As we drove straight up north through Iowa last weekend in the shimmering heat, we started to feel depressed by the miles and miles and miles of cornfields, stalks packed tightly together, leaves looking a little brown around the edges. We talked about ethanol and the cattle industry and Monsanto and drought and the hard, unhappy life of the modern farmer. The air in the car was tinged blue with air conditioning and sadness.
Then we crossed the border into Minnesota, and immediately, the landscape changed. We were in bluff country, otherwise known as the Driftless Area, so called because the glaciers that shaped the Great Plains somehow missed this corner of the world and left a corrugated topography of tall, green, beautiful bluffs.
We twisted down and around on a curved highway into Lanesboro, population 734. We drove down the main street of old buildings past the Sons of Norway Hall and an Amish store and an old diner to our hotel, the Marquee Suites, so called because it’s above the old theater. Our suite of rooms (including a full kitchen) was big and dim and cool and shabby and comfortable. We plunked Dingo’s sheepskin on the couch and unloaded our backpacks and shucked off the desolation of the road.
My half-sister, Thea, and her husband, Pop, had just arrived in town ten minutes before, from St. Paul, where they live. They headed over to our room and we all sat around and had some wine, and then we piled into Pop’s van and drove out of town to a place called Dreamacres Farm for dinner.
Within minutes of our arrival, Dingo got a hole bitten in the scruff of his neck by the resident feisty redheaded girl dog who didn’t think he should sniff her, or be on her property at all. We washed the bite off and slathered bacitracin on it, and then we all settled down at a long table outside by the pizza oven with friends of Pop and Thea’s. As the sun went down and the air cooled a bit, we talked and ate pizza and drank wine while Pop and his old friend Bob played and sang old-time music on fiddle and guitar. (We joked that their band should be called the Palindrome Boys.) After dinner, we four, with poor Dingo, drove back to Lanesboro for a nightcap at a great old bar, outside on the porch.
The next morning, after Dingo’s walk and breakfast, we left him snoozing and met Pop and Thea for breakfast at the Spud Boy, a tiny, beautiful, meticulously renovated old diner on wheels tucked into a small vacant lot under an enormous spreading pine tree. Its owners, a tall, glamorous pair named Val and Gordie, rescued and renovated the place. It has a mahogany ceiling, vintage booths and stools, an old fridge, grill, stove, and sink. It’s like the shipshape galley of a small boat: everything has its place, and there’s not one square inch to spare. Val, serene and unflappable in a 1940s waitress dress and apron, washes dishes, takes orders, buses tables, and serves coffee and plates of hot food. Gordie, stooped slightly at the grill under the low ceiling, cracks eggs with one hand, grates potatoes with a box grater straight onto the grill, and flips strips of thick bacon.
That was one of the best breakfasts I’d ever eaten: over-easy eggs, crisp hash browns, and chewy, lean bacon. I felt great afterwards, ready to plow a field or milk a barnful of cows, but instead, Thea and I walked Dingo along the shady, paved Root River Bike Trail that runs 60 miles in all through the valley. We made it a mile or so and then had to turn back; the three of us were drooping from the heat. On the way back, Thea told me that the bluffs of southeastern Minnesota are in danger of being sand mined for fracking, dismantled and carted away. The blue sadness descended again. Oh, America, I thought.
But then I cheered up. We had been invited to dinner at the house where Pop and Thea were staying, with their friends Frank and Peggy, up the hill from Main Street, above Sylvan Park, an enormous, gabled Victorian house full of wonders and curiosities, hand-painted moldings downstairs, a Norwegian sleigh bed upstairs, old records and collections of dishes and aprons. Frank and Peggy, a charming, lively pair of talkers and doers, served food they’d grown themselves: Mollie Katzen’s gazpacho recipe to start, then polenta from their homegrown corn with leeks from their garden and black walnuts from their tree. Dessert was a rhubarb crumble; Lanesboro is famous for its rhubarb. Frank got out their grain mill to show how he makes breakfast cereal from the rye they grow. Peggy and I talked food writing (she reads and writes about food as passionately as I do).
When it was time to go to the barn dance, just as we were leaving, Peggy’s father, Ray, who has lost his memory but not a shred of his wits, recited from his armchair, “There was a little girl who had a little curl… and when she was bad, she was a naughty little bitch.” We all went out into the hot night laughing.
Pop was the caller for the dance; his friend Bob played guitar and another friend played fiddle. The old Sons of Norway Hall, its air conditioners blasting for all they were worth, was full of people, old and young. Brendan and I landed in a square with some kids in their twenties. The tall, shy boys turned out to be bluegrass musicians and the pair of raving beauties they danced with were evidently their groupies. These kids knew all the dances. Pop called out, “Lady round the lady, the gent foll-low, lady round the gent but the gent don’t go.” We turned to our corner and allemanded left to a right left grand. We promenaded and do-si-do’ed and swung our partners, out of breath. Through my laughter, I had a lump in my throat. Oh, America.
Later that night, we walked Dingo along Main Street and sat on a stoop in front of an abandoned storefront across the street from the old bar. Country music wafted out. Drunk, laughing people walked by and admired Dingo. I leaned against Brendan and smiled at all of them.
The next morning, we drove up to Frank and Peggy’s for coffee before our second Spud Boy breakfast. Frank showed us the cardoons he’s growing, demonstrated how to cut and pare them, passed around pieces of the raw, artichoke-like, fibrous vegetable for us all to try. Peggy loaded us up with five boxes of old issues of Gourmet magazine going back to 1980, a sack of green eggplants and another of serrano peppers, plus a yogurt container of homegrown home-cured black walnuts.
We drove back to Iowa City with our stomachs full of another perfect breakfast and our ears full of old-time music and stories. When we got home, I chopped and then sautéed six of the long, thin eggplants in olive oil till they were brown and soft, then put them aside and sautéed a minced red onion and 4 minced garlic cloves with a lot of dried basil, black pepper and salt, and a whiff of cinnamon and a dash of cumin. Then I added 1 1/2 cups of Lundberg’s wild rice blend, just shy of 3 cups of chicken broth with a big dollop of tomato paste whisked in, plus a teaspoon of minced lemon zest. I served big platefuls of luscious, faintly exotic pilaf with toasted pine nuts and grated pecorino-romano cheese.
We poured some pinot noir and sat and feasted at our table in the air-conditioned dining room. Outside, the cicadas made their racket, and the frat boys across the street had a beer-bong party.