Well, I wasn’t born there, but John Cougar Mellencamp was (well, near there at least) and not only did he croon about it, he still lives there. Welcome to Bloomington, Indiana. No offense Hoosiers, but for Indiana, this was a pretty cool, cultured, and charming little town.
On a 900+ mile drive from New Jersey to Chicago, I stopped in Bloomington in Southern Indiana for a couple days to visit my cool cousins, Michael and Nancy, who moved there about a year ago from New York. You’d think it might be quite a transition for these savvy and worldly New Yorkers, from the bigness of all New York has to offer. And yet, they realized after moving here that they missed nearly nothing about New York except their friends. Bloomington offers variety, culture, worldly food, just on a much more manageable scale.
“I love how easy it is to do so many cool things; how easy it is to have the same lifestyle we had in NY…on a much smaller scale, but no less in quality.” Nancy said as she and Michael walked me around their pretty, leafy neighborhood of older, classic homes and the green campus dominated by stately limestone (from local quarries) buildings.
What did Michael miss about NY?
“A good deli.”
But even if there are no ‘real’ delis, Bloomington has a fine and broad selection of eats, many dotted around the charming downtown streets which surround the Monroe Country Courthouse. We savored some flavorful dumpling dishes at Samiras, an authentic, local Afghani joint. Yum.
They also introduced me to The Farm, a local restaurant with a vintage tin-ceilinged vibe and a big-time chef. Daniel Orr grew up in Indiana, but got out of his small town to work in kitchens from France to New York (executive chef at famed French restaurant, La Grenouille) to Anguilla. Chef Daniel returned to his home state of Indiana to open his multi-faceted culinary complex: with a restaurant, market, and a ‘root-cellar’ bar with live music. The focus is on the local and fresh ingredients. My cousin recommended the Wild Bianca pizza. The crispy brick oven pesto, mushroom, and white truffle oil (I can eat this on anything) pie did not disappoint, but did make me awfully full because I could not stop eating it.
The city of Bloomington, or B-Town, lies just 50 miles south of Indiana’s state capital, Indianapolis and has a population of over 70,000 residents, squeezed into 20 square miles.
What is most happening in Bloomington? Indiana University. Established in 1820, IU has approximately 40,000 students. The green and lovely campus, chock-a-block with grand buildings made from Indiana limestone, has been named one of the five most beautiful in America.
Bloomington is also home to a large music scene. The Grammy nominated band, The Fray recorded their triple platinum debut album, How to Save a Life, at Echo Park Studios in Bloomington.
Much of Bloomington’s wealth of music originates in the Jacobs School of Music at IU, which has for decades been among the nation’s largest and most highly ranked schools of music.
One of the most well-known and interesting graduates, surely has to be Will Shortz…the ‘king of crosswords.’
Graduating in 1974, he is the only person known to hold a college degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles. Shortz achieved this exceptional feat by designing his own curriculum through Indiana University’s Individualized Major Program. He’s the crossword editor of The New York Times, the former editor of Games magazine, and the founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (since 1978), which was documented. And just a few years ago, he was the main subject of Wordplay, a film documenting his work and his smart, yet quirky loyal fan base.
My visit concluded with a nice drive to Lake Monroe, the state’s largest inland lake, where Michael and Nancy enjoy their sailboat when summer rolls around and the current (not pink) home of aforementioned small town boy, John Mellencamp.
Old Johnny Cougar is known to be a big fan of Indiana University basketball and is regularly seen in attendance at home games. In 2000, he gave the IU commencement address, in which he told graduates to “play it like you feel it!” Following the delivery of his address, Indiana University bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts.
Bloomington, it turns out, is a pretty neat place. Beautiful architecture, culture and arts all around. My favorite part? Just hanging out with family over good food, wine, and conversation. Thanks to Nancy & Michael for hosting me and introducing me to their new ‘cool’ small town.