Day 76/ May 13th – St. Charles, MO to Lake St. Louis, MO: Ladies who lunch

Back in March, as we were walking off the effects of an especially stodgy breakfast, Sally coined a phrase to describe our diet on this trip that has stuck ever since.

“It’s not surprising we don’t feel great.  It’s been days since we ate anything except brown food.”

‘Brown food’ is a neat summary of the staple fare at the diners and fast-food chains that are often our only eating options.  If you were to remove waffles, toast, eggs, hash browns, biscuits, gravy, burgers, fried chicken and cheesecake from their menus, you’d often be left with a choice of ketchup or crushed ice to eat.  To be fair, some places offer green beans and okra, but as these tend to be cooked until they’re brown as well, they don’t really count.  America’s obesity epidemic has been well chronicled, but how some of its citizens don’t die of vitamin deficiency long before their hearts give out is beyond me.

Approaching St. Charles on the Katy Trail

Approaching St. Charles on the Katy Trail

We’d resigned ourselves to eating brown food clear across Missouri, so you can imagine our delight when we stumbled across Aimee B’s in St. Charles.  It was an unusual establishment; the closest thing I’ve seen to a women-only restaurant since my last visit to Syria.  It’s located in a lovely old Victorian house, owned by a local historical society, and both staffed and patronised almost entirely by local wives and mothers.  When we walked in out of the rain for lunch, desperately trying not to muddy the Axminster with our hiking boots, it was packed with about forty diners, all of them smartly-dressed ladies, if not of a certain age, then certainly d’un certain âge.  It was like an episode of The View with lobster bisque and asparagus quiche thrown in.

“A lot of the women who work here love it because you can fit it in around your kids,” said Ann, our maîtresse d’.  Sheila, our waitress, was evidently ready for her kids to be gone.

“As soon as my youngest gets done at Mizzou, I’m gonna travel like you guys!”

St. Charles is about twenty miles west of St. Louis, just over the Missouri River.  It was the last civilized stopping-place in 1804 for Lewis & Clark (though I doubt they’ll have been treated to an artichoke salad) before they plunged into wilderness proper.  At that time, it was a small, largely French town of forty years’ standing, though it had had a brief spell under the rule of the Spanish as well (who called it ‘San Carlos del Misuri’).  Daniel Boone lived here briefly with his family, working as a district commandant for the Spanish until the Louisiana Purchase brought the town under American control.

Meriwether Lewis statue in St. Charles

With Lewis (or possibly Clark) in St. Charles

It’s fair to say that St. Charles has embraced its status as a Historical Town with gusto, and fair, too, to say that it fancies itself a bit.  It was centred on Main Street, a half-mile stretch of immaculate mid-19th-century buildings set back a couple of hundred yards from the river.  At its western end was a cluster of restaurants – the Boone’s Lick Trail Inn, the Little Hills Winery, the Old Mill Stream – bluntly targeting the weekend sophisticates of St. Louis.  Although there were a few real businesses still to be found along the street – an attorney’s office, a printer, a lovely bookshop – most of it had long since been filleted for tourism, and converted into a saccharine, ‘quaintness-enhanced’ version of a frontier town that would have surprised its original 19th-century inhabitants.  The shops bore names ranging from the merely pretentious (‘The Amish Peddler’ and ‘The Glass Workbench’) to the self-consciously twee (‘The Popcorn Shoppe’ and ‘Old Town Spice Shoppe’) to the vomitously impermissible (‘The Gift Nook’).

The English Shop in St. Charles

Britain's last remaining viable exports

Curiosity impelled us into ‘The English Shop’ (mercifully, without a ‘–pe’), housed in St. Charles’s old customs house, and now stuffed to the ceilings with such culinary exotica as Marmite, Club biscuits (which I had thought had been removed from commercial sale under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), McVitie’s digestives, Ribena and PG Tips.  An old man behind the counter glowered at us as we walked around the shop taking this all in.

“Gosh,” I said to him, “I haven’t seen some of these foods for years.  Who buys them?”

“Oh,” he replied. “You’d be surprised.  That shelf behind you” – and he gestured conspiratorially to a wall of Rich Tea biscuits and Ovaltine – “basically keeps this place in business.”

It transpired that he was only minding the shop for its owner, Eileen, from Norfolk, who was away today, so the opportunity to dig deeper into the eastern Missouri expat comfort-food market was lost.

Main Street in St. Charles, Missouri

Main Street - sorry, Ye Olde Maine Streete - in St. Charles

Our walk into St. Charles had been extremely pleasant, passing for a few miles along the Katy Trail, a disused railway line converted into a hiking and biking path, which ran close to the banks of the Missouri and passed dramatically under the I-70 bridge just before it entered the town.  Our walk out was less appealing: rounding a corner at the end of Main Street, we were greeted by a pale brick Sixties building of such surpassing ugliness that it literally stopped us in our tracks.  St. Charles’s historic district, it transpired, was roughly a hundred yards wide and half a mile long, and the rest of it was largely indistinguishable from any modern American town.  There was no trail to follow, either; instead, we hiked through miles of commercial strip and suburbia, before joining a service road beside I-70, with little but the wearying prospect of mile after mile of interstate and brown food ahead.

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