Feature image by artist Morgyn Stranahan. https://instagram.com/morgyn.stranahan
A strange and bitter taste sits in my mouth tonight. And as a white woman living in Wisconsin, I fail to find anything I can do or say about it. So I’m going to do what I tend to default to in tough times- food. Years ago I wrote a sassy sensual dessert review column called, “Sweet Spot,” for the Peninsula Pulse in Door County, WI. I graded desserts from local restaurants by their Overall Flavor, Texture, and Presentation. It’s a challenge to consider what happened January 6, 2021, as one big dessert experience, but I’m going to try. I was never able to submit my negative dessert reviews in Sweet Spot days, so I think I will find this therapeutic on a few levels, hopefully by reading it you will too. To be clear, this is fiction below.
I looked forward to this day, a time I can finally have a lemon merengue pie. It had been years since I tasted a good lemon pie, and the large bulletin boards all along the highway to this American Pride Diner and the large vinyl banner outside this restaurant, claimed this was the best lemon merengue pie this country had ever tasted. I felt like I was on the road for forever. Granted, I looked up this factoid and found no evidence of any food critic, magazine foodie, Instagram post, Facebook post, or any online review about their pie. So how could these claims be true? What I did read were a few glowing remarks from years prior when it was run under different management. Over the past four years the only comments were about the slightly offensive, potentially just as a joke, management currently in place. I was willing to at least see what all the advertised fuss was about and learn for myself, for the sake of food journalism.
A loud raucaus server wearing a red, “Life’s a Riot,” t-shirt with matching lipstick and rhinestone headband approached me, smacking gum. She asked what I wanted. I told her I would like to see the dessert menu and she pointed to the laminated table tent. There were only five desserts so I ordered one of each; the Chocolate Brownie Layer Cake, New York Cheesecake, American Apple Pie, Cobbler of the Day, and America’s Best Lemon Merengue Pie.
“Oh! What is the Cobbler of the Day?” I asked innocently enough.
The server’s yellow hair seemed to coursen with the question. She frowned. “I knew you were going to ask that.” She turned her head to the kitchen and hollered, “Hey! We expecting that peach cobbler today or what?”
A slurry man’s voice bellowed from the back, “Ahhh, we’re not sure yet. I dunno. Maybe? Maybe not. Probably? I think so. Not hundred percent though.”
The server looked at me with disinterest, gum snapping in her molars, “Well there ya go.” She then shrugged and said, “You know, we don’t really like anything too fruity in these parts. I mean, we might put some cherries or blueberries on the cheesecake, ’cause, you know, ‘Merica.”
“Uh huh. Wait, what?” I took a deep breath. “OK, well, I will order the peach cobbler and hope that it is available then. Thank you. Oh, and a cup of black coffee, please, and a glass of water would be great. Thanks so much.”
The server rolled her eyes and stomped to the kitchen. She soon returned with the lemon merengue pie, the bare cheesecake, and a cup of vanilla ice cream. “There ya go,” she stated and turned to leave me. My face must have displayed my disappointment. “I’ll be back,” she said, so I folded my hands in my lap after pulling out my small notebook and pen to take notes. I had no fork, no napkin, no water. I did have a table of very white dessert on white plates on a white paper table cloth. At least the place was clean.
When she returned she brought me a square piece of white cake thick with fluffy frosting coated with blue and red sprinkles, a deflated excuse for a slice of apple pie weighted down by a monster-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a glass of ice water. Mostly ice.
“Excuse me,” I raised a finger to halt her before she abandoned me to this oddity. “I believe I ordered a chocolate brownie layer cake. This looks to be white sheet cake.” I lifted the plate so she could take it away and replace it with the chocolate cake. She grabbed it from me and smashed it on the floor near my table. I jumped in my seat and hit my thighs against the table, hard. “Ow!” I called out.
“What I didn’t hurt ya!” the server stated matter-of-factly. “And we only do white desserts now,” she said.
“OK, well, I review desserts and I was hoping for a nice variety, and since we are not so certain if I will be getting peach cobbler…” She cut me off.
“We only serve white desserts now.”
“Yes, I understand, so perhaps,” I started wracking my brain for white desserts to try, “perhaps you have rice pudding? I’ll try your rice pudding if you have it.”
“We don’t have rice pudding. What do you think this is a Chinese restaurant or something?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “Wait, what?”
“We don’t do Chinese, we don’t do Mexican, AND WE SURE AS HELL DON’T DO CHOCOLATE!” She then proceeded to look around the restaurant at every other patron, who was looking now with a combination of fear and curiosity. “You got a problem with that?” she yelled. “WE DON’T DO CHOCOLATE HERE! NOT AS LONG AS I AM RUNNING THIS PLACE! AND IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, I WILL FIGHT YOU!” Everyone just stared in shock. No one moved. I, for some reason, proceeded to ask her questions. I must have been in shock, is the only thing I can figure.
“Why then,” I managed to ask while using a bandana I had in my pocket to clean white frosting off myself, “why then would you have a chocolate cake on your menu? Isn’t that misleading, to tell people you have Chocolate Brownie Layer Cake but you only have this sheet cake?”
I flinched as she pounded her fist on the table, threw all of my dishes on the floor, smashing them all to bits, pie and ice cream everywhere. “We don’t do chocolate here! I want this place run MY way! I am the one running this place! The last guy was all about chocolate chocolate chocolate, and fruity fruit this, and international delight that… It was disgusting! Unamerican, I tell you!” she scolded me.
It made no sense to me whatsoever. What is a dessert menu without chocolate? Fruit? Cinnamon something? White is boring and the way she defended it sounded psychotic. Just as I was trying to plan my escape route, the server smiled and said sweetly, “I’ll be right back with your coffee and cobbler.”
Everyone in the restaurant froze. There was an eerie silence as we collectively wondered what to do. Were we OK? Was this just a strange outburst that we won’t see again or are we in for a weird, unprovoked, surprise, chaotic event? My everything itched with anxiety but I couldn’t move. The server returned shortly and practically slammed a plate of yellow and white pie in front of me, and it shook, and it jiggled. I looked at her, she looked at me, I looked at the pie that must have been to replace the one she hurled to the floor a moment ago. “Well?” she said, “Aren’t you going to eat it?”
I gestured to my blank table and asked if I could perhaps have some water, a cup of black coffee, a fork, and a few napkins before I try the pie. I didn’t feel like just diving in, no matter how much they advertised how great it was. “Oh,” I asked (I know, I don’t know what was wrong with me other than I was determined to get a fair review out of this experience), “am I getting the peach cobbler too?” My tongue shriveled up into itself, dry and sticky sick.
The server proceeded to yell at me for not just embracing the pie for what it was and believing her that it was the best pie I have ever had and I should just trust that I don’t even need a fork or napkin, let alone black coffee or damn peach cobbler. I unfurled my tongue and politely disagreed with her. Her response was something to the affect of what would I know. The energy of the room stiffened as patrons feared for their safety, still sitting in traumatized shock.
“With all due respect, ” I said, and wondered if there was respect due, actually, “aren’t your patrons the judge of your food? Isn’t it a mantra that the customer is always right? I mean, if you don’t trust your patrons to tell you if your food is good or not, why even bother serving it to them?” I could feel the heat from the other patrons, mad at me for questioning a mad woman. I couldn’t blame them, really. Did I smell burning?
I sat back and covered my head, expecting her to smash the pie Gallagher style, but instead, she gave a horse-calling whistle, and suddenly a gang of rowdy, violent people stormed into the restaurant, flipping plates, smashing bowls, and pouring hot coffee all over the place. They just came in from all entrances, crashing through windows, grabbing smartphones from patrons trying to video record this bizarre behavior, and smashed them against the terrazo floor. The innocent patrons and I slid past the thugs and ushered ourselves out of the restaurant, some of us watching as they looted our bags, set fire to phones, and proceeded to take over the kitchen. Somehow a few young patrons managed to rescue a few peach cobblers from the kitchen.
We shivered in the parking lot, called the police, and were surprised to see the cops carefully try to separate the ruffians and escort them out of the restaurant. It was like watching clueless coddling parents trying to reason with drunk, strong, wild teenagers. These crazy people outnumbered and strangely out-powered the police. It was mayhem. Another car pulled up to the diner and claimed to be the President of the Chamber of Commerce and stood with us with folded arms, shaking her head.
“The new management is supposed to take over this place in a few weeks. I hope the insurance policy is still in place. T’would be a shame to lose a capable professional business partner. I was really looking forward to it.”
Inside, the server/manager encouraged the vandals, standing on the diner counter, proud of the chaos. “My diner! My pie! We have the best pie! We have the best pie! We have the best pie!” It turned into a chant. I hadn’t seen anything like that before in my life.
A kid clutching to his parent’s pants legs asked out loud, “Why are they making a big mess? Will they be grounded?” The kid was met with no answer. “Why won’t they do chocolate? I don’t understand. And what’s wrong with Chinese? or Mexican? Why must all dessert be white here? I don’t get it. Why?”
You and me both, buddy. No one had a good answer. Some folks simply shook their heads in disbelief. Some hung their heads in sorrow. We all, though, just watched. Powerless.
It was all so unnecessary. And sure, based on some of the online reviews, we could have predicted rude unprecedented rowdy behavior from management. Yet, could we have predicted this? And just because we could have predicted it doesn’t mean it didn’t impact us. That was traumatizing. Why risk hurting people and your reputation for white dessert? Who hates chocolate, let alone fruit, really? Do these people really know what they’re missing?
I never did get my coffee or any of the dessert I ordered. A lot of people didn’t get to taste that pie, and those who did taste it are not convinced it was even good, let alone the best. Not much was good there at that restaurant. In fact when we patrons were sitting out in the parking lot waiting for the police to show up and marveling at the freakish ape-like behavior of the vandals inside, we discussed amongst ourselves how we never want to see anybody even closely resembling the server ever again. But we patrons who safely escaped were all able to enjoy the small victory of peach cobbler, and the hopes of new management.
This isn’t the perfect metaphor, I understand, and I could spend weeks rewriting this to be even more clever, but I’m done. It’s time to move forward. Onward and upward. In the very least let’s learn to appreciate, accept, and actively encourage diversity, shall we?
Thank you for reading. I welcome any questions or comments.