• Otter Views: Blue Plate Special

    History and 26-cent apple pie beckoned this week from Big Sur, where the River Inn has been celebrating year 80 in its present configuration. Curious and hungry, I drove down there Monday afternoon for one of “Esther’s Blue Plate Specials.”

    The drive was as serene as the November sky. Black cattle grazed in pastures just starting to green after Halloween’s rains. Pico Blanco’s bald head overlooked the majestic coast, the serpentine road, and a Pacific as flat and still as a mirror. Travelers at cliff top turnouts posed for silhouette photos against a pearly sunset.

    As a Big Sur rookie, I need markers to gauge my progress. When the painterly white horse barn at Andrew Molera flashes past, I know to look next for a lofty grove of roadside redwoods. The River Inn will be up around the bend.

    No banners herald the Inn’s 80th year, but through Friday the restaurant’s glossy wood tabletops display commemorative cards. These picture the bespectacled former proprietress Esther Ewoldson bearing a dish of something like potato pancakes. A paper label propped deli-style in the dish identifies it as “fried mush with gravy.”

    I think that’s what it says. The lettering in the photo is a little blurry, and, these days, so am I. In addition, the dinner lighting in the River Inn’s main room is attractively subdued. A small candle atop three artfully stacked stones flickers on each table. Tiny rafter-mounted gallery lights beam down amid crescents of red fabric.

    While this soft, rosy lighting may flatter us of craggy aspect, it makes Esther’s block printing hard to discern in the photo. Was there really something called “fried mush with gravy?” The photo is from 1943, so it’s possible all other available foodstuffs had been consigned to the war effort. But Esther also shows a trace of a smile. Could she be in on some long-ago Big Sur joke?

    If Esther really did serve fried mush with gravy, it might have been fun to include that as one of this week’s specials. But there were only five nights, so maybe fried mush didn’t make the cut. On Monday when I dined there, a fiery Big Sur goulash and a tidy mixed-green salad arrived on the blue plate.

    This was to be followed Tuesday night by the open-face roast beef sandwich. Wednesday’s special was spaghetti and meatballs; Thursday’s was meat loaf. If you’re reading this on Friday, you can catch the pan-fried Pheneger Creek Trout after 5 p.m. today.

    In a nod to bygone pricing, all blue plate entrees are a bargain $5. During the promotion, a slice of the River Inn’s venerable granola-crust apple pie costs an additional 26 cents. You can also order from the regular dinner menu, but then you’re paying 2014 prices.

    The apple pie first baked and served in 1934 by former proprietress Ellen Brown gave the inn its first name: “Apple Pie Inn.” While savoring my slice, I gazed again at the photo of Brown’s successor, the mush-frying Esther Ewoldson, whom the week’s specials honor.

    I wondered about Esther, of course – her life and trials, her knowing grin, her long tenure at a restaurant often threatened by its flooding namesake river. But principally, I wondered about the blue plate special. Where is that from? And why is the plate blue?

    On this, Wikipedia proves surprisingly unforthcoming. The entry notes that the blue plate special was a popular bargain-priced meal throughout America from the late 1920s through the 1950s, when the custom began to fade. The traditional special supposedly boasted “a meat and three” (sides) and was served on a crockery plate divided into four sections. In the Depression, it was said, the blue plate special offered down-at-the-heel diners “a square for two bits.”

    The special was supposed to be served on a blue plate, and the River Inn honors this precedent. But Wikipedia falters in explaining the color choice. One contributor suggests blue crockery was the most abundant Depression-era option. Another serves up the idea that the blue derives from a mock “Blue Willow” pattern manufactured cheaply in that era.

    Or maybe the diners themselves were blue. The special’s heyday was the Great Depression, after all. From our perspective, two bits sounds like an incredible deal for “a meat and three,” but it was only a deal only if you had the 25 cents.

    Lingering over my 26-cent, circa 1934 apple pie, I experienced a bout of cognitive dissonance. With its massive stone fireplace, dark beams and aged, softly burnished wood, the dining room could have been the same one where Esther served her mush. But in one bright corner, the Steelers and the Titans were playing on Monday Night Football.

    Almost too suddenly, I was back in the future.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 21, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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