Cortland, Illinois: The Small Town That Claims To Be Big

cortlandSmall towns all over America attempt to find novel ways to market themselves to outsiders. You see these efforts, some of them logical, some boastful, others ridiculous, on signs all over the country. America’s friendliest town! A Great Place to Live! Boyhood Home of Rutherford B. Hayes! Home of the Little League World Series Quarterfinalists, The Screaming Owls!

The most common tactics for small towns are attaching themselves to sports teams or famous people, touting obscure awards or distinctions the town received from organizations no one has ever heard of, or simply making a claim that no one can argue with, i.e., we’re nice. I’ve long been enamored of these claims, but the oddest town boast I’ve ever seen is in the small town of Cortland, Illinois, about 60 miles west of Chicago.

Cortland is a small town with lots of farms and just a few businesses on its main street, including a laundromat, a gas station, an upholstery business, a dollar store and a diner. My wife grew up there and her family still lives in the town. The first time I went to visit them, back in 1998, I was puzzled after coming across a sign, placed on a street with nothing but cornfields advertising the place as “The Third Largest Town in Illinois.”

At the time, the town’s population was about 1,500 (it has since grown to more than 4,000 thanks to some recently built subdivisions) so I was puzzled. Of all the different ways this small community could market itself, it had decided to say to the world, “We’re big.”

When I arrived at my wife’s family home, we sat out in her backyard, which at that time featured a pleasing view of nothing but farmland as far as the eye could see.

“So I saw the sign about this being the third largest town,” I said. “How could that be?”

“Well, it’s kind of a technicality,” my wife said, laughing knowingly as she eyed her mom and sister. “There aren’t very many towns in Illinois.”

As it turns out, nearly every community in Illinois is incorporated as either a village or a city so the only incorporated “towns” in the state that are larger than Cortland are Normal and Cicero. The “third largest town” claim to fame is the town’s brand – check out the town website and you’ll see the slogan emblazoned right underneath the town name. So there you have it: Cortland, the small town that claims to be quite large, if only on a technicality.

Olde Schaumburg Centre: America’s Least Impressive Historic District?

schaumburg olde schaumburg centre applebee'sAt the intersection of Roselle and Schaumburg Roads in Schaumburg, Illinois, you’ll find one of America’s least impressive historic districts. I was en route to Oberweis, a Chicago-area chain ice cream parlor my wife and I like when we noticed a sign indicated that the strip mall that Oberweis was located in was called the “town square” and surrounding area was dubbed “Olde Schaumburg Centre” (OSC).

I lived in Chicago twice, and Schaumburg is often held up as a prototypically boring, soulless suburb, and I certainly was never aware of the fact that it had a historic district. When I saw the OSC sign, I looked around, but couldn’t see anything “olde” at all – just the typical, mundane collection of strip malls that nearly every suburb in America has these days. I parked the car, got my ice cream and then risked my life crossing busy Roselle Road in search of something, anything “olde.”I found a handful of century-old buildings across the street from the “Town Square” but one can’t help but notice that the history of the village founded by German immigrants in the 19th Century has been almost completely swallowed up by modern developments. The OSC’s website lists just 11 “historic” buildings and the anchor of the “Town Center” is an Applebee’s.

According to a plaque in a man-made lake across a vast parking lot next to the Oberweis, the strip mall dates to 1995. At the rate we’re going in this country, with strip malls being built from sea to shining sea, that could practically qualify the place for The National Register of Historic Places.

Outside of major American cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and several others, the whole country might be just one big beige mélange of big box retailers by the time my children retire.

I don’t blame local officials in Schaumburg for trying to create a “village center,” and the fact that they are paying lip service about creating a “pedestrian orientation” is a good sign. And to be fair, there’s a nice park in the area and my kids enjoyed running around the fountain near the lake. But what’s the point of trying to market a thoroughly modern suburb as a historic place?

I Can Barely Afford To Eat At Panera

eating on the beach in patmos greeceA month ago, I was eating a terrific meal at a taverna right on a lovely beach on the Greek island of Patmos when a perverse thought occurred to me.

“I bet this lunch is cheaper than we’d pay at a Panera, in some strip mall somewhere in the U.S.,” I said to my wife, who was finishing up a carafe of the house red that cost the equivalent of $4.

I made the comment somewhat in jest, but yesterday after having lunch at a Panera in Dekalb, Illinois, I realized that my statement had actually been correct. Here’s a little comparison of two lunches, experienced in very different corners of the world.


In Patmos, we dined right on Lambi beach, with a stunning view of the Aegean. We split a half liter of house red wine, had a large bottle of water, two orders of chicken souvlaki, which came with a small salad and fries, and our kids split one order of plain spaghetti. The bill came to the equivalent of $28.50 and we were welcomed to linger and use the taverna’s free Wi-Fi for as long as we liked. Shots of ouzo were offered on the house.Panera

paneraOur Dekalb Panera location offered a panoramic view of strip malls as far as the eye could see, with a Panda Express, a Barnes & Noble, a Starbucks and a Ross all within spitting distance. We ordered one Cuban Panini ($7.89), one chicken cobb avocado salad ($8.69), two kids’ mac and cheese meals, which included small bowls of mac and cheese and some yogurt ($4.99 each) and four glasses of ice water (free).

With tax, the bill came to $29.22 and would have been more like $35 if we’d ordered drinks or desserts. We didn’t have our laptops with us, as we did in Patmos, but Panera has a 30-minute limit on Wi-Fi usage during the lunch rush. The place was packed and there wasn’t a single empty table despite the fact that there were no free shots of ouzo or anything else for that matter.


In fairness to Panera, I like the place and our meal was pretty good, especially for fast food. But the meal in Patmos was far better, both in terms of the quality of the food, the ambience and the service. With tip, the meal in Patmos was actually a bit more expensive but not by much, because in Greece people usually just round up and tips don’t usually exceed 10%.

panera cuban panniniThis is obviously an apples to oranges comparison, but the point is that “upscale” fast food places like Cosi, Noodles & Company, Panera, Corner Bakery and others seem to be getting pretty damn pricey. Getting lunch at any of these places for less than $10 isn’t easy, unless you eat like a bird. According to the Christian Science Monitor, even Taco Bell, perish the thought, is going upscale! What is the world coming to?

But bargains still exist at independent fast food outlets. Last night, my faith in the American non-burger/KFC/Taco Bell/Arby’s fast-food genre was restored at a place called Just Kabobs, in St. Charles, a nice town about an hour west of Chicago. My wife and I both had a chicken kabob platter that included two big skewers of delicious chicken, rice, pita, salad and Greek potatoes, which cost just $5.99 each, and we split a hummus and pita appetizer for only $2.25.

The quality and quantity of food was incredible, and the price was unbeatable. The only thing missing was the beach.


Restaurant Rooftop Gardens: Five Of America’s Best

beekeepingFrom where I stood on the roof of Bastille Cafe & Bar in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, I could see flocks of seagulls circling nearby fishing boats, as I catch whiffs of brine, gasoline and eau de canal water.

Despite the industrial marine supplies and salmon canneries across the way, up here I was surrounded by buzzing honeybees and dozens of varieties of produce, from heirloom French beans and petit pois to herbs, tomato starts, lettuces and cucumber vines.

Bastille is part of an emerging breed of urban restaurant (many of which are located in hotels) popping up across America. Not content to just source food locally, today’s seasonally- and sustainably-driven chefs and restaurateurs are installing rooftop gardens and beehives to augment the product they purchase from family farms.

Many of these restaurants offer public tours of their rooftop gardens, greenhouses and hives, so even city-dwellers (or line cooks) no longer have an excuse to remain clueless about where their food comes from – and the public can’t get enough. With the urban farming movement – backyard produce, chickens, bees, even dairy goats – at critical mass, savvy chefs, concerned about their carbon footprint and wanting more control over the production and quality of their ingredients, have turned their rooftops into kitchen gardens.

Few restaurants can spare the labor or have staff experienced in cultivating crops, which is where small businesses like Seattle Urban Farm Company and Ballard Bee Company come in. The Urban Farm Company’s services include construction and maintenance of residential backyard farms, rooftop gardens, educational school gardens, and on-site gardens at restaurants and businesses. With regard to the latter, chefs and cooks receive education as well, and become involved in caring for and harvesting crops and collaborating on plantings based on menu ideas.

Corky Luster of Ballard Bee offers hive hosting or rental, where homeowners keep hives on their property, in exchange for maintenance, harvesting, and a share of the honey. Bastille keeps hives, and uses the honey in cocktails and dishes ranging from vinaigrette’s to desserts.

Following is the short list of rooftop garden restaurants that have served as inspiration for imitators, nationwide. Here’s to dirty cooks, everywhere.rooftop gardensBastille Cafe & Bar, Seattle
Seattle Urban Farm Company owner/founder Colin McCrate and his business partner Brad Halm and staff conceptualized Bastille’s garden with the restaurant’s owners three years ago. After substantial roof retrofitting, rectangular garden beds were installed. Over time, beehives were introduced, and this past year, plastic children’s swimming pools were reinforced with landscape fabric and UV-protective cloth, expanding the garden space to 4,500 feet.

In summer and fall, the garden supplies chef Jason Stoneburner and his staff with 25 percent of their produce for Bastille’s French-inspired seasonal cuisine. Housed in a lavishly restored, historic 1920s building, it has the vibe of a traditional Parisian brasserie, but here you’ll find an emphasis on lighter dishes as well as cocktails crafted from boutique spirits and rooftop ingredients.

Every Wednesday, Rooftop Garden Tours are hosted by Seattle Urban Farm Company, and include a complimentary Rum Fizz, made with Jamaican rum, mint, sparkling wine, bitters and (of course) rooftop honey. Cost is $10 per person; limit 10 people. Contact the restaurant for reservations.

flour + water, and Central Kitchen, San Francisco
Thomas McNaughton of popular Mission pizzeria flour + water opened his newest venture on May 9. Both restaurants have rooftop gardens, and Central Kitchen is a lovely, modern rustic sanctuary serving simple, seasonal fare that highlights Northern California ingredients.

In addition to beehives, Central Kitchen is producing peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, berries, figs, citrus and herbs in a 2,000-square-foot space. Lexans (heavy-weight plastic storage containers used in professional kitchens) serve as garden beds, while herbs flourish in a converted Foosball table. Talk about recycling!

Uncommon Ground on Clark, Chicago
This big sister to the new Edgewater location features a 2,500-square-foot garden with solar panels to heat water used in the restaurant. Everything from beets, eggplant, okra and bush beans are cultivated, including rare seed varieties from the Slow Food “Ark of Taste.” The Ark is dedicated to preserving the “economic, social, and cultural heritage of fruits and vegetables,” as well as promoting genetic diversity. Expect refined crunchy granola fare with ethnic flourishes.
Roberta’s, Brooklyn
This insanely popular Bushwick restaurant made national headlines when chef Carlo Mirarchi was named a 2011 Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine for his wood-fired pizzas and way with rooftop produce, including some heirloom varieties.

Mirarchi, who is passionate about urban farming and community involvement, uses two repurposed cargo containers on the restaurant’s roof for cultivating crops, and keeps a blog about the evolution of the garden.

[Photo credits: honeycomb; Laurel Miller; tomatoes, Flickr user Muffet]

In this video, Chef Robert Gerstenecker of Park 75 restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel, Atlanta, talks rooftop gardening and beekeeping. He grew up on a family farm and dairy in Ohio.

Archaeologists Uncover Suburb Of Giant Largest Prehistoric City

archaeologists, Cahokia
The ancient city of Cahokia in Illinois was the center of an advanced civilization from about 700 to 1400 A.D. Covering six square miles and home to up to 20,000 people, it was the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico. It ruled over a large area and had trade networks stretching across North America.

Dozens of mounds dot the site, atop which the people built temples and homes for the elite. Cahokia’s artisans made fine work like these worked copper plates typical of the Mississippian culture that created Cahokia.

Cahokia’s importance is recognized by it being designated a state historic site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It makes a good day trip from St. Louis and has an excellent interpretive center. You can also climb up some of the mounds to get a sweeping view of the site.

Now archaeologists have discovered one of its suburbs in a derelict neighborhood of East St. Louis. It’s not much to look at today. The excavation is taking place between a derelict meatpacking plant and an abandoned strip club. Back in the day, though, it was a prosperous suburb of an important city with more than a thousand dwellings and earthen pyramids just like those of Cahokia.

Now there are plans to build a new bridge across the Mississippi at this spot. It’s hoped that the bridge will bring desperately needed visitors and investment from St. Louis, Missouri, into this part of East St. Louis, Illinois. Archaeologists are feverishly working ahead of the bulldozers to learn about this important period of America’s. They’d like to see at least some of the land preserved for a historical park but are pessimistic about their prospects.

[Image courtesy Herb Roe]