Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sundays with Steve - What's for Dinner?

Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve”, I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in along with some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career many years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together.


Mrs. Steve and I were reminiscing about restaurants in our small town backgrounds and we found it difficult to recall anything especially praiseworthy. The joys of our towns came from Chinese-take out, watery spaghetti plates, chain-served pizza, or buckets of KFC chicken. None of it was very good, but I don’t think we knew at that time.

Mrs. Steve and I have lived in a number of small towns in our lives, and we have found, in retrospect, that rural, or near-rural life style, was rewarding and enjoyable. But there were some draw-backs, of course, that living in smaller communities offered: Unfortunately, fine dining was one of them.

When the future Mrs. Steve and I visited my favorite restaurant, Ricon Polanco, in Mexico City, the head waiter knew me, and knew where I preferred to sit. Three or four waiters would descend on our table a moment later, laying out an amazing display of 10 or 15 different breads and assorted appetizers. Two others would appear to fill a small shot glass with pepper vodka for each of us. The vodka was poured carefully from a bottle frozen in a large block of ice. The waiters, dressed in formal black and white, would compete with each other to fill the liquid to the very top of the glass without spilling it.

While we enjoyed the appetizers and reviewed the menu, the waiters would hover, waiting for an eye brow to raise with a question or a request. I loved the roast duck breast in tart blueberry sauce that the restaurant featured. When the meal was almost complete, the chef would come out of the kitchen to talk to each customer personally. As it turned out, the chef had been head chef for Pope John Paul for 15 years or so before returning home to open his dream restaurant – a Polish restaurant in Mexico City. Was that a surprise? Initially, but not really once we thought about it. I don’t think either one of us had ever been in a high-brow Polish restaurant, anywhere, big city or small.

It seems in our travels and in our home towns, with a few exceptions, the best restaurants have been ethnic restaurants, operated by immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants.

Unfortunately, most of the ethnic restaurateurs in my home town had forgotten their family secrets, or left them at home in the old country. Growing up there, our family was thrilled with take-out from one of the three Chinese restaurants in the city (well actually just two, the third restaurant’s food source was suspect, said my father, hinting that it contained the remains of neighborhood dogs and cats). We often stopped at Eng’s for take-out on the way into town after a weekend trip, or at the Jade Lantern in Clarkston, again for take-out, after a day on the river.

Bill Eng, a high school classmate, was often in the kitchen when we stopped, and it was a treat to go to back to witness a commercial kitchen in operation, with steaming pots and rapid fire Chinese filling the air. We loved this exotic and delicious Chinese take-out then. But now, thinking back 50 years or so, I suspect it was not the best Chinese I have ever had.

I’m not sure that is a fair statement. It may have been good for the resources the Eng family had, and the unsophisticated market in which they found themselves. The Eng’s were descendents of Chinese workers who came to this country in the second half of the 1800’s to work essentially as slave labor building the transcontinental railroads, or working the new found mines of the West. The discrimination of the Chinese was horrendous, and the anti-immigration laws were blatantly racists – but I’m not going to get into that here.

This ethnic family survived by serving the community what it demanded: modestly priced food that was made with the best available ingredients from that isolated Northern Idaho town. The Eng’s could not compete with the fine Chinese restaurants of San Francisco that we enjoyed in future years, and they didn’t have to. They had to compete in a blue-color mill town and agricultural community with KFC and a few chain pizza joints, several downtown sandwich shops and several bars with frozen food grills in the back room. They competed very well it seems, and when I last visited that town, Eng’s was still there, in the same small and crowded building over 40 years later.

In addition to the three Chinese places in town there were also two Italian food restaurants. That was it for ethnic food in our city. There were some diners of course, a handful of fast food drive-ins such as the Arctic Circle, where hamburgers were featured at $.19 each. Lunch during my high school years often consisted of a three minute drive to purchase two of those skinny $.19 burgers, an order of fries and a coke. The greasy pile of food was served up in two or three minutes and cost a dollar…perfect for a quick lunch giving us plenty to time to get back to school in our 30 minute lunch period.

There were three “fine dining” restaurants in our small city. One at the big old downtown hotel, another just north of town that featured a mountainside view of our town and its rivers, and then there was the Elks Club (members only, which left me out) both downtown before the “great” fire that destroyed it, or the replacement built out of town a little bit. That was it for restaurants, for a population of about 25,000.

We’ve spent some time in Mrs. Jenny’s town in Ohio, a central trading town of about 13,000 or so, and I noticed a similar dearth of diversity of restaurants. Another small town I lived in for many years, Eagle, Idaho, had a breakfast /lunch joint and a grill at the public golf course. That was it, not even a fast food drive in.

We never complained about our lack of fine dining, and I’m sure that for most years in those towns were we really not aware of that deficient. And if we were, we didn’t care. Because our fine dining came from other sources: A number of people in our small towns became very accomplished home cooks over the years, self-taught with an accomplishment to rival many high brow restaurants in the cities. Some of our friends, over the years, were good, really good.

Mrs. Steve and I were talking this over this week, while were in one of our favorite restaurants here in the Phoenix area, enjoying a fusion of New Mexican and Mexican foods that are absolutely unique and delicious. This place cooks its meats and chilies over pecan wood fires, and combines spices and foods in amazing ways. The restaurant occupies a building that looks like a 60-year old small warehouse, but its meals are truly spectacular: They are not “Tex-Mex”, they are not Mexican, instead they are New Mexican that some call southwest.

It was my opinion this week, while salivating over a seafood dish served in soft blue corn tortillas and covered with a light béarnaise, that some of the best, and maybe worst, food in our small towns was had at the once-every-three month Boy Scout potluck dinners. Fine food was also often found following funerals, where friends would load up the tables following the ceremonies. Maybe some of the best were the Church potlucks where the ladies often competed with each other to create very good dishes.

Small town dining was generally a toss-up: The restaurants were passable, sort of, but you knew you were going to eat well when a friend of the family died or the ladies of the church were going to feed you on Sunday.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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jane said...

i´m sitting here eating cottage cheese with banana. you are killing me! ;)
warm hugs jenny!

Anonymous said...

Breakfast in PA is scrapple fried crispy with King syrup drizzled on top :)
When i worked as a church secretary for ten years we called them "dead spreads" and that was GOOD EATS as Alton Brown would say.

Cheryl said...

Going to the drive-in was a big deal when I was a kid. When I turned 18, I was treated to the insides of the best Chinese restaurant in the area run by the family of a school friend. Sparkly.

I live in a city of @ 25,000 today. Some of the finest food around.

J said...

Ha. Great post. Shame there isn't much to boast about there.
My hometown has a lot of local restaurants that are yummy! :D