Plains Folk

Oases of Summer


Of all the drive-in oases that beckon under a prairie sky on a summer evening, I believe this one is my favorite: the Zesto Drive-In, on Capitol Avenue in Pierre, South Dakota.

It is enough, perhaps, that the Zesto offers good drive-in fare with hokey names–like “The Palmer,” its name for a supersize footlong hotdog, hence the saying, “passing the Palmer”–but besides that, Zesto caters to the canine market, or rather, the canine-lover market. Of an evening the people of Pierre turn out to buy their Labrador retrievers pup cups–ice cream servings with a doggie biscuit on top.

There is no doubt that the drive-in restaurant occupies an important niche in prairie towns–not just a culinary niche, but a social one, too. At the same time, the operation of a drive-in on the Great Plains, with the region’s continental climate, offers peculiar challenges.

Roadside historians trace the origins of the drive-in as an institution to the southern plains–specifically to Kirby’s Pig Stand, established September 1921, in Dallas, Texas. Specializing in pork and chicken fried steak sandwiches, the Pig Stand turned into a multi-state chain operation with the slogan, “Quick curb service.”

So the classic characteristics of the drive-in were established early: roadside convenience, speedy service, delivery to your vehicle, wherein you dined.

It is uncertain who first implemented a system for ordering by speaker from your car, but the Top Hat drive-in of Seminole, Oklahoma–which would evolve into Sonic Drive-Ins of America, now headquartered in Oklahoma City–was an early adopter, in the 1950s.

So the drive-in has a notable history on the southern plains. Popular lists of the top drive-ins today still feature such places as the Classic 50s Drive-In of Norman, Oklahoma, and Wayne’s Drive-In of Lawton, Oklahoma.

It was in California, however, that drive-in culture achieved its full efflorescence, during the 1950s and 1960s. There it became common practice to have meals delivered to cars by carhops, young ladies zooming around on roller skates, an alluring business practice that spread across the country.

The continental Great Plains, with their extremes of weather, are a little different from California. On the southern plains it was the heat. Customers began to demand enclosed, air-conditioned spaces in which to dine in comfort–hence the regional popularity of Dairy Queen.

On the northern plains the problem was opposite. Drive-ins here needed enclosed protection on account of the prohibitive cold three-quarters of the year. Many of them otherwise just closed up in the fall and remained closed until around Memorial Day. The only drive-in in North Dakota where I ever had service by a carhop on roller skates was the West Side, in Grafton.

A prairie town needs certain dining services in order to be a fully functioning community. It needs, first, a cafe, open early for breakfast. It needs, second, a tavern dispensing grill food along with beverages. And it needs, third, a drive-in, as the oasis of summer.

What’s your drive-in? Are you hungry yet?

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