Category Archives: Ad Astra

General Kansas thoughts

On Jury Duty

I served, ever-so-briefly, as a juror in a criminal trial this week. Here’s what I learned.

  1. When you tell others that you have been summoned, they will tell you how to get out of it.

Seriously. This is the number one reaction. My observation: it isn’t socially acceptable to the working public to serve on a jury. And I get it. I’m a freelance consultant; I’m only paid for the hours I work. I earned a whopping $20 for two days of service (and they’ll pay mileage to my zip code, which is maybe 3-4 miles away.) I had to cancel meetings only to re-schedule them minutes later upon learning that the schedule had changed. It’s a very fluid process. It’s also a very bad day for the defendant.

Every person of authority in the justice system who spoke to the potential jury pool acknowledged the fact that none of us probably really wanted to be there. Once voir dire began, though, we were given multiple opportunities to declare that jury duty would be an inconvenience, a hardship, a conflict with our religious beliefs. No one took any of those outs, which made me wonder if we were all taking it very seriously. I know I was.

2. If you have served on a jury, you’ll probably remember the experience.

Chances are pretty good that most of us will be summoned sooner or later. The people with whom I’ve spoken in the last few weeks who have actually served or been called remember a surprising number of details: the nature of the case, how long they served, how much they were paid for their service. The gravity of the situation is real.

3. Civic duty looks like a lot of different things.

The final surprising observation: once someone found out that I was actually going to serve, they usually thanked me for my service. This made me feel good. It also made me realize that I am often content with letting someone else do the stuff that’s important, but inconvenient, or uncomfortable. Jury duty is no more or less important that many of the other things we need to do in society to keep things going, to keep us all healthy and safe. We shouldn’t get a pass just because we voted, or volunteered at a community event, and have decided that we’ve engaged enough.

I’m writing this to remind myself that there are a lot of things we can do to strengthen our democracy. Jury duty is just one of those things, and there are more that I can be and should be doing if I really care about where I live.

Potlucks are the BEST.

I’m not sure I love anything more than eating really great home-cooked food.

Which means, of course, that potlucks are the best thing EVER.

One of my favorite springtime events during the past two years has been a soup potluck at the East Lawrence home of William S. Burroughs, the beat poet, troubled marksman and, at the end of his life, Kansan. (I’m claiming him. I think it counts.)

The Burroughs house in East Lawrence.

The Burroughs house in East Lawrence.

The setup involves a crowded stovetop and a host of crock pots bearing the most fantastic soups: some old family recipes, some new favorites, all homemade and all delicious. Salads, bread and dessert round out the meal — for the lucky ones who have room left in their bowls.

A few of the soup offerings, in the sunny kitchen window.

A few of the soup offerings, in the sunny kitchen window.

It’s tough to pick a favorite when everything is AMAZING, but here are some worth noting:

  • A simply gorgeous beans and greens soup with gigantic Christmas lima beans and kale. A dish so earthy and complex that I said “mmmm!” with every bite.
  • A pork posole, with a bright red broth, tender pork and soft hominy. All texture, all the time. The soup went under a pile of fresh radishes and jalapeños that added an additional layer of crunchy goodness. (We snuck back over for another bowl of this for lunch the next day. I can truthfully report that this got even more amazing over 24 hours.)
  • A creamy golden corn chowder, the color of late-afternoon sunbeams, with roasted red peppery sweetness and a hint of spice.
  • An Italian wedding soup with dainty meatballs and thick-cut homemade noodles.
  • A Greek avogolemono, a soup that almost defies logic: the broth is neither thin nor thick, but an opaque white and oh-so-lemony. There’s orzo, too, and some other chewy goodness involved.
  • A wonderful warm borscht with tender beets and a deep dill flavor.

And then there was the gingerbread. With fresh whipped cream. DELIGHTFUL.

Extra bonus points were awarded to this particular potluck because we got to hang out with some awesome if not a bit distant cousins who were also in attendance, including Mazlo, the next generation of Schneweis descendants to rule the Earth.

This is my cousin Mazlo and his awesome mom Laurel. I think Mazlo and I are like 61st cousins, or something like that. His great-grandpa was a first cousin of my great-grandma. So, you know, we're tight.

This is my cousin Mazlo and his awesome mom Laurel. I think Mazlo and I are like 61st cousins, or something like that. His great-grandpa was a first cousin of my great-grandma. So, you know, we’re tight. Cute kid, right?

Family, friends and food? Kind of like Christmas. In April.

Wichita, here we are.

As of last Friday, we are now officially Wichitans. I think we’ll always be sentimental about our first house in the lovely Potwin neighborhood of Topeka. On the other hand, we have a pretty good story of selling it: we sold it to an old friend of mine from KU. I’d happened to bump into her at Arturo’s Mexican Restaurant one day at lunch — she was looking for a home in Topeka, and we had one that met her needs. Friends have described it as everything from “an amazing coincidence” to “a sign from God.” I’m not arguing with any of those interpretations.

We’ll also probably remember the time we closed on our house during a blizzard, when we stayed in an empty house on an air mattress, subsisting on pour-over coffee and peanut butter sandwiches.

Today, our first official Monday of living in Wichita together as a family, we’re hunkered down during ANOTHER blizzard… finishing off the peanut butter and hoping the power stays on long enough for the stew to finish cooking in the crock pot.

In the words of all good Kansans: we need the moisture. But I’m going to resist the temptation to look for deeper meaning in the extreme weather events that coincided with our move.

Five Good Things About Topeka: Porubsky’s

The first time I tried to go to Porubsky’s, I went to the wrong place.

Chris and I took a friend out to lunch and decided we’d try the chili-and-hot-pickle place about which we had heard good things. We ended up in Oakland at Steinbock’s – a small family grocery store, with a deli and hot chili. It was very good, but we eventually surmised that it wasn’t our intended destination.

We finally got things straightened out. We inquired around and got better directions: go to North Topeka, head east on the Sardou Bridge – and then take a left in the middle of the bridge to get to Little Russia.

As soon as I stepped inside, I knew that we needed to get better acquainted.

Perfect chili weather. Photo from http://www.transcendentdeli.org

The red-and-white-painted building is divided in half. The west half is a grocery store, specializing in crackers, cake mixes, and one of the best, most local deli counters I’ve seen in Kansas. The east half is a long, narrow dining room with a handful of booths, three long tables and stools at the bar. Old-school beer paraphernalia covers the wood-paneled walls, sharing space with signed photos of Kansas dignitaries.

The menu is simple: cold-cut sandwiches from the deli, on your choice of bread. Can’t decide? Order a cold plate. For about $3.50, you’l get a try of assorted meat, cheese and bread slices, with thin slices of dill pickles and the blazing-hot Porubsky Pickles. The pickles could have an entire blog entry to themselves. They’re whole kosher dills, sliced and doctored with horseradish to create a mind-blowing wave of heat felt primarily throughout your sinuses. Grab a napkin or two — I’ve seen grown men with tears in their eyes immediately upon consuming said pickles.

Chili and Porubsky Pickles. And plenty of hot sauce.

Chili and Porubsky Pickles. And plenty of hot sauce.

They’re best known for their chili, made by Charlie Porubsky on a four-burner stove behind the deli counter. It’s a simple recipe of meat, beans and spices — no tomatoes to be found here. They make their ham salad (or “pig salad,” as I once heard a customer order) there, too. My all-time favorite thing to get, though, is the hot pimento cheese sandwich. Charlie adds paper-thin habenero slices to homemade pimento cheese, with thick shreds of cheddar cheese. It’s creamy, spicy, and awesome on top of rye bread.

My friend Ann and I decided five years ago that we’d start going there regularly and arranged our schedules to fully maximize chili season (Monday through Thursday, September to May.) We got to know Bruce, who works the dining room during the week, and his wife, Becky. Our chili order — hers with a slice of cheese on top, mine without — was immortalized in Matthew Porubsky’s outstanding documentary, Porubsky’s Transcendent Deli.

We’re now at the point where Bruce and Becky know our order, down to the details. No ice for me. A plate of Porubsky Pickles. A pimento cheese sandwich for us to share — half hot, half not.

I’ll miss this place. I’ll miss Bruce’s gravelly voice asking “what are you girls up to?” I’ll miss the diverse crowd of people who make the trek to this tiny neighborhood — elected officials, railroad workers, farmers and hipsters.

But mostly I’ll miss that happy sensation of being a regular. I’m excited about the opportunity to find a new local place. Yet every Monday, for years to come, I predict I’ll still experience a sincere craving for a hot bowl of chili and a warm feeling inside.

Bruce and I on my last visit. Photo credit: Ann Williamson

Bruce and I on my last visit. Photo credit: Ann Williamson

Five Good Things About Topeka: Northeast Kansas attractions

Even though Chris and I lived relatively close to Topeka during our college years — he in Baldwin City, me in Lawrence — neither of us had spent much time hanging out in the Capital City.

So when we moved, we started asking the standard newbie questions. Can you recommend a dentist? Who cuts your hair? Where do you like to eat?

The overwhelming answer: Lawrence. Go to Lawrence for all those things.

Lawrence

They’re all looking for dentists, too. Photo from kuathletics.com

I’ve already written about how Lawrence is generally considered to be much cooler than Topeka. And over time, we gradually figured out where to go and what to do, where to shop for groceries, and so on. But there was one habit we could never break in the next city over, just 30 minutes to the East.

Free State Brewery.

It was already special to both Chris and me before we started dating. We ate there the night we got engaged. We’ve been there for birthday parties, baby showers, graduation dinners, late Sunday lunches and for Monday night cheap beers. We’ve made Major Life Decisions over onion rings and pints of beer. (And DIY beer floats.) The two-story dining room is great for people-watching — if you can weave your way through the standing-room only crowd to get to your seat.

They also have a most excellent patio.

They also have a most excellent patio.

The food is always outstanding. I usually get whatever’s on the special board, but my go-to menu item is the smoked turkey sandwich, grilled, with Free State’s awesome whole-grain house mustard instead of mayo. With fries on the side (dipped in more mustard) and grapes. This dish gets even better during the annual “March Mustard Madness,” where you’re handed a list of mustard categories from which to choose selections to go with your meal. I inevitably pick from the spicy and garlic categories.

But the beer… is out of this world. My favorite Free State beer is Lemongrass Rye, a seasonal brew which typically comes out around Memorial Day weekend. It has just a hint of lemongrass, which doesn’t make the beer fruity, but crisp and enjoyable on a warm afternoon. A few years ago, they made an Eutiner Lager, a light Helles-style lager that was a  collaboration between Free State brewers and the brewers in Lawrence’s sister city in Eutin, Germany. We’d just returned from Germany and decided that it was like we’d never left.

The best news is that they’ve added a bottling line in the last few years, so it won’t be far away. I’m already looking forward to visiting when we head back up to this corner of the state.

DIY beer floats

Free State Brewing Co. has some of the very best vanilla bean ice cream I’ve ever had — although this is a very recent discovery.

Tonight we ordered a tiny scoop of the ice cream and a small sample of the Cow Tippin’ Stout and made a miniature beer float at our table.

I highly recommend that you do the same. Oatmeal Stout will also work wonderfully. The beer has the slightest bitter note, offset by the sweetness of the ice cream. Each is delicious by themselves, but the combination of the two is nothing short of amazing.

Five Good Things About Topeka: Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library

During the next two weeks or so, I’ll feature some of the things I liked best about living in Topeka. Here’s the first in the series. Enjoy!

*****

When Chris moved to Topeka, one of the stops on our inaugural tour around town was the library. We saw the art gallery, the coffee shop, and the excellent bookstore.

I visited three times before I ever saw the stacks.

Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library. Photo from http://www.michaelgraves.com.

The library, designed by Michael Graves, has pretty much everything you’d think it should have — a nice selection of books, including cookbooks and knitting project books (not that I ever finished anything before the book was due back, but still.) They have great movies and CD’s, and, when we first moved to town, they’d send them to you in the mail, free of charge. We determined it was our own free Netflix and took advantage of the service as often as we could.

But there are other great things, too. We saw the quirky French flick “8 Femmes” during one of their regularly scheduled international movie nights. We attended a thoughtful presentation on the Jayhawk Theatre, the State Theater of Kansas, which is now in ruins, hidden behind offices in downtown Topeka. And we saw an awesome Jim Richardson show of his travel photos. It’s always great to see and think about a Kansan traveling all over the world and bringing back ideas to share with us.

The coffee shop puts out good, hot chili with black beans, and homemade cinnamon rolls that are thick and gooey with just enough icing. And the bookstore frequently has vintage Kansas books for sale.

We’ve always told visitors that they should drop in. I’m not sure if any of them believed us.

But they should have. This place is great.