Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Eat Out Often

Living in New York City, one has seemingly limitless options for take out or dining out. The restaurants here literally cover the full spectrum of gastronomic possibilities, from diner fare to haute cuisine. As a parent with two little boys, however, options are limited. You don't waltz into Nobu with your 1st and 2nd grader and expect a warm reception and a prime table. Still, even when one factors in the "family-friendly" requirement, the choices are pretty amazing. My kids naturally prefer pizza, but they're more than happy to dine on Chinese, Thai, the food bar at Whole Foods (particularly the chicken caesar salad), and the occasional foray into sushi territory. To them, eating out is a common experience. If only I had enjoyed such choices as a kid growing up in Virginia in the 70s.

Eating out in the early 70s for my family was a rare treat, usually enjoyed only on Sundays after church or during vacations. Instead, we would eat at home, enjoying my mom's pot roast (seasoned with one packet of Lipton Onion Soup), fried chicken (skinless!), or [insert your favorite southern Sunday meal here]. If it could be breaded and cooked in the Mirro electric skillet - a wedding gift, circa 1961 - or dropped into the pressure cooker for "faster" cooking, my mom would try it. I stood for hours - at a respectable distance, lest schrapnel from an exploding Revere pressure cooker end my life - watching the pressure cooker steam away, the safety valve on top hissing and dancing, as a chicken, potatos and carrots heated. (On weeknights the fare was a bit simpler, primarily because my mom worked. Easy preparation was key. Today we have Rachael Ray; in 1973 we had Betty Crocker's Easy Meals and Spam Hawaiian Style - slices of spam grilled in the electric skillet, served with canned pineapple slices and cinnamon. Yum-O.)

Eating out, therefore, was an adventure. There was a McDonald's nearby, one of the old ones that had the twin golden arches impaling the building, left and right, in a statement of space age architectural hedonism. But my father refused to eat at McDonald's. To him it was too noisy and too greasy. It also violated his rule about tablecloths and restaurants. If a place didn't have tablecloths, we didn't go there. For several years our only other option was Shoney's Big Boy, which had tablecloths, and damn good iced tea, thus keeping my father happy.

I'll always remember the sign on the door - a little decal placed by the American Restaurant Association - proclaiming "Eat Out Often." To me, ever lamenting the infrequency of our dining excursions, this was a cautionary phrase. I thought, "Hey, Mom and Dad, we need to eat out more often; it's good for the economy." "Eating out helps defeat the Commies." "Eating out bolsters the capitalist state, keeps these people employed, and staves off the dictatorship of the proletariat." This was the retail equivalent of the Bible's shortest verse: "Jesus wept." "Eat Out Often." And there was the chubby Big Boy statue out front, sporting the trademark red and white checked overalls and lifting a hamburger over his head . . . a diner's "statue of liberty" proclaiming a mom's freedom from kitchen drudgery. (And hey Mom, it saves wear and tear on that KitchenAid dishwasher!) My dad could feed our family of four for about $5 and have us home - courtesy of the 1972 Ford Gran Torino station wagon - by 1:15 on a typical Sunday. Why, we'd just barely begin tucking into the roast or chicken had we skipped Shoney's.

By 1976 and the Bicentennial, however, the novelty of eating out had dimished a little with a proliferation of nearby dining choices, including a Pizza Hut, Burger King, another McDonald's, KFC (with the spinning bucket atop the sign), and Shakey's. Not that my father ever deigned to eat at any of these fine franchises . . . we were still dining at Shoney's.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

I really enjoyed this post, for two reasons: 1) I Love Food and 2) It reminded me of "eating out" when we were kids which was not often, being that there were six kids in our family. It was easier and cheaper I think to eat in. But it was a big deal when we did dine out. Usually it would be at a restaurant featuring home-cooking, never a fast-food joint that I recall. Maybe my dad had the same table-cloth requirement that yours did.