MA Road Trip: Small Town Lovin'
RED LODGE, Mont., Aug. 21 --
It would be too simple to compare this town to Cicely, Alaska, the fictional town on the television series Northern Exposure. But I can't help thinking about Elaine and Maurice, Ed and Holling Vincoeur, as I stroll the wide main drag of Red Lodge, the hard-to-miss mountains setting the scene (if you stop and look, you can even see elk taking a stroll -- or are they moose?).
This is a place where people say good morning -- and they mean it.
I'm filing this report from the Coffee Factory, a local coffee roaster where people actually sit and talk over coffee before heading off to work. I'm sitting behind four guys who are chewing the fat on all kinds of topics, including tomorrow night's concert with country music legend Willie Nelson, the upcoming weather forecast (sunny but dramatically cooler) and the diet of goats. Over at another table, the guys are talking about rainbow trout supplies in the nearby creek. There's no attitude, no skinny lattes (I just heard a woman say "I like a little fat in my coffee") and no McDonald's in sight!
I think I'm falling in love. Let me introduce you.
About 60 miles south of Billings, Red Lodge was originally established in the 19th century as a coal-mining town. The first mine opened for business in 1887, luring immigrant miners from Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Finland, Sweden and Norway, to name a few. The boom lasted until 1943, when a huge mine explosion killed 74 people and effectively ended the mining industry there. But the townspeople stayed and created an amazing patchwork quilt of cultures, inspiring a Festival of Nations, an annual celebration of the town's multicultural roots. The ethnic buffet also meant an amazingly diverse culinary heritage. My friend Doug, a clinical psychologist in D.C. who grew up in Red Lodge, fondly remembers the polenta, ravioli and bagna cauda prepared by his paternal grandmother, who immigrated from the Piedmont region of Italy.
These days, Red Lodge is better known as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park and a ski destination than as an ethnic restaurant mecca, but if you look carefully, you'll see remnants of the Old World. Over at City Bakery (104 S. Broadway, 406-446-2100), Arlyn and Linda Veitz still crank out Italian breadsticks (sold in brown paper bags) every week, plus hand-shaped bagels to die for and schnecken made with a cream cheese dough.
At Sam's Tap Room, beer meister Sam Hoffmann continues a local tradition started in 1910 by one Fred Lehrkind. Hoffmann's Red Lodge ales are outstanding; his hefeweizen is probably the best I've ever had (floral and creamy!). Mister MA (who arrived in Billings yesterday) and I noticed lots of folks coming in to get refills of their growlers, half-gallon jugs of brew for home consumption.
What's evident more than anything is a local, home-grown spirit unparalleled to other cities I've visited over the past few weeks.
I had the pleasure of meeting Martha Young, chef-owner of Cafe Regis, part breakfast and lunch joint, part health food store. Formerly the Regis Grocery, Regis the cafe serves up seasonal and local fare that incorporates the bounty from Young's backyard garden. The omelet of the day featured some of Young's garlic and basil. Thanks to Young's mother, who is visiting from Colorado, there were Colorado peaches on the menu. Young was excited about her first crop of gooseberries, from which she is hoping to create a compote for French toast. She gave me a white strawberry to taste. Heaven. (I think I'll wake up Mister MA and take him there for breakfast before we head to Bozeman.)
On my first night in town, I joined Doug, Mitch and Doug's mom, "Babe" for supper at Bridge Creek Backcountry Kitchen & Wine Bar for Montana steaks and really good wine. Local huckleberries were on the menu, as was pink-fleshed rainbow trout which swims in Rock Creek, the stream that runs through town all the way up to Yellowstone.
Last but not least, Mister MA and I went down Memory Lane when we entered the Montana Candy Emporium, the ultimate penny candy experience. We filled our paper sack with Dum Dums, a candy necklace, bubblegum cigarettes and Pop Rocks. I remarked to the guy behind the counter, who's been working there since the store opened in 1991, that these kinds of places are a dying breed, and for that, he smiled, knowing what a rare gem of which he was a part.
And that about says it all about Red Lodge. Rare gem.
I can't wait to return.
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