Answer Man

Diners still remember unique french fries at Jay’s A&W

Q. My husband and I were reminiscing about the old Jay’s A&W Drive-In on North Illinois Street in Swansea during the ’70s and ’80s. It was a favorite stop for my husband’s family while he was growing up in Belleville. We would love to know about the history of the drive-in, but, most important, the secret behind their extraordinary french fries. We thought all of the menu items were very good but those french fries really were something else.

— S.C., of Waterloo

A. You obviously didn’t know it at the time, but you were enjoying some fine international dining at fast-food prices.

Think I’m kidding? Just ask Gloria Bedwell, of Belleville, whose late husband, James — the “Jay” for whom the restaurant became known — owned the popular drive-in for nearly 40 years. Turns out he discovered those tasty fries with the European flair while attending an A&W convention in Chicago.

“They had french-fried potatoes that were made out of like a dough,” she said. “And you’d mix the dough with water and they would come out of this machine. You could make them as long or short as you wanted. They were from Holland. We imported them from Holland.”

They were a sensation for many diners, like you. Bedwell still remembers the airman who found his way into the back of the restaurant one day to talk to her busy husband.

“He wanted to know who owned the restaurant or who was in charge,” Bedwell said. “My husband thought, ‘Oh, now what?’ The airman said, ‘I’ve eaten fries all over the world, and these are the best I’ve ever eaten!’ Our kids called them ‘fake fries.’”

I guess you can’t find them anywhere now, can you?

“No,” she said. “As a matter of fact, we had two machines that did this, and we just got rid of the last one. But that was the great thing about it. Years after it closed, we’d get phone calls from people saying, “Where did you you get the hot tamales? Can we still get them somewhere?’ And Jim would just laugh and say, ‘I have no idea.’”

It was 1956 when Bedwell, who had recently left the Marine Corps, joined two brothers-in-law and his father, James Sr., in opening the drive-in at 1201 N. Illinois. Soon after their fourth child was born a few years later, Bedwell was running the place by himself.

“It was a lot of work,” said Gloria Bedwell, whose husband would supplement the family income early on as a pastry truck driver. “But it fit his personality.”

When they were old enough, their five kids would roll up their sleeves and pitch in.

“I did all the books and payroll,” she said. “We had like 24 people working for us. Every once in a while I would get a phone call, ‘Help!’ And whatever kids weren’t working who were here — and the littlest one, Tony, he was on wheels — we’d just grab him and we’d all go down there and help. Then, as they got older and were in school, I could help over lunch hour whenever Jim needed me. But basically, I was the home base.

“Jim always said, ‘If I can teach our kids how to work, they’ll always be able to support themselves.’ And, boy, it was hard work, but it was fun. We loved the people.”

Their customers returned the love. Bedwell remembers how people would kid them during the days when the chain offered its “family” of sandwiches, starting with the Papa Burger.

“We’d walk into church, and they’d say, ‘Well, here’s mama and papa. Oh, you’ve got baby and teen along, too!’ It was so much fun.”

But when A&W revamped its operating model, including killing the burger family, Bedwell decided to lease out the restaurant before closing it for good in the early ’90s. Bedwell would work as a health inspector for the St. Clair County Health Department, but old customers never forgot his restaurant days.

“Jim and I would go to yard sales, and somebody would say ‘Uh-oh’ and they’d pick up an A&W mug (they had apparently pilfered) and try to hide it,” Bedwell said. “And Jim would say, ‘I know. I saw it.’ Everywhere I go, I see my mugs. A lot of people would buy them — especially the baby mugs, because those were so popular.”

Still, when her husband of 58 years died Aug. 30, 2010, the outpouring of sympathy surprised her.

“I was just amazed at all of the emails and all of our old carhops who came out,” said Bedwell, who spied a Jay’s Drive-In model during Belleville’s holiday Gingerbread Walk just last year. “I mean it was just unbelievable. It was just such a tribute to him.”

And those unforgettable french fries.

Today’s trivia

Who wrote the song “Beware of Young Girls” after her husband left her for a younger woman?

Answer to Thursday’s trivia: More than a decade before he became the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson risked death to become an international smuggler.

He was hoping to improve the health of southern U.S. farmers by finding a variety of rice that didn’t need to grow in “ponds of stagnant water so fatal to human health and life,” as he once wrote William Drayton. So, while in Europe in 1787, he crossed the Alps into the Italian rice-growing region of Lombardy. There, he filled his pockets with unhusked grain in defiance of a law prohibiting “the exportation of rough rice on pain of death,” he told John Jay. He then sent the grain back to South Carolina in a tea canister, but the upland rice would not grow.

The failure did little to deter Jefferson’s desire to introduce a rice that could be grown without the mosquito-related infections. Three years later, he would receive a batch of mountain rice that had been taken from the island of Timor in the Dutch East Indies by none other than Capt. William Bligh during his historic trip in 1789 that resulted in his crew’s mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty. But although such rice did take hold in other regions, it never could compete with the rice in the malaria-ridden swamps of South Carolina and Georgia, according to a lengthy account at www.monticello.org.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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