Closed Permanently

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I’ve been thinking about writing this one since November 16, the day I took the three photos you’re seeing here. I took those photos with the full intent of getting home and writing about the experience. Why didn’t I? Many reasons, none good enough. I just needed a little time.

On that day, I had taken a little drive, 274 miles round trip, to drop off a few items at the home of a very dear friend with whom I’d had a sudden and severe falling out three weeks earlier—not my choice, I assure you. I had dropped off a few belongings and Christmas gifts in a last-ditch effort to save a relationship with someone who still matters to me very much and I chose to do it at a time when nobody would be home, in order to avoid a confrontation as well as to ensure that my offering wouldn’t be rejected outright.

And so I was driving home in a somewhat emotional state—don’t ask me why but Wisconsin has always proven to be an emotional state for me. I went to college there. I fell in love there, several times. Got married there, once so far. Had my heart torn to shreds there more than once. Sometime before I drop dead, I am going to live there. Anyway, so there I was, driving home, alone, blasting out my iTunes playlist on my Chevy’s stereo and hoping beyond hope that somehow the day would end differently than it had begun.

As I approached Kenosha, the last set of exits on Interstate 94 before crossing back into Illinois, I decided to stop at Mars Cheese Castle to see if their string cheese offering had improved any since my last time stopping there. Mars, which is actually short for Mario’s and has nothing to do with the planet, is an excellent touristy place to stop for cheese and souvenirs, but their string cheese hasn’t been all that great for the last twenty years or so. Think glorified mozzarella rope. I picked up a couple of bags, only to be disappointed later, along with some heavenly fresh, squeaky cheddar cheese curds for my wife, before continuing my drive home.

Before I returned to the interstate, however, I pulled onto a stretch of a former frontage road (now a dead-end, how appropriate) in order to visit the shuttered location of a different Wisconsin institution known as the Bobby Nelson Cheese Shop, which closed for the last time on July 31 of this year. Earlier that month, my wife had brought home a copy of the Kenosha News article about the store’s closing, so I knew the place wasn’t open anymore. I just wanted to see it one more time. Given my emotional state that day, perhaps I hadn’t picked the best time to do so, but there I was.

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The first time I visited Bobby Nelson’s was in July of 1978, as a teenager on my way home after having experienced Milwaukee’s Summerfest music festival for the first time, of many, in my life. I have no idea why my soon-to-be brother-in-law chose to stop at Bobby Nelson’s, a small, nondescript, rectangular building that sat just down the road from the even then more touristy Mars Cheese Castle. As a 17-year-old kid, not yet in love with the charms of The Dairy State, I was less than impressed.

During the years that followed, I attended Marquette University, fell in love with all that Wisconsin had to offer, eventually married a girl from Kenosha, and learned to appreciate Wisconsin-made cheeses. Only during my post-collegiate married years did I come to appreciate that little rectangular store off I-94. During those decades, Bobby Nelson’s remained pretty much the same while the Cheese Castle up the road evolved into the massive tourist attraction that it is today.

Although the owners Phyllis and Richard Giovanelli never came to know me by name, nor I them, we surely became familiar with each other’s faces over the decades. More than once Mr. Giovanelli acknowledged me as a biker. He himself had ridden motorcycles when he was younger, as he relayed to me during one or two of my visits.

He also appreciated my manners. To this day, I recall walking into his store one day and removing my driving cap as I greeted him. “I can tell what kind of man you are,” said Mr. Giovanelli with a sincere smile, “just by the way you removed your hat when you walked in.” Before getting down to business, we talked for a few minutes about good manners and the current state of society at large. He never asked me my name, nor I his, but we came to identify each other through our interactions.

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And so on a cold and particularly lonely November day, with my heart already at half-mast for personal reasons, I got out of my Chevy and walked around the front of the old store, stepping through the snow that had no reason to be shoveled and snapping a few pictures to share with you here.

The original Bobby Nelson, I learned earlier this year, had been a professional wrestler. Besides being the founder and original owner of this cheese shop, he was supposedly the athlete after whom the “full nelson” and “half-nelson” wrestling maneuvers had been named. Following one last visit to the shop before it closed for good, my wife relayed to me how Phyllis Giovanelli had told her that back when she and her husband bought the shop, they had to promise Nelson that they would not resell the business when their time had come to retire.

The Giovanellis have kept their word. And so a good Wisconsin cheese shop, more than just a tourist attraction, is no more.

The world has since moved on. As for my 274-mile road trip, well, this blog post may prove to be the most substantial byproduct of my efforts. Life is sometimes complicated.

Thanks for hanging with me.

 

Cherish the Gift

Thanksgiving 2019

MGD, Grandma Ruth, and John D’Aversa, Thanksgiving 2019

Before we get started, please know that there has not been a death in my family this weekend nor have we just received bad news about anyone in the family. Furthermore, I am not terminally ill — well, no more than the next guy, anyway. I am merely taking this opportunity to share some thoughts with you, thoughts that have been weighing on me lately.

The photo above was taken on Thanksgiving Day 2019, just a captured moment of my son John and I visiting with “Grandma Ruth” who is 92 years old. Ruth has long referred to me as her favorite son-in-law, which is sweet despite the fact that I am first in a field of one. But seriously, we have always gotten along famously since the day I first showed up at her home. I was then a college senior who seemed to be in an ever-deepening relationship with her daughter, who was engaged to be married to another young man at the time. That, however, is a story for another time. My point is that my mother-in-law and I have always been close and now, some thirty-four years after I became her son-in-law, she is the last living parent between Karen and me.

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Karen and Ruth, Mother’s Day 2017

I can remember with striking clarity what it felt like to lose first Karen’s dad in August of 1997, then my mother in April of 2006, and my father in February of 2011. To be clear, it hurt like hell each time. My father-in-law had been struggling with an inoperable brain tumor but his death came quite suddenly and unexpectedly. My mom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on the Monday after Easter and about an hour after my family and I had left my folks’ house following a nice lunch together. My dad passed after years of steady decline from dealing with leukemia.

In each case, none of us had known when we last saw each other that it was to be the last time we would see each other. Sure, each parent had been dealing with their own health problems, and my parents were in their eighties when they passed, but we always assumed we had time yet. With my father-in-law, with my mom, with my dad, we parted ways for the last time assuming there would be a next time. It hurts to realize there won’t be a next time.

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Grandma Ruth with Teresa and Karen D’Aversa, Thanksgiving 2015

Ruth has relatively few health issues for a woman of her age, though her memory is failing and she has become more frail in recent years. Hey, we can’t turn back the clock; we can only keep moving forward. That’s why I must cherish every opportunity I get to spend a little time visiting with my dear mother-in-law, knowing that one of those visits will be our last.

If there is a lesson to be had here, it’s don’t take any day for granted. If you have loved ones in your life, no matter their age or physical state, for God’s sake love them now, while you still can. Make the phone call, have that lunch date, give that hug, tell someone they matter to you, whatever. Just don’t assume you can do it next time.

Thanks for hanging with me.

When the Pavement Ends: An Anecdote

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Don’t ask me why, but I never posted anything about this back when it happened, during my last Labor Day weekend road trip. Never told the story or posted the video, not even on Facebook. In hindsight, the whole thing was rather comical. Nobody got hurt or even came close to getting hurt. It was just one of those things of which fond memories are made.

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It was the evening of Saturday, August 31. My son John and his friend Marjorie, along with my friend Ann and me, had just finished dining at the General Store Pub in Stone City, following a full day of touring east-central Iowa by motorcycle (see While I Was Away) and the time had come to head back to our hotel. I was feeling a bit tired and asked my son if he would like to lead the ride back to Cedar Rapids.

“Sure!” John replied. “Would you mind if we take a scenic route?”

“Do you have one in mind?” John studied his phone for a minute or so before pointing up the side road on which the pub was located.

“Yes! That way!” The grin on his face gave me cause for concern, as did the quiet, lonely look of that road he had pointed toward.

“Are we taking paved roads?”

“They all look like major roads.”

I looked at Ann. I looked at Marjorie. I looked at John, who was still grinning. Then I shrugged and said, “Lead the way!”

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Perhaps you can guess what happened. As soon as we got out of town, the road began to rise into the hills and the pavement grew ominously thin before disappearing altogether. “Did I not ask him,” I growled into my Bluetooth headset, “are they paved roads?” Ann did her best to console me as we continued our ascent over the dirt and stone roadway but I knew from previous experiences that she was not entirely comfortable traversing gravel roads on two wheels and that in and of itself concerned me.

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Then it began to rain. More of a light drizzle, actually. Miss Scarlett, my trusty full dresser touring bike, was solid as a rock the whole time but I was not pleased. If it began to rain any harder, the dirt beneath our tires would turn to mud. I spoke calmly to Ann via my headset mic, “We’re good.” She never once complained. The road went on. In all, it was probably just a few miles but we were traveling in lower gears and in my mind, the journey seemed to take forever.

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“John!” I called out after my son as I shook my fist in the air, knowing full well he couldn’t hear me. The big question remained, however: How much longer would it be until we reached solid pavement again? We rolled on.

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The intermittent rain that had so concerned me earlier disappeared altogether as we ascended one last hill and came upon a most welcome sight — a beautifully paved road at the termination of our dirt and gravel ribbon. John came to a full stop at the crossroads. I drew up alongside of him, laughing too hard to sound very angry.

“Paved roads?! Paved roads?! I’m gonna kill ya!” We were all laughing. I nodded to John and Marjorie. They pulled away, turning onto the precious two-lane blacktop. Ann and I pulled forward and leaned Miss Scarlett over to follow them. The remainder of our ride back was uneventful.

Here is the footage Ann shot as all of this was unfolding. As I said, this was just one of those things of which fond memories are made. Indeed, I chuckled as I wrote this little anecdote and I hope that Ann, Marjorie, and especially John will also smile and laugh when they read it.

I have often looked upon motorcycling as a metaphor for life. So what are we to do when the pavement ends? Keep on rolling. Trust in your own abilities to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Do your best. And remember to laugh about it afterward.

Thanks for hanging with me.

My Summer Interrupted, Part II

Continued from My Summer Interrupted, Part I

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It had been a pleasant, relatively quiet Independence Day holiday for me. I had settled into my recliner for the evening, laptop in front of me, cool drink at my side. My intent had been to write a blog post about the two weekends I had spent riding to and from Rock Island, to see a couple of my son’s stage performances, and I was doing exactly that when someone in the neighborhood began setting off heavy mortar-type fireworks.

My wife ran to the sliding door to call our dog in. Leia, a high-spirited black Shepherd/Labrador mix, was afraid of fireworks and would not have been outside had we realized the neighborhood idiots were going to pull out the heavy artillery that early. Karen called several times and then stepped out onto the deck. She returned quickly, yelling out, “She’s not in the yard; she’s gone!”

Leia runs fast and jumps effortlessly. Once underway, she doesn’t really spring when she jumps; she merely raises her landing gear and soars over obstacles. At three years of age, she is still quite the puppy and she absolutely does not like fireworks. She had jumped our picket fence several times in the past, so as a precaution, we had installed some plastic “deer mesh” fencing several feet above our wooden fence. We would later find out that on this particular night, Leia had been so spooked, she flew right through the deer fence, leaving a large, gaping hole in one panel. But we hadn’t seen that yet and since my girl had never gone very far in the past, I went out after her without stopping to grab a leash.

Several minutes later, two of our neighbors were out combing the neighborhood in an effort to help me find my dog. Four or five blocks out, my neighbor Jim caught up with Leia along Joliet Road, a fairly busy street, and walked her toward me. Not having a leash, I took Leia by the collar and the three of us began walking toward home. We were with a block or two of arriving when my wife pulled up to the curb in her minivan. Recognizing the van at once, Leia veered toward Karen’s van and lunged with all her might, pulling me right off my feet.

What occurred next took all of a second or two. I pinwheeled toward the van for a couple or three yards before gravity took over. As Leia broke free of my grip and zipped around to the driver’s side of the van, where Karen had opened the door to let her in, both of my feet left the ground and went out behind me. An instant later I landed in bellyflop fashion, making full body contact with a concrete sidewalk. There is some speculation that I may have hit the side of Karen’s van with my left hand as I went down—she said it had sounded like something had hit the van hard and from her vantage point, she thought it might have been my head. I have no recollection of that. What I can recall are shock and pain. My torso had taken most of the impact on landing, or so I thought. The wind had been knocked out of me and I felt a wall of pain across my chest and stomach areas. My right elbow had taken a bit of a scrape and was bleeding. I felt no worse pain in my left arm than anywhere else. Yet.

“Do you need help getting up?” That was Jim, one of the nicest neighbors I’ve ever known. He had moved in to assist as needed and by that time, Karen was standing over me, too.

“I dunno, but let’s wait a minute before we find out.” I was still lying face-down on the sidewalk, trying to get my wind back and hoping the pain across my body would subside. My mind was not particularly clear. They stood by and let me wait a bit longer. Then I tried to get up.

The pain that fired through my left arm from shoulder to fingertips assured me that all was not right. I went loose again, lying prone on the concrete. “I can’t use my arm!”

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Jim helped me to my feet and got me over to the van. I vaguely recall he and Karen saying something about the emergency room. After thanking Jim profusely, and our other neighbor, Tony, who’d been covering the area by bicycle, Karen drove to our house only long enough to put Leia in the house, and then drove me to the Edward Emergency Department of Plainfield, a component of Edward-Elmhurst Health and the only ER in town.

The 4th of July must be one of the worst days to need emergency care. It must rank right up there with New Year’s Eve and Christmas. I’m sure the people working those days see some very interesting cases. I’m also sure they’d rather be elsewhere. I know I did.

Before I go any further, let me state for the record that every staff member I saw at the Edward facility that night seemed friendly, courteous, and professional. Let me also add that most of our past experiences there have been positive ones. It was only in hindsight that I saw a dreadful comedy of errors unfold—and I was playing the unfortunate straight man in that comedy. Without going deep into every detail, here are the low points of what happened.

  • When we arrived, I nearly passed out walking from the van to the doors. Karen went in to get help. They came out to talk to me but all I could tell them was that I couldn’t see, that everything was going black. They brought out a wheelchair and took me inside.
  • After some preliminaries, they took me for x-rays. There were two techs in the room, both very nice. In order to take the x-rays, I had to stand in front of some sort of panel. I did the best I could but the room started going dark again. As soon as they were done, they let me sit down and once the images were verified, they wheeled me back to where I had been before.
  • A doctor on staff came in and informed me that I had fractured my shoulder. They gave me some pain medicine, a sling and the phone number of an orthopaedic surgeon to call the next day, explaining that the specialist would determine whether or not surgery would be necessary. I asked about the pain med they’d given me, which hadn’t seemed to lessen the pain at all. The nurse suggested that I give it more time.
  • They wheeled me outside and Karen brought the van around. I almost blacked out a third time but got myself into the van. The pain meds still hadn’t done much for me. We went home and as I walked in, rather than blacking out, I was hit by a wave of nausea. Fortunately, it passed after I settled into my recliner, where I spent the night.

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As you read this, I want you to bear in mind that I had sustained a very painful injury, the extent of which had not yet been discovered or disclosed, and for which I had received no treatment other than x-rays, a sling, and a bottle of pills that weren’t anywhere near strong enough to take the edge off my pain. Anything that caused me to clench the muscles in that sector of my body set off a wave of pain strong enough to make me scream. I make no exaggeration here, I assure you.

  • The following day, Karen phoned the orthopaedic surgeon’s office and was told he wouldn’t see me because this guy is a foot and ankle specialist. I think it was at this point that we began to seriously question the “care” I’d received the previous evening. Karen called the ER back and left a message.
  • While this was transpiring, I contacted my new employer and explained the situation. I was supposed to be at work, but that was not possible due to the extent of my injuries, my inability to drive, and the narcotic-though-insufficient pain meds I was taking. I hadn’t been there long enough to earn paid time off or any benefits, for that matter. My only hope was to still have a job by the time this nightmare was over. My CEO was quick to allay my fears in that regard, which only increased my admiration for the man and for the organization he leads.
  • Karen then proceded to spend a few hours calling my primary care physician (closed) and a host of other offices, none of whom could schedule me to be seen timely. This includes the DuPage Medical Group, to which the foot and ankle specialist belonged. After spending substantial time on the phone with DuPage and getting nowhere, Karen declared them “useless” and vowed never to use them again if she has a choice.
  • I had taken to sharing my experience thus far on Facebook. I got lots of sympathy and a few well-meaning suggestions, but no outright help. That is until a friend of mine who works at Rush CopleyMedical Center in Aurora gave me the name of an orthopaedic group to call and the specific doctor for whom to ask. An insider recommendation!
  • Upon receiving the recommendation, Karen called Rush Castle Orthopaedics and requested an appointment with one Arif Saleem, MD, a shoulder specialist. Although the doctor himself was out of town—hey, 4th of July holiday—his assistant was willing and able to see me that very afternoon. Karen scheduled an appointment, hung up the phone, and just breathed for a while.
  • At some point, an Edward ER nurse called back insisting that the orthopaedic surgeon whose name they’d given me should still be willing to see me. Karen again relayed what she had been told. This was turning out to be anything but a fruitful conversation and I could feel my wife’s frustration building to a dangerous level, so I suggested she tell them we’d already found somebody else to see. She did so and that ended the conversation, but not my troubles.
  • Later that afternoon, the Physician Assistant saw me. She was friendly, professional, and by all indications, highly competent. Just one problem, she couldn’t tell much from the x-rays that had been taken at the ER the night before—yet another red flag concerning the treatment I’d received there, if you’ll pardon the exaggeration. So she ordered another set, which showed not just a fracture, but a severe one, involving a shoulder that was likely broken into “a number of pieces.” She wrote an order for a CT scan, which would be necessary to determine the best course of action, but added that surgery seemed quite likely.
  • At this point we obtained an appointment to see Dr. Saleem on Thursday, July 12, which would be eight days after my accident.
  • We couldn’t get the CT scan done that day, July 5, because it was late and because some front desk worker claimed they would need approval from my insurance provider—and that she had three days to accomplish that feat.
  • On Friday, July 6, the front desk called to inform us that no approval was necessary and we could schedule the CT scan. When Karen called back, the earliest appointment she could get at any location was on Sunday, July 8, four days after my injury had been sustained.

Four days had passed, so far. Again, any time I moved wrong or sneezed or the planets aligned a certain way, I involuntarily cried out in pain and then waited, sometimes for quite a while, for the pain to subside. This had become very disconcerting for my wife, my sisters, my friend Ann (herself a healthcare professional), and anybody else close enough to me to know what was really going down.

  • On Sunday, July 8, I went to Rush Copley Medical Center and had my CT scan. Then I went home. Everyone was very helpful, friendly and professional, but not one person gave me any indication that going four days without actual treatment of my injuries was the least bit out of the ordinary.
  • I repeatedly ran out of pain meds because prescriptions for opioids cannot be written for large quantities or to include refills. No skin off my banana except I was still experiencing substantial pain from my as-yet untreated injuries. I totally understood the need for strict controls but at that time I was not yet an addict in the making; I was just a guy who didn’t want to keep screaming in pain every time I upset the bag of jacks that was my left shoulder joint.
  • On Thursday, July 12, I met Dr. Saleem and instantly liked the man. He didn’t sugarcoat anything. I had sustained a severe compound fracture and surgery was indicated without question. Once in, his first option would be to try and repair the fractured head of my humerus, the “ball” of my shoulder joint. This seemed unlikely but was still his first option. Barring that, he would replace the joint. By approving both options, I allowed him to address my injury one way or the other. I would enter the OR as an outpatient. If he could save the shoulder, I would go home that day. If a replacement had to be performed, I would become a guest of Rush Copley Medical Center for a couple of days. Surgery was scheduled for Tuesday, July 17.

This, in a nutshell, is how Edward-Elmhurst Health allowed a patient to “get away” and end up being treated by Rush Copley, a hospital that doesn’t even serve Plainfield. On one hand, I’m gravely disappointed in the way my case was handled by the ER, from the insufficient x-ray images to the inappropriate surgeon referral, all of which prolonged the amount of time that passed between the day I sustained my injury and the day it was fixed. On the other hand, their actions allowed me to connect with a well-regarded shoulder specialist, thanks to a personal recommendation from a friend. So maybe I was better off.

By the time Tuesday, July 17 came around, I was ready to have that painful broken shoulder fixed one way or the other. My hope, of course, was that Dr. Saleem would go in and find a shoulder that could be repaired instead of replaced. When they wheeled me out of recovery and into an elevator instead of back to the prep room where I had started, I knew that wasn’t the case. As the nurse wheeled my bed out of the elevator and onto an upper floor, I said my first full sentence following surgery: “I take it I’m an inpatient now.”

To which the nurse calmly replied, “Yes, you’re an inpatient.”

My heart sank at the realization.

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To be continued…

My Summer Interrupted, Part I

On the evening of July 4. 2018, I sat down to write about what would have been one of my usual blog topics, but just a few paragraphs into it, a life-changing event occurred and I never went back to finish writing that post. Until now. At the risk of running really long, I’d like to start out with my original story and then roll right into what happened next.

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There just wasn’t enough time. That’s been the running theme for me since last May, when I accepted an offer for what may become the most meaningful job I’ve ever had. That’s not the subject of this post, but it shapes many aspects of the story. Without going into gross detail, I am the marketing director for a strong local/regional player in an industry that is all but entirely new to me. The hours are long and they’re bookended by a commute that I can only describe as horrendous. Because I’m essentially starting over, I have to earn my keep, prove my worth, earn my perks, etc. But I do love my job so and have deemed my latest employment situation to be worthy of my efforts and dedication.

My son John is back in Illinois! At the beginning of June, he rode his motorcycle from his three-year temporary home in Portland, Oregon to Rock Island, Illinois, where he was once again working for the Mississippi Bend Players, a professional regional theatre group at Augustana College. He came out last year to act in one of their productions and also served as a construction intern. This year he once again performed in one of their productions, a seven-time Tony Award winner called Big River. For those not familiar, it’s a musical based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was wonderful and I was there. Twice.

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Photo by Ann M. Fischler

I was able to attend two performances of Big River, each on a Saturday night, one week apart. Again because of my new work schedule, everything had been somewhat tentative, so the basic plan both times involved me getting home from work Saturday afternoon, hopping on my motorcycle, and high-tailing it to Rock Island in order to arrive in time for the show. My other family members had similar plans but went on different days according to their respective availabilities. Under the circumstances, this was the best we could do.

On the first weekend, I was joined by my dear friend and pillion photographer Ann, who had timed her arrival in Plainfield to coincide with my own arrival home from work. After a few pleasantries and preparations, we were zooming west on Interstate 80. My wife Karen had attended the opening night performance the prior evening and was heading east at the same time. We kept an eye out for each other and somewhere between Princeton and the Quad Cities, we exchanged waves, each of us doing 70 MPH for a combined effect of 140 MPH. It was a quick wave.

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We had a little more time on our way back the following day, so rather than stay on the Interstate again, we exited at Illinois 178 and enjoyed a little two-lane touring through Utica, Ottawa, and points beyond. This is a very picturesque pocket of north-central Illinois featuring curvy roads, wooded areas, a rolling river, and even a few interesting elevation changes. Many bikers and cagers alike favor this area, so we had plenty of company on this beautiful day. Still, we enjoyed this portion of the ride home very much.

The following weekend was similar but different. Once again, I hightailed it after work on Saturday, only with a different set of friends. We were attending the Saturday performance. My wife was bringing her 90-year-old mother in that afternoon to see the Sunday matinee the next day. This presented an excellent opportunity for all of us to gather for supper early Saturday evening at the Bierstube in Moline. My mother-in-law was the star of our party, but nobody thought to take pictures (just one more reason why I appreciate having Ann on board). Still, a good time was had by all. My friends and I thoroughly enjoyed the Saturday night performance of Big River. My wife, daughter, and mother-in-law did likewise on Sunday afternoon, much to the delight of my son, the thespian artist.

There is more, but we are quickly reaching the point at which my story got interrupted in a big way.

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To be continued…

Cajun-Midwestern Fusion

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When it comes to our cooking endeavors, Ann and I frequently look for new things to try, within the context of our culinary preferences. We both enjoy bold, flavorful dishes. We both enjoy healthy food options—eh, more or less. And we both enjoy preparing new things together, with an eye for how we might improve upon the same endeavor in the future. This time around we chose to combine Cajun and Midwestern influences. The resulting fusion of flavors, colors, and textures was quite satisfying.

For daytime grazing, in addition to some Cajun seasoned mixed nuts and seasoned pretzels that Ann had made in advance, we prepared a platter of assorted sausage skewers. Ann had picked up some cheddar jack and bacon bratwurst and a chicken apple sausage. I brought along a smoked andouille sausage rope. After roasting the sausages a bit, we sliced them and browned the slices in a cast iron skillet. Emulating an appetizer that her mom used to make, Ann skewered individual pieces of her two non-spicy sausage varieties with a pineapple chunk and a maraschino cherry. The sweet and savory combination makes for an excellent hors d’oeuvre. I went in a different direction, skewering any of the three sausages with a chunk of peppery cheese, a grape tomato half, and a green olive half. I had purchased a goat cheese pepper jack and a Wisconsin-made chipotle cheddar expressly for this purpose. Both cheeses were flavorful but also quite different from each other in terms of taste and texture. The skewered sausage, cheese, and veggies produced an explosion of flavors.

Ann and I had selected three dishes to prepare for our supper: blackened shrimp, zucchini fritter waffles, and oven roasted okra. I believe we used black, white, and cayenne pepper along with paprika, crushed garlic, onion powder, basil, thyme and salt to create our own blackening spice blend. These spices along with melted butter are what give the characteristic blackening effect popularized by the late Chef Paul Prudhomme. When it comes to cooking shrimp, timing is everything. Undercooked shrimp is just gross, but if you let them go too long, you get something along the lines of cooked rubber. Whether by skill or luck, ours came off perfectly.

We had made zucchini fritters once before, discovering at that time that we got better results using Ann’s waffle iron than by frying them in a skillet. The waffle iron technique creates a greater surface area and thinner insides, which we both feel gives a better flavor and texture. Less greasy, too.

I had suggested a spicy remoulade as the ideal condiment for both the shrimp and the waffled fritters. That turned out to be a good choice and the remoulade we made was da’ bomb. There are too many ingredients to list here, but I’ll share this recipe that we used, more or less, from the Serious Eats website. Creamy, tangy, spicy… there are so many words I could use to describe the stuff. Quite good!

I can hear you now. Okra? Why okra? Well, mainly because when we were planning this meal, Ann mentioned that she had a taste for okra. Hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. This preparation was super simple, just a bag of frozen, cut okra tossed with some salt, pepper, parmesan cheese, and enough olive oil to make it all stick. Then roast at 450° F until done. We liked this simple side, but would probably add more spices the next time around.

Good rosé wines are said to pair well with spicy dishes as well as seafood. I tried several in the weeks leading up to our cooking date—call it a hobby of mine—and selected a 2016 Domaine Chantepierre Tavel from France. The term Tavel, I discovered, refers to a region in the southern Rhone Valley that specializes in dry rosé wines with a minimum alcohol content of 11%. This particular Tavel is 14% abv, enough to make one a bit more talkative after a couple of glasses. My late father, who made his own Zinfandel for many years, used to profess that drinking a good wine “loosens the tongue.” For the money, this one would be hard to beat. Very fruit-forward but still dry, especially on the finish.

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Compared to some of the meals Ann and I have prepared together, this one was pretty simple, but no less delicious. When you have a desire for good food and enjoy cooking, things have a way of falling into place.

“What are we going to make next time?”

“I dunno. Got any ideas?”

Truth be told, we had already begun pitching ideas back and forth for next time days earlier and have continued to do so since then. The possibilities seem to be leaning decidedly toward Mediterranean fare. Time will tell.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Worth the Effort: Homemade Ravioli and More

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I no longer fear ravioli. It’s not that I have ever been intimidated by pasta. I have, however, encountered a few setbacks when making the stuff from scratch.

I first attempted to make my own ravioli about fifteen years ago and my endeavor did not end well. The filling wasn’t quite right, nor was the pasta surrounding it. Most of the ravioli fell apart during the cooking process, leaving me with many flat squares of cooked pasta and many loose bits of wet filling. I had honed my tomato sauce making skills earlier on in life, but even the finest sauce in the world would not have saved that sorry-looking mess. My family was supportive, assuring me that the meal was still edible despite appearances, but oh, the shame of it all!

I can tell you with confidence that my ravioli has improved a great deal since that first attempt and my friend Ann recently gave me an opportunity to prove it. For our first cooking endeavor since last November, we put out a traditional southern Italian spread that would have made my mother smile.

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We began fairly early in the day, preparing our meats and a sizable pot of homemade tomato sauce in which to simmer them. The sauce was made using a two quarts of home-canned purée, a large can of crushed tomatoes, and a few fresh plum tomatoes that Ann had in her well-stocked kitchen. For meats we used mild Italian sausage from Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, plus meatballs that we made from ground beef and pork, and some braciole that we made from a beautiful flank steak.

Ann runs circles around me when it comes to certain culinary skills, one of which is knife work. She keeps her blades razor sharp and knows how to use them. For this reason, I was grateful when she offered to slice the raw flank steak for our braciole. Within a minute or two, she had horizontally sliced that flank steak into two thinner pieces, which I then flattened out using her tenderizing mallet. I seasoned the pieces with salt and pepper before layering garlic, parsley, and grated cheese on one side — using my best approximation of how my mother used to do it. Then we rolled the pieces, tied them up, and browned them with the other meats before adding all of the meat to our sauce, which had already been simmering.

While the meat was still browning, we prepared a basic pasta dough using an imported Italian “tipo 00” flour, some eggs, a bit of olive oil, and enough water to gain the proper consistency. I worked the dough to death before wrapping it in plastic and tossing it in the fridge to rest. Then we made our filling using fresh ricotta and grated Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Asiago cheeses, plus an egg, some parsley, and other seasoning. Once that was all blended and creamy, we covered the mixture up and chilled it for an hour or two.

IMG_0324When the noon hour had passed, we broke out the antipasto and poured some wine. We wrapped thin slices of prosciutto around chunks of fresh canteloupe and set that out with some aged provolone and dry hot sausage. There were marinated mushrooms, artichoke hearts, black and green olives, and more. Our break was relatively brief, but much needed. All the while, our meat sauce simmered and our ravioli fixings chilled in preparation for the next step. By this time Ann’s kitchen was smelling quite wonderful.

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Then came the big project. Using an electric pasta machine I had inherited from an aunt of mine, we rolled out the pasta dough into ever-thinner sheets. We then applied the filling between two sheets of pasta, using a tray-type mold to form, press, and cut the square pillows of heavenly goodness. As an added measure of security, we crimped around all the edges with fork tines. We ran out of filling before we ran out of dough, so i switched out the press rollers for cutting rollers on the pasta machine and we made some spaghetti.

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Not one ravioli broke open during the cooking process. Once all the pasta had been cooked, we served it all with the meats, some oven-warmed crusty bread, a lovely tossed salad, and more wine. As is usually the case when I cook Italian, there were ample leftovers. Ann took some, I took some, and I suspect we will both be feeding people for a little while. The last time we cooked a meal similar to this, Ann fed ten to twelve people from her share of the leftovers. I blame my mother, who was my first and probably my best cooking teacher. That woman would have rather died than run out of food when she was feeding people.

By the end of the day, all the food had been divided and packaged up, some for my wife and I and some for Ann and her “kids” (neither her kids nor mine are kids anymore). All the pots, pans, dishes and utensils had been washed and put away, and every food preparation surface had been thoroughly cleaned. The only evidence of the feast we’d prepared and eaten was the wine we were still sipping and smiles on our faces.

I’d say that turned out alright. Wouldn’t you? As always, thanks for hanging with me.