My grandfather owned a drive-in restaurant for many years. It was a small, family run business in the town of Bloomington, Illinois. The restaurant was called Kip’s and it was a mainstay of the local community. It was one of those small town place’s where everyone knew each other, and all the employees kept their jobs for years.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the restaurant lately. Mostly about my family history there. The years I spent sitting in the back booth, close to my grandfather’s office. The dark wood paneling of the dining room, a throw back to the 70’s and probably the last time the dining room had been remodeled, and the orange formica tables and booths; the booth benches were hard, without cushions, but easy to clean and sanitize with bleach. My grandparents were meticulous when it came to the cleanliness of the restaurant. Like their home, there was always a faint but pleasant smell of bleach in the air. It just smelled fresh. I also recall the times I spent in the back kitchen, helping my grandmother make the Cole Slaw, or peeling potatoes. My reward for a job well done was a delicious lunch of Coney Dogs, Cole Slaw and an ice-cold frosty mug of Root Beer. Heaven to a ten year old.
My grandfather passed away in the ’90’s, and the restaurant was handed down to my father who ran it for another handful of years. Unfortunately, with the growth of the town and the restaurant boom that hit Bloomington in those years, Kip’s was unable to keep up with the many chain restaurants that had become popular at that time. Even the most loyal locals like to add diversity to their dining options, and my father was forced to close. To the heartbreak of our family, Kip’s faded into the history of the town, but not before people came out in droves to enjoy their favorite comfort foods, one last time.
It’s been many years since I’ve enjoyed my favorite meals at Kip’s. My father kept all the family recipes, but for one reason or another, we stopped making them. So the recipes have sat unused, the paper turning yellow, thinning over time, and the print of my grandfather’s handwriting fading with each decade.
Last week my kids and I went to Dallas for our Spring Break. My dad and brother live there with their families, and we spent the week enjoying the hot Texas sun and swimming in my brother’s pool. I suggested to my father that we do a Kip’s family dinner night. My kids had never tasted a Coney Dog, or the Cole Slaw that I loved so much as a kid. I wanted them to experience that part of my childhood. I wanted them to taste the food their great-grandparents created, built a successful business around, and understand that this was part of their family legacy.
So my brother, my father and I spent an afternoon cooking. My dad unfolded the recipe for the Coney sauce, and it was the most fragile thing I’ve seen in years. The paper bearing my grandfather’s distinct handwriting was yellow and splotched with years of use. The creases in the paper were so worn from being folded and unfolded that even the tape applied years ago to hold it together had begun to deteriorate. How many years had it been since he had written out this recipe? Sixty, maybe? We had to convert the recipe down to a useable quantity, as the original recipe was written to produce ten gallons of sauce for the restaurant.
And then we cooked. The three of us banged out the Coney sauce and Cole Slaw within a couple of hours, and it was the most fun I’ve had in ages. We laughed and reminisced about our childhood and the years spent in the restaurant. My dad told us stories of his teenage years working the curb service. At one point, I looked at them both and said, “I bet Nanny and Paw-Paw are so happy we are doing this right now.” Then my dad handed me a spoonful of Coney sauce to taste. The moment the flavor hit my tongue, I was absolutely transported. Back to the booth with the orange formica tabletop. I was ten years old again. And I could hear my grandfather’s voice and the sounds of the kitchen and feel the slide of the ice down the frosty mug full of foaming, ice-cold Root Beer. It always amazes me how a smell or a taste of something meaningful can take you back to a time or place long gone.
We assembled the family that evening, excited to force our food memories upon them. They were skeptical at first. A few of the girls don’t eat hot dogs, and a Coney Dog is essentially a hot dog smothered in Coney sauce. The teenagers were also not too excited about being forced to eat Cole Slaw. It wasn’t their thing. But we insisted they try both. Annnnnd……it was a hit! My son ate four Coney dogs! And even my niece, who hates Cole Slaw, said she would eat this Cole Slaw, any day. Coming from her, that was high praise.
I knew they would love the food, because good food is just good food. But what mattered to me more was that they got to experience a part of our family history, tangible through food. They never got to meet their great-grandfather. He had passed before any of them were born. But they got to experience a huge part of him, and our family, through this dinner. Through these recipes.
Food is universal. It speaks to all of us, whether it’s about comfort, health, or enjoying a shared experience. And for that reason I’ve decided to create a Kip’s family cookbook! I will include all the best recipes from my grandparent’s kitchen, as well as a history of the restaurant that brought so many people together across the community it shared. I can’t wait to share it with you! 🙂