Not too long ago, one of our regular contributors, Dan Mulhollen, wrote a piece called The Lives of Stores . He pondered how the neighborhood shops of his youth had changed over the years, either growing beyond recognition or being swallowed up by the migration of retailing to malls, and he mused that now he mostly shops online. The web page, smaller and more intimate than a Wal-Mart and focused on its interaction with you alone, is curiously more like the old days of the neighborhood stores, a place where they knew your name and greeted you with a smile when you walked in.
Recently, my wife and I drove from our home in California cross country to Pennsylvania. We took I-80 all the way because it is the quickest route, and time was of the essence this trip. It's a big damn country, so every day as I ate breakfast at McDonald's, lunch at Arby's, bought gas at Shell stations, and passed Wal-Mart after Wal-Mart, some in towns that didn't seem big enough to have more than one stop light, I had a lot of time to think, and I thought about Dan. Not exclusively of course, but regularly.
Everywhere you go now, things are the same. There's some comfort in that -- a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac and just because you're far from home, dinner time need not be a time of anxious uncertainty. But with every town having the same assortment of stores and the same array of brand name products, the "local flavor" of towns across our country is disappearing. It might be argued that I am less willing to look for and sample the indigenous fare, but I don't think so. When I was a kid and traveled with my family from Pennsylvania to Florida, indigenous fare was pretty much all there was. Now you have to know where to look for it.
If you're ever in Lewistown, Pennsylvania (maybe to see a Penn State football game in neighboring State College) I've got some recommendations for local fare that you really shouldn't miss.
Tony's Cottage Inn -- Tony's is one of those interesting institutions that has managed weather the ravages of time. It has existed in some form or another, in some place or another, under the ownership of someone or another since 1952. And yet, when my wife (who grew up in this area) ordered the signature Tony's Salad and bit into a forkful, she was immediately transported back almost forty years to her first Tony's Salad. The salad is a simple presentation of Iceberg lettuce and tomato with a garlic and oil dressing -- simple but very tasty.
This newest incarnation of Tony's has a surprisingly extensive wine list (not for breakfast of course). There is a good sampling of California wines, Australian wines, and delightfully, local area wines from Brookmere winery in nearby Belleville. There are no great wines on the list; these are all "affordable" wines as Brookmere says in its web site. But it was a pleasure to see the local wines promoted so prominently, and while climate may prevent them from competing with the big boys, the local wines are tasty and fun. I tried the Frog Hollow, which Brookmere lists as a blush Niagara. The Niagara is a big, fruity, grapey tasting grape -- no subtle nuances here -- and it makes a big, fruity, grapey tasting wine. Even blended with a few other "French hybrid" grapes, there's a lot of sweet, syrupy fruitiness to this wine. Oddly, while these qualities may have those of us from California sniffing and mumbling about "character" and "body," the truth is that people, in general and in Central Pennsylvania in particular, like fruitier and sweeter wines. It is enough of a trend that California wine makers and even the French have had to make adjustments and move in that direction. The people at Brookmere like making wine, and don't get overly hung up with making wines that are acceptable to wine snobs. They make wine drinking fun, with not only wines from grapes, but also from raspberries, peaches, apples, strawberries and blueberries.
But the menu item that really caught my attention was a breakfast offering: scrapple and eggs. I don't know that I've ever seen scrapple on any other menu in any other restaurant. In fact, I never even heard of scrapple until introduced to it by my father-in-law who lived his entire life in Mifflintown, a little town about fifteen miles to the east of Lewistown, just on the other side of the Narrows. Scrapple is what your get when you mix cornmeal with all the parts that are left over after you slaughter a pig . The cornmeal and pig-bits mush is seasoned and formed into loaves. Slices from this loaf are fried and served hot, alone or with other breakfast foods.
Not everybody likes scrapple. My wife and her mother didn't, my wife describing it as tasting like ground up shoe leather and liver in bacon grease. Her dad and I did. I would describe it as savory. Then again, I'm very fond of shoe leather, especially done as jerky. Dad and I had scrapple the traditional way, pan fried in bacon fryings and served with maple syrup. Tony's holds to this tradition as well, adding eggs and hash browns to the plate to round out the breakfast meal.
So remember, it's Tony's for breakfast scrapple, and then stop back in the afternoon to sample some of the local wines.
Laskaris Restaurant -- You could stay at Tony's and wait for lunch, but you'll probably want to venture out and see a bit of the area. Even if you got up late and had a long leisurely breakfast, your tour of the local points of interest can probably wrap up before noon, but that's cool because that would allow you plenty of time to get to Laskaris Restaurant downtown for lunch. Laskaris is one of those store front diners with counter seating on the leather and chrome swivel stools. Behind the counter is the stainless steel food preparation area that has the soda dispensers, coffee makers and the like. And while there is a kitchen area in back for the major cooking, right up front, clearly visible as you look in the front window, is the hot dog preparation area, and right up against the window is the hot dog grill with juicy hot dogs rolling their way to doneness.
There is no web site for Laskaris, nor do they advertise as far as I know. Laskaris just is, and has been for generations, unmoved and unchanging. I would bet that everyone who has lived in Lewistown in the past eighty years or so has eaten there at one time or another, and everyone has had the famous Laskaris hot dogs with mustard, onions and chili. Order six or so dogs and watch the counter person line the buns up their forearm, load on the hotdog, add a squirt of mustard, spoon out the chili sauce, and finally top them off with the chopped white onion. Add some fries and a soft drink, and you for all you know, FDR is still president, Orson Wells is introducing us to Charles Foster Kane, and Hitler is raising hell in Europe. You might notice the swastikas in the tiles on the front of the building. They were already there when Hitler ruined the swastika as a symbol. I don't know what the original intent was for this decoration, but I find it comforting to note that Laskaris hot dogs and not the Reich survived to this day.
You probably won't have any reason to go to Lewistown, and it's not in a location that you would typically go through to get anywhere. That's the unfortunate economic reality of the area. But if by chance you do find yourself here in central Pennsylvania, skip the McDonald's and get yourself some scrapple, wine and hotdogs.
Dan would do it.