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The Column: Hearty eating can bind LI with the heartland

Long Island restaurant portions are heroic — enough chicken parm on the plate to require tableside delivery by forklift — but Texas will not be undone by Yankee excess.

At Mary’s Café in the tiny ranch town of Strawn, food achieves such astounding measure that even the leanest cowpokes surely must sew elastic into their jeans after lunch.

Burgers are the size of patio blocks, and the blooming onion might capsize the Queen Mary. A Mexican combo consists of two mighty enchiladas, enough refried beans to pave Dallas-Fort Worth, a colossal outcropping of rice and, for good measure, two menacing tacos teetering on the side of the platter.

“Nobody leaves here hungry,” said Paul Ondo, who with his wife, Elene, introduced us to Mary’s on a recent visit to the peaceful confines of north central Texas.

Given the heft of the food, I wondered if anyone leaves, at all — if, weighted down, patrons remain anchored for hours before squeezing, sideways, through the cafe’s front door to their autos and pickups on Grant Avenue.

I mention Mary’s to salute, again, the manifold splendors of American diversity and say, in our national devotion to simple pleasures, we are one.

The laughter and happy feelings shared with Paul and Elene — whom, with affection, we have always called, “Tex” — affirmed that, politics and preferences aside, there is a tie that binds, just like the old hymn says. It is a message for the day, don’t you think?

There was some kidding with the staff about New York and Texas — East Coast Elites invade Cattle Country! — and a customer in a Stetson nodded and smiled as if to say, welcome y’all, glad you made the trip.

Same here, pal. Delighted we did.

Here’s the back story:

We hadn’t seen Tex since college days nearly, wow, 60 years ago. She was from Brady, Texas. Wink is a Jersey girl from Westfield. I stumbled to the University of Denver straight outta’ Brooklyn — it seems a dream, really, at this point.

Sixty years. That long?

Yes, that long since the photo of Tex heading out for a date in a pretty party dress. That long since we complained about dormitory food, weekend curfews and the killer midterm in a course called Arts and Ideas.


We’d lost touch, but a while back Tex found us on the web. Shouldn’t we get together after so much time? Are you ever in Texas?

Tex might have asked if we sometimes went dog sledding in the Klondike or occasionally scaled Kilimanjaro.

But this year, Texas happened.

Wink was visiting a high school friend who lives outside San Antonio, and I flew down a few days later.

We drove a couple hundred miles to Stephenville, which calls itself the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” At the hotel one morning, I saw a fellow in western-style shirt, boots and spurs and later asked the front desk clerk if the man likely was headed out to herd cattle or lasso a bronc.

“Probably not,” said the clerk. “Around here, that’s just business casual.”

There were other moments of cultural enlightenment.

On the way to Stephenville, we stopped in little Evant for lunch.

I asked the waitress what kind of cheese I might have on my grilled cheese sandwich.

“Yellow,” she said, politely.

Bread? I asked.

“Regular,” she answered.

Sold, I said.

It’s not lunch at Panera, anymore, I thought.

That night, Tex and Paul came over from their home on Lake Palo Pinto.

From the first hug, we knew the reunion idea was a winner.

We hadn’t met Paul, but Tex was still the same sweet kid in the party dress. Easygoing, good-hearted and with a mellow Texas twang, Paul seemed a perfect match.

“This is a blessing,” Tex said.

The next day, it was our turn. Wink and I drove past cattle and sheep to Palo Pinto.

Tex and Paul live on a back road, in a house overlooking the lake. Their place is warm and inviting. A couple of Tex’s terrific quilts — one called “America” — hang on either side of the fireplace. Paul’s rifle is nearby in case he has to plug a snake.


Oh, just the occasional rattler, Paul said. Watch where you’re walking, he joked.

I watched. Every step.

Most likely, I’m not suitable for the wide-open spaces. Tex and Paul aren’t relocating to Long Island, either. Bet they’d like the pizza, though, and ocean breezes and boats bobbing in the harbor on summer nights. We all have something to offer one another. But, I admit, lunch at Mary’s is stiff competition.

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