ELYRIA, OHIO -- I knew something had changed besides the name as soon as I walked into Springfield's -- formerly Mitchell's, one of my all-time favorite bargain restaurants in the world. The grilled cheese sandwich had gone up from 40 cents to $1, and there was a new Coke machine.
As it turned out, a lot less had changed than I'd expected, and some of the changes were for the better, which I would have thought impossible.
Mitchell's, in this town south of Cleveland, had served its small-town neighborhood and a steady stream of regulars from nearby Oberlin College for nearly 20 years. "Uncle Washington," as Mitchell himself was called, had raised generations on his barbecued ribs with their thick, sweet glaze, his crisp flour-crusted fried chicken, his catfish, pork chops, potato salad, yams and macaroni and cheese. Mitchell's cornbread, a kind of grilled cornmeal version of English muffins, was a staple, both in the bread basket and crumbled into the stuffing for the baked chicken.
I loved Mitchell's. I arranged a long-distance surprise birthday party at Mitchell's for my son in his freshman year at Oberlin. I took crowds of his friends there for dinners that cost less than my typical Saturday night dinner for two in a Washington restaurant. I enjoyed watching big brawny teen-agers with three-day growths of beard and five-days-worn T-shirts, taking an exam break for ribs and collard greens and a glass of chocolate milk. There was no liquor served at Mitchell's, which didn't stop it from being a lot of students' favorite place. They also got a lot of mothering at Mitchell's, from waitresses who wouldn't serve them their peach cobbler until they finished their green beans (which had, of course, been cooked forever with ham to flavor them).
There are even more mothers around to do the job now. Mitchell's was taken over last November by an entire clan: According to Barbara Ballard it includes her husband Clarence, Freddie Springfield and her husband Johnny, Geraldine and Willie Moody, Betty Moody White, the Ballards' son Darnell and nephew Maurice Moody. None had been in the restaurant business before, though Barbara Ballard had cooked for plenty of people at church suppers to earn money for promoting Clarence Ballard's gospel group. Yet when the restaurant came up for sale, she said, "We just pooled the money together" and everybody pitched in to run it, though Geraldine Moody and Clarence Ballard do most of the cooking.
"Everybody here's got a job," explained Ballard, by which she meant a job in addition to running the restaurant. And with the gospel group -- The Ballard Brothers -- still going strong, the restaurant is "lots of work, lots and lots of work," Ballard admitted. Not only is Springfield's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day but Sunday, there is a lot to it besides cooking. "You've got to deal directly with the people, settle complaints and enjoy the compliments," said Ballard. "You gotta be able to deal with people as a whole."
Experience may not have been the Springfields', Moodys' and Ballards' strong suits, but they have added some improvements to the menu: Wing Dings (spiced chicken wings) and buttermilk pie. And while "Uncle Washington" Mitchell gave them his cornbread recipe, said Ballard, "You know how it is. We had to adapt the recipe just a little." They make the batter in 10-gallon pails, mixing five pails of batter at a time, twice a week, then fry it fresh every day. It starts out sounding easy: "Put everything except lard in a big pot, melt the lard, and just dump it in and work it up," explained Ballard. Then it gets more difficult. "Use a great big wooden spoon, and you got to get down there with both hands and get it all the way down to the bottom. You know them elbow muscles you got, you got to put them to work," she said.
Raising the prices -- platters average $3 to $5, with porterhouse steak $8 -- was difficult for Springfield's. "We got a lot of college kids and they don't have a bunch of money," said Ballard, who added that she has two kids in college herself. But they still get a lot of mothering with their $3 chicken-and-dumplings dinners.
Tabletalk Search as I might, I've never found apricot juice that is as good as apricots; it has always been too thick and sweet. Now there is new hope. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture has announced a new method -- using "macerating enzymes" -- to extract thin, clear juice from apricot concentrate. Watch for apricot soft drinks, frozen juice bars and schnapps, promises USDA.
USDA is also making it possible for you to decorate your living room before filling your dinner pot. It has developed a hanging asparagus plant that will grow indoors to droop decoratively, with enough edible stalks to at least garnish your salad.
If you can't decide between Tang and Gatorade, a whiskey sour or Irish Cream, the American Institute for Cancer Research can help with its beverage slide chart showing nutritional content, calories and sodium for 150 different beverages. Write for the "Guide to Beverages," American Institute for Cancer Research, Dept. BG, Washington, D.C. 20069. A donation is requested but there is no specified charge.
SPRINGFIELD'S GRILLED CORNBREAD (Makes about 20 pieces)
2 1/2 cups white cornmeal
1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 to 2 cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons lard, melted
Pinch baking soda
Using a wooden spoon or your hands, combine everything in a large bowl. Batter should be just thick enough that it doesn't run, but holds its shape. If it is too thick, add more buttermilk; if it is too thin, add a little flour or cornmeal.
Heat griddle and lightly grease it. Spoon batter onto hot griddle to form rounds about 2 inches in diameter. On medium-high heat, cook cornbread about 5 minutes, until well browned on bottom and dry on top, then turn to brown the other side. Cook until other side is well browned and batter is cooked through to the middle, adjusting heat if it is browning too fast. In all, cornbread should take 10 to 15 minutes to cook though. Serve hot, with butter. And use any leftovers to make poultry stuffing.