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:

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)







Forgotten Detroit?

Day in The D - Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk - Detroit, MI

Say “Detroit” to someone outside of the Motor City, and they will take it as a euphemism for the failure of the old American economy. At its zenith, Detroit was the wealthiest city in America, home of the great automotive juggernaut that made Henry Ford a household name. The long decay of manufacturing, beginning in the 1970’s, exacerbated by rising oil costs, the ascendency of foreign autos, the passage of the job-killing NAFTA legislation of the 1990’s and the economic crisis of the 2000’s have had particular impact on Detroit. This decay has been well documented, especially by the bloggers at “Forgotten Detroit,” and it isn’t hard to see it at street level.

The 1987 action film “Robocop” chose for its backdrop a decrepit, future Detroit, one where crime lords and drugs brought the city to crippling blight. Law enforcement became a sort of warfare. No child of the 1980’s thought that this movie would have been prophetic.  In the film, big business relied upon the absolute blight and crime to drive down property to a point that the city could be leveled and gentrified into a new “Delta City.” Life it seems, imitates art as this has in fact happened in a way, as the downtown, surrounding the central Campus Martius park, is almost exclusively owned by Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans. His private police–Rock Securities–monitor the downtown, working with police to keep the core of the city functional amidst the nearby chaos of Livernois Ave–the most dangerous street in America, where a citizen has a one-in-seven chance of being victim to a crime.

My last stay in Detroit was in the Renaissance Center–or RenCenter–, a relic of the 1980’s concept of insular, contained worlds, separated from the beating heart of the downtown. I stayed far above street level in the hemisphere’s tallest hotel–the Marriott Renaissance housed in the RenCenter. Looking down the 60 stories below me, I felt as disconnected as one could be from Detroit, and for many a business traveler, this is exactly the distance they’d want to keep if they believe the poor press the city gets. However, where the national story has been about the decay of Detroit, there are green shoots to be found. To find them, I’d have to abandon the glass towers of “Delta City.”

Renaissance Center (GM)


Those green shoots are the in the perseverance of Detroiters to see their city back from the ash. Celebrity sons like Kid Rock, the recent mayor Dave Bing and Dan Gilbert have focused their energy on bringing this city back from the edge. Detroit’s cultural institutions still radiate. The Detroit Institute of Art still sports a Rodin “Thinker” on the main steps. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra still has a national broadcast hosted by the legendary Dick Cavett and under the baton of the Midwestern Maestro Leonard Slatkin (a former conductor in St. Louis, prof at Indiana, and globetrotting conductor). And Wayne State University still attracts 28,000 students to call Detroit their home away from home.

Mariner's Church (Detroit, Michigan)

However, piqued by the catalogue of rotting buildings in “Forgotten Detroit,” I was more curious about those landmarks that are thriving and surviving the neglect. Of particular poignancy is the Mariner’s Church near the Tunnel to Canada. The little parish  is dwarfed by the nearby GM Headquarters, and barely noticeable by car. Built in 1849, the old chapel served as a spiritual safe harbor for those weary travelers on the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. Each sailing season, the church offers blessing for sailors heading out on the Inland Seas. And in times of shipwreck, the chapel has served as a memorial place. After the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald in a freak storm on Lake Superior in 1975, the chapel famously rang its bell 29 times, one for each crewman lost at sea. The event was immortalized by the Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, in his “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” To this day, the chapel holds a memorial for the Edmund Fitzgerald, and all of those lost at sea, annually.

Walking onward from the Mariner’s Chapel toward the downtown, I see that I am not alone on the sidewalks. What was once the domain of multi-lane throughways has been turned back over to pedestrians. The Motor City surrendered much of its downtown greenspace to transportation hubs in the 20th century, as the automobile supplanted any need to ever walk in downtown Detroit. However, as cities are rediscovering the value of foot traffic along its main streets as the key to economic revitalization, the old roundabouts and traffic lanes are being leveled in favor of pedestrian zones. In 2004, the city re-established its town square–the Campus Martius. This downtown park was restored to its place as the milestone for the city–all of those roads named for their mileage, such as “8 Mile,” take their origin from the Campus Martius. In winter, the ice rink welcomes downtown workers, and in summer time, an urban beach. The farmers’ market was restored after an 9o-year hiatus.

Culturally, Detroit has the feel of any other Midwestern metropolis, the remnants of immigrant waves from eastern Europe still flourish, as local deli’s still serve Reubens and Pastrami on Jewish Rye. Meanwhile, new transplants, such as the Clevelander Michael Simon’s Roast offer up high-end foodie experiences. In short, whether high-end bone marrow shooters and duck confit, or mounds of deli-style charcuterie by the pound, Detroit is a carnivore’s town. While new restaurants blossom around the Campus Martius, some of the long-established diners and greasy spoons are slightly farther afield. Those institutions have survived in neighborhoods that have turned over to blight, vandalism, crime and ruin. Places like Hygrade Deli are worth the urban safari, but probably not on foot. Yet these anchors on street corners may attract a new generation back into Detroit, especially those yearning for the authentic.

When it comes to the authentic, Detroit is so maligned that credit is stolen for the good things about the city, such as its rightful claim as the inventor and the promoter of the “Coney” hot dog. My first reaction was the same as others–that certainly the “Coney Dog” is a New York creation; its namesake the Island with the amusement park. Rather, the Coney’s roots, like that of Cincinnati Chili, are eastern European. The Coney chili, bearing some resemblance in texture to the meaty sauce from Cincinnati, was developed in the Detroit region by Greek and Macedonian immigrants. Like Philadelphia’s rival cheesesteak shops, Detroiters will debate endlessly over who makes the better Coney–The American Coney Dog or the Lafayette.

Detroit's Famous Coney Island Restaurants - Detroit, USA

Coney favorites and internal rivalry aside, Detroit still has fight. Native son Joe Lewis would be proud of the stamina and the relentlessness of his hometown. Locals are proud of Detroit, warts and all. As the cliche goes, sometimes you do have to hit rock bottom. Detroit, and perhaps Buffalo, are the last of the rust belt cities (the others being Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Toledo) to emerge from a long industrial winter. Cleveland and Pittsburgh have achieved balance with a smaller population and diversified economy. On the ground, there is evidence that the winter in Detroit may be turning, and a rightly sized Detroit is emerging to join her post-industrial Rust Belt neighbors in a Midwestern Renaissance.

Holiday D Light-Detroit, MI

Detroit Fist or “Monument to Joe Lewis”–Photo credit: memories_by_mike / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

GM Renaissance Center: Photo credit: paul bica / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Nothing Stops Detroit: Photo credit: memories_by_mike / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Campus Martius Aerial: Photo credit: Joyce Pedersen (addict2pics) / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Camus Martius Beach:

American or Lafayette: Photo credit: Urban Adventures / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Mariner’s Church Photo credit: cseeman / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Robocop: Orion Pictures. 1987.

This is the Place: Salt Lake Old and New

This is the Place Monument

In 1847, after a grueling 1300-mile exodus from Missouri, over the vast plains and megalith Rockies, the first Mormon settlers arrived in what would become Utah. Looking over the vast valley from the Piedmont of the Wasatch Mountains, Brigham Young declared to his flock, “This is the place.”

That place, the Salt Lake Valley, must have looked like Eden from that distance. Cottonwood trees climbed the mountains, exposed limestone would provide the foundation of their new terrestrial Kingdom. In the distance, what seemed to be a lake of plenitude must have signaled to Young a perfect place for a new Eden. Of course, that lake would be the brackish Great Salt Lake, providing no drinkable water. No bother, must have thought Brigham—it is a Dead Sea in the New World!

Salt Lake City is the first city of Mormondom, a place on the map that is the home to the fastest growing religion in recent memory. Yet half of the population are “gentiles,” as the faithful call us. Its adherents will tell you about it without much inquiry of your own.


Conferences are the usual reason for my travel, and Salt Lake was not immune from this trend. My pursuits off-the-clock in Mormondom were three fold—I wanted to find the local fare, desired to tour as much of Temple Square as I could, and I wanted to find the green shoots of the new “Gentile” Utah peeking through centuries of dogma. As I began my pilgrimage, locals could tell I was not from around Salt Lake before I even opened my mouth.

“How can you tell?” I’d ask.

“You have a beard!”

Sporting stubble was a tell, as Mormon men have been clean shaven since their honor code days and missionary work. Prior to these edicts, manly manes were common among the Mormons. But, as the post-WWII Americana developed, church elders encouraged the flock to clean up, assuring Mormons were integrated in American society—that they were as American as any other. So, the IBM look came into fashion among the young, and often carried on through life. But, like any religion, doctrine takes time to change, and now those short-sleeve dress shirts and clean-shaven men again look as though they are from another age.

Salt Lake City, May 2012

Salt Lake is the most liberal of Utah’s cities, but that isn’t saying much. A Utah liberal is probably closer to a New York Republican on the political spectrum. Locals have elected Democratic mayors who look toward economic development as a safe foil to stand against fundamentalist “values voters.” At the time of my visit, no fewer than 15 major construction sites were active downtown. The Salt Lake of my memories is already a new world—a new city. Not the easiest of cities to take on by foot, I hired a cab. Mentioning my past career in state governments, the cabbie gave me the ground truth about Utah politics. “I like the governor, but he’s like the rest of the statehouse…towing the Mormon party line.” An interesting turn of phrase, revealing that Utah politics are squarely divided between the faithful and the fallen, in his estimation anyway.

Tasty Fry Sauce

Fry Sauce and a Blue Iguana 

Task one was locating Utah’s contribution to the Great American Buffet—fry sauce. For the uninitiated, Fry Sauce is a curious yet convenient condiment spread over fast food from Provo to Park City. The mixture of ketchup and mayo into one puddle on a plate is called “a mess” back East. I was prohibited in making such a concoction on my plate as a child, certainly. In fact, when the two emulsions meet on a burger, most Americans are so embarrassed by the mess that we put a bun on it and hide it from view. Arctic Pop, a local burger chain, originated the sauce.

“Are you sure you want to go there?” he asked.

“I do, I read about it on Yelp!”

“Yeah, but, it isn’t that great.”

Is this the place?” I asked, hoping for a rise out of my cabbie.

He responded, without catching my best Brigham Young impression.

He was right. The poor shop looked like the last Burger Chef on earth, décor untouched since 1978. And sadly, I couldn’t get fry sauce in a nice soufflé cup. It arrived in a pre-sealed shallow tin.

“Hmm. This isn’t the place.”

The cabbie agreed to wait for me. Cab traffic is pretty light in Utah. Quickly coming back to the car with some disappointment, he offered, “Want some real food?” “How about Mexican? You’ll like the Red Iguana.”

Red Iguana: The Killer Mexican Food

The Red Iguana is known for its mole (pronounced like MOH-lay). Mexicans began moving to Utah in force in the post-NAFTA years, bringing some flavor into a part of the country where “Jell-O” is the unofficial food of the state.

“Is this the place….for mole?” I asked some departing diners.

“Sure, but the Blue Iguana is better. The family divorced, and the husband opened up a new restaurant.” Or, so the passers by gossiped. Copious research did not show any relation between the two restaurants, save for the choice in mascot. The mole was better than fine. A thick savory puree of coffee and chocolate, ancho and Serrano peppers, tomato and onion dress up the grilled chicken. I could eat a bowl of this stuff and have them hold the chicken. Who needs fry sauce…the state condiment of Utah should be mole.

Temple Square, Salt Lake City, 1899 retouched

This is their place

Dusk seemed to be the best time to tour Temple Square—the beating heart of the Mormon faith. While modern buildings have sprouted up around the grounds, the Square remains the focal point of the downtown core. Admonitions await the visitor, on carefully placed signage:

My arrival, unlike the ancient Mormon settlers, was heralded. I was immediately approached by two young men, matching missionaries in their IBM uniform look, welcoming me (and perhaps assessing my beard for signs of heathendom).

“Hiiii, just looking around.” I offered immediately, expecting the sort of proselytizing that arrives at my doorstep periodically.

“Okay. You may want to see the visitor’s center, or the Museum of Church History and Art.”

Is this the place?” I asked jokingly, expecting the missionaries to at least catch my increasingly inside joke funny only to myself.

“No, it is over there,” they monotonously directed. Still, no one catching my Brigham Young impression.

“Can I go in the big building too?” pointing blasphemously at the Temple, another tell that I was not among the Elect.

“No, only if you have a Temple Recommend,” they dismissed. “But there is a model of the temple in the South Visitor’s Center if you want to take a look.”

Verily enough there was a model. This came as a surprise to me, as I always thought the interior of the temple was a secret. I approached a young woman missionary pair in the Center, asking about this revelation.

Salt Lake Temple Model

“The temple isn’t secret, but sacred,” they offered in a well-turned, rehearsed and pitch perfect reply.

Ah, well that makes more sense to me. While the connections between Mormon practice and Masonic ritual (the alleged inspiration of some of the faith for Joseph Smith) are well documented, I forgot for a moment that what was an anthropological experiment for me was a faith for others. These grounds, in their Marriottesque décor, were the Mormon St. Peter’s Square. This was the Mormon Vatican.

Many of the missionaries in Temple Square were from other countries—a veritable EPCOT center of nationalities purposefully assigned to this place, to show the global majesty of the church. Their name tags are augmented by the flag of their home country. Mormons are polite to a fault. I knew as much from my acquaintances over the years, and knew that this was the place for me to try out my traveler’s pidgin polyglot of languages without fear of ridicule.

 “Ist das die platz…fur die alte Tabernacle, bitte?” to the Swiss and German pair.

They giggled, feigned appreciation for my butchering of German grammar (no religion can temper German efficiency and directness), and began their checklist of engaging a hairy gentile on his path to conversion. I entertained this a bit, wanting to see just how the conversation works within the compound. They shared their favorite passages from the Pearl of Great Price. They asked about my own beliefs and what I think happens to my soul when I expire. All deep questions for a guy wandering around in shorts and a backpack, sneaking chomps of a candy bar despite the extolling not to eat on hallowed ground.

“Danke schoen, nein danke.” “Ich war einmal Methodist.”

Christmas at Temple Square

In the old Tabernacle—the choir hall—I find myself alone. No tour was in the place at the moment. This building housed the first Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which has gone on to become a rather famous singing ensemble comprised of volunteers. As a former chorister, I have my own judgments about the choir’s curious diction (but perfect pitch and articulation), but I reserve those judgments and take in the hall. I belted off some of my own Baritone to hear the world-famous acoustics—so clear that you can hear a pin drop on the podium 200 yards away. My Bach chorale cycled along the domed ceiling like an inverted velodrome, growing like a tidal tsunami until returning back, the effect like singing in a shower the size of a sports arena. Some other tourists and a few missionaries opened the door. I had stopped singing in what felt like an hour ago, and the sound was just now diminishing. We made eye contact, and I just shrugged. Rather than letting a conversation erupt, I walked out the nearest door, a la Steve McQueen (“do something awesome, then leave.”) or Snoop Dog (droppit like its hawt).

Across from the older campus is the newer world headquarters of the Mormon Church, a 1950’s era pile of alabaster that looks like it landed from Planet Eisenhower. The building sports a massive Mercator projection of the world, not too unlike something Mussolini might have wanted in his den. All of the major activities of the church—from the performances of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the semi-Annual conference are held at the Conference Center across the street. This building blends natural elements and stone in yet another amusement-park-tacky-yet awe-inspiring way.

Plump-faced sun

I should pause here to say that Mormon architecture should be analyzed by its own vocabulary. It is hard to adjudicate it otherwise. The temple itself is based on the biblical proportions (as understood) of Solomon’s Temple. This created a footprint that seems squished—a very long, slightly narrow rectangle. The use of repeating elements—spires, windows, and asymmetry—differs greatly from the use of the Greco-Roman architecture in most public buildings in the antebellum 19th century. Symbols—a rising, smiling sun and the oxen—are all elemental in Masonic imagery, and are used liberally on the old Temple façade.

“Ni hao,” I offered to the Taiwanese missionary, “Zai Nali Museum…uh…ma?”

Gentiles can tour the Temple Square without worry of conversion. If you have an open mind, and are willing to treat the Mormons with respect and leave the sarcasm and contempt behind, walking the grounds and seeing a unique American story first-hand is worth the effort. The church even provides shuttles from the airport to give lay-over passengers a brief tour if their schedule permits. The Mormons, of course, hope visitors will be won over by their visit to the Square, but this is not a requirement for admission.

As I left the square, a young couple walked slowly, blissfully toward the front of the old temple. The setting sun back-lit the edifice like a great corona, as if the temple was emanating divine light. The long shadow over the square blanketed the flower beds in dusky hues. The girl looks up in awe, as I did, at the scene. And then he made his move, she turned to find him on bended knee, the diamond hurling bolts of sunset all around. I am just far enough away that the whole scene occurred in near silence—like a colorized Oz as a silent film. She contorted in laughing joy. The nod. The hug. Another eternal couple forged. Even the most skeptical can’t help but appreciate the numinous in that experience. I do not think they knew that I was a voyeur to their moment. They expected someone looking on, perhaps their Heavenly Father from atop the Temple. For them, this is the place.

Polygamy Porter Pint

The new Salt Lake City

Ending on that note, it was time for me to find my place. Two blocks down, I found my third goal—the new Utah. Aside from Robert Redford’s Sundance and the occasional independent bookery, Salt Lake has grown from its conservative founding into a cosmopolitan city. Since the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utahans have relaxed their once totalitarian laws on the consumption of alcohol. At the Beer Hive, the bar carries Utah’s contributions to the craft beer movement. Wasatch Brewing Company has been in business since 1986, surviving the old “club” days when imbibers were required to buy a “membership” to a pub, and were also required to buy food with every two beverages. Wasatch led the Reformation, serving up fine micro-brew to the Gentiles and doing it well.

“What will it be?”

“Something local, dark, and free of false hope, perhaps.”

The bartender picked up on my irreverence. The beard must have sealed the deal.

“Ah, try the Polygamy Porter.”

“Pardon?” I snuff, attempting to see if the bartender back peddles. He holds his ground, seeing through it.

“Polygamy Porter,” I look at the tap handle, and sure enough, the logo says it all. Buxom Victorian nudes around their beau, with the slogan.“Bring some home for the wives.”

“Brilliant,” I thought. “This is my place.”

Polygamy Porter

Photo Credits

This is the Place Photo Dean / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Vintage Missionary hoveringdog / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Salt Lake Skyline CountyLemonade / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tasty Fry Sauce BenSpark / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Red Iguana vxla / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Temple Square Photo credit: Foter / Public domain

Temple Model Interior nan palmero / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tabernacle J Mullhaupt / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nauvoo Sun Stone quinn.anya / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Polygamy Porter MikeOliveri / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Temple Square Sign: The Author

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)

One Year of Henry’s Eclectic: Thank you!


On March 5th, 2013, I posted my first blog entry on Henry’s Eclectic. This blog started out as a direct challenge from a former high school classmate, Miranda, who is an aspiring writer (and whose freelance work can be found all sorts of places when she isn’t busy supporting social media outreach at Fictionista). When talking about my travels around the US, she challenged me to put these stories online, and to get in the habit of writing. I too have literary aspirations, and this blog is a trial run of a kind. The only way to express yourself in writing is to well, write.

I decided to take a risk in my format for this blog, for the most successful blogs focus on one theme–such as food, travel or politics. I chose to filter whatever inspired me through the view of an eccentric collector of experiences (That in fact, is who I am). As it happens, the blog touches on all of these topics, and often more. I also took on this blog in what has unexpectedly turned out to be an annus mirabulis for me, including the birth of my first born, the start a new career path, and a relocation from the nation’s capital back to the American Heartland. Those events were also risky. For a brief moment, I thought my traveling days were lost. But as the cliche goes, those who wander are not always lost. And for me, a sometimes road warrior, I now have new places to visit in the years to come.  In that way, this blog has been a bit of a mental escape, inspired by physical escapes. It functions that way not only for your author, but I hope for the reader as well.

The blog’s mission was to be mostly about travel, and travel has remained at the core of my writing. I have also taken to calling upon famous individuals of the past as avatars, relying upon them to express my personal views through their timeless wisdom and meaningful prose. I have covered a few places to find ambrosia and nectar–the sweets and savories found while on travel. Lastly, I have praised esoteric holidays and seasons, celebrating obscure little corners of Western Civilization. I will continue to do those things. And I may expand into other places as well.

I never expected to become the next super blogger, and have not done so to date. I thought that, if a few friends and family checked in on occasion, I would be satisfied with my effort. Unexpectedly, more than friends and family have stopped by. I am flattered every time that someone takes a few moments to read my entries, taking time out of their own lives, loves and explorations. The media industry always says their job is to put eyeballs on screens, and there is fierce competition for every moment of our collective attention.  I am not in this game to make money, to ratchet up readership statistics or even to promote a book. Rather, I think of this space as a sort of community sandbox, where I spin up my own sandcastles from a shared commons. People are welcome to look on, or knock them down.

Behaims Erdapfel-edit-DenisBarthel

Amazingly, you have tolerated those sandcastles. What surprised me the most in my personal assessment of this blog is my readership, you band of brothers (and sisters) who come back for more musings weekly. I know some of you personally, but for those that I don’t, I am even more humbled by your readership. I have come to find that that readership is international in scope, including places as far away from my current Indiana home as Canada, the UK, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, the Netherlands, Argentina, Ecuador, Germany, France, Australia, Pakistan, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, Poland, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Austria, Finland, Russian Federation, Mexico, Czech Republic, Romania, Kuwait, El Salvador, India, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, South Korea, Serbia, Hungary, Iraq, Israel, Indonesia, China, Norway, Greece, Puerto Rico, Belgium, Peru, Slovakia, Chile, Switzerland, Poland and Azerbaijan. To think my humble little prose could reach the farthest shores and horizons would have been an impossible thought in the year I was born. I should not have been surprised by this panoply, as interest in traveling around America clearly extends off our shores. Just as yuppies in the US seek the “authentic” on their tours of the world, travelers to the US seek the same authenticity among the amber McArches, green Mermaids, big box stores and Anyplace USAs.

Some of you have found your way here through the comments, suggestions and collections of more talented, more popular and most excellent blogs of Caitlin Kelly at Broadside Blog, Richard Nielsen, and The Church of Tea, among others (found under “Summer Reading List” on the right column). I have never met any of those people in person, but through my enjoyment of their works and comments on their blogs, as well as their comments on mine, you have found your way here. Thank you for your visits!


As I think of topics for future posts, I looked to my most popular topics for guidance on what you, dear readers, have enjoyed the most. After over 65 postings, my top ten most visited posts include my weekend romp around Robert Redford’s Sundance, my musings about the language of Starbucks in Starbucks: Five Easy Pieces, taking in the eccentric Chicagoland burger joint The Billy Goat Tavern, my love of British haberdashers and the style of the Princes of Wales, past and present, in  The Secret Language of Striped Ties, the most likely place you will find me in any city in Best Independent Bookeries, my paean to my adopted homeland in Hoosiers, reveling in the ironies of Duke Chapel  and its place as sentinel among the Bacchanalians of the dorm rooms below it, the first citizens of Key West called the Gypsy Chickens of the Conch Republic, a memoir of my Pennsylvanian birthright in Old Country: River Rats, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania and the conflicted nature of art and exploitation in Modern Mona Lisa: Afghan Girl.  If you liked those, you can head into my back catalog for over 60 additional entries from around the US and beyond.

I will continue on my eclectic romp through life, sharing some of those things that made me smile as I traversed, and continue to traverse, America and points beyond.  I thought that I would have exhausted my backpack of stories within a year. It turns out that there are many more stories to share.

Thank you again for joining me, and I look forward to another year of celebrating the life eclectic with you. And, if you like what you are reading here, don’t be shy.  Comment often, share generously, and tell your friends!

Thank you for your patronage!

~Henry’s Eclectic

Photo Credits:

Pennyfarthing. Licensed by by the author

Lake Crescent, Washington: Ivan Meljac

Globe: Title: Behaims Erdapfel-edit-DenisBarthel