This second installment of “Dining Out” may be both difficult to write and pointless. While it relates to the general theme of foodways in the Midwest and their evolution in the last 150 years, it’s also highly personal and obviously so. I told Peter parts of this story the other day and he thought it worth posting.
The historical type called a “roadhouse” probably differs in meaning across the U.S., Canada and the rest of the English-speaking world. Likewise, it must also have varied from each generation to the next. I think of it as a steakhouse and bar on a major highway, sometimes offering accommodations and probably near a service station. At the edge of major cities they were convenient watering holes for travelers and also served as destinations for weekend automobile jaunts, as meeting points for business and social gatherings, and as venues for birthdays, anniversaries, wedding receptions (i.e., groomsmen’s dinners, bachelor’s parties, etc.). In some contexts, they also assumed a slightly disreputable connotation, but more about that in a minute.
I’ve always imagined a roadhouse in Agincourt or just outside the city where Highway 7 skims the northern edge of the original townsite. It may have had an earlier incarnation, but I see it thriving in the ’20s (dependent, of course, on Iowa’s liquor laws and prohibition), a resource answering many of those community needs noted above. The Greyhound bus would have stopped there on the regular run from Des Moines to Sioux City. A smokey steakhouse with martinis and slabs of meat, where the staff were disinclined to have very good memories about who said what to whom. Families were certainly welcome there—just perhaps not your family. Rent “Easy Rider” on netflix and call me.
Somewhat related to the roadhouse was the taxi dance, a uniquely American institution with a more sordid reputation. Anthropologically better defined, I’ve somehow managed to meld these two types in shards of childhood memory. Each day my past tessellates a little more; some day it will be a mosaic worthy of Mondrian. Now, an even more personal digression.
In the ’50s, the Tri-State Tollway offered the prospect of an important bypass around Chicago. A few miles from my dad’s gas station in Bedford Park, the massive interchange with Route 66 and Manheim Road (Routes 12, 20 and 45) gave Roy the chance to supplement our income. Among the stuff we sold was #1 Range Oil, an oily smelly petroleum product that burned like whale oil in lamps called “smudge pots”. Roy got the contract to line the temporary paths through the construction site with a hundred or so of these smudge pots every night, and he took me along on the nightly job. One thing you should know: my parents had divorced a year or so before but I never saw Marge again; odd for a father to have custody in the 1950s.
So most every night we’d load the truck with the pots that I’d just filled (yeah, I was about nine years old) and we’d head south on Archer (a.k.a. Illinois Route 4A) toward the construction site just this side of Willow Springs. The job then consisted of picking up yesterday’s pots and replacing them with these fresh ones. The task accomplished—it took no more than thirty or forty-five minutes I’d guess—we’d head home. It was usually about 11 o’clock. But then…
But then, about half way home on Archer, we’d pass what I only recall as The Taxi Dance, a tavern–dance hall in what I learned had been the old car barn for the Chicago & Joliet Electric Railway interurban line. The C&JE shut down in ’33, and the building had become this “entertainment venue” which I now understand played a colorful social role.
My recollections of the place center on ladies with big boobs in tight sequined dresses. I sat on their laps; they fed me 7-UP and popcorn; Roy had a beer and then, it’s just possible, disappeared for a while, leaving me in the buxom care of the taxi dancers. Any one of them could easily have been Tina Turner singing “Private Dancer” but it was enough that the ladies liked me and often bought me a burger. I look back on it sixty years ago and wonder why Child Protective Services didn’t knock on our door and take me away. If this was abuse, I’ll take it any day over the shit I see on cable TV or have fed to me on social media.
I’ve never spoken of this with Dr Bob but know him well enough to believe that he’d approve. And I learned a little about foodways in the Midwest.