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Pig Hips on Route 66

10:51 p.m. March 6

Long after Ernie Edwards closed the Pig Hip Restaurant on old Route 66 in Broadwell, Ill. (pop. 200), he still wore a tall white chef hat that was tilted somewhere between yesterday and today. Ernie was always cooking up something. This is who he was. This is who he is.

Ernie, 89, lost his beloved Pig Hip to a fire on Monday night.

Ernie and his wife Frances—a former Pig Hip waitress–were running errands when the fire broke out and they’re okay. Their spirit is strong and when I called to Broadwell on Tuesday morning they were surrounded by family and friends of Route 66. You can still see Ernie’s pig mailbox from I-55 and that’s a a good sign. The Pig Hip will be back in some form.

Route 66 is a ribbon of small communities and when the groups band together there isn’t much they cannot accomplish. That’s the essence of Route 66. I’m tired of dealing with outsourced phone operators. Route 66 is insourced!

I’m looking at a faded vintage Pig Hip placemat Ernie gave me during a 2003 visit. There’s Ernie’s own cartoon of a rotund chef who resembles Dom DeLuise hoisting a knife and a map depicting the restaurant’s location, about 20 miles north of Springfield.

Best of all is Ernie’s placemat motto: “They made their way by the way they’re made.”

And they don’t make them like Ernie anymore.

Ernie opened the Pig Hip in 1937 and he closed the restaurant in 1991…..

…..But Ernie was restless in hog heaven.

So in 2003 he reopened the Pig Hip as a museum filled with Route 66 artifacts and pictures of famous restaurant visitors such as television star David Hartman. More than 20 volunteers from the Route 66 Association of llinois helped Ernie and Frances restore the diner.

Ernie loved to tell museum visitors about the history of the Pig Hip sandwich, forcefully stating how he used fresh ham instead of cooked and cured ham. “But what really makes it better is when a hog scratches, it has a tendency to raise its right leg and scratch,” Ernie told me in 2003. “That makes the skin tough. So we only use the left side.” Ernie has a million stories like that, although the sandwich story may be his favorite.

Ernie’s family arrived in central Illinois in 1932 in the bone chilling heart of the Depression. His father Ernie, Sr., was employed by the state making shoes for handicapped children. Ernie, Jr. was born in Murphysboro in 1917 and lived in tiny Central Illinois towns like Salem and Lincoln. He arrived in Broadwell in 1937. When Ernie opened the Pig Hip, his only previous experience in food service was operating a popcorn machine at the Illinois State Fair. Ernie introduced yellow popcorn at the state fair. His parents loaned him $100 to start the Pig Hip.

Ernie expanded his menu from the Pig Hip sandwich to include 16-ounce T-bone steaks and hamburgers. His fresh ham came from a Broadwell slaughterhouse. Ernie would purchase 18 and 20 pound hams. He told me, “We’d bake them and slice them thin, about the size of a quarter. We’d use a three-inch bun instead of a four-inch bun. The meat was around the outer edge. We’d put the lettuce, tomato and secret sauce (prepared sweet with a mayonnaise base–I got that out of him) on top of that. When you took a bite, you didn’t pull a whole great big slice of ham out. The Pig Hips went over real big.”

A local farmer gave Ernie the ‘Pig Hip’ name. The customer pointed at a pork roast sitting on the counter and said, “Just cut me some slices off that pig hip’.

Ernie liked that phrase.

Today it would be a hip-hop lyric.

Ernie had his first big time visitor at the Pig Hip in the spring of 1938 when Col. Harland Sanders dropped in. In 1930 Sanders opened his first restaurant, the Sanders Court & Cafe in Corbin, Ky, the site of another roadside museum I’ve visited.

Ernie and the Colonel sat together at the counter. “He was trying to sell me a franchise,” Ernie said in 2003. “He hadn’t sold a franchise yet. I tried to talk him into selling mine with his, but he didn’t want to do that. He pointed to a table and said, ‘You get a chicken and I’ll get my pot and herbs and I’ll fry the chicken.’ It was nothing but a pressure cooker pan. Well, he fried my chicken, we ate it and it was good. Then he said, ‘I hate to run, but I’ve got a prospect in Springfield.’ He got down Route 66 a little ways and I got to thinking, ‘Hey, that guy talked me out of a dinner!’ A few years later I saw him at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago. He was standing there in his white suit with his chicken sign. I walked up and said, ‘You don’t remember me, but I remember you and I’m REAL hungry. We wound up friends.”

Ernie is everyone’s friend.

During the weekend of June 9 and 10, the little town of Broadwell will celebrate its 150th anniversary in a big way. The Route 66 Association of Illinois wanted to honor the Pig Hip as part of the event and those plans are still on. And although Ernie turns 90 on Aug. 5, he wants to celebrate his birthday that June weekend. He promises to make the Pig Hip sandwich, something he hasn’t done in years.

On Tuesday Ernie said, “If we get it cleaned up by June, I’ll pitch a tent there and have our celebrations there. We’d have quite a party.” Make plans now.

Its hip to be square, but you’re square if you’re not there.