God Bless America
Forget Cipro. Right now, a shortage of mashed potatoes has far more potential to do Denver in.
Not that we should start petitioning the government to remove the patent on Yukon golds just yet. But at the rate that we're consuming comfort foods, Betty Crocker needs to watch her back.
Eating meals just like Mom made is on the rise, not just here, but nationally, and it only makes sense. According to Washington, D.C.-based Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research -- one of those companies that makes it their business to know how we feel about everything from softer toilet paper to cubed cheese -- 73 percent of Americans have felt "general sadness" because of September 11, while one in four have had trouble focusing on their work, and one in five have been "either anxious and panicky or listless and lacking energy." And as anyone who spent time either anxious and panicky or listless and lacking energy before September 11 -- the average parent of school-age children, for example -- knows, the only thing that helps during those periods is a big bowl of chicken noodle soup, especially if it's accompanied by a thick-cut, gooey-centered grilled cheese sandwich and a large glass of ice-cold chocolate milk.
Just thinking about that makes me feel better.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that travelers at D.C. hotels were eschewing more gourmet fare in favor of cheese fries, hot dogs with sauerkraut, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, cheeseburgers and Buffalo wings. In other words, foods that were born in the USA, which provides one explanation for why we're reaching for down-home goodness: We want to keep a firm grip -- or flabby stomach -- on some of the things that make this nation great.
Other theories abound, though. Food from our youth reminds us of better times, of Happy Days Are Here Again, even if eating that way in those times put our arteries in danger of later Triple-Bypass Days. It could also be an issue of economy, as in the one that's rapidly going down the garbage disposal: Fried chicken costs much less than foie gras. Then again, as Tipper Gore, honorary chair of the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign -- and a gal who knows her comfort foods -- pointed out on Good Morning America, we could be exhibiting a purely psychological response to stress and depression. For now, eating is safe, and it's surely safer than opening the mail.
Or, as one friend who recently returned to D.C. for a visit put it, "If I'm going to die from anthrax, that hot fudge sundae I ate at lunch every day while I was living five blocks from the Capitol isn't going to matter."
In Denver, the place to go for honest-to-goodness made-in-America fare is Tom's Home Cookin', a veritable shrine to the foods that keep us from falling down on our knees in despair. A Southern-influenced diner-style eatery, Tom's is filled with road signs, old menus and bottled hot sauces from parts of this country that terrorists have never even heard of. Every weekday, Tom's offers up the least scientific but most instantly gratifying cures for what ails our souls. Life feel as though it's spinning out of control? Cheesy potato casserole. Looking forward to a seven-hour wait at DIA? Peach cobbler. Have to explain to your kids why, when we have the kind of technology that gave birth to Animaltronics, we have yet to blow Osama bin Laden to smithereens? Pot roast. Make it a double.
Tom Unterwagner and Steve Jankousky, the owners of Tom's, sense an urgency in their customers' need for nurturing fare. "Normally, we'd have experienced a lull in business by now, like the rest of the industry," says Unterwagner. "But I'll tell you what, we haven't slowed down one second since September 11." The brisk business can't be attributed entirely to the resurging appetite for comfort foods, though: Much of Tom's overwhelming success has to do with the quality of the food itself.
The recipes come mainly from Unterwagner, who based them on dishes he ate growing up, first in North Carolina and then Atlanta. Those are the dishes that his mother, Sharon Carver, still serves at her Atlanta eatery, Carver's Country Kitchen. "I learned from my mom," Unterwagner explains. "But I also got ideas here and there, and I like to play in the kitchen. And some of the things came from Steve, too." Jankousky, who grew up in southern Illinois, was working at Ford Motor Company when Unterwagner decided to leave his work in retail to open a Denver restaurant. "Maybe I was drunk that day, I don't know," Unterwagner laughs. "Somehow I thought being in the restaurant business would be easier than retail, and Steve was dumb enough to believe me."
In 1999, Tom's got things cooking in an old A-frame building at 34th Avenue and Holly Street that had been a dairy bar and, briefly, a second outpost of Kapre's Fried Chicken. Over the next few years, a growing group of loyal customers developed a craving for Unterwagner's fried okra and meatloaf. By early this year, that group had gotten larger than the space could accommodate, so this past June, the partners bought the Five Points building that now houses Tom's. "I sort of wish we'd gone even bigger, but then again, I'd hate to lose the quality that is so much easier on a smaller scale," Unterwagner says. "I want to be able to close down for Christmas week and keep the hours short. It keeps our sanity."
And those hours are short. Tom's serves Monday through Friday only, from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. or "until the food runs out, whichever comes first," as Unterwagner's voice reveals cheerfully on the eatery's answering machine, which is updated daily with that day's dining options. The bargain $6.45 "Meat and Two" meal includes your choice from a half-dozen entrees, two out of eight possible sides, a drink and a baked item -- either warm, moist cornbread (which comes plain or with jalapeños) or a floury dinner roll.
Everything at Tom's is homemade, with one exception: the green beans. "We use canned, but we doctor 'em up," Unterwagner admits. "That was the only concession we made because of time and energy." But the small staff -- just the owners and a couple of prep guys -- laboring in the teeny kitchen can be forgiven, considering that they peel and mash forty to fifty pounds of potatoes a day, steep twenty gallons of tea, bake a dense Coca-Cola cake whose recipe resides in a 1920s cookbook, and make such meat-falling-off-the-bones chicken and perfect puffy-fluffy dumplings that you'll think your granny is being held hostage in the back.
Most of Tom's business is takeout, and the line that starts forming early looks like a cross-section of this country: important business types on cell phones, strutting gang members, gals out for a get-together, families, steroid-pumped jocks, and a few folks from the neighborhood who pay with pennies and eat every crumb. Unterwagner takes the orders and packs the main courses -- even for those eating in at one of the few tables -- into styrofoam boxes, while Jankousky boxes desserts and collects the money (cash only: no checks, no credit cards). They won't take tips -- "We're the owners," Jankousky always says. "You can tip us by coming back" -- and they've been known to hand out extra pieces of cornbread or a ladle or two of candied yam juice just for the asking. Drinks are self-serve, and fair warning: Two glasses of the sweet tea may send the uninitiated into insulin shock. "When you order iced tea in the South, this is what you get," says Unterwagner. "Caffeine and sugar: That's what it's all about."
But it just so happens that the sweet tea proved the ideal beverage for washing down a heapin' helpin' of fried chicken, three pieces (one white, two dark) deep-fried so that the crackly coating on the outside took on a dark tan while the inside stayed soft and juicy. Tom's fabulous catfish sported another thick shell, this one a cornmeal crust with a faint pepper bite that had sealed around the fish so tightly that the flesh was steamed rather than fried. The catfish, which is always available, isn't offered with Tom's Meat and Two meal, but there were plenty of other worthy options. Tom's Yankee-style pot roast was made from chuck, which produces the juiciest, most flavorful version of this slow-cooked meat; it came with potatoes turned beige from the meat's juices and tender carrots, cutely cut on the diagonal. The barbecued brisket drenched thin slices of meat in a not-too-sweet sauce that had just enough kick to keep things interesting without overpowering the beef flavor.
You could make a meal out of Tom's side dishes alone. On my visits, the comforting choices have included buttery collard greens, freshly candied yams syrupy with brown sugar and cinnamon, acorn squash studded with pecans, and peach cobbler made from fresh fruit and so much sugar that the fruit had almost caramelized inside the pie-crusty shell. And then, of course, there were those mashed potatoes, the real thing, with brown gravy smothering a mound of creamy goodness studded with bitty chunks of spud.
One of America's favorite comfort foods is macaroni and cheese, reportedly first served in this country by Thomas Jefferson -- not Kraft -- after he brought a macaroni mold back from Paris. (Kraft introduced its version in 1937 and today sells a million boxes of the instant stuff daily.) The dish was a specialty in the South more than a hundred years ago, and Tom's continues the tradition with a Southern-accented mac and cheese that's many levels above Kraft without being snooty about it: plenty of noodles, plenty of cheese (tasted like a combo of Velveeta and cheddar), and a bit of a browned gratin topping.
I'd call that macaroni, all right. This is one Yankee who'll do just dandy through these tough times as long as Tom's is cooking.
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