I've been traveling to North and South Dakota for nearly two decades. I've seen things over the years and, like anyone my age, love to drone on and on about them. So, without further preamble...
South Dakota is cattle country.
In Aberdeen, meat is not only what's for dinner; it's also what's for lunch, breakfast, mid-day snack and dessert. It's everywhere, along with cowboy themed decorations and cow-hide fabric patterns. Whatever you can think of; if it's not made from meat, it soon will be. Pork-in-the-bottom yoghurt, Beefie-Roll Pops (with the chewy tenderloin center), 85% lean ice cream; teriyaki jerky baby pacifiers ; if it doesn't exist, it's just because no-one's gotten around to marketing it yet. (All that muscle tissue going through the colon slows one down a bit. Give them time.)
This region's like the quantum opposite of Vegan; Meateater versus anti-meateater. I'm pretty sure if Aberdeen were to make contact with Southern India, they would cancel each other out in a massive nuclear fireball of delicious, savory devastation. This is an Atkins diet wonderland where you're going to need all your teeth.
The Steak Buffet Restaurant is Aberdeen in microcosm. When you walk in, you will not find diet platters or veggie dishes. As a matter of fact, you won't find much of anything in the vegetable family. After ponying up your $7.95 for the "All-You-Can-Choke-Down" Golden Ticket, you're immediately confronted by "The Salad Bar." (Chuckle)
The closest thing to salad here, in the traditional sense, is a small bowl with several wilted leaves of tannish, dispirited lettuce; probably handed down from father to son over several generations till its original purpose was lost in the mists of time. It's now just placed there for tradition or a laugh. The real salad bar contestants are potato salad, macaroni salad and ham salad (my favorite- cubes of ham mixed with cubes of cheese and green peas in a sauce of sour cream, mayo and human cholesterol; a heart attack in a bowl)
The next table holds the appetizers and "vegetable" offerings; fried chicken, meatballs and baked potatoes. (Your choice of topping; butter or sour cream) Then it's a cheerful ramble over to the carver table for sliced roast beef, ham or turkey. Of course there are large, double-fisted dinner rolls, pre-slathered with butter, at every turn. It's a testament to the regulars that they manage several rounds of these tables, shambling from one to the other, humming tunelessly while they sweep item after item into their gaping maws, as this is all mere prologue to the main event.
Having defeated the all-you-can-eat gatekeepers already described, they come to... The Steak Pit!
"Step right up, folks. Choose your steak and how you want it done. Hork it down and come on back for more! "
Dim, hulking shadows can be seen; shuffling through greasy, billowing smoke towards the open grill, to slap down their chosen slab of meat with cooking instructions in a scene from "Apocalypse Cow"
These are folks who've been here all day. You can recognize the outlines of their bodies in the upholstery. Entire families occupy a booth; Aunt Pearl leaves only to be replaced by Ruthie-Mae's youngest (Not quite right in the head but a heart of gold..) while the twins, Travis and Travis (They were named after each other...) head up to the "Wall 'o Desserts" to ruminate over the vast selection of fruit pie slices, carrot cake squares and Boston cream pies on display. There is, of course, a soft-serve ice cream station, to round things out and account for any random survivors.
Scanning the customers around the room, you notice a certain commonality, beyond the fish-belly complexions and their slow, underwater movements, as they progress from feeding station to feeding station. Bypass scars can be seen peeping out from the graying chest hair above many flannel shirts. (Note: Not all of these are men...)
If you manage to walk out of Steak Buffet on your own, any pangs you may feel won't be from hunger. Sit down, take a children's aspirin and wait for the paramedics to finish their pie.
I love finding new places to eat when I travel. Other things I enjoy are, in no particular order:
Finding a nice bar where the music and talking doesn't immediately cease when I walk in. This is inevitably followed by some slightly deformed individual with a name like "Stumpy Joe" sidling furtively out the back to raise the alert that "There's a stranger up ter the saloon what's askin' questions about martini's" This never seems to end well for me.
Locating the right hotel for this and future stays. This doesn't necessarily mean the best hotel. You just know it when you find it. (There's an odd correlation between the right hotel and the right bar. What are the odds?) I found mine on the outskirts of town; the Ram-kota.
The first time I showed up in town, I had made reservations there based on its proximity to the location I had to visit the next day, Having made it through the piles of drifting snow sharing the road with my rental, I was confronted with a big marquee sign saying "Welcome Dennis Harris." I was pleased, honored and, in a way, humbled to realize my arrival meant so much. I assumed that the location I was inspecting the next day was trying to butter me up or that, for some reason, Aberdeen itself was just delighted to see another carnivore turn up. It was only after I'd proudly made myself known at the desk that I learned of the standard practice of pulling a random name from a hat to choose the "Guest of the Week". I ended up with an upgrade to a whirlpool room and a free "Chunk-o-Meat" dinner at Minerva's; not world acclaim but better treatment than I'd get in California or some Shirley Jackson short story... (Bingo!!!! Why are you all looking at me like that?)
After settling into my regally appointed whirlpool room, I decided to shake off the Dakota chill a bit. Having already indulged in a little light vivisection-with-potatoes-au-grautin at Minerva's and returned with a nice Go-cup of Gordon's, I filled the tub and slipped into it with my accustomed walrus-like grace, pausing for only 7 or 8 strangled squeals as I adjusted to the water. Then, acclimated, I lay back in comfort with one hand gently cradling the slowly dissolving styrofoam cup of gin as the other punched the button to start the whirlpool jets...
Over the next hour or so, as I worked to pick off all the tiny feathers that were glued damply to my body, I learned a lot about Aberdeen from the desk attendant on the other end of the phone line.
I'll bet you didn't know that Aberdeen, South Dakota is, apparently, the pheasant hunting capital of the world, did you? Did you? Well, it is.
Come pheasant season, vast herds of the little bastards can be seen flapping majestically across the fields, flying into things, being run over by cars, getting shot by drunks in red plaid who then tie their legs together and hold them up for photographs. After that I'd assumed they were just thrown away as one never sees them on a menu. "Pheasant-under-glass" just doesn't seem to turn up in restaurants here. (Waitress, I'd like something stringy and gamey with, perhaps, just a hint of lead pellet...) I assumed, then, that they were hunted by local ranchers trying desperately to protect their livestock from the depredations of that fiendishly wily predator, the pheasant! A mental image arises of 100 or so Ringnecks laboring, with grim determination, to airlift a young steer to their mountain redoubt where they'd eat like kings for month
Actually, people come from all over the world to bang away at these things. Like hordes of maddened Dick Cheney's, they pop these dim-witted birds out of the sky till their pouches are full. They then take them back to wherever they came from and hand them over, proudly, to the wife who's no more about to clean them than those cut-throat trout they were presented with weeks before.
This is where the pheasant-gypsies enter the story! (Feel free to lightly hum "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" over the next paragraph or so.) Another distaff arm of America's itinerant service industry, the pheasant-gypsies arrive with the season to eke out (actually, "eek out" seems more apt here...) a meager living processing these feathered unfortunates for transport home to the hunter's freezer. Requiring much less space and facilities than, say, deer carcass processers, the pheasant gypsy has only to gut and pluck the bird, at which point it's ready for bagging and freezing. Simple enough; the main requirement is a nice big container of hot water for dipping and plucking those carcasses.
Whirlpool rooms are booked months ahead for pheasant season... Make your plans well in advance.