It was all true.
In the 60’s and even into the 70’s in most parts of the Ozarks there weren’t any real restaurants. If you got into a big town like Mountain Home or Harrison there would be hamburger places; mom and pop owned and all pretty much the same. New fangled pre-made patties, French fries, tator tots, onion rings, maybe a club sandwich or some popcorn shrimp, and milk shakes. The menu seldom varied.
If you went into the wilds of the Ozarks you might run across a hamburger joint but the burgers would be hand pressed and the fries hand cut and they would have milkshakes, maybe even malts.
The 178 Club and Gastons were the only real dining experiences around here. Both top dollar and a little pretentious by Ozark standards; the 178 Club had the audacity to exist in a bowling alley and Gastons catered to the fly fishing community from out-of-state. The 178 is still there as far as I know. I ate there once and it was good. And Gastons, well, they have been an icon in the Arkansas Ozarks for ever.
It was mid to late 70’s when my husband and I were here for a visit. Spending a few days up in the Missouri Ozarks with lifelong friends, they excitedly invited us to a Sunday afternoon chicken joint dinner. How could we refuse.
They drove us way out somewhere remote to a sheet metal pole barn set on a concrete slab. There was no signage. The dirt area surrounding the building was overflowing with automobiles and the after church crowd you expect in these parts on a Sunday afternoon.
The doors opened, the crowd filed in and sat in metal folding chairs with stenciled ownership on their backs; Beaver Town Hall, Fellowship Baptist Church and Fire Dep. Prop. We sat shoulder to shoulder at long rows of heavy Masonite folding tables. I wasn’t impressed yet. There was coca-cola or sweet tea. And fried chicken, and mashed potatoes with gravy, and green beans cooked with bacon grease, honest to goodness baked beans and yeasty hot rolls perfectly browned and melt in your mouth. All made from scratch.
Made from scratch has changed in meaning over the years. It sometimes now means water was added and we heated it here, or we thawed it and baked it here. In those days it meant you took a list of basic ingredients, measured them into a bowl, mixed it up with your hands, kneaded it until it felt right, let it rise, punch it down, pinched it off THEN baked it. It was real food and didn’t need flavor enhancers to make you drool. That’s the kind of food served Sunday afternoons in this no name chicken joint that was open only Sunday afternoons.
I could see the kitchen part of the operation from where I sat. It was immaculately clean and temporary looking. Massive shiny big burner stoves were loaded with vats of bubbling grease as dozens of able-bodied women filled one after the other with freshly breaded chicken parts and ladled big bowls of green beans, mashed potatoes and baked beans then carried them out to the filled tables. One big bowl of each to each 6 foot table. Then the butter bowls and the honey and the bread pulled from the ovens broke into sections and put into baskets. Piles of plates, napkins and utensils set at the end of each row, we passed them down.
Soon the chicken followed. Heaping platters of perfect steaming fried chicken parts. There was a moment of communal silence and bowed heads, then the bowls and platters were passed up one side and down the other. Like cattle at the trough heads bowed to the plate among the ongoing murmur of quiet appreciation of the Sunday afternoon feast. We ate.
There was no ambiance but the steady flow of conversation gently filling the room with after church topics, kids, cattle, crops.
Excess food was moved from one table to another ready for more. More was provided until all were sated. There was no table turnover. The place filled, we were fed, we paid and left. No checks on the table. If you came in you ate and you paid your five dollars just like everyone else when you left.
It was the best chicken joint I’ve ever been to and second only to my mother’s fried chicken. Fried chicken, cold pork and bean salad, potato salad and jello were standard fare for at home dining and picnics.
Mom had one of those stacked metal can things made specifically for picnicking that were popular in the 70’s. It had four levels; one for cold fried chicken which she dutifully spent the entire previous evening making (after she had fed and watered us our regular meal), one for potato salad, one for the cold pork and beans laced with diced raw onions and bell peppers, and the top layer with paper plates, napkins, plastic forks and salt and pepper. The jello would be in a green Tupperware bowl on the side. Mom was, and still is, known far and wide for her fried chicken meals.
We made a day trip toward the Grand Canyon one Sunday by way of some back roads Dad wanted to explore. I don’t recall making it to the Grand Canyon that day. What I do recall is riding down long dusty dirt roads in the heat on the flatbed truck ( don’t ask how we survived childhood … survival of the fittest is all I can say) and finally getting to the meal part of the adventure. This day there was no fried chicken. No plates, napkins or little plastic forks. Just beans, potato salad and jello. Mom had forgotten the chicken and the accoutrements. Who knew moms would forget anything. We were all too polite and proper to consider eating all that wet food with our hands. Or digging in to the same dish with each other. I thought I might starve to death before we got home. Thank goodness for the cream soda in the cooler with the jello.
I was in a fancy restaurant soon after marriage turned me into an adult, and ordered some kind of baked fish because I’d never had anything but fried fish from the rivers and lakes of the Ozarks (sans sucker which I refused to eat even at the expense of going hungry). I got a bone. I gagged. I couldn’t eat it. I almost cried. My affair with fish ended then and there until my late 40’s and I still can’t order fish in a restaurant.
I got ahold of a gristly knuckly looking joint piece of chicken once in a bowl of chicken soup and it took me years to eat anyones chicken soup but my own.
I haven’t made fried chicken since the 80’s, and the last time I tried some at a chicken joint it was all feathers and bone. More breading than meat. A true southern delicacy just about gone by the wayside. I’d just about bet money someone reading this will offer to make me some fried chicken sometime soon. Looking forward to the next chicken joint!
Moms Cold Pork ‘n Beans Salad
Open 1 or 2 cans of your favorite pork ‘n beans. Dump them into a bowl. Dice about 1/2 medium onion and 1/2 bell pepper, add to the beans. Stir well. Let sit overnight in the fridge. You might want to cover this. Mom forgot to cover it once and had to rewash a whole load of laundry she had sprinkled and rolled up tight in preparation for ironing the next morning.
2-6 servings, depending
Serve with potato salad and fried chicken and jello.