*Author’s note. This essay originally appeared in my food column on Examiner.com. It seems like a good one to run after Christmas. I always get nostalgic this time of year, a feeling that has only amplified in the years since my father’s passing. There’s a recipe for prime rib leftovers at the end in honor of your Christmas prime rib leftovers and of the French dip my dad and I enjoyed together all those years ago.
**There are links to recipe coloring pages at the end of this post.
Comfort food memories usually involve more than the bite of hot pie and cold vanilla ice cream that sat on your fork on a special afternoon.
They're full of the people who shared the meal with you, and while there are many comfort food restaurants around Idaho's capital city of Boise, the one that stands out in my memory no longer exists.
And the person who was with me on the day of my visit no longer lives. But the memories of one afternoon spent at Manley's Cafe with my dad lingers on in my mind like the scent of fresh-baked apple pie long after you've pulled it from the oven.
Large Food Portions, Bring Extra Forks
I grew up hearing about Manley's Cafe long before my dad took me there one afternoon. To put it plainly, it was a dive like all good comfort food restaurants are. It sat on Boise's Federal Way near a live-in motel. The motel with its Techni-Color wall paint and cheap plastic playground toys still stands right next to the clearing where the cafe once did. The Boise restaurant had linoleum floors that at one time probably had a pattern.
But that had worn away from years of abuse brought on by too many sets of waffle stompers plus the bleach and water that it took to clean away the prints left by those shoes. It also had booths and a counter with stools, I seem to remember, and while I want to say that they were gray, wisdom tells me that they might not have been gray at all, but rather they have now faded to gray along with the other pictures in my comfort food memories.
But it wasn't the astonishingly ugly decor for which Manley's was known. No, it was the large food portions. Enormous. No kidding. That's what my dad used to tell me. Before we finally went, I imagined French dips on serving platter-sized plates filled with pounds of fries and meat-filled foot-long hoagie rolls along with a dog bowl-sized servings of Au jus.
Dad also promised me that if I had an appetite after all that food, I would want to order apple pie. It would be a whole quarter of the pie and a pint of ice cream served up to me by a waitress whose body had been twisted like an old tree in the desert wind from all the weight she carried around on those plates.
Love served on a platter
Such a meal would be as hard on the stomach as it would be the arteries if you attempted it by yourself. But that wasn't the point of Manley's.
In true comfort food restaurants style, it was a place to share your food and your comfort food memories.
Manley's even provided you with extra forks at no charge and without a dirty look if you asked for them.
It was a hot summer day when dad and I finally did visit that restaurant. I had just started working as a waitress in one of Boise's other comfort food restaurants, the Kopper Kitchen and for the first time in my life, I had my own money.
I was 16 then, which is about the age when most teens would rather hang with friends than with their dads. But it was never like that for me. I just liked my dad. I always liked him. My dad was funny in a way that most people didn't know—a live wire, actually—but he was also quiet if you didn't know him and most people didn't. But I did. Even when I was 16.
He also worked a lot, and it was rare that I got to spend time with just him. I don't recall where my mom was the day that we ate at Manley's. I just remember she wasn't home, and I offered to take my dad to dinner. Mostly because I could for the first time in my life. So off we went with me still carrying my waitressing money in my work apron, because I didn't have a purse. What's on this comfort food menu?
I ordered the French dip right off the comfort food menu to end all comfort food menus. It was just as dad described and tasted even better than I imagined it. I ate that all by myself, but I did share the pie with him. We didn't finish that. It sat in a pool of melted vanilla ice cream. I pushed around the remnants of it with my fork as I chatted with dad. My comfort food memories are foggy at best when I try to reconstruct what we talked about.
However, I don't think the subject was as important to me or to dad as the fact that we were just hanging out for an afternoon. “It's the kid that's important, not the thing,” he used to say to me. I felt important that day, because I could pay for dinner with my own money and because I spent the afternoon with my dad.
My dad has been gone for almost 10 years now and Manley's Cafe for even longer than that. That day was almost 30 years ago, and it along with the pie we ate has been swallowed up by the ravages of time and the passages of life. But visions of my dad and my comfort food memories linger on in my mind like the scent of hot apple pie before it wafts out the window in the fall breeze.
Recipe for Steak Fries
Christmas Leftovers: Recipe for Au Jus for a French Dip
This comfort food sandwich staple is served in diners along the highways and byways all across the country (just like at Manley's), and the warm au jus gravy almost takes the place of a good soup. It warms up your tummy and gives the sandwich more flavor. In its fancier incarnations, it's the drippings from the prime rib. It's from this leftover stock that you'll make the prime rib au jus gravy recipe for your sandwich.
French dip au jus recipe
• ¼ cup of water • 1 tablespoon of corn starch • 1 to 2 cups of roast drippings (should still have the fat) • 1 15 ounce can of beef broth • ¼ teaspoon of steak seasoning
1. Draw the water from the tap and make sure that it's lukewarm—not too hot, not too cold. 2. Gradually add in the corn starch, stirring it with a small whisk as you go. Set the mixture aside when you're done. 3. Add the beef broth and the steak seasoning to the roast drippings and bring to a boil. 4. Whisk in the corn starch as it boils until it starts to thicken. 5. Turn down the heat and serve with the sandwiches that you make from your prime rib leftovers.
Use hoagie rolls as buns. For extra flavor, add sliced peppers, onions, and cheddar cheese.
You’ll find coloring pages for the “accessories” to the French dip in the links below.
Get either my blue or my pink password journal. The giveaway is free, but it’s open only to the people on my mailing list. Sign up here! (The ice cream soda page is a variation of an illustration in the book!)