Monday, May 25, 2009

Notes from Bismarck, ND

Hey y'all:
Sorry it's been so long.... this FEMA thing means long hours! But I've been trying to get out and see the sites as I can.
One of the best things about Bismarck is the Grand Theaters, a 15-plex in north Bis that, almost literally, a temple to film. I even sent the owner, Jerry Brekke, a fan email because his place is so incredible. The decor is all faux-Egyptian, with statues and fountains all over. Virtually every wall has either a movie poster or a collage of movie star still photos. Each screen has a curtain, like the old days, which closes after the previews but before the main attraction starts. You don't see that much anymore. Another attraction is in the smaller north lobby, where there's a display -- make that "homage" -- to Charlton Heston and "The 10 Commandments." The water fountain ALMOST makes you think he's parting the Red Sea, except that there are several signs asking you to not throw any coins into the fountain. Lastly, there's also a small museum in a side room that has a bit of history about the Grand, as well as ticket stubs from the 1930s, an old projector and vintage popcorn boxes. Evidently, Mr. Brekke has been a fan of movies since he was a kid, and this theater really shows his love for it all.

Another local hot spot is Scheels Sporting Goods in the Kirkwood Mall. (There are two malls in town, Kirkwood and Gateway Fashion. The latter has a Sears and a few clothing stores filled with low (vs. high) fashions. It basically feels like it's on its last legs...) I'm sure there must be places in Scheels in many towns across America, but I've never seen anything quite like it. There's an extensive gun/rifle/hunting section, as well as fishing, archery and golf.
I haven't been able to find much written about the Grand, but it's definitely one of the best things about Bismarck. I've surely never seen a retail store where you can practice your shooting skills with a laser hunting game! I've seen dads there holding up the rifle so the son or daughter (age 2-3) can get their practice shots in... And it also has a large range of stuffed animals, plastic turkeys for decoys and a huge range of camouflage clothing. I was there recently, sadly without my camera, when it was obviously prom night in Bismarck. All of the girls were walking around the mall, sort of strutting, while the guys were all inside Scheels getting in a little practice shooting before they headed to dinner. Scheels doesn't just have sporting goods, however: You can of course buy the ubiquitous bison sausage or buffalo jerky there, along with salt water taffy and homemade fudge. Don't miss it the next time you're in town.

Bismarck, as does much of North Dakota, prides itself on the fact that this is part of where Lewis & Clark came during their big "Discover America" around 1804-06. They wintered not far from Bismarck, and this is where they met up with Sakagawea. This is her statue, ca. 1910, which sits on the grounds of the state capital, very close to the North Dakota Heritage Center (which just received funding to double its size with a the help of $52 million in state and federal funding!). I also love that the folks who went along on the Lewis & Clark expedition were called the "Corps of Discovery."

Food-wise, yes this is the land of large portions and large people, mostly white. I think the state is over 90% white. However, it was interesting to find out that FEMA has a program where they find people with limited English language and translate the basic information about flood help for them. In the end, they translated into 14 different languages up here, including Somali, Kurdish, Vietnamese and Dinku. Go FEMA!
I've been doing my best to hit the locals food spots, rather than the national chains (all of which are represented here, of course). Yes, there's Cracker Barrel and Frank's BBQ, but also Bistro, Jack's Steakhouse, Space Alien's and Kroll's. I still have to hit Fried's for its famous "kneophla" (a heavy dumpling soup, pronounced nef-la), and the "fleischkuechle," sort of a deep-fried hamburger in pastry dough. Yep, they do like it rib-stickin' up here.
My other great evening up here was at Pirogue, reputed to be the best in town. It's chef-owned and operated, and they do try and buy the best local products they can including meats, honey and grains. I've been twice, most recently with a wonderful local farmer by the name of Jay Basquiat. I read about him in the local papers and decided to meet him and he graciously met up with me, a total stranger. He has a website, that I'll list below, called Baskets of Plenty. What he does is grow vegetables for 40 local families, all of whom pay him for his time and he re-pays them with weekly bushels of fresh veggies. He's an incredible guy who lived in California for 10 years but decided to come home to ND. We sat and talked for 3.5 hours, and he was a wealth of information. His grandmother never went past 25 miles of where she was born (not unusual up here, come to find out); he lives as "off the grid" as possible; and he told me about some of the cool artists who live and work up here, including one guy who "paints" with corn. I'll keep searching for that one, and get back to ya! Here's his link, sorry I can't figure out how to hyperlink it so you'll have to cut and paste.