Over the Tall Grass Prairie

prairie1In the early 1970s my parents moved from Iowa to Seagate in Brooklyn, New York City.  At this time Seagate was nearly exclusively populated by Jews, so much so that I believed menorahs were Christmas decorations and didn’t understand why our house didn’t have one.

Women often tried to speak Yiddish to my dark haired, dark complected father, while my freckled WASP mother fielded questions about whether folk in Iowa still had problems with the Indians.

prairie2Problems with the Indians.  In 1973.  Bear in mind most residents of Seagate have been no further west than Staten Island, but still…


The Midwest of America has a rather poor reputation, when it has any reputation at all.  Most people in the UK when I tell them where I am from say “Oh, right…that’s one of those middle ones,” in a disappointed voice because I am not from New York, Florida or California which are the only states most of them recognise.

Presidential election coverage gives the Midwest a different reputation as being that swath of Republican red which streaks through the country like a bloody wound (my two states Iowa and Illinois are nearly always the solitary splotches of blue on that map by the way).

prairie4Even our fellow Americans seem to look down on us as being that enormous thing which prevents them from enjoying a shorter LA-NYC Red Eye flight.

prairie5I used to feel the same way.  I would look around the endless miles of cornfields broken up only by endless miles of soybeans and just feel depressed.  Flat, boring, stupid Midwest.  Then a friend of mine told me to shut up and look up.  “Just look at that sky,” he told me.  “There aren’t very many places where you can so that much sky.”

prairie6I looked up.  He was right.  Midwestern sky is overwhelming.  It’s dizzying.  How could anyone not realise the world is round after looking up at that enormous bright blue dome?

prairie7My next revelation of the beauty all around me came when I began regularly biking along Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.  In the early 1990s, an effort was made to encourage native prairie grasses and flowers to grow along the edges of the trail making a beautiful path for walkers, runners and bikers.

prairie8Signs were posted at regular intervals informing bikers, runners and walkers not to disturb the natural growth of the prairie.

Many other city planners and conservationists have worked hard to preserve the Midwest’s ecological heritage.  As my father explained to his granddaughters, in pioneer days there would have been tall grass prairie as far as the eye could see across most of Iowa, Illinois and Kansas.  West-ward expanding nineteenth century Americans on horseback would have waded through it up to their chests.  The idea astounds them.prairie9

In the twenty-first century, nature reserves throughout the Midwest,including the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, offer visitors an opportunity to see, smell and hear the history of the land.


Look up, look down, look out on the beauty of the prairie.  An “alien” landscape to English gardeners (according to my Mother-in-Law), but as much a part of the Midwest as big sky and rolling cornfields.

All photographs taken at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge by Paul and Freya Elmer.

All Hail the Taj MahVee

bakeryMy mother is annoyed with me. Apparently in one of my blog posts I insinuated that American grocery stores are rubbish compared to those in Britain. I betrayed my family, spat in the face of my nation, roasted the red, white and blue over a slowly turning spit. My bad. In an effort to spring me from the maternal dog house, and because there are few things my mother loves more than being right, she dragged me on a trip to La Grande Dame de Grocerie, the Shopgri La, the Taj Mahoard commonly known as Des Moines, Iowa’s 86th Street Hy-Vee.

cartThis is not just a grocery store it’s an adventure in Yankee indulgence. From the child friendly racing car carts (trollies) to the artfully arranged produce to the young woman who became extremely confused when I attempted to bag my own groceries (only the lowest class shops make you bag your own here and even they get teary eyed when they see you do it). The Taj MahVee (my father’s title, I cannot take credit) fully satisfied this homesick ex-pat Yankee like a long-sought balm for an age-old wound.

produceIf this seems a bit poetic for what is essentially just a shop where you buy food, then you obviously have never spent significant time away from home in a foreign country. It’s strange and silly the things you miss and food is usually the first thing you crave. The comfort and reassurance of tastes, textures and even label art you grew up with. I nearly wept over a bowl of Quaker Oats Maple and Brown Sugar oatmeal my first breakfast here. Yes, I know you can get porridge in the UK but the texture is different. Yes, I know I can add both maple syrup and brown sugar to my porridge and yes I know that it seems exceedingly silly to add not one but two different types of sweetener to porridge anyway but it’s what my father gave me every morning before school every year of my childhood and I love it.
cheeseI must also retract an early criticism concerning the variety of items available in a US grocery store. I still found myself stressing over which of the fifty different brands of peanut butter to buy (I’m not exaggerating, there were fifty) and negotiating my mother’s very definite preferences for one particular brand only of anything I tried to put in the cart. “No!” she cried, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “Not those tortilla chips (which were on sale), they taste like cardboard. We buy these tortilla chips (which look utterly identical but cost twice as much).” In addition to the variety of brands, there was also a wide variety of items in general, and not in the way Sainsburys and Asda offer a wide variety of items. There was no electronics section, no clothes, no DVDs, no kitchen appliances—just food, toiletries and (to my delight) a separate section larger than our neighbourhood Tesco Express labelled: Wine, Beer and Spirits. Hurrah!

chipsThe deli counter was particularly dizzying in its selection of different meats, including bacon cured ham which made my daughter squeal, and cheeses, including Wensleydale with Cranberries! There were even weird-ass chips/crisps like Chicken and Waffle, Garlic Bread, Dill Pickle, Lemon-Lime and Pizza.

So what do I recommend? How can I help steer a foreign traveller on American shores around the overwhelming selection of Yankee products to zero in on the items which summarise what I think is…maybe not the “best” of American food, but certainly these are the things I reach for shortly after landing. First, let me warn you that the Taj MahVee is not typical. Do not wander into any old grocery store and expect the wonders I have described. But the following list should be available just about anywhere.

1) Claussen Kosher Dill Pickles. After giving my mother such grief about being so particular in her choice of brands, I will immediately brand myself a hypocrite. But when it comes to pickles, brand matters. Thanks to an increase in the Polish population we can now get something approaching a decent gherkin at most grocery stores in the UK, but nothing beats a good American Dill Pickle and Claussens are the best. You will find them in the refrigerator section not on the dry good shelf. They come whole, halved or quartered (“spears” it will say on the label). I hope no one at the Taj MahVee saw me cuddle mine just before I put it in my trolley.

2) Hot Dogs. You think you know them. You know nothing. Do not be put off by the ingredients list—in fact don’t even look at it. Grab a pack of Oscar Mayer Wieners, some buns—preferably those made at the store’s bakery, a tub of French’s mustard, a jar of Vlasic Pickle Relish (or Claussen) and charcoal briquettes. Then get thee to a park which will have permanently erected barbeques on site, so this is something you can do even if you have no cooking facilities.

3) Pillsbury Refrigerator Cinnamon/Orange Rolls. This one will require an oven. Steal one if you have to. These were our Sunday morning/Special Occasion breakfasts when I grew up. Crack open the tube, separate the uncooked rolls on a cooking sheet and bake for fifteen minutes. While they are still hot, ice them with the little tub provided. Eat them hot, these babies wait for no one.

4) Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Accept no substitute, only the blue box will do. They are microwavable, so if your accommodation has a microwave but no stove you can still enjoy this staple of Americana. Remember to steal a bit of milk and butter from your hospitality breakfast. I also add a generous spoonful of cream cheese, which you should also be able to nick from hospitality. My friend Corrie makes me bring boxes of this stuff back for her every time I visit. Don’t worry, babe. They’re already in the suitcase.

5) Hot Tamales, Twizzlers and Tootsie Roll Pops. These will be found in the candy aisle—Candy Aisle, not Sweets or Sweetie Aisle, you will look all day and not find that. Hot Tamales are like cinnamon jelly beans and they come in a variety of heats. There is intense debate among fans between Twizzlers and Red Vines.  Both are a…I want to say “strawberry flavoured” but really they are just “red flavoured” liquorice. Tootsie Roll Pops are a lolly with chewy toffee in the middle. Look carefully at the wrapper and if you get one with an Indian on it you win…something. I was never very clear about this but in primary school they were valued commodities.

6) Chex Mix. If you are travelling around the USA this will be your savoury saviour. You will find it either in the same aisle as crackers or possibly beside the chips/crisps. It’s sort of an American version of Bombay Mix.  In fact you can find something like it called, appropriately enough, “American Mix” at Sainsburys, but it’s not as good. It’s a combination of cereals (Chex cereal comes in corn, wheat, bran and probably a dozen other varieties—look for it in the cereal aisle), pretzels and nuts all bound up in a mysterious seasoning which I think includes Wooster sauce.

7) Rootbeer. I debated including this on my list because most Europeans think it tastes like medicine. I think it’s the elixir of the gods. Drink it well chilled or even pour it over several scoops of vanilla ice cream for a classic Root Beer Float. Heaven. If you want a sweeter root beer go for A&W. If you prefer something with a bit of bite to it try Barq’s.

dryBefore embarking on your Yankee shopganza, be warned. Most things in America will have more sugar in them than you are used to—even the bread tastes sweeter to me. Similarly, some things will taste saltier. I got quite excited when Asda began stocking Ruffles Crisps. Then I tried some and was horrified at how salty it tasted, but I think that might be the brand.

checkoutNo doubt your travel guide will have forewarned you about sales tax, so remember than the final bill is more than just a sum of the prices advertised. Sales tax varies state to state. Some have none at all, some tax only certain items, some have lower or higher sales tax. Just be prepared before you shop.

May the ‘Vee be with you!

Ex-Pat Yankee Dreams of Home

Rootbeer, pickle relish, tacos. The sound of a front porch screen door slapping on its sprung hinges. Choruses of June bugs accompanying firefly acolytes in a sanctuary of summer twilight. Thunderstorms. National parks. Distances. Corn.

Rivers of a proper size and people who use their car horns and raiding mulberry trees. Singing Battle Hymn of the Republic as part of a large, harmonious choir. Sundays that mean something.

A decent doughnut with a bottomless cup of coffee. Diners, truck stops, service. Taking a Greyhound bus across endless miles of straight road. The sound of the letter R. Submarine sandwiches of architectural size and shameless self-belief.

The people who have known me and loved me since birth. Closets. Skunks. Flags.

Ducks made of calico at shopping mall craft shows. The county fair. My mother’s cheesecake and my father’s houseplants. The friends who grew up with me. “God bless you.”

Mark Twain one man shows, country music radio, roadmaps based on geometry. Saturday garage sale expeditions planned with military precision. The rapid-fire voices of auctioneers. Serious heat and serious cold and a history that is my own.

The feeling I belong, even as a discontented outsider, to a world that had no choice but to welcome me.

old house
Also corn dogs.