Traveling home: a culinary experience

The pork tenderloin sandwich: a Midwest staple.
The pork tenderloin sandwich: a Midwest staple.

I was in the Minneapolis airport and I had just spent 30 minutes looking for an Arby’s. The beef and cheddar combo was the last item on my mental checklist of food I wanted to eat before returning to Tokyo.

From June 27-July 10 I had returned to the U.S., mostly to visit family in Iowa and attend the wedding of a college friend up in the north woods of Wisconsin.

Not many world travelers spend two weeks of vacation in Iowa. Not sure that I ever met anyone who did. Not that I want to disparage my home state, but there just ain’t much for tourists besides the world’s largest frying pan.

That being said, I hadn’t been back in the States in well over a year. There were three things I was excited for: American food, beer and women.

I won’t espouse too much about the latter point because I feel I made my opinion fairly clear during Dave Bess’ bachelor party. As for beer, I kept my selections to the tried and true favorites: Bell’s Two-Hearted, Sierra Nevada pale ale, Millstream’s Schild Brau and New Belgium Fat Tire. Sure I dabbled here and there with some domestics and craft samplings, but when you have limited time, you go with what you know. I mean, if you’re at a music festival, you don’t spend any time in the DJ tent.

But let’s talk about food. Food is very important to me. Don’t call me a foodie. I’m not here to dissect flavors and textures and microorganisms. I know what food I like and what I don’t like (which isn’t much). My old boss Craig once told me American food must consist of at least one of four ingredients: salt, sugar, butter or oil, and a whole lot of it.

As I said before, I had a mental checklist of foods I wanted to eat while in the Midwest. When I arrived at the Minneapolis airport that day, there were two items remaining: Arby’s and Taco Bell. Lord knows I wasn’t about to eat a Gordita and a double decker taco and get on a 12 hour plane ride. Arby’s beef and cheddar it was.

Let’s start back at the beginning.

When my parents entertained me for my first evening back, Mom made my favorite childhood dish: chicken divan. There is nothing like Mom’s (or Dad’s) home cooking.

After one Killian’s (Dad’s stock of choice) I was out like a light on the couch.

Almost every breakfast thereafter consisted of cold cereal, by choice. There isn’t much cereal options in Japan. You can buy granola in the international grocery stores for like $10 a sack. Also, Japanese milk tastes just a little different than America’s. It’s still milk, but then again, Roger Moore was no Sean Connery. Needless to say, it’s been over a year to eat Froot Loops.

However, one morning Dad made strawberry waffles and on another he whipped up some homemade biscuits and gravy. On my last morning in Wisconsin I made a 15 mile trip to Molly’s Cafe in Minocqua for corned beef hash and eggs. Three more items off my list.

For my first lunch back in Iowa, we stopped by a local restaurant where my choice was easy: pork tenderloin sandwich. For you Iowans, you don’t need me to describe this any further. For those of you from outside the corn belt, a pork tenderloin sandwich is a flat slab of breaded pork the size of Calvin Johnson’s right hand fried and served on a bun that covers maybe a third of the meat’s surface area. Like trying to cover Oprah with a two-piece. Loaded with ketchup, mustard, onions and pickles (lettuce and tomato if you insist on vegetables), the pork tenderloin sandwich is a Midwest masterpiece.

Later that afternoon Mom and I helped Dad load his bass guitar and amp and we went to the annual Sturgis Falls celebration where Dad’s band The Ramblers was performing. The beer choice was limited so Bud Light it was. A high school friend Jason and his wife Sarah and their two daughters stopped by, as well as several of the parents from our old Boy Scouts days. Most of my friends weren’t able to stop out on account they had young children at home who’s priorities came first.

On that first weekend back it was enlightening to see how much of my time was scheduled around nap times.

For that night’s dinner, I requested Godfather’s pizza. I just like their cheese and crust better than Pizza Hut or Papa John’s. I actually had pizza three times during my stay (and unfortunately I never got to imbibe on the Pizza Rolls that Mom had safely stashed in the freezer).

Pizza is available in Japan. You can even order meat lovers, but it’s just something you don’t do, like eating the fish sandwich in the dorm cafeteria. One note about Japanese pizza: you can divvy up your toppings into four quarters on the pizza rather than just being limited to half and half.

On my second full day, after a late breakfast of the aforementioned waffles, I swung back to the Sturgis Falls Celebration to meet up with Matt and his wife Mindy and their son Jensen. While standing around waiting for them, I decided to get some carnival food. I wandered around a bit until I found a corn dog stand with no lines. As I meandered around chomping down on enormous dogs fried in a thick coating of cornbread, I realized I was right in front of the walking taco stand. Now, my love affair with walking tacos has been well documented in the past, so I won’t go any more in depth, but for those who know me, this was a travesty of Cleveland Browns proportions.

For dinner that night the entire family went to a local smokehouse known for its barbecue ribs. These ribs fell right off the bone and they served the salad, bread, coleslaw and veggies family style. For the first time in my life I had to order the half-ribs rather than the full slab. Even then I wasn’t able to finish everything.

The goal for the rest of the trip was to expand my stomach so never again would food be left uneaten.

On the third day, a Sunday, Grandpa Joe and Grandma Betty arrived from Indianola. We had cold meat sandwiches at the house for lunch. That’s another thing I miss in Japan. Sandwiches. There are no sandwich shops. People don’t eat a lot of bread here, which I realized may have contributed most to my minimal weight loss. The sandwich is another American art form.

We spent the afternoon sampling the whiskeys in Dad’s bar, so at this point my recall gets a little hazy. That might be the night Dad grilled steaks, but I can’t be sure.

The steaks Dad grilled (whatever day it was) came from the Fareway grocery store, who has the best meat selection hands down.

My 3-year-old nephew Rohan. He refused to have his picture taken until his father, my brother, Aaron, promised to let him ride shotgun in the red pickup truck.
My 3-year-old nephew Rohan. He refused to have his picture taken until his father, my brother, Aaron, promised to let him ride shotgun in the red pickup truck.

The next day I remember playing disc golf with Chad and Aaron and Aaron’s toddler Rohan. Rohan wasn’t so much impressed with the disc golf course as he was the playground. I think that was the morning Dad made his biscuits and gravy.

That night we went out to eat at Los Amigos for authentic Mexican food. You can find okay Mexican in Tokyo, but you are going to pay an arm and a leg. It’s like $15 for a plate of stale nachos. At Los Amigos you can pay $7.75 for the enchilada, burrito and chimichanga combo meal and it is oh so divine. Not to mention margaritas that could comfortably float a rubber duck.

On Tuesday we drove to Fort Dodge to have lunch with Grandma Georgia. We picked up Papa Murphy’s pizza along the way. We played cards and did our best to entertain Rohan who doesn’t appreciate games of concentration that do not revolve around his immediate entertainment. Three year olds. What do you do? Can’t put ‘em to work. Can’t teach ‘em to play drums. Can’t trust them with the car keys.

Anyhow, we returned too late for Mom to get her pot roast in the oven so I don’t quite recall what we did for dinner. Maybe that was the night we had Mexican. Whatever, it’s not like you care at this point anyway.

When I went to Wisconsin for the wedding there were some nice culinary surprises.

The first night’s meal was not one of them. I stayed at the Lake of Torches Casino and by the time my friends and I had rendezvoused and caught up over 3 or 4 beers most of the restaurants were closed except for the casino’s “bar and grill.” The casino food was devoid of substance or flavor and we vowed never to return, even for the breakfast buffet.

During the Fourth of July parade on Thursday the vendors were serving Indian fried bread tacos which were absolutely mouthwatering. Their fresh homemade salsa may have been the best ever (Hyperbole alert!!!). The resort we were staying at in Lac du Flambeau is on an Indian reservation and the highlight of the parade was the clan of Native Americans gallantly dressed in full powwow regalia.

That same day was the bachelor and bachelorette parties. I’m not allowed to divest the day’s events. Those secrets are trapped safely to the confines of a little island in the middle of the lake, as well as several smart phone cameras.

I will say that we grilled brats out on that little island and for dinner at the Thirsty Whale in Minocqua I had a nice Po’ Boy sandwich served perfectly crisp.

For lunch the next day we stopped at a bar and grill in downtown Lac du Flambeau where I had the Patty Melt (another Midwest staple) that’s burger patty eclipsed the rye bread. Another item checked off the list.

There was talk of renting jet skis but ultimately we dipped in the hotel pool and made off for a fish fry in a little shack deep in the woods down gravel roads. The Alaskan cod wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was smothered in enough batter to make shit taste palatable.

The Saturday wedding ceremony of Dave and AnnaJo Bess was held lakeside and the reception was in a large picnic shelter nearby. The mosquitoes and rain held off and it was a night of celebration and ecstatic revelry. For the wedding meal itself they served pulled pork sandwiches, which weren’t on my list, but should have been. There were two kegs of beer and several cans of Pointe lager. The champagne was my undoing. Or maybe it was the double bloody mary and gin and tonic I had back at the casino while waiting for our shuttle. Or maybe it’s just the fact that I drank for 12 hours straight.

In any case, the wedding event was a once in a lifetime experience to gather with old college friends, to reminisce and share our ensuing life stories. And to drink heavily.

The day after the wedding I headed back to Iowa and stopped by a hot dog stand that served Chicago dogs, which if you have never had, stop what you’re doing and go find one now. This was another nice surprise, though hot dogs were definitely on my list. Chi-dogs have a poppy-seed coated bun and are stuffed with onions, relish, mustard (no ketchup!), hot peppers and I forget what else.

As it turned out, this was not the best hangover food, but on the road in the middle of Wisconsin you can’t get picky.

After my eight and a half hour drive (the holiday traffic was so bad coming out of the lakes that it took 3 hours to go 100 miles) Mom had porkchops baked with sweet potatoes and apples waiting for me at home. Scrumptious.

Mom had also baked homemade chocolate chip cookies. Oreo cookies were on my list, and was one of the unfulfilled items, but nothing beats Mom’s homemade chocolate chip cookies.

The next day we traveled to Marengo for a brief stop in the ol’ newspaper office and then spent some time shopping at the Williamsburg outlet mall. I bought three pairs of shoes and a pair of pants for $120. In Tokyo that might get you one shoe.

We met up with the rest of the family in Iowa City for dinner. I had one restaurant to choose out of all of my favorites. My top choice would have been George’s cheeseburgers, but the atmosphere isn’t exactly kid friendly. Instead I chose the Wig and Pen on the Coralville strip, mainly because it was easier to access off the interstate and parking wouldn’t be so difficult, and also my brother-in-law Chad, who went to UI, had never been there. Most importantly they serve the best Chicago deep-dish pizza this side of the Mississippi. They didn’t disappoint. After appetizers of chicken wings (high on my list) and spinach artichoke dip I was only able to eat two slices of cheesy-tomatoy-doughy goodness. I think my stomach is still recovering from cheese overload.

Even though I didn’t think I could eat any more, I made the mistake of watching late night Food network programming. Cooking shows and Sportscenter were my viewing staple over the course of the last two weeks. I didn’t realize how much I missed 24-hour sports broadcasting. Anyhow, there was a leftover burger in the fridge from Dad’s last barbecue and down it went.

I spent the last day of vacation playing with my 3-year-old nephew Rohan. We spent the morning driving the car up and down the driveway, where he didn’t have to be harnessed in his safety seat, and he could sit up front like a big boy. Seriously, we spent nearly an hour just driving up and down the driveway like a remote control car stuck on reverse. Not quite sure what the neighbors thought about that.

For lunch that day we had mac and cheese, of course, which is something else you can’t buy in Tokyo. I brought four boxes back with me, and come to think of it, I should start making my own mac and cheese and sell it from a sidewalk stand late at night in downtown Tokyo.

It was my idea first.

As my last request, Dad grilled Reubens for supper, and I indulged myself with a late night snack of leftover cold pizza.

It was tough to leave the family, especially little Rohan who kept saying in a sweet, pitiful voice, “I’ll miss you Uncle Nick.” But at the same time it was nice to return to my routine in Tokyo, which I had finally settled into.

The flight home was a little uncomfortable because my jeans had grown tighter than when I had arrived.

Back at home in Sasazuka, Lisa had lovingly prepared a healthy meal of ratatouille, Polish sausages and cold somen noodles.It’s back to the Japanese diet of rice, tofu and fish to hopefully lose some of the Midwest midsection cushioning.

See you later Iowa!
See you later Iowa!

Editor’s note: Since this was published I visited the grocery store in Tokyo and found the cereal section. It turns out you can buy a box of the Japanese version of Cocoa Krispies or Chex for $3. Carry on.

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