I had the good fortune to stop to eat in the village of Canajoharie, NY on my way back home on Father’s Day. I like stopping at local restaurants and as the hunger pangs began to make themselves known, I pulled off of Route 5 into downtown Canajoharie to try my luck. I parked opposite the Village Restaurant whose prosaic name promised no-nonsense, stick-to-your-ribs victuals, and made my way to the counter. Most of the tables were occupied—a good sign. I noted the specials scrawled unceremoniously on a whiteboard and took a chance on the hot-turkey sandwich with fries. It was real food–just what the doctor ordered.
I have to visit these kinds of restaurants on my own because others in my family are looking for a different dining experience. What they mainly want is salad, and not just any salad, they want a fancy, 21st century salad to go with their gluten-free, vegan, locavore meals. Many others of my fellow Americans would hasten to the sign of the Golden Arches that I could see shimmering in the sun just a few blocks up the road. But if anyone wants to know why I give my custom to the local diners and restaurants, the answer is clear in Canajoharie.
As soon as I walk into the Village Restaurant I’m not just a nobody anymore. I’m special. I’m Hon. The waitress inquires after my health: “How ya doin’, Hon?” I feel like I’m wanted. I belong. When I compare those lifeless, bored faces of the teenagers who typically work at McDonalds with these matrons who are cheerily bustling about, greeting us, making us welcome, plying us with food made in this kitchen this very day (that tell-tale apple crisp in a 13-inch pan!)—well, there is no comparison. Those teenagers are part of a business plan that expects them to quit in boredom within 5 months, whereupon a new set of listless teenagers will take their place. My waitresses and cooks have probably never heard of a “business plan,” but have made this job their calling, and it shows in the atmosphere they create. These ladies are laughing, they greet the regulars by name, they like working here and that makes us want to eat here.
The conversation is lively and entertaining. When one of my counter- companions mentions that the current senior class put a live chicken in the principal’s office, my waitress confesses that when she was in high school she was just as bad. She took some toothpaste, and smeared it all over … but I will not divulge what she did without her permission.
I don’t want a restaurant where you’re given ketchups in little packets that you have to rip open one after the other. I want the feel of that red squeeze bottle in my fist. I want the freedom that it gives me to be-ketchup my fries to the degree I want, as often as I want. We all want that. That’s the kind of freedom America was built on. And we all want to belong, no matter how far from home we are. We all want to find that comfortable corner where you can refuel the body and the spirit, too. And we all may not want the Stuffed Beer Batter Pretzel Bits that are advertised in capital letters above the coffee pot, but by God, if you did, you could get it here, Hon.