August 14, 2011
As we travel along life’s highway, it’s great to stop and have a good meal at a local eatery. You know the kind I’m talking about. The unassuming little shack off to the side of the road, a little bit rundown, with a parking lot full of pick-up trucks and Buick Park Avenues. Or maybe it’s down on Main Street, tucked in between the Salvation Army Thrift Shop and the store-front for an independent insurance agent. Or increasingly it’s occupying the most unattractive location in a strip-mall that has itself been superseded by bigger and brighter real estate developments out by the Interstate. And since traveling along life’s highway itself increasingly happens on the Interstate, these little jewels have gotten hard to find.
Which explains why 52,000 people descend on the Cracker Barrel in Murfreesboro, TN at around 11:30 in the morning every Friday in July. This even though (as already told here) Cracker Barrel is a simulacrum, despite the fact that they do a passable veggie plate with non-veggie green beans and turnip greens, and even though you can sit on the rockers while you wait for the 51,998 people in front of you to finish their pancakes, meatloaf and cheeseburgers. Though why anyone would go to Cracker Barrel for a cheeseburger is totally beyond me. But that’s another story entirely.
Although our search for little jewels along life’s highway has gone corporate in the Food Network era, the temptation to make your own discovery endures. Unfortunately, most of these places suck. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why all those people in pick-ups and Buick Park Avenues are eating there instead of the Cracker Barrel. Maybe they’ve just had an off day. Their regular cook called in sick after getting in late from the WWE SummerSlam in LA. They ran out of buttermilk and had to dip the fried chicken in Dean’s 2% cut with vinegar. Or maybe the folks in pick-ups are only there to buy lottery tickets and the Park Avenue drivers are using the restroom (though in the latter case it’s still hard to figure out why they’re there instead of the Cracker Barrel, which generally does have tidy restrooms). Most likely it’s that this actually is the best they can do with the delivery from Sysco, and the people wolfing it down are what David Kessler calls “conditioned overeaters”. But that, too, is another story altogether.
More charitably, not every jewel is going to be equally adept at every item on the menu. If the fried chicken is acceptable—not Deacon Burton’s, you understand—the fish and chips leave something to be desired. If the mashed potatoes and gravy pass muster, the fried okra started out life earlier in the day in the Sub Zero. Although they do not suck at everything, they do suck at some things. This is just life. If you doubt me, read through the back items in the Thornapple Blog. Some of them suck. And I’m not going for that transcendent cheeseburger, I hasten to add. I just want a little roadside café where the chairs do not stick to your butt and the food does not suck.
We’ve mentioned some now and then in the Thronapple blog, so here are two more places that do not suck, or at least do not suck from every angle. First would be T’s Unique Café, located in the aforementioned strip mall type of locale in Anniston Alabama, right at the intersection of the bypass and Choccolocco Road. A little too dark and decorated with artwork that was apparently acquired at the Starvin’ Artists Hotel/Motel Roadshow, the Unique Café offers a more than passable selection of cakes, which look better than their pies, but since I didn’t try the latter, I’ll withhold comment. They have pizza and a number of Italian entrées on the dinner menu and they smelled yummy, but I didn’t try them either. Diane and I did try the homemade chicken salad and tuna salad sandwiches and they do not suck. You might be inclined to pass up T’s Unique Café based on the amateurish lettering of the sign outside next to the Golden Springs Pharmacy, not to mention the conspicuous absence of pick-up trucks. But the Unique Café assuredly does not suck.
Our recent sojourn on life’s Interstate also took us to Zaharakos in Columbus, Indiana. This is the kind of joint you actually expect to turn up on the Food Channel. T’s has an apostrophe, bur Zaharakos has a website. It’s in a beautifully preserved location on Washington Street, and claims to have been there since 1900, though it did undergo a full restoration in 2009. It’s worth taking the kids just so that they can see what a real ice cream parlor used to look like. We didn’t try any food, though the coffee was much better than expected. Is the ice cream a transcendent experience? Well, no.
But it does not suck.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University