Columbus, Ohio USA
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Columbus Food Adventures
Like Robert Altman's Popeye, 'Everything is Food'
By Allex Spires
March/April 2013 Issue
Thursday, the Twenty-Sixth day of January in the Hundred-Score-and-Baker's-Dozenth Year since B.C.(E.)
Notes to the reader: A hash house is a lousy restaurant.
It is as difficult to say “corn pone pancake” five times fast as it is to say “judicial jujitsu” twice.
When a waiter asks me if my meal is okay, I assume there’s something wrong with it and they want to see if I’ve noticed.
In front of the Ohio Statehouse at 10:18 on this snow-covered morning, I got off a One from Reynoldsburg to wait for a Two to the Short North. I could have walked, but time was of the essence and it was cold. I’d only have to wait four minutes for the next bus. An old man who claimed 84 years started talking to me about how cold it was. He told me about how the government was getting rid of welfare, so in March there would be bodies in the streets. People would be robbing and killing anybody, their own families, for lack of ability to get welfare. It’s nonsense, of course. I think he was misinterpreting fiscal cliff negotiations and worst-case-scenario news commentary. Maybe he thinks The Onion is a credible newspaper.
A Two pulled up, and I told the old man to have a great day. I boarded and sat at the front. The old man, same old man, got on and sat down beside me. He told me the story of how his daughter had been murdered. He told me about how he’d known a rapist in Lansing, Michigan, in 1949 who moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and took the name of Martin Luther King Jr. He told me all the major sports stars are actually policemen and the sports industry is a scam. He seemed, somehow, to only know horrible things and things that can’t possibly be true. We crossed Nationwide Boulevard leaving downtown, and the old man told me the stories of how everybody he’d ever known had been a rapist, a criminal, a killer, or the gentlest person you’d ever want to meet who was murdered, diseased, raped, or suicided to death. I don’t know why people tell me these things. Some days I feel like a black hole, but rather than stealing mass and energy from the stars, they just throw it in. I don’t want it. I wished the man a good day, once more, and got off at Russell. I’d missed my stop at Vine and all the subsequent stops.
I walked through the slush down Russell to Park and down Park to reach the North Market at 10:40. I’d spent an hour on the bus and ten minutes on foot. Now I stood in the warm northeast corner of the market where friendly, happy, excited shoppers and browsers and tag-alongs explored the foodstuff – pitas, baklava, fish, chicken, eggs, beef – while draped and wrapped in bolts of cloaks and coats and various rainbows of hats and scarves. I found myself staring mindlessly at an apple sliced to look like a swan, gathered myself and looked around noticing a woman carrying a stack of Columbus Food Adventures itinerary flyers. I assumed that must be Ms. Debra O’Molesky, the guide and private tour planner whom I had come here to meet. She was very pleasant, and when we got going, she made her tour guide spiel seem more like conversation than a recital of facts.
I held out my hand and remembered just before she took it that I broke my hand and it hurts when people shake it. She shook my hand. I’ve offered it to a dozen people since it was broken and am sure I’ll only remember not to when it’s healed. I’m surprised I haven’t put aside writing, which hurts to do, and drawing, which requires a surprising range of wrist and hand-coordinated motions. Hurts like the blazes of Hell. I wasn’t wearing my sling because I would not have been able to do any jotting or doodling with it on.
Two Columbus Food Adventurers arrived, Michelle Stevens and her mother Melody. There were still a few minutes before we were supposed to get going, and our party was not complete. Ms. O’Molesky received a call and stepped away to take it, and the Stevenses stepped away to talk. When the guide came back, it seemed the rest of our group – we expected two more Adventurers – would not make it. They had driven down from Wooster but broke down just outside Columbus and had to get a 90-mile tow back home. Not only that, but, to Ms. O’Molesky’s eyes, the Stevenses had now vanished. They soon returned, and one of the nearby churches tolled Eleven Bells. Time to begin.
The tour guide announced that our group was just the right size and the market was just the right amount of busy for the tour to work smoothly. I think she meant there weren’t many of us and the market wasn’t packed like a sardine can, so it would be easy for the group to stay together and for everyone to hear what she was saying. Then she started saying stuff; if I’d been wearing my sling, I would have missed most of it. The North Market, I was surprised to learn, is a non-profit. The businesses in the market are not making money for the market but for those businesses. The North Market, a popular lunch spot with a well-populated parking lot, makes most of its income from parking fees.
The first merchant our guide told us about was North Market Poultry and Game. Ms. O’Molesky recommended the spotted hen for roasting, and the venison when it’s in season. Poultry and Game always offers fresh meats, anything left over is tossed in a pot or a pan to be turned into what’s called comfort food or soul food at Kitchen Little, the other end of their counter.
Our band headed south down the east wing. Sometimes I would take up the rear and sometimes the Stevenses would. As we went through the crowd of young and old couples and loners and families all dressed in winter wear (one mixed-race couple with a little daughter who loved to leap), the guide told us more about the history of the market, but left out the poltergeist-style cemetery removal that preceded its construction, more for gastronomic than educational reasons, I’m sure. I looked at the crowd, happy and carefree, and thought of the corpses underfoot, they’re there ... are we really all secretly as depraved as that old man on the bus suggested?
We passed Greener Grocer, where one can find local fruits and vegetables and tortilla chips. Collin waved from inside the North Market’s winery, The Barrel and Bottle, as we approached Brezel bakery, our first stop to eat. Brittany Baum, the owner, offered us Bavarian-style pretzel twists. Delicious, soft, warm, and plump, so much more than salt and dough. Her ad suggests it, but I’ll say it: The pretzels at Brezel are much better than those at Auntie Anne’s, and they’re available in more and more interesting standard and seasonal flavors and come in impressive styles like the twists we ate as well as croutons, and pizza crusts. The Br?zel name is already common in local restaurants and, if things go right, Missus Baum says they’ll soon be in your local grocer’s frozen foods section.
We moved along, back up to the north end, now on the west wing, to North Market Spices. Ben offered us whiffs of some of his favorite and newest spices and mixtures, including a spice mix called Truck Dust, which, on a bet, he created from a random collection of spices stored in the back of a truck. Ben mixed them all together at certain ration and developed a new and highly expressive spice. He started his spice business because he would be at home or cooking with friends and need a spice but unable to find it and decided the only way to always be able to have all the spices he needs is to sell all the spices he loves, so not only does he have them, but now they’re out there. He’s sold them to people who have them in their kitchen cabinets and spice racks. If required, he might now be able to go to his neighbor’s house to borrow a little peach salt or some smoked sherry peppercorns – but he hasn’t run out, yet.
We returned to the northeast corner. Line-caught fish and seafood filled the deli case at the Fish Guys. Ms. O’Molesky let us know that they always have superb seafood, and now we were offered cups of clam chowder. I’m not a seafood guy. I had never eaten clam chowder and was thinking more about that than I was paying attention to her telling us about the Fish Guys. Clam chowder is pretty good. I preferred the Manhattan clam chowder – more like a seafood gumbo – to the popular New England style. Though I’d never had the stuff, I had a helping hand: my co-Adventurers assured me this was a good version and that the clams had been prepared correctly. Clams is tough meat. I very much prefer the Manhattan style, but both were delicious.
Now we buttoned up and tucked in for a cold walk up Spruce to High. Our guide pointed out what I consider the functionless form of architectural waste that is the Greater Columbus Convention Center. Apparently from overhead it’s shaped like a train to show anybody entering or leaving town via airplane (or viewing on Google Earth) that there was once a train station there. On our side of the street the Greek Orthodox Cathedral stood embellished in grandeur, and, though some of it’s hokey, every form of the church’s architecture has a value and function for the church. I understand why there is a cross up there. Why is the train-wreck-of-a-building across the road shaped like a train that nobody can see? If you’ve never been, or have been, to the Greek festival in late summer, the cathedral apparently cajoles all of the Grecian grandmothers to do the cooking to cater the event. This of course requires that they get their children and grandchildren involved and keeps the culture alive and ensures that the foods remain authentic.
We crossed Spruce and went to Knead. The place was packed. I’m not a VIP, but I was with the VIPs, and we were whisked past the line to a reserved table. Knead is a soup and sandwich joint, but they serve you with much more than that. My use of the word joint should not imply “hash house.” Knead is a nice place that serves only well-prepared locally sourced foods. The co-owner, Chef Rick Lopez, knows that nobody but he really cares how local his dishes are (a state map on the wall shows the source of every ingredient Knead uses and I didn’t care), so he makes sure they’re delicious because he knows people do care about that. I did. We had hoecakes, that’s like a corn pone pancake, topped with blueberries and maple syrup.
Last year, Chef Lopez was having trouble finding maple syrup because the drought had weakened the trees; syrup was going for Nine-Eleven-Oh-One crude oil prices. But then guests on one of the Columbus Food Adventures tours heard about this and offered him exclusive access to their maple syrup, which they had in excess. That was the maple syrup on my hoecake; it was wonderful. The chef came out to watch us eat them like a filmmaker watching an audience enjoy his latest movie, and he was happy to see that we were happy with his production. I learned that when ice cubes are put into a square glass it is nearly impossible to drink from it. I also learned that nobody but me thinks ice water is a strange drink to serve on a cold day.
We crossed the I-670 cap and entered the Short North proper. The buildings as one crosses Goodale have a strange, almost fake look. They’re made of lightweight synthetics because the cap is an overpass and it wouldn’t be able to sustain the weight of regular building materials. The buildings on the cap are designed to resemble the old Union Station buildings, another needless secret reference to the fact that a train station was once here. There’s also a mural of trains. There’s also a ten-by-ten-by-ten printout mural that from across the street almost looks like a photograph because it’s a doctored photoprintout.
I hate phony bullplop being passed as art on an unsuspecting public, and I hate these ten-by-ten-by-tens. The value one finds in the production is what makes it art. The love people give something useless makes it art. About ten years ago a friend and I made some ads that advertised nothing and put up copies all over the OSU campus. People approached us wanting unsigned copies of the ads. The more you love something that has no purpose, the more financial and aesthetic value it has to you. An expensive hi-def printout of garbage slapped on a wall is not art. It is not liked or loved or appreciated, and it offers no value to or for anybody. As I have long understood of our society, we throw garbage away ... luckily, those ten-by-ten-by-tens will soon be removed. They were designed and intended to be thrown away. They are not and never were intended to be art; not intended to be appreciated or loved. They were only intended to show off a new poster technique that should very soon be obsolete. Art is where the building comes down, but that wall, the wall with the painting on it, that stays because we love it.
We crossed Poplar and entered Le Chocoholique. Best chocolate shop in town according to a number of sources. The candies looked like they belonged in a swanky seventies apartment and tasted like they’d uphold such a fantasy lifestyle. A stranger chewing a mouthful of chocolate approached Ms. O’Molesky, the Stevens ladies and myself. He said not a word, but he’d just purchased some chocolates and offered us each one from his bag. No reason. Not long ago I ran into a lady who was talking about Sixlets, my favorite candy from childhood that you can’t find anywhere, and she gave me a handful. Once a man gave me a whole roasted chicken. No idea why. I gave it to a guy with his handout. From this stranger’s grab-bag I got a chocolate-covered candied orange slice.
Though it was absolutely the best chocolate-covered candied orange I’ve ever had it was not perfect. I have not had a perfect one yet. In my heart-of-hearts I know its texture needs to not just be crisp and chewy but crunchy. The strange stranger left, and now the store offered us chocolates to sample. I thought the espresso was a fantastic treat. The Stevenses bought some chocolates for the road. There were leftovers because the Wooster couple hadn’t come, and I was allowed to take them. I’m not really a sweets person, so I saved them and gave them to my brother’s fiancée. She tasted them over the course of several hours and rated them: sea salt caramel: “This is good. Really good.” Creme broullé: “Oh, wow, I really like that!” And espresso: “Ooh! That was ... the best!” You decode it. Oddly, a person from Wooster was supposed to eat those chocolates, and a person from Wooster did.
Our guide led us up High to Russell and into Eleni Christina Artisan Breads, the first of three Rigsby establishments on the tour. We didn’t eat at the bakery. This was a chance to get out of the cold and catch our breath. We all took a good whiff of the Eleni Christina dough starter: a vinegar-smelling blend of alcohol and CO2 belched out at us. Joe, the head baker, swell guy with an even temper and a good sense of humor, told us about his 18 years making bread here and that the starter we’d gotten a whiff of was 27-year-old dough. Every night it is reformulated into a new batch, and every day, except Thanksgiving and Christmas, Joe starts at eleven at night to make bread that’s served in more than 20 restaurants across the city. Every week Joe bakes and/or supervises the baking of about two tons of bread. His breads contain no artificial anything, only four ingredients are used in the basic batter: flour, water, salt, and yeast. He showed us two sourdough loaves, but both sold while he was talking about them. We had nothing left to do and were already running a tiny bit late, so we said “Bye” to Joe.
Ms. O’Molesky led us down Russell to Park (the same way I’d come before) and stopped to show us a fenced-off building that, very soon, will house a very large and prominent art collection. Further up Park at Buttles is a house that belongs to the Anthony-Thomas Chocolate family, so if you happen to be out trick-or-treating this Hallowe’en, try this area.
Our guide brought us back up to High on Lincoln St. and we zigzagged across and through an alley past the Mona Lisa Apartments – a wall from the old building still stands because the sideways Mona Lisa mural is so beloved – to Pearl St. We walked along avoiding the slush, passed a house where one of Michelle Stevens’s friends once lived and arrived at Brickel Street and another Rigsby establishment: Tasi Café. Through an email mixup they were not prepared for our arrival but accepted us all the same. Once again the metaphoric velvet rope was pulled aside and we were led past a line of people waiting for service. Just walking past them felt really cool. I’m not cool.
We were served in the prep kitchen, more my style: ice water, again, and a wonderful and wholesome vegetable rich beef soup along with croissants. We each got half-a-croissant, and it still seemed like too much. They were almost too big, light, crisp, and buttery... and almost too perfect. Melody Stevens was happy to visit the kitchen. You never know what a place is like in the back. This place was clean as a whistle. We had also been in the Rigsby bakery, our previous stop, very clean. We can assume, then, that prep and cooking areas are immaculate in all Rigsby establishments.
We went down Brickel back to High and stopped in the Cookware Sorcerer. Unbelievably beautiful widely assorted cookery paraphernalia gleamed all around me. I was instantly taken over by an argyle patterned cake saver, and then I was overtaken by a dog. Buzz, a black lab mixed with something big (Great Dane), was sweet and very affectionate. I sat on the floor. He smelled me and licked my eye. I swatted his rump and we were friends. He wagged his tail. Nancy, the owner, told us that Buzz’s wagging tail is never a problem except when he goes out. “Whenever I let him out,” she said, “when he comes back in, he knocks a cookie cutter off the wall with his tail.” Buzz almost danced to her and put his paws on her lap. “You said the magic word,” I remarked, “He wants out.” She took Buzz out and went, herself, to have a cigarette. Three to seven minutes later (I wasn’t timing, that’s just how long a cigarette takes), Nancy returned with Buzz. He wagged his tail and a cookie cutter flew off the wall by the door. Maybe all the fuss was just that Buzz wanted to show us his trick.
From there we went three doors up to Rigsby’s Kitchen, the last Rigsby establishment on the tour. I felt uncomfortable and displaced with paint stains on my coat. This was a very nice place, the kind of place that’s rated in stars: indefinite carpeting, white table cloths, intimate lighting, an impressionistic mural and a framed canvas in the same style, waiters who wear sashes not smocks and serve over your left shoulder and don’t come by every 30 seconds to ask if everything is okay, and there’s no chance of annoying distorted pop MP3s playing over a P.A. system. The restaurant’s owners, the subjects of the paintings at the restaurant's southeast corner, Kent Rigsby and Tasi, his wife for whom our last food stop had been named, were seated near the entrance.
It was ritzier than I like. I felt as if I were intruding into someone else’s intimate place, so no matter how quiet I could be, I’d feel like I was shouting, and if the food wasn’t fantastic, which it was, I’d feel awful about complaining because I had come into someone else’s fantasy hoping to find my own. I felt more comfortable when the bread was served because I knew it. It was from the Eleni Christina bakery, the 27-year-old sourdough bread Joe’s been making for 18 years. I’d met that bread earlier, and now got to taste it.
The bread and the dish that came with it were incredible. The dish was Braised Pork Shank. The pork was fall-apart perfect, braised in Merlot and served over polenta. The layers went together perfectly. A guest never has reason to season his or her own meal in such a place as Rigsby’s. We all nodded and smiled to the restaurateurs on our way out and wished them a pleasant day.
Then we went for dessert at the best and most annoying ice cream parlor I’ve ever known, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, which, like our tour, was started at the North Market, originally called Scream! Jeni’s is best in my mind only because they offer unlimited samples on new and surprising flavors, so you’ll know if you don’t like something and won’t have wasted money to find out you don’t want it. Most annoying because while one person is sampling, people wait outside and a mob develops. When I walk past Jeni’s during Gallery Hop, I have to walk in the street to get around the place because the clientele never form a line; they never seem to realize or care that they are obstructing a pedestrian thoroughfare and pushing people into the road, their ice cream lust is so strong.
So in we went, and we did our sampling. Of course I had known of Jeni’s, I’d just never visited before. Not long ago a friend told me that something interesting always happens at Jeni’s and that I had to try the maple syrup walnut. I sampled, but it didn’t hit me right. I tasted five flavors and none of them seemed to be what I wanted, and those I tasted tasted wrong. I can never find orange, and people tell me that orange wouldn’t work because the milk would curdle in the citric acid. But that curdling orange milk when mixed with the rest of the ingredients and churned should turn into an orange cream-cheese ice cream. So what’s wrong with that? I settled for a couple scoops of Ugandan vanilla, and it seemed like there was something wrong with it too. Just because stuff can be eaten doesn’t mean it is food, and just because it’s a familiar flavor doesn’t mean it’s good. Hence they let you sample.
How can you go wrong with vanilla? I think it was too sweet. It was thick but certainly not gelato. I’m not a sweets person, but I eat sweets, and I know good sweets from bad sweets. This was certainly not bad, but I didn’t think it was very good either ... and I’m not just saying that to clear a sidewalk. It was better than a spoonful of cold vanilla-flavored sugar. The Stevenses both loved their flavors. Michelle had the cayenne and said it was too hot to eat but too good not to eat. Maybe it’s just me. I’m immune to Pepperidge Farm cookies, too. If my description of the crowds is any indicator most people think Jeni’s is good enough to stand and wait for in droves like junkheads tottering from foot-to-foot thumbing their veins anticipating their next fix. Here our Guide, Ms. Debra O’Molesky, left us with our ice creams. She and I rubbed elbows. I shook left hands with the Stevenses when they went. I sat in the ice cream parlor for a while – slowly finishing my Ugandan vanilla – and I waited but nothing interesting happened. I learned that if something that isn’t very good is very convenient people will buy it. I once bought off-brand frozen Salisbury steaks from the corner store by my house because it was convenient. Others have bought them more often and enjoy them.
I went outside and met a guy named Ben – my second Ben of the day, he keeps meeting Alexes – who told me that in 37 states a person can legally be fired from their job because of their sexual orientation. He told me to look up “blue and yellow equal sign” on Google to find out what I can do about that. I shook his hand and I winced. My poor broken hand. I crossed the street and caught an Eight to go visit my brother. I gave his fiancée the chocolates I’d saved and read her my notes. She decided that she’d want to go on a Columbus Food Tour. We watched Ally McBeal on Netflix for a few hours until my brother got home. I used to have a crush on Calista Flockhart but realized now, watching the show again, that it’s David E. Kelley’s writing style I was infatuated with. He’s as good as Russell T. Davies. My brother gave me a ride to my home and I wrote until 5:55 in the morning. That’s when the story ended and I went to sleep.
I had a dream of leather drag cannibal furries who ran a topless car wash in a hedonistic trailer park. They charged fingers for wax jobs and paid their employees cubes of blue Jell-O.
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