You cannot understand a nation’s culture without eating its food

That was the motto painted on the wall of the North Sea Village, a Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh, about 20 years ago.  I don’t know if the restaurant is still there (probably not) nor which North Sea village its name referred to (Inverbervie?  Sandhaven?) But I still like the motto.  So, in one more Tour Top Ten, I offer you:

TEN MOST MEMORABLE WAYS TO UNDERSTAND THE USA.

1. Czech-American Restaurant, West, TX.  On our way up from Austin to the Tommy Duncan Festival in Hillsboro, we stopped at West, site of a previous culinary pilgrimage for me about 15years ago.  Last time I’d been mildly disappointed, this time I found the right place and was wildly excited: at last, Czech food of great flavour and character in a community still influenced by its original central European settlers 150-odd years ago.  The Czech-American is a somewhat dilapidated joint, ancient pictures hanging off the walls, lighting somewhat murky, fittings a little mix ‘n’ match.  My guess is they’re too busy cooking great food to worry about fripperies like interior design.  It had to be smoked sausage with sauerkraut and Czech fries…yup, good choice…washed down with iced tea.  There are shinier, better-lit places in West, but this is the real deal, and a fine introduction to the Texan melting pot.

2.  Hermitage Cafe, Nashville, TN.  3am breakfast of omlettes, biscuits & gravy, bacon, orange juice, coffee – distributed amongst everyone in different proportions – and the best jukebox of the whole darn trip, pumping out Hank, Left, Loretta and a host of other historic honky tonk greats to a cafe full of current honky tonk greats sharing our breakfast: Chris Scruggs, Danny Mohammed, Scott Icenogle and last but not least Craig Smith. Perfect refuelling stop after a fantastic day and night of music-making and listening on Lower Broadway.

3.   Smitty’s Barbecue, Lockhart, TX.  By general consensus the best of several good barbecues in Lockhart.  I was last here about 1999, when it was still called Kreutz Market. Following a family split, Kreutz moved to a big new location elsewhere in town, but the magic seems to have stayed here in the old building.  Beef brisket tender as marshmallow, and nearly as sweet…  40 miles or so outside of Austin, but unmissable.

4.  Triple XXX Diner, West Lafayette, IN.  A haven of good old fashion American cooking in the fast-food hell that was the Purdue campus.  Sure, they sell root beer, milk shakes, fries, cherry pies and burgers – but all of these things are made here, freshly made, expertly made, made with love and care!  Not much wonder their speciality burger, the Duane Purvis  All American, had reached the finals of the Superbowl Sandwich competition while we were there.

A unique and striking burger, made special by having dollops of peanut butter smeared over the chopped sirloin after cooking and before bunning, this was a memorable treat washed down by a pitcher of their own root beer.  This is the American diner you’ve always dreamed of.

 

 

5.  A tiny taqueria somewhere on the outskirts of Lafayette, IN.  We were whisked in here so quickly by Paul Baldwin, local man about town and owner of the excellent Black Sparrow pub (no mean eatery itself: the blue cheese and fig pizza was our fave), so quickly, I say, that we didn’t catch the name.  The menu two was merely waved in front of us, as Paul recommended one thing in particular: ox tongue tacos.  I’m glad he did: they were fantastic: simple, fresh and flavoursome.  Street-food simple, I suppose you’d say.  And all the better for it.  Mexican food in the UK is rubbish: it buries itself under a burden of refried beans, stodgy rice, guacamole, salsas, corn, tomatoes, grated cheese, multiple flatbreads and pounds of meat.  Here’s the secret, guys: keep it as simple as this and you’ve got one of the world’s great cuisines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

6.  Birrieria Zaragoza, Chicago, IL.  It was only me who went here, no one else fancied it.  Well, it was a dozen or so miles out of the city centre in an area that we were advised to avoid.  The other thing that might have put folk off was that the only dish it serves is goat meat.  Not to worry, I persuaded two Chicago resident friends, Gene and Debby, who had never heard of it and were not overwhelmed with anticipation, to drive me down there and use their excellent Spanish to smooth the way.  (Not essential, but I think it helped get us an even warmer welcome than we would have done.)  So, nothing but goat…to be precise steamed and braised goat meat, served in a deep, subtle ancho chile sauce.  Accompanied by a picante salsa in a granite bowl, and condiments: lime quarters, diced raw peppers, cilantro (coriander leaves) and dried chile peppers of some kind.  And lots of paper napkins to wipe the inevitably sticky fingers.  Ask Gene and Debby, folks, it was an absolute joy: simple food cooked to perfection.  They’re on the web if you want to check them out, or better still just pop down to 852 South Pulaski Road: a Polish name but a Mexican neighbourhood…and a chowhound’s dream.

7.  Cartino Italian Restaurant, Chicago, IL.  A fantastic procession of Italian ‘tapas’ – i.e. small pizzas, pasta bowls, saucers of octopus, parma ham, cheese, etc – to celebrate Dick’s birthday.  Checked tablecloths, giant pepper grinders, cheap red wine…the works. We all had a great time.  (Me, Stevie and Emma had a great brunch the next day, too, at Lula’s Cafe.  A very hip place with a good wine list – including an Arbois from the Jura – wow – though we didn’t sample it at brunch, you’ll be glad to hear.)

8.  Texas de Brazil, Chicago IL.  A woman in a lift recommended this to Dick, and he recommended it to me and Iain.  A good tip, lady…  The idea was to marry the beef-overload culture of Texan cowboys with the, eh, beef-overload culture of Brazilian gauchos.  So you paid a set price ($45, the dearest meal of our trip) and for that got unlimited supplies of freshly grilled beef (various cuts) delivered to your plate on three-foot-long skewers by guys in gaucho gear (several of whom turned out to be Romanian, not Brazilian, but never mind.)  Also sausages, lamb chops and quarter chickens.  They just kept coming, the meat kept piling up faster than we could eat it – till we discovered that if you turned over a little card by your water glass so the red rather than the green side was uppermost, they stopped persecuting you with their delicious, succulent fillets and strips…  Here’s the funny thing, we would happily have paid almost as much money not to have eaten meat at all, and just to have feasted on the fantastic salad and vegetable buffet, all of it sparklingly fresh.  We saw more vegetables this night than we had in the whole of the previous two weeks in Texas and Indiana!  In fact, the three of us probably ate more vegetables this one night than the population of Texas…  To cap it all, if anyone ordered a bottle of wine, a waitress swung down on a trapeze, twirling head over heels as she went, and plucked the required bottle from its shelf on the three-storey-high wine shelving, behind smoked glass, all along the side wall of the restaurant.  It was the stupidest feature I have ever seen in any restaurant anywhere…and another reason to check out this remarkable place.  (Bizarrely, vegetarians would actually eat better here than in most other places we tried across the US.)

9.  Spruce Creek Diner, a few miles outside Huntingdon, PA.  Local presenter and all round good egg Chad Herzog drove us to this place after an early morning visit to an Amish/Mennonite market nearby for pepper & garlic cashews and fresh (non-alcoholic) sweet apple cider.  Spruce Creek Diner is famed for its speciality, the Tray of Fries.  (Which, to the uninitiated, is indeed a trayful of chips.)  A ‘Wall of Shame’ inside the front porch shows photos of the handful of folk who have eaten a whole tray themselves and lived.  We managed a tray (just) between six of us.  Also worth a mention is the soup of the day that day, a sirloin burger broth, and the pies from the bakery next door.  Afterwards we walked, or waddled, fifty yards to what is supposedly the best trout fishing stream in the USA.  Enthusiasts pay many thousands of dollars to come and fish here.  They could come to Stenness Loch in orkney and fish for trout for free (and keep what they catch, rather than having to throw them back…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

10.  A dozen Apalachicola oysters (‘the best in the state’) in Bird’s Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack, Tallahassee, FL.  $8 for 12 oysters!  Luxury at fast food prices!

Let’s leave it there: I’m full…

. . .

PS  Except maybe just…how about a milk shake at the Triple XXX?  http://youtu.be/h5qicdxIyIo

PPS  You want cheese on that?

Pennsylvania!

Seems like ages since I posted anything here. The days have been whizzing past… We’ve now made it to the 4th of our 5 destinations – Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Chicago was full of so many great experiences, especially the sell out shows at the iconic Hideout Club so it was kinda sad to be moving on. Such a fantastic city, and for me one that perfectly captures beauty, serenity and city mayhem. But it was time to hit the road. We landed here Monday, to a contrasting landscape to Chicago but an equally beautiful one – rolling hills, wide open fields and classic American red farm barns speckled everywhere – like where Superman grew up, as Dick put it. We were met by our host Chad Herzog, the Director of Performing Arts at Juniata College, where our next show will be on Friday this week.

As in Chicago we arrived to unseasonal winter weather of blue sky sunshine, and no snow. We took a stroll over to Huntingdon for a look round – a gorgeous little town, and recently voted by Budget Travel Magazine as the 5th Coolest small town in America.

A fine feed and a few beers in the local diner rounded off a day of travel. Chad has been taking great care of us and has shown us some local sights these past couple of days including Raystown Lake, a beautiful 28 mile long man made lake – probably pinned with people in the summer but deserted this time of year so good chance for a stroll. Plenty of bears around apparently, but snoozing this time of year thankfully.

Then for a tour round Lincoln Caverns, a network of underground caves with gorgeous sparkling formations.

As I’d feared, there was a bat, but only one and he was asleep. Dick got his first Billy Connolly since we got to the States! A common occurence for him apparently in Scotland, Dick tells us his record is 20 in Glasgow, including a drive-by roar from a passing vehicle.

Thomas Fraser popped into my head when the guide was telling us the caves were discovered in 1931, the year he was diagnosed with polio, and the beginning of his 2 years confinement to bed. Not sure what he would have made of the being 30 feet underground. Good acoustics though so he might have been keen to get reel to reel down there for a few songs.

Got in another few local sights today, including lunch at Spruce Creek Tavern, famed for their ‘tray of fries’. Too much for Duncan to resist.. Och, well not quite… they were for us all. In usual ‘Lone Star Swing’ banter style, it was too good a opportunity of revenge for Dick to miss tho… (you’ll get the idea from the photos below). The Duncan & Dick Show could be a go-er…

Teaching Chicago to yodel

Well, I am sure that Thomas Fraser would never have suspected he would be the cause of me getting up at 7am to cab it down to an excellent radio station (WBEZ) and teach Chicago how to yodel.

http://www.wbez.org/episode-segments/2012-02-03/lone-star-swing-band-resurrects-obscure-scottish-musician-96091

This was last Friday. So much happened in Chicago that it was hard to find time to mention even a quarter of it here. We have two days off in rural Pennsylvania now (aruments rage in the band if the landscape here is more reminiscent of Aviemore or Drumnadrochit) and so I hope to find time to blog a bit.

Honky Tonkin’

The Hideout Club is our venue for our Chicago shows. There could be no greater contrast to the glitzy, towering, steel, stone and glass skyscrapers that dominate downtown Chicago, and impressed us so much when we arrived. The Hideout is altogether more HUMAN.

It’s a tiny wooden building, dating back to around the time of WW2, at which point Wabansia St was a working class neighbourhood with lots of little houses and diners in a similar style. Over the decades all of those small buildings have been swept away and replaced by warehouses and big shed wholesalers. And more than a few waste lots. It reminds me of certain parts of Leith…before the gentrification.

Next door is the Chicago fleet management HQ, where all the snowploughs head out from (and usually they see a lot of work – last year this time there were feet of snow. It’s unseasonably warm and dry right now though, which makes getting around much easier – though it does make the big fleecy Chicago coat I bought, and that fills half my suitcase, completely redundant! Ah well, I will get the good of it back in Orkney…)

Across the street is the yard where they park Chicago’s garbage trucks. On the horizon, five or six miles south, is downtown…like Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.

The Hideout has been, for 15 years or so, not a struggling pub in a neighbourhood with very few neighbours. Rather, it’s been a seven nights a week venue for any kind of edgy independent music anyone wants to put on: country, blues, jazz, punk, anything. They also stage their own pantomimes, using staff members, regular musical performers and regular customers as the cast. There’s a real feeling of community, of support.

We certainly found that putting on our show. The stage is tiny – reminiscent of the Cromarty Hall in St Margaret’s Hope, where we first did this show in October 2009 – and the hall is tiny too: 100 people have jammed into it the past two nights. It’s wood lined, studded with old posters, fishing trophies, leftover props from the pantos (a rocking horse, a fake throne made for Mavis Staples) but the acoustics are great and the atmosphere even better. Thursday’s show was good, Friday’s was one of the best ever. And last night’s audience threw themselves into the Strip the Willow with wild abandon – fantastic!

Dick and Iain have been throwing themselves into show preparations with their usually energy, as the pictures show. And Lynda was throwing in all kinds of wild, inventive solos last night – it’s great when the drive and inventiveness of the music comes together with a responsive, enthusiastic audience. Once again we thought of Thomas Fraser: he had the drive, the invention in bucketloads, but shied away from such audiences. I can’t help but think he would have felt right at home here – we certainly do.

 

Suite Home Chicago

Excuse the terrible pun…that is actually the name of the apartment block that the band and the rest of the NTS team are staying in. The comfort of the rooms and the stunning high-rise views (I’m on the 28th floor…) are appropriately mind-blowing. After 24 hours in Chicago we are still reeling from the scale and verve of architecture, the bustle of the streets, and the proliferation of neon-signed bars, diners and restaurants.

We came to love Lafayette, Indiana, during our time there at Purdue University – but that was a small town, not not much bigger than Kirkwall or Lerwick. Suddenly we are at the heart of a huge metropolis – and we’re already loving it here too.

What would Thomas have made of it? Hard to say, but Karl, Thomas’s grandson, who has come over to see the show in three of the five US venues, might be able to give us some notion when we next catch up with him: he has been researching the life of a close relation of Thomas’s, who left Shetland before Wold War Two and lived here for several decades. Supposedly she lived and worked in close proximity to some of Chicago’s more notorious characters…but I will let Karl that tale. When she returned to Shetland in her old age, she cut a colourful figure by all accounts, with salty language, fur coats, and pearl handled revolvers.

Thomas would undoubtedly have been knocked sideways by this town – the crowds, the buildings blocking out the sky, the constant sirens – but I’m equally sure he would have revelled in the music here: blues, jazz and country seem to be the thing, in that order. If we can find them, we aim to visit Chess Records studios later in the week. Today we checked out a fantastic hub called the Old Town School of Folk Music (www.oldtownschool.org) (like the Wrigley Sisters’ Reel, but ten times the size.) Last night we went to a gig at our venue, the Hideout Club by one of my all time favourite songwriters, Robbie Fulks (www.robbiefulks.com.) He did a varied and virtuosic set – I hadn’t realised what a stunning guitarist he is, as well as writing all those fine, fierce, funny songs – and also had the audience in stitches with his sardonic patter. His mix of yarns and music was actually only about two steps away from Long Gone Lonesome…

Which would be a fine place to stop, but I can’t resist including this link to a local magazine, which names us as the ‘No 1 thing to Do in Chicago in February’ http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/February-2012/Five-Best-Things-to-Do-in-February-in-Chicago/

The good press is working: all four shows are already sold out… I’ll let you know how we get on.

Duncan