EXCERPT

From the wiving of the West to the depths of the Depression, the fate of the Fred Harvey company was intertwined with the nation’s history, as these scenes from Stephen Fried’s new book, Appetite for America, demonstrate.—J.P.

 

 

 


 


“These People Are the Guests of Mr. Fred Harvey

As the Depression deepened, the Harvey Houses became known as the softest touches in the West, the places where impoverished locals and drifters went in search of a free meal. It was company policy never to let anyone who couldn’t afford to pay leave hungry. Many begged for food at the back door and were pleasantly surprised to get sandwiches, fruit, bread, and coffee. Others came in through the front door.

Bob O’Sullivan, who later became a well-known travel writer, never forgot the hot, dusty fall afternoon in Albuquerque when he was a second grader and his family had to rely on the kindness of strangers in Harvey Girl uniforms. His mother was driving him and his 11-year-old sister—with all their belongings—to California, where they hoped to meet their father and make a new start. The O’Sullivans had arrived in Albuquerque expecting that $25—several weeks’ pay—had been wired to them at the Railway Express office. But when his mother walked out of the office in tears, Bob knew the money hadn’t arrived. As she pulled on her driving gloves, the children asked if they could still get something to eat.

She hesitated.

“Of course we can,” she said finally. “We have to, don’t we?”

She drove along the railroad tracks to the Alvarado and led her children into the dining room. There were few customers there, but lots of delicious aromas, and every surface was gleaming. When a smiling Harvey Girl approached them, her puffed sleeves and starched apron rustling, Bob’s mother pulled her aside and whispered something. The waitress walked to the kitchen and returned with a man wearing a suit, to whom his mother also whispered. Then they were led to a table, where Mrs. O’Sullivan began to order sandwiches for the kids and just a cup of coffee for herself—until the man in the suit interrupted her.

“Why don’t you let me order for you?” he said, and proceeded to tell the Harvey Girl to bring hot soup, then the beef stew, mashed potatoes, bread and butter, and coffee for the lady. He asked the children if they wanted milk or hot chocolate.

“Yes, sir,” they both said.

“Milk and hot chocolate for the children,” he continued, “and some of the cobbler all around. Does that sound all right?”

“Will that be all?’ the waitress asked.

“Oh,” the man said, “and these people are the guests of Mr. Fred Harvey.”

Bob saw his mother mouth the words “Thank you.”

The taste of that stew would stay with him his entire life. As would the memory of what happened when they finished eating. His mother pushed what few coins she had left toward the waitress, who pushed them back with a smile.

“Oh, no, ma’am. You’re Mr. Harvey’s guests,” she said, placing two bags in front of them. “And the manager said I was to wrap up what you didn’t eat, so you could take it along.”

“But we cleaned our plates,” young Bob blurted out. His sister sighed and looked at him as if he were the dumbest person in the world. Then the Harvey Girl started giggling, followed by his mother and then the kids.

In the car, Mrs. O’Sullivan opened the bags, and found them filled with more food than they had eaten for dinner.

“What’s in them?” Bob asked.

“Loaves and fishes,” she replied, shaking her head in amazement. “Loaves and fishes.”

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FEATURE: The History Buffer By John Prendergast
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette

EXCERPT: From the book, Appetite for America, by Stephen Fried. Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Marc Fried. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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