Friday, March 30, 2012

Sweet Potato Cake in Stickleaf Country

Setting out from the dolomite-heavy post oak savanna country into the far reaches of the Western Ozarks, the influence of Burlington limestone comes into play. Nice, in tact woodlands are chocked full of sugar maples, not relict of fire suppression like the rest of the Ozarks, but sugar maples under the influence of the substrate. Great Plains species can be found here, Mentzelia (stickleaf, pictured, with sticky, hairy stems that turn a beautiful straw gold in the fall) and Western Wallflower, known primarily from Sand Hills country, one of the few legumes left after a long history of overgrazing there. I ran into a new Brassica out there this week on the glades, Descurainia pinnata, a diminuitive little tansy with fine, pinnate leaves. The lawns in the far Western Ozarks are literally covered in false garlic (most commonly found in scattered populations on dolomite glades just a few hours east) and Oxalis violacea. These two native plants dominate the yards.

Stress levels have been unusually high lately, so rather than depend on raw carrots and hummus for a meal after a nice jaunt on a glade, I decided to check out what the town of Warsaw offered. If you've never taken the side road to Main Street in Downtown Warsaw, I recommend it. A revitalized downtown with barber shops, coffee shops, restaurants, a karaoke bar, a functioning Rexall Drug, banks, antique shops await, but most notable is the second Missouri outpost of one of my favorite stops in rural Missouri: Common Ground Cafe.  This organic foods cafe specializes in healthful sandwiches, coffee drinks, yerba mate, homemade desserts like sweet potato pound cake (mmmm...), and a welcoming atmosphere of kind and gentle folks. I've stopped at Weaubleau's Common Ground on numerous occasions (I think they're planning to reopen soon?) to pick up terrific yerba mate, organic produce, coffee (of course), and treats for the long drive east. The outpost in Warsaw is beautifully appointed in the original late 1800s building, situated among the rest of the early 1900s buildings that make downtown Warsaw so charming and inviting.

I adore Common Ground (what with the poster advertising an acoustic jam series; "we'll make the toast, you bring the jam"), but I needed more than a great sandwich that day. Oh, the glade with Draba cuneifolia and the beautiful layer of thatch didn't upset me at all--it's nice to see how far a glade has advanced in the phases of restoration after 30 years of management. In the early days of ecosystem restoration, bare soil with scattered grasses and low C value forbs dominated. There is no bare soil visible there today. Hooray for recovery of a horribly abused glade, one that probably hosted livestock for many years. There's hope for the future and all that. But I desperately needed the primary food combination that helps combat my elevated stress levels even better than a fast 4 mile run: I needed fish and wine. I needed fish and wine. Everything is fine if I have fish and wine.

"Well, there's a Mexican place I hear is good, a terrific barbeque restaurant, the organic place downtown, and if you want something nice and fancy like a steak, there's Benton House," offered the concierge. Most steak restaurants also offer a slab of fish on the menu. Most steak restaurants offer a wine list and a mediocre salad. To Benton House...

Located in a nearby neighborhood off the highway, Benton House is actually a ranch home built probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Benton House is, well, a middle class house with vinyl siding and low ceilings. I think I dined in the den where the family who lived there before watched a lot of television.

Benton House offers a diverse surf and turf menu, a truncated wine list with one cabernet (Beaulieu Vineyards, which I would never buy in a store, but sort of respected for their role in early Napa viticulture and for sticking it out through prohibition. It was fine, nothing I would buy in a store, but it was a fresh bottle and okay enough, even though I generally stay far away from California wines). Iceberg lettuce salad, buttery zucchini, and well prepared salmon (tasted like sockeye), but the best part of the meal was the entire loaf of homemade wheat bread.  I've been a vegetarian for many years now, only eating fish when my stress levels escalate to a level that I can't see straight enough to drive safely, and I've given up bread and wheat-based food since December in an effort to lose this stupid (stress-related) extra weight. All proverbial bets off at Benton House where I inhaled fish, wine, and 1/3 a loaf of wheat bread.

Thursday morning, I stopped back in at Common Ground for one of their homemade Yerba Mate Green energy bars, a tasty blend of yerba mate and whole grains, and wished I could have spent a longer while in downtown Warsaw, maybe even picked up some antique hand embroidery at the little shop, but I knew I had to enter the fray again, at least girded with fish, wine and the good vibes from Common Ground.


Ted C. MacRae said...

Yerba mate? - they seriousl serve yerba mate?! Tell me they've got a bottle of Lopez malbec and I'll so be there (as soon as I get back from Argentina).

Allison Vaughn said...

They do sell yerba mate! If I recall correctly, they actually own property in South America or have a farm down there where they grow it. The Yerba Mate energy bars are terrific. The folks who operate this beacon of healthful food are a religious organization, which means no wine, which also translates to my finding a meal at a restaurant that served wine...
Slim pickings in that part of the Ozarks.