Maid-Rite

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The Midwest knows slop. We exalt it; place it upon a porcelain pedestal; squeeze it for every ounce of grease it’s got. Burgers… hot dogs… French fires… mozzarella sticks… sounds like a well-rounded diet, doesn’t it?

Other regions sway a little more to the pretentious side. New York eats pastrami, which is like from Turkey or something. Philadelphia subs use steak, a premium cut of meat. And get this: at the legendary Pink’s Hot Dogs in Los Angeles, they sell Marth Stewart Dogs and Rosie O’Donnell Dogs.

Can you believe it? It’s basically an affront to our morals.

Meanwhile at Maid-Rite, an Iowa institution, they’ve even dispensed with the pretensions of a hamburger patty. That’s right, a Maid-Rite is a “loose-meat sandwich”.

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What? You wanted your meat to stay together in a recognizable shape? Too bad. At Maid-Rite, they plop a heaping helping of finely chopped ground beef on a steamed bun, add a few condiments (like mustard, onions, and pickles), and call it a day. The only nod to convention is a spoon, provided so you can scoop up all the good stuff that spills off the bun.

Hey, it’s hard to argue with tradition.

Maid-Rite goes all the way back to 1926, when a humble butcher in Muscatine, Iowa, had a dream for a better sandwich. He experimented with different spices and cuts of meat until he found what he believed to be the perfect combination of slop. The butcher, Fred Angell, served his pièce de résistance to a deliveryman and was told that his “sandwich is made right”.

And like that, a chain was born. A convenient, almost impossible to believe story, but we’ll give Maid-Rite the benefit of the doubt here. They sure aren’t changing their tune anytime soon.

Not that I’d want them to. Maid-Rite’s strength is its dedication to the old ways. At the Maid-Rite in Marshalltown, believe it or not, they only recently made ketchup available. It just wasn’t done before. Ketchup was, for some reason, labeled as a cheap, sacrilegious sauce by the Marshalltown tribunal of elders. There was no room for debate.

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“Would you like any ketchup?” the cook at the Cedar Falls Maid-Rite asked us. “It’s homemade.”

“Sure!” Molly said.

I turned to her in astonishment.

“Homemade ketchup? That sounds pretty cool! I’ve never seen that somewhere before.”

“Here you go!”

The cook squeezed the bottle and out popped a red string, straight onto Molly’s shirt black and white shirt. The cook, a gray-haired lady, had probably done the gag a thousand times before, but still she burst out into laughter.

“I’m just playin’ with ya. Here’s the real ketchup. Sorry, it’s not homemade.”

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That story is yet another reason why the Cedar Falls Maid-Rite, quite simply, kicks ass. Long before your beef falls off the bun, you know you made the “right” decision. It’s a real throwback to the diners of yesteryear, a little red and white cottage with a beautiful round Coca-Cola sign on the roof. Inside, there’s a long counter with red seat covers and big windows overlooking the street,

If you pop in on a Saturday morning, like I did, you’ll probably see a bunch of venerable old dudes in flannel talking shop and reading newspapers. All they have to do is grunt and they get their order, the same thing every time.

“So how’d ya like your sandwich?” Our waitress asked as I took another sip of my black, black coffee.

“Well… what can I say, it was just made right.”

Another waitress starting heir shift burst out laughing.

They must share tips.

Hell, Michigan

If there was a leader board for the top Michigan tourists, I’d probably be #1. Well, maybe not in dollars spent, but in time and enthusiasm? Yes. How many tourists visit cities like Burton or Fraser, suburbs of Flint and Detroit, and enjoy it?

Just me, I think.

There were a few cities and parks that got away from me. Places I’d wanted to visit, but then ran out of time and money.

One was Hell, Michigan. But not anymore. I, too, can join the ranks and say, proudly, that “I’ve been to Hell and back”. It’s ready-made for writers like me, a cutesy roadside stop with a colorful name and history. We spit out articles about it way more than we should.

Because, honestly, it’s not worth your time. Yes, that’s right – I said it – Hell, Michigan is a waste of time. There’s a cheesy Halloween-style gift shop and an ice cream shop with generic Hershey’s ice cream. Oh, and a bar and a small, ugly chapel for spontaneous shotgun weddings. That’s about it.

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Bruin Lake. (Photo by Al.)

OK, maybe that’s harsh. I did have a hangover, so maybe that discolored my view. I was “camping” with some old buddies on Bruin Lake, in Pickney. You know how modern camping goes – you pitch a tent outside your car, get drunk, and use and abuse the convenient restroom facilities. That’s getting back to nature, and let me tell you, I put back my share of wine, beer, and liquor.

Not that I’m proud of it. I just don’t know how to hang out in a drunk crowd sober. I’m always the fish out of booze.

… Anyway, point is, that was my frame of mind. The crazy twist and turns on the way there probably didn’t help. I wasn’t in the mood for a roller coaster of a two-lane road, but there’s only one road to Hell. 

To make matters worse, parking was very difficult, as the lot was overcrowded with rugged biker types. Beards, ponytails, patches, and Harley-Davidson belt buckles – the whole nine yards. The real deal. Which was actually kinda cool, and funny – that they’d all drive out to the middle of nowhere for a family-friendly tourist trap, just because it’s in “Hell”.

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Screams Ice Cream, at least, looked nice, with weathered wood and a false front right out of the Ol” West. They were even barbecuing out front. The big sell was that the ice cream was hand-dipped, meaning they scoop out the ice cream by hand. As opposed, I guess, to using a robot or a machine.Basically, it’s a fancy way of saying that you don’t use soft serve.

The different toppings, arranged neatly in a coffin, were fun, with names like “bat droppings” and “ghost poop”. I sprinkled with a liberal hand. There wasn’t much to see. The gift shop was what you’d expect. T-shirts, pens, and skull-themed everything.

Bah humbug.

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The trip ended with a troupe of surly chick bikers asking a friend of mine, a girl, to take their picture. They posed, all smiles, against a wall. Then they shanked us.

No, I’m kidding. We made it out of Hell alive and well. Bikers are nice. Loudmouths, but nice.

You’re probably wondering how Hell got its name, anyway. Legend has it that when George Reeves, a successful businessman in the 1800s with his own mills, tavern, and distillery, was asked to name the community budding around his investments, he answered with some variant of, “Call it Hell for all I care!” So they did. That’s the most common story, though there are others.

If the Hell I saw was any indication, chances are Reeves would agree that the moniker fits more than ever.