Scott Woods: All the Meals You Can Never Have Again

Whether a grandmother’s kitchen or the original Wendy’s, the food may be gone, but the memories live on. And that’s the most important thing.

Scott Woods
Columbus Monthly
The original Wendy's in Downtown Columbus, including tables covered with old newspaper advertisements

My grandmother's kitchen is gone. The house is still there, but the floor, walls and appliances have all deteriorated into climbing Nelsonville weeds. Most of the meals I had there were served when I was a child, before the acquisition of a palate or taste buds bloom, so I cannot recall the meals so much as the idea of them: large, crammed country affairs brimming with cousins and neighbors. If I’m being honest, the memory is fine by me.

I have always been enraptured by a meal’s ambience as much as its flavor. It is ambience that lifts or sinks a meal, that elevates it into a state above sustenance or dashes it on the rocks of filthy despair. I do not need the venue to be pretty or even clean. I simply ask that it be memorable, that it capture a moment I can carry and relay to someone else who may need succor. Grief, lust, hunger all deserve a good menu.

There are places to which I cannot return because they are gone, and their meals with them. I imagine old Spageddies menus in a compost somewhere, their pored-over descriptions all mold and dust now. Morton's was the best fine dining experience I have ever had in this city, and I miss its immaculate service as much as the luscious steaks that have moved on to greener pastures.  

In the back room of a former plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where they sometimes host live blues, you can park your drink on several rows of old Wendy's tables. The tables are distinct, covered in advertisements from the 1800s for horse drawn buggies and pocket watches and “domestic” things. The tables harken back to a time when Wendy's seemed less like fast food and more like a sit-down meal. Something about sitting at those old school tables seemed to infiltrate the burgers and fries. Everything tasted more earnest at one of those catalog tables, and the best place to experience it all was in its original location in Downtown Columbus, across from the old COSI (Center of Science and Industry) building, which is also a thing of the past. Every school field trip to COSI was punctuated with lunch across the street at a table that looked like a newspaper, serving the juiciest cheeseburger in the world for no scientific reason other than the tables made diners feel closer to a time of spurs and free-range cattle.

Remember old school Pizza Huts? With the red candles and curtains accentuated with stained glass overhead lamps? I don’t have to tell you that the pizza was 10 times better then. You can look at an old picture of a Pizza Hut and you know. You don’t dress up a joint like that if your pizza isn’t swinging for the bleachers.

I’m sure there is some wizened person who used to live in the Driving Park section of Livingston Avenue that will swear on a stack of old Kahiki coasters that Reeb’s Restaurant was the best diner in the city. That is almost empirically untrue, but that’s hardly the point. Those meals and the counter they were served on are an empty lot now. There will be no convincing that sad gourmand that the food they had was not the real deal. 

Scott Woods

I’m OK with that. Whether or not I can eat the food is almost irrelevant in the face of the most important thing, which is the memory. All food is memory. Memory is the only thing it can be once we have consumed it. And we do not recommend restaurants that we love to people simply because we want them fed. People can eat anywhere. We want them to live with us in the liminal space that we have created around food, around a dish that reminds us of our people, around a waitress that can see our grandmothers have passed and that we will never forget them.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.