My friend Kirby and I did a little wandering around Iowa for a couple of days this past week. There are a couple of dozen counties in the northwestern part of that state that I'd never been to before, and we had just enough free time to drive over there (from Wisconsin), cruise through them all, and head back (to Wisconsin).
Impressions are that (a) the people there are of the friendly sort; (b) the countryside is pretty, even with all the fields lying bare awaiting the planting of crops; and (c) there is no reason on earth, beyond making a living, to be there.
Here are all the things I spotted in 24 counties that were worth stopping to take a picture of:
There seems to be a local tradition of painting big rocks with patriotic themes. These two pictures are of the Lyon County "Freedom Rock."
And these three are of the Clay County "Freedom Rock."
In Britt, Iowa, we stumbled across the National Hobo Museum, located here because it's where the hobos hold their annual convention. I didn't even know there was such a group.
The next few pictures were taken inside.
racks of exhibits
We drove out to this mound expecting it to be an Indian mound; it's not, as the sign explains. The area is operated as a wildlife refuge by a group called the Osceola County Conservation Board, which is either not really a governmental entity, or else indulges in an un-American mingling of church and state.
Somewhere along the road we came to one of those outdoor Heritage Parks; I forget where. It was closed, so this is the only photo I could get. This bit of folk art appears to be old farm machinery piled up and welded together to form a sculpture.
And then, finally, this bit of folk art: Pocahontas represented as a Plains Indian.
My main gripe about chain restaurants in general, as I've said often enough that I shouldn't have to say it again, is that their food is dumbed down to a corporate idea of what average people like. My gripe about Texas Roadhouse (a Kentucky corporation, by the way) in particular stems from an article in a San Antonio newspaper more than 20 years ago.
It was the first time I'd heard of Texas Roadhouse. I don't remember if it was in the local daily paper, or the throwaway weekly rag, or in a legal news publication. I think it was the last, but I could be wrong.
The gist of the article was this: there was a small business in a town east of San Antonio that went by the name of Texas Roadhouse. It had been around for decades, selling beer and who knows what else to the people of its small community. We call those places "ice houses". The Kentucky corporation, looking to expand into Texas, wanted the rights to the name, which, according to the article (and my own understanding of that field of law) they couldn't get without the co-operation of the little ice house. Apparently the little ice house wouldn't give up the name. (I suspect, more than remember, that piles of money were offered; I know that, were I the ice house's attorney, I'd've sure recommended selling the name for anything with six figures left of the decimal, and then using some other name. Lord knows, the people that constitute its market don't give a damn what the place is called, they just want their beer and they know where to get it. Besides, they probably just call it "the ice house" anyway.)
Anyway, the upshot of the article was about the heavy-handed browbeating legal tactics the Kentucky corporation used to force the little ice house to give up the name. I don't know now what they were, though I recall there was an extensive discussion of it (which is why I think it was probably in a legal publication), but what I have remembered all these years is the indignation I felt that such robber-baron tactics would be used by Goliath against David. As a result, I've never been to a Texas Roadhouse.
But a friend of mine was taking me to dinner and Texas Roadhouse was the place he selected.
This place is no different from a handful of similar steak houses: it's Outback without the Ozzie theme, Logan's Roadhouse with a southwestern theme, Beau's Place with more peanut shells on the floor. There's nothing original about the concept, but I find that it's done, overall, a tad better than similar places.
There was a wait of about 15 minutes for a table, an interval spent shelling peanuts in the waiting area by the front door before we were led through the labyrinth to our two-person booth. Drinks were ordered and quickly brought by the assigned member of the uniformly chirpy waitstaff, who without exception managed to make terminal chirpiness seem not just normal, but infectious. Orders were placed with our capable and knowledgeable waitress. A couple of people nearby had birthdays, prompting me to observe that, in the hour or less I was there, I heard the word "yee-hah" more than I have in nearly a lifetime in Texas. I felt I should be insulted by the perpetuation of simplistic stereotypes about Texas, but then I thought of everything ever said about the state and its people on The Big Bang Theory, and decided that these simplistic stereotypes are the lesser evil.
The time we spent waiting for our food -- not a long time, especially considering the crowd in the place -- was used to shell more peanuts and plow through a tray of deliciously fattening dinner rolls served with butter laced with honey and cinnamon.
My dinner was a rib eye, ordered medium rare, a baked potato with everything on the side, and steamed vegetables. Everything was prepared exactly as it should have been: the veggies were hot and cooked to precisely the right point, with no spritz of oil or butter to diminish their healthful attributes; the potato was perfectly cooked (and of a proper size, not one of those over-large things you get at "steak houses" patronized by broke students); all the accoutrements were served on the side, as requested, in amounts that would ensure that I would have more than enough without being made to feel wasteful; and the steak, surprise surprise, was actually medium rare and tender.
My friend ordered a rack of ribs; I tasted the sauce and found it more Kansas City than Texas. Not bad, but not authentic either. Maybe corporate research indicates that KC-style barbecue plays better in Wisconsin.
The place was loud in a bubbly sort of family-friendly way, not uncomfortably so; it was clean, except for the peanut shells all over, for which there is a traditional exception to standards.
The prices struck me as about right for this sort of mid-range steak house; except the price of drinks ($2.59 for a bottomless glass) is higher than it should be, though I am apparently the last person in the whole world who cares.