Visiting Springfield, Illinois: The Land of Lincoln and other Americana


People have preconceived notions and prejudices that prevent them from seeing cool places and interesting things in life. I grew up in Illinois. Back in the day, at least, all the public schools brought their students around 8th grade to Springfield, Illinois – the place where Abraham Lincoln lived in the only home he ever bought, practiced law, ran for office and eventually was buried. But I went to a private school that was more concerned with us reciting La Marseilles in perfect French, than seeing a Presidential library and museum in our own state. Later, when I moved south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I saw many battlefields of the Civil War. They’re extremely popular. But for some reason, people don’t talk about visiting Springfield . . . and they’re really missing out.

Getting there: I took a very modestly priced Amtrak from Chicago’s Union Station. Chicago is a big train hub, so you’re likely to be at the beginning of a long haul trip, with classic sleeper cars, full service dining cars with freshly made food, observation decks, ladies’ lounges. Along the way, you see what others ignorantly refer to as “flyover country,” including the funny stadium for the Frontier League Joliet Slammers. Another way you can go: drive or ride. The famous Route 66 goes right through the center of town.

Where to stay: High atop “Aristocracy Hill” sits an inn — Inn at 835 — that used to serve as apartments for movers and shakers and indeed, still features long-term residences for them. After all, Springfield is Illinois’ capital; legislators from here have gone far up the political ladder. The place was conceived and designed over 100 years ago by a high-society florist. It’s still very grand! Rooms are very spacious, some with a butler’s pantry filled with books, Jacuzzi with heat lamp, four-poster bed, gorgeous antiques. Wine and cheese is left out for guests downstairs, but they bring cookies in a basket to your door at night. They provide a free shuttle from the Amtrak station until 8:30 pm.

What to do: See how Lincoln and his family actually lived at the Lincoln Home, a national historic site. He expanded the premises as his success and prosperity grew. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is simply outstanding! I started out at its fantastic gift shop. The museum’s permanent exhibit takes you through life-sized recreations of his log cabin home, his law office, and political ascent. Walk through the whispering gallery of political sniping from both ends of the spectrum – just like elections today! – and nasty gossip against Mary Todd Lincoln. Feel yourself attending the play at Ford’s Theater. We all know how it ends . . . but I wasn’t prepared for the stunning majesty of the darkened recreation of the closed casket in the Representatives Hall in Springfield’s Old State Capitol. Today, we are reminded that Lincoln’s catafalque was lent by Congress for Justice Scalia’s funeral.

Of course, there’s no substitute for the real thing. President Lincoln is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Also in town is his law office, which had a business-friendly location by the courthouse and right on what is now Route 66.

Edwards Place is the oldest remaining structure in Springfield. The Edwards were Illinois’ most powerful political family, with one serving as the first Governor when Illinois became a state after serving as Kentucky’s Chief Justice on the Court of Appeals. Illinois was originally settled mostly by Kentuckians and this family crossed the Ohio River with their slaves. Another Edwards was the first person born in Illinois to graduate from Yale. Their home is beautifully restored, with many interesting archeological finds.

Art and architecture enthusiasts will be fascinated with the Dana-Thomas house, an early example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design. At the time, Wright was young and not as well known enough to totally impose his will upon homeowners, but he managed to ink some covenants. The lady of the house had enough money and social clout to include some of her Art Nouveau era preferences, so the fusion here is one-of-a-kind.

Springfield has a cute, thriving main street. There are several quality antique stores; Abe’s Old Hat has several rooms, each with its own specialty and vibe. Check out such Americana finds like feed sacks upcycled into men’s ties and cornbread scented candles.

A small town has got to consider itself sweet with two independently owned candy stores, both with Depression-era origins. Pease’s is older by a tad; their specialty is chocolates made to look like actual designer shoes! Del’s Popcorn Shop is now located next to the Lincoln-Herndon law office, with a real old-timey feel inside. They have all kinds of flavors of freshly popped corn, which feels like the perfect snack to crunch on in Illinois, plus it makes an inexpensive souvenir gift.

Where to eat: Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery & Eatery is located in a rehabbed historic home, owned by direct descendants of neighbors of Abraham Lincoln. They brew the freshest beer in town and also have excellent locally made, fruit forward cider. Their growlers are so cute, with tributes to Lincoln and Route 66, I happily paid for plastic boxes and checked luggage to bring some cider home. They’ve got a real gastropub thing going, with highly flavorful offerings like spicy cheesy soup, an old family recipe for 15 spice chili and Scotch eggs.

D’Arcy’s Pint is an Irish pub that’s enormously popular. They serve bar food as well as the famous Springfield Horseshoe. Lots of cities have a beloved big sandwich, this is theirs. It’s generally slices of thick Texas toast, topped with meat, French fries and cheese sauce. You can get veggies or hotdogs on it . . . even Midwestern walleye!

American Harvest Eatery is a new restaurant little bit up the road from the state capital building, so it’s not quite run over by lobbyists yet. While still finding its footing when I was there, they have an admirable concept: using the foodstuffs of Illinois to re-create comfort food favorites.

I saw a Quonset in the middle of nowhere and wondered how it could be a restaurant. Well, Charlie Parker’s Diner is world-famous and has been featured on the Food Network many times! It’s a fun, 50’s party atmosphere with that kind of classic menu.

Anecdotally, I wondered in the land of farms if things like heirloom tomatoes, etc., were popular. It turns out, not so much: commercial agriculture earnings are so crucial, people aren’t playing around with specialized, small-yield crops here.

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln life-like figures at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Photo by Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

Figures of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debate at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Photo by Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

Recreation of the scene at Ford’s Theater at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Photo by Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

President Abraham Lincoln’s tomb Photo by Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

 

And the Oscar for the best popcorn ever goes to…


It's Oscars time, and in addition to dressing for the occasion, we always like to set the table with award-worthy snacks. This year, we plan to honor the movies with their best-loved partner, popcorn.

Of course, because it's the Oscars, it couldn't be just any microwaved popcorn. Last week when I found some dried popcorn being cut off the cob at the farmers' market, I knew it was time to use my newly inspired love for spices to elevate popcorn to a starring role.

First, you must be willing to set aside the iconic melted butter and find the very best extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) to dress the hot kernels. EVOO's intense flavor will lend an earthy, grassy, herbal flavor that just belongs with farm-grown popcorn.

Next, your choice of salt is critical to the perfect box of popcorn. It's got to be soft enough to cling to the kernels, but crunchy enough to hold its own on the palate. I found that the moisture of grey sea salt fit the bill perfectly.

Finally, adding variety with ground spices, grated cheeses and even cocoa powder creates an interesting mix of options for movie-loving guests. Any blend of favorite flavors will do, but my winning combination was hot salted popcorn tossed with grated pecorino romano cheese, sprinkled with Aleppo pepper flakes and doused with another healthy drizzle of olive oil.

Old-Fashioned, New-Flavored Popcorn

Serves 4

  • Ingredients
  • ½ cup popcorn kernels
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
  • Sea salt, to taste

 

Flavoring suggestions:

  • Grated hard or semi-hard cheese
  • Aleppo or Marash chili pepper
  • Cocoa powder mixed with sugar
  • Cinnamon
  • Smoked paprika
  • Saffron
  • Freshly ground peppercorns

 

Directions

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 3-quart, deep saucepan. As soon as the oil melts and spreads evenly, add enough kernels to fill one layer on the bottom. Cover and increase heat to high flame. As soon as the corn starts popping, shake rigorously over heat until popping is complete.

2. Immediately dress with olive oil and salt and toss to coat.

3. If you are adding grated cheese, do so immediately after removing from heat to ensure that cheese clings to popcorn.

4. Sprinkle with other seasonings to taste.

Popcorn, a prayer and a trip to Israel


I had suffered from extreme dog deprivation for years and had resisted getting a canine friend as a single person with crazy hours. Shortly after I got engaged in the spring of ‘97 I received a call from one of my dearest friends. One of our mutual clients, a little boy, had parents going through a divorce and they were looking for a home for their toy poodle, Popcorn (who was named thus because his owner thought that he looked like hot, buttered popcorn). Though they loved him they weren’t allowed to have pets in the apartment where they were moving. My friend had watched Popcorn before and urged me to take him. “You’ll never find a sweeter dog- he rarely barks and is good with my kids.” And so we adopted him – sight unseen. On a hot summer day in July his mother delivered Popcorn at age three to our home with a photo of him as a puppy. Though I had had poodles growing up this was my first dog. I had no idea at the time that the universe had delivered the most miraculous wedding present right to my door.

Popcorn quickly integrated himself into our lives. He was so well-behaved that I decided to take him to my office every day. With a PR firm full of women that loved dogs he fit in perfectly. Within no time he became our COO (Canine Operating Officer) by running into the lobby to greet all guests (except for the unfortunate postal workers and delivery people with carts that he mildly terrorized but never injured!), jumping on the couch and sitting next to them – usually with his head on their lap. It was entirely disarming for everyone that walked in the door. Popcorn quickly became our supreme ambassador and was considered a great asset in every new business meeting. He was particularly fond of photo shoots and had the honor of appearing in a number of magazines. His sweet behavior and mellow demeanor undoubtedly calmed down many a client. And he was a ham as well. When one of my clients was posing for the cover of Hollywood Dog magazine Popcorn ran into the frame and nudged out her Golden Retriever!

After the terror of 9/11 hit my universe came crashing down. It started with identity theft after my purse was stolen in New York City and then was followed by a rare cancer diagnosis that required immediate and painful surgery. Shortly thereafter, my deeply unsatisfying marriage came to a close. Words cannot describe the comfort that I received from my canine companion. It was Popcorn always there by my side that helped bolster my spirits on a daily basis. His unconditional love and eternally patient demeanor inspired me to surmount all of the challenges that life was throwing my way.

When I started to date again Popcorn displayed a rare albeit humorous behavioral issue. Though he always welcomed guests into our home over the years he showed clear agitation when a man would venture inside. Within moments he would start to hump his leg! I was shocked that my fixed little guy would do this and yet amused by the reaction of my dates. It definitely broke the awkwardness of dating again right off the bat! Fortunately, I was able to find an animal behaviorist that helped me curb that behavior. She told me that Popcorn now thought that he was the male of the house (and he truly was) and that he was showing his position by humping my male friends. In retrospect I wonder if he realized that it was too soon for me to be dating… Fortunately, after three years when I met the man that would become my husband, Popcorn had mellowed and attached himself quickly to his father-to-be. It seemed as if Popcorn innately sensed that his mom was ready for a relationship again and knew that Steve was the one for me.

Popcorn wasn’t only an asset for my professional life. He widened my social interactions and caused me to become a friendlier neighbor. It was through my many walks with him in our Brentwood neighborhood that we got to know a plethora of canine-loving people. It was one of these friends that brought up a subject that I had been too afraid to contemplate: what would we do when Popcorn died? A kind women with a large rescue dog, Missy, had decided to bury her beloved in a pet cemetery in Calabasas. She said to me, “I’m Jewish- how can I have my dog cremated? We don’t believe in that.” Indeed I am Jewish as well, but the thought of leaving Popcorn in a grave in Calabasas somehow didn’t feel right. It seems to me that scattering Popcorn’s ashes would be the most natural thing to do- and in a sacred place that had meaning.

But what place would that be?

Over the years I learned how feeding my dog a natural food diet would help his energy and longevity- and so I shared my flax seed oil with him, my COQ10 supplement to strengthen his heart, etc. I invested in doing everything that I could to ensure that my little guy would live a long life. I secretly hoped that I would be able to call the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest dog to ever live. My mother (a/k/a the poodle whisperer) warned me that at age 17 I would see a sharp decline in his health and sadly, she was right on target. Shortly after his 17th birthday in May he started to have serious issues: losing balance and falling, lethargy, etc. I was shocked by how quickly this occurred so I took him to the vet thinking that he had contracted a virus. When I suggested that he was ill my vet looked at me sadly and told me that it was very rare that a dog walked through his door at the age of 17. After a panel of blood tests it was determined that there was nothing wrong with Popcorn other than old age. I went home with B 12 shots to administer to him weekly and a bag of IV fluids to give subcutaneously to help to keep him hydrated. After that vet visit there was temporary improvement but he was never the same. Popcorn died six weeks after his 17th birthday almost to the day that I had adopted him 14 years earlier. My little guy waited until I returned from a business trip and died in the comfort of our home where he had spent most of his life. I had decided that a private cremation was the right thing to do. The kind man at the pet mortuary assured me that we would have his remains with his paw print within 10 days.

Towards the end of the business day Popcorn would usually start to scratch the carpeting to let me know that it was time it was time to go home. One week to the day of his death as I sat typing on the computer alone in my office at 6:45 p.m. I heard scratching on the floor. I got up to see what it could be and then I realized exactly what it was – my French poodle had paid me a visit on July 14 (Bastille Day). I knew at that moment that he had been cremated that day and that his little spirit came by to bid me adieu as he left for his next adventure. There was tangible proof that animals also possess souls. When I returned home to tell my husband about my amazing experience I received a quizzical but sympathetic look; however, my alleged chimera was confirmed when we received Popcorn’s ashes a few days later. On the certificate of cremation in black ink it was affirmed that Popcorn was indeed cremated on July 14. And yet what to do with his ashes? How do we honor the pets that have provided us with so much unconditional love for so many years?

I had had a local artist make a painting of Popcorn from a beautiful photo of him taken by my cousins at an Israel rally which hangs in our stairwell. In the background an Israeli flag is billowing. As I looked at the painting I had an epiphany- why not bring his ashes to Israel in September when we travel there on business? I could think of no more sacred place to spread his remains. That flag in the background seemed to be prescient. When I called the rabbi that was traveling with us about some kind of a prayer for Popcorn when we scatter his ashes he was stumped. Could I say the mourner’s kaddish (a Jewish prayer for the bereaved) perhaps? Uncomfortable silence followed. There are no prayers for pets in the Torah, I was told. Indeed the references to animals in there involve sacrifice and consumption. He suggested that I make up my own prayer.

We departed for Israel on September 11 and I decided to bring a portion of his ashes. I thought that the Mt. of Olives would be the perfect location since this is the most holy place to be buried in Israel. Once we arrived in Jerusalem and the day came for our ceremony we were walking through the Old City. I was inspired by the newly built Rambam synagogue where beautiful pink flowers graced the front of the limestone building. After all, Popcorn had the innate wisdom of an old sage so why not spread his ashes nearby? As I took out the bag with his ashes and started to spread them next to the bushes in front of the synagogue I said in Hebrew (through my tears): We bless Popcorn. He will live in our hearts always. I was so emotional that there was nothing more that I could say at that moment except stand there holding my husband. Despite my unbearable sadness I felt an incredible relief. I had found the spiritual solace that I was yearning for to honor the dog that had been my constant companion for so many years. When we returned from our trip we went to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and as the congregation joined in the mourner’s kaddish prayer, I said a prayer for Popcorn.