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.”

“How?”

“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.

http://greatlakesgazette.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/soup0052.jpg

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

http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2506&dat=19640421&id=r2FJAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SQoNAAAAIBAJ&pg=2861,3906677

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

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Voices of the Past: George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens on Tea

George

The Midwest, and other parts of America, are in for a heck of a winter. It’s been cold, below freezing and steady snow for weeks. And, it isn’t winter even yet. Months like these require a constant kettle of water boiling, to keep my tea cup filled to the brim. Many have strong opinions about tea, and the British seem to have the strongest of them all. This has always stricken me as odd, in that the Brits merely appropriated tea as part of their acquisition of Empire. Knowledge of tea is not innate within them, but what seems to be in their genes is a mastery of the prose required to write about tea. Two such Brits come to mind.

The genius behind the dystopias 1984 and Animal Farm was also known in his time as a prolific essayist. Some years ago, George Orwell’s entire canon was available, should you wish to read the man’s thoughts on every subject. One of my particular favorites include his brief work, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a celebration of the cast iron house plant–a plant that served its owner to signal to others that they have attained middle class-hood. (Think about it, for whom would keep a plant that wasn’t food unless one could afford such excess?) Orwell also expounded on every Englishman’s favorite past-time, the consumption of black tea. In his 1942 essay, A Nice Cup of Tea, Orwell attempts to lay down the rules of proper brewing, in 11 steps:

“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea…Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware…

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand…

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right….

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot….

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about….

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is,the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.

The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

History is harsh to the essayist. Moderns will forever appreciate Orwell’s literary masterworks, but his essays may fall to the wayside in a hundred years. Few essayists can expect their work to survive their lifetime–Mencken, Thurber, and Twain come to mind, but who is reading say, Mike Royko nowadays (aside from your author?) As for contemporary essayists, time will tell if Christopher Hitchens will join Twain or perhaps fade into the ether of the late 20th century. Hitchens, the late Anglo-American essayist and polemicist, idolized Orwell for many reasons–the economy of his pen, his opposition to fascism, and his exposition on the balance every British citizen must take with their heritage–pride and shame. When it comes to tea, Hitchens tried to rescue Orwell’s advice, in his own words. Hitchens made a point to mediate upon Orwell’s sixth rule:

“Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do—and still does if you buy a proper tin of it). Would you consider, in either case, pouring the hot water, letting it sit for a bit, and then throwing the grounds or the leaves on top? I thought not. Try it once, and you will never repeat the experience, even if you have a good strainer to hand. In the case of coffee, it might just work if you are quick enough, though where would be the point? But ground beans are heavier and denser, and in any case many good coffees require water that is just fractionally off the boil. Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter…

If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: ‘[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.’ This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.”

It is entirely possible that in fact, Americans never, ever learned how to make a proper tea correctly. And if we did know, the knowledge has been lost over the decades, a victim of the mass production of everything. There is hope though, as tea purists and the nerdy predilections of those with “first world problems” are perhaps seeking out quality over quantity. And perhaps then, we will not need reminders from British essayists on how to brew tea, as the practice will become innate within the population.

One last note from Orwell, worth repeating here. While I wholeheartedly disagree that tea should be bitter and enjoyed like a warmed over British IPA, sugar in tea is pointless. You’d be better off drinking sugar water and sparing yourself the cost of the tea leaves:

“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.”

Orwell, always the gentleman, ended on that illustrative note. Hitchens, always maintaining his elan and sardonic humor, ends his exposition differently:

“Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don’t be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It’s not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word. And try it at home, with loose tea and a strainer if you have the patience. Don’t trouble to thank me. Happy New Year.”

What is your favorite tea? Do you have your own way of brewing your favorite cuppa?

Christopher Hitchens Photo Credit: 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

George Orwell Photo credit: PVBroadz / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Hoosier Food in Autumn

Weizenfeld

We have finally passed from “Pumpkin Spice” season. So many foods have been shellac’d with the tell-tale pie flavors of the gourd–all spice, cinnamon and nutmeg–that the once-beloved trio has lost all meaning. This is made most evident in J. Bryan Louder’s experience on the “Pumpkin Spice Diet” as told in Slate.  To this we’ve come; a world where the Heartland flavors are exploited; the harvest bounty expressed as a mere additive to processed foods. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the things we love most become commodified and often do. I have noticed the Autumnal assault on pumpkins, for example, and I am sure you have as well. When I was a kiddo, pumpkins came in two basic forms–the pumpkin pie, and the jack-o-lantern. Big Food, Big Candy and Big Coffee have taken that cherished seasonal flavor and applied it to every other consumable in the free market. Consider that the “Green Mermaid” is celebrating its tenth year of Pumpkin Spice Lattes. Hershey has infused pumpkin into their Kisses. Booze comes in pumpkin flavors. And all fail to satisfy like Grandma’s pumpkin pie.

I blame the foodies and their saints who hold court on food television. They have scourged every corner of America to upend those special foods for poaching by opportunists. Having said that, I am conflicted about sharing some of my guilty food pleasures found in the American Heartland. Yet I am reassured that since they have survived unsullied in their natural habitat for so long, that they will remain a regional favorite beyond the interest of mass production. In her 2011 cookbook, Heartland, Judith Fertig captured the agrestic qualities of the cuisine, even if some of her recipes were gentrified for the East Coast dwellers and Midwest expatriates that miss the flavors of the breadbasket but cannot surrender their acquired Champagne tastes and passion for places like Dean and Deluca.

324/366 - Ron

When I think of food from the Heartland, the fare is simplified. A farmer’s breakfast is much like its cousin from across the pond—eggs, pork in its glorious incarnations of bacon, sausage and ham, a hearty carbohydrate in the form of white or wheat bread, with canyons to hold the reservoirs of butter and jam. Unlike the full English breakfast, the Heartland variety will have potatoes—either hashed or home fried. This particular diet has been recently made famous by Ron Swanson, fictional libertarian bureaucrat of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” fame, who subsists on a farmer’s diet of bacon and eggs and steak. This diet is called “paleolithic” by the jet-setting, bi-coastal, urban types. Farm boys can eat 10,000 calories with abandon, knowing they will burn it off over the course of a hard day’s labor farmside.

Popcorn

Hoosier food–food favorites from Indiana–is a subspecies on the Heartland culinary family tree. As is most often the case, the cuisine is a blend of what is produced on the farm and off the land, using the old-world recipes and vocabularies passed down from pioneer mother to native-born daughter. At first glance, Hoosier cuisine seems nothing more than an invitation to a heart attack. Surely, it could be so. However, the ways by which Hoosiers take the fruits of the farm and transform them into plated pleasure is worthy of protection and esteem. That is at least the opinion of the Indiana Foodways Alliance, that seeks to protect Hoosier food in the same manner as Kentucky Bourbon or French Champagne. There is a bit more to Hoosier food of course than a Rockwellesque idyll. Orville Reddenbacher, from Valparaiso, Indiana, made popcorn ubiquitous. Little known outside of Indiana was his cross-state rival, Wilfred “Cousin Willie” Sieg. Even a state as small as Indiana can have an industry rivalry akin to PC vs. Apple. Or on the dessert end, Hoosiers added dairy to the Pennsylvanian shoo-fly pie to create an even higher octane sugar creme–or “Hoosier” pie. Lastly, the burger chain Steak and Shake, while founded in Illinois, is headquartered in Indianapolis.

Steak \'n Shake Steakburger and Fries

Deep in Hoosier country, the region of Southern Indiana is a best kept secret of the Midwest. When the bi-coastal snobs think of Indiana, they think of flatlands filled with amber waves of grain. To the contrary, the Ohio River Valley–where the region lies–is hardly flat. Unblemished by the brute force of glaciers, the region remains hilly and remote. And in those hilly knobs and deep ravines, people have lived relatively quite lives, playing up their proximity to Kentucky Bluegrass, Bourbon and river rats. In one such hamlet, named Gnaw Bone, the traveler can find a remnant of the region’s German heritage, adapted for its Hoosier surroundings–the Hoosier Tenderloin sandwich.

Drew vs Tenderloin

The tenderloin, as the locals call it, is essentially Wiener Schnitzel on a hilariously tiny hamburger bun. Using pork over veal, the tenderloin fillet is pounded paper thin, drenched in flour and deep fried. While likely “invented” in Huntington, Indiana, the folks at Gnaw Bone Food and Fuel (now the “Gnaw Mart”) have perfected it. So popular are the sandwiches in the region that they have become required eating for politicians. In 2006, for example, then-Senator Dick Lugar took the Gnaw Bone breaded tenderloins to DC for his fellow senators for a luncheon. And when offering advice to national politicians campaigning in Indiana, pundit Brian Howley offered this advice:

“Get [the candidate] familiar with the pork tenderloin sandwich and what to say about it. Remind him that we are not “Indianians” but Hoosiers. Give him better lines than “South Bend is in the north and North Vernon is in the south.” Have him listen to some Mellencamp. He needs to know about Tony Stewart, Butler Bulldogs and Crystal Gayle.” [emphasis added]

Further down the road, in the hill town of Nashville, Indiana (pop. 3200) is the Nashville General Store. At the back of the store is a short-order kitchen that serves up the local favorite–fried biscuits and apple butter. The biscuit is a misnomer–this is a small, fried doughnut coated in cinnamon sugar. The hot oil absorbed in the biscuit combined with the sweet local apple butter creates Indiana’s answer to umami.

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Those foods are not likely candidates for the next Starbucks Latte or small plate boulangerie, as consuming them daily may lead to an untimely demise. Of course, not all local delicacies are found in the hillside. My first re-entry into this corner of America was at a Circle K. And the exchange there reminded me that I was no longer among the Michael Bloomberg’s of the world. At the Circle K outside of Bloomington, Indiana, I was looking for a fountain soda. And, as any Circle K customer knows, the store is home to the Polar Pop–their answer to the 7-11 Big Gulp.  All sizes of the Polar Pop are always $0.89, as if the laws of economics do not apply beyond the threshold. Being modest, I reach for the 20oz Styrofoam chalice, pointedly erect alongside the gauntlet of Pepsi and Coke products.

melting ice

A local notices my action, taking it for a lapse in judgement.

“You know, you can get the 44 oz for the same price,” he offered, in a twang that sounded more annoyed than sympathetic.

“Nah, that’s alright,” I said. “I’m just not that thirsty.”

I thought I detected, above the buzz of the soda nozzle and clunking of the ice dispenser a polite, yet definite “Hmph.”

I’d like to think that Hoosier food is, to borrow the phrase from Gershwin, a “sometime thing.” Admittedly, many of my neighbors do not find it so. And here in the Heartland, it is no crime against humanity to consume these things routinely. Mr. 44oz was spry, and dare I say, fit. I was the one chained to an office desk for 6 years. He’s been working with his hands twice that long, and likely burned off whatever carbs he freebased into his system. Maybe next time, I’ll get my 89 cents worth, and take a long walk too to try to balance out the bloat.

Aside for the obvious market for the Polar Pop (not an Indiana native, but happy carpetbagger), I do not know if Hoosier food will ever be commodified like pumpkins, wasabi peas, PBR our whatever else the hipsters are into. It would be a sad day if I saw apple butter exploited the same way, or a Hoosier tenderloin available at a drive-thru in Seattle or Miami. Some foods are best enjoyed in situ–in their natural setting. I couldn’t imagine Hoosier food outside of Indiana. It’d cease being Hoosier food.

Wheatfield Photo credit: Photo credit: downhilldom1984 / Foter.com / CC BY

Hoosier Food Photo credit: davitydave / Foter.com / CC BY

Tenderloin Photo credit: CrazyUncleJoe / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Fried Biscuits Photo credit: http://oc2seattle.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/exploring-dining-in-nashville-indiana/

Polar Pop Photo credit: Idiolector / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Ron Swanson Photo credit: GmanViz / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Popcorn Photo credit: Micky** / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Steak and Shake Photo credit: arsheffield / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Lowcountry Shrimp and Grits

Sunset over the Holy City

Despite the best efforts of Old Charleston to maintain a dandified, Romanticist version of the antebellum South, the effort is undone by the fare of the South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The foods of the region reflect the terrior of the deep coastal south–sweet teas for humid days, vast catches of coastal shrimp and the bounty of native maize turned to mushy grits.

Grits are the true measure of one’s acculturation into southern living. When sampling grits in my Old Dominion haunts, there was something in my cold Northerner DNA unable to allow for my comprehension the corn porridge–akin to steel cut oatmeal with none of the charm. Grits in fact are a morning staple, the cereal of the South and as important to the start of a new day as a cuppa joe. And on my first trip to Charleston and into the Deep South, I decided that I needed to come to terms with my northern aggression toward her food and culture.

That aggression of the Civil War era comes out in different ways for the history buff. After all, Charleston was the town that launched the Civil War. Confederate cannon still pridefully point toward Fort Sumter from White Point Park and Gardens. Memorials to fallen Confederates stand in bronze for eternity there.

Quick trip down history lane in South Carolina and Georgia

I was not in Charleston for the history lesson, as I could have enough of that from Manassas to Gettysburg back home. I was here in part to adjudicate a different sort of Civil War–a Civil War of cuisine. After all, the North was raised on the hearty food of its English, German and Dutch heritage. Northerners ate meatloafs and boiled dinners and beans. The war was fought over a lot of things–industrial vs. agrarian, states rights vs. federal control, and slavery vs. abolition. Except for the latter case, the country is still debating over the merits of the others. Based on the northern cuisine, the war might have been waged over who had the better food, but I digress.

Mastering the grits as breakfast food was only the entry level into Lowcountry cuisine. Adding shrimp to the creamy mixture, fried in bacon fat and served not only for breakfast but all day long, was graduate school work. Italians, Europhiles, and most kosher-keeping people would find the combination of milky grits and briny decapod crustaceans a bit difficult to take in one course, if at all. Embracing shrimp and grits then became not only a challenge to my unionist loyalties, but my cultural and possibly religious sentiments as well!

Jestine\'s Kitchen

To conquer those biases, I sought out locales in Charleston that could set this son of Billy Yank right. My first attempt took me to Jestine’s Kitchen, near the location of the old Citadel (now an Embassy Suites) in downtown Charleston.  Jestine’s has a lot of character–a greasy spoon serving up Lowcountry classics such as fried chicken and okra, and “table wine”–the name of their sweet tea. Jestine’s tribute to Shrimp and Grits is only available on Sundays, and well worth it alongside those aforementioned southern staples. Receiving those dishes required a bit of patience, as I had to settle in for a long two-hour lunch to accommodate the slow preparation and delivery. (Nothing comes quickly in the South. Northerners who are accustomed to speeding through a meal are in for a shock. Plan on taking your time in Charleston with everything you do. The locals know why–the heat is such that speed-walking down Meeting Street will leave them swampy and miserable. Going slowly keeps you cool, and forces politeness.)

Shrimp, Gravy, and Grits

In truth, there was nothing to fear in this simple dish. Bacon has a way of augmenting and complementing most foods, and the shrimp were no exception. The grits make for a clean canvas for the shrimp. At first, I thought the dish too dense and hot for the climate (90 degrees in late April) but the airiness of the grits and snowy shrimp seemed to settle easily. Doused with home-brewed sweet tea, I felt the biases of the Union upbringing wearing off a bit.

Greek Revival in Charleston, South Carolina

My trip just starting, and with Jestine’s out of the grits business until next Sunday, I needed an alternate. In the core of downtown, I found the old City Market. Dating back to the early 1800’s the Greek Temple styled-market was the central store for foodstuffs in the city. Today, artisans descending from the African “Gullah” culture weave sweetgrass baskets for sale in the old shop stalls.

Charleston: Charleston City Market - Sweetgrass

Near the old City Market was another Charleston legend–Hyman’s. Now in their fourth generation, Hyman’s row of restaurants (Hyman’s, Hyman’s Express and Aaron’s Deli) also specialize in that Lowcountry fare. Hyman’s has a slight variation on the theme, with a Parmesan sauce on the Shrimp and Grits that could act as training wheels for the northern skeptic. I felt, after Jestine’s that I had evolved my palate to Charleston’s taste and refinements in cuisine, and eschewed the sauce.

shrimp and grits

The irony of Charleston is the irony found in all Southern culture. Cities like Charleston and Savannah try to create a cultural heritage around the “lost South”–those gentry whose gentile civility and hospitality were lost in the Civil War. Of course, that life of privilege was sustained on the backs of an enslaved people. And yet, while those coastal cities of the Deep South retain much of their physical antebellum attributes, the taste of the South is not at all something that would have been familiar to the Calhouns and Pinckney’s and other first families of Charleston. The tastes of the south–of BBQ and pork and Shrimp and Grits–were the foods of the slaves and indentured servants, made from the scraps of the harvest and the gleanings from the sea. To experience Shrimp and Grits in the shadow of “The Holy City’s” elegant town homes and Rainbow Row with that knowledge creates a cultural dissonance that never really resolves, but nonetheless tastes glorious.

Charleston Photo credit: thelearnedfoot_ / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Jestine’s Photo credit: jfravel / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Old Market Photo credit: UGArdener / Foter / CC BY-NC

Shrimp and Grits Photo credit: stu_spivack / Foter / CC BY-SA

Gullah Sweet Grass Baskets Photo credit: wallyg / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Hyman’s Grits Photo credit: Tyler.Meyer / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Cannon Photo credit: ATOMIC Hot Links / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

In N Out of LA

In-n-Out Burger

Walter Sobchak: He lives in North Hollywood on Radford, near the In-N-Out Burger…

The Dude: The In-N-Out Burger is on Camrose.

Walter Sobchak: Near the In-N-Out Burger…

Donny: Those are good burgers, Walter.

Walter Sobchak: Shut the fuck up, Donny.

The Big Lebowski

Los Angeles is one of the great city-states of the world–a metropolis that could be its own country. Cities like this are impossible to conquer in a single weekend. Like New York and London, LA is a place that will re-invent itself in every visit. For my first trip to LA, I had a bit of a traveler’s crisis. Do I attempt the 405, sitting in traffic between my base in Orange County, to see Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard? Do I make the sojourn down to the ultramodern Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall? Should I take in the sunset at Griffith Observatory? And what about MacArthur Park and Long Beach? I would try for all of those things–and experience the legendary traffic of the LA rush hour.

But for cuisine, my mind was set. I would take my pointers from “The Big Lebowski”–the 90’s era cult classic celebrating idleness, Southern California, and the writing style of Raymond Chandler (as conceived by the Coen Brothers). If I was going to spend hours in my rental car, how could I not take up the Dude’s friend Donny’s recommendation, and test whether the In N Out Burger in fact has good burgers. For better or worse, In N Out was going to be my ambrosia and nectar.

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And why not take advice from a cult classic? While many movies have been called a “cult classic,” in my mind the only true measure of such a claim is whether or not fans have developed a culture around the original film. Trekkies have their conventions that have produced millions in revenue not only for Gene Roddenberry’s estate, but the second market of Star Trek ephemera and bric-a-brac collectors, bedecked fanboys and sci-fi geeks. Because of their efforts, Klingon is more widely spoken than Navajo. The Rocky Horror Picture Show devotees indoctrinate each generation anew to the antics of Dr. Frankenfurter, at midnight showings that allow the straightest of men to dabble in the Doctor’s signature drag. And The Big Lebowski? Cities around America have Lebowskifests—where the cultists emulate ‘The Dude” in dress and drink—even believing that the Dude’s observations (“The Dude Abides”) are like Zen koans. The Dude is the Slacker Buddha of Los Angeles.

Before my LA trip, I asked one of my native Californian co-workers what the story was at In N Out.

“You know about the secret menu?” she said

“No, of course not. If it is secret, how would I know if it is a secret.”

“You don’t have to order off of the menu. You can order a burger however you want….4×4 for a four patty, four cheese burger.”

“So, I have to do algebra to order a burger–whereby meat x cheese gets me a 4×4?”

Miss California looked at me, dismissing my lame joke, and continued.

“Then there are the styles.”

“Styles?”

“Animal Style, Protein style…”

How Californian, I thought. The secret menu sounded more like a surfer’s moves on the waves, or a skateboarding maneuver, or some other horizontal pastime. Ordering “Animal Style” sounds like using the Kama Sutra for a menu. However, it is nothing more than pickles, extra sauce, grilled onions, and mustard fried onto each meat patty. As for protein style? Low-carb. And to my surprise, there is a “Flying Dutchman”–which is just meat and cheese. Paleolithic. And a mess.

In-N-Out Burger Las Vegas

So, what is the allure of yet another burger joint in America? The allure is in its heritage. In N Out was born during those post WWII glory years. With war was over, GIs came home to build the American Century and they were hungry. Relatively unscathed in the war, America was the remaining producer of everything for the globe. The middle class achieved enough pocket change to splurge on a quick meal. This was the era of the drive-in, cheap gas, sock-hops and the birth of rock and roll. And in Southern California, the fast food concept was born and franchised. Consider that McDonalds, Carl’s Jr., and In N Out were all founded in California in the late 1940’s. Copycats in Florida (Burger King) and Ohio (Wendy’s) would follow. While McDonalds would become a multinational juggernaut and would sacrifice taste for capitalization, smaller chains have stayed fairly regional—and In N Out is one of them. For the east coaster—In N Out seems adventure-worthy. But to the SoCal denizen, is it not just another burger joint?

I arrived at my first In N Out a block or so south of Hollywood High School, in walking distance from Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Disneyfication of Tinseltown. On this first encounter, I skipped the “Animal Style” and stuck with the script. Screenwriters must hate when the talent improvises with the lines. In N Out maintains their simple menu and the appearance of the bygone era of drive-ins and sock hops. The staff behind the counter wear their paper hats. The menu is kept simple.

The burger itself is set aside from the McWendyKing variety. Elements are distinct. Crisp lettuce, short-order cooked patties off a griddle, goopy cheese. Fresh cut fries. New east coast chains—like Elevation Burger and Five Guys—are trying for the same formula of shakes, hand cut fries and crisp burgers, but they do not quite match the original. The In N Out has the basics down. Not as flavorful as the Whataburger of Texas, but In N Out is about as close to what you could do at home with the same ingredients at your disposal. American Cheese, buns by the dozen, ketchup. Admittedly, the grilled-in mustard between the patties seems superfluous.

Satiated, I decided not to change up a good thing, thinking that this might be my last trip to LA for a bit. I set myself on an all In N Out burger diet for the remainder of my trip. As I would be spending much of my time in the car, and LA’s notorious traffic, In N Out made for excellent road food.

the summit

On my last evening in LA, I did take up some of those sites. Driving up the winding canyon road like James Dean (except older, less cool and in a sedan) to the Griffith Observatory, overlooking the valley toward the Pacific, the iconic Hollywood sign a pink hue from a summer sunset, and an Animal Style in hand, I cranked up the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the radio and took in Southern California in one final fast-food gulp.

The Dude Photo credit: Schill / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Sign Photo credit: Davidag / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Burger Tray Photo credit: adamwilson / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Protein Style Photo credit: Brave Heart / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Griffith Observatory Photo credit: dirtinmypocket / Foter.com / CC BY-NC


The Billy Goat

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

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

“No grill cheese, Chee-borger!”

“A coke?”

“No coke! Pez-zi!”

“Fries”

“No fries! Cheeps!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Schlitz at the bar!” comes the retort.

I hand over my credit card.

“No credit, cash!”

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

No tomato, ketchup.

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

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

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

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

A bit later, Busey rises for another:

“Ask NOT!…”

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

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

“ASK NA-HT!”

What was patriotic has now turned embarrassing for everyone.

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

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

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

Sundance

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

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

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

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

Sundance Resort

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

Aspen Glade

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

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

the creek

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Redford loves goat cheese” says McKay.

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

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

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

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

“Do people bug him?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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