A long-gone Ozark tavern lives on in a slice of cake
My hometown of Springfield, Missouri, isn’t so different from other towns in the Ozark Mountains: a smattering of strip malls, hospitals, and more churches than you can shake a stick at. There’s a Chili’s on one corner, a Golden Corral on the next. Or, if you’re feeling deep in the pockets, you can head to the Red Lobster, where my prom date treated me to dinner.
Back when my family put down roots here in the 1920s, mom-and-pop businesses still ruled the day. My great-great-grandparents, Maude Belle and Walter Clarence Hickman, opened Half-a-Hill Tavern on ten acres in Greene County, just south of town. Maude read a story in a ladies’ magazine about two lovers meeting “halfway up a hill” and felt the name befit a tavern nestled in the rolling foothills.
It was one of the few restaurants in town at the time, and Sunday dinners brought in locals as well as workers traveling through to Chadwick, a logging hub at the end of the railroad line, for a taste of Maude’s famous cooking: succulent pork chops, rolled in eggs, milk, and crushed saltines; and crispy lard-fried chicken, the meat tender from a soak in homemade buttermilk, the skin spicy from a dusting of cayenne.
The Ozarks experience a long growing season, so for most of the year each dinner came adorned with fresh green beans from the Half-a-Hill garden scattered with pork cracklings. Maude was known, too, for her caramelized sweet potatoes cooked in bacon fat, buttery corn, and fluffy biscuits dripping with sorghum butter. Desserts included hand-cranked vanilla ice cream topped with mincemeat, the fruit and spices laced with browned ground beef; and an iced sour chocolate sheet cake made with milk spiked with vinegar, moistened with shortening, and flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.
Maude’s granddaughter, whom I called “Mimi,” grew up swooshing around the wooden floors of Half-a-Hill on her roller skates. The rambling clapboard building, affectionately referred to as “The Hill,” featured a dining pavilion where Mickey Marcell’s band, along with Carl Snyder on banjo, played for Saturday dances. My grandfather, “Papa,” used to stop by to hear the music, eventually convincing Mimi to join him on the dance floor. They married later, in 1960, and raised their children in a ranch-style house nearby where Mimi cooked those same dinners for her own family.
I live in Manhattan now, and when I visit the land where the tavern once stood, it’s hard not to feel heartbroken that a strip mall called Half-a-Hill Center has taken the place of my family’s old restaurant. Fortunately, I learned how to make many of Maude’s dishes from Mimi. When I want a taste of the Ozarks, no matter where I am, I can spike milk with a touch of vinegar to start baking my favorite sour chocolate cake, which is as sweet and tender now as it was when my great-great-grandparents served it at The Hill.