Romancing the Blade

Mug Brush

My fascination with shaving has a lengthy history that began when I was a small boy and became aware of this ritual performed by grown-up men. For as long as I knew him, my grandfather shaved with a safety razor, a mug of shaving soap, and a brush. He also had an old straight razor in his basement bathroom and although I never saw him use it, I’m sure he had done so once upon a time. I rarely got to watch Grandpa shave, but the few memories I have of those times involved him coming out of his bathroom with one or two fragments of tissue stuck to his face. I would later learn firsthand that this was a tried-and-true method for catching and holding blood droplets from the seemingly inevitable razor nicks and cuts.

Norelco

My dad’s arsenal was a bit more modern. He was a Norelco man, having owned numerous corded and uncorded models over the decades. But he also had several safety razors, at least one in each bathroom, and he used them on occasions when he wanted a particularly close shave. Pop professed that he could go for two days between proper wet blade shaves, whereas his electric razor required daily use.

My dad was no stranger to the toilet paper trick, either, but he also kept a solid alum block, which he had purchased from a barber, I couldn’t tell you in what year.  After shaving, you simply run the alum block under cool water and then gently glide it over your freshly-shaven skin. Any nicks, cuts or abrasions will immediately be made known. The alum stings like mad when it finds any such wound, but it does help check the flow of blood. Styptic pencils, used for the same purpose, also contain powdered alum crystals. After my dad passed away, I kept that old alum block, mainly for sentimental reasons, though I have used it from time to time. I wish I’d kept all of the razors as well. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Alum Block

When the time came for me to begin shaving, sometime during my high school years, my dad introduced me to shaving by presenting me with one of his safety razors. This particular one had a “butterfly” mechanism for replacing the double-edged blade and was also adjustable. Twisting a dial built into in the handle would change the height/exposure of the blade, allowing for a milder or more aggressive shave, depending on the setting. This was a good choice for a newbie like me.

We went over the basic techniques—using hot water and the shaving brush to work up a good lather and apply it to my face, holding the razor properly, rinsing thoroughly, using the alum block if necessary, and applying aftershave. My young peachfuzz whiskers never stood a chance. Neither did my face when I began experimenting with more aggressive razor settings over time. But I learned and I did okay.

Before long I became curious about electric shavers and got one of my own. Using an electric razor was cool because I could mow down my whiskers relatively quickly without fear of cutting myself. But they were also bothersome because (a) applying pressure to get a closer shave often resulted in razor burn and (b) the darned things needed to be cleaned regularly. Over the decades that followed, I tried various electric models from Norelco, Remington, Braun, and Panasonic. Some I liked better than others—especially the self-cleaning models, although those tended to break down after the warranty period was up.

Fusion

I also went through all the iterations of disposable and multi-blade cartridge razors, beginning with the Gillette Trac II and culminating with the Gillette Fusion5™ ProGlide Power razor. In the end, I preferred wet shaving, though not necessarily the rising costs associated with using the latest innovations in cartridge shaving technology. Every time the folks at Gillette (now part of Proctor & Gamble) rolled out another iteration of the latest must-have razor, I knew I could count on the cost of replacement blade cartridges going up.

I’d been seeing and hearing a lot about the resurgence of safety razors over the past few years and I guess it was just a matter of time before I got swept up in the movement myself. The cost of blade replacement for my five-bladed (six if you count the trimmer blade on the backside), self-lubricated, vibrating, flexing, pivoting shaving system was between two and three dollars per replacement cartridge and as much as I liked the product, I was ready for a change, if only to save a few bucks. As a rule, I am seldom afraid to try something new. But was I ready to try something old?

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After a bit of research, I decided to buy The Chieftain safety razor by Vikings Blade. an outfit in Australia that seems to have fun with what they do while taking the art of shaving quite seriously. The product is well-rated and comes with a storage/carrying case as well as five starter blades, all for a price that wouldn’t break me (I was still employed full-time and hadn’t yet broken my shoulder when I bought this). When my new razor arrived, I was not disappointed. The weight and balance are excellent, to say nothing of the fit and finish. The Chieftain is a quality product. I couldn’t wait to try it out.

Hamburger

Unfortunately, despite having read and reread the directions and even watched a video or two about shaving with a safety razor, I had built up some bad habits from many years of having shaved with pivoting disposable cartridge razors. Despite the “mild” blade I had used,  my poor neck paid dearly for those bad habits. It was days before I attempted shaving with that razor again, but to be very clear, it wasn’t the razor’s fault. This was pure user error.

I recall one of my college marketing professors, years ago, explaining that The Gillette Company had developed the pivoting razor head after research revealed that a substantial portion of shavers did not hold their razor at the proper angle. The advertisements never said, “…with a new pivoting head, because some of you are too stupid to hold your razors properly,” but that was the gist of it. And remembering that helped me get the best shave of my life with a safety razor. That and an email.

I emailed “Grumpy old Robert” Vue, owner of Vikings Blade, who merely confirmed what I already knew. “Michael, neck shaving with a safety razor is very very different and I can totally guess why you had to use the alum bloc.” He proceeded to give me some sound advice about shaving with a safety razor, which I took to heart. And so, with a healed up neck and a head full of knowledge, I picked up my safety razor and began anew. I even learned a few new things along the way.

If you are looking to make the switch to a safety razor, here are some important tips to keep in mind.

  • Hydration matters. Your skin needs to be very wet, your whiskers softened by it. The result will be an easier shave and more optimal results.
  • Use a proper shaving cream/gel that works for you. I’ll get into my favorite in a bit.
  • A safety razor will not pivot to correct your shave angle, nor will it forgive your mistakes. You must control the blade angle throughout the shave. A 30° angle is considered optimal and you won’t need a protractor to find it. When the portion of the razor head above the blade and the safety bar/comb beneath the blade are both touching your skin, you’re pretty much there.
  • Do not apply pressure on your safety razor for a closer shave! Use the natural weight of the razor and let it glide, at the proper angle, to do its job. Major thanks to Grumpy old Robert for driving this point home for me.
  • Lift the razor off your skin before changing the direction of a stroke or moving the blade sideways.
  • Shaving “with the grain” (in the same direction as your whiskers grow) will yield the mildest shave. Sideways to the grain is more aggressive. Against the grain is most aggressive and will yield the closest shave, if you have the skill and your skin can handle it.
  • Understand your face. There are about three points on the contours of my neck that require additional attention in order to get a close shave without injury. The same goes for the area above my mustache and beneath my nose. Your mileage may vary.
  • Take your time and do it right. If you rush, you may regret it.
  • Sometimes it makes more sense to shave less aggressively, i.e. on a very hot and humid day.
  • No matter what, your last razor strokes should be downward. I was taught that this would train the whiskers to grow downward. True or not, I can’t shake that teaching.

Shaven

My results have been phenomenal. Never again have I suffered the same “hamburger neck” that I experienced with that first, careless shave. I have graduated to using a more aggressive blade—more on that in a moment—and my usual result is an unbelievably close, smooth shave. Any actual nicks have been few and far between, and are usually the result of my zeal to repeatedly achieve the closest possible shave.

Astra Blades.jpg

I place a lot of emphasis on technique when it comes to shaving with a safety razor, but I would be remiss not to mention two other factors, that being your choice of double-edge (DE) razor blade and shave cream—each of which can be a very personal thing. On that fateful first day, when I turned my neck into so much hamburger, I couldn’t see using anything sharper than the “starter” blades that had come with my razor. Several weeks later, I had changed my mind. The Astra Superior Platinum Double Edge Safety Razor Blade is reputed to be among the sharpest-yet-smoothest blades available. These stainless steel, platinum-coated blades are super thin and even after “dulled” by a week or more of shaving, they should be handled with respect. I can get a full two weeks out of one blade, but one week is optimal and at just under ten cents a blade, when bought in 100-count packages, I have little reason to push it. That’s right, I buy 100 premium quality DE razor blades for a fraction of what I used to pay for four disposable Fusion 5 Power replacement cartridges. Some people periodically flip the blade over in the razor head, claiming that doing so extends blade life. Me, I flip the blade after every shave. Even if doing so doesn’t help, it can’t hurt.

Cremo

Cremo Original Concentrated Shave Cream is my go-to shaving product. I’ve tried others and kept returning to this one. Again, this is a very personal choice, so I encourage shavers to draw their own conclusions. For me, a dime-size dollop plus hot water gets my face as slick as heck and pretty much keeps it that way throughout the shaving process, as long as I can keep it moving with one wet hand. A sufficient coating of Cremo is nearly transparent on my face, which allows me to see what I’m doing and shave with precision.

My son looked at the results I have achieved with a double-edged safety razor and decided to draw his own conclusions. Less than a week later, he opted to get his own Vikings Blade razor, opting for The Chieftain, Odin Edition. I have yet to hear a complaint.

In the end, one’s shaving equipment and accessories are a personal choice. For now, I am very pleased with the choices I’ve made.

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The Last Motorcycle on Earth: A New Dramatic Three-Part Series

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“Motorcycles are outlawed. Gasoline is $20 per gallon. Self-driving cars are taking over. Silicon Valley and the United States Government have collaborated to push society toward a fully-autonomous transportation system. Motorcycles and riders are an easy first target in the drive to ban human-operated vehicles. Impossible, you say? Not so fast.”

Could motorcycles be outlawed in our lifetime? This is the question with which we are confronted in The Last Motorcycle on Earth,  a dramatic series by Eric W. Ristau, a director, cinematographer and editor of independent films, documentaries, and television commercials. This series is co-produced by Geneva Ristau, who has co-directed numerous works with Eric, and Neil “Morto” Olson, who also plays the story’s central character. An Indiegogo crowdfunding site has been established for The Last Motorcycle on Earth, which has already been in production, albeit on a limited budget.

I have been a loyal and supportive fan of cinematographer Eric W. Ristau since 2013. That’s the year The Best Bar in America was released. Produced and directed by Eric and his brother Damon, that movie resonated with me in a big way and I wasted no time telling anybody who would listen about the film. Eric acknowledged my enthusiasm and thus began our casual acquaintance of the past five years. We attempted to meet for a beer once, but Eric was in Canada the one time I had managed to ride my motorcycle through Missoula, Montana. I would still like to have that beer, though. I believe that someday, we shall do so.

How feasible is the scenario presented in this dramatic series? Eric submits the following.

“Our current youth culture is largely focused on virtual experiences rather than the tangible, physical stuff past generations were drawn to– in this case, motorcycles, cars and expression of personal freedom through travel. More young people than ever are deciding against getting a driver’s license and interest in ownership of vehicles by that group is at an all-time low. It is said that the last person to receive a driver’s license has already been born.”

As an active member of three distinct Motorcycle Rights Organizations, I’ve read various position statements on the topic of autonomous vehicle technology. Before reviewing the background information and video footage from The Last Motorcycle on Earth, though, I never gave serious thought to the possibility of the rise of autonomous vehicles causing the end of the motorcycle hobby as we know it. Now? I’m not so sure.

Let’s think about this. The technology is moving forward at a faster rate than most of us would have expected. There is no small amount of corporate backing for the advancement of autonomous vehicle technology. Countries, as well as companies, are vying to become the clear dominant player in this arena. And today’s youth are tomorrow’s voting majority.

Displacing conventional automobiles will surely take time, but based on our smaller population and lesser popularity, the motorcycling community seems like a feasible target for elimination by those who stand to gain the most from our loss. Think about that.

Please take a few minutes to view the following video. Perhaps you will consider helping to fund The Last Motorcycle on Earth. If you ride or are a fan of the hobby, I would also urge you to consider joining one or more motorcycle rights organizations. And as always, thanks for hanging with me.

For the Benefit of Others

 

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It sure didn’t feel like the second Sunday in October, but there we were. Conditions were sunny, dry, and relatively warm as Ann and I rolled into the spacious lot at Fox River Harley-Davidson to register for the 31st Annual DuKane A.B.A.T.E. Toy & Food Run. This was Ann’s third consecutive year attending and my fifth. I attended for the first time in 2013, at which time I reconnected with one Wally Elliott, then the event’s coordinator, with whom I had done business back in the 1980’s and 90’s. One year later, I was a member of the DuKane Chapter of A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois and was actively promoting the Toy & Food Run.

The folks at Fox River Harley-Davidson do it right. Besides serving as a registration and donations collection point, this motorcycle dealership puts out a free breakfast for Toy & Food Run participants. I should point out that riders of all makes and models are welcome. I have never ridden a Harley, but was made to feel no less welcome for it. When Ann and I rolled out toward Elburn with all the others, we had no idea how many bikes were in our party. Still, it felt awesome to be a part of that.

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This annual event, billed as “Chicagoland’s oldest and largest suburban toy run,” is not a small one. From remote registration points, eight this year, participants fed into a parade staging area, and also a registration point, outside of Knuckleheads Tavern in Elburn, Illinois. From there a fully escorted parade wound its way to the Batavia VFW grounds for an afternoon of fun and festivities, with merchandise vendors, live bands, and food and beverage vendors on hand for the duration of the event. Local and state political figures and candidates also attended, including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, himself an A.B.A.T.E. member and avid motorcyclist. Admission was once again only $10 per person, along with a new, unwrapped toy and a non-perishable food item.

The atmosphere at Elburn could only be described as festive. Bikes were being parked in several staging lots. As usual, a live band was playing their hearts out in the lot behind Knuckleheads. Bikes and bikers were everywhere. A large, dedicated group of volunteers kept everything moving in an orderly fashion. Governor Rauner was there, as was Santa Claus. Some of us joked about who was the bigger celebrity.

At 12:30 PM, we rolled out of Elburn. As always, Ann was capturing everything she could with still shots and video. Countless Law Enforcement Officers and designated volunteers assisted with traffic control, ensuring a safe ride to our endpoint in Batavia.

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The festivities at the Batavia VFW are always extraordinary and this year was no exception. Multiple bands provided an afternoon of vibrant live music, courtesy of TOGA Talent Agency. The merchandise, food, and beverage vendors were all top-shelf. And still more volunteers kept everything moving in an orderly fashion—no small feat for an event of this magnitude. The toys and food items collected that day (enough to fill two flatbed trailers, were distributed to many local charities, representatives of which were on site to tell their stories. The event itself also raises funds for our A.B.A.T.E. chapter.

For the record, A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois is a motorcycle safety and rights organization (read: lobby) that not only protects and fights for the rights of motorcyclists, but brings motorcycle safety and awareness to the community through speaking engagements, education at driver’s ed courses and visiting clubs and organizations. The DuKane Chapter represents the state organization in Northern DuPage and Kane Counties.

It sure didn’t feel like the second Sunday in October, but there we were, and it was awesome! As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Why I Choose to Ride in the 2017 Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run

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The Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run is something that has become important to me over the years. In terms of numbers, this is the biggest fundraiser run I do each year, with thousands of bikes, all riding together for a common cause, in support of the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial.

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Whether you ride a motorcycle or not, if you have never visited the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial in Marseilles, Illinois, I urge you to do so. That wall memorial is most unusual for several reasons. For openers, this memorial was made possible not by any branch of our federal, state, or local government—believe me, if that were the case, we would still be waiting—but by the Illinois motorcycle community. That’s right. As I understand it, the concept was hatched by a couple of bikers named Tony Cutrano and Jerry Kuczera. Made possible by donations of material, labor, and funds, this memorial was dedicated on June 19th, 2004. As the result, the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial became the first of its kind, a memorial honoring our fallen, by name, while a conflict is still ongoing.

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Each year, on the third Saturday in June, members of the motorcycle community gather in numbers—think four figures minimum, sometimes five—to raise funds for the memorial wall, which unfortunately continues to grow as more names are added each year, and to show their support for the fallen as well as for their families, some of whom are also in attendance that day (these are called Gold Star Families).

I want to talk to you about these families for a moment. You’ll notice them as you approach the wall, no matter if it’s during the day of the Freedom Run or any other day. They are usually very quiet and are usually focused on one of the many names now engraved on that wall. As often as not, some are crying while others are consoling—and sometimes they are all doing both at once. You know, it’s one thing to come thundering into Marseilles with a few thousand casual acquaintances, but once the kickstands are down, the closer everyone gets to the site of that memorial, the quieter things get.

And there you are, a badass biker, standing there looking at all those names engraved in the granite. You can see and hear the Illinois River flowing just beyond the memorial site. Then you hear another sound and you look over to see a mother, a father, a wife, a brother or sister, a child… sobbing uncontrollably. You look upon a scene like that and it changes the way you think about the Wall Memorial and the event that has made it possible through the years. It changed me, anyway.

Some years ago, I think it was 2005 or 2006, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the co-founders of the wall memorial, the late Tony “Greaseball” Cutrano. At the time, I had been president of the Illini Free Spirit Riders motorcycle club, and we had arranged to meet Tony at the Wall Memorial and present him with a small donation during the off-season. After we presented the check and took our pictures (I wish I had one to share with you here), we spent some time talking. Of all the things we discussed, there was one thing Tony said that made everything click with regard to the scene I described earlier. He explained that for some families, that Wall Memorial is the closest thing they will ever have to a cemetery because sometimes, there is no body to be recovered. I never felt the same way again about the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, about the Wall memorial, about the big after party, about any of this gig.

I also have never missed this event in more than ten years.

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This year we will carry on the tradition that began in 2004, but without the “festival” support of the City of Marseilles. I could speculate on the reasons, but to what end? Listen to me: Times change, people change, events change. But our cause has not changed. Get it?

This year the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run returns to its roots by renaming its after-party the Celebration of Freedom. As you will see on the flier, this part of the event will take place at Fat Daddyz in nearby Seneca. It’s a great venue, I am told, but is obviously smaller than the City of Marseilles, so if parking becomes a bit of a hassle, please exercise a bit of patience and cooperation.

IMFR Last Point

Just one last point. I know some riders are gravely disappointed in the City of Marseilles for their decision to discontinue their municipal Freedom Fest this year. Yeah, me, too. But their municipal event was NEVER the focal point of the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run! Sure, some people stayed in town and partied while the solemn ceremony took place at the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial site. Now wouldn’t it be a dirty shame if those brothers and sisters didn’t participate this year because the city wasn’t hosting a party?

Yes, that would be a dirty shame. Do we really want to buckle under a bad decision made by some lame politicians? This year, just like every year before, the Freedom Run itself and the solemn ceremony at the Wall Memorial are still the collective centerpiece of our day and they are still as important and alive and vibrant as they were in 2004. So please, do come out on June 17 and show your continued support for this cause. Come June 17, let’s ride!

A Nice Little Burger Run

Miss Scarlett and Me

This burger run was nearly called on account of rain. It had been an on again, off again thing all week long, as the weather forecast flipped from partly sunny to a 30% chance of rain to a 70% chance of rain and then back to a 30% chance before settling on “mostly cloudy with rain toward evening” by the time today actually arrived. That was good enough for my friend Ann and me, who had been itching to go riding together since last November. As circumstances had it, Saturday had been the far better day, weather-wise, but Sunday was our only mutually available day for riding. It isn’t always easy when riding companions live over 100 miles apart, but then I’ve never been intimidated by distances. And so we watched the weather forecast evolve daily until today, when our story begins.

Kenosha, Wisconsin has proven to be roughly equidistant between Ann’s home and my own. When the days are shorter, as is the case in early spring and late fall, we sometimes arrange to meet and begin our riding from there. Today we met up at 11:00 AM in a large parking lot just off Interstate 94, beneath an endless canopy of steel gray clouds. The ambient temperature was 52 degrees and climbing. We would have felt much warmer at that temperature had the sun been shining, but as is the case with most things in life, one must play the hand that has been dealt. We had been dealt a cold start to our morning and the promise of rain before suppertime, so we planned a short run centered around lunch and a walk. Not being strangers to riding, Ann and I both arrived dressed in layers for warmth and adjustability. Within minutes, we were on the bike—my full dresser Victory Vision Tour, affectionately named Miss Scarlett—and headed for the unlikely destination of Burlington, Wisconsin, home of one Fred’s World’s Best Burgers, also known as Fred’s Parkview.

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I have to admit, having married a girl from Kenosha, I’ve been visiting and traveling this region for decades. Over the course of all those years, I’d always known where Burlington was, but never knew much about this community, nor had I ever felt compelled to go there. Until now. Boasting the “World’s Best Burgers,” this establishment known as Fred’s sits on the northeast corner of Milwaukee Avenue and North Pine Street in downtown Burlington. The founder and owner of Fred’s is a woodworker by the name of Fred Mabson, who used his craft to create a unique atmosphere in which to enjoy this family-friendly eating and drinking establishment. As soon as we stepped through the doors, Ann and I were surrounded by tastefully finished knotty pine and a lot of smiling faces. Their corner location is rather large on the inside, with a fair number of dining tables filling two rooms. We had arrived shortly after noon and, in addition to some seats at the bar, there was exactly one table open, which we immediately grabbed for our own.

As Ann and I approached from the outside, and having never been there before, I had assumed Fred’s was a corner bar that served a pretty good burger. But once inside, I saw a higher percentage of tables filled than of bar stools. I also saw families—you know, the kind with kids—as well as friends, all eating, drinking, talking, laughing and otherwise having themselves quite a time on an early Sunday afternoon. In short, Fred’s is the kind of place where one can feel good just by stepping inside. And then there’s the food.

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As you might expect, Fred’s menu focuses on their burgers, but looking beyond that for a moment, this little place has got a pretty extensive menu! We opted to keep it simple, with a couple of cheeseburgers. Ann got the quarter-pound version, while I opted for the half-pound burger. Our toppings differed, but our experiences were quite similar. What comes to the table is a fresh, hand-made burger, cooked to your liking, served on a fresh, buttered and grilled bun and topped with equally fresh ingredients. The homemade fries are curly cut; the homemade chips are ribbon cut. It’s all very tasty and it would take a number of visits in order for me to try everything that I’d like to try off of that menu. So you see, there’s an awful lot going on inside that corner establishment in downtown Burlington.

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As is usually the case, Ann and I wanted to take a walk after we had finished our lunch. In many instances, this has involved riding to another location, usually a park or state forest destination, where we could walk off our meal and enjoy the scenery. On this particular trip, all we had to do was cross the street a few times in order to visit three riverfront parks. First, we walked through Echo Veterans Memorial Park on Echo Lake. Then we crossed over to Riverside Park, which runs along the Fox River for quite a while. Before we had gone too far, we crossed a footbridge into Wehmhoff Jucker Park, on the opposite bank of the Fox, before heading back to the parking lot where we had left Miss Scarlett.

At that point, I began to notice that the cloud cover had gradually grown darker toward the west. That suppertime rain threat should still have been hours away, but something told me it was time to carry Ann back to her car, and quickly. After all, I had promised her a day free from rain or snow. Although it never rained on us as we sped back toward Kenosha, the sky did spit on us a few times. So once I had gotten Ann back to her car, we quickly said our goodbyes before she headed north and I high-tailed it back to Illinois.

It had been a glass-half-full kind of day. Sure, I could have moaned about how short our burger run had been, or about how Mother Nature had robbed Ann and me of another hour or two of walking/riding time. Nah. Given that it was only April 2, we were lucky to have gotten the bike out at al. Besides that, we had discovered a really neat lunch stop that I’m sure we will revisit someday. And so rather than moan or complain, Ann and I will enjoy the memories of another great little run, all while planning our next one.

Life is good. Thanks for hanging with me.

Surf & Turf & Local History

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It had been some time since I’d been to the Wilmot Stage Stop, an historic eating and drinking establishment—billed as Wisconsin’s oldest tap and dining room—located at the corner of highways C and W in Wilmot, Wisconsin. This establishment began as the Wilmot Hotel, an actual stagecoach stop, in 1848 and has been owned by the same family ever since.It was my wife’s family who introduced me to this place in 1984 or ’85, after Karen and I had become engaged. Known primarily for its charcoal-broiled steaks and lobster tails, the Wilmot Stage Stop had long been a favorite place for my in-laws to celebrate special occasions, entertain visitors, or simply enjoy a special meal.

There was a period during which I feared I would never enjoy eating at the Stage Stop, when the restaurant abruptly shut its doors last year—July 29, 2016 to be exact—but an article appearing in the Kenosha News last January, announcing that the popular steakhouse would be reopening that very month, put a big old smile on my face.

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The Wilmot Stage Stop is not a highbrow establishment, but a family-owned steakhouse with a tremendous history and no small amount of atmosphere. Area families have been dining there for generations. It’s a three story affair. The dining room and bar are on the ground floor. A central staircase leads up to what was once the hotel ballroom. The ballroom now houses a collection of artifacts in a museum-like setting. A much narrower and steeper staircase leads up to the third floor, where the original hotel rooms now serve as viewing areas for even more artifacts. The short beds, low ceilings, even the rooms themselves, are a reminder to us that people were generally shorter back then than they are now. And from all appearances, cross country travelers were not accustomed to having anywhere near the creature comforts that we so take for granted today.

Still, the real reason people go there is for the food, mostly steaks and lobster tails, both charcoal-broiled. A baked potato spiked with a huge slab of butter accompanies your selection, as do a salad and rolls. The bar has a nice variety of drink offerings, the servers are warm and friendly, and the seating, if a bit dense, can be arranged to accommodate quite a range of party sizes.

Our party arrived at 4:00 PM,  while there were seemingly many open tables. By the time we departed, less than 90 minutes later, the dining area and bar were both brimming with humanity. The Wilmot Stage Stop is a popular dining destination and reservations are probably a wise choice.

Thanks for hanging with me.

The Pizza That Ann and Michael Built

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The culinary exercise I am about to describe will undoubtedly end up in my book, the working title of which is What Recipe.  It’s sort of a cookbook, but also a celebration of intuitive cooking, a collection of humorous anecdotes and more. I think you’ll like it, but right now I want to tell you about this pizza, if only because we received a lot of positive feedback when my friend Ann and I began sharing some of our photos on facebook last weekend. Neither Ann nor I had ever made pizza quite like this before, which made everything seem sort of tentative, but we laughed our way through this intuitive experiment, from start to finish and ended up with a couple of large, tasty pizzas.

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I have made many pizzas before, most of them in the tradition taught to me by my mother.This one, however, was a little bit unique. For openers, we made the crust from scratch, using a “Tipo 00” flour imported from Italy. I had never used this extra fine flour before but had read that it was excellent for making pizza crusts. This turned out to be quite true. Double zero is a grade of Italian-milled flour that is ground very fine and is also highly refined. I believe it is lower in protein, starch, and gluten than standard flour, although what’s left in there I have no idea. Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, with eight locations in suburban Chicagoland, carries a few different brands of Tipo 00 flour. I selected their house brand, which is labeled as a pizza flour and it worked fabulously for us in that capacity.

We double-raised our dough before dividing and stretching it out into two pizza crusts. We didn’t use a thermometer, just a little warm water in which to proof the yeast, and a lot of room temperature water to make the dough. And salt. When I would ask how much salt I needed to use for making bread, my late mother used to tell me, “If you don’t put enough salt, your bread isn’t gonna’ taste of anything, but if you put too much, you’ll ruin it just the same.” It ultimately came down to trial and error, but a half palmful of kosher or sea salt mixed into a 2.2 lb bag of flour (roughly six cups) will put you in the ballpark.

fresh-slices

We used sliced fresh mozzarella, also from Caputo’s, instead of the low-moisture, part skim variety, which I usually buy pre-shredded. The cheese was so fresh, we had to dry the one-ounce slices with paper towels before using them. Otherwise, the bread crust would get wet and mushy from all the moisture. Fresh mozzarella has a creamier texture than does it’s dry counterpart, and also a very mild flavor. Ann and I had used fresh mozzarella on a Caprese-style garlic bread with stellar results, so we expected this to work okay on our pizza, too.

browning-sausage-ballsann-w-sausage

The bulk mild Italian sausage that we used came from, you guessed it, Caputo’s. As good as their standard recipe is, I augmented it with some extra fennel seeds and a dash or two of red pepper flakes—not enough to make it hot, but just enough to impart some additional flavor. We formed little bite-size chunks and browned them up to add even more flavor while removing some of the fat. The result was magnificent!

tomatoes

fresco-sauce

Rather than use a canned product—some of which are just fine— or even my family’s homemade jarred sauce, Ann and I opted to make a fresco pizza sauce. I went shopping for the best tomatoes I could find in late February and brought them with me. Then Ann and I proceeded to peel, seed, and dice those babies just for this occasion.

The detailed guidelines for this sauce have already been written for the book, but in a nutshell, you need hot oil, the proper seasoning, and just enough time to lose the excess moisture, which just like the water in our fresh mozzarella, would have wrecked the heavenly crust we created.

ready-to-bake

We had been at this for a few hours. After all, double-raised homemade bread dough takes time. Let me be the first to admit, this was not fast food. A frozen pizza could have been heated up and ready to eat within 20 minutes. Ordering from a pizzeria normally yields results in 20 to 50 minutes, depending on the establishment and on what you order. Ann and I both buy frozen, from time to time, and we each have our favorite pizzerias in our respective markets, which happen to be over 100 miles apart. 

Now believe what I tell you next: What we created that day cannot be found in your grocer’s frozen food section, nor will you likely find it on the menu at your local pizzeria. What Ann and I set out to create was heads above all that. This hand-crafted pizza involved four different kinds of cheese, a fresco sauce, a sausage blend that cannot be found in any store, and a homemade crust made from triple-raised Italian milled flour. You can’t buy this! But you can make it yourself, with the right ingredients, a little time, and a bit of guidance, say from a book that describes all the ingredients and the various steps involved in bringing them all together.

cooked

 Yeah, that’s right. We took our sweet time, debated our choices, and cooked the best pizza pies we could possibly create together—two really big rectangular ones, in fact, way more than three people could ever have eaten. So much food that I was able to take an entire pie home with me.My apologies to Ann and her son for the overage, but I produced no more food than any good Italian would have brought forth. This I learned from my mother.

And you know what? I have no regrets. None. Ann and I laughed all day while working on this, ate our fill afterward, and it was epic.The flavors and textures all came together in a way that mere words cannot fully capture. To learn more about this culinary adventure and others like it, please keep an eye out for my book, which with any luck will be out before the end of this year.

Thanks for hanging with me!