Yesterday afternoon, after I taught my seminar, I came home and changed my shoes, and then Brendan, Dingo, and I drove out into the countryside past rolling hills and wooded farms to Lake MacBride. A well-tended gravel trail runs alongside the big, peaceful, many-fingered lake for miles, past an old farm, some big houses on the bluffs, through woods, past marinas whose docks are full of pontoon boats. While we walked, we saw several deer, a heron, flocks of geese, a pair of woodchucks, many red squirrels, a toad, butterflies, fish jumping (the man-made lake is stocked annually for fishermen), lilypads, wildflowers, and algae, and almost no other people or dogs. The air smelled cool and clean. The sun was slanting down, lighting the surface of the water, casting deep shadows. At the halfway point, we all lazed in the grass for a while, looking up through treetops at the blue sky.
Wednesday marks the end of my teaching week, which always gives me a Friday-night sense of jubilation and accomplishment. And so it is that our routine these days is to have Wednesday night dinner at the locally famed Lincoln Café in Mount Vernon, half an hour’s drive north of Iowa City, about fifteen minutes from the lake.
After our walk, we drove to Mount Vernon and parked on the pretty, sleepy little main drag, gave Dingo his dinner and a bowl of water, then left him to snooze and went into the restaurant. Sitting in a booth, we drank pinot noir and ate salads of fresh lettuce with capers, smoked trout, and smoked-trout mousse. Then came the entrées: I had a roasted filet of Wild King salmon with black pepper beets, rich, salty salmon roe-egg salad, and horseradish creamed kale. Brendan ordered the Amish chicken, a roasted, juicy breast and leg that came on a schmear of spicy chili chevre with sautéed maitake mushrooms, a slab of braised bacon that melted in the mouth, and zucchini slaw.
We toasted the end of the workweek, even thought Brendan’s wasn’t over, and neither, technically, was mine. We toasted the fact that we’ve been here almost six weeks, and the time is whizzing by. We toasted my brilliant students, who are renewing my formerly flagging excitement about fiction. We toasted Brendan’s almost-finished screenplay. We thought we had run out of things to toast, but then we remembered the fact that our friend Gretchen is coming on Friday evening to visit us for the weekend.
Our plates were empty, the bottle of wine had been mysteriously drained, and we were tired and happy. We drove home and went to sleep.
I woke up this morning with the bleak knowledge that the cold had won our battle. It had finally got me, this cold that’s been dogging me all week, the one Brendan just got over after ten miserable days, and the one he likely gave to me, if we’re going to get all finger-pointy about it, which of course we’re not.
I had meetings today with students. During the first one, at 11:00 this morning, I managed to complete my sentences, for the most part, or so I hoped. During the second, I found myself struggling to hold on to a thought, let alone articulate it. Just before my last meeting at 2:00, I realized that I was wallowing in a miasma of stupidity, a bubbling sinkhole into which I could feel my I.Q. descending. My sinuses were pressing against my brain. My ability to speak was compromised by a dry throat, a rattling cough, and a severe diminishment of vocabulary.
There was a dinner for a visiting novelist at 5:00, before his reading, to which I had agreed to go, along with a few other faculty members and students. I sat at my desk looking out at the golden, dry, bright fall day, and I weighed the prospect of a free meal in a good restaurant with interesting people, having thoughtful conversations, drinking a glass of cold white wine, against the idea of going home and putting on my pajamas. I was so hungry my stomach was growling. I was wearing a skirt and boots. It would have been so easy to go to the dinner instead of backing out, which I always hate doing, even when I’m sick.
I emailed Brendan, torn.
“I’m on deadline,” he wrote back within 45 seconds. “I can’t go anywhere till I hand in this script. So I’m out.”
Dingo lay sacked out at my feet, setting a stellar example of mindless, unapologetic, necessary sloth.
Caving in to familial pressure, I sent an email begging out of the dinner.
After my meeting with my last student, which lasted an entertaining hour and a half, I plodded home through wide, quiet streets with Dingo. I came in the door and shucked everything. By 4:00, I was in my pajamas, collapsed on the couch with my laptop and book. By 5:00, Brendan had made pasta with pea sauce and a simple salad. We ate out on the porch. As I write this, at 5:30, my plate is empty, my stomach is full, and in this state of sated repletion, my drooling stupidity no longer matters at all.
Pasta with pea sauce is the chicken soup of pasta. It has curative powers. It’s nothing but a sofrito—onions, carrots, and celery, minced small—sautéed in olive oil. Then you add a bag of frozen peas and vegetable broth, then most of a box of Pomi chopped tomatoes with a dab of tomato paste and lots of crushed red pepper. As it bubbles on the stove, the alchemy of ingredients fills the house with a sweet-savory fragrance that’s restorative and nourishing in itself. When it’s cooked down, the sauce is tossed with hot fettuccine and served with grated cheese, and that’s it, but the flavor is rich and complex. And you can shove it in your mouth as fast as you want; it hardly needs chewing. It’s divine comfort food.
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.
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.