Friday, September 18, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Runza

Outside a small portion of the country, basically centered on Nebraska, no one has heard of the runza. For me, the food is considered a birthright.

I mentioned in a previous post my love for runzas, especially the homemade ones my mother would frequently make. A runza is essentially a roll of cooked dough with beef and cabbage inside it. There are variations of the runza, which include switching the beef with pork, the cabbage with vegetable bits or no vegetables at all, adding mushrooms and swiss cheese, etc. The absolute requirements of the runza include the dough and the meat product inside it. In the plains of Nebraska, if you ask anyone what their idea of comfort food is, the runza will undoubtedly make the list.

Essentially any road trip that has included Nebraska for me has included a stop at Runza. The local fast food chain that makes a name from its product is one of the only fast food places I can actually recommend, much less visit without vomiting minutes afterward. Runza also likes to hold onto the old-school fast food commandments, including using intercoms rather than computer monitors and ruffling the fries.

Let's face it. Driving I-80 in Nebraska is no walk in the park. On one side is an endless field of corn or soybeans. On the other is a feedlot. Sometimes the sides alternate, but the views are the same mundane plains for hours. Sometimes, I am moved by the empty flat spaces, especially in the Sand Hils and the high rolling plains of the Nebraska Panhandle. The endless fields of grass, with spotty instances of cattle and their ranchers, are a daunting reminder of just how small you really are. However, the vastness of the terrain also becomes exhausting to the eyes. A long drive across the state necessitates hearty food in large quantities.

My favorite Runza stop is in North Platte, just north of the interstate on US 83. It is probably the Runza I frequent most. Basically any drive I've taken west from Lincoln has involved a stop here. North Platte is western Nebraska's version of a city, but an outsider recognizes this instantly as a large village surrounded by nothing. Depending on your viewpoint, North Platte is an oasis or an empty mine.

However, most Nebraskans see it as the former. Any town with a Runza in it is "a city". For me, any town worthy of serving the hot delicious goodness of cooked dough with meat bursting from it qualifies as a Nebraska oasis.

Any Nebraska sports fan has had a runza at a sporting event. To not serve them is criminal in the state. I have not gone to one Nebraska basketball game without having a runza. It wouldn't be the same otherwise. It wouldn't even be worth going. I remember drives to the football game specifically because I looked forward to the runza I would be eating at the game. Made the long traffic jam worth it.

When taking the long road trips, you make the most out of the long days with only a destination to look forward to. For me, in Nebraska, there is no way to enjoy a drive more than by eating a mushroom and swiss runza while overlooking the sun and the prairie. No moment in Nebraska is more genuine and more symbolic of life in a place most people sleep through. They have no idea what they are missing.
Runza! Putting all other fast food restaurants to shame since 1949.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Message to One of My Readers

Happy Birthday, Mom!

I'll be celebrating her 42nd 21st birthday this weekend with her in Kansas City, so there will be no notes from me tomorrow, Saturday, or Sunday. I'll return to blogging on Monday, hopefully with a bit more substance than the past couple of days.

If I get some time later, I'll write my weekly "Stories from the Road" post as well.


Love Don't Leave Me Lonely

My Dearest Lucinda:

I am writing this in the dark. I can barely see the notebook paper, but I can hear it through the gusts of wind that come up. The trees warn me of the gust seconds beforehand, with an eerie whirring sound that feels more ominous than it actually is. Otherwise, there is not a sound at all. Even the bugs are too afraid of the darkness. A chill is in the air now, one I imagine will become more and more prevalent with time.

The past days have been gloomy and dark. You are always on my mind, but the work is unrelenting. Every day I dig deeper and deeper into the soil, and everyday the soil gets harder and harder. My bones ache now, and my muscles are tired with the repeated wear. The "cling, cling" of the shovel on the brittle soil is now a cacophonous reminder of what looms over me, constantly.

Each night, we eat food at the shelter in a silence. All you can hear are the chewing mouths, the clangs of the silverware, and the scrapes of the food off the plate. The meal is the same. Some meat, a vegetable, and a roll. It feels like a mess tent, and in many ways, it is one.

The foundation will be laid in the coming days. I'm not sure how I'll handle that. I like to see the fruit of my labors, but in many ways, the hole in the ground is too bitter of a reminder, and too convenient of a metaphor, as to what I've been doing. The concrete will be a nice change, and soon the building blocks of permanence will set in. I imagine that will be the hardest part.

I heard your voice one night, and I couldn't help but turn around in glee. My happiness was dashed when I awoke before I saw you. I didn't fall asleep after that.

Each day, we march, dig, and climb out. Each day. Nothing changes except the scenery. Bit by little bit, we know change is gonna come. And I imagine, when it does, it will be a cold, dark winter's day. Maybe as gloomy as today. Maybe as deafening in its silence. Probably colder. Almost certainly as lonely. I keep telling myself to prepare for it, but how can I prepare for something so inevitably different and so devastatingly unknown.

I hear your voice again now, but this time I am awake. It haunts me, because it is getting harder to see your face already.



Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My Sister Blogs Sydney

I was too busy with research today and am too exhausted to write tonight. Instead, I'll refer you to my sister's latest travel post, on her trip to Sydney, Australia.

I'll probably write a make-up post on Thursday.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Growing Up: Tuna Fish and Noodles

Chefs, foodies, and everyday eaters call it the same thing: comfort food. The restaurants you go to time and time again, ordering the "standby" dish. The "home meal": the dinner your mother and/or father prepare(s) that everyone believes is the best meal. The hearty chili on a winter Sunday, with football playing in the background. The chips and queso at a family gathering, the steak and potatoes found on every farmer's dinner plate. Sweet corn at a concession stand.

The above examples were my comfort food growing up. My neighbors would collect a few watermelons, and I would come over and sneak away a slice or two. I would cross 13th St. to the Dairy Queen and order a blizzard every Sunday. (Later, it was called the Dairy King, and blizzards were called tornadoes. They sure tasted the same, though.) Every Fourth of July, the Jaycees would make the Sloppy Joe that everyone in town would rush to after the parade.

My mother may argue a little, but her cooking abilities are not renowned. She had a few reliable dishes, though. She made killer lasagna, a roast beef that commonly lacked flavor, meatloaf that sent me to my bedroom in fear, runzas I would probably commit crimes to eat, and tuna fish and noodles. Mom loves tuna fish and noodles. She made it all the time, probably weekly. The dish would last for days, too, because so much of it was made. I am not a fan of leftovers to begin with, so this was a dish that twisted the knife well after the meal was cooked.

I am not a fan of the dish, personally. Tuna really doesn't do it for me, especially in canned form. I like noodles, but not smothered in generic cream of mushroom sauce. The peas were the icing on the gag-worthy cake, my absolute least favorite vegetable. This is not a dish I looked forward to.

And yet... and yet...

I would still call it comfort food. I recently had another helping or five of tuna fish this summer during the WAF conference in Omaha. No, it didn't taste any better, but it brought back a flood of memories of childhood dinners.

The kitchen table was white with a wooden edge. It was perfectly circular. My father sat on the north side (view of the kitchen television), my mother sat on the south side (no interest in TV while eating), my brother sat on the west side (a view of Main St.), and I sat on the east side (a view of the clock, which always seemed to stop ticking whenever I ate tuna fish and noodles).

Dinner conversations were of the "how was your day?" variety, but they would commonly develop into something a little more entertaining. Usually, I would discuss the latest method of getting my teacher's unwanted attention, Mom would discuss the latest speeding ticket victim, and Dad would discuss how locating phone cables underground was a fascinating exercise. And, whenever my brother was there, he talked at the expense of everyone else. That was OK; he is by far the best storyteller in the family.

These conversations almost predictably reached a snag. "Oh, Chad!" was a common phrase at dinner, often heard after mentioning the words "lost my lunch money". Snoring was commonly audible when Dad was talking about a cable cut. Everyone would lean over toward Mom when a particularly notable Tekamah resident was in court because of a not-so-special child drinking and doing something else. Whatever the situation, someone would get annoyed, and the rest of us would be entertained.

Mostly, dinners were a chance for all of us to stay quiet. Sometimes, uncomfortable silences at the table occurred, but mostly, it gave us a chance simply to rest and eat our stresses away. Those are the dinners I remember most fondly.

When eating tuna fish and noodles for dinner (three nights in a row) during my stay in Nebraska earlier this summer, Mom and I said little and just ate our little worries away once again. It was a good meal. Comfort food, even if there were peas on it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pictures from the Road -- The Monterey Aquarium

On a trip to California earlier this summer, I spent an afternoon at the Monterey Aquarium. Most of the pictures turned out blurry because of the lighting (apologies in advance), but I thought I'd share anyway.

Tomorrow: Tuna fish and noodles. You'll understand.


The Monterey Aquarium on a beautiful afternoon.
People enjoy swiftly flowing water, I guess.
If you look closely, you can see some stingrays.
One of the most mesmerizing rooms I have ever been in. Schools of fish swimming constantly in circles around you, and atmospheric music playing in the background. Absolutely unbelievable.
One of my favorite aquatic species: the sea horse.