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Small-Town Dining 

Take it from John: If you find yourself in a rural area this summer, take in the food and entertainment

I write this feeling a bit plugged up and out of sorts, nutritionally speaking.

It's not that I haven't been getting exercise: My godson, Raul, and I planted three large willows yesterday (well, I helped him plant them), and I chainsawed a mature apple tree into presentable form. I also walked the dogs at 6 a.m., dutifully took the herbs Alec has prescribed and having been getting eight hours of sleep every night.

Nor is it the delayed aftermath of poisonous tortillas in Clayton, New Mexico, or the appropriately unheralded-but-memorable waffle-on-a-stick I had for breakfast in Marysville, Kansas--not the best way to start a traveling day, I assure you--or the required drive-through food experiences one has when traveling cross-country with two active dogs. And since I've been here at the farm in Indiana, the meals I've cooked for us--Raul's grandfather is here as well--have been bounteous and tasty: a hearty navy bean soup, frittatas, brats and red cabbage, chili, spaghetti with a puttanesca sauce, gazpacho, healthy cereals and the kind of oatmeal that takes constant stirring for 30 minutes. We're working hard here--besides planting trees and pruning others, we're remaking rooms, creating closets, finishing a bathroom and cleaning out and organizing the garage.

Well, trying to organize the garage. David, Raul's grandfather, is in a letting-go mood these days and has a hard time understanding why I would want to save the butcher's handsaw my grandfather and great-uncle used, or why I want to leave hanging a set of rusting barrel hoops. A massage therapist I know in Indianapolis came to the farm this morning to work on all three of us; I was last, and Tracy told me that the thing David talked about on the massage table was my packrat nature. Trudy, his daughter and Raul's mother, told me he's been on the phone with her about the same thing.

Anyway ... we're working on the farm and on each other, and those things require substantive foodstuffs. This afternoon, Raul and his grandpa went to visit the neighboring Amish. They came back with incredibly red tomatoes, beautiful green beans, several miniature cherry pies and some cinnamon-swirl pastries, which may not last until morning.

Sitting here and writing this in my "tower" room, which overlooks the road to the north and the woods to the east, I have this moment realized the cause of plugged-upness: Our dinner last night at the Wallace General Store.

Wallace, Indiana, is four miles south of my farm. The General Store and the Post Office are the two major gathering points, with a handful of tables in the former sufficing most days for the gathering of farmers, propane-gas suppliers and retirees that meet for breakfast and lunch.

It's a different story on Thursdays and Saturdays, when the Highway 341 Band (341 being the road that runs through Wallace) takes to the stage. There's crazy septuagenarian dancing going on in front of the stage, country classics emanating from it, folks crammed into the room, cheek to cheek as it were, and a whole lotta activity going on. Last night was Thursday, and there were four times as many people in the Wallace General Store as there are people between the ages of 25 and 75 living in Wallace. Seriously--it has a population of 100, half of which are between the ages of 25 and 75 years old. I don't make these things up--you can find the demographics for yourself on the 'Net.

Raul, his granddad and I were there, along with the parents of the second ex-, to experience the closest thing to live culture in this neck of the woods. Savvy city folk and concertgoers, we got there early to secure a table and dibs on pieces of fresh cherry, peach and lemon-cream pie. And, we ordered dinner.

Dinner at the Wallace General Store isn't too tricky: A couple of evening specials are on an erasable wallboard, regular meals are on the menu, Friday is prime-rib night and steaks are offered Saturdays. There is no alcohol, but they offer a bottomless cup of Lipton powdered iced tea, and make very passable milkshakes. Salads are loaded with grated yellow cheese; a combination Ranch/blue-cheese dressing is the house special; and the aforementioned pies disappear early.

Last night's special was country fried steak or beef Manhattan, both with mashed potatoes and gravy, and one of about a dozen "sides." David and Martha--mother of the second ex- and previously lauded in this space for her friendship, cooking and pie crust--were apparently sensible and had salads and something containable in a bun. Dan had the country fried steak, which, at the Wallace General Store, is a largish flattened chicken breast breaded and deep-fried. This is something I assure you he does not get at home. Raul and I opted for the beef Manhattan; he had green beans as his side and I had fresh cut corn with lots of pepper.

Have you had beef Manhattan? While I'm not sure I'd had it before last night, it brought back a flood of memories of cafeteria food at Helen Keeling Elementary and Amphi Junior and Senior High. And, it's like the open-faced roast-beef sandwiches we used to have on family road trips back to this farm when I was truly a shadow of my present self. But at the Wallace General Store, it is closed-face and Beholdable: a pile of medium-sliced and thoroughly cooked roast beef between two slices of fully processed white bread, covered with the same salt-slathered brown gravy that forms a small lake in the pile of mashed potatoes separating the sandwich halves.

Raul and I looked down at our plates and across the table at each other and grinned. The band was warming up. As I cut my first bite, dipped it into the potatoes-and-gravy, I looked up and saw a woman crossing the room into the dance area, her age edging the upper demographics for Wallace, her hair styled in a semi-permanent way that would have made Annette Funicello green with envy, and a tan that would have made George Hamilton proud.

I recommend the Beef Manhattan at the Wallace General Store on a Thursday night at the beginning of July. It's $5.95 and a slice of peach pie is a buck more. Tea is 75 cents. The Highway 341 Band's medley of "Dixie" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is ... well, it seems to stick in the mind for a while. The experience as a whole? Priceless, of course. Thanks for letting me share--I'm now unplugged and in sorts!

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