Monday, October 18, 2004

New York Times Magazine Article on New Martinsvillle, WV - "Two Americas, Two Restaurants, One Town"

An article appeared in this weekend's New York Times Magazine about my hometown of New Martinsville, West Virginia.

The article contrasts two local eateries, Baristas and Bob Evans, and provides some interesting commentary on the community and West Virginia. I don't necessarily agree with the simplified perspective that the author takes on our community. Like much of what I read in the press these days there is a tendency to over simplify the state of things in America. In this case it is the old West Virginia cliche that West Virginians are just old country folk (or hillbillies) who hit deer with their pick up trucks and need to experience some culture like Baristas. The article portrays the community as black or white on cultural issues -- rather than gray. When I go home to visit with my dad we go to Bob Evans and Baristas (and the Court Restaurant).

Two Americas, Two Restaurants, One Town

October 17, 2004

To call Baristas a restaurant would be a serious understatement. It is a restaurant, but it's also a barbershop. And a coffeehouse. And, of course, a massage parlor. Naturally, it's run by the same guy who turned the funeral home around the corner into a gym, with cardio machines in the viewing room and free weights in the old embalming chamber.

Baristas occupies a huge turn-of-the-century white house in
New Martinsville, W.Va., with steep fire-engine-red steps,
a porch full of rainbow-colored tables and pillars painted
to look like cloudy skies and candy canes. You walk inside
to high ceilings, oak floors, purple walls and one of the owners, Jill Shade, making her famous mocha crushes or hopping around singing an old Cher song she has had stuck in her head for weeks. When I first walked in, Shade pointed to a huge wooden board behind her. ''Menu's up there,'' she told me, ''but if you're craving something you don't see, just holler and I'll try to make it.''

Baristas' menu is not exactly an exercise in overwhelming choice -- a couple of homemade soups, a salad, some appetizers, sandwiches and one dinner special on Friday nights. But ambience is another story. You can eat in the basement pub, with its low oak ceiling and stone walls. You can eat on the patio overlooking the Ohio River, in the garden next to the hibiscus plants or in the cafe surrounded by walls of local art. You can get a haircut or a bona fide Swedish massage while you wait, then sit at a table covered in quotes from Camus or Malcolm X. It's exactly the kind of place I love, and exactly the kind of place I would never expect to find in New Martinsville, where I live part of each year. It's a town of about 5,000 people and 36 churches, a town full of all-you-can-eat buffets, Confederate flags, ''No Trespassing'' signs and folks who still feel the need to point out the local lesbian couple. But then again, I never expected to find Jeff Shade in New Martinsville either.

Shade is a local boy, a 38-year-old former high-school
football star who left West Virginia with dreams of
becoming a minister. But he lost God somewhere in Texas and
got kicked out of seminary, he says, for ''asking too many questions.'' He studied philosophy and theology at Princeton, then went to massage school in Manhattan while serving as the pastor for a New Jersey church where he preached from The New York Times instead of the Bible. A few years later, he headed back to New Martinsville with his wife, Jill, their 2-year-old son, Soren Aabye Shade (as in Soren Aabye Kierkegaard), and degrees in Greek, theology, philosophy and massage. With all that education, he and Jill decided they wanted to expand the minds of the folks back home. The tool they chose was the burger.

The Barista burger is the creation of Tammy Wilson, a
compact, ponytailed whirlwind with tie-dyed flip-flops and
a T-shirt that says ''Save the drama for your mama.''
Wilson is Baristas' main cook, and she works in a kitchen
that looks more like a home than a restaurant. Teenage
girls run in and out asking her questions about prom dates
and haircuts, Jill appears from the garden with a bag of peppers for roasting and Jeff wanders around tasting soups and sauces while cracking jokes about politicians or saying things about Foucault that nobody understands. Wilson spends hours each week pressing fresh garlic and adding it to vats of ground beef for burgers; when she's done, she rolls up her sleeves and plunges her hands into the meat. ''I learned to cook from my hillbilly grandma, and I'm proud of it,'' she told me. ''And if there's one thing I know, it's that burgers only taste right when you mix the spices by hand.''

Clearly, she's onto something. People drive 60 miles up and down the Ohio River for her burger: a juicy half-pound of ground beef with hints of ginger and garlic and soy, some spices, a touch of West Virginia honey and enough sweet smokiness from the grill to make you think she cooked it over fresh mesquite. Mix that with a salad fresh from the garden and hand-cut fries, and you've got a room full of people who simply can't believe anyone wouldn't want to eat at Baristas.

But in fact, a lot of locals can't imagine even walking
into Baristas, let alone eating there. The truth is, most
of them would rather go to Bob Evans.

The first time I drove up to the New Martinsville Bob
Evans, Billy Joel's ''Just the Way You Are'' was echoing through the parking lot from the speakers above the doors. Everything about the place said ''national chain.'' I walked past a red-white-and-blue banner into a world lined with plaid curtains and Old Fashioned things, like copper teakettles and washboards that looked so new they might as well have still had price tags on them. The eggnog- and pecan-pie-scented candles by the cash register overwhelmed any smells from the kitchen. A short woman in black polyester slacks and a white button-up shirt with a Bob Evans logo stitched on it smiled at me, menu in hand, and
said: ''Hi, welcome to Bob Evans. One for dinner?''

Baristas and Bob Evans are less than a mile apart, but they might as well be in different cities. Baristas sits on Main, a quiet tree-lined street with wide sidewalks and a historic courthouse. You're guaranteed to miss it if you don't know to turn toward the river at the BP station. But you can't miss Bob Evans. It has the tallest sign on this strip of Route 2, a highway lined with a Wal-Mart, a McDonald's, a Dairy Queen and a Pizza Hut that could be anywhere in the country.

There is only one Baristas, but there are 576 Bob Evanses,
in 21 states; in 2004, the company rang up $1.2 billion in sales. Bob Evans is part of a giant and fast-growing retail category known as ''full-service family-style dining'' (you know the kind: Cracker Barrel, Denny's, Friendly's); it's a sit-down restaurant that leans more toward down home than fast food, with a serious emphasis on all-day breakfast. Like most Bob Evanses, the one in New Martinsville is in a red-and-white ''farmhouse'' with a sprawling parking lot and a few benches out front.

The goal at every Bob Evans restaurant is to be the same as every other Bob Evans restaurant. ''We want to make sure the experience someone has in New Martinsville is the same as the one they'd have in Orlando, St. Louis or Baltimore,'' said Tammy Roberts Myers, the P.R. director at the Bob Evans headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. The company's guiding principle is simple: consistency, in everything from ambience to the distance between tables to the arrangement of food on your plate.

''Going out to eat is risky,'' said Steve Govey, the Bob
Evans regional manager for the Ohio Valley. ''You never
know what you're going to get. But at Bob Evans, that's not true. Our strategy is being completely predictable, something people know they can count on.''

Bob Evans was packed when I arrived. It was full of
customers of all ages and sizes, with lots of khakis, denim shorts and camouflage hats with pictures of guns or slogans like ''National Wild Turkey Federation.'' There were three women at three different tables wearing identical neon orange T-shirts. I'd just come from Baristas, where people danced at the counter to Ray Charles and talked across the room about how so-and-so woke up with a weird rash yesterday and what John Kerry said at the rally in Wheeling about helping millworkers. At Bob Evans, I sat alone at the counter. The people around me stared at their plates and ate in silence; behind me, people spoke so quietly I could barely hear their murmurs over the clanking silverware.

I ate a raspberry grilled-chicken salad with exactly four slices of strawberries, four chunks of pineapple and a tough sliced chicken breast with raspberry vinaigrette. I followed that with a classic turkey dinner. The stuffing was great, but the rest was just barely edible -- a little dry, too salty, with oily biscuits and mashed potatoes that tasted like fake movie-popcorn butter. Honestly, I didn't get it.

But I went back to Bob Evans the next day, and I kept going back and kept trying things on the menu. I was determined to understand why so many people in town chose this place over Baristas. (The prices at the two restaurants, by the way, are about the same.) I ate a southwestern omelet smothered in jack cheese, and a pork chop dinner that took four people to make. None of the chefs spoke while they cooked; they just threw still-frozen vegetables and meat straight onto the griddle. (They let me watch.) They measured lettuce and arranged the food on my plate so it would look exactly like the instructional diagram hanging on the kitchen wall: pork chop over here, frozen vegetables over there, one sprig of parsley right there.

After a waitress put the whole package down in front of me,
I took a bite and thought, They're right, it is just like grandma used to make. Thing is, my grandmothers couldn't cook. From my New York grandmother, I got burned matzo brei and gefilte fish from a jar. From my southern Illinois grandmother, I got food that tasted just like Bob Evans's: soggy vegetables, rubbery bread and meat so overcooked it crumbled when you bit it.

I'd gone meat shopping a couple of days earlier with Tammy Wilson from Baristas, and I watched her hand-pick every pound of meat from the butcher's counter as he leaned through the window and told her it had just come in fresh. ''He gets most of his meats local,'' she told me. I wanted to find out the same sort of thing about the Bob Evans pork chop, so I called the folks in Columbus. Tammy Roberts Myers said she would be happy to trace my dinner for me, all the way from the animal to the table. But a couple of weeks later, she called to say that someone at headquarters had a change of heart. ''Sorry,'' she said. ''We can't tell you that, because it's proprietary information. What I can tell you is, it was on a farm somewhere at some point.''

I didn't start to understand the appeal of Bob Evans (for
other people, anyway) until I met Daisy and Wally Kendall.
They eat at Bob Evans nearly every day, sometimes more than once. They sit in a maroon vinyl booth giggling and finishing each other's sentences. When I asked why they eat at Bob Evans all the time, Daisy said: ''It's clean, and there are no surprises. I know what I'm going to get.''

Wally shrugged and said: ''People say, 'Why do you only go
to Myrtle Beach for vacation every year? Don't you want to
see somewhere else?' We never know what to say -- we tried
it, we know we like it, why risk spoiling our vacation somewhere new we might not like?''

When I asked other people why they chose Bob Evans over Baristas, most folks just smiled and shook their heads. One young woman told me her father doesn't like her eating at Baristas because ''it's like feeding your money to Satan.'' One regular said he didn't know why he ate at Bob Evans, but he thought it might have something to do with it being so consistent. ''I'm not big on change,'' he told me. ''That's why I'm voting for George W. It's just too dangerous to change stride now. It's best to leave well enough alone.''

One woman lowered her voice and whispered: ''Baristas'
problem is, they try to make fancy food. We're simple
people here. We don't like a lot of spices and stuff. A
little salt and pepper is good enough for us. You have to develop a taste for that fancy stuff, and we don't really want to.''

Another woman pointed to my pork chop dinner and said:
''You've got to remember, this is what we were raised on.
If people want to go into Baristas for a bean-sprout
sandwich, that's fine, but around here, we don't do that
sort of thing.''

In fact, Baristas' menu is full of traditional New
Martinsville food (hamburgers, grilled-cheese sandwiches, steaks, fried green tomatoes), and there isn't a bean-sprout sandwich in sight. But there are a few things on the menu that give some locals the creeps: hummus, pesto, eggplant, feta. The way they see it, Jeff's a local boy, and New Martinsville loves him, but that doesn't mean they're about to eat weird food in a restaurant that sounds as if it might as well be a brothel, what with all the drinking and massaging going on there.

Daisy and Wally have known Jeff Shade since he was a kid.
When I asked them why they'd never gone to Baristas, they looked at each other as if it had never occurred to them. ''We love Jeff,'' Daisy said. ''The only reason we haven't gone there is really just negligence.

''We were going to go there once,'' Daisy went on, ''but a
deer ran into the car.'' Then she paused. ''We really
should go sometime,'' she told Wally.

How about now, I asked. I'll go with you.

''Oh, no,''
they said in unison, then giggled. ''We're expecting a call from Wally's doctor later.''

Daisy and Wally have always been Bob Evans people, but they didn't start going daily until they came down with severe health problems -- lymphoma for Wally and serious respiratory problems for Daisy -- which they attribute to years of breathing in toxins while working at a local chemical plant. They got sick and weak, they couldn't cook and Bob Evans became their life. Daisy looked at me and
whispered: ''You know, the food here is wonderful. We've
never had a bad meal. But really, we don't come for the
food. We come for the people.'' She gestured around the restaurant. ''This is our social life.''

When I walked back into Baristas after a few days of
nothing but Bob Evans, I literally felt as if I had come
home. The walls were the exact shade of purple that I
painted my bedroom when I was a teenager, and these days my kitchen is maroon, just like Baristas' back dining area. One of my favorite Jayhawks songs was playing, and I sat down at the bar next to Gary, a former airplane-engine specialist who lives in an octagonal penthouse he built on top of an old hog barn.

I told him what I'd been doing, and he looked at me as if I were crazy. ''I can't imagine hanging out at Bob Evans every day,'' he said. ''I just find that place so . . . so . . . the same.'' I knew what he meant. I loved talking to Daisy and Wally and a few other regulars at Bob Evans, but I couldn't handle going in there every day. I'm a Baristas person to the bone -- just as Daisy and Wally are pure Bob Evans. The question is: Why? What makes them Bob Evans people and me a Baristas person?

Some of it is simple aesthetics: I think fresh food tastes
a lot better than frozen, and I want herbs instead of salt. Local art on colorful walls makes me happy, and fake old-fashioned teakettles make me sad. Mostly I love Baristas because of the buzz, the energy I feel when I'm in the midst of people who thrive on resisting predictability, like the Catholics who come to Baristas to hear Buddhist monks speak about reincarnation, or the Republicans who came in to meet the Kerry people who stopped by one night to stump.

Maybe I had an idea that I could convert people -- that I
could persuade some Bob Evans folks that they should be
open to change, that the food really was better at
Baristas; and maybe persuade some Baristas people that the
Bob Evans people are interesting and funny and friendly,
too. But in all my time shuttling back and forth between
the two restaurants, I didn't change a single person's
mind. At some point, it hit me: it's not just New
Martinsville. Bob Evans people and Baristas people live together all over the United States. They often go to the same stores and send their kids to the same schools, but try as they might, they simply can't understand why anyone in his right mind wouldn't eat the way they do, think the way they do and vote the way they do. Unfortunately, I'm not sure a burger can change that, not even a really, really good one.

Rebecca Skloot last wrote for the magazine about fish veterinarians. Her first book, ''The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,'' will be published in 2006.

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