Cheesy Pepperjack Tornado Revisited

December forces reflection. 

So in the spirit of this reflection, I thought I would round out a year in this long-neglected newsletter with a fourth installment, a short follow up on my free-ranging May dispatch and revisiting of the freelance work that kept me busy. “Cheesy Pepperjack Tornado” was written in the midst of a full lockdown, in what appears now to have been a more innocent time, when the dead across the country numbered far less and there was still some small hope that the country could pull-together to prevent widespread death. It was filled with some rambling observations and variously sourced insider accounts of how restaurants and other institutions were dealing with the coronavirus. 

So much and so little has changed since then. The death count has passed over 300,000 in the U.S. and over 3,000 in Iowa. At times, the city of Des Moines or the state of Iowa has tried to set curfews or produced mask guidelines/ stern pleadings, but the virus has continued mostly unabated. Restaurants and bars have been mostly left to navigate the strange terrain alone, without any authoritative guidance from the state. The results have ranged from responsible shifts to take out to the creation of public health hazards in the name of the almighty dollar.

The concerns of Smokey Row workers were never heard, and those who complained were either fired or left. My source at Gateway Market informed me that the premium-priced market run by Orchestrate quietly brought back their salad bar, the absence of which was allegedly costing the grocer thousands of dollars a month, before they finally decamped for their own health and safety (Even the Amazon-owned Whole Foods in West Des Moines has kept their self-serve bars decommissioned throughout the pandemic). Meanwhile, Orchestrate jettisoned its high school hot lunch-themed restaurant Teddy Maroons and the space has been claimed by a Whiskey River location, the outpost of an Ames restaurant most known for its flagrant violation of Covid-19 guidelines. Meanwhile, Orchestrate’s Chef Partner George Formaro is cooking up burgers in the ghost kitchen

The new and expansive Kum & Go gas station location on the corner of 31st Street and University Ave. (the one that required the demolition of apartment housing in the middle of a pandemic to be built) opened right on time in August. The Cheesy Pepperjack Tornados are back, though they have been relegated to a smaller roller tray. The gas station seems committed to lax mask-wearing guidelines among employees and customers alike, so I’ve continued to stay clear of the cheese tubes. 

At the beginning of the May newsletter, I made some petulant observations about missed employment connections and the near-total absence of food writing in Des Moines since late 2019. At the time because I thought it would be funny (I was right). As you can see from just the above, there’s a lot going on in Iowa’s largest food scene and most of it has been totally neglected outside of the occasional Covid-policy related check-in or note of closure (and, more rarely, an opening) from the usual suspects. Some of the writing I’ve done this year can be seen as deliberate attempts to correct this absence, particularly two long features, one published at the beginning of the year and another at the end. 

The first was a long reported feature published in January on how King Ying Low, one of the oldest Chinese-American restaurants in the country and located right here in Des Moines, died a quiet death after over a century in operation and how its parts were repurposed into the popular fusion kitsch pizza franchise, Fong’s Pizza. I had eaten at King Ying Low right before it closed forever and started to form the idea while working at the Register. I highly doubted they would publish it (or that I would have the time to complete the project), and I was very grateful that BuzzFeed News saw the same compelling narrative I did in a piece of culinary history that had largely been forgotten. (You can read more about the process of reporting the piece in an earlier installment of this newsletter). 

The second was another long reported feature published in October, this time on Bruce Gerleman and his Jethro’s BBQ empire. This deep dive expose on one of central Iowa’s most powerful businessman and the constellation of restaurants in which he allegedly perpetrated an astounding amount of sexual harassment and general abuse may seem a world away from my reporting on King Ying Low. But both were very intense projects that involved a lot of archive and document research (though the profile on Gerleman involved more emotionally intense interviews and back-and-forths with lawyers). But at the end of the day, both were about reporting on some neglected but deeply necessary aspect of Des Moines’ culture and history. They could both technically be considered food reporting, though obviously they were both about a lot more than that. 

I did my best to carry the local food reporting torch in a tumultuous year. I reported on restaurants’ attempts to navigate the pandemic for the Iowa Informer in May. Though this poor newsletter was greatly neglected most of the time (paid work had to be the priority), I was glad to write about one of my favorite Des Moines food trucks, Wingz on Wheelz, in June. After the derecho struck in August, I wrote about the displaced refugee food workers who had already endured the worst of the pandemic and the growing threat of climate change that loomed behind the seemingly extraordinary event for Civil Eats

But this year has also pushed me to cover a lot of different beats, sometimes out of the need to get paid work and other times because the story was there and it needed to be covered. It was a wild, tumultuous year, and my writing — which appeared in seven different publications alone this year —  reflects that. 

If you’re a journalist working in Iowa and want to be published in national publications, at a certain point you have to become a political reporter. Continuing the on-the-ground Iowa Caucuses reporting I was writing for Vice at the end of 2019, I wrote about how white and unrepresentative the first-in-the-nation primary really was and how the folksy niceness of “Iowa Nice” that propped it up belied the dark heart below. When the presidential election came around in November, I covered the late-hour Trump rally and the Republican rout it helped bring about in Iowa for The Intercept

In June, I suddenly became a protest and police reporter for the Informer in the wake of George Floyd’s death. I’ll never forget watching the Des Moines Register’s Andrea Sahouri livestream her own wrongful arrest (charges that have somehow not been dropped) while the small group of protesters I was with were coerced into kneeling while surrounded by battalions of heavily armed police that had them surrounded, an event that was twisted into a feel good moment by local television news. I’ll never forget being tear gassed and pepper sprayed on the steps of the Iowa Capitol, saved from wrongful arrest only because a friend whisked me away from the police as they approached as I was rendered blind and immobile. 

I initially started covering the subject only because there was no responsible coverage of the protests, no reporting that I felt accurately portrayed the power differential between the young crowd demanding systemic change and the heavily armed police that responded with brutality. With the support of Gavin Aronsen, the Informer’s editor and publisher, I covered the protests and the nascent Black Lives Matter movement (which would shift into the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement) as the serious and momentous political event that it was, not just breaking news about police raids, but also I covered events that received a lot of media attention with a framing no other local news outlet would dare use and provided historical context largely absent elsewhere. 

With this reporting, Aronsen and I also brought a radical idea to the Iowa media landscape: We reported on the police like the powerful political entity with little oversight or culpability that they are. Particularly my reporting on the Des Moines Police Department’s embattled spokesperson Paul Parizek — the politically charged conflicts with his son that revealed his personal biases and the firing of two Dunkin’ Donuts employees after they refused to serve him because of this reporting — was necessary and newsworthy, though these stories were either not touched or not reported accurately elsewhere. 

It was my privilege to cover a variety of interesting stories this year, and my favorite were the pieces that brought some kind of deeper understanding and humanity to a situation. When the mayor of Jamaica, Iowa, was found to be growing marijuana in her basement, it made viral headlines, but my report in April for The Guardian revealed a deeper story of punitive drug laws that left a community reeling. Would Wells Fargo have rushed to give benefits to their call center workers without my reporting on worker concerns and the discovery of virus cases in March for Vice? Who can say. My recent report for The Intercept on the death threats public health officials across the Midwest are dealing with revealed part of the growing toll of coronavirus denialism. Hell, I was even touched at the response to my exploration of the late Silver Jews frontman David Berman’s crowd-sourced miscellanea for Pitchfork, an outpouring of excitement from fans who were all still grieving the loss of a beloved musician. 

To conclude this reflection, I’d like to give a big shoutout to my haters. A little over a year ago, many of them tried to bully me out of public life and the profession of journalism forever — an event that feels farther away and even more ridiculous each day given how drastically the world has changed in the past year. Not only did they fail, I’ve only been made more powerful in my self belief and done some of the best work of my writing career. Other than my essay in the Columbia Journalism Review last November, I’ve opened up about the experience in a few select interviews this year (one with a curious Canadian community college student, another with a Swedish graduate student working on her master’s thesis) and turned down requests from many others (I’d still be open to appearing on the Tamron Hall Show if the right reason presents itself).

As always, there’s a lot more to come.