Thursday, October 7, 2010

Canoeing and (Locally Grown) Conversation on the Des Moines River

Yesterday I went canoeing on the Des Moines River. I haven’t been canoeing in at least a dozen years. But when my new friend Cari Garrett (not to be confused with Carrie the City Clerk/Xena Princess Warrior) told me she had a canoe and was planning an outing this week I begged her take me along. If living in Iowa again means getting back to my roots, I want to go all the way back, back to my days as a camp counselor when we took end-of-summer two-week trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Cari promptly followed through with an invitation so yesterday afternoon I rode my bike four blocks from the American Gothic House to the Eldon boat dock where three women and two canoes were waiting.
Connie with canoes
Cari took the helm of one canoe in which I sat in front. Her friends Connie and Jolene would be in the other canoe. Paddles? Check. Life jackets? Check. Snacks and water? Check. Whisky? Check. (Hey, I thought that was iced tea in your water bottle!) The ladies, dressed in river shoes and shorts, had all their gear packed in waterproof boating bags and mini coolers that clipped onto the canoe stays. I was impressed. They were fully prepared. I was clearly out of boating practice and had tossed my camera, unprotected, into my flimsy backpack and tucked my iPhone into the bib of my overalls without so much as bringing a Ziploc sandwich bag. I hadn’t even thought to wear my Teva sandals. Doh! Still, we weren’t looking at rough waters or rainy weather. The river was high but flat and the October sun was blazing down as if it was still August. We were ready to embark on our five-mile excursion downstream to the next town, Selma, where Jolene had left her truck to shuttle us back to our starting point.

We paddled all of about five strokes into the main channel of the river and that was about as much physical effort as we made for the next three hours. We rafted our canoes together and let the current do the work as we drifted toward our destination.

Lazing in the sun, while herons soared across the water’s surface, we did what women normally do when gathered in a group of two or more: talk and eat.

The ladies broke the seals on the waterproof bags and out came the cheese and sausage, and pop. (Pop is the vernacular for soda or soft drink. I used to say pop until I moved West. I call it soda now, and I rarely drink it anyway. My point is I love the variations in our country’s language.) The women offered me cheese and sausage and I said no, but when they began discussing the savory goods I changed my mind. “I like the mild taste of this,” Connie was saying. “It doesn’t taste like the deer you get in Montana that has a stronger, wild taste.”

“Deer? Really?” I said as Jolene handed me a slice. It looked like regular old summer sausage, the kind you get in those Hickory Farms Christmas gift baskets. It was delicious, not too rich and lightly spiced with jalapeno peppers. I wanted more. “Where can I buy this?” I asked. And they rattled off the name of a butcher at Hastings Meat Market in Bloomfield, a town 20 minutes from Eldon.

Then they talked about the cheese. “This is Longhorn Colby from the Dutchmen’s Store in Cantril.” I knew Dutchman’s. It’s an old style general store that isn’t just old in style, it is old, and it’s run by Mennonites who are also famous for making quality cheese. I didn’t buy cheese when I was introduced to Dutchman’s a few weeks ago – I only bought ribbon from their huge fabric department to use for curtain ties – but I would definitely be buying it next time.

The ladies didn’t have more food samples to try but had plenty of food stories to tell. They discussed buying their organic vegetables at the Amish produce auction on Fridays in Drakesville. “Auction?” I asked. “You bid on vegetables?” I had never heard of such a concept.

“Oh yes,” Connie replied, “they’ll have a big bag of green beans, like a peck or a bushel, and you have to outbid any other bidders to get them.”

“That is fascinating. Do they sell apples?” Connie nodded. “Great. I want to go next time,” I said and pulled out my iPhone. “I’ll mark my calendar.”

Then they talked about their cows and chickens. More specifically their own cows and chickens that had previously lived on their farms and now fill their freezers. “I can’t order a steak when I go out. It just doesn’t taste as good. Same with chicken. The ones you buy in the store have no flavor,” Connie said.

Jolene said, “I bought hamburger meat the other day because I was too lazy to dig our own supply out from the bottom of the freezer – it was buried under all the steaks. I served the hamburger to my husband and he asked, ‘Where did you get this?’ He knew it wasn’t from our cow.”

I was incredulous. I had just moved from Portland, Oregon, a city known for its obsession with pure, hormone-free, locally grown food. Portlanders describe on their menus exactly which farm their produce comes from, how many miles away, and will include minutiae of anything else they can tell you about just how politically correct the stuff is you are being served. Portlanders are not just obsessed with their organic everything but I get the impression they like to think they’ve pioneered the now trendy local-food movement. But here I was in Southeastern Iowa, far from sophisticated city life living in a rural pocket of the country where you’d be hard pressed to find a trend-follower let alone a trend, yet I was surrounded by food snobs!

I LOVED THESE LADIES! They weren’t going to restaurants and paying top dollar for their grass-fed, hormone-free beef. They were butchering their own animals right outside on their lawns! They were buying produce from America’s original food purists, the Amish. They were getting eggs from their chickens who wouldn’t recognize a cage if they walked into one. They were buying cheese made fresh weekly by women in bonnets. They were making their own horseradish from roots they picked and peeled themselves. They were rendering their own lard, boiling down the fat from their pigs to make their pie crusts. My god! You cannot get food any more “local” than all that! Sorry, Portland, but it seems that Iowa had this “trend” wired a long time ago.

One thing was nagging at me though. I had recently read Michael Pollen’s tome, "The Omnivore’s Dilemma," wherein he – dare I say – picks on Iowa and its corn industry, in particular questioning the reasoning behind feeding corn to cows. (Confession: The book was so dense I couldn’t get past Chapter 3.) I ventured to ask Jolene if she knew that cows weren’t meant to eat corn. She stared at me blankly, which made me wonder if she was unaware of any controversy or simply dismissing the notion altogether. “The cows eat grass AND corn,” she said. “Mostly they eat grass, but we feed them corn to fatten them up before we butcher them.” There was no dilemma for this omnivore and I wasn’t going to question her further.
Jolene paddling downriver
These women knew a lot more than me about the care and feeding of farm animals, as well as the care and feeding of themselves. These were women who, in the past when short on cash, would go fishing to catch their dinner. These were women who not only knew how to cut off a chicken’s head, they knew how to do it humanely. “You use one of those highway cones and stuff the chicken into until just its head is sticking out, then you take a knife to its throat,” Connie explained. I squirmed and grimaced at her description. “It’s the humane way,” she said. “Their bodies don’t flop around because they’re confined by the cone.”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” I said. “My problem is that I’ve become disconnected from my food and where it comes from. You don’t see blood or a flopping feathered body when you buy packaged chicken from a grocery store. I’d like to learn about this stuff. Let me know next time you’re going to do something. But let’s start with something simple, something that doesn’t involve a chainsaw.” I was referring to the rip in Jolene’s denim shorts which she said came from a slip of her saw while killing a chicken. Though from the grin on her face I think she might have been teasing me. “How about teaching me to make lard for my pies?”

“You know that smell back there?” Jolene said.

“You mean the pig manure?” I asked.

“Yes. That’s how your house will smell when you render lard.”

“Okay then maybe we can start with horseradish.” Cari had brought along a miniature container of the sinus-clearing stuff, so tedious to make and only producing such small amounts that it’s considered a kind of white gold. “At your house,” I added. Cari had been asking Jolene to host another one of her horseradish-making parties, something that, as yet unexplained to me, could only be done in months that end with “er.”
Cari navigates our canoe
We finally reached the Selma boat ramp (thankfully before anyone suggested passing the whisky bottle around) and paddled hard the last few feet so we didn’t get swept past the landing. We dragged our canoes out of the water and heaved them onto the back of Jolene’s pick-up truck where she strapped them down for the drive back. Girl power. Yeah, baby.

We had had the river all to ourselves. We didn’t see any other boats or people, only birds. And while this afternoon excursion was hardly the Canadian wilderness expeditions of my teen years, it was a nice reminder of how my love for nature and adventure was formed. It was also a reminder of how friendships are formed. I loved spending time with these capable, hard-working, cow-slaughtering women. And whether it involves blood, guts, chainsaws, or manure scent, I am looking forward to our next get-together. I may have returned to my roots, but clearly I have a lot to learn. And luckily I’ve found my teachers.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Ladies from Ames

I was sitting outside on my back patio this morning, drinking coffee in my pajamas when a group of women came around the corner. They were wearing name tags so I knew they were the visitors Molly (the American Gothic House Visitor Center administrator) had told me about when I saw her earlier while out walking my dogs. Yes, I was walking my dogs in my pajamas – or, more specifically, my long underwear cum pjs, fleece bathrobe, and rubber boots newly purchased from the Tractor Supply Company. Normally I would change into my bib overalls (newly purchased from Orscheln’s Farm & Home) at the start of the day, but I’ve slipped into a lazy routine the past few days as the mornings have been cold and I don’t like feeling the biting chill on my bare skin when changing clothes. Yesterday was so cold I simply slipped my overalls on over my pajamas, and never did bother to change later, but that seemed so pathetic, a dangerous addictive habit (bad enough that I’ve given up on my most basic beauty efforts like a swash of lipstick, but worse because lately I never even brush my hair), I thought today I would just finish my coffee in the sun and then go upstairs to put on a skirt before the ladies’ tour group arrived. Well, they had arrived. En masse. At least I had tamed my hair back into a ponytail.

I had teased Molly earlier that if she needed to do any extra schmoozing with the ladies – about 50 filled the tour bus – I would let them come inside the house. She smiled her cute wry smile and said thanks but that wouldn’t be necessary. “Okay,” I said, and continued down the bike path, shuffling along in my farm boots with my coffee cup and dogs.

It didn’t occur to me that a group from Ames, a three-hour drive from Eldon, would arrive by 9 a.m. True, Iowa is not prone to heavy traffic, unless you get stuck behind farm equipment on a two-lane highway, but still they made good time. They had left at the crack of dawn, motored south through the state capital and into the rural hinterlands, and now, here they were. Standing in my backyard.

“You must be the writer,” they said. Clearly they had already been at the visitor center and been prepped by Molly.

“Yes,” I answered, looking up from the document I was reading. “And I’m still in my pajamas.”

“That’s okay,” they assured me. “If we lived here we’d still be in our pajamas too.”

“Do you want to see the house?” I asked.

“Really? You would let us come inside?”

It was a no brainer. Of course they were curious. Of course they wanted to see the inside. I will never forget my own desperate curiosity to see the inside when I first arrived as a tourist. And now I was in a position to grant people access, keeper of the kingdom, custodian of the castle. Be nice to me and maybe I’ll let you in. “Yes, you can come in, but let me run upstairs and make my bed first.” Never mind that the sink was full of dishes, papers were heaped high on my desk, and -- egads – the sofa pillows were not fluffed.

Not all 50 women filled the house at once. They came inside in waves. But with each cluster came a new set of questions. Is that your own furniture? Who did the paintings? How long do plan to live here? How much rent do you pay? Won’t it be cold in the winter? What do you write?

I answered the questions – yes, my sister and grandfather, I don’t know, not much, yes, and I’m going to write about you on my blog – and then handed out business cards. The question that came up over and over was one – a double one, really – I would have asked myself. Where are you from and how did you end up here? Very good question. For which my answer became pretty standard after delivering it a few times:

I had been living in Portland, Oregon, and came to Iowa this summer to be a pie judge at the Iowa State Fair. I was born in Ottumwa, just 15 miles from here, and lived there until I was 12. We moved to Davenport, where I went to high school and graduated early so I could get out of Iowa and never come back. (The ladies all laughed at this point.) After the fair I came down here to visit my old childhood homes. I was on my way to Fairfield to do a radio interview and I saw the sign for the American Gothic House. I had no idea it was here! I discovered the place was for rent and, well, I didn’t make it any further. And now I do all my shopping in Ottumwa. It’s a place we always made fun of after we moved, because it was so small. And now it’s like going to a big city for me. I even went to a movie there on Friday night, “The Social Network.” It was the film’s opening night in Los Angeles, New York, and…Ottumwa. (More laughter.)

“This must be a very inspirational place to write,” they commented.

“Well, yes,” I smiled, “except that I’ve been having a terrible bout of writers block. I’m trying to write an essay for a big magazine about how pie has helped me heal from my grief.” And this is where I dropped the bomb on the unsuspecting women. “My 43-year-old husband died from a ruptured aorta a year ago. I’d like to think pie has helped me heal, but the truth is I’m still grieving.” I handed a small framed picture of Marcus to one of the ladies to diffuse the deliberately awkward moment. I really must stop being so depressive. And so blunt.

But the discussion progressed, as it invariably does when the subject of pie and adversity comes up, and the stories – their stories – came pouring forth.

Pie is more meaningful than old world family recipes. “My mom was an immigrant from the Czech Republic. She’s 97. We recently went through all her old recipes to make sure we could record them all.” (The woman telling me this story rattled off some names of the Czech dishes, but as I don’t speak Czech I can’t tell you what they were.) “My mom was staying at my house while we were making all these recipes and had a dream about lemon meringue pie. That was dad’s favorite. So we looked for a recipe and then made it.”

Pie saved the farm. “My grandmother lived on a farm and was going to lose it if she couldn't come up with some money so she baked pies and sold them. People loved her pie. They lined up to buy it. And my grandmother saved the farm.”

Pie saved the American Gothic House. “I read that the American Gothic House had gotten really run down, the community was poor but they cared, so they got together and sold pies to raise the money to renovate the house. So you see? Pie plays a big role here. You are living in the right place.”

I hadn't heard that story about the American Gothic House but I loved the astuteness of this woman’s comment. I have no doubt in my mind I am living in the right place. I know in some unspeakable, indefinable way that I am exactly where I am meant to be at this point in time. I can’t say yet why. I just know. I know it in every cell in my body. It is experiences like the one this morning, a busload of ladies from the Iowa State University Women’s Club showing up unexpectedly in my backyard, that make living here so rich. These women shared their stories, their enthusiasm, their curiosity, their appreciation. Some of them even hugged me when they left. My only regret is that I hadn’t made them pie. I think they would have liked that.

The visit by the Ladies from Ames and all of their warm, caring energy helped lift my spirits, and thus my writers block. But before I get back to working on that magazine essay I will go get dressed now. I’m still thinking about putting on a skirt, a long one. That way I can leave my pajamas on underneath.