Tag Archives: Bloomington

Food in and Around Bloomington

Because I’m a food writer, as well as a historian and travel writer, I figured I should slip in a little chow-related information, as I talk about this area. I don’t think anyone would consider Bloomington a destination for dining, but if you’re there or in the neighborhood, you will be pleased to know that the options are surprisingly good, and I had some excellent food during my research trip and then on this return trip to speak and promote my book.

Anju Above is the more low key sibling of Epiphany Farms. Situated, as the name suggests, above Epiphany, it is, like its downstairs neighbor, a serious farm-to-table operation that is highly regarded even outside of Bloomington. The approach at Anju is more or less small plates, with an interesting range of offerings, though heavily weighted toward artisanal pizza and sushi rolls. The small plates approach made tasting a variety of things possible. My choice was the sweet ginger salad, which was bright with a bite, with both shaved radishes and ginger adding to the spiciness of the substantial pile of mixed greens. We also had Hawaiian pizza, Korean mandoo (dumplings filled with kimchee), and a very nice (and surprisingly substantial) shrimp tempura roll. Everything was delicious. Epiphany Farms, downstairs, is a bit pricier, I was told, but every bit as innovative and good. http://www.epiphanyfarms.com/anjuabove/

Jim’s Steakhouse is not just good for a small town; it’s good for anywhere. Friends took me here for dinner when I first came down to do research. The restaurant is elegant but the feel is comfortable and homey. The service is impeccable, and the dry-aged beef is amazing, whether you’re getting steaks, prime rib, or burgers. If you don’t fancy beef, there are excellent seafood and chicken options. But I was there for the beef. Everything was outstanding. http://www.jimsbloomington.com/

Having friends in the area, a lot of meals were eaten at their home, but that meant I got exposed to places where you can buy the basics—or enjoy treats.

Just outside of Normal, which is so close to Bloomington that the two usually get clumped together as Bloomington-Normal, one place worth looking up is Ropp Jersey Cheese. Here, a gentleman named Ken Ropp has a small operation where he makes wonderful cheese out of the rich milk from his Jersey cows. These are beautiful cows, and their milk is high in butterfat, and the cheese is fabulous. Ropp make a lot of “straight” cheese—gouda, swiss, cheddar, etc.–but also creates a number of flavored cheeses, which are great for snacking. I liked the smoked gouda and green-onion cheddar best of the ones I tried–and I bought both). But farmer Ken Ropp doesn’t stop there. He uses the whey from the cheese making to help feed his heritage pigs, and you can also buy really dandy pork products from him–which we also did. We bought beautiful pork chops and flavorful garlic bratwurst. Ropp caters mostly to local restaurants, but he also sells retail from the small shop on the edge of the farm. They also have free-range poultry and beef, though on a much smaller scale. Definitely one of those great, small, mixed purpose farms that is worth encouraging. So if you’re in the area and hankering from some farm-fresh cheese or meat, you might want to visit.
Ropp Jersey Cheese: http://www.roppcheese.com

I haven’t visited The Chocolatier since they moved to their new locations, but previous experiences makes it easy to recommend this confectioner.

Common Ground is a splendid organic/natural/health food store in the center of town. My friends always like to stop there to load up on the basics when they have guests – and this last time, I picked up some really beautiful ginger-peach tea.

There is also a great farmers’ market every Saturday from May through October, set in the historic center of town, around the McLean County History Museum. (You can get a glimpse of it in my original post on Bloomington.) Plus there are a number of delightful coffee shops, where locals clearly enjoy hanging out.

So a nice town for food, as well as for history.


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Bloomington and Lincoln

Though more commonly associated with his hometown of Springfield, Abraham Lincoln had remarkably strong ties to Bloomington. In the courthouse that is now the McLean County History Museum, Lincoln argued many of his early cases. And this courthouse was presided over by one of Lincoln’s strongest political allies, Judge David Davis. The long association between Lincoln and this one-time courthouse explains the statue of Lincoln, waiting comfortably on a bench outside the entrance.


There are more buildings still standing in Bloomington that were regularly utilized or visited by Lincoln than in any other community. Among these buildings are the Miller-David law offices, pictured below, which Lincoln often used.


As a lawyer, Lincoln represented many businesses in Bloomington, including the city’s first bank. In 1852, Lincoln bought two city lots east of downtown Bloomington, though he later sold them. He lectured here often, campaigned here, and had many friends here.

Only Springfield played a bigger part in Lincoln’s career than Bloomington.

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Back to Bloomington, Illinois

As I noted in a much earlier post, the McLean County History Museum in Bloomington, IL, is where I started the serious research for my book. Happily, the folks at the museum were pleased with how the book turned out, and they invited me to come down and give the presentation I’d worked up to share with audiences just how amazing the story of corn is, its impact on history, and how many aspects of our lives it touches every day.

Among those reached by the museum’s promotional efforts were Herb and Pamala Eaton, owners of the Eaton Studio and Gallery in Bloomington. Herb and Pamala forwarded a note to me through the museum, inviting me to visit their gallery, to talk about corn. Herb is an artist and poet, and while his artwork covers a range of subjects, one of his favorite things to paint and sculpt is corn. So the Eatons figured we’d have a few things to talk about.

We enjoyed iced tea flavored with mint from their garden and sat amid art projects while talking about the golden grain—a customer who came in joining in the discussion. While Herb’s interest in corn is primarily visual—how it dances in the wind, the soft gold of the silks, the green of the fields—he was remarkably knowledgeable about corn’s impact in the Midwest, so we did have a lovely chat.

I must say that, while the photos included on the Eaton Studio and Gallery website give a good overview of Herb Eaton’s work, it doesn’t include my favorite pieces of corn art. So you may just have to visit Bloomington, if you want to see everything—and want to meet Herb and Pamala, which is definitely worthwhile.


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Filed under Corn, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Thoughts, Travel, Uncategorized

Bloomington, Illinois

Downtown Bloomington

Downtown Bloomington

My research for Midwest Maize involved a lot of reading, but it also involved a lot of visiting places important to corn. My first “corn trip” started with a visit to Bloomington, Illinois. Iowa grows more corn than any other state, but McLean County, Illinois, grows more corn than any other single county in the United States, and Bloomington is the county seat for McLean.

Bloomington is old for the Midwest, with the first settlers arriving in the 1820s. It’s a lovely place to visit, and a good base of operations for exploring both agricultural libraries and sites significant to the history of corn. It is also the location of the McLean County Museum of History, which is housed in the old County Courthouse. The museum holds not only displays of the area’s past but is also home to splendid archives for anyone doing research on the early history of the Midwest. I spent several days immersed in the fascinating memorabilia and documents of an earlier age, from transcribed interviews to collections of letters. It was a splendid start to my research.

My first day in Bloomington, I discovered that the local farmers’ market is quite appropriately located in the streets and parkland that surround the museum—so I could pass through current farmers on my way to study their forebears. It pleased me greatly.

Farmers Market and History Museum

Farmers Market and History Museum

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Filed under Agriculture, Farming, History, Midwest, Travel