I rarely, if ever, eat at places along interstate highways, even if they are called “Mom’s Diner” or “Buddy’s Place,” partly because I believe “Mom,” like “Buddy,” is some clever corporate entity many miles removed from Exit Whatever. My on-the-road hunger can only be satisfied by a detour onto the business route of whatever town looks promising. On a recent trip from Austin to St. Louis, it was Joplin, Missouri.
A stop at the Missouri welcome center just across the Oklahoma state line yielded information about home-grown places to eat — that is, those still standing after a tornado killed more than 150 people and damaged an estimated 30 percent of the city’s buildings in May.
The welcome center’s cheerful greeter understood my requirements: no Taco Bell, KFC, McDonald’s or Burger King.
And so it came to pass that I stopped at Mary Lee’s Café. Open since 1984, it was spared the tornado’s wrath. Distinguished from the area’s remaining houses by a parking lot in back and a flower-lined walk leading to the front door, it is truly a neighborhood restaurant. The conversation among the mid-afternoon lunch crowd of regulars frequently focused on the tornado. These people and their talk about how the mighty wind affected them define the rich experience of eating at locally owned restaurants on road trips. In this small café in this little town in the Missouri Ozarks you could feel the residual anxiety from the storm, though the news crews and cameras are no longer there to capture it. Mary Lee’s was a good place to gain insight into what it’s like to live in the aftermath of a tornado so powerful that it destroyed a third of the town.
I encountered three AmeriCorps volunteers from Austin who introduced themselves when they heard I was from the city too. They have become regulars since arriving in May to help rebuild.
As I tucked into my soft-scrambled eggs and a cloud-soft biscuit well slathered with butter, I made a conscious effort to avert my eyes from the occasional diner who knew I was not a regular. It’s one thing to eavesdrop; it’s another for people to know you’re doing it.
“Yeah, well, he still hasn’t heard nothing yet about his place.”
“No, I haven’t heard from him since he lost everything. I mean everything. And he just got outta rehab, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this hadn’t drove him right back in.”
“I don’t know; State Farm says they’re going to take care of everything, but, well, I don’t know … there’s so much … ”
Any direction I turned my ear, I detected an unmistakable undertone of dejection. It was heartbreaking.
Famous as home to Langston Hughes and Thomas Hart Benton, Joplin is also infamous for being one of those towns black people once steered clear of. It has a decades-long track record of ugly race relations—including lynching—rooted in post-Civil War attitudes that survived well into the ’60s. I omit the 21st century from Joplin’s infamy because when President Obama visited, a cheering, standing-room-only crowd greeted him.
The reminiscences were still percolating when I decided to detour off U.S. Highway 71 onto Joplin’s Main Street. Any retroactive anger dissipated as evidence of the tornado revealed itself: A truck upended against a tree; enormous trees uprooted. Some stores boarded up, some only recently re-opened.
History notwithstanding, only the coldest heart would not ache for the people who live here. Joplin, 90 percent white, is a disaster area in more ways than one. According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, 14 percent of Joplin’s population lives below the poverty line. It has a per capita income of $17,000 and a median household income of $30,000 for a family of four. Thousands of residents had little before the storm; now they have nothing.
A day later I was home, safe. Sweltering, but safe. In Joplin, families were still taking shelter where they could find it. Taking the time to stop and eat at a little café had brought me, albeit briefly, face to face with a small-town nightmare and taught me empathy for the people of Joplin.
Ellen Sweets is a food writer who lives in Austin, and author of the book Stirring It Up with Molly Ivins.