Sunday, July 13, 2008

signs of old times

We visited my in-laws over the weekend. Whenever we get on the road headed in that direction, I start to think about my all-time-favorite hamburger joint, The Chicken Oil Company, located just up the road from Texas A&M University campus.

It was a gas station originally. Little by little, over a period of 40 years, sections and levels were added, all in keeping with the original "architecture" that would be officially known as as "old shack."

.....................Above the ordering counter, you can see the original exterior
........................shed roof that used to surround the old gas station.

These days it looks like it has served as a restaurant forever. Hundredss of authentic, rusty metal motor oil and gasoline signs dating back to the 1940's and 50's: Magnolia, Kendall, Havoline, Sinclair. Many, like this Mobil sign, located directly above a row of old leather saddles, seem to say don't get too comfortable. Your mode of transportation will become obsolete. With gas prices as they are, I sure hope so.

A taxidermist's dream, this place, with antlers and game mounted up high everywhere you look. Deer, elk, moose, buffalo, havalina, bob cats, jackalopes, raccoons, possums. They all look down, baptizing your meal with their silent gaze. I imagine they're thinking, if they have to end up stuffed on somebody's wall, "Chicken Oil" is a great place to hang.

And beer signs. Lots of beer signs.

License plates from all over the country are tacked up in a line on one wall, my favorite being the out of state glamour plates donning "Aggie," donated no doubt by some South Carolinian or Georgian who reluctantly surrendered their most public claim to their home state.

Then there's the beer can shelf housing every brand of beer can known to Texas, domestic and international. Or at least, every brand that can fit on the 20 x 8 feet of space allotted. In true Texas style, not too many international labels.

The tables, every last one of them, are covered in hand carvings: the traditional initials and sentimental "I heart Katies." But also state names such as MICHIGAN, first and last names in full. It's all sanctioned, encouraged in fact, by the owners. Each of my kids have their initials on a table, somewhere in the place. I can't remember which table, exactly.

We sat after our meal looking around while the kids played video games, digesting our lunch (thinking I could eat another burger!) and taking in the rustic details. SAM kept saying, "everytime I come here I see something different."

But when it comes to ordering, SAM and I always get the same thing: a burger and fries. Delivered in one of those cheap, colorful plastic baskets, lined with paper.

For my burger: mustard and pickles only. This time, however, I ordered mine a little different. Quite possibly a sign that I've finally and officially shed my northeast palate and exchanged it for true Texican: mustard, pickles and japs. Jalapeno peppers, that is. Lots of 'em. You're looking at SAM's burger, above, by the way. No lettuce and tomato on mine, thanks.

Here's a burger, below, (courtesy google) loaded with japs.

I wondered as I sat there looking around, why I like this beat up, dive of a burger joint so much. What is it about looking at all the old, in some cases forgotten memorabilia that I find so appealing? It shows that time is noone's friend, afterall. It shows us that in two generations, that which we know changes and disappears from the landscape. Not so pleasant to think about.

Maybe the answer has exactly to do with the rapidly changing times we live in. That it's comforting to be in the presence of familliar momentos, to surround ourselves with a roadmap of where we've been since we can't see the road to where we're going. Or maybe its the old memories these sights conjure up. Takes us back to simpler times. The Kendall motor oil sign, for example, reminds me of the auto parts store in my neighborhood when I was four years old. Big and round, it hung, suspended on a metal arch.

My older brother and I would walk down to the auto parts store, pennies in hand to put in the gumball machine. Nothing beat the clink of the coin, the turn of the metal dial, the anticipation, waiting to see which color would be delivered into our waiting hands, fingers curled just so to catch it, steady eye on that little trap door.

Or, maybe the answer has to do with the burgers. Plain and simple. Damn good burgers.


bluemountainsmary said...

or is it our age? Are we at an age where nostalgia is pleasant rather than boring. Where looking backwards for a minute takes us away from the day to day.

Or maybe it is just the burgers. Which look magnificent.

It is ridiculous how much I love these posts. Maybe I was American in another life!

phd in yogurtry said...

mary - thanks for saying so, that you like these posts. I woke up this a.m. feeling blogger's lament, "I got philosophical about hamburgers?!"

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

It's such a comfort to return to the same place year after year.

e. beck said...

i ate that same exact hamburger and fries last night for dinner .... same basket ... same paper ..... different state .....

stephanie (bad mom) said...

Let me tell you, I still cannot drive past the place where my hometown burger place was (I even worked there in college; it was razed for a fricking bank 8 years ago); it makes me weepy for the simple goodness it provided.

Thankfully there is a cool old place in our new town - their burger baskets look a lot like yours at Chicken Oil Co. If Top Burger gets torn down, I might just fall into a sobbing heap...

phd in yogurtry said...

jenn - that, too, yes. Its nice when "some things never change."

ebeck - but was there a jackalope looking over your burger?

stephanie - there's something about a good hamburger that's satisfying like no other food. I could maybe become a vegetarian if there was a hamburger exception.

Stacie said...

I know what you mean about hanging on to yesteryear. I think that's why I can spend hours in second hand stores...somehow, in my silly mind, I think it was better then.

phd in yogurtry said...

stacie - there was a poll in the paper today, more than 50% think modern times are much worse than "the past" .. which I tend to think is a general feeling of most people older than 35 or 40. Or certainly as we push toward senior years.

nostalgia -- always we remember the fond memories.

Kelli Busey said...

I wasnt born here but I got here as quick as I could~ Fav T shirt. I miss ole' iron sides, the sound of long island waves, the anticipation and fear as we cross "the Race" into the relative calm of the open ocean. But I couldn't now imagine life without that sweet musty dew drenched prairie morning air and Texans!

phd in yogurtry said...

kelli - I'm a reluctant texan. Definately didn't hurry to get here. Got here because of a man, stayed here because of a different man. But now that I'm firmly rooted in the city of my choosing, I love it. Really wouldn't want to live anywhere else.