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an urban girl explores the art, food and baseball in 6 midwestern towns















 
“The cities of the Midwest are the undiscovered gems of America,” a friend said to me years ago. I've held that thought ever since and look for proof of it on a six-game, six-day, six-city baseball tour of Midwestern ballparks with my husband, Fen, and our 11-year-old son, Steven.
 
Day One: Milwaukee
 
We arrive at the Milwaukee Public Market in time to fashion a makeshift breakfast. At C. Adams Bakery, I snag a flaky cheese croissant and pair it with a cup of nutty Sumatra Mandheling from a neighboring stall. Steven chooses a soft and very buttery peanut butter-chocolate chunk cookie and washes it down with a Red Rooster, a smoothie made with apples, lime juice, beets and strawberries that's as red as its namesake.
 
“This is a great food town!” Steven exclaims, and we've only been in Milwaukee for 30 minutes.
 
Our next stop is the Historic Third Ward, a blocks-long stretch that aspires to be the Brooklyn of the Midwest. We pass the Milwaukee Ale House and Swig but the real hipster alert is at Cafe Benelux, where a 40-page “bierbook” can be found.
 
The neighborhood gives way to a pristine lake front whose crowning achievement is the Milwaukee Art Museum, its interior akin to an enormous sailing vessel, while the exterior of the Santiago Calatrava-designed building sports gigantic “wings” that flap at noon. We catch the avian show then head back inside for 30 Americans, a showcase for African-American artists who are challenging racial stereotypes. Artist Kehinde Wiley's urban-meets-classical style is evident in a riff on Antony Van Dyck's Triple Portrait of Charles I, with a boy from the 'hood gazing upon his world.

At Mader's Restaurant in the German district, I wash down brats with Sprecher's Black Bavarian beer and marvel at how much I like the local's take on dark beer, seeing as how I'm not even a beer drinker.
 
During the seventh-inning stretch at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is followed by the “Beer Barrel Polka.” Everyone sings.
 
Day Two: Minneapolis
 
I show up at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, sporting a Brewers tee and it's not long before I realize that everyone is staring at me. As I make my way to the concourse, a fan shouts in my direction.
 
“Why are you wearing that? Take it off!”
 
I slink away, baffled by the animosity since the teams play in different leagues. At a concession stand, I approach several teens in Twins gear and ask what the deal is.
 
“Oh yeah, there's a rivalry,” says one, as the others nod in agreement.
 
Justin Morneau of the Twins hits a bomb in the bottom of the first to make it 2-0 on a sun-kissed afternoon. The Margarita Man, who's toting a portable unit on his back from which he dispenses frozen margaritas to parched patrons, is plenty busy.
 
We make our way to the Walker Art Center post game to play a round of Artist-Designed Mini Golf, the museum's hit exhibit of the season. It's 15 holes of madcap fun and includes Roaming Hole Gardens, where players get to move topiary “plugs” from one hole to another to sandbag their opponents. Equally devious is Garden Gnome Foosball, a mashup of foosball and mini golf, where garden gnome strikers hold sway.

We follow our round with thick weiners from the Dog House, a mobile food stall parked alongside the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Fen and Steven order the Top Dog but my Show Dog, topped with pulled pork and creamy slaw, is easily best in show. We savor our meal in the shadow of Claes Oldenburg's iconic sculpture, Spoonbridge and Cherry.
 
Day Three: Kansas City
 
Our dilemma on arriving in Kansas City is whether to have barbecue at legendary Arthur Bryant's or the newer Oklahoma Joe's. The purist in me points us to Bryant's and while we discover “burnt ends” -- slightly-charred, delectable pieces of beef brisket -- the rest of the 'cue relies too heavily on sauce for flavor.
 
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has long been on my list and a current show highlights the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, European ex-pats who landed in Mexico City in the 1940s and befriended Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The muralist and his muse are well represented in the show, which features gems including Kahlo's Self Portrait with Monkeys and Diego on My Mind. A man of many appetites, Rivera painted his patroness Gelman as a siren, while the more demure Kahlo presents her, literally, as a buttoned-up lady.
 
In the City of Fountains, the Kansas City Royals' Kauffman Stadium has two, one on either side of a massive scoreboard shaped like a crown that lords over center field. Twins fans are everywhere and while their team may be playing Kansas City on this night, and the teams are divisional rivals, the six-hour drive from Minneapolis is not insignificant.
 
“Is Minneapolis your biggest rival?” I ask a woman behind the counter at Sheridan's Frozen Custard.
 
“No, we don't have rivals here,” she replies. “Well...maybe St. Louis. That's the I-70 series.”
 
On a tip, we head to Blue Bird Bistro in the Crossroads district the following morning. Next door to the organic Blue Bird in this rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood is Fervere, which sells handmade breads, and across the street is Chez Elle, a creperie in a stunning older building. Kitty-corner from Blue Bird is Los Alamos, a tiny Mexican market that also serves breakfast. Faced with an embarrassment of riches, I choose the Mexi-breakfast and swoon over huevos rancheros plopped alongside real-deal, runny refried beans.
 
“I want to come back to Kansas City!” I wail to Fen.
 
“I want to come back to all the cities we've visited,” says Steven.
 
Day Four: St. Louis
 
In St. Louis, our choices for 'cue are stalwart Pappy's Smokehouse or upstart Bogart's in the Soulard district, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods which, like the Phoenix, has risen from the ashes. We choose Bogart's and find the ribs smoky and incredibly moist while the pulled pork is tender and juicy. The deviled egg potato salad is another revelation.
 
I've dreamt of visiting the Gateway Arch since childhood, so upon arrival I snap photos from every conceivable angle and take the interior tram to the top for a stunning view. At 630 feet, it's the tallest man-made monument in the United States, a swish of stainless steel designed by architect Eero Saarinen as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson and all those involved in western expansion. The graceful curve anchors the banks of the muddy Mississippi, a river Mark Twain described as “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.”
 
Busch Stadium, home to the St. Louis Cardinals, feels like a revival on this sweltering summer night, a religious fervor evinced by red-clad fans who have to be the loudest in the Majors. Our club-level seats are a blessing as we're able to chow down in air-conditioned comfort while watching the game on one of countless big screens.
 
At the Hyatt Regency, our room is a corner king with a view of the arch and I insist we sleep with the curtains wide open to gaze upon the monument as it sparkles against an inky black sky.
 
Day Five: Cincinnati
 
Since most of the fans at Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds, are clad in red, it's harder to pick out the Cardinals fans here to see their divisional rivals. The Big Red Machine is in high gear as Jay Bruce sends one yard for a two-run homer. At the team store, I'm greeted by a life-size statue of Mr. Red Legs, the team mascot.
 
“I have too many red shirts, I have to get the black,” says one woman.
 
“I like the red,” says her friend.
 
Our room for the evening is at the 21c Museum Hotel, the newest member of a regional boutique hotelier. Much of the lobby and second floor is gallery space devoted to the current exhibit, Dis:Semblance, a meditation on “how we conceive, and communicate, identity in a global and digital age.”
 
“You know, Mom, we saw that same man in the 30 Americans exhibit,” says Steven.
 
He's right, too, as he spots a colorful canvas by Kehinde Wiley. This time, the artist has placed a Puma-wearing, saggy jeans-sporting African-American man in a field of flowers, creating a latter-day Monet. Across the room, an installation portrays a couple on separate digital screens gazing anywhere but at each other as the wedding cake between them is nibbled by a computerized mouse.
 
Breakfast the next morning is at Taste of Belgium in the Over the Rhine district, home to German immigrants and beer brewing in the 1800s. We order Liege waffles made with dough instead of batter and swaddled in caramelized sugar and find them to be the better half of chicken and waffles, though it's silly to compare. A fruit and cream waffle is equally impressive, and the coffee is perfection.
 
Day Six: Cleveland
 
What's hot these days in Cleveland is Ohio City, an older neighborhood across the Cuyahoga River from downtown that's been reborn thanks in large part to the W. 25th Street commercial district.

Close by is the Transformer Station, a sleek gallery acting as a repository for the collection of Fred and Laura Bidwell. A staffer hands us a Kindle with programming on parallel exhibits and in Excerpts from Silver Meadows, photographer Todd Hido, who grew up nearby, portrays his hometown as a bleak and lonely landscape comprised of barren trees alongside forlorn houses and people. It's clear that Hido also has an affinity for pulp fiction as his camera lingers over an attractive woman, the nape of her neck dressed in bulbous pearls. I feel like I'm in a David Lynch film, and contemplate how I've left home to do the things I'd like to do at home, including taking in one terrific art exhibit after another.
 
Nano Brew takes the concept of the micro-brewery and shrinks it to one-barrel beer with the likes of hoppy Nano Cluster Bomb, the fruity Nano Sweet Tart Gruit, and the slightly hoppy Nano Namber Ale. I like them all and share them with Fen along with a hair-raising bowl of chili. The crowd is a mix of neat 20-somethings, several of them engaged in a life-size Jenga game in a spacious corridor leading to an outdoor deck.
 
Cleveland is abuzz on this night as Journey is playing the House of Blues, the Browns are engaged in a pre-season opener, and baseball's Indians are taking on the Detroit Tigers in yet another hot divisional contest. The stands at Progressive Field appear to be filled equally with Indians and Tigers fans, and the Detroit faithful are roaring. Everywhere, the boys (and girls) of summer are having fun.

Photos Elaine Labalme
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