Wednesday, April 18, 2018
A Fishwich in Hooverville
After enough hours on the road my culinary and ethical standards slipped far enough downward that a filet-0-fish sandwich in rural Iowa became my least-bad choice when measured against a hot dog in a gas station that had likely been spinning on that greased rotisserie for days. I used to think no one bought those sausages and they were just for show, then I met my husband.
You know that disoriented feeling you get after being on the road for a while where you pull off and just sit quietly before making certain your legs still work when getting out of the car? It was like that, but combined with the disorientation that comes with being in a small, midwestern farming community. Unless you knew better, it was just an exit along the Interstate with a gas station, a MacDonald's, and newly ploughed fields. Obviously, I missed the brown roadsigns indicating there was a historic site nearby.
My Ukrainian grandmother, Clara absolutely adored fillet-o-fish sandwiches. Granted, she'd lost most of her teeth by the time the sandwich debuted, and food you can mash against the roof of your mouth without risking damage to the remaining molar does have a certain appeal, but really I think it was the bun. Soft white bread from flour so refined and bleached it almost seems an entirely manufactured, highly engineered product of chemical origin was as far away from dark, chewy rye bread as it gets-in America the peasants can eat white bread-with a deep fried square of Alaskan pollack as a bonus.
I haven't been in that many fast-food joints in recent years. It was never my first choice for a meal, even as a child. We had a MacDonald's in our neighbourhood that began as a walk-up window. A few years later they added indoor seating, and my mum liked to have a hamburger now and then. I think it was something like 15 cents, so it was easy to justify on a budget. My dad wouldn't touch the stuff, and with a perfectly good delicatessen across the street serving sandwiches, he didn't feel obligated to try it. I'd go along, and because I was one of those kids with big eyes that always looked pathetic without really trying, someone would custom-make me a toasted American cheese on a bun so I'd have something to eat. It was a smallish-town in the 60's, I wouldn't try that today.
"Wow, this is a really nice MacDonald's" I blurted out as we shuffled in. And it was! Light-flooded from big windows, and a decor that had 1930's looking photographs on the walls. "Look at that guy in a fedora..." I started to say before the quote alongside the picture started sinking in. "Oh shit, that's Herbert Hoover."
I mean, I knew Hoover was from Iowa, even if I didn't know West Branch was his hometown. I wasn't really prepared for the irony of having lunch in a place with a big sign outside offering employment for a non-living wage of $10.10 per hour festooned with images of the American President at the time of the stock market crash that began the Great Depression. "I'm eating a goddamned fishwich in Hooverville" I thought, but didn't say aloud as the friendly locals tamping fistfulls of fried potatoes into their pie holes might have taken offense at describing their town as a Hooverville. Still, $10.10 an hour can't buy you much, even in small town Iowa and the hamburgers cost considerably more than 15 cents these days.
To be fair, Hoover didn't cause the Great Depression, and though his response to it was seen by many as, "Too little too late", the country had been through economic depressions before and he was following precedent in the way he dealt with it. Still, if it happens on your watch, you own it and in Hoover's case his legacy has largely focused on the economic suffering of the 1930's.
A few miles down the interstate on the Illinois side is the historic site where Ronald Reagan was born. I didn't bother stopping to check if the fast food offerings in town carried a Reagan theme as there's only so much irony I can take in the space of a few hours.