RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Drive-ins' atmosphere, service and food fed rich, youthful memories

There’s a ’50s-vintage restaurant here called Cy’s Drive-In, where you pull right up to the cinderblocks and flash your car lights for service.
I thought the car-hop had gone the way of the buggy whip, or the film camera, but, no, there are a few still around to serve. Cy’s car-hops are proud to deliver hormone-free, range-fed beef on a bun, which seems counterintuitive. You expect drive-in food to be unhealthy; that’s why you go.
But Cy’s burgers are delicious, and “range-fed” basically means that the cow you’re chewing was fattened up on grass. That doesn’t seem over-the-top healthy, not enough to ruin the taste, anyhow.
You can go inside Cy’s, if you prefer, and check out the aqua appointments and period posters of Elvis and James Dean. The experience loses something, however, without drooping bobby socks and a teenage boy to whisper in your ear and stick a straw in your chocolate malt.
I know there are a few legit drive-ins left, but not many. The Varsity in Atlanta is an institution and still dishes up great food, but it’s become such a tourist attraction that you have to fight the school groups wearing souvenir car-hop hats to “walk a dog,” which means, in Varsity lingo, get a hot dog to go.
And then there’s Sonic, the national chain that does its best to re-create what was perhaps the most local of all institutions: the drive-in. Sonic’s success illustrates what a void has been left with the disappearance of drive-ins, be they restaurants or theaters.
My Mississippi hometown had not one but two wonderful restaurants close in the past few months, a double blow for those of us who like to eat and hate to cook. When Norma Vandiver closed her doors at the Country Cupboard, most of the town had to rush out and buy groceries.
Norma has been cooking for the town for more than three decades, and not just for paying customers. Whenever anyone hits a rough patch, Norma is at the doorstep with fried chicken livers or cornbread dressing or yeast rolls like your grandmother used to make. She has served as combination welcome wagon, grief counselor and mother figure for a lot of us through the years.
The other loss was an uptown place called Cafe Memories, now itself a memory. Reid McNatt ran the smart cafe, which was filled with local photos and memorabilia as part of a shabby chic decor that would have worked in SoHo or San Francisco.
With both restaurants gone, that leaves the Sonic as my first choice for fine dining in little Iuka. One could do worse, I suppose, than the Number Two Burger with cheese and a cherry limeade.
When I was a kid in Pensacola, Fla., my favorite eatery was a drive-in called The Shrimp Box. Too young to know what I was missing in their Gulf Coast shrimp, I always ordered the cheeseburger. Daddy took me there one Saturday morning while Mother ushered in my friends for a surprise birthday party back at the house.
“That was a great cheese …” I began, rushing inside to report once we made it home. I never finished the sentence. Schoolmates and neighbors and siblings were screaming, “Surprise!” and wielding plastic cutlery, the better to cut a cake with blue roses.
Drive-in’s figure into some pretty rich memories.

Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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