Thanksgiving with Alice

Thanksgiving has a uniquely American song, not the sort that Lincoln might have imagined when he inaugurated the holiday in 1863, but “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is revolutionary, irreverent and earthy; in short, as American as pumpkin pie.

“Now it all started two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the Restaurant, but Alice doesn’t live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog. This song is called Alice’s Restaurant, and it’s about Alice, and the Restaurant, but Alice’s Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant, that’s just the name of the song, and that’s why I called the song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.”

“I think a lot of people who are interested in food fantasize about having a restaurant,” Alice Brock writes in My Life As a Restaurant (1975). “I never did. I was twenty-five, married and crazy. I was a captive in a situation I had very little control over other than the role of cook and nag—being a hippy housewife was not satisfying. I had a world of fantasies; none included a restaurant, but all were based on the assumption that I would be my own person, on my own trip.”

Alice’s mother, who was a real estate broker in Stockbridge and determined to get her daughter out of her “situation”, called her one day and asked her to go with her and look at a little luncheonette for sale down an alley in the middle of town. “It had a counter down one side and three or four booths on the other side, and a tiny ill-equipped kitchen in the back,” Alice remembers. “It was painted two-tone institutional green, and it was definitely not the kind of place where I would eat, much less own. But it was a chance, a chance to escape. Before we left, I was hooked. I was already creating a menu, I was already free. Those moments, when suddenly an opportunity appears, a door opens—they are what life is all about.”

Alice called her restaurant “The Back Room”. “I knew nothing, absolutely nothing,” she admits. “I can’t believe how innocent I was. But it didn’t matter.” Opening night was a near-disaster, “a nightmare”, but she persevered, and soon she and her sister, who was also in a “situation”, were staying up all night cooking things she later wouldn’t consider for hundred-dollar-a-plate dinners and working five hours making thirty portions of some exotic soup that would vanish in twenty minutes the next day. “I was crazy, she said, “but I know that for all our unprofessionalism, we cooked some pretty wonderful dishes, and I established a reputation as a cook.”

The summer of 1966 was a magical time for Stockbridge; the Berkshire Playhouse had reorganized with an eye to becoming more than just a summer stock theater, attracting stars and would-be stars to the town. “Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman liked hamburgers with onion, green peppers, and an egg in them,” Alice writes. “Frank Langella was called ‘Mr. Mushroom Omelet’. Ann Bancroft was wonderful, and when her whole family came, I cooked giant meals; when they stayed late, she helped me clear the table.”

One spring morning a year after opening, Alice says that she walked through the front door and freaked out. “I felt that instead of owning it, it owned me. The plates were out to get me, the pots were planning an attack, the stove was laughing at me. I had a terrible urge to smash everything.” Instead, she called Eastern Airlines and booked a midnight flight to Puerto Rico, emptied the cash box and gave away all the food. “It was a wonderful restaurant. It was a success. I ran it for one year. It turned me into a madwoman. I made enemies of old friends. I broke up with my husband. I left my home. I had actually broken free and become my own person. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would never have another restaurant. Never say never.”

Alice Brock went on to open not one but several more restaurants; she now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she owns an art gallery. After Arlo premiered “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” before a captivated crowd of over ten thousand at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, 1967, he performed it live on non-commercial New York City radio station WBAI one night later that summer. The song became so popular that for months afterward WBAI rebroadcast it only when listeners pledged to donate a large amount of money. The eponymous (less the massacree) album was released that same year, with the song (at 18:20) taking up the entire first side, the other filled with a selection of bluesy folk tunes. The ballad has become a Thanksgiving tradition not only for classic rock stations, but for thousands of households across the nation.

Pride and Potatoes

One day as a boy, a friend and I dared to enter his father’s tool shed, where among implements such as hammers, saws, screwdrivers and girly magazines, we found a cabinet stocked with canned potato soup. When I asked why his daddy kept potato soup next to his chop saw, he said, “Momma won’t let him have it in the house.” I was puzzled at the time, but now I understand. You see, a man’s house may be his castle, but his tool shed is his home, a sanctuary for the masculine spirit and as inviolate to intrusion as a nunnery. A man may keep things there which have no place in the house, even something as seemingly innocuous as potato soup. Potato soup is neither good nor bad in itself; like Prince Hal, it is poor only in the company it keeps, and as is the case for so many of our foods, its company is often poverty itself.

Memories of hard times survived among the men and women of my parents’ generation; after the hard years had ended and victory in the Good War made them members of the most affluent society on earth, they found themselves living in a world that stretched far beyond the dirt roads many grew up on, and they were obliged to learn the difficult lessons a newly-acquired middle-class life required of them. For many, that meant ridding themselves of aspects of their lives that in this new world were not quite picture-perfect. And potato soup, to my friend’s mother, was not part of her perfect picture; it was Depression food, something people ate when they were poor and down on their luck. Now that they lived in town in a new brick house, had two cars in the garage, and she was secretary of the Twentieth-Century Club, potato soup —so simple, so basic, so very good—had been banished. Others hearkened back, as my friend’s father did, to those days when a family’s stature was reckoned by making do in the face of adversity. They also remembered—even as they trod the carpeted floors of the air-conditioned homes where their difficult children were growing into strangers in their midst—the foods they came to know in hardship. As children they may have been sent to school with a biscuit folded over a piece of fried streak-`o-lean, and coming home they often had soup made from the leftovers and whatever else they had on hand to feed many hungry people.

The foods you love best are often those of your childhood, and my friend’s father found the warmth of potato soup irresistible. I can still conjure up an image of this man sitting out in his shed and opening a can of soup, heating it on a little electric eye, eating it and thinking about his own momma standing at her wood stove in a pair of old slippers, her hair limp with sweat and tied up with a penny piece of ribbon, cooking the only thing she had to cook—potatoes—into a soup for her family. I can also imagine this man reminiscing upon this while his wife teetered around the kitchen in high heels, her hair lacquered into a $5 hair-do she had redone twice a week cooking store-bought stuff on an electric range. She probably remembered her momma in much the same way as her husband did his, but for my friend’s mother it was a bitter memory, and her efforts to obliterate that—to her mind painful—image of poverty extended to those around her. Bound and determined to eradicate whatever she felt was coarse or common about her and others, she sacrificed upon the altar of her misguided pride the very foods that she secretly loved and probably had learned how to make at her mother’s knee.

Potato Soup

For each serving (@ a cup and a half), take a large starchy potato, wash, peel and dice. Boil in enough water to cover. When almost tender through, drain—reserving liquid—and set aside. For each of two servings sauté a finely-minced small white onion and two cloves of garlic in a half stick of sweet butter. about two tablespoons sweet butter. To this, add liquid from the potatoes and boil until onions have broken down. Add potatoes and simmer, stirring occasionally, and adding liquid if needed, until the soup has a creamy consistency with soft chunks of potato. Salt to taste and season with crushed dill seed, rosemary and pepper—I like to use white. Add heavy cream and a pat of butter before serving. Serve hot.