Hungry for the tastes of travel . . .

More than the rush of excitement that greets us when we near a port, more than the thrill of sitting in a winged torpedo on the tarmac waiting for clearance, more than a sunrise on the horizon that signals another day in another place — what surpasses all of that, in my mind, is the variety of food that traveling allows us to experience.

The colors and flavors of foreign treats — whether a great meal, an after dinner “digestif,” or a perfect little chocolate on the pillow — these are the pieces of the travel experience that are hard to duplicate at home. The thrill of a new taste in an unfamiliar place is hard to describe. If you’re traveling close to home, it’s really no different. Keep your eyes open for the unexpected — we have discovered some of the best food in the unlikeliest of places — sublime fried catfish at a general store in back road Arkansas, for instance, an unforgettable steak dinner at an aging saloon in Ingomar, Montana, for instance, and the best fried green tomatoes ever at a ramshackle marina in the Florida Keys.

And, one lucky summer, an absolutely wonderful lobster roll at, believe it or not, a McDonald’s in a small Maine village. The only thing better than the taste was the price!

Traveling lifts us out of our ordinary existence into a realm of wonder that we want to repeat again and again. The cities, the food, the people, the monuments and the history, the natural beauty of different locales, the promise that no matter how many times we return to the same place, each experience will be different — that’s why we travel.

But, when we travel, the simple acts of sampling unique foods and sharing distinctive experiences with fellow travelers and with strangers destined to become newfound friends is an immense pleasure. Yes, we enjoy visiting renowned restaurants and seeking out special taste treats from unique cultures. “Peasant food,” however, the everyday fare of real people in diverse destinations, is what truly draws us, as do street fairs, farmers markets, food trucks. and Ma and Pa eateries.

People, of course, are always a part of the best food experiences, whether we’re ordering something from a food cart or a market stall, or struggling to make sense of a menu in a foreign language. We have perfected the art of pointing with a questioning expression — it always works! Being just a bit unsure of what it is we have ordered is truly part of the fun. And we have found locals typically quick to help translate and interpret.

Another aspect of the fun, for me at least, is my attempt to recreate some of the dishes we have enjoyed on our journeys once we return home. On a trip through Portugal in 2019, I was enamored of that country’s tomato soup in all its regional variations. I discovered an infinite variety of great tomato-based broth during our three weeks there. From the coasts to the cork forests, and from north to south, Soup de Tomate is a Portuguese staple on nearly every menu. It can be a hearty, filling stew with sausage and beans or a richly-flavored broth topped with poached eggs.

Other versions range from a nicely-spicy dish of seafood and rice to a simple, creamed tomato puree served as a starter course for a family dinner. Made with fresh, flavorful tomatoes, the various tomato soups were always tasty, filling and uniquely satisfying. Accompanied by crusty bread, cheese and olives, those meals were often “write home about” memorable. I asked for recipes whenever it was possible, and I am still trying to decide which is my personal favorite!

Global versions of “fast food” have their own kind of appeal — not the golden arches sameness or “choose your own filling” sandwich shops that Americans seem to favor — but the traditional, quick and easy street foods that sustain busy people throughout the world. One can get a slice of pizza, an empanada, a taco, a burrito, an egg roll, or a gyro in great cities around the globe; roasted corn, hot roasted chestnuts or fries with unique dipping sauces in European capitals and isolated villages. Ice cream, gelato and fruit smoothies are staples at casual stands and walk-up windows in warm climates, and open-face sandwiches and pastries are almost magically available from a world-class airport to an isolated beach along the Mediterranean. Food is a universal need, as well as a treat that brings people together to experience the joys of life.

So, I hope to lure you into the habit of sampling local fare wherever you may roam. It takes little effort to seek out distinctive food experiences, whether you’re in a world capital, visiting a charming small town, or traveling a country lane. Usually, these delightful destinations have no neon signs. Instead, a hand-written menu on a chalkboard may offer the only clue to treasures that lie within. Put aside the guidebooks and pay little heed to online reviews.

Peek through the windows of a diner, or step inside a tiny bistro. If seats are full, and people are smiling, join the crowd. On a road trip, we often pull into the parking lot of a local diner filled with local pickups and a smattering of 18-wheelers. Eagerly embrace your personal spirit of adventure, and you’ll likely reap the rewards of good, wholesome food served with a smile.

In the same way, wherever you may live, pay special attention to the push-cart vendors, the food trucks and the out-of-the-way lunch counters and snack bars. You may not always be delighted. There’s no guarantee.

But, if nothing else, you’re likely to have great stories to tell. And the best travel souvenirs, by far, are the stories you can repeat over and over again.

The dream dies hard, but the memories live on

It looms large on the horizon, the hulk of the S.S. United States, as she lies in port in Philadelphia. Her stacks rise above the neighboring dock buildings, and it’s possible to use them as landmarks rather than following GPS directions as you chart a course to see the once grand ship in her current forlorn and decrepit state.

This ship — and the search for a traditional Philly cheesesteak — took us to the city of brotherly love this summer.

We found our ship with ease, and we lingered there. Remembering our first encounter with this vessel, my husband and I didn’t speak. We just gazed through the chain links at this once gleaming passenger liner with a history that is irrevocably intertwined with ours.

We met the S.S. United States, and one another, on the same day in August 50 years ago at the port in Le Havre, France. The ship was just a teenager at the time. We were young as  well, and impressionable.

She was a looker, massive and shiny and silent, but aswarm with crew going about their duties. We were impressed by her presence and by her glamor; she took our breath away. We had some other experiences with her, but her days at sea came to an end barely three years later.

Our story continues.

This summer, as we mapped our road trip north, it became a priority for us to see the grand old ship. Philadelphia was miles out of the way, but we took the detour. Our hearts were in our throats as we first spied those distinctive smokestacks. We were buoyed by the hope that this old lady might actually sail the seas once again.

Unfortunately, early this month, we learned that the plan to refurbish her as a cruise ship is not feasible. The S.S. United States has been out of service for 47 years; she has languished at the dock in Philadelphia for more than 20 years now, longer than she sailed! And, though she is deemed still structurally sound, the dream that she might again carry passengers has died.

There is still some hope that the S.S. United States will be saved from the scrap heap and turned into a floating “history book.” She is, after all, an engineering marvel; this last American flagship set a world speed record on her maiden voyage. It has never been broken. Is it so hard to believe that others could be inspired by looking up at her towering stacks, standing at her railing, or exploring her labyrinthian interior. Not for us.

The experience certainly stayed with me and my husband throughout our years!

As we again gazed at her with awe, she sat behind locked gates, no longer shiny and glamorous, but impressive nonetheless!

We left the docks finally, and found a Philly cheesesteak at a tiny Tony Luke’s on Oregon Ave., almost in the shadow of Interstate 95 South. There were only seven or eight tables inside, but the line snaked through the building and extended into the parking lot beyond. It took some time to reach the order window, but not long at all for our traditional beef and melted cheese sandwiches to be ready. Miraculously, there were two seats at a table. The wait was worth it; Philadelphia’s signature food treat was the second delight of the day!

We had come to Philly for the memories. And we left well satisfied.

Mainely good: Up country, Down East

Maine in the summer is full of good things: salt air, brisk nights, bright sun, wispy clouds, lobster, ice cream parlors seemingly on every corner, breathtaking scenery, a lazy way of taking one day at a time and putting aside the rush.

There’s also traffic; getting anywhere by car is apt to take twice as long as anyone thinks it should, with distances measured in time rather than in miles. And, yes, it’s easy to spend a lot of time in the car in order to see it all.

But Maine is the kind of place that gets under your skin. It’s hard to resist coming back — and the more one returns, the longer one wants to stay.

Yesterday’s excursion took us along the back roads of Midcoast Maine from Wiscasset, the self-proclaimed “prettiest village,” northeast to Belfast, another old seafaring village about 50 miles distant. 101_3156Then we clung to the seacoast to reach Camden, where Mount Battie stretches to the sky along one side of scenic Route 1 and the surf crashes against the rocks on the other side.101_3149

It was a leisurely drive, interspersed with frequent stops for photos, some “on purpose” wrong turns, and a drive up the bluff to view storied offshore islands from the heights at Point Lookout in Lincolnville.

Summer is alive with color — vibrant flowers, lobster buoys glistening in the sun, colorful sails silhouetted against the sky, canoes and kayaks forming their own artistic displays in their racks.101_3015

Farm stands and roadside booths abound — offering everything from fresh strawberries and blueberries to ever present lobster rolls, fried clams, and whoopie pies (definitely a Maine thing!) 101_3107We even found ice cold Moxie for sale by the bottle. Yes, it still has a medicinal taste, but apparently it has never lost its appeal.

We made a stop at Beth’s Farm Market in Warren, and were thunderstruck by the beauty of huge floral hanging baskets. Alas, it’s still a bit too early for Maine sweet corn. But that’s another story; instead we stocked up on fresh strawberries, tomatoes — both red and green, and on purple carrots!

Make no mistake: Eating your way through Maine is half the fun.

Our lunch destination, and one of the main reasons for the trip, is an unassuming eatery with a loyal following in Belfast. Behind bright yellow doors at 96 Main St. is a thriving vegetarian lunch spot (open for dinner one night a week) that also has an in-house produce market, bakery and flower shop. The owners are all family, and their history in Maine dates to 1969; Chase’s Daily opened its doors in 2000.

Good food and sustainability are hallmarks of the operation; the owners and operators are down to earth, realistic and nothing if not approachable. The food is good, with unexpected layers of flavor and unusual ingredients; the ambience is pleasant, the wait staff congenial and the history heartwarming.

Maine has changed over the years, but in important ways this state remains the same as it was decades ago when I first visited. It’s still a little foreign, perhaps a little provincial, and rough around the edges at times. Portland, the largest city, is a cosmopolitan 101_3181center today, full of fine restaurants, hotels, shops, museums and galleries.

But, get out to the country and there’s still a whole wide world to explore. That’s part of the delight, and that’s the reason for the traffic on the coastal highway. You need to get out of the city and away from the resorts to really experience Maine. As a state slogan proclaims: It is “the way life should be.”

Up country and Down East are not only destinations; they are states of mind.

The open road: Traveling tips

101_2217Fast food isn’t particularly good for the waistline or the pocketbook! And, no matter how familiar, most of it is nothing to write home about.

So, this summer, why not slow down a little to nurture your spirit as well as your body? Whether you take a quick weekend jaunt or an extended trip across the country, here are some good ways to make your next driving trip a memorable one:

Pack a picnic basket

Seriously. There was a time when a wicker basket was a staple in the back seat or the trunk of almost every vehicle. Those were the days when people planned a day’s journey based on the distance between gas stations, and pulled off the road to enjoy a field of flowers or a lakeside vista. Today, with conveniences available at every highway exit, it’s not so necessary to plan ahead, but having a picnic basket full of good food still makes sense.

Fill yours with hard boiled eggs, a package of mini carrots or sugar snap peas, cans of sardines and packets of tuna, a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of crusty French bread, crackers, and homemade granola or trail mix. Bring along either a round of Brie, a wedge of blue, or some string cheese that can stand being out of the refrigerator for a few hours. Include apples, oranges and dried fruit, and maybe some homemade cookies. Pack plastic plates, glasses and silverware, a roll of paper towels and a plastic tablecloth. Include a blanket or quilt for sitting on the ground.

If you’re taking a long trip, restock at a local grocery store; forego the chain restaurants. Forget the cooler full of soda, but bring a large thermos filled with iced tea or lemonade. In cooler weather, fill the thermos with hot chocolate, tomato soup or chicken bouillon. Invest in refillable personal water bottles and fill them with tap water. When you get hungry, get off the road and get out of the car. Park by a stream or find a city park: Walk around, lounge on the grass, walk the dog, and let the kids run!

Get off the road – go local

Turn off the interstate occasionally. Even if you want to make good time getting to your destination, you’ll be surprised how invigorating it can be to take a scenic route or venture onto a back road. Forget the GPS and the app, and buy an old-fashioned road map, the paper accordion-folding kind that you spread out on the hood of the car, the kind that shows small towns, county roads, twisting dirt paths, historical sites and topographical features. Then make time to explore.

Leave the smart phone in your pocket and teach your children map-reading skills; get lost on purpose, just so you can find an alternative way back to the highway. Cultivate spontaneity! Take a few chances. Laugh a lot!

The highways were built to move goods and people quickly from place to place, and they do that well. But, any journey can be as interesting as the destination if you take a turn through the countryside and small towns along the way. It’s a whole different world view and one you don’t want to miss. Stop to photograph wild flowers, historical markers, spectacular views, a herd of longhorns, or an old barn. Look for the unusual. Stop at farm stands and “pick your own” orchards. Buy freshly-squeezed orange juice in Florida, fresh shelled pecans in Texas, cherries in Washington or just tapped maple syrup in Vermont. WP_20160508_007 (1)

Keep a travel journal

Don’t worry about the literary quality; just make it personal and it will be memorable. Simply write quick notes to keep in an old three-ring binder and punctuate with doodles, postcards, snapshots or restaurant business cards. Or take notes on your digital device to accompany the pictures you snap: Transfer the notes and photos to an online journal when you return home. Just be sure to date (and place) the entries so that you can look through actual or virtual pages later to recall specific events.

Your kids will love reliving this part of their history, and you can tell friends and relatives about your experiences.  Write about the wild flowers or the weather; the long, boring miles of highway, or the squabbles in the back seat; add anything that describes the moment! And don’t wait for an epic two-week vacation to Europe to begin journaling. You don’t have to be born with a sense of adventure to enjoy travel. You simply have to keep your mind open to possibilities, your heart open to fun and your eyes focused on the new sights all around you.

Slow down and look around

Take advantage of state tourist information centers as you cross state lines. Great sources of information,  they are staffed with knowledgeable volunteers, and often offer snacks, coffee and cool drinks. They also provide a welcome break from sitting! Many states also have upscale, modern rest stops with clean rest rooms, playgrounds and picnic tables.

Turn off the highway and head for a small town square. Look for a local café, or a diner with lots of cars parked outside. Chances are you’ll discover friendly people, good food and good times. Strike up a conversation with your server; ask questions about the area if it’s new to you.

Travel without reservations if you don’t have a deadline, and look for local hotels in small towns rather than chain motels along the highway. Consider it a bonus if you find a charming country inn, a lakeside cottage at a state park, or a historic hotel in the heart of a Midwest city. Another way: Take day trips to other towns in your area. You’ll be surprised at the things you discover!

Walt Whitman said it pretty well:

         “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, 

         Healthy, free, the world before me, 

        The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” 

Fishing in Waxahachie? Oh, yes!

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Sometimes the best places are close to home, just undiscovered.

And sometimes all that’s necessary to find great food is to listen to friends.

Both were true this past weekend as my husband and I took a pleasant drive to a small town just 30 minutes south of Dallas.

Getting off the highway is key to discovering the best Texas towns. I have known Waxahachie for many years as the site of the Scarborough Renaissance Festival, and I have been down that road several times. But I had never before gotten “off the road” to get into town.

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On this trip, however, the destination was Waxahachie’s downtown square, across the street from the historic Ellis County Courthouse.

The reason? A friend had recommended that we try a newly-opened restaurant. Actually, the friend and a partner own this newly-opened restaurant, and we were only too happy to be invited to sample the fare prior to the grand opening.

Both the restaurant and the town are unexpected treats.

Fresh and Local — and Seafood!

The Fish Grill is a labor of love many months in the making. Open for only seven days when we visited, it is sure to enjoy a long and healthy life. Retired architect Dana Wenzel partnered with Chef Christopher Stanford, a fifth-generation native Texan to bring a beautiful old bank building back to life as a charming and eclectic downtown eatery.

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The Fish Grill, Waxahachie

The building dates to 1900 when it was Citizens National Bank. It served at one time at the Ellis County Tax Office, but had stood forlorn and empty for a couple of years when Wenzel and Stanford found it. Well-known Dallas developer Jim Lake of Design District and Bishop Arts District fame, had already seen the potential for a restaurant in the space.

Features include the original vault doors, ornate brass 101_2138handrails, stunningly detailed wall and ceiling medallions, and native stone inserts in polished wood floors. A mezzanine and upstairs bar offer patrons spectacular views of the stately courthouse and other historic buildings.101_2147

Large, arched windows let in lots of light, and etched glass doors both lead outdoors and can be closed to provide private dining areas.

There are vibrant red-orange walls, modern art, linen cloths and napkins, and a friendly vibe — it is immediately welcoming. And the menu is as special as the space.

Menu offerings are Stanford’s creation, with a layering of flavors that is at once satisfying and unique. The goal, according to Wenzel, is to produce “good food to get out to the world,” and the governing philosophy is “fresh and local.” All seafood is from the Gulf — none of it arrives frozen. Other menu offerings, including the catfish, pork and beef, vegetables and greens, are locally sourced.

The word is that if it’s not in season, you won’t get it at The Fish Grill — that includes the battered fried oysters and the Grilled Strawberries au vin rouge!

Our lunch began with an impressive Mexican Shrimp Cocktail, highlighted by a piquant tomato sauce  with bits of onion, pepper, avocado and just the right amount of spice. We followed that with Fish Tacos and the ultimate comfort food — Mac and Cheese, served with grilled shrimp.

The only appropriate comment? Delicious! The only downside? No room for dessert, tempting as those grilled strawberries were. The bonus? Enough food in “packed with a smile” to-go boxes for additional taste treats at home.

After leaving the restaurant, we took the time for a walk around the courthouse, a tour of WP_20160410_027the abundant antique shops on the square and its adjacent streets, and a leisurely drive past the impressive gingerbread homes that characterize this town. Waxahachie obviously takes pride in its past and looks toward its future. It has the feel of a gracious, cultured college town; actually it was once the home of Trinity University, but that’s another story.

Because there are other stories to be told about this interesting little Texas town, you can be sure I’ll be returning to Waxahachie, and I look forward to enjoying more — perhaps many more — meals at The Fish Grill.

 

Digesting art and history — good memories

Two menus occupy special places in my heart and in my home. They couldn’t be more different.
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When in Rome

The first is a colorful, poster-size graphic from Da Meo Patacca, a memento from a first “Roman holiday” when I was 21. I still smile every time I look at it, remembering how impressed I was with the white-shirted waiter who unfurled the almost three-foot-long roll of paper with a deft flick of his wrist.  I don’t remember the food of that long-ago dinner table, but I can’t forget the experience, and the framed menu has graced my kitchens and pantries for longer than I care to admit.

The classic restaurant is still serving its traditional fare in Rome and, by all accounts, still delighting tourists from all over the globe. It is now possible to purchase the extravagant vintage menus on ebay or etsy, and I suspect that many, like mine, are still kept as keepsakes.20160110_120156

I treasure the memory; I also delight at the items priced in Lira. A mixed salad for 250, garlic bread at 100, saltimbocca a la romana at 950, gelato for 300 and a bottle of wine at 2500 – dinner easily required counting out bills running to multiple thousands! Truly, that was culture shock. However, the exchange rate at the time was around 600 Italian Lira to a single U.S. dollar. My dinner, I am sure, was quite a bargain! I returned to Da Meo Patacca a few years ago and came away with a later version of the menu, this time with prices in Euros. I also took away a renewed appreciation for this lively eatery that has served generations of diners during its five decades of operation. I know there is better food in this ancient city, and trendier trattorias. But this is a tradition of sorts and, on a pleasant evening, the patio is friendly, the wine is abundant, and the music can be fine!

Viva la France

The second menu is not as vibrant in color, but it boasts fascinating pastel drawings of animals around its edge – elephant, bear, camel, kangaroo, cat and rat – along with frivolous hot air balloons floating over the countryside. It is dated “25 Decembre 1870 – 99eme Jour du Siege” from Voisin in Paris. It is in French. And, no, I did not eat there. Rather, I was entranced by the images and by the subject.

I have loved this menu for years, knowing it was not a real menu. I thought it was simply a quirky take on French culture and paid little attention to the actual items: Haunch of Wolf with Venison Sauce, Cat flanked by Rats. Jugged Kangaroo and Elephant Consomme20160109_171810Among the Hors d’Oeuvres: Butter, Radishes, Stuffed Donkey’s Head, Sardines. It includes other food choices as well: Wild Mushrooms Bordelaise and Rice Cake with Preserves. Again, I thought, a nod to French ingenuity, or an attempt to be entertaining. I thought nothing of the English translation at the bottom of the poster. I investigated no further, and simply enjoyed the artwork of my charming wall hanging. Until just recently.

The Back Story

Around Christmas, I happened across a blog post with an intriguing title. With an audible gasp, I realized that it was the story of my menu. I now know about the Franco-Prussian War, about the long and celebrated history of Voisin Restaurant, about how adaptable French cuisine can be, and about the suffering and endurance of a proud people during hard times. I know about how a renowned chef was truly creative and managed a Christmas dinner that must have been quite a treat for wealthy diners, and that at least one other restaurant routinely served equally bizarre dishes. By discovering the history of “my menu,” I have gained a new understanding of life, and of war and survival. During this siege, not even the well-to-do were spared hunger and deprivation.

The City of Light has known some very dark times. The French surrendered to the Prussians in 1871, when the citizens of the city were truly half-starved. I still love the depictions of the animals in their faded watercolor reality. But I will never again look at this menu in quite the same way. And I now view history very differently.

Learn more about the war, the zoo and the dinner.

Also included, between the French and English versions of the historic menu, is a letter to “Dear George,” signed “See you in Boston. Hopefully, Charles.” Perhaps it’s a figment of someone’s imagination. Or not.

Among other things, the letter states: “The Prussian encirclement of Paris is now so complete that no word is getting out except by carrier pigeon or balloon. As the besiegers have become increasingly adept at shooting down the balloons or tracking them to their destinations, the government will probably soon abandon the balloon service.”

It continues with the odd statement: “I think you will enjoy the enclosed Christmas menu from Voisin’s where I dined yesterday. As you can see, hunger forgets squeamishness.”

Exploring the world of fresh food on a road trip through America’s Heartland

A food writers’ conference, “Eating Words” sponsored by the Edible Institute, in Iowa City, Iowa, was ample incentive for a freelancer with that writing specialty; planned visits along the way at innovative restaurants, specialty food stores, farmers markets and a working organic farm with an aquaponics greenhouse promised subject matter for future stories. A brief respite from DFW’s mid-90s temperatures was yet another reason to drive away in early October. It all came together as a six-day road trip that spanned almost 2,000 miles.

There’s something about road trips! Turning off the highway can mean unexpected pleasures, even if it’s just the promise of a different pace. The stiffness that accompanies long hours of sitting seems to vanish quickly with the sight of a glorious sunrise, miles upon miles of golden corn fields, and the bucolic simplicity of cattle grazing on green hillsides. This trip showcased America’s Heartland at its best! And the unexpected pleasures just kept coming!

First dining stop was Anton’s in Kansas City, an unusual eatery that didn’t disappoint in any way. This relatively new taproom and restaurant, in an old brick building that once was Nabisco’s headquarters, began its life as a grocery store in 1898. Between bakery and today, it served for 30 years as Irene’s Restaurant and Lounge, the local “3 Martini” lunch spot. So, its current incarnation is entirely appropriate.

But it’s different.

There’s an aquaponics system in the basement, a great, funky bar and open kitchen on the main level and an art-filled dining room on the second floor. Waiters are friendly, the on-tap and bottled beers should satisfy any palate, the wine list is long and the food is delicious. Best choices, of course, in this beef capital, are the cut-to-size on-site aged steaks, your choice of grain-fed or grass fed.

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Being different, I chose a sampler of smoked salmon served with egg salad, olive tapenade and crostinis, with a side order of potato latkes. It was more than delicious. It was also more than I could eat. But smoked salmon for breakfast isn’t bad!

Following a morning walk to a nearby health food grocery that has been serving residents of the midtown neighborhood for more than 40 years, my “mate” and I drove to the impressive grounds of the World War I Memorial and Museum that dominates the skyline between KC’s Federal Reserve Bank and Union Station.

The site was originally dedicated in 1921, and the Egyptian Revival Liberty Memorial was completed in 1926. An underground museum and research facilities are more recent and the grounds are now designated as the National World War I monument. It was an unexpected surprise. Its grand dimensions, c20151002_095753oupled with its simplicity and its symbolism, combine to make it one of the most impressive monuments I have ever encountered. Visitors to the underground museum enter over a glass bridge spanning a field of red poppies — 9,000 of them, representing one flower for every 1,000 deaths in the “world war.” It boggles the mind. Visitors can also ride an elevator to the top of a 217-foot memorial tower for a spectacular view of the city and surrounding plains.

We left Kansas City then, driving on to Liberty, Missouri, for breakfast. But Kansas City will remain with us for a long time.