A Horn and Hardart Moment

To eat in a restaurant was an extraordinary and memorable event when I was growing up in the nineteen-forties. With my parents trying to get on their feet financially after my father’s illness, every penny of every spending decision was thoroughly weighed and gravely pondered. Eating out didn’t enter the equation. However, every July during my father’s vacation when the mill shut down for two weeks, the rules might be relaxed, just a little. On our way home from one of our day trips, a cruise down the Delaware River on the Wilson Line to Riverview Beach Park, we stopped on the sidewalk between Second and Third on Market Street.

In the orange light of a summer sunset, my younger brother and I watched as our parents became engaged in earnest discussion, sorting out the serious issues regarding the expenditure of the price of a restaurant meal for the four of us. My father’s argument for the celebratory moment finally prevailed over my mother’s worried doubts about any spending that wasn’t absolutely necessary. My brother and I were directed through a set of big metal and glass revolving doors into the chilly air-conditioned splendor of a Horn and Hardart Automat/Cafeteria restaurant.

Even now, after years of sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated eating out, I always get some a rush of excitement upon entering a restaurant. The idea of sitting down and ordering anything you want from a menu remains one my life’s joyous little luxuries, one I associate with those and happy occasions like our post Riverview Beach dinner at Horn and Hardart’s.

 “You can have whatever you want,” my mother told my brother and me. I stood with my brown bakelite tray resting on the chrome rails of the serving line, paralyzed by the range of choices. I froze and stammered “uh, uh, uh…”  My brother had begun ordering right at the start of the offerings. The server had already put two knockwursts, an order of fried bacon, baked beans, and cole slaw on my brother’s tray before my mother could intervene. “Mother of God! That’s it. You’ll never eat all that.” My brother looked stunned. He hadn’t understood the rules of fine dining. You could have anything you wanted. You couldn’t have everything.

My mother then took charge of my selection process. “Do you want the meat loaf, you like meat loaf.” I wasn’t completely at a loss in terms of Horn and Hardart’s offerings. On other special occasions, my mother would stop at the H & H retail shop on Fifth Street and bring home their prepared foods. I was already fond of their creamed spinach and their macaroni and cheese, big tube macaronis in a pink blush cheese sauce with chunks of tomato. So that’s what I told her I wanted. She suggested a serving of mashed potatoes that turned out to be the most marvelously amazing, smooth, creamy-peppered mashed potatoes I had ever tasted, my eternal paradigm for mashed potatoes.  The serving lady, a large lady, they all wore white uniform dresses with crocheted floral handkerchiefs at the bosom, very elegant, shouted “vegetable medley.” An old black man in white with a white paper hat began spooning my dinner on to a plate.

The restaurant, nearly empty on a weekday evening, was as big and imposing as the vaulted interior of The Incarnation of Our Lord, the faux Gothic parish church we attended. While my father paid the cashier at the end of the serving line, we carried our loaded trays to a table near the front the window. The tabletops in all H & H restaurants; cafeterias, automats, counter or table service, were inlaid in soft colors of a hard rubber or linoleum material, and in the center of each table was a raised, rotatable rack holding salt, pepper, and condiments. My brother grabbed the catsup bottle, and before my mother could stop him, he’d doused everything on his plate including a seeded Kaiser roll, with a generous splattering of Heintz’s famous.

As the shadows stretched along Market Street, I luxuriated in the dining experience. “And,” my mother said, letting one of her not so subtle expectant pauses fill the space between us, “you can both have dessert.” Another pause, “if you want it.”  My brother and I were on our feet and headed back to the serving line. While the fish-eye tapioca pudding was a contender, the smooth density of the tapioca spheres adding a dimension of delightful tactility to the cold liquidity of its spiced vanilla sauce, my choice was preordained. I picked up a slice of the fruity, sourly sweet, pebbly textured huckleberry pie, a taste experience now lost forever, along with the H & H chain itself.

I was two-thirds the way through my pie, eating all of the fruit filling first, an exercise in immediate gratification, when I began calculating the odds of trying for seconds on dessert. If I combined one of my better wheedling performances with the special nature of the occasion, I could probably pull it off. But I knew I had to balance my gluttonous desire for a big dish of tapioca with whipped cream against the consequences of my not being able to finish a second dessert. Decisions. Decisions. After careful consideration and trouble getting down my final forkful of empty piecrust, I chose not to put at risk all future chances for seconds on dessert. If I were to leave even a trace in the pudding dish, my eternal epitaph would have read, “oh no. We did that before and you didn’t finish it.”

As always, I was the first done eating. My mother in despair over my dining habits, had taken to referring to me as “Greedy-Gut.” Waiting for my day dreamy brother to finish eating, my mother and father chatted with each other over coffee served in heavy white china cups trimmed in dark green stripes. The saucers, plates and bowls all matched in every H &H. I thought it all quite elegant, like a supper club scene in one of the movies I had seen at a matinee at the Colney Theater  up on fifth Street.

Sated, weary and ready for home, we gathered up our day-trippers’ luggage of rope-handled department store carry-all bags, and resumed our slow trek up a now darkening and increasingly deserted Market Street, toward the trolley stop at Seventh Street.

Despite a comparative improvement in our family’s financial condition in the years to come, I remember, on our first-ever seashore vacation, my mother’s response to my suggestion of a Wildwood boardwalk Howard Johnson’s for dinner. “Oh no. Oh no,” she said. “No Howard Johnson’s. They charge you way too much. Besides, it’s not that good, and they give you skimpy servings.”

My mother’s deep sense of fiscal caution bore none of the miser’s coveting or hoarding. Her fear of letting go of money was an honestly realistic and well-earned characteristic. As a child, I was aware, if not in the specific details, that my parents had undergone some painful and damaging hard times. Once in later years, chiding my mother about her many pet economies and then needless frugality, she came back at me in a voice heavy with a quiet darkness. She told me, “You think I’m  silly, but if you’re ever been in a really desperate need for money, with no way of getting any, and with nobody to help you; you never, ever, want to find yourself in that place again.”

Decades later, and until she died at the age of eighty-three, going into a restaurant with my mother, I could unerringly make the call on what she would order. It would always be the least expensive item on the menu.


1 Response to “A Horn and Hardart Moment”

  1. 1 Kate November 18, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    Ah, this has me missing your mother very much.
    She was a gem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: