On the Road: Central Illinois

Roy Bennett Furniture in Quincy, Illinois

A new feature on all plaidout, On the Road showcases highlights from my travels around this great country of ours.

Up first? Why, Central Illinois, of course.

It is said of Illinois, there’s Chicago, and then there’s everywhere else. I spent part of last week in that everywhere else in search of My America.
Mercantile Bank, Quincy, Illinois

In Quincy, Illinois, in a squat grey building, on a squat grey day, I saw a squat grey sandwich, the Maid Rite, one of this region’s best, come to life.

To Go Sack? Receipt? Both. I let the hostess, Missy, pick her favorites.

There’s no way around this, the folks who make the Maid Rite truly are nice, little, old maids. They wear multi-colored frocks and have cotton hair bands pinned atop their heads at angles so dangerous, at times I feared one of the little strips of fabric would end up in a vat of ground beef. While they refused to let me take their picture, I assure you, it is the most darling sight.
Wrapped in thick wax paper, The Maid Rite, and it’s sister, The Cheese Rite, are made with loose ground chuck that’s steamed and piled high atop a bun slathered with a heavy serving of yellow mustard. The mustard acts as a meat to bun glue, it keeps the otherwise messy sandwich all together. Topped with a couple pickles, and in the case of The Cheese Rite, a neon bright slice of American Cheese.

I’m sorry to report that in my haste, I failed to take a picture of the sandwich in action, but assure you, it is not a pretty sight. These places aren’t making food to look good. As my new friend Missy said, “If it’s Maid Rite and it tastes Rite, then, it’s Alright.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, Miss.

Sonrise Donuts, Springfield, Illinois, one of many such establishments in this part of the world no longer in business.

In the Land of Lincoln, Illinois’ State Capitol, Springfield, two of this country’s greatest food inventions, the corn dog and the horseshoe, collided in my stomach in such a way, I will never be the same again.

“How many corn dogs go on one of those guns?” I asked.
“How many Cozy Dogs?”
“… Right.”
Thus began my encounter with Josh Waldmire, the third generation proprietor of The Cozy Dog Drive In. With the youthful exuberance of a kid in a candy store, I bounded down the street from my hotel, just down the street from Lincoln’s home in downtown Springfield. Two and a half miles — and a gaping hole in my muddied Alden tassel mocs — later, I arrived to a large neon sign, “FOOD.” Food, indeed.
sixth2
A gentleman’s agreement between Dairy Queen and The Cozy Dog Drive In allowed the two share the space for years until recently, when Walgreens bought the land and forced them to move across the street. Mr. Waldmire explained that as the buildings expanded, the owners of each put a wall down the middle of their restaurants and installed separate locks. In the words of my Econ professor, “a good fence does great neighbors make,” and for more than half-a-century, according to Mr. Waldmire, the two were terrific neighbors.
cozystory

I dined on root beer and dog, ordered two more cozy dogs for the long walk home, and slept like a baby.

RULES OF THE ROAD: When it comes to food, listen to your bellman. In Gourmet Magazine, I’d read about the mythical Horseshoe of Springfield, Illinois, a hearty concoction consisting of several fried eggs, hash browns, sausage, bacon, and a milky roux, ahem, cheese sauce… and/or sausage gravy. It’s all piled atop the toast of your choice. In Gourmet, Jane and Michael Stern write:

At breakfast time, you can get the shoes slathered with cream gravy or cheese sauce and covered with hash browns. Lunch and supper shoes are piled up with hamburgers, pork tenderloin cutlets, fried chicken, whitefish, or just about any other main course you’d find on the menu of a diner or pub and strewn with french fries. Of course, good meat is important to a shoe’s success, and some claim the cheese sauce is the key, but in our experience it is the potatoes that make or break the dish.

And while the Sterns recommended Ritz’s or D&J, when asked, Mark, my bellman, said, “Hands Down! Hands Down –”
“– Two ‘Hands Down?'”
Mark, ever-the-clever devil, “I only got two.”

Hands down, the best horseshoe in town, with plenty of hardware to prove it, is happening in the roadside airplane hanger known as Charlie Parker’s Diner.

The Breakfast Shoe
When do we eat?

Del’s Popcorn Shop, Decatur, Illinois

At four generations old, Rupert’s Sport Shop in Decatur is the “oldest family-owned sporting goods store” in the country. These days, its mostly devoted to hunting, but in their back room sits what looked at first like my uncle, the hunting enthusiast’s basement; wood paneling, an unhealthy obsession with camo (see: bedding for sale) as the owner assured me, “That? That’s our museum.”

The ideal bedside table? I think so.
“Heeyah! Git!” I heard this farmer say in Arthur, Illinois. Amish Country.
Old hammers for sale in an antique store in Arthur, Illinois.
Someone actually had the gall to ask, “Are these pre-seasoned?” The shop owner replied, aptly, “Well, they ain’t a Lodge.”
I’ve mentioned my fascination with old feed sacks.
The Burger King, Mattoon, Illinois

As I pulled into the town of Mattoon, I was flooded with memories. Half-a-life ago, I traveled to Mattoon with my parents to stay the weekend with family friends who still live in the town. I’m fairly certain, my parents went to see the University of Missouri Tigers, my mother’s alma mater, crush the University of Illinois Fighting Illini in their annual meeting. I went to see about a girl. My parents’ friends, people we’d vacation with on occasion, have a daughter who is about my age, and at that time, as teenage pen pals, we’d fallen wildly, madly in love — or at least I had. I still have a worn out copy of The Lion King soundtrack; one song, Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” has become literally unplayable. I had a sense memory of my sweaty palms as I attempted to win all the tickets at the Cross County Mall’s Alladin’s Castle video arcade, a showing of my undying affection. And of course, I remember The Burger King.

Not a Whopper, The Burger King is home of The Hooter, named for owner Gene Hoots.

No, it wasn’t the original, nor is it necessarily the best, but this King has been around since the fifties, and unlike it’s corporate brethren, it still feels like the fifties when you dine in. It’s historic places like these that humble me, help me remember where we came from, and allow me to better appreciate where we’re going.

For all 145 photos of my discoveries in Central Illinois, visit Flickr.

11 Comments

  1. Pierrepont Hicks
    December 1, 2009

    very cool pics. thanks.

  2. Greg
    December 1, 2009

    Great pics, you’ve got some talent. I must try this Maid-Rite creation… Too bad I can’t think of a[nother] reason to be in Central Illinois.

  3. B
    December 1, 2009

    what type of camera did you use for all these shots?

  4. Jesse
    December 1, 2009

    This provides a great visual dialogue, sort of like mining the heartland to provide cues of an authenticated past in some sort of measured attempt to bring back that life. Growing up in coastal Maine prior to NYC, I know there’s that lost part of me that romanticized a lifestyle of yore.

    I just pray for your bowels.

  5. Brad
    December 1, 2009

    Great Post. I live in Southern Illinois, just east of Stl and travel through Central Illinois all the time on the way to Champaign.

  6. Lina
    December 2, 2009

    I was born in Quincy & just spent a few days there over Thanksgiving. The Maid Rite was my grandma’s high school hang out; I always swing by for a super cheese rite with ketchup only.

  7. Heavy Tweed Jacket
    December 2, 2009

    Wow. These images of a Midwestern landscape and that food make me a bit homesick. I discovered Maid-rite burgers in Iowa many years ago. They are definitely a regional masterpiece. Excellent post!

  8. erin
    December 3, 2009

    I give Central Illinois a hard time (and rarely much thought). Thanks for sharing the beauty of these small towns.

  9. Tami
    December 4, 2009

    I am from around Mattoon, IL (sadly you skipped over my hometown of Gays, IL…but we don’t have any restaurants). The original Burger King is a local institution! They have the best soft serve, and they always add two little candy eyes to their cones. They also flavor Coke with cherry and vanilla flavoring…another reason why it is a local institution.

  10. Casey
    December 10, 2009

    I’m from a very small town across the river from Quincy, and it was wonderful to see such pretty snapshots of some of the historic buildings (and sandwiches!).

  11. Kate
    January 7, 2010

    I lived in Decatur from 1998-2002 (college) and I have such fond memories of the prairie/farmland landscape. You should have hit up Krekel’s while in either Springfield or Decatur. The Krekel burger is a classic, and I long for their greasy, cornmeal goodness after a night out. I have never been able to find a replacement out here on the West Coast. I will say that I do not miss Decatur’s distinctive smell, which hopefully you did not experience on your journey.
    A lovely post, and a nice un-ironic tribute to the Midwest.

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