Fried pickles and populism: a diner tour of Trump Country

During a 10-day road trip through Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, the Monitor asked diner owners and customers for their thoughts on President Trump’s first 100 days.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

At the popular local eateries the Monitor visited, the fare ranged from smoky brisket and “frickles” (fried pickles) to fresh blueberry muffins and raspberry hot chocolate. The political views were not quite so varied, however. In some places, as many as 9 in 10 voters had supported Mr. Trump. Most of them remain enthusiastic about Trump because of his support of coal and conservative values that resonate in this predominantly Christian region.

Wilma's in Paintsville, Ky.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Wilma Eldridge has run Wilma's diner in Paintsville, Ky., for more than 50 years. On this morning in late March, she had baked 27 pies for a local farm stand – and by 10:30 a.m. only one was remaining.

By 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning, Wilma Eldridge has already made 27 pies. To be specific, 14 chocolate, six coconut, and seven apple pies.

She has owned Wilma’s Restaurant off of Paintsville’s Main Street for 54 years. “It’s regular home cooking,” says Ms. Eldridge, in her small wood-paneled dining area. “I’m known for my pies.” Making the crusts from scratch makes all the difference, she explains.

Paintsville is part of Johnson County, where 84 percent of residents voted for President Trump. A lot of the support was due to “religious reasons,” says Eldridge, who adds that people in Paintsville are strongly against abortion and want God to be a part of public education.

“‘In God We Trust’ needs to be back in our schools,” says Eldridge, who had one customer who would pray every day for Trump to get elected. “They would have taken God out of everything if Hillary had been able to appoint the Supreme Court justice.”

Money is tighter than she has ever seen it in the five decades she has owned a restaurant. Eldridge used to have three employees working at her restaurant at any one time, but now she is the only one on duty most days. She started setting up a breakfast buffet on the weekends so customers could serve themselves while she doubles as both a waitress and owner.

Paintsville locals voted for Trump because they need jobs, says Eldridge. And so far, locals feel like Trump has lived up to his word. Kathy, a woman dining with her mother Martha, says she has seen more coal trucks running through the town since the election.

After President Obama put restrictions on coal production, Kentucky’s unemployment rate spiked to double digits. “Whenever you take coal out of eastern Kentucky, we have nothing,” says Eldridge, to a nodding agreement from Kathy and Martha. Today the unemployment rate in Kentucky has fallen back down to five percent.

By 10:30 AM, Wilma’s grandson only has one of his grandmother’s pies left at his farmstand.

Fava's in Georgetown, Ky.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Alden Gruchow (l.) and cook Chris Caudill (r.) work at Fava's Restaurant, a popular watering hole in Georgetown, Ky. Mr. Gruchow's grandmother founded the place.

The busiest day at Fava’s is Saturday, says cook Chris Caudill, when locals line up to order bowls piled high with “frickles” (fried pickles) and hot browns, an open sandwich of Texas toast smothered in cheese, deli meat, tomatoes, and bacon.

Fava’s also has a steady flow of daily customers who keep their own mugs and plates in the back of the restaurant. “They come in every morning, and eat off the same plate and drink out of the same cup,” says Mr. Caudill. “One regular gets poached eggs, another gets two eggs with a side of biscuits. You know when they walk in the door what they get.”

Fava’s has great customer loyalty, says Alden Gruchow, a third-generation employee at the restaurant, but other small businesses in Georgetown aren’t as lucky. “There is a building right across the street, and over the last 10 years they have probably had three to four different businesses and they close within a year or two,” he says. “I feel like it’s harder for people to open a business and sustain success.”

Gruchow and Caudill say that’s one of the reasons they both voted for Trump. “I feel like he wants people to start their own businesses and [give] tax breaks for small businesses,” says Gruchow. “That’s a big thing for me, having the restaurant in our family.”

And three months into his presidency, they feel Trump is trying his best to revive local economies in Appalachia – even if that means budget cuts to major funding sources like the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“I think he’s trying to find ways to save money right now and he just doesn’t know how,” says Gruchow. “I think he didn’t realize how hard it was going to be.”

The Wild Bean in Lewisburg, W. Va.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Chef Chris Hinkle says blueberry muffins are one of the most popular items at Wild Bean in Lewisburg, W. Va. Lewisburg, which is home to the five-star resort The Greenbrier, was voted America's "Coolest Small Town" in 2011.

Wild Bean’s chef Chris Hinkle makes two dozen blueberry muffins a day. “If we don't have 'em, people freak out in the morning,” says Mr. Hinkle, who grew up in Lewisburg.

Washington Street offers a reprieve from the fast food chains and strip malls alongside Interstate 64. The sidewalks on either side of the 2-lane street are lined with a couple local restaurants, a post office, and a few galleries. The Greenbrier, a local five-star resort, has long drawn visitors from outside West Virginia, but the town saw a significant bump in tourism after it won Budget Travel’s award of “Coolest Small Town” in 2011. 

Despite these distinctions, Lewisburg’s resources like those of the state – are still abused by outsiders, says Hinkle.

“West Virginia has always been kind of [dumped] on. People just want what we have and then they run off after they trash our land,” he says. “And that happens a lot.” The coal companies are a big example, he explains, but a smaller example is tourists coming to the Greenbrier river trail and leaving tons of garbage on the river bank.

Hinkle, who identifies as a Democrat, thinks West Virginia will be further degraded under the president. Rollback of Clean Water Act protections and coal mine regulations “scare me,” he says. Still, Lewisburg saw a lot of pro-Trump support before and after the election.

“I think Obama did a pretty fair job. He was diplomatic and professional and all that but things didn’t really improve a lot,” says Colby Taylor, a customer at the Wild Bean. He hopes Trump can turn things around, specifically when it comes to health care.

After caddying at the Greenbrier’s golf course for employees of big insurance companies, he looks at the industry a bit differently. “Watching them party all that money away and drink the $500 bottles of wine, [and] they’re playing golf ... makes me say, ‘Hey. They need to clean up the insurance companies,’ ” Mr. Taylor says.

Three months into Trump’s presidency, there are still some “hostile feelings” in town over the election, says Taylor. “I’ve never really seen it as bad as it is now.”

Hinkle agrees. “I don’t really like the guy,” says Hinkle, referring to Trump. “But he is the president now so I try not to fight too much with the people I know.”

Morrison's Drive Inn in Logan, W. Va.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Loletta Evans has worked for 34 years at Morrison’s Drive Inn, which used to get big orders of their famous hot dogs with steamed buns on Thursdays and Fridays for company meetings at the coal mines.

Loletta Evans has worked for 34 years at Morrison’s Drive Inn, where locals pull up in their pick-up trucks and sedans and waitresses come out to take their orders.

Ms. Evans says the restaurant used to get big orders of their famous hot dogs with steamed buns on Thursdays and Fridays for company meetings at the coal mines. By specially wrapping the hot dogs in both cellophane and foil, says Ms. Evans, the hot dogs can stay warm for hours.

Business isn’t what it used to be, but Evans says Morrison’s has received more large orders since the election. “It’s slow,” she says, “but it’s coming back.”

Evans says the economy in Logan – where she has lived her entire life – is hard-up, so she knew Hillary Clinton made a “bad mistake” when she said she was going to shut down the coal mines. “[E]ven if she thought it, she shouldn’t have said it,” says Evans. “You don’t just tell people you are going to take their livelihoods.”

Locals lined the streets when John F. Kennedy campaigned in Logan, says Evans. She fondly remembers meeting the president-to-be, even though she has always considered herself a Republican.

But Mrs. Clinton would have been booed if she campaigned in Logan, Evans says, adding that when Clinton sent her husband Bill instead he didn't get the “big turnout” that politicians normally get here.

Clinton’s remarks fueled support for Trump in the area, says Evans. Today locals feel he is trying to live up to his campaign promises, but that Congress is making it difficult. “They are fighting him tooth and toenail but he is trying. Of course I do pray for him every night. I would like to see him do good and I think his heart is in the right place.”

If the country went “back to God,” there would be less disagreement in Washington, says Evans. “People don’t have any moral standards about them anymore.”

Smitty's Southern BBQ in Richmond, Ky.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Bonnie Smith took over running Smitty's Southern Style BBQ after her husband passed on several years ago. His hat rests atop the restaurant's "Wall of Praise." The wall, which guests were invited to write on, soon filled up with favorite Bible verses.

By Saturday afternoon, Smitty’s Southern Style BBQ only has enough pulled pork for one more sandwich. They cook the meat in small batches so it stays fresh, but that also means they run out of barbecue sandwiches on busy days.

“I just told my daughter-in-law right here, I think we’re going have to start cooking more for Saturday,” says owner Bonnie Smith. Smitty’s belonged to Ms. Smith’s husband, who passed away four years ago. Now she manages the restaurant with the help of her children, her children’s spouses, and her grandchildren.

Smith, who has lived in Richmond her entire life, voted for Hillary Clinton in November because she felt Trump was “so negative.” Before November, Smith says she heard a lot of talk about the candidates’ gender: “You had [some people] saying they didn’t want a woman for president. They needed a man.”

Regardless of political differences, however, Smith says her favorite thing about Richmond is the people. “[T]here may be a lot of racism or whatever, but they are genuinely nice.”

When the restaurant first opened, Smith and her husband gave customers markers to write messages on a blackboard in front of the register. And without any prompts, “they would always put Scripture,” says Smith. Now Smith and her family call the blackboard “The Wall of Praise.”

According to Pew Research, 76 percent of Kentuckians identify as Christian, and less than 2 percent of the state identifies with a non-Christian faith. And considering that at least 43 percent of adults in Kentucky read Scripture at least once a week, the Wall of Praise’s natural evolution makes sense. Religion is important to Smith, who says it has helped her get through hard times at the restaurant.

“It’s really booming today and I thank God for it, because it can get a little slow in here,” says Smith, gesturing to two full tables of customers. “If I have just one person come in here I thank God for that one person because I know he is going to send more. That’s my philosophy with the kids. The Lord always makes a way.”

Tonya's Country Kitchen in Marietta, Ohio

Every Tuesday, Joe Kurdz visits Tonya’s Country Kitchen on Front Street for the daily special: baked steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, a dinner roll, and a choice of green beans or corn for $7.95.

Located in the heart of Marietta, Ohio, Tonya’s is two blocks away from the banks of the Ohio River – and West Virginia on the other side. Local restaurants and home accessory stores line the wide streets of Marietta’s downtown.

A city of less than 14,000 people, Marietta is the largest city in Washington County, where Republican support runs deep: more than 68 percent of the county voted for Donald Trump in November. The city was an outpost for pioneers in the 1700s, but it has fallen on hard times. More than 26 percent of Marietta is in poverty, double the national average. Kurdz volunteers at a local food pantry every week and he says the majority of visitors are young families.

“When I was in the workforce, there were a bunch of industries in Marietta. People stayed,” says Kurdz. Now, he adds, many people born in Marietta later leave to find jobs. “But I stuck around Marietta. It’s a good city.”

However, Kurdz says drug addiction in the area is a serious problem. Ohio is ranked fifth in drug overdoses among US states, including an 11 percent increase in deaths between 2014 and 2015. Drug overdoses have witnessed a long-term climb in Washington County: in 1992 there were two drug overdose deaths and in 2015 there were 73

“It's gotten real bad,” says Kurdz. “When I was a policeman, the worst I got was a kid sniffing glue.”

After finishing his dinner, Kurdz goes home to let his cat inside the house. He’ll be back to Tonya’s next Tuesday for the baked steak special.

34:Ate in Williamson, W.Va

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Co-founders Robyn Gannon and Debby Young, former schoolteachers, decided to name their popular cafe 34:Ate after Psalm 34: "O taste and see that the Lord is good..."

“Waffle Wednesdys” is big at 34:Ate, say co-owners Robyn Gannon and Debby Young: the weekly special of chicken and waffles.

Despite seeing the economy decline during their lives in Williamson, Ms. Gannon and Ms. Young decided to retire from their jobs as schoolteachers and open a restaurant together three years ago. They tossed around hundreds of name possibilities and eventually they decided on 34:Ate, a play on Psalms 34:8, which reads “O taste and see that the Lord is good…”

The local economy revolves around coal mines, says Gannon, so it inevitably influences local politics – including her own perspective. “I am a Democrat still, but I could not live in this community where coal was just everything, and vote for somebody who just said they were against it,” says Gannon, who voted for Trump in November. “I mean I wouldn’t feel like I could hold my head up in this area.”

But local politics are determined by more than the economy. Christianity is very important to locals in Williamson. “I’d say for the majority of people around here if someone was against abortion they would vote for that person,” says local diner Judy Southard, “no matter what else they thought.”

More than 70 percent of the US identifies as Christian – including 78 percent of West Virginia – but their behavior doesn't always hew to Christian principles, says Ms. Young.

“What hurts is that Christians don’t always act like Christians. We’re not always the most loving people and sometimes we… can’t see how anyone else could think or feel,” says Young. “But we should still love those who aren’t like us. They have their rights and they have the same needs that we do.”

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