Cafeteria classics vie for tray space

by Brian Clarey

The last gasps of winter could be felt in the chilled rain that sifted down on our city last week, glossing the pavement and sagging the boughs of greening trees and instilling at lunchtime a late-season desire for the soft, steamy comfort food that got us through the cold months.

When I think of comfort food, I think of fare with agreeable textures and subtle spiciness: mashed potatoes and gravy, cheesy casseroles, turkey and stuffing (with gravy), meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, greens, beans and vegetables steamed to within inches of their lives.

And gravy. Did I say gravy?

If your grandma’s not around, you can find fare like this at any of several homestyle kitchens in town. Or you can do what I did and wheel into the parking lot behind Quaker Village and get in line at the J&S Cafeteria.

I like cafeterias, always have. Lunch was 85 cents at my high school cafeteria, as I recall, and the food chute at college was a binge eater’s dream.

When I was 10, we took a family trip to Washington and I remember the cafeteria at the Smithsonian with its astronaut ice cream as well or better than anything else in those hallowed halls.

With some forms of dining, your meal is shrouded in mystery. It’s described vaguely on the menu in flowery terms with ingredients rattled off by impatient waiters or perhaps, in some lower-tier establishments, there might be a picture of the meal you plan to order on the wall.

But you can’t trust a picture.

In the cafeteria you get to see your lunch with your own eyes and use a visual screening process to narrow the field. You have the privilege of choosing your own piece of broiled fish or slab of Salisbury from among its brothers in the shallow chafing dish, much like patrons at exclusive steakhouses (and, I think, Jabba the Hut) select by eye the items with which they wish to grace their palates. It’s a step up in service from a buffet and a few levels higher in elegance and quality than a vending machine, and although it’s not the cheapest way to dine ‘— especially if you’ve got the munch-eye ‘— it is still very popular. Fifty million senior citizens can’t be wrong.

There are a few of them ambling underneath the portico at J&S this misty afternoon, slowly rolling loved ones in wheelchairs and ambling with those walkers that some choose to modify with tennis balls at the base. And a crew from a nearby medical office dressed in scrubs imbued with floral patterns scurries through the raindrops.

My lunch date leads me down an L-shaped corridor paneled with thin wood. We pull trays from the stack and begin the promenade, sliding the trays down the aluminum runners and pausing at the separate stations.

In the garde manger we weigh the choices between the various salads ‘—chopped, sliced and tossed ‘— and the assortment of gelatin suspensions. I choose a seven-layer salad, a sort of whitebread Southern delicacy with mayonnaise dressing, mushy peas, cheese, lettuce and bacon. A serving of broccoli casserole acts as a side dish for the main event: a generous slap of chicken pot pie, its insides oozing to the limits of the plate, so close to gravy as to be included in the same food group. Some might opt to take this repast with cornbread, but I choose a fluffy yeast roll with a shimmering glaze. I round out the tray with a slice of pie. There are many to choose from: lemon meringue, sweet potato, egg custard, strawberry cream, coconut and apple’… but I select a dense slice of German chocolate pie with a sugary crust of pecans on top. Sweet tea.

My lunch date, her tray bearing a light load of broiled fish and yams, seats us in a booth at the edge of the dining room, a homey, wallpapered space with ceiling fans, commercial hide-a-stain carpet, nature prints and a wall dedicated to the violin.

It is the opposite of a power lunch, at the twilight between the late-morning refill and the 4:30 early bird, with the dining room less than bustling and the refill ladies dropped down to half-time as they make their rounds. You can gossip freely at this hour, as the general patrons don’t care what you’re talking about and couldn’t hear you if they did, and the deals being cut have less to do with the brokerage of influence than who’s going to get the car in the rain and pull it under the portico for the rest.

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