Hannibal, Missouri, is a curious little place that derives significant tourist revenue from visitors wishing to see whatever it is there is to see that is even remotely related to Mark Twain, an author not unlike countless others who is probably more renowned than read.
As I recall from a trip my son and I made there on an overcast day in April of 1999, Hannibal was not much to look at. It was dank and a bit seedy—perhaps what one might expect of an almost-Southern, working-class river town—and the attractions that happened to be open in that pre-tourist time of year didn’t seem all that attracting.
Of the fifteen-or-so advertised attractions, we saw the sixteen feet that remain of the “30 yards of board fence nine feet high” that is commemorated with a plaque, and we slowed as we drove past Becky Thatcher’s handsome house, which begs the question: If Becky is a fictional character, why did she have a real house? And as long as we’re on the subject, who built that board fence? We passed on going to the Mark Twain Boyhood Museum that promised visitors they could “learn how Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain.” Apparently, there was more to it than the simple adoption of a nom de plume.
After scampering about on the somewhat-sacred Cardiff Hill, it was time for lunch and we were hungry. I drove the rental car down to the river’s edge, hoping to find something that might be inviting and un-touristy. And then we saw it: A long row of white-washed houses with calf-high flood stains interspersed with odd shops and second-hand stores. There was no mention of Mark Twain that we could see and in the middle of this block stood a hinged sandwich board on the sidewalk out front of a ramshackle, clapboard building with peeling white paint and frayed lace curtains hanging limply inside grease-smudged windows, flies lazily buzzing about the sill. The sign announced, in scrawled white chalk, “Pretty Good Food.”
That kind of honesty just isn’t the model for modern marketing and, not being much of a fan of modern marketing, I liked it, finding its message refreshing and drawing from its simplicity a certain reassurance. After all, how disappointed can you really be if the promise is merely “pretty good”? (I’m reminded of John Guare’s 1966 play, The House of Blue Leaves, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend will sleep with him because the sex isn’t so special, but won’t cook for him until they marry because she’s a really good cook.)
My notes don’t indicate a name for this restaurant. That could either mean that it didn’t have one, which perhaps isn’t so unlikely, or that it had such an unforgettable name that I figured I wouldn’t, well, forget it. Guess what?
The place boasted a décor that seemed right out of the 1950s: Formica-topped, chrome-edged tables surrounded by red vinyl-covered metal chairs; bad art prints in dusty, gilded frames hung on walls whose paint recalled mold. On each of the eight or so tables were Mason jars holding mismatched spoons, kitschy dispensers stuffed with paper napkins, and salt-and-pepper shakers commemorating some exotic notion of amusement that were no-doubt found at roadside curio shops that at one time served pecan pie and offered full-service gasoline. Greasy, color-coded plastic squeeze bottles of ketchup, mustard and tartar sauce stood inelegantly next to three or four bottles of different brands of hot sauces, as well as malt vinegar. It was like being at a garage sale where they fed you first.
The waitress was a woman whose considerable girth—muted somewhat by the well-worn terrycloth bathrobe she wore over a faded floral-print house dress—was no doubt attained by a steady diet of the pretty good food Daniel and I were about to eat. She seemed to never be without a coffee pot in her hand, even when she took our order, which really wasn’t an order at all since there was no menu and her loud announcement to the kitchen of our non-order was “two.”
“Coffee, hon?” she asked, pouring it before I could decline the offer. “Cream and sugar’s right there,” she said, nodding to the matching pair of porcelain cows on the table.
“I’ll get you an Aar-See, hon,” she told Daniel, whose 13-year life experience had yet to include Royal Crown Cola.
Two oval plates—platters, really; they were blue, I would discover toward the end of the meal—were delivered by the cook, a grizzled man with nautically themed arm tattoos and thin wisps of greasy hair whose slight build indicated that perhaps he ate somewhere else, if at all. The plates were piled high with breaded everything, except for the sweet-potato fries, the mustardy potato salad, the coleslaw (a creamy variety with shredded carrot, celery seed and cider vinegar), and a pile of bread-and-butter pickle slices.
The waitress, coffee pot still in hand, followed the cook with a paper-lined red-plastic basket of store-bought white sandwich bread and informed us that this was an all-you-can-eat kind of place.
“Be sure to save room for pie,” she advised, somehow making the word multi-syllabic. “Banana cream.”
The food was a glorious celebration of the deep-fryer, and it far exceeded the promise of “pretty good.”
The catfish (it had a slightly muddy quality that led me to suspect that the cook might have recently pulled it from the banks of the adjacent Mississippi River) was simply delicious and might have unleashed a flurry of French adjectives from big-city food writers. So too were the hushpuppies, the fried okra and the breaded-and-fried green tomatoes.
“Now,” I declared to Daniel, “this is home cooking.”
“Not at our house,” he noted.
Pretty Good Potato Salad
2 lb. red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1” cubes
2 ribs celery, minced
½ medium red onion, minced
½ cup mayonnaise
2 Tbsp. dill pickle relish
2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. yellow mustard
1 tsp. kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped (optional)
Put potatoes in a 6-qt. pot and cover with salted water by 1″. Bring to a boil over high heat; cook until just tender, about 12 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl along with celery and onions. In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, relish, parsley, mustard, salt, and pepper; add to potatoes along with eggs, if using, and toss. Chill.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska