I suddenly remembered why, during my childhood, my parents would pack a cooler with food -- sandwiches, apples, cookies, beer -- if we took a road trip. My old man was a traveling salesman, and after numerous unpleasant experiences, he was extremely wary of those cute little mom-and-pop diners at highway exits. He swore they were "breeding grounds for food poisoning" and always added a historical caveat to his rant. "Our 29th president, Warren G. Harding, died of ptomaine poisoning, you know. And he died in agony. "
At least my folks would make concessions for a name that was familiar and comforting to them. Howard Johnson's represented a standard of cleanliness and food consistency in the days before McDonald's mass-marketed those same virtuous qualities. For travel-weary parents, the child-friendly Howard Johnson's restaurants had it down. Unfortunately, by the 1970s, the once-mighty chain had started a serious downhill slide. Four decades ago, there were 400 of the restaurants nationwide; today there are nine.
On last week's trip, hunger forced me into a grimy diner outside Columbia, Missouri. The Bull Pen had -- surprise! -- an all-male clientele who all seemed to be eating eggs and smoking unfiltered cigarettes at the same time. The bathroom was outside the building. I mean, this wasn't a Howard Johnson's.
One place that vaguely reminded me of the old HoJos was the spotless, lodge-style Powhaten Restaurant just off the exit to Pocahontas, Illinois, next to 1950s court-style lodgings that looked like the Bates Motel in Psycho. I didn't have the nerve to order "The Belt Buster" (12-ounce T-bone, three eggs, hash-brown casserole and biscuits with gravy for $12.95), but I did enjoy an excellent bowl of homemade vegetable soup.
For literary pleasure, I read the graffiti scrawled into the top of the wooden table, which included a phone number followed by the words "Call for o' good time. Kiss. Kiss."
Next time, I'll pack a cooler.