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Hungry? Fill your tray, cafeteria style

by Brian Clarey

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This is fried chicken, beef liver, a Caesar salad, mashed potatoes, sweet tea, a shiny yeast roll, broccoli and cheese and a piece of chocolate peanutbutter pie, the biggest meal this reporter had eaten in at least a week. (photo by Brian Clarey).

It’s 6 p.m. in Kernersville, suppertime, and the C&H Cafeteria is positively jamming. Seriously. I just waited like half an hour in a queue reaching back toward the door, particularly aggravating because I am freakin’ starving and it’s hard for me to look at all this food — steaming trays of entrees and vegetables, desserts lined up in neat little rows under the glass. That’s the thing about a cafeteria, though: Everything is on display so you know exactly what you’re getting, and the only surprises are delicious ones. I imagine that’s the big draw with this place’s core customers: young families and old people. It’s packed to the rafters with them tonight. The set-up also serves my purposes for this jag of solitary binge eating. It’s a good-sized joint, nestled in a strip mall a few steps from Kerner’s Folly. The napkins are linen, the tables small and clean, the lighting sensible and the crowd well mannered. Handmade flyers, framed and polished, hang on the walls, describing menu items and house specialties with homespun charm. And it looks like I am the only one here eating alone, which is how I prefer it when I really go to town. When my turn comes, I fill my tray: a Caesar salad for the leafy greens; fried chicken, because it looks delicious; beef livers with gravy, because they are a cafeteria staple. To this I add small bowls of creamed potatoes and broccoli with cheese, as well as a shiny yeast roll. I intended to top the whole thing off with a slice of pecan pie, or maybe custard, but at the last minute I call an audible and slide a big hunk of chocolate peanut-butter pie onto the remaining corner of my tray. And how about some sweet tea with that?

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To say that cafeteria food is uninspiring is to miss the point. A cafeteria menu is rooted in the simple things: layered salads, pot pies, hamburger steaks, broiled fish, simmered greens, cornbread, Jell-O. We come here because we know what we want — or, at least, we’ve narrowed it down some — and we don’t have to badger some waiter with pesky questions about the menu or special cooking directions. Everything comes “as-is,” and if you don’t like the looks of something, you keep walking down the line until you do. Everything on my tray tastes exactly as it looks. The liver holds its own with the onions, gravy and mashed potatoes. The Caesar is crisp and garlicky. The chicken does well with a splash of Texas Pete’s. And there is nothing softer and fluffier than the yeast roll tonight. Also, my trip does come with a delicious surprise: chocolate peanutbutter pie. It’s a generous slice, for one — it looks to me as if the pie itself had been cut into six instead of the customary eight pieces — and it rises three or four inches off the plate. The crust is appropriately buttery and flaky, limned with chocolate sauce and supporting a rich and airy peanutbutter mousse, topped, of course, with more chocolate sauce and a heady complement of whipped cream. It is magnificent, but it does enlighten me to the one problem with cafeteriastyle eating: You get only one pass through the line, and you need to order everything you’ll need for your meal. And I’ll tell you, this hunk of pie is absolutely crying out for a cup of black coffee. I realize I could probably ask the woman who keeps refilling my tea to hustle one up for me, but I figure I knew the rules going in. Next time I’ll be a bit wiser.

To comment on this story e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

C&H Cafeteria 940 S. Main St., Kernersville 336.992.0707

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