Iowans Return for Tastes of Yesteryear
home·com·ing, noun 1 : a return home; 2 : the return of a group of people usually on a special occasion to a place formerly frequented or regarded as home.
In America, the word “homecoming” has been kidnapped by football promoters. Fredda Rosen’s celebrated story “Pizza Love” told of a another kind of homecoming tradition, one that is truer to the dictionary definition and more prevalent. After all, not everyone likes football, but who doesn’t like pizza? The cosmopolitan New Yorker wrote about spending years vainly trying to convince her husband that the world presented culinary options equal to his memories of pizza at Marco’s in Dubuque, where he had attended college. Finally giving up, she surprised him, and herself, with a trip there for his 50th birthday dinner.
Like Rosen’s husband, most of us keep youthful memories of foods firmly impressed in our minds, where they remain the best there ever was and the best there ever will be. That part of the human brain which stores long term memory rubs against the part that detects taste and aroma. Such physiology explains why some foods trigger intense feelings of nostalgia.
After Younkers, which burned tragically this year, announced the closing of its downtown Des Moines department store in 2005, business soared in its 92 year old Tea Room. Pilgrims flocked from all over the world to experience a last communion with the holy ghosts of their childhoods. During those homecomings, nearly everyone ordered one of two heirloom dishes that had been as constant to the restaurant as the Georgian Revival décor. The Tea Room’s rarebit burgers and sticky rolls had become icons of another time and place, when lunch was served with live classical music, ladies powdered their noses and even children were held to dress codes. I still get long distance inquiries about those recipes, at least once a month.
Beloved food icons similarly flourish in other parts of Iowa. Expatriated Siouxlanders plan trips home around food. Green Gables is a hybrid of tea room, deli, bridge club and diner. The place is designed to transport visitors to another era. Ladies still use compact mirrors to adjust their make-up, just as my grandmother did in the 1950‘s. Murals depict historical Sioux City and some customers appear to fit in with the art. Even the wallpaper in the restaurant replicates the original shown in the paintings. Local girls Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren surely learned their good manners at Green Gables. They might well have been rewarded with same famous “H Bomb” ice cream soda that is served today.
In summer, it’s not unusual for returning Siouxlanders to get off an airplane and head directly to Old Milwaukee Weiner, a century old hot dog grill with a wall of photos that includes high school sports teams from every era. Owners Gus Demetroulis, John and Mike Eliades keep their coney island chili recipe in a vault, but promise it won’t change. Others in the Sioux City area have reunions at Tastee Inn & Out, where the diamond shaped petals called “onion chips” are still hand cut from fresh onions, hand-breaded, fried and served with the famous home made dip, exactly like owner Jean Calligan’s mom, Marie, made them six decades ago.
Similarly, Iowans and former Iowans make pilgrimages to Marshalltown for the “Mile High Chiffon Pie” at Stone’s Restaurant. Its recipe is almost as old as the restaurant, which has been around since 1887. Others take haaj to Gunder, an unincorporated village between Elkader and Postville, for The Irish Shanti’s onion and pepper drenched “gunderburger.” Eight inches in diameter and an inch thick, that humongous icon was created in the early 1970’s “to keep Gunder on the map.” An “English Walnut Pie” at Breitbach’s, Iowa’s oldest restaurant, in Balltown has similar fans. As does the French toast at Cronk’s Cafe in Denison, where it was being made with Danish pastries and cinnamon rolls for decades before that practice became chic on the coasts.
Yet when it comes to food-triggered memories of yesteryear, the homecoming queen of Iowa is Linn County, where history conspired to preserve some distinguished old time supper clubs. Because Interstate 80 was routed far enough away, neither the old Lincoln Highway nor Highway 151 came under economic pressure to tear old places down and build something more modern. Still, that doesn’t explain why they were built here in the first place.
“Linn County has so many interesting places on the outskirts, in large part because we had Prohibition longer than the rest of the state. We had local Prohibition going back to 1915. So “supper clubs” sprouted up on the edges of towns,” historian Mark Stoffer Hunter explained.
The Lighthouse also represents a career homecoming for current owner Theron Manson.
“I worked here as a kid and never dreamed I’d be here today,” he said, before explaining how he had returned to Linn County to regroup after a divorce. Then I fell in love and married the widow who owned the restaurant,” he explained.
“The Lighthouse began in 1912 as supper club with cabins in back. Highway 30 was the old “Farm to Market” road so places popped up to escape city taxes,” Manson said.
Fitting a place that thrived as a tool to cheat Prohibition, The Lighthouse shines with gangster lore. In April of 1934, John Dillinger and Homer Van Meter spent a few nights in a Evening Star Tourist Camp outside Cedar Rapids. They tried to rent a cabin but were told the place was not yet open for business. So they broke in and made the place home for a few nights. That was in the midst of Dillinger’s infamous run as the FBI’s “Public Enemy #1.”
During that period, they ate at The Lighthouse. Dillinger’s gun accidentally went off once at the supper club and a bullet stuck in the wall, like an icon. He then fled the place and escaped for three more months before he was killed. An even more famous gangster also stopped here.
“Al Capone cooled off here for awhile too,” Manson said, pointing out a newspaper in which former Lighthouse bartender Theo “Mugsy” Davis talked about serving “Scarface“ in 1932. Manson said that in less infamous history, the matinee idol Don Ameche’s son Ron operated the club on lease for a year too. Today live music and dancing attract crowds of both golden agers and young kids on weekends, year round. Jazz trios come from the legendary Cotton Club in New York City. The building is original, but has been remodeled so many times only the bar is true to the old days. Manson says their “garlic cabbage” is too.
West of Cedar Rapids on the old Lincoln Highway, the Ced-Rel Supper Club has been indulging travelers since 1927. Like many restaurants and supper clubs on that road, it began as a filling station and evolved into a motel and café. Jeff Selzer, whose family bought the place in 2002, says that old timers tell him that gangsters frequented the cabins during the Depression and that the place was a key club until liquor by the drink was legalized in Iowa in 1963.
“It was a steakhouse until 1958, when it was upgraded to a supper club,” he said, adding that the latter represents the quality of food one expects at a country club. Selzer said his steaks are a claim to fame – filet mignon, beef tenderloin and jumbo shrimp have been on the menu “as long as anyone remembers.”
Besides the food and nostalgia, people come home to these heirloom restaurants for a sense of history. Hunter says it’s gratifying how interested young people are in what they learn from the old joints. He also thinks it’s an incentive for economic development.
“I think that not teaching local history in the schools is a big part of the reason kids leave as soon as they are old enough. They need to hear the stories, about what an interesting place it is where they live. If you don’t give them something to be proud of, than of course they will go look for it elsewhere,” he explained.
Tea Room Sticky Rolls
(for home ovens)
4 and a third cups all-purpose flour
1 pkg. active dry yeast
1 cup milk
a third cup sugar
a third cup butter
half tsp. sea salt
caramel smear (In a mixing bowl combine a third cup melted butter; 1 cup packed brown sugar; a fourth cup corn syrup; three fourths tsp. ground cinnamon; and a fourth tsp. sea salt. Stir until smooth)
cinnamon spread (In a small mixing bowl stir together three fourths cup packed brown sugar, 1 tablespoon cooking oil, 1 tablespoon corn syrup, and a half teaspoon ground cinnamon.)
1. In a large mixing bowl combine 2 cups of the four and the yeast; set aside.
2. In a medium saucepan heat and stir milk, sugar, butter and salt just until warm (120F) and butter almost melts. Add milk mixture and eggs to dry mixture and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl. Beat on high speed for 3 minutes. Stir in as much of the remaining flour as possible.
3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead in enough remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough that is smooth and elastic (3 to 5 minutes). Shape dough into a ball and place in a lightly greased bowl; turn once to grease dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size (about 1 hour).
4. Punch dough down. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide in half. Cover and let rest 10 min. Spread a 15 by 10 by 1 inch baking pan evenly with cinnamon spread.
5. Roll each portion of dough into a 24 by 6 inch rectangle about an eighth inch thick. Spread half of the cinnamon spread over each rectangle to within 1 inch of the edges. Roll up, starting from a long side. Seal seam. Cut into 1 inch slices. Place about an inch apart in prepared pan. Cover and let rise in a warm
place until nearly double (about half an hour).
6. Bake in a 350 F oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden. Remove from oven and let cool 5 minutes. Turn the pan of rolls over onto another 15 by 10 inch pan so the caramel is on top. Serve warm.
Tea Room Rarebit Sauce
third cup cooking oil
third cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon paprika
fourth teaspoon salt
fourth teaspoon dry mustard
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
fourth teaspoon bottled hot pepper sauce
1 cup shredded process American cheese
Place oil in a medium saucepan. Stir together flour, paprika, salt and dry mustard. Add flour mixture to oil; cook and stir for 1 minute. Stir in milk all at once. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir 1 minute more. Remove from heat; stir in Worcestershire sauce and hot pepper sauce. Add cheese and stir until melted. Pour over burgers with toasted bun on top. Makes 2 cups.
Supper Clubs in Linn County
Ced-Rel Supper Club 11909 16th Avenue Southwest, Cedar Rapids, 319-446-7300
Lighthouse Inn 6905 Mount Vernon Road Southeast,
Cedar Rapids, 319-362-3467