Steam Festival - Part One

We are in South Dakota this morning (Sunday.) Sunny from two perspectives. On Friday we met in the Twin Cities with a prospective client who seems to have nearly perfect affinity with us: with our focus, our philosophy, and our principles. This left us feeling completely hopeful and optimistic for the drive West on Friday afternoon.

Nearly three hundred miles later, we arrived at about sunset at the H.O.T. Spot, a large truck garage and the acknowledged best restaurant in the area. The place is filled with men who seem to either be in denial about their true waist size or too cheap to buy a new belt. Buckles were well hidden, I suspect well imbedded, beneath what was in many cases impressive overhang. Many of the women, on the flip side, had somehow managed to develop a shelf-like space in their lower back- a place that Amy's brother described as being capable of displaying a full half case of beer. Shelf-butt he calls this. So, the couples arrived in matched opposites- hidden belt buckles opposing unused shelf space.

The regulars found a table- or a part of a table, as the place was filled to capacity- though no one was turned away. There was always, it seemed, a way to hunch over to make room for whoever arrived next. Everyone knew each other. Then, each disappeared toward the bar, returning not with icy beers but with a Styrofoam bowl of warm kraut, which each ate as if accepting a sacrament from the gods. Friday night must be kraut sacrament night at the H.O.T. Spot. Later a waitress arrived for drink orders, a choice of clear beers and soda pop, menus, and warm welcomes. If you don't feel genuinely welcome, you are not feeling here. These are real people; folks. There's not an ounce of airs or put-on among them. The men are farmers and their women teachers, nursing home assistants, or store clerks. Everyone works multiple jobs. Few make any money. Most are paper real estate millionaires and paupers at the grocery store. They grow gardens and talk commodity prices and weather it all with a wry humor, as if this were all a distantly funny joke they are forced to play. Resignation, said another way, perhaps, acceptance reins. There is a serious deficit of self obsession here. They know more than you'd ever want to know about self sacrifice and humility.

They keep warmly cluttered homes. The lawns are mowed but never manicured. Gardens are tidy without evident obsession. The purpose is maintained without show or excess. Farmers learn to pare elements down to essentials, understanding that tidy rarely carries to the bottom line. Further East, where the land is more settled and the weather less severe, farms are more idyllic- looking, like James Whitcome Riley's grandchildren. The farms here in the Dakotas retain their wild unmanageability- several years into a wet cycle have left some farms high and dry and inaccessible by land vehicle. Fields are islands and roads poorly maintained, Johnny-come-lately causeways. Ducks, deer, herons, and toads abound. Roads accumulate in tire wells. Garages are paved in acrid, musty deposits of the prairie's earth. Farmers here haven't made money in several seasons and this year, record yields will leave them losing money on every acre they bothered to plant. Planting at least maintains the soil, which increasingly is promised to the banks for last year's, the year before's, and the year before that's planting loan. Government insurance helps some. Everyone here knows all about keeping their head when treading water. Even though none of them expected to have to become champion treaders, each accepts this delt hand with the quiet, experienced acceptance each born here received as a birthright. There are few exceptions.

Everyone knows everyone else's business. This is like living in a society where everyone walks around in their underwear. No cover, no fooling... And it is with this background that each orders dinner at the H.O.T. Spot. An observant one would notice the similarity between what you order and what your dad and your grand dad ordered in their times. The taste for prime rib seems to run in families. Most order red meat and potatoes without evident self-consciousness. This is a land before cholesterol and winter's coming. The land is blanketed in bird life, swollen by the wealth of the harvest. I would not be surprised to find sparrows with their belt buckles imbedded under pin feathers, fat and ready for winter's bite. The communion between farmer's family and their feedbag continues. Huge, juicy steaks arrive. If it had been Saturday night, nine out of ten would be ordering the prime rib. Following the kraut, Friday's order's are less predictable but none the less fatty. French fries arrive which must have been cooked in pure lard, light and fresh and delicate as they are completely saturated. Bakers arrive with the fixin's unless warned off when ordering. A small loaf of bread follows the lettuce salad, exactly what my dad would order- chopped iceburg lettuce unencumbered by garnish, dressing, or skill- clearly the least important part of the meal. Something to crunch while finishing that first beer to cover the time it takes to cook the real food.

I order the baked walleye, asking for it without the spice, which I have not seen but which Amy warns me is a deadly dirt bath of Lawrey's Seasoned Salt. My baker comes dry, forlorn in a foil coffin. Amy's cheese burger is resplendent in juices and grease, her fries an enticing woodpile. I lose the wrestling match with both the walleye skin, steamed permanently to the filet, and my better judgment as I abandon both to play on the mound of fries. We leave little evidence of dinner ever having been there. A stray fin and some crumpled foil for me. A tell-tale slick for Amy. An empty bottle or two and a half short glass of tomato juice remaining from Amy's attempt at a local favorite, red beer.

I was uncomfortable as we made our way back to the car and continued the last ten miles to Andover, where Amy's father's house is located. The house smells closed-up musty. Amy opens windows as I park the car and start unloading. I check the fridge and acknowledge that Amy had been right, I should have bought whatever I would have wanted before we left the Twin Cities. There are no grocery stores here and there is no bread in this house.



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