Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

The Central Cafe's menu brimmed with this hearty fare, offered for what today seems like a song. The most popular item was probably the "Hot Beef Special," an open-face sandwich featuring a mound of roast beef on white bread slathered with mashed potatoes and gravy, a slice of pie, and coffee, all for thirty cents. The coffee, over which a customer could linger through unlimited refills, was five cents by itself. Beef stew, stewed chicken with noodles, liver and onions, ham hocks and beans, hamburgers, and the aforementioned meatloaf accounted for most of the rest of the lunchtime orders. For the evening meal, beginning at five-thirty, which in our part of Nebraska was supper (lunch was called dinner), diners favored steaks and chops, prime rib of beef, and roast pork loin. Potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, green beans, presliced white bread, and simple salads were the staples on the side, followed by fruit pies, or ice cream for dessert, and the drinks of choice were coffee, milk, iced tea, and water, in that order. There were no Greek dishes on the menu. Stuffed grape leaves would have puzzled Kearneyites; they liked their rice straight, and ground beef, too. Even my mother's glorious baklava, her butter-rich wonder of honey, nuts, and wafer-thin stacks of phyllo dough, was too exotic for the cafe's dessert case. Later, when Nebraskans followed the nation's lead and repealed Prohibition in the state in 1934, my father put beer on the menu but not wine or hard liquor. (My mother was one of Prohibition's many scofflaws, making wine from grapes she grew in our backyard and crushed in the time-honored way, by foot in a tub in our basement. Kearney's police chief was one of her prime patrons and she loved those customer relationships. No one was sure if my father knew about her cottage industry.)

For all of my father's cost cutting, the Central Cafe was the town's only white tablecloth restaurant. Its fifteen tables were "four-tops," meaning they sat four people each, and the counter that ran along one wall could accommodate another eighteen. Each of the tables was laid with a tablecloth, white cloth napkins, and heavy stainless cutlery designed to take a beating in the large sinks in the kitchen at the back. The counter, of course, had no tablecloths, but counter customers got cloth napkins like everybody else. This apparent contradiction to my father's "economia" gave the restaurant a feel of quality that set it apart in Kearney.

He changed the menu every day, depending on what he found at the markets. His first task each morning, while the early breakfast crowd was waking up to coffee, pancakes, waffles, and bacon and eggs, was to type out the dinner and supper offerings on a messy two-ply Ditto form rolled into the big square Underwood typewriter on his small desk. Hunched over the machine, he hunted and pecked with one finger until the menu was composed, then wrapped the form onto a drum on his hand-cranked Ditto machine to turn out copies on cheap paper. They came out smelling of the duplicating fluid, a smell that only people of a certain age will remember, and with purple letters that were unaligned like children's letter blocks pushed together on the floor, one high, one low, one tilted, because the typewriter was old. The flimsy, purple, oddly printed menus contrasted with the feel of the seemingly luxurious white tablecloths.

Depression Baby Businessman

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