Twenty years ago Barbie Yergens sent me a birthday card that we still have somewhere around the house. I guess you have to have eaten with Milton and Barbie (and Miss Molly and all our AFS rent-a-kids) as often as we have to understand the joke.
On the card’s front, a gingham-clad pioneer woman guides her ox-drawn conestoga across the inland sea of Great Plains grass. Inside the card, a hand-written entry from her journal reads: “Ate out again last night. It was good.” How many times a month do you dine out? We do at least twice, which begs the question: Why has it taken me so long to connect the dots between that frontier fireside experience and the Chinese buffet where we ate tonight?
For many years my favorite Fargo-Moorhead eatery was the Dutch Maid, a hole-in-the-wall burger and malt shop on Fargo’s South Eighth Street. Today the building houses Nichole’s Fine Pastry, though all things considered, I’d like to have the Dutch Maid back.
Memory doesn’t always serve me well these days. But I think there were a handful of booths in the 25-foot wide interior. The majority of seating was along a series of U-shaped counters, where the staff could serve patrons on each side, taking an order from one, while pouring a backhanded coffee to another 180 degrees away without the slightest misstep. My favorite waitperson was Betty Gervais, who knew my order before I had even sat down; there was rarely a need to look at the menu because we all knew it by heart and the weekly specials were cyclic. Our friends the VerDoorns operated a craft gallery across the street, so it was easy to call in an order of burgers and pick them up, hot and ready, within ten minutes. During the summer, the Maid’s ice cream counter was exceptionally popular, for hand-dipped cones, malts and shakes. Remember, the Island Park pool was just a block east.
One evening I found myself in need of fried liver—one of my guiltiest pleasures—which the Maid did in fine style, slathered in fried onions and served with thick toast. It was past the dinner hour and one of the patrons who had had a bit too much to drink was becoming unruly. After a word or two from Betty, I watched her step around the counter, administer an arm-lock to a man twice her size and escort him out the door in one graceful movement. It was ballet. He did not bother to re-enter the store, and Betty went back to her usual affable service. I don’t know what’s happened to Mrs Gervais or the family that owned and operated the Dutch Maid, but they are missed. It should come as little surprise that the place has been born again in my mind as Agincourt’s Bon Ton, the community’s longtime casual family restaurant—where the menu proudly affirms “Legendary Liver”—and Betty Gervais has similarly morphed into one the community’s cast of characters.
Another joint of local renown was Fran’s Restaurant in Moorhead on Main Avenue just west of Eighth Street. There’s a pizza place there now where you can only pick up, there being too little room for seating. I should ask Alan Dregseth, who may have loved Fran’s even more than I did, about the available seating: I think there were three booths for four persons each and a counter that held no more than five or six, if that. Fran’s was famous, nigh unto legendary, for its breakfasts. Indeed, breakfast was about all you could get, because it closed at 3:00 p.m. when the mid-afternoon coffee crowd had refueled for the final leg of the work day. The next best pancakes were forty-four miles west at the long-disappeared Tower City Truck Stop. That’s where we had to go when Fran decided to hang up her apron.
I have threatened several times to write the culinary history of Fennimore County—its best purveyors of regional food—and something tells me I’d better get a move on, before the memories that fuel my writing fade even farther into the fog that awaits me.
In the meantime, tell me about your own culinary explorations into the foodways of Middle America while I prepare “Dining Out 1.1”.