To all the cafeterias I've loved before (in memory of Furr's Family Dining/used-to-be Furr's Cafeteria at French Market Mall, which closed for good last week):
• To my first nonschool cafeteria experience, at Phoenix Village Mall in Fort Smith, Ark.
Why, yes. Yes, I did grow up on a farm, with cows and everything, in the late 1960s-1970s, with parents old enough to be my grandparents. (Do some math here).
You might could have told by what I asked for, for dessert, at Luby's Cafeteria (I think it was a Luby's; this memory is 35 years old).
My friend Anthony Bowers' folks took us with them to eat out — itself still an unusual event for me at the time — and a movie. Anthony and I were 13 or 14 or so. The only cafeteria I'd been in was at school, in Muldrow, and back then there were no choices: You took what the lunch ladies gave you.
So, bewildered by the variety at the cafeteria “in town” (Fort Smith), I was comforted to see something familiar: plain old white rice, in one of those little side-dish bowls. We took our seats, I set the rice aside, ate my supper, then slid that little bowl of rice right over and put some milk and sugar on it, for dessert.
They looked at me like I'd fallen off a turnip truck — and I had, although it was actually a pickup with some calves in the back.
Who knew? Who knew rice was meant as a starch to go with an entree? Not dessert? I did not know. And, entree? What's an entree? DO WHAT? It would not be the last time my daddy's eatin' proclivities, which I, of course, adopted, would turn heads. (Fried bologna! Potted meat! Pigs' feet!)
• To Lewis Cafeteria, just a few years later, also in Fort Smith.
I think it was my first nonfarm job: Pot scrubber.
Pots as big as our trash barrels! Pans as long and wide as a tailgate! Utensils that looked like large-animal veterinary palpation and surgical devices! My first task every evening? Light the sink. Light. The. Sink. It was an industrial pot scrubber's sink, with a burner and a pilot light. I had to light the sink!
Two weeks. That's it. It was the hardest, most miserable work I've ever done, and that includes a hellish summer on a fast assembly line gouging out Permagum from where it was no longer needed on a new, piping-hot refrigerator box fresh out of a huge industrial die at Whirlpool. Something like 80,000 refrigerators.
But that was nothing compared to lighting that sink, and almost climbing into mashed potato pots and lying down in dressing pans to scrub them at Lewis Cafeteria.
• To the cafeteria at Muldrow High School — oh, excuse me, the “Cafetorium,” so-called because it had a stage at one end and could double as an auditorium.
It was new our senior year in '82, and most of us thought we were in tall cotton. Or fine hay ready to bale, anyway, since nobody around there grew cotton.
Choices at the cafeteria line! A salad bar! A SALAD BAR! I am still impressed, 30 years later. And ... and, and I still find this hard to believe: A JUKE BOX.
It was Joan Jett & The Blackhearts and “I Love Rock 'n' Roll” just about every day from the time it hit the radio in January '82 until we graduated. It really was a blast, and the best time I've ever had in a cafeteria.
I love rock 'n' roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby.