I was raised on a rural Iowa farm. This meant that my childhood revolved around food. (It also revolved around walking beans, Atari, and the local Pizza Hut jukebox.) Growing up, we didn’t have this wimpy “breakfast, lunch, dinner” stuff we see nowadays. Instead we ate FIVE meals a day plus a nighttime snack. This equated to breakfast, lunch, dinner, lunch, supper, and a big bowl of ice cream before bed. For you city slickers (or Weight Watcher members), this concept may exceed your comprehension and alloted caloric points . But to break it down…
Breakfast was a hot meal consisting of eggs and some sort of fatty meat. Then came a mid-morning lunch of cold meat sandwiches, homemade cookies and coffee. At noon, dinner was a hot meal with meat, potatoes, and bread & butter sandwiches. Repeat with another mid-afternoon lunch of cold meat sandwiches, homemade cookies and coffee. Round out the day with an even heartier meat and potatoes supper. And before bed, that big bowl of ice cream (hopefully topped with homemade hot fudge).
And while a youth of excessive carbs and butter should be pure bliss, there remained moments that were a bit scarring. I could write an entire blog about butchering our own meat. In fact, my youngest daughter received a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair for her 4-H project entitled “How to Butcher a Chicken.” (If only I were making that up…) But besides the delicacies of homegrown bacon, hamburger and chicken (by the way, have you ever cleaned out a chicken gizzard?), my family’s dinner table expanded to include wildlife such as rabbit, duck and squirrel.
That’s right…squirrel. Remember that scene in Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswold comments on the critter in the Christmas tree, noting that Cousin Eddie eats them? Well squirrel is not limited to redneck relatives wearing dickies and white golf shoes. It can be a staple of any Midwest dinner table. And despite how the idea of eating squirrel now repulses me, the Iowa Roadie was still excited to discover The Black Squirrel Tap in Swisher, Iowa.
I must confess…I paid a visit to the Black Squirrel Tap not because of my fond memories of fried critter, but because of another animal…a hawk. Because the Black Squirrel Tap was hosting an Iowa Hawkeyes football watching party.
For those of you unfamiliar with Iowa geography, Swisher lies just north of Iowa City, home of my beloved Hawks. So football Saturdays are like their own little holidays …only with alcohol and cheese dip. (Although a hearty dose of alcohol and cheese dip may assist anyone in getting through the more traditional holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Columbus Day.)
And what holiday could be complete without jello? (Even Clark Griswold served a jello ring sprinkled with cat food.) In keeping with the tradition of gelatin excellence, the Black Squirrel Tap offered free jello shots for every touchdown Iowa scored. Please note: The Hawks scored 48 points in the game. By halftime, the Iowa Roadie had been served FOUR free jello shots, as well as one’s share of free meatballs and the beloved cheese dip.
And although The Black Squirrel Tap had all the makings for a great time, the Iowa Roadie had sadly arrived too late to sit at the bar (a self-prescribed rule), and instead was seated toward the back (which was conveniently next to the free cheese dip). So at halftime, a decision was made to venture across the interstate and visit Odie’s Bar & Grill in Ely, whose mascot was a moose.
In case you are wondering, I have never eaten moose. However I googled “what does moose taste like,” and was informed that it does NOT taste like chicken. In fact, one google search described moose as having a “strong gamey flavor.” AND because moose eat willow, it “tastes like willow buds smell in the spring.” I’m not sure what that means. Do I taste it or smell it? It’s like schizophrenia of the senses. (PS: Eating squirrel is not nearly as complicated.)
Thankfully when we arrived at Odie’s, we found two empty seats at the bar directly in front of a tv. The problem was the tv was not broadcasting the Iowa game, but instead the Iowa State game! Seriously!? What bar within 30 miles of Iowa City broadcasts any team other than the Hawkeyes? No wonder these seats were empty! However the Odie’s bartender was pleasant, and we were happy to visit with our fellow barmates…Jeff, a veteran who currently works on bridges throughout Iowa, and his friend hidden under an Iowa Hawkeye baseball cap. We were able to partake in a very congenial exchange about bridge building while waiting for my sister to arrive.
This is where the Iowa Roadie adventure becomes a bit awkward. My sister arrived, and instead of joining in our lovely discussion with Veteran Jeff, noticed his friend in the Iowa Hawkeyes hat…who happened to be her ex-boyfriend. (Old boyfriend was actually in family wedding pictures with us!) This was a somewhat painful coincidence as the two had not seen each other in roughly six years. So my sister felt obliged to give him one of those pseudo hugs that don’t invade the other’s personal space. Much like those old junior high dances where you stand facing the other person with your arms stretched straight out (Think Frankenstein) and there’s about a foot of space between you…all the while swaying back and forth to some sappy boy bad or Lionel Richie song.
Uncomfortable reunion behind her, my sister chose a seat on my other side. That put THREE people between her and Old Boyfriend and prevented any future interaction. This allowed us the privacy to visit about our own family dysfunction and my sister’s cats named Jerry and Roger. Both cats are obesely overweight, and look like THEY eat five meals a day. Courtesy of my 16-year-old niece, Jerry even has his own instagram account that is followed by exactly 9 people. Anyway discussing my sister’s fleshy felines was a much safer topic than Old Boyfriend (who by this time had disappeared), and we enjoyed quite the amicable visit…until she had to go home and give Fat Cat Jerry his diabetes shot.
That was also our cue to leave, check into our hotel in Cedar Rapids, and call an uber to take us to our next destination. We were picked up by Uber Driver Arnold, and he recommended that we visit “The Lumber Yard.” Unfortunately The Lumber Yard is not like Menards or the other discount building supplies stores I normally frequent. Therefore I informed Uber Driver Arnold to instead take us to Dirty Shirley’s, a little bar in the Czech Village that opened just a few months ago. (BTW: A Dirty Shirley is a Shirley Temple, but with vodka.) Dirty Shirley’s has a retro tavern feel, and serves signature drinks with names like “Sex in the Driveway” out of mason jars. The best part of Dirty Shirley’s is that, unlike The Lumber Yard, everyone is wearing clothes.
Coincidentally we were seated next to a lovely young woman also named Shirley. But even though she and the bar were name twins, Shirley clarified that she did not own the bar…although her birthday was on June 1, the same day that the bar opened. We considered this a nice birthday surprise, particularly in the face of other less welcome gifts one could receive. (Namely any gift sporting an “old fart” or “over the hill” slogan.) Upon learning of the Iowa Roadie’s interest in dive bars, Shirley provided us the names of several other fun little establishments…all of which were in Wisconsin.
To round out our evening, Shirley recommended we visit a place called Lucky’s next door and order their homemade macaroni and cheese. One could order a big bowl of cheese-coated pasta and insert any of 45 different toppings. (We chose pepper jack cheese with onions, peppers and bacon.) I must admit that the combinations were endless…anything from hot dogs to peanut butter to tuna to dried cranberries. There was no limit to the carb conconctions. Except wait..Upon further review the menu did seem to be missing one ingredient. Squirrel.