Thursday, April 26, 2012

Midwest Craft Pilgrimage, Iowa City to Decorah

Leaving Iowa City on Wednesday, we took an hour's drive due west to Grinnell to have breakfast with Bruce Whiteman and Kelly Maynard. When we arrived, Bruce was in full cooking mode, tending a pan of herby thirty-minute scrambled eggs that, when served, blew our collective minds. (Farm fresh eggs have become a competing sub-pursuit of this trip. Each new freely-laid egg that we consume is accompanied by tales of the One-That-Has-No-White, the egg that is little more than a tumescent orange-yellow yolk. To experience this much-remarked Ideal Egg has lodged in my mind as one of life's lofty goals.) After sopping up the last of our breakfast we looked at books for an hour before heading back on the road, winding our way north east through the Iowa countryside to Decorah. I have never been to Iowa before this week and prior to arriving I had a hard time conjuring an image of what we would find. At every turn the towns, the landscape, the food, and the people have primed our visit with delighted surprise. In conversations with other visitors the most frequently mentioned feature of the Iowa countryside is "CORN!" but in mid April the fields are just being planted, meaning there are no corn rows to obscure the view. Driving through Iowa at this time of year is to be enveloped in a variegated pastiche of brown, chamois, and a thousand different greens, punctuated with red barns and blue or silver silos, light-gray grain elevators, green and yellow tractors, brown black and white livestock, gamboling deer and red wing blackbirds, all arrayed against a plan of man-made vertices, softened by the gently rolling fields. Iowa is a beautiful place, with or without the eggs.

Annie and I on the road in Iowa.

Chamois, green, brown.

The goal of the day was to visit David Esslemont and his family in Decorah. David is an artist, letterpress printer, book binder, and contract farmer who has been making a series of calligraphic paintings, or calligrams, in recent years. I first met David in San Francisco in October 1990 when, at Joyce Wilson's behest, I picked him up from the airport. David was visiting from Wales and was scheduled to address the Colophon Club as part of an extended stateside tour. I was barely nineteen years old at the time and I took an instant shine to David—he was passionate and fun and he referred to his Heidelberg cylinder press as the "Rolls-Royce of presses," rolling his "R"s a little too long for emphasis. At the time he was in charge of the historic press, Gwasg Greynog, and his tales of the Welsh countryside filled me with romantic visions. After a few days as his informal San Francisco tour guide I did not see him again until 2007 when, at the CODEX Book Fair, I heard the same rolling "R" when he asked over my shoulder "Is that young Russell?" Since I had last seen him, David had left Gwasg Gregynog and moved to Decorah. As we corresponded after our reunion, the stories and pictures of David's new home conjured similar bucolic images as the stories he told me of Wales nearly twenty years earlier. Few stories attracted me as much as those of the wood-burning pizza oven he and his son Tom had built from the mud of his fields.

Immediately upon arrival in Decorah we set to "work." Through a lazy afternoon we stoked the pizza oven, played a little soccer, took a walk around the property, looked at books, drank wine, and eventually sat down to eat trout pate on home made bread, David's award-winning chili, beautiful lettuce greens, and fresh pizzas.

 The next morning we gathered some eggs from the hen house, ate breakfast, and hit the road for Stockholm, Wisconsin.