It started with the usual suspects: my partner, Chad; our friend and next-door neighbor, Mona; The Chef’s Gallery Cooking School Director, Stephanie, “Queen of Stillwater”; and me. At 3:30 PM on September 11, we were itching for exhilaration and amusement. Originally from Hudson, Wisconsin, Steph suggested driving across the Stillwater Lift Bridge, and heading east to Hammond, Wisconsin. Off we were in my little 1994 Ford Escort. We were on a mission for merriment.
So, 30 miles and multiple rewinds of Kylie Minogue’s “Your Disco Needs You” (Almighty Mix, of course) later, we arrived in the picturesque country town of Hammond. It’s breathtaking, with rolling green hills, and antique buildings that have been repaired when needed. Residents lift their index finger from their steering wheel while driving to signal “hello.” Downtown is only about three blocks long.
The centerpiece is Hammond Hotel on Main Street, which touts itself as “proudly serving travelers and friends since 1879.” It’s three floors of fun. A large bar and restaurant occupy the main floor. The second floor houses a curious museum celebrating llamas. I never made it to the third floor.
Llamas—no relation to Lorenzo Lamas—are big business in Hammond. The second Thursday of September every year is the annual celebration known as the Running of the Llamas.
Finding a table on the hotel patio, we ordered cocktails—at this point, nothing else would do.
Our waitress handed us a lineup for the 12th Annual Running of the Llamas. Odds-on favorite, she whispered, was Cutie Pie. At the center of a race dispute at last year’s event, he was back to show he could “go for the gold.” She shared, “Don’t let his chunkiness fool you—he can still burn up the track, and has come close to winning past races.”
After another quick round of cocktails, we ordered food, while crowds of people were beginning to form around the hotel.
We sampled Frings—a combination of French fries and onion rings ($4.95). We also requested Asian Green Beans ($5.95). Both came with ranch and soy dipping sauce. I saw Cheese Curds ($6.25) on the menu, but I had my fill at the Minnesota State Fair.
The Hammond Hotel offers a gorgeous Bison Burger ($7.25), with lettuce, tomato, and raw onions. Its Steakhouse Burger ($5.30) is topped with American cheese, tomato, mayo, and A1 steak sauce.
I chose the Jack Daniel’s Burger ($5.50), with Asiago cheese, sautéed mushrooms, a cooked slice of ham—and, of course, a tasty Jack Daniel’s sauce.
Mona picked a wonderful Crunchy Thai Chicken Wrap ($6.50), with chopped chicken tenders, cabbage, water chestnuts, slivered almonds, and sesame Thai vinaigrette, all wrapped in a flour tortilla.
The Carnita Pork Wrap ($6.50) looked yummy, with seasoned shredded pork, lettuce, tomato, onion, and chipotle mayo in a flour tortilla.
Chad selected the Cajun Perch Sandwich ($5.95), with spicy Cajun perch, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and tartar sauce, on a hoagie bun.
Satisfied with our meals, we watched the goings-on in amazement. Klondike Kate, a large woman with a big voice outfitted in period dress, showed up, moving from table to table singing songs from the Old West. Members of the Vulcans showed up to egg on the llamas. A tent next door to the hotel offered games for the kids, such as a cupcake walk instead of a cake walk.
The llamas started to arrive, and the kids went wild petting them. Very patient, the llamas didn’t spit, as they are rumored to do—I was told they only spit at each other. Around 7 PM, Main Street was lined with hundreds of residents and thrill-seekers like yours truly and friends.
El Corazon de Cabello, the only llama who has been at all 12 runnings, was there. Also lined up at the south end of Main Street were Xerox, so named because he’s a carbon copy of his mother, Morning Glory; American Hero; LeRoy Brown; and Kehni, a 4-year old who loves his grain bucket.
When the starter blew the whistle, the llamas and their owners were off, running north down Main Street past the crowds. Honestly, I thought I would pee my pants, I was laughing so hard. These country folk know how to live, or at least take one afternoon out of their lives to turn up the volume.
Mark your calendar for the second Thursday of September in 2009. Head east on I-94 to Hammond for a little llama drama.
John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, private events, and culinary vacations to Italy and the Caribbean. Visit www.GardenCounty.info. Check out his “Word of Mouth” Blog under Extras at LavenderMagazine.com.