Home / Personal Essay / North Country Girl: Chapter 13 — Food, Glorious Food

North Country Girl: Chapter 13 — Food, Glorious Food

Published: August 16, 2017

For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.

Every Duluth organization met over a breakfast or lunch (if not at the clubhouse bar), as parents and kids were expected to dine en famille. If it wasn’t Friday, dinner at the Haubners had a large meat component, along with a starch and at least two veg. Gravy arrived at the table often and in a barge. Even though I was a picky eater, I had my favorites: Beef tomato, which my mom had learned to make at a Chinese cooking class she took in Hawaii, and which resembled no Chinese dish ever. It was tinned tomatoes, strips of steak, and green peppers that had to be prepared in an electric skillet for authenticity. It made a brownish soy sauce gravy and was served over huge lovely beds of overcooked Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice. Chicken and dumplings boiled away for hours on the stove; it made a bland white gravy often  served with egg noodles for extra starchiness. There were a few non-gravy menus.  

Parents at dinner

My parents having dinner. (Author’s photo) 

Mom rubbed the outside of immense pork roasts with a mixture of spices that made eating the salty crispy fat bits the best part. I failed the see the charms of the boiled dinner — ham or corned beef simmered with potato, cabbage, and onions into a uniformly grey mess, but I adored the required accompaniment of brown bread that came in a can — bread in a can! — thickly sliced and thickly covered with butter. In summer there were hamburgers, hot dogs, and steaks on the barbeque, overseen manfully by my dad (until he moved out and I was assigned to the grill); ketchup was the only condiment although there was usually a jar of sandwich pickles somewhere. 

There were homemade chocolate chip cookies and banana bread and a crisp and flaky apple pan dowdy that was made with a pound of lard. I tried not to think about what exactly lard was even as my heart rose every time I saw that blue box peeking out of the brown paper grocery bag. Baked goods were washed down with milk from glass bottles, which appeared a few times a week in the silver Springhill Dairy box on the side of the house, a box adorned with a drawing of a cow who looked very contented. 

Dinner was eaten in the dining room at 411 Lakeview (the banquette table in the remodeled kitchen was for breakfast, lunch, and the rare occasions my dad brought home take-out Chinese food). Memorable events at that long, highly polished mahogany table include my projectile vomiting as a result of my dad forcing me to eat a boiled brussels sprout (it took years for me to try one again, and even today I prefer them burnt to a crisp). Then there was the dinner party when our long-legged neighbor, Joe Kraft, who habitually teetered on the hind legs of his dining room chair, pushed his balancing act so far that he cracked the legs off the chair. He went sprawling to the floor and my mom flew into such a rage that I fled upstairs to my room. 

Dinner parties were regular occurrences; Duluthians were great socializers. My mother held weekly bridge parties, setting up card tables in the living room, fixing a special dessert, and arranging tempting tiny nut cups at each place filled with cashews or waxy chocolate Brach’s Bridge Mix (“Don’t touch anything!”). My parents, those madcaps, had learned the Twist so they could show off at a dance party they threw in our basement after it had been de-ratted. My parents went out almost every Saturday, leaving Lani and me in the hands of a bored teenager who spent all evening on the phone. Only on those nights were Lani and I allowed to eat in front of the TV, dining on actual TV dinners. I loved the turkey one, even though when you took it out of the oven the cinnamon-y stewed apples were so hot they singed your tongue, while the so-called stuffing nestled under the paper-thin slices of white and dark meat remained ice cold. The upper right compartment of the tin foil tray contained whipped potatoes with absolutely no taste at all, so they were mixed with an equal amount of butter. The sitter reappeared at 10 to pick up the half eaten trays and shoo us to bed, where I lay awake, convinced that I’d never see my parents again. 

When Lani passed the stage where she was enjoyed throwing fits so rabid that she sent everyone around her into fits as well, our parents started taking us out to dinner. There was the Fifth Avenue, with spindly tables and pink and black wallpaper depicting people carrying baguettes, riding bikes, and wearing berets. Every meal there began with a basket of popovers right from the oven, steam rising above the white cloth, so hot that butter melted immediately on them; a burnt tongue was a small price to pay for such loveliness. There was the Flame restaurant, down by the harbor, where they announced the names of ships that were crossing under Duluth’s “famous” aerial bridge. The Flame had a short man in a bellhop uniform stationed at the door and an immense and frightening lobster tank. There was the Pickwick, long and dark and medieval, with stained glass windows on the side and a view of Lake Superior from the back. I loved their chicken, with its salty blackened skin, ignoring my mother’s “You can get grilled chicken at home” stink eye. Starting about two months before Christmas, the Pickwick bar offered Tom and Jerry’s. A drink named after a cartoon! A Tom and Jerry was warm, heavily spiced eggnog fortified with brandy or rum. I was allowed small swigs; it was the nectar of the gods. 

Postcard

The Flame restaurant postcard. 

The swankiest restaurant was the London House, with cut glass dishes of celery and carrot sticks and black olives, tri-part stainless steel salad dressing servers with Blue Cheese, Thousand Island, and French (I used French by the teaspoon as it was the only one that didn’t make me puke to look at it), and baked potatoes the size of cantaloupes, that came with their own servers holding sour cream, bacon bits, grated Cheddar, and diced onions. Everyone got steak or prime rib or lamb chops or fried shrimp. We ate ensconced in huge red leather booths; my parents knew everyone who passed by our table. We girls were supposed to order something not too expensive, eat all of it, and shut the hell up.  

Every once in a while a tinkle of piano and song would drift up from Tin Pan Alley, a mysterious basement piano bar where children were strictly forbidden. This joint was the favorite destination of my mother’s pals Karin Luster and Gloria Hovland, who imagined themselves glamourous chanteuses making a pit stop in Duluth on their way to stardom. Gloria also wrote songs, which she sent out to agents, hoping one of them would catch the ear of Tony Bennett or Perry Como. She was convinced that the music publishers were stealing her melodies and would cock her head like a robin anytime she her a few bars of Muzak.  

In Duluth’s bustling downtown there was The Chinese Lantern, which had huge portions of blandly delicious Cantonese food and the best prime rib. There was also the dreaded Jolly Fisher, permeated with a nauseating smell of fish, which made me so ill that I couldn’t swallow as much as a french fry. Not wanting to repeat the brussels sprout episode, my parents stopped taking Lani and me along when they ate there, leaving us at home to enjoy our TV dinners. 

I think our favorite meals were the ones we ate when my dad wasn’t home. Pretty much everything tasted good in Duluth in the 1960s: there weren’t a lot of artificial flavors or preservatives, no microwaves, and the only sweetener was cane sugar. At drive-ins (it wasn’t fast food then as it wasn’t especially fast) everything was prepared fresh right when you ordered it. We’d sit and wait for our Kentucky Fried Chicken (we would have been mystified by the initials KFC): watching the fry cook in the little paper hat take the pieces of chicken we ordered (Lani and I liked drumsticks), dredge them in batter, and sink them in the Fryolater.  We took the waxy bucket home, almost too hot to hold, perfuming the car interior with eleven different herbs and spices. The mashed were real potatoes, the pallid gravy slightly floury, the biscuits were buttery, light, and fluffy, the cole slaw uneaten. I have no idea when everything went so terribly wrong. 

Chicken

Fried chicken. (Shutterstock) 

For my mom to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken we needed ready cash, which was always in short supply at our home. But if we went through all our coat pockets, the couch seats, and the bottom of my mom’s purse, we could come up with enough change to go to the London Inn and get 15 cent hamburgers, fries, and onion rings. The London Inn’s parking lot was always filled with cars and teenagers and blasting radio music, all tuned to the same station, WEBC. 

The onion rings were even better and the burgers grilled over an open flame at Nick’s, but Nick’s was in the West End and my mother was loathe to drive the 20 minutes. If the London Inn counter was eight deep in teenagers, we would head to the A&W, where a brown-and-white costumed carhop took our orders and returned with a heaping tray of food and once in a great while, root beer floats, which she perched precariously on the half-opened car window. More than once, my mother got splattered with root beer, melted ice cream, and ketchup when she upset the delicate balance created by three heavy glass mugs. 

Root beer

A&W root beer float. (Shutterstock) 

The A&W’s floats were good, but there was really only one destination for ice cream:  Bridgeman’s. A dime bought a single scoop cone. A Tin Roof Sundae, with chocolate sauce and roasted peanuts, was eighty cents. Bridgeman’s had fresh peach ice cream, studded with pale pink chunks of frozen fruit, but only in August. The shakes and malts came straight from the blender in a tall, heavy glass and topped with whipped cream, along with some extra in the silver blender jar to make sure you achieved maximum ice cream freeze head. An evil second cousin had showed me how if you dipped the end of your paper straw end into the malt, you could shoot it up to the ceiling and it would stick. (This was the same distant relation who also gave me a lit firecracker to hold.) I would not have dared to so sully the pristine white and stainless steel interior of Bridgeman’s.  

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  • Leslie

    Gloria Hovland and Karin Luster practiced for their demo record in our living room. We had a Stereo system to die for – Dad had a professional audio engineer from the Air Base set it up. I know I have slides from those days and will find you as I sort out memories. Mrs. Heath taught elocution, I did take the bus. Am sure you remember Allenfalls, Orecks and Glass Block downtown.

  • Betsy Fochs

    Gay, your writing brings me back! I don’t know if you knew, but my grandfather started Bridgeman’s.

    I remember that yours was the first color television that I ever saw!

  • John Anderson

    Gay
    Fun stuff. Did you ever eat at the Idle Hour? It was in North East Duluth. We would go there after church because you couldn’t eat for a couple of hours if you went to communion and we went to nine o’clock services and who wants to get up early on Sunday. What a ridiculous rule like waiting an hour after eating to go swimming. Thanks for recalling my childhood.

  • Randi

    Oh, Gay – you nailed it again! I’ve been pining for boiled dinner, although I was never a fan at the time. Nostalgia for foods is REAL!

  • Sue Berger

    Pickwick is still wonderful. And Bridgemans ice cream.
    The parents bridge club memories are universal for us growing up elsewhere too.
    Such funny stuff!

  • John

    I grew up in Duluth about 5 years after you, attended the same schools, learned to golf and swam at Northland and ate at the same restaurants (although I don’t recall the Fifth Avenue). I even had most of the same teachers st Congdon. Our folks probably knew one another. You have an excellent recall of details that make this come alive for me.

  • Paul

    Nice work on your mom’s pal attending to Muzak with suspicion! The existence of the Fifth Avenue somehow escaped my notice. Maybe it was located in the old Spalding Hotel (located on 5th Ave. W.) before that building came down in 1963?

  • Patty Dwan Smith

    My grandmother would take me to Saturday lunch at the Flame, where we would enjoy finnan hadie. Then over to Superior to the Five and Dime for candy.

  • Melanie G

    Ohhh, my mouth is watering at each savory and sweet memory! Been to each. Ate at each. Miss them all!
    PS. Loved the bored babysitter perspective. And barfing the sprouts! Bravo, Gay.

  • Mike Cohen

    Only in Duluth would the best prime rib be sold at a Chinese restaurant. God, by Grampa loved that prime rib.

    To this day I can really only enjoy A&W in a frosty mug. In a can or cup….I can hardly look at it. But a frosty mug is fantastic.

    Great memories, although my favorite hangout, Somebody’s House, didn’t make the Haubner cut. :)

  • Again Gay, these memories are so charming. I grew up in Duluth too and remember all of it much as you do. Although I am older and grew up in the late 40s and 50s; graduating from East High School in 1956. We all loved the Chinese lantern and went there with my parents whenever we visited Duluth. My mother had a favorite table there, called the ‘Pagoda’ and would call “Wing” (she called him) to reserve it. The Flame on Friday nights, of course and the beloved Bridgeman’s for ice cream. The Pickwick is still there, going strong with great steaks and salads but most everything else is gone. But the lake, Lake Superior, remains supreme. The Lake Walk, now installed for miles along the lakefront, is spectacular. And Canal Park, down by the Aerial Bridge is fun and interesting. Have you been back to Duluth since growing up? It is a long way from Costa Rica, I know, if that is where you live now. Thanks for these memories. I love them.

  • Kathryn Nelson

    I have loved the series thank you for posting it on face book.
    I grew up in Duluth at the same time in West Duluth.

  • Don

    I grew up in another place but your memories ring a familiar bell. Funny stuff.