Thursday, November 24, 2005

Not Recommended by Duncan Hines

My father had, as I recall, few rules that he considered inviolable, but one was that one should never eat in a restaurant that was recommended by Duncan Hines.

Today, of course, the name ``Duncan Hines,'' if remembered at all, is going to be remembered as a brand of dessert mixes, but back in the early forties of the last century Duncan Hines was a traveling salesman, turned into a food critic, who went around writing books about restaurants that he had eaten at during his travels. To those restaurants that he found particularly praiseworthy he gave a sign saying ``Recommended by Duncan Hines,'' a sure sign according to my father that the food would be terrible but that the restrooms would be spotless.

Whether my father was correct or not in this judgment I cannot say from my own personal experience since at the time I was too young to go to restaurants by myself and I never as far as I know actually ate anything in a restaurant that admitted to having been recommended by Duncan Hines.

At that time we lived in Bakersfield---where I was born, though I do not like to admit it. As I recall there were only two restaurants in town that were worth going to to eat, but they were wonderful. Without any definite proof---proving a negative is notoriously difficult---, I am sure that neither were ever recommended by Duncan Hines, or by any other food critic for that matter.

One was Mexican---what is now known as a taqueria---that was located in a shack with dirt floors not only on the wrong side of the railroad tracks but right up next to them. I do not remember what they served besides tacos, but I do recall that all the food was wonderful.

That restaurant was so successful that a few years later the owners were able to retire and go back to Mexico.

At the time taquerias were not common it the States, but now it is possible to find---although not in Cleveland where I now live---similar shacks with dirt floors that offer wonderful food: for example, La Super-Rica Taqueria on Milpas street in Santa Barbara, the favorite taqueria of the late Julia Childs, who had infinitely better taste than Duncan Hines.

The other restaurant was in a Basque sheepherders hotel that I had long assumed had also vanished years ago. A little research though reveals that the Noriega Hotel, which was founded in 1893, still survives and that Basque food is still served there at communal tables just as I remember it, with only one sitting for dinner, although I gather that the hotel itself no longer serves as a rooming house for Basque shepherds.

I am not sure that the dishes remain the same and am not likely now to visit it in hopes of refreshing my recollection. What I do vaguely remember is that the spinach was wonderful, but mostly I remember the wine, a dry and dusty red that in memory at least tasted rather like a red version of a Frankenwein, though perhaps that recollection is colored by the wine skins that hung on the walls in the hotel's dining room that now makes me think of the original meaning of the Bocksbeutel* that is the traditional flask for Franconian wines.

* ``Goat's scrotum''

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