Monday, May 24, 2010

More Drive-In Reminiscences

Let me preface this post by saying I'm absolutely sure today's drive-in concession stands offer clean, healthy food that meets the standards of the health departments in their townships.

But back in the late '70s, when I worked the snack bar at the Niles 31 Drive-In, it was another story altogether. I don't think we ever had anything like a health inspector come around, and hygiene training was nonexistent. Kids trained kids on how to prepare the food, and if one of the trainers gave incorrect information, it was passed along and snowballed.

I mentioned in an earlier post the re-grilled, re-bunned burgers and dogs, but that only scratches the surface of the horror. We actually would re-use the meats night after night until they just became too repulsive for even a bun to conceal.

The grill was damn clean, however. Every night, after the burgers were recooked, one of us would be put on grill duty. It was truly a punishment. You'd take a large, soft, smelly block of pumice and slo-o-o-w-ly scrape it across the still-hot surface of the grill until all the food fragments were removed. It had the same effect as scraping your fingernails across a blackboard. Plus, the aroma of the ancient beef would waft up into your nostrils even as your face blistered from the heat. No one ever vomited from it, which still surprises me to this day.

Also every night the manager would inspect the hot dogs and decide which ones to keep and which to pitch. Her criteria was pretty loose: If they were starting to get green, it was time to go. Otherwise, the shriveled, charred and bread-speckled specimens were put into new buns and new wrappers. I still shiver in horror when I look at those dogs sitting on the hot shelf at 7-11.

The frozen pizza actually wasn't too bad. It was frozen, of course, but it cooked up really nicely in that flat oven. The only problem was the price—$3.25! We lowly employees only got free soda and popcorn; everything else we had to pay for, so once or twice a week a couple of us would go in on a pie.

Speaking of popcorn, it was probably the safest thing to eat. At least it was made fresh daily, but you had to discount the fact that the oil we cooked it in was probably originally in the crankcase of the truck that brought the corn to the theater in the first place. Circle of life, eh?

And the frozen novelties didn't have a shelf life, did they? Hell, they were frozen all the time so they stayed fresh, right? But I can't tell you how many times angry patrons would come back in to return a Good Humor bar which, they discovered upon opening, had become a block of discolored ice on a stick.

And, of course, the restrooms fell under the concessionaires' purview, since they were—well, in the concession stand. They presented their own unique set of challenges. Let me paint a picture for you: imagine a high school senior, a bottle of Boone's Farm and a bucket of greasy popcorn. You get the picture. Keep the same picture in your mind when I tell you about cleaning up the parking lot after the last show. At least we got a bonus when we did that—and we got to wear rubber gloves.

I'd like to wrap up this post with a few more of those good old drive-in food commercials—they're always such a hoot. And even though time has faded the color on these prints, they surprisingly still provide an accurate representation of the food.

1. Coffee. I guess the '50s were big coffee drinking times. I mean, it's popular now, especially with the buzzed generation, but it seemed to be the perfect way to relax back in those days. That's right—sit in a cramped car for four hours and get amped on a nice, big cup of coffee.

2. Pizza. When I was a kid, going out to an Italian restaurant was an exotic, almost forbidden treat. The restaurants were always dark—the better to emphasize the Chablis bottle candleholders—and Louis Prima was always singing on the sound system. Frozen pizza at the drive-in was a cheap, easy way to add a touch of romance to any screening of Creature from the Haunted Sea.

3. Barbecue. Another good meat that could stand the test of time. You could re-heat and re-serve it night after night after night. And since it was cooked to death, it was always tender, even if it had once been little Billy's catcher's mitt.

Well, that's a wrap for this queasy trip down memory lane. Thank you for joining us this evening. And in consideration of others, please don't turn on your lights until you've reached the exit.

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