The name Bob Evans might not carry the same cachet in southern Appalachia that it does in the north, but the chain of country-cooking restaurants and the branded sausage sold coast-to-coast are legacies of the famous farmer and his wife, Jewell, who helped create the recipes that millions of people enjoy today.
My privilege while living and working in Ohio Appalachia was getting to know Bob and meeting Jewell several times. He was a small but active man who founded the restaurant empire known for its homemade dishes, many of which had a southern flair thanks to his wife’s North Carolina-influenced approach to cookery. Together, they made a formidable team, both in business and the community where they lived, Gallipolis and Gallia County, Ohio.
Bob and I became acquainted in cardiac rehabilitation. I had suffered a heart attack and was ordered to undergo thrice weekly monitored exercises at a rehab center. One day, an elderly gent on the treadmill next to me declared, “I’m Bob Evans.” I thought, well it can’t be the same guy whose picture is plastered on the walls of the restaurants.
We huffed and puffed together, got off the treadmills and began another cardiac routine, side-by-side. He asked, “You don’t believe me? You’re not from around here, are you?” And he laughed heartily. I confessed to having been a Cracker Barrel man from Tennessee but was pleased to meet a famous person, even in his baggy sweat suit.
Our later conversations ranged from the importance of agriculture and farm-fresh foods to wild turkey hunting, conservation, raising cattle, pasture grasses, log cabins, the rural economy and importance of education. In particular, we shared the experience of growing up on farms where pigs were raised for meat. Bob, in his 80s, was delighted that someone from the younger generation had helped butcher hogs, cure the hams and enjoyed country meals centered around pork.
I was somewhat embarrassed to have argued with him about the best ways to make Tennessee sugar-cured hams. He was, after all, the man whose name was associated with a $1 billion-plus restaurant business. His first one, a 12-stool diner called The Sausage Shop, was launched as a means of marketing his delicious meat when local restaurants showed little interest in buying the high-quality product. The first Bob Evans-branded restaurant opened in 1962 on the family’s farm at Rio Grande.
I later met Jewell and learned she was the woman behind this successful man. Many in the community admired her philanthropy and commitment to improving quality of life through education and public support of deserving causes.
In reality, she and Bob were the team that achieved success in many business and community endeavors. I recall her smile and calm demeanor, even when Bob vociferously debated with another farmer about Herefords being better than Angus breeds at a Soil Conservation banquet.
It was said Jewell, who learned how to cook “southern,” guided her husband in the development of recipes made with fresh, quality products that brought fame to the restaurant chain. It was a Sunday country-dinner approach to menu-making that caused diners to flock to the restaurants. Breakfasts were famous, lunches delicious and dinners like grandma made.
Bob passed away in 2007 at age 89. Jewell, his high school sweetheart, helpmate and an acknowledged cooking icon, died this past July at 99. They’d been married for 67 years, raised six children and founded a business empire that included hundreds of restaurants and a prepared-foods division with products sold across the country.
The last time I saw Bob, he joked, “There’s the guy who didn’t know Bob Evans from John Doe!” He was wearing his signature Stetson hat and a big grin. I looked at him and said, “You didn’t look so famous, bareheaded and sweating on a treadmill.”
I turned at a soft laugh. Jewell had overheard and chuckled at us. Bob behaved for the remainder of the evening.
ν Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor. He resides in Tennessee.