Friday, August 19, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood



joes1Sometimes something is just missing. It’s weird. You walk into a beautiful building, you are a guest in someone’s gorgeous home or you meet an interesting person for the first time. All good. But some ingredient is missing between you and the architecture, between you and the warmth of the home and between you and the potential friend. You can’t quite put your finger on it — perhaps a touch of salt, a pinch of oregano, a teaspoon of cream — but something is not right. Maybe you forgot the sugar.                

You can spend much of your life trying to figure out who to blame for this missing ingredient. Certainly you can blame yourself for being inherently unlikable. Who isn’t? This self-flagellation is well worth the time and usually leads to fruitful insights. Or you can adopt my favorite lawyer technique of blaming anyone or everyone else for the lack. Again, this is also tremendously helpful in addressing almost any problem and a surefire path to winning lifelong friends. Or… you can just set these concerns to one side and celebrate those times when the cake actually does rise.                

joes2In the very heart of the Des Moines Art Center, at the very confluence of the work of the three Art Center architects, Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier, sits in a small, unobtrusive restaurant. Walk in the door. Sure, some restaurants are decorated with flowers or pictures or statues. Look closely. Light is the ornament that dresses this interior.                

Quietly sit. Feel the sun. See the flowers in the center of each table. Smile at the wonderful waitresses. And if you’re lucky, the manager/chef will glide into the room. Lisa LaValle moves with grace — not a ballerina’s grace, but the calm grace of a patient mother. Don’t expect a pirouette and a dancer’s lift, but her reassuringly firm hands may pick you up off the restaurant floor, dust you off and put a red tabbouli salad in front of your place — all with only a few strands of white-blonde hair coming loose. You might be home.                

Lisa has a Ph.D. in mothering, by the way. Born in Pella, her own mother died way too young. By the age of 7, Lisa was cooking and shopping for her widowed dad and two brothers.                

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joes3“Dad — now 90 years old — was such a lousy cook. And my dad and two brothers will eat anything,” she said.                

Necessity and an appreciative audience. The perfect recipe for a burgeoning chef.                

Take your time to poke your head into the kitchen. It’s small and tight and light. Lisa stumbled onto the Art Center Restaurant years ago by “coming down to just help out.” She was not looking for another job.                

“With my first child only 1 year old, I finally had a good job, being a mom,” she said.                

But when you see her staff spread out around the big kitchen prep table, you’re also going to want to stir something and stay awhile. And who does test the desserts anyway?                

joes4Three kids of her own, and a few years down the road, Lisa is soon to celebrate a trifecta of events: 20 years at the Art Center Restaurant, her last child leaving home and a significant birthday. It is a time of pause and reflection.              

So, reflect on this. The Dutch — you know, the rascals who live in a land of grey skies, windswept beaches and non-stop rain — have a word for when it all comes together, for when a cozy, comfortable environment is created, for when you walk away from a person feeling warm and toasty: gezellig. It is not all that common to find. Think about it in your own life. But when you do find it, mark it down in your planner — today the cake did correctly rise. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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