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)



Minnesota Nice: On Nicollet Mall


When most Americans think of Minneapolis, all roads lead back to the cultural curiosities that have come from that very northern metropolis. The land that Bob Dylan comes from (“called the Midwest”), where Prince developed his signature sound (named for Minneapolis), the locale of Mary Tyler Moore’s eponymous show, the location of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon and perhaps the Minnesota Vikings come to mind. Poll cats know it has been the home of progressive politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, as well as libertarians like Jesse Ventura. Business folks know it as the home of the Radisson and Target corporations. And of course, the University of Minnesota calls Minneapolis and its twin city, St. Paul, home.

Minneapolis Skyline

If politeness has a source like the fountain of youth, then Minneapolis is that font of kindness for the Midwest. For me, the city has one of the nicest dispositions. Perhaps the bitter cold of their winters keeps bad attitudes in circumspect. Perhaps there is something in the DNA, as so many Minnesotans claim Scandinavian heritage (That may explain the love of socialism and progressive politics). Maybe it is the Swede-like dialect that adds to the coziness.

I am not alone in this observation.  There is a term for this stereotypical mild-mannered, polite-to-a-fault, self-deprecation: It is called Minnesota Nice. And while it may appear saccharine at first to the uninitiated, I find that the experience is like a mental spa day, as the armor of urban anger, social Darwinism and existential ennui melts away under the kind charm of the Minnesotans.

Minnesota Nice pops up in every venue. On one trip to the Twin Cities, I arrived on a college game day, back when the Golden Gophers used to play at the Metrodome. Seizing up an upper deck ticket, I took in a Big Ten football game. There is something rather hysterical about hearing 20,000 Minnesotans chant their battle cries at a football contest, as the dialect makes even the most aggressive chant sound, well, nice.

MinneSOHTA. See? Nonplussed. Too polite. Especially the wiggly-wrist maneuver at the end of the chant. Much of that “niceness,” I believe, comes from that sing-song dialect so common among Minnesotans. That dialect is a legacy from those sons of Sweden who immigrated to the Northwoods. Swedish is a tonal language–a language that places value on the pitch of certain vowels just as much as the grammar in words. And that musical concept carries over into the modern day. The Coen Brothers celebrated that local color in their film Fargo, as the clip below exemplifies:

I took my singular seat, mid row, tripping over a bunch of fans as I apologetically took my place. And of course, I forgot to buy a beer before I sat down. Despondently looking toward the vendor as he came and went, the couple next to me decided to go get some food. Without missing a beat, they asked.

“So, we are going downstairs to get a beer Brat, we can bring you back something if you want.”

I was puzzled. I didn’t know these people.  “Oh, that is okay, I appreciate the offer, but I am fine.”

“No, it is no trouble at all.”


“Youbetcha” they offered (before a certain Alaskan destroyed that plesantry)

I surrendered to the Minnesota Nice. After a rousing victory, and some new acquaintances made, the Golden Gophers nation spilled out into two main pedestrian areas. Some head back to campus to hit up the bars in and around Dinkeytown. As for me, I headed with the older crowd downtown to Nicollet Mall–the core of the revitalized downtown Minneapolis.

Nicolette Mall is an historic landmark of a kind. Like many downtown urban areas, Minneapolis’s center enjoyed a vibrant economic boom until the 1950’s, when the growth of suburbia, the automobile culture and white flight from urban centers hollowed out the downtown core. In 1968, the progressive politicians in Minneapolis took back their downtown before the last of the major department stores abandoned it. Nicollet Mall became the first pedestrian/transit mall in the nation, converting an otherwise boring street scape into an outdoor mall–perfect for strolling, window shopping and grazing at supper clubs (as they say in the Northwoods).

Mary Tyler Moore statue, Nicollet Mall

Government Plaza, Minneapolis

Nicollet celebrates Minnesota’s cultural heritage–as Mary Tyler Moore and her iconic hat toss from her sitcom is preserved in bronze outside of Macy’s. Hubert Humphrey holds court outside city hall. And the Minnesota Orchestra (or what is left of it) performs in their boxy Orchestra Hall. The recent strike and lockout of the Orchestra has been particularly hard on a city that is so used to being nice to one another.

Orchestra Hall

After the game, I was looking for pub fare, and Brit’s Pub fit the bill. It is perhaps the biggest draw on the strip and for good reason. Aside from an excellent gastropub menu of bangers and mash, the bar features an expansive second floor outdoor bowling green. Here, under lights even,  the pubcrawler can take in a a game of lawn bowls (or if you must say it, bocce ball) roof side, with metal stands waiting to hold your pint while you roll.

lawn bowling at Brit\'s

I bellied up to the bar (as those who frequent pubs are able to do after a few years of pints) and ordered up some bitters. A gent in the Golden Gophers gear heard my funny Pittsburghese and offered “Oh, that pint’s on me.”  I had never had a perfect stranger buy my first round before, and my natural east coast instinct would have thought that this guy was making a pass at me, or had some other agenda. No, this is just Minnesota Nice again.

“So, where are you from?” he asks.

I offered up the usual list of places, and asked if he’s been to any of them.

“Oh no, I do not leave MinneSOHta much,” he said.

Where Brit’s begins to quench the thirst of this traveler, I met up with a friend at The Local to finish off my the desire for a hand-pulled pint of ale. At the Local, the waitress saw that we were two guys with nothing to do. She offers that she had been given two tickets for a concert over at the Target Center by another patron (Minnesota Nice again), and that we could have them (Minnesota Nice Paid Forward). My drinking buddy was obligated to ask if she was included in the deal, almost costing us the tickets. But again, in that Minnesota Nice sorta way, gave us the giggle, and the tickets.

The headliners were the Violent Femmes, and well, for the price they were worth the experience. While not Minnesotans, they did get their start in the nearby burg of Milwaukee, Wisconsin–a place that could rival Minnesota for nicest in the Midwest. The Femmes played through their set to their one hit wonder, featured below:

You may think this litany to be a singular experience, but I assure you it has not been. Perhaps I have been fortunate that Minneapolis has never shown me her bad side. But of my several visits, people are eager to chat, eager to pick up your tab and more than happy to please. And why do they do it? Because niceness begets niceness.

Feeling the need to pay this niceness forward, I have taken on the same tone when traveling, chatting up some other business road warrior at the pub, sharing my wisdom and offering up convivial conversation.

Minnesota! Photo credit: / / CC BY-NC-SA

Minneapolis Photo credit: Jvstin / / CC BY-NC-SA

Mary Tyler Moore Photo credit: dianecordell / / CC BY-NC-ND

HHH Photo credit: Coco Mault / / CC BY-NC

Brits Photo credit: massdistraction / / CC BY-NC-ND

Minnesota Orchestra Photo credit: amy_kearns / / CC BY-NC-ND

Hoosier Food in Autumn


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.


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.

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 / / CC BY

Hoosier Food Photo credit: davitydave / / CC BY

Tenderloin Photo credit: CrazyUncleJoe / / CC BY-NC-ND

Fried Biscuits Photo credit:

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

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

Popcorn Photo credit: Micky** / / CC BY-SA

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

Ohio’s Vacationland

A few years ago, Rick Steves–the travel mogul of PBS and of “Rick Steves’ Europe” tour book fame–offered a competition on his public radio show for listeners to write a travel guide for their hometowns, in fewer than 1000 words. Readers of the Eclectic know that this author is hard pressed to get his pieces down to 1500 words of serviceable copy. I mused about what I could say about my formative hometown–a modest harbor on Lake Erie and to my amazement I did get to 1000 words. What follows is a bit of the original concept.

plane ride: lake erie 1

Summertime has arrived in America! The roads are filled with moms, pops and tots heading off to the Great American Summer Vacation. At least, that is the vision–dad in a fedora captaining the Winnebago, kiddos in ‘coonskin caps and beanies, and mom passing out the PB&J sandwiches and Mr. Pibb from the picnic basket. That era–of the roadtrip vacation–has been consumed by video games, reality television and luxury tourism to exotic locales.  Some areas still boast to be the home of Summer, but they have been overrun by the masses seeking an OBX sticker for the bumper and the facebook selfie.

However, the old-fashioned slow get-away thrives in an unlikely corner of America, preserving that Rockwellian Americana for the 21st century. The Ohio Vacationland developed along Lake Erie in the 1930’s and 40’s with the light rail system shuttling Clevelanders to the lakeside for weekend getaways. The automobile drove people farther out along Lake Erie from the urban core, as city folk sought out secluded spots and private clubs along the lake. The post-World War II boom brought middle class prosperity, and the summer beach house became more accessible to the Everyman. Each Lake Erie town clings to the shoreline, withstanding the temperamental Lake Erie weather of clear skies followed by thunderheads. The region’s inlets and bays stretch for 40 miles, forming the Midwest’s answer to the Italian Cinque Terre. Not quite a Riviera; the region’s charm is in its simplicity. Trailer parks can still be found dotted along the lakeshore Route 6, juxtaposed with large estates. Ice cream shops serve up soft serve and are in walking distance of sandy beaches. Luxury seems slightly out of place here, but the occasional yacht reminds visitors that Ohio’s north shore has economic vitality.

Vermilion lighthouse

The first of the recreational harbors, 35 miles outside of Cleveland, Vermilion has remained a small boating town. Settled by displaced New Englanders after the War of 1812, Vermilion grew to be the home of boat captains. Most of the cottages in the historic Harbourtown district date to the Antebellum period. While the town, like many rust-belt communities, struggles to find a year-long economy, the summer boating and tourism season in its downtown core provides a scenic backdrop to a sleepy summer day—with ice cream socials and the community band playing on the town green. Huron offers similar seclusion as Vermilion, with a major redevelopment of its once-industrial harbor. Huron’s waterfront offers a lakeside estuary where egrets and eagles roost, leading up to Huron’s sentinel lighthouse.  Both communities offer recreational boaters some of the largest harbors in the region to store their catamarans and Sea-Doo’s.

Huron Harbor Light

Flight of the Egret.

The county seat of the region—Sandusky—is home to the world-famous Cedar Point amusement park. The park is a pantheon of roller coaster gods and their history, housing the tallest, fastest, and steepest scream machines on Earth.

2010 Cedar Point - 045

Downtown Sandusky offers the Merry-Go Round Museum of vintage carousel horses, housed in the impressive temple-like old post office. An artist on-site can custom make a stallion-on-a-stick for your foyer. And at the nearby Toft’s Dairy Farm—Ohio’s oldest–ice cream aficionado’s can devour some of the largest cones in the nation—my favorite being the “Moose Tracks” that could easily rival any creation by Ben or Jerry.

Rain at the Marblehead Light

Marblehead retains its status as the landmark and seascape beauty of the region, with its iconic lighthouse keeping watch over the shallow basin. Visitors can pick up ferry boats for the off-shore excursion into the heart of Vacationland—the Lake Erie Islands. The 28-island archipelago makes up some of the largest freshwater islands in the world. Two of the islands, Pelee and Middle Islands, are Canadian. The rest are in American waters, which I will explain further in a moment.

Gibraltar view of Rattlesnake Island

Rattlesnake Island, off of Gibraltar Island, Lake Erie

Some of the islands are large enough to house secluded private estates—such as Rattlesnake Island—research labs and entire communities. Gibralter Island houses a satellite school of Ohio State University’s maritime program in its Stone Laboratory center. South Bass Island is home to the libertine Put-In-Bay, the North’s answer to Key West. The downtown core hugs DeRivera Park with numerous bars, including the world’s longest bar at The Beer Barrel. Liberal drinking laws and an anything goes atmosphere keep the sun worshipers and Bacchae satiated from May until September.

Round House Bar, Put-In-Bay OH

History buffs venture over to the National Park Service-operated Perry’s Victory Monument. The monument celebrates the decisive Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812—the only naval battle fought on the Great Lakes. The battle decided where British America (Canada) would end and the United States would begin. Lake Erie, and many of her islands, were won for the US in that sea battle. The monument stands to represent the modern-day peaceful and open border between the Canadian and American people. The largest Doric Column in the world, the 352-ft monument is also the fourth largest monument in America. On less hazy days, you can see Canada from atop the observation deck. Put-in-Bay in the off season takes on more of a Nantucket quality, when the island diminishes to 130 residents, the bars turn into general stores, and kids are shuttled on bi-planes to the only school in the archipelago. The school has one to two graduates a year, where the whole town gathers to wish the sole graduate onward and upward.

Perry\'s Victory and International Peace Memorial

Put-In-Bay 1987

Kelleys Island, the tranquil big brother to South Bass, offers vineyards in lieu of pubs, a significant state park highlighting the power of glacial ice and examples of petroglyphs left behind by the first nations who called the islands home.  Both Kelleys and South Bass Island have modest wineries, where the islands’ micro-climate made for longer growing seasons into the fall. Those vineyards include Lonz Winery on Middle Bass Island (now operated by Firelands Winery), Kelleys Island Wine Company and Heineman’s Winery on South Bass Island.

2012 ENR 5690 Climate Change Education Fortner

Numbered vines

Watching the sun set over the Lake Erie basin, a glass of island Concord or Catawba wine in hand, you needn’t wonder why the denizens of Ohio keep their Vacationland a secret, albeit an open one. Here, time slows down, and the working guy can reclaim lost days, even years in the restorative rhythm alongside one of the world’s great freshwater lakes.

Vermilion sunset

Getting to the region.  By air, the region is nestled between Detroit International Airport or Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Most tourists will come by car, taking Interstate 90 that runs off and on along the southern shore of Lake Erie.  However, the old state road—Route 6—takes you in and out of the Vacationland communities, with many of the attractions located on the main drag. In addition, Route 6 weaves past plenty of vistas and public spaces—beaches, bays and lighthouses ready for the shutterfly. The most relaxing way of seeing the region is by boat. Boat docking fees are modest, and give you pedestrian access to most ports of call.

Put in Bay Regatta 1987 Photo Credit: chascarper / / CC BY

Lake Erie Aerial Photo credit: i eated a cookie / / CC BY

Huron Photo credit: cmh2315fl / / CC BY-NC

Huron Egret Photo credit: thelearnedfoot_ / / CC BY-NC-ND

Vermilion Sunset Photo credit: soozums / / CC BY-NC-ND

Vermilion Lighthouse Photo credit: Slideshow Bruce / / CC BY

Perry’s Victory Photo credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service / / CC BY

Heineman’s Winery Photo credit: Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory / / CC BY-NC

Lake Erie Cab Sauv Photo credit: Karen Maraj / / CC BY-NC-ND

Cedar Point Photo credit: ctk / / CC BY-NC-SA

Roundhouse Bar Photo credit: AKZOphoto / / CC BY-ND

Vacationland Map:

Marblehead Photo credit: Tom Gill. / / CC BY-NC-ND

Rattlesnake Island Photo credit: Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory / / CC BY-NC

Society of the Cincinnati Chili


Words have meaning, you know. The Ohio city of Cincinnati was named by Arthur St. Clair after his Society of the Cincinnati—a fraternal organization of Revolutionary War officers. Named for Cincinnatus, the Society was founded to honor the officers of the American Revolution and their first-born male descendents. Cincinnatus was a euphemism for the great General Washington, a hero who—akin to the ancient Roman—returned to his farm once his duties as leader and commander of his country were done.

And so, the name of this little port city on the Ohio River is named for a social club, the nickname of George Washington, and an ancient Roman dictator—none of which has anything to do with Ohio or the people who call Cincinnati home.

Cincinnati - Sawyer Point: Cincinnatus Statue

The city would be settled by more colorful stock that the effete gentry of the Society and their blue blooded scions. Being a riverboat town, Cincinnati was first populated by the rovers who took to the river to find a new life in the wilderness—many of whom could be understudies in a Mark Twain novel. From that point in history, Cincinnati became the gateway to the North in the Underground Railroad years—the first city on the other side of the aqueous DMZ of the Ohio, looking south toward slavery.  Fugitives and their abolitionist conductors would get them first to Cincinnati, then to freedom. And in the post-Civil War years, the city became full of Germans, Irish and immigrants from all over Europe, like many Midwestern towns. In that stew of America simmered new ideas about cuisine.

For some immigrant families, the key to prosperity in America was to do what they knew. And for them, cooking their homeland cuisines for a new audience was one way to open the door to prosperity.  Some restaurateurs may fail to introduce new flavors to the American McPallate. Others take advantage of the melting pot and conjure whole new concepts in a fusion of new flavors. That was the case of the “Cincinnati Chili”—the great comfort food of the Ohio River Valley.

In the Great Gatsby era of Prohibition, two immigrant brothers—the Kiradjieff’s—opened a small food stand next to the Empress Theater burlesque in downtown Cincinnati. Serving up their native foods of the Balkans, with the rich Ottoman spices and Slavic-Macedonian stews, they tried to introduce new foods to the burlesque devotees. Perhaps exhausted from the exotica within the theater, the patrons didn’t seem to take to the kabobs and goulash. So, the brothers began some variations on common themes. The Kiradjieff’s figured out a cheap way to make a serviceable chili without too much fluff. They took the bland spaghetti sauce and began to doctor it. They simmered a tomato based meat sauce like a chili, but deconstructed the chili down to its core elements—pepper, beef, tomato and fat. To bring in those favorite flavors of their native land, they added in their own blend of secret spices. That sauce, over spaghetti noodles, was toppled with a monolith of finely grated cheddar. And to help with sopping up the sauce, they garnished the dish in New England oyster crackers.

But what to call this duckbill platypus of food? No Texan would recognize this dish as a true chili. Chili is in a bowl, not on a plate. And spaghetti is never so spicy, nor served with cheddar. The brothers names their food after their adopted home, and called the meat sauce after the common American chili. And so, Cincinnati Chili was born.

Empress Chili, their restaurant named for their burlesque house neighbor, remained the ruler of the Cincinnati chili craze for many years, until other immigrants saw their own opportunities to improve upon the idea. And, as the chili was the headliner on the menu, the diners became known as “chili parlors”—adding a bit of class to an otherwise sloppy meal. Each locale came up with their own secretive recipe. While the original Empress closed down years ago, a few Empress parlors remain. Others have capitalized and franchised the regional favorite—Gold Star Chili and Skyline Chili reigning supreme in our present day.

The chili parlor, the secrets to the chili sauce and the local color in my mind create a different “Society of the Cincinnati”–one whose fealty to the local favorite remains unchallenged.

Classic Skyline

The chili is ordered in the same way you might buy a car. The base model is the chili sauce proper. From there, a numbering system gives you the add-ons, and will cost you a few nickels more:

  • The chili bowl: A naked chili
  • Two-Way: The chili, atop a mountain of spaghetti on an oval diner plate.
  • Three-Way: The triumvirate of chili, spaghetti and the cheddar.
  • Four-way: All of the above, with either kidney beans or onions
  • Five-way: All of the above, beans and onions.

Now, as this dish is neither a true chili—eaten with a spoon—nor spaghetti, there is the issue of the eating. You can’t just twirl the noodles e Italiano, for you will lose the toppings and make a heck of a mess. No, the trick is in the oval dish. The dish is served north-to-south—the oblong plate pointing right at the guest. Using the edge of the fork, the diner cuts into the mound—severing the noodles and preserving the layering of the cheese and sauce. From there, bite-sized morsels are carved from the whole, using the fork as a scoop. Natives may chuckle at the foreigner trying to use their utensils in the incorrect manner when taking on this dish. Do not let such a fate come to you.

Cinners [Jun 4]

Incorrect Technique

Cincinnati Chili is a regional favorite, one that the chain “Skyline Chili” has down well enough. While the chains have kept the Cincinnati chili alive for the people, finding a good mom and pop version of the original is difficult. I have to imagine that the old Kiradjieff version with fresh spices and herbs would put the fast-food chain version to shame. To make your own, as my Midwestern ex-patriot wife and I do, you need the spices of the east with the palate of the Midwest.

I offer up our variation–and membership in the Society of the Cincinnati Chili-to you.

  • Oval diner plates. Go buy ’em.
  • Cheap spaghetti noodles. No artisan stuff. This is Midwestern fare.
  • 1 lb sharp cheddar for the monolith atop the plate. Shred finely. Don’t cheat with pre-shredded. Also, for the Whole Foods crowd, the cheddar ought to be bright yellow, not safely white.
  • 1 lb ground beef. You are going to want a good beef to fat ratio 93/7 is about right.
  • 1/2 c. water
  • 2 teaspoons corn starch or arrowroot (ground)
  • 28 oz. beef stock (or broth)
  • at least 6oz tomato paste (more to taste)
  • 1 bottle Moerlein Beer.

The spice mix is a potpourri of spice blends that would make a Turkish bazaar proprietor proud. There is a persistent myth about what makes this chili so sweet. Some people are convinced that chocolate or espresso are in the mix. The trick is in the use of cardamon–the cool, potent Indian spice simmering with the sweet tomato sauce. Hacking this recipe requires an amalgam of online recipes, trial and error, and proof of the pudding (in the happy eating by your banqueters). The key is not to let those traditional chili flavors overwhelm the new spices.

  • 4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 tbsp white vinegar
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 to 1/4 tsp. ground cardamon (to taste as well)
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. cayanne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. coriander
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/8 tsp. ground black pepper

Brown the ground beef, then drain the fat if you are prudish. Mash the beef with a potato masher or fork until the ground beef is very small, Coney-sauceesque, or the size of tic-tacs or perhaps risotto.  Add the cornstarch or arrowroot to the water, making a slurry to help thicken the sauce. Add in the slurry to the beef, and then all of the ingredients. Simmer for 60-90 minutes, tasting a bit as you go along, tweaking the spices to preference.

As the sauce simmers, open the Cincinnati-based Moerlein beer. Drink from bottle. Boil up some spaghetti noodles to al dente or soggy, whatever your preference. Drain. Shred the cheese whist you wait. One the sauce has thickened enough to put over spaghetti noodles, remove from heat. Top off with finely shredded cheddar (3-way), raw white onion (4-way) and if you must, cooked kidney beans (5-way). Oyster crackers are superfluous.

One you have mastered this level, dear initiate, you will be welcome into the Society of the Cincinnati Chili.

Bloody Initiation into Dueling Fraternity

Arthur St. Clair Photo credit: / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Cincinnatus Photo credit: wallyg / / CC BY-NC-ND

Cincinnati Chili Scott Beale / photo on flickr / CC BY-NC

Skyline Chili Old Sign Photo credit: Koocheekoo / / CC BY-NC

Incorrect Technique Photo credit: santheo / / CC BY-NC

Initiation Photo credit: mamamusings / / CC BY-NC-SA

Cincinnati Chili History Source: The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili By Dann Woellert



When I was a kid, and would go to Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium,–a hulking cavern of old steel, wooden slat seats and lake effect snow–I would marvel at the capacity crowd of nearly 80,000 humans. Imagine 80,000 of something. To put that in perspective, a human’s average life expectancy in days is about 30,000.

That stadium could hold six times the population of my small Ohio town. Years later, attending a presidential inaugural, I got my head wrapped around what a million of something looks like–a million people filling the National Mall from Grant’s plinth in front of the Capitol to Washington’s marble obelisk.

Now imagine a billion things. Or a trillion things. The number is impossible for the mind’s eye to grasp, or at least it was until this week. Every so often, a sleeping brood of cicacas–a bug akin to the locust–emerge from their 17 year dormancy, climb to the surface of the earth, and take flight. In the mid-Atlantic region, the cicada Brood II (they are numbered by cicada experts to keep tabs on their habits) returned, like a comet (except less stratospheric, more abundant and frequently irritating) on schedule.

17 Year Cicadas

Living in more mountainous then coastal areas, we didn’t see much of the great cicada swarms that seem to find their way across the mid-Atlantic and Midwest, destroying countless picnics and cookouts and making life a little miserable for about two to five weeks. But when I moved to Southern Indiana in the 2000’s, I had my first encounter with the Biblical force of nature known as a cicada brood.

The cicada, for the undoctrinated, is a peculiar bug. There are over 2400 known varieties around they world. They spent most of their lives dormant, underground, for over a decade at a time. After a lengthy nap of Rip Van Winkle proportions, they wait for the ground to warm to 64 degrees, after the winter thaw, and emerge. The bugs will reemerge as a ground dwelling brown nymph–a sort of giant armored beetle–before shedding their shell and emerging as a vibrantly colored adult, ready to eat, mate and die over a two to six week week period. Once airborne, they will sing dawn to dusk in the trees at levels nearing 100 decibels. They will clumsily fly past you, with their wings beating baritone. And they will die en masse, leaving a genocide’s worth of corpses piled in the roads, sidewalks and gutters.

Cicada molting animated-2

In 2004, Brood X emerged in the Midwest after a 17-year hiatus. Brood X is particularly huge and ugly. Red eyes, black bodies, orange wings. Individually, the bugs are spooky but harmless, easy to knock off a doorway or window screen. Collectively they are awesome. The swarms are so dense that a yellowish brown haze always sits in the air. Great oaks and elms heave with a collective crescendo of “singing” from the males. There is no respite from the song–the noise makes it indoors. And the grasses and trees, the parks and the wild are teaming with the bugs, ruining the tranquility of an outdoor stroll.

Two Brood X cycles before, in 1970, the bugs upstaged Bob Dylan on the occasion of his receiving an honorary degree from Princeton in springtime. With the cicadas making their presence known, he penned this song:

Cicadas have drawn the ire of many a human. They have been seen as a sign of God’s wrath–a pestilence. And yet, the Cicadas are harmless. They do not destroy the crops like locusts. Birds benefit from engorging on them. I have even seen the plain and goodly sparrow snag a clumsy cicada from the sky and peck it to pieces.

Is this thing on?

Perhaps the haters see something in themselves in the cicada. They hate the years of dormancy followed by ceaseless prattling before they die. The same could be said of a cubicle dwelling Dilbert, who emerges from his office tomb in retirement only to natter his children incessantly before croaking I suppose. For me, I have come to see the cicadas as an avatar not of woe, but of youth. They are rock and roll. They’d be tragic front-men. Consider: They sleep all the time. They are flamboyantly colored. They wake up to eat and fornicate for two weeks straight, singing at a piercing 100 decibels all day and all night, then die.

By the end of the two to five weeks, people become slap happy from the cicadas’ Bacchanalia. While bugs have always been reliable protein for human consumption in Asia, Americans take to the chocolate covered cicada–the females prized for their toothsome mouthfeel. The United Nations is in on the act too, releasing a report on bugs as the new food. I have seen people make found art and handicrafts from their fragile wings–even earrings. Children find novel ways to exact revenge. I recall a troop of latch-key kids from a local elementary school mercilessly beating the leaves of a tree–and the cicadas attached–to submission.

Backyard Bug Party

Rather than live in fear of the cicada, I will try to enjoy their return, like an annoying college buddy crashing on your couch for a month. I wonder, that if the cicada boom was a mere three days, that humans would not mind their company and visits.

Cicada Photo credit: Roger Smith / / CC BY-NC-ND

Molting video credit: T. Nathan Mundhenk / / CC BY-SA

Cicadas on Tree Photo credit: istorija / / CC BY-NC

Cicada bug party Photo credit: Matt Niemi / / CC BY-NC-ND

Cicada Microphone Photo credit: Articulate Matter / / CC BY-NC-ND

Freddie Mercury Photo credit: / / CC BY-SA