Book review: “Eating Up Route 66”

Fill your gas tank and bring your appetite. T. Lindsay Baker’s new book, “Eating Up Route 66” (Amazon link), takes readers on a culinary and historic adventure down the Mother Road.

It’s safe to say the 448-page volume — subtitled “Foodways on America’s Mother Road” — instantly is a definitive work about Route 66 restaurants. It not only delves into long-forgotten mom-and-pop establishments but the roots of chain-restaurant behemoths such as Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Dairy Queen and Steak ‘n Shake and near-dead ones such as The Ku-Ku. Over all of them, the Harvey Houses ultimately influence them all.

Best of all, Baker procured about 20 recipes from a variety of restaurants — many of them defunct — so you can create your own taste of Route 66 at home.

(Disclosure: The University of Oklahoma Press, which is publishing the book, is an advertiser on Route 66 News.)

Baker, who published “Portrait of Route 66” in 2016 after purusing the renowned Curt Teich postcard archives, spent six years researching this book, including driving down ancient Route 66 alignments in a 1930 Ford station wagon.

“Eating Up Route 66” takes an east-to-west approach from Chicago, much like a typical Route 66 trip, in its format.

The book primarily focuses on pre-World War II restaurants, though many notable exceptions exist. Just in Illinois, “Eating Up Route 66” will lead even the most knowledgeable roadies to learn about long-gone eateries such as Bob-O-Lin Tavern in Elwood, Wellco Truckers Lodge in Plainfield and Zinkle Bros. Cafe in Chenoa. This will be a pattern throughout — giving even dead restaurants their due in shaping the Mother Road and America.

One genuinely wishes to go back in time to secure a table at places such as Wuzburger’s Restaurant in Stanton, Missouri, an uncommonly good gourmet spot that served Ozark trout, steaks and braised guinea hens with sherry sauce. That one’s been gone since the 1960s.

Well-known places, such as the acclaimed Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Missouri, once operated an attached restaurant. That one served “mile-high” meringue pies and boned its trout at your table.

Even hole-in-the-wall joints such as the Green Parrot Inn in Galena, Kansas, get a mention. A former owner owned a monkey that drank beer with customers and had a private backroom to imbibe hard liquor. A sinkhole opened beneath the tavern in 2006, forcing it to be razed.

One of the most fascinating entries is about the landmark Snow Cap Drive-In in Seligman, Arizona. Not only was it once part of the Snow Cap Ice Cream Co. chain in Phoenix, but there’s this background on longtime owner and operator Juan Delgadillo:

Juan’s serious focus on business brought a warning from his physician that the resulting tension could
likely lead to an early death. According to Delgadillo, a fuzzy-shelled coconut resolved the problematic situation. The entrepreneur, with tongue in cheek, declared that the coconut told him, “Hang me up in a tree . . . and you will feel better.” Juan followed the directive and concluded that the exotic nut was correct. He did feel good after doing something silly, so he went further. Next, he strung up more coconuts in the elm trees around the eatery. Customers chuckled so much that he followed with a deluge of toy rubber snakes, and then a profusion of displaced porcelain toilets. Diners promptly used them as improvised outdoor seating. The Snow Cap became a home for madcap humor, with decoy doorknobs on the hinged sides of entrances and ridiculous questions about whether customers wanted cheese on their cheeseburgers. With a smile on his face, Juan Delgadillo returned to health, the Snow Cap earned profits, and he presided there until his death at eighty-four.

The pranks continue to this day at the Snow Cap.

Baker talks about regional foodstuffs such as chili in Springfield, Illinois, onionburgers in El Reno, Oklahoma; and Navajo tacos in the Southwest.

One thing Baker does is spotlight the few restaurants that served African Americans during the segregation era. He doesn’t spare even well-known eateries — such as Red’s Giant Hamburg of Springfield, Missouri — that routinely barred Black diners.

One of the biggest delights of “Eating Up Route 66” is the recipes. Using a variety of sources, Baker passes along instructions on how to make the spaghetti sauce from the Riveria Restaurant in Gardner, Illinois; sandwich sauce from the Pig Hip Restaurant in Broadwell, Illinois; a Brown Derby from Bishop’s Restaurant in Tulsa; circa-1955 blueberry muffins from La Posada in Winslow, Arizona; and Jo Ann Harwell’s famous “ugly crust” cream pie from the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas, to name a few.

The book contains a few inaccuracies, such as the fact the Palms Grill Cafe in Atlanta, Illinois, no longer is operating as a restaurant but has been converted into a bakery. The Elbow Inn beer-and-barbecue joint in Devils Elbow, Missouri, has been closed for a few years but is rumored to reopen under new management soon. Joe & Aggies Cafe in Holbrook, Arizona, closed in the fall of 2020.

Some of these mistakes may be simply because of deadlines or the occasional oversight. I wouldn’t let those dissuade you. “Eating Up Route 66” contains more than 100 pages of footnotes, so it’s apparent the research is impeccable.

This book is a must-own for Route 66 restaurant enthusiasts.

Highly recommended.

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