Today is my 42nd birthday, and there’s a place that I’d like very much to celebrate it, but I am unable to do so.
I have written in this space before about my little sister Nicole, the Irish dancer, who is now 18 but still my “little” sister as far as I am concerned. Her father (my stepfather) works for Wells Fargo, and when Nicole was about to start high school, they and my mother left the Chicago area and moved to West Des Moines, Iowa.
Geographically, they’re only 350 miles away, but culturally they are hell and gone from here. I had never had any reason to visit Iowa (who does?) before they moved out there. On the first few visits I made, Nicole and I would bond by making fun of the locals, looking down our noses at them like the big-city sophisticates we fancied ourselves to be. We share the same sarcastic attitude, which means the source influence has to be my mother.
There are most certainly worse places to live, and Des Moines itself is a decently equipped midsize city. But it’s not Chicago. It’s not even suburban Chicago.
For one thing, the pace is completely different. It’s like the entire state of Iowa is covered by a shield that screens out all sense of urgency. (I have it on good authority that this shield also extends through Nebraska.) Drivers mosey along at a relaxed pace. Construction projects seem to take absolutely forever to complete. I experienced several near-collisions with my grocery cart at the Hy-Vee before I learned to proceed at one-third speed. “Scotty! Less power!” “Aye, cap…eh, beg pardon?”
Secondly, and I really try to say this without seeming like a snob, but there is truly a difference in the level of sophistication. Let me give you an example. Iowa is home to a large chain of convenience store/gas stations called Kum & Go. A first-time visitor from Chicago will gape in disbelief upon seeing one of these for the first time. But the natives blithely pump their gas, purchase their Hostess Ding-Dongs, and go on their merry way, never stopping to wonder if this is a gas station or a sperm bank.
Finally, there is the subject nearest and dearest to my own heart…food. Chicago is a great eating town. So is Kansas City. Despite being located reasonably close to both of these culinary centers, Iowa has valiantly guarded its borders to prevent any unauthorized flavor from entering the state. Des Moines has a number of Chinese eateries, seemingly owned and staffed by genuine Asian people, but apparently there is a provision in their business licenses requiring them to all serve the same relentlessly bland approximations of their native dishes. (Trust me, I know the difference between lo mein noodles and spaghetti.) The best Chinese food to be had is at the Hy-Vee, and it’s on a par with what we Chicagoans usually find at mall food courts. A new P.F. Chang’s has opened at the Jordan Creek Town Center, but if you’re looking for a cheap take-out joint for some broccoli beef and a decent egg roll, you’re out of luck.
Then there’s the subject of pizza. On this I am admittedly difficult to please. Chicago has the best pizza in the world, bar none. (That includes New York, and for that matter, Italy.) So I almost never find pizza outside of Chicago that is up to my specifications. Here I will give Iowa some credit: they have no chance of success, so they have saved themselves a lot of trouble by not even trying. When the best pizza in town is Pizza Hut, you know you are in the wilderness. Each time I visit my family, I ask if they’ve found a good pizza place yet. It’s been four years. The answer is still no.
This does not mean that I starve on my visits to Iowa. As with any other state, Iowa plays to its strengths, and the odor that wafts above its farm fields is strong indeed. Iowa leads the country in hog farming, and if you are an unmitigated pig-muncher like me, whatever faults Iowa may have are quickly forgiven at the sight of carved sugar-cured ham, succulent pork tenderloin, applewood smoked bacon, and savory pork sausage. To hell with pizza. I can get that whenever I want. Iowa is pork heaven, and it’s all I can do to not dance around the buffet table.
The shrine to which I make my pork pilgrimage is called The Machine Shed. It has become a tradition for Nicole and me to have a meal there each time I visit. Nicole does not share my pork obsession and, frankly, doesn’t like the Machine Shed all that much. She goes for my sake, a remarkably unselfish act, particularly for a teenager. Nicole will nurse a Caesar salad while I devour any of a number of menu items that would make my physician blanch, and not just because he is Jewish.
On our first visit to the restaurant, we witnessed a marriage proposal. A thin, earnest young man in blue jeans got down on one knee and presented a ring to his dinner companion, a well-fed woman with partially blonde hair, who managed to pull her eyes away from her cobbler long enough to glance at the ring. I was expecting her to grunt, “Shiny,” and stuff the ring down her gullet like a voracious Muppet. But instead she smiled sweetly and accepted, and we all applauded.
But it was our second visit that cemented the tradition. There were four older folks seated at a table in the center of the room. One of them was apparently celebrating a birthday, so the wait staff gathered around the table to sing and present him with a small ice cream sundae.
Nic and I continued our dinner, and about ten minutes later, we saw the staff come out with another sundae.
“Oh, goodie,” I said. “Another birthday.” I’ve never been a big fan of this ritual.
The staff then gathered around the same table as before and sang to the second of the four diners.
“Wow, what a coincidence,” Nicole said. “Two birthdays at the same table.”
And we were off, in full-blown hick abuse mode.
“Hmmm,” I said, in a dumb-sounding southern accent. “Yew know whut, if’n yew says it’s yer birfday, yew gets free food. Dat gives me a idear.”
“Hey, it’s mah birfday too,” said Nicole.
“Really?” I replied, now sounding a lot like Gomer Pyle. “Whaddya know, it’s both our birfdays!”
“How ‘bout that, Clem?” Nicole said, and we both giggled like children.
When the staff returned to present a third sundae to the same table, Nicole and I nearly ruptured ourselves laughing. We had called it.
Later, as we were driving out of the restaurant parking lot, we drove up near an old man who was walking in. He had sent his family on ahead while he parked the car, and was walking to the door at Iowa Speed.
“I should run this guy over,” I said to Nicole. Then I started a dialog of the family getting called to their table.
“Goober, party of five!”
“Naw, make that four. Amos got hisself runned over in the parkin’ lot.”
“Yeah,” said Nicole, right on cue. “And it wus his birfday too.”
I think my little sister is funny as hell. Thanks, mom.