Saturday, November 3, 2012

More memories of long-lost food and drink

A couple of days ago I began a nostalgic look back at food and drink memories that are, for all practical purposes, lost to me. I suppose if I spent enough money, some of these tastes could be had again, but would the reality be as good as the memory?

Last time I looked back at some food and drink memories of my childhood. I'll start this time with a treat from my teen years.

Other than a couple of paper routes at age 12-14, my first real job was at McDonald's. When I was 15 and a freshman, my older brother "got me in" (that was the phraseology back then) at the McDonald's restaurant in Fond du Lac, Wis., where he was killing time between his high school graduation and being drafted into the Army.

I could write a book at my time under the Golden Arches, and for many years I thought I would. Unlike most of my contemporaries, I was a long-term employee at Mickey Dee's, working there from 1965-70. I was there when McDonald's was strictly a drive-in, in the days before inside seating. I was there when the orange bowl and root beer barrel stood atop the counter. I was there when the Big Mac was introduced. I was there when women were first allowed to work at McDonald's.

Much of the time during the years I worked at McDonald's, at least at our store, employees were allowed, within reasonable limits, free lunch or dinner while working. As you can imagine, with the rather limited menu at that time, I looked for ways to vary my mealtime selections.

Honestly, more than 40 years later I no longer remember whether I invented the "cannibal burger" or was introduced to it by another employee. But it is on my list of once-favorite foods that I'll never be able to enjoy again.

Some years later, I learned that my cannibal burger was known in classier circles as steak tartare.

I began my creation by mashing together two of the standard 1/10 pound hamburger patties and sprinkling it liberally with dehydrated onion flakes. This was placed into the special bun steamer that we used to soften the buns for Filet-O-Fish.

The burger was steamed just long enough to get the fat flowing and the onions plumped back up. Then a bun was steamed and the burger placed thereon with a slice of cheese top and bottom. The sandwich was topped with the handmade tartar sauce that we made back then, and heavily salted and peppered. With a large root beer and an order of the fries that I was so expert in making, it was a meal that I would happily partake of today instead of the finest filet mignon.

Given the highly publicized salmonella and e. coli incidents of recent years, I don't guess I'll be seeing steak tartare on a menu any more.

Surprisingly, another of the taste treats that I recall so longingly came from a chain restaurant. After a night of drinking at area minor bars, my friends and I often found ourselves after midnight at Lum's, again in Fond du Lac.

My order never varied; two hot dogs and a schooner of beer. But these were not your average hot dogs or beer.

Lum's prepared their hot dogs by steaming them in beer and serving them on a steam roll. Sauerkraut was optional, and I never optioned for it. The beer was Schlitz dark. I don't believe I ever saw Schlitz dark anywhere else. It was foamy and had the body color of root beer, but it didn't have the heaviness or burnt malt taste of Guiness Stout or any other dark beer I've had since.

The Lum's chain, which would probably be characterized today as casual family dining, seems to have failed or faded away in the 1980s.

I left home the day after Christmas in 1972, to begin my journalism career on a small town weekly newspaper in Wautoma, Wis. In the year and a half that I roamed Waushara County as a reporter, failed ad salesman and paper delivery guy, I encountered two gustatory delights that stand out even four decades later. A steady diet of these would have killed me by now, but I'd give jump at the chance to enjoy them again.

Both meals were encountered in country taverns (remember those?).

The first was french fried lobster at a small tavern on the outskirts of Wautoma. I don't remember the name anymore; it was Pine Tree or Pine Cone or something. But, oh, I remember the lobster that I enjoyed there many a Friday night. Both my wife and I rate it as the best meal we've ever eaten.

After I left Wautoma for Iola, I never again got to enjoy that french fried lobster. I kick myself now that I didn't make the one-hour drive every Friday night until the bar closed.

I've had plenty of lobster in the intervening years. I've even had some sort lobster-cake sandwich at a McDonald's in Maine. I've had french fried lobster twice since 1974. It wasn't the same. Those latter day lobster meals featured frozen shredded lobster or some other form of macerated lobster meat. The fried lobster in Wautoma was lobster chunks. They were served drenched in melted butter and washed down with mugs of cold beer.

I'm sure that there are lots of places that serve similar french fried lobster chunks . . . I just haven't found them.

Just a couple of years ago I drove down to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to attend a coin show and promote the candidacy of my former boss, Cliff Mishler, in his successful run for president of the American Numismatic Association.

Driving back to Iola on a Sunday afternoon, I purposely took the back roads so I could drive through Waushara County and stop at a country tavern that I had frequented in 1973-74 in the township of Dakota.

When I lived and worked near Wautoma, the bar, which sat on a muddy creek, on Wednesdays used to serve turtle soup and french fried turtle. I used to stop there at noon and each visit had to make the painful decision as to whether to order the soup or the fried turtle.

Like the lobster, the fried turtle was in large chunks and drowned in melted butter. The soup also featured large pieces of turtle meat, in a thick, very rich, reddish-brown stock. I've never seen either of those items offered anywhere else, though I'm sure they can be found on a menu somewhere.

The bar was still there, at least in an expanded, updated form, but there was no turtle or turtle soup to be had.

The final item on my list of long-lost favorites would be the easiest to once again enjoy. All it would take is a plane ticket to England.

I made my first and only trip overseas in 1990. It was a bonus of sorts for having engendered and expanded the very profitable sportscard division of Krause Publications. At the time Sports Collectors Digest, the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards and the related periodicals and books were an $18 million a year arm of the company, generating about half of the company's income.

While in England I first encountered what is known there simply as "beer". British bitter beer is dark and served cool, not cold, in pints -- imperial pints at that.

Maybe it was the ambiance of a Kensington hotel bar, or small-town pubs, but that beer haunts me more than 20 years later. I've had a few bitters since. Once in downtown Ottawa and a couple of times at the now-gone British Bulldog Pub in Las Vegas, but it hard to find in the U.S. I understand it doesn't travel well.

Still, if this style of beer has been made in England for centuries, there's no reason some of the microbrew restaurants that have sprung up all over America can't be making it. I try to patronize those places whenever I find them, but they never have a true bitter.

There you have the nostalgic musings of an old man. As I said in the first installment, I'm sure my longings for these specific foods and drinks are more about mourning lost youth and kicking myself for not making the most of opportunities -- food and drink and otherwise -- that were right in front of me.

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