Homestyle goodness on a tray in K-ville

by Brian Clarey

Cafeteria style at Kerner House: hamburger steak with gravy and mash, greens, soft rolls and pecan pie.

Say you’re in Kernersville. Doesn’t matter why. Maybe you’re visiting a friend. Maybe you need gas. Maybe you’re passing through on your way to Winston-Salem in the rain and you get this gnawing yen for comfort food, and you know that this little corner of the county can deliver, at any one of a dozen or so stops, anything from macaroni and cheese to chicken pie.

That’s what happened to me, and I pulled off the interstate with no particular plan in mind.

Sometimes I like mine cafeteria style, so when I came across the Kerner House, looking like a relic from a simpler time on the side of the highway, I veered in.

The Kerner House is a cafeteria, and a simple one at that — smaller than the one at my high school, even, though leagues apart in terms of quality.

While the wizened, hair-netted old ladies in my high school lunchroom spooned out dubious portions of mass-produced and reheated effluvia designed to do little more than meet basic government nutritional requirements, the nice folks at the Kerner House lovingly serve from just a few trays of homemade fare in the way of barbecue chicken, liver and rice and meatloaf.

It was all sitting there right before me, under steam-fogged glass. I chose the hamburger steak, nested in a pool of rich, brown gravy. The server spooned a generous wash of this gravy on my mashed potatoes, then put my portion of greens in a bowl to the side.

“Biscuit, rolls or cornbread?” she asked me.

And because I love the soft, hot, butter-glowing yeast rolls generally served in Southern cafeterias, I asked for rolls. I was surprised to see my server pull a couple rolls from a plastic grocery store bag, but not deterred, thinking, accurately, as it turns out, that these light rolls would do fine for sopping up some of that wonderful gravy.

But before I get to that, let me speak on the food itself. My hamburger steak was dense and redolent of beef — this was not some repurposed meatloaf on my plate, ant it was clearly

grilled a bit before being allowed to simmer in that thick, brown sauce. The mashed potatoes? Fabulous, thanks. And the greens benefited from a diminished presence of fatback, allowing them to taste less like pan drippings and more like something that grew out of the ground.

But that gravy, that pool of brown infinity on my plate, sopped up against store-bought rolls smeared with a little whipped spread, layered with viscous flavor… well, I could have drank a whole mug of it.

Maybe nobody else comes to cafeterias for the gravy like I do. Maybe they come for the pie, like I also do. The Kerner House has several each day to choose from, and on this one I faced film-wrapped slices of cherry, pumpkin and sweet potato pies, along with chocolate cake. I slid a slice of pecan pie on my tray and ate it slowly after I had cleaned my plates: sugary, rich and subtle, to wash it down with anything other than a glass of sweet tea would have been just wrong.