Saturday, September 10, 2011

Get in the Car, We're Going for Chicken!

The closest I get to Illinois these days is a quick glance at the Chicago rags. Not often mind, as I don't find steady reports of random shootings terribly good use of my limited reading time. Today's Sun Times had a story about a woman who died after injecting hot beef fat into her face in a sort of do-it-yourself botox procedure. That seems like a very Chicago way to die, less commonplace than getting shot, but still giving a nod to local history, the stockyards, and such.

Largely, I don't feel much connection to the place-save for my horrendous regional dialect which provides hours upon hours of endless entertainment for those I find myself engaged in conversation with. No, I won't say, "couldn't" simply for your amusement.

Sometimes, in scanning the papers I find an article that dislodges some terrible childhood memory I thought effectively buried in the place reserved for ex-husbands and cringe-inducing poetry I wrote in high school. Certainly nothing I'd willingly revisit, but then the newspaper shoves a photo of fried chicken in my face, and I'm eight years old again trapped in my parent's yellow Lincoln Town Car with Gran in tow to the restaurant at the chicken farm an hour's drive from home. I can't claim this was the event that determined my vegetarianism-but it probably contributed. I can't blame the chicken. I don't even remember the chicken.

Reading the article, I'm surprised to hear they have a petting zoo, museum, and stage show at White Fence Farm. I never saw any of that. Perhaps these are features added after the 1970's, but had they existed, I doubt very much I'd have been permitted to check them out as we were on a rather singular, determined mission-to eat chicken.

I don't recall it being an "all-you-can-eat" type of place, but I also remember the rule of, "we're not here to fill up on sides" being employed. As an adult, I can see this logic at a Friday fish-fry where the goal, if you will, is to consume as much battered fish as possible. Similarly, if you're at an expensive Sunday brunch, you don't bother with sweet rolls, you go straight for the shrimp cocktail. I get that, really I do-but after enduring an hour in the car with my parents and gran, would it have killed them to let me have a fritter? I mean, come on-no one was going to be deep-frying anything even marginally fritter-esque over at our house. I'm not really even sure why we were at a place that specialised in deep fried food unless my mother feeling buoyed by her recent triple bypass figured that was as good a time as any to test out the cardiac surgeon's skill between deep drags on a cigarette. But no fritters, they were fattening. Oi fatty! No fritters for you!

There was considerable grumbling, but I'm not sure if it was just the dynamic of the long car trip to a destination eatery that ended up with long wait to get in. It was a weekend, and the place was likely busy, but that's not the sort of thing my parents would take into consideration ahead of time. Ordinarily, when faced with a wait they would leave a place, drive around for longer than the estimated wait, then end up waiting somewhere else before finally leaving to eat at some greasy spoon they probably would have preferred from the outset. Much like our dog that never quite learned to play fetch (he'd sit and stare at the toy before you got up, took it from him and tossed it again where he'd run over to it, stand there staring at it, wait once again for you to come throw it again) my parents never grasped that showing up at the most popular pancake house in Illinois on a Sunday morning shortly after church let out was going to result in a bit of a wait for a table. I could write a book about how many times I was sent inside Walker Brothers to check the wait for a table when it was obvious by their being double parked in front-if you couldn't find a parking spot, wouldn't logic tell you there might be a wait for a table? "Thirty minutes? Oh the indignity!" Then, we'd head over to the Greek family-style joint on the corner where they would order the same uninspired fare they would have waited half an hour for at the pancake place. No one ever ordered pancakes at Walker Brothers, they would order eggs, or French toast, or a plate of bacon...and if by some miracle pancakes (or a waffle) made it to the table, they'd insist on the sugar-free syrup because, "Oi Fatty! No real syrup for you!" Syrup was fattening unlike a plate of bacon with some eggs.

Bad as the trip to White Fence Farm was, the trip home was made worse, saved only from an outright brawl by a diverted trip through the city to drop Gran off at home. If I can summon any nostalgia from childhood, it would be the look of Chicago at night. I loved the way the city looked at night. That song, Lake Shore Drive really was accurate (I say, "was" as I haven't been there in years, and have no idea what it is like today).

Years later, they were still carrying on about how terrible White Fence Farm was, but I can't remember why. There likely wasn't a specific reason, and if there was, it probably had little if anything to do with the quality of the food, service, or anything normal people would complain about. Maybe it is the sort of place best driven to without your mother-in-law ,and her obsessive-compulsive clicking of thumbnails against each other, and facial ticks from the back seat for over an hour. Maybe it was more expensive than anticipated, and they were calculating with each bite how much cheaper the chicken would have been at the Greek family style restaurant down the street. Maybe they should have had some fritters. Looking at the photo accompanying the article, I can say, as someone who has been a vegetarian since the early 1980's, that looks like a fine plate of chicken. Quite fine. And they serve it with pickled beets and cottage cheese? Oh my god, that's Midwestern Americana defined-right there. You can't get any more smack-dab-in-the-middle than that. No wonder they hated it. Oi Fatty! No cottage cheese and pickled beets for you!

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