Perkins Corner – love and comfort in a package “to go”

By Carol / December 13, 2016 /

My mother had a tradition. Whenever we visited, when it came time to leave, Mom put together food for us to take along for the drive. It didn’t matter if we’d just eaten and the trip only a couple of hours long, she sent food along for the drive.

As a result, I was charmed – and not a little homesick – when I heard that Nan Johnson’s family named this common tradition. As we enjoy this holiday season and associated travels, I invite you to take a little “Perkins Corner” love along.

A to-go bag makes that hug last longer.

A to-go bag makes that hug last longer.

Perkins Corner – love and comfort in a package “to go”

by Nan Johnson

Recently, as our daughter packed her car to leave after a visit home, my husband stepped out of our pantry holding a package of Mint Milano cookies. “These will be good for Perkins Corner – Kathryn likes these.” My husband caught me by surprise, because in that simple, off-hand comment, he connected generations of my family, paid a loving tribute to my late mother, and demonstrated that he pays more attention than he lets on.

A “Perkins Corner,” in my family, is a bag of treats assembled for the person leaving. It is an assortment of fruit and snacks, and may include a coupon for an oil change or a free smoothie. Practically speaking, of course, they are road trip provisions. Symbolically, they are a loving gesture to the family member who is leaving that says “we are reluctant to let you go; here’s a small part of us to take with you.”

While the practice is undoubtedly common among families, the name for it is not. It comes from my great-grandparents, Dutch immigrants who arrived two years before Ellis Island opened and settled in a community of fellow Frisians in northwest Iowa farm country.

Pakka was a stone mason and Beppa supplemented their income by making and selling cheese. Every summer in their childhood, my mother and her sister took the train from Rochester, Minnesota, to Rock Valley, Iowa, to visit their grandparents. These days, it is a three and a half hour trip by car; back then, the trip by rail probably took the better part of a day.

My mom and aunt spent the long summer days fishing with their grandpa, weeding the garden with grandma, and playing in the hayloft with cousins – children of their father’s siblings who had married other first generation Dutch Americans­­.

When it was time to leave the idyllic life of loving attention only grandparents can give, the tears began. To soften the sting of good-bye, Beppa handed her granddaughters a brown paper sack as they boarded the train with instructions not to open it until they reached Perkins Corner, the first train stop down the track. During that eight-mile journey, as Mom would tell the story, the sniffling subsided, cheeks wiped dry, and curiosity peaked as to the contents of that mysterious brown bag. When the conductor announced the Perkins stop, the sisters peeked inside and pulled out apples and cookies – one last figurative hug from their loving grandparents.

I grew up hearing the story, but never experienced my own Perkins Corner since my own grandparents lived in town. But after I married, had children and we visited my parents, who now lived in faraway Tucson, the tradition began again.

“Just a little Perkins Corner,” Mom would say tearfully as she thrust a brown paper lunch bag into my hands as we pulled up to curbside check-in at the airport. I wasn’t always as appreciative as I should have been; flying with three young children, our hands were already full of toddlers, strollers, diaper bags and luggage. What do I do with this extra sack? But I accepted the gift anyway, dutifully nodding at the updated instructions to not open until the airplane’s wheels retracted after lift-off.

Moments after we left the ground and felt the rumble of the wheel doors close underneath us, our kids would turn in unison toward me, and I would pull the slightly squashed bag from my carry-on. Mom got pretty creative over the years. She included candy made from prickly pear cactus, chocolates shaped like cowboy boots, decks of playing cards with colorful photos of Arizona. Whatever minor irritation I felt from being forced to hold on to an additional package faded at the sight of our kids’ smiles. After all, it was one last hug from loving grandparents.

So, when our grown-up daughter, with car packed and ready to go, came back inside to grab her travel coffee mug, she saw a brown paper sack waiting for her on the kitchen counter. Her eyes lit up and she said with delight, “Perkins Corner!” I felt three generations smiling with me.

Do you have quirky names for common traditions? Take a moment to share. And Happy Holidays.

Nan Johnson is a former reference and rare-book librarian. She lives in Missouri where she writes and where she and her husband maintain a tallgrass prairie. Her first book “The Open Road” will be available in April 2017.

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  1. David Lawlor on December 13, 2016 at 8:05 am

    That’s a lovely tradition, Carol. There were times in the past when my own mam would give us some food for a journey, but it was never as embedded as your family tradition and we never had a name for it.

    • Nan Johnson on December 13, 2016 at 8:47 am

      I’m going to respond to you, David, since it is my quirky family’s tradition. It was only as an adult, when I looked at a map and saw the proximity of Perkins Corner to Rock Valley, that the name finally made sense! Thanks for commenting.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 13, 2016 at 10:49 am

      My mom always supplied food as we traveled, but naming the tradition takes Nan’s family tradition to a new level. I wonder if the distances we routinely travel in the U.S. make this tradition more common?

  2. Andrea Beck on December 13, 2016 at 10:00 am

    Nan, I love this piece. It is beautiful. As I read it I felt a pit in my stomach and a warmth in my heart. Your tradition of thoughtfulness is as relevant today as it was three generations ago. I’ll be stocking my pantry better from now on. Thank You.

    • Nan Johnson on December 13, 2016 at 11:18 am

      As a recipient of road trip treats from you, I’d say your pantry is just fine! Thanks Andrea.

  3. Merril Smith on December 13, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Carol, thanks for sharing Nan’s lovely tradition. At our family gatherings, there are always “doggy bags” of food to take home, but I love how this is a special treat for the trip–and with its own name, too.

    • Nan Johnson on December 13, 2016 at 1:43 pm

      As a child, I thought the name was what everyone used, not just what our family called the practice!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 13, 2016 at 3:02 pm

      Naming something does make a special gift even more special. Thinking, as Nan’s husband did, of a treat the traveler particularly liked, upped the game even more.

  4. Marsha Hayles on December 13, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    I loved Nan’s story. We could all use “a little Perkins Corner” to help us along the many journeys we take in lives. What a great and tender family tradition!

    • Nan Johnson on December 13, 2016 at 1:45 pm

      Thank you, Marsha. Wishing you smooth and safe journeys.

  5. Mary Kay Wolfe on December 13, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    What a lovely tradition, Nan, and told in some lovely writing. Your family – all three generations – came alive in your story. While the sharing of road-trip treats may be something many families and friends have in common, the name “Perkins Corner” makes this tradition uniquely yours. Thank you for warming my heart.

    • Nan Johnson on December 13, 2016 at 5:47 pm

      Thank you for your kind words, Mary Kay!

  6. Janet Givens on December 14, 2016 at 4:10 am

    Thank you, Carol, for sharing this endearing story from Nan. I don’t recall any such tradition in my family until I was married and my mother-in-law could not let us leave without packing up leftovers. Many mixed emotions now bubble up as I recall those visits, now more than 40 years ago. Methinks I have a new blog post idea. Many thanks.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 14, 2016 at 9:55 am

      Isn’t that the way it goes with memoir? We see something, read something, hear something, smell something and all of a sudden memories come flooding back. I look forward to seeing what you write that springs from this idea, Janet.

      • Nan Johnson on December 14, 2016 at 12:36 pm

        Ideas do come from a variety of places. A friend who writes children’s books said this sparked an idea for her, too!

      • Janet Givens on December 14, 2016 at 11:38 pm

        Me too. 🙂

  7. Dawn Lounsbury on December 14, 2016 at 9:15 am

    I absolutely love Perkins Corner brown paper bags but took loads of leftovers reluctantly for years from my in-laws, time to change perspective. I will be at your house next week and hoping for a brown paper bag. Can’t wait to see you guys and for your book to be published!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 14, 2016 at 9:59 am

      Like Nan and you, Dawn, there were times in my life when I accepted the things Mom loaded into our car with some reluctance. Now I recognize it was her way of holding on to us a little bit longer. Thanks for visiting my blog and joining the discussion.

    • Nan Johnson on December 14, 2016 at 12:30 pm

      Looking forward to it, Dawn! Thanks for chiming in here.

  8. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on December 14, 2016 at 10:20 am

    The summer train ride caught my attention. My sister and I went by train every summer to the big city from our small town to visit our aunt and uncle and have a bit of a holiday. Coming back, I was always anxious, thinking we had boarded the wrong train until I saw a certain landmark and knew we were on the right path! A “Perkins Corner” snack would have been nice at that point!I think my grandchildren will always remember the jelly beans they get from my jar just before they leave for home.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 14, 2016 at 10:33 am

      I can see how you would have welcomed a Perkins Corner snack at that moment, Elfrieda. Something to be look forward to; something to celebrate the recognition that you were in exactly the right place. My sisters and I only took the train to visit relatives one time. I have a picture of us all lined up with our little suitcases. A very fond memory. I’m certain Mom sent food with us.

      I’m sure your grandchildren will remember the jelly beans. My father-in-law always had a jar of peppermints by his chair. They were a magnet for the grandkids.

    • Nan Johnson on December 14, 2016 at 12:43 pm

      One thing I never asked my mom was how old she and her sister were when they first made the trip alone. I have a feeling they were much younger than would be allowed today. Mom never expressed any memory of being afraid, but her sister was four years older, so I’m sure she looked out for her.

      • Carol Bodensteiner on December 14, 2016 at 12:53 pm

        I bet many were keeping an eye on those two little girls, Nan. The way things were.

  9. Laurie Buchanan on December 14, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    Carol — Always a good sign, this post brought happy tears to my eyes.

    My maternal grandma would send us off with a Folger’s can (one each for my sister and I) filled with little puzzles, crayons, paper, children’s snub-nose scissors, and the like. One time we got little keychain flashlights! Digging deep enough we were sure to find —always, without fail—individually wrapped butterscotch candy.

    • Nan Johnson on December 14, 2016 at 12:50 pm

      Those are good ideas, Laurie. Our daughter was happy enough with Mint Milanos, but grandchildren will be a whole new challenge. I’ll bet your grandma had fun putting all that together for you and your sister.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 14, 2016 at 2:04 pm

      For me, too, Laurie. These demonstrations of love are always touching. I like the coffee can idea. I have stacks of the new plastic variety with lids. I already use them to package cookies and Chex Mix for gifts over the holidays. Putting together travel packages for the grandchildren is another great use.

  10. Marian Beaman on December 15, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    Bologna sandwiches and sometimes beef tongue were in our Longenecker-to-go packages. Food equates to love in your tradition, it seems!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 15, 2016 at 3:07 pm

      Everyone has their own food traditions. I could never get my head around beef tongue, even though Mom served it from time to time. To each his own. 😉 On the other hand, I did love liver sausage. And many don’t appreciate that.

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