Yes, there is an Iowa Pork Congress. Also, a Pork Queen (she was nice). I have yet to determine if there is a Pork Constitution or a Pork Supreme Court.
Anyway, Wednesday was their Winter Picnic, which involved feeding thousands of Iowans pig-based meat (in this instance, porkburgers). Best of all, it was free.
The setup at Capitol Square included a number of posters and banners advertising the benefits of pork, not only for your health, but also how good pork farmers are for Iowa in general. There were hundreds of seats about the atrium, about twenty or so per table. There was also a prize wheel where one could answer a trivia question about- you guessed it- pork. (I referred to it as a “Squeal of Fortune”. Get it?? I kill me!).Luckily, I was asked a question about the safe temperature to cook pork to; luckily, just over the Pork Queen’s shoulder was a banner proclaiming the answer to be 145°F. I won a Pork frisbee (not made of pork; just advertising it).
For all none of my readers who are wondering what the porkburger tasted like, I can honestly say it was pretty good, and I’d eat another if offered (in fact, I did, on my way out the door). It was sweet like lean pork can be if you cook it properly (145°F!), and it had a nice crispness to the outside. The texture is a bit strange for your first bite, but it’s not off-putting; it’s like a pork chop on a bun, but with the “formed, crumbly” sensation of a beef burger. I tried a bit with barbeque sauce and a bit without, and I can say that while the barbeque sauce added a welcome tanginess, the porkburger was fine prepared either way.So I had an awesome time. Good food, trivia questions, and the chance to do something that probably would never happen anywhere else but Des Moines. Next step: being elected as a Pork Senator. Wish me luck.
The Best American Science and Nature Writing - Mary Roach, Editor
The Everything Buddhism Book - Arnie Kozak
War is a Racket - Gen. Smedley D. Butler (Aside: I worked on a Marine Corps base on Okinawa named after Butler)
Freethinkers - Susan Jacoby
The Book of Genesis - Illustrated by R. Crumb (yes, that R. Crumb)
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien (hopefully the subject of an upcoming Big Read in Des Moines)
American Pastoral – Philip Roth (the first chapter is one of my favourite pieces of writing ever)
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
The Fry Chronicles – Stephen Fry (Autobiography)
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (aka: the GOP’s political platform, novelized)
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (to answer the inevitable question, I’d be Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky)
End this Depression Now! – Paul Krugman
The Real Elizabeth - Andrew Marr (Biography of Queen Elizabeth II)
Let me preface this by saying that I am the choir that Maddow preaches to with Drift, her first book. I spent four years in the U.S. Army, and, though I didn’t come remotely close to anything resembling combat, Maddow wisely highlights the financial and ethical costs that come with the military’s dependency on civilian contractors. Without going into specifics, I can say that I found myself nodding in agreement with Maddow’s assertions, awash in… nostalgia, perhaps? Certainly, this book brought back memories.
And that’s just one point in Maddow’s thesis: that going to war should be a painful, difficult decision for the nation. And she makes the case that it isn’t. “Support our Troops” makes for a great slogan on a magnetic ribbon (most likely made in China with no proceeds going to support veterans or troops), but how about, “Let’s Talk About This”? Maddow describes how we actually once believed that, in the event that we decided to go to war, it should be something that’s felt throughout the entire nation in personal and economic ways. This was the Abrams Doctrine: how a lifelong soldier and high-ranking General came to realize that when it was easy for a nation to go to war, they tended to do just that, and to the detriment of that nation.
Citing this cornerstone of post-Vietnam military philosophy, Maddow guides us through the history of how the Abrams Doctrine was born and, thanks to a succession of Neo-Conservatives and Presidents unwilling to give up their predecessors’ extensive power, how it came to be inverted (Dick Cheney makes a lot of appearances in this history). From Reagan through to Obama, we see how Presidents become accustomed to the power that comes with the office, and how separation from the Abrams Doctrine- purposeful or not- has caused unilateral declarations of military intervention to become simply another extension of policy.
Drift isn’t perfect; Maddow’s sarcasm can be jarring sometimes, and “Drift” can also apply to how Maddow structures her book. But she also addresses important aspects about our society and how it interacts with its gargantuan military and intelligence agencies. From unchecked growth to the near-complete removal of Congress’ role in making the decision to go to war, Maddow weaves a painting of American might which makes those Chinese ribbon magnets seem all the more troubling.
Since I went to The Fighting Burrito for a light lunch, I’m going to do a light review. Location: 13th St, just south of Grand. Decor: inviting and hip. Atmosphere: there were a lot of people there for lunch. Service: the dude who made my burrito seemed like a nice guy.
On to the important stuff.
The menu has a good variety of ingredients I’d expect in a burrito joint, and a few I wouldn’t. There are six specialty burritos (two vegetarian) in addition to a make-your-own option. I went with the Crazy Horse, made with shredded beef, wild rice, white and black beans, a spicy corn salsa, jalapenos, and a spicy peach-based hot sauce, all wrapped in a sun-dried tomato tortilla.
To start out, it wasn’t a mouthwatering trip south of the border- nor was I expecting it to be. It was an American version of a burrito; about as big as a bottle of soda and stuffed to the bursting point. The wrap was warmed a bit too hastily, as there was a streak of it still at room temperature near the center (not the fillings, I should point out; just the wrap). The wild rice was ever-so-slightly al dente, but I consider that a plus. The beef was soft and well seasoned, and the corn salsa was sweet, but had a nice kick. The best part of the Crazy Horse, however, was the peach-based hot sauce. It was intense but fruity, and it tied the burrito together well. It paired with the jalapeno and the beef excellently.
For a quick lunch, The Fighting Burrito is a good place to stop. It may not have the authenticity that one can easily find around this city, and it may be a bit more than one can take as a midday meal (I was definitely in a food coma for the afternoon), but I know that I’ll be coming back for more.
Total cost: $8 for a burrito and a fountain soda.
This one was a surprise, and in more ways than one. First off, I wasn’t planning on going to a restaurant today, not when there was a box of spaghetti calling my name. But on the way home from work, we passed Woody’s Smoke Shack, and my friend decided then and there that he needed some barbeque.
For all none of my readers, let me explain: we drive past Woody’s twice every workday, and I honestly have never been tempted to stop there. Sure, I might have added it when my weekly restaurant list started to grow thin, but to be honest, I’m not a fan of barbeque.
Let’s start with the lows. The decor was a bit kitschy, with the “Route 66/Americana” theme very prominent. The utensils are plastic. Water comes out of a big Gatorade jug. The chalkboard menu is a bit jumbled. The POS system is a cash register out of the 1980s.
But seven hells, it’s all worth it. I ordered the quarter-rack of baby back ribs with mac & cheese and hot apples as my sides; my friend ordered the pulled pork and a beef brisket. Total cost was less than $25 for the two of us. And best of all, the orders each came with a side of complimentary cornbread. This cornbread was perfectly sweet; it was soft and fluffy, almost like a white cake in texture. I ate four pieces of it, and my friend had two. The cornbread alone makes a visit worth the trip.
My friend and I were alone in the dining area (a very small one at that, with only a handful of tables), so our orders were prepared quickly. Right away, I was impressed by the colour and the smell of the ribs; Woody’s uses a dry rub, but the meat stays moist enough that it could be mistaken as a sauce. The meat pulled easily off the bone, revealing a deep smoke ring and a beautiful pink inside. The flavours penetrated all the way through, with every fleck of meat containing a sweet, spicy warmth. I was even able to wrest away a sample of the beef brisket; it was wonderfully tender, with the same flavours and juciness that I enjoyed about my ribs.
The food wasn’t entirely perfect, though. The brisket came on what was clearly a store-bought hamburger bun. The mac & cheese, while passable elsewhere, came off as mediocre in comparison to the entree. The apples were too soft, and the cinnamon was too weak to impart any flavour to the dish. Again, the quality of the meats only served to make the sides seem worse by comparison.
All in all, though, Woody’s Smoke Shack was a detour I enjoyed taking. If I wasn’t a fan of barbeque before, Woody’s has certainly given me food for thought. Perhaps this barbeque denier might even find himself eating there again.
Total cost: $25.ooish. I dunno, I didn’t pay for it.
The first place I chose for my weekly experiment was Café Fuzion, a small Thai/Vietnamese restaurant in a strip mall on E. 14th St. (Capitol East district). The restaurant came highly recommended by a co-worker, and has received rave reviews on Urban Spoon.
Despite its surroundings- a strip mall with payday loan and rent-to-own storefronts- Café Fuzion is a hidden gem in Des Moines. Unlike the dull stucco facade, the interior of the store is a rich, warm red, with plenty of decor to attract one’s attention, from statues of the Buddha both gold and earthen, to the colourful photographs of the restaurant’s offerings.
Besides my friend and me, there was only one other table of diners on a Friday night. I hope that, as word gets out about this restaurant, it will receive the number of guests it properly deserves. We were promptly seated and attended to, ordering a pot of hot tea and an order of Dragonwings as an appetizer. Although the tea was rather weak and generic (it seemed like a mass-market tea rather than a stronger tea one could easily find in any Asian market), the Dragonwings were simply fantastic: appropriately spicy, with a strong hint of sweet and savoury Asian flavours.
Following our appetizer, I ordered the medium-size bowl of Pho with beef, tendons, and tripe; my friend ordered the Pad Thai. Our meals came promptly, perhaps five to ten minutes after we’d finished our Dragonwings; the Pho was steaming and aromatic. The “medium” serving bowl was about as big as half a basketball; much larger than I had anticipated. I added a good helping of sprouts (a personal favourite) and a few basil leaves fresh off the branch (literally; I pulled them myself). Both the sprouts and basil, as well as bottles of Hoisin and Srirachia sauce, were provided as an addition to the meals.
I found the Pho to be rich and comforting, reminding me of the best street vendors I’d frequented during festivals in Japan. The tripe and beef were soft and buttery, while the tendons imparted a great deal of flavour to the broth. There were generous portions of all three ingredients in the Pho. Additionally, the noodles were velvety and soft, just the right vehicle for this excellent dish.
The broth itself, however, was the star of the show. It was perfectly infused with the flavour of the beef tendons, with just the right amount of fattiness from the beef itself; not so much that it coated the tongue, but added to its richness. My only complaints were that I was looking for a bit more spiciness, and that the spoon the Pho was served with was much too small for the task. Given the choice of an hour of ladling or a to-go container, I chose the latter.
In fact, my main criticism of Café Fuzion is one of aesthetics, rather than food-related. The chairs and tables were obviously bought on the cheap, and the silverware sets were of middling quality, most likely selected for price rather than utility. Also, there were moments where the waitstaff left the dining floor unattended- a personal pet peeve of mine. But these are minor flaws, easily corrected in the future. What I want all none of my readers to take away from my visit to Café Fuzion is a wonderful visit to an unexpected location, where I was reminded of my time in Asia in the most savoury of ways.
P.S.: As I mentioned, my friend ordered the Pad Thai. I wish I could describe the dish to you as other than visually appealing, but I was unable to wrestle a sample from my friend’s plate, as he guarded it with all the tenacity of a junkyard dog. When asked about the dish, my friend only replied with, “it was great!” A born writer, that one.
Total cost: $29.00 for two, including tax and tip.