Friday, September 26, 2008

The Vanishing Lunch Counter

Let’s take a trip back in time to when Chuck and I were students at the University of Iowa. Pearson’s Drug with its lunch counter was a short block from campus. For less than one dollar, one could get an egg salad sandwich (on soft white bread) with chips. Chuck was a ham salad man, while I preferred the egg salad. Whichever you chose, poor college students couldn’t find a cheaper or more satisfying lunch.

Ahhhhh,…the drug store lunch counter,…a simple sandwich that becomes a staple of the menu,…one of the thickest milk shakes imaginable. These are fast becoming only a memory.

The lunch counter at Riddle and Wallace Drug Company in Athens, TN, is one of those special—but vanishing—places that has not just one, but all three, of the ingredients noted above.

The specialty of the house is the grilled pimento cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato. For those not familiar with this Southern staple, pimento cheese is a simple mixture of shredded cheddar, pimentos, mayo, salt and pepper. If one wants to walk on the wild side, onion and/or garlic can be added.

Now, I enjoy pimento cheese; Chuck has been less than enthusiastic. But, since this sandwich is the house special, we both felt obligated to order one. To my surprise, Chuck repeated “this is really good” after each bite. We later learned from Allene Moses (manager/cook/server) that their spread is made with grated Velveeta (don’t go yuck – this is one of life’s secret sins) and the milder cheese flavor was more to his liking. The sandwich was heated on a sandwich press, so the cheese was warm but didn’t really melt. We shared an order of potato salad--I still haven’t reconciled myself to sweet pickle in potato salad.

Allene (left, in the first photo) is one of those unique people who can prepare the counter’s classic pimento cheese sandwich, while conversing with regulars about the health and housing alternatives for a common friend.

As we were finishing our meal, Allene asked if we wanted dessert. I could see Sylvia (right, in the first photo) out of the corner of my eye; she was poised with the ice cream scoop, waiting for the word. When out came “chocolate shake,” she scooped into action. Reluctantly, I agreed to share one shake; fortunately, I agreed to share one shake. Even half of one shake was a sizable dessert. Sylvia did not even bother to give us straws. The shake was so thick that only a spoon would be able to get the contents into our mouths. And what tasty contents! The lunch counter was the first (and obviously, the oldest) ice cream customer of Mayfield Dairy, which is just down the road.

So to rate…we give Riddle and Wallace 4.5 Addies--less for the food but for being one of the last of a dying tradition that provides simple food at good value and gives its customers a sense of home or community.

After a short walk around downtown Athens, we headed north to Madisonville, TN, home of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams.

When we walked into this little shop about three miles from the city limits, I asked, “Can I just sit on this couch here and enjoy the aromas?”

Just inside the front door, there was the typical meat display case, but it was virtually empty, except for a few hot dogs and some jars of pickled bologna sticks. But just to the right of the counter was the source of the enticing aromas.

In addition to wanting to purchase some country ham, we had come for what has been named the “American prosciutto.” Yes. A country ham is aged for 18 months and then shaved into paper thin slices that many use instead of Prosciutto de Parma. While I took a few peeks into the curing room, Kate was talking with the owner, Alan Benton, and mentioned that we were from the Philadelphia area. Alan said that one of his best customers was Di Bruno Brothers, an Italian food specialty store located in both the Italian Market and in Center City. Initially, customers resisted the idea of Tennessee ham--they wanted imported--so Di Bruno’s began just giving customers samples without indicating the origin. One taste was all it would take.

We ate one of the six packages we purchased with biscuits for supper last night, and I have a large melon sitting on the counter just waiting for a meal of prosciutto and melon.

Alan also mentioned that Benton’s was also known for their hickory smoked bacon and that it would make the best BLT ever. Two pounds of bacon also came home with us. I was warned not to cook the bacon in a small enclosed space like an RV--the smell will last for days. So, some night I will take my hot plate and cast iron skillet outside and fry up “a mess of bacon.” Eat your hearts out my fellow campers.

Midway through the 30-mile drive "home," we both commented on how memorable the stop at Benton's had been, since we both believed we could still smell the aromas.

Instead of memories being that vivid, we concluded that the aromas had permeated our skin.

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