Think about it, like wine, Scotch sits a long time in a barrel, aging and growing grizzled, adding complexity where there was none before. Scotch develops character in the dark, dank underworlds.

(An aside: a few years back, I got to perform a stage production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. There is a moment in the opera where the prisoners are given a chance to see the sun for the first time in what must have been decades for them. I often think of Scotch’s liberation from the barrel with this music in mind.)

Water alone cannot help the Scotch along to breathe again in the sun. Bubbles—by way of club soda—is an accelerant. But the problem here is that club soda is just cheap carbonated water, cranked off in a factory, pumped through a bartender’s nozzle into a glass of finely crafted elixir. This is where Hitchens steps in, to champion an alternative solution—natural carbonation. And Perrier? Seems snobbish at first, but those natural bubbles and minerals seem to dance with the Highlanders, like French mermaids. In fact, when trying to think of an historical context where the French and Scots have aligned before, I think of Mary, Queen of Scots—the Scots-born Queen Consort of France and pretender to the English throne too. If not for Hitchens, we might think of the combo of Perrier and Scotch ordering up a “Queen Mary” instead.

So, in homage to Hitchens, and perhaps Queen Mary and (if I must), Latimer too, think of cutting your Johnny Walker with Perrier, the up-scaled Scotch and soda of our time. And on April 13th, remembering days of Auld Lang Syne, I join other Hitch fans in honoring the man of letters with his favorite restorative (Of which, several posts of “Henry’s Eclectic” have been aided tremendously.).


Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom / Foter / CC BY-SA 
Hitchens by Paintings on the Side by Cara and Louie: An original painting of Christopher Hitchens. Ink and Paint on Panel Original available for sale on Etsy.com

Pike Place Market


Pike Place Market

There is rarely a morning sun over Washington’s Cascade Mountains and volcanic range. Morning is Seattle is glacial grey and perpetually 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It is for this reason that the locals imbibe so much coffee—a caffeinated solution for the Vitamin D-filled sunshine locked behind the billowy clouds. Locals don the practical outerwear of outfitters like REI, Filson and Columbia, being prepared at a moment’s notice to take to the natural world surrounding the city. And tourists and locals alike scurry toward the Puget Sound for their provisions, where along the vast Seattle shoreline sits a venerable West Coast institution, Pike Place Market.

Most Americans know the name, usually declared in its short form, “Venti, Pike,” at a million Starbucks establishments daily. The Pike Place blend is named for the very first Starbucks location, along Market Street in the heart of the market district. Pike Place Market has, like many charming destinations, been overexposed by the foodie industry’s minions. You know the type—the food porn intelligentsia and celebrity chefs that scour every bit of America for that unique, authentic local experience. Pike Place is a curious tourist trap in that most of the goods for sale there are perishables—Dungeness Crab and Alaskan Salmon, regional berries, nuts and vegetables. The tourist will neither haul Pacific seafood on a 2000 mile flight back east, nor prepare a savory dish in their hotel room. Aside from the instant edibles in the market stalls, and the occasional shrink-wrapped fare, Pike’s offers memories for the senses to preserve.

Pike Place Fish Market

Fortunately, I first came to know Pike Place not through the prodding of a food porn huckster, but by one of those cheesy videos that Human Resource directors love—the team building/inspirational type. The FISH! Philosophy was inspired by the fishmongers at the heart of Pike Place, the ebullient staff revel in their fish handing, tossing 30+ lb salmon through the air to one another with abandon (tourists can now try their hand at catching the flying fish.)

I cannot help but feel in a good mood wandering through the food stalls, the boutique markets, despite the gloomy overcast skies. On my most recent visit, I caught myself whistling the same tune over and again, preserved here via a jazzy, muffled (albeit tinny and poorly tuned) trumpet.

What can the tourist take home from the market then? New visitors are forewarned: Prepare for sensory overload. The early morning sound of farmers and fishers unloading their bounty, the yeasty plume of baked bread fills the streets. The glint of crushed ice catches the neon from the stentorian signage.  Buskers claim their corner for the morning, eeking out the first chords on the guitar. The earliest of birds are up before the tourist onslaught, to get their groceries and drink deeply of their morning coffee rituals.

Vital Tea Leaf, Seattle

What began as kiosks and grocers’ stalls in 1907 has become a celebration of fare and the joie de vivre. I usually began my trips at the far end, near the Vital T-Leaf, a Taiwanese tea house offering the visitor an authentic tea house experience. Sitting at the counter, the vendor prepares samples for his guests, reading the reaction of the sippers to the fermented pu-erh, the grassy green needle and the peaty monkey-picked varieties of green tea. Showing the correct temperature and method for steeping his prized teas (some of which are in the hundreds of dollars per pound), I settle on my particular favorite–Tie Guan Yin–the “Iron Goddess” oolong tea. He is as proud of his calligraphy as he is of his tea, and marks my sachet with the Chinese characters for the Iron Goddess.

Making cheese

There are other worthy delights. Piroshky-Piroshky offers up savory Slavic pies and pockets. Nearby Beecher’s has put cheese making on display, as cheesemongers curdle and press massive tablets of soft cheese for their toasted sandwiches and satin mac-n-cheese. And the Confectional offers up the sinfully decadent cheesecake truffle–a perfect trinity of candy, cake and chocolate.

The 1st Starbucks

Each of these vendors hopes for the good luck of another once-local, now international vendor, who grew from its humble roots as a 70’s era coffee and espresso shop into an American success story. Starbucks has maintained its store number one, complete with its Renaissance (yet burlesque) original logo, dated 80’s fonts and gritty counter tops as a museum piece. Nearby, a much larger Starbucks has opened to capture the overflow from the original act.  Ordering the “Venti, Pike” at the milestone seems as about as American now as taking the family photo before the Grand Canyon.

Still beyond the vendors are the shops that linger on the periphery–Restaurants in Pikes, the Pink Door-serving Italian cuisine–and the Athenian oyster bar offer a slow food experience amidst the hustle of the market below. Left Bank Books, near the main entrance, offers that jolt of socialism and anarchy for the bibliophile, as shelves heave with Marx, Trotsky, Gramsci and Abbe Hoffman, and nearby racks of pamphlets written by the next anarchist await a sympathetic reader. Left Bank is perhaps the only vendor activity eschewing any of Starbucks success of course. But I cannot help but note the irony of seeing tourists with their little mermaid paper cups thumbing through the Left Bank’s stacks with their corporate-coffee free thumb.

Pike Place Market, Seattle, Left Bank Books

Certainly other major cities can lay claim to having an older local market building–recently revived to capture the locavore spirit. But Pike Place is more than a weekend market or the must-see attraction, as declared by a food porn industry. The charisma, the experimentation, and the positive love of life within Pike Place for this author rank among the very best travel experiences. Pike Place is one of the oldest and longest running markets in the country. Its quasi-governmental board assures that the locals and tourists alike will “Meet the Producers” and not phony vendors pretending to be farmers and fishers. Pike Place is a pantheon to the food gods, a living museum, and the ur-farmer’s market that so many towns have emulated from coast to coast.

Day 230/365 - Sunset at the Public Market

Pike Place Evening Photo credit: michaelrighi / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Pike Place Sunset Photo credit: Great Beyond / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Fish Throwing Photo credit: dbnunley / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Left Bank Photo credit: Curtis Cronn / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Beecher’s Photo Credit: afagen / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Vital T Photo Credit: Sammamish Arts Commission / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

First Starbucks Photo Credit: Frank Kehren / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Senate Bean Soup

senate dining 2

One of the great cliches in Washington DC goes something like this:

“You can tell Congress is out of session.”


“The weather has cooled off…no more hot air coming off the Hill.”

(cue Rim-Shot, Cymbal)

If you ask me, while bloviating and grandstanding may be the source of the hot air, there is also the possibility that the favorite lunch chow of Congress could be to blame. Bean Soup, an olde-timey bowl of beans and ham, has been on the menu in the Senate and House cafeterias for over 100 years. In the Senate, it is known as “Senate Bean Soup,” to add distinction to a dish that is otherwise as bland as the institution.

Each side has official recipes, resolved perhaps by a conference committee. Like all good ideas, the soup originated in the House of Representatives.

Jos. G. Cannon, 4/3/14  (LOC)

The story of the arrival of Bean Soup on the permanent smorgasbord of the House and Senate would be laughable if it was not so sad. Speaker Joe Cannon, a powerful political boss in his day, had a hankering for the steamy bowl of ham hock and white beans. Being August in Washington, the chef that day decided to perhaps pull the thick, pasty napalm from the menu, for fear of causing hyperthermia in the already sunsoaked staffers. Cannon, upon arriving in the cafeteria and discovering his favorite food missing, erupted:

“Thunderation!” he bellowed. (What a phrase!)

From that moment on, the Speaker decreed under his personal privilege in such matters, that Bean Soup would reign on the menu for eternity. Imagine his modern successors making such a declaration. What (more) contempt might we hold if Speaker Boehner declared every day “Cincinnati Chili” day, or if Mitch McConnell in the Senate side of things demanded that his native Kentucky Fried Critters be served every day! Not to be outdone, the US Senate followed suit shortly after Cannon’s decree, adding the dish to the menu as well.

If you wish to dine as a Senator or Speaker, any citizen can find their way to the soup. The most posh way to enjoy the soup is with an invitation to the Senate Dining Room, reserved for Senators, VIPs, and campaign donors (who make the request, of course.) A bowl of the soup will run $6.00 in the dining hall. If you are not a crony or lackey, fear not, the soup is still accessible to the plebeian class. In both the Capitol Visitors Center, the Longworth House Cafeteria and the Senate Dirksen Cafeteria, a bowl can be had for $3.25.

As for my own partaking, I took mine usually in the bowels of the Dirksen Senate Building, near Union Station. The Senate and House Office Buildings offer numerous services to the staff who work long hours wrecking serving the American people. Long before the development of the food court, food truck or shopping mall, the basements of the office buildings provided every need to the staff–printing services, barber shop, banking, postal services, and cafeterias. They still do, in fact. Walking first through security in the nearby Russell Senate Office Building (hilariously shortened to Russell, SOB on the signage) then though the corridor, past the barber shop, through a subterranean tunnel and then into the Dirksen Dining Hall. Technically for staffers, it is open to the public.

And how does this manna taste? The soup is now produced by some contractor, set alongside tomato bisque, chowders, and chicken noodle. It is a dated, old fashioned food concept. Bulky, protein-laden. Swampy and steaming like a DC summer. The antidote to the winter doldrums, but only a sadist would eat this density in summertime. The soup is simple fare. White beans, some mashed to thicken the broth, float in cloudy water. Smoked ham, thoroughly boiled and deracinated from the hock, join the party. Onions, mere onions, add depth. Like a Japanese dish, the construction is elegant in its simplicity, but that simplicity may be taken as boredom by the modern palate. Nonetheless, eating Senate Bean Soup is like learning history through your taste buds.

On a more spiritual level, I am convinced that Senate Bean Soup is a symbol, a metaphor worthy of Dan Brown. How? It is approximately 100 old white farts (or 435 on the House side) rolling in pork fat.


Senate Bean Soup in the Dining Room: Photo credit: saikofish / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Speaker Joe Cannon Photo credit: The Library of Congress / Foter.com


Senators in the Bowl by TJ Kozak at http://greatlakesgazette.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/recipe-file-senate-bean-soup/