Mac and cheese, please, and a side of personality

Varick Chittenden

For those who travel on their stomachs, food is an important part of discovering a place and what goes on there. What’s popular and special may depend on what grows well there — like beef in the Midwest or seafood on the Maine coast — or who has settled there — like Cajuns in the bayous of Louisiana or Mexicans in the Southwest. The north country isn’t known as a food destination, but there are plenty of places for good food. If fine dining is your preference, there are numerous restaurants with professional chefs and great style. If your taste runs to fast food, the franchisers have surely found us, with their carbon copy menus, cookie cutter buildings and efficient service that appeal to many.

While I like those options, I often prefer places where people gather not only for home-style food they can count on, but also for good talk, for meeting friends and for feeling like part of a place. I like to think they not only feed me well but they have personality. They’re usually family owned and operated and have been around quite a while. The staff and customers are loyal to the place and the owners are loyal to them. A few visits there and it’s easy to feel like you belong. You can learn a lot about the community if you spend time there. And we have plenty of these diners and small family restaurants in our small towns … and lots of personality.

Within a few minutes of my house in Canton was one such place, where I went for reliably good food since my undergraduate days at St. Lawrence, 50 years ago. On the south end of the village, McCarthy’s Restaurant was home — as their servers’ T-shirts once declared — to “the best buns in town.” That was a reference to their cinnamon buns, oversized yeast rolls with gooey cinnamon and sugar filling and plenty of icing, made daily by their bakers since well before Phyllis and Ted Lawrence bought the restaurant in 1976.

McCarthy’s opened in 1952, next to the poultry farm where Phil McCarthy raised chickens and sold eggs to customers for miles around. He built a small stand on the roadside and sold fried chicken, later opening a simple lunch counter with a few tables in the building that was part of the restaurant until its recent closing.From the beginning, his menu featured chickens fresh from the farm, including favorites like chicken and biscuit dinners and chicken sandwiches and salad anytime. Because his wife was known for her baking skills, they started selling pies she made in her home kitchen and toted daily down the hill on the hood of their car to the restaurant, until they became so popular that Phil had to outfit the restaurant properly and hire a baker.

Every day there were great choices. I liked to get there early enough on Fridays for the mac and cheese special and hoped that there was any lemon meringue pie left. A hint from the regulars: If you were smart, you’d choose dessert when you ordered your meal.

In 2002, Kevin Prothal, a passerby from the Albany area who happened to be a food writer for Bon Appetit magazine, wrote: “While we in Upstate New York don’t usually get a lot of press about our restaurants, we are still very well fed. I think the best place for any meal is McCarthy’s Restaurant in Canton. The service is friendly, and the chocolate chip pie is, by itself, worth a trip up from New York City.” For months after its publication, Phyllis got several calls a week from all over the country, asking for help with the recipe that had been printed with an error.
Customers ranged from farmers who arrived very early in the morning for breakfast to salesmen passing through, truckers and, when they were visiting, students’ parents. Alumni back for college events inevitably came in, for a well-remembered favorite and a dash of nostalgia. Phyllis and Ted still remember particularly well the visit of Vice President Walter Mondale on a St. Lawrence University Parents Weekend, when his daughter, Eleanor, was a student in the early 1980s. Secret Service agents took over the place, leaving the usual Sunday morning crowd — including the group of regulars for the “Presbyterians’ table” — waiting in the parking lot. He ordered a club sandwich made, of course, with McCarthy’s roast chicken white meat and their “homemade” white bread.
In places like McCarthy’s, the food is memorable and so are the cooks and waitresses who have worked there for many years. They become close friends with the regulars, sharing small talk and stories, almost like family. Phyllis recalls Carol Sayer who worked there for more than 30 years. She describes one woman who once lived in Canton for a few years as an employee of the local Corning plant and would return to town occasionally years later. Whenever she stopped in the restaurant, Carol would deliver an extra large cinnamon bun with extra frosting and a double coffee without even asking for an order, much to the delight of the woman.

I’m sad to say that this north country institution closed in 2011, when Ted and Phyllis began a much-deserved retirement. Ironically, there were no takers for it as a restaurant so the new owners converted it to a funeral home. But there’s good news for longtime McCarthy’s fans (or those readers who never made it there). If you’re longing for a cinnamon roll, a Mac Monster sandwich, a slice of butterscotch pie or one of their celebrated Sunday brunches, you can make your own.

McCarthy’s Restaurant Recipes — a 90-page collection of recipes and favorite anecdotes of customers — has been published as a fundraiser for Friends of the Canton Free Library. You can obtain copies from the library and several Canton shops; or you can order copies at $14 each plus $5 each for shipping and handling from Friends of the Canton Free Library, 8 Park St., Canton, NY 13617 or at www.cantonfreelibrary.org. You’ll be glad you did.

Varick Chittenden is senior folklorist and director of special projects for Canton-based
Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at SUNY Canton. He lives in St. Lawrence County.