I figured out recently that the more things change, the more they really do change.
[AKA I tried to visit my adolescent haunts and all I found were some lousy t-shirts.]
Here’s what happened: I was visiting family over a long weekend in my hometown of St. Louis. From my sister’s suburban oasis, I recognized the smells and sounds of my childhood – the tangy green fragrance of freshly mowed lawns, the sultry aroma of a warm spring night, chirping cicadas, the distant rumble of westbound planes overhead.
But the sights are vastly different. On every trip back over the 2+ decades since I moved, I notice another step in St. Louis’ metamorphosis from dusty-brick-and-beer-town to rehabbed-glam-foodie town. The family-friendly Admiral was scrapped in favor of glittery riverboat casinos. Abandoned hat and button factories downtown bloomed into trendy lofts and condos while prim 70’s-style ranch houses in West County are being razed in favor of gaudy looming McMansions. Every single sports stadium moved into a bigger, more blingy arena. Wash U and St. Louis U exploded like seed pods onto neighboring streets, increasing the city’s cultural offerings. Delmar Loop doubled. It’s even possible to get around the central part of the city on rail.
I hadn’t considered the cumulative effect of all these changes until I wandered into the gift shop at the Missouri History Museum after checking out the Little Black Dress exhibit. There, I came face with the demolished relics of my past … as souvenir t-shirts. Seriously. Talk about taking a walk with the Ghost of Christmas Past. And probably not coincidentally, my specter took me on a food episode. There was one t-shirt for the old Famous-Barr department store, where I sold kids’ clothing and shoes during high school. My sister worked there as well, and on lunch breaks we’d meet at the open-air diner on the bridge to slurp up crocks of their Famous French onion soup with extra cheese and extra bread. It’s a dorm for Wash U students now. Next on display was a bright orange homage to The Parkmoor, diner extraordinaire. In college, I’d catch up with old high school friends over brunchtime ham and cheese omelets, sides of hot greasy fries, and loads of black coffee. Now it’s a big Walgreens. (but is there such a thing as a small Walgreens?) Finally the shirt commemorating riverfront club Mississippi Nights, where I remember seeing the Lords of the New Church, drinking gin and tonics, dancing. That building is also gone, along with the old Switzer’s Licorice factory. It’s all a hotel complex now.
Thinking about Mississippi Nights triggered a memory of eating pre-show dinners at the questionably clean but quite delicious old Talayna’s on Skinker. That entire building is gone as well. The crunchy house salads (iceberg lettuce, tubes of soft provel cheese, and creamy Italian dressing) and cheesy deep dish pizzas topped with mushrooms and red pepper flakes on sticky old wooden tables. Now hungry college students and neighborhood folk can eat hot and sour chicken salad and Chinese eggplant pho at the decidedly cleaner and more upscale Bobo Noodlehouse. (Talayna’s fans can find their food at other, newer, Talayna’s restaurants in the area.)
Other buildings where I worked are gone as well. The old-school style Italian food at the Flamingo Cafe, where I tasted my first frog leg and learned how to eat an artichoke, has been reinvented many times, most recently as the chic El Burro Loco. And then there’s a copy shop where The Millbrook Cafe stood. That was the last place I worked before I moved away, where I found I enjoyed the craziness of a commercial kitchen. It was where I met the short order cooks who plied me with chunky gumbo and sweet potato pie, people who loved food, were passionate about cooking, and who experimented with flavors and textures. Those are the people who opened up a whole world to me of the pleasures of food.
So it turns out, just like photos, t-shirts also speak a thousand words. And this particular stroll with my food-loving ghost explained to me exactly how I am what I eat. Evidently I am midwest comfort food circa the days of unironic shoulder pads and big hair. And evidently, I’m a little shabby and ripe for reinvention!
What about you? Do you have any food-laden memories lingering in buildings of your past?