Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Fine dining, one tray at a time

When I was a kid, our county was dry. The term "dry" literally means "liquor sales are illegal", but did not mean, of course, that in fact no liquor was consumed. A personal consumption legal allowance was maintained even under the statute, and though retail sales were banned, a flourishing trade in moonshine (home-made alcohol, usually a mash whiskey) and in bootlegged alcohol (alcohol illegally imported from other counties) existed in conjunction with the vigorous suppression of local beer sales. It was not a particularly hard job for the authorities to figure out whom was in the forbidden business. My rough understanding was that the local "evildoers" actually obtained federal revenue tax licenses, as a local county alcohol offense was usually met with the punishment of having one's still tipped over, while a federal tax violation had a way of getting one sent to the federal penitentiary. It's one thing to serve Satan's alcohol, but another matter altogether to fail to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. The result was a "nod, nod, wink, wink" system of law enforcement. One of my classmates, now a Baptist minister, ran up some small fines with a minor side business in boot-legging. No doubt that makes for a fine testimonial saga about recovery from the wages of sin. The wages of sin, we all know now, are beer.

Even in the "wet" counties, mixed drink permits and table wine at restaurants were not the "done" thing. Bars were considered dubious establishments, attended by notorious pool-hall dwellers, the needlessly promiscuous (although promiscuity is rather an Arkansas thing, among the faithful and faithless, so I am not sure how one defines "needless"), and general unsaved types.

Restaurants, of course, thrive on alcohol sales, for which an adoring public will, indeed, pay a substantial multiple of the restaurant's cost for a cheap cabernet. Not surprisingly, then, even the capital in Little Rock and the fabulous resort town of Hot Springs, places we would visit when I was a kid to see or shop, lacked the tons of restaurants and cafes we see now. As fast food had not taken over, either, this left one principal alternative. This alternative was the cafeteria.

The great Hot Springs cafeteria was Frankie's. What incredible food! Giant Gulf fried prawns, from some gargantuan species that must now be extinct. Pre-over-fishing cod, sold cheap but fresh baked on huge oval plates. Tons of those odd casseroles one finds only in Arkansas, Louisiana or Mississippi, in which at least four types of fruit, three types of relish and multi-colored marshmallows are always involved. Vinegary multi-bean salads. Rolls baked by the angels, and smuggled onto this mortal plane. Amazing Boston Cream Pies. A trip down that cafeteria line was a trip to the finest food ever offered to anyone, anywhere. I spent many happy noons choosing cafeteria items at these incredible places. The whole thing was just so....elegant! All the shoppers, in their Sunday best because they had come to the city to shop, went down a line where people waited on them with gentility and grace.

In Dallas, until I left in 1990, the Highland Park Cafeteria maintained this amazing standard, even in a post-cafeteria age. A host of lesser cafeterias also served honest food to honest people like me. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I found that Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown LA still operated, but had lost all its glory from the days when downtown LA was an upscale shopping destination. I had many a fine meal at Clifton's, but it was not the same. It was faded, less an Audrey Hepburn movie than the closing credits on Sunset Boulevard. When I came back to Dallas, most of the cafeterias were gone or fading.

Today I went for a very late lunch at Furr's, the chain cafeteria near our office. Most of the other folks there were retirees. They now have an all you can eat for 6 dollars, plus the cost of the drink. The food was exquisite, but it is not the sort of "upscale heaven" that cafeterias were when I was a kid. The entire meal was enjoyable, the price was reasonable, and the food was more than acceptable. But the glamour is gone. Now it's definitely food targeted in liberal proportions to retirees and blue collar folks. Now I like retirees and blue collar folks. Heaven knows I hope to be lucky to be the former someday, and sometimes feel a bit inferior because I am not the latter. But no longer do I waltz down the line as if I were the kid in Willie Wonka's chocolate factory, just amazed as the everlastinggobstopperness of it all.

I miss cafeterias, but that's not really what I miss. I miss that feeling of elegance. I know it was an elegance through a 7 year old's eyes. I know that I would want to leave behind some of the worker exploitation that came with that "elegance", as there's a reason so much attentive cheap labor was in those old places (i.e., they hired minority group members and paid them poorly and gave them no benefits).

I wonder sometimes, by the way, if my near complete distaste for alcohol, controlled substances, and all forms of dissolute living other than food are not a carryover from these days. Who needed beer when one had cafeterias?

But now I'm having one of those memory moments which come all too easily to me. I don't want those days back, days of nearly segregated schools, exploited workers, and very little ethnic food. But could I have a giant fried Gulf prawn, please? or perhaps a little baked New England cod? and could I finish it off with a slice of home-made German Chocolate cake? Just ring up the items...and thank you, to so many workers of my childhood, for the incredible grace you gave my life, one cafeteria tray at a time.

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