Shaking off a case of pandemic cabin fever, I packed my Subaru and set out in early August to see friends and family back East. Along the way, I was looking forward to encountering good, even off-beat food stories. Yes, I intended to report on a couple of communities that had received USDA Community Food Project grants. But before I tell those CFP stories—and I sure found some good ones—I want to share some discoveries I made on America’s funky back roads. Starting with this one, I will post three altogether, each about one week apart.
Rexford, Hoxie, and Atwood Kansas—August 6 & 7.
Bearing due east out of Santa Fe, Interstate 25 soon makes a long sweeping curve north before crossing into Colorado. About the time you reach Colorado Springs, the scenery has gone from inspiring to despairing, a mood shift that only deepens as you gradually escape that city’s soul-crushing outskirts on state route 24. Crossing into Northwest Kansas on Interstate 70, you know where you are without the help of the “Welcome to Kansas” sign. At least a zillion acres of corn dominate the landscape while a noticeable chemical smell (insecticides?) rises from the fields forcing me to roll up my windows. One roadside billboard that reads “Phosphate…Done Better!” does little to reassure me.
My first stop was Rexford where I was scheduled to stay at the historic Philip Houston House B&B (originally built by a Sam Houston descendant). I arrived at the appointed hour but there was no one to greet me. Rexford, whose literal translation is the place in the river traversed by royalty, was not only devoid of water and kings, but all manner of human life as well. There was no one in the house, not a single one of the town’s 200 inhabitants was on its streets, and all of the mostly vacant storefronts were closed this late afternoon. Standing on the sidewalks of what felt like a ghost town, it sure felt like an inauspicious beginning to my trip.
Just as I was about to give up all hope, an elderly man whose dogs were sniffing around the property’s edge, appeared. He told me he was sent to let me in to the stately Queen Anne hostelry that had apparently been moved 10 miles, intact, from Gem, Kansas to its present site by a wealthy Texas heiress. Not only did the dogwalker not apologize for his tardiness, he informed me that only one “B” in this “B&B” was currently working—there was a bed but no breakfast. However, that directive was countermanded an hour later by a phone call from a woman who informed me that breakfast will indeed be available at the Whistle-Stop restaurant directly across the street.
The following morning, I found myself being the only customer at the Whistle-Stop. The gracious lady who cooked for and served me also required me to pray before I ate. As I gazed at plates set before me containing enough caloric firepower to fuel a farmer for a fortnight, I folded my hands, lowered my head, and said to myself, “Please God, don’t let this meal kill me.”
But as I learned from the past, never give up on Kansas. In what can only be described as a whiplash culinary U-turn, I had dinner with JoEllyn Argabright at The Elephant restaurant in nearby Hoxie. “Jo,” as readers may recall, is the Kansas State Cooperative Extension Specialist who is also the dynamo developer of the Grass Roots Garden Hub in Atwood. According to her, The Elephant is the “go-to” eatery for any special occasion within a 200-mile radius, not only because the atmosphere, service, and food are off the charts, but because there is nothing else comparable for 200-miles. Imagine living in New York and having to drive to Boston for a good meal; not only would you experience FDT (Foodie Delirium Tremors), you would demand federal funding for the development of community culinary infrastructure.
Admittedly, any stranger who would suddenly find themselves driving through Hoxie would soon be looking for the nearest exit. They would never imagine that halfway down Main Street awaits the creation of founder and executive chef Emily Campbell, a young woman who returned to this, her hometown, a few years ago. What awaits, just to give a sample, is an awesome Signature Old Fashion, a feathery ‘Ville Raspberry Black Bean Dip, and a succulent, locally sourced bison steak, all intelligently served by a freshly pressed and bow-tied wait-staff. If you ever find yourself crossing Kansas on I-70 west of Salina, exceed posted speed limits, ignore stop lights and signs, and recklessly pass large livestock trucks to get to The Elephant. It’s amazing how one wonderful restaurant can light up a town.
But it is not only in pleasing the palate that Northwest Kansas has redeemed itself. The next day, Jo gives me a tour of the formerly down-and-out garden store she purchased barely one year ago in Atwood. Since her formal opening on May 1st, the Grass Roots Garden Hub’s sales are already twice that of the former store’s previous annual sales—in less than four months—and is already breaking even. With just the right amount of understatement, Jo says, “I’m learning that I don’t suck at business.” Indeed, with a new and attractive wooden fence and pergola to shelter plants, new landscaping, and a cleaned outside wall soon to become a major cool sign, the property has dramatically improved since my last visit. A small Saturday morning farmers’ market that just opened across the street is a welcome addition to downtown. Jo hopes to incorporate it into her larger food hub plan. With a genuine sense that the store is a shared enterprise, she credits the town’s people for her initial progress when she says, “I’m celebrating our success with the community.”
Jo has a long way to go before her vision for a for-profit and non-profit community food hub is fully realized. Though she has not purchased a single non-organic garden product since she took over, financial considerations required that she sell off the substantial inventory of chemical fertilizers and sprays she inherited from the previous owner. With a community beautification grant from Atwood, she will demolish two falling down structures next to the store and replace them with one, 80 feet by 120 feet building that will house a store room, community kitchen, retail greenhouse, and event and education space. As Jo puts it, “education is a mission builder and will stimulate sales.” So far, the destruction side of that equation is paid for; the construction part is still looking for money, a task she hopes to complete by year’s end.
Things are looking up in Atwood, but Jo’s days are long. She still works full-time for K-State and her two children, ages 3 and 5, see the store as their second home. Her father, who had been helping out in the store, has had recent health issues that need tending to. But with her long dark hair held back by a wide, red polka-dot headband, she radiates exuberance. She’s excited to show me a few paint flourishes on some shelving, a sheet metal sign made for her by the high school welding class, and a new wooden seed rack she loves. And just in case a few naysayers happen to walk through the door, she has a sign next to the cactus stand that reads “No Pricks Allowed!”