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  • April 24th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


A while back— come to think of it was only last week — I wrote a blog about Bill Clark, my friend of six decades. It started out as a reminiscence of places good and bad I have eaten lunch at over the years, usually on quail hunts. I stole the idea from Bill who has been promising to write a book about his birding groups’ many lunch stops over many years of trips around Missouri, discovering hidden rare gems of mid day eateries.


Before I even began recounting some of the greasy spoons where I found either uncommonly good food, or gustatory disasters, I was writing a lengthy blog about Bill and never got around to the midday food experiences.


Writing about memorable lunch spots may be more an exercise in reminiscence than in a guidebook to eating spots. Bill says “Anything I write about small town restaurants will be obsolete as soon as I hit “save.” Just about every one of them exists from week to week. I  drop in at one run by a Mexican couple with four kids – two of them still in diapers. They do it all alone and it has been successful in a highly prejudiced town at a location that has failed regularly every six months until they took it over about four years ago. There’s no way they can survive if this thing (Covid 19) goes for two months. They’ll need jobs that don’t exist. I could write a column about them, but I could write the same column about a lot of others in the small business world of day-to-day.”


So here it is my reminiscences: while Covid 19 continues to shutter lunch spots all over the country and I continue to eat my midday meal at the kitchen counter in our house, the memory of those times paused at some remote and overlooked small town eatery persists, in some cases like a serious case of acid indigestion.


Bill’s lunch joints have been discovered in the course of bird watching, mine have revolved about a different kind of bird watching, instead of over the twin barrels of binoculars, the twin barrels of a shotgun. The result often has been the same. Given my often hapless shooting, the reward at the end of the day has been the pleasure of time spent outdoors, with agreeable companions, and in the company of favorite birds, usually seen vanishing over the hill unscathed.


I recall one time when the companions were not so agreeable when it came to dessert. It was in a small town which featured a nondescript restaurant presided over by the quintessential ample girthed mom, synonymous with home cooking, and so the meal proved to be. I don’t recall what we ate except for the choice of dessert which the menu said was a variety of home-baked pies. It turned out the available pies were unavailable save for a single remaining slice of gooseberry pie. “I’ll have the gooseberry pie,” I said before anyone else had made a choice only to find their choices were absent. “And top it with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream.” I added.


Gooseberry pie is an annual treat for the Vance family which gathers the tart green berries (the ripe ones are unsuitable for pies) each spring along the path around our 40 acres. Appropriately sugared and baked in a pie shell, served hot, topped with ice cream, they are an experience from culinary heaven, a taste of angel food. No wonder my usually amiable companions were miffed to hear me moaning with delight as I ate every bite of that last slice.


“Well what about us,” asked one of my shooting companions. “Are you going to share?” He looked like a small child who’d lost his binky. “Not,” I replied “in your dreams.” I spent the rest of the afternoon suffering accusations of inhumanity, selfishness and having committed other indignities to the common good to which I could only reply, “Man, that pie sure was good. Wish there had been enough to go around.”


The memory of a pie episode reminded me of the time when a fellow national guardsman and I stopped in a small Iowa restaurant en route home from summer training at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. We finished our meal and each ordered a slab of pie for dessert. The waitress took our dinner plates, along with our eating utensils, leaving us with no tools for the pie. When she brought the pie, my fellow weekend warrior who unaccountably (because he was from North Missouri) spoke with a hominy and grits accent like a refugee from Duck Dynasty, growled at the waitress “Ah need a fawk!”


She recoiled as if he had said what she thought he said and looked as if she might be contemplating either screaming for help or going for the nearest loaded weapon. “Fawk!, Ma’am, Ah cain’t eat mah pie without no fawk.” Comprehension finally sank in and the waitress scurried off and brought my buddy a fork. People from foreign territory like Iowa sometimes don’t understand simple spoken English.


Otterville is a small central Missouri town named for an animal that had not been resident in the area for 100 years until a Conservation Department otter reintroduction program restored the animal to the Lamine River watershed in the nineteen nineties. Between the vanished historic otters and the modern ones, Otterville was most notable for being the site of a train robbery by the Jesse James gang just outside town.  That was about it save for two notable exceptions: the town is almost precisely in the middle of the two halves of the huge Lamine Conservation Area and was  the home of John’s, a much  lamented Otterville café which was perfectly located to provide both refuge and food for the weary hunter at mid day.


So memorable is John’s  that I once wrote an article about it which made the editors at Field and Stream salivate to the point where they actually paid me more than lunch money for it. It was the mandatory midpoint of a hunting trip—first a long trek through at least part of the South end of the conservation area, then a stop at John’s  and, groaning with surfeit, a fairly short afternoon hunt into the other half of the area. Only once did I vary that routine on a memorable morning when, hunting alone, I shot a limit of quail and three woodcock in about an hour in the morning and was home well before lunchtime, thus missing out on the traditional midday Otterville lunch break. After a unique hunting success like that it sounds silly to say that I was disappointed, but I was—I didn’t get one of those delightful meals at John’s .


The most memorable came on a hunt with son, Andy, a couple of days shy of Thanksgiving when we hunted hard most of the morning and, already tired and very hungry, opened the creaking door of John’s  to be greeted by an overload aroma of culinary ambrosia. The special of the day was a traditional Thanksgiving dinner— roast turkey with cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, hot rolls and choice of apple or pumpkin pie for dessert. We didn’t do an afternoon hunt that day—we just digested.


Otterville also was the site of one of the more embarrassing moments in the checkered life of Joel M Vance. Several of us arrived fairly early in the morning before the diner had opened and desperate for coffee everybody but me headed for the local feed mill office which promised to have a pot brewing. Instead I spied a sign at the end of the block partly obscured except for the enticing end of a word “….Tique”. I assume that it meant antique and, ever alert for the backwoods store that, in a dusty corner of a back room, leaning against the wall, I would find a double-barreled Parker shotgun with a price tag of $20. I hustled along the uneven and cracked sidewalk, eyes down. There was a woman sweeping the sidewalk outside the store in which lurked untold treasures—the kind that folks on the “Antique Roadshow” discover are worth many thousands of dollars.


“Mind if I look inside?” I asked the woman. I was dressed in shabby hunting clothes, britches stained with faint dabs of old bird blood and the grime left from many miles of trudging forest and field. I looked as if I might have just tumbled off one of the periodic trains left over from the Jesse James days. Tremulously the woman said, “ooookay.” I wasn’t two steps inside the door before I realized what I’d done.  Not “antique” but “boutique.” And there I was, grimy, unshaven, bloodstained britches, eyes bleary from lack of sleep and coffee, having left behind me an increasingly apprehensive beautician, no doubt expecting my next appearance to be someone armed with an ax snarling, “Here’s Johnny!”


And the worst of it was, I had to walk back outside past the woman, who was clutching her broom as if wishing it were an AK47, mumbling words of no encouragement whatsoever. At least, John’s was open for coffee.


Then there was the time we stopped for lunch in the Twilight Zone. It was at a combination grocery store gas station at the end of a dead-end road in a place which does not appear on any county map I can find. Does it really exist? To this day, I am not sure.


We walked into this diner through a wormhole in the space time continuum and I expected immediately to see Rod Serling standing by the rusting pop cooler saying “you have entered a different dimension, a place of imagination that exists only in the Twilight Zone.”


Everything there seemed to have leapt into existence from a photograph of a general store, taken during the first administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There was a wood stove, absent only the omnipresent circle of old geezers dissecting the world according to them, but all else was a history lesson from the nineteen thirties.


There was no posted menu. You ordered from what you could see in the display case, glimpsed through a Plexiglas cover gone opaque with age. I opted for a salami sandwich (on Wonder Bread of course) and a choice of condiments including ketchup or plain mustard, a bag of potato chips (I blew the dust off), and pop from tepid water in the unrefrigerated cooler—NeHi Orange or NuGrape dominated, along with a few Coca-Colas in bottles so old they now are collector’s items.


It was not a place to linger, nor to savor a full belly like that from a meal at John’s in Otterville. The proprietor, as gnarled as the place itself, was reluctant to see us leave, no doubt because we were the first and perhaps the only customers he had had since the end of the Second World War, the absent circle of geezers having long since preceded him to the nearest rural cemetery. As we clambered in our trucks and pulled away I seemed to hear the distant sound of the Twilight Zone theme song.


And last but certainly least of the midday dining establishments I’ve patronized over the years is one in a small North Missouri town which I will not name because it would be cruel to penalize an entire community for the dire existence of one of its businesses.


I should’ve known this was not a thriving culinary hotspot when we walked in and the only occupied table was by several elderly ladies who would spend the entire time we were there discussing their physical infirmities, most of which concerned female plumbing malfunctions, analyzed at length in loud voices. When they weren’t comparing gynecological gaffes, they were dissing whomever of their social circle had the poor judgment not to show up that day. Soap opera plots also came in for deep analysis.


The proprietor and waiter was a gnomelike figure whose eyesight was so poor that the lens in his glasses could have come from the telescope on Mount Palomar. He had to put his nose in the palm of his hand so he could peer at the change he held to discover whether he was holding a nickel or a quarter.


I don’t remember what we ate because my appetite, already in crisis mode, vanished entirely when I glimpsed a baby in a soggy diaper crawling across the floor, leaving in its stead a clean wake—obviously what I had thought was the floor was actually a coating of grime which the baby, functioning as an infant floor mop, was cleaning as it went. “Went” as in “there went my appetite.”


I’m reasonably sure that encrusted joint has long since closed and I would hazard a guess that the baby did not grow up to change the course of the world, unless it didn’t grow up at all. By contrast, that eerie place from the Twilight Zone with its salami sandwich and its NeHi Orange seems in retrospect like a place to take a date to on a romantic night out. Assuming you could find it, which I don’t intend to do. Instead, if Bill Clark ever gets around to writing his guidebook to Missouri’s outstanding lunch spots, I’ll just follow his directions.







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