Nieman: The end of the Howard Johnson era brings back memories of ice cream, food and cooking

Era is over. We have come to the end of the road.

Last week, it was reported that the last Howard Johnson restaurants anywhere in the world had finally closed permanently.

The news barely caused a ripple on the surface of the Lake of Time. The Howard Johnson news was old. A sudden shock did not kill her; He died of old age and neglect.

People who care about such things — they can be found on a Facebook page called HoJoLand — argue among themselves about whether the last person to shut down should be Howard Johnson officially. Located in the scenic New York town of Lake George, Howard Johnson was in name only, although technically it was an actual franchise of the ubiquitous chain.

The color scheme at the Lake George site, blazing, was mauve and scorched sienna. The menu was somewhat similar to the offerings that were packed for customers at more than 1,000 restaurants in 42 states and across Canada. Based on the image of the now-abandoned site, only seven flavors of ice cream were eventually offered: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, coffee, chocolate chip paste, maple, walnut, and orange sorbet.

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Only seven? Part of the excitement of going to Howard Johnson’s was the abundance of ice cream flavors they served. At a time when ice cream choices were mostly limited to chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, Howard Johnson offered access to the exotic world of blackberry, Swiss almond, and coconut ice cream.

Twenty-eight flavors in total, and although the selections have changed over the decades, the number of offerings has always remained the same.

Howard Johnson’s was founded in 1925 by Howard Johnson, a World War I veterinarian who borrowed $2,000 to purchase a pharmacy in Quincy, Massachusetts. The store sold patent medicines, “toilet items”, toys, newspapers, and ice cream in the soft drink fountain.

Ice cream sales have outpaced anything else, especially after Johnson bought a recipe that used only natural flavors and doubled the amount of butter. Soon a series was born.

But it wasn’t just ice cream. To me, as a boy in the back seat of the car on family vacations, Howard Johnson meant fried clams. The menu was actually fairly extensive – not just Hamburgers and Frank Wurts but everything from fried veal cutlets and Maryland crab cakes to Welsh robites and grilled breast sandwiches. But I only got clam slices.

Little did I know at the time that the chain was based in Massachusetts, where oysters are practically slaying the streets. I just learned clam fillets have been good every time I’ve had them.

This consistency has been the secret to the series’ success. Then fast food restaurants at every exit were not found. If you’re driving anywhere that requires stopping for a meal, risk your chances at a mom-and-pop stand that might not care much about flavor or cleanliness.

But you know what you’ve been getting with Howard Johnson. Me, I was bringing fried clam slices.

Howard Johnson helped create the car culture in America, and the car culture helped create the Howard Johnson culture. The restaurants, with their bright orange roofs and turquoise decorations, were an oasis for travelers in the asphalt desert.

But time besieged the venerable chain, and then passed it. Baskin Robbins started offering 31 flavors of ice cream. Fast food restaurants have revolutionized highway dining, with meals being faster, cheaper, and less outlandish.

An open-sided roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy? Fried scallop? Who needs that when you can get a quick hamburger or a bucket of fried chicken for half the price?

Time flies, and all good things must come to an end. I guess I haven’t been to Howard Johnson’s since 1986, when I stopped for an ice cream near the end of a long, hot trip through the southern US. But I will miss them and everything they defended.

Sic transit Gloria Mundi. This is how the glory of the world passes.

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