December 29, 2008

food recollections or ‘what would Jesus eat?’

When I first started to travel in the States, I was dazzled by the food I found when venturing into unlikely restaurants in small towns and off two lane highways. My transportation was a series of foreign sports cars guaranteed to raise suspicion among Detroit centric drivers everywhere. They always seemed to break down in some place like Uncertain, Texas, or Enigma, Georgia, where the mechanics regarded my car far-fetched exotic and I got all kinds of advise about investing in a reasonable vehicle, such as a Ford pickup.

Despite the exotic wheels, I grew to feel that the road was where I belonged. Invariably, after a few months of being stationary, my feet itched to see more of the country I was falling in love with. I then traveled with a journal. Today it is a notebook computer and a cell phone. When I started, being in rural America felt like traveling to the dark side of the moon.

The American landscape was very different from what it is today. I feel 150 years old to admit that there were no Wal-Marts, no Kmart’s, no Home Depots, no Targets, no Outback’s, no Olive Gardens, no Red Lobsters, and no Starbuckses. There was fast food, but it was not everywhere. This was a good thing.

Every place I went looked different. Today, Connecticut looks like Arizona, which looks like North Carolina, which looks like Oregon. It is possible to crisscross this country and never eat, shop, or stay in a strange place. This is not a good thing.

In my early days of travel, I rarely stayed in chain motels. They simply did not exist in the small towns and on the back roads. More typical were mom-and-pop places, dirt cheap and with amenities to match, none.
As basic as those accommodations had been, it was eclipsed by the joys I found in non-chain restaurants. Before fast food muscled its way into town, every place had at least one good café.

From the beginning, I was charmed by the South. The South has a reputation for hospitality, and despite being an oddball, I felt welcomed there. I was always struck by the signs and billboards that welcomed everyone who passes to churches usually Baptist but often something strange and exiting, like African Apostolic or Snake-handling Charismatic. Signs that read ‘Fun in the Son’ or, ‘I will be back to get you soon. Love. Jesus.’ Moreover, what was one to make of a poster inviting everyone to an ‘Antiabortion and Fish-Fry Rally’?

A great cafeteria could vastly enhance the joy of supper. All top-notch cafeteria-style restaurants, had dessert at the head of the line. Then the ‘salads’. Finally the big decision, the entrée, and if it was Sunday, a huge ham and a steamship round of beef stood ready to be carved by the chef at the cutting board.
Aside from how wonderful the food was, what amazed most was their cost. For enough food to feed a small village, I paid $3.00 mid-1970. Today the bill is $7.50 – not much more than you would pay for a Mc-Something-or-others handed to you in a paper bag.

Rules to finding road food in the South: There is a direct correlation between the excellence of the food and the number of pictures of Jesus on the wall. This is true of all kinds of restaurants, but especially in barbecues, where the Lord frequently shares wall space with pictures of pigs.

Of course, pigs are not worshipped in the South, but the image of the pig in and around barbecue restaurants provides comfort, security, and joy, which dovetails with similar feelings instilled by religious belief.

I felt irreverent making note of this fact until I walked into a Bar-B-Q restaurant one day and watched a waitress setting up tables. Oblivious of my presence she was exuberantly singing the soprano part of ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’, no doubt something she performed with a church choir. On the walls were several portraits of a crowned, cape wearing oinker carrying a fork like a royal scepter along with signs reminding customers that JESUS IS LORD. When the woman noticed me, she smiled, walked to a counter, picked-up a menu, pointed to a table, and joined me there, never once missing a word or note of her hymn. She handed me the menu just when she reached the last line – ‘His kingdom is forever’ – her voice hitting a crescendo nearly high enough to crack every coffee cup in the joint. As I opened the menu, she made me jump with her ‘Amen!’

As I see it, the art of smoke-cooking meat and an honest devotion to God depends on similar qualities of character. Making great barbecue is a slow and simple process that requires faith more than showboat technique. Those who tend the smoke pit never tell you that they are the ones who make the magic happen.

Long before GPS and MapQuest, getting lost was my lifestyle. It is how I found the most colorful people and eateries.
My first encounter with a restaurant where religion is always the special of the day was a tiny café I discovered during an early cross-country trip, when road food was only a notion. I was still debating if indeed there really was anything interesting about American eats. This place turned out to be incontrovertible evidence that a whole world of good food and fascinating people was out there, ready to be discovered.

It had been a long morning drive, when I saw a sign on the outskirts of a town that said CITY CAFÉ – CHRISTIAN ATMOSPHERE.
I found the place around noontime. It was surrounded by cars. One booth was open, but before I sat down, I walked to the cash register and picked up a brochure written by the owner, Iola Burgraff. It was titled ‘Angels singing to Iola’ and was headlined ‘Giant Angel Speaks to Rev. Burgraff Concerning Nixon, June 3, 1973.’ Ms. Rev. Burgraff was the cook, the owner, and a Christian visionary. She was also ‘in touch’ with multitudes of dead people, she has seen coming into her café. It seemed that even death could not keep loyal customers away from her lemon icebox pie. Near the cash register was a picture of Nixon standing in the palm of the Lord.
‘Have you seen him?’ ask a man sitting in the booth next to mine.
‘Er, umm, yes.’ I answered, not certain whether the man meant
Richard Nixon, the Lord Jesus, or the busboy. The man smiled and turned away, apparently satisfied.
I could smell fried chicken sizzling in iron skillets, saw plates of baked ham with macaroni salad, snow slaw, and corn bread being served on other tables. I consulted with the waitress, Zelda, who had the whole dining room to serve all by herself. ‘It’s hard to get Christian help,’ she said, explaining why she was alone.
‘Which should I get?’ I ask. ‘chicken or ham?’
She paused and seemed truly to consider my quandary, then offered this advice. ‘Do you know what I do when I face a question and I don’t know the answer?’ she said. ‘I reflect and I ask myself, ‘what would Jesus do?’ Chicken or ham? I do not know. What would Jesus eat?

My thoughts, sitting in the departure lounge finishing off my roast pork sandwich and the umpteenth cup of Cuban coffee.


Alan said...

one for the home team

down south blog reader said...

love it

Andy said...

still with our food I see

LA fan said...

good read

Anonymous said...

very funny

colleague said...

so that was christmas?

Frances said...

I remember the hysterical trips to Meeker and the great food places you always seem to find

Karen (Danish Babe) said...

You have been the only one I know that can find great food in the most desolate places

Anja and Stan said...

We remember traveling with you and Rene the back roads of California.
What fun we had.

Frida said...

Just like our trip to Mt. Charleston in November

an Edna blog lover said...

one of the most enjoyable posts

Rick Arnest said...

I remember the City Café in Abilene quite well. I was a frequent patron in 1976 while working on an imaging project at the Greyhound Hall of Fame, just across the tracks across from the Eisenhower Library. I remember the incredible pastry, the undrinkably weak coffee, and the leaflets. I had many of them, but they disappeared in some move over the past 40 years.

I always wanted to use them as the basis for a cantata.

Iola, the proprietor, was a Christian cult leader, and her exhortations to her flock of elderly Christian ladies whose life savings had gone first to her and then down a dry oil well (the reason they all worked at the café) were Biblical in their scope. The prophetic theme was that the oil would soon gush forth and they would be rich.