“Accidental Wanderlust” On Tour: Quaker & American Gothic, in Cedar Rapids, IA (Part 2 of 3)

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In Part 1, I made the most of being out on the road, as I always do. From city to city, I’m out exploring the sights, trying out new restaurants, and visiting local art galleries, music venues, and cultural festivals. Last week, I took readers to the Guthrie Theater, in the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis / St. Paul, MN, after being welcomed to the city by public art at the MSP Airport. I shared a meal at Cosetta Italian Eatery & Market, and then headed out of town, glad to stumble upon Four Daughters Winery along the way.

Seeing it all, and often making it up along the way. . . that’s life on the road, for someone who travels for work, on a regular basis. This lifestyle is also at the root of “Accidental Wanderlust: the Art, Adventure & Attitude of a Work Traveler”.

On relatively short notice, I was asked by my employer to take my training classes “on the road”. I planned a route through the Midwest, through 5 states in 8 days, and 7 “Major Metropolitan Areas”, loosely defined.

Next stop:  I’m hoping for a nice, warm bowl of Oatmeal, at the Quaker Oats production facility in Cedar Rapids, IA. It’s fall, so oatmeal is “in season”, right? There’s a chance I’ll get to see the towering stained glass memorial, designed by Grant Wood, the artist behind American Gothic. From there, .  . . . .  well, let’s just see!

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 “The City of 5 Seasons”: Cedar Rapids, IA

Looking back, and thinking about my childhood, I imagined that my behavior was perfectly normal. I grew up in the Midwest, with winters characterized by heavy snowstorms and the mysterious “Lake Effect”, slammed by snow off of Lake Michigan. Hot chocolate took over as a source of warmth, after gloves, boots and scarves were removed, following a couple of hours of snow removal, mixed with a little bit of fun, building snowmen and falling to the ground to create snow angels.

These conditions created an atmosphere that called for bunkering down with a good book, and indulging in the warmth of comfort food. What this means is that I grew up eating a lot of oatmeal . . . . a whole lot of oatmeal, specifically Quaker Oats. Maple & Brown Sugar became my standard, by which all other flavors were judged. (I don’t’ know what the person who introduced Peaches & Cream just was thinking!)

I realize now, after some contemplation, that I was being brainwashed by my family, in the early years; at a very young age I was introduced to Quaker Oats oatmeal, to the exclusion of any other brands. The hot breakfast cereal was delicious, don’t get me wrong! But I genuinely thought that was all there was, in the world of oats. We ate a lot of the stuff, and the round oatmeal containers were perfectly repurposed, for so many Girl Scout craft projects.

Aggressive marketing supported my delusions, including the eventual use of Wilford Brimley, as a late 1980’s TV spokesperson. Does it get much more wholesome, and convincing, than that? When it came to cereal, Quaker Oatmeal Squares, Captain Crunch, and Quaker Corn Bran were staples in our household! The company’s clever 1979 ad campaign made the company’s efforts seem downright revolutionary! – “’Quaker did it.’ Put the great taste of corn in a bran cereal.”

If I were treated to Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes, on the morning after a childhood sleepover, they were, of course, Aunt Jemima mix. Quaker was proud owner of the brand, and by stirring in just ¾ cup of milk, an egg, and 2T of oil, a waffle iron could transform them into a breakfast worthy of the best hotel brunch buffet.

Even now, I don’t exactly know who the Quaker’s major competitors are, in the world of oats. Well, except for those McCann’s Imported Irish Oats – steel cut, but who has the time to wait 30 minutes, for the porridge to thicken? The Quaker was “The Man” in our household, with his image displayed on decorative plates, beer steins, and ceramic figurines. What could possibly inspire such brand loyalty?

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My father worked for Quaker Oats, during my most impressionable childhood years. His 20 years as Export Manager for Quaker might be responsible for our family’s loyalty to the old fashioned oats. Dad worked at the company’s Cedar Rapids, IA plant for a couple of years, while courting my mother. There were innumerable trips back-and-forth, between Chicago and Cedar Rapids, so that they could spend time together. Sunday dinner at his future in-laws, and late-night drives back to Cedar Rapids, defined that time in my father’s life.

Dad tells a story of eating grilled cheese sandwiches and an apple for dinner every night, while living and working in Cedar Rapids, saving his paycheck for my mother’s engagement ring. It was 1968, going into 1969, and his diet consisted of these sandwiches, scrambled eggs for breakfast, and a lunch of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. It was a treat for me to visit the plant, which is still in production today.

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My father’s loyalty was tested when PepsiCo purchased Quaker Oats, in 2001. The New York Times Headline reads: “PepsiCo Said to Acquire Quaker Oats for $13.4 Billion in Stock”. He has always been a lover of Diet Coke, but it is stock in Pepsi that he owns, as a former employee, and has purchased for his granddaughter. What interest could a soft drink company have in breakfast cereal? Well, it seems it’s the sports drink Gatorade, owned by Quaker, that they were after; the oat squares, instant hot cereal, and breakfast bars just came along for the ride. (New York Times)

“Coke still dominates the soft-drink industry with 40 percent of the market — even with Gatorade, Pepsi is runner-up, with 32 percent — but losing what many analysts refer to as the gem of noncarbonated drinks puts Coke in the unusual position of having to play catch up with its smaller rival.” (New York Times, 2000)

 

These days, Quaker Oats advertises Chocolate Nut Medley Granola Bars, with Quinoa (pr: /ˈkēnwä/)! Of course it does – PepsiCo runs a savvy business. In the year 2017, quinoa is praised for its many health benefits, alongside fish oil, flax seed and probiotics. The Cedar Rapids plant appears to be running strong, and at the 5 o’clock whistle, the employees were leaving in good spirits, even if they were eyeing me rather suspiciously, as I photographed the building.

Not far from the Quaker Oats plant, situated out on a tiny island in the center of town, is Cedar Rapid’s Veterans’ Memorial, which has some history with the oat processing company (stay tuned). On front of the building, which faces a memorial park, is a large-scale, stained glass window created by artist Grant Wood, in 1928. As he was designing the piece, Wood had little experience to speak of, in the medium of stained glass, and this was his 1st Commission of this proportion.

Fun Geography Fact: Cedar Rapids joins Paris and Osaka, as one of few cities in the word to base their center of government on an island. Mays Island is the key landmark for the area’s postal system, dividing the city into four quadrants, and island is also home to: Cedar Rapids City Hall, the courthouse, and the local jail. (Atlas Obscura website)

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The Emil Frei art glass company, based out of St. Louis, Missouri, worked with Grant on the project, but the glass had to be fabricated in Munich, Germany. While he was in Germany to supervise the project, Wood was exposed to late Gothic and Northern Renaissance style paintings, which “gave the artist an eye for a different kind of detail that resulted in an adjusted painting technique and use of regional subjects to tell stories in his works.  From this point onward, one can see a marked change in his painting style that celebrates such themes.” (Veterans’ Memorial website) This style became Grant Wood’s trademark, and is widely recognized in his masterpiece, American Gothic.

Viewing the window is free, and open to the public, but I’d been busy photographing the Quaker Oats plant, in the quickly fading light of sunset, and missed the memorial’s 4:30 pm closing time. The inside of the building can also be viewed by appointment, but that would have required some planning. I’d only learned about the massive display when I called home to fact-check what years my father lived in Cedar Rapids. I also learned of the artwork’s connection to the Quaker Oats company.

“Perched high on wooden scaffolding in an old recreation room at the Quaker Oats company, Wood assembled a full-scale mock drawing.  The elaborate sketch or “study” allowed Wood to craft his design and provided the chance to correct problems of perspective.” (Veterans’ Memorial website) In Wood’s design, a female figure stands 16 feet tall, floating and surrounded by clouds. She wears a mourning veil, and holds a peace branch in one hand and the laurel wreath of victory in the other.

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At the base of the figure are six uniformed soldiers, representing: Revolutionary War, The War of 1812, The Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War and the First World War. As my face registered disappointment, in discovering that the building’s front doors were locked, a Veteran volunteer greeted me on the steps, after one last, long drag on his cigarette. I was warmly encouraged to come back in the morning, to view the inside of the building. “It’s just magnificent,” he explained.

With the travel schedule I’d be keeping, I’d be headed out of town first thing in the morning, so I settled for gazing up at the stained glass, from the base of the stairs, then taking in a view of the entire structure, from across the sprawling lawn of the park. I was grateful that the glass was lit from within, so that the colors became more and more saturated, and rich, as the night outside grew darker and darker.

Severe flooding in 2008 forced the closure of the building, along with the rest of the island, which was under water. I was happy to see that the town did the work to restore Wood’s stained glass.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the absolute masterpiece that I spent my entire company Per Diem on, at Popoli Restorante, which was a culinary surprise. The restaurant is visible from Mays Island, it had been a long day, and I decided to break my #1 travel dining rule, and walk into a restaurant that appeared, from the outside, to be just about empty. I don’t know where everyone was parked – I’d easily found a metered spot on the street – but the restaurant was packed, and lively, inside.

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The restaurant, located in what was formerly the historic 1912 People’s Saving Bank, calls itself “an upscale casual dining experience” that you will brag to your friends about. (Popoli website) The restaurant was put in only after the building was restored to the vision of architect Louis Henry Sullivan, mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. The architecture, atmosphere, and food were certainly not what I expected to stumble upon, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Reminders of the building’s past remain intact, with large vaults being transformed into private dining areas and wine cellars.

Despite being in a landlocked state, I decided to take a chance on a seafood dish, and I was not disappointed. I ordered the Seafood Risotto, and expected the dish to be flavored with the sweet yellow and red peppers, as advertised in the menu, with bits of artichoke and seafood stirred in. Instead, to my surprise, the mound of saffron risotto was heaped with beautifully seared bay scallops, large pink shrimp, dripping in buttery sauce, and ample Mussels & Clams, presented in shell.

My mouth is watering even now, as I remember gladly handing over payment for the $29 dish. “Popoli is your choice if you lament for great eating options like those found in major metro areas like Chicago or Austin.” (Popoli website) Indeed! And I was sure to eat every bite of my meal, not counting on a refrigerator in my hotel room, and refusing to waste even one clam or scallop.

There’s a little taste of the major metropolitan lifestyle, right there in Cedar Rapids! Don’t mind the odd smells you might encounter in town, which are to be expected in a major manufacturing city, and dependent on which way the wind blows.

The next morning I’d be on my way to “The Forest City” (Rockford, IL) for the night, en route to “Brew City” (Milwaukee, WI) then wrapping up this week of adventure in “The Windy City” (Chicago, of course). To be cont. . .

Join me on my next Adventure,

~ Kat

Related Links:

Part 2:

Quaker Oats, Cedar Rapids: http://www.quakeroats.com/

Quaker Oats in the New York Times:  http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/04/business/pepsico-said-to-acquire-quaker-oats-for-13.4-billion-in-stock.html

McCann’s Imported Irish Oatmeal: http://www.mccanns.ie/

Veterans’ Memorial:  http://www.cedar-rapids.org/local_government/departments_g_-_v/veterans_memorial_commission/grant_wood_window.php

Iowa Civil War Monuments: http://www.iowacivilwarmonuments.com/cgi-bin/gaarddetails.pl?1212099014~1

Atlas Obscura: Cedar Rapids: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cedar-rapids-municipal-island

Popoli Restorante & Sullivan’s Bar: http://popolicr.com/

Stone Eagle Tavern, Rockford, IL: http://www.stoneeagletavern.info/

The Elegant Farmer, Farm Kitchen Bakery, Deli & Market: http://www.elegantfarmer.com/

Part 1:

Minneapolis Airport Arts & Culture: https://www.mspairport.com/

Guthrie Theater: https://www.guthrietheater.org/

Hyatt Place: Downtown St. Paul, MN: https://stpaul.place.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html

Residences at Custom House: http://www.chstpaul.com/history.aspx

National Trust for Historic Preservation: https://savingplaces.org/stories/the-adaptive-reuse-of-st-paul-custom-house#.Wd1i72eWzIU

Cosetta Eatery & Market: http://cossettas.com/

Four Daughters Winery: http://www.fourdaughtersvineyard.com

One comment

  1. You presented your story, childhood, memories, experiences so beautifully once again touching on all senses.
    This is a gift with which you are blessed.. So many need to experience your life stories!
    BLOG ON!

    Like

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