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Mac's: Meditations on Change (long)

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Mac's: Meditations on Change (long)

andy huse | Apr 3, 2002 03:35 PM

Mac’s, 1900: A Meditation on Change

You walk into a small restaurant in Tampa, Florida in the year 1900. It is little more than a wooden shanty. You sit down at a small wooden table and a server approaches. There is no menu. Instead, the server tells you what Mac, the cook, is making. “Beef roast, fried chicken livers or oysters.” There are no pizza, burgers, tacos hot dogs or subs to be found—no one in Tampa has heard of such things—just what Mac is making. You tell the server you would like the beef.

The server nods and asks, “anything to drink?” You already know that the water will smell of sulphur, like rotten eggs, so you ask for milk. “We’re all out,” comes the reply, “the milkman didn’t make it today.” It is too early for whiskey, the drink of choice for many male diners, and soft drinks like Coke can be scarce and expensive. You decide to endure the smelly water. You wait for your food and watch some rough longshoremen play cards and gargle rum at a nearby table. There is no jukebox or electric lights. The heat outside is made worse by the wood-burning stove in the kitchen.

As your order reaches the kitchen, Mac is set in motion. He runs the kitchen—there isn’t room for anyone else. He wipes clean the pan he just fried chicken livers in. He chops some meat off of a slab of beef he keeps cool by storing it in his ice chest. Fortunately, the ice man made his delivery. Mac puts a few fresh vegetables—whatever he has around—in the cast iron pan. Today, he has carrots, potatoes and onions. Before he begins cooking, he checks the fire in the stove. It is getting too cool. Mac stokes the fire and adds more wood.

He cooks the beef and vegetables in the pan with some lard. After stirring them for some time, he must make the gravy. He adds flour and water, a little at a time, until the mixture turns brown and thickens. He adds a bit of salt and pepper and then puts the pan in the oven. Then he waits, and so do you. By this time, you have been waiting about 30 minutes for your lunch. You begin to wonder if it really is too early for whiskey and cards with the longshoremen. Mac leaves the kitchen to join the card game, chomping on a Tampa-made cigar.

After another thirty minutes, Mac rises from his seat and goes back into the kitchen. He puts some Cuban bread into the oven and waits for a couple minutes. Then, after one hour of listening to the cursing gamblers and your growling stomach, Mac himself puts the plate of beef roast in front of you with some toasted Cuban bread. After dabbing the sweat from your face, you dig in. It’s good—Mac knows how to cook. The beef is a little tough and the potatoes undercooked, but it’s good. At least it doesn’t taste rancid, like the stuff Pete often serves down the street.

You pay the server for your meal, which isn’t cheap—15 cents. Pete is cheaper, but he serves bad meat. Total wait for your meal: One hour.

Mac made the food just like mom did at home. He doesn’t have a deep fat fryer. He doesn’t have an electric stove, a refrigerator, running water or a soda machine. It’s just Mac and his son Danny with a wood burning stove and a small icebox. He spends all his money in the mom and pop suppliers nearby.

He gets his meat from the Scarcella brothers down the street. His bread comes from the Lopez bakery every day. Milk and ice is delivered by horse-drawn wagon. Vegetables come from northern Hillsborough County, where Mac’s brother has a farm. The smelly water comes from a nearby well. Only the soda, whiskey and rum are imported: soda pop from Georgia, whiskey from Tennessee, and rum from Cuba. Upon special request, Mac also has moonshine made by a friend inland. Mac bought the small piece of property with money loaned by his father-in-law. He makes all his money from the hardscrabble workers of Tampa. Women are discouraged from eating there.

If Mac could visit a 21st Century Tampa fast food chain, he would find the experience as exotic and unsettling as you would find your dining experience at his place. He wouldn’t see anyone cooking. The menu has overwhelming choices, but all the food looks the same and the menu never changes. Women are everywhere, and children run about playing with plastic toys that came with their meals. The workers themselves aren’t much older than children. The kitchen is noisy, not with banter and clanging pans, but with beeping deep fat fryers, buzzing shake machines and whirring microwave ovens. Everything is so bright and cool, and everything is disposable. Half the building is made of glass. People stand in line impatiently, only to receive their food moments later. Growling cars, bumper to bumper in the “drive-thru” encircle the building. Grumpy drivers call their orders into a voice box while headsets transmit the order to cashiers. The system seem efficient, but patrons languish in their cars for a long time to collect their orders. The restrooms have plenty of running water, hot and cold even. There is only soda pop to drink—and no whiskey or rum can be found. No men playing cards. In fact, nobody talks much, unless it is into their tiny cell phones.

All the food comes from factories far away, scientifically engineered to taste a certain way. Little or nothing is bought locally. A struggling franchisee rents the property from a large corporation—so large that Mac would have little to compare it to. He thought railroad and oil companies of the turn of the century were big. Nobody seems to own anything, and few make a living off the restaurant.
Mac shakes his head and walks out. Perhaps he could find some chicken livers somewhere. luckily, he spies a place called Mac's that isn't crowded and looks dirty.

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