Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 19, 2014

Next stop - the nearest Culver's!

When husband Art and I drove to his home state of Wisconsin for the first time 27 years ago, he said the 12-plus hour trip was long enough, so he made it clear we wouldn't be stopping any more than necessary. That meant that most years our journey would be broken once or twice to get gas, maybe one additional time at a fast-food drive-through lane and once for a restaurant. Art let me know that the latter was strictly out of consideration for me and any passengers because if he were alone, he'd just press on. We were encouraged to synchronize other "needs" with those stops.

It's a good thing he likes to drive because I'd never be able to do that. I'm lucky if I can go three hours without getting sleepy or antsy.

Art's dad was a truck driver. And an uncle and grandfather Art spent much time with also logged many hours behind the wheel to make a living. What Art learned from them was that as a passenger, he could read, sleep or do any number of things. But the driver had only one job and anything that made it harder was to be avoided. So risking lengthening the trip - either by taking alternate routes just for the variation or stopping at unfamiliar restaurants - just wasn't done.

Art's been making the trip since he moved to Kansas in 1971, and he has his road selections and stops down to a science. On the Kansas end of the journey, he has two routes that he has measured as being 10 miles different. One goes through Lincoln, Nebraska and the other through Nebraska City, Nebraska. On the way to Wisconsin, we order breakfast at either the Beatrice, Nebraska McDonald's drive-through window or the one in Seneca, Kansas, depending on the path he chooses. If we are coming back, we may stop at those places for ice cream cones.

The two routes join outside of Omaha, Nebraska. The next goal is an additional two hours away - a particular convenience store/gas stop in Des Moines, Iowa.

But past that point, things have changed some over the years. Even when our ultimate goal was our cottage, we'd go to Art's hometown to see his mom first. That meant we'd continue east from Des Moines to Iowa City. But with Donna's death in 2009, we now head straight for the cottage and that means turning north at Des Moines to head on to Minneapolis.

On our early trips, we ate lunch at Big Boy restaurants. But then they went out of business. For some time after, we went to McDonald's for lunch. But for the past decade or more, our restaurant of choice has been Culver's.

We began going somewhat by chance. One day, Art's cousin Claudia was talking about how she and her husband Karl were trying to cut down on their fat intake. Then she added, "But every now and then we go to Culver's so Karl can have a ButterBurger."

A ButterBurger? My first thought was that only in the United States would we add butter to something that's already full of calories.

But the next time we were near a Culver's, Art suggested we give it a try. I like burgers, so I tried a ButterBurger. I was hooked after the first bite. To this day, my mouth waters when I think about having one. Older daughter Mariya likes them, too. When someone mentions Culver's, she'll say with a grin, "Mmmmm.... ButterBurgers."

A pretty good clue where the chain started is that many of its blue-and-white restaurants have fried cheese curds. Yep, the company began in Wisconsin - Sauk City to be precise. The company is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and now has more than 500 restaurants in 22 states. The closest one to our home in Manhattan, Kansas is in Lawrence, an hour and a half away, so it's always a treat to eat at a Culver's when we're on the road.

Starting in the Dairy State probably explains that ButterBurger thing. It's also no surprise other specialties include desserts made with Culver's signature frozen custard such as Concrete Mixers with cookie chunks. Among the different flavors are salted caramel pumpkin, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin pecan and cookie dough. I'm partial to the cookie dough, although I've tasted the pumpkin flavors and they're pretty good.

We all like the fact that it isn't just a typical fast-food place where almost everything is some sort of burger or chicken sandwich with fries. Side choices include green beans, cole slaw and mashed potatoes and gravy. There are all kinds of salads and soups. Sandwiches include Reuben, roast beef and pot roast. Some restaurants have bacon-lettuce-tomato ones or tuna on toast. Roast beef, cod, shrimp and chicken dinners are at every restaurant and some have additional offerings such as walleye.

Youngest daughter Katie said she likes that the food is better quality than that served at most fast-food places.

Several times we've been in a Culver's when a mix-up occurred with someone's ice cream order. In most restaurants, it would just be thrown away. But Culver's folks have often offered it for free to the first taker!

German "daughter" Nadja orders the Turtle Sundae almost every time we eat at Culver's while German "son" Tim usually joins me in opting for the ButterBurger.

We've eaten at about 20 Culver's restaurants - including ones in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin - most of them sprinkled along our route to and from Wisconsin.

So, while there isn't much that will make Art change his Kansas-Wisconsin trip routine, Culver's is something that will. Several times while traveling, he's even had the kids use their smart phones to find the nearest one.

Those stops don't make the trip any shorter, but they sure make it nicer!

Left: Art, his mother Donna and Katie outside the Antigo, Wisconsin Culver's in 2007; right: a cellphone picture I took earlier this year in the Des Moines Culver's. It was sent to the kids as a "look where we are" taunt.

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