Friday, October 23, 2009

Springfield's Gem of India

Rare are the occasions when I have the chance to eat great curry in the Ozark Highlands. Until last week, every opportunity has involved my camp stove, my green enamelware pot, red lentils (because they cook faster than any other lentil), a gravel bar, and a little orange-stained Ziploc bag filled with my own spice blend of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, turmeric, garam masala, cayenne, asoefetida, fenugreek, and so forth.

But flip through the Springfield phone book's restaurant section and you'll find pages and pages of great authentic names for Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, and Thai food restaurants. Landing in Springfield at the end of a remarkably long and brutal workweek, I knew I wanted nothing more than vegetables and brown rice with some sort of non-animal protein source (and a decent wine list). The mind-boggling long list of ethnic restaurants on major thoroughfares near the hotel reminded me of the time Alyssa visited me in a fancy New Orleans hotel: when she walked into the lobby of the Meridien, she looked around at the gilded panels and chandeliers and said nothing more than "GAH!" followed by my country mouse response of "look at all them lights!" Of course, we both lived in New Orleans for many, many years, but our recent years of exile in Missouri and Idaho made it all seem so glamorous and Big City.

So that night, I learned that Springfield has the kabal on ethnic food in the Ozark Highlands. With no recommendations except that of my concierge who said of all of the Vietnamese and Indian restaurants I named "they're all good, so I've heard," I gravitated towards the regal sounding name of Gem of India. (My favorite Indian place in New Orleans was the now-defunct Shalimar (...Rue Madison?), equally glamorous, and a great lunch buffet. Killer saag paneer-stuffed mushrooms, good wine list).

Gem of India is a stately place, an old school restaurant with high back seats, cloth napkins, Indian waistaff in white oxfords. Outstanding Northern Indian fare, the Navrattan korma, pakoras, wine list were precisely what I wanted that night but the long, thorough, and capable menu including paneer thrown into every sort of sauce imaginable made me wish I lived closer. The restaurant is hosting their 7th Annual Diwali on November 7th, promising great food, Punjabi folk dancers, belly dancers, and an Indian DJ! Non-stop from 11am-midnight.
The trick now is to find enough intact native landscapes to warrant spending time in and around Springfield so I can try out some of those plentiful Vietnamese restaurants. Columbia's lone Vietnamese place is great, of course, but Springfield has upwards of 20 Vietnamese, countless Indian, and several representatives of every other ethnicity whose food I like to eat. It doesn't seem fair.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


Now that the asters are in bloom/She has a bowl of asters in her room/And twists one in her fingers while she talks. Not really, because I don't like all the achenes spilling out on my bedside table....

Last year, the botany world was handed a list of very long names that were designed to replace the simple names assigned to the plants of the genus Aster. I haven't memorized the list because all of the data processing programs I use recognize the earlier nomenclature and because I'm lazy when it comes to performing actions that have no immediate impact on ecosystem restoration or my health. Memorizing new plant names when I know the old plant names falls into a category of actions I'd like to perform but won't until I have to. My colleagues continue to use the old Steyermark '63 names for these lovely plants (and probably all the rest of the Missouri flora that were renamed, as well), so I will too, I guess, until I break my leg or something, forced to stay in bed long enough to memorize plant names. (For what it's worth, I pitched the emailed list of new names for herpetofauna that were announced this year because I don't know who sent them and on what authority animals like spring peepers were renamed. So I'll wait until I receive an official notice with my herpetologist's signature at the bottom telling me that I must accept the new taxonomic names or I will go to jail if I don't.)

But, in honor of the charming Aster cordiformis that I discovered in my backyard under the laundry line this morning, a few asters you, too, may encounter on your fall hikes in the woodlands of the Ozark Highlands, pictures not necessarily adjacent to their names. I don't think any of these darling plants are aware that they've been renamed, nor do I think the new nomenclature changes a thing about them, their life histories or their status on lists of conservative or weedy plants, but it allows for pedantic folks to trot out the new names so they can chastise me publicly.

In chert woodlands all over the Ozarks, Aster patens, A. anomalus (pictured right) and A. turbinellus are in bloom right now. Brilliant purple blooms, you can tell the difference between the species quite easily from the leaves: A. patens leaves are simple lobes, almost fully perfoliate; A. turbinellus leaves are thin lanceolate leaves, widely spaced; A. anomalus leaves --similar to A. azureus-- possess a heart shaped basal leaf but the bracts are curled.

Check out the uncommon high quality upland flatwoods and you'll be hard pressed to find any aster but A. turbinellus hanging out with Agalinis tenuifolia and that pretty fine grass, Agrostis perennans.

Head towards White River Hills country and you'll find the state's stronghold population of A. linariifolius , listed as uncommon in the Ozark Highlands, it's a dominant plant even in unburned, crummy woods down there. A gorgeous plant with tall stalks and bright purple ray flowers, the leaves look remarkably like rosemary, stiff and rigid though scentless.

Even degraded old fields and roadsides will host pretty populations of A. pilosus, about as conservative as bush honeysuckle in Missouri. It's still a charming little aster whose white flowers resemble in size A. lateriflorus, found all over my backyard in Columbia.

If you're floating down the Jack's Fork anytime soon, you may run into A. furcatus clinging to the side of the cliffs, right next to various ferns and liverworts. Riverbanks, too, host populations of A. cordiformis and another species whose leaves resemble A. ericoides, but whose name I can't recall.

If you're only recently cutting your teeth on plants of the genus Aster, I wish you well. They're not the easiest plants to learn, as many of them resemble one another, but now is the time to head out to your local woodlands with a key and start figuring them out. Pretty soon, the flowers will be history and the delicate, fuzzy seeds will break away from the plants with even the slightest wind.