CARBONDALE — Stouffer’s is a line of frozen foods, now. But when I was a little boy it was a fancy restaurant — actually several fancy restaurants — in Cleveland, where my mother would take me in the regal years before my little brother was born. It was where I ate my first Parker House roll, a dense, yeasty cube with a sweet glazed brown dome top. I never forgot it nor the wicker basket with a red napkin in which it arrived. My mother, for her part, still tells the story of the time at Stouffer’s when her little boy announced she should change her hairstyle, one of those moments when a mom first realizes that she has her hands full.
Hearing that story, I would not imagine any reader would muse, “Maybe I’ll stop by Stouffer’s next time I’m in Cleveland and try one of those rolls.” Even successful restaurants are short-lived: 70 percent that make it through the perilous first year are out of business by year five. Stouffer’s began freezing popular meals for customers in the 1940s and its frozen meals went to the moon with the Apollo 11 astronauts. As the business took off, Vernon Stouffer — who owned the Cleveland Indians in the 1960s — gave up on running restaurants.
Which came to mind when my wife, realizing we would be in Carbondale for the eclipse, announced that we should swing by the Giant City State Park Lodge restaurant. She had gone as a very young girl, visiting her downstate cousins. They had eaten family style, big plates of fried chicken. She never forgot that chicken.
Odd. She never mentioned it before. And after the both of us talking nonstop to each other for — jiminy — 35 years, I thought I had heard everything.
My heart broke a little. I wanted to say, “Oh honey, that restaurant won’t be there anymore. It’s been half a century. And if it is, they won’t serve fried chicken family style.” She jumped on the internet. It was still there, and we hurried over our first night.
You walk through a vast log lodge, built in 1939 by the Work Projects Administration, Franklin Roosevelt’s controversial program to get America back to work building roads and beautifying parks. There was a stuffed buffalo, comfortable chairs and this huge restaurant that sits 200 people. The family — our boys had come too — hurried inside.
Not only did they serve family style but, on Sundays, it is all they serve. Marissa, our waitress, brightly sold the concept to us — “It’s like a buffet at your table” — not realizing that, for my wife, this was a return to a cherished childhood moment. “I’m sorry M. Proust, but all we have left are madeleines and lime tea . . ..”
The meal consisted of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, corn, dumplings, biscuits and apple butter. For, mirabile dictu, $12.99 a person. Not the sort of thing you want to eat every day unless you’ve spent that day stacking hay, but you sure can eat it once. And we did with great gusto.
Not everything is politics, and I didn’t have the thought until Tuesday morning while getting ready to drive home. But the lodge and restaurant are both splendid — I’d return in heartbeat if I could stay a few days — and also as much a monument to state socialism as a statue of Lenin. It is one of those maddening ironies of our time that the place can be filled with diehard downstate Republicans night after night, pounding back their delicious fried chicken, dripping with golden honey, and never pausing to realize that the only reason it’s here is because the United States government’s Civilian Conservation Corps built it by hiring unemployed men, who were considered shovel leaners at the time, engaged in tax dollar-wasting busywork, building walls in the middle of nowhere.
Americans inflicted enormous harm on ourselves, as a people, when we conditioned our brains to tolerate such stark hypocrisy. We’re going to have to work very hard to get back home again.