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Home Life Writing

Don’t Cook Tonight

Great Grandmother in her garden.

When I was a grader, Mother would send me to the corner grocery store to secure provisions for the evening meal.

We had a corner grocery store. It was a block and a half away from home. There were no supermarkets within walking distance.

I don’t recall its name. A family owned it and the husband was the butcher. When it closed, run out of business by the multi-location Geifman Food Store that situated a block and a half away, they moved to the west end of town where the butcher was murdered in his store.

I was a paper boy for the Times-Democrat. The hyphenated name is from a 1964 merger into what eventually became part of Lee Enterprises and is now the Quad-City Times. I delivered the evening edition after school and the corner grocery was near the end of my route. At that time paper boys collected subscriptions directly from customers. When I finished weekly collections I’d stop at the store to buy a package of baseball cards or a candy bar. I remember a six-pack of 10 ounce bottles of Pepsi sold for 60 cents, the lesser known sodas bottled a few blocks away sold for 54 cents. Mother discouraged us from drinking soda.

The corner grocery store was an important part of our family life. Then it wasn’t.

Grandmother grew up on a farm and knew how to cook. She knew where food came from and how to prepare a live chicken. In our early years she lived near us, next door when I was a toddler, upstairs when I was in the first grade. After that she was a regular guest for Sunday dinners and special occasions like Easter when she checked in with her grandchildren and helped mom in the kitchen.

In the 1960s we began to eat more food prepared outside our home. Mom also began experimenting with different food preparations. We developed a taste for tacos and I recall the corner grocery didn’t carry some Mexican ingredients we liked, requiring me to walk to nearby Geifman’s. It was a sign of the end of the corner store.

In 1966 Joe Whitty moved to Davenport and ended up living with his young family in a rental the second house north from ours. It was across the street from a family that owned the dairy. He worked at the nearby hospital where I had been born, first as a baker, then as dietary director. He went on to establish a chain of pizza and ice cream stores. One of the ice cream stores ended up on the lot where the corner grocery store had been, although after I left Davenport.

On the other side of the church where I was baptized, about two blocks away from home and next to the Geifman Food Store, was a restaurant called Chicken Delight. They had a radio jingle, “Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight.” The chain was founded in Illinois in 1952 and grew to have more than 1,000 locations. It was a take out and delivery only place and I don’t recall eating their chicken during the eleven years I lived at home there. Without the dining room we had little interest. If we had their product at home, I have no memory of it.

Chicken Delight was not known for its quality as each store followed their own cooking process, sometimes with their own equipment. That’s unlike the McDonald’s franchises which grew to prominence in the 1960s. McDonald’s prided itself on consistent quality in all their stores. They even had a “Hamburger University” near Chicago to train managers in how to operate with consistent results. Today there are not many Chicken Delight stores and most that remain are located in Canada. The women in our house knew how to make chicken and the family consensus was ours was better. Eventually one of the former neighbor’s pizza restaurants located in the Chicken Delight space.

That’s not to say we didn’t dine out in the 1960s, we did. We favored local, family run restaurants like Riefe’s Family Restaurant and Bell Eat Shop. Our parents knew both families. When McDonald’s built a restaurant on Brady Street we drove over there as a family once in a while. Their burgers and fries were different from Mother’s. They were cheap too. We ate in the car. We also drove to the A&W Root Beer stand where servers brought trays of food and drinks that hung on our car windows.  The rise of automobile culture made home delivery pizza popular and inexpensive.

Grandmother would take us to Bishop’s Buffet on special occasions. We enjoyed being able to pick what we wanted from a generous selection of items like Mom and Grandmother made at home. In some ways it was a form of nostalgia. Grandmother insisted on paying the bill. These family events were important to her.

That’s the range of our 1960s dining experience outside home. A lot has changed since then. When Grandmother was born in the 19th Century people cooked most meals at home or took a dish to a potluck for weddings, funerals or other occasions where they ate what others had prepared. Prior to the current pandemic food prepared outside home comprised more than half of American diets according to the USDA. When the coronavirus recedes I expect there will be a rebound in restaurant eating.

It takes work to remember these things. Memories are not always accurate. What is important now may not have been important then. In the end, it is up to the author to research and present each story leaning on known facts. We must resist the temptation to tell a story only because the narrative flows or with ideological intent. It is hard to listen to one’s own voice and ignore what others may have experienced or have to say about something. We each own our memories even though there are shared experiences. We must be true to ourselves.

I’d like to be writing more pieces like this. I hope I will.

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