Loving Poverty, for Fun and (Eventual) Profit

Pretty much sums it up. With credit and thanks to the Estate of Paul Ollswang.

I have had the good fortune of being a member of four families in my life: the one I was born into, the Alwaan housing co-op we started in Austin in the 1970’s, Mama’s Homefried Truckstop in the 1980’s, and my current marvelous family.  When I say ‘family’, I’m talking about people who have to forgive one another’s transgressions, because you cannot easily extricate yourself from each others grasp.  The first and last are more traditional models; the middle two are no less real, despite their brevity.

Without a doubt, the most pivotal time in my life was spent as a worker bee at the restaurant collective The Homefried Truckstop, formerly Mama’s Homefried Truckstop, in Eugene, Oregon.  Although I was only there a few years, it accomplished what families are supposed to; provide a safe environment to screw up in, and a launching pad to Bigger, Better Things.  There were about thirty of us, all roughly the same age, very few with kids or even marriages of our own.  A few had dogs.

I can’t tell you exactly when I started–time was a fluid concept back in those hippie days–but I know with some certainty when it ended, because I was there for The End.  That would have been February 28th, 1983.  How do I know, you ask?  Because that was the date that the last episode of MASH aired, and I remember several of us watching it on TV as the last remnants of the restaurant collective were being inventoried to hand over to the landlord, in lieu of our broken lease.  Such are the dubious benefits of living in the Information Age.

But while it was going, it was a family in a very real sense.  First of all, in its inclusiveness: our members included your usual garden-variety hippies and hedonists, mixed in with born-agains, Stewart Brand acolytes, ex-cons, Earth-Firsters, epileptics, composers, Hoedads, the polymorphously perverse, surly dykes, happy-go-lucky dykes, and dykes who it kind of depended on the day.

When I entered the Truckstop, I was a 25-year-old mess.  By the time I left two years later, I was a 27-year-old mess–but a much poorer one.  We had voted ourselves a $1.50/hour wage in the final weeks in a valiant but doomed effort to keep the beast afloat.

Still, the time spent there was crucial.  It was a time of Firsts: such as, First Great Heartbreak.  I’m not talking the high school puppy-love variety that quickly heals, oh no.  I’m talking about the kind where you become convinced that you have been dealt the world’s best hand, unbeatable; so you lay your cards on the table with a flourish and gaze expectantly into the eyes of your lover.  She appraises your cards coolly, shuffles her own back into the deck, and quietly departs.  That kind of heartbreak.

Another first: my big break with seven years of vegetarianism.  The Truckstop cooked meat, albeit grudgingly, and I was around it all day.  Finally, I succumbed with a meal of Chicken Alfredo I prepared myself.  And do you know what happened in the immediate aftermath of that first meat consumed in seven years?

Just the fullness and satisfaction of having just finished a delicious meal.  No hives, or chills, or sweats, or vomiting, or nausea, or sleeplessness.  Sorry, vegetarians.

A lot of what I know about cooking came from the Truckstop, because we got to do everything.  I was a breakfast cook, a dinner cook, and a pastry chef.  I came up with specials, sometimes inventing them.  And I invented Melburgers.

Melburgers, for those who don’t know (the entirety of the world’s population, less a few dozen people), are a vegetarian equivalent of a hamburger–no, they are better than hamburgers, because of the absence of grease.  I spent a lot of time tinkering until I came up with a burger mix that would hold up in hot oil and lend itself to bulk preparation.  I still have the recipe.  A more ambitious man would have parlayed it into a personal empire by now.  I think it’s stuck in some greasy, cobwebby binder around here somewhere.  I may search for it and post it at some point, if several hundred of you beg and send tax-deductible donations to the Austin Jazz Workshop.

The other great thing about the Truckstop was its commitment to live music, which happened twice a day, seven days a week.  Seems impossible to comprehend in this day and age, but live music was as essential to a shift as having a dishwasher.  And other than being primarily acoustic, the music ran the gamut: from local favorites like Eagle Park Slim and Rob & Laurie, to transcendent sounds of The Tree People and Banning Eyre, to classical guitar and jazz whizkids from the adjacent University of Oregon.  Not all of it was great; some was mediocre, and occasionally it was lousy.  But the sheer volume of it was something that just doesn’t happen much these days.

One day, it somehow fell to me to tell a particularly offensive flute player to pack up and go home.  I would like to think it’s because, even then, my collective colleagues recognized my sense of musical discernment.  But more likely, it was because I was a blunt hard-ass and everyone else was too much of a wussy.

So on his break, I let the guy know he should leave.  He became indignant and huffed at me, “Look, I’ve been playing flute for fifteen years.”

“You’ve been doing it wrong,” I replied flatly.

Not that I was any great shakes musically, at that point.  I still have a cassette tape around here somewhere recorded during our one and only Truckstop “Talent” Show (we used the term loosely).  At one point, I fearlessly took the stage armed only with a tenor saxophone and a pianist only slightly more adept than me.  At least he could find his way through a 12-bar blues progression.  The meandering saxophone solo that followed made the film Ishtar seem swift and sure as an arrow’s flight, by comparison.

But that was another pivotal moment.  Because even I had to admit, I really sucked.  And a few months later, when the Hindenburg–sorry, Truckstop–finally met its Waterloo (don’t strain, I’m not), I knew exactly what I had to do.  In the tradition of young men around the world confronted with a challenge, I called my parents and begged them to foot the bill for Music School.  The rest is history.

Now I have a wonderful family of the Nuclear variety–a tremendous wife of ceaseless (some would say saintly) patience, and two glorious daughters on the cusp of Finding Their Own Way.  I hope they can someday find something as nurturing, transitional, and low-paying as the Homefried Truckstop.

Order up!

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10 Comments

  1. WOW. Mel, this is SO well-written, and captures Mama’s Homefried Truckstop perfectly and vividly. (I think I was one of the happy-go-lucky dykes – um, right? – and I was certainly guilty of a shaky if heartfelt not-so-great music gig or two.) I remember working at the dish-sink, graduating to prep and Brek – and my two ill-fated shift waiting tables. Never was a gal so happy to retreat to a pile of dirty dishes! I think the customers were pretty psyched about it, too. During a busy Sunday brunch, an increasingly huffy neo-yuppie couple kept calling me away from my other tables and demanding to know where their omelette was, finally whining “I could make an omelette at home in three minutes!” My reply? “Well, go home and make one, then!” What, no tip? And back to the kitchen for me!

    Please tell me that:

    #1 – you have a lyric sheet – or a cassette copy – of the remake of “West Side Story” that we put on (“When you’re a Brek, you’re a Brek all the way, from your first plate of fries to your last scrambled egg… someone gets in the way, someones pancake gets burned!”)

    #2 – you have a copy of the gingerbread pancake recipe. I’ve tried to duplicate it. And I would LOVE a copy of the Mel Burger recipe, they were good!

    They were special days. I still have a coffee cup and a kitchen knife from the rescue before the final auction. RIP, Mama’s. You live on in our hearts. I was never so grateful to make $1.50 an hour.

  2. Heather, YOU are one of the most treasured dykes ever to grace the Truckstop. And I myself only remember having ONE shift as a waitron, climaxed by spilling a longneck all over myself and a a customer. Ready for prime time, I was not.
    Now, in answer to your two questions:
    1. I don’t have a lyric sheet, but I bet the tape is around here somewheres. A project for another day.
    2. I DID find the gingerbread pancake recipe, and a lot more besides (remember cream-cheese swirl brownies and Mexican wedding cookies?) Here are the proportions, to make 16 4-oz pancakes–so you may want to cut it down, or have a Pancake Party:

    Dry: (t=teaspoon)
    5 cups flour (type not specified, but probably unbleached white)
    4 t baking powder
    1 t baking soda
    2 t salt
    4 t cinnamon
    2 t ginger
    1 t allspice
    Wet:
    2 cups molasses
    4 eggs
    4 cup milk
    1 cup oil

    You know what to do!

    Much Love,
    MMel

  3. Thanks for the pancake recipe – and a pancake party sounds like a pretty good idea, actually. And oh yeah, the brownies! Yum!

  4. Charlie Tabasko

    Just found this site/entry. I was at Truckstop for many wonderful earlier years. Never understood how it went under since when I left everything was paid for. It was a great
    experience and one that doesn’t come again.ct

    • Thanks for your comment, Charlie. Don’t know exactly when you were there, but one thing that wasn’t paid for was the building itself. The Truckstop had a lease and paid rent. When the amount owed each month to the landlord exceeded the amount brought in by paying customers, dissonance ensued.

  5. Ah, thank you for this. In the seventies, I used to go to the Truckstop regularly with my best friend from high school, and we even sang there a couple of times. She passed away last month, and I had the urge to see what might still me out there on the interwebz about that legendary institution.

    Love your description. Brings back old times.

  6. Walter Fox

    Thanks for posting your memories. I started working at Mamas in Sept. of 1972 at the age of twenty and went through the transition of having three bosses Mary Lenny and one other woman whose name escapes me; to a collective about one year later. Kudos for the late Nancy Cambell and many others who gave so much energy and talent.

  7. Pamela Gartner

    So glad I found this! I was a student at University of Oregon and a frequent customer in the very early ’80s. So many amazing meals and fun times. MHFTS food inspired me to experiment with new flavors and ingredients, sparking a lifelong love of cooking. I’m so glad I got to be a part of all you did there 🙂 I, for one, would LOVE the Melburger recipe.
    Thanks for the memories!

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