Saturday, April 23, 2011

Eating out in rural Arkansas

Once you drive past all the towns large enough to offer restaurants like Denny's and Cracker Barrel, you will find one of two things: A tiny place set into the side of a cliff with a breathtaking view of the mountains in the springtime, or the Memory Lane Cafe. I imagine the Memory Lane Cafe started out as a woman in a kitchen who made good hamburgers. Then maybe she got her Big Idea, bought a small house and converted it into a place that could eek through a restaurant inspection. As popularity grew so did the haphazard additions marked by uneven floors and single doorways connecting them to the rest of the establishment. That's what I was thinking about when the waitress came in to replace the three burnt-out light bulbs above our table and I realized I was actually sitting in a small shed with one doorway to the original dining area, one doorway to the newer "Game Room" and one doorway outside with a doorbell sound to alert the staff that someone has just come in the back.

The menu at the Memory Lane Cafe is what you might expect, hamburgers mainly, but what is exciting is the selection of things not otherwise ever fried. The fried pickles are always good, but can be found in a lot of places now. I got the fried green beans. With a side of ranch dressing. It seemed like the healthiest choice, and I would never get on my high horse to order a salad or seasonal fruit in a place like that anyway. I don't care for the "so you think you're better than me?"-look. Best just to try to fit in.

On the walls were things that might take you down memory lane, if your particular lane went straight to Graceland. There were the typical lacquered tree-trunk-clocks with airbrushed Elvis, but there were also photographs of Elvis with grease stains on them that had finally been taken down from above the stove of a person whose lane might really have lead to Graceland and put in a frame for all to see. There were drawings of Marilyn, and lunch boxes with Buddy, all the typical "Memory Lane" stuff. In addition to the memorabilia there were posters for local events and community projects, such as the "Eating Our Way to Proficiency!" program with the local grade school, and the upcoming "Donkey Basketball" event. That one had to be explained to me. The donkeys don't play basketball, people do-riding donkeys. People attend because it's funny. Also funny is that while the rest of the country takes on the childhood obesity epidemic, we're eating our way to proficiency and playing basketball riding on donkeys.

It was nice though to sit there and listen to the people around me, especially right before lunch time. Everyone knows each other, of course. Most of them come there every day. When a couple walks in the woman requests the seat facing the door, "in case anyone I know walks in." The Memory Lane Cafe was more of a curiosity to me, but for the people who eat there it really is a kind of time capsule. They've lived in that town their whole lives and knew everyone who walked in the door, their parents, and their children. Curious though it was, it seemed like the familiarity could be kind of comforting. It would have to be, right? It made me kind of want that life, just the knowing what to expect out of every day and every person. That might have just been the ranch dressing talking though. Everything is better with a side of ranch dressing.

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