It somehow escaped my attention that S&S Cafeteria at 2002 Campbellton Road closed last year after 50 years of service to the Southwest Atlanta community. I remember this place as well as other cafeteria chains that have either waned in popularity or have been edged out by real estate development. I’m talking about Picadilly, Morrison’s, and Davis Brothers cafeterias all of which flourished in the southeast during the mid to late part of the 20th century. The food quality varied with location but it was generally passable with an occasional glimpse of accidental culinary excellence. Of particular significance was the role these places played on Sunday afternoons throughout the Bible Belt (more on this in a bit). Cafeterias were also popular during the week and provided chow for working stiffs or the elderly for whom home cooking had become dangerous or difficult due to cognitive (or appliance) failure. For the aged, the cafeteria might be the only form of public interaction outside of a doctor’s visit.
And then you had people like me – an inveterate bachelor totally disinterested (or incompetent) in cooking who needed to fulfill the biological obligation with an occasional halfway decent meal. These places were also great for eating your way out of a hangover though it required dark sunglasses as the interior was extremely well lit and the heat lamps radiated such intense heat that sun screen would have been helpful. I would also go to some of those buffet style, (dis)comfort food restaurants that instigated rules to prevent abuse of “all you can eat” deals. There would be a huge sign, in retina singeing red, explicitly forbidding buffet take out. When confronted, an obese woman clutching a Styrofoam box screamed, “I didn’t come her to read no damn signs, I came to eat”.
You’re An Imposter !
It never occurred to me that anyone would use cafeterias to make social or romantic contact but I was wrong. My physical similarity to another customer, a popular local physician, helped perpetuate an ongoing case of mistaken identity. Any attempts to correct the situation only intensified it. One of the line workers would say, “Oh hey Doc, What’s up man ?” I would jump in, “I’m doing well but I think there has been a big mistake, I’m actually not a do-.” But they were too busy and would cut me off, “That’s funny Doc. Gotta get back to it, See ya later Doc.”
The whole thing came to a head one night when a regular diner, an older woman, brought over her daughter and granddaughter, respectively about 40 and 20 years of age, and introduced them while making reference to an absent daughter in case I was underwhelmed by the beauty presently on offer. I had just cracked my 30s so I guess she was splitting the difference age-wise. “And girls, this is Doctor Phillips, an up-and-coming $urgeon. He was recently featured in the Atlanta Journal.” It was like Moses being offered his pick of Midian Shepherd women. I explained that I was not “Doctor Phillips” nor a physician or even close to being one. Well, that did the trick and they became red with embarrassment, but not for themselves – for me ! As they marched off, the daughter asked, “What kind of sick bastard would act like a Doctor just to meet women”.
I wasn’t out of the woods just yet – one of the cashiers took a liking to me though it became noticeable only after examining my ticket which included a “senior citizens discount.” I assumed it was an accident but it kept happening. While she was in my age range I did not find her at all appealing at least in that way so it got to be a bit awkward. However, it wasn’t awkward at all for my roommate who, unbeknownst to me, invited her and a co-worker over to our house one night. I came home to find two randy Picadilly women sitting on my couch – they were still in uniform ! Before I could react, one of them said, “I would just LOVE to get out of this itchy thing and take a long hot shower right about now.” As a person who likes to compartmentalize things in my life, this was like a cattle prod to the brain. Was I hallucinating ? I know it was rude but I feigned illness and locked myself in the bedroom until they left. Of course, this then meant that I had to find another cafeteria to go to.
How Sunday Church Works (Or Doesn’t)
Church attendance took place in two waves with the first group going only to Sunday School so as to complete their religious obligation in time to make it to the cafeteria and enjoy a leisurely early lunch. So the fat and happy first wavers would be strutting out of the cafeteria around 12:10 just as the second, and much larger, wave of main service parishioners would be queuing up in a line that might already be out the door. There would be some nasty looks exchanged between the two groups with the latter questioning the former’s spiritual integrity. Although, in my opinion, Church was mostly secondary to the food experience for either group and those obsessed with beating the crowds would always park on the fringe of the Church parking lot to facilitate a quick getaway. You couldn’t really blame the Moms who might look forward to the experience so they wouldn’t have to cook on a Sunday. But they tried to bundle too much into it all – bring along Grandpa and Grandma and task the older kids with guardian duty. These diners might not offer a Blessing over the meal under the assumption that their earlier service attendance provided more than adequate evidence of gratitude thus it was fine to proceed directly with the chow down.
The clergy were definitely hip to this scene and most would never dare end the Service late, fearing that next week’s collection plate might be light as a form of retribution. Some clergy would openly joke about the situation going so far as to make reference to that day’s anticipated food specials within their sermon !
I know I’m keeping you from that butter milk fried chicken and smooth cream corn but remember that no human gets through life without experiencing at least some of what Job went through during his tribulations.
Quite a juxtaposition but he wanted (perhaps needed) to let congregants know he wouldn’t be keeping them much longer. They were already thinking, “Job didn’t have to wait in cafeteria lines like we will if you don’t wrap it up there, Preach.” In contrast, some clergy, particularly the Baptists, might hold the congregation late just to assert authority and make a case against gluttony albeit without explicitly mentioning it. My friend Demetrius told me that his Church had it the worst where the Preacher might drone on until 1 p.m. or longer depending on “where the spirit took him.” The cafeteria rush would begin around 11:45 a.m. and might not end till around 3 p.m. after which the dining room looked worse than the chow hall at San Quentin after a nail gun riot.
You Gotta Act Right !
Engaging the cafeteria line involved a strict protocol. First was picking up a tray and some rolled up silverware that might become magnetized due to repeated washing in an industrial sized utensil cleanser. Next was the selection of coleslaw, carrot salad, or the “radiation green jello” topped with cottage cheese any of which could be subbed in for a vegetable if going for the daily special. Next up was the pricey entree, a large piece of fish, quiche (rare in the South at that time), a Ribeye steak or some Prime Rib. Anyone selecting these options might be singled out for derision by those in line behind the “big spender“. “Ooooo. Mr. Money bags, gettin’ that high dollar food.” Next up were the daily special options (e.g. “Dilly Plate”) such as the square cut cod, spaghetti, chopped steak, sliced roast beef, followed by whatever vegetables were on offer – mashed potatoes were a standard. A dinner roll or corn stick was available as was dessert including that lemon pie wedge with the meringue that would shift and collapse under its own weight after an hour at room temperature. Then you picked the beverage from pre-filled glasses of ice-tea or sodas before encountering the food line cashier who would print up a ticket to be paid at the conclusion of your meal to another cashier located near the exit doors. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it ?
Don’t Even Think About It !
Breaking in line could result in an ass kicking. One simply did not try this and exceptions were made only for the elderly, infirm, or someone who was obviously joining a family already in line. Still, the latecomer would get the stare-down and be expected to offer an explanation which was usually along the lines of, “Excuse me, I’m so sorry. I was parking the car and need to get to my wife and kids.” Another offense involved holding up the line by asking stupid questions or making witless remarks to the line workers who did not like behavioral deviations as it interfered with overall efficiency. I discovered that the thing to do was tip the table workers very well so word would float back to the line that I was “okay”. This would establish some bankable good will upon which I could later draw should it become necessary. Not that I ever held up the line – I just didn’t want the people handling my food to NOT like me.
Cafeterias are still around and the behaviors I describe are not unique to the South or a specific type of Church. I’ve seen plenty of Catholics bolt immediately after Communion to beat the crowds which, if you live in a metropolitan area, is really not necessary since there are many more eating options now than in previous decades. There are even various brunch joints where people willingly stand in line for hours waiting for a shot at an overpriced Spanish omelette delivered by an overworked wait person. But, if it’s in the right part of town then your social rep can improve. It has never occurred to me to Instagram my high dollar eggs-and-bacon experience yet many do. Let’s just say that enough eating and takeout delivery places exist to lessen the concerns of even the hungriest church goer stuck in an interminable Church service. Ryan’s Steakhouse is popular I’m told and evidently the “Chocolate Fountain” (!) at The Golden Corral is not to be missed. If, however, you live in the country or deep in the suburbs you might find yourself having to plan an early departure from a service gone into overtime. Not all cafeterias are equal and where you go could well be the difference between a full on Redneck Communion or a solemn, loving meal between family members and fellow congregants. © 2019 The Stewart Avenue Kid.