Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Musings on the place I have to live...

The following is an essay I wrote awhile back and is part of a collection of essays and short stories that I'm getting ready for submission. It probably won't sell well in Ft. Wayne...

WE'RE NUMBER ONE (With a bullet)!
Some Idle Musings on Food and Sports and the Weather in Ft. Wayne, Indiana

            I'm darned proud to be a Hoosier.
            Especially lately.
            In the last year alone, we were declared by a national magazine to rank near the top, nationally, in obesity.
            Just as we were getting over basking in the glow of that singular honor, Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry announced the results of a highly-scientific poll he'd recently conducted... that Indiana had clearly won the title of the "Silliest State Nickname."
            Yep. Thas' the one. Not to be confused with "Hoseheads." Them's the folks from Canada, I think.
            No other state was even close in the balloting. Of course, this was a vote taken in Miami, Florida, so who knows if hanging chads were counted and if not, how accurate the poll actually was.
            No matter. We'll take it, by cracky. (Famous Hoosier euphemism.)
            With the twofer honor we nailed this year, it may be a good opportunity to update our glorious nickname. Something like, "Hoosier Tubbies." Now, that's got a ring to it, by golly (another interesting Hoosier euphemism), and if we could get the state legislature to act on it (or act on anything), it's not inconceivable that we could end up with an unprecedented "two-peat" next year as winners of Barry's poll.
            The next year we go for Hoosier Starchbabies and score an unprecedented "three-peat!"
            Although, I don't understand how our great state ends up skinny-challenged. Have you checked out the grub we eat? I moved here after living in Texas, California and New Orleans and other environs and immediately noticed a difference in the cuisine.
            Mondo difference.
            The first entrée I was introduced to upon entering "Hoosierland" (another adorable Hoosier euphemism) was a delightful little number called... well, I don't know what it was called. I named it "white stuff." Mashed potatoes dumped on top of noodles.
            Or maybe it was the other way around. Hard to tell. They're both white. Upon reflection, I think it was noodles on top of mashed potatoes. Noodles are the slimy things, right? And potatoes are the lumpy objects? Then, I stand corrected. It was noodles on top of potatoes. Usually served with white bread slathered with oleo. Washed down with milk.
            I can still remember the one-of-a-kind flavor. Kind of like what I imagine a dish made up of pulverized flakes from the box your Amana refrigerator came in, mixed in with lead-based white paint (glossy) might taste like. And the servings! Hoosier chefs don't serve those little sissy portions like you might get in a four-star French restaurant. Nosiree! (Yet another of those catchy Hoosier euphemisms) Nope—you get a mound of white stuff plopped on your plate, high enough that you have to kind of raise up in your seat to see your dining partner across from you.
            Actually, to make eye contact, you'd both have to raise up.
            Folks were asking for seconds.
            As Dave Barry might say: "I'm not making this up."
            I quickly discovered a Hoosier's idea of a spice rack. That would consist of a pair of salt and pepper shakers.
            I've learned it's best to pray after you eat in Indiana.
            And turn the smoke alarm off until after the dishes (Hoosiers pronounce this word "deeshes") are done. Only... we don't say, "after the dishes deeshes are done. We say, "We're fixin' to rid up the table and warsh the deeshes."
            I'm not making this up, either.
            I wish I was.
            And, speaking of religion, that allows me to lead smoothly and seamlessly into... you guessed it...
            Specifically, sports as reported by Fort Wayne sportswriters.
            Now, I lived in South Bend for quite a while and the sports reporting there is actually quite good. On a par with any newspapers in the country. But, then, they've got an advantage. They have an actual team close by. Notre Dame. A team that people farther than twenty miles away from town have heard of.
            Ft. Wayne's a bit different.
            The main sports "team" in town is a group of dentally-challenged guys who play something called "hockey." Before 7,633 "Hoosier Tubbies" wandering around Memorial Coliseum, crabbing about the long lines at the Ice Cream Dots stand. Notre Dame, on the other hand, has ten thousand people waiting to use the restrooms at an average football game at any given moment. There're 20,000 people who couldn't get a ticket tailgating in the N.D. parking lot during games.
            Which gives Ft. Wayne sportswriters an inferiority complex. Most of 'em didn't start out to cover a sport drawing a crowd that would be comfortable in a phone booth. They had grand visions of writing Red Smith-like stories about real sports and recognizable teams and individuals. Instead, they found themselves in... Ft. Wayne.
            You gotta feel for 'em.
            I have to stop here and explain why I picked Ft. Wayne for this discourse. Reason is, this is where I currently live. It's not my first choice (to be honest, it isn't in my list of the first 1200 places I'd pick to live either), but it's where my stuff is and I have to be here to watch it.
            If you want to experience what life was like in this country 211 years ago, just come to Ft. Wayne and wander around. BTW, that used to be the official Indiana slogan, displayed on license plates. Wander Indiana. I’m not making this up.I always got images of travelers, lost in cornfields, looking for a way out… There's no other town like Ft. Wayne in Indiana. Or the country. It was settled by German burghers and has managed to retain the mindset of the original settlers. Picture a giant croissant roll, smothered with real butter. That's the official symbol for the Ft. Wayne mindset. That's because of the geography. It's miles and miles from anything. South Bend, a similarly-sized city, is a cosmopolitan environment for a couple-three reasons. There's Notre Dame with a sophisticated student body and professors from all over the world. Smart people. Hip people. It's also in close proximity to Chicago and that helps South Benders keep up with the current century somewhat. It was also settled by more diverse cultures than these Germans here in the Fort. Italians, Poles, Belgians, just for starters.
            They've even got the Mafia in South Bend. Even though Ft. Wayne's got three rivers, which you'd imagine would come in handy for dumping unreasonable business associates, the Mafia would never consider setting up a branch office here. The reason? That white stuff people make you eat. Can you picture that guy on The Sopranos wading through a pile of noodles and mashed potatoes? He'd be laughed out of the Cosa Nostra. Plus the fact that they wouldn't be able to film him without going to wide screen technology.
            Ft. Wayne gives itself two titles. "The City of Churches" is one. That's basically in homage to the entertainment value of the place. Gobs of folks all over the country are packing their Bibles up right now so they can move to a place with hundreds of churches. On every corner. Believe it!
            The second title Ft. Wayner's give themselves is... are you ready? "The City of Restaurants."
            Go ahead. I'll wait a minute while you get that last little fit of giggling out and compose yourself.
            There're restaurants, all right. Tons of them. Drive down the street and you'll see: Church, restaurant, church, restaurant, church... well, you get the picture. Problem is, they all have the same menu, which looks like this:
*                                                          *                                                          *
Today's Special:
"White stuff."
Manager's guarantee:
Absolutely guaranteed to not have a scintilla of flavor or double your money back. Second and even third helpings encouraged. Our doggie bags are the Great Danes of doggy bags. They're the Shetland ponies of doggie bags! Enjoy!
*                                                          *                                                          *
            One of the local rags used to have a "Food Critic" (I use the term loosely), whose idea of great restaurant was a joint that "served all the fish (pronounced "feesh"—another of those colorful Hoosier euphemisms) you can eat for 99¢." She'd rave about all the bread they served and the desserts. If she'd ever opened her own café, an appropriate name might have been, "Starch and Sugar By The Forklift." She got the gig as food critic because of an important talent she possessed. She liked to eat. A lot. Often. She even wrote reviews of fast-food outlets, those places she liked to visit between main meals to keep her typing strength up. Very entertaining and informative. James Beard perhaps she wasn't, but if you wanted to know who served "all the feesh you can eat for 99¢" she was your critic. She once wrote a column the main focus of which was the management didn't have crackers on the table to munch on while you were waiting for the main spread and between courses. Another time, she wrote about a dish she'd ordered that had a French name, which literally described the dish. "Piscé a tete" or something like that. Translation: "Fish with the head still attached to the main body and with a sprig of parsley in the mouth orifice." Her entire column was a complaint that they served her a fish with the fish noggin still on it and she should have had the option of having it removed.
            My favorite was the time she reviewed this restaurant and rattled off 10-11 main entrées she'd partaken of, and then, immediately following her rave of all she'd ingested, she wrote this sentence: "And you wouldn't think we'd have room for dessert!" No, you wouldn't, unless you weighed six hundred pounds or were a small country in the Balkans.
            Turns out she found some room, somewhere. Enough for a couple of different pies and cobblers and a random scoop of ice cream or seven, if I disremember right...
            Go figure.
            Since cooking with the head attached results in a more flavorful fish, I can see her point. Her taste buds weren't accustomed to... taste.
            I wrote a somewhat critical "Letter to the Editor" about one of her columns once and was amazed when collecting my mail one day to discover a personal letter from her, a scathing indictment in which she took me to task for daring to question her food judgment. That blasted away whatever naïve assumptions I had about journalistic integrity and ethics in "The City of Churches/Restaurants." Which works differently here, it seems, than in say, Chicago or Goober Falls, Idaho. Ever since then, I've been sweating out a possible visit from the First Amendment Police to give me the rubber hose treatment for daring to... criticize a restaurant critic. (Statute B-11231-d, Indiana State Blue Laws)
            As both Dave Barry and I say, and quite often: "I'm not making this up."
            When I'm not enjoying the local delectable cuisine and chuckling over another sport page article, counting the misspelled words and misquotes, I'm usually sitting outside soaking up the amazing weather. Most often, wearing three sweaters, a parka and long underwear. In August. To completely appreciate the seasons here (in order, there's winter, then sleet, then cold rain, then cloudy weather, then some late snow, then two days of summer during which there's a 62% chance of rain and maybe a tornado), it helps to have a historical perspective of how "The City of Churches" came to be. General Anthony Wayne was ordered to build a military fort here and he couldn't wait to leave. When he got here and stepped off the Amtrak Silver Wayward Bullet, the place was essentially The Dismal Swamp. (I'm not making this up.) General Tony hated the place and couldn't wait to get killed by an Indian or transferred to a more civilized place, like say, Beirut or Hades.
            In conclusion (French word, meaning "I'm wrapping this baby up so I can catch the "Man Show"), I'm sure this highly-accurate, nonpartisan, nonbiased piece will bring a letter or two (written in crayon), providing me with clever, trés-original advice to, "love it or leave it," or, "if you don't like it here, why don't you move?—we like our city and state and there's no room for Commies like you here!"
            I can't wait.
            Just to set the record straight, it's only "The City of Churches" I'm not overly-enthusiastic about. I prefer cities and Ft. Wayne just doesn't fit the definition of a city. Feels more like a spread-out collection of housing additions and developments. Maybe it's the "Caution! Deer Crossing!” signs I see on the "city" streets... On the other hand, South Bend and a number of other places do have the wonderful atmosphere "real" cities do and I really dig getting to go there when I can.
            To balance this op-piece and in the interests of fairness, Ft. Wayne does have some good things going for it.
            Ft. Wayne is proud to be the home of the famous Potato Chip Lady who appeared on the "Tonight Show." I think I can speak for most Ft. Wayner's when I say how chagrined we were when Johnny Carson, during the interview, reached over and ate one of her prized chips. The one that looked like Dick Nixon, I believe.
            Talk about a state of mourning for an entire city! I know of several neighbors who switched to the Letterman Show immediately following that horrifying incident.
            And Johnny Appleseed had the bad luck to die here before he could get out of town and you can visit his grave any time you want to. Talk about your goosebumps and high entertainment value! Looking down on that lump of grass does something to a person.
            That counts for something.
            And, things are changing. We're getting slimmer in these parts. Lots of us are jogging to Mickey D's these days and the pounds are melting off, not piling up as fast. And we're not fat. We're merely "pleasantly-plump."
            Pass the white stuff, willya? Where're the crackers?

 A bustling downtown!


Shannon O'Donnell said...

I've never been to Indiana, but I'm just rarin' to go now! I'm sure I could qualify as a starchtubbie, but I confess to a chuckle or two about your Hoosier nickname. Serve me up some white stuff, Les! :-)

Les Edgerton said...

That's a true story. When I moved back to Indiana from New Orleans with my wife, we went to dinner at her mom's and that's what they served. I got snow blindness...

The good thing about Ft. Wayne is that the roads also lead out of town...

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Ha ha ha! And how often do you follow those roads?! :-)

Les Edgerton said...

Shannon: As often as possible! I left out the lack of entertainment available. Most weekends, my wife and I are forced to just play "family games" for relaxation, like "Escaped Convict meets Warden's Daughter" or "Coed on Way to Panama City is Pulled over by Studly Cop" or "Nurse Meets Patient Scheduled for Penis Reduction Surgery." Of course, every Friday is reserved for when I shave my wife's back. We make it as romantic as possible. Lots of candles, Hostess Ho-Hos for break treats, mood music. And, I try to be considerate and have plenty of brand-new Bic razors so they don't pull and I always warm up the shaving cream...

It's either do those things or watch TV. Have you seen what's on TV these days? Yuch!

Paul Greci said...

Great post, Les!! I moved to Alaska 20 some years ago but grew up in South Bend, and then went to college in Bloomington.

Bloomington is my favorite Indiana town.

Les Edgerton said...

Paul,I lived in South Bend for a long time (we moved back and forth between Indiana, Texas and Louisiana) and graduated from Lakeville in 61. Went in the Navy and then to IUSB (was student body prez while there). Also went to IU-Bloomington and IPFW. My family on my dad's side were all prominent South Bend athletics. Went to Adams, Mishawaka and then Penn. While in college, I was a sports reporter for the South Bend Tribune. My mother still lives there.