It's not as if I didn't get my fill of that junk. My convenience-mad mother loved TV dinners, warm-and-eat rolls and simplistic desserts with flamboyant names like "Jewels in the Snow" (Jell-O cubes tossed in Cool Whip). But she drew the line, oddly enough, at Velveeta, that creamy orange brick made from "a blend of natural cheeses and other wholesome ingredients," according to Kraft, the food-processing conglomerate. Mom claimed the stuff "looked more like plastic than cheese." Besides, what kind of dairy product didn't require refrigeration? So it wasn't until much later that I discovered the guilty pleasures of Velveeta, along with those of martinis, menthol cigarettes and one-night stands.
You can get plenty of martinis at Raymore's Wind River Grill -- but you can't get a menthol or any other kind of cigarette. The place is completely nonsmoking, which seems an odd concession to health-consciousness. This is, after all, a restaurant where the spinach-and-cheese dip is a soup cup brimming with a familiar, shiny Crayola-orange concoction speckled with tiny bits of green spinach.
Just as I dipped a tortilla chip into the cup, our waiter swooped over. He was a nice, gangly kid with an open, honest face -- he's getting ready to go into the Army -- so I knew he'd give me a straight answer. The menu said the dip was made from a "creamy blend of cheeses." What, I asked him, were the cheeses?
"Velveeta," he whispered with a big grin.
Actually, it's not exactly Velveeta, the restaurant's owner, Mike Leitner, confided to me later. It's a knockoff called Golden Velvet, to which he adds cream cheese, spinach and a splash of milk. Although it's a rec-room version of the familiar appetizer, I liked it enough to eat almost every bite. But guiltily, so guiltily.
And that was my reaction to most of the fattening, rich, greasy and gravy-drenched dishes at Leitner's Wind River Grill, a fourteen-month-old restaurant in a strip mall just down Highway 58 from the giant Wal-Mart. It might be the fanciest restaurant in this burgeoning suburb of 12,000 (up from 268 people in 1960), which is considered part of the metro but feels like Hooterville. (Recent news that the mayor and the mayor pro tem had resigned and the city administrator had been fired indicate Raymore might be more like Peyton Place.) Still, a sense of innocence is what attracted Wyoming native Leitner, 34, to the area after finishing college, culinary school and a job with a major hotel chain. "It's a great place to raise a family," he says.
Leitner has decorated his restaurant with animal pelts, a stuffed antelope head, various framed prints of outdoor scenes and, near the kitchen door, a trio of antique rifles. Cowboy boots are perched on the low stretch of wall separating the dining room from the bar, but instead of honky-tonk ballads or camp songs, the Muzak wails out the Everly Brothers, Cyndi Lauper, Tears for Fears and Al Wilson.
And Maxine Nightingale! I was biting into a beer-battered onion ring when We've got to get right back to where we started from blasted into the room, practically vibrating the antlers. I hadn't heard that song since 1980 -- the year I should have stopped eating things like deep-fried beer-battered onion rings and everything else on the appetizer sampler platter, a jumble of tortilla chips and "queso crisps" (fried spicy cheese breaded with crushed chips), fried dill pickle spears (not as tart as I had expected, nor as tasty) and two kinds of dipping sauces. The chipotle mayonnaise and whipped cream cheese with jalepenos both came in metal cups that were impossible for actually "dipping" anything into, but that was probably just as well.
For some reason, perhaps an old Raymore custom, the appetizer platter and the hot "basket of breads" arrived after our server had brought out the salads. Too bad, because the doughy Indian Fry Bread, the sweet corn bread and the sourdough rolls would have been nice with the chilled salads, which were drenched with the restaurant's house vinaigrette. (That dressing was made in the kitchen, we were told, with wine vinegar and chopped chipotles, but it tasted exactly like bottled Italian with a dash of chili powder.) Even as a post-salad adventure, the bread assortment was a hit with my friend Bob's mother, Evelyn, who loved the fact that she could slather on butter blended with chives or sweet caramelized onions.
"I wish they had something this nice in Joplin," she said.
Leitner compares his little restaurant to "a cross between Applebee's and Houston's." But really, the Wind River Grill owes most of its inspiration to traditional roadside diners and family-owned small-town cafés that served "fancy" variations on farm fare: a roasted chicken basted in maple syrup, pan-sautéed rainbow trout, chicken-fried steak smothered with cream gravy.
Evelyn, who owned a diner in the 1950s, raved about Leitner's version of the latter dish, a tender hunk of juicy chopped steak breaded and fried until it was just crispy and served with hot mashed potatoes whipped with grated cheddar. Her son was equally appreciative of the triple meatloaf, a slab of beef, veal and pork wrapped with a layer of smoked bacon and served under a glaze of mushroom-wine gravy next to a mountain of steaming garlic mashed potatoes. I had decided to veer into the unknown and try the Tabasco-grilled chicken, which arrived furiously pink and surprisingly flavorless despite the peppery marinade. The accompanying pile of linguini drenched in a roasted tomato sauce was a shade too sweet for my taste. But to my amazement, the dreaded vegetable "medley" that accompanied it was not a soggy glob of overcooked sludge but a genuine assortment of crisp, distinct, fresh flavors (in this case, broccoli, carrots and zucchini).
On another visit, I again decided to sample one of the offbeat choices, a hamburger made from bison meat. (The restaurant also serves a bison strip steak.) I was told that it's very low in fat, with more potassium than a banana. It turned out to be low in flavor, too, as well as dry, and the crispy french fries had been shaken with too much salt. My companions had better luck. Bob's grilled chicken with penne pasta had a blanket of subtle but rich blue-cheese sauce, and, because it was Thursday -- "Barbecue Night" -- his cousin Mickey had ordered a plate of meaty rib bits in an addictively sweet sauce.
We all had room for dessert. Leitner offers six choices, all of them made at the restaurant, including an old-fashioned peach upside-down cake (served warm, so the vanilla ice cream slowly melts over it). The fried-apple cheesecake wasn't cheesecake at all but sweetened cream cheese and baked cinnamon apples wrapped in a 10-inch tortilla, deep fried, then rolled in cinnamon and sugar. It arrived steaming, doused in caramel sauce and tidily cut into even portions so we didn't have to jab each other with our forks fighting over each piece. Alas, there was no Shake-A-Pudding. But there were tiny warm bundt cakes oozing with peanut butter filling and a cake dripping with chocolate, nuts and caramel that tasted just like a Snickers bar.
It made the drive out to Raymore feel like a trip right back to where I started from.