Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita.
In the middle of the pathway of life, I found myself in a dark wood, on a lost road.
-Dante Alighieri, Il Inferno
Welcome to Steak 'n' Shake. May I take your order?
-Steak 'n' Shake website
Good readers, once again, it has not been my intention to abandon you. But recent events (which, quite honestly, don't bear explanation) have been so completely overwhelming that I have had neither time, energy nor inclination for blogging -- and this in the sabbatical year when I was hoping to blog a great deal and do some other kinds of writing as well. It should have been my year to just write my little heart out (and go to the gym, and help G with his business, and do a million other things that I don't seem to get to). I think it suffices to say no more than that I've been having some personal problems which have required pretty much all my attention.
On top of this all-consuming difficulty, we have had a string of deaths. There were three, so if life does operate by the venerable rule of threes, we should be all right for a while -- at least as far as that kind of loss (I have discovered, to my sorrow, that there are losses that cause you to feel as grief-stricken as an actual death, even if or perhaps particularly if the one you've lost is still walking the planet. But at least in the latter case, the possibility of recovering from such a loss, and perhaps recovering the person you feel you've lost still exists...).
A friend of a very close friend, whom we knew quite well, passed away suddenly at the New Year. The cousin of an in-law, whom we didn't know at all, passed away, requiring the postponement of important business. And G's gramma, who had been for some years in a nursing home, unable to recognize her near ones and dear ones, also passed away. This too meant that much had to be postponed, as we had to fly out to Indiana for the funeral.
And rather than any of my other recent stories, that is the tale I will tell you here.
While searching for the cheapest possible plane tickets (yes, dear friends, we flew to Indianapolis via Atlanta, if that makes any sense), I realized that I was about to meet an entire, unknown branch of my new family. G's dad's relatives, once from Indiana, now live in Tennessee and Kentucky and Minnesota, and were not able to make it to our family wedding party last May. So I scurried around my closet searching for appropriate funeral clothes.
"Everything's hopelessly out of style," I moaned.
"Sweetheart." G spoke firmly. "We're going to Lebanon, Indiana. There is nothing you could wear that wouldn't shout 'New Yorker' at everyone. They will think everything you have is wonderful, and try to find out where they can get one."
G had spoken to the heart of the issue. We were going to the midwest. He knows that I have a tendency to romanticize the heartland. It's true, I do like to think of it as a place where rosy-cheeked farm wives bake fresh hot huckleberry pies while their husbands are out working the combine (not that I actually know what a combine is). Every now and then, G gently tries to help me understand that the farms have been sold to big bizzness and the farm wives have ditched their hand-stitched aprons for the pastel poly pantsuits they wear on their shopping trips to WalMart.
After a couple of grueling flights, a long wait for baggage, and confusion at the car rental counter, we arrived at the (dis)Comfort Inn at about 1:00 a.m. Our travel odyssey was mitigated only slightly by the immediate presence of a Steak 'n' Shake right outside the airport. G has long sworn that we would make our fortunes if only we could get hold of a franchise to open a Steak 'n' Shake in Times Square. Sort of a cross between fast food and a diner, Steak 'n' Shake's steakburgers and milkshakes are actually made of real food, rather than polyvinyl chloride, and taste accordingly. They also operate 24/7, which is all to explain why we were having milkshakes and fries (and in G's case, a steakburger) at midnight. Because it was there.
Since there's no longer a family homestead in Indiana, our options for breakfast before a long morning of viewing, funeral service and unmet relatives were limited. Sadly there were no farmwives anywhere offering to make us a hot homemade breakfast, so we were relegated to the tender mercies of Denny's, the threshold of which I've never crossed before -- partly because I simply don't eat fast food and partly for political/historical reasons. However, it was the closest option, and we were on a tight schedule. I will never eat at Denny's again, that much I can tell you. They may have come a long way toward eradicating the discriminatory policies that have plagued them for more than a decade, but there is simply no justification for a restaurant that encourages you to waste as much food as possible -- whether the waste means leaving it on your plate or simply eating far, far more than you need.
When G tried to order just eggs, the waitress told him that not only were the hash browns free with the full breakfast, but that if he ordered just the eggs as a side, it would cost him 20 cents MORE than if he ordered the full breakfast. When I tried to figure out how to order some eggs with just bacon OR sausage, rather than both, I discovered that it would cost $2.00 MORE than ordering one of their obscenely large breakfasts with several breakfast meats. This bothered me so much that I haven't been able to let go of it. This corporation is basically insisting, through economic persuasion, that people either overeat grossly or throw away food. No, I will never eat there again, unless those policies change radically as well.
G was right about my fashion statement, of course. I bonded with a cousin-in-law since we are both of the tribe of public educators. I was very much in keeping with the clothing of the day, since all the women seemed to be wearing long black wool skirts. My brocaded pashmina and my geode ring, however, came in for a great deal of admiration.
God was very much in attendance at Gramma's funeral service. For an ethnically Jewish/pagan/agnostic/I'll- find-my-own-spirituality-somewhere-or-other-urbanite, I've attended a fair amount of church, including my own niece and nephew's recent baptism at Park Avenue's posh R.C. outpost, St. Ignatius Loyola. But the services are always so ecumenical. There's lots of stuff about love and all, but only infrequent, tasteful mentions of God. Not so with the Presbyterian service in Lebanon. There were plenty of direct Bible quotations, psalms, prayer, and exhortations to reflect upon your own relationship with God the Father. It was kind of refreshing, actually. And it was truly an example of community in action. Gramma had not lived in this town for more than four years, but she had a very nice turn-out. People from the church and from other parts of the community remembered her and came to the service.
Afterward, the good ladies of the church served lunch to the family and friends of the bereaved. Again, something that someone like me only really knows from reading about it in books. As I somehow or other knew and predicted to G, we were served that midwestern favorite, hotdish. This particular exemplar included chicken, celery, rice, cheese, water chestnuts, and large quantities of canned cream soup. The water chestnuts came in for much favorable commentary at the lunch table. Later, in the car, G and I tried to deconstruct the dish a little more. "I think it was mostly cream-of-something soup," I said. "I think it was cream-of-cream soup," said G. "It might have been cream-of-soup soup," I replied. Finally we agreed that it had probably been cream-of-can soup.
But we were still in for the trip's culinary highlight -- something really and truly good. For years, G had told me that one of the only things he really liked to eat in Indiana was the fried catfish at a place called Stookey's, in a town called Thorntown. Since we had another night at the Comfort(less) Inn, with its excruciating excuse for beds, we needed a dinner option. So, together with G's parents (all other family had left town already), we drove out to Thorntown, to see if the myth (for me) and the memory (for them) of the fried catfish held true.
Stookey's bills itself as "family dining", and this is very much the case. A place of old-timey etched-logo windows and old-fashioned steakhouse seating, the waitresses check in with you every few minutes, and will not rest until they can refill your iced tea.
Salads and sides are pretty standard, although their vinegar-based coleslaw, which I did not try, is apparently famous. So too their onion rings, of which we had an appetizer order. Hot and crisp and homemade, they were some of the best I've had in recent memory.
But what you come to Stookey's for is the catfish. I was slightly taken aback to have a couple of entire fried fish, bones and tails and all, set down in front of me (above you can see G's plate of three fishies; mine was a two-plate). I suppose I'm used to getting filets when I order fried fish. G's mom coached me. "You have to kind of scrape it from the backbone, and then turn it over." This technique yielded mouthfuls of the sweetest meat and the crunchiest cornmeal breading I've ever tasted, and left neat skeletons on my plate. Worth a trip to Indiana, hopefully for happier reasons than ours.
So -- home again, home again, more awful, turbulent, storm-tossed flights (I've told you before how much I hate Delta, haven't I? And in addition to all their other sins, the only food they give you on the plane is the world's most miniscule, dollhouse-sized packet of approximately seven tiny, substandardly small peanuts. It made me long for Jet Blue, and a packet of blue chips or Dorito mix).
But someday soon, there will be better news to report, lifewise as well as foodwise. I have a birthday coming up in a few weeks, one of those numbers which is either the new twenty or the new thirty, can't decide which. And G and I are going to throw me a splendid party, with the help of a most darling and beloved cousin who's loaning out her spacious and lovely home. Maybe you'll help me figure out some of the delicious things I'm going to cook (hint -- I'm putting together a menu of lots of platters of tapas-style food, enough to constitute dinner, no need for main courses. We've figured out wines, but I want a nice fun fruity cocktail to serve. Any ideas for food or drink welcome). I've got sweet friends who are also accomplished bakers/cooks offering to make cakes and other goodies. And we've got a great music mix, so maybe we'll even have dancing. Despite being at the midpoint of life, lost in a dark wood, we're going to have fun, dammit.