We are all metaphorically jostling for a place at the groaning board, a vantage point at a counter heaped with fresh corn, tender breads, mammoth pot roasts, and still-warm pies. After all, as recently as a hundred years ago, nearly half of all Americans grew up on farms; today, our closest brush with the good earth generally comes from the produce department at Giant Eagle. It's no surprise, then, that we drool over a false memory of Ma pulling a twenty-pound turkey out of the wood-burning oven and dishing it up with rich gravy, fat country biscuits, and fresh-churned butter.
How else to explain the perennial popularity of "homestyle" restaurants? Around these particular chambers of the heartland, savvy business folks know that all it takes is the word "Amish," "Country," or "Kitchen" in a restaurant's name to ensure a long line stretching out of the front door. Mark the spot with a folk-art sign -- preferably one that includes hearts, buggies, or straw hats -- and your success is all but assured. Then get out of the way as the masses blaze a trail right into your parking lot.
But while the myth of country cooking is obviously compelling, experience has shown that the reality is generally less so. I know this from years of dragging compliant family members up one country lane and down another, searching for the "Ma's home cookin'" of my dreams. (And I emphasize dreams here: My own sainted mother embraced TV dinners and Pillsbury cake mixes with an alacrity that made our little heads spin.) While bland flavors, second-rate ingredients, and an emphasis on speed over quality seem to distinguish the food at many of these country-style restaurants, we keep going back for more, in the vain hopes of recapturing the perfect down-home experience.
This is certainly the case at the Hartville Kitchen, a 440-seat wonder of a restaurant that has grown from humble roots to become one of the fastest-paced operations in this sleepy little Stark County town, otherwise best known for its twice-weekly flea markets.
The eatery began modestly enough in 1966 under the auspicious name Country Kitchen. Originally located on a corner of the flea market grounds, the unassuming spot had the capacity for a mere 75 guests and shared its cramped quarters with a gift shop. After nearly thirty years and two expansions, owner Howard Miller and his family saw that the business had finally exhausted its growing room, and they transplanted it less than a mile down the road in the middle of a cornfield. Here, the Mennonite family raised an enormous Georgian-style manse of more than 100,000 square feet, which now holds the restaurant, a bakery and pie shop, a candy emporium, and several gift and collectibles stores, making it a tourist destination in its own right.
Of course, the fleas still go on sale every Monday and Thursday at the nearby market, and at lunchtime on market days it can easily take an hour for expectant diners to traverse the long line that snakes through the restaurant's lobby. (Lines are considerably shorter on weekday evenings.) While marking time, guests can admire the gleaming brass chandeliers, delicate Early American-style furniture, polished cherry woodwork, and the sleek marble fireplace that make the anteroom feel more like an exclusive New England inn than a country restaurant. But once in their seats, observant patrons may chuckle at the contrast between the lobby's refined appointments and the dining room's practical oilcloth table coverings and disposable napkins, and the thin paper placemats that double as menus.
Then again, most visitors -- young, old, and every age in between -- don't come here to critique the decor, the assembly-line service, or even the food. They come, instead, for a slice of American pie.
Fortunately, pie -- perhaps not American, but surely every other flavor -- happens to be one of Hartville Kitchen's biggest draws. There's banana, lemon, butterscotch, chocolate peanut butter, pumpkin, pecan, cherry, and apple, just to name a few, to be enjoyed by the slice or to be taken home, whole, from the bakery next door. But, as with other items here, Hartville Kitchen's pies can be greatly overrated. Take, for example, a recently sampled slice of seasonal strawberry pie, full of hard, flavorless berries in a gooey matrix of preternaturally red and overly sweetened gel. Even a generous mound of whipped topping couldn't fix the out-of-balance flavors and the tough crust of this sorry piece of pastry.
Rhubarb pie, with a pleasantly sweet crumb topping, was considerably better. The saucy rhubarb filling achieved an appropriately tongue-tingling balance of sweet and sour flavors, and the bottom crust was suitably flaky and tender. The filling of a classic cherry pie was again too gluey and sweet, but the crust was well-made. Ordering these fruit pies à la mode, with a big swirl of silken soft-serve on the side, helps disguise small flaws of taste and texture.
However, even without the ice cream, a slice of coconut cream pie was a winner. Topped with a well-made, tender meringue and settled into another flaky crust, the pie was generously endowed with shreds of sweet coconut in a firm, custardy filling. Of course, a big mug of hot coffee is the perfect way to wash down a piece of any of these pies, and the impersonally efficient staff makes sure to keep it coming.
While it is true that some of the pies are disappointing, we have to admit that we have never had enough of Hartville Kitchen's dense, golden-domed yeast rolls. These hearty, slightly sweet white-bread beauties come to the table warm from the oven, just begging to be slathered with pats of real butter. We are always happy to oblige.
Chicken noodle soup, full of shreds of chicken and overflowing with wide egg noodles, is also the stuff of our homey fantasies. A big bowl of that tasty soup, together with a basket of warm yeast rolls and a glass of buttermilk, could help fuel American agriculture for years to come, we decided.
While simple and old-fashioned sandwiches like grilled cheese, Trail bologna, and roast pork may be tempting, we usually prefer to skip these à la carte offerings and indulge in the full meal deals listed down the center of the placemat. We've never gone wrong with the tender, savory sliced roast beef or roast pork dinners, covered in a passable homemade gravy, or with the juicy fried chicken, which can be had with all dark meat, all white meat, or a mixture of the two. The boneless, breaded breast of chicken has also proved a tasty alternative, with crisp breading and plenty of real meat inside.
We weren't so fond of a recently sampled fried ham dinner, however: a perfectly round slice of rubbery meat topped with gluey, overwhelmingly sweet pineapple sauce. And a bland breaded cutlet of ground veal hearkened back to the frozen TV dinners of my youth more than to anything Mother Yoder would have cooked up on the farm.
But face it: The most enchanting part of ordering these dinners is not selecting the main dish, but the childlike pleasure of getting to choose three -- three! -- side dishes from among the fifteen unassuming alternatives listed at the bottom of the menu. Several different preparations of potatoes, a slew of simple salads (including Jell-O, applesauce, and cottage cheese), and a variety of vegetables beckon, along with thin, buttery egg noodles and a homemade stewed-tomatoes-and-rice hot sauce with a peppery afterbite. Only after you dig in do you realize that the peas and carrots are from the freezer and the corn and green beans come out of a can. (And this, in the heart of farm country!) And while the home fries are tasty, with crisp edges and fluffy interiors, the ultra-smooth mashed potatoes are flavorless and without character.
If that kind of corner-cutting doesn't put a damper on your homegrown fantasies, nothing will. And maybe that's the point. What Hartville Kitchen and the other immensely popular country-style restaurants are selling goes way beyond the food and right into our collective hearts and souls. A hint of simpler times, a glimpse of what home and hearth used to mean, and a gentle reminder of how far we've grown from our agrarian roots are what we really dig into in these folksy dining rooms. And although it is true that we can't go home again, we always can -- and do -- pay return visits to the nearest down-home restaurant. Sometimes, that's all it takes to help us face this modern world.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at [email protected].