Looking for America
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America
All gone to look for America
All gone to look for America
This song has always intrigued me. How do you look for America? How do you know when you’ve found it? Now, whenever I am planning an American trip, I put this song on the radio, open the door, lean over the roof of the cab and wonder what I will find. My eyes and dreams follow the airliners as they rise into the sky, little winking points of light over Mount Majura, and I sigh, dreaming of my next visit.
They’ve all gone to look for America…
I’ve looked for America out of the windows of countless planes. I remember my first excited glimpse of the dawning coastline north of Los Angeles, then the sprawl of the great city and a white Hollywood sign. Or, should I count my earlier midnight view of glowing lava far below as we passed over Hawai’i on the long hop from Sydney?
I’ve felt close to finding America in a dozen places. The original star-spangled banner in the Smithsonian. Columbia. The longhorns in Fort Worth. Driving a big Chrysler down Route 66. Looking into the empty, aching pit of Ground Zero. Lifting my gaze to meet that of Lady Liberty. Fort Sumter a low shape in Charleston Harbor. Little Round Top, Devils Den, Gettysburg. A dozen long and lonely interstates. Niagara Falls linking two nations. The Carnegie Deli. The Marina Safeway: Golden Gate on one side, Alcatraz on the other. Or Arizona, oil bubbles leaking to the surface seventy years on.
I found America near Springfield, Missouri. We’d left Kansas City that morning, found the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame about lunch time, we’d driven another hour since and we was famished.
Middle of Missouri, middle of America, our van one of dozens in the parking lot, our restaurant a metal shed.
Inside, there were walls lined with numberplates from every State in the Union, and many from overseas – the first one I spotted was from the Northern Territory, its markings the ochre dust of outback Australia.
In this place, just another restaurant out of millions, I was able to convince myself that I had found America. In essence, in microcosm. The real thing is out there,too vast and too complex to take in all at once. You could spend a lifetime looking for America and never satisfy yourself that you were there. In Lambert’s Cafe, I knew I was right in the heartland. In the guts of it.
Outside, there was a sign saying “Enjoy Norm’s Hog Jowl”. I was sold, from the moment I saw it. I’d heard of hog jowls as a dish, I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect, but I knew that I wanted to try them, even if it involved slabs of pig’s face on my plate, looking up at me.
First, there were rolls being throwed. A voice on the far side of the hall sang out, “Hot rolls!”, and all around, hands rose in the air. Suddenly there were bread rolls whizzing past. They must employ off-season baseball pitchers or something. I tentatively waved my hand, wondering if maybe I should have brought along a catcher’s mitt, but before I knew it, my grasp was wrapped around the hottest, sweetest, softest bun in the world. Being beaned by these buns would be no hardship.
Oh Sweet Lord, this bun – and the several that followed it – were pure glory! Break them open, smear them with butter or sorghum, or just eat them as they come. It’s all good.
Then a cheerful young lady about a hundred kilos or so stopt by. “Okra?” she asked, and while the golden balls in the huge basin she carried looked appetising, we said that we had no plates yet.
“There’s your paper plates!” she said, pointing out a roll of brown kitchen paper with a jut of her chest.
We ript off a napkin each, and she ladled a golden mound on each. Okra, when battered and deepfried just right, is delicious.
And free. Okra balls, black-eyed peas, the rolls, the red beans, a few other “pass-around” dishes: all free, as much as you want, as long as you want. Seriously, so long as you are not a carnivore, you can stuff yourself full of wholesome, delicious food for nothing.
But you want to save a little room for the main. All right, a lot of room. These serving sizes are huge. The hamburgers aren’t your quarter-pounders, hell no, you get a full pound of prime meat in each pattie, and they are served on skillets.
That’s my order of hog jowls. Not what I was expecting. The jowls had been sliced up into what looked like small bacon rashers, and there was about a week’s worth in the bowl. Sides of red beans and peaches, a few salad items, cornbread and pass-around fried potato. Flooded down with a bucket of root beer. This was heaven, right here.
My companions ordered chicken-fried steak and ham. Ham like you’ve never seen it: thick slabs about the size of the plate. And these were not dainty little plates. These were platters and skillets loaded down with tucker.
My hog jowls were loaded down with strips of fat, but the meat of the cheek was lighter than bacon. Lush and succulent, my sides of peaches and red beans complemented the meat well. The fried potato and onions were simply awesome. A free side dish, I could have cheerfully munched on them for a light lunch all by themselves. The square of cornbread was a little dry, but honestly, it would have to be God’s own cornbread to compete with those sweet rolls that kept flying around the room.
I tasted my companions’ chicken-fried steak and ham. They begged me to eat more, in fact, but I was hard-pressed to polish off my bowl of jowls. Their meals were every bit as good as mine. This was good food, well-cooked, served with flair. No wonder some days there is a two hour wait to be seated.
Dessert was on offer afterwards, but we looked around, each of us strained to finish what we’d ordered for the main course, and we declined. We past on coffee as well. If we tried to fit anything else in, we’d waddle and slosh on our way back to the van.
There is a lot to love and hate about America. For every grand and noble place or concept or act of glory, there is something low and abhorrent. A nation founded on liberty – and slavery. The best medical science in the world, but many citizens cannot afford basic health care. Grand buildings a few blocks away from mean hovels. A great gap between rich and poor.
Lambert’s Cafe is a temple to greed and waste. The Travel Channel officially named it as “World’s Best Place to Pig Out”. Giving people ridiculous amounts of greasy food to stuff into their ample bellies. How many are thinking of starving children in Africa as they cram in the last crumb of corn bread?
The walls are covered in Americana. License plates, old adverts, hokey pictures. It is a microcosm of the nation, in time and space.
The atmosphere is fun and exciting. Rolls hurtling through the air, servers ladling out helpings of American staples, colourful and huge beverage containers. Everyone is happy.
This is a place of dreams and greed and commercial enterprise, corn and hokum, pride and size. It’s just a big tin shed with a homely front. It’s a legend, a family tradition, a local showpiece.
And it is America. Every little bit of it. It is the Stars and Stripes waving outside, it is the South reborn, it is coffee triumphing over tea, right down to the very name of the thing.
You want America, it is here, fat and happy. I love it.