Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Nebraska Update #3 and Wrap-Up

So much to report on…so much food, so many words, never enough books, always train whistles cutting through the night, and lord knows how many church bells ringing from all corners of town! (Oh, and I finished my book, too...but more on that later.)

Let’s start with some food of note.  First, potato salad.  I know that potato salad is highly personal, so I won’t be offended if you think I’m crazy, but one strain of the potato salad family that I love is the “very creamy Midwestern potato salad,” usually made with Miracle Whip (which is called “salad dressing” out here).  This potato salad is sweet, and in the ideal world, slightly tart—with lots and lots of creamy stuff and definitely no weird additions like tarragon (which is a fine addition for other potato salads, but not the Midwestern kind).  Anyway, I discovered that the local Fareway grocery store does a pretty excellent version, which makes for a nice lunch.  Um, I mean a nice SIDE DISH at lunch.  Who would ever eat grocery store potato salad as an entrĂ©e?  (Or, well, for breakfast, as I did today.)

There’s an excellent Mexican restaurant here, called, I believe Tacos el Pueblito, but everyone knows it as “the pink place” because it’s painted a very bright, salmon pink.  (I overheard men at the Windmill Museum [see below] trying to direct an out-of-towner there for lunch, and none of them could remember the name and simply referred to it as “the pink place.”)  Anyway—you can’t miss it because it is that pink, and while everything is good, Thursday is notable for the chile rellenos special and Saturday is tamales day!  Both versions are good enough for my fussy, I-lived-in-Arizona palate.

Back to the deli counter at the Fareway…tear yourself away from the potato salad section, and check out the smoked pork chops.  I don’t know why these are so hard to find outside the Midwest, but smoked pork chops are incredible, and so easy to cook—just heat them lightly in a frying pan.  They taste like ham, except more so:  meatier, choppier.  Oh, yum.  And the breakfast sausages were also excellent—I was pleased that I could buy only four (so worried about my heart health, obviously!) and that the purchase set me back seventy cents.

I went to the lovely Lewis & Clark Missouri River Visitors Center where I learned about the amazing journey up the Missouri River.  Impossible to believe that only one member of the party died (appendicitis).  And lovely trails around the grounds which were called “nature walks,” which, honestly, left me panting and breathless.  Nebraskans are hardy people, obviously, if these are the types of walks out-of-shape museum-goers like myself are expected to manage.  All worth it, though, for a lovely bluff view overlooking the river and the hyper boy on the school trip who ran to inform me that they had found “a huge copperhead outside in the boat outside and someone chopped its head off,” not a word of which was true except that there is a replica boat outside.

In the more quirky vein of museum-going, I went to the River Country Nature Center, which is a museum based on the taxidermy collection of one man who lived to be 99 years, 9 months, and 9 days old.  It’s really a stunning array of animals, arranged thoughtfully, and I was able to appreciate the artistry in this field of work; upstairs were rows and stacks and piles of old nature magazines and taxidermy publications and books about nature and books about taxidermy that Joe Voges read and accumulated over his life (he took up taxidermy in 1933).  The wealth of that collective knowledge was evident in his work and the way he organized his life to devote it to taxidermy.  Really, it was a beautiful thing to contemplate.  Also of note:  100 different types of domestic chickens (stunningly varied and gorgeous…some would give peacocks a good run for the money; many are or are on the verge of extinction at this point), and for the people who like the creepy chills up their spines: an albino porcupine (there were other albino animals on display, but I thought this was the creepiest one) and a three-legged chick from 1934.  (I hope it died naturally, because wouldn’t you be just the least bit curious to see what happened when it grew up?  Plus, THREE drumsticks for fried chicken!)  I had a lovely conversation with the lady working the front desk who knew Joe, and then I bought some pretty rocks.

The Kregel Windmill Museum had its grand opening during the Arbor Day festivities, and I stopped by.  What a visually arresting place; machinery and belts and forges…everything left exactly as it was in the 1950s, just right there in place when the owner closed the shop and locked up in 1991, down to the papers on the desk.  It was interesting to gain a larger appreciation for windmills, which contrary to what you may be thinking, are NOT merely decorative ornaments outside fake “Dutch” restaurants, but are vital parts of farming life:  that’s how the water got pumped.

Hands down, the quirkiest place I went to was the Antiquarium Bookstore, 30 minutes away in another river town, Brownville, NE.  The Antiquarium is a bookstore that used to be in Omaha and moved in 2008 (and is still a work in progress); it’s housed in an old school, and books (and miscellaneous ephemera) are stacked and shelved and shelved and stacked in every square inch of the place.  Literally.  I cannot exaggerate how many books there are in this place.  The owner, Tom, is happy to give a tour and then let you roam around at will…I knew I could spend days happily engaged (plus, I may tend to get obsessive), so I tried to maintain my focus, but it was virtually impossible with so many temptations.  For example, when passing over on my way to the fiction section, I discovered an old movie scrapbook with signed photos of old-time stars, each individually for sale.  It seems I missed Clark Gable for $1.50, dang it!  I was tempted by Phyllis Diller and Fanny Brice (both pricier), but the books, the books!  Moving forward with the ruthlessness of a shark, I found in the rare book room a first edition of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge that I decided to splurge on, and a SIGNED edition of Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead that, alas, was too expensive, even given Tom’s willingness to bargain a bit.  There was a reasonably priced first edition of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, priced to sell due to its rather ratty condition, and I decided that ratty condition or not, it’s Hemingway!  (Plus, tucked inside the cover was a charming black & white photo of a family inside labeled, “Seasons Greetings from the Dempsters” from the late 40s/early 50s.)  And then—call me narcissistic, but I was delighted to find a paperback of my own Pears on a Willow Tree, which I signed to Tom, who carefully placed it on the tip-top of a teetering stack of books that he planned to read.

Oh, I could go on…the Arbor Day Parade that lasted an hour, with kids lined up with plastic bags to carry home all the candy they planned to score; Kim at the tasteful and impeccably organized Warehouse Antiques; snow on the ground in May; tremendous thunderstorms; the computer crash that knocked my poor computer out of business for two days but which resulted in my getting to know the guy at the computer repair shop who is an online foreign/cult film critic and who got to vote for the Oscars (a Hungarian film, The Turin Horse, was his Best Picture pick; “you must have known in your heart that it probably wouldn’t win,” I noted, and he nodded); the fun local radio station KNCY that keeps me informed on top 10 country music and soil conditions (planting is waaay behind; the soil is still too cold!); dollar beers at The Wheel on Thursdays and the regulars who greet me with a smile when I walk in…. 

I’m not sure if I’m ready to head home on Friday.  It seems as though there’s always one more thing to see or do or wonder about or eat (do you think those red Husker hot dogs at the Fareway deli counter might be incredible??), one more question to ask, one more place to go.  My immense and sincere thanks to the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts for making this all possible.

It’s like the way the whoo of the train whistle passes through the night and then lingers gently in the dark.  Nebraska City—all of it, all—will linger gently with me after I pass through.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.