Friday, August 7, 2009

Hardin market and chokecherries (or not)

I was up at 5 am to get to the Hardin farmers market at opening time. It is a small market, and so I figured vendors might sell out quickly. Well, I made it at 9 am, an hour and a half after opening, and I was right: I missed the crowds and a lot of the produce. Still, I was able to talk to each vendor and admire what was left.

The Little Horn State Bank hosts the market and an average of 5 vendors set up tables under the shaded front awning. One farmer comes 109 miles from Ryegate to sell his produce, so right there you know it has to be a good market. I was told customers line up at 7 am, even before the official opening at 7:30, to make their purchases and go on to work. They tried a Saturday market, but everyone leaves town on the weekend (there really isn't much to do in Hardin), and so the Friday morning market continues to flourish.

produce at 9 am

Hardin is a few miles from the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer fell in 1876, and so downtown you will find places like Fort Custer General Store (its 2 stories filled with, well, EVERYTHING) . . .

. . . and reminders of when the annual reenactment will take place.

Another eagerly anticipated event is the duck race down the main street of town. A hydrant is opened, and a participants can win as much as $500 if his or her duck floats the fastest. It's also a fundraiser for artists at the Jailhouse Gallery.

I have to mention the Purple Cow Restaurant near the freeway. It doesn't look like much, but it has terrific homemade food. I was told that if they can make it themselves, they will. Sure enough, my hamburger was in a tasty "real" bun. They are known locally for their $18.25 Montana Breakfast, which includes 3/4 pound sausage, ham, or bacon, 4 eggs, 12 pancakes, 3/4 pound hashbrowns, and 1 pint orange juice. I don't think this is a one-person meal. Not for me, anyway.

It was hard to leave all the excitement in Hardin, but I was determined to check out a chokecherry festival while I was more or less in the area. It was a long, hot 119-mile drive to Broadus, but I finally arrived at the striped tent set up in the park -- alas, only to find a few jars of chokecherry jelly in the midst of a large, well-attended flea market.

Still, they have a great-looking sign (which mentions the rodeo that same day), and there are plans to make it into something really special next year. So we won't give up on it yet.

I was feeling peckish, and so I splurged and stepped into a well-known restaurant called the Judge's Chambers. I paid $7.95 for their Banoffee Pie: bananas and toffee sauce on a puff pastry crust, all topped with whipped cream and a splash of chocolate sauce.

It was OK, but for a restaurant that prides itself on fresh ingredients, some picked from their kitchen garden, I was disappointed to find a very strong taste of canned milk in the toffee. I imagined (though don't know) they made the toffee by cooking condensed milk in its closed can, which is actually the authentic way to make it, but if you're being creative with the crust and general appearance anyway, why not make a better-tasting simple toffee sauce from scratch.

Some years ago I had a piece of the original Banoffi Pie at the Hungry Monk in Sussex, England. The original recipe puts the canned-milk toffee sauce in proper perspective, so it tastes very nice indeed.

But that's not why I would call this the second-worst dining experience of my life. (The first was a visit a few years ago to a vegetarian restaurant in Woodinville, Wash., where the young male waiter made several comments on how I was eating alone, as if that was something nice women don't do.)

Part of any dining experience is feeling you are a welcome guest. As I stood waiting to be seated in a nearly empty room, I was stared at by a sullen dishwasher, who apparently resented the thought of having more dishes to do. Then, after a rather long, lonely wait (did I mention the room was nearly empty?), I was seated in a cramped area right by the door at a tiny table for two, which had an unpleasant view of the closed front door or, if I sat in the other chair, a view of a Seattle couple, surrounded by empty tables, happily enjoying a lovely garden view out their window.

Basically, I was ignored by the waitress (I did mention the place was nearly empty, didn't I?), while she chatted with the couple and a table of other customers in another sunlit room and made sure they had everything they needed. To her credit, the waitress did stop by to see how I was doing, but there was no friendly patter as at other tables; I opened my mouth to ask a question, but she'd already left. She had an aversion to lingering near me, but who could blame her -- it was the worst spot in the place.

It was a depressing atmosphere to eat dessert in, so as I walked out the door, I was startled to hear the waitress say cheerfully: "Do come again!" I was in no mood to be friendly as I muttered, "Not if I can help it!" Perhaps I should have been forthright in my criticism right there and then, but the whole attitude imposed on my dark corner had been one of "why bother," so I left with that.

Broadus is a typical small Montana town essentially in the middle of nowhere. Fine dining there should naturally be a happy and truly memorable event. Alas for my own experience. I cannot recommend that anyone (except, perhaps, an already happy couple) go out of their way to eat at the Judge's Chambers.

Determined to have a nice final moment in Broadus, I went across the street to the intriguing Copper Moon building, where I was greeted with grins by two happy-looking young women with brightly colored hair, who offered to make me one of their famous milkshakes. Oh, if only I had stopped there first! I wandered around the antiques, arranged in creative groupings, and felt my spirits had lifted enough to leave town with a pleasant memory.

eat dessert here!

One thing you must do in Broadus before you leave is visit the Big Sky Wool Mill. This unique factory sells spun yarn and roving for spinners in its shop, but also accepts wool from all over the United States to make into yarn for individuals. I got a spontaneous personal tour by an enthusiastic employee, who showed me the equipment they use to wash, prepare, card, and spin the fleeces into any type of yarn you need. Fascinating.

Hardin Farmers Market
Little Horn State Bank parking lot,
835 North Center Avenue
August 7 - September 4
Friday, 7:30 am - 11:30 am

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