THE ROOTS OF A RESTAURANTEUR

Thank God …..COVID is winding down.

Now that restaurants are actually open, I plan to resume my blog again. As you will remember, my posts aren’t reviews. My goal is simply to share discoveries with those of you who enjoy travel and dining as much as Joanne and I do. I’m no restaurant critic; I’m a restaurant STALKER.

I thought I’d take this posting to share a bit about my culinary roots as I scratch my head to see if there is any connective tissue between my childhood food memories and my food and restaurant pathology of today.

So…welcome to the inside of my brain. And please forgive the disorganization, messiness and clutter.

I grew up in the 1950s in Kewanee, Illinois, a factory town of 16,000 people in the central part of the state.

And only today do I realize that during that time there was almost a contempt of American food. The newspapers banished food to the women’s sections of the papers, amid articles about needlepointing and flower shows. There were no culinary magazines to be found in our house, I have no recollection of ever stumbling on any TV cooking shows.

For me, that was a good thing. With no high-brow chefs or notebook-bearing critics to inform me that we were in any way deprived, this grubby, acne-faced adolescent reveled in the food he was served.

And why shouldn’t I have warm & fuzzy feelings about our meals? After all, I lived in a house with a dirt-floor basement and three families crammed into two floors: My Swedish grandma Nana, my Aunt Rose and newly returned WWII veteran Uncle Don, and my mom and dad, June and Ollie. Every evening around 5 o’clock, we sat around the round oak table with the ball and claw feet in the kitchen table and had dinner. Only we called it supper.

M.F.K. Fischer, who wrote artful personal essays and books about food, once famously said, “Our life requires three basic needs: food, security and love.” I aced it in all three categories.

With three women sharing the cooking in our house, our meals were influenced from three different backgrounds…or should I say four, because my dad and Uncle Don were hunters and fishermen who occasionally prepared their catch for us.

As I flounder in my memory, two things strike me about the food: It was UNCOMPLICATED. And it was UNIMPROVABLE!

I don’t think that I ate in a restaurant until I was probably 8 or 9 years old, unless you count the local Dairy Queen, where on summer nights my parents and I would stop in for a 5-cent cone….” the cone with a curl on top”….on our 16-block walk to Northeast Park to watch the Philadelphia Athletics class C farm team play baseball. I clearly remember the evening when, in my mind, Dairy Queen took a giant culinary step and offered to dip my cone into a warm chocolate bath that immediately hardened into a dark shell encasing the white vanilla soft serve. That treatment cost a dime. It was maybe my first exposure to food as theater.

If it wasn’t the first restaurant I ever visited, the MAID-RITE on 2nd Street in Kewanee was certainly one of my earliest experiences dining out. I know now that Maid-Rite started out in Iowa and later expanded on the strength of its popular “loose meat” sandwiches (something Roseanne Barr used to talk a lot about)….but the taste was great: juicy steamed ground beef topped with a dill pickle chip and a squirt of mustard on a steamy, soggy bun. Absolute heaven.

At home, meatloaf was our version of loose meat, smothered with ketchup (wonderful, wonderful ketchup) and served at least weekly. When we were in the mood for something exotic, Mom obliged with CHINESE CHOP SUEY. It involved at least two cans of La Choy (or maybe Chun-King?) vegetables and crispy fried noodles.

My mom was consistent in her nomenclature. Chop Suey was Chinese Chop Suey, and spaghetti was ITALIAN SPAGHETTI. I loved it! Capers, anchovies, Gaeta olives from Lazio, San Marzano tomatoes…None of that ever made an appearance. My mom, however, did spike her sauce with a few drops of olive oil – carefully metered from a tiny bottle. I think, at that time, she could only buy olive oil at the Berg and Dines Drug Store on Chestnut Street. The local A&P had no audience for such exotica.

On Saturday nights, all the downtown Kewanee stores remained open ‘til 9 o’clock. The farmers from Henry County brought vitality to the local economy and flooded the shopping district. Dave Benson and I followed girls in and out of the stores until they caught us.

My mom worked in a dress shop and when she closed up at 9:00, on very rare occasions we would walk a block down the street to DAVIDSON’S RESTAURANT. That’s where I met and fell in love with…CHICKEN-IN-THE-ROUGH, a half fried chicken accompanied by French fries and a drop biscuit and honey. Served without silverware, it came in a wicker basket accompanied by a small finger bowl of tepid water…which, on my first visit, I drank.

Other stuff that I liked and remember: PINEAPPLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE, GREEN JELLO made with cream cheese, evaporated milk and walnuts. BURGERS served up on sliced WONDER BREAD (“builds strong bodies eight ways”). What I know now that I didn’t know then is that LOUIE’S LUNCH in New Haven, Connecticut – oft-lauded for having one of the BEST BURGERS IN AMERICA – also served its signature burger on sliced white bread. So there!!!

And then there were ROAST BEEF SUNDAY AFTERNOONS, when my Aunt Betty and Uncle John, along with their sons Johnny and Bob, would drive up from Peoria and we’d all manage to squeeze around the kitchen table. The beef, likely a rump roast (NEVER Prime Rib) was always roasted well, WELL done. Hmm, I wonder if that had anything to do with Nana coming from Swedish Stock. I was just wondering.

By the time I was a junior in high school, I was smitten by a girl named Bonnie. She, however, was not entirely smitten with me. Consequently, on date night, I would be certain to drop Bonnie off at home no later than 10:30…..because….the A&W ROOT BEER closed at 11:00. A manhole-sized DEEP-FRIED PORK TENDERLOIN SANDWICH and FROSTY MUG OF ICE-COLD ROOT BEER easily trumped my in-vain love affair.

No surprise that the A&W’s marquee offering was pork; Kewanee is the OFFICIAL HOG CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. I can still remember the balmy summer evenings when the gentle breeze was out of the west and the aroma of ammonia from hundreds of hog farms wafted over the town.

PAN-FRIED PORK CHOPS (breaded when Mom was feeling fancy) were a treat, a rather special treat.

Today I realize that the women of the house frequently found ways to stretch our dollars and still provide a satisfying meal for six. A real crowd pleaser was SAUERKRAUT AND SPARERIBS (lots of sauerkraut and potatoes, but maybe one or two spareribs at most per person).

My Mother shopped the A&P grocery store, and she told me that on occasion the butcher would simply give her PORK LIVER, no charge. I guess they couldn’t sell it. I HATED LIVER. Mom would bread and pan-fry it with lots and lots of fried onions. My friend Dale, the son of the Baptist minister down the block, also hated liver. But his mom would spruce it up with BACON. Alas, there was no liver and bacon at 205 East Central Blvd.

It was only after we moved to Minnesota that I discovered that liver could a delicacy. Think FOIE GRAS. I also remember long-gone HARRY’S CAFÉ in downtown Minneapolis, where the signature dish was LIVER STEAK (the size of a MANNY’S New York Strip) smothered with fried onions and bacon.

Other economies at our house? CHICKEN POT PIE. Fried Chicken was only for rare occasions, but with the added bulk of potatoes, carrots, Bisquick drop biscuits and chopped celery, this dish provided an affordable alternative. Moreover, my mom’s version was DELICIOUS and there was always PLENTY OF IT.

As I said, my Dad and Uncle Don fished and killed game for food.

Come with me to the banks of the Hennepin Canal that ran from Chicago to Rock Island, and passed 10 miles north of Kewanee.  My Dad would take me there in the evening and throw a “TROT-LINE” across the waterway. Fixed up with appendages including a dozen or so TREBLE FISH HOOKS that would rest on the bottom, it reliably lured catfish.

I have two vivid memories of CATFISH.

My first recollection involves an obligatory stop at the Sears & Roebuck to pick up the cheesy catfish bait which we rolled by hand into golf ball-size portions and squished onto the treble hooks. It was the STINKIEST, FOULEST, MOST PUTRID, NOSTRIL-PENETRATING CRAP that existed on the planet – vomit married with cat feces. 

But, OH MY…the next morning…Did we catch fish? YOU BET WE DID!!!!

My SECOND MEMORY? My Mom’s DEEP-FRIED CATFISH DINNERS ….always with KRAFT MACARONI & CHEESE (VELVEETA, as I remember.)

CRAPPIES and BLUEGILLS…pan-fried, not deep fried. Watch out for bones.

Here’s where things get interesting…and illegal as well.

In the winter, my Uncle Don had a car. He and my dad would take me along as they very slowly prowled the back country roads along the hedges looking for wild rabbits….which were plentiful. Dad and Don would shoot them from the car (that’s the unlawful part). My Mom would bread and pan-fry the rabbit, add a can or two of CAMPBELL’S CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP and a bake it in the oven.

The unpleasant sidebar is this……

THE SKINNING and CLEANING of the RABBITS.

Returning from the hunt, Dad and Don would head for the basement (the basement with the dirt floor), where they’d nail their prey to the rafters, then slit, skin and gut them. Next to the cleaning zone was the big and roaring coal burning furnace. Too convenient to ignore, its blazing fire offered easy disposal of the skin, fur and guts.

And therein lay the problem. The antiquated coal-burning furnace in the 100-year-old house was a forced-air system and thus the stench of burning fur, skin and rabbit guts spewed up and through the floor registers throughout the house and hung around for hours.

But now for the GOURMET part. I had no idea at the time but, in early April and the month of May, on Saturday mornings my dad, uncle and I would drive about 15 miles southwest of Kewanee to forage on a farmer friend’s property that had a few hundred acres of woods.

Forage for what? MOREL MUSHROOMS!!!

This wasn’t a Martha Stewart-type forage with a wicker basket on your arm, a Pendleton flannel shirt on your back and a Kooringal Bora-Bora straw hat on your head. No, this foraging team wore jeans, boots and wool baseball caps with flaps to cover your ears on frosty mornings. And we toted GUNNY SACKS, which, by the way, we frequently filled to the brim.

Around noon we’d arrive back home. My mother had already filled the sink with cold water and a cup or two of salt in order to soak the morels and drive the bugs out.

After she thoroughly dried the mushrooms, the cast iron Lodge 12-inch skillet hit the stove along with a one-pound block of high-fat local farmer’s butter. When the foaming stopped, in went the flour dusted morel mushrooms, which were greeted with hefty shakes of salt and McCormick’s ground pepper. No wooden pepper mills in our house.

At last we’d all sit down at the table…a heaping bowl of buttery, salty hot morels in the center with a big spoon sticking out, as we plopped the heart-paddle little buggers of the delightful fungus on our plates. My dad and Don had a beer.  I had a bottle of Royal Crown Cola. LIFE WAS GOOD.

I really hesitate to say, at this time, that any of this stuff played a vital part in shaping my passion for food and restaurants. But then as now, food for me has ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT PLEASURE…whether in Kewanee, Illinois or Paris, France.

The hunting was especially good in the fall. My step-grandpa had a farm near Sheffield and on the property was a walnut tree grove of about an acre. Squirrels galore. SQUIRRELS LOVE WALNUTS.

And yes, we ate squirrel. We ate it often. Same cooking drill as the wild rabbit – pan-fried and then baked with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Did it taste like chicken? YEAH, maybe a little bit.

I think the last time that I ate squirrel was in the late ‘50s when I came home from college for a weekend. My uncle Ben, part of our extended family, was living with us at the time.

I recall that it was the Sunday afternoon family dinner, just before I was to head back to Champaign, that we sat around the dinner table and Ben said, “PLEASE PASS THE CAT.”

W.T.F.

PHIL

4 thoughts on “THE ROOTS OF A RESTAURANTEUR

  • August 3, 2021 at 6:49 pm
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    Loved this story – especially hearing about June and Rose. Two great women who clearly had quite an influence on you! Thanks for the trip down memory lane Phil!!

  • August 3, 2021 at 8:03 pm
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    A great read, Phil. You should write a book based on your personal food experiences, a la Calvin Trillen or MFK Fisher. Let’s hope restaurants can now remain open and thriving again.

  • August 14, 2021 at 4:13 pm
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    Phil, I really enjoyed your story of life in Kewanee in the 50s. I can relate to everything you said. I grew up on a farm near osceola. My brother-in-law was Tony Ruthey.
    I hunted the moral mushrooms and shot and skinned the rabbits you talked about. My mom worked at Lee’s dress store . My sister dated
    Shelby Yastro’s.

  • September 15, 2021 at 6:09 pm
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    THANKS PAT…I MISS EM…….THANKS CAROLYN….am thinking about writing a book……and THANKS JOHN….JOHN….I remember Tony Ruthey well….good basketball player…..used “firm-grip” on his hands during games and Shelby….I seem to recall that he may have been part of a musical trio in high school.

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