Everything changes…and I don’t like it.
One of the joys of exploring rural America was that Michael and I found astonishingly unique places to eat.
I feel as ancient as a T Rex admitting just how easy this was. Back in the late nineteen sixties there were virtually no fast food places or popular restaurant chains in the landscape. Once out of a city, and into the small towns, you had a choice of the corner cafe, the little diner, a BBQ shack (and I do mean shack), or possibly a pushcart from which you could buy tamales or boiled peanuts. We loved these unsung places so much we made a career out of documenting them. One of our early and best loved discoveries was The Cherry Hut in Beulah Michigan.
The Northwestern part of the state is known for the perfection of its cherries: big fat almost black stemmed fruits whose taut skin snaps as you bite into it. It is still easy to find small stands along the roadside selling plastic bags of burgundy cherries the size of golf balls. There is also a plethora of freshly squeezed cherry juice, cherry jam, and cherry cider available, but our favorite remains the cherry pie (worth a road trip from anywhere) served at a little place called The Cherry Hut.
The Cherry Hut has been in Beulah, Michigan since 1922. The pies are wonderful, with simple, flaky crusts that collapse at the touch of fork tines and a scarlet filling that is pure nectar-like essence of cherries.
The restaurant had as its logo a hand painted sign that was a rather primitive rendition of a 1970’s happy face. Not really a human face but more like a jolly Jack O’ Lantern with sketchy eyes and a big smiling mouth.
The pie face actually had a name. He was “Cherry Jerry the Cherry Pie Faced Boy.” And his image appeared on the sign outside. His visage was a time honored symbol of Michigan’s cherry pride. One day the Cherry Hut’s owner wanted to translate the popular logo to the pies. It was a unforeseen fiasco.
Cherry Jerry’s features were cut into the raw dough of the unbaked pie: a broad grinning mouth, slits for eyes and nose.
Once in the oven the bright red cherry juice seeped out of the knife slits and transformed the cheerful dessert into something you would see at a crime scene. Carefree Jerry appeared to be bleeding from every orifice. Like stigmata; inexplicable red rivers ran from his eyes, nose, and mouth. Jerry was hemorrhaging cherry juice and it was not a pretty sight.
It was truly a disaster for the little restaurant because a whole slew of pies had fallen under the creative knife. Few customers were happy dining on what looked like an accident victim. So batches of the new pies were discarded and the Cherry Hut went back to the original discrete slits for the steam to escape. Nothing anthropomorphic about it.
Over the years, the Cherry Hut has changed owners and updated its menu and decor. It now looks quaint rather than actually being quaint. It is old timey and still sells the local cherries as pies, jams, and cider.
The new Cherry Hut makes me nostalgic for the unfeasible blunders of vintage Roadfood. The kind of light-bulb-over-the-head notions that in this day and age would never happen because they were too weird or outrageous.
In this category I would include the topless donut shop in Florida which served both second rate breasts and donuts and the Oklahoma cafe where a live rooster wearing a tuxedo vest acted as maitre D and clucked you to your table. I would also add the luncheonette in rural Kansas that declared itself a Holy Shrine and offered angel food cake accompanied by the owner’s drawings of angels who frequented the place. And who could forget our breakfast in Indiana at a nudist colony where the chef, nicknamed “Southern Exposure,” wore a long white apron and nothing else.
Yes, we came for the food, but fell for the often nutty hopes and aspirations of the dreamers who ran these places.
We met the owner of a tiny roadside eatery in the deep south called Mr. Mullet. He dreamed of going head to head with McDonalds by switching the American palate away from beef to oily mullet burgers.
We admired the morbid audacity of the roadside BBQ in Vermont that featured a huge live pig as a pet who roamed around staring at you as you dined on her family.
And then there was the Cajun joint that put out a barrel of fresh caught crawfish for patrons to throw into the mouths of the large alligators that sashayed out of the swamp looking for dinner.
All this belonged to a naive world before babies rode in car seats, bike riders wore helmets, and no one knew or cared what was in the food they were eating as long as it tasted good. To those of you who are too young to remember, all this might seem horrifying. But to my fellow dinosaurs, wasn’t it a hell of a ride?