Neman: End of Howard Johnson era brings back ice cream memories | food and cooking

An era is over. We have come to the end of the road.

Last week, word came that the last Howard Johnson’s restaurant anywhere in the world has finally, irrevocably closed.

The news caused barely a ripple on the surface of the lake of time. Howard Johnson’s was old news. No sudden trauma killed it; he died of old age and neglect.

The people who care about such things — they can be found on a Facebook page called HoJoLand — argue among themselves about whether the last one to close should even be considered an official Howard Johnson’s. Located in the spectacularly scenic town of Lake George, New York, it was a Howard Johnson’s in name only, though technically it was an actual franchise of the once ubiquitous chain.

The color scheme at the Lake George location was, blasphemous, mauve and burnt sienna. The menu bore little resemblance to the offerings that once packed in customers to more than 1,000 restaurants in 42 states and across Canada. And, judging by a photo of the now-abandoned location, only seven flavors of ice cream were offered at the end: Vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, coffee, chocolate chip cookie dough, maple walnut and orange sherbet.

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Only seven? Part of the thrill of going to a Howard Johnson’s restaurant was the abundance of ice cream flavors that they served. At a time when ice cream choices were mostly limited to chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, Howard Johnson’s provided access to an exotic world of black raspberry, Swiss almond and coconut ice creams.

Twenty-eight flavors in all, and although the selections changed over the decades, the number of offerings always remained the same.

Howard Johnson’s was founded in 1925 by Howard Johnson, a World War I vet who borrowed $2,000 to buy a drugstore in Quincy, Massachusetts. The store sold patent medicines, “toilet articles,” games, newspapers and ice cream at its soda fountain.

The ice cream outsold everything else, especially after Johnson bought a recipe that used only natural flavors and doubled the amount of butterfat. Soon, a chain was born.

But it wasn’t just ice cream. To me, as a boy in the back seat of the car on family vacations, Howard Johnson’s meant fried clam strips. The menu was actually fairly extensive — not just “hamburgs” and “frankforts” but everything from fried veal cutlets and Maryland crab cakes to Welsh rarebit and barbecued brisket sandwiches. But I only got the clam strips.

I did not know at the time that the chain was based in Massachusetts, where clams practically run wild in the streets. I just knew that the clam strips were good every time I had them.

That consistency was the secret to the chain’s success. Fast food restaurants were not then found at every exit. If you were driving anywhere that required a stop for a meal, you had to take your chances at a mom-and-pop stand that might care little for either flavor or hygiene.

But you knew what you were getting with a Howard Johnson’s. Me, I was getting fried clam strips.

Howard Johnson’s helped create the car culture in America, and the car culture helped create Howard Johnson’s. The restaurants with the gleaming orange roofs and the turquoise trim were a traveler’s oasis in the asphalt desert.

But time caught up to the venerable chain, and then surpassed it. Baskin-Robbins started offering 31 flavors of ice cream. Fast food restaurants revolutionized highway eating, with meals that were faster, cheaper and less exotic.

An open-faced hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy? Fried scallops? Who needs that when you can grab a quick hamburger or a bucket of fried chicken for half the price?

Time marches on, and all good things must end. I think I haven’t been to a Howard Johnson’s since 1986, when I stopped in for an ice cream near the end of a long, hot drive across the US south. But I will miss them and everything they stood for.

Sic transit gloria mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world.

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