Google’s Arts & Culture operation recently launched a site devoted to Kansas City. It’s filled with praiseworthy stories and photos focusing on the city’s many cultural resources. I was asked to contribute a relatively brief history of the place, which turned out to be a fun exercise in research and compression. Find my piece here:
Although I’m out of the daily newspaper business, I hear from editors from time to time. So I turned out this tribute to a man who left a mark on the world.
A couple of years ago I gave a slide talk related to the Eighth Street Tunnel, a public works project that connected the heart of Kansas City with the West Bottoms by way of a trolley, or cable car, that rumbled through the high bluffs on the edge of downtown toward the stockyards and the original Union Station below. The tunnel has long been sealed, though it remains a curiosity for those who have a penchant for tucked-away pockets of local history.
My talk focused not on the tunnel per se but on the Eighth Street experience of a writer who grew up there but is not much remembered today. It occurred to me that the story of Edward Dahlberg’s boyhood remains a valuable and vivid Kansas City tale worth sharing.
Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977) was one of the 20th century’s most erudite and irritating writers. Born in Boston to an unmarried and itinerant mother, Lizzie, he and she landed in Kansas City when he was in short pants, about 1906.
Edward grew up on and around Eighth Street, where his mother practiced her profession as a lady barber. They lived in a flat in a stone house on “dilapidated” McGee Street, just off Admiral Boulevard, according to one of Dahlberg’s accounts, though a city directory also puts his mother at 710 E. Eighth St, which would have been a few blocks east of McGee.
Late in life, Dahlberg wrote this about his home town:
“I have never forgotten how I imagined an Eighth Street Kansas City brothel smelled. The prostitutes occupied rooms upstairs over Basket’s Chili Con Carne lunch counter, which was next to a saloon and the first lady barber shop in K.C., where part-time streetwalkers and fast chippies cut the hair of round-shouldered ranchers from Lincoln, Nebraska or Dallas, Texas.” There was indeed a restaurant operated by J.S. Baskett, two Ts, at 12 E. Eighth St.
Lizzie first worked for someone else, but eventually opened her own shop, the Star Lady Barbershop, at 16 E. Eighth St. She first appears at that address in the Polk’s city directory of 1911. The streets and the situation were not always kind to the introverted boy, and at one point, when his mother’s long hours of work and complicated relationships with men became too much for her, Lizzie sent Edward off to a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland. When he returned to Kansas City a few years later as a young adult, he worked in the stockyards of the West Bottoms and became increasingly embarrassed by his mother and her occupation. He left for Omaha and points west, then eventually New York, where he managed to obtain an education in the classics at Columbia University in the mid-1920s.
Dahlberg memorialized and rhapsodized over his mother in his autobiography, Because I Was Flesh, published in the mid-1960s. The book is poetically lush and feverishly frank about personal and sexual anxieties. It’s full of classical and biblical allusions, elevated language that could stop a casual reader in her tracks, and colorfully resonant descriptions of Kansas City in the early 20th century.
The town was not a senseless Babel: the wholesale distillers were on Wyandotte, the commission houses stood on lower Walnut, hustlers for a dollar an hour were on 12th and pimps loitered in the penny arcades between 8th and 5th on Main Street. If one had a sudden inclination for religion he could locate a preacher in a tented tabernacle of Shem beneath the 8th Street viaduct, and if he grew weary of the sermons, there was a man a few yards away who sold Arkansas diamonds, solid gold cuff links, dice, and did card tricks. Everybody said that vice was good for business, except the Christian Scientists and the dry Sunday phantoms who lived on the other side of the Kaw River in Kansas City, Kansas.
Dahlberg, like many writers, ended up in Europe in the 1920s. And there he produced his first novel, Bottom Dogs, which was published in 1930. D.H. Lawrence wrote an introduction. The critic Edmund Wilson said “Bottom Dogs is the back-streets of all our American cities and towns,” and some readers eventually identified the book in a line of “proletarian naturalism” linking him with the likes of James T. Farrell and even Jack Kerouac.
In Because I Was Flesh, Dahlberg revisits and essentially rewrites that first book, turning his fictional character and his mother Lizzie into the real characters of memoir.
In both books, Dahlberg writes about growing up in the shadow of the Eighth Street Viaduct, which spanned a few blocks beginning at Walnut and heading west toward the Eighth Street tunnel. Lizzie Dahlberg’s shop stood beneath the viaduct and next door to the Electric Fish and Oyster House. Wouldn’t you want to have the chance to dine again at the Electric Fish and Oyster House in downtown Kansas City?
Dahlberg must have read another book by a onetime Kansas Citian. Clyde Brion Davis, a newspaper man who once toiled at The Star, penned an autobiographical book called “The Great American Novel…” in the late 1930s.
Davis arrived in Kansas City around the same time as Dahlberg, 1907. From the Union Station in the West Bottoms he was directed to a wooden runway that led to the elevated station. “And presently I was rattling along in a trolley car over the roofs of factories and railroad tracks and thence through the Eighth Street tunnel and into the hilliest and most hectic city I have ever seen. No Kansas Citian walks along the streets. He travels at a half run. It is easier to skip down the hills than to hold back in a dignified walk. And the momentum helps climb the hill ahead.”
Davis also wrote about the street life underneath the Eighth Street Viaduct:
It “cuts a heavy black span across sun-drenched Main Street and Delaware and throws an equally black and cool shadow beneath. A few wagons and drays plod up the hill beside this shadow, but underneath the viaduct and around the pillars is a haven for the weary and heat-stricken. And here is the gathering place for that remarkable clan known as ‘street fakers.’ There is Peters who sells Magic Oil….There is Edwards with his straw hat and red, white and blue hatband and beery breath who is ‘advertising’ Arkansas diamonds. … There is the street faker with the patent potato peelers and the one with the revolutionary cleansing cream.”
Davis doesn’t mention the Star Lady Barbershop, but surely he encountered Lizzie in one shop or another under the viaduct and perhaps even sat in one of her chairs for a trim and a scrape as the city buzzed outside and the streetcar trundled overhead.
When Edward Dahlberg left Cleveland and returned to Kansas City he was 17 or 18. It’s tempting to consider that he might have been here around the same time as Ernest Hemingway, who was working as a reporter for The Kansas City Star (in 1917-18). They were about the same age. But there’s no existing correspondence between the two of them and no evidence that I’ve yet turned up that each was aware of the other’s life in Kansas City. I’d add however that in the ensuing years, Dahlberg developed a strong dislike of Hemingway and his work.
When he came back, though, Dahlberg found what he felt like was a changed place: “The city was now filled with Christian Scientists, spiritualists and impecunious bachelors who went to the tabernacles and religious gatherings to meet spinsters who thought maidenhead and godhead were indivisible. The city was no longer my parent. I could not saunter along Locust, McGee and Cherry Streets. Kansas City had become a great, soulless town, and the laughter had expired underneath the 8th Street viaduct.”
It’s possible, of course, that what had changed was Dahlberg’s sensibilities rather than the city. He was no longer seven years old. He was a young adult, on the verge of exploring his own future.
Lizzie Dahlberg owned her barber shop at least into 1925 or so. She wound up owning one or more houses in North Kansas City and Northmoor. I think I have copies of some letters that Dahlberg wrote to Sherwood Anderson from one of those houses, perhaps after Lizzie had died.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Edward Dahlberg returned to Kansas City as recently as 1965 to be a writer in residence at UMKC. I once heard from an English teacher there that Dahlberg was very much the dirty old man that he sometimes revealed himself to be in his books. Not to excuse his behavior, but that was the world he had grown up around, in that “smutty and religious town,” in those turn-of-the-century years.
In the end, Dahlberg turned on the city of his eye-opening youth: “Homer detested Ithaca, and let me admit, I hate Kansas City, which is still a wild, rough outpost town of wheat, railroads, packing houses, and rugged West Bottoms factories.”
Echoing Thomas Wolfe and others, Dahlberg concluded, “Nobody ought to return to his native city; it’s a premature burial, and yields nothing but a terrible sickness of the mind.”
Because I Was Flesh, by Edward Dahlberg. (New Directions, 1967).
Bottom Dogs, by Edward Dahlberg (City Lights, 1961).
“The Great American Novel…,” by Clyde Brion Davis (Farrar & Rinehart, 1938)
The Leafless American & Other Writings, by Edward Dahlberg (McPherson & Co., 1986)
Fiction — writing fiction, that is — has never worked very well for me. This year I’ve been making another run at it. In the crevices around the larger project and a few smaller ones I’ve managed to turn out one story still in progress, one story that felt done enough to submit just recently, and a piece of flash fiction that editors at Akashic Books were kind enough to include the other day in their online series Mondays Are Murder. Akashic is the house that published Kansas City Noir, the fiction collection I edited featuring 14 writers, in 2012. My story here (follow the link) is in Akashic’s Noir anthology style, set in a specific place (Midtown Kansas City). Locals may well recognize the opening setting, daytime in Milton’s Tap Room. And squeamish readers might be aware there’s a NSFW moment near the, uh, climax.
The Folk Alliance International conference is coming up again in Kansas City. For four glorious days in February I plan to immerse myself in a mind-blowing kaleidoscope of musical experiences. This will be the fifth and last (for now) KC conference, and I can hardly wait. I was poking around in search for something this morning when I came across the following, a quasi-political column that I wrote on the verge of Folk Alliance in 2016 and as that horrendous presidential campaign year was unfolding. I don't think I knew at the time that I'd be retiring just a month or so later. This column first appeared at kansascity.com and The Kansas City Star on Feb. 19-20, 2016. Sorry if it takes you back to a scary place.
"Steve Paul: To quote a sage, this land is your land"
By the time you read this I expect to be in the midst of a lost weekend. Yes, I suffer from an uncontrollable addiction — to music — a condition that has been exacerbated by the annual influx of song slingers and guitar players who gather at the Crown Center hotels in Kansas City for the Folk Alliance International conference.
I’ll spare you some of the high points of lyrical heartbreak, dextrous finger-picking and free-form, nocturnal goings-on of the “folk tribe” to which I pay tribute.
But I will thank the organizers for providing a timely and immersive break from that other tribal ritual consuming so much air space these days. Most of the music-making has taken place out of range of any 24/7 news coverage of the presidential campaign, and I’m happy even to give up glancing at my Twitter feed for at least an hour or two at a time.
That’s not to say this presidential campaign has unfolded without a certain entertainment value. But, Donald Trump in a pissing match with the pope? Who could have seen that coming?
Speaking of torture, the results from two more contests will be flowing into our screens this weekend. It has been difficult to sense any shift from recent trends in momentum, which has the leading candidates of both parties locked in unexpectedly close and death-to-the-finish battles.
If we’re lucky, the Republicans could lose a candidate or two after this weekend’s results. (When exactly will Ben Carson get the message that, aside from not having a clue, he doesn’t have a chance?)
As the GOP field narrows, it won’t be quite so easy for Trump to dominate in the race for committed convention delegates. With fewer candidates in the mix, runners up will have a better chance to reach voting thresholds (often 15 or 20 percent) that will allow them to land apportioned delegates.
So the acid-drenched battle, primarily between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, for second and even third place will mean more as the race churns through the Super Tuesday contests (March 1), Michigan (March 8) and a group of meaningful primaries in the middle of March.
Among the Democrats, it’s fair to ask the Hillary Clinton camp exactly when and where did they miss the signal that Bernie Sanders was riding forth on an express train.
Did anyone expect that Nevada, with its large Latino and union factions, would wind up neck and neck? It’s quite reasonable to suggest that Sanders’ message of income inequality resonates in a place that is so much defined by the haves and have nots and so largely populated by those who toil to serve the wealthy.
Clinton’s baggage remains heavy, though a majority of Democrats still view her as the party’s best chance to defeat whichever contorted Republican survives his party’s offensive demolition derby because, of course, no candidate is ever perfect and no politician is ever an angel.
Sanders’ appeal to the idealism and rebellion of youth (and many of their feel-the-Bern elders) will be a strong storyline when the history of this presidential campaign is written. So will the utterly surreal and weirdly American story of Trump, no matter what happens in the coming months.
I’m looking forward to dropping out for a couple of days. It might feel something like having a real life, not a constant loop of polling updates, attack ads, verbal inanities and solemn dissection of all of the above. I’ll miss the Sunday morning shows. I’ll take the news in small doses.
Maybe I will think a bit about Nevada this weekend, given that I’ll be holed up inside a hotel where time will stand still and machinations of the outside world will hardly penetrate. Just like Vegas, that is. But for this weekend at least I’m hanging my hat with the music makers. And if there’s any justice in this world, they are the ones who will inherit the earth.
I have a large appetite. Food is not just nutrition but celebration. And life is too short to eat boring food, just as it’s too short to drink unremarkable wine. So I splurge sometimes. I cook with focus, adventure and a kind of subdued passion. I go for new tastes.
Yet, lately, I tend to eat less. Call it diabetes discipline. That’s optimistic. The numbers are good, though my liver would tend to disagree. Still, if tempted with a whole roasted fish or an oozing burrata with smoked trout roe, I’m all over it, at least for a few bites. Turns out that a heaping plate of crispy beef from a local, old-reliable Chinese restaurant can remain the centerpiece of four leftover lunches. I mean, why stuff yourself?
These thoughts began arising as I read a new collection of the late Jim Harrison’s food-and-life essays. The book’s title, A Really Big Lunch, refers to a spectacularly excessive, 37-course feast (or was it 42?) put on by a French chef and friend of Harrison’s. Even Harrison, whose appetites clearly were larger than mine, felt overwhelmed, almost defeated at one point. Harrison holds nothing back as a writer, and some readers might be turned off by his lecherous confessions and old-school impropriety (the essays reach as far back as the 1970s). But looking past all that, which, in the current sexual-harassment environment, becomes admittedly harder to do, he has wise and entertaining things to say about food and wine. I plan to cherry-pick some of Harrison’s wine writing for a paper I’m planning to give at a Hemingway conference, in Paris, in 2018. And imagine my surprise when I realized recently that in my modest collection of bottles I’ve got a Domaine Tempier Bandol from a few years back, which apparently was Harrison’s favorite wine in the world.
So, food, wine and cooking. From time to time I pay attention to the appetites.
On a fall Saturday, with nothing much else going on, I turned some of the last of our yard tomatoes into a marinara. They were not lovely orbs. They weren’t even deeply red, but they would do for a kitchen improvisation. It took a while in boiling water to loosen their skins, but when that was done I set them aside to cool. Chopped onions and garlic and the last of some baby carrots in the fridge. I was hoping to add tomato paste to the simmering stew, to add some color and heft, but alas I could find none on the shelf. Here’s a suitable substitute: a small jar of prepared tapenade; hmm, red peppers, some kind of cheese, why not? The tapenade turned the marinara a bit orange, but with salt, pepper and dried herbs, it all tasted pretty fine nearly two hours later when I turned off the burner. I put some of the marinara in a bag to freeze, and held out a good portion to eat the next day.
One Sunday, we found some frozen lamb chops in the freezer. I chopped onion and garlic. I opened a red wine (a mass market red Zinfandel) and a jar of vegetable stock I’d made around Thanksgiving. Ta da: braised lamb, with little potatoes and carrots. We ate lamb chops for days.
As a onetime restaurant critic, my radar remains fairly well tuned when we go out to eat. Yet, I failed myself on a recent trip to Toronto. Though I managed to sample a decent variety of tastes in a couple of days – pub food, tapas at a trendy Sherry bar -- I missed the hugely important world of alluring Asian cuisines that seem to define dining in that capital of cultural diversity. Next time, for sure. A recent trip to Atlanta gave us a sampling of that city’s burgeoning fine-dining scene, though we barely scratched the surface. In Boston this fall, at the Neptune Oyster Bar (pictured), I managed to consume some of the finest oysters on the half shell I’d ever met. In Kansas City, I’ve sampled a couple of promising new restaurants lately and always find pleasure and creativity when returning to old favorites (Novel, the Rieger, the Antler Room, to name just three). And I had one of the best meals of the year when birthday splurging in Corvino’s Tasting Room (details in a previous blog). But I always have to remind myself that some of the other best meals of the year occurred in domestic settings: A humbly generous and bustling family meal around an extended kitchen table at the Zia Pueblo in New Mexico; an intimate and poignant Thanksgiving tribute with family members of a close friend who had died just the week before.
With the holidays in full swing, I expect much feasting ahead, some of it happy, some, so it goes, melancholy. The warmth of the kitchen, the clink of glasses, all that love on our plates – sure, we can’t help but feel grateful for what we have.
During my kaleidoscopic career in the newspaper business I spent a few years as a restaurant critic. Once a month or every six weeks or so – along with whatever other writing or editing I was doing at the time - I analyzed meals and experiences at Kansas City restaurants. Every now and then I’d write about food experiences during travels elsewhere (Washington, D.C., Seattle, Paris, an American Royal barbecue immersion). I mostly enjoyed chowing down during a period, not so long ago, when Kansas City was increasingly being led forward by a new generation of creative chefs and food-and-beverage professionals. I can’t deny that restaurant writing and the most hedonistic and self-conscious aspects of the scene sometimes resemble a kind of food porn. So be it. Who doesn’t really like a sexy picture of an assemblage of desirable pleasure on a plate?
I suppose a similar thought occurred the other night more than once during a three-hour dinner in the Corvino Tasting Room. This is the fixed-price, multi-course menu that unfolds out of the view of the sometimes raucous main dining room, or Supper Club, at Corvino and within whisper distance of the kitchen. (Along with four generously sized four-top tables, two counter stools offer ringside views of cooking and chef-ing in action.)
My experience at Corvino had been limited to a dinner, some drinks and some late-night noshing off the attractive (and attractively priced) menu that kicks in at 10 p.m. Food was always good, or at least interesting. Service was sometimes surprisingly ragged. Some recent staff turnover seems to indicate the place is still finding its way. But with a foundation based on Michael Corvino’s exquisite and exciting approach to food, its future is highly promising.
I didn’t intend this post to be a review. But I will say that of the dozen dishes put before us, from the opening amuse bits to the closing sweets, not a single false note occurred. There were rich and tempting notes of chicken liver mousse and foie gras. Sweet and savory danced a pas de deux all night long. An oyster topped with a melon granita and chile, was an early, winning example of the dynamics of texture, color and palate-enlivening sensations that Corvino revels in. I would return to his kitchen if only to savor another bowl of the corn pudding, bedded down with chanterelle mushrooms, trout roe and a dusting of buckwheat. The “main” dishes included a succulent King salmon and a plate with two contrasting cuts of ribeye. After opening with a glass of Champagne (Jacquesson 740), I asked sommelier Ross Jackson to suggest a bottle to carry my table of four through the middles and mains. The Burgundy “Les Bons Batons” (2014), by the female winemaker Ghislaine Barthod, was light, slightly earthy and perfect.
The Tasting Room, to be sure, is not an everyday experience. It’s a special-occasion place, where you should expect to drop a couple of bills per person. Or more. Much more. (We skipped an optional caviar plate and a $50 upcharge for A5 wagyu – the highest rated and rarest version – on the beef plate, though I’m sure there are plenty of big spenders who’d spring for either experience.)
Kansas City’s dining scene continues to expand and excite. With its prominent place in a food-centric vortex of the Crossroads Arts District, Corvino clearly is a trend setter. Its lovely gray-hued main room – the space designed by a top-shelf architecture firm, Hufft Projects –includes a thoughtfully made stage for musicians, a rarity, but a welcome one, for restaurants. Here’s hoping my spheres of food and music friends will continue to happily collide there.
Doug Frost is a bona fide treasure in the wine world. As a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier -- that's an extremely rare combination of achievements -- he's got highly developed senses and a brilliant way of teaching the intricacies and boosting the pleasures of this life-affirming liquid. On Monday he joined the Gang of Pour group of Kansas City somms and restaurateurs (and somewhat educated observer-participants such as me) for a session on blind tasting. In blind tastings, of course, wine bottles remain in brown paper bags or otherwise hidden and tasters try to figure out what's in the glass. It ain't easy, but Doug has a way of making it logical and breaking it down to the elements that help you learn your way.
The Gang of Pour sessions now meet every two weeks at the lovely Ca Va bubbles spot in Westport and are open to KC bar professionals. This one was illuminating, exhilarating and rather difficult. Future sessions, led by a variety of wine pros, promise to be equally enjoyable.
Doug follows a consistent procedure, tied to the grid sheets used in sommelier certification exams. So we go through a fairly specific list of wine characteristics (color, hue, intensity, aromas, tastes, structural qualities) in order to get to a logical place in identifying each wine. Describe the floral and vegetal notes. Is this a warm climate wine or a cool climate wine? And why? How do you describe the levels of acid, tannin, and alcohol -- low, moderate, moderate-plus or high?
Doug spent a good part of the first hour of the session walking through each incremental step as it applied to a certain white wine. Then my classmates (about 20 of us) and I blasted through five more wines -- a second white and four reds -- having about four minutes each to make our IDs. For the record, I was mostly humbled, though I felt fairly good about some of my sensory responses, especially in analyzing structure. In the end, I did nail two of the six wines: an Australian Shiraz and a New World Pinot Noir (it was from New Zealand, but I couldn't get past New World, though probably would have landed on Oregon instead).
I've been learning from Doug for more than 20 years. He is not only incredibly on top of everything, he's got a great sense of humor, he's brutally frank, and he's totally committed to making wine drinking both fun and rewarding.