Dining out was something my parents believed in. Oh, make no mistake, my mom was a fabulous cook, but eating out was a pleasure, a treat, a must! Even when my dad lost his business, narrowly escaped bankruptcy, sold our house, and moved to a more affordable neighborhood as he and Mom (until then, a “stay-at-home mom”) scrambled to find jobs (several jobs each) to make ends meet, they still believed in the concept of going out to eat. The simple pleasure of dining out was more than a treat; it was a break from cooking for Mom, an opportunity to impart social skills to us kids, and a much-needed momentary escape from feeling poor. This indulgence was made affordable with a bit of judicious planning.
The frugal food scene actually made for some of my best food experiences. For those on a budget, a Sunday outing to Morrison’s Cafeteria was an occasion, due to its interior. It was Mobile, late 1950s, and this particular cafeteria sported high ceilings, beautiful ornate columns that towered throughout, fabulous mosaic-covered terrazzo floors, etched-glass partitions along the serving aisle, and a long staircase to the second floor, where even the ladies’ room seemed elegant. Now, bear in mind that this is the memory of a kid—maybe it was not so grand, but I seem to remember these details (or some facsimile of them), and they made eating within our tight budget still seem like a visit to the Taj Mahal.
Even if money was no object, the neighborhood joints were always a favorite for my family. Hot dogs at the Dew Drop Inn were so simple and yet perfect. And to this day, their crab omelet sandwich is so firmly imbedded in my taste buds’ memory that I can taste it right now. And do not get me started on their onion rings: paper thin, crisp, and unsurpassed.
Korbet’s Restaurant, another family-owned eatery in Mobile, was my go-to for spaghetti and meat sauce. Once, when I was a kid, I was enjoying this dish so much that the waitress said she was tempted to buy me another herself—just to see me eat it! I had me a powerful appetite. And, of course, there was Ozzie’s Bar-B-Que, with its big plate-glass windows, black and white tiled floors, diner-style tables, and menus inserted inside clear plastic binders (easy to wipe clean all those sticky BBQ fingerprints), plus there was this interior glass-enclosed pit where the meats were cooked. And, of course, there was this crazy big neon sign on top of the roof, featuring a smiling pig with a little cap on its head.
Sometimes, Mom would fetch Ozzie’s BBQ chicken with containers of the rich sauce to go. Then she’d stop by Pollman’s Bakery and gather half a dozen poppy-seeded kaiser rolls to sop up all that sauce. Even seated at the dining table, we still felt like we were having a picnic.
Naturally, there was a sweet side to all this savory: Howard Johnson’s ice cream. Holy cow! I never strayed from my two flavor picks, despite its boast of 28 flavors. My loyalties: peppermint and/or chocolate chip (okay, maybe I would branch out on occasion and have mint chocolate chip), and always on a sugar cone, not the cake cone. I loved this ice cream place so much so that one Sunday, as Dad was navigating the car around the back of Howard Johnson’s to find parking, I opened my car door (so as to be the first one out and in line for a cone), and the centrifugal pull of the circular drive flung me out of the car, while I held on to the door handle and the asphalt had its way with my back. No ice cream that day—straight home, where an angry and frightened mom plucked grit from my skin.
My parents would chase down a good meal even if it took all day. No distance was too far to go for good food. These outings generally took us west of Mobile into Mississippi. There was Trilby’s Restaurant in Ocean Springs, with its chicken broiled till the skin was crisp, caramelized, flaky black, and sitting in a slight pool of butter. I remember just as well the art hanging on the walls there—all local artists. It was quite charming. These outings came after my folks’ incomes stabilized, and we could experience a bit more expensive dining.
The best was what would, years later, lead me to make New Orleans my home: Galatoire’s. Their Trout Amandine lured my parents, despite the four or more hours it took to drive there. This was before the interstate, and those rides down Highway 90 along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Rigolets were all a part of this day trip. Of course, New Orleans had enough things going for her to warrant the visit, but I swear it was that trout dish that cinched the deal for my parents. Those day trips were the beginnings of my love affair with this town. I owe those poor fish who gave their lives to recruit me as a citizen.
So many eating experiences have come back to mind while writing this. There was Wintzell’s Oyster House in downtown Mobile—delicious and, once again, a place with an interior that one never forgets. And the Blue Gill (seafood) on the Causeway with its sloping floors, the building just waiting to slide into the delta.
Some of my readers might wonder what the hell this vegan is doing paying homage to so much meat and seafood. I say that I’m enjoying the hell out of my food memories. I am a vicarious carnivore, and while I no longer eat these foods, they will always have a place at my table of fond reminiscences.