Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
A father’s wish for a taste of home is finally granted
By JENNIFER MILLER STROBEL
It started as a guilt trip, with a series of events preceding both the guilt and the trip.
My father, Curt Miller—a white-haired, pipe-smoking, retired newspaper editor transplanted years ago from Pennsylvania to Fredericksburg—had a taste for chicken and waffles. He doesn’t ask for much. That modest request seemed do-able.
He’d once had the combo at a local IHOP, and thought he’d give it a second try with my teenage son, his grandson, Noah.
It wasn’t to be. Once in the car, Noah persuaded him to go to a new hamburger place instead.
Curt, aka Grampa, generally resigned to not getting his way, wasn’t happy, but claimed he was.
Next week, I packed Noah and Grampa off again, this time absolutely and positively to IHOP.
“I don’t want you to come back and hear he didn’t get chicken and waffles,” I warned my son.
He did come home, but Grampa hadn’t gotten his chicken and waffles. The meal had been a special, limited-time offer, and was no longer on the menu.
Oh, well, Grampa said. He didn’t like those chicken and waffles anyway.
“They put waffles on one plate, and chicken on the other,” he complained.
So now we’re up to the guilt—my specialty. My guilt said: “We always do what we want to do.
Grampa deserves to do what he wants to do. He deserves a little pleasure. If it’s chicken and waffles he wants, he deserves it.”
Months passed. His 85th birthday, Jan. 30, was approaching, and celebration plans were lackluster. No time, no money, no energy. He told us not to worry about it.
The matter stayed on the inactive to-do list.
Then, three days before the date, immersed in another mission, I happened to drive a route I rarely take and noticed a sign for Perkins Restaurant, another chain off the interstate. Pancakes, I thought. And waffles. And maybe chicken, too.
THE STATES ARE DIVIDED
I made a mental appointment with Google for later that night, and around midnight, found myself sitting at the computer screen, planning a quick search of the Perkins menu. Negative. No chicken and waffles.
Surely, I thought, I could find some place in Virginia to appease Grampa’s craving. My clicking turned up nothing suitable until a Wikipedia search—yes, there’s a whole section on the subject—clued me in to the different types of chicken and waffles: Southern and Northern.
Southern chicken and waffles are considered “soul food,” along the lines of greens and chitlins. An online image showed a plate of fried chicken beside a waffle.
The Northern, Pennsylvania Dutch version combines the two entrées into one—chicken on waffles.
A HUNGERING FOR HOME
An online essay called Bloomsburg, Pa., “the chicken and waffles capital of the universe.”
My father had grown up in the Bloomsburg area of central Pennsylvania.
I grew up in Virginia, but must have had his kind of chicken and waffles once long ago. I knew the kind he wanted, and I knew he wanted the taste of home.
Still doing screen time, I found Molly Pitcher Waffle Shop, Chambersburg, Pa. The photo of the neon sign specified: “Chicken and Waffles.”
“Let’s go. We have to go,” my son insisted the next day.
Molly’s owner, Anna Marie Erkson, answered when I phoned the restaurant that afternoon.
“You’d be surprised how many people do what you’re doing,” she said, when I told her our plans to cross a couple of state lines to satisfy my father’s craving.
She shared her recipe for creating the “real thing”—real by our north of the Mason–Dixon line standards. Bits of boneless chicken are braised until very tender, then spooned over the waffle along with chicken gravy.
“You call Sunday morning and ask for Anna,” she said, promising she would reserve a table for 1:30 p.m. after the breakfast/brunch crowd slowed down.
More phone calls: Curt, told to ask no questions, said he was up for the three- or four-hour trip. My niece was up for the trip a few hours south from her home in Lewisburg, Pa. A “friend who’s family” agreed to drive west from Philadelphia.
“You people are crazier than I am,” he said.
Google maps showed me quicker routes, but I opted for the slower pace of U.S. 15, the same scenic road we had driven so many times to my father’s hometown, to his dad, to his memories.
Travel day, Sunday, arrived. This time, I was solely responsible for its success.
With Noah as chauffeur, Grampa was pretty sure where we were going until we took a sharp turn west at Gettysburg, just across the Pennsylvania line. He thought we were lost. So did I, but I couldn’t spoil the surprise destination and ask him for help. I clutched my map printout.
We finally pulled into the first parking space we saw on South Main Street, Chambersburg.
As if orchestrated, Curt’s granddaughter, my niece, Joelle Sanders, pulled up right beside us. The birthday celebration was about to commence as we all walked the last block of our quest: Grampa (Curt), with his carved-wood walking stick; Joelle and her boyfriend, Jon; Noah; and me. John Budzinski, our Philadelphia friend, joined us as we neared the restaurant, its red neon sign lighting the way.
When we walked in, at precisely 1:30, staff had just put together our table for six. Across the room, another family birthday party was under way.
Our kind, warm waitress didn’t need an order pad. It was chicken and waffles all around, even though his order evoked a “yuck” from the youngest in our bunch. (Apparently the C&W gene has been diluted in the third generation.)
The rest of us appreciated the comfort food in a comfortable place. It’s a no-frills kind of place—not a diner, exactly, not self-consciously retro or homey or frilly. We couldn’t come up with the exact word to describe the ambience. The one television was muted, and no tinny music competed with conversation.
Curt told us about another meal from long ago. When he was a boy, he told us, his family raised a few chickens at their rural home. Devoted Boy Scout that he was, he “volunteered” one of the family chickens for a fund-raising meal of—you guessed it—chicken and waffles. His mother was furious about his promised donation, but apparently, that chicken did make it to the dinner plate.
His small-town Pennsylvania home was a few hours north; Chambersburg was as close as we could get this trip.
A TRADITION IS REBORN
The building where we sat had been a restaurant serving chicken and waffles for many years in the 20th century, but by 2006 was “totally defunct and run down,” Erkson explained.
That’s the year she decided to fulfill her dream of running her own place after a lifetime career in food service. Born and raised in Gary, Ind., she’d moved east and worked in an upscale restaurant in Hagerstown, Md.
When she first saw the old sign hanging above the former Molly Pitcher Waffle Shop in Chambersburg, she had to ask: “Chicken and what?”
She had the building gutted and renovated, renamed the restaurant “Molly’s,” kept the old neon sign above the door. She also listed “Chick’n What??” as one of the menu items when she realized the devotion some feel to that combination.
We hadn’t discussed it, but after our main (and only) course, our waitress appeared with a bowl of “cherries jubilee bread pudding” topped with a candle and accompanied by the Happy Birthday song. Our guest of honor even liked the dessert, noting that it wasn’t as sugar-laden as most.
Curt is very hard to please. If he can’t find anything else wrong, he can almost always complain about the coffee. One of his critiques has gone down in family history: “The coffee’s good, but the cups are too small.”
At Molly’s, he couldn’t even fault the coffee.
After many thanks, we spent a few more hours meandering along South Main Street.
We visited Olympia Candy Shop, where chocolates are made onsite.
We read the Civil War markers, learning that Gen. Robert E. Lee conferred with Gen. A.P. Hill in the town square June 23, 1863, then set up headquarters at the edge of town. We learned also of the town’s destruction on July 30, 1864; Chambersburg was the only Northern town destroyed by Confederates.
In a few short hours, it was time for us to head south. The sun was setting. My son stopped the car on the side of the road to photograph the moment the orange sky turned to blue twilight over a straw-covered field.
My father and I reminisced about other trips. He told about the first time he had driven that same road south from his old job in New York, to his new job in Virginia. I imagined him, a young man, with his young wife, driving the highway toward the unknown.
It was night when we pulled into the College Heights McDonald’s near Curt’s home for my son’s version of comfort food.
A few days later, a beautiful card arrived in my mailbox, a watercolor showing a country house in the hills. Painted in just the shades we’d so recently seen, the image looked just like my father’s grandfather’s Pennsylvania farm.
I read my father’s familiar script inside the card: “My 85th birthday was a memorable one, a day that I will always remember whether I live to be 86 or 100.”
Jennifer Strobel: 540/374-5432