Zen Americana

by G.T.

     I’ve never been a fan of the Midwest. Sure, it’s all I’ve ever seen in this world. Unfortunately. Chicago and a few pockets outside of this city are the only areas that I can tolerate. These happen to be the areas that are most unlike the Midwest, like the Latino neighborhoods with their Mesoamerican graffiti and grocery stores that sell soda made from cane sugar. I will admit that I like grassy plains and corn fields, but only during times when I feel like driving down narrow country roads. Occasionally, I take drives like these, because it gives me a feeling of solitude and peacefulness. Farmland and fields, in all their expansiveness, are like zen americana.

     I spent Friday and Saturday in Iowa, visiting my Aunt to celebrate her birthday. As great as Chicago is, you lose all sense of it’s existence when driving West on Interstate 80. You may as well be a thousand miles from Chicago. Everything turns rural, and the exits off of the interstate only lead you into small, one road towns where half the residents work at the truck stop. A bit of an exageration, but it feels that way. Stopping in these towns is a weird experience for me. I look like a Brazilian soccer player for Chrissakes, whereas these people wear flannel, plaid, cowboy hats, and truckers caps. Those truckers caps with the ventilated backs, and usually some corn company logo on the front.

     Iowa. What a state. Currently, the state of salmonella. That whole egg recall began in Iowa. Crossing the Mississippi River, I played Common’s album, “Be”, just to bring a little Chicago flavor into this state with me. And because most of the radio stations play country music. Fuck that.

     For some reason, I always find the names of businesses odd out here, but it’s not because I’m unfamiliar with these places. Whitey’s Ice Cream Parlor. Dickey’s Barbacue. Ruhl & Ruhl Realtors. Schnuck’s Grocery. Funny sidenote: My Aunt calls that grocery store “Schmucks”. Didn’t the owners of that grocery store chain ever think that somebody would call it that? It makes me believe that the state of mind is much different there compared to here, where I live. Then again, my Aunt isn’t from Iowa. She moved there from Chicago. I’ve taken to calling that store “Schmucks”, too.

     Friday night, my Aunt, Uncle, sister, and I ate at this restaurant that is well known throughout Iowa. The Machine Shed. Yes, The Machine Shed. And like I expected, there was a giant tractor parked in front, by the entrance. There were patrons walking around, admiring the tractor, probably pulling up their jeans, saying, “Yup, [insert tractor shop talk]”. People were already casting snide looks at me. I may not look like I’m from around “these parts”, but it’s not like I’m some freaky looking person. I have long, curly hair, a little tuft of hair on my chin, and that night I wore a striped button shirt with subtle floral prints, slightly baggy jeans, and my aviator shades. I even saw two young girls look at me, say something, then stare back at me. I had a feeling they weren’t saying anything flattering or polite. Maybe I look weirder than I think.

     I will say this, though. The Machine Shed was probably one of the best restaurants where I’ve ever dined. Everything was fresh, real, local, and the mashed potatoes were actually mashed. Why are real mashed potatoes so hard to come by these days? And if I heard the waitress correctly, she made the tartar sauce that we had with our all-you-can-eat cod. She made the fucking tartar sauce. It blew my mind, because so many restaurants don’t really make their food from scratch anymore, and I would even go as far as saying that they don’t do prep work, and instead order ready cut veggies and what not. And I ordered these sweet potato fries and dipped them in this cinnamon butter. Holy shit, was that good. The experience of eating there was interesting, too. The beverages were served in mason jars, and the waitresses wore denim overalls. The restaurant was a quintessential rendering of the Midwest, Specifically Iowa, and I actually liked it. I think I liked it because rather than being a part of this culture, I was somebody from the outside, looking in, and experiencing it. Embracing it, just like I do Latino culture. And for that reason, I enjoyed the Midwest and it’s food and it’s seemingly endless cornfields.