Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe have been travelling this past month with Ellen’s sister Tish. In addition to enduring a lot of “windshield” time which can be very boring in the midwest, we have had some wonderful and some not-so-wonderful meals along the roads and routes of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

When we went to Bloomington, Illinois, I’m sure that when we turned south at Joliet, the scenery immediately became and remained corn fields all the way to Bloomington. I was trying to imagine what a farmer would do to occupy his mind while driving a tractor down a field and creating a row of corn that would be several miles long. – that is ONE row… Think about fields that are miles long by miles wide.

When we stop to eat or when we go out to eat, I prefer to eat at restaurants that are not franchised or part of national chains. I prefer the surprises of a locally-operated restaurant to the predictable, same-menu-in-Bloomington-as-in-Benton Harbor that one gets with franchise/chain restaurants. I admit that it is a small, albeit feeble stance against fast food restaurants. My major motivation is the life style for which I have been singing praises, i.e., local is better, more flavorful, less expensive, etc. And it is fun getting to know the people responsible for our foods – be they the farmers or the chefs.

In addition to the surprises of stopping at a local restaurant and having a wonderful meal, we stopped at a number of local restaurants where they apparently chose to replace quality with quantity. We got off of an interstate to stop at a local restaurant. The service was very friendly but the menu choices included only fried, deep-fried or salads. I chose a salad. The waitress wheeled over a serving cart and then hefted a bowl that was larger than the bowl we use at home to serve salad to four people. I started looking around the room and saw that everyone else in the dining room was served similarly-sized portions. If I had been able to eat half of the salad, the remaining portion would not have fit in a Styrofoam take-away box. (It would have fit in a computer packaging box.)

At another restaurant, Ellen ordered “the town’s favorite” called “The Horseshoe.” It was a grilled chicken breast on a piece of “Texas toast” covered with crinkle fries and then vast quantities of a melted cheese product.  Luckily, Ellen was able to choose a vegetable as a side dish–though she could have had more fries or chips or a cream-of-something soup. (The restaurant also had a smaller portion called “The Ponyshoe.”) The cheese reminded me of a Bill Bryson observation: “In America, there are only two kinds of cheese:  White and yellow.” By the way, neither the horseshoe nor the ponyshoe resembled what we put on a horse’s hoof or throw at a stake or nail above the entryway.

In America, people often ask for take-away boxes for the uneaten portion of their meals. Waiters are never surprised at the request. (It would be a very surprising request in France.) In fact, waiters often suggest take-away boxes to those who are eating too slowly or who have stopped, leaving large portions of the meal on the plate. Weight Watchers encourages the practice – though in most cases, Weight Watchers would suggest making three or four meals out of the quantities delivered as one dinner. Given the size of the meals served and the “clean your plate” mentality that most of us grew up with, it is no wonder that America is the most obese nation in the world.

Now that I am officially old, I can understand the attraction of a restaurant where you go for lunch and take home dinner as a bonus:  Two for one!  Never mind that the food will be as boring the second time as it was the first time.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Why fuss? Take the bus!

Add to Google Reader or HomepageOne big difference between Lansing and Vaison la Romaine is the distance one must go to obtain goods and services. When one compares a town of 7,000 to a small city of 120,000, it is clear that Lansing is 17 times larger than Vaison. All other factors aside, that suggests that the goods and services available four blocks from our apartment in Vaison are likely to be 68 blocks away in Lansing.

In a country where the automobile is sacred – pretty much to the detriment of all other forms of public transportation – one must have a car to get around to cover the 68 blocks one has to go to get whatever. If you don’t have a car, you can walk, ride a bike or take a CATA bus. Today, for instance, Ellen was off delivering Meals on Wheels at the same time I needed to go to the dentist in the neighboring town of Holt. I couldn’t walk there – I would have been several days late for my appointment. I could have ridden my bicycle but decided that I did not want to be all sweaty while I sat in a vinyl coated dentist chair. I took the bus.

Lansing has an excellent bus system. You can get to most destinations easily and with a minimal amount of effort or cost. I left the child care center where I had spent the morning volunteering, walked three blocks, got the bus exactly on time and headed to “Bus Central” in downtown Lansing where I transferred to the Holt bus. Since the trip is about a half hour, I brought a book to read.

I must have read the same 10 paragraphs a dozen times as I looked up every time we stopped to watch as new riders climbed into the bus. I love watching people. There have been times when Ellen has said “Close your mouth, Mark” as I sit in awe watching the threads and patches of the American fabric pass by me. The bus is about the same as when it was my transportation to MSU thirty years ago. There are the regulars – all of whom know the bus drivers and each other and seem to share a sort of mobile community as they move from location to location. There are the ubiquitous students going to Lansing Community College, Davenport, Cooley Law School, MSU or some other learning location. There are the infrequent riders (like me) who slow the line of would be riders by not knowing the procedures for bus entry ("You don’t have change for $20?") there are parents with young children and elderly (older than I) folks who have difficulty standing erect as the bus lurches forward. I think I have a good sense of balance, but I ended up getting a lot closer to a rider than she – or I – wanted as a result of a quick start.

On the way back from the dentist, I decided to get off the bus at the city market so that I could buy a baguette and get an espresso from Neva at Aggie Mae’s and then walk home.

Walking is a sensual experience in that it engages the senses in ways that car travel excludes. There are the sounds, the differences in temperature as you walk under a large tree, the smells (city restaurant grills, flowers, cedar mulch and a neighbor making stuffed peppers for dinner.) The biggest difference is having time to see the “sights.” Walking from the market, I went down the street that has most of the restaurants that serve the Monday-Friday denizens their lunch. In front of one shop was a sandwich board that had three lines: “Cherry Salad” “Panty Hose” and something on the third line that I frankly cannot remember because I was so intrigued with the questions: “What kind of restaurant sells cherry salad and panty hose? Who would be enticed to stop there and eat? I was guessing that most people would order “panty hose” to go when I looked at the front of the shop again only to discover that it was NOT a restaurant but “A General Store.” Thank goodness.

Tomorrow I will walk downtown again to have Brenda cut my hair. After getting my hair cut, maybe I will see if I can get panty hose on pita bread. To go, of course.