Wednesday, April 25, 2012

adventures in Brookings: the Nick's Hamburger edition.

A while ago, I wrote an article about my adventures in the Brookings WalMart. That was the first installment of my Brookings Adventure Series (yes, I’m making a series).

Brookings isn’t your average small city/large town. With a population around 22,000, Brookings is actually the fourth largest city in South Dakota (which doesn’t say a lot for my fair state). Brookings, though, has a lot more character than your typical Midwestern settlement. I would even go as far to say that Brookings has more to offer than Sioux Falls, my current home and the largest city in South Dakota. I attend more cultural events in Brookings than I ever have in Sioux Falls – since I moved back to the area, I’ve seen Lorie Line, The Rocky Horror Show as done by SDSU, Doc Severinsen, a full jazz ensemble at a restaurant called the Pheasant, and the US Air Force Band… all in Brookings. Sioux Falls has some culture of its own, but Brookings culture tends to be more up my alley. Don’t get me wrong: Sioux Falls is fine, but it’s the capital of chain restaurants and mini-malls. There’s not much to do in Sioux Falls that I can’t do in any other large city, but the same cannot be said for Brookings. If you’re looking for something light on the cookie-cutter feel and heavy on character, then Brookings is your place.

Case in point: Nick’s Hamburger Shop. Friends, this is my favorite place on earth. Nick’s has been gracing Main Street since 1929, and I have been gracing Nick’s since 1987. As you may have guessed from the name, Nick’s specializes in hamburgers. Heavenly, heavenly hamburgers.

For those of you who haven’t yet experienced the glory of Nick’s, allow me to explain why these burgers are so wonderful. Nick’s cooks their burgers using what’s called the “tank-fry” method: they basically submerge the burgers in a shallow pan of grease. This makes the burgers flavorful and delicious, and contrary to what you might think, they’re not all that greasy. Load it up with toppings and put it on one of the fresh buns, and you’ve got yourself a delightful burger. Nick burgers are rather small, so you’ll want to order them in multiples: their slogan is “buy ‘em by the bag!”
See the slogan?
See our pure joy?
I’ve been eating Nick burgers for as long as I can remember. I went there with my parents, both sets of grandparents, my aunts and uncles, cousins, friends: everybody loved Nick’s. Nick’s was always the first choice when we were thinking about dinner in Brookings.
When my sister came home for the first
time since joining the Air Force, our
first stop after the airport was Nick's.
For my Grandma Sheila's 80th birthday,
her kids and grandkids all convened
in SD. Of course, Nick's was a
top prioritiy.
A lot of the appeal of Nick’s lies in its atmosphere. Nick’s was remodeled a few years ago into the pleasant eatery it is today. You sit on bar stools, watch your burger being cooked, and eat off wax paper. If you go there around lunchtime, you’ll always find a crowd (except on Sundays – the one day Nick’s is closed). The restaurant is decorated in bright red, white, and black, and it has a pleasant vintage feel to it. You can even get homemade pie.

Nick’s has been through a few different owners over the years, but the lasted and greatest is a man named Dick. Dick is the friendliest guy you will ever meet, and he turned Nick’s into what it is today. If you stop by Nick’s for lunch, chances are you’ll find Dick there, and chances are even better that he’ll be happy to see you.

When Nick’s remodeled, the people of Brookings were worried that Nick burgers would not be available during the construction. Thankfully, this was not the case: Nick’s purchased a portable wagon that would temporarily house their grill. You would just walk up to the little window, order your burgers, and happily eat them at one of the picnic tables. After the remodeling was completed, the Nick’s wagon became available for events. This was the best thing ever.
Nick's wagon, circa May 2009.
My sister graduated from high school in 2009. My parents asked her what kind of food she wanted for the party, and Darrah only had one request: Nick burgers. So that’s what we did. The Nick’s wagon staked a claim in the yard, and the graduation guests just ordered at the window. We had a few volunteers who would even deliver the completed orders to the hungry party-goers. If memory serves me correctly, there were nearly 400 burgers eaten at our house that day. The number was nearly perfect – the Nick’s wagon was down to less than a dozen buns by the time we were done!

That very day, my brother Mitch reserved the Nick’s wagon for his high school graduation in 2011. It was just as wonderful as last time. For Mitch’s graduation, I brought a couple of college friends who had never experienced the glory of Nick burgers before. Haakon and Nate loved the burgers, and they REALLY loved the idea of a burger wagon that you can rent for parties. However, they made a rookie mistake: instead of pacing themselves for a whole afternoon of burgers, Haakon and Nate ate six or seven in one sitting. Needless to say, they spent much of the party sprawled on couches and bemoaning their gluttony. Meanwhile, the rest of us ate one or two at a time, leaving the afternoon wide open for socializing and more burgers.
Nick's wagon, circa May 2011.
I’ve lived away from the Brookings area for nearly seven years now, and I still find myself dreaming of Nick’s hamburgers. Living in Denver and New Orleans was especially tough – I went through a Nick’s drought. When I lived in Minneapolis, I managed to make it home about once a month, and most of those visits involved a trip to Nick’s. Now that I live a mere hour from Brookings, I can easily make the quick trip north to get my favorite food. That, my friends, is living.

So if you ever find yourself in Brookings with an empty stomach, stop by Nick’s Hamburgers. I promise you’ll be glad you did.
It doesn't get much better than this.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

an 18th birthday story.

Birthdays have always been a huge deal for me. Whenever April 19th rolls around, I have to suppress the desire to tell everyone I meet that it’s my birthday. It's the eve of my 25th birthday, and I still have to remind myself that it’s not very adult-like behavior.

The best birthdays were the milestone birthdays: at 16, when you can drive by yourself. 18 means you’re legally an adult, and 21 means that you can finally buy booze. Turning 25 will mean that I can rent a car, but that’s about it. From here on out, it’s just the big ones: 30, 40, 50. I think the “old person” jokes start around 30, but I could be wrong.

I’ve had some good birthdays in my day, that’s the truth. However, one birthday has been head and shoulders above all the rest, and that was the day I turned 18. It wasn’t because I could buy cigarettes (I don’t smoke) or lottery tickets (I’m too cheap). It certainly wasn’t because I wanted to be legal adult: who’s ready for that?! My 18th birthday was my best birthday all because of Applebee’s.

Now, Applebee’s is not necessarily what you would call fine dining. However, it was the fanciest place in Brookings at the time, and it was the only place that would give you free dessert for your birthday. The decision was made.

My 18th birthday was on a Tuesday, and it was wonderful. My brother and sister even sent me balloons. After school that day, my friends Sarah, Bob, Teresa, Rachel, and Dezarae caravanned to Brookings. School got out at 3.10pm, so we had a considerable amount of time to kill before supper time. We scouted movie options at the Brookings Cinema Five and wreaked havoc in WalMart. 
I do what I want on my birthday.
While we were out and about, we were struck with a brilliant idea: what if Bob and I pretended to be fraternal twins and scored an extra brownie? We were both thin blondes with fair skin; the idea of us as siblings wasn’t too far-fetched.

We didn’t want to straight-up lie to Applebee’s, so we had to find a subtle approach – nothing says subtle like the dollar store, right? We trooped into the local dollar store and bought two birthday hats: a pink one for me and a blue one for Bob (“Birthday Prince”). Bob and I donned our birthday gear and headed to Applebee’s to see if we could get them to draw their own conclusions.

We got our table at Applebee’s and ate our dinners. Towards the end of the meal, our waitress came over and said, “I see there’s a birthday!” Bob and I sat up tall in our birthday hats. The rest of my friends smiled broadly and said, “Yes! There IS a birthday!” The waitress returned shortly after, carrying two brownies and followed by a string of singing Applebee’s employees. Bob and I happily shared our brownies with the rest of our friends, incredibly proud of ourselves for getting two free desserts.
So that was my first birthday as a legal adult: I spent it with my friends, scamming Applebee’s out of a cheap brownie. And it was the best birthday ever.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

a small-town prom story.

I grew up in a town called Arlington, South Dakota: a decidedly country-fried little place. We have a population of less than one thousand people, and we’re located right smack dab in the middle of farm country.

Like any other high school in the nation, prom is quite the big deal. In Arlington, it is usually held in mid-April, though it has been known to creep up towards the end of March. Why so early? Prom cannot interfere with planting season. Period. However, it’s not rare to see a fully decked-out prom couple arrive at prom in a tractor.

I went to four proms at Arlington High School: one as an “attendant,” two as a common attendee, and one as a last-minute pity date. Each one of these experiences was trashy in its own very special way, but none was more trashy than the year I was an attendant.

First of all, allow me to explain the position of a prom attendant. Each year, the two girls and the two guys from the sophomore class with the highest GPAs are selected to be prom attendants. What does this mean? All it means is that we got to walk out first at the grand march, dress up, and make sure the punch bowl was filled. We were the prom gophers (or interns).

In order to fully grasp the experience, I must also explain my sophomore self. This was in spring 2003, when I was still in the throes of my early high school awkwardness. I was asked to be an attendant, and boy, was I excited.

I began my journey as an attendant by picking out a dress from my unfortunate-looking closet: it was the dress I had worn to my cousin’s wedding the year before. According to my 16-year-old dork mentality, this dress was pretty risqué. It had – gasp – spaghetti straps! Now, spaghetti straps are a terrible fashion choice for me, as I am the proud owner of a pair of massively broad shoulders. As you probably know, spaghetti straps do nothing to diminish the size of said shoulders – they only draw attention to them. Itty bitty straps, huge man-shoulders. However, not realizing this at the time, I went ahead with my spaghetti straps. Now, for the shoes! I once again turned to my pathetic closet, and I surfaced with a lovely pair of chunky black shoes with the squarest heel you’ve ever seen.

Every good prom outfit requires makeup, as we well know. I, of course, attempted to do my own. At the time, I had not yet been introduced to the optical wonder of contact lenses. In order to do my makeup, I had to take off my glasses and attempt to see what I doing, which, as you may imagine, found me getting awfully close to the mirror. Picture obscene amounts of silver eyeshadow and poorly applied mascara. Check. The only good thing about my ensemble that year was my hair. My mom, refusing to allow me to completely fail at prom, gave me a very nice up-do that could almost cancel out the rest of my floundering outfit.
Calla, your outfit:
I also must explain the location of the 2003 Arlington High School prom. Our school was made up of an older half and a newer half. In years past, the prom had always been held in the smaller of our two gyms, which was located in the older half of the school. It was the perfect size for decorating and for dancing, which is why (of course) it had been used all those years. However, as luck would have it, that half of the school was condemned in fall 2002. Bummer! Where were the young prom-goers to go?

The school’s solution? Have prom in the band room! I kid you not. The decoration committee covered the walls (which contained the cubby holes and the instruments) and floors with black garbage bags and some streamers. That’s it. That was the prom. A literally “trashy” night.

Of course, the music was just as trashy as one might expect of a rural Midwestern school. We heard all the classics: “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” the “YMCA,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and the South Dakota classic “Fishin’ in the Dark.” This was the year we had karaoke as well, which was a completely new can of worms.

My subsequent proms weren’t quite as trashy, mostly because we transferred the dance from the band room into the larger gym (the uncondemned one). Also, I learned about now not to look like a complete idiot in a dress. But don’t worry – my other proms had the very same music.

Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t want to trade my trashy prom experience for a classier, more refined evening. After all, a trashy prom (or four) will always be a great story source. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

childhood obsessions: Titanic.

A while back, I wrote about movies from my childhood. If you recall, Titanic made the list as an obsession of mine. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship, let’s dive (pun intended) a little deeper into my pre-teen love for all things Titanic.
Lookin' good, Titanic.
Before Titanic came out, I was certainly familiar with the shipwreck. As a kid who spent the majority of her childhood buried in a book, I knew all sorts of little facts. I thought the Titanic was certainly interesting, but I didn’t harbor (pun intended again – I am on a ROLL) a great desire to learn more about it. That is, until the movie.

As I’m sure you know, Titanic came out in 1997, and I was ten years old. My parents offered to take me to the movie one weekend, and I accepted, having no better plans for my Saturday. I certainly didn’t go to Titanic because of the romantic plotline. To this very day, I couldn’t care less about cinematic love stories. I walked into the movie theatre, not knowing what to expect. It only took the first few seconds of the flashback to 1912 before I was totally sold. I fell in love with the characters, the close, and of course, the ship itself. Going in, I (like everyone else ever) knew how it would end: the ship sinks. DUH. However, I clutched the edge of my seat in anticipation, like I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. It was the most intense movie I had seen up to that point (for a ten year old, that’s not bad), and I was hooked.
You had me at "I'm flying, Jack."
I went to school the next day, eager to discuss this cinematic masterpiece. I found out that my friend Sarah had gone to the movie the very same weekend, and we bonded over our new obsession. We lived and breathed Titanic. We discussed our favorite lines, our favorite dresses, and our favorite characters: Sarah had a soft spot for Fabrizio, while I fancied Mr Andrews, the shipbuilder. Sarah and I even went so far as to cast the roles of Titanic using only members of our fourth grade class (I think I got to be the Unsinkable Molly Brown).

Over the next few days of constant Titanic talk, I decided I was in love with Leonardo DiCaprio. There was a book fair at school within a week of my realization, and they had one of those goofy “all about your crush” books, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio. 
Thanks, Scholastic.
I nonchalantly flipped through the book, finding all sorts of photographs showing off his boyish good looks, along with little fact sheets like “this is what Leo says is his perfect date.” I think there was even a poster. Of course, I had to have it. However, when you’re ten years old, it’s still socially unacceptable to have a crush on someone, so I had to do this stealthily. I waited until the very end of the day when the book fair was closing up. No one else was shopping for books, so now was my opportunity to strike. I tried not to blush as I paid for my book, and I hid it in my bookbag until I got home. I kept it under my bed, reading tidbits here and there. The only person I ever showed it to was Sarah, who then introduced me to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

I was also absorbed with the fashion in the movie. Sure, my ten-year-old Midwestern lifestyle had no place for giant hats and beaded gowns, but I wanted them all the same. I was also captivated by the jewelry – not just the Heart of the Ocean, mind you, but every last piece of it. Everything seemed so spidery and delicate; I had never seen anything like it. I wanted jewelry just like it. I was at Claire’s one day – Claire’s was (and likely still is) a mecca for anyone under twelve – when I saw two things: a tiny necklace with an antique-y charm and a tiny crystal…
Exhibit A.
...and a fake Heart of the Ocean. Oh, how I wanted them both. I had approximately five dollars to my name, and I remember very clearly that the fake Heart of the Ocean was $7.99. No dice. I bought the other necklace for $3.99, and believe it or not, I still wear it to this day.
I got the fake Heart of the Ocean
in my Christmas stocking next
year. Classy, wouldn't you say?
My fascination with the Titanic stretched beyond the movie and its actors. At that same book fair, I bought a book full of facts about the ship itself. I have since gotten rid of the Leonardo DiCaprio book, but I know I still have the Titanic fact book somewhere. I learned about how many dishes they had on board and how much it cost to buy a first-class ticket. The book covered everything from the conception of the ship to exploration of the shipwreck. I was simply astounded. I believe this is where my fascination with large ships began, only to be helped along by a tour of an aircraft carrier in Virginia, the New Orleans riverboat tour past the ships on the Mississippi, and trips to see the barges on Lake Superior.

Even so, I was still counting the days until I could own Titanic to watch whenever my little heart desired. My parents had put the soundtrack in my Easter basket, and I’d practically worn the tape out – as the movie’s release date drew closer, I listened to the tape more and more. I didn’t care about Celine Dion; I was more interested in the instrumental pieces (an early indication of my inescapable band dork-hood). When Titanic finally came out on video, I snatched it up immediately. It came with a giant movie poster, which I tacked on my wall straightaway. I have no idea how many times I watched Titanic in the days immediately following its purchase; even if I did know, I certainly wouldn’t want to admit it. Sarah and I watched it so often that we had the lines memorized in no time.

Like all good things, Sarah’s and my Titanic mania eventually came to an end. When Titanic became more of a comedy than a drama, we knew it was over. The acting was so over-the-top, but we hadn’t realized it while in the throes of our all-encompassing love for the film. Sarah and I made the transition from complete adoration to outright mockery. We began substituting our own lines for the lines in the film: many of them made sense to no one but us, but we thought they were hilarious.

Yes, the initial magic of Titanic has worn off. I do look back fondly on my Titanic days; Sarah still remembers a good portion of our made-up movie lines. My friend Bob and I even resurrected the film for one of our famed high school movie nights.
We even attempted a re-enactment of the "toss the
Heart of the Ocean into the Atlantic" scene. Except it was
tossing my fake necklace into a bathtub. Good try, though.
And now, because of the 100th anniversary of the shipwreck, the movie is being re-released in theatres. Honestly, I can’t wait. There’s nothing like the magic of the big screen, and I feel like a ten-year-old kid again. Maybe I’ll even wear my Heart of the Ocean necklace.

Just kidding.

…or am I?  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

an April Fools' story.


If you were to ask someone what the proudest moment of their life is, you’d most likely get a fairly predictable answer: the day they graduated from college, the birth of their first child, the time they got the Nobel Prize. If you were to ask me, I’d have a totally different answer: April Fools’ Day, 2007.

In 2007, I was a sophomore in college. If you recall from my radio story, at this time, I was dating a hipster art major that my parents weren’t at all fond of. I was starting to agree with them. The relationship had been deteriorating for months already; the spring semester thus far had been particularly taxing. Hipster Boyfriend tended to be depressed and needy, and I do not deal well with needy. Perhaps that was why I never worked as a babysitter.

In any case, during the early months of 2007, I had come close to breaking up with Hipster Boyfriend on multiple occasions. Why didn’t I, you ask? Well, the primary reason was that I chickened out. However, in February, I was struck with the best idea I had ever had (and probably will ever have). I needed to keep Hipster Boyfriend around long enough to play an April Fools’ Day joke on my dad.

In order to understand why this April Fools’ Day joke was destined for greatness, you need to understand my parents’ distaste for my boyfriend. It’s not that Hipster Boyfriend was rude or inconsiderate to my parents; not even close. He simply clammed up around them. My parents are friendly people, so the first time I brought Hipster Boyfriend around, they did their best to make polite conversation. Hipster Boyfriend, however, was not having it. My parents could barely get one-word answers out of him. Honestly, Mom and Dad are not scary people; Hipster Boyfriend simply had no people skills. Just like I have little patience for neediness, Mom and Dad have little patience for social ineptitude. Hipster Boyfriend also tended to follow me around like a lost puppy, which earned him zero respect points at my house. It didn’t take long before my parents more or less gave up on him. Honestly, I was about ready to give up as well.

It took a lot, but I managed to hang on. The promise of the April Fools’ Day joke to end ALL April Fools’ Day jokes was enough to convince me that a few more months of a bad relationship would ultimately be worth it. In March, when Hipster Boyfriend was in an uncharacteristically sunny mood, I pitched my April Fools’ idea: on April 1, I wanted him to call my dad and ask for permission to marry me.

Not surprisingly, Hipster Boyfriend balked at my idea. Fully aware of my dad’s distaste for him, Hipster Boyfriend didn’t want to fan the flame. “Oh, no,” I lied. “My dad will think it’s hilarious. He’ll probably like you BETTER because of it!” Hipster Boyfriend was still not convinced, so I resorted to pouting. I know it makes me sound like a spoiled ten year old, but Hipster Boyfriend could never withstand my deadly pouting/silent treatment combo. I believe the layman’s term for such an individual is “whipped.” Hipster Boyfriend reluctantly agreed, and I eagerly began to count the days until April 1.

The fateful day finally arrived. April 1st landed on a Sunday that year, and Hipster Boyfriend and I had spent the weekend at his parents’ house near Minneapolis. I was a little less than thrilled that Hipster Boyfriend would be making this phone call within earshot of his humorless parents, but what do you do. Hipster Boyfriend’s dad spent the weekend trying to ruin my plans by making disapproving faces and suggesting lame alternatives. “Maybe YOU can call your dad!” Hipster Boyfriend’s dad hopefully suggested. “I bet it would still be funny.” I politely declined: it HAD to be Hipster Boyfriend. “But what will happen when he REALLY asks you to marry him?” Hipster Boyfriend’s dad asked. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my intentions with his son were less than honorable – the thought of ACTUAL marriage made me queasy.

Since April Fools’ Day was on Sunday, the timing of the call had to be perfect. My parents would be back from church in the late morning, and I wanted to give them plenty of time to eat. If Hipster Boyfriend called and they didn’t answer the phone, I would’ve had a hard time convincing him to try it again. It was do or die. I decided that the best time to call would be mid-afternoon: my parents would almost certainly be lounging and available for phone calls.

The morning and early afternoon passed slowly. At long last, it was time to make the call. Quivering with anticipation, I sat down on the couch with Hipster Boyfriend as he shakily dialed my parents’ number. I sat close to Hipster Boyfriend so I could hear the conversation; I didn’t dare listen in on another line for fear of Dad hearing my stifled giggles and realizing something was up.

Within two rings, Dad picked up the phone. Hipster Boyfriend was his nervous, awkward self: “Uh, Tim, do you have a minute for me to talk to you?” I heard my dad pause apprehensively. “Yes…?” he said. Hipster Boyfriend took a deep breath and went on: “I know I’ve only been dating Calla for ten months, but I’ve honestly never met anyone like her. She’s wonderful, and she means the world to me. I would like your permission to marry her.”

I held my breath: this was the moment of truth. Dad would: a.) realize what day it was and the jig would be up, or b.) panic. Luckily for me, he chose the latter. I heard my dad’s voice go up an octave as he said, “Have you talked to CALLA about this?!” My parents were fully aware of my relationship woes, so my poor dad didn’t know what to say. Hipster Boyfriend said that no, he hadn’t talked about it with me. In his entire life, my dad has never been rendered speechless… except for the afternoon of April 1, 2007. Famously diplomatic, Dad did his very best to let Hipster Boyfriend down easily. I heard him say “How are you going to support her with an art major?” and “It’s not that we don’t LIKE you; we just don’t KNOW you!”

Meanwhile, I was sitting on the couch, trying not to choke on my own laughter. I don’t recall how long the phone call was, but I’m sure Dad thought it lasted forever. But like all good things, this too had to end. Finally, I took the phone from Hipster Boyfriend. “Dad?” I said, suppressing my cackles. “What day is today?” Dad paused as he looked at the calendar. “It’s April 1st,” he said. Then, it hit him. “It’s April 1st. You little shit.” I dissolved in a fit of laughter of epic proportions; I could hardly breathe, and tears rolled down my face. Dad was not laughing (yet), but there was an audible sigh of relief. “I’ll call you back when my heart starts beating again,” Dad said, promptly hanging up.

I spent the rest of the day basking in the glow of my victory. Hipster Boyfriend was just glad that it was over. I later found out that Mom had been sitting right by Dad during this phone call, so she also spent a few minutes in horror. My prank was a two-fer.

News of my April Fools’ Day joke spread like wildfire in my hometown. I came home for Easter that year, and I was a minor celebrity. My parents’ friends all congratulated me on being a diabolical genius: Dad’s old band director was especially proud of me.

More than anything, I wish I could’ve seen Dad’s face during this phone call. “You know the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the Nazis’ faces are melting?” Dad said. “I think it was a lot like that.”
Looks about right.
Out of all the stories I have to tell, this one is far and above my favorite. I tell it every chance I get, particularly around April Fools’ Day. Many people don’t even mind hearing it multiple times – especially if they know my dad! Dad, too, has come to accept the brilliance of my April Fools’ Day joke. He, too, enjoys retelling the tale of that fateful spring day. It’s been five years, and the story still hasn’t gotten old. However, ever since 2007, Dad and I no longer talk on April Fools’ Day. He has been known to call me at 12:01 on April 2nd, but never again will we speak on April 1st.

 You may be wondering: how long did I keep Hipster Boyfriend around after more or less forcing him to do my nefarious bidding? Did I swiftly kick him to the curb on April 2nd? Actually, no.  Even after he totally ruined my birthday in mid April (which is a story for another time), it took me until June to work up the courage to break up with Hipster Boyfriend. Even then, it was short-lived: I felt guilty and took him back that same day. I broke up with Hipster Boyfriend for good in July: we had been dating for just over a year. It was the longest year of my life, but it was worth it just so I could give my dad a few more grey hairs.