July 08, 2003

As Kepple Looks for Real America, Real Americans React with Disdain, Suspicion

KRUMSVILLE, Pa. -- You know, you would think that when you ordered chicken pot pie at a self-proclaimed country restaurant, the end result would involve something resembling, I don't know, a pie. A pie baked in a pot or other similar device. And oh yes, chicken.

Instead, what I got was a lukewarm bowl of dumplings, with an occasional potato thrown in to soak up the grease. To be fair, there was chicken, but not a lot of it; and the meal did suffice for the evening. But Gad! did it all have to be the same off-yellow color? And did it all have to be served with what I took as barely-concealed contempt for a city-bred patron?

I don't know; I guess I'm just still a little put out by the whole experience.

For you see, I love diners and country restaurants and old-fashioned holes-in-the-wall on the side of the highway. Such things are a glimpse into the past; how our country once was, and how it still remains in many small towns. They're generally friendly places, good local institutions where you can get a solid meal at a fair price. The food is never the sole profit-generator at such establishments: there are usually scads of trinkets and local goods for sale too. So for me, such establishments serve a dual purpose. On one hand, I can satiate my own nostalgia jones. On the other hand, I can help them as they adapt to the harsh new reality of modern American life, as dictated by the immutable laws of economics.

For really, when you think about it, roadside diners and country restaurants are about all that part of eastern Pennsylvania has going for it. All the anthracite has been mined out of the ground; the family farmer can't compete with the large agricultural concerns; manufacturing has gone to Mexico and Saipan and China. Travel along that stretch of I-78 from Carlisle to Easton, and you can see what the Invisible Foot of Comparative Advantage has wrought. Slowly but surely, it has stomped those small towns into the dust. But Comparative Advantage is a two-way street, and as you make your way along that highway, you can see those small towns learning to play off their own remaining strengths.

I suppose, in retrospect, I should have explored a bit. The place at which I ate was a depressing place: the type of hole-in-the-wall where the regulars routinely receive phone calls and the operation's main strength is that it's next to the highway. Had I gone further, I could have probably found a place in nearby Kutztown, a good Pennsylvania Dutch place with artery-clogging food. Indeed, the Kutztown PA German Festival (still in Kutztown!) had just finished up, so there was probably some place I could get some good baked corn and a decent bratwurst. But even though going to Kutztown would have been a Cultural Event of Freakazoid!-Esque Proportions --

COSGROVE: Hey, Freakazoid. Wanna go to the Akron Honey Festival?
FREAKAZOID: DO I!

-- I didn't have the time. So I got stuck with a disagreeable meal.

I don't know. Maybe the waitress was having a bad day: she looked awfully tired. Then again, years of hustling at such a small place would make anyone look awfully tired. Or maybe it was the fact that a fellow who looked like the owner came out of the back wearing a Washington-freaking-Redskins jersey. That even annoyed me. Personally, though, I'm inclined to think it was because I was wearing a suit. I had reason to, of course: I had buried my grandfather just hours before; but I am sure all my mannerisms screamed "ADVANTAGED CITY DWELLER." As such, it was probably a mistake to think I'd get treated one-tenth as well as Rusty the Local Farmer Who Has Gone There Every Sunday Since 1973 for Coffee and Pie. And it was probably a mistake to eat at a place which had on its sign the phrase "COOK NEEDED." Yeah -- they weren't frickin' kidding.

But ah well.

Still, what should you do if you're traveling along that lonely stretch of highway in eastern Pennsylvania, and you're hungry, and you need gas for the car? Easy. You should go down to Trainer's "Midway" Diner in Bethel, about twenty miles southwest or so. They don't care what you're wearing. They appreciate it when you leave a nice tip. And the food is great.

Now that was a diner. Wow. I mean, it had all the Great Diner Elements According to Lileks: the great neon sign, the use of non-ironic quotation marks, good, good cuppa joe. It also had the Great Diner Elements According to Kepple: good sandwiches, friendly talkative waitresses who probably started working there when Ike was in office, and most importantly: great -- freaking -- pie. You can't go to a diner without having pie, of course, and the Midway's was good. I went for the chocolate cream pie (choice No. 2 out of about 15) but on return visits I shall go for the shoofly pie.

A word on the hot sandwiches bit: have you ever noticed that you can't get a meal out these days that is actually hot? It's as if all the big restaurants in the world got an Informative Letter from Corporate Counsel warning them that food has to be served at temperatures warm enough to satisfy the health authorities, but certainly not hot enough to burn the mouth of some complaint-prone lout. That's because said lout might not know hot food is intended to be served hot, and he might end up hurting himself. Then there would be Litigation, and a jury of said lout's peers in Mississippi would Bankrupt The Company.

Anyway, the Midway serves its food hot, and what a joy that was. A perfect, perfect bacon cheeseburger: toasted bun, actual fresh bacon, just enough cheese, nice slice of meat. Add in the requisite side of fries-and-gravy, and this reasonably-portioned meal would hold you over the whole night. Including the pie, the grand total for this delightful meal was ... $8.18.

$8.18. Gawd. It hardly seemed fair.

One thing out of which I did get a chuckle, though, was that both the disappointing place and the Midway offered a "California Hamburger." This concotion consisted of your typical hamburger patty, plus the following condiments: lettuce, tomato, peppers, onions, mayonnaise. I found this funny for two reasons.

First, as a former Californian, I know that this is not the case at all. A real California burger is either an In-N-Out Burger slathered in cheese and onions, or perhaps one of Howard's Famous Bacon and Avocado Burgers. Mmmm. Avocado. In a way, though, you can see why they called it a California burger: back when it was dreamed up -- probably in 1962 or so -- all those vegetables on it gave it the appearance of being healthy. Still I found it funny.

I also found it funny because the California burger was $3.40 at the Midway and $3.45 at the other place. Heh. Oh, how I wish I could have bought any sit-down meal in California for three bucks. I daresay I would have been a much happier and richer man nowadays.

But I digress. Just know that if you ever find yourself out driving along the I-78, and you're tired and hungry and feeling a bit blue, there's a place where you can get a decent meal at a fair price. And if you look closely enough, you can see a bit of the Real America left in the Pennsylvania hills.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at July 8, 2003 11:58 PM | TrackBack