Part 1 — The Heartland
This is the first installment of a three part odyssey surrounding my trip to the Columbus West High School Class of January 1956 Reunion. It’s all about the food, what I call Ohio food. It’s different than what you’ve been reading about in this space for two reasons: For one, I’m traveling, and for two, the choices in Ohio are different than those in Northern California, much different.
Since I made the long trip to Ohio for a weekend, I extended the trip on each end for some adventures in Cincinnati, and passed through Carol’s homestead in Lancaster in each direction, as well. This epistle is divided into three parts; The Heartland, Columbus and the Reunion, and finally Lancaster Redux and Cincinnati.
Wednesday August 16
My flight was scheduled at a reasonable time of 7:40 a.m. but current security regulations obliged me to arrive at the airport at 5:45 a.m. Not reasonable, but that’s the flying life nowadays. Curbside check-in was easy so I had plenty of time to get a coffee and an oatmeal raisin cookie at Just Desserts on the concourse. One would expect that a dessert maker would make a scrumptious cookie, but no. The cookie was large and looked right but turned out to be dry as dust. Half was all I could eat, so I saved the rest for later, but ended up tossing it.
After take-off and a little air time, the drink cart came to visit. I was totally in the mood for a tangy, soothing Bloody Mary— it was past noon in Ohio, after all. I closed my eyes with the first sip; the whine of the engines and hiss of the recirculating air receded just a bit. Damn, that was good. I enjoyed the balance of the Mr and Mrs T Bloody Mary Mix with my United Airlines $5 Mini Meal, which contained:
- Venus Stoned Wheat Crackers
- Rondele Peppercorn Parmesan Pasteurized Cheese Spread
- Hormel Homeland Hard Salami (â€˜cept it wasn’t hard)
- Mott’s Healthy Harvest Granny Smith Apple Sauce
- Kettle Pride Potato Chips (real good)
- Pepperidge Farm Milano Cookies
I’m not allowed to have my little Swiss Army pocketknife with little scissors on the plane, and yet the Mini Meal box was shrink-wrapped in plastic and the cheese spread was sealed tighter than a mime’s lips. I had to attack each with my ballpoint pen to get in.
Everything was branded and processed, with salt as the common flavor, which could have been a portent of things to come. On the other hand, without strong flavors, nothing was bad enough to complain about, so we’ll call it brunch in the sky.
I changed planes in Dulles Airport outside DC, grabbing a slice of Pizza Hut cheese pizza once I got to my new gate, it turned out to be a deep dish type with one of those bulbous cheese stuffed crusts. It had a yielding texture like biting into a warm cow pattie – yuk, but filling nonetheless. I guessed there would be booze on the plane which would ease my travel frazzled brain.
Thursday August 17
It was a sunny morning in downtown Cincinnati with cars crowding the wide auto-centric streets. I asked the parking guy in the garage on 7th Street just past Walnut: “My motel clerk said there were some good breakfast places on Walnut. Which way?”
He said, “First Watch, right next door. You won’t be disappointed.”
I entered First Watch just about the stroke of nine; it was mobbed. Businessmen buzzed about and two waitresses frantically worked the cash registers. Minutes later, the hubbub calmed. I was seated in the now comfortably occupied dining room, and ordered the Eggs Benedict.
I automatically got a thermal pot of coffee and a pitcher of ice water. When the eggs came they were perfectly poached, drizzled with hollandaise sauce, and laid atop tomato slices and thin slices of ham over English muffins, the ham spilling out onto the plate. On the side were “seasoned” potatoes and a little ramekin of red grapes and strawberry slices. The potatoes had a well cooked texture, and were separate cubes, unlike your normal shredded hash browns, and their seasonings were livelier than a tepid shake of salt, pepper, and paprika. The fruit was the perfect counterpoint to the other warm rich flavors. Good stuff, perhaps the best in Cincinnati? It invited a comparison to the Pine Cone Diner in Point Reyes, but that’s a whole â€˜nother situation.
I wanted to see Heartland America (and Ohio’s new marketing slogan is, after all, “The Heart Of It All”), or at least Heartland Ohio, so instead of taking the MapQuest quick route to Lancasterâ€”I-71 northeast to I-270 around the bottom of Columbus and back southeast on US-33 to Lancasterâ€”I settled on US-22 direct from Cincinnati to Lancaster.
After passing through the Cincinnati sprawl in my rented silver KIA (Hertz has stumbled), the road emptied out as I passed through Morrow, then Rochester, the towns becoming so small I can tell I’m there only because of the border signs and a slightly reduced speed limit. I pass older houses as well as groups in subdivisions, though they are generally masked from the highway by foliage. No cornfields yet. Where is my Heartland? Wilmington has a stoplight and a downtown with substantial brick buildings, without a sign of modern retail strips and chains. Nice little town, it seems, the kind that would be in the Heartland. As I left Wilmington I found the strip, which quickly thins, but just before the open country I spotted a new building on my left with a new parking lot: Skyline Chili! I hit the brake hard and hung a left into the parking lot. Skyline is the inventor, they say, of Cincinnati Chili, three ways, four ways and five ways. I’ve made it from a recipe I got from Sally Redmond and written about it; now I could sample some of the real thing.
Before I’m through the door, a pert young waitress asked if I know what I want to drink and I say I’m not even in yet and she says some people do. I can sit anywhere… it’s one-thirty… I took a table by the window, opened the menu and asked her about portions… portions tend to be big in the Heartland. She suggested I start small, as I can always get another portion if one is not enough. I took a deep breath and ordered a small Cincinnati Chili, Five Ways, spaghetti, chili, kidney beans, onions and cheese.
Oh boy! The chili arrived quickly; I guess they’ve got a vat of each in the back. Looks just right. I dug in, twirled my fork around some noodles, dug into the rest of the Ways, and brought all Five to my mouth: it was just right. The noodles weren’t too gummy, the chili thick but not solid, spicy enough to remind you it’s chili but not scare off the locals, plus the fresh crunch and bite of onion. Yummy. And the size was just right too; I polished it off, pausing only for a few pictures.
After heartfelt greetings with Carol’s parents at their condo in a new subdivision smack between the seemingly unending shopping center south of Memorial Drive and a remaining soybean field, me talking about my travels and them talking about Carol’s siblings and so on, Bus allowed as how it was time to eat and Liz said it was too early but it inspired her to describe the Texas Roadhouse, a new chain restaurant in town. They’d been there once, just after it opened, and it was okay. I said it sounded good, but no, they don’t have one of those in San Francisco. Liz barely held Bus off until five o’clock but not a minute longer, and we left.
The Texas Roadhouse is up US-33 from their condo, about a mile toward Columbus, and Bus nosed his big Ford through the packed parking lot to find a space directly in front of the door. Inside the hostess estimated a 10 to 20 minute wait for a table. I swear to God, it’s 5:15 on Thursday, this is a big place, and there aren’t that many blue hairs like us and we waited the full 20 minutes until we sat down. While we’re waiting, more stout Ohio folks and families kept pouring in the door.
We were put in a booth on an aisle leading to the kitchen door, a good spot to observe streams of young, cute waitresses who all seem to be between 5′-3″ and 5′-5″ and walking with purpose; there were only two males, one tall and one short. (I once read an excerpt from a UPS Manual that says that their drivers should walk quickly, but not look like they’re hurrying. Like that.) Our waitress, Kristen, was so bubbly it was almost uncomfortable.
Liz and I both wanted the Prime Rib, but they didn’t have it that day, so we settled for New York Strip. Bus ordered the Kabobs. The meat came cooked right and tasty. My strip had the obligatory perfect diagonal grill marks on both sides and a good beefy taste with a hint of grill flavor. I’ve had better steaks, but not for $15 with two sides! Good food, ebullient service… no wonder there’s a wait. But still, at 5:15 pm??? I must be in the Heartland.
Friday August 18
I found some large curd cottage cheese and a jar of Dole Pineapple and Mango mixed fruit in the refrigerator. That was breakfast. It’s remarkable how Dole can take sweet wonderful pineapple and lively mango and make them a shadow of themselves. Breakfast done, I packed, put on my most winning smile, thanked Bus and Liz for hosting me and bade fairwell until Sunday.
Next installment: Columbus and the Reunion