The northern Midwest is beautiful and strange.
Monday started beautiful, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, heading home from our weekend on Lake Superior. Just as we left, a bald eagle—the largest I've ever seen—appeared silently overhead, seeming to guide our way as we drove through the yellow-leaf splendor.
For several hours, all was fallow corn fields, scenic barns, and stunning woods.
Then we entered Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is beautiful, too, but also kinda strange. The miles clicked by.
"If you see a place that looks like it makes a good burger, you can just go ahead and stop," I said, riding shotgun.
It was shortly after 12 noon, and we were hurtling down Route 45 with only a donut, the UP version of a scone and a cup of coffee to hold us since morning.
Just south of the Menomonee Indian Reservation, near the banks of the Embarrass River, my pal, Rory, who was driving, noticed this stone building that looked promising -- basically anything that is not a chain restaurant looks promising-- and pulled into it before we even registered the "GREAT PASTIES" in the window.
"A pasty is beef in a pastry," I explained, as we got out to of the car. "I had some in London. Street food. We should try one."
I did glancingly notice the painted Packer-themed rocks out front— foreshadowing if this were a horror story, which it is, a little— but shrugged them off, and never even read the enigmatic sign: "THE ROCKS FOR FUN CAFE." People are like that. I was happy to stand up straight after three hours in the car, and occupied thinking about a cheeseburger. The sign could have said, "ENTER AND WE'LL KILL YOU" and I probably wouldn't have noticed.
A very busy interior to the place. Lots of stuff on the walls. But then, backwoods eateries and taverns tend to decorate with agglomerations of junk.
"Can we eat at the bar?" I asked the waitress Linda -- at the bar it seemed like we'd have a better chance to study our surroundings.
"If you're nice to me," she replied.
I paused, looked for a fingerhold on this remark, and finally promised to be as nice as I could, then asked for coffee. politely.
She left, and before we could look at the menu a white haired man came over and offered us the chance to select our very own "Lucky Rock", a small googly-eyed pebble attached to a business card. We had a dozen to choose from; I picked this fellow. The card bore the title, "Rock Creator: Don McClellan" and I almost said, "So you're Don?" but really, it was obvious. Who else would he be? This was not a job that gets delegated.
"Would you like to see a rock off the moon?" Don began, and we admitted that we would. Don began a spiel that quickly turned into a pun, of sorts, or a kind of play on words.
"The reason I know they're off the moon is because they're not on the moon," he explained. "All my rocks are off the moon."
There was more of that sort of thing. And there were a lot of anthropomorphized rocks, arranged into humorous tableaux, and they came fast and furious. Don challenged Rory to tap a rock and say his name. He did.
"Would you believe that your complete name is now etched in the center of that rock?" he said. "Not only that, would you believe your phone number is on a piece of scrap paper at the center of that rock"
And so it was. The words, "Your Complete Name," etched in the center of the rock, as if by magic, and "Your Phone Number" jotted on a piece of paper, just as he predicted.
Lest I be left out of the fun, I was handed a "Speckled Python Rock" that weighed three pounds, felt it heft, then told the next one weighed eight pounds, and did flinch when it was projected at me—foam and nowhere near eight pounds, though looked identical. I slid off my stool and retrieved the Speckled Python Rock, which had bounced off my chest and onto the floor.
More rock creations, more jokes, or puns, based on the 346 rock constructions Don has installed on every wall and flat surface of the restaurant, plus more hanging from the ceiling. Jailhouse Rock. Rolling Stone. (You can see dozens of the pebbly figures on their website). There was a rock that squirted water at Rory and a rock that, when I shifted over to the proper stool, wet me in a place I would not want to be thought of as wet. There was the rock he had spent five years teaching to walk, whose skill he display, scampering across his hands, then instantly explained (a hidden thread, clipped to his apron). Some of them took an impressive amount of ingenuity, technical skill and pure unabashed corniness.
"Have you had a chance to order yet?" Don asked, eventually, as an afterthought, and we admitted that no, we had not, but we would like to. Don explained that he opened the restaurant eight years ago, then three years ago went all pasties. I've always flinched at the word "pasties"—it always seems, at first glance, a typo of the word "pastries" then, at second, a reference to what strippers wear in dismal 1950s bump-and-grind joints. But I did eat them in London—they're originally from Cornwall. "Pasty" (or "Pastie," Rocks for Fun spells it both ways) is a creole of "Cornish Pastry.") More rocks, more jokes. Eventually we looked at the menu—no curry chicken, alas. Linda returned, and as nicely as I could I asked for the Bar BQ Baby Back Pork Ribs ("Our second most popular pasty" Don said) and Rory went for the Cheesy Philly Beef.
After we placed our order, I stepped into the main restaurant to examine the rest of the displays, with Don hot on my heels, pointing out various highlights and masterpieces. I later found that Oddball Wisconsin: A Guide to 400 Really Strange Places, calls him "the guru of geological guffaws," and like many gurus, he tends toward the hard sell. He pointed out a Marriage on the Rocks display, commemorating his 50th anniversary, and noted that today, Oct. 13, was the actual day of his anniversary. I didn't know whether to say, "Happy anniversary" or "Is your marriage really on the rocks?" so I went with the former. Safer. Don pointed out the 50 dollar coins, given as an anniversary gift, incorporated into the display.
A large sign declared how many pasties have been sold since the restaurant began serving them three years ago: 89,404. "Do you change it every day?" I asked.
"Several times a day" he said—the restaurant is opened seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.
About three minutes after we ordered, our meals arrived. A rather plain looking well-browned crescent pastry on a styrofoam plate, with three slices of their "famous Idiot Pickles" and a small cup of applesauce. $7.50. I tried to cut the pasty crust with my butter knife and was thwarted. It was tough.
Biting into it was challenging too, because it was chewy outside and blisteringly hot within—three minutes nuked in the microwave, rendered the dough like rubber and the filling like lava.
By dunking it in the apple sauce and vigorous blowing, I managed to eat the thing with only a little blistering. I resisted the suggestion that we buy more to take home. "Some people buy 30 at a time," Don said hopefully. "They come frozen."
I liked Don, and appreciate the rock pun world he has created around himself. Quizzing him about his background, he said he was a tile salesman, and the vibe of the place had a definite salesman schtick quality, like a jokey bar napkin come to life. I am loath to bring big city Chicago judgment to bear on the star of his own ongoing show in Tigerton, population 724 according to a nearby sign. To question such a quaint and idiosyncratic piece of Wisconsin's culinary and artistic heritage. (One website called the pasty the "state meal"). Rory and I marveled at the time he must have spent to craft the 346 rock dioramas, plus the 180 more that Don said he has designed but yet to execute. I realized that I'm probably thinking too much about something that isn't supposed to be thought about at all.
Still, we both wondered, driving away, if perhaps Don might be well served if he devoted less time to creating new rock scenarios—as it is we could only have a dozen, or two dozen, or three, of the hundreds there, presented to us before we paid our bill and fled—and devote a bit of that ingenuity to making the pasties more fit to eat. His customers certainly would be better served. I am not a gourmand or restaurant professional, but perhaps some pasties could be kept from the freezer for a day or two and popped into a conventional oven to warm after being ordered: that might take 13 minutes instead of three, but that would leave more time for jokes, and the improvement in palatability could be considerable. I would definitely go back—the coffee was fine—and soak the whole place in again, and spend more time with Don, who is certainly an American marvel. I'm just not sure I could make another go at a pasty. The thing tasted, I realized after I got home, like nothing so much as a rock. A Scalding Tough Pasty Rock. Suddenly the name "Rocks for Fun Cafe" took on an ominous double meaning. Perhaps that is part of the joke.