Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Dream of a Three Calendar Breakfast

In his book Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon describes his method for finding a place to eat while on the road:

There is one almost infallible way to find honest food at just prices in blue-highway America: count the wall calendars in a cafe.

No calendar: Same as an interstate pit stop.
One calendar: Preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey.
Two calendars: Only if fish trophies present.
Three calendars: Can't miss on the farm-boy breakfasts.
Four calendars: Try the ho-made pie too.
Five calendars: Keep it under your hat, or they'll franchise.

The thing is, these places don't exist any more, at least not in sufficient quantities that one can count on them for breakfast. Mr. Heat-Moon originally published his book in 1983, and even then was complaining about the grinding and unstoppable erasure of all that is quaint and good. I have spent the past two and a half months driving back roads of America, and though I've encountered the occasional little diner, they've been two calendars max (minus fish trophies), and are almost inevitably a disappointment. More often than not, a small town will have no restaurant at all (or the one restaurant will have a "for lease" sign in the window), and my choice is a McDonald's at a highway intersection, or those M&Ms that I forgot were on the floor in the back seat. In fact, and I realize this is grumpy-old-man talk, and I further concede that my observations are purely anecdotal, it seems to me that there are fewer simple, independent restaurants in small town America today than there were even six years ago, the last time I was driving around the country.

When I was in LA I had dinner with John Schulian, creator of Xena Warrior Princess. No, seriously. That's how I roll. He recommended a book called Roadfood, best described by its subtitle, "The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 700 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More." I'd looked in half a dozen independent bookstores between Los Angeles and Louisville, but no luck. I was starting to think maybe I should order it from Amazon (linked at right) and have it shipped to me somewhere along the road.

This morning I was driving along, mentally composing this blog post, and eating M&M's, when I came upon Grandad's Family Diner in Inez, Kentucky.

I sat down at the counter, and Debbie took my order. Here's how our conversation went:

"Hi hon, what would ya like?"

Keep in mind, no one had offered me a menu. I was wondering if I should try saying, "Eggs Florentine, with a side of applewood smoked bacon, and a cup of organic Guatamala Antigua," when she interrupted my train of thought and said, "Special's turkey." I said, "I'll have the turkey."

There was only one calendar behind the counter (with the waitress's weekly schedule written on it - Debbie will be there tomorrow too, if you want to drop by) and to be honest, I don't think I'd have gone out of my way for the meal. I doubt it's in Roadfood. But it did save me from my grumbling, and I was glad that I hadn't stopped at the McDonald's, KFC, or Taco Bell back at the intersection of 40 and 645.

Incidentally, after weeks of almost coast-to-coast failure, I found a copy of Roadfood later this very day, in Charleston, West Virginia. I saw the bookstore from the road and pulled over. I was skeptical about my chances when I saw the four foot high stack of Twilight books by the front door, but a tiny and beautiful bookseller named Kate helped me locate their last copy of Roadfood. Now I have a new tool to use when plotting my route.


  1. When I did my (shortened) Highway 61 drive I found the same thing. One exception was McCausland, IA. The downtown cafe was closed, but the Corner Market was open and had a three-calendar breakfast.

    Here's hoping you can have a serendipitous find like that.

  2. Thanks for the tip, Dave! I like your panoramas too. I've been doing a few myself recently, and will probably post some if I can ever figure out a good way of displaying them (they just don't look good small).

  3. Glad to help, Ben. And heck, it might even be on your way. :)

    And yeah, I wrestle with that problem with panos, too. In the bad old days, I used to hand-construct a thumbnail of the panorama, making the best-looking small version I could (frequently re-cropping), but nowadays I just chuck 'em on flickr and let their over-sharpening and default cropping to a square make a mess of things. That's progress for you!

  4. John Schulian... how did you manage that?

    I can relate about the lack of dining experience around the old highway between MSP and Duluth.

    Great reading Ben.
    - Chris

  5. Thanks Chris! John was a friend of a friend actually. In LA my kind and generous host was Steve, an old high school friend of my dad's. Steve worked in the TV industry for many years, which is I believe where he met John.

  6. Thanks Kelly, spelling corrected.

  7. Name- dropper. -cough- lol

    Yes, small restaurants and diners have been out- numbered by the fabulous fast food chains, unfortunately. Fast food is more convenient for the I'm- too- busy- to- sit- down- and- have- dinner- with- my- family American.

    Here in my little corner of the world, we have the Marion Diner. We also have a Denny's, not really a small time restaurant, but they have awesome food. When you get over to other counties there are more independently owned restaurants.

    I moved, btw.

  8. I'm so jealous I could spit.

  9. Growing up with Roadfood-obsessed parents and seeing the Roadfood cult grow into a substantial online presence, I had assumed as I started reading that you were just contrarian enough that you were deliberately avoiding the Roadfood books.

    Glad you found a suitably entertaining place to test out your theories. Somehow barbeque places in the south seem to resist this homogenization trend a little better.

    It's not exactly independent, I remember a similar grumpy moment when the Maid-Rite on 6th Street in Grinnell decided to renovate. They had a beautifully modest, immediate post-war look that felt like walking into a time capsule, and changed it to a look as if the Marketing department had just heard about this hip new restaurant called "Perkins" and wanted to recreate its ambience.

  10. I'll admit I've seen all six seasons of Xena. Well, almost all six. Six was rough. As you say, some things are best appreciated on their own terms. Plop down in front of a TV with plenty of ham and cheese and you might succeed where I failed.

    Also, dude. Sweet photos. Five cameras? That's some arsenal. Minus one, I take it. My condolences. I'm sure the two of you shared a deep /cameraderie/. Yeah? No? Damn, I'm hilarious.

  11. We have 2 wall calendars (well, one is in a closet) and an electronic one, plus two weekly datebooks. The food is consistently good and the waitress calls you "honey" (you, but not anybody else). Highly recommended!

  12. Ali: I don't get the opportunity to name-drop often, so I do what I can.

    Miriam: Um... thanks?

    Solonja: You're right, I am pretty contrarian in general. As for the Grinnell dinning options, it was all over for me when the Longhorn closed.

    Chuck: You've got me beat. Most of the Xena I've seen was with the sound off. It came on after X-Files, and I'd just hit the mute button, but not turn off the TV. Then I'd watch the lesbian innuendo unfold in silence.

    Anonymous: You can't hide behind that "Anonymous" byline, I know my own mother when I see her.

  13. Sheesh, by the time I'm able to travel there will be no independently owned diners left at all!


  14. Better get going then!