Kansas: A Series of Lies

Kansas City

When I was growing up, my grandparents had returned from Kansas with a souvenir mug, which they oddly kept in the bathroom. The mug listed the top ten things to do in the state. The list recommended a visit to the largest ball of twine. I can’t remember the other nine items, but none seemed as exciting as the ball of twine, which spoke volumes about Kansas. From quite a young age, I knew it’d be quite unlikely that I’d ever plan a trip to Kansas. I should point out that I came to that decision despite having nine family members–aunts, uncles, first cousins–living in the state.

But then the Kansas Book Festival invited me to Topeka to present on my book this year. I figured, why not? Let’s see if the mug is outdated.


I picked up the rental car at the airport and drove west to Topeka. It was late at night, so I couldn’t see the landscape. But it was dark and quiet on the roads. So quiet that even the truck driver in front of me seemed to think the roads empty enough to drink and drive, a plausible assumption, as he swerved so violently for miles that I had to keep my distance.


Since I had missed the dinner for visiting authors, which I heard was a lovely affair at the governor’s mansion–though certainly not an endorsement of the state’s governor, I just like lovely affairs–I had to make other plans. Prior to my drive, I had researched the best places to eat in Topeka. Across the web, the consensus was solid: a barbecue joint, a burger spot, and a brewery were everyone’s top three. They must be that good, I reasoned. There was no need to skim the rest of the list. Since the barbecue place was closed and breweries always beat out burgers, I opted for the brewery.


A few things I discovered form this experience. Topeka only has a few restaurants. So to expect quality from a restaurant placing one, two, or three in the depressed capital is like betting on a three-legged horse in a four-legged horse race because the three-legged horse has an undefeated record (though only from only racing no-legged cows). While the IPAs were fine, the brewery’s barbecue was atrocious: hard, dry, and accompanied by sides that could have been used to grout a bathtub. I was uncomfortably stuffed–a fullness that I wouldn’t shake once during the trip, though I’m partially to blame.


As sad a place as Topeka was, it’s state building was gorgeous, and I enjoyed the small festival and kindness of the people.


Kansas Book Festival


After the event, I needed to shake the memory of the previous night’s blunder, and plugged the famed barbecue joint Jack Stack into Waze. On my drive, I discovered that my grandparents’ mug was proving accurate.


Kansas City’s Jack Stack, however, served phenomenal barbecue: tender, moist, and with sides and sauces that were perfect complements. But one problem: the restaurant was in Missouri.


Jack Stack Kansas City


So now here’s Kansas’s little secret: Kansas City, which some of you may know spans both states, is mostly in Missouri. And all that is ostensibly wonderful about Kansas–the charming Crossroads Arts District with breweries, art galleries, jazz venues, and restaurants galore; the museums of art and World War I; the sports teams even–is in Missouri.


The mug was right.


The only other thing that I knew about the state was that my cousin, Becky Mandelbaum, titled her award-winning short story collection Bad Kansas, which offers wonderfully conflicted and nuanced vignettes about lives in the state. One of my favorite lines about Kansas, which perhaps should have given me insight into this trip, is: “You can’t take a girl from California and stick her in Kansas. It’d be like putting a fish in a tree.”


Kansas City Brewery


That evening, I stayed at the Ameristar Hotel and Casino, which is also part of Kansas City, and also on the Missouri side. Unlike Kansas City, Kansas, there were things happening in the casino. Country musicians performed beside old train cars, steakhouses buzzed beside oyster bars, and one of the only breweries operating in a casino crafted fine beers. Even the smokey casino, with its falsely painted blue-sky ceiling, had a more refreshing quality than Kansas City, Kansas.


While I had no great love for Kansas, I guess in the end, I truly respected the mug’s honesty–and the Kansans who felt compelled to be so brutally honest–for I’ve seen a lot of misleading mugs in my time: Best Teacher on a former English teacher’s desk; she was the Kansas of teachers. Best Mom in my friend’s cupboard; his mom was Topekaish.


Though I do hope that when the world floods from climate change and we start to experience environmental apocalypse, Kansas forgives my unborn grandchildren for this flippant story, and permits them to enter this not-so-exciting state. Perhaps then, Kansas will have more thrilling mugs.


Posted on by Noah Lederman in Somewhere, United States

One Response to Kansas: A Series of Lies

  1. Sam

    great story….funny as well. Enjoyed reading it.

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