When hungry in Fairfield, Texas, do like the Fairfielders

Fairfield, Texas, population 3,094, used to be a sleepy, one-exit town. Blink once and miss it. There isn’t a lot between Dallas and Houston on Interstate 45, but after you’ve left the greater metropolitan Corsicana area, Fairfield is your last chance gas for the next hour.

Driving to Conroe, Texas, for a family visit, we actually made it through Dallas without hitting a traffic jam. In and of itself, that qualifies as a modern miracle, on par with Burger King actually getting your drive-through order correct. My wife, a Texas native and veteran of the drive twixt Dallas and Houston, was certain – as certain as breathing – that there were almost no dining options in Fairfield.

That might have been true for the old Fairfield, not for the dynamic new cosmopolitan Fairfield. My wife was aghast – and she is rarely if ever aghast – that Fairfield had grown to two exits with restaurants, fast food joints and greasy spoons galore.

Fairfield had become the fine dining hub of Freestone County. Well, maybe, the dining hub of Freestone County. OK, maybe just the grub hub of Freestone County. Whatever it was, when you’re profoundly hungry and road kill begins to look appetizing, every restaurant in Fairfield suddenly has three stars in the Michelin Guide.

Sam’s Restaurant, Ponte’s Diner, Texas Burger, Cole’s Barbeque, Roblow’s Café … Taco Bell, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Jack in the Box, Dairy Queen … and the I-45 Restaurant.

From this cornucopia, we had to choose a place that would get us in and out quickly and food that didn’t taste like deep fried lard. Naturally, to fit all these criteria we choose KFC. All of their advertising promoted a new menu of “grilled chicken.” Unfried, they say. But we bought into the dream, the dream of tasty grilled chicken. Alas, some dreams die on the vine.

After paying, we heard someone in the back of the restaurant yell, “tell them it will be 18 minutes.” Now friends, were I sitting down at a white tablecloth restaurant for a seven-course meal, I’d wait 18 minutes. At KFC during lunch rush for an item heavily promoted but out of stock, not so much. Refund our money. I won’t be back. I carry grudges.

Then what to our wandering eyes should appear but the I-45 Restaurant and a sign saying Eat Here. Across the dusty haze of the Shell station and the gravel hardpan that is its driveway, the I-45 Restaurant is not much to look at, not much to inspire confidence, but hunger can drive people to make desperate choices. Think of the last time you ate at Arby’s.

First impression: Apparently they still allow smoking in Texas restaurants. It’s been years since I’ve been in a restaurant that allowed smoking. When was the last time you had an ashtray at your table? As a former smoker, I know the allure of the demon weed, the cancer stick, the nail in your coffin. Camel Lights and a turkey club, two great tastes that taste great together. My wife wondered if there was a no smoking section. Technically, yes – it’s called “your car in the parking lot.” But never mind, lunch awaited.

Our waitress bought water and menus. She said it was chicken day, meaning chicken livers, chicken gizzards and chicken fried steak were the daily specials. I have very few hard and fast rules about eating, but internal organs are always off limits. And don’t talk to me about natural sausage casings. It’s different. Yes it is. Because I said so. (Speaking of natural sausage casings, what was the thought process when the first person rinsed out animal intestines to use in food storage and preparation? Talk about an a-ha moment.)  We perused the menu. We were not hopeful.

My wife ordered hamburger steak smothered in brown gravy and grilled onions, with sides of turnip greens and a bowl zucchini and tomatoes. I went the safe route: western omelette and side of ham. Our waitress asked if I wanted hash browns. No thanks, says I, I’m trying a low-carb diet. How about some tomatoes, she suggests, for the lycopene? When a waitress is looking to load me up on antioxidants to neutralize free radicals, I’ll take her recommendation any day. Bring on the ‘maters.

While our food was being prepared, we surveyed our surroundings. I wish I could wax rhapsodically about the décor, but its booths and tables are straight out of a 1957 diner supply catalog. It has a juke box and an empty pie cooler. The ceiling tiles hadn’t been cleaned or replaced since, well, let’s just say Eisenhower was still a household name.

When our waitress came with our orders, we thought she was delivering relief supplies for a small country.

My wife’s hamburger steak as big as the spare tire of an ’88 Lincoln Town Car. She is a good child of the south, accustomed to large flat, things grilled or fried, smothered with gravy (pick a color: white or brown). Apparently whatever manner of fish, fowl or filet is underneath doesn’t really matter. Gravy on anything makes it better. It’s the law below the Mason-Dixon Line.

My omelette was the size of baby wombat and the side of ham was the thickness of a small garden paving stone. Now, let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the I-45 Restaurant makes a killer western omelette. And a great side of ham.

My wife took small bites of her turnip greens and tomato and zucchini and closed her eyes. Her face melted into a degree of bliss I’ve only seen on her when our grandson demonstrates his superior powers of cuteness. She couldn’t say enough good things about her vegetables. She was enraptured. She was mesmerized and beguiled, all by turnip greens, zucchini and tomatoes.

On our way out, I managed to slow the blur of motion that was our waitress and tell her that lunch was fantastic. Just fantastic.

So the next time you find yourself in Freestone County and need a bite to eat, head over to the I-45 Restaurant, next to the Shell station and the pool hall. Tell ‘em Phil sent you.

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Filed under Food, Humor, travel

Fine Dining in Ulysses, Kansas

Within 24 hours, I had one of the best meals and one of the worst meals of my life. Both were in Ulysses, Kansas.

My wife runs a statewide non-profit agency and was visiting the affiliate in Ulysses. I tagged along for the ride. The 8-hour ride. Ulysses, Kansas, is a pleasant little dot on the map in southwestern Kansas where our Sunflower State meets both Oklahoma and Colorado. It has a beautiful public library, a quaint little downtown, a nice art gallery, pleasant people and not a lot of dining options.

Our first night in town, we asked the hotel desk clerk where we could get a nice meal. She said that a new “supper club” was “good but kind of pricey” and also mentioned a popular Mexican food restaurant. We love Mexican, don’t like pricey, and were off to Pablo’s. Southwest Kansas has seen a dramatic influx of Latino immigrants over the last 20 years, so we felt confident that would translate to good dining choices. My wife has lived most of her life in Houston and has a discerning palate for Mexican food. What could possibly go wrong?

The parking lot was full, a good sign. It turned out to be more like a bad omen. A cavernous building, Pablo’s was packed with seemingly happy people, lots of couples, families, double dates.

Let’s start with chips and salsa. Chips: not great, not terrible.

Salsa: it was perhaps the worst salsa on Planet Earth, most likely concocted from Campbell’s tomato soup and a splash of Tabasco. Eskimos have better salsa. Prisons have better salsa. Eskimo prisons have better salsa. If chips and this salsa had washed up on the island that Tom Hanks inhabited in “Cast Away,” he would have thrown them back into the sea.

Their “spicy queso” was melted Velveeta with mild and not many jalapeños. However, it tasted like the finest Beluga caviar in comparison to the salsa. Time for the entrée. What could possibly go wrong?

The sopapillas stuffed with green chiles and cheese looked interesting enough. We ordered, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. Our prayers were not answered. God must have been letting prayers go to his Holy Answering Machine that evening.

Not only was the dish, umm, bland at best, the center was chilled to within a few degrees of Arctic. Bad Mexican food + low temperatures = absolutely inedible. We left after a few bites. We couldn’t fake our way through the meal. So much for Pablo’s. I believe the golden arches got some extra business that night.

All we needed was food poisoning to complete the full Pablo’s experience. I feel confident they will lose one of their Michelin stars because of this review. At least we didn’t get Pablo’s Revenge.

The following night we decided to go to the pricey supper club, The Landmark.

Hallelujah.

The Landmark is a small, nondescript building with limited dining space. What they saved on ambience was used in the kitchen. They have a small salad bar, drinks in plastic glasses, plastic tablecloths. Green beans were served in a little fruit cup on the side. But so what.

The steaks were sublime.

My wife had a Kansas City Strip and I had a Rib Eye. They had us at hello.

Tender, juicy, subtle. The flavor was transcendent and awe-inspiring. Truly, I can’t express how good those steaks were. I don’t think Faulkner could have said how good these steaks were in fewer than 832 pages. But, of course, Faulkner couldn’t describe walking to his mailbox in less than 600 pages.

I urge anyone within an 8-hour drive of Ulysses, Kansas, to head to the Landmark Restaurant, 538 S Main St. You won’t be sorry. 

A note to my dear reader: Pablo’s is a pseudonym. In the event that someone from Ulysses reads this, likes Pablo’s, knows others who like Pablo’s, knows the owners of Pablo’s (it’s a small town) or just doesn’t want someone bad-mouthing their fine, little town, I’ll keep Pablo’s real name secret so they let me back into town so I can eat at The Landmark again.

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My view of Afghanistan

My wife’s family has a large e-mail network of cousins, uncles, aunts and people like me who’ve married into this large, opinionated and loving family. Controversial topics discussed on the cousins network include “Okra: Love it or leave it.” Recently one of the cousins posed a truly controversial question: What do you think of President Obama’s options regarding Afghanistan policy. He summarized the policy options as followed:

1) Accept the Military’s view that what would be a fairly significant escalation in the number of soldiers and associated weaponry committed to this effort, would achieve the objectives of a stable region and an effective elimination of the Al Qaeda threat, all within a reasonable (?) time frame.

2) Acknowledgment of the virtual impossibility of ever making meaningful headway in this strife-torn region ruled by corrupt politicians and/or tribal chiefs, and initiate a controlled, gradual withdrawal which replaces military efforts with financial, technical, etc. assistance. Further military action against Al Qaeda would be limited to special forces operations, as Intelligence supports. (Perhaps best subcontracted to Israel, since they are crackerjack at this sort of thing.)
 
3) Reduced but continuing military involvement based on greater use of remote-controlled weaponry visa foot soldiers. The intention here would be to continue the military pressure but in ways that would not entail the loss of life and limb that full-scale military operations do, while making use of advanced weapons developed for this purpose. This concept falls somewhere between 1) and 3) above. It is part of a military initiative to reduce dependency on the foot soldier in future military actions. I believe this is the approach VP Biden has endorsed.
 
Several people weighed in. Below is my repsonse:
  
     “For my first foray into the cousins network, I was hoping for a more lightweight topic, like defending people who enjoy clubbing baby seals or gay married abortionist gun rights enthusiasts…. I’m sure those discussions will show up at a later time….
     “I agree that we had to root out the people who attacked us after 9/11. We got most of them and, in what I believe to be a military-industrial, politically-motivated, profit-making-for-those-in-power decision, left the bogeyman (bin Laden) alive so this country would remain at war. But as then-Sec’y of State Gen. Colin Powell said (and was excoriated by his political bosses later), when invading a country “you break it, you bought it.” We’ve broken both Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to fix them. 
     “We have a moral obligation to fix what we’ve broken, to end what we’ve begun.  We’re not going to be able to do it with soldiers. We’re going to do it with sewers and schoolteachers and health clinics and agricultural specialists and roads and civil engineers and electricity that works all the time and the basics of functioning society that offer the civilians a better life. If you give them a better country, they’ll reject the extremists. A man with a job who can feed his family is a lot less likely to pick up a gun and point it at you.
     “The Afghan government is as corrupt as they come, even moreso than New Jersey. That’s saying something. Eight years after we invaded, the Taliban still control most of the country, including the world’s most lucrative opium fields. The Afghan president’s brother is a narco-trafficker. Villages, clans, tribes, valleys have been fighting each other since, well, since forever. No US troop escalation will end regional and religious animosities that go back to the 8th century.
     “It costs somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million per soldier per year to be deployed in a combat zone. We have about 65,000 troops in Afghanistan now. Obama will likely add about 35,000 more. Imagine how many schools and health clinics and roads the funding required to maintain an army that size could build. I realize this is a very Pollyanna, swords into plowshares, can’t we all just get along and sing Kumbaya attitude. But it’s also realpolitik; we simply can’t afford — in blood and treasure — to continue to do what we’re doing.
      “There are some very evil people out there. Twenty of them, funded by a small band of nut jobs, attacked us in Sept. 2001. We’ll always need well-armed men and women to protect us at home and abroad. They are willing to die for us. The least we can do for them is not put them in harm’s way when it’s not necessary. It’s not necessary for them to be there anymore.
      “It is necessary for the US to build a functioning Afghanistan so that the last eight years will have been worth something, that all the casualties — US military and Afghan civilians — will not have been in vain. After rebuilding Afghanistan, maybe we can begin on New Orleans.”
So that’s what I think about Afghanistan policy. Your thoughts?

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The incredibly sorry saga of the Roasted Garlic Peppercorn Sauce

It was my night to cook. That’s usually not a cause for concern, but tonight would be different.

My wife, a marvelous, adventurous cook who can improvise in the kitchen the way Don Rickles can on stage, was working late. So being the gracious husband I am, I said I’d make dinner. I’m no Iron Chef, but I can get by, especially with gentle, loving guidance and a well-tested recipe.

I was in the mood for pasta tonight. No problem. No one can screw up pasta. No one.

The only reason I wanted to make pasta was the baguette I had purchased. It’s perfect for garlic bread. Maybe structuring the entire meal around a tall, skinny loaf of gluten isn’t such a great idea, but I was going to run with it.

Because I was told we didn’t have any pasta sauce in the pantry, I was using company time to research easy and flavorful cream sauce recipes on cooking Web sites. I found one I thought I could handle, which would also stretch my culinary chops, so to speak: Roasted Garlic Peppercorn Sauce. Rated 4 stars out of 5 by users of the site. “Fast, easy and delicious,” raved workingmom49 of Schenectady. No one can screw up this sauce. No one.

First, cut the tops off two cloves of garlic, drizzle them in olive oil and roast them at 325 degrees for 45 minutes. So far, so good. Flash forward to taking the garlic out of the oven. Maybe I left them in for a few minutes too long or maybe our oven bakes a little too hot, but there were certainly usable. Onward to the much-awaited cream sauce.

The recipe calls for a standard butter, flour, milk mixture. Let that come to a boil. It looked a little thin, but it’ll thicken. Just follow the recipe.

Time for the garlic bread. One of my favorite foods in the entire universe. Baguette split, butter melted, garlic minced, bread buttered, spices spread and into the oven. Bake it for a few minutes, then a moment of browning under the broiler. I’ve done this before. No one can screw up garlic bread. No one.

For the sauce, I’m supposed to crush a tablespoon of peppercorns. After several minutes of looking in every drawer in the kitchen and finding every single kitchen implement conceivable EXCEPT a mortar and pestle (Why do we have three peelers? How many melon ballers does one family really need?), I decided to use the back of a large spoon. It was supposed to produce the same result, except now the peppercorns shoot out from underneath the spoon at warp speed if I hold the spoon slightly askew. Within a few moments, the countertop looks like an accident site at a ball bearing factory. Peppercorns are flying thick and fast.

Time to start the bowtie pasta. Bowties, the cutest of all the pasta shapes.

Unfortunately, the sauce isn’t quite thickening up. Maybe a little higher heat. I mean, I’m following the recipe exactly. I added the roasted garlic, now smashed under my peppercorn-encrusted spoon, and let the flavors meld. A little taste should give me direction on seasoning. Now, I’m sure all of us had tasted library paste at some time. The library paste at my grade school was a Dom Perignon ’53 compared to the witches brew I had going. After adding salt and the peppercorns, it tasted like library paste with salt and peppercorns. Actual library paste would have been an improvement.

OH CRAP, THE GARLIC BREAD.

When I opened the oven door there was a cloud of smoke thick enough to show up on weather radar. I grabbed the pan and ran it to the back porch to vent the house. I let it sit on the patio table, where it would hopefully decay into chunks of carbon thick enough to form charcoal briquettes. Oh well, another good baguette down the epicurean toilet. Then the smoke detector went off…… on the second floor. Several minutes of waving a large bath towel to freshen the air around the smoke detector finally quieted the ear-splitting, seizure-inducing whine of the smoke detector’s piercing, wake-the-dead scream.

This is when I see the pasta boiling over. The bowties have come unknotted and are as unkempt as a drunken high school senior the morning after prom. They’ve gone from cute little pasta bowties to glutinous little ragged rectangles of death.

Let’s review. Bread: ruined. Sauce: ruined. Pasta: ruined. I’ve hit the trifecta. We went out for Mexican food. They didn’t ruin anything.

I think I’m going to burn that recipe. It shouldn’t be hard. No one can screw that up. No one.

P.S. One final indignity: there was pasta sauce in the pantry all along.

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The View From the NASCAR pits

    I had the honor, privilege and fun of attending last weekend’s NASCAR race at the Kansas Speedway as a journalist. I was going to file a story for my radio station if a.) our local boy (Clint Bowyer of Emporia, KS) made good, or b.) something dramatic happened, like 12 cars pinwheeling into the spectators. Neither did. Kind of a bad news/good news situation. But I was able to meander through the paddock, stand in the pits during the race, take a ton of photos (to be posted on Facebook later this week), watch the victory lane celebrations and sit in on press conferences.

    Here are a few random observations from behind pit wall.

    It was going to be that kind of day for Tony (“Smoke”) Stewart… combative, sarcastic and, like so many, successful. It started early Sunday, when he was late to the mandatory drivers’ meeting. The meeting venue was crowded with sightseers and hangers-on, to the point where Stewart couldn’t get it. He said, loud enough for all to hear, “Boy, we must have a lot of drivers in here.” Soon after, someone put a camera right in his face and snapped a picture. “Do these people need to be in here?” he bellowed.

    That’s just Smoke being Smoke: fiery, focused and talented.

    And then he found the chair.

    During the press conference after his victory, one of the traveling press corps asked what Smoke thought was a stupid question.
“Jeff Gordon mentioned that under the old points system, you’d be well on your way to ….”
The questioner wasn’t given time to finish his sentence. You can guess where this is going from here.

    At first slightly combative, Smoke smoked, “We’re not under the old points system. We haven’t been for 5 years. Why are we even talking about this?”

    Trying to regain control of his question, the writer continued, “When Jeff Gordon was here….”

    This is when Stewart started channeling his inner Rodney Dangerfield.

    “Jeff Gordon was here? I’ll bet that was special.”

    “He was sitting in that very chair,” said the reporter, maybe hoping that playing along with the sarcasm would mercifully end this question/sarcasm/explanation/sarcasm cycle.

   “In this chair? Oh man, I can still feel the vibe. I think I’m gonna keep this chair.” He was just getting started. “Maybe get it autographed. That outta be worth something.” He was on a roll. “I should bring it back to the hauler. Can I have this chair?”

     He was looking for a member of the Kansas Speedway staff for confirmation or validation or for another straight line.
Stewart finally got around to answering the question, something about “we all know the point system is reset, we all know the rules at the beginning of the season, we all know the points before the Chase starts are irrelevant for the last 10 races” but no one was really paying attention anymore. They were all working out how to fit “Chair-gate” into the leads of their stories.

    The press conference ended after another – safer, generic – question. When Tony Stewart was last seen at the Kansas Speedway, he was wheeling his new chair back to the team’s HQ on wheels. It probably means more to him than the trophy.
          

    On Saturday afternoon, I wandered into the interview room right before a session with George Gillett Jr. I’d never heard of him either. I should have. He co-owns the Richard Petty Racing team. He used to own the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. He co-owns the Liverpool Football Club (the kick the ball into the net kind of football, not the Chiefs really suck kind) with Tom Hicks (owner of the Texas Rangers and former Texas Gov. George Bush).

    Mr. Gillett was having a press conference to rebut, challenge, shoot down, set straight, dissemble and generally retort some rumors that “the King’s” racing team – an icon of American motorsports – was being sold to a Middle Eastern concern.

    George has talked to Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia. And, yes, Faisal has expressed some interest in purchasing a small share of the team. And, yes, they’ve signed some confidentiality agreements with the Prince, and, yes, they’ve talked about establishing some oval tracks in the Middle East, and, yes, they’ve talked about establishing a feeder series running in the Middle East.

    But George was here to strongly refute the notion Gulf oil barons were taking over the team.The press – the always maniacal and incorrect press – had been throwing around terms like “chaos” when describing Gillett’s team recently. So George wanted to set the record straight. Just because your main driver (Kasey Kahne) says he doesn’t know what’s going on with the team or who he reports to doesn’t mean the team is in chaos. In fact, quoth George, it’s just restructuring.

    The team will be switching to Fords next year because their current car company went bankrupt. Never a good sign.

    But he was direct and honest and insistent and unapologetic about what he wants to do with his racing team. And everyone should know the it will always be Richard Petty Racing, not the Prince Faisal Ford Motor Company Racing But America Will Always Need Middle East Oil Because You Don’t Conserve And Haven’t Invested In Solar race team.
 

    In the junior varsity race Saturday, the Nationwide Series, a 19-year-old driver named Parker Kligerman won the pole. Nineteen years young, you say. Yes, and it is also is his first race in that car. An auspicious debut, though he’s not old enough to drink the victory champagne. He drives for the Penske team, which has produced about 20 Indianapolis 500 winners and a handful of NASCAR race winners.   

    And then the race started, and he fell back and fell back … and fell back. He finished 16th. But, hey, first race, 19 years old, not bad. When I was 19, I was working a dead-end job, drinking myself into a stupor every weekend. So kudos to the kid.    

    The young man who finished 6th, Justin Allgaier, doesn’t look old enough to be my paperboy, let alone be a race car driver. He’ll likely be the series Rookie of the Year … before he starts shaving regularly.
 

    He is a quick rundown of the field: in the race this year are 2 former F1 drivers (Montoya and Speed), 4 alliterative initial drivers (Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Scott Speed, Jimmie Johnson), 3 Juniors (Earnhardt, Truex, Hornish), 2 Indy 500 winners (Montoya, Hornish), 1 Kansan (Bowyer), 2 Missourians (Edwards and McMurray) 1 Colombian (Montoya), 1 Australian (Ambrose), 1 Italian (Papis), 3 rookies (Speed, Logano, Papis), 2 brothers (Kurt and Kyle Busch), 2 Gordons (Jeff and Robby)  and 15 Chevys, 12 Toyotas, 8 Dodges, 8 Fords and a Marcos in a Little Debbie (Ambrose in a Toyota sponsored by the snack cakes).

 
    Oh, the toils, troubles and travails of Dale Jr. fans.

    First, his evil stepmother kicks him off daddy’s team, then he loses his cherished #8, then his fans need to refresh their tattoos with a new number and color (green #88 instead of red #8). He didn’t qualify for the Chase, his best finish this year was 2nd at Talladega (the 9th race of the year), and then, well, he sucks. OK, maybe he doesn’t suck. But he is overrated.

    But this weekend at the Kansas Speedway, he qualified second fastest, the outside of Row 1. Is this the beginning of the redemption?

    He ran strong early on, pulling out a lead after restart. Then things returned to normal. During the first round of pit stops one of the lug nuts on a rear wheel was left off during a tire change. Race officials called him back into the pits. That moved him from first to 32nd. From there, the day didn’t get any better. He finished 36th.  

 

    There was a lot of talk earlier in the year about Indy Car’s PR sensation and occasionally good driver Danica Patrick flirting with joining NASCAR in 2010. I don’t believe there’s ever been a female driver in NASCAR. There were three women in the Indy 500 this year. The last female who raced in F1 scored points at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix. Why the glass garage door in NASCAR?

    Where are the black drivers? F1 has a black world champion. The Hispanics (other than Indy car and F1 transplant Montoya)? The Asians? Hell, the Yankees have a pitcher named Chein-Ming Wang.

    The NASCAR fan base has expanded exponentially during the past 10 years. But it’s still a profoundly overwhelmingly white, working class audience. So much so that 5 years ago, Sen. John Kerry, in a bid to win “NASCAR Dads” as a voting bloc, issued the painfully embarrassing statement, “Who among us does not enjoy NASCAR.”

    That is the whitest thing anyone has ever said. It could have only been worse if he “y’all” with his Boston Brahmin.

 

   In addition to not having to shift, brake or turn right, NASCAR drivers don’t have to even use their mirrors. They have “spotters,” a crew member high above the race track telling them who is coming up behind them, on which side and what to do about it. Seems like cheating to me. Make these guys figure it out for themselves.

   They also allow a “lucky dog pass,” the ability to go around the pack and stay on the lead lap if they pitted under green and then a caution period ensues. That’s rewarding a driver for guessing wrong, or to put it in “short bus” terms, everybody deserves a trophy.
 

   How can you tell it’s race day? The Hooters restaurant is open early for breakfast.

 
    How much do NASCAR fans love souvenirs? Walking back to my car I saw a man carrying scraps of body parts from the Nationwide race and a woman wearing a stray lug nut as a ring.

    No matter how talented, aggressive, reckless or overzealous a driver he is, I don’t think anyone will ever be intimidated by a driver named A.J. Allmendinger. Allmendinger conjures up visions of, I don’t know, a Bavarian vicar or an Austrian porn star.

   And, finally, we come to the stat geek portion of the program. Here’s a quick review of NASCAR’s ridiculous points system. The Kansas race was the 29th out of 36 races. Here is NASCAR’s driver points tally:

1          Mark Martin                   5551                                                                 
2          Jimmie Johnson          5533                                                                 
3          Juan Pablo Montoya  5500                                                                 
4          Tony Stewart                 5484                                                                 
5          Kurt Busch                      5460                                                                 
6          Denny Hamlin               5452                                                                 
7          Jeff Gordon                    5448                                                                 
8          Greg Biffle                       5437                                                                 
9          Ryan Newman              5387                                                                 
10        Carl Edwards                5386                                                                                         

If they’d keep score the way F1 does (the way God intended), the points would look like this:
1          Tony Stewart              109
2          Jeff Gordon                 100
3          Mark Martin                99
4          Jimmie Johnson        89
5          Denny Hamlin             81
6          Kyle Busch                   64
7          Kurt Busch                  58
8          Greg Biffle                    50
9          Kasey Kahne               47
10        Carl Edwards             44

    I guess NASCAR feels that American like really big numbers, like the federal deficit, the number of kids Jon and Kate have, or the number of lobbyists trying to defeat health care reform. None of those small, wimpy European numbers here.

 

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you  think.

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CSI: Conroe, Texas

When you go on vacation during Christmas, you expect to spend time in the loving bosom of your family, not at a former crime scene.

We packed three people and seemingly tens of thousands of presents into the car headed to Texas to visit my wife’s family over the Christmas. Had this been a less buy time of year or we had less cargo, we might have stayed with her sister for a night or two. But given the body and present count, we checked into, what I’ll call, the Braymont Inn, a few blocks from my sister-in-law’s house.

The Braymont is a national chain with reasonable rates a continental breakfast. (I think the continent was Atlantis, everything tasted wet and salty.)

A 10-hour drive isn’t difficult, just boring. So when you arrive at your destination, you’re eager to get out and meet people and catch up on news and eat and laugh and party. These things we did. And then it was time for bed. Even a motel bed feels good at this point, regardless of how many “How filthy is your motel room?” exposés you’ve seen on the local TV news during Sweeps Week.

Morning, renewal, in-room coffee, lazy chat and looking forward to a hot shower and breakfast and … no, it can’t be … there is no hot water in the Braymont. Boiler broken. They’re looking into it. They’re sorry for the inconvenience. It’ll be fixed tomorrow.

This isn’t inconvenience, this is bordering on a crisis. My Christmas spirit is being sapped because I can’t rinse the 10-hour drive off in a torrent of hot, South Texas soft water. OK, we can handle this. Not killed, made stronger. A quick tepid rinse and then my wife made the discovery that will forever characterize this trip: the blood-spatter pattern.

She was reaching for something that had rolled under the bed and lifted up the sheet to see that the box spring fabric had an old blood stain. Not an “I cut my finger and a few drops of blood came out” spot. Not an “I was whittling a new moose call and the knife slipped and I need three stitches” stain. Not even an “I smacked my head against the wall stumbling around in the dark and head wounds bleed a lot and please go get the ice bucket” mess.

This was a basketball-sized, something-criminal-and-probably-a-felony-happened-here blood puddle. It had been cleaned many times to extract as much blood – or evidence – as possible, but there’s really no way to return the box spring to its pristine state after the boys form the crime lab have finished with it.

We were aghast. Not that something unfortunate had happened in this room earlier. This was Conroe, Texas, after all, misdemeanor assault capital of Montgomery County. But that Braymont management thought that their guests would be OK with sleeping on a mattress that could have starred in a “Law and Order” episode. This was revelation No. 1 in a two-revelation process that will keep us from ever staying in a Braymont Inn again.

We dressed as quickly as a possible to report this to the front desk, hoping they’d be as outraged as we were. The young man behind the desk turned out to be the son of the franchise owner, a young man in his late teens or early 20s, a young man who doesn’t exactly grasp the concept of customer service, a young man who would find the concept of “Do you want fries with that?” too intellectually rigorous.

We told him what we found, suggested he contact the authorities and find us another room ASAP. He said a room would be ready for us by the time we finished breakfast. Mmmm, Braymont breakfast: salty, undercooked scrambled eggs and the best Danish that Sam’s Club had to offer – last month. We got our new room keycard, packed our stuffed, transferred rooms and crossed our fingers.

The rest of the day passed with good fellowship, board games, too much good food, presents and my debut on Dance Dance Revolution. (For the record, I stink.) Back to the Braymont. The mattresses in the second room seemed to pass muster. Not on the comfort scale necessarily, but at least we didn’t have Detective Columbo hunting for crime-scene clues in our room.

Ahh, morning, renewal, in-room coffee, lazy chat and looking forward to a hot shower and breakfast and … no, it can’t be … there is no hot water in the Braymont, again. Boiler still broken. They’re still looking into it. They’re still sorry for the inconvenience. It’ll still be fixed tomorrow. These guys really know how to satisfy customers, who could become repeat customers or write reviews on hotel Web sites.

You know the drill: tepid shower, family fellowship, food in abundance, Christmas cheer.

That night was our last with the Braymont. It passed without incident. And in the morning, praise Jesus, there was hot water. Glorious hot water. We packed, checked out, silently wished the other guests well because we knew what they were in for. Ten hours home and we went straight to the computer to write the most scathing review of the Conroe, Texas Braymont Inn we could.

It’s been three years. Hopefully there is new management, a new attitude, or at least new sheets at the Braymont.

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5 hours, 4 states, 2 people, 1 car and the worst restaurant in Nebraska

A nice warm spring evening, time on our hands, what to do? Drive to Nebraska!

My wife, Malissa, had moved here from Houston recently and was eager to explore her new territory. Plus, she had spent as little time in Great Plains states as I had spent in Texas. So with some time on our hands and gas money (way back when it was only $1.25/gallon) burning a hole in our collective pockets, we trundled off for a long drive to add Nebraska to the list of states that Malissa had visited. Little did we know what culinary adventures awaited us.

We headed west on I-70, and just past Topeka headed north to the Nebraska state line.

Let me tell you something about my wife: she marvels at the world around her and drinks in images and experiences the way a desert island castaway drinks ice water – with gusto. So all the farms, wildflowers, cows, row crops, silos, Indian casinos, little towns, hills and rusted signs fascinated her. I’d seen it all before, but seeing it new through her eyes was, well, eye-opening.

We were cruising along, nowhere to go, no timetable, beautiful sunset, life is good. At the Nebraska state line we stopped so I could take her picture under the “Welcome to Nebraska” sign. About 90 minutes into the road trip, we started getting a little hungry. No worries, we thought. We’ll stop at the next town, village, city, hamlet, wide bend in the road or metropolis and grab a bite.

Welcome to Nebraska City, Nebraska. The county seat of Otoe County, Nebraska City has a little more than 7,000 residents. Arbor Day was invented in Nebraska City. Lewis and Clark visited in 1804. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad. It has a Firefighting Museum. Nice little place.

The Nebraska City Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau lists 33 restaurants of various size. I’ll bet 32 of them are great. We chose number 33. To protect the innocent, I’ll call our dining location Balentino’s Pizza and Pasta. We figured, what can go wrong with pizza and pasta? Lots.

We weren’t expecting 5-star French cuisine, ostrich steaks with mango chutney, turducken or braised tips of lamb in port wine reduction with a glaze of wild mushrooms. A clean bathroom would have been nice. We didn’t get that either.

What do you generally want from restaurant personnel? Attention, prompt service, a smile. Sure, that’s why we leave tips. At Balentino’s that night, it took about five minutes for anyone to realize we wanted to pay them money in exchange for goods and services. OK, we can overcome this. We’ll just do the salad and pasta buffet. In the meantime, the iced tea tasted like river water.

The buffet had a small selection: something that looked like pasta, something that looked like lettuce and roughly seven salad toppings. I’m not usually a picky eater (despite what my mother will tell you about me and vegetables when I was a kid), but I generally like my marinara sauce to taste like something other than nothing. Pick a spice, pick an herb. Use them. Use something, anything. Salt doesn’t count. Red is a not a flavor.

Salad next. How can you screw up salad? Balantino’s found a way. To say that they kept the salad fixins’ chilled would be a gross understatement. The peas and the chopped hard-boiled eggs were frozen. Repeat, frozen. Solid. Eggs, frozen solid. The bright green frozen peas were better suited as projectiles than ingestibles. How delicious is that?

Despite the long drive behind us and the long drive ahead of us and the hunger in between, we got out of there as quickly as possible. We couldn’t take it anymore. It was that bad. Balantino’s everywhere are diminished because of this one restaurant.

I don’t want to paint the entire culinary industry of Nebraska City with such a broad brush, but there is nowhere to go but up. The good people of the Cornhusker State deserve better.

We continued our journey, crossing from Nebraska City into Iowa, stopping to take a picture under the “Welcome to Iowa” sign. Fifteen minutes later we entered Missouri – it was too dark now to take a picture under the Welcome sign – and began the two-hour drive home. A wonderful trip, albeit a non-nutritious one. I think we picked up some Cokes and chips at a truckstop during the last leg of the trip.

My wife got an eyeful of the countryside, we added two new states to her “states visited” list and have a great new anecdote. All in all, a great evening.

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Filed under Humor, Marriage