In the previous chapter, I talked a little about the nostalgic 1940s look of Gainesville’s Collegiate Grill. That’s a place that effortlessly evokes another era, and succeeds very well. I can compare that to other places that act like they’d like to come from another era, but fail so very miserably.
The day after we got back from Gainesville, I had to work a long day. I love my job very much, but Sundays are really, really wearying. I’d be on my own for supper. Marie and the baby were in Athens, visiting friends, my daughter was spending the day with my mother, and my older son is in Louisville for a month or so, eating terribly.
Actually, that isn’t fair. I draw a polite veil across the reality that I was once married to somebody else, and don’t mention details from that time unless they’re germane, but it can truly be said that she is a pretty good cook, and, at her home, it’s safe to say that my son would be eating pretty well. Her chili, for example, among the pool of individuals whom I used to smooch, ranks a solid second best, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just that, strangely, when I ask the boy about the food in Louisville, he doesn’t tell me about hot brown sandwiches or the Twig & Leaf or Lynn’s Paradise, or even virgin mint juleps. He tells me about the Olive Garden and the Red Lobster. Friends hear about this, and they turn to me with a raised eyebrow as if this is somehow my fault. I hope that my son is at least a little unhappy about the restaurants where his mother takes him, and that when the time comes for him to move from my house off to college, he won’t be punching the air and shouting for joy, because, away from my rules, he’ll be free to eat as terribly as he does when he’s with her. Then again, nobody quite hides his feelings as deeply as my son hides his, so it’s impossible to tell.
Now, while I call that chili a solid second best in the field of chili cooked by people whom I used to smooch, it is, truthfully, a very, very distant second. That is because I once dated this girl who later became the manager of a comic book store in Woodstock, and her chili is, flatly, better than anybody else’s chili. I have consumed an astonishing amount of chili from an astonishing number of cooks and cook-off competitors, and absolutely nobody comes close to hers’. I do not know anything whatever about the man that she married, which is as it should be, save that he is eating better than you are. Her chili is so good that, the only time that I was ever angry with this girl, years after we dated, and I drove to her apartment in a minor fury, I paused ever so briefly and told myself that if I insisted on drawing the line in the sand that I was about to carve, then I was probably never going to have that chili again. The line was drawn and that, indeed, was the end of that chili.
Strangely, something similar had happened the year before. I had ended a relationship, and the only thing that gave me even a millisecond’s pause after the fact was that the girl in question had sent my parents helpings of her signature dish a couple of times. When I told my father that it was over, he was quiet for a moment before saying, “Son, can’t you get together and work something out? She makes such good chicken and dumplings and I sure will miss them.” The writer Pat Mills once had a character attempt to find something positive to say about another character, and reflect that even Adolf Hitler could be said to be fond of his Alsatian. I’m not comparing that girl to Hitler or anything, but it’s worth remembering that anybody who would set aside helpings of chicken and dumplings for my mother and father really can’t be all bad. I could say the same thing about another girl and her French toast, if pressed.
I feel a little safe in engaging in this kind of nostalgia, firstly because Marie knew that I was a reflective bore who gets lost in memories when she married me, and secondly because Marie is an amazing cook. Comparisons to anybody else will leave anybody else wanting. Marie grills steaks that are so good, I long ago stopped ordering them in restaurants. I have had three steaks in my life that warrant mentioning in the same breath as Marie’s. One was a sirloin at the long-closed Steak & Ale in Roswell in 1994 which was better than the sirloins at any other Steak & Ale, and one was at the Olde Mill Steakhouse, also closed, at Cumberland in 2007. Admittedly, I have never been to either Omaha or Chicago, where they say you can get a good steak, but I’ve paid for pretty expensive steaks in Georgia from a few notable restaurants, and it was only these chains that grilled a steak as good as my wife’s.
The other steak in some way comparable to Marie’s was one that I enjoyed with my parents at Pilgreens South in McDonough, and that really wasn’t all that great of a steak, but I mention it because my dad wanted to go all that way for a martini, and that was the evening I realized that my desire to do things like drive two hours for a chili dog suddenly wasn’t so unique after all. This is why so few steakhouses will appear in this blog. There’s no point in spending money on a meal that will appear hopelessly second rate in comparison to what Marie makes in the backyard.
Married as she is to a reflective bore who gets lost in memories, Marie has learned by now that I will often get nostalgic for food, and, I hope, understands that sometimes you cannot help but draw a line to the people with whom you shared that food. It needn’t be romantic memories; I sincerely miss a Cajun restaurant that used to be where Johnson Ferry and Ashford-Dunwoody meet, in part because, on two of the three times I visited, I greatly enjoyed the conversation and company with a fellow with whom I would later have a falling out. Sometimes, though, romance is impossibly wrapped around a business and impossible to extract. I have dozens of happy memories of the wonderful, and badly missed, Mean Bean in Athens, my all-time favorite restaurant, and several of those memories feature Marie. Did I ever tell you that one time, six years before we started dating, I invited Marie and several other people over for an evening playing cards, and, taking me at my word when she asked if she could bring anything from Athens to Alpharetta and I replied “Bring me a Mean Bean Deluxe with extra cheese,” she did? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I would have saved myself all kinds of darn trouble if I had cut to the chase when she passed me that brown bag and asked her right then and there to marry me.
But then I might not have experienced that chili. Or those helpings of chicken and dumplings. I guess you have to take the good where you can.
So anyway, everybody was out of town and I had to decide on something to eat on a Sunday evening. I could have gone someplace new, but I would want to take pictures, and Marie had the camera. What I really wanted was to go back to Bocado and try this burger that everybody has been raving about, but Bocado is not open on Sundays. I wish that all the places that are closed on Sunday would close on Tuesday instead. I’ve never once in my life been inconvenienced by a restaurant that closes on Tuesdays. I had just about decided to drop a friend a line and see whether he wanted to eat some teppanyaki in Austell with me, when I was coming downstairs at work and spotted some free milkshake coupons for the nearby Johnny Rockets. This is a chain of nostalgia-minded, faux-fifties diner-esque hamburger joints that I only visit when other people want to. I’ve come here with co-workers on a couple of occasions; we don’t often get the opportunity to eat out together, and when we do, I’m not about to put on the food blogger snob hat and be a jerk about substandard food. I’m just happy to have the rare chance to share conversations with people outside the barely controlled chaos of work, and you make for bad company when people are not expecting you to be a judgmental grump.
I suppose that a free milkshake is no good reason to walk over to Johnny Rockets, but with this heat wave the way it is, the longer I can put off getting in my car, as the sun slowly sets, the more comfortable I am. So I could walk to the restaurant, get a gram of extra exercise, get a free milkshake, and maybe luck out and watch a conventioner or tourist fall off a Segway. What’s the worst that could happen?
But I swear, I ate at the Johnny Rockets in Buckhead one or two times long ago and I would have laid money on them having decent shoestring fries instead of this badly cooked Sysco food product. (I said The S Word!) I sat at the counter and was amazed by how many companies’ logos were represented in front of me. There were four different boxes of food or supplies with the Sysco logo (I said The S Word again!), and there was a giant bucket of Kraft brand blue cheese and another bucket of Blue Plate brand mayo and another… at one point, the manager was helping two employees dump a big bucket of honey mustard dressing into a pump. I understand that this is the case for many restaurants, unfortunately, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been to any restaurant that took quite so much pride in letting guests know that everything on their menu can be assembled from the packaged food at their neighborhood grocery store.
Johnny Rockets can’t even get their nostalgia right. Certainly, many businesses in the 1950s were all chrome and neon, but the design of everything here is steeped in flamingo 1980s. It’s every bit as “1950s” as depicting James Dean and Marilyn Monroe sipping a malt together. It didn’t look like this then, it certainly didn’t taste as artificial and mass-produced as this then, and I am absolutely certain that the little nickel jukeboxes at the tables didn’t feature “Cheeseburger in Paradise” by Jimmy Buffett then. The hamburger was about as good as a fried, frozen block of several-days-old, barely-seasoned beef could be expected to taste, and the fries were substandard truck fare, badly prepared and left too long before finding a plate. The milkshake was free and my car was not an uncomfortable inferno by the time I got back to it. I read Calvin Trillin. That might be apparent to anybody who has read this chapter.
I was left reflecting on how idiotically I will act, left to my own devices, when offered a free milkshake. Or chili. Or chicken and dumplings. Marie probably shouldn’t go to Athens without me again. I’m far too incompetent to make decisions without her.