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.

Bread as a metaphor

I consider myself to be a decent cook, a little lax with direction-following at times, but generally adventurous and willing to try new things.

I also occasionally make goals for myself, as I do in other parts of my life. For the past four years or so, my goal has been to learn to make awesome bread.

Each year, the routine is the same: pore over cookbooks and conduct endless internet searches for the “perfect” bread recipe. Decide I don’t have a food processor, so can’t do it. Decide I don’t have a fancy stand mixer, so can’t do it. Decide that I don’t have a dutch oven, so can’t do it. Decide that I don’t have the right kind of flour, so can’t do it. Decide that it’s too hot, too cold, too humid, too dry, so can’t do it. I’m pretty good at excuses.

Then there have been the grand experiments that have mostly failed, resulting in loads of sad, sticky dough bound for only the trash can and the creatures who used our dumpster as a feed trough. These failures have resulted from using the wrong yeast, the wrong temperature of water, and overall, a lack of planning on my part. I usually decided that I’d become The World’s Best Baker on a weekend morning, on days already packed with responsibilities and planned outings. I’d try to hurry the dough along to fit my schedule. The best laid plans, literally, were wasted.

Over time, I’ve acquired many of those appliances that I’d considered to be absolutely essential to the effort; this year, for Christmas, I received a gorgeous blue-enameled, cast iron dutch oven. And now, in my professional transition, I have free time at home during my days that I’ve never experienced.

In other words: I was out of excuses.

So on Monday I pulled out my trusty copy of How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman for the no-knead bread recipe (a version of which is available here.) I first read it when it was published in the Times in 2006 — which may have even sparked this long, dramatic effort, now that I think about it.

The amount of time it took me to actually do something — measure, stir, shape the dough, etc. — was probably a total of 10 or 15 minutes. But it took planning. This technique requires the dough to rise at room temperature for 18 hours. About two hours before you plan to bake, you shape it in to a ball.

I put the appropriate times that I needed to hit on my calendar, and then I tried something new: I didn’t worry about it.

I remembered a good friend of mine telling me a few years ago that bread can, in a sense, smell fear, and will act accordingly. I believed him then, but now I see what he meant.

I didn’t worry about the equipment (I used a spoon, and a bowl, and the dutch oven.) I didn’t worry about the ambient temperature of the house; the weather is getting nicer every day, and the temperature was close enough. I didn’t worry about having it ready for supper.

The result? a dark, crusty loaf of bread that made me feel like a magician.

"Magic" bread.

“Magic” bread.

I’ll make it again, and I’m sure I’ll get more comfortable with the process over time. But if I’m really going to get deep about it, there’s another lesson somewhere in here, about the power of letting go.

In this case, it was delicious. It makes me wonder what I’ve been missing by being too prescriptive, too nervous, and, OK, too fearful of taking a chance with other things.

May we all overcome our obstacles in a similar way.

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.

First Wichita adventure: M.I.F. Deli

We ventured out last weekend for our first real adventure in Wichita eating. Rendered peckish by the nonstop moving of our earthly possessions, we took a break between major weather events to dive into a genre of food that I’ve been dreaming about ever since we decided to move back to south-central Kansas: Mediterranean food.

First, a very abbreviated background that deserves more research and far more attention, but should suffice for now: Wichita has a strong Mediterranean influence, as immigrants from Lebanon and neighboring countries came here to put down roots. They became doctors, merchants, and restaurateurs.

M.I.F. Deli, at the corner of Central and Edgemoor, has been putting out homemade “Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine” since 1969, according to their website. I first learned about them the summer I worked at Great Harvest Bread Company, when a co-worker would occasionally pick up their hummus during his bread deliveries and bring it back to the bakery. I’d never tasted hummus before then, and remember marveling at its texture as we spread it on to fresh bread for an afternoon snack.

But I’d never been there before last weekend. Happily, the spotlessly clean diner with pink booths and clearly a regular crowd was, honestly, worth the decade-plus wait. Chris and I, who try to order different things so we can sample a variety of dishes, were both smitten with the potato pie on the special board: a deep, flaky pie crust loaded with slivers of russet potatoes separated by layers of a savory sour cream sauce.

Apparently I was too hungry to get a decent shot. This will have to do.

Apparently I was too hungry to get a decent shot of the food.

And on the side: M.I.F.’s version of fattoush salad, which I consider the Official Salad Of Wichita: shredded romaine lettuce with feta cheese, a Greek vinaigrette, black olives, tomatoes, and the hallmark of the fattoush salad… crispy pita chips.

Since then, I’ve learned of at least four more Mediterranean places to try. I’m accepting any and all recommendations. Leave a comment if you have a good one!

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.

Feeling useful

If there’s anything that makes you feel helpless, it’s moving.

The closing on our house in Topeka is imminent; we are surrounded by boxes 24-7; and simple tasks like cooking supper are hindered by the need to first locate and then dig out the necessary tools.

It turns out that knitting can make you feel like a real rock star.

The dishcloths I so carefully packed in a box are, of course, missing in action. But then I remembered: I’m a knitter! Boxes be damned!

I dug in to my yarn stash (while I may not know where the kitchen stuff is, I certainly know where THOSE boxes have been placed) and found two old skeins of Sugar n’ Cream and my favorite pair of size 8 needles. I cast on and away I went.

Hey, it's a start.

Hey, it’s a start.

By tomorrow I’ll have at least one dishcloth. But right now, I have something even more important: a brief but gratifying sense that all is right with the world.

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