The Power of Strawberry Pie and a Smile
2019 America's Classics winner Jim's Steak & Spaghetti House is a West Virginian institutionHanna Raskin
January 30, 2019
Although we often think of James Beard's taste for elegance, our namesake was just as enamored with the humble hamburger as he was blini with caviar. "I believe we have a rich and fascinating food heritage," he wrote, and it's with that reverence for our country's diverse culinary culture that the James Beard Foundation extends its annual America's Classics Awards. Each year since 1998 the James Beard Foundation Awards Committee has recognized our nation’s beloved regional restaurants. Distinguished by their timeless appeal, they serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities. This year, a selection of our committee members are sharing the some of the personal, historical, and cultural touchstones that characterize this community gems. Below, Hanna Raskin introduces Jim's Steak & Spaghetti House in Huntington, West Virginia, and digs into how this decades-old eatery has kept politicians, actors, and local West Virginians coming back year after year.
As the Restaurant & Chef committee member charged with representing the Southeast, part of my job is to make sure we recognize people upholding values consistent with the James Beard Foundation’s mission, no matter where they live. In the history of the awards program, nobody has ever taken a James Beard medal home to West Virginia, which made me think we might have been overlooking worthy candidates in the Mountain State.
So this past fall, I crisscrossed the state in search of an America’s Classics contender. I ate pepperoni rolls at decades-old Italian bakeries; hot dogs at quick-service counters in the midst of doubling their chili batches for hunting season; and Swiss cheese in a town founded more than 150 years ago by Brooklynites who missed their native Alps. But it quickly became clear that West Virginia’s culinary soul was going to be found in a drive-in or spaghetti house. And as soon as I pulled up to Jim’s Steak & Spaghetti House, I realized it was the latter.
When people talk about Jim’s, they usually leave “steak” out of the name. The restaurant has specialized in spaghetti since 1945, when an itinerant cook showed owner Jim Tweel how to make it. Spaghetti’s essential to West Virginia because it’s affordable and filling, but also because it’s the vestige of an Italian immigration wave so intense that Italy once had a consulate in the state. But despite all of the spaghetti that West Virginians eat, a plateful still feels like a celebratory occasion at Jim’s, which has a knack for weaving specialness from what diners in wealthier places might dismiss as workaday: Tweel endeared himself to generations of Huntingtonites by pouring extra soda in half-full glasses, long before the era of free refills, and giving penny candy to first-time guests.
Tweel’s gone now: his daughter, Jimmie Carder, runs the restaurant. Yet customers wouldn’t guess it—almost nothing has changed since the place opened, including the servers’ sanitary white dresses and the house payment policy. (Bring cash.)
In short, what sets Jim’s apart is not just its commitment to perpetuating West Virginia’s most cherished culinary tradition, or its importance to the community, although both of those things matter—as does its strawberry pie, served exclusively around Mother’s Day, another West Virginia invention. What makes Jim’s a true America’s Classics winner is it couldn’t be confused with anywhere else in the world, nor could it be recreated. That’s reason enough to, as the printed paper placemats set in every booth say, “Smile.”
Hanna Raskin is food editor and chief critic of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.