Monday, July 9, 2012

When I Was a Wee Lass…

growing up in Clinton, Iowa, my parents and I would periodically make the forty-mile drive downriver to Davenport (one of the Quad Cities), where my mother would, like a one-woman battalion, invade every woman’s garment store in the city. With laser-like precision, she would seek out every markdown rack in town. Now you must understand that, for my Thrifty German Mother, twenty or twenty-five percent off wasn’t enough. Forty was the minimum and fifty was better.

Once every store had been conquered, it was time to refuel at Bishop’s Cafeteria. The Davenport Bishop’s was one of a chain of cafeterias that was popular throughout the Midwest. Alas, like the Great Auk (largest of all auks and extinct since 1844), Bishop’s appears to be no more. But I still have fond memories of their fried chicken and chocolate cream pie.

Cafeterias in general seem to be a dying species. Victor’s in New Iberia, LA, still lives and many Louisiana plate lunch houses are to some extent cafeterias. But cafeterias were known for a la carte pricing while at a plate lunch house you pay according to your entrée selection.

But a cafeteria still lives in Big Stone Gap (VA)—in the back of Mutual
Drug Store. Mutual Drug still functions as a traditional drug store, and despite the arrival of CVS just down the street, still seems to be doing a brisk business selling pharmacy staples.
One does have to wonder how long they will be able to hang on or whether the draw of the cafeteria will help them weather the “chainification” of America. Mutual Drug is highlighted at as being “made famous by the novel, Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani, Mutual Pharmacy is a wonderful place to enjoy an old-fashioned soda fountain-type meal. One of the few remaining drug stores with a cafeteria-type dining experience, this is a unique dining/shopping stop in Big Stone Gap.”

We arrived early—for us at least—for lunch at around 11:30 a.m. At that point, only a small number of booths were filled. But that soon changed. You could divide the customer base into two categories.
Old people like us who were dining in. And “youngins” (anyone under fifty) who would grab a Styrofoam to-go box from the stack at the front of the line and take lunch with them.

The menu changes daily and typically offers two choices for the main item, three choices of sides, one dessert, and cornbread or roll. Knowing that Chuck would never consider the salmon patty, I chose that as my protein along with a side of green beans and a slice of cornbread. (I passed on the broccoli when I noticed that all of the green color had been boiled out of it.) The salmon patty, made, I am sure, from canned salmon and reminiscent of my mother’s salmon loaf (Growing up Catholic prior the Second Vatican Council in 1962, I ate a lot of salmon loaf on Friday’s.), was a bit dry but was saved by the lemon-flavored cream sauce.
The Italian green beans were long cooked but the cornbread was excellent—almost the match of that I ate at the Floyd (VA) Country Store and had the same richness from being made with a generous amount of butter.

Chuck went with the Texas Fried Steak with, of course, mashed potatoes and gravy and the same Italian green beans. The coating on the steak has lost some of its crispness while sitting on the steam table but was still a well prepared and tender piece of meat. And the white gravy contained just enough black pepper to keep it from being bland.

Both of us ordered the strawberry cobbler that contained large berries under a good cake-like cobbler topping.

While eating, we noticed a small and energetic woman bustling around the seating area and talking to the customers—most of whom she seemed to know well. She stopped by our booth and asked if we were enjoying lunch.
When we remarked on the cobbler, she—Peggy—told us that she had made it. “I make all of the food.” she said.

The cafeteria may have been empty when we arrived, but certainly wasn’t so when we left. The cafeteria also serves breakfast daily, but I am not sure that we’ll have time to get back.
But we did enjoy our 3.0 Addie lunch and felt that our stop at Mutual Drug gave us a true picture of life in rural Appalachia.

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