ILLUSIONS OF GRANDMA

For those of you who have already tossed out that freebie Hallmark calendar you pocketed last December, August 8 is Grandparents' Day. Which raises an important question: How does one commemorate Grandparents' Day? With a card? With a gift? With a trip to Tom Tate's?

Heck if I know. When I say my family reproduces late in life, I don't just mean late, I mean really late, like every 30 to 40 years. This makes the odds of knowing one's grandparents in one's adult years (or at all, for that matter) downright slim, and the chances of tasting one's grandmother's cooking even slimmer.

I envy those of you from families on more normal reproductive schedules. You probably have fond memories of Sunday dinners at Grandma's. There you are in her farmhouse kitchen, your parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters all seated around the table. Under the table, Sparky, your grandmother's brown-and-white spaniel, nudges your hand for scraps with his wet and insistent nose.

The food at Grandma's house is endless and good. "There's always more where that came from," your grandmother says, as the bowls pass round. Mashed potatoes, country gravy, biscuits, string beans, salad, fried chicken. You wash it all down with fresh lemonade and ask for more. "Nobody cooks like Grandma," you think. "Nobody cooks better."

Lucky you.
The closest I'll come to experiencing that kind of eating is at home-style restaurants like Joan's Kitchen. Joan's (pronounced Jo-ANN's) is a warm-looking place, with framed family photos on the wall and woven napkins in napkin rings and food prepared from scratch. The mashed potatoes are real, the biscuits are hot, the enthusiasm is genuine.

Joan does all the cooking. Husband Gene serves drinks at the adjoining Back Porch bar. He also does the lion's share of the meetin' and greetin'. "How you folks doin'? Can I get you anything?" asks Gene as he makes the rounds. He is a cheerful, outgoing man who is proud of his wife's cooking. He should be. It is good, simple fare. Come dinnertime, you won't find anything fancy at Joan's Kitchen--just tried-and-true family recipes. Liver and onions, chicken-fried steak, broiled whitefish. The menu consists of six to eight entrees. I manage to taste about half.

My favorite, by far, is the chicken and dumplings. Admittedly, I've always had a weakness for creamed chicken--though, curiously, I railed against chicken a la king as a child. Joan's is creamy and hot and oh so comforting. The beigeness of this dish is offset by pimiento and the occasional green pea. The chicken meat is white and tender, the dumplings more like biscuits, but good.

My second favorite dinner entree at Joan's Kitchen would have to be her meatloaf. Sweetened with tomatoes and cut into generous brownie-size squares, it is quite unlike any other I've tasted.

Southern-fried pork chops are a bit of a disappointment. Pan-fried, they are thin and slightly tough.

The night I try the sirloin steak smothered in grilled onions and mushrooms, the kitchen is out of mushrooms. Our waitress is mortified and apologizes profusely. "Do you want something else?" she asks. I tell her no, that grilled onions alone will be fine. And they are. Translucent and hot out of the sautee pan, they remind me of Mom's. The steak, however, is only so-so. It has a preshaped look to it and has clearly been pan-fried also.

I love Joan's mashed potatoes. They support a pool of country gravy. I cherish each lump and bump, confirmation of their authenticity.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Joan's "vegetable of the day." On one occasion, my dining accomplice and I receive unmemorable canned peas with cocktail-size onions. On our next visit, we are treated to corn mixed with diced pepper and onion that is no more than average. Both vegetables are overcooked addenda to the meal. They certainly do not appear to have received the nurturing touch applied to the potatoes and gravy.

Dinners come with soup or salad and a basket of biscuits. Both times I visit, the soup is a very nice cream of broccoli--not at all gloppy, and obviously homemade. Joan's biscuits are fluffy and not salty.

Overcome by Sixties nostalgia, we begin our meals with the relish tray, an assortment of raw vegetables served with ranch dressing in a cut-plastic bowl. You gotta love it.

Joan makes all her own desserts, just like Grandma did. I like the pineapple crunch, a cross between a pineapple "crisp" and upside-down cake. Our waitress raves about the carrot cake. "It's not heavy at all," she claims. She's right. It's more like spice cake with shredded carrots thrown into the batter. I would not order it again.

Granted, these are not the kind of victuals I'd eat every day, but when I need a little imaginary pampering from Grandma, I know where to come. Joan's Kitchen is home cooking at its best--nothing artificial, nothing flashy, just like you'd get at Grandma's house.

Too bad the Weather Vane is where Grandma and Gramps are likely to end up when they're looking for good, old-fashioned home cooking. The day we visit, most of the people in the restaurant are seniors. But this sterile East Mesa eatery is replica rather than real thing, attracting customers with claims of "best chicken-fried steak in the world" and "quality home-style cooking at low prices."

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