Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Museum Surprise

The name was just unusual enough to pique our curiosity--The National Museum of Surveying.

I've often wondered what a surveyor is looking for when peering into the scope at another person standing at some distance with a pole. And Lincoln was a surveyor. ...And the Museum was next door to an interesting new restaurant. So, we stopped by just before lunch.

Originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson, the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) began shortly after the Revolutionary War, when the Federal government needed to survey large areas west of the thirteen original colonies.

Most PLSS surveys begin at an initial point. The north-south line that runs through the initial point is called the Principal Meridian (above). The east-west line that runs through the initial point is called a base line.

The PLSS typically divides land into 6-mile-square townships. Townships are subdivided into 36 one-mile-square sections. Sections can be further subdivided into quarter sections, quarter-quarter sections, or irregular government lots.

I now had a better understanding of the relevance of those marked squares on older maps. And I also understood the derivation of some idiomatic expressions.

In the Homestead Act of 1862, one quarter-section of land (160 acres) was the amount allocated to each settler.
"The lower 40" is the 40 acres on a settler's land that is lowest in elevation and the "back forty" is the portion farthest from the settler's dwelling.

But Dora, Kate, and I cut short our tour of the surveyor's instruments and moved into the next room.

What a sight!

We were greeted by a 68-inch globe hanging from the ceiling and displaying a dynamic image of the earth. The Science on a Sphere exhibit is "a breathtaking, reverse IMAX experience that provides a way to look at the world and universe around us that defies the imagination."

We joined a presentation by Matthew Parbs to members of a local Rotary.

The sphere is a large plastic globe onto which four high-speed cameras project images of the earth, the moon, or other planets. The sphere doesn’t move, but the cameras create the illusion that it is rotating on its axis.

Developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administra-tion, the sphere has some 250 displays that can be projected onto it, such as this one (above) which shows the number of face-book connections on one recent day around the world.

Here, the number and intensity of earthquakes around the world on May 24 of this year are shown.

While I'm still trying to just grasp the concept of how the projection of the images work, Matthew pushed a button and the earth changed its rotation to a north-south direction.

Then this image appeared.

This shows the impact of the recent tsunami that occurred off the coast of Japan. The red lines show the "track" of the strongest impact. Of special interest was the red line near the very top of the sphere, leading to the west coast of the US and to the town of Crescent City, CA.

The last three photos show hurricanes Katrina (left) on 8/29/05 and Wilma (the two photos below) on 10/21 over the Yucatan Peninsula and 10/24/05 over Florida.

I was still trying to figure out how to translate the means by which still pictures moving quickly can produce a motion picture on a two-dimensional screen into the means by which images from four projectors can create a three-dimensional motion picture when Matthew mentioned that fifth graders had submitted formatted information to the Museum and then attended a showing of their production.

This was another example of not allowing enough time to tour a museum. This definitely calls for a return visit and more time to determine just how this exhibit "shows the future of surveying."

A remarkable exhibit

Monday, May 30, 2011

One of a Dying Breed

The Midwest used to be full of restaurants like this. Located in a residential neighborhood, they served as a local taproom and as a destination dining venue. You could be assured of a cold beer, a welcoming smile, and a wonderful meal that didn’t clean out your wallet.

But one still stands—the Old Luxemburg Inn in Springfield, IL, known affectionately by the locals as “the Old Lux.” Kerstin B on yelp.com describes the Old Lux perfectly: “It's the Old Lux, one of the last good ole-fashioned steakhouses standing. In a sea of fast food and Steak house chains this is a diamond in a platinum setting! ...You can't go wrong, from the dark wood and leather to the antique bar fully stocked…. The ambiance is so ‘there’! You feel like Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra is about to walk in. It hasn't changed since it opened, and why should it?”

The Old Lux was founded in 1941. The surrounding neighborhood has undergone change and one of the slots in the parking lot is marked “Security.” But patrons have remained loyal. Matteo h on yelp.com writes: “Yeah, boy! What can I say? This place has been around forever, and so have some of the customers. There's a serious blue hair crowd here. And you know what that tells me? The food must be good or else they would be at MCL (?). Guess what? The food is really good.”

Just inside the front doors lies the dark bar area. That night, everyone was clustered around the TV at the back of the bar following the severe weather alert notice. Yes, this is spring in the Midwest and that means nasty storms and tornados.

But that wasn’t going to keep the birthday party

and a special group for which the private dining rooms had been set from enjoying dinner.

The main dining room is dark. Dark paneling. Dim lighting. Which made it hard to read the menu. I am sure that I saw some chicken entrees, pork chops, and fried shrimp. And it wouldn’t have surprised me to see rumaki* listed as an appetizer along with a shrimp cocktail.

But the menu wasn’t needed. We came with a plan. This was the night for the ten-ounce filet mignon with salad and baked potato for $11.95. Both Dora and Chuck ordered the special. I ordered something else that will be described later.

The salads (Sorry, no photo) were the archetypal Midwest steakhouse salads. Composed primarily of iceberg lettuce with grated carrots, red cabbage, tomatoes, and cucumber slices, it was icy cold and super crisp. The house dressing, a peppercorn garlic, had a mild garlic flavor and came served on the side.

Each of our orders came with a baked potato. I know that foodies claim that a baked potato should never be baked in foil because the potato steams rather than bakes. I don’t care. These were excellent potatoes and were fluffy and steaming hot. Dora ordered the Old Lux’s chive and cream sauce for hers, and it was outrageously delicious. Chuck and I went the more pedestrian route with butter for him and sour cream for me.

How good can an $11.95 filet be? Really good is the answer. In true steakhouse fashion, it came wrapped with a single slice of bacon. And the meat, which both ordered medium, was a testament to Midwest beef. Nary a speck of fat or gristle. Tender and juicy meat. Great beef flavor. This steak rivals the prime rib Chuck had many months ago at the Grizzly Bar in Roscoe, MT.

I went in another direction. Before visiting the Old Lux, I had read a number of on-line diner reviews, and just as writers raved about the steaks, writers raved about the french fried lobster. Yes. You read that right. French fried lobster. Tropican49 on tripadvisor.com is just one example: “The filet was tender, tasty, large, and not too expensive. They also have french-fried lobster, which was surprisingly good—in fact, it was wonderful.”

And it was. The meat of a good-sized lobster had been dipped in a light batter, and the tail fried until the lobster meat was just cooked. While I suspect that this started with frozen seafood, the meat still had great flavor and was flakey and tender. I really enjoyed the contrast between the crisp coating and softer lobster meat. This is a dish that shouldn’t work. But it did.

This was a delightful 5.0 Addie return to the past, and all three of us were glad that we ignored the threatening weather.
*Do you remember rumaki? This was the rage back in the 1960’s and “is an hors d'oeuvre of mock-Polynesian origin…probably invented by Victor Bergeron, known as Trader Vic.... (U)sually it consists of water chestnuts and pieces of duck or chicken liver wrapped in bacon and marinated in soy sauce and either ginger or brown sugar” (wikipedia.com). Proving again that everything tastes better with bacon.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Stagecoach Stop is Re-born

"But today, raccoons are the only occupants of the oldest brick building in Sangamon County (Illinois). Thick vines of ivy cover almost an entire side of the structure, which is surrounded by empty liquor bottles and large downed tree branches. The condition of the building has deteriorated to the point that it is one of the state's 10 most endangered historic places for 2007."

Such was the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois' assessment of the condition of the Broadwell Tavern and Inn (left) in Clayville, IL.

"The two-story tavern, built in 1834 by John Broadwell, closely resembled a country inn in England where his ancestors had come from. Downstairs was a kitchen, a bar, and a commons area (left and below), where we met

storyteller Kathy Moseley.

Upstairs were rooms in which travelers could rest. Our guide stated that as many as 15 people may arrive on a stagecoach for an overnight stay. One of two large rooms (above) provided sleeping space for men; the other for the women passengers.

A less accommodating space (left) provided a sleeping space for the stagecoach driver and his team.

Through the 1860s, the tavern thrived on a steady influx of cattle drivers, merchants, and stagecoach passengers.

From the Inn's second floor we could see the original road that the stagecoach traveled on its route between Beardstown and Springfield.

"In May, 2009, volunteers formed the Pleasant Plains Historical Society. In June of 2009 a purchase agreement was reached and on July 11, 2009 work at the site began. Over 50 volunteers came and by lunch time, for the first time in over 10 years, the Broadwell Tavern was visible from the road."

We made it to Clayville on the final day of the three-day Spring Festival. Among the craft demonstrations was this woman who spun wool using a gravity spinner.

She was quite knowledgeable about spinning and and eagerly answered cousin Dora's questions about spinning flax. Dora had a photo that was framed with a woven flax border.

This photo and the one below show the restored interior of one of the cabins on the grounds.

Other people demonstra-ting their crafts included a potter, a blacksmith, a cooper, and these quilters.

There was one "incident" involving gunfire during our time there, but order was quickly restored.

As the skies darkened, the merchants and craftsmen began tying up their tents. We headed back to our car--about 45 seconds too late. The rains came. And followed us along the dozen or so miles back to Springfield.

"After years of neglect, every building on the site of the decaying 19th-century stagecoach stop had been ransacked and vandalized." But the leadership of the preservation society and numerous volunteers have done a marvelous job restoring this historic Inn and surrounding buildings.

Quoted information has been obtained from the historic Clayville webpage.

NOTE: We made a brief stop in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa and plan to be heading on to Iowa City tomorrow until June 12th. Then it's Kansas City (one week) and Junction City, KS (2 days).

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Blame It On Tony Bruno

Who is Tony Bruno? And why the blame? Let’s answer the first question first.

Tony Bruno was a morning drive-time talk radio personality whose gimmick was the spaghetti breakfast. He would set up in a shopping center parking lot and feed spaghetti to commuters looking for a free breakfast or the chance to have a “brush with greatness.” When that station underwent a sudden format change, Tony moved to the sports talk station and co-hosted a morning show with Angelo Cataldi, Al Morganti, and Joe Conklin. The latter is a Philadelphia-based comedian/
impressionist/song parodist. The season that everyone knew that Rich Kotite would be fired as the coach of the Eagles, Conklin issued a Christmas album with a song entitled “It’s Beginning To Look Like Unemployment” sung to the tune of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas."

Why am I talking about Tony Bruno? Because he maintained that the best hamburger that he ever ate was at a Steak ‘n Shake outlet somewhere in the Midwest. So we find ourselves in Springfield with multiple Steak ‘n Shakes and finally have the chance to put Tony’s judgment to the test. But our cousin Dora was somewhat skeptical, not being a fan of Steak ‘n Shake herself, and suggested that Culver’s was a far better choice. Hence, the franchise hamburger face off.

We started with Culver’s, armed with a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for a Double Deluxe Butter-Burger with cheese. “Restaurants are a way of life for the Culver family: Craig Culver, his wife, Lea, and Craig’s parents, George and Ruth, who owned and ran several supper clubs, including the Farm Kitchen Resort in Baraboo, Wisconsin.... From the start, Craig was drawn to the restaurant business. During college, he worked summers at the Farm Kitchen, where he met his future wife, Lea Weiss.
After graduating from UW-Oshkosh in 1973, Craig worked for four years at McDonald’s, gaining many insights that he yearned to apply to his own business.... That dream came true on July 18, 1984, when Craig, Lea, George and Ruth converted a former A&W root beer stand and christened it “Culver’s Frozen Custard and ButterBurgers” (from the Culver’s website). Today there are Culver’s in nineteen states, and while we have seen them on our travels, we have never visited one.

Culver’s is an “order at the counter” type of restaurant, but according to their website, your meal isn’t cooked until you place the order. You are given a number on a stand and someone will bring your meal to you. The restaurants are decorated in white and deep blue and, unusual for a semi-fast food outlet, has carpeting on the floor.

Using our coupon, Chuck and I both ordered the Double Deluxe Butter-Burger (so called since they are served on a buttered and toasted bun) with double cheese, mayonnaise, pickles, onions, lettuce, and tomato and shared an order of fries.

Dora’s choice was the kid’s meal which comes with a full-sized single hamburger, a kid’s sized portion of crinkle fries, and a beverage. And, on the serving bag is a coupon good for a free single scoop of the frozen custard. Later Dora parlayed this coupon into a small sundae for only the extra cost of the toppings.

The fries were your standard issue crinkle fries. The burger, on the other hand, was a surprise. Culver’s says that they only use Midwest beef, and I believe them. And close examination of the patties revealed a good coarse grind to the meat rather than the mushy almost pureed product found in too many fast food restaurants. Chuck would have been happier without the mayo and pickles; I would have been happier with only one slice of cheese. Still, this is a hamburger a cut above the typical chain hamburger stand.

Time for frozen custard. Dora used her coupon and got a single scoop with caramel and pecans. I got the single Turtle sundae (left) (frozen custard, caramel, hot fudge, and pecans) and Chuck, the Oreo frozen custard sandwich. According to Wikipedia: “Frozen custard is a cold dessert similar to ice cream, made with eggs in addition to cream and sugar…. The Food and Drug Admi-nistration requires products marketed as frozen custard to contain at least 10 percent milk fat and 1.4 percent egg yolk solids.” While Culver’s has a “flavor of the day” for each day in the month, all of their desserts started with the basic vanilla. The custard had a velvety smooth texture and a richness that was surprising.

Off to Steak ‘n Shake for the second round in the hamburger wars. (Well, not immediately. We did take time out for some sightseeing that will be covered in future blogs.)

“Steak 'n Shake was founded in February, 1934 in Normal, Illinois. Gus Belt, Steak 'n Shake's founder, pioneered the concept of premium burgers and milk shakes.... For over 75 years, the company's name has been symbolic of its heritage. The word ‘steak’ stood for STEAKBURGER. The term ‘shake’ stood for hand-dipped MILK SHAKES. Gus was determined to serve his customers the finest burgers and shakes in the business. To prove his point that his burgers were exceptionally prime, he would wheel in a barrel of steaks (including round, sirloin, and T-bones) and grind the meat into burgers right in front of the guests. Hence arose the origin of our famous slogan, ‘In Sight It Must Be Right’” (from the Steak ‘n Shake website).

Unlike Culver’s, Steak ‘n Shake is a full-service restaurant. A host shows you to a table and a server takes your order. Culver’s is all blue and white. Steak ‘n Shake is all red, white, and black.

Dora, not being a fan of Steak ‘n Shakes ham-burgers, ordered the Chili Mac Supreme—spaghetti topped with chili beef, cheese, onions, and the restaurant’s special chili sauce—with an extra cup of the chili sauce. While I have never had Cincinnati chile, I suspect that this is similar and was really quite good. I was particularly impressed that the meat in the chili wasn’t ground beef but actual chunks of steak.

My sandwich was the single Steakburger with cheese and bacon to which I added mayo, onion, and pickle. The burger came with a side of fries.

In order to make a fair comparison with Culver’s, Chuck ordered the Original Double ’N Cheese—two Steak-burgers with American cheese on a toasted bun, also with a side of fries.

To start, I loved the fries. These were even thinner than the “golden arches” and the portion was huge.

But the hamburgers—or Steakburgers, to be precise—were really disappointing. I thought that they were dry and had a flavor that you don’t usually find in a hamburger. These are Tony Bruno’s favorite burgers in the country? Trust us. Dora is a better expert than Tony Bruno. The only good quality was the crispy edges.

To make this a fair comparison, we also added dessert and shared the brownie hot fudge sundae. Under this enormous mound of ice cream and toppings lies a very good chewy brownie. The ice cream was of good rich quality, and they didn’t skimp on the hot fudge. But, by this time, we were all too stuffed to really enjoy it.

So the results of this “burger-off.” I liked Steak ‘n Shakes fries more than Culver’s. Chuck felt just the opposite. We both preferred the custard and cheeseburgers at Culver’s. But,… the leader in the clubhouse for our favorite cheeseburger is Chuck’s from Cozy Dog.

And to answer, finally, the second question that started this blog, Tony Bruno is to blame for your having to read this blog about chain restaurant hamburgers.