I’ve always loved eating out. When I was a kid, it was something we rarely did.
Low-income families don’t have money for unnecessary expenditures. Meals were either at home or not at all. Or, if we were lucky, my mom might prepare picnic foods that could be easily transported, it would go into the car along with the dog, and off we’d go, looking for a nice park with a tad of shade.
The first time I remember eating at a counter was at a drug store in Dayton, Ohio. My mom and I had taken the bus into town in order to see an eye doctor. After finding out that I needed glasses, my mom decided to treat me.
There were colorful balloons floating above the register. The clerk asked which one I wanted. It was tough choosing. Red? Blue? Green? I don’t recall which I selected, but once I’d decided, the clerk popped the balloon. Inside was a coupon for a free banana split.
My eyes grew wide as the clerk layered ice cream and toppings on the split banana, then topped it off with tons of whupped cream and three cherries. It was the most delicious thing I’d ever had.
The following week we returned after picking up my new glasses. Balloons still floated. I still got to choose. I told the clerk I was wishing for another banana split. I crossed my fingers as she punctured the balloon.
I didn’t get that split, but instead won a milkshake! Oh, it was difficult choosing the flavor as I’d never had one of those before.
One time my family was traveling to Kansas. When it was time for dinner, my dad stopped at a large restaurant. It was so big inside and so noisy, that I was awestruck. We each got a tray, then slid it along rails, looking at the foods on the other side of a glass barrier.
My dad carefully monitored what we got. I remember jello, bread, and soup. Those weren’t all that I wanted, but I had to be satisfied.
Much later I realized it was cafeteria style, meaning that we were charged for each item.
My dad was a semi-professiional bowler who traveled all over the Midwest in order to participate in tournaments. Most of the time he went alone, but sometimes the whole family would go. We’d always bring our own food, but there was one time when we stopped at a Bob’s Big Boy.
The large statue of a boy standing on the roof imposed me so much so that every time since, when I’ve seen that same boy, I’m filled with warmth.
It’s weird that I remember those few times that my family didn’t eat a homemade meal. But when it’s special, when it’s unique, impressions are made that aren’t easily forgotten.
Once I started working and earning my own money, I did eat out a few times, usually at fast food chains. Not the healthiest choices, but they were choices I made, not ones forced upon me.
As a parent, I tried to treat my kids to meals every now and then. If I had enough money, I’d join them, but if not, I’d enjoy watching them devour burgers and fries, tacos and beans.
My husband and I love date days in which we see a movie and enjoy a lunch out. Sometimes it’s chili dogs and fries, sometimes a deli sandwich, and if we’ve got a coupon, a nice meal at a sit-down restaurant.
I don’t recall those meals, not like the ones from my childhood. What lingers is the joy, the time together, the essence of the meal.
Eating out is something that I still look forward to, something I truly enjoy.
There will come a time when I won’t be able to leave home, wherever that may be. I’ll be infirm, perhaps both mentally and physically, not able to understand or digest restaurant foods.
Meanwhile I continue to look forward to sitting at a table not at my home, eating foods prepared in a kitchen that’s not mine, shared with someone I love.