Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Ho Jo's No Go

I heard it on my car radio this evening while I was driving. I don't even know what they were saying about it--I just caught some fleeting mention of the name, and something about it being the last one in Maine. The last what in Maine? The last Howard Johnson's restaurant.

How the mighty have fallen. One with Nineveh and Tyre, and all that. My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair. Those orange roofs that had dotted the highways of my youth, gone? There were so many once, like the passenger pigeons that had blackened the nineteenth-century skies; how could they be no more?

Well, it turns out they're not all gone. In this internet age, there is a website devoted to Ho Jo, where one can learn (as I did) that nine Howard Johnson's still remain, the last leaves on the spindly Ho Jo tree; soon to be eight, with the sole Vermont one closing next month.

One can also learn of the great and illustrious history of HoJo's, named after its founder, one Howard Johnson. The man was a marketing genius who almost-singlehandedly invented the fast food business. He started the first HoJo in Quincy, Massachusetts, in the 1920s; by the midst of the Depression he had 25 of them going in the state, having also invented the concept of the restaurant francise. He correctly foresaw the changes the automobile would bring, and located his restaurants accordingly. He started the practice of doing most of the cooking in a centralized location and then shipping the product to the local restaurants for the finishing touches. He came up with the idea of standardizing the architecture (and everything else), using signature orange roofs, highly visible and instantly recognizable
(Golden Arches, anyone?). He thought America needed more ice cream flavors than vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry--twenty-five more, in fact--and America agreed.

I didn't know until I was twenty-one years old and had moved to New England for the first time (Boston) that a clam had a body part called a belly, and that this part could be eaten. Before that, I had only known Howard Johnson's clams, and Howard Johnson's clams were expurgated, bowlderized, sanitized. America wasn't ready for the clam belly (or perhaps they didn't freeze, store, and ship well?), so HoJo's selected only the bland and rubbery feet, and fried those in quantity, ignoring the way New Englanders eat clams--whole, with the soft belly tasting strongly of the ocean.

But the piece de resistance (although no one tried to resist it), the creme de la creme, was Howard Johnson's ice cream. I was especially partial to the flavor peppermint stick, which sounds awful but was fabulous. I do believe that HoJo's ice cream would stand up well even now, in this era of premium and gelati and $3.50 cones.

Why did Howard Johnson's die out? Poor management, lack of interest, cost-cutting, competition, changing tastes--whatever. It's time had come and gone.

The last time I was at a Howard Johnson's was in New Hampshire in 1986, at four-thirty AM in the dead of winter. We had gotten up in the middle of the night, dragged our 6-year-old out of bed, and gone with friends to see Halley's Comet. The only way to view it, the newspaper had said, was to wait for the wee hours of the morning, and go out into the country where there were no lights to interfere.

But the night was bitter cold--way below zero--and, even though it was clear out, Halley's Comet looked no more visible than any ordinary star, perhaps even less so. Afterwards, we passed the HoJo's, saw that it was open, and stopped there for pancakes. We were punchy from lack of sleep, but I remember it as one of the most enjoyable meals ever, a sort of clandestine conspiratorial party, all of us up and dressed and exhausted, out at a time when the rest of the world slept on.

I knew it was virtually impossible that I'd ever see Halley's Comet again (next time it comes, it will be the year 2062). What I didn't know was that I'd never eat at another Howard Johnson's.

20 Comments:

At 9:20 AM, April 12, 2005, Anonymous Jeff said...

There used to be a wonderful HoJo's in Coral Gables, FL right on South Dixie Highway (US 1). My little sister always insisted on having her birthday dinner there. When I got older and in high school, a tradition evolved wherein we would meet there at 6:00 am on New Years Day to eat off our hangovers (it was a 24 hour restaurant). Nothing more that a few boring memories, but the disapearance of the place saddens me. Perhaps mint chocolate chip ice cream will be to me what the famous madeline was to Proust.

 
At 10:45 AM, April 12, 2005, Blogger galloworth said...

I remember seeing a great cover on Forbes magazine. It was an artist's rendering of a Howard Johnson's in the 50s, and then the same restaurant in the 80s. The HoJo was the same, but the landscape had changed.

I wish I had hung on to that picture. I'm not so sure that I care about HoJo, but there is a fine sort of sadness--similar to what children, the most conservative creatures on the planet, feel--thinking about something that was once so fresh and exciting, ending. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

 
At 10:54 AM, April 12, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

I'm adding you to my reading list. Your blog/column/forum is thoughtful, balanced and lacks nasal whining.

 
At 11:36 AM, April 12, 2005, Anonymous mikeski said...

When I was an undergrad at Brandeis (Waltham, MA) from 1981-85, the only place open for late night munchies was the HoJo's on Rte. 128. Big Breakfast II, baby.

Nice blog, btw. Bookmarked.

 
At 1:08 PM, April 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe the part of the clam that HoJos used is called the "neck", not the "foot".

I have enjoyed your blog for a few weeks now; I am a native New Englander and we always thought the Clam Strips were missing something!

 
At 1:25 PM, April 12, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

Anonymous--beats me as to whether it's "foot" or "neck." I wasn't sure about that either, and I actually googled it to try to check it out (oh, the weary labors of the blogger!). The best I could come up with was foot, but perhaps you are right; perhaps it's neck.

If interested, you can look at this. Then there's also this, which indicates that clam strips were slicings from huge, commercially harvested clams--doesn't say which part of the clam, though!

Perhaps more than anyone ever wanted to know about clams...

 
At 2:06 PM, April 12, 2005, Blogger Dr. Sanity said...

My mother used to be a waitress there and we ate there often. I LOVED the fried clams (all you can eat). Sigh...next thing you know Dairy Queen will fade away too!

 
At 2:40 PM, April 12, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

Thank you Neo Neo for this sad information. Though Ho-Jo was never that big in Texas where I grew up, and came home to reside, I did love them when I was traveling or during my various "stateside" tours in the Army. The ice cream was a special treat, as were the fried clams. We weren't used to fried clams in West Texas.

 
At 4:20 PM, April 12, 2005, Blogger Brad said...

Does anyone remember the parody of HoJo's in Mad magazine, poking fun at the slowness of the service? The piece included one waitress that was pregnant for 27 months. But I also loved the place as a kid; getting out of the back of the station wagon after several hours; HoJo's felt like home.

 
At 6:28 AM, April 13, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

HoJos seems to be going the way of the dinosaur . Alas, poor Yorick...

 
At 5:57 PM, April 13, 2005, Anonymous Asher - Dreams Into Lightning said...

Wow. Another piece of my old New England gone!

I remember eating there as a kid - I can remember the bright orange roof that you could see from Mars. Yup, I remember their fried clams too (this was before I got involved with this weird cult called "the Jewish religion".)

Also I remember that my parents had boycotted it for a while during the civl rights era. I think that was a little before my time - or just about the time I was born - so probably what I'm remembering is that they spoke of having boycotted HoJo's.

 
At 12:21 PM, April 21, 2005, Anonymous GSR said...

During high school in the 70's I worked at Friendly's and on Friday/Saturday nights, us Friendly's closers would clean up, lock up and head over to HoJo's for a midnight breakfast before heading home. There were some nights, much to my parent's chagrin, that I wouldn't be home until almost dawn, having spent hours at hojos drinking coffee, eating pancakes and smoking cigarettes...great memories!

 
At 1:54 PM, April 23, 2005, Blogger Jille said...

When I was in high school, the only cool place to go after Friday night dances was the HoJo's at Fresh Pond. NO ONE has ever made better fried clam rolls than they did. Remember the wonderful buttery toasted rolls? They used them on hotdogs as well.

I actually met the real Howard Johnson at a wedding when I was about 7. He had a head like an egg

 
At 1:07 PM, May 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best thing about the old Howard Johnson's was the RELISH that went on the hot dogs (very sweet), and the way they toasted the buns. Yum....

 
At 9:48 PM, May 12, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

Haven't been back to Boston in years but I wonder if the Brigham's ice cream shops still exist. I loved their lime rickeys and now must make my own...inc. having to make the raspberry syrup since you can't find any.

The things we do for love...

And now, even in VA, I can buy fresh clams at the grocery store. Nothing like a steamed clam...

In Gloucester one year, the tail end of a huuricane came thru Cape Anne in early September. We all went down to the beach and collected dozens and dozens of mussels. A first for all of us: looked like clams, tasted almost as good...

Sic transit, hmmm?

 
At 9:24 AM, June 17, 2005, Anonymous A Liberal Friend (you know who) said...

Well, I loved it, the whole thing, your HoJo reflection and all the responses. Would you believe that I too have significant HoJO memories which I will share next time we meet.

 
At 6:57 PM, August 20, 2005, Anonymous hg wells said...

neo -- I just put you in my daily blog list too. You're getting better and better; I love your range.

Howard Johnson's was an icon from my childhood. My grandmother would take us kids there for a treat. For my birthday she bought me a "Satellite Sparkler" -- Howard Johnson's top-of-the-line $1.75 sundae topped with a lighted sparkler spewing magical ozoney sparks all over the restaurant table.

 
At 8:51 AM, September 21, 2005, Anonymous terryt said...

Thanks for the HoJo piece, Neo. Charming. I loved your description of your wee hour meal.

A visit to a Howard Johnson's during family vacations in the 1960s was
an experience I will always remember fondly. I loved seeing the orange and turquoise, my dad pulling off the turnpike, getting out of a hot car & entering the air conditioned cool of a HoJo. I clearly recall the feeling of sliding into a turquoise leather booth. But what I remember most was the "Orange Freeze", an Orange drink/ Orange sherbet float. My sister and brother and I loved them. And of course the hot dogs with the beautiful toasted bun. And yes, the Fried Clams too! Happy memories.

The last HoJo I was in is the one in Times Square. About a year ago (2004)I just went in to look around, knowing that it's soon to be either totally transformed into something else or torn down. Sad. O well. Very enjoyable while they lasted.

 
At 3:22 PM, October 29, 2007, Blogger Kenny said...

Is it possible to find out if the green relish that was used and sold by Howard Johnson restaurants is still being made and sold even if it's by a different seller? Hands down the best relish ever made!!!

 
At 8:25 PM, February 09, 2008, Blogger Bob said...

Oh my goodness.
Thank God for a web page about Howard Johnson.
I lived on Cape Cod and went Air Force for 20 years and when I got home from Vietnam they were gone.
What a heart breaker. The Hot Dogs and Relish were the best in the world.
Please someone, tell me where I may be able to buy there relish or the company that may still make it.
I would love to buy a couple of gallon cans if possible.

Bob
silversurf@thegrid.net

 

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