This could also become the place for some good ol' food showdowns. Best barbecue? Best burgers? Bring it on! In fact today, my guest writer begins the case for "Best Burger." (I'm still agreeing with Calvin Trillin that Winstead's is the best.)
I asked my friend Joe Drape to write about his time in Smith Center, Kansas, in 2008. Joe is a New York Times sports writer who grew up in Kansas City and lives in New York City. Joe moved his family from the city to small-town America to discover from Smith Center High School football coach Roger Barta what teaching football had to do with teaching life.
"Our Boys, A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen" highlights Coach Barta, his team and the loyal town followers. "Our Boys" was named one of the 2010 Kansas Notable Books, but I loved it because it made me recollect my youth in a small Kansas town. (I didn't play football, but was a
I’m glad you asked me about my culinary adventures in Smith Center, Kansas, because it was a tasty and full one. The Drapes are solid Midwesterners – I’m from just off State Line Road on the Missouri side of Kansas City. My wife, Mary, is from Chicago. Even here in New York our dinner table reflects our roots – steaks, pork chops, chicken, all sorts of potatoes and a green vegetable. My fun food specialty is Sloppy Joes. My son, Jack, all of 5, is far more adventurous than me. He eats crabs, squash, artichokes and pretty much anything you put in front of him. But he does love Sloppy Daddies.
We ate extremely well in Smith Center. The first thing I did was go to The Dollar Store and bought an old fashion charcoal grill for $25 – rain, snow and shine I was in our backyard each night grilling away. You can’t do that here in the Big Apple, and it is a ritual I miss deeply. Even better was the fact that I could go eight miles west to Lebanon to Ladow’s and get the best meat for a tenth of what I pay here.
John McDowell and his son-in-law carved up flat iron steak for $2.99 a pound and rib eyes for $4.99. They’d tease me about being a New Yorker as they did so. If I go to Gracie Market here to buy steaks, the flatiron would be $17.99 and the rib eye’s $22.99 and there was no one there to tease my. I also patronized the Kensington Meat Locker, which was across from Jack’s preschool in Kensington about 15 miles west of Smith Center. The slogan alone told you everything you needed to know: “From the Pen to the Pan.”
Now, for a town with 12 churches, one bar, and five dine-in establishments, the range of food was remarkable. Let’s start with The Pizza Hut, and I mean this in all seriousness – not only did I rediscover the joy of a thin-crust Pizza Hut pizza and the all-you-can-eat buffet, but I experienced it as one of the hubs of the community. Pizza Hut was started in Kansas and to this day is often one of the handful of restaurants in small towns. On Sundays after church, it would fill up and the joke was because the Catholics had shorter masses they got all the best tables.
The Jiffy Burger was the other fast-food joint, and this is blasphemy to say for a Kansas Citian, but their burger is better than Winstead’s and a whole lot cheaper – double cheese with everything, fries and a coke was about $4 bucks. And finally, there was The Second Cup Café, which was mainly a breakfast and lunch place, and is the single best diner I’ve ever eaten at. Lynn Pickel owned and operated it with an all-women staff and there was nothing they could not make. Chicken Fried Steak? Absolutely. The barbecue special? Brisket, chicken and pork with macaroni salad and desert for $6:50. Taco Night? You’d swear you were eating in San Antonio.
Finally, our friends, Jack & Arlene Benn, were the most gracious hosts and innovative chefs. They wintered in South Texas, and Jack was a helluva of fisherman so they’d have rollicking fish fries with hush puppies and Rocky Mountain Oysters. We ate steak soup at their home, which was perhaps my Mom’s best dish, and one I try at least three times each winter and continually screw up. Biscuits and gravy for a Sunday dinner after we drove the back roads looking for deer was memorable.
And Arlene was without peer as a pie maker. Her cherry pie topped the best Thanksgiving Dinner we ever had. My family came up from Kansas City to join us the Benns and Coach Barta. In all, we had 20 people rammed into our little rental house across from the grain elevator.
It was great. You’re making me hungry and nostalgic. But don’t worry I’ll be back there the first week in October.