Sunday, October 26, 2008

Back to Our Roots

Seward Cafe
2129 East Franklin Ave

When we were kids, we lived in a series of homes with a lot of cheap, used ("antique") furniture. I remember when we moved to the suburbs briefly, a lot of our furniture didn't work with our new suburban lifestyle, so for a long time there was very little furniture in our house. We had never had a "family room" in the inner city. One of Jake's friends came over just after we moved, and he asked where all of our furniture was, and poor Jake had to stammer out some excuse, because the real answer ("We don't have any") made us sound inadequate.

At any rate, before that time in suburbia, when we lived with mismatched chairs in old drafty houses, we ate a lot of healthy hippie food, like sprouts and black beans. It was always good food, close to the earth, and hearty. We had pork products straight from the farm, and brown eggs with chicken shit and feathers stuck to the shells. When we asked for pop, Jimmy and Judy would mix grape juice and sparkling water and tell us how lucky we were to have homemade pop. "Homemade" meant "real" food, like the whole-wheat bread that came out of Jimmy's oven and his delicious pies with woven crusts. "Homemade" carried echoes of cast iron pans, blackened with the seasoning of a lifetime of delicious food. It meant side pork, the mouth-watering uncured bacon from Janice's farm that we tore into pieces and stuffed into the yolks of our free-range over-easy eggs. Sure, we knew that we were missing Coca-Cola, and we saw our own mother order it in restaurants, but somehow, we still fell for the allure of homemade pop at home.

There is a place where we can go to experience this kind of living, even today, even now that Jimmy and Judy's furniture matches itself and their home. This place is called the Seward Cafe. It's been the same since before I can remember. You order at the counter from some overly-pierced college kid, who sends it to the kitchen where body art, dreads, face-metal, and earnestness about organic food abound. Eventually, when your food is good and ready, they call your name out, and you go and pick it up at the counter. You clear your own table, too, just like you did at home, back when the three kids rotated the jobs of washer, dryer, and everything-elser. And just like it was back when pre-teens held the job of everything-elser, the tables might not always be totally free of stickiness. The used furniture doesn't match. The piano stays closed, and I suspect it hasn't been tuned in a long, long time, but it makes a nice plant rack. There's a corner for the kiddies full of beat up old toys. These are the kind of toys that strengthen your immune system and keep you from needing to live in an antibacterial world.

Oh, but the food, just like back home, the food seems to deserve the label of "homemade", even though it's made at a restaurant. It's solid, hearty food, made by those tattooed organic heroes in the back, with as much care as you can expect from a line cook, with good local ingredients. The good news for me is that someone back there knows how to keep hash browns in the pan long enough to really brown them. The really good news is that it's the Seward, so we know that the trick to that crispy brownness doesn't involve trans-fats. It's all just honest hippie food. Years ago when we went there, Jimmy ordered a side of sausage. It arrived at the window garnished with a pile of sprouts. The sprouts seemed to be a message from the staff, "It's better not to eat meat, but if you really must, here are some delicious non-factory farm raised pork sausages along with a reminder that you get more nutrition from green things." Jimmy didn't eat the sprouts.

Our individual grades have fled my memory, but they hovered in the B+/A- range. Feel free to comment if you were there and you remember them. For me, the grade reflected my fondness for crispy potatoes as much as it did my nostalgia for my childhood.