Back from two weeks visiting family in the Midwest, I feel like a new person. I should. I'm 5 pounds heavier than when I left. This is not what I had planned. I had hoped to lose the extra 7 I've been carrying around lately.
I usually do lose weight when I travel, because of my temperamental tummy. The bigger the difference in time zones, the smaller my appetite becomes. So while I enjoy trying regional foods, I adhere to the quality over quantity rule of consumption. Usually.
We spent two nights in Chicago; naturally, hot dogs and deep-dish pizza were at the top of our must-do list. Fukushima Store hot dogs, with the works, are still my favorite, but I must say I was impressed by the mighty Chicago dogs. In the Windy City, "the works" does NOT include ketchup. It does, however, include fresh tomatoes, mustard, relish, pickles (yes, relish AND pickles), onions and peppers, with a sprinkle of celery salt. Burp-alicious. Like the stuffed pizza at Giordano's.
But the culinary highlight, the shining Chi-town moment, was the steak at Harry Caray's, tender and tasty, perfectly prepared to order. I rarely eat a total of 9 ounces of meat in a day, but that's how big my filet was, and I cleaned my plate. With apologies to my vegetarian friends, I've never had a kale salad that satisfied all of my senses the way this steak did. It seemed naughty somehow . . . wicked, even, to enjoy a meal to that extent.
On the way out of Chicago, our last stop was at the corner of Maxwell and Halsted. Both Jim's Original and the Express Grill claim to be the original purveyors of the famous Maxwell Street Polish dogs and their menus are nearly identical, right down to the "Free French Fries with Sandwich" at the bottom. The adjacent stands are open 24/7, their yellow and red signage nearly indistinguishable from each other. We went with Jim's because they had a line. I asked for ketchup and the guy actually growled at me. "Ketchup?! You'll get it on the side. For the fries, right?"
"Right. For the fries." I didn't dare ask for mayo-mustard after that.
Back in Battle Creek, America's Cereal Bowl, home to Kellogg's ("K-E-double L, O double Good, Kellogg's best to you!"), the last thing we expected to have was an awesome, authentic Japanese meal, let alone two. No, I take that back. The alligator appetizer was even more unexpected.
Pasche's Seafood Kitchen sits above I-94, east of Battle Creek, attached to a Quality Inn. If not for the new casino next door, no one but the locals would know about this Cajun haven and its specialties. I'd had fried pickles before, at my late husband's family reunions in Louisiana, but alligator tail nuggets were not on my bucket list. Jimmy's fiancee ventured that anyone who chowed down on octopus shouldn't have any problem with alligator, especially when lightly breaded and deep fried, like the pickle chips. And she was right. Both were delicious.
But back to the Japanese food. We're not talking California rolls at the Chinese super buffet. This was seriously some of the best Japanese food I've ever enjoyed. It shouldn't have come as a surprise; as Jimmy pointed out, there's a significant Japanese presence in the area, thanks to the auto industry. The Best Western Executive Inn didn't have BBC or even the Canadian Broadcasting Co. on cable, but it did carry NHK. Without English subtitles.
Still, Mom and I snickered when we saw the Sakura Sushi Bar & Grill in a tiny strip mall across the street from our motel. But Jimmy urged us to give it a try, and we were pleasantly surprised. Their bento box meals were works of art, as were their sushi rolls, and everything tasted as good as it looked.
The next night, we enjoyed a delightful teppan yaki dinner in Kalamazoo, at a place called Kumo. Also tucked in a strip mall, it looked like a tiny, inconspicuous diner from the street. Inside, a sumptuous sushi bar dominated the main dining room, which also housed several cubicles with traditional seating: low tables with zabuton cushions on goza mats. The
hostess led us to the hibachi room, which didn't feature miniature grills as I'd imagined; that's what they call teppanyaki over there. Our chef was amazing and so was our meal, which included lobster, scallops, salmon, shrimp, chicken, steak and a mountain of veggies as fresh as the seafood. And ample streams of sake from the chef's squirt bottle, directly into our mouths.
So the lesson I learned on this trip was to expect the unexpected and embrace it. And to not expect to lose any weight. Now I'll work on learning restraint.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose Sharing Mana'o column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.