The first time I ate shrimp, I was with my father. It was 1972; I was 10, and Dad's youngest brother, my Uncle John, was visiting from New Orleans. Dad wanted to take John out to dinner at someplace fancy, and so we drove all the way downtown, from the west side, where we lived, to John's Green Gables at 24th Street and Thomas.
Talk about fancy. There was a lifesize sculpture of a guy wearing a suit of armor, seated on a horse, out front. The interior was dark and cool and the menus were — at least in my memory of this auspicious occasion — bound in leather. Our waitress wore stockings with seams and her blond hair was piled way up near the ceiling.
Listen to Robrt Pela's podcast "Out to Eat" here.
Probably I remember this occasion so clearly because we never ate in restaurants, my family and me. My parents were children of the Great Depression and were therefore frugal. My mother was a talented cook who made everything — even pasta, which we called "macaroni" at my house — from scratch and was scandalized by what restaurants charged for a simple patty melt.
It was my father with whom I dined out. Whenever it was my mother's turn to host her canasta club, Dad would take me to dinner and a movie. We ate at Farrell's in Metrocenter, where Dad always ordered the au jus. He loved roast beef and, a fan of spoonerisms and all forms of wordplay, liked to joke about how au jus sounded like a good sneeze.
We went to Guggy's at Chris-Town, too. My prevailing memory of this all-day-breakfast place was that it served Hot House Eggs, a bread-and-fried-egg dish that my mother also made but called Egg-in-a-Hole, and that we always left time to ogle the suitcases and briefcases in the window next door at Leonard's (I was obsessed with luggage in the late 1960s).
Because we were usually on our way to the movies, Dad and I did a lot of diners and fast-food places — a joyously decadent experience for me, who never got junk food at home. I recall a trip to Burger Chef in Sunnyslope, where my father ordered onion rings and got French fries, and a place on Central Avenue, the name of which I can't recall, with car-hop service and really gigantic cheeseburgers.
Every time I'm watching an old movie and I see Arthur Treacher's name in the credits, I think of the time Dad took me to Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips and the guy at the counter got our orders mixed up. Mom wasn't playing cards that night; the occasion was that I was a giant pansy and — according to the grade-school principal who'd showed up unannounced at our house to say as much one day when I was 7 — I needed to spend more time with my father and less time looking at attaché cases.
So Dad took me to Arthur Treacher's. He ordered the eight-piece meal, and I ordered the four-piece, and they got switched. When I tried to get Dad to take his meal and give me mine, he wouldn't do it. The poor guy. He was probably terrified that he'd screw me up even more than he already had (sissies were still a relatively new idea in the late '60s, our existence usually blamed on bad parenting) by taking a fried fish combo away from me.
Every one of these restaurants is gone now. So, very recently, is my father. I'm happy that his last meal was a roast I prepared in beef broth, and I want to think that, while he and my mother sat eating, he was thinking up quippy things to say about sneezes.