Category Archives: Kansas Travels

Neat places to visit in Kansas

#GBD

Last week was a big week in the Kansas culinary world, friends: the Kansas Sampler Foundation named Hays (America) as the Green Bean Dumpling Soup Capital of the state.

It’s a pretty simple dish with just a few ingredients – a simple dumpling made of flour, eggs and water, boiled until perfectly chewy, stirred together with green beans, cream and a light-colored roux. It’s surprisingly rich for its relatively humble components.

I get more questions about eating options in Hays than anywhere else in the state. My top choice is Gella’s, for several reasons – the warm interior, the giant sunflower art, the inventive yet classic beer they brew. My favorite meal there: a bowl of green bean dumpling soup, a soft pretzel, and a shared plate of whatever’s on special that day. (With a pint of Liberty Stout if you’re lucky enough to be there for the seasonal tap.)

Best. Art. Ever.

Best. Art. Ever.

I love that the restaurant celebrates the town’s heritage. The Volga-German settlers who moved from Germany to Russia to Ellis County, bringing with them a culture of growing wheat, brewing beer, and making fantastic food, made barrels of this soup. 

The recipe I made came from Das Essen Unsrer Leute. Women from the small towns in Ellis County compiled the recipes in 1976 to celebrate the centennial of their ancestors settling in the county.

I made a batch last night for an out-of-town colleague, who brought a guest from Chicago. We went all in with the Volga-German theme and made our first batch of bierocks of the year – another Volga-German staple – and some chewy ginger cookies that Andrea shared last week.

I’m far from a seasoned dumpling maker, and am on a quest to learn what the perfect “sticky dough” consistency looks and feels like. The good news is that this soup is great even with wonky dumplings. Perhaps my technique would be better if I actually lived in the Green Bean Dumpling Soup Capital of Kansas?

Finished product, imperfect dumplings and all.

Finished product, in its imperfect and delicious glory.

Creamed Bean and Dumpling Soup
from “Das Essen Unsrer Leute” – 1976

Put one can of cut green beans into 8 cups of boiling water with 1 tablespoon salt. While bringing to a boil, mix 2 cups of flour with 2 eggs and enough water to make a sticky dough. Drop by spoon-full into boiling water, when dumplings float to top remove from stove. Melt 1/4 cup cooking oil in pan add 3 tablespoons flour and brown, pour into hot soup, stirring so it doesn’t get lumpy. Add one cup cream. Serve.

 

 

Beer. Here?

I have been to the Sunflower State’s newest brewery.

And it was weird.

The Walnut River Brewing Co. opened to the public on Saturday in El Dorado.

(For you non-Kansas-natives, it’s important to pause here for a lesson on pronunciation: “El Dorado” is pronounced closer to “potato” than anything else. “Ell Door-AY-doe.” Now you’ll sound hip when you tell your friends.)

Getting back to my point. We went to the grand opening of the brewery on Saturday. Armed with the address, we found a tall, white-washed building at 111 W. Locust with a Walnut River banner hanging haphazardly from the front.

But we couldn’t find the door. This was our first clue that we were stumbling in to something unusual.

After walking around the building, we finally guessed at the entrance (it’s the closest thing that resembles a door on the front of the building) and stepped in to an antique store of sorts, where we were greeted by boxes of “fashion rings,” vintage glassware, ancient electronics, books, baskets and toys.

And, along the east wall, we found a brewery.

I really didn't take enough photos to do this place justice. Check out the bar top - a slice of a very large tree that they encourage you to autograph.

I really didn’t take enough photos to do this place justice. Check out the bar top – a slice of a very large tree that they encourage you to autograph.

The story is familiar, but it’s always a good one: a homebrewer who loves the craft decides to try his hand at brewing beer on a larger scale. So he finds a good business partner and builds a MacGuyver-like brewery out of second-hand equipment in a building that also, coincidentally, houses a second-hand shop.

The result is almost a pop-up brewery, as much as that’s possible with a cooling room and a couple of fermenting tanks.

The beer, however, is really quite amazing. We tried the Kölsch-style ale, one of the closest representations of a German beer that I’ve had outside of Germany; the California Common, which was toasty and reminiscent of an Anchor Steam; and the super-malty Irish Red.

So we stood in this melee of stuff, resting our sample cups on a case full of baseball cards, and marveled at the scene. Great beer? Check. Fantastic people-watching? Check. Need a toaster? They’ve got you covered.

A growler, a sample, and a full case of baseball cards. Par for the course.

A growler, a sample, and a full case of baseball cards. Par for the course.

For now, they’re selling the beer in growlers direct from the brewery, but soon hope to move to restaurants in and around the Wichita area. And there are apparently plans to expand into the entire space, which would not be the same as what we saw on Saturday, but will be very cool anyway.

Now that I think about it, the experience was everything I hope for when I go to a new place for the first time. It’s fun to feel like a pioneer, to see things that you can’t wait to tell the folks at home all about. And it’s fun to find an experience that, while authentic, defies all logic and expectations.

We left with two growlers tucked under our arms and a hope that this place makes it. Y’all should check it out.

A trip to Cuba

Last week, before the heat and the sleet kicked in, I made a trip to Cuba.

Cuba, Kan. has been well-documented by others, including Jim Richardson of National Geographic fame. My recent trip was my second to the tiny town of about 150 in far north-central Kansas.

I drove up through the Ark River Lowlands and through the gorgeous Smoky Hills, crossing the Saline and Republican Rivers, to get to the location of a sunny Thursday meeting.

Cuba's main drag.

Cuba’s main drag.

It’s possible to do some urban exploration, even in the tiniest of Kansas towns. The meeting took place in a community space tucked away behind an unmarked door on the downtown strip. A handwritten sign on the wall indicated that the space had been used for community events years ago — perhaps as recently as the 1980s — but was now used for smaller gatherings. Card games, maybe? Pitch is big here. The group that gathers at the cafe on Thursday mornings invited me to join for a hand or two. (I declined, mostly because of the meeting, but because I grew up playing six- and seven-point pitch. Woe to me when I inadvertently ditch the trey.)

I'll take an apricot kolache and a cup of coffee (hot), please.

I’ll take an apricot kolache and a cup of coffee (hot), please.

No kolaches were to found in town, but the luncheon special at the cafe was a deconstructed bierock, swimming in cheese sauce but boasting a thick and homemade crust.

After the meeting, I made a stop for the thickest-cut smoked pork chops at the Cuba Cash Store, which also has some of the best homemade ring bologna around. The pork chops rode home in a cooler on the back seat and became a fantastic kässler rippchen for Monday’s supper.

Perhaps not the most typical version of this meal, but definitely delicious. It screams, "welcome, Spring! Bring on your potatoes and asparagus."

Not the most typical version of this meal, but definitely delicious. It screams, “welcome, Spring! Bring on the boiled potatoes.”

Scenery, geography, history, food, exploration and kind people make for a pretty fantastic day.

Observations of Wichita, March 2013

I’ve had about a month to get into the groove of Kansas’ largest city. So far, I really like it here, and that I get to rediscover a city that I thought I knew pretty well. Here are some of those discoveries to date:

Wichita is a big place. At almost 385,000 residents, the city is clearly larger than Topeka, which has a population of about 128,000. Compared to most urban areas located just about ANYWHERE else, it’s still pretty small and easy to navigate. Yet I’m still having to remind myself that it takes at least 20 minutes by car to get most places I want to go. I didn’t realize that Topeka was smaller by comparison.

Wichita drivers. It’s kind of an inside joke, but the drivers really are a bit more aggressive here than other parts of the state. I’m having a bit of an argument with myself, since this is where I learned to drive. Am I a terrible driver by default?

Wichitans love loud, frantic dance music at all times of the day. Most of the radio stations on my dial above 92.0 MHz seem to specialize in club tunes. There’s some good country mixed in, and some hair metal, but most playlists seem to skew heavily toward adult contemporary, or whatever we’re calling it these days, and songs most appropriately enjoyed out with your besties on a weekend night.

On the other hand, I can clearly receive two really good public stations. I like to think of it as a sign of balance in the world.

There’s at least one really great coffee shop. Mead’s Corner, on Douglas in the heart of downtown Wichita, is a great, quiet place that serves PT’s Coffee  and, amazingly, flat whites, both of which I’ve discussed here. It is usually packed with a fantastic assortment of Wichitans: people conducting business meetings in suits to dreadlocked musician-types in hand-knitted stocking caps.

There’s a bar that serves duck bacon as a garnish. The Monarch is my best bet for the category of “Wichita establishment that keeps on trend.” It has the vibe of a hipster hangout — light fixtures made of bike rims, shiny cement floors, menus in brown kraft folders, a dedicated bourbon list. They also serve a loaded sweet potato tot dish with plenty of cheddar cheese, lots of green onions, and DUCK BACON.

Loaded sweet potato tots. A twist on the new-ish pub-food standard of sweet potato fries.

Loaded sweet potato tots. A twist on the new-ish pub-food standard of sweet potato fries.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of bacon (judge me now, or judge me later) but the chewy, slender planks of salted fowl are the perfect topping for the dish. And sweet potatoes are great no matter how they’re prepared. (Hat tip to good friend Amy for introducing us to this delicacy.)

More to come later. I’m just getting started.

Grocery stores as art

Grocery stores can be different things, depending on where you live.

In Hutchinson, you used the closest grocery or convenience store as a landmark. “I live on Sierra Parkway — off of 30th, near the big Dillon’s.” “Turn at the Pic Quik on 4th to get downtown.”

I’ve dragged my husband and family into grocery stores around the country and around the world. Grocery shopping on vacation is one of the best ways I know to find out what other people eat. (And I admit that I sometimes go to Aldi just to pretend I’m on vacation in Europe.)

I have the opportunity to work with the Rural Grocery Initiative, a project at Kansas State University that studies the importance of grocery stores as a key quality of life indicator — and economic driver — of rural communities. Through working with the group, I have a new appreciation for grocery stores as community centers. I like thinking about them as more than just a place to gather supplies, but as a place to check in with your friends and neighbors.

A couple of weekends ago, I found another way to view groceries and grocery stores. There’s a fantastic exhibit on at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University that explores the connections between culture and the routine act of shopping.

Stocked: Contemporary Art from the Grocery Aisles isn’t just a display of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans (although those are there.) First Nations artist Sonny Assu uses altered images on cereal boxes to discuss the relationship his tribe and others have with food. Karyn Olivier installed an actual library on the shelves of a Carribean supermarket, and captured the images on film.

My favorite piece, which I’ve included below, was a short video shot by German artist Christian Jankowski, who, in “The Hunt,” hunted his food with a bow and arrow — in the aisles of a grocery store. The video may be accessed here.

Image from "The Hunt." Photo credit: Lisson Gallery

Image from “The Hunt.” Photo from http://www.lissongallery.com.

Admission to the show at the Ulrich, slated to run through April 14, is free.

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.

My favorite holiday

My primary education taught me that Kansas Day was as real a holiday as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.

The KU Marching Band, back in the day. Photo credit: Lary Hill

The big blow-out celebration was in second grade, when we shook baby food jars full of cream until our arms tired, attempting to churn the cream into butter. We then spread the soft, white “butter” on top of warm bread and and discussed how LUCKY we were to live in the nation’s breadbasket.

Each year we sang “Sunflower” as loud as we could in music class.

In fourth grade, we competed in an unusually tough trivia challenge, matching each of the names of the counties with an obscure reference — everything from “Which county shares a name with a chicken?” (Wyandotte) to “Which county is the only county in the state named for a woman?” (Barton.)

Imagine my shock when I went off to college and learned that a) maybe it’s NOT a real holiday, and b) other states don’t really celebrate in the same way.

I watched some of my coworkers roll their eyes each year when the publisher at the newspaper played the KU Men’s Glee Club singing “Home on the Range” over the intercom. I was secretly thrilled.

Years ago, Chris and I started making a point of having a special Kansas Day meal to mark the day. Appropriate enough, given the state’s ties to agriculture. Two years ago, on the state’s sesquicentennial, we had the good fortune to prepare an amazing meal for about 20 excited Kansans in the historic home in Lawrence where beat poet William S. Burroughs lived. It, too, was a fitting tribute: conversations ranged from food to art to the general state of the state.

I like to think of this as me hugging the entire state at once.

I’ve been conducting a completely unscientific study of social and traditional media during the last four or five years. I’ve concluded that more Kansans — who aren’t in grade school — are recognizing Kansas Day in a positive way. I like that.

I’ve decided that each year I’ll treat the day like my own version Thanksgiving, and pause to reflect on what the state means to me. This year, I intend to spend some time thinking about my upcoming adventure as I move to Wichita. South-central Kansas is somehow very different than Northeast Kansas, in terms of food, culture and geography. It’s not all foreign, but represents an opportunity to get out and explore just the same.

I will also think about what I can do to make Kansas a better place. Could it be through being a better neighbor, friend, community member? Through cooking, or writing? It’s all food for thought.

I challenge you to do the same.