Friday, October 26, 2007

Mama Fresser and I really should start eating in better restaurants. Or at least ones that can punctuate.

We were sitting there, enjoying a breakfast nosh when the insidious advertisement caught my attention. At the tray liner bottom it read verbatim:

new Arch Card ™
load it. gift it. love it.

First of all, "gift" is NOT a verb. angry.gif Grant it. Present it. Bestow it, if you want. But I'm sorry, pop-culture grammarians: "gift" is still a noun. So if McDonald's advertising wizards want to create a three-sentence parallel as a tagline, they should learn the parts of speech first.

But the atrocities continued. At the top of the liner, the ad copy read:

so, what is Arch Card ™?

Arch Card ™ is:

happy holidays
thank you for baby-sitting my kids...
i love you as a friend
grandpa's morning coffee

Notice that their copywriters NEVER capitalize the first word of a sentence. Hello--this is your fourth-grade English teacher calling! Nor do they capitalize the proper noun "Grandpa" in "grandpa's morning coffee" or the pronount "I" in "i love you as a friend." But they ALWAYS capitalize their trademarks, such as Arch Card ™ and of course their company name. Such sticklers they are.

What are they telling us? That THEIR trademarks are more important than grandparents and individuals?

Oooh...I was so steamed I could barely enjoy my hotcakes and Diet Coke ®.


Memories waft out of the squat, narrow building and 53rd & Kenwood, teasing the senses of those who used to eat in the lobby here. Or at least buy their food and run. For here, on the site of what is now a dry cleaners, there once stood Harold's Chicken Shack.

Harold's was a take-out joint, open as late as 2 A.M. to sate those with alcohol-fueled munchies or provide a nocturnal cholesterol fix. Though my own jaunts to Harold's tended to occur long before the midnight hour, the scene there was always the same: steamed-up windows, hungry customers crowding a tunnel-shaped waiting area, a weatherbeaten wooden price list perched below a security camera. And at the end of this gauntlet sat the bulletproof glass partition with a bank teller's slot and a carousel through which customers would pay for and retrieve their grease-soaked feast.

At Harold's, the food was cheap, but the atmosphere was priceless.

There's a Harold's Chicken Shack in every Chicago neighborhood--provided you live on the South Side. Somehow Harold's urban ambience never traveled to the North Side. Maybe the neon signage that featured an axe-wielding chef chasing a chicken never caught on north of Madison Street, the city's north-south dividing line. Sure, we'ere the Hog Butchers to the World, but the hog-butchers and the meat-eaters don't always share the same neighborhood. But hungry college students go where their wallets lead them.

Queueing up for 'cue

First stop on the Harold's experience is the teller window, where you bark your order through the money slot at the cashier sitting an inch-thick sheet of plexiglass away. Then you slide your cash through the convex slot, retrieve your number, and wait for your number to be bellowed through the crowd.

When your lucky numer was up, you ambled up to the carousel to see your steaming hot chicken perched atop french fries and awaiting its ritual drenching in sauce. "What's on your regular half?" the lady behind the glass would blurt out, and you would request salt, pepper, barbecue sauce and hot sauce, or some permutation of the above. Some of the old-timers asked for ketchup.

When your order was ready, the staff wrapped it in Harold's distinctive green-and-white bags which, conveniently, listed the locations of their other 40-odd stores across Chicago. One loyal customer and dorm-rat vowed to visit each one of the stores and proudly post the store's bag on his dormitory wall.

Most of the dorms were four or five blocks away from Harold's, but some mix of thermodynamics and hungry anticipation kept the tasty bird hot even during wintertime jaunts back to the dorms. Even if you didn't eat Harold's that night, you could tell if someone else on your floor had, as the smoky scent of Harold's sauce drifted through the halls.

Oh, and the feast itself: a fried half-chicken sat atop greasy french fries, liberally doused with sauce and then topped with Wonder Bread cost all of five bucks. White meat aficionados ordered either a white half (four pieces of white meat) or a white sandwich with a breast and wing. Sometimes I even ordered livers.

Since those halcyon days, Harold's has moved down 53rd Street to a larger location that actually offers seating, but the bulletproof glass remains. I've eaten at the new store a few times, but still I wander by the old site on Kenwood and peer through the window. Hangers and a pants-presser have replaced the deep-frying vats and plexiglass, but if you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes of "What's on your white half?" bounding about the narrow space.

If only those grease-stained walls could talk...


After the Hee Haw Truck Stop Recipes, grits surely represent the South's finest contribution to American cuisine. Shockingly, however, some Northern folk would wrestle an alligator than try a bowl of grits or another Southern dish.

Once I worked up the nerve to offer my sister a bowl of my famous (around here, anyway) cheddar cheese grits. "Grits?" she scowled. "I'm not from the South!" was her indignant reply. You would have thought I was trying to poison her or something. Sure, I could have argued that grits are actually made from corn, a grain that typically is grown NORTH of the Mason-Dixon Line, but I didn't bother.

Another time, some college friends told of their drive back to Chicago from their spring break road-trip to Florida. Weary from driving and in need of repast, this group of intrepid noshers stopped at a Georgia diner to order eggs for breakfast. Their waitress cheerily chirped, "Would y'all like some grits with that?" To which an ordinarily polite New Yorker smirked, "Grits??? Do you have any POTATOES?"
I don't think the waitress conked him on the side of his head with a cast-iron skillet, but she surely should have. Teach that damn Yankee some manners, I say.

So how did I, a hardly well-traveled Fresser, acquire my taste for grits? My chum Puddin' Buns always drilled into me that when you travel to another part of the country or world, you eat what the residents eat. Try it--maybe you'll find something new. So when we visited his cousin at Washington University in St. Louis, we dropped in at a Waffle House and decided to try some grits with our eggs.

Instantly we were smitten. Here was an alternative to the hash brown hegemony so common in Yankee slop-houses, and really: shouldn't we just save the potatoes for dinner? Given that we were new to Southern cooking, Puddin' Buns and I topped our grits with (shudder) maple syrup--a capital offense in Mississippi, I later learned--but I have since mended my ways and stick to sharp cheddar and a splash of cayenne pepper sauce atop my bowl o' Southern heaven.

I can just imagine the reactions some of y'all have endured when trying to introduce the novitiate to the glory that is Southern cooking. So sit down with some cornbread and tell us your stories.