Sometimes the best stories take a long time to pay off. One of those happened recently. It all began nearly 20 years ago when a group of bicyclists stayed here during the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). The plan was to have the riders stay here at the farm before they continued on their route the next day. We weren’t required to feed them, but my mother never lets anyone stop by without trying to get some food into them, so we figured we’d give them a meal. Not being bicycle purists ourselves, and realizing they’d be riding about 50 to 70 miles each day, we figured that required a decent meal.
If you’ve read these stories for any length of time, you may have figured out that my definition of a decent meal may not match up perfectly with everyone else’s definition. We thought we’d feed them like we typically eat. There has always been plenty of physical labor in our daily routine, so their day on a bike must be pretty close to a day on the farm. The menu included steaks, pork chops and a wide variety of other dishes. Growing up around a bunch of Lutherans, that means multiple forms of salad with some type of Jell-O and/or Cool-Whip as the base. Lettuce is a meat condiment.
The meat in particular went over quite well with the bicycle crowd. They invited me to go along with them the next year and cook, as well as ride. I suggested that my time on a bike would be inversely proportional to the quality of food that we’d eat. If I rode more, we wouldn’t eat as well. If I stayed off a bike, it’s dinner-on-the-farm time.
Racked up a grand total of zero miles on my bike on that year’s ride.
The year after that – 1998 -- was when I took up my hobby of recreational brain surgery. That’s when I had deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery to implant a pacemaker in my brain to control tremors in my hands. The surgery went quite well. A local TV station, KWWL-TV in Waterloo, Iowa, did a story about my surgery in May 1998. Heather, the reporter who did the story, grew up not all that far from me and stayed in touch after the initial story aired. When I had a problem with a broken lead wire that summer and had to have surgery to correct it, I mentioned to Heather that I was going to be in Cedar Falls to cook for my RAGBRAI friends the week before my surgery. Heather asked if I’d be willing to swing by the city park and do a live interview with her during the 6:00 news while they were covering RAGBRAI’s appearance in town.
I did the interview and invited Heather and a coworker of hers to join us for supper that evening. The entrée that night is what I’ve always called Lawn Clippings Pork Chops. They are thick slices of pork loin soaked for 48 hours in a marinade of rosemary, thyme, white peppercorns, juniper berries, coriander seeds, allspice berries, bay leaves, salt and sugar. They sort of look like I may have dropped them on the lawn / driveway on my way to the grill. In light of my bionic malfunction at the time, that wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility.
A week or two after the RAGBRAI meal, Heather had a request. She wanted to know if I’d be willing to cook for a party she was having. It would be a housewarming and she was hoping we could do those special pork chops. I gladly agreed. I also enlisted my mother, Elsie, to provide some dessert in the form of multiple pies. She had furnished those for the RAGBRAI meal in Cedar Falls and they were quite popular. The difference here would be that, if we screwed up in any way and anyone fell ill, it could easily be the screaming lead story on a Nielsen ratings blowtorch for days to come.
When it was time for the housewarming event, Elsie loaded up six or eight pies in her car for the meal. I loaded my truck with two gas grills, a couple coolers full of meat and other side dishes. We headed out that morning for a 1:00 dinner in Waterloo, 70 miles away. I put the two grills in my truck and placed the coolers and LP tanks around them in such a fashion that they were not going anywhere. (Keep in mind my experience with hay bales which aren't secured tightly). As I was flying down a blacktop just east of the giant metropolis of Schley, I met a grain semi.
The driver was doing a little more than 55 miles per hour. He also did not have his tarp covering the trailer. That created a tremendous vacuum as he drove down the road. I wasn't exactly doing 55 either, but I was just an itsy-bitsy little pickup. The draft coming off me wasn't causing any problems. We were traveling on an east-west blacktop with a strong south wind that day. Just as we met, a huge draft of air caught me from the passing semi. I was pushed slightly by it, but that wasn't much of a problem. What was a problem was the fact that the physics of the situation lifted my larger (unsecured) grill straight up in the air like a helicopter.
It landed on the tailgate and then splattered itself all over the blacktop. Fortunately, Elsie was just far enough behind me in the car full of pie that she didn't take the grill through her windshield. I stopped to assess the situation and pick up the pieces of my grill, which were scattered all over the highway. It wasn't good. Had it been a horse, I would have shot it right there on the spot. Instead, I picked up the carcass and made a beeline home to get a grill from Guy No. 1 as a backup.
The second grill I had was too small to handle the task alone. You can’t have a bunch of people who make their living working on deadlines and hitting time cues precisely, waiting around for dinner to be cooked by some hillbilly with the next step above an Easy Bake Oven!
Upon my arrival back at corporate headquarters, Guy No. 1 informed me that his grill didn't work. It only had an area of decent heat big enough to cook two small chops at a time. This was at 11:55 and I was supposed to be in Waterloo, 70 miles away, at 1:00 to cook for 50 people. The solution was a new grill. The problem was where to get one at that time of year. The answer? Protivin, the home of Polashek's Locker and Fencl Oil and LP!!! Ken Fencl supplies me with the LP to dry my corn, heat my hog buildings and my house. He also just happens to sell LP gas grills. A call was placed to Ken to see if he could help. Ken did not let me down.
Clincher in the deal
He had just what I needed and Protivin was on the way to Waterloo. A quick stop at his place of business in downtown Protivin confirmed that Ken had the merchandise I needed. The clincher in the deal, though, came when Ken showed me the features of this particular grill. He grabbed it by the legs, pushed a couple buttons, and Voila! -- the legs telescoped down to make it a low-profile grill suitable for high speed travel with little or no worry about the atmospheric physics of the day.
That little sucker shrunk down to only about two feet high. It was as though it had been designed with a certain motoring moron in mind. We slapped a tank on it, gave it a test firing to make sure it worked, and then I headed to Waterloo to do my duty. We arrived at 1:30 and found only six or seven people there so far. I set up, fired up, and cooked up a feast all afternoon. Things went so well that Heather later remarked that two Jewish staffers in attendance had even chowed down on pork. One of them knew it was pork, but didn’t seem to have a problem. The other one thought it was chicken. I didn’t lie to her. I simply didn’t provide all the facts that existed. She’s now a freelance producer for NBC News and MSNBC.
Draw your own conclusions.
The other major conversion accomplishment that day came in the form of a relative. It was Heather’s sister, Heidi. She was a vegetarian. Based on what she had heard that day, what she saw with her own eyes, and what she could smell, Heidi decided maybe, just maybe, she would stray from her food religion and give this whole meat thing a try.
Lawn Clippings Pork Chops did the trick. Heidi converted and went carnivore.
I saw Heidi over the weekend at her parents’ house. Her daughter, Kate, is about 10 years old. When Kate was introduced to me, my name rang a bell with her right away. Kate stuck her hand out to shake mine and said with a big smile, “Hi! Thanks for making my mom not a vegetarian anymore!”
One person at a time, I do what I can, Kate. Glad to be of service back in the 1900’s so that you didn’t have to lead a flavor-reduced life.
Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.
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