Wednesday, August 23, 2017

You CAN go home again, and there's fried chicken

Giant City State Park Lodge

     CARBONDALE — Stouffer’s is a line of frozen foods, now. But when I was a little boy it was a fancy restaurant — actually several fancy restaurants — in Cleveland, where my mother would take me in the regal years before my little brother was born. It was where I ate my first Parker House roll, a dense, yeasty cube with a sweet glazed brown dome top. I never forgot it nor the wicker basket with a red napkin in which it arrived. My mother, for her part, still tells the story of the time at Stouffer’s when her little boy announced she should change her hairstyle, one of those moments when a mom first realizes that she has her hands full.

   Hearing that story, I would not imagine any reader would muse, “Maybe I’ll stop by Stouffer’s next time I’m in Cleveland and try one of those rolls.” Even successful restaurants are short-lived: 70 percent that make it through the perilous first year are out of business by year five. Stouffer’s began freezing popular meals for customers in the 1940s and its frozen meals went to the moon with the Apollo 11 astronauts. As the business took off, Vernon Stouffer — who owned the Cleveland Indians in the 1960s — gave up on running restaurants.
     Which came to mind when my wife, realizing we would be in Carbondale for the eclipse, announced that we should swing by the Giant City State Park Lodge restaurant. She had gone as a very young girl, visiting her downstate cousins. They had eaten family style, big plates of fried chicken. She never forgot that chicken.
     Odd. She never mentioned it before. And after the both of us talking nonstop to each other for — jiminy — 35 years, I thought I had heard everything.
     My heart broke a little. I wanted to say, “Oh honey, that restaurant won’t be there anymore. It’s been half a century. And if it is, they won’t serve fried chicken family style.” She jumped on the internet. It was still there, and we hurried over our first night.

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  1. My memory of the Carbondale area family style fried chicken dinner is different from my dear sister Edie's. I remember "Ma Hale's" place and the Google reveals it be in the town of Grand Tower. See, for example,

    But the town of Grand Tower, which dim memory suggests was mentioned somewhere by Mark Twain, and had some initials in stone left by Civil War soldiers, is struggling. See this from 2008:,8599,1816756,00.html

    Maybe Ma Hale's closed after 1968 (after which I wouldn't have been part of family trips to Carbondale) and the Sunday chicken dinner outings were to Giant City Lodge instead.


  2. Excellent point at the end. The WPA and the other New Deal programs worked, despite incessant Republican bitching. Which still hasn't stopped. What stopped, unfortunately, was our ability as a people to tune it out.

  3. White Fence Farm serves chicken family style with all the trimmings, not far from Joliet, IL. Very homey decor. The restaurant has a museum within and barnyard animals for kids on the outside. Still going strong...

    1. White Fence Farm is an old Route 66 restaurant near Lemont. I think it has a Romeoville address. Another historic Route 66 chicken joint is Del Rhea's Chicken Basket, up the road in Willowbrook. Forget about KFC, folks. The real stuff from your youth is still out there.

    2. Both of those spots are swell by me, having been to each a number of times. I'm not boycotting, or anything, but we've not happened to make it to WFF since Dennis Hastert's scandal. And I don't want to be obnoxious, but I'm curious. Anybody know if they still display his photo, as they used to?

      We've even been to Giant City Lodge, back in the day. Not as far back as the '60s, but I do enjoy a Sunday chicken dinner! : )

      Using taxpayer money to enhance the quality of life for regular folks, instead of having one's primary focus be assuring that the wealthy keep as much as they can? Imagine! What could they have been thinking?

    3. I don't know if Hastert's photo is still there, but as long as you brought him up, I'll run off on that tangent with you. From 1968 to 71 I was on Lemont's wrestling team. At that time we were in the same conference as Yorkville so we went up against Hartert's team twice a year. I'm sure I was aware of him at the time, but I have no memory of that now. Just as well. Makes my skin crawl as it is.

    4. They took his photo down but there is one of G. Bush Jr. They are cousins of Hastert, not immediate family.

    5. Utica State Park lodge has a similar layout.

    6. Or maybe it was Bush Sr. on the wall.

    7. Interesting. Just as well, indeed, Tony.

      Thanks, Anonymous. Just don't get out that way very often, or I'd check it out myself. Fritters! : )

    8. Oh yes, best fritters indeed.

  4. Lovely place, judging by your photo. As a kid, I remember WPA work being regarded as substandard, which I think was probably deliberate to appease the trades. In any event, it's clear that the standard for Giant City State Lodge was very high indeed -- could it be that some artists were involved?


  5. Neil - thanks for the great article. I've hike and camped in Shawnee National Forest dozens of times over the years. It is hard to believe it's part of Illinois. I recently visited my sons, one of whom lives in Carbondale, and I was reminded how beautiful it is in that area. On the way back I visited Fort de Chartres, a Spanish fort from the 1700s. Who knew their was a European style stone fort in Illinois? I also went to Prairie du Rocher and St Genevieve in Missouri. There is a thriving wine scene in and around Shawnee National Forest as well. A final note - as I headed back along Illinois Route 3 outside of Chester (home of Popeye), Illinois, there in the road was an armadillo. In Illinois. Apparently they now thrive in Southern Illinois. No one told the armadillos that global warming is a hoax.


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