We should have known better. Nine 19 year olds planning a camping trip? Not the best idea. Only a few of us had camping experience, after all, and we'd never planned an entire trip before.
My aunt and uncle recommended a camp site in central Illinois, not too far from where three of my friends grew up. We thought it would be the best of both worlds. We did not consider what the camp site offered compared to our camping intentions.
And so one weekend in the summer of 1999, we arrived from our respective corners. Giddy, drunk on freedom and promise. Only to be confronted with a series of rules, regulations, and the tiniest plots known to mankind.
Strange people up in our grill? We had to be quiet at night? Copious swarms of mosquitos? We looked at each other. This would never do.
Ignoring the money we'd plunked down on deposit, we set up camp in Danielle's grandparents' backyard. OK, it was on the other side of the lake in their backyard. Still, we slept in tents, blazed campfires each night, and lived it up.
As much as anyone can live it up in central Illinois.
The locals, Melissa, Danielle, and Sara, raved about a certain pizza place. They'd long talked of Nuggets and Fried Pickles. While we might have looked bug-eyed at their enthusiasm for strange dishes, no one could resist the allure of pizza. We decided to give ourselves a break from camp fare for one night.
Thus, we headed to La Grotto's and life has never been the same.
The pizza place read as a typical hole in the wall. It fit its small town surroundings but would easily be overlooked in a city. I didn't think my friends would steer us wrong. Still, I kept my expectations low.
The garlicky Nuggets- fried bread dough- were an instant hit. Then it was on to the fried pickles. I liked pickles but fried? I wasn't sure what to think.
I lifted a spear to my mouth for the first hot bite. Perfectly seasoned batter complemented by the dill of the pickles. And then ranch dressing for dipping purposes.
They're freaking fried pickles!
Euphoria entered the building. A moment like this, if you will.
We made quick work of those pickles before moving on to deep dish pizza. For me, the star of that evening has and always will be the fried pickles.
Who knew central Illinois housed such fried perfection?
Who knew I would one day become known for my fried pickle obsession?
A tradition was born, along with this new long-distance relationship. We set up camp the next summer and headed to La Grotto's for the usual. The fried pickles didn't disappoint.
And yet, they remained in Peru, IL while I did not. I couldn't find fried pickles in the suburbs or Chicago. I didn't want to be a whiny fried pickle aficionado but I needed a fix more than once a year.
Luckily, it became easier to find fried pickles near my hometown. Plus, they're ever prevalent in Nashville.
Even so, dear friends. The fried pickles at La Grotto's will forever be my first love. The standard against which all other fried pickles are measured. The heart wants what the heart wants.
Do you like fried pickles?