Marlen Garcia: Home-style cooking, bison and prairie restoration

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WILMINGTON, Ill. — In the five years since it opened, Nelly’s Restaurant on Route 66 has become a favorite stop for motorcyclists and bicyclists traveling the famous highway from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif.

The restaurant’s Facebook page has photographs of tourists who have stopped in from all over the world. Britain, Italy, Brazil, Switzerland and Denmark are just some of the countries that have been represented this year. Many autograph the walls after enjoying homemade traditional American fare, as in barbeque and French fries.

“Living the American dream,” one visitor named Vicentin wrote in Spanish.

The restaurant, like the highway, is a slice of folksy and friendly America just an hour south of Chicago.

More throwbacks are heading this way, and they could boost business for Nelly’s and other restaurants and hotels in the area.

I’m talking about bison, shaggy beasts that roamed much of North America until hunting and disease began taking a toll in the 19th century.

OPINION

Follow @marlengarcia777

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Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington is getting 30 to 35 bison that will have 1,200 acres on which to graze. Officials are hoping their grazing pattern, which differs from grass-eating cattle, will foster restoration efforts of the prairie at Midewin (pronounced mih-DAY-win), the former site of the Joliet Arsenal.

A secondary goal, National Forest Foundation spokesman Greg Peters told me, is to spark interest in Midewin, which has about 9,000 acres of land open to the public. The prairie, established 19 years ago, is underutilized by Chicagoans, he said.

I’d say their plan is working. The news took me to Midewin this week and to Nelly’s, where Tina Nelson, who owns the restaurant with husband Steve, said they started researching the cost of serving bison burgers when they heard the animals would arrive at Midewin this fall.

It might be too expensive, she said. Bison meat is pricier than other beef, unless they buy it frozen, according to Nelson. She and her husband prefer to purchase fresh meat from their supplier. It contributes to the restaurant’s cachet, along with handcut French fries and onion rings.

“Right away, we thought, ‘We’re getting bison burgers,’” she said. “But you hate to go off from freshness.”

I’d call it a welcomed predicament.

Officials at Midewin and the foundation also have a dilemma. They are effectively piquing interest in the bison project but are apprehensive about handling visitors in coming weeks and months. They are declining to give an arrival date for the bison, except to say they are coming this fall, because they don’t want a crowd of visitors until the spring when viewing will be officially open to the public. Even then,though, there will be no guarantee of bison sightings because of the immense size of fenced-off land they will roam.

But it still will be worth the trip, if for no other reason than to hike the trails. It’s a beautiful place, except for boxes of ammunition piled outside the welcome center. They are reminders of the old arsenal and that there is hunting at Midewin, a sport that just doesn’t resonate with me.

Getting to see a herd of majestic beasts so close to Chicago? That would be a huge bonus.

Email: MarlenGarcia777@yahoo.com

Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @marlengarcia777

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