Tastes of Home
Story and Photography by Pam Smith –
Through the wonders of electronic messaging, I pinged children (now mostly adults) that have left, but not forgotten, Decatur, to find out what foods they miss most.
Long before food icons such as Julia Child, James Beard, Martha Stewart and all the new-age foodies connected with The Food Network, there was Clementine Paddleford. Beyond having possibly the coolest name ever, the intrepid culinary journalist was before her time as a regional food pioneer.
Her book “How America Eats” chronicled our national cuisine, and the 1949 quote that defined her is still true today: “We all have hometown appetites. Every other person is a bundle of longing for the simplicities of good taste once enjoyed on the farm or in the hometown they left behind.”
That passage comes to mind each time our children return to Decatur. While they may hunger for a few homemade favorites from my kitchen, it is in hometown hangouts and flavors they indulge.
That makes holiday gift giving a snap. Stockings can be filled with a careful selection of goodies such as Monical’s Sweet and Tart French dressing, Del’s Popcorn Shop peanut brittle or Mari-Mann dip mixes. Gift certificates to one of the handful of their favorite local restaurants are always satisfying.
My kids aren’t alone in these cravings. Through the wonders of electronic messaging, I pinged children (now mostly adults) that have left, but not forgotten, Decatur, to find out what foods they miss most. Here’s a sampling of their answers:
Make it a Double
The clear winner during any season is Krekel’s. It seems there’s no equal to those flattened burgers with the crispy edges hot from the grill. Double cheeseburgers are the most popular item on Krekel’s menu, but the ice cream ranks high, too — I’ll take a lemon cone with sprinkles, please.
This homegrown business started in 1949 when William Krekel opened his first shop. Today there are four stores in Decatur, one in Mt. Zion and one in Springfield. The stores are independently owned, but each owner/operator is a Krekel descendent.
Morgan Green may have moved to New York, but she says there’s no Big Apple eatery that can rival Krekel’s. She’s become a vegetarian since relocating; however, just the thought of a double cheeseburger with everything and an order of crinkle cut fries topped off with a twist cone for dessert tests her resolve.
“I’m not sure what I’d do if faced with a Krekel burger today,” Green admits. “I’m usually pretty strong, but I might just have to eat it and not tell anyone. I’d (definitely) have the ice cream. It’s seriously my favorite place in town.”
Before the campus was closed at noon, many a MacArthur High School student spent their lunch money at Krekel’s West. Visiting the Colonial Mall location close to a holiday virtually guarantees a reunion that includes the rituals of waiting in line to order, getting a number handwritten on a battered piece of cardboard and asking at the counter for ketchup.
“We’ve had service people (returning) from Iraq come here before they go home,” says Cindy Teel, co-operator of the west side Krekel’s with her husband, Todd, who is Bill Krekel’s grandson. “We’ve opened early for people so they can take it with them as they leave town.”
Teel isn’t sure why Krekel’s has taken on near cult status. “It’s good, fresh food at a fair price,” she says.
For 30 years, the west side store has been located in what old-timers still call the Tolly’s Shopping Center. But the couple hopes to soon break ground on a new building located a smidgen to the north of the current location.
Chili. Homemade cherry coke. Handmade shakes. The Chicken Car, located at Route 36 and Mt. Zion. Just do it — but keep in mind Krekel’s is closed Sundays and major holidays.
Angelina Jones has a Krekel’s hot fudge shake at the top of her wish list this Christmas, but Mexican food and Mi Pueblito, in particular, is always on her menu. “I haven’t found anything that compares with it yet in Chicago,” Jones says.
Jeremy Smith isn’t as particular about which Mexican establishment he frequents, but the St. Louis resident looks north to satisfy his south-of-the-border food fix. “Decatur has great Mexican food,” he notes.
It’s First Wok that D.L. Brewer frequents when he returns home from Dallas. Can you say Shrimp Fried Rice and General Tso’s Chicken with a Texas accent?
Felicia Greene knows her son, Kiesten, will always ask for fare from LaGondola Spaghetti House. Established in 1982, the Decatur area claims two of the 15 Illinois eateries known for their made-from-scratch garlic bread and signature meat sauce.
Add the need to dip everything, and that leads to Monical’s Pizza. In Decatur, Monical’s thin crust pizza, topped with garlic salt and basil, isn’t complete without dipping it into the restaurant’s French dressing. Jill Doxsie’s move to Minneapolis didn’t curb her hunger for the pizza — cut into small squares instead of wedges — with a side order of breadsticks, which come with dipping sauces too. “It’s simply awesome,” says Doxsie.
Can’t Eat At Just One
Mike Ward has a list of favorites when he rolls home from Colorado. He says all his picks are connected with a time or life experience that make them special. Krekel’s is the first stop, but the Millikin alum also can’t pass on a burger from the Winery. Ward has LaGondola and Monical’s in the must-sample lineup, but he’ll also bite down on a double crust pizza from Sloan’s Calzones.
Donnie’s Homespun Pizza isn’t the only reason Brian Wright is moving back to Decatur from North Carolina, but he looks forward to ordering the pizza, pita wrap and vegan antipasto at will. “I’m also excited to see there are several new restaurants downtown,” Wright says.
When she would make it back to town, Holly Banning had quite the itinerary for herself: Paul’s, Krekel’s, Monical’s and La Gondola. “Growing up it was always a treat for my grandparents to take my family to Paul’s for their famous chili,” Banning says, “and their milkshakes are amazing as well. Cheeseburgers from Krekel’s will always be my favorite. And I love Monical’s because they have the best thin crust pizza I’ve ever tasted.” Banning appreciates Monical’s family atmosphere, too, and has fond memories of soccer award dinners and birthdays celebrated there.
For my oldest son, Cole, a trip home is never complete without heading to Robbies for a Double Tony — a gussied up double hamburger served with a side order of marinara sauce and a spiced peach. Now living in Manhattan, his choice of fancy restaurants is endless, but he chooses to look favorably on the familiar.
“It just tastes like home,” he says.
Contributor Pam Smith looks forward to stuffing Christmas stockings with hometown restaurant gift cards this season.
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2016 issue of Decatur Magazine.
It may not be reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part without the publisher’s consent.
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