Harvest: A Late Season Visit to Fair Share Farm

Late summer sun bleaches the sky into soft cotton denim over the fields of Fair Share Farm. Head up Highway 69, race down the straights of Route MM, and ride the gentle bends until a dusty finger of gravel road beckons. This 228-acre organic farm in Kearney is just a few miles from Watkins Mill State Park. Farmers Rebecca Graff and Tom Ruggieri invited me to tour the organic farm and taste test recipes to be included in their weekly newsletter to community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscribers. How could I resist? I needed the countryside drive to escape the tensions of the city if only for a few hours.

Ruggieri greets me when I arrive. His soft-spoken voice offsets a solid and stocky frame. A quick smile cuts through a profile of wiry hair, bushy eyebrows, and grizzled chin. Graff joins us for a stroll across the rolling grounds and sloped fields. Butterflies dance and skitter among a carnival of flowers. Thyme, rosemary, and other herbs stitch long rows across the first field as we walk a path toward the other crops. Ruggieri pauses to gather a couple of plump green tomatoes. “We need these to test out the recipe of a CSA member for fried green tomatoes,” Ruggieri said.

The prospect of cooking dishes with organic food picked recently from the field appeals to me. Can you eat food fresher than this? Eating organic food serves as the primary reason many people in the Kansas City and surrounding area choose to participate in a CSA program. Community-supported agriculture programs exist in many different forms across the nation. The basic premise involves subscribing as a member to receive weekly shares of produce and other goods from the farm. Interest in such programs has grown steadily.

“We have doubled the number of subscribers since last year to roughly fifty members. Our limit will be about one hundred. That’s what the farm can support,” said Graff.

A Growing Market
Operating an organic farm requires an immense amount of work, knowledge, and belief in the cause. The number of family farms continues to dwindle throughout the country each year. National events such as Farm Aid draw attention briefly to the plight of disappearing family farms. Many small-production operations such as Fair Share Farms find the means to survive by connecting with customers through CSA programs and participating in farmers’ markets.

Notably, the number of farmers’ markets has increased 79 percent according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture with more than 3,000 markets operating nationwide. Fair Share Farms is one of several local farms as well as individuals that sponsor the Crossroads Farmers Market* each Wednesday near YJ’s in downtown Kansas City. As the growing season draws to a close, I bought candy-sweet cherry tomatoes, basil, okra, and beans to take home. The Crossroads farmers’ market also doubles as a rendezvous point for urban CSA customers to pick up their weekly shares of produce.

Overall, the interest and participation in CSA programs has grown slowly and steadily. According to Sharing the Harvest, a book by Elizabeth Henderson, over 1,000 family farms operate a CSA program where local residents buy a seasonal share of produce directly from family farms. The advantages seem obvious––fresh organic food from the farm without chemicals, reasonable prices, meeting the people who actually grow your food, supporting the local economy, and helping the environment. Rather than buy expensive produce grown in California and other parts of the world that is shipped long distances to supermarkets, a basket of tomatoes, carrots, or beans from Fair Share Farms travels fewer miles and tastes fresher.

This afternoon’s visit to the farm enables me to see the crops first hand. Ruggieri explains how planting seasons on the fields are rotated so the land can recover from growing and cultivation cycles. Cover crops such as clover help the soil rejuvenate for future planting. The process makes sense. Conventional farm methods tend to grow crops in the same fields, resulting in decreased crop yields, depletion of minerals and natural resources, and soil erosion. Small-scale organic farming techniques use natural and beneficial methods of pest control and agricultural maintenance.

Rather than operate as a commodity farm with industrial scale production, organic farmers forgo economies of scale to devote more time and hands-on labor to the process of growing food. They act as stewards of the land with a long-term view similar to how all farming used to be practiced nationwide six decades ago. “My family has farmed this land since the 1930s,” Graff said.

She and Ruggieri have been farming these acres together for the past three years under the banner Fair Share Farms. They continue to learn as they combine a dedication for organic farming with an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to preserving a way of life.

Admittedly, the production of conventional farmers feeds the nation, and even world markets, with cheap and abundant food largely subsidized in the marketplace by the federal government. Even so, conventional farming bears costs to the environment, energy consumption, and other factors not truly accounted for in the price of supermarket food.

I take comfort in the fact that every piece of produce from Fair Share Farms is picked by hand. Somehow, the consumer culture of eat-at-will, preprocessed, fast food, microwavable, frozen, supermarket deli, mass produced lifestyle of eating seems distant and alien now.

Sharing the Harvest
A sense of history and tradition exists on this land and in these people. Frankly, I tried to avoid the cliché stance of an “urban dweller who heads out to the country and glorifies farming” from the first moment I stepped away from my car. The contrast in lifestyle is undeniable, but we share common goals. Each person decides how to live. The actions have consequences – how we eat, how we spend our dollars, how we use and preserve natural resources, how we understand and respect the role of modern farming in this country – whether we know it or not.

Graff takes the tomatoes from her partner and tucks them into the front pockets of her dress. I find the gesture charming and timeless. She stands before rows of broccoli, chard, and cabbage, surveying nature’s progress with one arm propped on her hip. Her skin glows with a hard-earned tan. Later, we move to a section of rattlesnake beans named for their unusual coloring. Ruggieri picks a bean and tastes. Farming relies just as much on sensory information as it does on time-proven traditions.

Organic farming is certainly a more time-consuming, tiring, and expensive approach; however, the results provide an opportunity for the farmers to tell their customers specific details about how their food was grown. As we stroll the fields, I am reminded that farming requires a broad array of knowledge: the lay of the land, soil content, weather patterns, and pest control; habits of flora and fauna, dealing with invasive weeds, hungry rabbits, and crop-damaging deer; biological characteristics of seeds and crops, building devices and adapting tools, marketing, promoting, pricing, and distributing product. The list goes on. Farming is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, but this way of life offers pleasures as well.

We finish the tour of the crops, the worn barn where bunches of onion and garlic dry, and the storage room where weekly orders are packaged. Graff heads inside to work on the newsletter that accompanies the weekly CSA deliveries and appears on their web site under member services.

Ruggieri and I begin preparations to test the recipes that will appear in the newsletter. Now the fun truly begins. I follow the recipe from CSA member Pat Horner, a Southerner, for fried green tomatoes. I slice them one-quarter inch thick, douse in egg batter, dredge in coarse ground corn meal, and then fry them in safflower oil in an iron skillet. Any vegetable oil will work that won’t burn at high temperature. Each batch of slices only takes a minute or so to yield crisp, browned discs of fried tomatoes. I dust them with salt and pepper, then dig in. The coarse corn meal’s gritty texture balances the juicy tomato. Ruggieri suggests adding a dollop of sweet tomato preserves (his recipe) which helps to offset the tartness. Now we’re cooking.

Between glasses of white wine and a few bottles of Boulevard beer, we assemble two courses including fried green tomatoes, tomato olive tapenade spread over toasted slices of olive rosemary ciabatta (a rough-textured country Italian bread), a dip of yogurt cucumber raita, garden fresh salsa and blue corn chips, summer vegetable curry, and sloppy joes. Somehow, I have set aside my self-imposed city slicker status as a guest cook. My natural inclination to cook and get my hands dirty not only earned me a meal, but also offered an opportunity to feel even more welcomed in this hands-on farm home.

As the evening wears thin, Graff, Ruggieri and I trade details of our mutual interests in food, farming and local advocacy groups such as the KC Food Circle. We sit down briefly outdoors at a table with a canopy strung with white lights near a flower garden.

The meal draws us together, city and country, into deep conversations about the social power of food and a simple appreciation for the outdoors. Until the bugs bite, that is. Now that we have broken bread together, we head to the living room for more conversation, Eventually, we exchange goodbyes. A soft fog settles into the fields as I drive home across bareback highways with the cool night wind whispering in my ears. Tonight’s autumnal equinox signals a shift in season, but I sense fundamental changes have already begun deep in my senses, in the soil beneath my feet, in the food that symbolizes a time for harvest and a friendship still growing.

Originally published in Present Magazine, October 2008.


Sixty Pumpkins

Sixty pumpkins bashed, battered, beaten, and bruised, pale orange flesh and seeds scattered on the street by vandals. This sight greeted me as I returned home at 2:30 AM after a Saturday night spent at Davey’s Uptown. I was still energized from performances by Howard Iceberg and the Titanics, The Expassionates, and Hidden Pictures, three local acts that played to a tight-knit audience of music lovers and friends.

Turning down the car stereo, the recorded voice of Howard Iceberg on CD faded as I concentrated on the broken bodies of flesh on the street. Instantly knowing what happened but hardly comprehending why, I parked the car in the garage and retreated to bed.

Going to the show at Davey’s was a protective measure of sorts, an antidote to the day’s glumness, an attempt to distract myself for a few hours from the news of Anne Winter’s death and another friend, Barbara Moss, who died recently. So many people in Kansas City, online on Facebook and holed up in their home, were still reeling from the news that she took her life last Thursday. The comments, tributes, recollections, and news began to accumulate on news websites, Facebook pages, and across the digital ether like layers of leaves fallen from summer suspension to an autumnal rest. Certainly, she touched many lives as the former co-owner of Recycled Sounds, a fellow music lover, a fixture and supporter of the local music community, a friend to many. No matter how well any one person knew her, the loss of her presence and the tragic manner of her death was difficult to deny. Sadness settled over the city.

At Davey’s, a number of people had gathered to get out of their heads, listen to live music, dance, drink, and share warmth in each other’s company. I needed this as much as anyone. It was a relief and a joy to be surrounded by Elaine, Abby, Chris, Christian, Rhonda, Rebecca, Anne, Mel, Scott, Sam, Rich, Marco, Christel, and so many other familiar faces. Kansas City’s music clubs and venues offer more than a so-called “scene to be seen” for people that self-appointed social critics label as hipsters. These people around me – fans, singers, songwriters, sound guys, musicians, or simply souls out to support their friend on stage – form a community that exists because they show up for each other, believe in the music produced from talented local artists, and prefer to frequent a locally-owned watering hole with a history of true investment in Kansas City. In the wee hours of the morning, these thoughts run through my mind. It’s a speech best saved to remind myself of why I live, work, and play in my hometown when the days seem too long, the nights play out too slowly. Cold beer, a warm hug, and a good music, for now, that’s what I needed and wanted.

Howard Iceberg is acknowledged by many to be one of the best, if not the best, songwriters in Kansas City. Thoughtfully, he dedicated the set to Anne Winter and offered a few words in the aftermath of a gathering on Friday night in her memory. Echoing the wishes of family and friends, Iceberg urged us to “not dwell on Anne’s death, but to celebrate her life.” Anne loved music, he said. Being here at Davey’s was as good a place as any to get our share of it. And, without delay, the audience was ready for release.

Iceberg was backed by a strong lineup of long-time cohort and guitarist Gary Paredes, drummer Pat Tomek, bassist Scott Easterday, and guitarist Dan Mesh. These Titanics produced a thunderous sound. Rock-and-roll doesn’t get any better than this. Fifties rock spirit blended with doses of rockabilly and Americana roots. Iceberg belted out forlorn love songs and raves filled with his poignant, precise lyrics. The Titanics’ warm, harmonizing vocals and musicianship also won the crowd over easily. At one point, the sheer pleasure on Tomek’s face as he knocked out beats on the drums was radiant.

The Expassionates took the stage next and launched into their trademark sound – expansive as the desert and canyons of the Southwest, solid and sure as Midwestern bedrock. They reeled through their set of introspective songs, some newer and many feeling like cherished classics, with poetic lyrics penned and sung by leader Scott Easterday. Dressed in suit jacket, silvery vest and tie, Richard Burgess manned bass guitar with equal parts aplomb, grit, and joy. He lowered his tall frame, bending at the knees, leaning into the rhythm, and rollicking to the groove. Sam Platt alternately walloped on drums when called for or simmered on the slower, New Orleans dirge-like “Gone to Kansas.” Easterday joked, mock snarled, and crooned with ease. He served each moment, each lyric, like a basket of warm bread that everyone wanted a piece of. Of course, the sound of the Expassionates would not be complete without the searing, expressive yelps, growls, and doleful notes coaxed from the guitar of Marco Pascolini. A stratospheric sound tethered to the stage by tight musicianship left the crowd feeling exhilarated.

Much later, Hidden Pictures closed out the night with an energetic, melodic run of indie pop songs. The harmony of Richard Gintowt and Michelle Sanders rang out over a backdrop of keys by Nate Holt, bright pings on glockenspiel, and muscular drumming by Tomek. During the Expassionates’ set, Gintowt kidded about tonight’s incestuous lineup. Easterday played guitar in his band and bass in the Titanics. Gintowt and Sanders hopped on stage for guest vocals to support Iceberg on a song. Tomek drummed for the Titanics and Hidden Pictures. Such an interchange of players among bands is common in Kansas City’s legion of bands where musicians perform in multiple acts.

A night of dancing, talking, and being together with friends works wonders for a soul. Questions about Anne worked into conversations, but no answers came forth. Why and how and what remained prompts for a constant unease with the loss.

I could not help but think of another loss that I learned about only a week or so earlier. Barbara Moss, a talented artist, poet, and author of two successful memoirs, died from cancer in early October. Her husband Duane called to inform me and invite me to a gathering of friends and family. The news of Barbara’s death caught me off-guard. When are we ever prepared to face the news, the actuality, the finality of death?

I was at my mother’s house, my childhood home, working in a flower and vegetable bed as I discussed details with Duane. Turning soil with a shovel, I covered the base of rose bushes to prepared for an eventual frost. Petals, bright red cherry tomatoes, the remains of vines gnarled as a witch’s veins, and scraps of basil stalks and coriander seed covered the ground at my feet. Barbara had already been laid to rest in Alabama where she grew up. Poetic imagery sprung from my feet into my head as I processed the news. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I could not help but think she would be tickled to inspire creative impulses even in death.

I did not know Barbara Moss well as I wanted to or Anne Winter on a personal level. Receiving the call from Duane about his wife was a sacred gesture of warmth, kindness, and inclusion. I had interviewed Barbara at length in her home about her difficult life in the South, motherhood, her struggle and achievement as a writer and painter, her fears and joys. Sitting on her couch and sharing warm green tea and butter cookies, I felt honored, thrilled, and privileged to have this private audience with an accomplished hero. She had published two powerful memoirs, written poetry, and produced stunning artwork that reflected her life experiences and dreams. How often do we get to be in the presence of someone we admire? Yet, Kansas City is such a place where artists, musicians, writers, and business owners are not only accessible, but they can also become friends and dear acquaintances.

Like many who came into contact with Barbara through her published work or as a mentor and teacher of literature, she encouraged and inspired those around her to reach for possibilities, dream big, and make things happen. If she could overcome a life of poverty to achieve, then certainly we all could make progress. Writing several stories about Barbara’s writing and artwork was only a start at what I hoped would be a lifelong association. In the back of my mind, the seeds for another visit to foster this friendship were always waiting to germinate and grow. Even though I had met her a couple of times and Duane once, I already thought of them as kindred spirits and companions that I would grow to like, love, and value even more over time.

As I shook the dirt from my shoes and walked in the dew-laden grass at my mother’s house, it occurred to me for the first time that these people will not live forever – the countless artists, writers, photographers, musicians, cooks, chefs, and people from all walks of life that I know through my work and adventures about town. Intuitively, logically, I knew this as immutable fact. I’ve encountered the death of family and friends before, yet this unshakeable idea that those I will always be able to see, those I know and love and brush shoulders with––at Davey’s Uptown, recordBar, Potpie, Le Fou Frog, The Brick, chance encounters on sidewalks about town, at galleries and festivals and the annual cycle of remarkable events that fill the calendar––suddenly didn’t seem so solid and reassuring. A time comes for each of us to pass; the time to live and make the most of here and now is, well, here and now.

Being at Davey’s on Saturday night for music and companionship was not only a stab at coping with the loss of Anne and Barbara, but also a grab for the fleeting hours and experiences that color the lines and shade the contours of my life. It means being present in spirit, in intent, in action.

As I made my way home from Davey’s in the wee hours back to the ones I love, I listened to Howard Iceberg on CD as a guide past mercurial thoughts. The sight of smashed pumpkins in the headlights was disturbing, an underscore to the night, a cruel prank that would be dealt with in the morning.

When daylight arrived on Sunday and filtered through gold, russet, and red leaves, I grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow and headed to the street. An image of a car bomb and dead bodies flashed through my mind. I hope to never experience such a deadly act or its aftermath firsthand. Of course, these pumpkins were not the same as human bodies strewn across a blast zone. Scooping up the flesh, seeds, and stems, I could not help but feel a sense of loss, frustration, sadness, and bewilderment. I understood that vandals have their moment too, their way of acting in the present for self-serving purposes. The destruction at my feet was senseless. The questions and doubts about the goodness of people, the purpose of life and how it plays out, rose and loomed in my thoughts. The grating sound of shovel on asphalt punctuated the quiet morning.

I couldn’t save these pumpkins. I couldn’t have known or anticipated what would happen. I couldn’t bring them back or restore them in a tempting, clumsy line along the sidewalk in front of the house. Life rarely adheres to our sense of order and illusory sense of control. My father had grown these pumpkins at his place by the lake and brought them to me a few weeks ago. He had planted them late so many of them were still green and just beginning to turn orange. I told Pam and her kids that they were Irish pumpkins. Now, two wheelbarrow loads of broken flesh would become compost.

Standing in the vegetable bed in the back yard, I shoveled the remains onto the ground and spread the contents evenly. I studied the hundreds of seeds and knew then that even in the aftermath of a senseless act, a loss difficult to explain or absorb, that time would pass, that life will and must continue for the rest of us, that the potential for a fresh start lay at my feet.


Originally published in Present Magazine, October 2009.

Jim Chappell: A Good Sport and Great Scholar

Jim ChappellSeated at a table, Jim Chappell opens a book of poetry and begins to read in a deep baritone. His finger scans the lines like a narrow spotlight illuminating the page. His voice warms to the words and revels in the rhythm and alliteration. The periphery of the room melts away, the banter of voices and drone of a television fade, and Chappell’s table transforms into a stage.

Once upon a midnight dreary,
while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, While I nodded, nearly napping,
suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping,
rapping at my chamber door.
”Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.”

Chappell’s impromptu recitation breathes vigor into Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, The Raven, which was published over 150 years ago. “Isn’t that a great line?” he asks, referring to the opening. He marvels at Poe’s choice of words with the delight of a scholar, then leans back in his chair.

The presence of the room seeps into the moment, filled with football helmets, pennants, trophies, and sports memorabilia collected over many years. At Chappell’s Restaurant in North Kansas City, guests dine on classic American fare, discuss politics and sports, or mind the television as it broadcasts a football game. Named after the owner, Chappell’s celebrated its twentieth anniversary on November 24, 2006. Both owner and restaurant have received ample recognition for the voluminous collection of sports memorabilia that covers the walls and ceiling. The Kansas City Star, USA Today, Sport Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and many other publications have written articles or bestowed awards on Chappell’s as one of the best sports bars in America. Or sports museum, as Chappell prefers to call his establishment. In fact, guests won’t encounter glaring wide screen televisions, a limited menu of cheap fried bar food, and numerous guys in T-shirts found in most sports bars. Chappell’s is an uncommon place that is easily miscast, much like the owner. While he has been heralded for this popular repository of sports artifacts and his vast knowledge of its contents, few people know about the other side of Jim Chappell.

A Remarkable Mind
Born in Keokuk, Iowa, Chappell lived there during his young life until he left to attend college at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri and earned a degree in art. The young man grew up in a house filled with 5,000 books, supplying Chappell’s inquisitive mind with ample material to read every night as he still does today. His father, Charles, often strolled around the house and read poetry and literature aloud. “My dad would recite The Raven. I recited Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigrade for my grandmother,” he says.

Even today, Chappell demonstrates the ability to recall a wide range of poetry, facts, and stories drawn from his extensive reading and travels. His library at home contains 2,500 books. He recently read Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson. Chappell re-reads classic works of literature on a regular basis, but also consumes biographies and art books on figures in literature, art, politics, and history. He displays a fascination with people and places such as Dorothy Parker, the famed Algonquin Round Table, Gertrude Stein, and the ex-patriots that lived in Europe.

“How would you like to be in Gertrude Stein’s living room with all these people from the Twenties? The Lost Generation of Fitzgerald, Pound, Woolf, Eliot, Hemingway…Stein named them ‘The Lost Generation’ after World War I and the Depression. These people were kind of lost and saw the horrors of war,” says Chappell.

As he speaks, Chappell looks like a tall, rugged scholar with close-cropped gray hair in casual attire. He pauses frequently to greet or bid goodbye to guests and local characters passing by the bar. A gold ring adorns his left hand as a symbol of his forty-year marriage to his wife Gina. They have two married daughters, Christina and Michelle.

Sports Man
A commemorative ring from Super Bowl IV in 1970, when the Kansas City Chiefs prevailed over the Minnesota Vikings, sparkles on Chappell’s right hand. It is the only obvious reference to sports that he wears regularly. The restaurant itself serves as a visual embodiment of sports in all shapes and forms. Chappell is a life-long collector and curator of knowledge, objects, and anecdotes. The museum, which he decorated himself, is a testament to sports acquisitions, purchases, and donations assembled over two decades. Naturally, he selects his customers as his favorite “thing” about the place.

As an icebreaker, Chappell will sometimes ask a visitor where he or she went to school. If the college or university has a sports team, then Chappell can usually point at a piece of related memorabilia in the restaurant. Thousands of collegiate and professional football helmets hang from the ceiling. A quick glance at the rafters uncovers old boxing gloves, wooden golf clubs above the bar, a photo of Chappell with Joe Montana, historic images of Babe Ruth, and baseball jerseys for the New York Yankees, former St. Louis Browns, Washington Senators, and Philadelphia Athletics, a team that moved to Kansas City in 1955 and headed to Oakland thirteen years later. The late, great Buck O’Neil signed a panoramic photograph of the Kansas City Monarchs Negro League Baseball team displayed in the back dining room. The list of notable sports achievers, well-known and obscure, goes on––photos of Hank Aaron, Royal third baseman George Brett, and KC Monarch Alfred “Slick” Surratt. Another signed photo depicts All-Star Alice ”Lefty” Hohlmeyer, who pitched and played first base for the Kenosha Comets from 1946-51, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, and was one of the many women who inspired the Hollywood film, A League of Their Own.

Even for non-sports enthusiasts, the establishment is an authentic slice of Americana that could never be reproduced like the faux historic hodge-podge décor of chain restaurants found across the metropolitan area. Chappell’s represents a history that lives beyond sheer statistics, controversies like drug use in sports, and the merchandising machine of the NFL, NBA, and MLB. If you don’t know or don’t care what those acronyms mean, it’s okay.

Chappell’s offers more than a stroll down sports memory lane. He launched the place as a political/sports bar in 1986, but eventually emphasized the sports aspect with a casual dining concept that has proven a winner ever since. The restaurant has grown from 65 to 235 seats and features a private banquet room.

The restaurant serves hearty, quality food from prime rib to all-American hamburgers. Chappell maintains that he couldn’t stay in business as a restaurant, especially for twenty years, if the food weren’t good. “I lot of people come for the memorabilia, but come back for the food. It’s more of a restaurant than a sports bar,” he says.

Families dine here in droves, partaking of a menu diverse enough to handle hearty appetites, health-conscious diets, and the finicky taste of kids. The menu does not strive for fussy innovation or cutting edge culinary surprises. Guests can order down-home and familiar favorites like chicken Caesar salad, steak soup, charbroiled chicken or salmon, steamed vegetables, a 12-ounce Kansas City strip, London broil, burgers, tenderloins, chicken fingers, and Philly steak sandwiches, for example. Signature desserts include a Snickers bar ice cream pie, apple caramel walnut cobbler, and a classic old-fashioned root beer float.

Although his reputation for sports knowledge and memorabilia precedes him, the restaurant owner’s interest in arts and culture receives far less attention. Chappell exhibits a sense of satisfaction in mentally gathering and sharing a wealth of information about poetry, books, painters, and distant locales to people of like mind.

“People look at me and would never guess I was into poetry. I’m an artist and I can tell you how many times Stan Musial won the batting title,” states Chappell. He waits a beat. “Five.” Moments later, he lists Emily Dickinson as his favorite poet, then recites the first stanza of a beloved poem, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” from memory.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

Chappell’s love for literature and poetry came from his family, but he nurtured a natural interest in art. ”Art came easy for me,” he says.

Chappell graduated from college with a degree in art. He continues to read and traveled extensively to sate his appetite for learning. The classic Greek and Roman art and modern conceptual works don’t impress him much, but he admires nearly all other major art periods. He has visited fifty states and forty-five countries, exploring museums and galleries such as the Louvre in Paris and Modern Museum of Modern Art in New York. Chappell does not simply spout information about an artist or period or poet. He offers a considered opinion and interpretation with the unassuming air of a friendly historian. ”I like the Renaissance, Pop Art by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, Baroque, and the Impressionists. Everyone likes Impressionism now, but back then, no one liked it. The artist started their own salons to exhibit work,” says Chappell.

When asked what living artist or poet he would like to meet, Chappell pauses, flips pages in a book of poetry, and thinks. He muses out loud, truly contemplating the weight of his choice, and finally rationalizes an answer with keen insight. “I might be surprised by somebody, but would probably be disappointed. There are not going to be as good as their work,” says Chappell. “Dickinson was a recluse. I would like to meet her though. If I was guaranteed that they’d be like I thought they’d be, then I’d want to meet them.”

Of course, there are no such guarantees in life or death. Chappell wrestles less with the next question that he proposes. If he could pick somebody to come back from the dead to meet again, who would it be? He answers with certainty and forethought, “My dad. He saw me as a brat. He died at 54 from a heart attack. I wished he could have seen what I have become. He would have been proud of me and this place,” says Chappell.

The admission is touching when it comes from this savvy businessman, family man, sports historian, and modest intellectual. Jim Chappell sees himself through a different prism than his loyal customers and a staff that wears commemorative shirts for the anniversary. He talks about his biggest regrets even when seemingly surrounded by the trappings of success.

“I didn’t take more chances. When I took a big chance like opening this place, I succeeded,” says Chappell, gauging one measure of his life. “I’ve always taken the safe route. It’s a fear of failure. I still have it when I think about doing something else. It’s kind of odd because everyone sees me as successful. The truth is, no one sees himself as successful. I’ve done a lot, I guess.”

This last remark is an understatement, depending on how one looks at life. He jokes about his marriage of forty years being an accomplishment for his wife. Chappell is proud of his two daughters. He has served as chairman or member of numerous boards and commissions in politics, arts, and banking. He can rattle off a list of celebrities that he has met in this line of work––sports greats like George Brett, Joe Montana, Marcus Allen, Brooks Robinson; the artist Leroy Nieman; country music star Vince Gill; and countless state and local politicians that come through and shake hands with customers.

Chappell’s is the kind of place where athletes and aesthetes and politicians can cross paths with everyday folk. The restaurant owner still enjoys giving young kids a piece of memorabilia, like a signed foam baseball, to take home, only to see them come back as a grown adult, introduce themselves, and say, “I remember when…”

Statistics and signed baseballs tell only part of the story in sports. Similarly, the living legacy of Jim Chappell is not easy to distill based on the colorful confines of his famous restaurant, the rankings as one of the top sports bars in the country, or the collective memories of his friends and patrons.

Chappell cites a poem by John Donne, Death Be Not Proud, as another one of his favorites that discusses how not to be afraid of death. The selection seems to reflect an important characteristic about this man. Despite his self-portrayal as someone that didn’t take more chances, a more fitting emphasis is his willingness to seek opportunities – in art, literature, travel, sport, politics, business, and family – as a champion of life.

Chappell’s Restaurant and Sports Museum
323 Armour Road
North Kansas City, MO

Originally published in Present Magazine.

Mark Winne, Food Policy Expert

Mark WinneFood policy expert Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap, gave a presentation called The Ugly Underbelly of the American Food System in 2008 at the Kansas City Central Library. Winne also helped KC Healthy Kids with the KC Healthy Food Policy Initiative. The Food Policy Initiative is working to educate people about the local food system and eventually start a food policy council (FPC) in the Kansas City area.

KC Healthy Kids is a nonprofit, private operating foundation focused on promoting fit and healthy kids in Greater Kansas City. The organization serves as the platform for connecting all the childhood obesity reduction efforts in the region. The goal is to provide the most useful information and tools to give children an opportunity to live healthy lives.

According to the American Heart Association, adolescent obesity has doubled and teen obesity has tripled since the 1980s. Missouri is ranked in the “Top Twenty” worst states for adult obesity, teen obesity and childhood obesity. Childhood obesity can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, orthopedic problems, liver disease, asthma, and depression. Missouri is ranked in the “Top Twenty” worst states for adult obesity, teen obesity and childhood obesity.

Two excerpts from Winne’s book, Closing the Food Gap, follow the interview below.

Pete Dulin: What percentage of their annual income do Americans spend as a percentage on food than any other nation?

Winne: Middle and upper income Americans spend 10% of their income on food; lower income Americans spend 20%.

Dulin: What does that percentage indicate about our government’s policies toward food production, distribution, and subsidies?

Winne: We have a “cheap food” policy in the U.S.. We subsidize commodities like corn and soybeans to try to keep the price of meat, dairy, and processed food products like soft drinks and fatty snack foods low. But we provide almost nothing in the way of subsidies for the production of fresh fruits and vegetables, the food that most of us don’t eat enough of.

Dulin: Further, what does it say about our spending habits as consumers?

Winne: Because the less healthy foods are cheaper, and the healthier foods are more expensive on a calorie-for-calorie basis, people buy too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

Dulin: What are some of the factors in U.S. government policy and agribusiness system of production and distribution that contribute to cheap food prices?

Winne: The actual price of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased 40% over the last 15 years while the price of soft drinks and processed snack products has declined by 15%.

Dulin: Are there costs that consumers should consider besides the price at the checkout stand?

Winne: Consumers should consider the cost to the environment, the community, and to the taxpayers of their food purchases. Production practices that harm the air and water, don’t pay living wages to farm and food workers, and require high government subsidies may not be the kind of practices that conscientious food consumers should support.

Dulin: You contend that the current food system is racist, classist, and sexist. How so?

Winne: Those who suffer most from the failures of the food system, marketplace, and public sector are people of color, lower income people, and women. The high price of unhealthy food and the existence of food deserts fall especially hard on these groups. Ineffective efforts to reduce poverty does as well. The worst jobs in America’s food system––field harvesters, slaughterhouse workers, busboys, waitresses, and pot washers––are generally performed by these groups as well. The poor and people of color suffer more from diet-related illnesses than other groups.

Dulin: Tell us about the “food gap” that’s addressed in your book, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Is this an economic-based gap or do other factors come into play?

Winne: The food gap includes poverty, hunger, and food insecurity that affects 35 million Americans; people living in areas that are poorly served by affordable sources of healthy food; and higher rates of obesity and diabetes among the poor than higher income people. All of these conditions are set against a backdrop of ever-growing abundance of food, especially higher priced organic and locally produced food.

Dulin: Why does your book begin with the 1960s when examining food and poverty in this country?

Winne: The 1960s was the period when America re-discovered poverty and hunger. JFK created the food stamp program in the early 1960s and LBJ began the War on Poverty. I do set these conditions in the context of the actions taken earlier in the 1930s, the Great Depression and New Deal. The 1960s is also about as far back as I can remember.

Present: How can we change the national food system to provide healthy and nutritious food for all consumers that is locally accessible and affordable? Is organic food a necessary part of the solution?

Winne: It would require about $15 billion per year in additional food stamp expenditures to eliminate hunger and food insecurity in the U.S.. It would take about a $1 billion public investment to ensure that everyone has adequate access to healthy and affordable food stores; and it would require a modest set of both public and private interventions to enable more lower income families to obtain organic and local food.

Present: What steps can individuals take to make a change in purchasing patterns?

Winne: The most important steps people can take are to be as good food citizens as they are good food consumers. This means paying attention to what the government and the marketplace do that influences the cost, quality, and availability of healthy food. Right now public schools have about $1 per meal per child to spend on food for those who require subsidized meals. This is not enough. Increasing that government reimbursement significantly would mean that more children could eat well and that we can demonstrate as a society how important our children are to us.

Present: What does the term “community democracy mean as referred to in your book?

Winne: Community democracy, also food democracy, means that each one of us has the right to participate in actions that influence food, nutrition, and agriculture policy, at the local, state, and national levels. Those actions should not be made and determined by a relative small number of people, particularly those whose primary interest is profit.


www.markwinne.com – Community food systems expert and speaker.

www.kchealthykids.org – Non-profit organization focused on promoting fit and health kids by combating obesity.

www.inhomebistro.com – Bistro Kids Farm to School lunch program.

www.kcfoodcircle.org/ – Grassroots organization dedicated to local sustainable food systems. Publishes KC directory of local, organic, and free range food producers.

www.fns.usda.gov/fns/nutrition.htm – Nutrition Education, USDA Food and Nutrition Service

– 10 steps to help fill your grocery bag through the Food Stamp Program. Learn if you or someone you know might be eligible for food stamps.

www.foodsecurity.org/ – Learn about the Community Food Security Coalition.

www.harvesters.org – Kansas City’s food bank. Learn how to give time, money, and food.

Closing-the-GapExcerpts from Closing the Food Gap

Mark Winne’s book, Closing the Food Gap, tells the story of how we get our food: from poor people at food pantries or bodegas and convenience stores to the more comfortable classes, who increasingly seek out organic and local products. Winne’s exploration starts in the 1960s, when domestic poverty was “rediscovered,” and shows how communities since that time have responded to malnutrition with a slew of strategies and methods. But the story is also about doing that work against a backdrop of ever-growing American food affluence and gastronomical expectations.

For twenty-five years, Mark Winne was the executive director of the Hartford Food System in Hartford, Connecticut. He now writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics.

From the Introduction

To enter the parking lot of any Hartford, Connecticut, supermarket in 1979 required a sharp, reckless turn into a poorly marked curb cut. If you came at it too fast to avoid a collision with the suicidal driver heading right at you, you would bottom out your car’s undercarriage on the lot’s steeply graded entrance. Once in the lot, Hollywood car-chase skills were essential to maneuver across a parking area that was strewn with broken glass, overturned shopping carts, and potholes deep enough to conceal a bushel basket. Since the white lines marking parking spaces were faded or nonexistent, you left your car wherever it suited you.

Once you got inside the store, the first thing you noticed was the smell. It wasn’t so much that “something has died” odor, but more the scent of something that rotted and was never fully cleaned up. When seasoned with a pinch of filth, marinated in gallons of heavily chlorinated disinfectant, and allowed to ferment over many years, the store released a heady aroma that brought tears to the eyes of men stronger than I.

Crunchy sounds emanated from the floor as your shoes crushed imperceptible bits of grit and unswept residue whose origins had long since been forgotten. The black and white floor tiles were discolored, unwaxed, and marred at irregular intervals by jagged brown stains that were forever one with the tiles.

Granted, these were pre-Whole Foods Market days. The supermarket industry did not yet have the technology that gives today’s stores the soft, warm glow of a tastefully decorated living room. Instead, the humming neon bulbs, shielded by yellowed plastic coverings, cast a sickly pallor over the shoppers, the staff, and, worst of all, the food. The iceberg lettuce, already suffering from a 3,000-mile journey by truck, looked like the victims of a mass beheading. The rest of the produce case, from mushy apples to brown bananas, displayed a similar lack of life. A stroll down the meat aisle was as appealing as a slaughterhouse tour at the end of a busy day. Small pools of blood that had leaked from hamburger and chicken packages dotted the surfaces of the white enamel meat cases, the blood at times indistinguishable from the rust that discolored the chipped veneer. The atmosphere did not encourage a leisurely appreciation of food, nor did you feel like engaging in more intimate acts of product selection such as touching, squeezing, or sniffing. The fear of prolonging the unpleasantness made “grab and go” the prevailing modus operandi.

It didn’t take too many trips to this sort of market before I was sufficiently motivated to go to a suburban grocery store. I was lucky; I owned a working automobile. Up to 60 percent of the residents in Hartford’s low-income neighborhoods did not (at that time 24 percent of the city’s population lived below the poverty level; 20 years later, it would climb to 31 percent). Nor, as I would find out later, did the city’s public transportation routes go to the suburban supermarkets…

Besides offering a cleaner and generally more inspiring shopping environment, the suburban store had another point in its favor: it was cheaper. While not every item in the suburban store was priced lower than in the city stores, I soon found that I was probably spending 10 to 15 percent less for my weekly grocery shopping than I had been in Hartford. This proved to be true even for chains that still operated stores in both the city and the suburbs: the suburban unit had lower prices than its city cousin. How could this be? I wondered. The chain bought from the same wholesale suppliers, the stores had roughly the same pay and staffing structures, and they were only a few miles apart.

As it turned out, my revelations as a new resident of Hartford elicited not much more than a knowing sigh from colleagues and neighbors. The fact that city stores were inferior to suburban ones was nothing new to them. They had been watching the slow but steady abandonment of the city by supermarkets for ten years. “Yes,” I was told on many occasions during my first year in the city, “the supermarkets have abandoned Hartford, and the poor, who can’t get to the suburbs, pay more.” “Supermarket abandonment” and “the poor pay more” became part of the lexicon of the organization I had come to lead, the Hartford Food System, and for many years to come, this prevailing understanding defined the food gap.


The corn don’t grow so good around the edges, so this year I ain’t planting any edges.

– Anonymous 80-year old Connecticut farmer

When my old farmer friend explained his corn planting method to me, I of course thought he was pulling my leg. But as time passed I began to wonder if his remark was a parable spoken by a crusty old fellow known as much for his mischief as his wisdom. My meditation led me to think that our understanding of communities, people, food, and health are always bringing us up to some kind of edge — we want to know what’s out there, how to push them, master them, or take away their roughness. As individuals we want to control the edges in our lives that are just out of reach or always in flux. I find myself at times compelled by a fervent hope that I might be healthier, happier, skinnier, or wealthier if I could unravel the mysteries that govern those dark outer limits of my soul. Sometimes we even merge our edges with those of another, which of course eliminates one set of edges but creates a whole set of new ones. In other words, the dance with edges can go on forever and may never satisfy the seeker. They may taunt or tease, occasionally illuminate or suggest, but like the bubble from a child’s plastic wand, they always explode when grasped.

Unlike the farmer who decided to avoid the unproductive edges of his life by simply not tending to them, some people have striven continuously to make their edges flourish by pushing them ever outward. This is the quest that I believe is undertaken by a growing number of Americans, who, for the last 20 years or more, have been seeking, among other things, better food and healthier, more satisfying lifestyles.

Ironically, their quest is shared by an entirely different group of people whose lives operate under a much less fortunate set of circumstances. Unlike the affluent and well educated, the edges of these people are not expanding, glowing, or presenting limitless opportunities. For these people, their edges are atrophying, their choices narrowing, and their control eroding. Their edges do not demarcate a place from which to explore unknown territory or embark on new adventures, but instead form a boundary that can rarely be crossed, and a prison wall that cannot be scaled.

Starting in the late 1980s, Hartford’s food landscape began the final act of its steady and sickening transformation. As the supermarkets packed up their wares and moved to the suburbs, they left behind a vacuum that was soon filled by the bottom-feeders of America’s food chain — shiny new fast food restaurants and gas station mini-marts. As a result, the city’s citizens went from being underfed to overfed in matter of 10 years.

At first glance, given the city’s high poverty rates, cheap fast food should be a blessing. If there are no supermarkets within easy reach, then people should be grateful for the clean, well-lit places that proffer nicely packaged, brand named merchandise, the thinking went. But in fact, such establishments thrive in areas of poverty and low education. While they presumably serve a community’s immediate needs for calories, they actually prey upon those who are weakened by insufficient money, choice, and knowledge. As a result of these factors, Hartford’s major food problem shifted from hunger to heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In light of the soaring rates of diet-related diseases, across the nation as well as in Hartford, the high prevalence of unhealthy food outlets became a serious public health issue.

Originally published in Present Magazine.

Alex Greenwood’s Mystery Thriller Pilate’s Cross


Kansas City-based author Alex Greenwood discusses his e-book mystery thriller Pilate’s Cross. Learn more about Greenwood’s debut novel, read an excerpt, and watch a trailer for the book created by produced by T2 + Back Alley Films.

About the Book
‘The X-Files’ meets ‘The Prisoner’ when John Pilate, his sarcastic imaginary pal Simon, and lovely instructor friend Kate investigate the mystery of a murdered college president––a mystery with loose ends more than 40 years later. In too deep to wash his hands of the mystery, he risks death to get to the truth of what really happened in 1963 and why it’s just as deadly 40 years later.


Pete Dulin: What motivated you to write this novel?

Alex Greenwood: In 2003, I was at a crossroads in my life and career. I really wanted to get out of my home state of Oklahoma and start over. I had just lost an election and been through the wringer with some health and personal issues. So when I was offered a job at a college in southeast Nebraska, I took it.

Peru, Nebraska really made an impression on me. Great people, beautiful area. The novelty and laid-back nature of being in a town with fewer people than my high school was definitely what I needed.

As pubilc relations director of the college, I had to be knowledgeable about certain bits of school lore, and one day I found a fat manila envelope on my desk with a sticky note from my boss, the president. It said “Alex you might find this interesting.” He was right. Everything that seemed so very “Norman Rockwell” went out the window when I read about a double-murder-suicide at Peru State College in 1950.

It was crammed with crime scene photos, reports, affidavits, and news stories. I couldn’t believe that something so grotesque had occurred right there in the middle of Mayberry. I read the file and put it away, but thought about it often because every day outside my office I’d see a plaque honoring the murdered men.

Nobody really talked about it, but for me the murder was always there, just under the surface. I’d especially think about it when the fierce, snowy, isolating winter storms would hit.

A couple of years later, I knew it was time to go. I moved to Kansas City to be closer to my then-fiancé and take a job at KCPT. Still, I felt as if I had unfinished business in Peru. Unpacking I found a copy I had made of the file the president had given me. I decided that horrible event would be the basis for a novel about the cathartic experience I had in tiny, snowy Peru. I started writing the next day. Of course, it had to be a mystery.

“Everything that seemed so very ‘Norman Rockwell’ went out the window when I read about a double-murder-suicide at Peru State College in 1950.”

––Alex Greenwood, www.PilatesCross.com

Dulin: Tell us about the research involved to get at the facts behind the true-life murders that inspired your novel.

Greenwood: That file had just about all the information I could find about the actual 1950 murders––try to Google it and you’ll see what I mean. But it was enough to provide a foundation for a story based in part on those tragic events. I borrowed some scenes from the actual witness affidavits––I reworked some testimony from two typewriter salesmen, for example. I wanted to be careful not to use too much––out of respect for what happened––but there are certainly fingerprints of the real crime on the book.

The actual murders occurred at Peru State College in 1950. Pilate’s Cross starts with the murder of the “Cross College” president in 1963 within days of JFK’s assassination. It then shifts ahead more than forty years to our hero John Pilate stumbling into a job at Cross College in tiny Cross Township. He’s distrusted by most of the people there and becomes a pawn in a game he doesn’t understand.

PresentMagazine.com: How long did it take to write the book?

Greenwood: I wrote the first draft in three months – six days a week, three to four hours a day. Yes, I will cop to the cliché’: I wrote that first draft on a laptop in the Starbucks at Country Club Plaza.

The finished book people are reading today on their iPads and Kindles took about eighteen months and six drafts. I did about four “polishes” on top of that.

PresentMagazine.com: Why did you choose to include an imaginary character in this book?

Greenwood: John Pilate, the hero of this book, has an imaginary (?) friend called Simon who doesn’t have a high opinion of him. Simon is a personification of Pilate’s lack of self-confidence and also illustrates some issues he has with depression. I think everyone has some form of ‘Simon’ in his or her subconscious.

Some readers believe Simon is absolutely real – corporeal – and out to kill Pilate. Others say they believe Pilate is schizophrenic and Simon is a voice Pilate hears. It’s a tricky thing to do in a book – I’ll say that. One agent told me she hated Simon and that if I’d take him out the book it would stand a better chance of publication. I couldn’t do it. Pilate needs Simon.

PresentMagazine.com: How did the idea for a book trailer come about?

Greenwood: Readers have told me they thought they could easily see Pilate’s Cross as a movie. That’s why I’m so excited I got the chance to work with the talented crew at T2 + Back Alley Films of Kansas City.

This never would have happened without the vision of T2 + Back Alley Films CEO Teri Rogers. She’s a courageous innovator, always looking ahead to that next undiscovered country. When I told her about my book, she immediately suggested a trailer. Not many firms of T2’s stature are doing trailers. I had given a trailer some thought, but never dreamed a nationally recognized digital media agency like T2 would work with me.

The trailer really transports you right into the world of Cross Township – like a movie. I wrote a treatment and a script, and then T2’s team created a concept that I think just blows away most book trailers. Their concept and screen execution was teamed with Wheeler Audio of Kansas City to record actors and mix sound for the trailer. I voiced two of the characters – guess which ones?

PresentMagazine.com: Can you hint at details for the follow-up novel?

Greenwood: The book is tentatively titled Pilate’s Key. I can tell you that our hero is in Key West, Florida––and he isn’t just working on his tan. To say much more might make Pilate’s Cross less fun to read, so I’ll leave it at that. I hoped to have it done by Christmas, but as John Lennon said, “life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” So, hopefully it will be done by next summer.

PresentMagazine.com: How can people buy the e-book?

Greenwood: The book is available in all ereader formats. You can find it in all formats (and download a 50% sample free) on Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/6806. You can also buy it on iBooks, BarnesandNoble.com, Kobo, Diesel and a few others. Links for Pilate’s Cross at those retailers are on the book’s website, PilatesCross.com.

PresentMagazine.com: Anything else you’d like to share?

Greenwood: One thing that the e-book format doesn’t do justice is the brilliant, absolutely Hitchcockian book cover design by Kansas City artist David Terrill. He totally nailed the themes of danger, isolation and fun. We had such a great time working together that we’re now collaborating on a novel based on a series of paintings he created called What the Gardener Saw. He’s such an incredible talent; I’m humbled to be collaborating with him.

I hope e-book fans will give my book a shot. I promise you a fun read––great for the plane, at the beach or in front of the fire this winter. If e-book sales do well, I may also consider a limited paperback run.

Watch the Trailer: Pilate’s Cross

Interview originally published in Present Magazine.

Pilates CrossEXCERPT: Pilate’s Cross by J. Alexander Greenwood. © 2009.

He answered the phone. It was Sheriff Scovill.

“Mr. Pilate, we need you to move your car,” he said. “We’re finishing some demolition of a structure next door to your apartment. The trucks need your space for the day if you don’t mind.”

“No, not at all,” he said. “Sheriff, if you don’t mind me asking, what are they tearing down?”

Scovill paused. Pilate imagined Scovill taking a toothpick from his mouth like a guard out of Cool Hand Luke.

“It’s the old Bernard house. Been vacant a long time. The College bought it last month and President Lindstrom wants it gone,” he said.


Pilate moved his car from the path of trucks and equipment as they demolished the white two-story home next door to his faculty apartment.

He loitered a moment to observe the heavy equipment as it pulled down the wooden skin and frame of the shabby residence.

“Sad in a way,” said a man who had, in the noise of demolition, sauntered up to Pilate unobserved.

“Huh?” Pilate said, startled. He turned and saw a disheveled tie, sweater, baggy pants and moth-eaten overcoat wearing a gangly man with prematurely grey hair.

“Sad? How so?”

“Well, the house had to go, I guess, but there is so much history tied up in there,” he said.

“Oh really?” Pilate said.

The man extended a hand. “Yes. I’m Derek Krall, school librarian and amateur town historian.”

“Oh, nice to meet you, I’m-”

“John Pilate, our smokin’ new instructor,” Krall said, smiling.

Pilate rolled his eyes. “Crap. Has everyone heard that story?”

“You’ll soon find you can’t fart around here without someone smelling it across town,” he said with a wry chuckle. “How the hell did you end up out here in the middle of nowhere?”

“Oh, you know, the usual series of missteps,” Pilate said, smiling. “Man plans, God laughs.”

“I hear ya,” Krall said.

“So what big history is tied to that?” Pilate jerked a thumb at the crumbling walls.

“The Bernard place? Where do I start?” Krall’s eyes widened. He clearly loved this stuff, whatever it was. “That is—alas was—the scene of the most famous suicide in the history of this town.”

“Oh,” Pilate said. Pilate frankly couldn’t see much argument against suicide in the desolate winters of this burg. “Someone name Bernard offed himself?”

“Yup. Bullet to the brain,” he put his finger to his temple and made a “bang” sound. “He was a professor here.”

“That’s encouraging,” Pilate said, shrugging in his overcoat against a cold gust.

A monotonous beep issued from one of the heavy loaders as it backed up with a full load of debris.

Krall looked down at his feet for a moment, then at Pilate. “Yes, well, it’s pretty extraordinary, considering.”

“What? Did he get psycho from the lonely winters here? Mentally ill?” Pilate realized the cold gust he felt was not a breeze at all, but his old friend Simon. He saw Simon over Krall’s shoulder, glaring at Pilate from the window of his apartment.

“Well, probably. He sucked a bullet out of the barrel of a gun after he murdered his boss and the college president,” Krall said.

“Oh, I see,” Pilate said, his gaze torn away from the window back to Krall’s face. “Tell me more.”

Pilate followed Krall back to his cramped and, Pilate thought, laughably stereotypically messy office. Stacks of papers, dozens of school annuals and what had to be at least fifty Post-it notes littered the large oak desk that ate up most of the room.

“Sorry for the mess,” Krall said, bursting into a humorless staccato laugh. He bent over a file cabinet and pulled out a large brown envelope, the kind you might use to mail a manuscript or magazines. “Assassination File November 1963” was scrawled haphazardly in black marker.

Krall offered it to Pilate.

“Uh, thanks, but I went through my JFK conspiracy phase after the movie,” Pilate said, a polite smile. “The Cross College incident, remember?”

Krall looked pained. “That’s what this is,” he said—the word moron left unsaid.

“Oh, sorry. November 1963, huh? “

“It happened just a few days after President Kennedy was assassinated. Cross College lost its president and coincidentally a man named Kennedy to an assassin, too.”

Pilate thought that fact was almost as weird as all those Lincoln-Kennedy assassination coincidences that fascinated him as a child. Lincoln had an assistant named Kennedy who warned him not to go to the theatre. Kennedy had an assistant named Lincoln who warned him not to go to Dallas. Pilate had a figment of his imagination who warned him not to go to Cross.

Pilate opened the envelope. Inside were at least one hundred pages of documents, photocopies, newspaper clippings and graphic crime scene photos of the double murder-homicide. Aesthetically, the photos’ saving grace was that they weren’t in color.

One showed an almost comically surprised looking President Keillor, his right eye a ghastly black hole, sprawled in his chair. Another showed Kennedy, his puppet strings cut, a third eye bored in his forehead.

Pilate flipped through a dozen or so other photos with different angles of the same horrors. He came to one of a portly man lying on a hooked rug, his arms extended like a tweedy Christ, a gun loosely spilling from one hand.

He held it up to Krall, who had watched Pilate take in the gory photos wordlessly. “This Bernard?”

Krall nodded.

Another photo showed a close-up of Bernard’s face, a crease where his glasses pinched his nose still apparent, his mouth a trickle of blood. A garish mosaic of dark inky blood and brains spilled from behind his head.

“God this is awful,” Pilate finally said, going back through the photos.

“Yes, it was.”

“Hmph. Why?” Pilate said, looking up a moment at Krall, who had his feet on his desk.

“Well, he left a note,” he dropped his feet to the floor, leaned over and pointed to the photo. A typed letter and fountain pen was beside the body. “See?”

Pilate nodded.

“He left instructions for his burial, and a postscript,” Krall smiled, sat back down and raised his eyebrows mischievously, clearly relishing the opportunity to tell the tale to a new listener.

“And?” Pilate said.

Krall gestured toward the envelope. “Gimme.”

Pilate handed him back the packet. Krall fished through the papers until he found a copy of the letter, handing it to Pilate. “Here’s what the police transcribed from the original letter. Not sure where the actual letter is—probably lost in a box or hole somewhere.”

Pilate took the paper.

“Who is Dr. Benton?”

“Hmm? Oh, the guy he asked to look after his affairs? He was a prof here. One of the few who could stand the guy.”

“I see, so Bernard was…” Pilate was going to say “misfit” or “loner” until he read the postscript:

P.S. Wally tried to fire the wrong person.


“Dr. Walker Keillor. Nobody but his missus called him Wally to his face. I think Bernard meant it disparagingly. He told Bernard a few days earlier that Dean Kennedy agreed it was time for Bernard to move on,” Krall said, putting his feet back up and laying the file on his desk.

“Oh. So they fired him?”

“Yes, as you do in academia. They just declined to re-up his contract. After twenty-four years,” Krall whistled, making the sound of a bomb dropping, his hands behind his head and leaning back. “Real bummer.”

“Yeah, apparently so,” Pilate chewed on his fingernail. “Sounds like the most interesting thing that ever happened here.”

“Could be,” Krall said. “Though I hear the flood of forty-three was pretty big news.”

Jeff Somers, Author of The Eternal Prison

Jeffrey SomersAuthor Jeff Somers discusses The Eternal Prison, the third book in the action-filled Avery Cates science fiction series that combines a noir detective style with a worse-for-the-wear high-tech aesthetic in a dystopian future. Also, read a review of The Eternal Prison.

Pete Dulin:  Did you conceive of the idea for the plot of the series (The Electric Church, The Digital Plague, and The Eternal Prison) or the main character Avery Cates first? When did the idea first form?

Somers:  Strangely enough, the first version of The Electric Church involved a band of stray kittens struggling to survive in the backwoods of Texas Hill Country, scavenging for food and hiding from demonic, rabid squirrels. For some time I failed to interest anyone in that version of the story, for some reason, despite having created over 500 hand-drawn illustrations. In fact, I believe I somehow inspired the LOL Cat craze, twenty years ago. I plan to sue, as soon as I can figure out who actually own LOL Cats. Ted Turner? Steve Jobs?

Anyway, one day while editing the 3,000-page manuscript I realized the cats had no religion. So I asked myself what kind of religion stray kittens would develop, and clearly it involved cyborgs, eternal life, mind control, and dystopia. So I set about revising.

The Electric Church
was originally a standalone story, but I always had a sense of what was going to happen on a macro-scale in the universe. My editor at Orbit suggested there was more to tell about Avery, and after a little thought I agreed—the opportunity to tell a story against the backdrop of a declining universe was too good to pass up. I had the original concept  first and the character was an organic extension of the universe, I thought, filtered through old noir detective novels.


Dulin:  How did you develop the character of Avery Cates? Where there role models or a specific persona that you wanted to project?

Somers:  Naturally, I used myself circa ten years old, known in Hudson County, New Jersey as my “bully” years, when I terrorized the neighborhood kids into giving me their allowances. Ah, good times.

Then I turned to old detective novels—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett—and altered as necessary for the world Avery lived in. I wanted that dry, black humor, and I wanted that sense of a man who had no real special abilities, but was physically effective simply because he wasn’t afraid to get hurt and knew how to hurt people in turn. I’ve always thought that’s more powerful than superpowers.


Dulin:  Avery Cates is an anti-hero who kills for a living and exists with a perpetual target on his back, but he still operates by a self-imposed code of honor. In the decayed state of the world he lives in with pervasive global governance, a police state, and the general bleakness of the surrounding people and places he encounters, is there a moral relativity to the jobs that he performs that involve violence?

Somers:  Absolutely not, and he knows it, on some level. This is why we beat Avery up as often as possible: He’s a bad man. He deserves to be beaten up. And he punishes himself for being a bad man, too. He knows he doesn’t deserve better.

It’s fun, you know, having a character you can mercilessly torture.


Dulin:  Many heroes have a weakness that makes them more accessible and human, not so omnipotent and capable. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes. Superman’s weakness is kryptonite. Cates has a bum leg that impedes him as a physical weakness in a life that’s physically demanding. Does he have a psychological weakness?

Somers:  Cates’ leg isn’t conceived as a pat “weakness” – in fact, he’s physically fine when the first book begins. I don’t like stories where the universe/protagonist remain unchanged forever, and sometimes the “weakness” is an example of that—Indy Jones will be afraid of snakes forever, but will never have a limp despite his death-defying antics.

I barely break a sweat in my real life and I’m aching all over, so I figured a guy like Cates, who’s malnourished, has no health care, and spends his days dodging knives and bullets and jumping out of crashing hovers is gonna get a little dented in the process. I try to keep track of his wear and tear a little—which includes his advancing age in a world where thirty is considered old—and at least give a nod to it from time to time.


Dulin:  Can you share some thoughts on how you render the setting for these stories? It is set in the future, but doesn’t feel inconceivable that these places exist.

Somers:  It’s sort of a “two weeks in the future” idea—obviously there’s some distance between now and then, but I definitely conceived of it as part of our timeline. The technology is advanced but I tried to extrapolate from existing concepts, and other aspects of the world have declined rather than advanced. I also like playing with subversions—the concept of Unification came from the idea of World Peace, or One World—everyone assumes world peace is a good thing. What if it isn’t? What if world peace was The System?

So, The System always starts in this world, and then I hit the fast forward button. Do things just disappear? Usually not. Buildings stand for centuries, cities remain largely unchanged for decades. Some systems get replaced, and some systems just get worse and worse. I just have fun with it. My guiding principles are: One, if it chiefly benefits the poor or middle class, it’s in ruins, if it chiefly benefits the rich, it’s pristine and modern; and Two, the older and more essential it is, the less likely anyone’s remembers how to maintain it properly.

Dulin:  What do you have against female characters? There have been a number of interesting women in the stories – Cates’ protégé Gleason in The Digital Plague, Marlena in The Eternal Prison. None of them fair too well. Is Cates destined to not have romantic aspirations while he’s dodging bullets and System pigs?

Somers:  Everyone wants Cates married. Well, my wife, editor, agent and various others at my publisher—all women—want him married, or at least in love. I fear I’m losing half my potential audience. Maybe I should at least introduce a puppy that Cates can carry around.

I don’t have anything against female characters. People near Cates—at least people who aren’t also competent killers—tend to die at a startling rate. Hell, in The Digital Plague just about anyone who comes within a few feet of him dies. So it’s really just the fact that Cates is attracted to interesting women that causes their sad demise.

As for romance, I’ve never been convinced that Cates lives in a world conducive to romance. He’s always murdering and fighting for survival. If I’m running from cops and strangling people with my bare hands, I’m pretty sure relationships would be far from my mind. That’s why the relationships Cates does form—Gleason and Marlena—occur when he’s got “down time,” when he’s not racing around dodging bullets.

Dulin:  Each book in the Avery Cates series is action-packed, full of unexpected twists and developments, and an equally intriguing cast of supporting characters. Can you elaborate on how you move the plot forward from chapter to chapter by working in cliffhangers of different scale?

Somers:  Thanks for the compliments! It’s a rhythm. Every chapter ends on a “beat”. Sometimes this is just a witty line of dialog (at least a line I think is witty), sometimes it’s a “da-da-dum” kind of moment. This stems from the long-ago origins of the book, which was originally going to be a serial on a web page, with new chapters posted each week. So it was natural to go with an old-school serial kind of format, a sort of “Tune in Next Week” vibe.

It works incredibly well. Every story, after all, can be divided up into a series of small stories. All I do is wait for the natural beat in each vignette and hit a hard return.

Dulin:  What surprises you most about the character and this series now that you’ve written three books with a fourth, The Terminal State, on the way?

Somers:  One, how easy it is to imagine the world ending in slow motion around Cates—The System is going to hell, and nothing’s going to stop that now. It’s exhilarating to plan how it’s going to fall apart, and what that means for Cates.

I’ve been a little surprised at how much people like Cates. He’s charming, sure, but he’s also a bad person. Despite his code of honor, he abandons people, kills people, and no matter what horrors he’s performed he manages to still like himself enough to stay alive. It just seems to me that if you met Avery in real life you’d stay as far away from him as possible, yet he’s popular.

Dulin:  If I recall correctly, the first two books are told in a straightforward sequential manner. The Eternal Prison bounces between different timelines and plot points. Why switch it up?

Somers:  The question is, why not? Once I decided on the central plot element in The Eternal Prison, I knew I wanted to mimic some of the disorientation that Cates feels for the reader. I wanted to generate a sense of disjointedness and I wanted the reader to share in that moment of sick realization when everything comes together.

Dulin:  F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series is up to seventeen or more books in that series. Do you envision a final installment in this series with a logical conclusion? Or will the adventures of Cates continue as long as there’s demand and the money keeps trickling in?

Somers:  Right now I have through book five planned (book four is actually written!) and no plans beyond that. Book five will wrap up things that have been brewing over all of the books, and provide a logical cadence for the overall story.

It’s not just interest/money—you do need to have inspiration. I think Avery’s got lots of stories left in him, but I’m trying to adhere to some sense of time passing and realistic wear and tear; Avery’s going to be older and beat up when book five concludes, and the universe he exists in will be changed in many important ways. Will it make sense that he continues having this sort of life, or does Avery retire and drink himself to death peacefully?

It boils down to, if I had a great idea I’d probably write it, heck, I’d probably write it even if no one wanted to publish it. If I have an idea I’m excited about, I pursue it, period.

Dulin:  How did you begin the publishing relationship with Orbit?

Somers:  Originally, The Electric Church was sold to a web publisher called Another Chapter, which, as I said, planned to publish it as a serial. They didn’t last long. The editor I’d been assigned was Lili Saintcrow, author of the Jill Kismet series among many others. Lili kicked my ass up and down on that book, editing the hell out of it, and when AC went under she sent the book to her editor at Warner Books.

Her editor loved it and bought it, and then jumped from Warner to Orbit, and took me (and Lili) with her. So now her editor is my editor too.

Dulin: Is there an Avery Cates film in the works?

Somers:  We’ve sold an option. I don’t know if it will turn into an actual movie. Strangely, despite my complete lack of film-making experience and insistence that I would be a great lead actor, no one seems to want my direct involvement in the film. It’s insulting, really. I have some fantastic ideas about getting the kittens back into the story.

Terminal StateDulin:  What else should people know about you and your work?

Somers:  About me:  I like Scotch and accept free drinks gratefully, and if you live too far away to take me to a bar they make airline-sized bottles of booze and I’ve had success with people mailing them to me by way of buying me a drink. I encourage this.

About my work: I don’t just write Sci Fi; my first novel, Lifers, was a mainstream thriller/mystery, and my short story Ringing the Changes was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2006. I’ll also have a short story in the Mystery Writers of America’s 2010 anthology, edited by Charlaine Harris. Plus, I publish a zine, The Inner Swine which is a collection of poorly researched and largely unedited essays about whatever’s on my mind. I’ve been publishing it since 1995, in fact, and we’re closing in on 60 issues.

Note: The fourth book in the Avery Cates series, Terminal State, is available now and the fifth installment, The Final Evolution is forthcoming in June 2011.


Eternal PrisonReview by Pete Dulin – The Eternal Prison

Avery Cates is not meant to be a likeable character, according to author Jeff Somers. Who roots for a hired killer, the most famous gunner in a dystopian future? Compared to a corrupt global government, brutal System Security Force, and devious power mongers, Cates has a rough-and-tumble charm. After bringing about the downfall of an organized religion that turns its followers into zombies in The Electric Church and surviving a bioengineered disaster known as The Digital Plague, hard-drinking, curse-uttering, weapon-wielding Cates finds himself an incarcerated man at Chengara Penitentiary in The Eternal Prison. Maybe it’s his instinct for survival or his code of honor or the fact that he has lived to the age of 30––a life span considered old by most standards in the broken shambles of this near future world––but Cates is a compelling anti-hero (read: not admirable) that is captivating to follow on his techno-noir adventures.

Jeff Somers’ page-turning series invokes the dark elements and atmosphere of noir detective novels and worse-for-the-wear science fiction where the high tech future isn’t necessarily better. Technology is a labor saving device, mostly in service of the baser aspects of human nature and behavior to kill, subjugate, imprison, hoard valuable information, and exert power over others. Rather than a gleaming, promising world of tomorrow, Somers concocts a place where things break down, communication devices are squirrelly, people aren’t to be trusted, and transportation isn’t reliable. Kind of like life now on a really bad day with little hope for improvement. Finding food is difficult, consuming booze is a sketchy endeavor, scratching out a living means not getting beat down by System pigs.

Cates looks out for his interests – health, sanity, cash flow – while facing a cascade of challenges and tight spots in The Eternal Prison without the aid of superpowers, overwhelming firepower, or saves-the-day technological solutions. Rather, he gets by on fists and wits. He’s conniving and savvy but doesn’t have all the answers; he’s physically aggresive but doesn’t dodge every blow; he’s diehard persistent but gets the raw end of the deal more often than he cares to remember.

Somers writes with an economical style full of grit, grime, and gruffness that reflect the environs of Cates. Who knew such a battered main character and dire world could be evoked with brawny eloquence? The fast-paced action and violence (killing others before getting killed) is not gratuitious; these elements serve a purpose in a postmodern Darwinian struggle. Going it alone when able, keeping shifty allies close at hand, and knocking off threats is Cates’ best bet to keep breathing in a post-Unification world where nothing works for the benefit of the people.

Whether trodding on foot or zooming on a creaky hover, Cates traverses Las Vegas, New York, Moscow, and desolate wastelands that are more of a semblance of place than a scenic backdrop. Cates is more concerned with exit strategies and escape routes, especially in Chengara prison where he’s stuck with a motley crew to plot and execute plans for freedom and revenge in a place with a survival rate of zero.

Unlike the previous two books in the series, Somers strays from a fairly sequential storytelling style to shift between multiple timelines and plot points. When the action and key revelations converge, the story shifts into high gear. The Eternal Prison is a bit disorienting at first and readers need to keep alert about some basic conventions – who’s who, where, when, and what’s happening. This disorientation is by design, echoing Cates’ senses and state of mind.

Somers populates the book with an equally vivid cast of supporting characters in prison and on the outside vying for power. Characters from the previous books figure into major and minor plot points here along with fresh faces to keep things lively.

The Eternal Prison is a thrilling read that continues to entertain and extends the series without falling into a formulaic pattern. Avery Cates is one of the most exciting and original characters to appear in a long time. Complex, focused, and driven, Cates faces choices, applies his code, and behaves suitably in a grim world where morals are relative to survival.


Originally printed in Present Magazine, April 2011.

Zim’s Hot Sauce Combines KC and Buffalo Influences

zims hot sauce
Kansas City-based rock photographer (and frequent PresentMagazine.com contributor) Todd Zimmer is the man behind Zim’s Hot Sauce. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Zimmer grew up with Buffalo wings.

A slow burn builds from the first taste. The mild heat blooms, dances across my tongue, tingles the edges of my lips. Sweetness arrives initially, like the anticipation of a first kiss, and then spice follows, builds in intensity, and sparks a memory that lingers. The heat migrates upward where perspiration beads on the scalp. Zim’s Hot Sauce works its voodoo gradually, seduces with its sizzle but encourages you to admire its substance as well.

Kansas City-based rock photographer (and frequent PresentMagazine.com contributor) Todd Zimmer is the man behind Zim’s Hot Sauce. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Zimmer grew up with Buffalo wings that, according to legend, originated in 1968 at the Anchor Bar. Over his lifetime, Zimmer has eaten plenty of the deep-fried chicken wings and drums doused in the traditional combination of Frank’s Hot Sauce and butter.

Zimmer began regularly cooking wings himself in the mid-80s at home and later at a local Buffalo restaurant. After college, Zimmer and his friends hosted sauce-making parties to develop variations on the classic Frank’s. He says, “A medium to hot sauce in Kansas City would be considered mild in Buffalo.”

Skip forward to 1997 and leap halfway across the continental United States. Zimmer relocated to Kansas City because of a job transfer, but he didn’t leave his love of hot sauce behind. He began to concoct a version that respected the roots of hot wings and Frank’s Hot Sauce (both veritable institutions in Buffalo) and also paid homage to the barbecue heritage of the Kansas City area. For the past six years, Zimmer has tinkered with refining a distinctive hot sauce recipe and working with his wife Janet to bring it to market in Kansas City.

Bite your tongue, hot sauce purists. Zimmer never intended to duplicate an iconic sauce, but rather create something wholly original. “It has the essence of Frank’s, but it is not the same,” says Zimmer. He lets on that Zim’s has a hot sauce base blended with Italian dressing and barbecue sauce (an ode to Kansas) plus a few extras. “I added basil, garlic, nutmeg, and other fresh ingredients. There are no preservatives or high fructose corn syrup. It’s all natural and pure.”

Zim’s Hot Sauce has sweet, fruity notes at first before hitting minor keys of saltiness. Tangy vinegar and the mild bite of cayenne pepper picks up the melody and forms a piquant flavor structure. The aroma is unlike the smoky tones of chipotle pepper or the sharpness of jalapenos steeped in vinegar. It reveals a hint of the tropics, reminiscent of a Jamaican jerk sauce blended with the rich molasses base of barbecue sauce. A complex blend of spices and herbs takes this hot sauce in a fresh direction. Notably, the sauce contains sesame seeds, bits of onion, and herbs that add body and distinguish Zim’s from other pure liquid sauces on the market.

The process of developing a commercial brand of hot sauce began in Zimmer’s kitchen with experimental batches to develop the desired flavor combination. Next, he sought assistance from Original Juan, a Kansas City company on Southwest Boulevard that specializes in developing multiple lines of specialty foods under its own brand names and for entrepreneurs like Zimmer. Scan the supermarket shelves in the sauce section and familiar names might pop up – Mama Capri Marinara Sauce, Fiesta Artichoke Spinach Dip, Cowtown Steak Rub, Pain is Good Batch #114 Sweet Caribbean Jerk Screamin’ Wing Sauce, and Zarda’s BBQ Sauce. In order to manufacture and bottle a brand of hot sauce with consistent quality and sustain production, Original Juan was a logical place for Zimmer to start testing and refining.

“We tested a small half batch to adapt the hot sauce from my kitchen version and to confirm the conversion of ingredients,” says Zimmer.

From there, Original Juan will ramp up to a full batch of 136 gallons and begin bottling the sauce by July. Zimmer will handle distribution and sales of Zim’s Hot Sauce. Local artist Tyson Schroeder created the illustrated artwork – a hybrid chicken with a buffalo skull – for the label with typography and overall design by Zimmer.

The hot sauce is set to debut at two local music clubs, The Brick and recordBar, where Zimmer has spent plenty of time photographing music shows. The Brick will serve hot wings with Zim’s Hot Sauce on Tuesday, 6/29 and recordBar will serve wings on their trivia nights after July 7. The plan is for Zim’s Hot Sauce to appear regularly as a menu option with wings when the product is ready for re-sale by mid-July. “I want the hot sauce to be available at select locations and to let word spread through a grassroots approach,” he says. “The 10-ounce bottles will make 30-40 wings.”

Zimmer made his hot sauce with hot wings in mind, but he already knows that it marries well with a variety of foods. “I’ve taken samples of my hot sauce to work,” he says. “Co-workers have told me it tastes great on everything from pulled pork to eggs.”

I put Zim’s Hot Sauce to the test at home. After marinating a pound of chicken tenders for a few minutes in Zim’s Hot Sauce with some vegetable oil, a dash of salt, and fresh ground black pepper, I grilled the tenders until slightly charred. The thin consistency of the hot sauce didn’t adhere to the meat. I tasted the grilled chicken without adding additional sauce. The marinade didn’t impart any spiciness. Perhaps if the chicken were marinated longer, even over night, then it would have more pronounced flavor. However, Zim’s was made to be a sauce for cooked food more than a marinade. With that in mind, I conducted the crucial taste test.

In one dish, I poured a straight dose of Zim’s and filled another dish with a blend of melted butter and Zim’s to simulate a traditional hot wing sauce. The unadulterated sauce added zing to the chicken, hitting the sweet spots of my taste buds followed by the zip of vinegar. The bouquet of spices and herbs complimented the smokiness of grilled chicken. Gradually, the heat built until I radiated a low-grade glow. A piece of fresh-sliced mango dabbed in the sauce brought out tropical fruit flavors, playing off the mango’s sweetness. This experiment encouraged me to try the hot sauce in myriad food combinations when I could buy a bottle or two of Zim’s.

When blended with melted butter, Zim’s Hot Sauce transforms into a more mellow condiment that perfectly suited the grilled chicken. The sauce still has heat and a few sassy moves like an elder aunt at a wedding reception that still knows how to shake it. The butter emulsified in the sauce not only softens the heat, but also imparts a silky mouth feel. I can’t wait to try this sauce, with and without melted butter, on a properly prepared batch or three of hot wings.

Zim’s Hot Sauce, it zips and it zings. Surprisingly versatile, the sauce lends itself to adaptation as a condiment. Perhaps blending it with lime, honey, and tequila before brushing it on grilled shrimp or flank steak. Or basting grilled salmon with Zim’s and serving it with slices of grilled pineapple. Maybe spooning some Zim’s on rice and chicken and black bean quesadillas. Or doing a classic dunk of hot wings in this lively sauce.

In a city that debates the merits of barbecue sauces with gusto, that dashes Tabasco and Sriracha sauce and salsa on just about any food, there are thousands of people in Kansas City that will taking a liking to Zim’s Hot Sauce if they seek it out. Count me as a convert.

Originally published in Present Magazine, June 2010.

Justus Drugstore: Heritage and Purpose

(Left) Author David Wondrich with Chef Jonathan Justus.
(Left) Author David Wondrich with Chef Jonathan Justus.

Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, located in Smithville, Missouri, has a lot riding on its name.

With over one year of operation and plenty of sweat equity under their belt, executive chef Jonathan Justus and his wife Camille Eklof, general manager of the restaurant, have built the first cutting edge fine dining restaurant in this conservative town and plenty of people have taken notice.

Welcome to the Show
It’s funny how life turns out. Some people let go of the string to helium-filled dreams and watch that balloon rise and disappear. Others seek out their dreams, willing to jump into a hot-air balloon of uncertainty, take a risky flight, search for the time and place to drift back to earth, and transform wishes into reality. Before they even began working in a restaurant, Eklof and Justus had dreams of opening a bed-and-breakfast. That bed-and-breakfast never came to be, but the couple set off on a path that led to another dream.

Today, Justus and Eklof live in a tiny 100-year-old house on a half-acre property in Paradise near Smithville Lake. After years of traveling and working in restaurants in the United States and France, the couple settled down and spent two-and-a-half-years fixing up their corner of paradise from top to bottom. The unassuming house––a sanctuary from the restaurant––is located on a quiet road and is surrounded by old trees, bushes, and flowers planted around the sloping hills. Inside, the cozy home has a guest room, a kitchen the size of a broom closet, and a porch that beckons guests to sit a spell. The interior is filled with art, books, and memorabilia; the sort of belongings that serve as a prompt for stories about heritage, purpose, origin, and discovery.

Conviviality and hospitality is part of the rich adventure that Eklof and Justus share as wife and husband, entrepreneurs, and lovers of a good life fashioned from hard work. Both at work and at home, Justus is fond of telling tales and anecdotes about common objects and arcane artifacts. He is short and stocky with a stout belly earned––like many career chefs––from cooking and tasting in the kitchen and dining at the table. His brain is an encyclopedia of collective knowledge one might find from a historian, European tour guide, forest ranger, farmer, cyclist, chef, and the culinary bible LaRousse Gastronomique. Give him a glass of wine and enough time to get a lungful of air and he will entertain you with lively conversation to pass the time. This knowledge and years of experience in the culinary industry inform his lively patois of cooking terminology and innate love for fine food, drink, and people with a similar affinity.

Equally experienced in the restaurant industry, Eklof is slim as a willow tree and quick with a smile. She is savvy about cuisine and full of industriousness that is evident as she bustles around the restaurant. As co-owner and general manager, she wears many hats such as overseeing the front of the house staff of servers and bartenders. She trains the serving staff, helps to bus tables, and manages the wine inventory. Eklof greets regular customers and welcomes newcomers to the smartly designed space. A television screen mounted near the doorway to the patio shows images of the do-it-yourself construction and remodeling the duo undertook before opening over a year ago. She spent a “day off” in late May 2008 to plant herbs and flowers in flowerbeds positioned around a new patio next to the restaurant. Between scoops of fertilizer, she dusted off dirt from work gloves and worn jeans to field phone calls for reservations and questions from her husband.

Eklof and Justus are the epitome of entrepreneurs dedicated to taking on any task from sun up to sun down. As any husband-and-wife team who run a small business, especially a restaurant (i.e. Mano and Barb Rafael at Le Fou Frog, Megan and Colby Garrelts at bluestem), can tell you, the hope of success and beating the odds in this industry requires a willingness to work long hours. The cycle repeats day in, day out, six days a week plus more time during the “off” day to run errands and deal with paperwork, weekends and holidays, month after month, year after year in a bid to break even and someday make a profit. What takes place behind-the-scenes matters little to most guests. They come for fine food, drink, service, and an idiosyncratic ambiance which restaurants with a true sense of place offer. And modern day foodies, amateur and professional critics, and bloggers in the chattering class notice every detail. So, the pressure to be on is always there.

Despite garnering a top-notch reputation as a culinary destination among gourmands in the Kansas City metro and Midwest, and in national food publications such as Food and Wine and Bon Appetit, the memorable restaurant name “Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant” has lead to some legal woes for the couple.

The name refers to the former family business that Justus’ grandfather, a pharmacist, operated from 1914-1955 on property that has been in the family since 1854. After the grandfather passed away, Jonathan’s mother, also a pharmacist, ran the drugstore and soda fountain for another forty years at 106 West Main. Justus worked as a soda jerk behind the fountain since he was old enough to see over the counter. After graduating from Smithville High School in 1983, he moved to Los Angeles to study art. Six years later, he moved to San Francisco where he met Eklof.

After several years of working in restaurants, eating, living, and traveling in Kansas City, San Francisco, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris, France, the couple returned to Smithville, brought their culinary experience to the table, and opened for business in the old storefront. Naming the business “Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant” was partly a nod to the former family business and an acknowledgement of a brand name that folks living in Smithville over the past few decades would recognize and appreciate. Everyone, that is, except the Missouri Board of Pharmacy.

An investigator for the Board appeared at the restaurant just before Memorial Day 2008 and announced that she was there to file a report on the pharmacy. In disbelief, Justus laughed and stated the obvious to anyone that has stepped inside the doorway or noticed the signage, business cards, and menus in plain English––Justus Drugstore is a restaurant. According to Justus, the inspector stated that someone could come in and “think that what you are telling them is the advice of a medical professional.” The dining tables, working kitchen, and plates of food might have been a clue to the contrary.

Changing the name of the business would cost Justus and Eklof unexpected expenses and an invaluable brand name tied to the family’s heritage. Nonetheless, the inspector completed her investigation and filed a report with the Board. On June 10, Justus and Eklof received a letter from executive director Debra Ringgenberg on Board of Pharmacy stationary ordering them to CEASE AND DESIST the unlawful use of the word “drugstore” and change the business name within thirty days. The letter cited a Missouri statute specifying that the use of the designation “pharmacy” and “drugstore” is only legally allowable in a place of business supervised by a licensed pharmacist.

Concerned, the couple took up the issue with Missouri Senator LuAnn Ridgeway, who spoke with Governor Matt Blunt about the matter. Since then, the legal battle has escalated. William Raney, a Kansas City attorney specializing in First Amendment law and president of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas & Western Missouri, has taken up the cause. Raney sent a letter back to the board challenging the order as an unconstitutional infringement of the free speech rights of the restaurant’s owners. Further, the letter challenges the board to provide evidence that anyone has been confused by the restaurant’s name.

Currently, the board has plans to discuss the matter in September. The story of legal concerns over the restaurant name has garnered press in the KC Star and other print publications. Justus and Eklof, backed by legal representation, are seeking a reasonable settlement that does not involve a name change for the business.

Sense of Place
Long before fuss over the name arose, the restaurant’s reputation has been highly touted by local foodies and critics. Justus cites regulars who claim, “It’s the best meal I’ve ever had.”

Self-generated hype? Judging from the packed house of enthusiastic diners on two weekday visits, it’s doubtful. Entering the renovated space located off Main Street, the restaurant is modern and charming with nods to its heritage. A clip of film, enlarged and framed, displays the name of the pharmacy from yesteryear. Also, the soda fountain now functions as a bar replete with stools that still bear graffiti from years past underneath the seats.

Glancing at the contemporary art on the walls, sleek furnishings, or the open design of the kitchen framed by orange panels, it’s plain to see that Eklof and Justus put their creative stamp on the surroundings rather than rely on kitsch or nostalgia. The outdoor patio with wooden planters bearing herbs and flowers is most inviting during cooler months. This stylish Smithville restaurant would fit right in with chic bistros and boutiques filling Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District, but is worth the excursion as a retreat from the demands of the day.


Cooking is not about convenience and it’s not about shortcuts… Our hunger for the twenty-minute gourmet meal, for a one-pot ease and prewashed, precut vegetables has severed our lifeline to the satisfactions of cooking. Take your time. Take a long time. Move slowly and deliberately and with great attention. ––Thomas Keller, Chef Owner, The French Laundry

The above quote attributed to renowned chef Thomas Keller is printed on the menu at Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, and is also posted on the front door of the Smithville establishment. Justus believes in respecting local farmers and growers, treating food and land as a sustainable resource, and honoring the time-tested traditions of cooking. He believes in the tenets of Slow Food––the social nature of dining slowly and deliberately, the importance of a food’s origins and genetic integrity, and the respectful preparation of ingredients to yield inspired results.

Before assuming the mantle of executive chef, Justus apprenticed in a number of cooking roles during his career to learn lessons, refine ideas and skills, and develop his own assertions about cooking. In sum, he has worked stints at Zin (since closed; Michael Smith’s occupies the space now), Macaluso’s (also gone), Le Fou Frog (author’s note: I cooked with Justus in the kitchen years ago; Eklof also served there), as a food stylist for cookbook writers, and at a company where he learned to butcher and process meat. He also cooked as a chef (along with Eklof as a server) sans working papers in a small southern French village known for legendary gipsy guitarist Manitas de Plata, who played at the restaurant on occasion.

Now with a kitchen of his own, Justus balances inventive instincts with a reverent sense of tradition and understanding of food’s relationship to geography, history, and seasonality. His menu regularly features original dishes prepared with uncommon ingredients or familiar food in innovative combinations. As a chef and advocate for local, sustainable food sources, Justus does back flips to obtain ingredients and deliver dishes that maximize the sensory impact of the food with minimal impact on the environment. “We try to inform the palate of our guests. We doing it on our terms,” he says.

Dating back to the ’70s, Alice Waters, celebrated chef and owner of Chez Panisse, advocated the use of fresh foods from local, sustainable sources and revitalized California cuisine with her ideas and practices. Today, terms like fresh, local, organic, seasonal, and sustainable are bandied about regularly in the culinary lexicon of what’s desirable. Anyone who’s anyone, that is, chefs like Thomas Keller (The French Laundry-CA), Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter’s-Chicago), Nancy Oakes (Boulevard-San Francisco), or Mark Ladner (Del Posto-NY) would hardly disagree with using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. Nor would hometown proponents like The Garrelts (bluestem), Beth Barden (Succotash), or the staff at blue bird bistro.

Justus also lives out this philosophy, dubbing his approach as country referential. “I’m not trying to capitalize on the trend. I’m doing what makes sense,” says Justus. “I’ve been doing this since the Nineties.”

Today, he taps into a regional network of Missouri farms and purveyors including heritage Berkshire pork from Newman Farm in Myrtle that is processed at Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Arrowhead Game in Holt, Shatto Milk Company in Osborn, Norton Farm located in Plattsburg, Hammons Walnuts in Stockton, and Cunningham’s Berry Farm in Smithville. The list goes on. Justus isn’t above gathering wild seasonal edibles near his home in Paradise when foraging on a rare day off or buying from individual sources.

Adventure in Flavor
What can you do with produce, milk, eggs, and meats delivered from regional farms located less than a hundred miles from its source rather than trucked cross-country? Each week, Justus, his chef de cuisine Jeffrey Scot, and team of cooks apply technique and imagination to transform fresh ingredients as far as they can go.

Showing his craft, Justus takes an appetizer such as brandade––traditionally, a thick dip of whipped salt cod and potatoes that originated in Provence, France ––and substitutes smoked walleye instead for a touch of local flair. Justus draws on an affinity for French cuisine filtered through his Midwest sensibilities. For example, he creates a foie gras terrine with homey flavors of vanilla maple pecan, fig, ginger pear port syrup, fresh pear, and cinnamon brioche French toast. Ceviche, a dish usually associated with coastal Mexican or Mediterranean cuisine, is composed from fresh water striper bass, chives, chervil, sunflower sprouts, and other ingredients dressed in sesame citrus vinaigrette.

Local flavors come into play with Maytag blue cheese salad balancing the hearty taste of roasted beets against Missouri black walnut praline and apple gelée over mixed greens. Justus doesn’t hesitate to use fancy touches like truffle oil, smoke trout roe, and lardon made from heritage Berkshire bacon to dress up a curly endive salad.

Main entrees range from vegetable risotto to savory Campo Lindo chicken, fork tender Berkshire pork shank to hearty Akaushi beef brisket. Justus composes ingredients into a multilayered sensory experience, but sometimes the results are a bit fussy and over-extended. For instance, the brisket involves a house-made root beer braise, honey sassafras mustard vinaigrette, watercress, sorrel, wild arugula, celery root puree, and smoked vanilla butter glazed carrots. It feels like a buffet of flavor crammed on a plate. In contrast, the pork shank is a simpler assembly of down-to-earth components featuring wild arugula pesto, hominy, Berkshire bacon, creamy polenta, wild arugula salad, and fresh apple vinaigrette.

Specials featured off the menu allow Justus and his team to introduce more options for adventurous diners. During a meal in June, the kitchen offered a charcuterie plate featuring locally raised and processed pork. The sausage, headcheese, pate, house-made condiments, and bread were an ideal marriage of spicy, savory, and sweet flavors, rustic presentation, and sublime texture.

Justus is a chef hitting a strong stride in his professional career with only self-imposed restrictions to challenge his instincts. Sometimes, he is tempted to use too many of the colors available in his palette when a select few might deliver a more distinct and powerful impression. That’s not to say that these dishes aren’t tasty; indeed, as a hungry diner, every plate of multiple courses over a couple of visits left the table with barely a morsel left. The takeaway culinary observation is this: A little restraint can go a long way both in the use of complicated flavor profiles and in presentation.

While marveling over the last bites of food and sips of wine and cocktails before the final course, another subtle sensory element to the restaurant experience registers. Below the burbling conversation of chatting guests, a pleasing soundtrack of music washes through the room. Tunes by Camera Obscura, Bobby Bare, Jack Johnson, Johnny Cash, X, and other select artists only add to the distinctive ambiance of the place. Both Justus and Eklof are as avid about music as they are about food, drink, design, art, and hospitality. After a respite, when the time is right, dessert menus float into place.

The array of desserts is an all-star lineup of sweet and savory delights. Sweet corn crepes filled with lingonberry, blackberry compote, and lemon custard ice cream is tempting. Apricot beignets served with cinnamon honey ice cream and honey roasted pistachios were divine. Chocolate lovers can rejoice in the dark chocolate ale cake dished up with a side of caramel black walnut ice cream and delicate chocolate lace. The flights of homemade ice cream are dreamy scoops of lusciousness, ranging from exotic chai to fresh fruit, herb, and spice combinations.

Drink Up
Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, is not just a dining destination. They whip up spectacular drinks that are worth spending the gas alone to drive up and wet your whistle. The Silver Elder Fizz requires fancy preparation that involves gin, house-infused vanilla vodka, local elderflower, fresh-squeezed lemon, limejuice, and egg white. Pull up a stool at the soda fountain/bar and watch it come together. It’s fizzy, floral, and fantastic. Tea Mist is a sophisticated concoction of Bacardi Silver, Skyy Vodka, ice tea, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and house-made mint syrup. It’s a proven defense against dreadful summer heat and humidity. Other notable beverages include a fancifully named Sazerac d’Oise, Martini Provencal, or the deceptive, innocent-sounding Strawberry Limeade.

Justus, Eklof, and the bartenders put effort into their selection of infused spirits, fresh juices, and specialty ingredients. What goes into the glass is equally as important as what appears on the plate. Making the selection process simple for guests, each item on the menu’s list of starters, salads, and main dishes has a suggested wine pairing to complement flavors. The selection of red, white, sparkling, rose, and dessert wines offer more opportunity to uncover refined liquid refreshment in a range of prices. The Jibe Sauvignon Blanc ’06 presented passion fruit flavors followed by a grassy character. Chapoutier Belleruch Blanc ’06 is a crisp white with a profile of apple, lemon, mineral, and white pepper. If unsure of making choices or simply unwilling, then Eklof and the servers will gladly make recommendations that pay off.

It’s a peculiar trait of humans to name the world around us. We name lands, lakes, streams, woodlands, and natural spaces. Once these places are razed and developed into commercial property, we invent fanciful names to evoke the place changed by money and machines. We apply names to tiny components of matter invisible to our eyes and distant heavenly bodies that we may never reach in person. We name our babies and pets and that name matters beyond calculation over a lifetime. It is more than a signifier for a person, place, or thing. In time, a name becomes intertwined with an identity that gathers weight and presence and legend unto itself.

Jonathan Justus and Camille Eklof have made a reputation for themselves by building on a trusted family name. They reinvented a piece of property once respected in the community as a pharmacy and constructed a dream into reality as a highly regarded restaurant. Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant is something significant. It is more concrete than culinary ideals and esoteric philosophies, more relevant than Missouri statues and codes in law books. It is far more than heady reviews with flowery words written and spoken by fawning fans and self-important critics. It is a living expression of food and season, craft and hospitality that cannot simply be classified by name like a variety of potato.

The Justus name on the signage, menus, and business cards reflects something greater––identity, family heritage, a sense of purpose, and discovery of what can be. It is something not easily defined, not a quality so quickly named, not an experience so easily checked off a must-see, must-do list. This land, these people, this community of farmers and growers and diners and neighbors, and this intentional gathering over food and drink inspires respect for what takes place from farm to kitchen to table. Whatever we might call it, once experienced firsthand we wish to participate in its broader purpose and be present as if it were our own corner of paradise.

Originally published in Present Magazine, August 2008. Photography by Pam Taylor.

Six Impressions of David Basse

David Basse

Vignettes past and present with esteemed Kansas City jazz drummer and vocalist David Basse.

Part 1 – The Rieger

I am sitting at the bar of 1924 Main in early April 2008 and nursing a glass of Malbec. The bar is situated towards the front of the restaurant near the entrance, leading to the main room where dinner service is in full swing. During the early Nineties, this space used to swing in quite different ways as the Dixie Belle Saloon. For a brief stint under other ownership, this location was also the home of a restaurant and club called The Rieger where I first saw David Basse and his combo perform live.

Unlike 1924 Main’s spacious setting, The Rieger had a long and narrow layout with a shotgun view. The bar was stationed farther into the room as a focal point for a mixed crowd of jazzheads, seedy city dwellers, musicians, well-to-do fans of Basse, and adventurous 20-somethings willing to venture off the beaten path from The Plaza and Westport. Mind you, the Power and Light district didn’t exist nearly twenty years ago. The Crossroads Arts District was a blossoming bohemian stronghold that hadn’t yet been overrun by developers or suburbanites. The Rieger was a rough around the edges nightspot replete with beer, booze, and live music, drawing blacks and whites from up and down the economic spectrum.

In the midst of this urban grit, Basse manned the drum kit and laid down a groove with his combo. He crooned with his smooth voice and caroused with snappy patter. Musically, the band dipped into the blues and scattered jazz throughout the room. Basse made a name for himself with City Light Orchestra during the ’80s and still attracted a following. For some people at The Rieger, the music was a backdrop to the social friction and fusion happening between drinks. For me, it was a sample of live music that veered sharply away from a steady college diet of ’80s New Wave music and roots rock revivalism.

Of course, every native of Kansas City eventually learns a distant fact or two about the city’s jazz history and famous sons like Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Basse was a young gun in this sleepy jazz town trying to invigorate contemporary jazz in KC and make a name for himself. He steeped himself in the tradition, refined his chops, and belted out songs before contemporary audiences. Basse breathed life into our jazz-blues heritage for music lovers like myself.

Over time, we remember moments to savor. I don’t miss The Rieger, but do appreciate its place as a portal to a vibrant experience that the suburbs couldn’t duplicate. Nearly two decades later, a glass of wine at 1924’s bar wets my whistle, but there’s something missing that I long for. It’s the buzz of conversation over a back beat, a sense of being in an ephemeral moment, a patron absorbing the energy that emanates from musicians like Basse who make a scene and are not content to become a social soundtrack for mating rituals.

Part 2 – Looking Back

Later in April 2008, I stroll into Jardine’s and meet Basse for an interview. The jazz club and restaurant is still setting up for the evening, so we walk to the Classic Cup and secure a patio table. We order gin and tonics, settle into our seats as the sun shares its radiant benevolence, and take stock of Basse’s still-evolving career.

David Basse was born in San Jose, California, raised in Nebraska, came to Kansas City when he was 19 years old, and joined Musician’s Union local 41-627. In 1982, he was invited to perform at the City Light Restaurant for a one-night gig that would turn into a seven-year engagement. He led the swingin’ City Light Orchestra, formed with a roster of luminaries such as saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen and pianist Tim Whitmer. The group released Raised Spirits in 1984, an album that still holds up as a terrific jazz recording. “City Light catapulted us into the spotlight,” says Basse.

In those days, Basse lived on The Plaza in the William Morrow building on Ward Parkway. He sported a pencil-thin mustache, white shirt, tie, and, of course, his signature fedora. The musician did not own a car for seven years and took the bus to get around town. “People began to recognize me and offered me rides across town,” he says.

The drummer-vocalist also kept busy playing gigs at Hotel Phillips with pianist Joe Cartwright as well as dates at Café Lulu, The Rieger, The Point, River City Café, and The Phoenix. At one point, he played nine gigs a week. “We started to come into our own during our late 20s,” says Basse. “We found our voice. It was gigging in the highest sense.”

After recording four albums with City Light during the ’80s, Basse headed to Los Angeles in 1992 where he started collaborating with legendary studio musician Mike Melvoin. Melvoin was awarded a Grammy Nomination in 2004 for his City Light Entertainment release, It’s Always You. Working steady club gigs in L.A. was a challenge because of the abundance of talent. “I played two places regularly, one night a month, for five years,” Basse says.

Eventually, Basse returned to Kansas City to be near family as his parents grew older. Armed with a well-established reputation, Basse immersed himself in the local music scene once again. “I have always been able to come back to Kansas City and work,” he says.

Part 3 – Recordings

“Kansas City is the place where jazz meets the blues,” says Basse about the city’s music scene. Basse backs up this statement with a string of albums that traverse both sides of the blues-and-jazz railroad tracks, exploring these American music forms in traditional and original songs. Kansas City Live, the hipster-meets-sentimental fool of Like Jazz, and the guttural bluesy swagger of Strike While the Iron is Hot represent the broad range of this artist.

He has been fortunate to record with some of the finest local talent around town––Joe Cartwright, Pat Morrissey, Gerald Dunn, Phil Woods, and many others. Old Friends New Point is a prime example of Basse mixing it up with accomplished vocalist Angela Hagenbach, the supreme Bobby Watson on saxophone; drummer Sam Johnson, Jr. (a cofounder of Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz Inc.), Greg Richter on keys, and bassist Matt Pittman. Old Friends New Point was recorded live on a Sunday afternoon on September 9, 2001 at the New Point Grille. The recorded sound is crisp and warm, sizzling and swinging and serenading as the moment dictated during this intimate recording session. Two days later, the world would change on a bright blue-sky morning. Old Friends New Point nailed an enthusiasm and optimism that enlivens the dozen tracks and still sounds refreshing post 9/11. “Moanin” is a showcase for Basse’s bluesy charm, Watson’s feisty sax, and a truly swingin’ rhythm section.

Part 4 -Touchstones

Basse has seen the livelihood of jazz rise and fall like a tide during his time in Kansas City. “A change is coming. You can see the cycle happening,” he says. “The Power and Light District brings a different crowd of folks that weren’t there two years ago. I have met people staying here from Cleveland, St. Louis, and Illinois who have said there’s so much going on.”

The influx of tourists and locals flocking into urban venues is desirable, no doubt, but it is difficult to attract and retain audiences for the satisfying pleasures of live jazz and blues. Modern technology and abundant entertainment options tug on the attention span of younger generations. Hundreds of jazz clubs that thrived in Kansas City’s yesteryear have dwindled to a few dozen like the Blue Room and Jardine’s or other non-traditional venues like Unity Temple. “Needs and lifestyles have changed. Ten to fifteen years ago, we didn’t have Direct TV, Sirius Radio, and iPods to listen to all day,” says Basse. “It’s a fragmented crowd. The musicians have to be crafty.”

Basse leans back in his chair at Classic Cup, stirs his gin and tonic, and does not seem to fret. The shifting terrain for local music will always be subject to availability at clubs, the fickleness of audiences, and an upcoming crop of young musicians that hustle for gigs. Jazz and blues will reach the ears of those who seek it out. “Musicians are going to play and make music,” he says.

Live performance is the preferred showcase for David Basse and so many other working musicians and vocalists––Luqman Hamza, Mark Lowrey, Carol Comer, Brandon Draper, Shay Estes, Mark Southerland’s Snuff Jazz, Angela Hagenbach, Bram Wijnands, John Brewer, Ida McBeth, Megan Birdsall, and others––to excel at entertaining.

For the veteran musician, Basse now focuses less on playing numerous gigs and concentrates instead on performing at events that highlight his talents before particular audiences. At the 2008 Forks and Corks fundraiser for Harvesters, Basse’s warm voice and the sounds of the esteemed City Light Orchestra floated across the Grand Ballroom of Bartle Hall to reach thousands of people noodling for a bite to eat and a sip of wine. When that audience crosses paths with Basse at a smaller venue, then perhaps his distinctive voice and style will register and command full attention.

In one of his many roles in the music business, David presents an oral history of Kansas City music to Elderhostel groups from the University of Texas. An older group of tourists blended with local jazz fans and musicians on an April afternoon upstairs at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Basse knocked out a set and dazzled this crowd with Joe Straws humbly laying down a foundation on bass and Joe Cartwright killing on piano. The combo wisecracked and shared tidbits of local jazz lore with the audience. Different audiences, different motives.

“You find your touchstone. What can I grab and work with?” Basse proposes. “What shows who I am? There are more choices for audiences, so you have to be more focused. State what you do quicker. It’s an interesting challenge for artists. Style is important for an artist.”

Part 5 – 21st Century Music

Basse has expanded his role from a jazz performer to jazz ambassador through the award-winning radio program, “The Jazz Scene,” that airs on Kansas Public Radio on Saturdays, 1-4 PM. On air, Basse reaches 20-30,000 listeners over three hours or, as he puts it, “his closest friends. Radio is a personal medium. This program took away the need to be in a bar every night.”

The program features classic jazz, new releases, information on area performances, and interviews with marquee names in jazz music like Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. “I never play jazz that I don’t like,” says Basse. “I’m not a scholar, but an observer, drummer, and singer. I try to bring jazz music into the 21st century.”

He pairs songs and albums that have a correlation and explains the connection to listeners. For example, he recently matched Miles Davis’ 1960 album Sketches of Spain with the 1986 release Tutu and showed the evolutionary ties. “Miles Davis is someone who stuck with it to the nth degree,” says Basse. “As a musician, he evolves.”

Part 6 – Paying Dues

As a skilled practitioner of jazz blended with the blues, Basse’s style and sound is part of a greater pulse, a magnificent collective heartbeat that thrummed in the chest of men like Charlie Parker and Jay McShann. The old guard of musicians, both famed and forgotten, crafted a Kansas City sound that resonates today. “That strong blues base can be heard in the music of Kevin Mahogany and Bobby Watson,” says Basse. At the same time, he emphasizes that performing jazz and blues goes beyond upholding tradition. “Music has to breathe, flow, and change.”

When Basse takes the stage with longtime peers and friends like Joe Cartwright and Alaadeen, these veterans have no desire to grind familiar tunes into a deeper rut. “We don’t want to play the same old stuff. You don’t want to paint the same painting,” says Basse. “I think about what I want to do and make it better.”

When asked about advice for young musicians, Basse offers a stream of suggestions. “Follow your heart, especially jazz musicians. Pay attention to what is going on. Play your music,” he says. “Why get a job at the telephone company? Once you do, you sell yourself short. Lots of musicians in this town have paid their dues. The Elders, The Rainmakers, BR549, Iris Dement, Connie Dover. If you got talent, then go for it.”

Originally published in Present Magazine, May 2008.