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I Like Onions with My Potatoes

by Dick Lehman

Third Street is a one-way street going south out of Goshen, Indiana. A few blocks past the courthouse on the southeast corner is a little restaurant called the County Seat Café. When Freda bought the restaurant some year ago, it was possible to sit at any of the seven tables or ten barstools and, looking through the huge plate-glass window, have a wonderful view of the county courthouse. That was one of the reasons she named her place the County Seat Café. But that was also before the industrial dry-cleaning company across the street expanded by adding a second story to the building. Now you can't even se the cupola or flag on top of the courthouse.

The owners of the dry-cleaning business still eat at the café each day. They were the butt of a lot of good-natured ribbing during construction. Freda (her friends call her "Fritz") even threatened to rename the café for the "new-and-improved" view that they had erected. But the teasing was always amiable. And I sense Fritz knew that whatever was good for their business or the town's would be good for hers too.

Still, it's really a shame not to be able to see the courthouse anymore. It's a Midwestern classic: manicured lawn, war memorial, fountain, maple leaves shimmering in the breaths of breeze, three stories of newly sandblasted concrete and red brick, clock tower and, of course, cupola and flag. You used to be able to see all of this from the County Seat Café.

Fritz won't change the name, of course. Besides, the café hasn't change inside: It is still the sort of place where you can order "Aunt Beulah's Coffee Cake" and know for sure that Aunt Beulah really made it. You can still hear the curious mix of low German and English (they call it "Dutch") spoken by the Amish and conservative Mennonite "regulars" as they down a big breakfast of fried mush and head cheese (syrup on the fried mush, please). Each summer Lenny picks enough elderberries for a couple of pies. He give the berries to Fritz; she makes the pies, gives one to him and sells what's left.

Early each spring Gordy brings in his first ripe tomato of the season - usually before the rest of us have even planted ours.

Those of us who work at the pottery here in town usually start off Monday morning with a breakfast at Freda's. The Monday special is two pancakes (your choice of buttermilk or buckwheat) for 98 cents. Coffee is extra. But you can get peanut butter to go with the syrup at no extra charge. I always order the pancakes with peanut butter. After breakfast we take a few minutes to size up the week, then make some plans for what we hope to get done.

I seldom go to the County Seat except for Monday breakfast. But once in a while I get there for lunch, and because they serve breakfast all day, I have occasionally ordered eggs and potatoes. Once or twice, when Fritz wasn't too busy, I asked her to fry in a few onions, because I like onions with my potatoes. Fritz never forgets.

Several months ago the pottery had scheduled a special 36-hour wood-firing. I was due out at the kiln site to take my shift of stoking at 5:30 that morning, so I stopped at the County Seat Café for a hearty breakfast beforehand. I was amazed to find the place completely packed. In fact, only one seat, tucked away in a corner, was available. It was Thursday, and the breakfast special was eggs and potatoes. I was running a bit late, and there were 13 orders hanging above the grill ahead of mine. I ordered, but decided not to ask for the onions, figuring we were both too busy.

I had just finished my first cup of coffee when my order arrived, complete with grilled onions on the potatoes. I couldn't catch Fritz's eye until I was leaving. "How did you know?" I asked. "You didn't even see me come in."

"Oh, I don't miss very much," she smiled.

Last Monday, I went in early to our breakfast meeting. I had some bookwork to do. Fritz wasn't at the grill when I arrived so I slipped up the stairs to a newly remodeled room that had just been added to this tiny café. The only contact between this room and the grill is a small hole in the wall through which the waitress passes the order, as she rings a bell. When a bell from the other side announces the order's completion, the waitress takes the food as it is pushed back through the opening. (The whole arrangement has a curious, primitive, slow-motion vending machine feel to it: You put something in a slot, push a button..later the food slides out to you.)

Well, it was early; it seemed a long time until lunch. I decided on eggs and potatoes, foregoing my usual pancakes. But I forgot to order the onions. By the time I remembered, the order had long since been passed through the hole, no doubt already started.

You probably know what I am going to say next. When my order arrived, there were the onions with my potatoes.

Fritz's daughter Stacy, home on holiday break from a Chicago college, was at the cash register when I went to pay for my meal. She had a smirk on her face."

"How did she know?" I asked.

"Well," she said, "Fritz knew it was Monday, and she also knew it was too early for you to be here, and she knows that you get pancakes with peanut butter, but she told me, 'Just go up the stairs and peek around the corner to be sure this isn't an order from Dick.'"

After paying my bill, I went back up and left a bigger-than-usual tip, then looked for Fritz. "I suppose you keep track of all your customers' food preferences?" I kidded.

"I try to. And their names too," she added. "I always try to remember their names."

"How many breakfasts do you serve each day?" I wondered aloud.

"Oh, I suppose about 400, roughly."

"And the same people aren't here every day," I observed.

"No, and there's lunch too, you know."

"How do you do it, Fritz?"

"Oh, I just work at it," she replied.

As I drove back to my studio I tried to extricate myself from the horns of the indictment that I felt: I do not remember very many of my customers' names. I remember even less about their product or color preferences.

I tried to give myself excuses for my own unpolished memory: I have more customers than she. (Maybe not.) I have three other people to supervise. (She has five.) I work long hours. (She comes in at 3:30 in the morning and works until 3:00 each afternoon.) I have better things to do than to remember all that - I have pots to make. (She runs the grill and makes almost every food order.) I have galleries to service. (She does catering.) I have my own vision as an artist that I need to follow. I have my career to develop; I haven't time for such things. (Two weeks ago Fritz mentioned an opportunity she has to manage an additional restaurant.)

The indictment of her "just working at it" stayed with me. But so also did the warm feelings of inclusion, the feeling of special attention, and the feeling of being cared for that I experienced when she remembered something so simple, so innocuous as frying some onions with my potatoes. But she always remembered!

Maybe Fritz's café is Goshen's equivalent of television's Cheers - "where everybody knows your name." I certainly recognize my own feelings of loyalty toward a business that treats me with such attention and respect. I'd like my business to be that kind of place, too.

I am going to care a bit more this year. Like Fritz, I'm going to try to "just work at it" a little harder.

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the December 1992 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

© Dick Lehman, 1992. All rights reserved.