In Which Grampa Orders the Fiesta Salad

One senior citizen’s portal to joy.

Every two weeks or so, I clean Grampa’s apartment at the retirement complex. Vacuuming every corner of a tidy widower’s apartment is less important (at least to a non-neat-freak like me) than a regular check-up on Grampa.

My dear Grampa is a creature of habit.

“Well, maybe we ought to have lunch,” he said when I arrived this morning.

“Sure, Grampa,” I said. As I got out the Lysol, I couldn’t resist adding, “what are you going to have for lunch?”

“Oh well, let’s see,” he said, opening the fridge and bending down to peer in, as if for inspiration. “One slice of wheat bread, folded in half, with hummus and three green olives, cut in half, and cran-raspberry juice.”

This is what he has had for every at-home lunch for the last several years.

“So of course you can have whatever you’d like,” he added, closing the fridge.

“Or,” he continued, and I could see a familiar light in his eyes. “We could go to Applebee’s.”

Never was the slogan over a chain restaurant’s door more applicable to a customer.

Instead of “Welcome”, the local Applebee’s entrance reads “Welcome back!” Since having eaten lunch there three or four times last week as well as yesterday is not viewed by Grampa as a reason to avoid eating there today, it’s right on the money.

He’s a man who knows what he wants, and he likes it best when the wait-staff knows too, before he places his order. For the welcome they give my Grampa, the wait-staff of the Southampton, PA Applebee’s on Street Road deserve induction into the chain restaurant hall of fame, should anyone ever found one.

Eating at Applebee’s with Grampa makes me think of another amiable octogenarian, whose affinity for chain restaurants exploded across the internet earlier this month. Marilyn Hagarty, longtime columnist and food critic for North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald, published a review of her $10.95 lunch at the local Olive Garden (a glass of water, a “familiar” salad, “long, warm breadsticks”, and a “warm and comforting” chicken alfredo), and the piece quickly went viral.

Myriad blogs took up satirical commentary on the elderly Hagarty’s earnest naivete in writing a straight-faced review of the chicken alfredo at a chain restaurant. But a surge of journalistic and culinary nostalgia quickly swamped the snark as prominent writers and celebrity restaurateurs came to Hagarty’s defense, culminating in the Los Angeles Times calling the review “the purest gauge of all that is America”.

I’m no connoisseur, but yes, my husband and I will always opt for our favorite local Afghan, Thai or Vietnamese restaurant over Applebee’s and its national cohorts. My mom’s been telling me for years that I’m a snob, and she’s probably right. But I left Applebee’s today with a warm heart.

“I tell you what, today why don’t we park over here and leave the handicapped place for someone else,” Grampa said, pulling into a space two spots away from the handicapped parking. He’s perfectly fit for his age: the handicapped permit is a relic of my late grandmother’s last years.

“But I’m a wounded veteran,” he usually points out when we tell him he doesn’t need the handicapped space. It’s true: he did earn a Purple Heart fighting in France and Germany during WWII. But as long as the scar doesn’t prevent him from playing eighteen holes of golf, I won’t let him park in the handicapped space.

Our Applebee’s server, a young woman whom Grampa requests every time, came over with a smile. By name, she inquired about Phyllis, Grampa’s usual lunch-mate, who has been his companion in the years since my grandmother’s death. She asked about his healing from a recent fall, and he displayed the wound on his left hand – the stitches in the four-inch gash were just removed yesterday.

With nary a flinch, the server brought Grampa’s iced tea with three extra lemon slices, just the way he likes it. The next several minutes were devoted to surgery on the lemons. Juicy, sticky seeds scattered across the table-top.

“Next time, I’m going to order my lemons without the seeds,” he said.

When it comes to lunch at Applebee’s, Grampa’s degree of variability usually matches that shown in his own kitchen. I ordered a chicken-topped salad and our server was all ready to take down Grampa’s usual order of French Onion soup and shrimp and spinach salad.

But something about our day had sparked a freshness in Grampa.

“How is the Fiesta Salad?” he asked.

“Oh, I hear it’s very good!” the server answered.

“Don’t you like it yourself?”

“Well, I don’t eat cilantro.”

He asked what cilantro was and we explained it was a green herb often used in Mexican food. He folded his hands and addressed me seriously.

“Is it bad for me?”

“Nope!”

He decided to risk it, alongside his regular soup.

The resulting bits of lettuce were mounded with so many small pieces of chicken that he eschewed his fork altogether and ate the salad with his soup spoon.

“Why, this is great,” he said. “Usually I have to eat my soup and then eat my salad, but this way I can eat them both together.” He asked me to show him the cilantro and he carefully spooned the green speck and chewed it up.

“Why, that’s fine!” he announced.

“I’m going to have to tell Phyllis,” he said of the Fiesta Salad. “She won’t believe it.”

On the way home, admitted to me that he suspects his life is in too much of a routine.

“I always do pretty much the same things,” he said. “I want to start trying to do some things differently.”

“Well, trying a different salad for lunch is a great start,” I replied.

“Yes,” he said. “But I’m not ready to change my breakfast. I have a great breakfast: strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, three-quarters of a cup of Great Grains, milk, and twelve Mini-Wheats.”

“Twelve Mini-Wheats?” I asked.

“Twelve,” he said as we pulled into his parking space at the retirement village.

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17 Comments

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  1. LOVE this!! my heart is melting – you captured Grandpa so well. I can totally hear him. Maybe I should drop in soon and change his routine a little bit.

  2. Love it, Alaina! I have never been a guest of Grandpa’s at Applebee’s (and might consider myself a little bit of a restaurant snob myself) but love hearing about my brothers’ lunches. Hilarious!!!

  3. That’s my Pop – you captured the essence. Hmm.. maybe I should take this opportunity and suggest 13 mini-wheats … probably too radical.

  4. Alaina, that is exactly what I wanted to know..why 12 mini wheats…and not 10 or 14.? Maybe he counted them out in the box and knows how many there are and how many will last til he shops!!!

  5. Thank you. I love that man. He is such a blessing to so many. I don’t find the time to visit him the way I would like to so this was a lovely moment to share. Thanks again!

  6. I simply adored this, Doll. To me, it’s your best ever!

  7. This is a fantastic story! I loved spending this kind of time with my Grandma. She was so much fun! Thanks for sharing.

  8. I love the way you capture your Grandpa so beautifully through your story! And it makes me laugh to think about him living on the edge and ordering the Fiesta Salad! Three cheers for him!

    • Yeah, living on the edge is all relative. The next night, having my husband and I to dine at the retirement home with him, Grampa confided that he liked the Fiesta Salad even better than the shrimp and spinach.

  9. This post is definitely one of my favorites now. Well done, great story!

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