Thirty minutes past two in the birth of today. Unreal Ocean, a selection from a white noise generator app on my phone, fails to lull me to a deep sea sleep.
I stir and tumble out of bed like a clumsy gymnast impressing no one with my floor routine. Hunger tugs.
I scramble two eggs from Stanberry Community Farms. The eggs were nestled in a gray cardboard carrier. Each carton of eggs includes a slip of white paper eight-and-a-half inches wide and about an inch high. A handwritten message or poem is photocopied on the paper. The homespun message or observation bears a mark of humanity unlike any fortune cookie’s neat and pat wisdom printed in tiny typography.
Worry is a futile thing
It’s much like a rocking chair
although it keeps you occupied
It doesn’t get you anywhere
True enough. I save these slips of paper behind a magnet on the refrigerator. This lazy scrapbook reminds me that someone took the time to write and include a message in a carton of eggs produced by hens at a farm operated by a farmer an hour-and-a-half north of the bed where I can’t sleep.
I fold the scrambled egg whites and yolks into the blanket of a white flour tortilla, add yellow shredded cheese produced from some factory, and tuck the warm meal into a handheld roll. The morning breakfast doesn’t last long. It rouses hunger even more. I obey.
I hunt and peck in the refrigerator. Out comes a hunk of pork loin. Bunches of shiso mint, peppermint, and Italian parsley look like limp pom-poms from an underfunded junior high school in a town you’ve never heard of.
A black cast iron skillet is called up for duty. I slake its thirst with sunflower oil. Heat soaks into its dense hide.
I wash the herbs and cut a generous pinch from each bunch on a white cutting board. The nine-inch knife slices and minces the aromatic green leaves and stems like a scythe sails through stalks of wheat. I toss the herbs in a bowl.
The refrigerator is an easy jailbreak for a hunk of white onion and its partner, a lemon that’s been partially amputated. I liberate a narrow wedge of onion, mince it into a flash mob, and add the bits and pieces to the bowl of herbs. The amputated lemon cries a river after a rough squeeze. I lightly toss the mix with a fork, season it with a brief April snowstorm of kosher salt, and set it aside.
A single red baby potato doesn’t stand a chance against the knife. Sorry, babe. Slices lie flat, devoid of expression, still in shock.
The cast iron skillet is a teenage dragon, all fumes and attitude, smoking, just sitting there doing nothing.
Baby potato slices scream in the hot oil sauna. Sugars in the creamy white flesh slowly caramelize into golden brown.
I grab the pork loin and trim out an oval medallion about three-quarters of an inch think. Salt and pepper applies a tag-team seasoning whammy. One, two, pow, bang.
The potato slices are flipped, browned, removed, placed on a plate, and salted again for good measure.
The pork is presented as an offering to the dragon. It hisses with appreciation.
As the pork sears and sings one last song, I arrange six coins of browned potato in a circle on a white plate. I anoint the end of each slice with a dab of brown mustard.
I turn the pork cutlet over, sear it off, season it, and gently arrange it in the middle of the petals of potato. Next I spoon a generous amount of herb garnish atop the pork. The garnish adds much-needed color and a pop of savory mint-lemon flavor to each bite. The mustard’s sharpness offsets the light greasy potatoes and plays sidekick to juicy pork.
As I eat, deeper into the morning, I read a passage from “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” by Denis Johnson, p. 40. The character Bill Whitman, who is “just shy of sixty-three,” muses in bed, unable to sleep.
“I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.”
“When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley” is the title of an essay I wrote for the series What It Means to Be American, a project by The Smithsonian and Arizona State University in conjunction with Zócalo Public Square.
Los Angeles-based nonprofit Zócalo Public Square, an ASU Knowledge Enterprise Magazine of Ideas, syndicates journalism on its site to media outlets worldwide. Zócalo editor Eryn Brown contacted me in October 2017 and commissioned an essay for the series, What It Means to Be American. After discussion, we decided on a topic that would explore the history of winemaking and grape-growing in Kansas before and after Prohibition. I wrote the essay over a month’s time, building on research I had unearthed while writing Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Wineries, and Distilleries across the Heart of Kansas and Missouri.
Below is an introductory excerpt from the essay. Visit the links below to read the entire essay.
When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley
Located in the northeastern corner of Kansas, Doniphan County’s eastern edge is shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece, carved away by the flowing waters of the Missouri River. The soil is composed of deep, mineral-rich silty loess and limestone, making it ideal for farming—and, it turns out, for growing grapes and making wine.
California wasn’t always America’s winemaking leader. During the mid-19th century, that distinction went to Kansas and neighboring Missouri, where winemakers and grape-growers led the U.S. wine industry in production. Bold entrepreneurs, industrious Kansas farmers—many of them German-speaking immigrants—produced 35,000 gallons of wine in 1872. That volume jumped more than six-fold by the end of the decade.
But the growth in Kansas’ wine industry (and its sister industry, brewing) coincided with dramatic changes in the state. From 1860 to 1880, Kansas’ population mushroomed from 107,206 to nearly one million people. Kansans battled over slavery in the Kansas-Missouri Border War (1854-1861) and again during the Civil War (1861-1865). Kansas vintners faced a dynamic and challenging moral, social, business, and political climate. The region’s civic and religious leaders railed against the use of alcohol, which they believed contributed to moral decay and spiritual rot, leading them to implement the first statewide prohibition on selling and manufacturing alcohol in the United States in 1881. For more than a century, this ban caused a slowdown from which the Free State’s winemakers are only now beginning to emerge.
Read the entire essay.
Image caption: Still photograph of teetotaler women from the satirical short film Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901), which spoofs the Wichita temperance activist Carrie Nation. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I took this photograph at Lawrence Beer Company in late November while I was sampling beers and taking notes for a story. At the moment, I was killing time between beers and took various shots of the tasting room. My attention drifted back to these three guys on my left, who were chatting and sipping on beer on a Thursday afternoon. The amber glow of the sun brought life to their rosy expressions and transformed glasses of beer into ingots of liquid gold.
I didn’t think much about the scene while pressing the shutter-release button. I discreetly pointed the camera, took three shots, and then concentrated on my beer. Later, I edited photos at home for the story but didn’t include this irrelevant shot. Cropped here, it’s the best of the three of them that I snapped.
I find myself thinking about this photo and the scene. These three guys, who appeared to be retired, spoke to each other with the closeness of friends. While I didn’t eavesdrop, I heard them mention the Sixties, the time they served in the military, and where they were based. Their old stories seemed fresh in the telling, full of warmth, earned wisdom, and conviction. Exact words eluded me, but their voices were mellow and rounded, even-keeled mostly, passionately delivering a phrase here and there. They spoke without bitterness or anger, any raw edges of yesteryear had been burnished by time.
Their words were a form of time travel, bringing the past to the present. Their younger bodies were long abandoned. Their former deeds and experiences, memories uttered as personal truth, carried forward on faint wind flowing from their lungs in patterns that circulated between them.
They slid their chairs closer to me after a spell and, later, moved farther away. One man explained with a laugh that they were trying to get out of the path of a sunbeam that temporarily blinded the vision of the guy on the right.
I found myself slightly envious of them. They seemed more than drinking buddies. They were at ease in each other’s company, sharing the weight of lives spanning decades that bound them together more than politics or sports on television.
More than once, I’ve observed how beer helps to strengthen bonds between people. Without romanticizing beer itself, I am reminded by this photograph how the ritual of having a beer with others facilitates conversation and connection. Far more powerful than a photograph, these fleeting moments create a time capsule.
Three guys and their beers. It’s a timeless scene. Eventually, the conversation dries up and the glasses empty and it is time to go. Parting ways is not a goodbye. Rather, the parting is a lull between occasions for gathering once again, to share, to drink, to live fully with each brief moment.
In a recent “Tap List” beer column on Flatland, I wrote about a beer cocktail, the Hot Worty, served at Brewery Emperial on brewing days. Similar to a hot toddy, a hot worty (also known as a Hot Scotchy) is made with fresh warm wort from the brewery kettle served with a shot of Scotch whiskey. The article goes into more detail about wort, hot worties, and how master brewer Keith Thompson and chef Ted Habiger, two of Brewery Emperial’s co-owners, first encountered the drink at 75th Street Brewery two decades ago.
The article was edited for length. Here’s more background on the drink and its origins.
Thompson and Habiger first encountered hot wort as a beverage at 75th Street Brewery, where the two friends first met and worked. Artie Tafoya consulted with the owners of 75th Street Brewery during the Nineties. Tafoya introduced hot wort as a drink to 75th Street’s brewer Tom Ricker and the brewery’s staff.
Brown Ale: History, Brewing Techniques, Recipes by Ray Daniels and Jim Parker further explains the drink’s murky origins.
“The origins of the following ritual are rather sketchy, but the late Russell Scherer is often credited with introducing it to the craft-brewing scene. Jim learned about hot scotchies from Artie Tafoya on a very cold, snowy day when he was brewing at the Hubcap Brewery in Vail, Colorado. The process is very simple. Once you have recirculated and clarified your wort, draw off about a pint of first runnings, leaving enough room in the glass for an ounce of good single malt whisky. Add the Scotch, mix well, and drink. The rich malt sugar of the wort combines wonderfully with the whisky – particularly a peatier Islay or lowland Scotch – to make a delicious warm drink that gives you a nice energy boost during your brew day. A hot scotchie at the beginning of the lauter can help prevent stuck mashes – or at least make them easier to cope with when they occur.”