Wednesday, July 07, 2004

An Essay on Food and Foodways
in 120000 Words or Less

When I started this Weblog, I wanted to discuss food and foodways in a way that wasn't being done anywhere else. Then I discovered that no one else has interest sufficient and therefore, I must be imbalanced mentally.

By the time I left my hometown and moved to where I live now, I eventually discovered that food was on the decline. The Mom and Pop restaurant with which I was so familiar didnt' quite exist here. And by the time I became a fair hand at cooking even those places were all gone. That's not to say there aren't a vast array of restaurants here. They are owned by one or two people, but they are all "upscale" restaurants, not a place to order a hamburger and fries. Some of them may even have burgers and fries but that is purely coincidental. It's not why they exist.

I could go on as to why this change took place, the "corporatizing" of America, perhaps, but I speaking of an industry, not the entire U.S. and outside of Los Angeles, I have no way to know whether this lack of Mom and Pop places is universal. So I won't generalize. My guess is that the large cites of the nation have lost that lovely "home" cooking at restaurants.

Case in point: The Branding Iron. A cafeteria with a bar in the basement. I last at there in 1992 or 93. In 2004 I can find no record on the internet anywhere of it's existence. My parents and I had eaten there often. It was always a pleasurable experience.

One could park in the back, and on a Friday night, the lot was crowded, yet we never waited long for a spot. We would go in the back door. On the left were stairs down to the bar. On the right, stairs up to the dining area. Sometimes the line would be long. And I distinctly remember seeing posters of Westerniana on the walls. These beautiful posters, with depictions of various type of cattle brands, lassos, rodeo events, guns and western gear in general always was exciting to look at. Then we would round the corner and the fragrance of the foods would waft our way. Grabbing a tray and some flatware, I could see the variety of salads and jello available. Then came the drinks. Ice tea, lemonade, water. Coffee and tea, too. Sodas had to be ordered, and it made me feel uncomfortable to see the lady walking back to the soda fountain and making me a soda. So pretty much I had water or ice tea.

Next came the meats. They always had a prime rib with a huge beefeater for a carver standing over it. The steam would rise against the glass and I had to look at the beef from the side. The carver was always there, wearing his toque. If you ordered the beef, the lady at his side always asked whether you want "au jus" or "brown gravy". As a child I usually had the brown gravy. Next came the ham. It was good too, and next to that the turkey. Each meat had it's own carver. I think the gravy lady had to run back and forth between stations.

After the meats came the vegetables. Served in small bowls or if you asked, the carver's lady assistant would pile the food on the plate. I had it both ways and have never discovered whether one way is better than another. Then a stainless steel cover would be put over the food and one made one's way to the desserts. I may have eaten dessert, but the desserts there weren't much to speak of, although they served cake, pie, fruit, jello, cobbler, ice cream and anything else that was sweet I suppose. Lastly, came the cashier. Dad would pay and then we would all find a table. The food was good. Better than good. But it wasn't a linen table cloth place. It was home, never-the-less. I ate, my parents ate and then we left. Usually to home I suppose.

How sad I feel to find that The Branding Iron is gone. There was an article about my hometown the other day saying that in the 2.5 square miles that makes up Clayton there are now 75 restaurants. That's in a town of 16000 residents. That is 213.3 residents per restaurant. Of course, Clayton probably has twice it's population working there, during the day. So maybe if each restaurant serves 100 people a day, 7500 to 10000 people eating lunch somewhere, less for dinner that somewhere around 15000 meals a day eaten in 75 restaurants. That's with each restaurant serving about 200 meals. Average price per meal, $15. So slightly under a quarter of a million a day in 2.5 square miles. So sorry, I've got off topic here. I was saying that the era of the Mom and Pop restaurant is over. And in spite of the seemingly large number of restaurants per population

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