Travel feeds my soul. When travel opportunities pop-up, I accept them whenever possible. There is no trip too near or far to thrill me.
Once, my husband was lamenting about how he wished he had more interesting stories to tell. I encouraged him to explore with me, for most of my interesting experiences have occurred away from home. JeniEats is my labor of love. So far, it hasn’t become financially profitable, but it’s given me opportunities to travel and connect with incredible people.
On Bloggers Tours
Some of these travel opportunities are presented as bloggers tours. They might include perks such as free lodging or food. Other times, they’re simply an opportunity to network and participants pay for everything. We attend with the expectation that we’ll share our experiences through our blogs and social media channels. Accepting free things create ethical dilemmas for writers who intend to present unbiased reviews. The commitment I make to my readers is that I will disclose what I receive for free or at a discount and share my honest opinions. I take pride in keeping an iron grip over my blog’s content and social media channels, so if I take the time to share something I like, you can bet that I’m really, truly smitten.
My largest reader base is almost equally split between Minnesotan, Iowans, and North Dakotans. As I write posts featuring specific cities, I attempt to frame them in them in such a way that people outside of that particular state will find something interesting. Thanks for joining me on this wild ride around the Midwest.
Road Trip To Cedar Rapids
Iowa has a vibrant network of bloggers. We come from all corners of the state and enjoy getting together. Earlier this month, Kelli of The Sustainable Couple coordinated a sustainable living-themed day in Cedar Rapids, Iowa complete with a tour of the Prairiewoods Fransiscan Spirituality Center & NewBo City Market.
On a snowy Sunday morning, Amy (Modern Rural Living) and I drove to Prairiewoods, our first Cedar Rapids stop where we met five other food and lifestyle bloggers. Sustainable living is a significant topic for many of my peers. As examples, Michelle is building a passive house, Amy just ordered solar panels, and Kelli raises and advocates for backyard chickens. I have a lot to learn from these women.
The Franciscan Sisters created this retreat center for people of all faiths and backgrounds to gather, with emphases on ecology, spirituality and holistic health. The focus of our tour was to learn about the facility’s eco-friendly features.
Prairiewoods sits on 30 acres of prairie and 40 acres of woodlands. Our tour guide Emy led us on a grand tromp through the snow.
Guests can stay in little straw-bale construction hermitages or this guest house. If you examine the windows to the right, you’ll find they’re placed in front of big brick walls. This trombe wall collects sun rays so it can hep heat the home with less reliance on a furnace.
Believe it or not, I’ve never seen a solar panel up close and personal. Prairiewoods has series of solar panels that are both connected to and separate from the electric grid. In Cedar Rapids, the electric company gives owners of solar panels credit if they produce more energy than they use. Emy demonstrated how they have to brush off the panels when it snows.
The wind howled and the snow swirled outside, but the inside of this hoop house was comfortably warm. We created so much heat inside the house that the snow kept thumping off the tarp. We found some green plants beneath the cloth tarp. My day had begun at 5 a.m. and I considered curling up on one of the hay bales.
Emy also showed us the root cellar, garden plots, and beehive. We did not eat here, but I can only imagine the beautiful meals they prepare for guests. I found some recipes from past and present Prairiewood Chefs in their December 2014 newsletter. Spaghetti squash in blush sauce looks right up our alley.
After our tour, we drove to NewBo City Market located in the New Bohemia district of Cedar Rapids.
NewBo reminds me of Midtown Global Market in that it’s an indoor space that hosts a myriad of small, local businesses mostly related to food. This market focuses on sustainability by working with a waste management business that offers a composting facility. In fact, all NewBo merchants must use compostable packaging. This same waste management company makes recycling convenient for Lynn County residents by accepting old electronics, light bulbs, and batteries at no extra charge.
The first thing that struck us upon entering the building was the smell. The aroma stopped my in my tracks. I paused in the lobby and took deep breaths of what smelled like 1,000 of my favorite foods.
We wandered the market and enjoyed lunch together. Before the event, Kelly connected with vendors, many of whom offered us discounts or provided samples. These are the foods I enjoyed and took home:
Corn Fusion Flavored Popcorn
The colorful popcorn samples at Corn Fusion were impossible to miss. One of the owners offered us a complimentary bag of Chicago Mix and encouraged us to sample away.
I bought two small bags of popcorn to take home. My favorite flavor was the tart dill pickle variety. Dill pickle potato chips are my favorite and this seemed like a natural combination. The brightly colored kernels above mimic soda flavors. One green kernel of the Mountain Dew flavor did me just fine. Jake liked the Chicago Mix so much that he squirreled it away never to be seen again.
That One Cupcake Place generously offered us our choice of one free cupcake. Most of us took more home for our families. I chose the lemon cupcake and also bought a peanut butter variety.
Everyone that knows me knows that I typically hate cupcakes. My two biggest qualms about cupcakes are that they’re often dry and topped with too much [crappy] frosting. I’m glad I gave these a shot. The cake was moist and the frosting didn’t taste icky. Usually I remove all of the frosting, but with these cupcakes, I ate much of it. Our favorite was definitely the peanut butter cupcake.
As someone who often chooses salty over sweet, I liked how the peanut butter frosting had a salty note. Two more factors that contributed to me actually liking these cupcakes is that the vendor does not add any preservatives and uses real butter. If you visit NewBo Market for cupcakes, visit early in the day for the best selection. The vendor ran over to our table during lunch to let us know the pickings were becoming slim. He didn’t want us to miss the opportunity to try them.
The most unusual flavor I spotted was Bubble Gum. Michelle bought one and when I followed-up to find out how it tasted, she replied it wasn’t her thing, but her daughter loved it.
A handful of vendors offered our group coupons in hopes that we’d choose them for lunch. I visited Caribbean Kitchen. Their menu of Jamaican and Soul Food caught my eye, especially since I can’t find either cuisines in North Iowa.
I asked the man who took my order what his personal favorite dish was. He mentioned the mango-pork, so I ordered the roti with a side of fried plantains and Rasta lemonade (flavored with pineapple and coconut). With their blogger discount, I received a couple of dollars off my tally.
I liked the sweet and savory flavor combination of what tasted like jerk, mango, and pineapple. The tangy goat cheese saved the dish from being too sweet. I tasted the slightest heat tingle and kicked myself for forgetting to order it with their hottest sauce, to which a sign near the counter referred. The sweet fried plantains were hot from the fryer. I liked the caramelized edges the best.
Other items that caught my eye included jerk ribs and a daily special of lobster chowder with hominy fritters. There’s a lot to try here. The problem is that there’s a lot to try in the whole market! I eyed my other friends’ meals of burgers and cheesy fries from Saucy Foccacia, falafel and a pastry called a mamool from Zaytoon Mediterranean Grill, and pizzas baked in a wood-fire oven from Maggie’s Farm Pizza.
One treat that I’ve been enjoying every day this week for breakfast is sage and apricot bread from Betty & Bobo’s Better Breads.
We have no bread bakeries in Mason City and I’m still perfecting my own bread baking abilities. Therefore, I’m thankful for people like Betty & Bobo who have more advanced skills. They bake the type of bread I prefer, which has crusty exteriors and a slightly sour fermented flavor. Betty & Bobo’s also grinds their own wheat and rye berries into flour.
In addition to loaves of bread, they also sell frozen pizza dough, pretzel buns, and granola. This apricot sage loaf is everything I love. The plump apricot pieces really pop. I bought two loaves of bread that I found on the clearance rack for about $5.
Concluding Thoughts: I love exploring Iowa. One day is far from enough time to explore Cedar Rapids, but at least NewBo City Market makes it possible to sample a variety of local flavors in one space. Jake and I have a long ways to go regarding sustainable living, but I learned a lot about features we could integrate into our next home. Right now, we live in a townhouse development which ties our hands on most of our aesthetic features.
Have you ever been to Cedar Rapids? Where else should I explore the next time I return?