Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Oct 5, 2011
01:02 PMSmall Dishes
It seems way too early to be thinking about Christmas, but it’s difficult not to, going to Target and Costco and seeing all the holiday glitter already on display. Like many, thinking about Christmas takes me back to when I was a little kid, because that’s when it was the most alive and real. Then shopping was an adventure, special from the start because I wore my best clothes even though it wasn’t Sunday. It was an essential ingredient in the anticipation of Christmas that never came fast enough. I still remember the thrill of squandering the $20 fortune that Aunt Bertie Louise gave me each year—much better than the Savings Bond I got on my birthday.
I especially miss going to the five and dime, stores like S. S. Kresge and F. W. Woolworth. I can still hear the clackity-clack-clack of the ceiling fans, the tear of brown wrapping paper ripped from big bolts, the whoosh of the pneumatic tubes that miraculously took away your money—and even more miraculously—returned with your change. I can still smell hot dogs loaded with chopped onions and pickle relish, the new leather of Buster Brown shoes, and liquid lilies and lilacs absurdly called toilet water.
I loved their long serpentine lunch counters, sitting there on a high stools that revolved like a carousel, with my chubby legs dangling in the great void between the floor. I always had a Green River phosphate and slurped it up the straw.
Lunch counters or “luncheonettes” were an offshoot of the ice cream parlor. Even after the invention of the electric refrigerator, home freezers were small and turned ice cream into soup. People went out for ice cream; more often than not to the drug store. But the attraction was much more than sundaes, parfaits, egg creams, fizzes, milk shakes, sodas and cherry cokes. It was a rendezvous with friends to listen to the latest hits on the jukebox and swap news and gossip. Unsurprisingly, food found its way to the menu.
It was the fast food of its day: ham, eggs and toast for breakfast; a few sandwiches like grilled cheese and BLTs; soup and chili; a daily plate lunch special. As the popularity of this new way of dining grew, the luncheonette outgrew the confines of the drug and dime stores and popped along the highway to everywhere.
In Madison, mention “soda fountain” or “lunch counter” and Rennebohm’s Drug Stores most likely come to mind. When I was growing up it seemed like there was one on almost every corner. A specialty at Rennie’s fountain was the Hot Fudge Mary Jane, a brownie sundae, named after it longtime Food Service Manager, Mary Jane Klinger. Equally esteemed were the grilled Danish, Bucky burger and pumpkin pie. Walgreens bought the chain in 1971 and Rennebohm’s was gone forever. I was amused, though, to see the new Wisconsin Institute of Discovery on campus—ironically on the site of Rennebohm’s Store #1—is home to an ice cream parlor called Rennie’s Dairy Bar. Nothing about it, however, reminds me of its namesake.
Like all the big stores in town—well into the 1950s—Kresge’s and Woolworth’s were downtown on the square. By the early 1980s only the Woolworth’s store at 2 W. Mifflin Street remained. Built in 1955 on the site of the original City Hall, it was modern by dime store standards. I remember going there occasionally when I worked at the Capitol to buy things I now drive out to the big box stores to get. By then, the lunch counter was sadly a refuge for those with seemingly nowhere else to go, whiling away their day with endless cups of coffee. The only food touted was canned Polish hams, stacked in a pyramid on a sale counter.
I suppose the last real lunch counter in town was the American Lunch on Park Street (where Taqueria Guadalajara is today). I only went their once, drawn by nostalgia, hoping it was stubbornly old fashioned, but the food was really no different than at any other burger joint.
Why the advent of the Holiday Season should send me on this sentimental journey, I’m not sure. Only that Christmas then somehow seemed so much smaller, yet at the same time bigger. I can’t help but wonder if thirty years from now someone else will be here, fondly reminiscing about his memories of McDonalds and Lunchables, iPods and Target?
Carson Gulley’s Fudge Bottom Pie
This recipe isn’t from a lunch counter, but is a fond Madison childhood memory nonetheless. Carson Gulley was probably the city’s first celebrity chef—he was certainly the first to have his own TV show. Fudge bottom pie was his signature dish; served at the Memorial Union cafeteria, visiting alumni where sure to return to feed their own nostalgia.
1 9-inch graham cracker crumb crust, baked and chilled
2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 tablespoon gelatin softened in ¼ cup cold water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1½ ounces unsweetened chocolate
Pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
In the top of a double boiler combine cold milk and cornstarch, stirring until dissolved. Add ½ cup sugar and set over simmering water. Cut, stirring until the mixture starts to thicken.
In a small mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks until combined. Beat in a little of the hot milk mixture to warm the egg yolks, and then add to the double boiler, stirring constantly. Continue to cook, stirring, until the mixture is thick and smooth. Transfer the custard to a large mixing bowl and stir in the softened gelatin and vanilla. Set aside.
In the top of the double boiler set over simmering water, melt the chocolate. Add 1 cup of the vanilla custard. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat the egg white with a pinch of salt until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and continue to beat until they hold their shape. Gradually beat in the remaining ½ cup sugar and continue beating until the meringue forms soft peaks.
Fold the meringue into the cold custard.
Spread the chocolate custard evenly over the bottom of the graham cracker crust. Add the vanilla custard to the pie shell, using a rubber spatula to gently cover the chocolate and spread out evenly. Cover the surface of the custard with plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours or over night.
A serving time, top with whipped cream.