Grotto of the Redemption

I’ve been living in Iowa for the last 10 years and one thing I’ve found is that it’s not exactly a tourist destination. I often find myself looking for things to do. Years ago someone mentioned a grotto at a church and I let it pass. I’m not religious and religious icons and destinations just don’t appeal to me. I’ve admired some things done in the name of religion, such as some of the great cathedrals and paintings but mostly from the perspective that men built such great things and painted such great masterpieces. I do admire skill and perseverance. A local roadside stand, not so much. So with some trepidation I decided that I’d visit this grotto and maybe take some cute pictures and poke some fun at religion. I started by looking up their webpage to make sure I could find it okay and found that they bill themselves as the eighth wonder of the world, which is pretty arrogant. I was hoping I could find some things to poke holes in this claim and maybe bring a little humor into it.

I drove for an hour across some of the flattest land in the states wondering how close to the middle of nowhere I was when I found West Bend, a tiny one-light town that is as unremarkable as all the other tiny one-light towns that dot Iowa. As I pulled into the parking lot I could see the grotto across a small pond and behind the large Catholic Church that sponsored it. There is a museum, theater, café, and gift shop orbiting the grotto and the pond was full of trumpeter swans. Seeing the large conglomerate of stone before me with little white statues here and there I thought that this is what it must look like if god threw up. I walked around the pond and café and when I rounded the corner to see the grotto up close for the first time I did something I don’t recall ever doing before.

I stopped dead in my tracks.

The wall was, well, it was beautiful. I have never seen anything like it in my life. From afar you couldn’t tell but it was inlaid with all colors of quartz, amethyst, pyrites, petrified wood, and many, many other minerals that I couldn’t identify. It glittered, it resonated, it took my breath away. I actually regretted my vomit comment and would have prayed for forgiveness at this point if I actually believed in any god. But this was just the outer wall.

On the side of the café were pamphlets that explained that there were really nine grottos, built over the course of nearly a century, each depicting a scene from the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The main grotto, the Grotto of the Redemption, was the original one, built by Father Dobberstien when he promised the Virgin Mary he would build a shrine in her honor if he successfully recovered from pneumonia, which he did back in 1912. In the winter he made panels of stone in his house and in the summer he assembled them to form a cave, or grotto, for the statue of Mary that he had commissioned from artists in Italy.

However, none of this registered as I turned back to the wall. I walked through the first arch and found myself in the Garden of Eden, with an angel admonishing Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit. It’s not the story, but the presentation that again took my breath away. The Tree of Life was made from petrified wood and broken geodes and crystals again festooned every inch of the scene but not in any random fashion. They formed intricate patterns and told stories of their own. And Eve was so beautiful that I could imagine any man wanting to do anything for her, even risking getting thrown from paradise.

I could go on and on about amethyst crystals bigger than my head, or perfectly formed quartz three feet high, but it’s just no use. It’s just something you have to see. Of course I was snapping pictures like crazy but when I saw the results I knew I could never capture what my eyes saw. Then something started to seep into my consciousness. As I walked with Jesus on the night of his betrayal and saw Mary weeping at the cross, and passed sleeping apostles in the garden it dawned on me why this was all done.

Because a man made a promise. Because a man was so devout to his religion that he labored for 40 years trying to make the most beautiful shrine he could. No, I didn’t feel the presence of any god, I never once felt like praying, but I was absolutely awed and amazed by the sheer artistry and talent and vision that was all around me. A man did this. A human being like any other. It wasn’t that god could do great things, but that man could do great things. It wasn’t god that made this so beautiful, it was the natural process of wood petrifying, of molecules crystallizing, of light refracting, of minerals forming patterns and finally of a skinny little man gathering them up in one place and with what must have been the ultimate OCD from god, meticulously put them all together that made it so beautiful. It inspired me. It made me completely forget the outside world.

I wandered around aimlessly for three hours vowing that if by chance I ever get a visitor that I for sure would make this a must see destination. I went through the museum which had some beautiful examples of every type of rock you could think of. The gift shop was more a Christian supply store and I was only slightly tempted at some shiny things but walked out empty handed. I made a generous donation and even toured the church, itself a wonderful example of architecture and beauty.

It wasn’t easy and in the end I had to call a friend to help talk me down so that I could leave. I was wet and frozen and kicked myself for not visiting on a warm sunny day. I strolled through the Stations of the Cross one last time and still at every turn saw something that I thought was amazing. Twice I had tears in my eyes. Sadly I climbed in my truck and pulled out, the radio silent, and was greeted by the real world full of grain elevators and more corn than the world could ever eat.

I pondered at how religions, although responsible for more and bloodier wars than any other cause on Earth, could inspire men and women to create such beauty. What if every man, instead of killing, hating, and conquering in the name of their god built great things instead? At least one man did, and I admire him for allowing me think of such things.

Father Dobberstein wasn’t looking for fame or fortune, he was simply keeping a promise. I would highly recommend this little place to anyone passing through the Hawkeye state.

As for the website, I have no longer have an objection.

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Death by Chocolate

Well, I’ve been feeling really down lately and thought I’d write a 3 page diatribe about how much life sucks but then it hit me – I should make a cake instead.

It’s been a long time since I made a cake so you’ll have to bear with me, and it didn’t turn out as perfect as I’m used to but here goes.  As you read you can click on the pics for a bigger version.

First, make sure you have all the ingredients. I use a recipe that my grandmother taught me and it’s pretty much memorized so I don’t need to look anything up. I forgot to check for eggs but fortunately I had some. I did have to do a little shopping but at this point I’m ready to go.

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Grandma’s recipe calls for a dash of this and a palmful of that so I had to update it a bit. I no longer butter and flour the pans, I use pan spray, but I do still use a whisk. It seems like cheating to use beaters and I don’t have any anyway.  But YOU can use a good chocolate cake mix, they tend to taste better anyway and only costs a few bucks.  Just mix everything up and lick the spoon.

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I pour them in the pans with one having slightly more than the other. The reason for this will become apparent later on.

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I only have a convection oven so I cook the thicker one first, as it will take the longest to cool.

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I know, I know, raw eggs, blah, blah, blah, but it’s a time honored tradition that you must lick the bowl.

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Whipping cream is tricky but it’s not too bad if you freeze everything first. Freeze the bowl, the whisk, make sure the cream is cold.

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Whip your little arm off. Add the sugar and cocoa and eventually you get chocolate whipped cream. (Or you can cheat and buy ready made chocolate whipped cream, no one will judge.)

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And make sure you have a banana handy, nothing is better on a banana except chocolate whipped cream.

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Now make the milk chocolate glaze. I use butter, some extra cream, and (you guessed it) milk chocolate. Here Grandma called for creme de cocoa but I don’t have any. She also added creme de cocoa to the whipped cream, too, but I always thought it gave it a bitter taste.  If you are serving adults this does add a nice tang to everything but it can be skipped.  After a minute in the microwave and some stirring you get molten chocolate.

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Note I saved a few pieces.

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Now I play a waiting game, so here is me waiting.

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I take the first cake out of the oven and use the fork test, perfect.

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Again, when working with whipped cream everything needs to be cooled, so I wait some more while all the pieces cool.

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Now, remember how I had one thick piece and one thin piece? Well, take the thick one and cut in half. You end up with three roughly equal pieces.

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Spread the whipped cream between the three layers.

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Try to keep it even.Now the glaze should be thick enough to pour. The trick is to pour it very slowly and make sure it’s cooled enough to not be runny. You want it to just barely drip down the sides.

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Now, what’s a chocolate cake without chocolate sprinkles?

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Remember the piece of chocolate I saved? Normally I use Snowcaps to make a design on top but the store didn’t have any so I’ll shave the chocolate and put little curls on top of the sprinkles. Not the way I would have chosen but I do like some texture on top.

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So, here it is, just a ton of different kinds of chocolate.

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But wait! There’s more! You serve all this chocolate with a dollop of chocolate ice cream and some chocolate milk to wash it down.

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In reality it didn’t kill me but it did lift my spirits just a tad. And now my kids love me for a short time, until they get all sick from so much chocolate.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go eat a big thick steak to get my body back in whack just a little bit.

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