Justtwomorethings arrived around mid-day on Thursday–and I felt bad about it since I was still at work and she had to spend 5+ hours wandering around doing god-knows what. So I let her pick the dinner place – the somewhat non-sensically named The Office Tavern Grill – and made it my treat.
Milwaukee was stop two on the Wisconsin trip. I had a couple brewery options lined up to tour, since it’s winter and you need something to keep you warm and go with the cheese. And no, the brewery was not Miller’s. I never liked that stuff even when I was in college, and everyone in college drinks terrible, terrible beer.
We went to Sprecher’s. Its root beer is pretty common all over the Midwest, and I was surprised to find out the soda was actually a sideline for them. Sprecher’s facilities are located in a suburb of Milwaukee, in a very ugly building that looks like it’d house dentists from the eighties, and the tour isn’t much to speak of. But it does allow you four beer samples (about 6 oz of each) per person, plus as much soda as you can drink at the end, so we had a good, alcoholic time of it. My picks: Shakparo, an unusual African-style beer made from millet, which puts it more in line with the Asian beers of my ancestors, and the blueberry soda, which avoids being supersweet and is nicely fruity.
It took a bit longer than expected to work through twelve beers and four or five types of sodas, collectively, so we skipped the second tour and just hit up the gift shop of the Great Lakes Distillery for some liquor (maple syrup-flavored rum for the absent entropyenator’s sweet tooth). Got lunch at Wisconsin Cheese Mart (so many flavors of cheese curds!), and dinner at the Ginger tapas bar, which culminated in a sort of ultimate drunk-food poutine with local cheese and very salty, very flavorful little dark curls of crispy duck skin.
And then we went back to the hotel, and wandered into the mall next door, attracted by the sound of music. Because apparently, animatronic bear concerts are a holiday thing in Milwaukee. Plays every hour, on the hour.
(I was sober at this point, honestly.)
I’m down to the last twelve or so states on my quest to visit all fifty U.S. states, which means that the remaining ones are either geographically awkward, or are testing my creativity in coming up with reasons to go. Wisconsin falls into both categories: no direct flights on my preferred airline, and I have no personal connections to the place. It is, however, within driving distance of my parents’ place, and it is full of cheese, which I eat with glee. Added to the fact that I am allergic to cats, and spending the holidays with my parents puts me in close proximity to two felines for several days, and you have the makings of a quick post-Christmas trip (non-allergic entropyenator babysat the cats with glee). Cheese, some exploring, and a couple days off the antihistamines. Sounds fun.
Well, except first you have to drive through Indiana. I’ve done this a lot over the years. It’s still quite boring, although the wind farms are new.
Madison is the state capital and the center of University of Wisconsin. Typical college town, it was pretty bare and sleepy during a student break. It was also unexpectedly ugly in a very functional way, all drab concrete blocks and slab walls. In my experience, college towns and state capitals both tend to have more “statement” architecture, which may or may not be your kind of statement, but which at least are interesting. Madison, you’re lucky if you even find an overwrought Victorian brick tower.
Still, there was cheese at quirky gourmet shop Fromagination (half the non-cheese stock seemed to be out of Brooklyn, which amused me to no end), and slightly upscaled pub food at the Great Dane Pub and Brewery, whose menu had some delicious African flourishes in the Inner Warmth peanut stew (squash and peanut base, yummy nutty winter heartiness). The house brews ranged from mediocre to good; I wish brewers would get that dark beer doesn’t have to mean an anvil to the taste buds. Lighter beers were better, and I imagine it’s a hot place in the summer.
Barbecue. Beautiful chopped pig meat, rich with smoke, juicy, with a side of beans (because God, why would you want a salad if you’re going to a barbecue joint) that looks pretty nondescript but that was one of the most perfect things I’ve ever eaten. Just beans in sauce with what I think was bits of pig belly/bacon, every mouthful round with porky goodness and yum. That was Dixie Pig in Blytheville, my lunch stop on the way to the Arkansas side of Memphis.
As for the rest of my time in Arkansas – the rain was torrential. Pretty much wiped out everything else.
Day three of the roadtrip, I ran into crappy weather. A hurricane down in the gulf was spilling out storms over the whole south, and pretty much ruined the driving view. Also, I hadn’t packed an umbrella. So my sightseeing largely consisted of lightning-quick sprints from cover to cover, with the occasional miserable drenching. I should probably redo this part because it felt way more like an extended errand run than a real vacation.
Hannibal, MO is Mark Twain’s hometown, and it’s basically been converted over to a tourist shrine to him, with emphasis on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It’s cute in a cheesy, slightly desperate Americana way, but it does have (in better weather) some of the nicer river views I’ve seen, and hey, endless refills of homemade, deliciously herby root beer at the Mark Twain Diner. That, I will say, was one of my more inspired pull-overs.
St. Louis. It was pouring down by the time I got there, and too late for most of the indoor stuff to be open. I dashed over to the outdoor sculpture garden downtown, leaned out my illegally parked car for a second to snap the Arch, and then crawled into my b&b to dry off. The Brewer’s House is in the Soulard neighborhood, one of the oldest in the city, with a predominance of genteel, crumbly but still dignified brick architecture. Again, somewhere I’d like to go again in nice weather. (obligatory cat-related photos here)
Iowa consists of a lot of farmland and very few rest stations. Very few gas stations, either, so I’m glad that I always fill up rentals once I hit the half-tank mark. That said, the few gas stations that are out there have some interesting offerings:
Yes, those are fried chicken gizzards. And they were quite tasty going down, not nearly as greasy as you’d think (although I admit to some indigestion later that night). The peanut butter crisps appeared to be handmade and were cousin to the chocolate-covered Rice Krispie treats I used to love as a kid.
Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, was having a pretty typical Midwestern fall Saturday when I showed up–college football. Everyone was in team colors and drunk. I bobbed and weaved around them and strolled up and down the Iowa Literary Walk, which is a series of bronze plaques that interpret quotes from famous authors/books in interesting to creepy ways–I do wonder what the “eyes” plaque looks like to people late at night. Also, about a ten-minute drive away is the Devonian Fossil Gorge, which is a spillway off a dam that has tons of fossil-studded rocks. It’s not quite as good as a fossil site where I grew up, which not only had rocks but had so many loose fossils around that you were allowed to take a small quantity away with you, but it made for a peaceful afternoon climbing around and peering at history (but again with the creepy animals, Iowa).
The hotel space in Iowa City had been scarce when I’d been doing all my booking (due to the football game, I expect), so I ended up getting a room in Davenport, about an hour away. Davenport is on the Mississippi river proper, with some lovely riverfront space. Even the hydroelectric power plant looked kind of steampunkish.
I did run briefly over to St. Paul for a little shopping and a bite to eat. This little French bakery, which had a completely awful boxy white outside, was lovely inside, all spartan, vaguely Nordic lines, and offered a delicious thing called a Paris Minneapolis. Obviously, I got it.
Mostly hazelnut cream, with a bit of crunch from the nuts on top. The mango lemonade wasn’t overly fruity and was just a nice, rich complement.
When I started planning a roadtrip for this fall, I had two constraints. One, I want to visit all fifty U.S. states and most of the ones I still need to hit are west of the Mississippi, which means flying. Two, I have a ton of unspent frequent flyer miles on Delta. And then, once I started looking at bookings, I realized I had a third constraint–I really, really didn’t want to do a layover. I was already going to be spending a lot of time driving; I didn’t want to waste more of my vacation time in a midway airport. Which, since I don’t live near a Delta hub, required some creative thinking.
I ended up structuring my drive around the Mississippi River, as dictated by where Delta has direct flights. Fly into the northern end, drive down and fly out from roughly the middle (doing the whole thing in one trip will have to wait, since I didn’t have that many vacation days left). Northern end: Minneapolis.
Minneapolis is Midwestern with a very self-consciously arty twist, which sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. On the way in from the airport, I went by (sadly, too quick for a photo) a power plant with an interesting road-facing shield made up of parallel metal strips, “shingled” like a clapboard house, that turned the spires and wires coming out of the top into abstract elements. That worked. The futuristic downtown skyscrapers, on the other hand, kind of jar against the older buildings. And there are some remnants of Art Deco-type buildings that make me wish they’d kept a bit more of the early city architecture, like you see in Chicago.
I do really like the wall murals that seem to be everywhere, which finesse updating old-timey ways better.
And, upon entropyenator’s rec, I stopped by the Sculpture Garden, which had a lot of easygoing whimsy to it. Yeah, some serious pieces, but overall it was lighthearted enough so that the locals clearly love engaging with the art (somehow I don’t think that horseman statue came with a knitted hat), and considering it was below freezing later that night, I very much appreciated the greenhouse’s warmth. And hey, sculptural minigolf. Can’t turn your thumbs down at that.
When I’m in New Orleans, fried-food lover that I am, of course I stop at the Cafe du Monde for beignets:
I know it’s Mardi Gras tradition to eat king cake, but I tried some and didn’t find it particularly interesting or tasty. Seemed like a very pretty coffee cake to me. Instead I went to the Court of the Two Sisters to try out some other traditions: mimosas and a jazz brunch buffet:
I’ve been to the place one before, many years ago, and I think my memory gilded the place a bit. The open-air courtyard is lovely and it was nice to relax and listen to live music with your breakfast, but the buffet was fairly unremarkable except for the price.
A better repeat visit was Cochon:
The woodsmoked oysters were just as delicious as last time, buttery and spicy and garlicky with a little smoke, and ridiculously huge three-biters. If you tried to slurp one of these down, you’d choke. Fried livers were crisp and greaseless, but not quite as molten inside as I’ve had elsewhere, while the headcheese was a nice amuse. The cured fish plate was, to be honest, kind of boring, if well-executed. I don’t know, I guess Manhattan’s Jewish delis have spoiled me for that kind of thing. The ribs, though, with the pickled watermelon rind relish, they were excellent. Peeled right off the bone, juicy, smoky all through, and best of all, still tasted good a day later (I packed half of them as my lunch on the flight home). Satsuma sherbert was basically an orange dreamsicle, but I appreciate the cookie.
New stop this year was Sylvain:
Omar’s Leap cocktail was, I think, the first I’ve had with Madeira. Given that its ingredients include cinnamon and nutmeg, I was prepared for mulled holiday wine, but the spices were surprisingly and pleasingly subdued. Instead it was rather like an alcoholic vanilla milkshake. As for the food, the Southern antipasti plate was overly generous, with *deep breath* pickled eggs, pickled dill green beans, chorizo (Spanish-style), smoked duck breast, hummus, raw milk cheese, pickled squash and bell peppers, microgreens dressed with vinaigrette, mustard and bread. I mean, amazing value for the price, but a coherent plate of food, it was not. Antipasti at home is whatever you’ve got lying around; you pay for antipasti at a restaurant to be curated properly.
Anyway, the green beans were the best, super-dilly and sharp with vinegar, while the duck breast was too smoky to really enjoy the fat melting in your mouth. I kept having to breath the smoke out of my nose. Main course went much better, an absolutely ridiculous and ridiculously delicious amount of garlic in the sausage, and then the dessert was a really creative execution of the classic float, with a locally made root beer and caramel ice cream, which rounded out the herbal notes in the root beer very nicely.
Last stop on the roadtrip was New Orleans. I think a lot of people don’t realize that the festivities actually start a good month before Mardi Gras itself. The town gets decked out and there are parades every couple of days, and you can enjoy it all without having to smash through a drunken crowd for a decent view.
And enjoy the other laidback cool/weird things you stumble upon (cats for entropyenator):
Food in the next post, because New Orleans is just one of those places where the food deserves its own post.