Wednesday, August 5, 2015

adventures in Morris: the Common Cup.

When I was in college, I only spent one semester without a job. It was my very first semester, and I thought I could get along just fine without one.

Until I realized that life costs money.

Sure, I had a meal plan, but if I wanted things like snacks or pop or late-night toast at Don’s, I needed spendin’ money. I used most of my high school graduation money to buy a laptop, but the leftovers held out until the end of my freshman fall semester. After that, it was time to get a job.

My then-dear-friend-later-boyfriend-now-husband James had a work study job at Media Services on campus, and he offered to get me a job there. Which he did. If only real-life jobs were that easy. I worked happily at Media Services until the end of my junior year. Due to an uptick in crop prices, I found out I was no longer eligible for work study. Yay for farmers, boo for me and my job. Which I loved.

By then, having a job wasn’t just a question of having enough money to buy toast and beer. I had moved off-campus when I was a junior, and I now needed money for rent and utilities. So job = essential.

I secured a ten-hour-a-week job working for the on-campus Center for Small Towns. My job was to collaborate with the Morris Movie Theatre in order to write an operating manual for everything from the concessions stand to the film projector. It was kind of awesome.

However, ten hours a week at minimum wage wasn’t enough to pay the rent. It was time for me to venture off campus.

The first (and only) place I stopped for a job application was a little coffee shop downtown called the Common Cup. 
I filled out my application and was called back for an informal interview shortly thereafter. I sat down with Sue, one of the managers, and she asked me about my availability and previous food service experience. Thanks to four summers working in a camp kitchen and three summers working at various ice cream establishments, I totally had that covered. At the end of the interview, I expected to be thanked for coming and to be told that they’d let me know. Much to my surprise, Sue instead asked me to come in at 6 the next morning to get started on my training.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being hired on the spot, which is a rare nowadays. (Yes, I said nowadays.)

I began my barista training bright and early the next morning with Rose, the other manager at the Common Cup. The Common Cup opened at 7, so there was plenty that needed to be accomplished in that hour. I can still remember that opening list:

·   brew the house coffees
bake muffins
bake cookies
bake coffee cake
fill the front cooler with beverages and refrigerated desserts
grind espresso
start the soup
buy a copy of the Star Tribune from the machine outside
open doors

The Common Cup smelled just delightful every morning: brewing coffee + baking muffins = cozy. I loved to bake the muffins: they were monstrous, and I got to choose the day’s flavor. I was (and still am) a big fan of blueberry, especially since making the blueberry muffins involved using huge scoops of real blueberries in the homemade batter.

The muffins and coffee cake were made from scratch each morning, but the cookies were a tad easier. They – like the muffins – were also gigantic, but the cookie dough was premade into little frozen balls that you just put on a cookie sheet and baked. Rose was the cookie master, and she was the only one to make the dough. The cookies always turned out perfectly soft and as large as a saucer.

(I have to interrupt myself for a minute here and talk about Rose’s desserts. During the fall and around Valentine’s Day, she’d fill the dessert case with pumpkin bars and little cheesecake hearts, respectively. I have never had – and probably will never have – chocolate cheesecake better than Rose’s. I had died and gone to dairy heaven. It’s been more than six years since I’ve had that chocolate cheesecake, and I still dream about it.)

(Anyway.)

By the time my opening list was done, it was just in time to open up the doors.

My class schedule dictated the hours I could work at the Common Cup. During that first semester I worked there, I had about an even split between opening shifts and closing shifts – never the mid-shift, as my class schedule had almost no breaks. The Common Cup was closed on Sundays, so I did work an odd Saturday here and there. The closing shifts were the best – I would get there after concert band rehearsal ended at 5, and the coffee shop closed at 8. There wasn’t much traffic at night, so we were welcome to bring our homework and work on it in a booth when business was slow. I wrote a whole lot of art history and English papers in a little booth at the Common Cup during my senior year.

After some practice, I really got the hang of espresso drinks. I learned the difference between an Americano and a breve, and I learned how not to explode scalding milk all over my face. (That totally happened once.) I learned the importance of keeping chilled shots of espresso for iced drinks and lament the fact that so few coffee shops actually do this. (You know when you take a drink of your iced latte and it’s warm? That’s because it’s a hot espresso shot. If the whole drink is cold, the coffee shop used a cold espresso shot. Because when I ask for an iced coffee, I want it COLD, dammit.)

But you know what I never learned? How to properly make a wrap.

The Common Cup served lunch, and every now and again, my shift would overlap with lunchtime. The menu was mostly made up of salads, sandwiches, wraps, a soup of the day, and the daily special. I was fine with all of it… except the stupid wraps. I could never figure out just how to fold the wrap and make that nice little pouch so that its contents didn’t ooze out into the customer’s lap. Some things are beyond my capabilities, and I think wraps may be one of them.

If I worked the opening shift, I was given the dubious honor of writing the specials on the board. Each day had an entrée, which was chosen by Rose. There was also the day’s soup and the week’s specialty espresso drink. It was while writing one day’s special that I learned a very important lesson: though brisket rhymes with biscuit, it is not spelled as such. Having never encountered brisket before, I wrote it as “briscuit.” My, how quickly did I learn.

The soup of the day once saved me from an entire torturous Saturday of concert band rehearsal. It was an October weekend, and I was scheduled to work at the Common Cup in the morning. It was the same weekend as the Festival of Bands, so we poor concert band members were expected to rehearse all day Saturday with the visiting bands, and then perform in concerts on Saturday night and Sunday morning. My shift at the Common Cup was almost over, and I had to high-tail it to rehearsal. Just a few minutes before I had to leave, I was dishing up some chicken tortilla soup for someone – and I spilled the blisteringly hot soup all over my hand. Smooth.

But hey, I thought – maybe I could still play my clarinet. I scooted to rehearsal on my bike, trying to ignore the searing pain in my hand. By the time I got to the rehearsal hall, I couldn’t even move my fingers. I showed my bright red hand to our director, sheepishly inquiring if I could maybe sit the rehearsal out. He sent me straight home, instructing me to take it easy on my hand – for we had concerts coming. I was in good enough shape to play the two concerts, and let me tell you, I sure enjoyed my afternoon off. Aside from the minor burns, of course.

My class schedule changed during the spring semester of my senior year, and so my Common Cup schedule followed suit. I had a rough (well, relatively rough in college student world) schedule that semester: class at 10:30am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and class at 8am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I had made it through seven semesters without the dreaded 8am class, and here I was: at the finish line, and I had my first 8am class. For a college student, any class before noon basically spells death.

Wondering how on earth I was going to find time to work, I delivered my class times to Sue at the Common Cup (who made the schedule). She said, “No problem!” and scheduled me to work the opening shift (6am – 10am) on Mondays and Fridays.

Death.

So every Sunday and Thursday night, I would grudgingly try to go to bed early. (Which was very difficult, considering that Thursday night was Quarter Taps and everyone I knew was out at the bar drinking glasses of Hamms for a quarter.) As a non-morning person, I never got used to getting up early in order to be to work by 6. Especially during the winter. Trudging through the snowy streets of Morris long before anyone else was up was not my idea of a good time. But there was something peaceful about it – it was kind of nice having an entire hour to myself in the Common Cup. It gave me time to take care of all the opening stuff, and it gave me time to wake up enough to be personable to the customers who would walk in the door when we opened at 7. That wake-up time was very important.

In between opening and the end of my shift, I made coffee beverages and breakfast foods for happy Morris residents on their way to work or class. Rare was the occasion that I had a grumpy customer. Even better? James came to visit me during each and every shift. What a guy.

When my shift ended each Monday and Friday, I would make myself an iced chai and a breakfast sandwich to go. I’d hop on my bike (weather permitting) and skedaddle to my 10:30 art history class. Don’t get me wrong: I adored all three of my art history professors, and I loved my art history classes. But when you’re sitting in the back of a huge classroom that is warm and dark and you’ve already been up for five hours, it’s damn hard to pay attention. I still have my notes from that class, and I can tell exactly where I started to drift off. But I still got an A in the class, so there you have it.


Before I knew it, I had graduated college and my year at the Common Cup was over. It was the one and only food service job that I’ve ever actually enjoyed, and easily one of my favorite part-time jobs. After all, customers have a hard time being crabby with you when you’re handing them coffee.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

top ten Tuesday: ten drinks.

Remember when I told you about the ten foods I dream about?

Now it’s time for the ten drinks I dream about!

(Forgive me for ending those sentences in a preposition. “The ten drinks about which I dream” just doesn’t have the same flow.)

I find that beverages are an integral part of your dining experience. Some people can eat their meals without anything to wash it down. I am not one of those people.

And that could be why I’ve imbibed some truly great beverages in my time.  Here I present my ten favorite beverages from a few of my very favorite locations.

BROOKINGS
frozen hot chocolate at the Summer Arts Festival
See the straws? There's frozen hot chocolate nearby.
You’ve heard plenty from me about the Brookings Summer Arts Festival, so I’ll keep it quick. I go there as much for the people watching and the food as I do for the actual art, and I can’t leave without having had (at least one) frozen hot chocolate. The place that makes them also specializes in kuchen, but I only have eyes for frozen hot chocolate. They blend it all up with ice and milk, and it’s everything you could hope for. And it pairs perfectly with cheese curds.

MORRIS
iced chai at the Common Cup
During my final year at UMM, I worked at the local coffee shop: the Common Cup. It was a great job for a number of reasons, not least of which is that we were allowed a free meal and drink while we were working. My shift was usually 6am – 10 am, so my meal of choice was breakfast. I was due in class by 1020, so I’d make myself a breakfast sandwich (egg, bacon, and cheese on a croissant) and an iced chai. While working at the Common Cup, I had not yet learned to enjoy espresso drinks, so chai it was. I don’t know how I started on the iced chai, but the Common Cup used Oregon Chai. You can find it in some grocery stores: it’s a purple and yellow carton, and it’s fantastic.

NEW ORLEANS
hurricanes at Pat O’Briens

It should come as no surprise to you that New Orleans boasts three of my favorite beverages. All three are iconic, but only two are potent potables. The hurricane is a deep red drink that comes in a gigantic plastic cup. It’s got some cherries and oranges floating about, and it’s so tasty that you don’t realize that it’s pretty much all alcohol. James and I have made hurricanes for two years’ worth of Mardi Gras dinner parties, and they’ve been just delicious. One year, we ran out of ice, so we simply ran outside and scooped some fresh snow into our glasses. Thus the Minnesota Hurricane was born.

hand grenades at Tropical Isle
Don't worry. I didn't drink both of them.
Hand grenades are a lot like Hurricanes in that they taste so good and are almost entirely alcohol. Hand grenades even come in a gimmicky plastic glass that is shaped like a hand grenade at the bottom. Hand grenades come in two options: with or without ice. Without ice is twice the price.

café au lait at Café du Monde
My absolute favorite New Orleans beverage does indeed come from the French Quarter, but unlike the others, you don’t need to show your ID to get it. While I am not much of a coffee drinker, I love the café au lait at Café du Monde. It’s one part coffee to one part steamed milk, plus a dash of chicory. You can order café au lait up north, but it’s missing that essential chicory flavor. James and I got café au lait every morning when we were on our New Orleans honeymoon, and nothing starts your day off better than piping hot café au lait and a fresh batch of beignets.

CANCUN
mojitos on the beach at El Cid
Or mojitos at a swim-up bar in Mexico.
My family took a vacation to Cancun in January 2013, and let me tell you, that place is heaven on earth. White sandy beaches, shimmery blue water, gorgeous blooming flowers, the whole shebang. Plus, it helped that it was the absolute dead of winter back home, and a tropical vacation was just the cure. This was also six months before James’s and my wedding, and it was the sweet spot right before wedding stress and accompanying drama began to hit. Cancun was the calm before the storm, and I remember it so fondly. Cancun was the first place I’d ever had a mojito, and if heaven exists, I think it’s a Mexican beach where I have a mojito in hand. Or a swim-up bar. I’ve ordered mojitos since then, but none of them are ever as delicious as the mojitos in Mexico. James makes mojitos with mint from our garden, and they come close – but our lawn in Luverne is somehow less scenic than a white sandy beach in Cancun. Plus, we don’t have a swim-up bar.

SPRING VALLEY
La Crescent at Four Daughters Winery
I realized that going to wineries for fun is a typical late-twenties married couple thing to do, but you know what? I’m fine with it, because wineries are awesome. Four Daughters was the first truly good winery that James and I visited, and we almost skipped it entirely. Four Daughters is in southeastern Minnesota, and James and I just happened to drive by it on our way to an ill-fated camping trip in Lanesboro. If you remember that story, it rained the entire time while we were trying to tent camp, and everything sucked. We didn’t go to Four Daughters on the way to camping because we wanted to hurry up and get to our site so we could go river tubing: but river tubing was canceled because of high waters, so never mind. On the way home from Lanesboro, we drove by Four Daughters again. We were tired and wet and crabby, so we briefly discussed going and decided we’d rather just go home. We actually drove right past it… but then turned around. After all, how often were we going to be on this side of the state? Turns out? We absolutely made the right choice. Four Daughters is breathtakingly gorgeous, and we ordered the white wine sampler. There wasn’t a single wine that I didn’t like, and we went home with a bottle of white wine called La Crescent. It’s been more than a year since we’ve been to that winery, and we still haven’t opened our bottle. It’s that delicious, and you can’t get it around here. We’re saving it for a special occasion, though I’m not sure what that special occasion is. Our two-year anniversary, maybe? Yeah, let’s go with that.

HILL CITY
Lawrence Elk at Prairie Berry Winery
This is a sampler, but there's Lawrence Elk in there for sure.
Four Daughters opened our eyes to the possibility of local wineries producing truly good wines. (The two wineries we’d been to before Four Daughters boasted syrupy-sweet wines that we choked down and lied about how good they were.) We took a trip to the Black Hills for our first anniversary, and the Prairie Berry Winery was on our itinerary. I had heard that their Lawrence Elk wine was more or less ambrosia, so I got that in my sampler. Ambrosia indeed. It’s a chokecherry wine, and I think everybody I know who has tried it has liked it. Even the non-wine drinkers. Prairie Berry has tons of other fantastic wines: Blue Suede Shoes (blueberry and raspberry) is a favorite, and I really like Gold Digger (pear) and Calamity Jane (red grape). But Lawrence Elk clocks in as my all-time favorite wine. Plus, it’s called Lawrence Elk, and that is awesome.

(A brief mention of another wonderful winery that didn’t quite make the list: Carlos Creek in Alexandria. I loved their wine, namely Wobegon White: a Riesling and my third favorite wine of all time. It’s part of their Minnesota Nice series of wines, which also includes Hot Dish Red and You Betcha Blush. You have to love a winery with a sense of humor.)

LUVERNE
Tanqueray and tonic at the Sterling Café
You know how everyone has a default drink that they order at a bar when they’re not sure what to order? Mine is a gin and tonic. It’s a universal drink that bars are more or less guaranteed to have, and you don’t have to try and explain it to anyone. And it’s hard to screw  up. However, not all gin and tonics are created equal. I learned this after years of just ordering a gin and tonic and not specifying my gin brand. Let me tell you: it makes a HUGE difference. When the Sterling Café opened in Luverne, James and I went there right away for drinks. I was going to order a gin and tonic, and James suggested I order it with Tanqueray gin. I did just that, and I was rewarded with the best gin and tonic I’ve ever had. I’ve ordered Tanqueray and tonic at other bars, but so far, the Sterling Café makes the best one.

ST PETER
cardamom latte at River Rock Coffee
James and I drive to Minneapolis a LOT. His family lives near the cities, and there’s so much to see and do there that we can neither see nor do in Sioux Falls. We love Minneapolis, but we loathe the drive. One day, we were driving through St Peter (roughly halfway there) when we decided that we needed a break. We got out, stretched our legs, and walked into a coffee shop for a much-needed pick-me-up. I saw that there was a cardamom latte on the menu, and I was sold. I had learned to appreciate the wonders of cardamom thanks to James’s mom Maria. She uses cardamom in her cinnamon rolls and in this totally magical Finnish bread called nissoua. So was cardamom just as good in coffee? You bet. Now, River Rock Coffee is a regular stop on our way to Minneapolis, and that cardamom coffee makes our journey that much better.

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And here we are: ten beverages to go with the ten foods from last time. I don’t know about you, but I’m parched.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

top ten Tuesday: ten foods.

You know how they say that you either live to eat or eat to live?

I live to eat.

I will never forget to eat lunch and am baffled by those who do. Not eating breakfast will likely ruin my day. If I order something at a restaurant that isn’t very good, my disappointment is palpable. There are so many delicious foods out there: I hate to waste a mealtime on a sub-par dish.

When James and I go on vacation, we not only plan the sights we will see: we also plan which restaurants to visit. We live in Luverne – something of a food desert – so we want our vacations to be full of delicious food that we can’t get at home. My family recently went to Kansas City, and my list of places to eat was actually longer than my list of things to see and do. Priorities.

Thanks to this food mission, I’ve tried a lot of amazing fare. However, many of my absolute favorite foods can be found in those towns and cities in which I have spent the most time. These are the top ten foods I dream about.

BROOKINGS
burgers at Nick’s
If I could eat only one thing until I died, I would choose Nick’s hamburgers. As I have already dedicated an entire blog to Nick’s (and many mentions in between), I won’t elaborate too much. I will say that I grew up eating Nick’s hamburgers with my grandparents and parents, and I have passed on that love to James. Nick’s serves little slider-sized hamburgers, and they’ve been doing it since 1929. The buns are fresh, and the burgers are tank-fried in front of you. Nick’s was even a part of James’s and my wedding: not once, but twice! We had Nick’s for our rehearsal dinner, and we had the Nick’s wagon come out to my parents’ house for the day-after get-together. Nick’s is not just a burger joint: it’s a tradition.

cheese curds at the Summer Arts Festival
Like Nick’s, I’ve already written an entire blog about the Brookings Summer Arts Festival. And like Nick’s, it’s so glorious that it bears repeating. The Summer Arts Festival is THE event of the summer: each year, it’s held in Pioneer Park in Brookings. And each year, it gets bigger and more delightful. I have a handful of Summer Arts Festival food must-haves: frozen hot chocolate, mini donuts, and (most importantly) cheese curds. The cheese curds at the Summer Arts Festival are so fresh that the cheese squeaks when you bite them. They’re greasy and wonderful and I am counting down the days until I can have them. (Four days, if you’re curious.)

chocolate ice cream at the SDSU Dairy Bar
Or wherever the SDSU ice cream truck happens to be.
This list is a little Brookings-heavy, but I can’t help that Brookings is home to three of my very favorite foods. I consider myself a chocolate ice cream connoisseur: I’ve tasted chocolate ice creams far and wide, and I have yet to come across a better chocolate ice cream than SDSU’s. It’s made in house and doled out in generous scoops, and I wish I could eat it every day. Alas, the SDSU Dairy Bar is only open during the week until 5, so it’s rather difficult for me to make it there. Hence the reason I purchase it by the half-gallon.

MORRIS
toast at Don’s
Toast on my 19th birthday: 2006.
I spent my college years in Morris, and one of the very first things I learned is that I had to get the toast at Don’s. Being the rule-follower that I am, I dutifully went to Don’s – a tiny café in tiny downtown Morris – and ordered their toast. What arrived was a plate of the most delicious toast I had ever eaten – or WILL ever eat, for that matter. Their homemade bread is sliced thick and slathered with butter, and it tastes best with strawberry jam. I can’t even count the number of times I went to Don’s for toast. As was my solemn duty as a UMMer, I made sure to bring any visiting friends or family to Don’s for toast. Whenever I make it back to Morris – which isn’t as often as I would like – Don’s is #1 on the to-do list.

GLENWOOD
focaccia and balsamic vinegar at Café Bella
Glenwood is a lovely town on Lake Minnewaska, about thirty miles from Morris. Glenwood was home to the fanciest restaurant I had ever visited: an Italian place called Café Bella. I’m not sure what brought me there in the first place, but a few friends and I made a pilgrimage there for a Christmas dinner during our freshman year, and I’ve been on at least three first dates there. (But one of those dates was James, so it all worked out!)  (But it is really a first date if you go there after being friends for two years and having just decided to date? I digress.) I do not remember what kind of entrée I had, but I do remember the cheesecake being absolutely delectable. But my very favorite thing at Café Bella was the bread. Weird, I know, but this bread was like no other appetizer bread I’ve ever experienced. It was warm focaccia, and it was served with this tangy balsamic vinegar/oil mixture that was so delicious that I had to stop myself from licking it right off the plate. No other bread-dipping mixture has ever lived up to Café Bellas. I’m sad to say that I think the restaurant is closed now – otherwise, you know I’d be there with a plateful of focaccia.

NEW ORLEANS
beignets at Café du Monde

Oh, New Orleans. I miss it so much that it hurts. I spent a week there in college, four months doing an internship after college, and another week there for our honeymoon – and it feels like home. During that four months I was there for an internship, I was too poor to really experience the food: when I could buy both hotdogs AND eggs, I felt rich. Luckily, beignets aren’t that expensive. I had first had them during the college trip, and I totally fell in love. Beignets are French doughnuts that are fried and served drenched in powdered sugar. You could buy three of them for about four dollars, and even I – the unpaid intern working two part-time jobs – could scrape up enough money for those. My parents each came to visit while I was living in New Orleans, and I took each of them to get beignets. Mom – who is not a dessert person – thought they were pretty good, but Dad – who IS a dessert person – loved them. When James and I were in New Orleans for our honeymoon, we got beignets every single day. Alas, there are no beignets up here in the Great White North. You have to go to Kansas City to get an approximate – and those beignets were tasty, but nothing beats the original.

blackened catfish at Remoulade
Seafood in New Orleans is just heavenly. Fresh from the Gulf and prepared like only Southerners can. I’ve had some amazing seafood in New Orleans – BBQ shrimp at VooDoo BBQ, char-grilled oysters with Mom and the Poboy Festival, shrimp remoulade with fried green tomatoes… but nothing even comes close to the blackened catfish. Upon arriving in New Orleans for our honeymoon, James and I wandered through the French Quarter and stumbled across this little restaurant. On a whim, I ordered the blackened catfish – having never had catfish before. It was delivered to me on a tin plate, and it was the most extraordinary fish I have ever eaten. James (who had gotten stuffed crab) was envious of my delectable dish, and we even went back a second time at the end of the honeymoon so we could both get more catfish.

MINNEAPOLIS
violet gelato at Paciugo
There are so many foods I love in Minneapolis; it was awfully tough to narrow it down. My other two major contenders were Raising Cane’s chicken strips and the apple and brie pancakes at the Colossal Café. The gelato won out because a.) it didn’t seem right to place food from a national chain on my list of local delights, and b.) James can replicate the apple and brie pancakes, so I can eat those any time I want. Gelato it is. I had never really had gelato until moving to Minneapolis, and I find it quite delightful. This particular shop is located in the Mall of America, and their flavors swap out from time to time. I’ve tried all sorts of crazy gelato there, many of them flower-based: rose gelato, lavender and blueberry gelato… but none has been better than violet gelato. (Side note: Sioux Falls recently got a gelato stand it its mall, and their strawberry gelato is to die for.)

WORTHINGTON
rolled quesadillas at La Azteca
I don't have a picture of the quesadilla, so here's a margarita at La Azteca.
I’ve had Mexican food many times in many different places – including Mexico. But the best Mexican food I’ve ever had was in – believe it or not – Worthington, Minnesota. Yes: Minnesota. James moved to southwestern Minnesota for a teaching job while I was still living in Minneapolis, and he discovered La Azteca and told me all about its wonders. I moved to Sioux Falls in 2011 – leaving Minneapolis was hard, but Sioux Falls was so much closer to James and my family, so here we are. James’s birthday was about a week after I had started my new Sioux Falls job, so we went to La Azteca – and I was floored. I ordered the rolled quesadilla, which is just a regular quesadilla rolled up and cut in slices. I’ve been getting going to La Azteca for almost four years now, and I’ve never ordered anything else. I may be in a rut, but it’s a tasty rut. 

LUVERNE
lemon glazed salmon at the Sterling Café
I also don't have a picture of the salmon... so here's a picture of me at
the Sterling Cafe with a Guinness.
James and I moved to Luverne mere days after we got married in summer 2013. We chose Luverne because it was the closest we could find to half-way between our jobs: James works twenty miles one direction, and I work thirty-five miles in the other. Living in Luverne is a necessary evil. There are a few good things: affordable housing, a drive-in movie theatre… but overall, Luverne is too small-town for me. One of the biggest problems we faced when we moved to Luverne was the lack of dining options. There was one good restaurant, a few fast food places, a couple of pizzerias, plus a diner with weird hours and a DeToy’s-esque establishment that could out-DeToy DeToy’s. Translation: it was terrible. (If you went to Morris, you will understand my reference.) James and I longed for something more – and in late 2014, we finally got it. The Sterling Café opened downtown, about a year behind schedule. Their food is upscale and exciting, and my absolute favorite entrée is the lemon glazed salmon with citrus rice. The flavors are bright and un-Minnesotan, and I just love it. I was going completely stir crazy in Luverne, and the Sterling Café was my salvation.

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I wasn’t hungry when I wrote this, but now I feel as though I may starve to death. So many good foods in so many places. I’ve eaten many other delicious foods from places near and far, but these foods are from the places I’ve lived and loved. (Or just lived. Maybe “loved” will come someday, Luverne.)

You may have noticed that there are no beverages on my list. My friends, those deserve a blog post to themselves. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

a mile in my shoes: my life in five pairs.

I’ve owned a lot of badass shoes in my lifetime. Lion King shoes. Dinosaur shoes. Batman shoes. Light-up Barbie shoes.

I love a good pair of shoes.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve formed emotional attachments to certain pieces of clothing. Call me crazy, but I will have a certain shirt or sweater or what have you that brings back great memories of the places I’ve worn it.

Shoes are especially so. Since we tend to wear a certain pair of shoes more often than our shirts and sweaters, I can get a lot more memory mileage out of them. Like the black-and-white gym shoes I had that everyone thought looked like soccer balls. Or the Velcro shoes I bought at Kmart because I thought they would be ironically cool, but my mother thought were (and this is a direct quote) “uglier than sin.” Or the vintage spectators I bought at Goodwill eons ago.
They were amazing.
My shoe life has evolved over the years, but I think it can be broken into five shoe milestones. Allow me to take you on a shoe journey through my past!

jelly shoes
When I was growing up, I lived in jelly shoes: those flimsy plastic slip-on shoes that generally came embedded with glitter and were guaranteed to give you blisters. As a five-year-old, I found them to be terribly classy, and I wore them all day, every day. They were meant to be summertime shoes, but I was known to wear them with socks so that I could stretch out their season a little longer. My favorite jelly shoes were a dusky purple pair with a peep-toe and slight wedge: clearly very sophisticated. 
Clearly.
The last pair of jelly shoes that I owned were pink with an open back and little spikes on the bottom (for all your hiking and soccer needs, I’m assuming). I got those in third grade, so chances are excellent that they would still fit me now. 
Chances are also excellent that they're buried somewhere
in my childhood closet.
Jelly shoes have experienced a resurgence in recent years, but I haven’t jumped back on the wagon. Some things are better left in the early 90s, and jelly shoes are one of them.

navy blue clogs
This outfit sure left a lot to be desired.
When I was in fifth grade, clogs became a big thing. They were not something I would have picked out on my own, but since everyone else seemed to have them, I also had to have them. This was the first time that I wanted something not because I liked it, but because everyone else had it. Thanks a lot for opening THAT door, clogs. After many months of enviously watching my classmates clunk around in their clogs, I finally got my own pair. They were navy blue and came from a consignment store in Brookings called Country Peddler (which is still one of my favorite stores of all time). I bought them with my allowance and a little bit of help from my mom, and I wore those clogs until they fell apart. Which was fine, because it was high time to move onto the next shoe trend anyway. (Could it have been platform flip-flops? Yeesh.)

$5 ShopKo slides
You saw this awkward picture in the last blog post,
but I only have so many pictures of these shoes.
This pair of shoes represents the birth of my appreciation for bargain shopping. It was the last day of fifth grade, and Mom took us shopping in Watertown to celebrate. We went to ShopKo –  an essential stop on any Watertown shopping trip – and browsed the shoes. I wanted a new pair of shoes, and I had something like ten dollars to spend. There were two pairs of black shoes that I was eyeing: one pair was ten dollars, and the other was five dollars. I remember liking the ten dollars shoes a little better, but my inner spendthrift emerged – I decided I would rather have a pair of five dollar shoes that I mostly liked and thus have five dollars left to spend on something else versus the ten dollar shoes that I liked slightly more and with zero dollars left to spend. Up until that point, I had bargain shopped out of necessity (see: consignment clogs). As a ten-year-old relying solely on birthday money and allowance, you don’t have much choice. However, these ShopKo shoes were the first time I had a choice: I bought the less expensive pair not because I had to, but because the logic made sense and I WANTED to. And I’ve been bargain shopping ever since.

black Converse All-Stars
My black Converse All-Stars are so important to me that I’ve already written a whole blog post about them. However, if I’m doing a story on shoe milestones, it would be a travesty not to mention them again. So here’s the condensed version of my long story: I bought them during my last semester in college and wore them until they fell apart. I wore them on all sorts of college adventures, including Denver, New Orleans, and Minneapolis. I wore them through endless part-time jobs, and I wore them when my life started to fall into place. They were the first of many All-Stars, but these will always be my favorite shoes.

bitch boots
Ok, technically, these aren’t boots. But “bitch boots” is too catchy to pass up. I bought these from a Delia’s catalog – no lie. I bought them for my college graduation: I wanted something that made a statement as I strolled across the stage and was awarded my liberal arts degree. They were taller than any shoes I’d ever worn before, but contrary to what you might expect, I did NOT trip or stumble. The spiky heels did sink into the grass, but I could deal with that. These shoes made me feel like I could conquer the world. Don’t mess with me: just look at my shoes. They weren’t dubbed “bitch boots” until many years later: I wore them to an event that I really didn’t want to attend. I was telling my brother about said event and told him that I had this bitchy all-black outfit planned to go with my bad attitude, and I told him about my ass-kicking shoes. He called them my bitch boots, and they’ve been bitch boots ever since.

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Well, look at that! Five shoe milestones over a fifteen-year period. I have a lot more ridiculous shoe stories (see: Velcro shoes), so you haven’t heard the last from my shoe closet.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

my childhood in five dresses.

When I was a kid, I loved to wear dresses. I would have worn a dress every single hour of every single day if I could.

(Except in the winter when wearing dresses meant wearing tights. I hated wearing tights then, and I hate wearing tights now.)

I wore dresses constantly until a few months into elementary school when the gym teacher informed my parents that I should not wear dresses on gym days – sit-ups were a part of every gym class, and dresses + sit-ups = visible underwear.

I was mortified, and that effectively put an end to me wearing dresses to school. From that point on, I only wore dresses to school for programs and when I was absolutely positive that I would not be doing any kind of activity that would accidentally show my underwear.

But I still loved to wear dresses.

Then, somewhere around the age of twelve or thirteen, something in my brain snapped. I stopped wearing not just dresses, but also shorts and swimming suits – anything that would show my legs was out of the question. Even when I (grudgingly) went to the lake with my family on hot South Dakota summer days, I wore jeans.

I was an idiot.

It took until well into my senior year of high school to get past that unfortunate phase, but I’ve been wearing skirts, dresses, and shorts ever since. My love of dresses has returned, and while it’s not quite as strong as it was when I was a kid, I have been known to get awfully excited over dresses now and again. (Especially if they have fun patterns, like hot air balloons or bikes.)

But I digress. Let’s rewind to when I was just a young’un and dresses were my thing. My childhood dress experience – approximately ages four to twelve – can be captured in five distinct dresses. Dresses that I couldn’t forget if I tried.

the pink and purple tie-dyed dress.
The Mickey Mouse socks are a nice touch.
Anyone who has kids will talk about that one favorite piece of clothing that their child would wear every day for the rest of their lives if they could. This dress was it for me. I think it originally showed up in a bag of hand-me-downs from one of my mom’s coworkers, and I wore it to death. I wore it exploring in the woods and playing in the dirt – places that dresses aren’t really meant to be. I wore it with jelly shoes for my fifth birthday. By some miracle, just as the first one was falling apart, Mom found a duplicate at a rummage sale. Oh, the good times with that dress.

the crazy black dress.
Note the jelly shoes.
After the second tie-dyed dress finally bit the dust, this dress moved into position as my new favorite. I am fairly certain I wore this dress to kindergarten as often as my mother would let me. (Until tights season, that is. Then it was pants for me.) This was the very dress that got me in trouble in gym. I recall being absolutely devastated when I outgrew the dress: the great injustice of growing up. Incidentally, right when I grew out of this dress was about the time I stopped being cute. It was a rough time for me.

the flowery Easter dress.
Being eight is tough.
Speaking of childhood injustices, everyone has been forced by a parent into wearing something they don’t want to wear. I used to have these brown lace-up boots that Mom would insist I wear to church in the winter. I dreaded wearing them not because they were uncomfortable or ugly, but because they were the kind that you actually had to unlace and relace to get them on. And I’m lazy. Can you blame me? Like the boots, I tended to shove this dress to the back of my closet and hoped that my mom would forget it was there. But moms never forget. I thought the lace yoke and the big purple ribbon made me look like a dork: and with my gigantic glasses and my crazy soon-to-have-braces teeth, I did NOT need any help in that department.

the daisy dress.
This was during my "I have braces and therefore refuse to smile with my teeth" phase.
This dress was the first dress I owned that made me feel – dare I say it – sophisticated. It was either a hand-me-down or a rummage sale find, but it was spot-on perfect for the urbane tastes of a Midwestern eleven-year-old in the late 90s. Wearing this dress made me want to put on platform shoes and tinted lip gloss and go to middle-school dances like they did in the movies. (Not that my school had middle-school dances, but whatever.) I wore it to a great aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary party, and I felt like a million bucks – I even curled my hair and painted my fingernails. For one so impatient as me, that is nothing to sniff at.

the stretchy striped dress.
Why, yes, I AM wearing an ankle bracelet.
The final dress on my list is indeed a milestone dress. This was the first dress that I ever saw in a store and wanted to own. The details are hazy on where the dress came from (Maurices?) and who bought it as a gift (my grandma?), but I wore it for basically the entire summer between fifth and sixth grade – the last summer my legs would see sunlight for some time. I felt SO COOL wearing this dress, although I wasn’t confident enough to wear it without the goofy white t-shirt underneath. I did wear it with a hemp necklace (ridiculous) and a pair of foam platform shoes that I bought myself with my allowance (also ridiculous). I felt like a girl from a Delia’s catalog, and that is saying something.

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Many dresses have come and gone, but these five encapsulate my childhood. They have all gone to the big Goodwill in the sky, but I'll never forget them.

We’ll talk about shoes another time.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

hipster cred.

Hipsters are not among the most well-loved groups of people. Grandmas? Yes. Cupcake shop owners? Yes. Kindergarten teachers? Yes.

Hipsters?
No.

Hipsters have a bad reputation, what with their frightening beards, super skinny pants, and unnecessary eyewear. Hipsters delight in looking down upon their fellow man, as they have already been there and done that. Your favorite band? Hipsters were over them before they were cool.

As much as I don't want to say this, I think that everyone just might have an inner hipster. Yours doesn't have to be as judgy as the regular variety, but it's there - lurking behind a goofy hat and some ironic tattoos.

Yes: I, too, have an inner hipster. I don't always like to let mine out, but sometimes, it just can't be tamed. How do I know I have said inner hipster? Why, by my hipster cred. Allow me to explain:

hipster cred item #1:
I have never heard an entire Taylor Swift song.
This alone should be moderately impressive, as Taylor Swift is everywhere. What makes me a hipster is that I like to brag about it. Sure, I've heard plenty of bits and pieces, but never an entire song. And I've managed to avoid almost all of her new album. I am sitting at my dining room table at this very moment, trying to think of just what "Shake It Off" sounds like, and the only song I can come up with is the Florence + the Machine song of a similar name ("Shake It Out," which I'm sure is far superior). That's very hipster of me.

hipster cred item #2:
I have never seen an entire episode of Friends.
Item #2 is quite similar to #1, and I am a little braggy about it for the same reasons. Sure, there are many television shows with which I am unfamiliar, but none so widely loved as Friends. Friends has been around for most of my life, and yet, here I am: in the Friends dark. I could tell you bits and pieces of Friends general knowledge, like that Central Perk is a thing. And so is the Rachel haircut. But I couldn't name all six of the Friends friends without cheating. And that is hipster.

hipster cred item #3:
I worked for my college radio station.
A hipster rite of passage. You're allowed - even encouraged - to pass on your snobby musical tastes to others. Speaking of snobby musical tastes...

hipster cred item #4:
I liked the band Of Montreal before you did.
Thankfully, I have since ceased my appreciation for the band Of Montreal. They are a super-weird indie band (who, despite what their name suggests, are NOT from Canada) that want to be David Bowie but just can't hack it. Their albums have titles like Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? I came across Of Montreal in the early 2000s: a while after the band was formed, but an equal while before anyone I knew caught on. I even went to an Of Montreal concert at First Avenue when I was 20. That was around the time Of Montreal began to be more widely known, but I was ready to move on... to some equally hipster bands like Mountain Goats, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Architecture in Helsinki. What a weird time.

hipster cred item #5:
I can't part with my beat-up Converses.
I have this wonderful pair of black Converses that I bought in 2009. They were the first Converses I ever owned, and I wore them to DEATH. When I finally broke down and replaced them, they had gigantic tears at the sides and would take on water if I even looked at a puddle. It was time for a new pair of black Converses, but I couldn't part with them. They are still sitting in my closet. Few things say "hipster" more loudly than a grungy pair of Converses (except maybe a grungy pair of Keds), but these Converses and I have been through a lot together. It's hard to say goodbye.

I have other bits and pieces of hipster cred: I have gigantic eyeglasses...
Though my myopia requires it. Do I get
bonus hipster points for the Guinness?
I own (and adore) a retro bike...
More than one, actually.
I went to a green college (before being green was cool, of course), and I enjoy a good pair of skinny jeans. However, I just don't have it in me to be a full-blown hipster. Not only is my ability to grow crazy facial hair not up to par, but I fully embrace all sorts of distinctly non-hipster things. Stupid movies, like Tommy Boy and Titanic. Embarrassing music, like Garth Brooks and Katy Perry. (Who am I kidding? Garth Brooks doesn't embarrass me one bit.) Guilty pleasure TV shows that I'm going to regret admitting to, like True Life and Sister Wives. Less-than-intellectual reading material, like Batman graphic novels and everything that Jen Lancaster has ever written. All decidedly non-hipster.

So hipsters have their ups and their downs, and I feel pretty ok with my inner hipster. Hipsters always flock together, and I think that's pretty cool. I need to get me an artistic, culturally aware, and devastatingly sarcastic posse... but one with room for a little Garth Brooks. No judgement.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

birthday freebies.

My birthday was last month, and I turned 28. I feel old as hell, but that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to tell you about birthday swag.

You would not BELIEVE all the free stuff you can get for your birthday.

I’m not talking about the free dessert you (usually) get when your friend tells your waiter that it’s your birthday in hopes of embarrassing you when the entire wait staff sings at your table.

There’s so much more than that out there! Sure, most of it is food, but I’m talking entire MEALS here: not just the brownie with a candle in it that comes standard-birthday-issue at your everyday restaurant.

I first discovered the joy of birthday freebies when I was living in Minneapolis. It was 2010: I was about to turn 23, and I was super broke. I was living with James in a garage-turned-apartment underneath someone’s house, I was finishing up an unpaid internship while James was finishing up student teaching, and I was working three minimum-wage jobs.

Obviously, a fancy birthday dinner was out of the question.

James and I were so poor that we couldn’t even afford to go to dinner to a place that would give you a free dessert for your birthday. Yes: even Applebee’s was out of our price range.

But that’s how it goes in your early 20s. So, like any good millennial, I turned to the internet for help. And what I found was a treasure trove. I stumbled across a website that listed all the businesses that would give you free stuff for your birthday. Many of these businesses required that you sign up for their mailing list, and they would send coupons during the week of your birthday. These coupons varied in value: some were buy-one-get-one free coupons (like that for a Dairy Queen Blizzard), some were a free appetizer or dessert with the purchase of a meal (Lonestar Steakhouse), and some would give you a certain dollar amount off a meal (Red Lobster). The best coupons were the ones that gave you an entire free meal.

Since I first signed up for those birthday coupons, they have become less generous. However, that first birthday, I was up to my eyeballs in free food.

IHOP gave me a free fruity pancake meal.
Perkins gave me a free Magnificent Seven meal.
Coldstone gave me free ice cream.
Noodles and Company gave me a free bowl of noodles.
Ruby Tuesday gave me a free burger.
Benihana gave me $30 to spend on a meal there.
Caribou gave me free coffee.

The very best coupon came from Tony Roma’s, which is a barbecue place. Like Benihana, they gave me a coupon worth $30 to use at their restaurant, which meant I got to have shrimp and barbecued pork ribs for my birthday. 

And the only thing I paid for was the tip.

And you know what else makes these coupons so great? Many of them give you two weeks to use them! You can spread out the joy and have free meals for days.

I was so overjoyed by these niceties that I wrote emails to every one of those companies thanking them for making my birthday delightful. I explained that I was an unpaid intern and couldn’t afford much of anything, and these gestures really made my day.

This is not to say that you can’t have a good birthday without spending money: you certainly can. James took me out for a great birthday celebration, and we spent very little money doing it. It was a beautiful spring day, and we explored St Anthony Falls, went to the Como Zoo, had Jucy Lucy’s at Matt’s Bar for lunch, and went to a midnight showing of The Room. It really was a great birthday.
And here are the pictures to prove it.

The offers have changed over the years: Coldstone switched to a buy-one-get-one-free plan, and I don’t think Benihana does the free meal anymore. (Though I’m not sure. I only took advantage of that once because I was the only one in the restaurant and felt super awkward and have never been back.)

My situation has changed in the past few years, as well. I have moved from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls to Luverne, and many of the places that sent me birthday coupons don’t exist in Sioux Falls and Luverne. (See: Benihana.) I have also come across new coupons that don’t involve food: DSW sends me a $5 birthday coupon each year, and World Market gives me $10. Awesome.
This is what I spent my World Market
dollars on this year.
I signed up for these birthday coupons five years ago, and I still get the emails. I don’t take advantage of them like I used to, mostly because James and I live in Luverne – Luverne doesn’t have ANY of the restaurants that offer birthday treats. It’s awfully hard for James and me to coordinate our schedules to wind up in Sioux Falls together, and I’m not about to go to Perkins and sit and eat my free Magnificent Seven by myself. And as I have (thankfully) gotten less poor over the years, it seems like less of a travesty to just let these free meals go.


I did cash in my free noodle bowl, though. And it was amazing.