2009_07_huckIt’s the day after the 4th of July, and in Hannibal, Missouri, the party is in full swing. For the past 54 years on America’s birthday, this riverside town of 17,000 has hosted National Tom Sawyer Days, a three-day celebration of its favorite son, Mark Twain. Fireworks, frogs, and paint fly as kids of all ages participate in frog jumping and watermelon seed-spitting contests and boys race barefoot to whitewash fences Tom-Sawyer style.

Unlike other towns downriver and up, Hannibal narrowly escaped the floods of 2008 and is chugging ahead like the steamboat that first beckoned Mark Twain to the muddy Mississippi and on to national fame. In recent years this plucky place has fashioned its warehouses and factories into art galleries, cafes, and antique stores, which attract tourists along with the historical homes of Mark Twain and Becky Thatcher and the famous cave where the fictional Tom and Becky got lost.

At the arts and crafts show in Central Park, my husband and I glimpse a Tom Sawyer with a fishing pole on one arm and a Becky on the other. Despite the wilting heat, Becky looks cool and crisp in an elaborate pink gingham floor-length dress.

A man standing behind them with a “Chaperone” tag asks if I want my picture taken with them. The chaperone (who turns out to be Tom’s father) tells me that at age 13 the kids of Hannibal compete to become the reigning Tom and Becky. Twenty Toms and Beckys entered the competition, where they were judged for their authentic costumes, role-playing of scenes from the book Tom Sawyer, and knowledge of Hannibal’s history and  attractions, lodging, and restaurants.

The top five girls and five boys, including this couple, will spend many weekends during the next year strolling the streets and attending various out-of-state events in full costume as ambassadors for the city of Hannibal.

“It’s great training for them,” says this proud dad. “They have to be able to talk to adults, to tell a tourist where to find a hotel or a good restaurant.” Parents of both children will be taking turns trailing their kids around for the next year.

“They can do the kissing scene for you,” the dad offers. Kissing crops up often in Tom Sawyer Days, we find out as we trail our Tom and Becky back to the riverfront. When Tom grasps a live frog around the middle, it’s hind legs dangling, Becky actually kisses it! This she does again and again, posing for snapshots, and each time there are exclamations of awe from the crowd that has gathered around them.

Frog-kissing is a warm-up for the Frog-Jumping Contest, just down Main Street, where parents and kids have been plunking down $2 all afternoon to rent a frog. The Frog Jumping Contest is based on Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

“You select a frog from the barrel when it’s your turn, then you return it after you’re done,” a lanky Boy Scout explains. It turns out that his troop has caught these frogs with their bare hands, wading knee-deep into local ponds at night, and they’ll release the frogs to their watery homes after the contest today.

Soon we’re crowded around a space similar to a boxing ring—except yellow crime-tape forms the ropes—to watch the contest for kids aged one to six.

A mom with a frisky five-year-old daughter in tow selects her frog. The minute the frog is plopped on the mat it sprints for freedom, flying out of the arena in two hops, slipping over my foot and landing in the midst of a screaming crowd. Teenage helpers scramble to grab it back.

“Fifteen feet, three inches!” shouts the judge.

As our last stop for the day, we drop by the fence-painting contest. We’ve already met the contest’s youngest contestant while floating on the Mark Twain Steamboat earlier in the day. It was easy to spot 10-year-old Dylan Behl from New London, a small town just down the road from Hannibal. With freckles and a fresh, wholesome look, he’s the perfect Tom Sawyer in red gingham shirt, ragged cut-off jeans, paint splattered on his legs.

The paint is a remnant from yesterday, when he and his mother, LaRhonda, both carried off trophies—Dylan for the age 10-13 Fence Painting Contest, his mom for an Over 30 Fence Painting Contest that she entered on the spur of the moment. “It looked like a lot of fun, so I thought I’d try it,” she says. There’s still a spot of paint on her elbow.

Dylan says he’s “scared, nervous, and excited” about the national race coming up. “When they say ‘go’ you get an adrenalin rush and you run down the line, you don’t care where paint goes, you just try to go fast!”

Before the race begins, judges with clipboards tiptoe between the contestants, examining their homemade costumes and Tom Sawyer memorabilia, neatly arranged on blankets.

“He’s a shy kid,” confides his dad, Danny Behl. “This has been good for him. The kids have to read the books and are judged for their costumes and props as well as speed and accuracy in the race.”

Contestent #6, who has come from Japan, dangles a bottle of stinkwater from his belt loop. Dylan’s props include dozens of items from Tom Sawyer scenes, including antique clay marbles, orange peels, and wart medicine.

Finally, the boys are ready to race. Four fences stand at the end of the running lanes, each with a bucket of milk paint and a brush next to it.

Dylan is poised like a runner, his boyish energy focused and taut. He bolts to his fence, grabs the brush, and leaps into the air, slapping paint, whitewash flying. Then he handily dashes back to the finish line ahead of the others.

He’s surely made it into the final heat, and his dazzling smile shows he knows it. His dad is waiting for him across the finish line, wiping paint from his son’s eyes with a towel.

Now Dylan faces three finalists, including the main competitor from Hannibal, 12-year-old Wesley Hjelm. It turns out there’s been a rivalry between Hannibal and New London for years.

In this final round Dylan slaps paint even faster and races back, crossing the finish line first. I find myself screaming for him, emotionally invested in this youngest of contestants. But, alas, Dylan’s final score places him second and Wesley first. I congratulate both boys and leave quickly, trying not to add my own disappointment to Dylan’s.

Fast forward another year. I phone the family and find out that yes, this talented boy, now 11, will compete again. If he wins the Fence Painting Contest of the World,  he will travel to Jefferson City and present the trophy to Missouri’s governor, who will keep it in his office until the next 4th of July. And that would surely be a moment to remember from Dylan’s own “Tom Sawyer” days.

National Tom Sawyer Days will be celebrated July 3-6 in 2014. Find out more  at the website for the Hannibal Chamber of Commerce   or download a PDF booklet at the website of the Hannibal Jaycees.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, July 2009. Reprinted with permission.)

Photo by Linda Egenes


simone delaty

Simone Delaty’s renowned slow dinners embody what great meals are all about. (Photo by Kurt Michael Friese)

The  first time I drove through the Italian heartland, I thought I’d entered heaven. Romantic medieval villages, rolling hills sculpted with vineyards and olive groves, and, of course, the food. Whether we ate in a family-owned trattoria, shopped in colorful outdoor markets, or frequented tiny frutta e vedura (fruit and vegetable shops), locally grown produce was everywhere. And it tasted amazing—the mineral-rich Italian soil yielded raspberries the size of your thumb and zucchini tasting like manna.

I remember solemnly telling my husband and friends, “You know, we could have this in Iowa.” They eyed me warily, wondering if my brain had fried in the Tuscan sun. But I didn’t mean the castles or winding roads or Renaissance art. I meant the food. Because even on that first  brief visit, I glimpsed how the small family farm was the living heart of Italy’s vibrant rural culture.

In his book A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland, Chef Kurt Michael Friese takes us on a culinary journey as delectable as any Italian countryside’s—except this particular feast for the senses is happening right here in the heartland of America.

As a national board member of Slow Food USA and co-owner of the celebrated Devotay restaurant in Iowa City, Chef Friese knows good food when he sees it. Over the course of four years, he traveled to 13 heartland states in search of people who champion Slow Food. The book is a collection of his informal essays about the various farmers, chefs, food artisans, and organizations that he encountered.

What’s Slow Food?

You can think of Slow Food as the opposite of fast food, and everything industrial, tasteless, and exploitive that fast food represents. Friese points out that eating is a political act, a moral act, and a philosophical, even religious act. He defines Slow Food in simple terms: “If the food is raised with care, prepared with passion, and served with love, then it is ‘Slow’ food no matter who makes it.”

a-cooks-journey-slow-food-in-the-heartland-kurt-frieseThe Slow Food movement started (you guessed it) in Italy, when folks protested the first MacDonald’s opening at the foot of Rome’s Spanish Steps. Unlike its name, since its beginning in 1986 Slow Food spread quickly—around the world and most enthusiastically in America, mainly along the coasts. In 1999 Friese founded the first Slow Food convivium in Iowa (today one of five). He wrote this book partly to show that Slow Food is not a coastal phenomenon—in fact, he points out, many of the world’s most cherished food traditions are from the rural centers (think Tuscany or Provence or Sichuan).

The essays are as easy to read as a chat over the back fence, seasoned with deft character sketches and sprinkled with recipes tested and tweaked by Chef Friese (making the recipes alone worth the price of the book). Infused with the consummate chef’s love for good food and good living, Friese dishes his philosophy with a spoonful of brie, so to speak, skillfully weaving the tenets of Slow Food with sensual descriptions of heat coming off a just-picked heirloom tomato or the nutty flavor of Walloon, a raw-milk goat cheese from Missouri.

In one of the Iowa vignettes, you’ll meet the French immigrant Simone Delaty, dubbed Iowa’s “Queen of Slow Food” by CBS’s Sunday Morning news crew, who raises chickens and vegetables and flowers on her bucolic farm in Wellman. Using her own vegetables and eggs, she cooks private dinners—sold out months in advance—and serves them on her screened porch. She calls her cuisine “plain and simple,” which Friese interprets as “simple farmhouse cooking made with generations of French technique.”

Preserving Variety

While there are many eye-openers in the book, the description of Seed Saver’s Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, one of the world’s largest guardians of heirloom seed diversity, hit close to home. It was sobering to read that today only 30 plant varieties feed 95 percent of the world’s population.

By collecting some 24,000 heirloom seeds from around the world and making them available to its 8,000 members around the world, Seed Savers is possibly the most biodiverse place on the planet. The orchard alone, which is open to the public, contains 700 varieties of 18th century apples. This sounds like a lot, until you read in the next sentence that in 1899 there were 8,000 apple varieties recorded.

The Quiet Revolution

One thing I like about foodies—they don’t dwell too long on problems. Although Friese touches on the bureaucratic snafus some of the organic growers have encountered, referring humorously to the “Law of Unintended Consequences,” he mainly points to the ways our heartland foodscape is rapidly changing for the better.

He talks about a quiet revolution that is taking place, noting that today Iowa has more farmers’ markets per capita than any other state. And throughout the Midwest, he observes, “Where once a restaurant might be judged by the distant and exotic sources of its ingredients, today the best restaurants are known for getting their food from just down the road.”

Friese is eclectic, featuring deer, buffalo, and mulefoot hog ranches alongside the Dragonfly Neo-V—Columbus Ohio’s world-class vegan restaurant. He is also inclusive, explaining that although not everyone featured in his book is an official member of the Slow Food movement, they are still important contributors. “So many are and don’t know it,” Friese muses. As readers, we can become part of the Slow Food movement, too, he reassures us, just by planting a garden, shopping at a farmers’ market, or visiting a farm.

“As I have so often said, if you think about the very best times in your life, I’ll bet that most of them were spent around a table with great food in front of you and the people you love all around,” Friese writes. “If the Slow Food Movement is about anything, it is about making many of those moments possible.”

Reading this book is like sitting down to a home-cooked feast with new friends and old—the best kind of food for the soul.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, September 2008. Reprinted with permission.)