Monday, September 29, 2008

Fall colours

I have found the place where I want to die. Not anytime soon; after I have founded my multi million pound empire based on my secret salad dressing recipe, of course. I've seen the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the Nevada Desert, the Florida Keys and most major landmarks on 41 states in between, but nowhere is as beautiful as Northern Minnesota. Now, I know most people outside of the US are unfamiliar with this little gem, and I know that within the US it's only really famous for fishing and brutal winters (the record low here is minus -41 degrees!), but I think that this may just be a clever conspiracy by Minnesotans to prevent their state becoming overrun with tourists. I'll tell you a few little nuggets about how beautiful it is, as long as you promise to not tell anyone else and to not visit...oh and this blog will self-destruct in five minutes, so read quick.

I've done my fair share of road trips across this great nation and driving through here at this time of year is one of the most scenic, colourful backdrops I have seen. We are just reaching peak time for 'fall colours', and the leaves are turning luminous shades of russet, orange and flame red, others are a deep cherry red and some have a graduated colour change from top to bottom that make the trees look like they're on fire. The air has suddenly turned cold within the past two weeks but the days are crisp and sunny. It's my favourite time of year, I love walking down the street crunching on leaves while smelling a bonfire in the neighbourhood, it reminds me of the hymn we used to sing in school assembly:

"Autumn days, when the grass is jewelled
And the silk in a chestnut shell
Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled
All these things I love so well
So I mustn't forget
No, I mustn't forget
To say a great big thank you,
I mustn't forget..."

Remember that one?

Plus, Autumn fashion is my favourite, nothing quite like knee high boots and knitted jumpers to ring in the change of season is there?! Anyway, we drove up to Lake Superior for a weekend of camping using our fabulous new tent and camping stove (which incidentally came without a name from our wedding registry, so if you bought it for us please let me know as we don't know who to thank). The radio on the car journey up t'north is one of the few things which is inferior to driving south - part of the 'Minnesota Conspiracy'...?

When we drive south, we have started to tune into what we have christened 'redneck radio'. These are AM talk-radio stations providing discussion forums on a variety of topics from the Video Music Awards to the nomination of Sarah Palin as VP candidate. A good forty minutes of Kansas plains passed by on the way to our wedding, as Casey and I listened to the likes of Marla from Bowlegs, Oklahoma (pop. 371), voice her horror that Russell Brand - a foreigner, no less!! - had made a pro-Obama statement when hosting the VMA's. It was at that point that she had deemed it inappropriate viewing for her teenage daughter and switched it off. I kid you not, poor little Bobbie-Sue was made to spend the rest of the night sans TV because of the mere mention of 'that Socialist', a word which I never realised was an insult until I moved here.

I have actually developed a curious fondness for country music when driving south, because of how absurdly literal the lyrics are. I'm not sure if this is because the songwriters lack the creativity to grasp metaphor and simile, or if it's because poetry is just seen as 'queer', and that penning a song without a hint of flowery or remotely abstract lyrics directly increases the size of your straight-talking, cattle-rustling, shoot-from-the-hip manhood? For those of you whose experience of country music is limited to Shania Twain and Cotton Eye Joe, here are some actual lyrics that I wrote down while driving through Iowa:

"I'm investing in my neighbourhood, friends and family livin' pretty good,
Trailer parks full of Cadillacs, we're upper-middle class white trash."

Can you imagine my horror when we drove north and found nothing but classic rock stations and the odd high school football game on the radio? Our socialist asses had to engage in a crossword puzzle book and some Def Leppard to pass the time.

We stayed at Cascade River State Park on the north shore of Lake Superior, which is around 45 miles from the Canadian Border. I had absolutely no comprehension of the size of the Lake. I know it's the largest lake in the world bla bla blah, but until you're confronted with what you assume is the ocean (I ditched Geography in year 9 to study Drama) and you're told that, in fact the body of water before you is merely a lake, you have no appreciation for its size. When you stand on the shore, it stretches fully left and right and then out to the horizon. You really have to see it to believe it, but don't come here or the Minnesotans will hate me. I looked it up on the atlas we have pinned up in our toilet, (I believe a bathroom should be both sanitary AND educational), and it is approximately the size of Ireland...Ireland! That's like a real country!

We hiked the Lookout Trail in the park and it's dotted with beautiful cascades and waterfalls, framed by the turning leaves. Every so often you reach a lookout point from which you can see for miles across the blanket of treetops and marvel at the shades of orange, red, green and brown, like the carpet in Abigail's Party.

Property here can be found pretty cheaply if you move a little inland from Lake Superior or onto one of the thousands of other smaller lakes. We're giving serious consideration to buying a cabin to rent out in the summer and use in the autumn and winter ourselves. The idea is that I have somewhere to paint and Casey has somewhere to write, and we'll spend winter months in front of the fire chortling smugly at how wonderfully artistic we both are while sipping port from tin cups. Then, come spring, we'll emerge from our chrysalis laden with the fruits of our winter creativity, ready to hit the press junket, private views and book signings before holing up again the following autumn, and repeating it. In reality, we'd probably get cabin fever and one of us would end up smashing through the toilet door with an axe, or we'd get snowed in and our heating would break down and we'd freeze to death, but it's good to have a dream.

One last marvellous feature of this area, well two actually, is the food: Betty's Pies and World's Best Donuts. I won't go into too much detail as you'll only want to taste it and book the next flight to Minnesota. I'll just say that we queued for forty minutes in Betty's for a slice of 5 Layer Chocolate Pie and took home a whole Rhubarb & Raspberry crunch-top pie, which aside from the time spent listening to Marla from Bowlegs, was one of the hardest forty minutes of my life. World's Best Donuts was exactly that; just a little sugary piece of heaven. I'm officially a convert to a cream-filled Long John (insert witticism here...).

I'm starting to spot a theme to my blogs and am worried that I've only been here 6 weeks and have already turned into a pie-eating, cheese-snuffing, donut-munching hog, but I no longer have a wedding dress to work towards, I have a ring on my finger, I can officially let myself go can't I? I may try to write it off as a foodie feature: as I get to know the country, I get to know a different food type in each area, something like that. All I have to do is sex it up, a la Nigella, and I can have the blogging equivalent of the Marks and Spencer's food-porn ads; (Cue Fleetwood Mac's Albatross) "This is not just a blog, this is Hayley's, all English, home grown, hand-typed, html blog..."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Say 'cheese'!

The Minnesota State Fair: ‘12 Days of Fun’ proclaim the flags. It was certainly 3 hours of fun,12 days might have been pushing it though. It was a magnifying glass held on all things Minnesotan, and I have to say I liked what I saw...mostly. The fair is primarily an agricultural show attached to a fun fair. It’s famous for frying foods and putting them on a stick, anything you can imagine: lasagna, Twinkies, Belgian waffles, hot dogs, egg rolls - you name it, they can put it on a stick and fry it!

Another impressive aspect of the fair is the butter sculptures of the Princess Kay Finalists. I assumed that the Princess Kay competition was a beauty contest. Apparently I was wrong; the only criteria these delightful young ladies must meet is that they are the daughters of dairy farmers. This entitles said stunners to have their head and shoulders sculpted out of butter and to be displayed in a rotating chilled cabinet, it was reminiscent of the bohemian rhapsody video only with better lighting and worse hairstyles. I’m not entirely sure whether the winner was then decided upon the strength of their buttery likeness or whether some other ag-related yardstick were used; “If I were to be crowned Princess Kay, I would campaign tirelessly for the eradication of butter-substitutes and the plague upon the dairy industry that is ‘spreadable butter’.” Something to that effect anyway.

As a result of attending the fair, I have now started a tie-dye spotting contest, which I aim to monitor in future posts. Can you imagine my horror shortly upon entering the fair when confronted with a whole family - not just one oddball, but a whole family - sporting tie-dye T-shirts?! Casey explained that some people wear them so that they can’t lose each other. I am of the firm opinion that if you dress your children in tie-dye, frankly you deserve to lose them to social services. If you’re so concerened about the little mites running off, carry a flag at the front of the party, tie them with string chain-gang style, even get one of those horrendous snippets of Americana that is the family vacation t-shirt printed: ‘The Wacowski Family does Disneyland, 2008!!!’ Anything but the tie-dye, this is the kind of thing which results in angry young adults with access to firearms.

My horror was soon subdued with an almost local delicacy that is the cheese curd. These popcorn sized nuggets of yum hail from the neighbouring state of Wisconsin, ‘The Cheese State’. Clearly I've moved to the wrong place. I am in ‘The land of 10,000 Lakes’, whilst extremely pretty and a kayaker’s haven, you can’t eat a tray of lakes on the way home from the pub dipped in chilli ketchup.

Cheese curds are deep fried little lumps of cheese that melt in your mouth and are little known outside of the USA, and even then are only really widely available in the more northern states generally. If I were Princess Kay, my promise to the world would be to mass-market cheese curds and share the joy that is deep-fried cheese, I’m pretty sure that would earn me a Nobel Prize. Even if I could just get Americans to appreciate good cheddar, I would feel like my duties as dairy princess would be somewhat worthwhile. An aged cheddar here is anything that is over 6 months old and they seem to regard burger cheese as ‘sharp’. I spent 40mins in Uptown Rainbow yesterday glowering with derision at the tiny overpriced array of ‘mature cheddar’ that had a combined age of perhaps four years and tasted as sharp as a sofa. I like to think of myself as a bit of a cheese buff, and I have to say, this just will not do. Minnesota is treading on thin ice with me here and if I can’t find a reasonably priced cheddar outside of a hippy co-op specialising in gourmet imports, I may have to up sticks and move to Wisconsin, lakes are overrated anyway.