Posts Tagged ‘local’

visiting american gothic

A couple weeks ago, I wrote that before leaving Iowa in two weeks, my number one goal was to visit the American Gothic House — the house with that famous upper-story Gothic window in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which is, yes, a real, standing house in a small, 1,000-person town in southern Iowa called Eldon. And yesterday, with B. in tow, I did.

Eldon was a pretty out-of-the-way destination for Grant Wood, too. He lived in Cedar Rapids — not far from us! — and found himself in Eldon in 1930 for an art festival. During his visit, a local artist offered to drive him around the town (then a booming railroad community), and Grant Wood was captivated by this tiny country home outfitted with such a “pretentious” (his words) window. He asked the owner if he might include the house in a painting (she consented, and promptly cleaned the residence from top to bottom, not realizing he only meant the outside) and drew a quick sketch.

Back home in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood asked his sister and dentist to sit for the father/daughter portrait. He assured them that they wouldn’t be recognized. His dentist, Dr. B. H. McKeeby, was, and it ended their friendship. When he painted his sister Nan, he elongated her face to further distort her appearance. Dr. McKeeby and Nan were painted separately in his studio — not standing before the house. The artist never returned to Eldon.

It’s not clear what commentary (indeed, if any) Grant Wood meant to offer with this portrait. It’s known that he set out to paint the sort of people who would live in the house with the pretentious window. Some have interpreted the figures’ sour expressions as a satire of the rigidness and narrow-mindedness sometimes associated with Midwestern types, though it seems fairly unlikely that Wood, who adored his early years on his family’s farm, intended such a reading. The painting can also be seen as a celebration of the virtue of hard work and seriousness. Likewise, it’s not clear what the inclusion of the Gothic window implies: was Wood mocking the homeowners’ attempt to make the house look grander than it was, or honoring their effort to insert beauty into their everyday life?

Seeing the house (the real house!) in situ was quite extraordinary. If you look closely at the painting, you’ll note that the patterned curtain in the Gothic window has been swapped out for a gauzy white one. But it is otherwise completely unchanged. There is the same sense of attempted grandeur — a literal window of beauty — in an otherwise plain house, in an otherwise unglamorous town.

You’ve probably already guessed at the interpretation I prefer, if for admittedly sentimental reasons. I like to think Wood made the painting in praise of the farmer and daughter’s grasps at elegance. His topmost gold shirt button, her cameo brooch, the curl escaping her bun, the Gothic window — despite their dour faces, there are these extra efforts, the appeals to the aesthetic, for no real purpose and no functional reason. Just that it feels good to look at pretty things. It’s beauty for beauty’s sake.

So this isn’t exactly sound art historical theory. But it’s what I’m sticking with. Thanks to this quick road trip (the house is less than ninety minutes away), I can check off my number one Iowa goal and feel just a wee bit more connected to to the rolling prairie hills, via this house that has defined the state for so many.

The house center is manned by two grandmotherly sorts, and it stocks costumes for those (aka everyone) wanting to recreate the painting — and add to its already rich history of parodies. And … of course … what would a trip to the American Gothic House be without a photo op?

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the curious case of artisinal chocolate

If you’d asked me two years ago what sprang to mind when I heard the words “Iowa artisan,” I would have (somewhat shamefacedly) admitted corn husk dolls. Because I had one! Not because I stereotype! Or perhaps . . . pie baking. Hog fattening.

Maybe I had a couple stereotypes.

Basically, I didn’t know anything about Iowa, or what I was getting myself into.

As it turns out, I have encountered zero corn husk dolls or “fattest pig” state fair competitions since moving here, and most of the pies have come out of my oven. What I have encountered is gourmet roasted Amana coffee, in flavors ranging from the traditional French Vanilla or Hazelnut to the wackier Blueberry Cinnamon Crumble and Vermont Maple Nut Crunch. A reminder: those are all coffee flavors. I have also encountered fruit wine. Yes, I know all wine is made from grapes, and that grapes are a fruit, but I mean cranberry wine. Apricot wine. Peach, apple, rhubarb wines. I believe it is what you would call “interesting” (as in “iiiinteresting…”) and let’s just say there’s a reason wine is made of grapes and not plums.

The best discovery of all, though, has been the local chocolate-makers. There’s the Chocolate Haus in Amana, whose four-pack of truffles almost always proves an irresistible pick-me-up. And then there’s Bochner Chocolates, with a single store off the Coralville Strip (and a tiny factory near the grocery store!) that churns out the most gorgeous, creatively flavored special occasion chocolates I’ve been lucky enough to taste. They have blue-speckled truffles filled with sea salted caramel and purple-dusted ones filled with lavender. There’s a whole line of alcohol-filled squares, from Bailey’s to Mojito (!), and an equally large group of fruit-fillings. They even cater to choco-purists with truffles made of cocoa nibs or Ghanaian beans. I would never (truly, never) have expected to find a place like Bochner Chocolates in Iowa — but oh, how wrong I was. I just finished my Valentine’s box (I know – discipline!) and our high-top table looks suddenly quite sad without all those snazzy, rich flavor possibilities.

sam’s pizza

The story of our journey to Sam’s Pizza on Thursday night is an existential one, which ran the gamut of dinner indecision from Mexican to pasta to sushi to burgers to finally settling somewhere around “I just want something new”. Oh, and included “My stomach hurts.” We finally settled on Sam’s Pizza: new to us, low-key, downtown. Even before walking in, I knew it couldn’t touch the likes of 2Amys or Motorino, but I hoped it might eclipse Pagliai’s , a local institution whose appeal regrettably escapes me.

We started with an order of cheesy bread, which was fabulous. Most pizza places just make the bread part out of leftover pizza dough, which is tasty but means the appetizer’s essentially cheese pizza, hold the sauce. Not so at Sam’s. It’s a doughy loaf of French bread, split open and buttered within an inch of its life, then topped with cheese. You get warm marinara sauce, too. Not bad for a sport’s bar. In terms of pizza, they offer both deep dish and thin crust. I’m lukewarm on deep dish in the best of circumstances, so the choice was a no-brainer.

And the verdict? It’s a different take on “thin crust” altogether, because unlike those primo New York pizzerias where “thin crust” means soft, chewy and charred, Sam’s is positively crispy. Like, cracker-crispy and about as thin — but also pretty good, especially the tomato sauce. It’s obviously a great place to catch a game (a game, the game, whatever game’s on), and the food’s yummy, to boot. Also worth mentioning: impressive drink specials. And the pinball machine, pool, and darts. I’m not sure about its future as a dinner-only destination, but it’s the ideal spot to meet friends for a late nice brew and bite. Approved!

black and white

Cookies, no. Cupcakes, yes. On Saturday, after an Australian-themed brunch with two excellent New York friends on the Lower East side (complete with bottomless mimosas, in proper brunch fashion), three of us trooped down the street to Sugar Sweet Sunshine, a retro-vibed bakery on Rivington. I’ve talked about Magnolia Bakery and Billy’s Bakery here on the blog before, and in fact ended that entry, exactly 364 days ago, with the lament, “I wish we’d gotten to Sugar Sweet Sunshine, located on the Lower East Side and apparently the next big thing.”

Finally, that wish has been granted — and vindicated. Sugar Sweet Sunshine may no longer be the next big thing. Just a big thing. A big deal. It has legions of followers, and I feel (once again!) a bit late to the party. Nonetheless, their cupcakes are sensational. Late date notwithstanding, I am jumping on the bandwagon.

The problem with Magnolia is that, while the cake was always light, fluffy, and flavorful (and I know I am increasingly in the minority here), their frosting was over-poweringly, tooth-achingly sweet. The frosting at Billy’s is a sight better, but the cake is too dense. I know I am Goldilocksing you all, and I’m sorry, but there’s a light at the end of this paragraph: Sugar Sweet has that fluffy cake AND the sweetly balanced frosting.

We bought three. Two were the “Black and White,” evidently chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream frosting. The other was their eponymous “Sunshine,” or yellow cake on vanilla buttercream. (In this case, dyed green.) B and I each had one when we got back to the apartment . . . and I ate another when we got back from a friend’s house that night. A cupcake at 10:30pm, when the alarm clock’s set for 3:00am for a 6:00am flight? Probably not the best idea.

But it was worth it.

the good samaritan lives here

When people ask me what living in Iowa was like, this is one of the stories I will tell.

One night, in very early February, a blustery, freezing cold blizzard tore through Iowa City, grabbing up great handfuls of falling snow and flinging them into feet-high drifts, pushing through door screens and clogging tree branches. It was the most snow we’d ever had. The next morning, Boyfriend put a coat over his fleece and a hat over his earmuffs and went out to clear the long driveway. It was supposed to drop into the negative teens that night, and he worried about the snow freezing solid. He worked and worked, drilling down through the waist-high snow drift and tunneling ten feet towards the street. But after all this, not even half the driveway was clear. So he went back inside for a break.

While we were frying some bacon, we heard a great roar outside our kitchen window and rushed to investigate. Our next door neighbor, whom we have never met, had trundled his snow blower to our garage was steadily pacing up and down our driveway, clearing a path. Unasked and unannounced. We were amazed and so, so relieved! And delighted! Once he finished our side, he cleared the duplex neighbors’ half of the driveway . . . and then continued, house to house, clearing the entire cul-de-sac’s driveways, and some of the street to boot. Conclusion: I usually try to avoid blanketing entire geographical regions with a single personality trait. But in this case I’m allowing an exception. It’s true, I do not know where else this would have happened, and I say, Oh, Iowa!

groundhog blizzard

If I talked to you in the last two days, chances are I used the phrase “not that bad” regarding the snow. I was skeptical and unimpressed. The snow was falling fast, but the flakes were so tiny, and since the wind didn’t start until last night I honestly did not believe the hype.

I would like to take it all back.

To say that we are snowed in would be a gross undersell. We are “snowed in,” if that means that the wind has compacted snow into the door screens, so they now weigh twice as much as usual. We are “snowed in,” in that the snow is a foot high against our wooden doors and they only open with a colossal heave-ho.

Here, what used to be our front porch steps.

Here, the inner back door, somehow also studded with snowflakes.

Luckily, we still have heat, electricity, hot water, and a full fridge. (We also have a broken snow shovel. But it’s okay, we’ll just pop over to Lowes for a new one! Perhaps we should have checked that earlier.) So, you know, if anyone feels like snow-shoeing over for cocoa, come on down, we’ll be here a while!

For more news, see the Press Citizen.

it’s actually snowing: musings and fixings

1. I thought I was hallucinating Saturday morning when I heard the word “Cedar Rapids” drop from the lips of a CNN anchor. Granted, an anchor over at the meteorology desk. But still! She was telling us all about the cold front moving east through Omaha and right into our little college town. And presumably, on to New York and DC, which is why they care. Blizzard warnings on Saturday night, though it rained all morning and I didn’t really believe them. Until, right around one o’clock in the afternoon, the sheets of rain abruptly turned — transformed, really, in an instant — into white flurries. It’s like in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” in the final battle scene when the good fairies wave their wands and Maleficent’s flying arrows become feathers. That quick. That’s how it started.

2. On reason I didn’t believe them: temperatures on Friday rose within spitting distance of 40 degrees. Forty degrees! This was huge. This was positively balmy. December in Iowa, and here I was forgoing gloves, scarf, hat, and even a coat. (Not a jacket, mind you; but a coat, yes.) Observation: I hope that when I move to New York, Massachusetts, or [fill-in-the-blank] next year, this sense of cold vs. warm sticks with me. I can go a long way if forty degrees stays my new sixty.

3. The “about” section up top mentions my search for “a butcher who who carves prosciutto.” I haven’t found that, but I did find, around this time last fall, La Quercia‘s packaged smoked meats. It’s made just down the road (…ish) in Norwalk, Iowa from pork sourced and slaughtered less than 200 miles away. And this little piggie that could has made its way to the big city. Jeffrey Steingarten, professional curmudgeon and the man who ate everything calls it “the best prosciutto, domestic or imported, you can get in America.” Mark Bittman calls it “a joy to taste.” I buy it at our hippie co-op, and in fact when I first asked the butcher for a recommendation, he pointed to La Quercia with the comment, “It’s been written up in the New York Times…” Do I walk around with a sign on my forehead? But no matter, this is great stuff.

4. Is it weird to have an opinion about flour? I know I have four in my cabinet — all purpose, whole wheat, bread, and rye, and the only reason I don’t have cake flour, too, is that you can make it at home! — but listen. When we were out of all purpose the other week, I picked up a bag at the hippie co-op. Because it is a hippie co-op, they only have organic kind: unbleached, unprocessed, all sorts of un’s. Frankly, I don’t totally understand the real world effect of these abundant un’s, but I love this flour. I makes my pizza crusts wonderfully light, even pillowy, and for some reason incorporates the wine and water so much more smoothly and softly than your typical Pilsbury. I mention dough, not cakes and cookies, because I actually notice a difference while I’m kneading. (And I don’t knead cake batter, sorry kids.) What is unbromated? I don’t know, but it’s what I’m buying from now on*.

5. I got a manicure two weeks ago. This is how it looked on Friday, that’s thirteen days after the salon visit.

Leaving aside my creepy spider hands, how amazing is that? This is the first time ever that I have taken off a nail polish because I got sick of the color, not because of ugly chipping — and this two weeks after! The color is “Big Apple Red,” and the long-wear is courtesy of OPI’s new line of gels, Axxium. The polish comes in a little pot, and the manicurist actually paints it on a with a little paintbrush. Once it’s dry, it’s immediately hardened, and you can actually root around in your purse for car keys, peel stickers off CDs, and do all the things that normal manicures wimp out on. I am big fan. I am spreading the gospel.

Enjoy your lazy, and perhaps snowy Sunday.

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*I did some research. Gold star, please? Further reading here and here. The gist is: Bromates are artificial aging agents, blah blah blah, oh and potentially carcinogenic. So, um, steer clear of bromated flours, I suppose.