Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ekelhafte Nostalgie

The year 1957 was a significant one for the Warsaw Pact nations. It was the year the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into space. It was also the year a new East German car, the Trabant debuted and was named in honor of Sputnik’s success. “Trabant” means satellite in German, but it also means companion, and starting in 1957, the Trabant would be a ubiquitous companion to the East German worker for the satellite Earth’s next 32 revolutions around the sun. In fact the Trabant would have the dubious distinction of being East Germany’s most popular car for much of the state’s history. 

The Trabant was never officially sold in the US, but a few found their way here. This 1962-1988 model in Proletarian Beige was on display at a mall in Michigan last year. 

The Trabant was not popular because of its merits, however. The humble automobile was motivated by a two cylinder, two stroke, air cooled engine that required oil to be mixed with the fuel to keep the engine lubricated. That oil would burn as the engine ran, producing thick, noxious exhaust, not due to a mechanical fault, but by design. Thanks to inherent limitations of the rudimentary lubrication system, and the lack of a freewheeling device in the lowest three gears of the transmission, Trabant drivers were forced to shift to neutral or push in the clutch when coasting in any gear other than fourth or risk destroying the engine by starving it of oil. The Trabant’s body was made of “Duroplast” a crude material made of cotton fibers bound together with resin. As a result, a Trabant’s body panels would soften in the rain, and folklore of goats taking bites out of Trabant fenders and doors abounded in the Eastern Bloc. The car’s top speed was just over 60 MPH, a velocity that could be attained in a short 21 seconds of hard acceleration on level ground, perhaps a little quicker downhill. Most Trabants lacked even the most basic features like a fuel gauge or automatically cancelling turn signals. Seat belts were available for front seat passengers only. A humble and mechanically simple West German Volkswagen Beetle appeared advanced, bourgeois, and decadent compared to its proletarian East German contemporary. The Trabant saw few updates for the vast majority of its production run. In fact, Trabants made from 1962 through 1988 are virtually indistinguishable from one another. In spite of all of this, however, the Trabant remained in high demand as long as the Berlin Wall stood. People waited up to 13 years to receive a new Trabant after ordering one, and on the used car market, secondhand Trabants routinely sold for twice as much as brand new ones. In the planned, state-run East German economy, a Trabant was the only car most citizens could feasibly own, and demand for the increasingly archaic vehicles consistently soared beyond the supply that the state-run automotive monopoly could churn out. I couldn’t help but think of the Trabant during a visit to the sole surviving Country School restaurant a few weeks ago

Country School is little more than a footnote in the fast food history books. Fleeting mentions of the brand online allowed me to piece together that the chain was based in Lyons, Illinois, was active in the 1960s and 1970s, and had locations in Ottowa, Macomb, and Rochelle, Illinois, as well as Evansville, Indiana. There were likely other locations as well, though their exact locations may be lost to history at this point. Country School buildings were designed to resemble old fashioned red schoolhouses, and their menu focused heavily on fried chicken, though burgers, and perhaps a few other entrees were also available. The variety of items offered on the menu and not dissimilar corporate architecture make me think that Country School was at least partially influenced by Red Barn, and may have been designed to operate primarily in small towns where they’d be the only fast food, much like Clancy’s and Burger Queen/Druther’s. At some point, the chain disappeared, perhaps due to the slowing 1970s economy or the fact that their main territory was directly in the proverbial back yard of McDonald’s corporate headquarters. Today only the Rochelle, Illinois Country School remains in operation. 

Time for school!

The building in Rochelle looks much as it would have in its heyday, clad in bright red brick, its simple gabled roof topped with a cupola that may have once housed a bell. A fenced in picnic area out front mimics a schoolyard where old-timey children might be seen pushing barrel hoops with sticks or playing marbles, jacks, and tiddlywinks. A prominent sheet metal sign out front mimics the shape of the building and stands on a pole adorned with the ABCs and assorted school supplies. Something that was likely not present during the restaurant’s heyday was the freshly renovated McDonald’s next door, standing alarmingly close to the weathered parking lot of the world’s last Country School. 

Note the vintage "Drive thru service" sign and the menacing golden arches lurking in the background. 

The stop at Country School in Rochelle was my last on a four day 2500 mile trip that took me across the American Midwest, a last-minute addition to my itinerary thanks to a tip from a reader. (Thanks William!) I arrived in town after being routed through a labyrinth of back roads and subdivisions as my GPS struggled to avoid the toll roads that make the small towns of northwestern Illinois feel isolated, despite their proximity to Chicago. It was 11:30 on a Monday morning, and the lunch crowd had already begun to line up in the Country School’s drive-thru lane. Wanting the full Country School experience, I opted to dine in, and walked into the building’s humble, but clean dining room. I studied the expansive menu board, suspecting it had grown over the years to include Windy City specialties like Italian beef and Chicago-style hot dogs, but also no fewer than 25 different burgers, tacos, hand-dipped ice cream, and fried clams. I ordered with authenticity in mind, as I do when circumstances allow, opting for a three piece chicken dinner with two sides, plus a double junior cheeseburger. 

Pleasant, but basic surroundings undermine the overcrowded menu board.

The dining area was on the small side, but didn’t feel cramped thanks to large windows on three of the four walls. Blue trim around the windows and in the corners of the vaulted ceiling along with quality wood chairs helped combat what would have been an institutional appearance otherwise. The inside of the restaurant felt especially spacious because for the duration of my meal, no one else came inside to eat, though the drive thru kept the staff busy. I had pondered my status as the lone indoor diner for no more than five minutes when an employee delivered my order to my table. 

Cremated chicken would fit right in across the street from the last operating Darryl's

Sides straight from the supermarket. 

Basic burger

I am particularly fond of the elusive fast food side dishes that aren’t based on fried potatoes, and I usually opt for baked beans and a scoopable mayonnaise-based salad when available, so I was especially looking forward to the beans and potato salad I had ordered with my chicken. I tried the beans first, and was greeted with the familiar, but not unpleasant taste of Bush’s original flavor baked beans, straight from the can with heat from a stove being the only added ingredient. I didn’t expect them to prepare the beans from scratch, but some added hot sauce or seasoning to set them apart from a cartoon hobo’s meal of choice would have been nice. The potato salad seemed to be of similar origin as it reminded me of every potato salad I’d had from a prepackaged tub from the refrigerated section at a grocery store. I moved onto the chicken, hoping it would be similar to the symphony of herbs and spices at Maryland Fried Chicken that put Colonel Harland Sanders famous 11 to shame, but sadly, the chicken at Country School was on par with the sides. There was no discernible seasoning, in the overcooked breading and the chicken itself was dry and rubbery. The cheeseburger was no better. True to the school theme, it reminded me of the burgers in my elementary school cafeteria. I was baffled.

I pondered my disappointing meal all the way back to Detroit. Had I ordered the wrong thing? I had certainly failed to observe the local custom of ordering from the drive thru and never entering the building. But the sign out front said “Rochelle’s FAVORITE place for chicken.” Surely, chicken was their specialty. And multitude of delectable side dishes should go hand in hand with fried chicken. Plus, with such a burger-heavy menu, one would assume that any Country School burger would be seasoned with the flavor of authenticity. How had this Country School in particular outlived all of the chain’s other locations despite a lackluster menu and a next door neighbor that is an outlet of the world’s second largest fast food chain? It wasn’t until I researched the fast food landscape of Rochelle and the surrounding communities a few weeks later that I was able to develop a hypothesis.

Presently, “Rochelle’s FAVORITE place for chicken” seems to be Rochelle’s ONLY place for fried chicken other than the Walmart deli. The nearest Popeye’s is 15 miles east in Dekalb. The nearest KFC is 20 miles north in Rockford, and the nearest Church’s is a whopping 71 miles away in Maywood, though at that point, I’d rather drive a few more miles to eat at Rax in Joliet if I lived in Rochelle. There has been a Culver’s in town since at least 2007, if not before, but Culver’s phased out its fried chicken chain wide in 2016. Perhaps it was while Culver’s was selling fried chicken in Rochelle, that Country School’s menu expanded to include gyros and pizza puffs in an attempt to increase foot traffic, though I’d suspect the menu grew gradually as Rochelle’s mainstream fast food outlets grew up around the Country School. In any case, the Rochelle Country School has managed to survive, selling an inferior product, thanks in part to public demand for fried chicken and a lack of a viable competitor for much of its existence. Unlike the aforementioned Joliet Rax, which is 200 yards from an Arby’s and the Lima, Ohio Western Sizzlin’ which is across the street from a Golden Corral, I can’t help but think that a well-run Popeye’s or even a KFC opening in Rochelle, would pose a serious existential threat to the Country School, or at the very least force them to add haggis, shabu-shabu, and vindaloo to their menu in an attempt to set themselves apart.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, an attempt was made to modernize the Trabant. The updated vehicle eschewed its quaint two-stroke engine in favor of a newly available Volkswagen-built four cylinder, four stroke unit that no longer required oil to be mixed with the fuel, but the archaic socialist chariot, even enlivened by a decidedly modern capitalist powerplant failed to capture the interest of the car buying public of the newly reunited Deutschland. The warmed-over decades-old spartan design simply couldn’t compete with the slew of modern western vehicles that were suddenly available to a car-starved East German public. Predictably, production of the Trabant soon ended. Over the ensuing decades, however, the Trabant became a symbol of the phenomenon known as Ostalgie. The term is a portmanteau of the German words for “east” (ost) and “nostalgia” (nostalgie) that describes a collective appreciation for the aspects of East German life that ceased to exist following reunification. Today, Trabants enjoy a status as a cult collector car across Europe and even abroad, and function as a window into a bygone chapter in history.

The Rochelle, Illinois Country School manages to embody every chapter of the Trabant’s history simultaneously. Like the Trabant in its Iron Curtain glory days, the last Country School is popular by default while offering an objectively sub-par product. Like the post-reunification Volkswagen-powered Trabant, Country School has made haphazard changes in an attempt to stay modern in a rapidly-changing marketplace. As the Trabant in a modern-day context is an icon of Ostalgie, Country School serves as a local nostalgic symbol, a reminder of a different time. While my meal at the last Country School was far from enjoyable, it was, at least a memorable experience that offered a glimpse into a chapter of history that is otherwise lost. To coin a term in the German tradition of combining words, the unchanged building and exterior signage coupled with the less than stellar cuisine provoke a sense of Grosstalgia, and I think that feeling makes Rochelle’s FAVORITE (only) place for chicken worth seeking out. 

"Lots of space in this mall!"

If you’re up for enjoying objectively good food in an underappreciated historical setting consider joining me a the Harlan, Kentucky Rax for Raxgiving next month. I’ll be there with Broken Chains swag for everyone who attends.

He probably doesn’t need my help, but if you’re interested in Trabants or other oddball vehicles, check out Aging Wheels on YouTube.


1 comment:

  1. I love how your mind works. Brilliant juxtaposition! Also the mere mention of Darryl's in the cremated chicken caption, brought back happy memories of one of my other favorite BC posts. You make me feel like I am tasting the Bushesque beans and deli potato salad with you. Linking the trebant into the broken chain blog makes it feel less fractured. �� Judy approved. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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