Midwestern moms fascinate me. They possess unparalleled apron collections and the best cookware this side of the Betty Crocker test kitchen: deep-dish Pyrex pie pans; two-foot-long maple rolling pins; 24-count cupcake carrying cases; nonstick, square-shape griddles. Under the intuitive tutelage of a Midwestern mom, supermarket condiments like mayonnaise, ranch dressing, Hershey's chocolate syrup and Smucker's hot fudge are elevated to mother-sauce status. Casseroles become the stuff of life, near-worthy of Proust's pen. Children eat their broccoli without even realizing it. Midwestern moms are the best chefs in the world, because when you are hungry, they will always make something for you.
My boyfriend's mother is an awesome lady and a Midwestern mom through and through. A section of her kitchen countertop is always, always coated with flour, because over the course of a typical day she will bake from scratch a pan of sweet rolls, a batch of biscuits and at least one pie. She bakes so much it can make me uncomfortable, and I often implore her to stop and sit down for a while.
Because I didn't have a Midwestern mom, I shall never be the world's expert on homemade pie. But my boyfriend is, and here was his reaction to a slice of cherry pie I brought home from Jennifer's Pharmacy & Soda Shoppe: "Man."
Indeed. With a ringing tartness that stoked the palate as excitedly as a five-alarm chimichurri sauce and a top crust graced with the slightest sprinkling of granulated sugar, this was a cherry pie neither he nor I will soon forget.
At Jennifer's Pharmacy you can buy a slice of pie, a kitschy magnet set, pricey greeting cards, a glass of iced tea, plush toys, felt tote bags, penny candy, an ice cream soda, a PB&J, a cute clock, a Bavarian-style pretzel, boxes of yerba mate (loose herbal tea from South America), a malted, a kosher hot dog or, with a prescription, Zoloft. But who needs pharmaceuticals when happiness is so easily attained here just by walking through the door? Jennifer's is a cheery throwback to so many things five-and-dimes, mom-and-pop shops, small-town lunch counters, PTA bake sales and a dang great place to eat a sandwich, a sundae or pie. It is Midwestern mom through and through.
Jennifer Rich and her husband opened their drugstore fifteen years ago, a few doors down from where it stands now. They moved into the digs of a former hardware store a little over a year ago; the extra square footage afforded them the opportunity to tack "& Soda Shoppe" onto the awning, as they'd always wanted. Jennifer bought a 1930s soda fountain off of eBay from a couple who'd just retired their ice cream parlor in Oregon. She asked her longtime employee Mary to manage the new, ten-seat counter, and hired a second woman solely to bake pies. Since then, Jennifer's brought on two of her son's former pre-school teachers as well.
At any given moment, one or all of these women are working behind the counter at Jennifer's except that it hardly seems like working, the way they greet recognizable faces and make small talk and check that everything's all right, hon. Each dons a smock apron and takes turns waiting on customers and preparing orders. They do lunch plates (served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) straight-up and satisfying and yeah, just like Mom used to make like an unfussy albacore tuna salad sandwich given just enough character through a dotting of black pepper, a healthy amount of chopped celery and the exact-right quantity of mayo. The same less-is-more philosophy goes into the egg salad, adorned with just a few pieces of white onion here and there, the crumbled-up yolks lending the mayonnaise a canary-yellow tone and a rich, delicious flavor.
If the staff at Jennifer's can whip together a sandwich as good as any Midwestern mom, their hot dogs rank and I realize that this is almost sacrilege to say even better than the ones you can buy outside the registers at Home Depot. These rotisserie-grilled babies come out plump with a snappy bite, sweet like sausage and scrumptious. The Chicago-style dog, served on a doughy poppy-seed bun, is dressed with mustard, sweet relish, a few pickled jalapeños, perfect pieces of fresh diced tomato and a few jiggers of spicy celery salt. The chili dog is constructed so matter-of-factly, there's no hope picking it up by the bun; both meat and bread are bluntly smothered in a mild, soupy bean chili and melted cheese, necessitating a full-size dinner plate to accommodate all that delicious goop and a knife and fork to get through it.
But get through it you must, because then it's time for dessert. Chocolate-chip cookies under the counter's glass-domed cake stands feature whole pecans and chunks of chocolate both so alarmingly enormous you'd think they were engineered by the good people at Monsanto. In fact, Mary makes them. I have to say, they don't taste quite as good as they look, but they're still great; I love the way the crisp pecans play off the slightly melted chocolate. Then there's the brownie pie, which is downright insane. Each slice of this ridiculous, over-the-top confection is served heated, so that the chocolate chips and caramel on top melt to serve as an icing (and, as with the chocolate-chip cookies, strike a fantastic contrast to crumbled bits of pecan). Its filling is moister and denser than a typical brownie but not as cement-y as a flourless chocolate cake a genuine fudge pie.
Jennifer sources her ice cream from a company called Wholesome Farms, because it's the closest thing she could find to organic ice cream sold in big tubs for resale. (Believe it or not, with all these calories and sugars in abundance, Jennifer actually makes a concerted effort to keep things all-natural and organic whenever she can.) Off the fountain menu, the classic banana split a scoop of strawberry doused in strawberry sauce, vanilla topped with pineapples, chocolate topped with hot fudge, nuts and whipped cream over the whole thing turned my boyfriend into a little boy. Meanwhile, a perfect vanilla milkshake I picked up to go one day didn't last ten minutes, I sucked it down so ruthlessly. (I then forced myself to walk around downtown Clayton for another twenty minutes to burn off a portion of it the first time I've ever made myself do instant penance for food.)
Though Charming Billy would want nothing to do with my mother and her nonexistent pie-making skills, she did do wonders for my culinary upbringing when she introduced me to the egg cream, a New York City soda-fountain favorite that, ironically, contains neither egg nor cream; it's a mixture of chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer basically, a chocolate-milk soda. (It gets its name from the foamy white head that forms on the drink after adding the seltzer, resembling beaten egg whites.)
An egg cream is one of the reasons my life is worth living, and on this subject I certainly am the world's expert. The ingredients must go into the glass in this order: syrup, milk, seltzer. It must be made with whole milk, seltzer from a soda gun or from an old-fashioned, pressurized seltzer bottle (I own two), and Fox's U-Bet Chocolate Syrup out of Brooklyn. Jennifer's Pharmacy uses Fox's U-Bet Chocolate Syrup! If the women here aren't committed egg-cream connoisseurs like me, they've certainly read up on the subject. I can't believe I live within biking distance of a sensational egg cream. (My one nitpick: It should be served in a glass, not a plastic cup.)
Jennifer's Pharmacy reminds you that, if you look for it, there are pockets of good ol' fashioned Americana tucked among the trendbots and trendy boîtes of downtown Clayton: the little shoe-repair shops and tailors, the Chili Mac diner, the corner newsstand down the street. And Jennifer's, the drugstore lunch counter where somebody else's mom will happily make you lunch and a sweet treat if you're lucky, just like your Mom used to make.