Dining with Miss Dorothy

Gabi and I had lunch and dinner with Dorothy Lynch yesterday.

Dorothy’s presence was the only common denominator in two very different dining experiences in two adjacent states, when we experienced the lows and highs of what one encounters when seeking sustenance on the road.

I’ll explain.

Our first meal with Dorothy took place in Ovid, Colo., where lack of choice led us to the Stockade Grill and Bronco Billy’s Bar. It was one of two eateries in town, but El Elegre (the Happy Drunk?) lacked the ambience and charm, at least in the moniker game. Besides, it looked as though it had been out of business since the Nixon administration.

Anyway, we knew the Stockade was still serving from the “open” sign displayed in the dusty window, though the empty dining room, where Christmas decorations – either foreshadowing or recalling a holiday past, I don’t know which – seemed to dispute the notion that the cook was indeed, still cooking. We activated an annoying sensor installed in a floor mat which set off a loud buzz when we stepped on it, but nary a human being ventured forth to see what all the commotion was about.

So we ventured back over the floor mat (buzz!) and into the bar side of the joint, where two t-shirt-clad yahoos occupied the near end of a family-style table for 20, slurping beers and turning to stare when we two outsiders walked in. We sat at the far end of the table, furthest from Ovid’s finest, closest to the bar, and, we hoped, to the promise of food.

A pleasant 20-something waitress with adorable freckles showed up to take our order, then promptly and apologetically placed a condition on our order.

“I’m really sorry, but can you order soon, because we’re getting ready to close.” I looked at the clock. 1:35, hardly the witching hour in the food service biz, but schedules are schedules, and this place wrapped things up at 2.

A shopworn cook appeared behind the bar, just in time to hear Gabi say: “You mean you need us to order before 2, but we can stay to finish eating, right?”

“No,” chimed in the clearly unhappy cook. “I’m locking the doors at 2. I’ve been here since 6, and I’ve got a bad knee.” As if to punctuate this explanation of her curious customer service policy, she tossed a towel over her shoulder and headed out of the room and apparently back to the kitchen.

We ordered quickly– sandwich and side salad for Gabi, fried chicken salad for me –and settled in to do our part and chow down before the 2 p.m. deadline arrived. Dorothy showed up with the salad, and did little to improve the mood as we sprinted towards the dining finish line. No way did we want to cross Granny with the bad attitude, especially with Kyle the hungover (as we learned from the scintillating lunchtime conversation from the other end of the table) looming ominously to the south.

Fast forward eight hours and several hundred miles later to Columbus, Nebraska, where Gabi and I for once took the advice of the hotel desk clerk and headed downtown for dinner at Dusters Brew Pub.

There we stepped back in time, into a converted Ford dealership that, with the help of a troubling mural which in one 50-foot assault on our artistic sensibilities depicted the arrival of settlers in the west, the decimation of an entire herd of bison, and the ominous presence of a headdress-clad native American and his band of desperate braves, gave us a sense of what a Saturday night in Columbus actually feels like.

The nice young man who greeted us at the door asked if we had a reservation, and, hearing that we did not, gazed around the nearly empty dining room for an appropriate place to seat us. Delivered to our table against a wall, we sat next to each other, staring at the mural and the other couple who’d decided that Dusters would make for an intriguing night out.

Our waiter, Matthew, showed up and instantly engaged us with his affable personality and charming newness at his job. A seasoned waiter at New York’s finest never tried so hard or so earnestly to please his table, and Matthew did a credible job to talk us through the menu, his personal history as a recent immigrant from Cody, Wyoming, and some background on the building and the restaurant.

What we ate was incidental, aside from the fact that Dorothy once again showed up with the salads. More on her in a minute.

Now Columbus, Nebraska is hardly a top destination for trans-continental travelers, but the town holds special significance for us.

Many years ago, when Gabi was living in San Francisco and I in Marblehead, she alertly figured out that Columbus, Nebraska was precisely halfway between our homes. During one of our hours’-long phone conversations she offered that Columbus might make for a fun place to meet up one day. And since we were right down the road – It was roughly 500 miles, but what’s a few hours behind the wheel when romance is involved – we decided to make the trip.

Columbus is a right nice town, once you get off the “freeway,” which looks more like Route One in Saugus than I care to think about. Columbus proper offers tree-lined streets, a considerate traffic grid of one way streets numbered in sequence and a somewhat sadly deserted downtown – pretty much typical of small cities and towns we’ve seen across the country. But there’s a homespun niceness to Columbus that somehow feels, well, inhabitable.

We joked about buying a home here, and sending emails to family and friends not from Cambodia, but from Columbus. Romantic notion, but not in this lifetime.

Now, who the hell is Dorothy Lynch, and how does she fit into our travels?

Dorothy is a restaurant regular, living somewhere between ranch and blue cheese on the salad dressing list. A distinct anomaly, she was new to us, so we figured to give her a whirl around the dance floor and make nice, Nebraska-like.

Well, Dorothy’s oversweet and a bit gummy, so I’m afraid we left her alone both at the Stockade and Dusters in lieu of her slightly less yucky brethren to dress our salads.

We were pleased to make her acquaintance, but will also be very happy to leave her behind with the rest of the fond memories of Columbus. As both the waitress at the Stockade and Matthew described her, “she’s just a salad dressing.”

There’s really a Dorothy Lynch, and though her original recipe was long ago sold off to a bigger company every blessed bottle of the noxious stuff is still made right here in Columbus.

Which explains her somewhat limited legend and omnipresence on local menus.

All part of the road experience, and today we’re off to explore Iowa, where corn fields run endlessly, the roads straight and flat, and there’s nary a sign of Dorothy Lynch on the lunch menu.

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