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Ham Sandwiches at The Owl Café, or Another Trip Down Memory Lane, Except It’s Really a Remote Desert Highway in the Very Early 60’s

(post, DawnHeather Simmons)

My dad was always a challenging man to be around.  For most of my childhood I was terrified of him although I looked up to him and desperately lived for any small sign of his approval.  But when we went camping, he was another man.  A camping trip was the only time I or my brother ever really felt close to him, or even able to talk to him, at all.  Then my dad was approachable, and shared with us his love of Nature, and all the things he knew about the world we lived in.  When we went to the mountains or out into the desert with him, we could all breathe easier.  We laughed and talked and learned a lot about ourselves, our planet, survival, history, each other, and what it was like to stand in silent awe under a sky with more stars in it than you ever imagined existed.  

Now, camping wasn’t a common activity for us.  For one thing, Dad worked lots of overtime, and wasn't around much -- which my brother and I mostly thought was a good thing.  Also, it was the only thing Mom never did with us.  She was never comfortable in the mountains, or especially not in the desert.  Of course, some of her fear was, no doubt, my father’s driving, which was skillful, but often too fast for real safety.  And he loved to show off and drive as close as he dared to sheer cliff edges, knowing how Mom and I would be terrified of falling over the edge.  Furthermore, it didn’t help that we usually had older cars that my dad repaired himself, sometimes with ingenious materials like, literally, paperclips and baling wire.  More than once we got stranded in the middle of nowhere for hours while Dad patiently repaired this or that. We didn’t dare speak or play around for fear of breaking his concentration and getting yelled at like we did at home.  One unforgettable time we laid out some old towels alongside the car in the shoulder of a desolate road, then carefully laid out the pieces of our carburetor in order as he took the darned thing apart, and then handed them back to him in reverse order as he cleaned the parts in some siphoned gasoline and rebuilt it.  The desert heat shimmered off the ground around us, and not a single car drove by the whole time.  

Occasionally, we headed into the mountains with one of my father’s friends from JPL (the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, where he worked for several years).  My brother and I found it fun and exciting to hang out with these smart older guys who worked in the space program.  Other times it was just my brother, my father and I, loading up the car and schlepping out into the desert for the weekend.  We hiked, but never very difficult or challenging hikes, and although we often stayed overnight, we were almost as likely to sleep in the back of the VW Microbus (or occasionally, during bad weather, in a shabby, stuffy little hotel room with a shared bathroom down the hall in some remote little town) as we were to sleep outside under the stars.  I don’t remember that we even owned a tent.  On these trips, we collected rocks, explored caves and abandoned mines, smushed mosquitoes in the car window with our bare thumbs, walked among ancient trees, and swam in hot springs and icy creeks.  It was all a glorious adventure for a little girl who could hardly stand to get her hands dirty or miss bathing for a day.  

One of the things I remember most about these camping trips is the food.  On camping trips, we might eat green beans straight out of the can without mayonnaise or anything, and it would be one of the most delicious things you could imagine eating.  Dad always said food just tasted better when you ate it out in Nature after a long hike, and it seemed like it really did.  Never one to enjoy barbecuing, like most of the fathers I knew, he was handy enough around a campfire.  Or there were stops in little roadside coffee shops in small mountain towns (one of which was where I first tasted chicken-fried steak), or in the middle of the desert where the local community consisted of a combination gas station/coffee shop/post office, maybe a feed store, and perhaps a dozen little houses scattered within a hundred miles or so.  One notable example of that sort was The Owl Café.  

I can’t remember where The Owl Café was, for sure.  I think it was somewhere in the Mojave Desert, and it seems like one of the closest towns was Hell – which only sticks with me because we could say it without getting smacked because it wasn’t swearing, but the name of a real place (although it probably doesn’t even exist any more).  I think we went to The Owl Café when we’d been driving somewhere near Mono Lake.  But I can’t reliably recall any of that for certain.  It was a stop we made more than once, because they had killer ham sandwiches.  Dad loved ham, and although I wasn’t ever a big fan, these sandwiches were something very special even to me.  And yet, like the location, after all these years, I am really sketchy on the details, except for one:  They were huge sandwiches…  humongous…  grossly, awesomely, amazingly oversized!  I remember thick white homemade bread that nearly covered the plate, and a monstrous slab of ham that hung over the edges of the bread and almost defeated even my dad’s enormous appetite.  There wasn’t any cheese on this sandwich.  I do remember that very clearly, although I also remember that the sandwich was so good, it didn’t need to have cheese on it.  It seems like there was some very green lettuce, and perfectly-ripe slices of tomato and maybe a paper-thin slice of white onion, too, but I’m not sure about any of that.  There weren’t any fries or chips or anything else alongside except maybe a slice or two of pickle. The sandwich really filled the plate to overflowing. There simply wasn’t room for anything else, either on the plate, or inside your stomach.  

I do remember being all hot and sweaty from the long drive through the desert.  We finally arrived at this dusty place with a few pick-up trucks parked out front, and an old wooden floor, paths between the red Formica® tables worn thin by years of scuffling cowboy boots.  There were faded red gingham curtains and a single fat, enormous fly lazily buzzing in the window.  Framed newspaper clippings decorated the wall, and there was a short bar along one side of the room where some of the locals drank coffee or “the beer that made Milwaukee famous” and talked about the weather.  A friendly waitress bustled about, smiling at everyone, calling most of them by name, and pouring coffee from a never-emptying round pot that seemed to grow right out of her arm.  Although she wore a pencil over one ear, and had an order pad in her apron pocket, she never wrote down the orders as we placed them.  Conversations wove in and around the room including everyone (even us).  And in my mind’s eye, almost everyone sat in front of one of those massive ham sandwiches, of which the café’s owner was, no doubt, justifiably proud.  

My brother and I would sit and look at our own enormous sandwiches, working out a strategy for how to pick them up without losing everything, then tackle them with gusto, eating as much as we possibly could, and washing each mouthful down with milk and, if we were really lucky, a Coke®.  Although we’d start pretty fast, we’d soon realize that we’d never finish the darned thing, and, anyway, it was much cooler and nicer in the café than in our hot car.  When we couldn’t eat another bite, the waitress would come over and wrap the rest in a piece of waxed paper “for later,” then offer us a slice of homemade pie – which we weren’t allowed to have, because we hadn’t finished our meal.  Eventually, Dad would settle up, leaving a stack of quarters under his plate for the waitress, then send us both off to the restroom to “take care of what we needed to care of” and wash up before we left.  When we came back out, Dad would be talking to some old desert rat with a dusty hat and a wizened face, our leftover sandwiches in a brown paper bag, ready to take with us.  There would be a few more words for the old prospector or farmer, who’d often chuck us under the chin, calling us both “Red” and making a small old-guy joke that my brother and I never understood.  Then we’d all drag ourselves back out to the car for the last leg of our trip home, sated from the incredible meal, and a weekend of “roughing it” with Dad.  

Ham Sandwiches, in Memory of The Owl Café

The main ingredients to this are really, really good homemade bread or soft sandwich rolls, and great quality ham with a nice sugar or honey cure, fairly thickly sliced by hand so the edges are a little uneven.  Although I distinctly recall that The Owl Café used white bread, I often find that onion rolls or challah are especially good for this.  The ham should be what my mom called “frizzled” – that is, fried over high heat with a little butter in a heavy skillet until the uneven edges are browned and ever-so-slightly crisped.  While that’s heating, liberally spread your untoasted bread with mayonnaise and your favorite mustard.  Add some leaf, butter, or Bibb-type lettuce, and slices of very ripe tomato right out of the garden that morning.  Add some very thin slices of onion and maybe some good, crisp pickle slices, if desired.  Then pile on the hot ham.  My dad usually shook a few drops of Tabasco® onto the ham inside his sandwich, just for good measure.  Served with a big glass of ice cold milk or beer, or a steaming  cup of good strong coffee, it’s a meal fit to satisfy any prospector, cowboy, or desert rat, and probably you, too!