Ever since we bought a new house and started remodeling it, weekends are spent doing things like examining backsplash samples and checking out flooring options at Lumber Liquidators. Consumerism as creativity. Hunting and gathering.
Last weekend before heading to whatever wholesale lumber barn was on the list, we headed to lunch. Since we were south near the industrial fringes of Omaha, there wasn’t much in the way of dining. The usual fast-food huts pedaling fried pink slime on a sesame seed bun, the typical brown mush rolled in a soft, warm tortilla, the chain sandwich shop whose meat comes in three colors — gray, pink and brown representing turkey, ham and roast beef.
And then I remembered Grandmother’s on south 84th Street. I hadn’t been to a Grandmother’s in years.
When I was a poverty-stricken college student at UNO, nightly eating microwaved baked potatoes for “dinner” along with the occasional splurge for a Totino’s frozen pizza (back then, two for a dollar!), Grandmother’s was my high-dollar dining option of choice. Payday at the Kmart where I sold appliances was every Friday, in cash. That’s right, Kmart paid employees weekly with envelopes of money (including coins), the idea being that before you left the store you’d give some back in purchases. Smart; some might say devious.
About once a month I’d pick up my hard-earned ducats, pick up my girlfriend in my swanky ’79 Ford Fiesta and kill a substantial portion of my weekly bread at Grandmother’s on what I guess you’d call “a date.” I should have been saving my money, instead I’d order the brochettes and beef and chicken dinner for a kingly $11.95. The waiter/waitress would start us with an enormous salad served in a large chilled glass bowl — fresh green lettuce drizzled in dressing topped with a cascade of toasted croutons. Along with that, a complimentary warm loaf of bread served on a woodblock cutting board. Heaven.
The entree was nothing less than divinity served hot — chunks of sautéed steak and chicken breasts doused in a subtle teriyaki glaze, served with french fries. And if I really felt like splurging, an order of Grandmother’s famous onion rings — crispy golden breaded gifts from God the size of handcuffs stacked high on a plate like the Leaning Tower of Fried Root Vegetables.
Dinner with my girlfriend at Grandmother’s would set me back a good portion of my weekly salary and would mean another week’s worth of baked potatoes and/or frozen death discs, but it was worth every delectable bite.
It is here that I’ll point out the one other thing I knew about Grandmother’s — it was either owned or operated by jet-set politician, dater of movie stars and then possible presidential candidate Bob Kerrey. For all I knew, Kerrey was back in the kitchen manning the onion ring fryer with Debra Winger by his side nuzzling his ear lobe Paula-style a la An Officer and a Gentlemen.
Back in the day there were at least three Grandmother’s locations — one on 132nd, another on bustling 90th and Dodge, and what is now the sole surviving Omaha location where we had lunch last weekend. You know how they say “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? That doesn’t apply here.
Stepping into the restaurant we were immediately transported back to the early 1980s. The decor had not been touched since the last time I slid into a booth wearing a vintage Dire Straits T-shirt. Oak on oak on brown Naugahyde.
What had changed was the food. Brochettes of beef and chicken no longer was on the menu. Instead, I ordered a French Dip sandwich and a salad. The waitress came back with a sad little plate of wilted lettuce covered in sugary dressing and adorned with one lonely tomato. No hot loaf of bread. I guess that’s only a dinner thing. Then came the sandwich — old leathery brown meat stuffed in a hoagie that resembled a hot dog bun. Teresa’s club sandwich — a pile of greasy meat and cheese and “spread” pressed between cracker-thick toast — was left mostly uneaten.
I know it’s not fair. I know that he probably hasn’t had ownership in the restaurant in years. But for whatever reason I blame Bob Kerrey for my dismal lunch. How could he have let this happen to Grandmother’s?
It is for this reason that I could never support Herman Cain for president. Cain (in my mind) single-handedly ruined Godfather’s Pizza. I still remember when Godfather’s first came on the scene back in the late ‘70s. Up until that time, all we’d known was Pizza Hut and Shakey’s (unless you were lucky enough to also eat at LaCasa’s). Then came Willy Theisen’s invention — big, thick, bubbling hot, like some sort of man-made miracle. So big, you could only eat one slice. There had been nothing like it. Pizza was exciting again.
Well, Willy ended up selling out to Pillsbury, who took his recipe and ran it through a deflavorizing machine, resulting in the flaccid, grease-soaked, colon-blocking mucilage that Godfather’s today calls “pizza.” And that initial transformation took place under the watchful eye of Herman Cain, who while making Godfather’s one of the largest chain restaurants in America ruined the pizza of my childhood.
The point of all this: Once your name is associated with an enterprise — any enterprise — it will forever be associated with that enterprise. Because we have to blame somebody for destroying the memories of our youth, whether they deserve it or not. And because businessmen become politicians; and politicians run our country and impact our lives.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.