happy chef postcard copy

Ode to the Happy Chef Outside Omaha
by Joseph Johnston

The Continental Divide isn’t a ridge atop the Rocky Mountains. That’s Colorado propaganda. The actual Continental Divide is the Happy Chef restaurant on Interstate 80 outside Omaha, Nebraska. It cuts clean through the fiberglass colossus of the Happy Chef himself in the parking lot, right between his giant legs. Press the button at the base of his feet and a speaker hidden in his mammoth wooden spoon declares, “HELLO, PARDNER! COME ON IN AND JOIN THE CLEAN PLATE CLUB!” Take a look at the license plates and the bumper stickers and bear witness to the continent, divided. Out on Interstate 80 heading east are dreamers and kayaks. The only vegetarian offering on the Happy Chef menu is the deep-fried vegetable tray with two cups of dipping ranch. They order milkshakes and leave. The cars on Interstate 29 south are curious about the Clean Plate Club and pester the waitstaff with particulars surrounding the free Pudding Pop for finishing their cheeseburger. Northbound are cattle hustlers in the form of giant grasshoppers. They can go anywhere with those legs. Hard to explain their antennae at Thanksgiving but that only comes up once a year. West? On the Interstate? We screwed up the west. Manifest density, as seen on TV. All highway sojourners should retreat to the Happy Chef outside Omaha. Press the button at his feet. Eat a cheeseburger and join the Clean Plate Club. That free Pudding Pop is sweet relief in sweltering summer. At midnight, with the continent divided, the Happy Chef restaurant closes and the colossus puts down his fiberglass wooden spoon. With two lumbering steps he crosses the median toward the Best Western on the other side of I-80. He jumps in the pool. The American Elohim. No lifeguard on duty.

PHOTO: Postcard from Happy Chef, Greenwood, Nebraska — I-80 at Greenwood exit — featuring the world’s largest talking chef.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Happy Chef is a family restaurant founded in 1963 in Mankato, Minnesota by the Frederick Brothers, Sal, Bob, Bill and Tom. The location on US HWY 169 was the first and is the last Happy Chef. The restaurant serves Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner all day, every day. The iconic statue is still in front of the building and speaking again! At one time, the chain had 57 restaurants in the Midwest.

PHOTO: The original Happy Chef in Mankato, Minnesota. (Photo by Jona Thunder, used by permission.)

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Michigan is my home, but due to my Dad’s job we relocated to Colorado during some of my formative years — from 1st through 8th grade, coinciding with the Reagan administration and the peak/end of the Cold War. Just about every summer the whole family would pile into Dad’s Econoline and drive back home to visit our extended family. Halfway through the lengthy drive, we’d stay at the same motel cluster outside Omaha and eat at the Happy Chef restaurant. I can’t think of anything more Americana than the statue of the Happy Chef dancing a jig in the parking lot, and the speaker hidden in his wooden spoon. On those trips east and west through the plains and the heartland, I kept myself busy looking at the license plates and the billboards and the people in the cars going who knows where, left and right, up and down. It boggled my young mind how huge this country is, and how different its citizens must be. Twenty-four hours driving through the crossroads and I never once saw an Econoline similar to ours. Every little car, truck, RV, or camper was its own little microcosm of America, heading toward something or from something. I had a difficult time connecting what I was witnessing on these highways versus the Cold War propaganda I was reading in the Weekly Reader. As I think back on it, those long hours in the van were probably as close to mindful meditation as I’ve ever approached. This prose poem is an attempt at dealing with those disparate microcosms.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Writer and filmmaker Joseph Johnston made his first movie at the age of 11, an industrial espionage thriller that continues to play to excited crowds in his parents’ living room every Christmas. His prose, poetry, and video literature have appeared in Atticus Review, Matador Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review. He currently resides in Michigan, where he is working on a feature-length play about a dystopic suburban road rally.