Two or three times a year my family went on a shopping trip. Hayward, Wisconsin had a good assortment of retail businesses, but like most families living in the wilds of northern Wisconsin, we also ordered things from Sears and Roebuck, Montgomery Ward and Spiegel catalogs.
But when Mom wanted to get a new dress for church, she wanted to try it on, and if Rivkins or Abramson’s, Hayward’s two department stores, didn’t have one she liked, we headed to Ashland, Wisconsin, or Duluth, Minnesota. Dad felt the same way about boots and shoes. Though he didn’t find out until many years later, he had broken a bone in one foot when he was a boy, and he had a hard time finding footwear that was comfortable.
Ashland was the nearest “big” city. Over 11,000 people lived there, and the wide main street boasted a dozen stores specializing in men’s and women’s clothing. If Mom happened to see an advertisement for a big sale at one of the big department stores in Duluth, we drove the extra twenty-five miles to a really big city with over 100,000 people living on the hill overlooking Lake Superior.
There was always a shopping trip in August. I used to think it was just because we needed to buy “school clothes,” but the hot August weather may have been a factor. Both Ashland and Duluth enjoyed cool breezes from Lake Superior that gave us a day’s relief from the dog days of summer. Supporting that theory was the fact that nearly every summer, Dad would announce some evening, “Let’s go for a drive to Ashland this Saturday. Be a good time to do some shopping or fill a few jugs at the artesian wells.”
It was also a good time to stop at a cafe for lunch.
Dad and I always had hot beef sandwiches: Thinly sliced roast beef on “store bought” white bread and a scoop of mashed potatoes covered with brown beef gravy. One slice of bread was cut diagonally. Most of the meat was stacked on the middle slice of bread. The two triangle-shaped pieces on each side of the middle slice gave an elegant appearance and supported extra meat and the mashed potatoes. It was a heavenly lunch, especially with a bottle of pop to help wash everything down.
If you’re lucky, you can still find places that serve real hot beef sandwiches. On our last trip back from Kansas, Jerri and I stopped in Kearney, Missouri. Jerri asked the clerk at the gas station if she could recommend any restaurants besides the fast food joints that we all know and love. J.J.’s Homestead was the first one out of her mouth. “Turn right after you go under the Interstate,” she told us.
We would have saved a few minutes if she had told us to turn left on the first street after we drove under I-35, but after a short visit to a business development and a U-turn we arrived in front of “J.J.’s Homestead Homestyle Family Restaurant”.
Diets are forgotten when we are traveling. My policy is that we need plenty of nourishment to support us if we slide into a ditch along the Interstate. Chicken Fried Steak, one of my favorites when we are on a trip to Kansas, caught my eye on the sandwich lunch menu. Right below it, however, was a listing for Hot Beef, described as “Slow-roasted beef piled high on traditional white bread, served open-face, and smothered in our savory beef gravy.” I ordered the beef.
When he took our order, our server told us that J.J. referred to Jesse James, the famous outlaw who was born about two miles from where we were seated. It made the meal even more special for me, as I thought of old Grandpa Weingarten who told me he remembered the bank robbery that ended the crime spree of the James and Younger gang in Northfield, Minnesota, when he was a boy.
After finishing off a rather large serving of beef, potatoes and gravy on two very good slices of white bread, I complimented the young man on how good the beef was. He told us that on Mondays when they roasted the meat, customers commented on how good it smelled. It was a wonderful lunch that took me back to those days when we sat around an oilcloth-covered table in a comfortable restaurant and enjoyed a meal out. The major difference was that we sat in a booth and were served by a friendly young man with a tattoo on his arm instead of a friendly young woman with pigtails.
Hot roast beef sandwiches are easy to make and wonderful to eat. The recipe is simple:
Enough roast beef to make the number of servings you need
Two slices of ordinary (or “traditional” if you wish) white bread for each serving
1/2 to 3/4 cup of mashed potatoes for each serving
Plenty of beef gravy
Slice the beef thin. Heat the meat, potatoes and gravy. Cut half the slices of bread diagonally to make triangles. Put a full slice of bread slightly to the left of center on the plate. Place a triangle of bread on each side. Pile beef on the center slice, allowing a little to fall on the triangles. Put a big scoop of mashed potatoes to the right of the beef. Smoother everything with gravy.
NOTES: If you don’t have enough leftover gravy, you can make more in a few minutes: Make a roux by melting four tablespoons of butter in a skillet. Stir in four tablespoons of all-purpose flour and cook it over moderate heat until it turns medium dark brown. Season the roux with a quarter teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, dashes of celery salt and basil. Carefully blend two cups of beef broth into the roux and cook three or four minutes, stirring constantly, until it is smooth and thickened. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
If you want a darker gravy, you can stir in a little brown gravy sauce.