Sunday, October 09, 2005

Poor Man's Salmon

My hometown of Ida Grove, Iowa is located at the confluence of two rivers known as the Maple River and Odebolt Creek which provided ample opportunity to be a “river rat” throughout my childhood as I explored the area with my friends and younger brother. Nearly twenty years later I find myself (October 8, 2005) on a family vacation on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River at the Holiday Shores Motel on Business Highway 18 (Iowa) in McGregor, Iowa. Our family shares a love of the waterways and boats especially canoeing given our several trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA),, in the Northwoods of Minnesota but the BWCA will be the subject of a future posting.

McGregor, Iowa’s origins date back to 1837 when Alexander Mac Gregor (note the Mac vs. Mc variance) began his ferry boat operation on the vary bank where I am residing in Room #19 overlooking Old Man River. McGregor’s other historical connection is that it was the original home of the Ringling Brothers Circus who performed their “penny shows” for the locals. McGregor, Iowa’s close proximity to the Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois borders allows it to benefit from numerous “weekenders” armed with disposable income and appetites! Today McGregor has transformed from a historically busy regional transportation hub of 5,500 population at its height into a more sedate, picturesque river town of some 800 residents complete with an abundance of: antique shops, ice cream shops, casino events, restored historical buildings, and a full calendar of events like today’s arts and crafts festival which stand ready to consume tourists’ dollars.

Speaking of appetites I dined (or simply “ate” for those of you involved in the debate on my previous “Dining vs. Eating” posting. NOTE: please review this posting to see my philosophy on restaurants and to understand the ranking system but for now a “1” is bad and a “5” is best) at two local establishments which are reviewed below:

“River View CafĂ©” – is a combination “mom and pop/greasy spoon, sports bar/family restaurant/bar”. It is located a very short walk from the Holiday Shores Motel and is home to the “CrocoBurger” (great menu choice) which is a ½ pound burger complete with enough vegetables to even please a vegan!! The toasted bun was a very nice touch but the wait staff service was spotty at best so they receive a “3” ranking.
“McGregors’ Marina with Mr. McGregors’ Beer and Bratz Garden” - due to snacking while walking through today’s arts and crafts festival my father and I stopped here just for ice cream, not dinner, so I can personally recommend their butter scotch malt. Granted this is a very limited knowledge of the restaurant (just a “malt”) but based on ambience, friendliness of staff, and the location directly on the river bank I will rate them with a “3”. The marina shares a parking lot with the Holiday Shores Motel and is located at Mile Marker 633.5 if you are traveling by boat. Finally, if you want to dine on the river itself you can simply rent a pontoon boat at McGregors’ Marina and order a take away lunch for dining with Mother Nature.

Of course no discussion of McGregor and its restaurants would be complete without a review of the local fishing industry. Thanks to my father’s lack of shyness he introduced me to a local commercial fisherman – John and his wife Joyce, now in the 80’s but still very lively -- so I could “interview” them for my blog. My father has known John and Joyce for years since my family has been vacationing at Holiday Shores Motel for several years, which has given my father ample opportunities to go “hoop net fishing” with John.

John and Joyce are gracious hosts who live just across the railroad tracks from the Holiday Shores Motel. They opened our conversation with photographs showing the “mud flood” they suffered in 2004 after a nominal 3 inches of rain overwhelmed the City of McGregor’s storm sewer system. Joyce told me that this was the first time in 68 years they have experienced such a “mud flood” which ended up filling their basement. John and Joyce clearly indicated that this personal disaster was caused by the city government’s inaction to clean out the storm water system. John and Joyce feel that the city government simply wants to acquire their property so the city can redevelop the area since the home is now surrounded by business properties not other homes. Now this is a very Machiavellian form of eminent domain which, if accurate, should concern all of you which cherish private property rights. If you are facing your own eminent domain abuses by your respective governments please contact my friends at the Institute for Justice, in Washington DC. They are NOT with the government so they can indeed be there to HELP.

As we talked about how the river, city, and the fishing industry have changed over the years the one comment that resonated with me the most is when John stated that the McGregor section of the Mississippi River is known as “Pool #10” due to the system of locks and dams on the river defined by the parlance of the US Army Corps of Engineers. My concern here is that clinical, bureaucratic phrases like “Pool #10” rob local areas of the romance that is Mark Twain’s Mississippi River. I just can’t see Huck Finn steering his raft through “Pool #10” but then again I am clearly a traditionalist. Regardless of the terms used for the river, fishing is still an active industry. John told me that the range of fish he caught over his career include -- catfish, buffalo head, channel cat, mud cat, carp, perch, and bass (but you throw those back to avoid any trouble with the Department of Natural Resources). One local culinary delight (insert cautionary doubt here please) that apparently was created during the Great Depression based on John’s history lesson for me is --- Poor Man’s Salmon. Poor Man’s Salmon is essentially made by dicing whatever fish are harvested and placing these varied pieces together in one jar with a touch of brine. Once this combination has “become one, fermented together” you then have Poor Man’s Salmon. As my father and I discovered today when John opened a jar of this treat it is best served on soda crackers with black pepper. While I would not seek this dish out on any restaurant menu I can state that it was much tastier than I ever imagined it could be which helped me understand why John’s family and friends did not starve during the Great Depression. Based on what I heard here today it was Poor Man’s Salmon not President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “alphabet soup” of federal bureaucracies which kept people fed in McGregor, Iowa.

See you on the river,


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