Once while sitting at a mountain hűtte in the Austrian Alps, I was asked something interesting by some Dutch friends we had met. This question did not lend itself to an immediate answer. “What type of food is America known for?” I ask this question again, what exactly IS American food?
When I am traveling I like to stop and eat local. Sometime I find interesting food, sometimes I find scary food. Last week I was in Oklahoma. There is no place more local than the Wagon BBQ in Woodward, Oklahoma on catfish night. When I think of American Food, I can think of nothing better than mudcat (deep fat fried), deep fried okra, hushpuppies, and wagon chips, of course all deep fried as well. I pictured some toothless three fingered old Okie noodling (hand fishing) for mudcats that afternoon in a hole in the local river. But I resisted both the urge to ask if the meal came with Lipitor or if the fish were locally caught. Sometimes it is better not asking.
My colleague eating the same meal pondered the exact origin and contents of a hushpuppy. I tried to explain that they were at least not made of shoes, but again, sometimes it is better not asking. After finishing off the meal with Oklahoma U and OSU monogrammed mints, I finished or better put, survived another locally authentic meal and as of yet experienced no coronary arrest.
The whole episode caused me to reflect on similar restaurants: stopped at by chance and circumstance that I remembered. I have had great food, I have had bad food, and many of these restaurants have made it into my writing, some due to beauty, some due to location, others due to quirkiness, clientele, the menu, or a few by their very name alone. There has been only one restaurant, however, that has inspired a novel of mine and in fact this particular restaurant has now inspired two novels. Regrettably, much like my deceased great-great uncle Arthur who inspired my first novel, the Garden of Eating in Grove City Minnesota did not survive early editing to make it in my new novel to be released this fall, Anders Zorn: Unveiled. But it will be in the first chapter of the untitled novel I am currently working on.
Since this restaurant has inspired so much creativity, one would assume that it is a place I frequent, that however, is far from the facts as I have only eaten there once. That, however, is one of the reasons, you see, as to why it is so inspiring to me. I have only eaten their once mostly because this restaurant does not open very often.
In the laws of supply and demand there are many things that make something valuable. Take Russian Caviar, it is valuable because it is very rare and exclusive. Oil is common but it has become valuable because everyone wants it. At some point, one needs to maximize demand and control scarcity because something too scarce, won’t generate any demand because no one has ever heard of it. In the restaurant business, demand can be generated also by the intense quality or an extreme dining experience.
The Garden of Eating has good food. We ate an Italian ravioli dish with portabella mushrooms. Washed down with a fine red wine, the culinary experience was worth remembering but that was not why this restaurant has become one of my most inspirational eateries. The location, an old one block village store front in a town of six hundred is not what makes it special either. Their entertainment, jazz music, piano solos, are good but it is not like Yanni or Cher secretly show up for private performances. Nor is it the hide out for the rich and famous who can eat quietly out of view from the peering eyes of the common folks.
What makes this restaurant interesting is their operational schedule. Interestingly, they are only open twelve days a year. How can a restaurant survive only being open twelve days a year? The next opening date will be the evening of Saturday, May 12. They are also not open during the months of summer and they only do the evening meal. This schedule has engendered interesting speculation as about why? Creative marketing? Nefarious activity? Tax write-offs? Some kind of crazy dining club? Could it be even something wilder? Sort of a wink wink type of restaurant? To be honest while we sat there and enjoyed our meal my creative juices went wild. But like Oklahoma, I was afraid to ask and due to my seemingly love of speculation and fear of the truth, tens of thousands of words of fiction were created. Here I am writing a thousand more words.
Finally, I gave in to my fantasy theories and due to overall curiosity and searched their website. Truth, I might add, is NOT stranger than fiction. Running a restaurant takes time and the birth of twins led the proprietors to delegate their precious time and at first closing. As the father of twins, this is something I can relate to. They just had too many loyal fans and to pacify them, they made themselves available once a month. I still think it is a genious marketing gimmick and have read about New York secret specialty restaurants that open in undisclosed locations for a month or two and then move on, marketed by Twitter or other new media to the chosen. To keep it exclusive before you or I hear about them, they are gone.
Despite their assurances otherwise, I will remain postulating the real theories behind this restaurant. The couple next to me looked like the stars of the new movie, Avengers. The man in the corner, he is number five on Forbes richest people, or is he number four? CIA agents talked strategy using their steak for cover. A secret society took role immediately upon our departure discussing the secrets to the universe and the tips were the passwords for secret bank account numbers. How many more novels could be created from the guests at this fine restaurant?
If you have nothing to do this Saturday, you may want to make the trip. It is about an hour and half west of Minneapolis to the Garden of Eating on Highway 12. I recommend reservations. You may find the people sitting next to you vaguely familiar. You might want to ask them who they are but if you were I, I wouldn’t ask, they might just tell you.
Bon appetit my friends,