Gather around the community table
Greetings from a cafe in Valley City, N.D., where I’m waiting on my meal and drinking a glass of wine in a booth by myself at the end of a day — literally — singing for this supper.
Dining alone. That’s been the deal in my life since I started traveling and performing up and down the Midwest 17 years ago.
In a career like mine, performing and presenting in different towns often hundreds of miles away from my home in the middle of nowhere, besides the performing, the dining has become one of my favorite parts of the gig. Partly because I’ve created for myself the ultimate reason I don’t have to cook.
But mostly these days, when it’s so easy to take it on the go or order in, sometimes a girl just wants to sit down in front of a steak and learn a little bit about the town she’s in. Because you get to know a lot about a place from the food they’re serving. And how and where they’re serving it. And what they’re talking about over their hot hamburger or roast beef or #2 Sunny Side Up with a side of bacon and pancakes.
Yeah, you guessed it, I prefer cafes. Everywhere I go, big city or small town, I try to find one.
And I would say I don’t know why except I do know why. Because I pop into the right cafe in any town and I’m a little kid again, sitting next to my grandma Edie in the Chuckwagon Cafe on Main Street among my Great-Uncle Paul in a feedstore cap and his friends taking a break, ordering lunch, then ordering pie and then another cup of coffee because there’s another story to tell…
Spending their time. Spending the time. To gather around food, it’s an instinct of ours. It’s the watering hole where we go to feel connected over the shared necessity of nutrients.
Because “Everybody’s gotta eat!” If you’re from the Midwest, you’ve likely heard this phrase from your aunt or your mother-in-law or your grill-master cousin when you stop by to drop something off and they insist you stay for supper. Or at least a slice of cake. Or a Ziploc of cookies to go.
If I’ve learned anything from my upbringing, it’s that you could build the biggest house in the world, but the world will always want to gather in your kitchen. It’s the reason my grandma Edie was known to forget her Jell-O salad in the fridge until the end of the Christmas meal. Because we were distracting her, we were all in the way, she was sweating, but we were loving it.
And that’s why these restaurants and cafes, the coffee shops and bakeries, are the heartbeat of our communities, because they hold within them an energy we only get when we have a place to be together to talk about cattle prices and politics and new babies and inside jokes and how we would do it if we were in charge.
And even when I’m sitting solo in a four-person booth between the walls and among the wait staff that has heard it all, 300 miles away from home, keeping to myself, I feel more present and more myself in places like these with my #2 Sunny Side Up with a side of bacon and a real big slice of life.