Automat. The word conjures up memories of old movies from the 40s where frugal New Yorkers on their lunch breaks could grab a bite to eat. It was the original fast food. The hungry secretary or executive-in-training would pop into the Automat to find rows of little glass-fronted doors, each with a coin slot. Behind the doors were little cubbies holding anything a famished person could want—sandwiches, soups, pie—all awaiting the drop of a coin to release them from captivity.
This little blast from the past was brought forward to the present day for me last weekend. We were invited to have lunch in a small town in Alsace, France by Gudrun, one of our German neighbors who lives down the street. She is a marvel. She has traveled extensively throughout her life and explores the world fearlessly. Her tales of travel, food, and people she has met along the way have enthralled and delighted us. We want to be just like Gudrun when we grow up. So when she asked if we would like to join her for lunch in Alsace along with her daughter Katarina, who was taking a holiday break from her Master’s Program, we heartily answered, “Yes!”
Being able to go to places like France in a matter of a couple of hours is one of the aspects of living overseas that we love. So lunch in Alsace it was—and what a lunch! We arrived in the small village of Roppenheim at a quaint restaurant named Auberge à l’Agneau. The half-timbered building welcomed us with flower boxes overflowing with pink and red geraniums. The interior was the model of cozy comfort that decorators can only imitate. Its dark wood paneling and brightly painted yellow walls were adorned with vintage farm tools, enameled pots, and grapes hanging from the weathered beams. This, folks, was the real thing, and we prepared ourselves for a special meal.
We were not disappointed. Our lunch began with a small tasting-sized bowl of cream of mussel soup to whet our appetites. We opted for the bean soup for our starter with thick slabs of crusty bread. Our main course was tournedos of beef in a rich, savory sauce with Roquefort cheese crumbled over the top. This was served with the sweetest carrots I have ever eaten and lightly fried patties of grated zucchini. A large communal dish of French fries was served up, as well as a garden-fresh salad. The meal was one of the best we’ve eaten in a very long time. We finished up with espresso and dessert. I had the homemade chocolate mousse with vanilla sauce and Bill had the sour cherry ice cream served with a vanilla cream sauce and whole marinated cherries. Truly a wonderful lunch.
We went for a small walk through the tiny village after our feast and something caught our eye from across the street. It was a farmer’s version of an automat. It stood beneath a sort of lean-to structure and had a series of little glass doors with signs boasting that their “ATM farm products” were available 24/7! Sure enough, we saw farm fresh eggs, bunches of newly picked garlic, bags of onions, potatoes, bottles of hand pressed canola oil, and more. The prices were handwritten on each selection with a small number to identify them. Pop your coins in the slot, key in the number on the central keypad and presto! the door opens and the item is yours. But instead of the piece of pie or sandwich of yesteryear, it was fresh produce to fix dinner with.
Europe has not quite been overrun by the retail 24/7 phenomenon, and we like it that way. Stores are closed on Sundays, but we can feel the slow infiltration of longer opening hours. Yes, it makes life a bit more convenient, but I hate to see everything being turned into an all day, all night, everyday shopper’s wonderland. This produce automat seems the perfect compromise. For a minute, I felt like I did when I was a very little girl on a trip back east when my parents took me to one of the last surviving automats for lunch. It made an impression on me and for a moment, I was transported back to the time I gazed up transfixed at all those little glass doors with wonderful surprises behind each one.