Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Rant — Even In The Smaller Histories, We Tend To Honor The Male

I love Wikipedia, fallible, as it has to be simply because of its democratic nature.  Time also makes it favorable to fresher information readily available digitally or the already ensconced subject is followed faithfully by legions devoted to established icons.  This is true of Google as well.

I had occasion to look up the entry about the family business in Indianapolis — Laughner’s Cafeterias, the birth of which is fixed at 1888.  It continued well into my lifetime as well as into my life.  I marvel at the history, which is far richer than the entry.  The Laughners were candy makers — chocolate, taffy, peanut brittle, hard-ribbon candy.  And while there are other claims, it’s quite possible that the Laughners invented the “cafeteria” when they opened the Dairy Bar with a tray rail and a steam table in the 19th Century and smoothing out the wrinkles in the 1920s. The family also sold food and fruit drinks at fairs, carnivals, Riverside Amusement Park and the Indianapolis 500. Generations were involved. The family was embedded in the work and play of the city.  Me too, later.  One couldn’t escape it.  It was the family business and if the family needed you, you went

Flora May Laughner-Brock, Claude F. Laughner
Claude Laughner, the founder’s son, was the dreamer, schemer, entrepreneur.  He didn’t get much credit for his participation in the city’s restaurant history. And we will always regret his answer to an invitation to invest in Coca Cola.  He spit it out and said, ”this stuff will never sell.” I could be writing this from my private deck on the Riviera. However, he kept things going, and pretty well at that, until bankers started jumping out of windows.

What bothered me most when I read the Wiki entry was that one of the most important contributors to the legend, such as it is, or to its longevity, which is at least notable, was a woman, though like most such histories, we are exposed to the noble lineage of the male children.  What happened was the Depression destroyed everything. The restaurants fell on hard times. The family could barely scrape by. The Laughner heritage was about to be shattered.  Claude’s wife, a smart, determined, hard-working person ended up starting three cafeterias on her own, when not only were the times not favorable for business in general, but when most women would simply not have undertaken the challenge because they were women.

It is true these were not cutting-edge destinations.  They were essential bridges in the legacy only she could manage. And it is true that there was an exciting (The story of which merited a long New Yorker piece) renaissance for Laughners that was built on the foundation she put back in place, admittedly inspired by more than a little creative genius from the next generation. But Flora May Laughner-Brock is a key figure largely ignored by those who benefitted by her business savvy and her desire to support her family.  Without her, the Laughner history would have ended earlier and, quite possibly, with far less accomplishment, certainly without the continuity.  Bless them all, but it wasn’t all about the boys.

Sadly, much of it is lost now.  Harold’ Steer-In, originally Laughner’s Steer-Inn, is a hot spot on the city’s East Side.  Down the street from the seedy, legendary Al Green’s Drive-In on Washington Street, was the slicker, but far less scandalous Laughner’s Double L.  The super deluxe Laughner cafeterias are all gone now, as is Jonathans, a fine dining restaurant named after the founder.  MCL, which possesses a snippet of Laughner DNA from the 1950s, still exists.

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