Food & Dining For ‘regular’ people only
A few years ago I was making small talk with a surgeon whose specialty was the stomach. Curious, I asked him what was the most frequently asked question from his patients and their families. I expected he would say “Will it be painful?” or “How long is the surgery?” that sort of thing. He smiled and said, “They all ask me when they can eat ‘regular food’ again.”
I was fascinated by this. What is “regular food” and why does it seem to matter more then anything else in a life-or-death scenario?
I think I found my answer cruising through Monroe one rainy day. From the road, I could see a classic old-style eatery. The kind of place that I suspect dotted almost every town in our state in the 1950s. It was called Bill’s Drive-In and although it was lunch time, it seemed rather empty.
Like Indiana Jones finding his treasure I think I had stumbled upon the heretofore mysterious “regular food.” Bill’s is a monument to it, to what used to be called “square meals.” These were meals composed of meat, potatoes and vegetables. I eat “three squares a day,” workingmen boasted.
Immediately, I liked Bills. Like a fly in amber it seemed stuck in time. Little had changed within these walls, from the menu (burgers, fries, hot dogs, milkshakes) to such retro items as beef stew, and stuffed cabbage. There was absolutely nothing cutting edge or aspirational about it. For someone like me, whose job it is to figure out trends and wade through culinary fads like sous vide cooking or molecular gastronomy, Bill’s seemed like a cool washcloth placed on my forehead. It was a relief.
I loved that beef stew was the special of the day. Quite literally I can’t remember seeing beef stew on any modern menu. Once a feature of school cafeterias and Army mess halls, beef stew has been swept away under a tidal wave of kale and quinoa.
Happily, I had a choice of the daily specials: beef stew or stuffed cabbage, so I did what I always do faced with such options. I ordered both as well as a hot dog, a burger, a hot roast beef sandwich and a chocolate milkshake. The service was speedy, but still gave me time to look around.
In one corner was my favorite game on earth, a “claw” machine into which you deposit a quarter and have a few seconds to aim the claw at the cheap little toy and pick it up. I truly know no one who has ever won a toy playing this, but with all false modesty aside when claw machines become an Olympic event I will get a gold medal. I have a pile of cheap teddy bears and Sponge Bob Square Pants dolls to show doubters my prowess.
Since Bill’s is a drive-in, I decided to skip the almost empty dining room and eat in my car. The chocolate milkshake was the way it should be, not rock solid but easy to pull up the straw. The hamburger was about as “uncool” as it gets, but won my heart in the same way I have a soft spot for White Castle and other cheap little small burgers, this was a treat: nothing more then a tiny patty of beef and some caramelized onions. I could easily squish the bun down to a quarter inch and I could eat the whole thing is 20 seconds. It was perfectly unhip.
As a long time food writer I am seldom at a loss for words to describe what I am served but about the beef stew let me just say this: it tastes just like beef stew. I have eaten beef stew all my life at school cafeterias, on budget plane trips, and at summer camp. All Bill’s needed was some red “bug juice” to wash it down for complete déjà vu.
Similarly the hot beef was a perfect embodiment of the genre. It tasted fine, the mashed potatoes were probably out of a box while the gravy seemed out of a can, but because my expectations were so modest I found it quite enjoyable.
I wondered who Bill’s customers were. As I looked around I found a pile of well thumbed magazines. A VFW magazine, a Kiwanis Club magazine, a bowling magazine. There were also big gaudy trophies on display, the kind won at vintage car rally or bowling leagues.
So I imagine that square people eat square meals here. Regular people enjoy regular food. It was nice to not have to see the words kale, organic, artisanal, and small batch for a change. Bill’s is from a time before food became snooty, when a nice warm bowl of beef stew was just what you wanted after hanging out with your league mates.
Our state motto, after all, is “The Land of Steady Habits,” the kind of regular steady habits I am sure practiced by the likes of Bill and his friends.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern.