President Bush is encouraging Americans to band together and support our country, and we're doing it. In this time of flags rippling from the rooftops and fluttering behind vehicles on the road, we're celebrating everything patriotic and proud. So it makes sense that something suddenly appeals so profoundly: old-fashioned, down-home, 100 percent American-style food.
Let CNN blare with disturbing images of pending war; we're finding comfort crawling into a dish of homemade apple dumplings at the Back Porch Cafe. Piping hot, sweet with cinnamon sauce and stick-to-our ribs satisfying, this dessert makes today's crazy world seem like another time, another place.
In a sense, it really is. Back Porch is part of the Farmhouse Village in Gilbert, a circle of historic homes turned last year into a collection of quaint shops and cafes. While stucco and tile subdivisions are choking every last inch of former farm dirt (there's a new home project directly behind the Village even), here's a respite from reality. Nested in a home built in 1903 next to a clutch of equally ancient properties, Back Porch retains old-time charm. Here, life lolls against a yard lush with green grass and trees, protected from the cars churning down Gilbert Road by a white picket fence.
The interior is cozy and bright, with a handful of natural wood tables atop burnished hardwood floors, ruffled gingham curtains on the windows and walls brimming with shelves of country-craft collectibles, fresh jams, antiques and folksy jewelry. A mother-and-daughter team works in the open kitchen, baking cookies, spooning silky peanut butter pie, wrapping thick sandwiches in white paper and chatting with customers. Good weather means gathering on, yes, the back porch, scattered with floral cloth-draped tables among flower and plants.
Few things are cuddlier than old-fashioned egg salad, mounded in plentiful heaps on soft sourdough and draped simply with crisp shredded iceberg and red onion. This Hen House dish is just like mom used to make, with egg so finely mashed it's almost a paste, thick enough to savor. And that's real bird, shaved from a real, unprocessed breast on the Wild Turkey sandwich. It's Thanksgiving with a twist, sparkling with tart cranberry sauce, smeared with dreamy whipped cream cheese and crunchy lettuce on pillowy sourdough.
Other sandwiches yearn to be taken on a picnic, tucked prettily in a wicker basket, then spread on a red-checked cloth under whispering tree branches. A Blue Ribbon makes a fine al fresco companion, its fresh marble rye stuffed with lean, tender roast beef, mild, veggie-crunchy horseradish spread, lacy Swiss and a coverlet of coleslaw. And how could we leave the Farmer's Picnic behind, stacked high with sweet ham, tomato, red onion, shredded lettuce, a splash of oil and vinegar and our choice of provolone, Cheddar or Swiss? Either are ample meals for men fresh off the tractor, partnered with a daily special of tortilla soup swimming with tomato, corn, kidney beans, celery, onion and a mantle of tortilla chips under melting Cheddar.
Daintier sorts -- those who prefer to lounge under a parasol than roll in the grass -- can indulge without guilt on The Harvest, layering cream cheese, crunchy cucumber, juicy tomato, sweet red onion and lettuce on soft bread.
Some things weren't always better in the old days, of course, and Tuna with a Twist would benefit from starring all-white albacore instead of light-variety fish. The pinker stuff may have been familiar in our family's kitchens, but it's too frugal to be served in a restaurant.
As the world marches on, it's sure good to go back to the Back Porch.
The Picket Fence has been engaged in a little war of its own since opening this spring. The cafe is in the former location of Gilbert's legendary Farmhouse restaurant, which for 12 years served stunningly good country-style breakfasts and lunches to guests venturing to the far outreaches of the East Valley. A little white house backed by a barn and flanked by rolling fields and tractors, the Farmhouse encouraged visitors to patiently wait out the herds of sheep that crossed the town's main roads, to be rewarded with a stack of fresh-from-the-griddle, syrup-drenched pancakes. True -- I endured my share of ewes while trying to get there.
Then, in March, the Farmhouse was sent packing when its owners balked at a rent increase (the original handshake deal of $400 a month was more suited to the time when the land's owner was born there in 1918). The increase was required to support development and maintenance of the Farmhouse Village, which includes Back Porch Cafe, Dixie's Homemade Ice Cream (including two dozen types of homemade fudge), a homemade lemonade store and craft shops. The barn has been converted to a giant gazebo. It's all very lovely.