Wednesday, March 29, 2017

To the Rathskeller and Back: my new line of time travel air fresheners

Recently one of my daughters brought home a bag of Fleetwood coffee. Fleetwood? Fleetwood? Where had I heard of Fleetwood? A memory tried to form in my head: a TV commercial? An image of a red bag and a distinctive font appeared. It had to have been something from my Chattanooga childhood. I didn't have to go far to find an answer. I grabbed the bag, and the fine print under the logo told me:

Chattanooga, Tennessee, est. 1925. (The brand's website has pictures of some of the packages I might have seen.) It's very good coffee.  I've tasted both the medium "original" roast and the dark "dining car" roast made to the specifications on the bag--two tablespoons per 6 oz. cup--in a drip maker and a French press, black and also with cream/sugar. Drunk black, the original roast has more of a bite than the dining car roast, which is the smoother of the two. Both have a robust flavor that is complimented by cream and sugar, not overwhelmed, as is the case (to my taste) with so many of the standard supermarket brands. But I'm no food critic, so the best thing would be to see for yourself. 

Brands. The branding iron of Fleetwood marketing sure had worked on me! The way my mind retrieved the font, a memory formed by what, I don't really know, but however it was done, it really made an impression. And I wasn't even a coffee drinker back then. Did my parents drink it? I don't know. Was Fleetwood used at the restaurant in the Loveman's department store, the Macy's of Chattanooga whose newspaper ads were my grandmother's creations? What about the dining car blend? My grandfather rode the rails for Railway Express and took me with him to St. Louis back in 1959--he might as well have worked for Hogwarts Express, as much as that train trip was magnified in my imagination. Did he drink Fleetwood?

Thus is one transported. Whether by magic train or rabbit hole, it is one and the same. The questions were replaced by a parade of sensations, with tastes chief among them, but at the very head was something that put enough distinction and distinctiveness into a smell to power a French epic--or should I say ├ępicerie?

It is a smell (aroma, fragrance, palace of the olfactory) that I would like to capture to introduce a new line of nose-stalgic automobile air fresheners. It wouldn't just have to be for the car, but the car really is the best place to smell certain things, like a carryout pizza or drive-through fries; obviously the enclosed space and the ability to re-circulate air give it an advantage over other spaces.

But not only that. This smell I remember because I smelled it in a car.

I was in the Chattanooga Youth Orchestra when I was in high school. Back then there was only one family car, so after school I'd take the city bus downtown to the university campus, where the orchestra practiced in band room, which was in the football fieldhouse. After rehearsal my father would come pick me up and drive me home. 

My memory says it was Thursdays. Often my father would be joined by a fellow TVA employee named Jim Sasse (a talented singer who, although not Jewish, was the cantor at one of the local synagogues). On those days, as soon as I got in the car, I could tell by the smell (aroma, fragrance, palace of the olfactory) that they had been to the Rathskeller.

How to describe the smell (aroma, fragrance, palace of the olfactory)? To be sure, it was beery. That was part of the point of the Rathskeller. Remember that this was the South in the early 60's. The culture was and probably to some extent still is prevailingly Southern Baptist. I do not say that to malign Southern Baptists. I say that to be factual. If you are the prevailing cultural and political force, you must own up to the results of your prevalence. Back then Southern Baptists were strict prohibitionists. At least publicly. Privately there was the honky-tonk offshoot that fueled country music. Family restaurants of the prevailing culture did not serve beer.

The Rathskeller was a German restaurant and bar (if you didn't mind standing) downtown on Cherry Street. It occupied the ground floor of a building the upper floor of which was a traditional German health club, a Turnverein (the Turner club, in Chattanooga parlance)--kind of like a Y for people with German ancestry who liked to work out and then go downstairs to the Rathskeller and refresh with a beer. This was not Southern Baptist "drinking is sin." This was its religious opposite: "Thank God for the food of beer."

The Rathskeller, then, as a family restaurant, was a shrine for people like my parents who wanted to go with their kids to a place that served beer and wholesome food, and that wasn't a guilt- and sin-soaked honky-tonk. It didn't hurt that it also served up a heaping plate of Gem├╝tlichkeit swathed in frescoed maps of Germany; a 1/20th scale model of a horse-drawn beer wagon parading across a ceiling beam; pictures of animals in human clothes drinking beer; and--in the back on the way to the toilets--a dark, mysterious corner where up near the ceiling a jewel-eyed owl sat on a crescent moon.

The Rathskeller smell (aroma, fragrance, palace of the olfactory) that hit me when I got in the car after Youth Orchestra was as rich as the place itself. It wasn't just beer. It also contained a hint of salami, which Steve and Jim (my father and Mr. Sasse) must've appetized on, but which, as I remember, was also the first thing that greeted you when you entered the Rathskeller--right inside the front door was a deli case with cheeses and sandwich meats. Another element in the car that was part of the smell I can only describe as texture: a yeasty cloud, an invisible cumulus inside of which formed droplets of bonhomie that fell in the form of the good-natured patter from Steve and Jim that filled the car all the way back up Signal Mountain.

So welcome to the Rathskeller, and happy vapor trails, fellow traveler. The Rathskeller is now just a memory, as the place was destroyed back in the seventies to make room for a larger jail (progress?). But if we are lucky, the good taste-time-travel people at Fleetwood will turn their talents to creating a beer, and, even better, a place to drink it where a mysterious, jewel-eyed owl will sit on a crescent moon and stand beneficent guard over you as you go back to pee.

1 comment:

  1. YES! You nailed it Jud. Didn't get to go the "Rat" much as sadly it closed relatively shortly after our legal drinking age of 18. Great blog.