Tuesday, August 31, 2010


As you have probably noticed, I'm a foodie so a lot of my favorite things about Terre Haute revolve around food, or people I know.  But there are good non-food related things in Terre Haute too.  In fact today's post is pretty much a culinary disaster, admittedly one that faithfully follows the grand traditions of the culinary disaster that is gamer-food.

E-Bash is a LAN center, kinda a 21st century video game arcade.  (It's overexposed but I think my wife and son are actually in this picture, it was taken on the right day ...)

E-Bash was founded in Terre Haute in 2004, by Zach Johnson, and kicked off with a 48 hour straight non-stop gaming party, 14 xboxes, 14 gaming computers and presumably an awful lot of Mountain Dew.  The basic business model of E-Bash is to have a whole lot of gaming consoles of many different kinds, many video and computer games available, and to charge by the hour to play as much as you want.  It's cheaper the more hours you buy at once, and plenty of kids seem to hang out there quite a bit.  They were in a converted warehouse for a few years, but have been in prime retail space on 3rd street since 2006.  Having many video game systems in one location makes it quite convenient for tournaments, or other forms of social gaming.  But clearly one of their real niches is as a drop-off baby-sitting center for older kids.  Another neat thing you can do is pay for only an hour or two and try out a whole bunch of video games to see if you want to buy any of them.  Our kids have been there with a cub scout troop once, and asked to have their birthday party there once, and both worked well.  Every time I've been in I've seen elementary students, middle school students, and high school students all playing.  Sometimes there are older folk (other than the workers), and other times there aren't.  The founder's blog claims that the average age of their users is 14.  VIPs get a special discount on gaming all night Friday night, so that must be pretty popular.  Once a month they do a "lock-in" where you can game all night on one of their systems for 15$ or bring your own in and play all night for 5$, or all day Friday, pizza for dinner, and all night for 30$.  It is a fairly male place, but I know at least one young couple that gamed together all Friday night once, as an alternative to the standard dinner and movie, and said they enjoyed it greatly.  The whole place runs security footage continuously, and has a fairly detailed check-in/check-out procedure.  Why would someone want to play video games at a LAN center rather than at home?  The area is split into 9 private rooms and plenty of gaming up in the lobby.  And yes you can buy plenty of classic gamer concessions there, candy, chips, pizza, and of course Mountain Dew, which the founder's blog claims is their biggest concession seller by a long shot.

E-bash is actually a chain, and now has a location in Evansville too, but it started here in Terre Haute.  It was the first video game center of it's kind that I had ever encountered, and I thought, at first, that E-bash might have been innovative at the business model level, as well as a cool, local Terre Haute business, created recently and owned and run by locals.  It turns out that LAN centers are kinda an outgrowth of Internet Cafe's which have been around for almost 2 decades.  By 1998-1999ish, some of the Internet Cafes in China and South Korea started looking a lot like a modern LAN center, and were called PC Bangs.  But opening in 2004, E-Bash must have been one of the early LAN centers in the United States, not exactly inventing the format, but pioneering it into fairly untested markets.  It took courage, money, technical know how, business sense, and well an innovative heart to open this gamer-land here in Terre Haute and keep it running and expanding for 6 years.  Well, for a lot of reasons, but at root it is all about making video gaming a social experience rather than a solitary one.  Scratch the surface and E-Bash is all about community building.  That's why it's easy for me to say that E-Bash is

Just one more reason I'm proud of Terre Haute.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Sunoco Sunmart and Indian Grocery & Spices

Several years ago my wife did a DITL post to her blog complete with pictures documenting her day, because her friends in other parts of the country just did not believe how weird her weekly shopping day was.  At the time, among other weirdnesses we regularly bought local eggs from an optometrist, and exotic spices from a gas station.

The gas station in question is the Sunoco Sunmart and Indian Grocery & Spices at 408 S. 7th Street (right by the corner of 7th and Poplar).

It has been selling Indian foods and spices since we got to town (anyone know exactly how long it's been doing both?).  It is the only thing even close to a grocery store in the downtown area.

 About half of the space is devoted to traditional corner gasmart fare, sodas, candy, chips, doughnuts, milk etc.  But the other half of the store is devoted to Indian foods, spices, sauces, chutneys, etc, and some middle eastern ones as well.  Also, as with my own corner gas station, I've never gone in without seeing someone drop in to buy lottery tickets or cigarettes.

One of the things I love about the Sunmart, is that it caters to all levels of Indian cuisine.  If you just want to buy the Indian equivalents of chips and candy, no problem!  Or want some exotic prepared snacks with no cooking required?  Try a bag of spicy banana chips.  Want a whole frozen Indian dinner that you can pop in a microwave or oven?  They've got a selection.  What something from a box, that you'll have to cook, but is already mostly done, like the moral equivalent of hamburger helper?  Again several options.  What to cook something Indian from scratch and  need exotic ingredients?  They've got it.  I bought a huge container of ghee and some powdered garam masala today. Want to make something achingly authentic?  They sell whole garam masala mixes, in case you want to grind it into powder yourself.  They have a frankly amazing selection of spices and exotic shelf stable ingredients.  Need rose water or jaggery or asafoetida?  No problem.

The Sunmart used to sell delicious freshly prepared Indian food as well.  But then they opened the Taj Mahal restaurant.  I'm not sure of the exact connection between the owners and managers of each, but I've heard it explained before, and there is definitely a family relationship between the two.  I think Taj Mahal "stole" the person that used to do the cooking for the Sunmart.  The Taj Mahal's official Facebook pages describes it as "for fans of the Sunmart grocery."  But the Sunmart itself still sells an impressive selection of foods and spices, grocery style despite being, at root, a neighborhood gas station.  Terre Haute has plenty of white folks, and an active and vibrant African-American community.  It's easy to forget that it also has fairly active Indian and Japanese communities.  But the Sunmart isn't just for Indians.  My (very white) friend Brianna put Sunmart at the top of her list of things she loves about Terre Haute.  When I was shopping there today (and I'm very white), I saw black, white, and Indian shoppers come by to buy things, and at least one white lady (who I didn't know) was clearly shopping for spices there.  Maybe it's hokey, but I've always thought shared love of food was one of the easiest ways for folk of different ethnicities or cultures or races to come together respectfully.  The Sunmart is

Just one more reason I am proud of Terre Haute.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Forbidden Flavors Ice Cream

Forbidden Flavors is business just started in Terre Haute in June, by Andrew Conner.  They specialize in making ice creams (and sorbets and gelatos and granitas) in bizarre flavors.  Now Andrew Conner himself is amazing guy.  If there is anything good happening in Terre Haute there are at least 50/50 odds that Andrew is on a board of directors somewhere behind the scenes trying to help it occur, the Blueberry Festival, the Farmer's Market, the Cultural Trail, etc. but that's all a topic for another day.  Today I just want to talk about his new business.

At the moment, Forbidden Flavors sells very small servings of ice cream at the Farmer's Market, very cheaply.  A condiment cup sized "taste" for 50 cents, or a flight of 3 for a dollar.  And they have a whole raft of bizarre flavors.  Today, they sold Black Pepper, Burnt Caramel, Blackberry-Lime Sorbet, Cinnamon-Basil, Italian Parsley, Aztec Hot Chocolate, Ricotta, and Savory Dijon.  Hot ice creams, spicy ice creams, herby ice creams, savory ice creams, even some mostly just sweet ones.  They are scaling up to being able to sell small containers of their ice cream (this was the first week for a 4$ container, and they didn't have many yet).  Andrew hopes to scale up to buying the next size up of ice cream maker in a few more weeks, and is hoping for grocery store distribution before long too.  Several of the flavors would make good palate-cleansing lagniappes between courses at fancy restaurants too, so that angle may develop in the future.  But for now Andrew Conner happily hands out small samples cheap every Saturday morning at the Farmer's Market he helped so much to set up.  (Oh, and yes, he uses a lot of local ingredients in the process, the cinnamon-basil I had today was not flavored with cinnamon and basil, but by the more obscure cinnamon-basil plant, which had been grown by local chef Jack Daniel).

Now first notice how innovative Conner's business model is.  He sells small servings very cheaply, as small treats, with extremely low overhead, while working on scaling up.  Nearly every other food business I can think of focuses on meals or large snacks, rather than very small treats.  (Although I suppose cupcakes have gotten hot in the last few years).  I'm a fan of chef Thomas Keller (of the French Laundry in Napa Valley, famous among many other things for being the consulting chef for the movie Ratatouille).  Keller argues that when we enjoy a great dish, we find the first bite fabulous, and the second bite good, and on third and subsequent bites the flavor begins to deaden and we eat for comfort or some other psychological reason rather than the pure delight and curiosity that guides us on the first few bites.  So instead of a standard meal, Keller serves 5-10 very small courses.  He says "I want you to say, 'God, I wish I had just one more bite of that.' And then the next plate comes and the same thing happens, but it's a different experience, a whole new flavor and feel."  Andrew hasn't heard of this particular culinary ideology (I asked him), but he's the first person I've seen really try to adapt this point to inexpensive foods.  For a buck, you get a few bites of something curious and surprising, and then just when you're getting used to it, it is done and you get to have another strange flavor experience, and another.       

Forbidden Flavors is relentlessly experimental, and so not everything works, but most of them do work and in spades.  Today the cinnamon-basil was subtle and yummy.  The Aztec Hot Chocolate was indeed exceedingly hot, as many different chili peppers were used to mix with the chocolate flavor.  I'm usually a heat wimp for chili pepper, this may actually have been the hottest thing I've ever enjoyed.  But the chili flavor meshed well with the chocolate and you could taste the balance of both flavors in every bite, and the combination of cold serving temperature and hot flavor was pleasurably strange.  The Aztecs really did drink their hot chocolate with lots of chili pepper so the dish even echoed an old and mostly abandoned tradition.  But the black pepper ice cream was too peppery, a bludgeon without subtly or balance, maybe it would work better with another flavor to balance it, or maybe the black pepper and sweetness would balance if you backed off a bit on the pepper.  But even it was perfectly edible, easily worth the cheap price, and was a curiosity for a few bites.  In the past I've had the Strawberry-Balsamic vinegar which was a wonderful combination of tradition and subtlety, the cilantro-lime sorbet, which was heavenly for a few bites at a time, but probably wouldn't work by the bowlful, and the ricotta ice cream which was a lot more complex and flavorful than I would have guessed, and probably would work even by the bowlful.  I've had the parsley, the Guinness-milk chocolate, the rhubarb sorbet, the rice gelato, the sweet corn, the nutella, the goat's milk and brown sugar ice cream, and probably a few more I'm not remembering.  Forbidden flavors are fabulous at least 75% of the time, and are at least worthwhile curiosities the other 25%.  More to the point, here is a new business in Terre Haute, an innovative business, something that is innovative at the level of culinary artistry, but still aimed at regular folk as well.  Today I was in line with three Amish kids, and I saw them order different things, and try tiny tastes of each other's ice creams.  How many people get to help Amish kids explore their palates?  I'm pretty serious about local food, but when I think of them I usually imagine heirloom tomatoes, or Royer's bacon, but honestly rhubarb sorbet fits the bill too.  So Forbidden Flavors Ice Cream is ...

Just one more reason I'm proud of Terre Haute.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Terre Haute Couture - Photographs by Molly Burkett

I attend the 3rd Thursday poets, who meet at Coffee Grounds once a month to read poetry. This month, the reading was immediately after the reception for the photography exhibit on the walls of the Coffee Grounds entitled - "Terre Haute Couture" - the Photography of Molly Burkett. I fell in love with it instantly (and bought two of the pieces myself). Now I don't really know Molly (although I know her mom, and the art curator who choose to put her stuff up at the Coffee Grounds), so I can flatter her shamelessly. Here is a great young photographer, with an eye for bringing out both the visual interest and the emotional depth in her subjects, skilled at seeing what others miss, and teasing it out into the light.

Here is her website www.mollyburkett.com, although only a few images from this show are on it. Go to Coffee Grounds and see her show before the end of the month, go to her site and page through her portfolio. Terre Haute Couture shows many of the young people of Terre Haute, and shows their hearts. Molly quotes photographer Nan Goldin "The only people I photograph are people I really love." The show includes two punks having a long talk in a graffitied tunnel, girls chatting and smoking in Georges Cafe, teens in custom street clothes, one of Molly's ex's smoking a top a parking garage looking into the distance thinking, burning graffiti hearts, and more. Go see it. Swoon. See what Terre Haute looks like through the eyes of someone who loves her people. One of my favorite movies is Wem Winder's "Until The End of the World" which contains a long meditation on the nature of seeing. One of the lines is "The eye does not see the same as the heart."

Molly is moving away soon, but her photography remains as a testament of what she loved about this town.

Just one more reason I'm proud of Terre Haute.

P.S. My friend Brianna Pizarek, who recently moved away from Terre Haute to be with her hubby for grad school, reminded me of a great list of things she loves about Terre Haute that she wrote up back in March I'll be mining it slowly for topics for a while I suspect.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Me vs. WTF Terre Haute?

Me vs.WTF Terre Haute?

Honestly a lot of my incentive for trying to write this blog was annoyance at a blog entitled "WTF Terre Haute?" "WTF Terre Haute?" is a place dedicated to slagging on all that is crappy and pathetic about Terre Haute in a mildly humorous way. Misspelled signs, making fun of fat people, typos in the newspaper, and of course lots of meth jokes. I see the appeal, er sometimes, but it's easy to slip from humor to mean-spiritedness, and if the bloggers attitude isn't clear enough, it's clear that many posters come to vent frustration and hatred. Indeed the Facebook page is probably livelier than the blog itself and full of Hautians and ex-Hautians full of bile. Now I've never quite known how to take Terre Haute's self-hatred when it comes from a native. I mean, I suppose they've earned the right to hate themselves if they want, and lord knows I slip into beating myself up often enough. Me, I've only lived in Terre Haute for 5 years now. I've lived in worse places that Terre Haute, and better. I've lived in lots of places really. But never one that came close to the self-hatred problem that Terre Haute has. But Matt Wilson, the blogger of WTF Terre Haute, he is another story. My wife seems to recall him claiming he’s only been here 5 years, same as me, so he's just being an asshole. Or my wife is wrong, and that never happens … (Ooh ooh, after much digging she now reports he claimed on the page that he first moved here “several” years ago.) I will say this, I found personally, that I saw the downsides of Terre Haute right away, and the upsides, the hidden gems, took me longer. Someone I knew once said Terre Haute is a town that reveals its best slowly, and that has been my experience.

But the one that really set me off was his Aug 21st 2010, post “Brutally honest Terre Haute article” – where he just hyperlinks an article from the Indy Star called “Terre Haute is a model of Stagnation.” Of course, this article was written in Mar of 2003. 2003! Many of its specific complaints have actually improved since then. The Terre Haute I have lived in the last 5 years definitely has a poverty problem, and it definitely has a meth problem, but it DOESN’T have a stagnation problem. I’ve seen all kinds of change and new projects and people working to make things better, and people chasing there idiosyncratic passions. As Ehrmann says “What various aspirations man pursues!” Even in the Indy Star article the writer clearly makes the point that one of Terre Haute’s biggest problems is beating itself up. It quotes, then Mayor Anderson, as saying "We've always put ourselves down. We've always been our very worst enemies." Maybe soon I’ll post a list of all the cool things I’ve seen get better since I moved here 5 years ago. The Farmers Market, the Children's Museum, the Terre Haute Rex, The downtown hotels, Wise Pies Pizza, lots of new bike paths, and of course, the Ehrmann statue. I could go on, and will...

So I don’t have 24 followers for my blog, and I don’t have 2,324 fans for my facebook page, and an army of smart people taking vaguely humorous pictures for me with their mobile phones. But if you have a story or a picture or anything that you want to share about being proud about Terre Haute, mildly humorous or not, post it and I’ll see if I can get it up. Your contributions will be ...

Just one more reason I'm proud of Terre Haute.

Terre Haute - Max Ehrmann

What place is lovelier than Terre Haute:
The foliage of her many trees,
That trembles as the cooling breezes float
Across the grain fields' yellow seas?

The gentle river that caressing sings
Past shop and mill waving corn
Each day some happy inspiration brings;
Each day a thousand hopes are born.

Here workers wend their way to pleasant homes;
And students spend romanticdays.
Here lofty spires and gilded domes
Reach up to touch the sun's first rays.

Here many a youth and maid their faith have kept,
Labored, lived happily, grown gray.
Here bolder ones with keener eyes have crept
To paths where fame and fortune lay.

Vast growing fields and treasures in the ground,
Art, learning, too, here find abode;
And many a forward-looking son has found
The gifts the gods have here bestowed.

What various aspirations man pursues!
It matters not what visions lure,
Here many ambition all its talents use;
Here is the world in miniature.

Max Ehrmann at the Crossroads

For me there are two big stories concerning Max Ehrmann at the crossroads, the first is the story of him and his life, and the second is the story of his statue.

Max Ehrmann was a great writer and a native of Terre Haute.  He was born and raised here, and lived here basically his whole life other than college (in Depauw, IN) and grad school (Harvard).  He did a short stint as a lawyer, and worked for has family business (an overall factory, where Glidden Furniture is now) for a few decades.  But his avocation in college was writing, and he loved it as a young man, and at age forty he turned to writing full time.  He wrote 6 books in 10 years at one point, and plays, and essays.  But he was known for his poetry. His poem "A Prayer" was read on the floor of the Senate in 1909.  The book of poetry it was from was translated into several other languages during Ehrmann's lifetime.  But he was best known for his poem "Desiderata" which was only mildly famous in his lifetime, but had extensive circulation in the 60s and 70s, a recording of it even won a spoken word Grammy in 1971.  Ehrmann's poetry is philosophical and humble, hokey you might say, earnest, without any sarcasm, bitterness or slick stylistic tricks.

One of the stanzas of the Desiderata says
"You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."  
And this is pretty typical of Ehrmann's style and substance.

It's easy to be proud of Ehrmann's unassuming wisdom and grace, but he died 65 years ago, as of Sept 9th.  So what credit is he to the Terre Haute we live in?  That's the second part of the story.  You see Terre Haute really cares about the arts, even if we don't have the funding of some larger cities.  People have been kicking around the idea of trying to find ways to honor great figures from Terre Haute's past for decades, without much luck.  Oh we had the Deb's house, and the Allen Chapel, and a small monument to Terre Haute's Olympic medal winners up in 12 points, but not a lot.  And then, according to a story I heard, a visitor from Australia went looking for the monument to Max Ehrmann, the famous writer of the Desiderata, and was told there wasn't one, and heads started scratching.  So ArtsIlliana got involved (who have worked with lotsof arts in the Wabash area since 1980), and then Art Spaces ( a group formed in 2003 to promote public outdoor sculpture in the Wabash, they were the force behind the strange horses a few years ago, and the car sculptures now).  The way the birdees twitter in my ear, Mary Kramer of Art Spaces had everything to do with bring the monument to Ehrmann from idea to reality.  But this is what you must understand, many, many groups and people contributed in many ways to this monument.   Companies like Vectren and Old National Bank ponied up funding, the city government worked on planning and maintenance, (and let one of their engineers donate a lot of work time to the engineering issues).  A brickmaking company (Boral Bricks) donated the bricks, and a labor union did the bricklaying as a donation to the city.  The school board granted the city a land easement for land the monument is on.  A trucking company donated the transport of the bricks and finished bronze statue.  Several law firms donated the benches.  Many local charities helped in various ways, from ArtsIlliana and ArtSpaces who organized it all (and plead for the money), to Trees Inc, who donated the trees, to the Optimists who've agreed to keep it clean for the next two years.  And then there are all the private individuals who helped with time or money or expertise.  I'm sitting here with the program, and I recognize maybe one name in 5.  This was really a whole community working together.  And I could give a dozen stories like this.

But I'll pick one more.  My friend Dorothy Jerse is an old lady, and a long time fan of history and Terre Haute.  She's been on the board of the Vigo County Historical Society, heck I'll bet she ran it at one point.  The program with lists of thanks mentions Bill and Dorothy Jerse as helping Art Spaces, and lists the "Wednesday Breakfast Group" as making a donation "in honor of Dorothy Jerse." (I love that one of the donations was from something called the "Wednesday Breakfast Group")  During the grand unveiling ceremony earlier today, I see Dorothy ambling up to get a closer look at the finished statue, and she sees me and my kids and greets me.  And she takes my hands in hers, and leans over real close to me and says quietly in my ear, "I'm so glad our downtown is honoring a poet and not a general or politician or something."

And so am I.

Mary Kramer said it best "Now a poet sits at the Crossroads of America.  How many towns can boast that a poet watches over their heart?"

Just one more reason I'm proud of Terre Haute.

P.S. Ehrmann's plaque reads "poet and philosopher" that makes the philosopher side of me feel warm and fuzzy too ...

P.P.S. On Sept 2, I got a photo taken of me and my kids and a bunch of people from my church (including Dorothy Jerse) at the dedication ceremony of the statue.  Max Ehrmann's widow was one of the early members (perhaps one of the founding members of our local church)