Howard Berkes, NPR
Merry Wives Cafe Manager Cherise Dutson (left) works out the coming week's menu with head cook Cecile Hammon.
Merry Wives Cafe Manager Cherise Dutson (left) works out the coming week's menu with head cook Cecile Hammon. Howard Berkes, NPR
It's a long and lonely drive between Fredonia, Ariz., and Hurricane, Utah, for tourists visiting the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation area.
That 55-mile, two-lane stretch of U.S. Highway 89 has just one sit-down restaurant, and it's like no other cafe in America.
The Merry Wives Cafe, located in Hilldale, Utah, is owned and operated by polygamist group members with a sense of business, humor and public relations. The cafe opened last year to give locals and travelers a place to eat. The owners also opened it as a way to gently confront polygamy's battered image. It is not immediately obvious that the cafe has any connection to polygamy, though to sharp diners, there are clues.
"We're not trying to shove [polygamy] in people's faces," says manager Cherise Dutson. "But, this is how we live, and it's our heritage."
Diners looking closely at the decades-old family portraits on the café walls will notice a common theme: a single patriarch, multiple wives and multitudes of kids.
And then there's the café's name and logo. "The Merry Wives" is borrowed from Shakespeare, and the logo depicts three cooks, all women and, presumably, plural wives.
The cafe is a few miles down the road from a polygamist group living in Centennial Park, Ariz. The group is known as The Work of Jesus Christ, and its 1,600 followers believe polygamy is a divinely ordained but voluntary practice. The group split decades ago from what is now known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), which is based in twin towns just up the road from Centennial Park on the Utah-Arizona border.
An FLDS group in Texas was the target of a recent raid due to allegations of child sexual abuse. FLDS "prophet" Warren Jeffs is serving consecutive prison terms of five years to life for facilitating rape. Former members of the group say arranged marriages involving underage girls are a common practice. FLDS members tend to shun media and strangers.
So, the polygamists of Centennial Park decided travelers needed a friendly place to chow down, a place where the curious could learn that not all polygamists are like the FLDS.
"We're just saying we're normal, and we live normal lives," Dutson says. "We pay our taxes, and we don't have anything to hide.... We are law-abiding citizens."
Except for one law: Bigamy is a felony in Utah. Prosecutors instead focus on underage marriages, welfare fraud, forced child labor and other alleged crimes believed to take place in some polygamist groups.
The Centennial Park group insists it does not engage in those practices.
The Merry Wives name grew out of a contest. The losing entries included "The Big Love Cafe," a riff on the HBO dramatic series about polygamy. "The Three Little Plygs Cafe" also didn't make the final cut. Dutson believes "Merry Wives" pulls travelers off the highway.
"We definitely knew it would draw attention," she says. "That name would stick out in people's minds."
What Diners Say
Food and hunger drew Chris Stump and his wife and toddler into the Merry Wives Café on a recent trip home to Salt Lake City from visiting several National Parks in Utah and Arizona.
"[We] heard stories about Colorado City on different news channels," Stump noted, as he ordered a bacon burger and salad. "We were pretty curious to see what polygamy houses actually looked like."
Stump noticed the cafe's polygamy theme and began to ask questions.
"We're not really part of the FLDS in Colorado City," noted assistant manager and waitress Olivia Mackert.
"Do you guys have any association with the members in Texas?" Stump asked.
"No, no we don't. Not at all," Mackert replied, with a nervous chuckle.
That satisfied Stump, who seemed tickled by his encounter with polygamy. "They don't bother me. It's their life. As long as they choose to do it, it's fine with me. They're not hurting anybody."
Not all patrons are so forgiving. Some leave cards under the salt shakers with phone numbers for women wanting to escape polygamy. Mackert recalls one woman who figured out the café's polygamy connection while eating.
"She just said it was an abomination, and she was really upset. She couldn't even eat her food, and she ended up leaving because there were a few men in here that are really strong in our religion and our beliefs and they weren't afraid to tell her."
But that's a rare experience, Mackert says. Most diners are simply curious.
The Merry Wives' staff welcomes questions, except when they get personal. Don't expect an answer when asking whether a waitress is a multiple wife or how multiple wives "share" a husband.
Dutson says she has bigger challenges meeting local tastes and demands. Local families eat a lot of home cooking with fresh ingredients so they have high expectations when they eat out. And they sometimes show up in daunting numbers.
A family of more than 50 people came in one day. They filled every table inside and outside and spilled into the conference room of an office next door. The cafe was forced to turn away other customers that day.
Does the negative news about polygamy make a name like the "Misery Wives Cafe" more appropriate?
"That's exactly why we're here," she says. "We are not uneducated. We are not sad or depressed. We are not the misery wives."