My head has been bent at such an angle that I am sure that when I get off motorbike, it will permanently loll to one side on a stretched flap of skin that was once my neck. We ride in to Omaha early, buffeted and worn out, admire a small manmade lake and zip straight in to the carpark of the Super 8 motel in the happy knowledge that soon we will be able to use up all of Iowa’s water in the shower, heat our feet in the microwave in our room and then sit in the jacuzzi. In America, they do budget motel in style. Jamie leaves the room three times and returns each time with a glinting smile and a bucket full of ice. Jamie likes ice and here, it is free.
Tornadoes ravage rooftops and barns across Iowa and despite a cosy days ride through wooded farmland counting the large, plastic animals that stand confusingly in everyone’s gardens (presumably because there are no lions, giraffes or free roaming piglets here) we catch the tail end of the storm trampling its way to the east of us and are blown in odd, wandering semi circles across the highway for two days. A journey of 250 miles takes 12 hours of head buffeting, teeth chattering coffee stops and motels, the first of which smells like dogs and puts me in mind of Norman Bates.
It feels as though we have come an incredible distance from Toronto, leaving Jamie’s Tory based allergy behind us and heading through the balmy air towards Niagara Falls but in fact, we are only 1200 miles away. We leave Maggie’s having cooked Greek Beans with Greek Salad and Greek bread from Greektown (one hopes Maggie appreciates Greece) and googled vetinerary advice for her dog Zoey who has eaten 90 high dose vitamin D tablets while she is out and is looking rather pleased with herself. Toronto’s skyline, hazy in the morning sunshine disappears behind us and we duck off the boring interstate into Disneyland. Bunnies jump through the flower beds in front of houses built from wooden boards and perfection and when we come to a stop to read the map under a sycamore tree and turn off the engine, the quiet warmth descends on us and a gentle tapping on our helmets begins as the breeze rains hundreds of limey green sycamore flowers upon us. We pass blossom trees and vineyards, little diners and churches all ripped from a 1950’s architect’s handbook and I am quietly baffled by a sign saying ‘Shim’s jelly on fire!’. Why has Shim set his jelly on fire?
I am astonished to see a 1960’s concrete flying saucer on the top of a concrete column surrounded by sky scrapers and casinos when we finally reach Niagara Falls and as we close in on the city, my illusions of a pretty village on either side of the falls and a long, pleasingly cheesy line of motels stretching down a wooded road fall away with a clatter behind the bike. The place is swarming with tourists taking photographs and drinking margaritas in the plasticky bars and diners that line the boulevards. The falls themselves are lined with crowds and I feel a little sad for them. Great chunks of dirty snow lie like badly baked muffins at the bottom and I wonder if we have come to see some spectacular waterfalls or ‘Niagara Falls’, a packaged and easily digestible set of memories and heavily pouted selfies. But after dinner as the light turns bluer I can understand the fuss. We stand at the top of the Canadian Falls and watch the water slip like liquid glass over the rocky shelf clearly visible beneath it. I think about the little boy Maggie told us about who fell in, was scooped over the top by the icy water and into the trundling mass of spray hundreds of feet below to be snatched from the water alive at the bottom with a new appreciation.
Darkness descends on Niagara and some enormous lights, the pride of the city which boast a trillion gazillion candle power illuminate the falls weakly in rainbow colours which is rather lovely though, as Jamie point out, the yellow one looks like someone having the most enormous pee over the edge and into the water. I suspect this was an unintended effect but we quite like it and walk back admiring it under the glowing flying saucer and drifting mist droplets enjoying the pillows of cool air that descend on us at random as we walk back to our cheapo motel some 2 miles down the road.
We are told the next day by my long lost aunt Sarah that in Canada, jam is called jam and not jelly and jelly is called jello so what Shim was setting on fire is even more of a mystery. Leaving Niagara early with just time to look longingly at the cable car across the gorge which is not yet open, we head for Hamilton, an old steel town an hour or two west of Niagara. Hamilton, not unsurprisingly, reminds me of Sheffield with the same grit and practicality rubbed in around the edges. Sarah lives on the pleasingly named Alpine Avenue and soon, we are nervously pulling up to her house to be greeted by a slight figure waving from the porch and two dogs in comic disproportion to one another. Dewie is small, brown and tappety when he runs, he jumps and barks in enthusiastically balletic movements while Boston, huge and grizzled rears up in slow motion to appraise us mournfully eye to eye. Sarah has been pacing since the early hours, nerves waking her at 3 after Faith No More have kept her up until half one. Her father, Wilfrid, is my grandfather and what a confused legacy of women he has left behind. Wives, daughters, granddaughters and lovers left waving in the gloom left by his spotlit position as successful composer and beloved eccentric extrordinaire; none able quite to garner the attention from him they’d like. But here we are, together in the same room, my aunt and I having never met and we are nervous and I am scared I don’t live up to expectations. I am glad of the beer that is installed in my hands and she of the drifting smoke from her cigarette as the dogs and cats, Mike her partner and his daughters clatter around us. I talk too much and grub in the dark for information about our family connections which I realise now I know next to nothing about. I am let off the hook by Christine, a friend of Sarah’s who joins us for a trip to one of the 100 or so waterfalls in Hamilton, who talks like a sewing machine about wonderfully bad dates she has had with arrogant French men, sharks in the river and machete wielding maniacs in Guatemala. She insists I write a book about our adventures, hands me two of her cds (she is a musician), introduces us to her waddly chihuahua and sweepingly departs leaving a comfortable atmosphere in the air between Sarah and I.
The next day, I can see the similarities in our personalities and begin to enjoy the time we have here in this musician packed, creative city. We are congratulated (again) on the birth of our new princess by two drunks at the pub where we all go to watch a guitarist sing to a piano accompaniment, we cook them spaghetti Bolognese into which I accidentally pour a massive quantity of barbeque sauce and we walk through the gloaming with Boston to look out over the escarpment which Hamilton shares with Niagara to the vast grid of twinkly lit streets below us. We visit Walmart to stare slackjawed at the selection of immense foodstuffs while Sarah buys a lamp. She installs the lamp in the corner when we get home where previously there was a bare wall only. Since learning of our visit, she has been clearing and cleaning. She has ousted a vast array of pointless possessions she has hefted with from country to country while she searched for the right place to be and she has also cleared out many of her mother’s possessions. A difficult task, I imagine when your mother has died when you are a difficult sixteen year old. She has kept a painting in a golden frame though, a painting of her grandmother standing a little awkwardly in field of sheep. There is a ghost sheep standing at her feet that the artist has inexpertly painted out at some point and when Sarah plugs the lamp in and put it on the newly cleared space below, we can see it clearly for the first time. We sit back on the sofa and admire her newly illuminated Grandma and it feels significant somehow but I couldn’t articulate why.
We are watched comically by the dogs who stand briefly at the screen doors while we heft our jackets back on and hug Sarah goodbye. I’m sure we will see her again, she has an invite to London and we have a Canada to explore at some point. Right now though, we have 4 states to drive through to catch up with my own writing, rolling and vast brown fields to stare at with glazed expressions and ominous religious billboards to read. We have Iowa to contend with.
But Iowa is alright actually. Despite Bill Bryson’s protestations to the contrary we find much to point at. Rabbits nip off the verge in to the long grasses as we approach and vultures are blown in circles high above us under the anvil clouds. A towering billboard points out to us that God’s way is the highway and I begin to wonder if perhaps my atheism is to blame for the slamming gusts on the side of head. Somebody above’s way of telling me we are trespassing here. Unfortunately for God, my worries are quickly diverted by biscuits and gravy and He must make Himself content with trying to pull the cover off the bike while we are lured in to [insert wholesome but corporate owned diner name in here] and I take the opportunity to devour a plate of biscuits with sausage gravy and eggs in about 14 seconds. Reading and rereading a confusing line about biscuits the texture of cotton in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird had left this most American of dishes kicking about unhappily in the Mysteries cupboard in my mind. A ginger snap? Like cotton? With gravy on? Pass me the chips love. However it turns out that biscuits are like tiny, soft, light scones and the gravy, a creamy roux sauce speckled with small chunks of sausage and all served with fried eggs over easy if you please. Yes maam, you’re welcome, have a good day!
I am given a recipe in Chicago for biscuits when I share my confusion with Gavi who I met 2 years ago in rural Colombia at a little permaculture farm south of Medellin. She and 6 or 7 others made up the entire gringo population of the small town twenty minutes away and we formed a lederhosened, rum swilling, tea appreciating ragtag circle for the 3 or 4 happy weeks I stayed there. Now she is working with Central American immigrants seeking asylum in the US and seems delighted to show us around Chicago. Along with the biscuit recipe she shares a place we can buy huge tumblers full of whiskey for $9, the knowledge that noone but me has ordered meatloaf and mashed potatoes since 1928 and Chicago town pizza pie from Lou Malnati’s.
Dan, our friend from home is mooching about in Chicago at the same time as us and joins in with barely concealed dismay at our lack of of organisation and once we have had our whiskey, escorts us smartly to The Bean at Millenium Park, a bean shaped, shiny piece of metal which someone on airbnb had us believe was a cosy pod available for $40 a night then on to the ferris wheel at Navy Peer which is big, slow and expensive but, as Gavi reliably informs us, we are in the city that invented the ferris wheel so it’s important research. We console ourselves with a gurgling, swooping and vomit inducing ride on the swinging seaty carousel thing which gives us wobbly legs and a disinclination to eat for sometime. Time blurs and sweeps together and past us in warm evenings, towering sculptures, glimmering skyscrapers and finally we are watching as Dan’s face is whipped away from us as we wave goodbye from the metro train bound for the Green Mill jazz club where we toast with $5 sparkling wine to Chicago and everything after. A man closely resembling Ray Charles is playing the organ when we enter and under the low lights of the booth lined interior, Gavi tells us that Al Capone had tunnels here for smuggling illicit booze out during prohibition to other establishments in town. We spend a while searching the room for signs of tunnels and find only an Israeli jazz band who play themselves in to paroxisms of delight and send the audience into a nodding, grinning trance. The toilets are full of good willed grafitti and everyone is smiling. My jazz tolerance is rather low in general but I feel as we feed out through the crowd that I’d like it if we could stay here in Chicago and make ourselves in to regulars and call ourselves Al to anyone who asked.
2 1/4 cups (280 grams) all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons to 1 1/2 tablespoons (10 to 20 grams) sugar (to taste, see note above) 1 tablespoon (15 grams) baking powder 3/4 teaspoon (5 grams) table salt 3/4 teaspoon baking soda 9 tablespoons (125 grams) chilled unsalted butter, cut into small chunks 3/4 cup (175 ml) buttermilk
Heat oven to 400 °F and cover baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda in large, wide bowl. Using fingertips or a pastry blender, work butter into dry ingredients until the mixture resembles a coarse meal, Add buttermilk and stir until large, craggy clumps form. Reach hands into bowl and knead mixture briefly until it just holds together.
To form biscuit rounds: Transfer dough to floured counter and pat out until 1/2 to 3/4-inch thick (err on the thin side if uncertain, as the tall ones will literally rise and then tip over, like mine did). Using a round cutter (2 inches for regular sized biscuits, 3 inches for the monstrous ones shown above), press straight down — twisting produces less layered sides — and transfer rounds to prepared sheet, spacing two inches apart.
To make drop biscuits: Drop 1/4-cup spoonfuls onto baking sheet, spacing two inches apart.
Both methods:Bake until biscuits are golden brown on top, about 12 to 15 minutes. Cool slightly, then serve warm, with butter/jam/eggs/bacon/sausage and gravy or any combination thereof. Happy weekend!