Captions: My Grandpa and me, lol (since when has the text-friendly LOL become acceptable to put into standard writing? Okay, it's probably not acceptable, but there it is anyway), note the "weather forecasting" set behind him? My weather forecasting interest was evident even then. My Grandpa smiling for the camera, and a Bill Knapp's sits shuttered and frozen in time.
I wrote the other night about my visit to a chain buffet restaurant. The glorified trough was located just a stone’s throw from one of the restaurants – now paved into a parking lot - that my Grandma and Grandpa Williams used to frequently take our family to when I was a child: Bill Knapps. And when I see the paved over parking lot the ghosts of Bill Knapp's beckon and I start thinking about their au gratin potatoes, birthday chocolate cake, and comic book stash and I get very nostalgic. There’s something about food that acts as a continual connection of comfort to yesterday, which is why recipes become so treasured long after the cook has passed. The simpler days may be gone forever but, darnit, Moms homemade mashed potatoes or Aunt Jean’s skillet casserole, they are time machines.
The reality is that in many ways things are better (“better” is such a subjective and broadly defined word) than 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Modern medicine has the ability to save lives like never before, the internet has added efficiencies to our lives we never could have imagined, and once unimaginable and overdue civil rights advances have come to pass. But darn it I miss that Bill Knapp’s cake. The taste is a talisman to a simpler time, when neighbors knew one another, doctors weren’t strangled by regulation and insurance obligations, and random shootings didn’t occur in movie theaters and schools….perhaps it wasn’t a simpler time, but it was a safer time.
My Grandma Williams didn’t cook much. Her arthritis just got the best of her in her later years, so grandma and grandpa had a slate of restaurants they’d take us to, many of them are gone, but not forgotten, at least by me. Here are a few ones I remember. Do you have some favorite’s you’d like to add?
BILL KNAPPS’S: It’s hard to believe that the restaurant chain made it into the 2000s. Rachel and I even went on a dinner date to a Bill Knapp’s once. We met in 2000 and the chain closed in 2002 so I last ate there sometime around then. Sounds like the chain sewed the seeds of its own destruction, but, in retrospect, we should have supported it more. Their chocolate cake does live on, being sold in Kroger stores in the Midwest. The name was bought by the Awrey Bakery in Michigan. I don't know this little gem from Googling it, I actually visited the Awrey bakery in Detroit a few years ago on some other business and they showed me some samples of the cake. It did and does evoke nostalgia, seeing the cake in its familiar white box is comforting.
SAMBO’S: This chain didn’t have the most politically correct name and that is understandably what ultimately did it in . But the memories remain. It was once as ubiquitous on the American culinary landscape as Denny’s. When you’re a kid, you’re not thinking about political correctness, just pass the fries.
WAG’S: I never knew it, but this chain was a spinoff of Walgreens, hence’s the name “Wag’s”. I’m not sure any of these restaurants I’m listing would win a James Beard award for culinary excellence, but the service was satisfactory, the restaurants clean, and the food comforting. I remember going to Wag’s when visiting my Grandma and Grandpa Williams in Venice, Florida in the late 80s. This must have been one of the last Wag’s standing, because the chain closed soon after.
HOT SHOPPE: I wrote about this the other day, so I won’t wax too nostalgic again about this again. But this restaurant hewed to the once popular cafeteria concept. Push your tray along a stationary conveyor track and watch the workers fill your plate. Probably a bit more sanitary than the trough buffets now popular.
THE COOKER: My grandpa took us to this restaurant several times when I was a teenager. It was one of his more upscale choices. Alas, the restaurant did not survive.
There are others that I miss that once made their mark on their culinary landscape of America. Does anyone remember Kenny Rogers Roasters chicken? It really was pretty good chicken! And the old-time ice-cream parlor chain, Farrells? I could go on and on. Like the restaurants, my Grandma and Grandpa Williams are gone but not forgotten. Forrest Williams was a kind, gentle man who was from the old school generation of not saying much, working hard, and being very proud of his family. He was a man who said a lot by not saying a lot. Later in life he spent winters in Venice, Florida and he was so excited when the nearby Bradenton Herald picked up The Amish Cook column. He would sometimes drive the 40 miles to Manatee just to pick up a copy. I find myself missing him more with the passage of time. My Grandpa passed away at age 81 on a cold. snowy December day much like this one, some 14 years ago. He outlasted Grandma Williams by almost 10 years. Maybe I'll head to Kroger to find a Bill Knapp's cake and indulge in some memories and a toast to my Grandpa, but it won't be quite the same....