Monday, March 25, 2013

Of Garbage Plates, 'Peanuts' and Jelly Bellies: Putting the Ken in Kenosha -- A Brief Travelogue

Day Trip Recap

Kenosha, WI
March 23, 2013

Places visited: Franks Diner, Kenosha Public Museum, Jelly Belly Factory Tour

When I mentioned to my mom that I might go up to Kenosha with my friend Ken, she asked simply:


And she seemed genuinely surprised when I mentioned that there was a classic diner (which she and I had learned about at a library program) and that I had heard good things about Kenosha's fairly newly-housed Public Museum and rather recently-built Civil War Museum.

"Oh," Mom said, "I thought you meant you were going shopping."

You see, while with the Brat Stop and the Mars Cheese Castle, Kenosha--just across the Illinois-Wisconsin border, although actually preceded by Pleasant Prairie--has long been a great stopping point en route to Milwaukee, Lake Geneva and Alpine Valley, for the most part "going to Kenosha" has served as a euphemism for visiting the outlet malls that straddle I-94.

While I have nothing against those malls, I haven't visited them in years and wasn't planning to do so on this northward adventure. Unlike "interstate adjacent Kenosha"--the malls, Brat Stop, Mars Cheese Castle, even the now defunct Dairyland dog track--real residential and downtown Kenosha (a city of 99,000 people) is alongside Lake Michigan and 5-10 miles east of the interstate.

As I referenced above, awhile back my mom and I had attended a free presentation at the Skokie Public Library about the oldest restaurants in and beyond Chicago. Franks Diner in Kenosha was mentioned as having existed for quite awhile, and after driving past a depressing number of empty storefronts, that's where Ken and I went first.

Franks--not Frank's, as it was established in 1926 by Anthony Franks--is a rather charming little place, created in part out of an old rail car.

At around Noon on Saturday, we waited around half-hour for a table, but the wait staff was sassily friendly--as I incessantly snapped photos--and in addition to an impressive bobblehead collection on display, the diner features a number of fun signs, such as:

- "If you are drinking to forget, please pay in advance."

- "Shut Up & Eat"

- "No Snivelling"

Though Franks--which is only open until the early afternoon--features a full breakfast menu, burgers and other sandwiches, it was suggested by other patrons that Garbage Plates are the specialty. These are essentially massive 3-or-5 egg omelettes not quite in omelette form. They come with hash browns, onions and green peppers, with your choice of meat and cheese mixed in.

I went with a half (3-egg) Garbage Plate with Corned Beef Hash and Swiss Cheese, accompanied by Franks' homemade bread.

Ken had basically the same thing, except with American cheese.

Especially in being washed down with a delicious Chocolate Malt, my Garbage Plate was great. And Ken liked the coffee so much he wound up buying the coffee mug.

After this delightful brunch, we drove just a couple blocks to the Kenosha Public Museum, located along the lakefront. The museum has existed since 1936, but in 2001 moved into an attractive new building, with a separate new Civil War Museum added next door in 2008.

The Public Museum has no admission charge, though a $2 donation is suggested.

The first thing we saw was a quilt show, organized by the Southport Quilters Guild. Running from March 2-24, this show has now ended, but some impressive quilts were on display, as were some old-fashioned tools, which inspired Ken to give me a lesson on their purpose and use.

Me, I was inspired to come up with this absolutely hilarious joke:

Q: Did you hear about the blanket that over 20,000 women slept with?

A: Quilt Chamberlain

Rim shot, please.

After Ken recovered from laughing for at least 5 minutes straight, we wandered through a couple permanent first floor exhibits; one on a Woolly Mammoth--complete with a skeletal recreation--that had been uncovered in the area, and another on Native American settlements and the lives of their residents.

Up on the second floor, there was a small permanent exhibit that I found fascinating: Dioramas created by famed Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft--he created Fountain of Time, still found on the west end of the Midway Plaisance at University of Chicago and the Alma Mater statue at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, among many other works.

As an information placard conveyed, Taft created the dioramas "between 1927 and 1936 to capture the imaginations of children with the creative spirit of art."

With the dioramas, Taft paid homage to great sculptors who preceded him, including Michelangelo, Donatello and others. Having seen most of the original Michelangelo works that Taft created in miniature--including David in a separate diorama--I was most enchanted by that piece. But several other were wonderful as well. Unfortunately the glare didn't allow these to photograph well, but if you ever get to the Kenosha Public Museum, look for the Taft Dioramas.

And if you get there by April 28, you're likely to enjoy Peanuts, Naturally, an exhibit of Charlie Brown comic strips having to do with the environment, the ecology and the natural world. Though not nearly as extensive as the Peanuts exhibit that was recently at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, the ample collection of Charles Schulz strips served as a strong reminder of the social consciousness that went into his craft.

No photos were allowed in the traveling exhibit organized by the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, CA, but I found the above picture online. 

After finding a few fun items in the gift shop, I told Ken that we could either view the Civil War Museum--but not that extensively given his need to get home for an evening engagement--or the Jelly Belly Factory Tour, but not both.

I think he preferred the Civil War, but left it up to me, so we wound up at Jelly Belly (it's free, you get free beans and the Civil War Museum would've cost $7 each for a brief stay).

The "Factory Tour" is really a Warehouse Tour, as the Pleasant Prairie facility isn't a working factory, rather an extensive warehouse, visitor center and retail store.

I wouldn't say the tour--which consisted of a tram ride looping around the warehouse, with stops to watch videos of how Jelly Belly beans are made and packaged--is worth a trip to Kenosha in itself, nor would it warrant much of an admission fee, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The videos were sufficiently informative, though I'm still a bit fuzzy on how Jelly Belly gets imprinted on the beans, and I enjoyed seeing some artworks that had been created out of Jelly Bellies.

The original work of Jelly Belly art was a portrait of President Ronald Reagan--a huge fan of the candy, who has his own shrine in the Retail Store--but I enjoyed this depiction of Chicago's Art Institute and one of its famed lions.

Although we got a complimentary Jelly Belly bag, I still felt compelled to select several of my favorite flavors--including Buttered Popcorn, A&W Cream Soda and Orange Sherbet--in the store.

I also tasted a few others at the "Sample Bar," but couldn't bring myself to ask for Harry Potter-inspired flavors such as Soap, Dirt and Vomit.

Though undoubtedly not as educationally-nourishing as the Civil War Museum--a return trip is in order--it was nonetheless a sweet way to end an enjoyable trip with Ken to Kenosha, and as I'm still working my way through the Jelly Belly Seth Mix, the excursion continues to be a rather flavorful one.

And with Kenosha only being about an hour north of Chicago, we easily made it home without having to avail ourselves of the city's two beautiful lighthouses.

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