Top of the Line

Cafeterias: A love Story

Once upon a time there was a young girl who grew up with a bounty of good food on the dinner table every night. A mere wisp of a thing, the girl didn’t eat much, but what she did consume was delicious: batter-fried chicken that was lifted from the hot grease and drained on a grocery bag, green peppers stuffed full of tender beef and rice, thick bean-and-barley soup simmered from scratch and ladled generously into what her mother called “soup plates.” The girl’s father, spoiled by the excess and quality, professed little desire to venture far beyond the kitchen, whose stovetop was always occupied by pots with jiggling lids and whose ovens were filled with fragrant cakes and pies.

On Sundays, however, the family was known to venture forth in search of a midday meal at a restaurant. The restaurants chosen rarely offered sit-down service with linen napkins and waiters. Instead, the six family members stood in a line that snaked its way toward a row of steaming bins attended by women in white uniforms and hairnets. The restaurants were called Bernice’s and Russet Cafeteria; at the Russet, the girl enjoyed fluffy corn fritters she happily dipped in a little saucer of maple syrup. The family dined on Swiss steak or salmon patties at these places, and dishes of lima beans, and mashed potatoes with a puddle of brown gravy spooned in a perfect, circular well. And rolls! They ate white cloverleaf rolls spread with pats of butter scraped from a cardboard square and crusty wheat rolls and dense cornbread, and when all that was gone, refrigerated apple pie with crisscrossed crust.

As much as the girl loved her mother’s cooking, she cherished these cafeteria visits, where the food was familiar, where nice families that looked like her own stood patiently in line, making their way past the choices—oh, the choices!—until their trays were full of red Jell-O squares and baked chicken and sweet cooked carrots and towering slices of coconut cream pie.

The girl became an adult, married, and took her own children to such places. She rolled their high chairs down the line at Laughner’s and MCL and got them chicken drumsticks and blue Jell-O and buttery canned corn. These cafeterias felt like home. They were Hoosier by tradition: friendly and real. She considered them iconic symbols of this state, like cowboy boots in Texas and snow in Vermont.

Even though their children are grown, the woman and her husband, swayed not by more fashionable alternatives, still frequent these kinds of restaurants. The couple have decades of experience and know all the tricks: to ask for a separate bowl for their peas, for instance, so the juices won’t flood their entree. To appreciate the special foodstuffs produced on local farms but not waver from the classics: slow-cooked green beans studded with soft bacon, rare roast round of beef erect on its stand. To admire the beef Manhattan drowned in brown gravy, but to order the healthier baked tilapia instead.

They know not to panic but to take their time: Move the tray down the line and survey the choices before committing. To unwind their cinnamon roll spiral by spiral, until they get to the gooey center that each knows is off-limits to the other. To request the crusty top of the mac ’n’ cheese be scooped onto their portion. They know to take an empty cup and get their coffees later, to enjoy with their pie. One of them likes pumpkin, the other strawberry, relishing the crown of whipped topping. Cafeterias are no place for snobbish foodies hoping for duck confit, arugula salad, or anything braised in a port-wine reduction or drizzled with truffle oil. Comfort food was started here—and has stayed, eschewing trends, dancing with the one that brung them.

The couple never rush their old-lady or old-man counterparts who wobble through the line behind walkers, sometimes trailing oxygen tanks, as they know this might represent their own future. When the woman’s own parents became too elderly to drive the distance from their urban apartment, the octogenarian pair would frequent the cafeteria inside Winona Hospital, just down the street. The woman and man did not ridicule the aged couple for this, as they realized the convenient location, low prices, and nutritious fare pleased them.

When the woman needs a break these days, she browbeats her husband into a trip to Gray Brothers in Mooresville, to stand in the endless line that weaves around the building, the number and girth of fellow patrons testimony to the quality of the offerings. When they finally reach their culinary destination, they choose tender, crisp fried chicken; mashed potatoes luscious with lumps; fresh, seasonal strawberry pie. Here, regulars know that when the line attendant bellows “lot or dark?” she means the color of the gravy, not the amount to be served or the kind of meat. Every Hoosier should include a visit on his bucket list, although judging by the crowds, most already have.

One unfortunate evening when the woman’s husband lay ill in the hospital, she ate at MCL alone. On that visit, she found a tiny feather stuck in the crust of her fried chicken breast, and began to cry. A white-haired employee rushed over to see what was wrong, and the wife showed her the feather and wept some more. The employee brought a fresh piece, fully plucked, and sat down beside the woman, comforting her. There is no pretense in a place like that. Regular people with regular incomes and regular life challenges who like regular food come and come and come. In this time of economic prudence, Hoosiers haven’t gone back to basics; they’ve always been there.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach.

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.