Jan 29, 2024, 06:29AM

Cracker Food

Fast-food hits and misses. What year is it (#477)?

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Riffling through an old trunk (foot locker) the other day I came across this picture of my son Booker, taken (analog) years ago in the playroom of our Powell Building loft in Tribeca. No slight to my younger boy, but the star of the shot is that economy-sized box of Ritz crackers; I have no recollection of my wife buying them for the kids. A staple of my youth, unsurprisingly, as were Tony the Tiger and Bazooka Joe, and I wonder if the current Ritz rolls of crackers are still contained in that dull wax paper; probably not, ecologically unsound, but I wouldn’t know since I haven’t had a Ritz since around 1971. Ritz’s were the bottom layer of suburban “hors d’oeuvres” at the cocktail parties where the food wasn’t much—my mom put fried or chopped chicken liver on them for the gaudy-colored tray, as well as nasty pimento cream cheese and other atrocities I’ve perhaps blocked out—but the bourbon and gin (white wine wasn’t yet invented for the Richard Yates-set) still got the job done. Someone always policed the overflowing ashtrays. Saltines weren’t party food; left for the kids to eat with Skippy crunchy or Jif.

I think of Ritz crackers, and artificially-flavored cheese Tidbits and Wise potato chips (before a new recipe ruined the distinctive burnt and salty taste), as the “fast food” of home cupboards. That brings up a matter that’s trivial, but curious, at least to me. Driving to the dentist last week on the desolate York Rd. in Baltimore, my wife and I passed a Wendy’s, and I remarked that I’d never been to one, despite the chain’s presence in the Northeast since the 1970s. Melissa hadn’t either and that got us on a rapid-fire listing of the fast-food franchises we’d frequented. McDonald’s and Burger King, obviously, as well as Kentucky Fried Chicken—which, when it opened in Huntington in 1971, and the Colonel still clung to his “18 herbs and spices,” and I could taste every one, was a major step up from “Don’t Cook Tonight, Call Chicken Delight!” And Taco Bell, Denny’s, Jimmy John’s, Jersey Joe’s, Domino’s (for wings, never pizza), Subway, Papa John’s, Panera and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Yes to Jack In the Box and Baskin-Robbins (the fancy ice cream, on a par with Carvel, before Haagen-Dazs horned in, not to mention Ben & Jerry’s, which I’ve never tasted), Nathan’s (best dog in the world) and no to Olive Garden, Hooter’s, Red Lobster, Margaritaville, Chik-fil-A, TGI Friday’s, In-N-Out-Burger, Arthur Treacher’s, Ruby Tuesday and Cheesecake Factory. I’d been to Steak and Ale (in Manhattan in late-1970 with my brother Gary after seeing Gimme Shelter) and the Little Tavern, foreign to Melissa, but she’d had fries at Five Guys and went to Sonic, both in the negative for me. In Baltimore, Polock Johnny’s ruled, and Harry Little’s was a stop for me at two a.m. on a weekend, a sloppy cheesesteak with extra hots to sop up the booze. And Leon’s Pig Pen, now gone, had killer ribs and chopped pork sandwiches.

We’d both been to an IHOP (but no Waffle House), memorable for me, since the second day I was in Denver in the summer of 1976, I had bacon and eggs there in the morning and was really impressed that a slice of orange garnished the plate. (Right outside the joint was a couple in a beat-up VW, unabashedly and vigorously screwing in the front seat, an eye-opener at 7:30. It could’ve been a live peep show, I guess, but a prurient peek was enough.) Nays to Long John Silver for both of us (Gary, in his 20s in Santa Fe, briefly fried up fish at one outlet and had to wear the ridiculous costume) as well as Roy Rogers, Hardee’s and Arby’s.

I was taken aback when Friendly’s got a no from Melissa, since that was a hangout in Huntington for me as a teen, a cozy spot just below the outside shopping center “The Big H,” which was a short walk down the hill from my high school. A few people I know are still diner aficionados, and almost every week—for years now—writers ramp up the rhapsody with long and usually trite features on the subject, but the last time I ate at one of mid-20th century landmarks was at the Colonial Diner, next to the aforementioned Friendly’s. I liked it: great cheeseburgers and fries, tuna sandwiches and tabletop jukeboxes, where a dime would get you three songs. And since the drinking age was 18 in New York back then, if a buddy was behind the counter, I could get a bottle of Schlitz, even though a razor touching my face was still maybe a monthly occurrence.

Look at the clues to figure out the year: Korean War Veterans Memorial dedicated in D.C.; hundreds die in Midwest heat wave; the U.S. federal government shuts down for a couple of weeks, no one notices; The Smashing Pumpkins record and release their magnum opus Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness; Lil Uzi Vert is born and Burl Ives dies; Bill Clinton visits Dublin, and, incredibly, 80,000 people show up; Toy Story is released; Amy Heckerling releases Clueless, her second high school classic; Timothée Chalamet is born and Jerry Garcia dies; Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs and Richard Ford’s Independence Day are published; Horton Foote wins drama Pulitzer for The Young Man from Atlanta; the first International Guitar Festival is held in Buenos Aires; and Julie Goodyear leaves British soap Coronation Street.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023

  • Loved Friendly's growing up in NJ. Fribble, hot-dog on toasted buttered roll, and fries was a great way to go. I also miss the diners with jukeboxes. After a night of drinking, your party could get anything from breakfast to a hot open-faced turkey sandwich at one place at 2 AM. Diners are considered a theme restaurant here in Texas and a poor facsimile at that. I like Five guys fries but they obviously don't compare to Nathan's fries. I always thought Roy Rodgers was best quality of those chains but haven't seen one in decades and good riddance to Arthur Treachers! If you're going with fried food, why choose fish? Last time I had Ritz crackers was when my girls were young, and they would suck/drool them soggy while in their car seats. Good cracker though, when dry

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  • As former Friendly's waitress of the year, Friendly's is always a yes. Wattamelon roll FTW

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  • In college I had a bartending job at Steak and Ale. Tips were good so I always had a couple hundred bucks in my wallet. It felt good to be a student and be able to walk into any restaurant that I felt like dining at. I rarely did that, but it was still a good feeling to know that I could.

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