There’s nothing halfway about the Iowa way to treat you

Maybe one reason dogs and people are so temperamentally compatible is that we share a craving for routine. It’s almost 10 in the morning. The house is calm. It’s calm because everyone knows what’s going to happen at 11: Brendan will come back from the cafe where he’s writing and we’ll take our long morning walk. That’s what always happens, no matter where we are.

As soon as we got to Iowa, we set about recreating our usual daily schedule, which is consistent in Maine, in New Hampshire, and wherever else we are, as exactly as possible. This is very important, it seems, to all three of us, although ostensibly we’re doing it for Dingo.

We’ve found an acceptable morning walk here, a loop around a lake outside of town.  After our walk, we often have lunch at the soup-and-sandwich place by the train tracks or the taco place by the pet store, and then we drive home. Brendan goes back to work at the cafe, and I go back to work at my desk, which in Iowa City seems to be the dining room table, and Dingo goes back to his workplace, a rotating series of floor positions from which he guards the house. If someone makes too much noise out there or comes a little too close to his carefully peed-upon turf that includes the sidewalk, the small front yard, and the driveway, a low growl bubbles in his throat. If that doesn’t scare them away quickly enough, he leaps up barking.  Once they’re gone, he subsides back into his high-alert half-snooze, most often twisted against the wall on his back with his limbs askew and his belly exposed. Occasionally, his toenails click against the molding. He rarely snores.

In the mid-afternoon, I go upstairs to do the day’s reading, which I keep stacked on a chair by the bathtub, which is my other office. Dingo leaps up and comes with me, all a-bustle. He’s staked out his upstairs station on the landing where he lies during reading hours, and he doesn’t budge from it. Tufts of fur have collected there from his strenuous afternoon labor, keeping intruders at bay.

Between 5 and 6, Brendan comes home and takes Dingo around the block. That’s the end of the workday for all of us. Dingo eats his dinner at 6. It’s always the same things, and now that he’s old, there are new items added to his kibble, glucosamine-chondroitin powder and half a doggy ibuprofen pill and a dollop of “senior” canned food that smells so tasty, I might be tempted to try some myself if there were nothing else about the larder.

After Dingo is fed, we go to the co-op if we need groceries, conscientiously toting our cloth bags. The co-op is a fun excursion because the food there is so beautiful; also, they have many of the things we usually like to buy, at home, which soothes our canine souls, as well as some local-only treats like Muscatine muskmelon and a dense, chewy, intensely flavorful Iowa-made prosciutto that has only two ingredients, pork and salt.

At home, we open a bottle of wine and cook and eat at the table on place mats, pushing to the side our laptops and papers and stacks of books. Later on, before bed, we all take a night walk together through the quiet, dark, leafy, unfamiliar streets. The household turns in before midnight.

When we wake up, the whole thing starts again, much to Dingo’s perennial excitement: his morning walk and breakfast, our coffee, the morning’s work, the 11:00 excursion to the lake.

It’s as close as we can get to our daily life at home, except here, I teach on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, and we don’t go out for dinner. We have found what may well be the two best restaurants in town, and they’re both lunch places.

The soup-and-sandwich place serves the most sublime sandwiches and soup in the kingdom. The first time we ate there, the owner came to our table to ask how we liked our food. We fluttered our eyelids at her swooningly. She explained that she makes her gazpacho from vegetables from her garden or her CSA. For the chicken sandwich with sweet avocado-lime sauce, which I could eat every day for the rest of my life, she buys bone-in breasts of “real” free-range chickens (“not the ones who get a slightly bigger cage underneath two windows, the ones that actually walk around outside”) and roasts and debones them herself. She told us that she searched long and hard to find good gluten-free bread. To drink, they serve pitchers of ice-cold “cucumber water” that’s more thirst-quenching even than lemonade, slightly slippery and vegetal with the infusion of cucumber from her garden.

The taco place is in a strip mall on Highway 1. It’s always jam-packed with Mexicans, the best advertisement. We’ve been there for the past two lunches. The al pastor tacos are flat-out thrilling, tender-chewy and spicy and porky. Yesterday we tried the cornmeal-fried fish and the beef cheek tacos; the day before, chorizo and steak. The fish tacos come with crema. Every taco has onion and cilantro on it. They use the little corn tortillas, just warmed so they’re floppy and soft. It’s all so authentic, we forget we’re in Iowa. They bring four different hot sauces to your table with your order, two very hot (avocado and habanero), two less hot (salsa roja and salsa verde). I like to squirt all four on every taco. I love to guzzle agua con gaz with my food; the bubbles intensify the heat and flavors and sensations. Afterwards, I’m high on endorphins and my mouth feels as if it’s having an orgasm. A mouthgasm.

Different place, same life. Coming to a new state, town, house, job, climate is a hard adjustment for those of us who are stuck in our ways. It’s very soothing to bring our ways with us wherever we go.

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About Kate Christensen

eater, citizen, enthusiast, curmudgeon
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10 Responses to There’s nothing halfway about the Iowa way to treat you

  1. Annie says:

    So glad to find your blog after I just finished reading your wonderful Blue Plate Special. So happy to see that the well-earned happy story continues …

  2. Nancy says:

    Loved your book and immediately had separation anxiety so very happy to find your blog….and thanks for saving that wonderful dog.

  3. Clara says:

    How does it feel to be back in Iowa so many years later, only now on the other side of the desk? I love hearing about your daily routine and knowing that you’re managing to maintain it in this new place. Thanks for bringing us along with you.

  4. Iowa sounds ghastly, but your writing is a place to be!

  5. kmguay says:

    Just started reading your blog. And now I want to read your book. Great stuff!

  6. Chelsam says:

    I’m headed from Seattle to Iowa City at the end of the month – my partner hails from Solon, IA and my sister lives in Iowa City, so I’ve eaten at a few tasty places in town. I’m sure I’ll have time for a few more lunches. Could you share with me the names of your two lunch spots? I would appreciate it!

    • Of course — Michoacana and Her Soup Kitchen. Another good place is Baroncini (I think it’s spelled that way) for dinner. What good restaurants can you recommend here?

      • Chelsam says:

        I managed to secure recommendations from my sister. Here goes: Motley Cow, Bluebird Diner, El Banditos, and Devotay.
        We’re going to be arriving in Iowa mid-week, and I can’t wait for lunch!

  7. jenandjose says:

    welcome back to Iowa City. Looking forward to reading more about your old/new experiences in Iowa

  8. msf says:

    Made up my own sandwich at HSK and ate it so often it got embarrassing. Leaf Kitchen also has great brunch and lovely tea, though it might be too much of a gluten festival–they’ve wonderfully flexible, though, so I’m sure they’d find a way around it. Augusta in Oxford is fun to visit, but the place to go is really the Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon.

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