Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Though I Know All I Owe I Owe Iowa

My local friends and acquaintances may not understand this, but I'm fairly certain that those I left behind in the northeast will understand the pervasively surreal feeling that overcomes me when I spend a huge percentage of time over the course of a weekend driving through the state of Iowa. It makes me question what set of circumstances brought me here, and how. I passed by Mason City and drove around Des Moines and spent the night in Walnut and skirted Council Bluffs, on my way to Omaha for an all day shapenote singing. The weather was beautiful and the singing was energetic and I spent some delightful time with old friends and enjoyed meeting new ones, but that one singing day was surrounded by two long drives through the prairie. I'm not saying this was unpleasant -- just not where I once imagined I'd be.

I am certainly a long long way from New Jersey.

These trips are always an adventure, particularly regarding food. I was traveling with Jim and Denise. We ate breakfast Sunday morning in a timewarp roadside cafe in the town of Avoca. First we went in search of an actual business district, thinking that might hold promise for a fine breakfast. We did find the business district and the center of town, not far from the highway exit, but it all had the look of a town that had seen its prosperity well over a century ago and there was certainly no Mom's Diner to be found. Several signs proudly boasted of the high school teams: the Vikings and the Lady Vikes. I'm not too sure about that "Lady Vikes" bit. I just know that the boys of the competing schools probably mock the girl athletes as the "Lady Dykes". But it somehow all looked wholesome, even surrounded by a somewhat bleak vista of, well, farmland.

Oh, two walls of the timewarp cafe were decorated with a shelf of vintage lunch boxes, which was charming. Avoca, after all, is only one town over from Walnut which is the Antique Capitol of Iowa. I plan on spending some time in Walnut on my way back to Omaha for the Midwest Morris Ale over Memorial Day Weekend. Now we're back to the realm of the unexpectedly surreal: Two trips to Omaha within two months of each other. Well, Omaha's nice. Really. Certainly my friends Alice and David, with whom I stayed, live in a lovely home in a great neighborhood and migratory birds by the score pass through their backyard.

The real weekend food adventure was not in Iowa, or even Nebraska, but just over the Minnesota-Iowa border on our way home when we had lunch in Albert Lea. I wanted to head a little bit west to the town of Keister, but I hadn't prepared the appropriate postcards to send with that postmark. Instead we found a Chinese restaurant just off the road on a stretch of fast food restaurants that offered a lunch buffet for 4.95, or at least that's what the sign said. It turns out on Sunday you get the all-day buffet for 6.95. Jim and Denise needed a little convincing, but when we walked in we saw the most amazing buffet selection. There were salt and pepper prawns, and mushrooms cooked with pork, and stuffed shrimp, and crab legs, and spiced squid, and three soups and wontons on the side. There was a salad bar with nori rolls, and cocktail shrimp. There was pizza and garlic bread. And chocolate pudding. And soft-serve ice cream, and large containers of regular gourmet ice cream. I am but skimming the surface. Oh, there were mussels in a light soy sauce, and lo mein noodles, and egg rolls, and fried chicken. And some sort of beef dish. And green beans, plus the vegetables of the salad bar. And duck! And more. For 6.95.

How do they do it?

Steam tables do not really lend themselves to fine dining, but everything was very well spiced and nicely cooked so if you waited for dishes to be replenished and grabbed them immediately you ate like a king.

In Albert Lea Minnesota, just over the Iowa border.

Did I imagine this? Did I imagine Iowa? Did I imagine Avoca? Did I conjure Council Bluffs out of my imagination? Does it matter? Will I ever be hungry again?
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