Going to Where I’m From

I wonder how many times I’ve driven I-76 and I-80 between Denver and Columbus, Nebraska? Hundreds, probably, or close thereto. I seriously never get tired of it. Well, I don’t get tired of I-80 anyway; I have to admit that I-76 running through the eastern plains of Colorado is a bit of a snoozer. While I don’t want to lapse into hyperbole, there is virtually nothing on I-76.

In fact, one time many moons ago, Bill and I were driving back from Chicago in the middle of the night. We incorrectly assumed we could find a place to get gas along I-76; however, there were absolutely no gas stations open and paying at the pump was nonexistent. Anyhoo, by time we got to Keensburg (about 48 miles northeast of Denver), Bill insisted that we go no further since our gas gauge was hovering on empty. We slept in the car at the gas station until 6 o’clock or so, when someone finally opened up the station and turned on the coffee pot.

We made the trip this past weekend so that I could attend my 45th high school class reunion. Seven hours up on Friday and seven hours back to Denver on Sunday. Quick trip, but well worth it.

I never really entirely forget just what growing up in the Midwest was like and how it shaped who I am. However, when I am away from my Nebraska roots – either in Denver or in AZ – I give little thought to how much rain we’re getting or the price of soybeans. I worry instead about what color we will stain our hardwood and what I will make for dinner.

But the instant I drive over the Loup River bridge into Columbus, I’m 12 years old again. I find it funny that it always feels like I’m coming home, though I lived in Columbus a mere 18 years, and have lived in Colorado over twice as long.

The first thing I always notice is the sound of the train whistles. Columbus is a major thoroughfare for the Union Pacific railroad. The sound of the train whistles is heard regularly throughout the day and night as the trains – barely slowing down – go through the center of town and on to their next stop. When you live in Columbus, you get used to the sound of the whistles. Though our house was maybe half a mile from the tracks, I had many aunts and uncles who lived so close you would think the train was going to blast through their living room. Bill and I stayed at one of these houses when we were first married. In the middle of the night, Bill rolled over and said, “I have never heard so many trains in my life.” I had barely noticed……

To this day, the sound of a train whistle in the distance makes me nostalgic.

We ate dinner at Husker House Restaurant, about which I’ve spoken before. HH is the restaurant at which our family celebrated nearly every important event in our life until we moved to Colorado. The food is good and the décor hasn’t changed a single bit since I was a child…..

Bill and I had dinner with my friend Susie and her husband Sean.

Bill’s happy if he can stop at Glur’s Tavern (which proclaims to be the oldest tavern in Nebraska, and who am I to doubt?) and have a burger…..

I find a stop necessary at Ole’s Big Game Bar (in Paxton, NE), where you see the mostly-endangered-species that have been part of their décor since the species were not endangered…..

…..and a fried chicken dinner still costs only $8.99…..

But perhaps the most notable thing when I make my trip back to Nebraska is just how absolutely down to earth and funny and kind and interesting (and interestED) the people are. Most would agree with Tim McGraw that you should always be humble and kind.

I’m not sure when I’ll get back next, but I’m pretty sure things won’t have changed much. That’s something you can count on. There might be fast food restaurants that weren’t there when I was a kid, but at the end of the day, Nebraskans are still Nebraskans…..

Go Big Red.

Noodles

A couple of weeks ago when our family was visiting us in AZ, we were eating at our favorite pizza restaurant here in the Valley of the Sun. As we ate, I asked a variation of the age-old question: If you were eating your very last meal, what would you have?

I learned several interesting things from that question. The first thing I learned is that if you’re going to try to ascertain the answer to that question from an 11-year-old boy, you’d better phrase the question carefully. I unfortunately worded it as such: Hey Alastair, if you were on death row and they were bringing in your last meal, what would you have ordered? Okay, okay; I admit that perhaps you shouldn’t ask a child any questions that relate to Death Row. Lesson learned. Because Alastair – who loves good food – couldn’t be pinned down to the food part and instead concentrated fully on the Death Row part. Despite my pressing him further and further, his answers continued to be along the lines of a cake with a file in it, or a piece of sausage in the shape of a key.

But the other interesting piece of information I learned, particularly once I rephrased the question to be if you were on a desert island and could only eat one thing, what would it be?, was that my daughter-in-law Jll chose lasagna.

I thought about that conversation the other night when I cooked dinner for my sister Jen – who had arrived that day for a week’s visit – and her daughter Maggie and the family. I had texted the dinner invitation to Maggie earlier in the day, and didn’t know technology could work that fast when her response of YES! came almost before I set down my phone. Such is the life of a mother of two, including a very busy 3-year-old, as she prepares for the arrival of her own mother.  I had some of my red sauce in the freezer, so making lasagna was going to be simple. Or at least as simple as making lasagna can be.

As we sat and ate our lasagna, Caesar salad, and French bread, we learned that Maggie’s husband Mark would also choose lasagna as his last meal. Funny, that. I like lasagna, but who would choose lasagna when you could choose a wonderfully dry and ice-cold Tanqueray martini, a perfectly-cooked bone-in ribeye steak with a dollop of herb and garlic butter, a crisp salad with a mixture of homemade Roquefort cheese dressing and the homemade Italian dressing made by my favorite childhood restaurant Husker House, and crème brulee with that crackly burnt-sugar topping?

As a result of Mark’s proclamation, much of our conversation at dinner that night revolved around making lasagna. I created a bit of a controversy when I admitted that while I liked lasagna, I found it a pain in the booty to make.

Maggie was astounded. She doesn’t share my sentiment. But let me be clear. The most troublesome thing for me when it comes to lasagna is the noodles. Cooking lasagna noodles is flat-out messy. Dripping water, noodles splashing back into the cooking water as you try to retrieve them, noodles sticking together. All-around messiness.

Maggie, however, uses the lasagna noodles that cook as your lasagna bakes. I’m all for convenience, but I fear that any kind of pasta that you put uncooked into a dish soaks up too much of the liquid as it cooks. So despite the ease, I continue to cook my noodles before I begin the layering process.

I will admit that I like my lasagna very much. I use a meat sauce from my favorite Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich. It involves using pork neck bones, which result in the most flavorful sauce imaginable. Of course, no matter how careful I am, a few little bones will make it into the sauce. But the best part of using neck bones is that after a couple of hours, you remove them to cool. I, however, begin nibbling on them almost immediately, always burning my fingers in the process. Lidia’s sauce also involves ground pork and ground beef, so the flavor is delightful. Don’t tell Lidia, but sometimes I substitute Italian sausage for the ground pork. The sauce cooks for a couple of hours, making the house smell like an Italian home on Sunday. It’s pure heaven.

Here is a link to Lidia’s sauce, though it doesn’t come from her website. As for the lasagna, just like dressing for Colorado springtime weather, it’s all about layering.

Include as many layers as your pan will hold, and then eventually this happens…..

And maybe that is worth a last meal.

You Really Can Go Home Again

Urban legend always hints that people who live on the east coast – NYC, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia – don’t even know that Nebraska exists. Hmmmm. Nebraska? Is that somewhere over by Idaway or South Mexico? Isn’t that where all the Indians live?

I don’t know if it’s true that the Great Plains states remain a mystery to New Yorkers or Californians – just one of the so-called flyover states – but I will tell you that even as one who left Nebraska to put roots elsewhere, I never fail to be proud that I grew up in the Midwest.

All my life – both when I lived in Nebraska and after I moved to Colorado – I have heard people complain about that long drive on I-80 through ugly Nebraska. The sentiment makes me laugh because, while certainly the mountains of central and western Colorado are magnificent, the eastern plains are, well, less than splendid. But the cattle that graze on that land and the wheat that grows both summer and winter in eastern Colorado feed all of us throughout the United States and frankly, the world. So to me, it’s beautiful. It’s all beautiful.

And once you cross into Nebraska and start following the Platte River past field after field of corn and soybeans, the scene is frankly bountiful and gorgeous. It reminds me of the vineyards in Tuscany in sort of a weird way.

Midwesterners work hard, whether or not they are farmers or ranchers or city folk. Hard work, family, faith, and the Cornhuskers are what make most Nebraskans tick. It’s as simple as that. And if you spend your formative years in Nebraska, it is always part of you, even if you call yourself a Coloradan or an Arizonan.

Bec tells a funny story about a time when she was driving around her town of Chandler, AZ, shortly after she had moved there. She passed a field of something green. Hmmm, she said to herself. There’s a field of sorghum.

Wait, what? She reminded herself that she didn’t have the slightest idea of what sorghum was or even its purpose. But when she got home, she googled it. Yes, you guessed it. The field was, in fact, sorghum. Somewhere inside her head that had lived in Germany and Alabama and Washington, DC, for way more years than in Nebraska, she recognized sorghum.

The recent few days that we spent in Nebraska for my family’s reunion were wonderful, and made all of us nostalgic. Those cornfields are so beautiful, one of us would say about every 15 minutes. It looks like there’s been a lot of rain, another would say, interest in weather being a perfect indicator of a Midwesterner.

Here are some of the things we saw and did while in Nebraska…..

Beautiful old houses surrounded by magnificent trees (Do you know that Arbor Day started in Nebraska? Do you even know what Arbor Day is?)….

Nielsons house

We drove on the Lincoln Highway quite by accident while in Omaha. Bec instructed her car’s GPS to take us the shortest way to St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Valley, Nebraska, on Saturday evening, and the GPS took us on old Highway 30 – the Lincoln Highway – which at that point is a brick road. Lincoln Highway was built in the early 20th century and passes through a total of 14 states, 128 counties, and more than 700 communities across the United States….

Lincoln Highway Omaha

My immediate family has history at Husker House Restaurant in Columbus. It was where we went for celebrations. My mom and dad celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at Husker House. We celebrated birthdays and first communions and confirmations at Husker House. So, it’s a command performance when we are in Columbus. This time, Bec, my cousin Marilyn, and I toasted my parents with a Grasshopper following our fried chicken dinner….

marilyn bec kris grasshoppers

And the reason we chose fried chicken, my friends, is because by that time we had practically eaten nothing but beef because NEBRASKA. Bill, Bec, Jen, and I ate our first meal in Nebraska at a steakhouse. What else?……

bec bill jen kris sullivans 2016 omaha

And finally, what do you suppose I found on the shelves of a Hyvee Supermarket in Omaha, NE? Stewart’s Diet Orange and Cream soda. Yay Alastair!….

Kris Stewarts Hyvee Omaha

While I consider myself a Coloradan — at least mostly, deep down inside me, I am a Nebraskan-at-heart. And, by the way, Go Big Red!