I know I’ve not yet arrived at the Conference, and here’s yet another pre-conference “highlight.” So what? Most true travelers know that the journey is often better and more delicious than the destination.
It’s almost 7 o’clock in the evening when I get to downtown Van Wert, Ohio.
I was here last year with my cameraman Bob Lubomski and sound man Glenn Syska (as we were heading west making A RIDE ALONG THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY,) and we took pictures of the wonderful neon sign at the Balyeats Coffee Shop even though it wasn’t lit up.
It was a Monday, and Balyeats is closed Mondays. But oh the sky was weird and intimidating that evening.
We hadn’t been listening to the radio and didn’t know about the tornado warnings.
We took refuge in the town’s famous Brumback County Library (the first county-wide public library library anywhere in America!) and sat out the storm. I took this picture after the torrential rain was gone.
I’ll tell you: Van Wert is a charming little town even when the weather’s lousy. And the library is impressive. Restored and expanded and substantial and classy. It’s such a gem of a building, so solid and important, every town should have such a glorious structure as the public library.
But what I really remembered was that sign promoting YOUNG FRIED CHICKEN DAY AND NIGHT, and I had hoped I’d get there again sometime before I died. Even before I left Pittsburgh on this journey to South Bend, dinner at Balyeats was a goal. As I eased my way down Main Street, I saw the glowing red sign and knew I’d get in tonight.
Balyeat’s is a comfy small town cafe. Tables and chairs. A counter with stools along the one side. Suspended ceiling. Several customers, lots of lively talk. A small room at the back. A glowing pie case. People scurrying back and forth behind the counter.
My waitress was enthusiastic and offered only a verbal menu, reciting really quickly a long list of items available tonight. I didn’t hear “fried chicken.”
“What’s best?” I asked, as I often do. “I thought you were famous for fried chicken.”
“Oh that’s really good, hon” she said. She called me “hon” but she looked too young for such old timey endearments. I overheard her telling some other customers she was 21, but she seemed to have the “hon” thing going full force.
“But I didn’t hear you say ‘fried chicken,'” I told her.
“I said ‘baked chicken,'” she explained. “It’s fried, then it’s baked. It’s good.”
“OK,” I said. “I’ll do that.”
“Dark meat or white meat?” she asked, explaining, “A leg and a thigh or a breast and a wing?”
I went for the dark, getting a baked potato, beets and slaw as sides. Corn bread too.
She started delivering plates and bowls of down home food. She brought me a small monkey dish full of something I didn’t recognize, and she said, “You did want scalloped corn, right?”
“Well, I think I was expecting beets.”
“Oh, OK,” she said. “Do you want to try the corn? No charge, hon. I’ll bring you some beets too.”
“Thanks. I’d love to taste it.” I ended up with a feast.
The chicken was juicy and sliding off the bones. The scalloped corn sweet and dense. The beets very simple. The slaw crunchy and good. I didn’t finish everything on my plate but she offered dessert, and I couldn’t resist the homemade whipped cream strawberry pie.
I had been seeing FRESH STRAWBERRIES signs all day. It’s strawberry season in Ohio. People on the interstate highway may not know that, but aren’t we all paying more attention to local seasonal food? Strawberries!
Everything was good.
I talked for a minute with the man behind the counter who acted like he was the owner. I asked how you say the name of this place, and he said “bal-yets,” not “bally-eats,” although he said he’d be happy with however I wanted to say it. It’s almost the word “ballots” but with a slight “i” sound at the start of the second syllable.
There were some old pictures and postcards on the wall that I wanted to check out before I left. There I learned that Van Wert is the “Peony Capital Of The World,” but I was a few weeks late for the big bloom that happens in early June. And later when I researched the place on the internet, I learned that it’s also the smallest town in the US to have both a YMCA and a YWCA. And the Pittsburgh Steelers outstanding young quarterback Ben Roethlisberger grew up here, a Van Wert resident (some Van Wertians call themselves “cheesemakers”) till he was eight.
Van Wert was also for a while the only place where Bordens made Liederkranz cheese, America’s great contribution to the world of stinky cheeses. There was a Borden’s plant here, but it burned in the early 80s, and now you can’t buy Liederkranz anymore! I remember it in a small foil wrapper. And pungent.
All of this neon and food and history is frustrating and exhilarating. You come to realize every little town (not just on the Lincoln Highway) has distinctions and ties to unexpected claims of fame. There’s not enough time to know them all and discover all their special traits! And too often we don’t stop long enough to smell the Liederkranz.