I FELT AN almost savage fury upon hearing that they were tearing down the cafeteria across from SMU where the famous Miss Inez had been playing the organ for a dozen years. The first day I moved to Dallas, I walked around the corner from my apartment to eat dinner alone beside her organ. It was at a time when I had no idea what to do for a living. I was nauseous. I felt like Marius among the ruins of Carthage, anguished over the absurdity of my own life.
But it’s difficult to spend much time pondering catastrophe at an establishment that prides itself on the taste of its butter beans; so, like a cow at pasture, I chewed my food, waiting for Miss Inez’s nightly recital.
There were no students at the place-they hardly ever went there-but a dozen elderly people, all of them alone, sat near one another. Then Miss Inez appeared, arranging herself so graciously on the organ bench-smoothing her skirt and then patting her creamy throat as if to make certain it was still there-that I felt an inexplicable rush of sorrow.
Miss Inez, a thin, gentle woman who never looked at the sheets of music before her, played Gentle on My Mind, followed by the theme from Dr. Zhivago, then Feelings. I stared long and hard at my chocolate meringue pie. I tried not to believe that any of this was happening.
By the opening bars of Strangers in the Night, I noticed a change among the old people. To them, her songs were like the great horn themes of Brahms. In a cafeteria as dimly lit as a bar, where the tables wobbled and the food had the overdone smell of being left too long in steam pots, the music of an electric organ seemed to assert a kind of hard-won spiritual triumph. They even liked their food. When her last notes died out, the old people got up, smiled at one another and marched to their cars.
Rome might have a thousand churches, New York a hundred theaters. But they have nothing on a city with a lot of cafeterias.
Dallas, in fact, is one of the great cafeteria cities of all mankind. Like the music of Miss Inez, cafeterias are our assertion of integrity and value in what has become a graceless modern world. There are 90 cafeterias in the Dallas/Fort Worth area-one for every 33,000 people.
It’s a part of a gluttonous tendency among all Texans to eat in cafeterias. Of the top five cafeteria chains in the United States, Wyatt’s, Luby’s and Furr’s are headquartered in Texas (in Dallas, San Antonio and Lub-bock, respectively; the other two, Piccadilly Cafeteria Inc. and Morrison’s, are headquartered in Baton Rouge and Mobile). More than half of Wyatt’s 117 cafeterias and Furr’s 114 cafeterias are in Texas, and all but four of Luby’s 72 locations are in Texas.
Cafeterias are to Texas as delis are to New York. A National Family Opinion poll found that twice as many people in the South eat at cafeterias as those in the North. Cafeteria owners have long been afraid to expand north, even though there are few places to move to in the South, simply because Northerners just don’t understand what cafeterias do. Luby’s president John B. Lahourcade says that whenever he goes to New York, “the financial analysts keep asking me how we keep all the winos out of our places.”
“People in the North sort of look through the windows and wonder whether they should go in,” says James Muns, president of Dallas-based Wyatt Cafeterias Inc., the last privately owned cafeteria chain in the country. “Down here, no one is uncomfortable in a cafeteria. You’d keep thinking that Dallas has reached its saturation point in cafeterias, but everybody just keeps building more.”
And that, in itself, probably speaks volumes about the lifestyle here as opposed to anywhere else. A cafeteria in this part of the country is not so much a long line of available food as it is a dogma. It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting against the onslaught of abstract art. A cafeteria just hangs on, rarely changing, forever dishing up servings of flat-out plain living. Even the ladies in hair nets who serve the bread never seem to quit.
Nellie Feggett, who, incredibly, has been busing the same tables at the Wyatt Cafeteria in Lakewood for 38 years, says that if she suddenly quit without telling the cafeteria’s longtime patrons who make a point of sitting in her section, “then they’d come in here one day and not even know where the bathroom was.”
For many of us, the cafeteria is a tangible thing, a refuge from that oppressive group of diners who favor eating their veal Milanese amid a variety of potted plants. In a society where the waiters increasingly feel obligated to place the napkin in your lap for you, it’s a relief to be left alone. Nevertheless, this brings up the relentless charge that cafeterias are repositories of the mediocre. You can’t argue with that. Wyatt’s even took a survey once that showed that people generally don’t have the slightest idea which cafeteria they happen to be eating in.
Ed Yates, 56, president of Highland Park Cafeterias Inc., which has become Dallas’ most famous cafeteria and is listed by some restaurant critics as one of the top dining establishments in the city, says: “We think there is a specific cafeteria customer who will come to eat there every day of his life. We can’t figure out all that much about them. They don’t come from any particular background or social class. They just like to eat a lot.”
The point is not that the taste of cafeteria food will linger deliciously on one’s taste buds like lily pads on water. Cafeterias have been the butt of jokes since our first grade experience in elementary school, when we learned that it was possible to throw Jell-O squares at the ceiling and make them stick. And yet, only at cafeterias will you be offered the chance to eat carrot salad with raisins in it. Or jalapeno corn bread. Or get your choice of chopped or shredded cabbage.
At most cafeterias you can get either plain Jell-0 or fruit congeal. Fruit congeal is plain Jell-0 with fruit stuck in the middle of it. You can get baked custard or boiled custard for the same price. My feeling is, if there’s a difference in the stuff, there should at least be a difference in the price.
You also occasionally see such things as fish croquette. That means leftovers. Cafeterias are great with leftovers. Whenever you see a food with a foreign name on a cafeteria menu, assume it’s a leftover. Cafeteria managers figure that since Texas people are already intimidated because they can’t pronounce words like croquette, they sure as hell aren’t going to ask what’s in one.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that regardless of a cafeteria’s grandiose attempt to lay out a vast cornucopia, no one is going to say anything if you order the same meat time after time. It’s our chance to celebrate the humdrum, an act vital to our sanity.
“Whenever a cafeteria changes its decor,” Yates says, “the regular customers get very depressed. And I understand that. The whole reason I started going to cafeterias as a young man was that I could eat in the same chair, have the same cashier and know the first name of the woman who refilled my iced-tea glass.”
“The fact is,” Muns says, “the things that were selling 25 years ago in a cafeteria are the same things selling today. Sometimes, you think people don’t want anything else.” In other words, cafeterias call us back not because of the food. There is a more basic urge involved.
It’s probably important that I distinguish the cafeteria from the café A café is where liquor, coffee and desserts are served. People act very smart in cafés. Novelist Thomas Mann, who always put his characters in a cafe but never in a Furr’s, said that a café was “conducive to the expression of beautiful ideas.”
Well, Texans don’t talk. They act. They get their food, they sit down, they bend their heads over their plates and they get with it. They wolf down the food, then stack their dishes one on top of the other. If you hear any loud conversation at all, it’s usually along the lines of something like, “Harvey, if you don’t stop mashing your sister’s sweet peas, you’re going to get back in that line and order liver.”
A cafeteria, in its very essence, is bourgeois, complacent, encompassing the ethos of passive thinking. The only resemblance a Dallas cafeteria has to the old literary cafe’s is the Shakespeare buffet at the top floor of the Highland Park Cafeteria on Knox Street. Of course, one must note that this is the all-you-can-eat buffet, frequented by men the size of whales.
What is it about cafeterias, then?
“Here’s what it is,” says Kenneth Wright, 73, who started a chain of cafeterias in Dallas 25 years ago (there is only one left, downtown): “People have always wanted a place to go to stare at other people and meanwhile get some decent vegetables.”
“The most curious part about our research,” Yates says, “is that it shows that people come to our cafeteria to be entertained. They like the activity going on. They like the movement of everyone going in and out. Crowds draw crowds, and that’s what a cafeteria is for.”
People don’t even mind the children at cafeterias. Muns says, “I think it’s pretty well accepted that children can come here, throw a little food and no one will say anything.”
If the citizens of Western society do indeed yearn to be part of organized crowds, that’s a perfect reason to go off to one of the last great democratic institutions on earth- the cafeteria, where there is no class distinction except, of course, for the one almighty divider of the human race: smoking and non-smoking. There, we chew our candied yams, while some fellow at the table beside us sits by himself with his hat in his lap, his meal long completed. All he does is stare out before him.
I used to worry about those individuals. You see them all the time in cafeterias. Some of them look like the people who always sat in the jury box on Perry Mason. They seem a little lost and never quite happy. They doodie with pens on their napkins or drink coffee with their pinkies raised away from 30-cent cups.
Cafeterias may not be the best place to think about the collapse of civilization, but what you do get is a sense of private suffering. This year, Luby’s offered a “Thanksgiv-ing-to-Go Individual Turkey Dinner.” For $4.85 you got turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, fruit salad, a roll and pumpkin pie-all for you to take home and eat alone.
Yet, in the end, there is no better place for them to be. In Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” an anonymous man walks into a little café and just sits there. A younger waiter asks an older waiter why the man does nothing. The older waiter, aware of his co-worker’s youth, replies that one day, everyone needs “a clean and pleasant, well-lighted café.”
The landmarks of our lives are going fast. But at least we know that we will keep our cafeterias. They are like an old snapshot of a person whom you can’t quite place, but can’t throw away either. To the cafeteria, we shall always return. May their little flames shine happily in the darkness.
SOME OF THE BEST
The chains: When you talk about the big five cafeteria chains, you’re talking about places that are all good for cafeteria food. Only Morrison’s is not represented in the Dallas area. Piccadilly (three locations- one in Richardson, one in Garland and the other in Arlington) makes some of the better salads. Furr’s, with seven Dallas-area locations, and Luby’s, now with eight locations, are both strong with their meats. Luby’s usually has the best desserts of any of the chains. At some point you’re bound to go into a Wyatt’s. There are 34 in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Their number one item is fried okra, and their takeout turkey dinner for 10 to 18 people is a holiday favorite. They also serve a specialty, chicken-fried vealettes, which is tremendous.
Drake’s: Worth the trip. On East Rosedale in Fort Worth, in the heart of the ghetto, this is the one purely soul food cafeteria in the metroplex. A meal of chitlins, greens, yams and a strawberry soda is something you can rarely get anyplace else. You can also buy concert tickets here.
Highland Park Cafeteria: Literally, the king of cafeterias. It opened in 1925 and has been packed ever since. Now in two locations in Addison and the original location on Knox Street, HPC has gone hi-tech with video screens that give you the daily menu and a Bible verse. One of its more popular Bible verses is from Proverbs 13:3-’He who guards his mouth preserves his life.” Not a single weakness anywhere in this cafeteria, except for the tacky sign on the front bulletin board that tells you what to do if the person beside you starts choking on his food. Not exactly the best way to build an appetite.
Wright’s: One of the last of the downtown cafeterias, Wright’s, on South Ervay just across the street from City Hall, has the best-looking interior of any cafeteria in Dallas. Newly remodeled, it also serves desserts that rival those of Highland Park Cafeteria. Kenneth Wright says he made his reputation on roast beef, so you might want to try that as well.
Ellis Variety Hardware and Cafeteria:Isaiah Ellis bought the storefront next to hisfather’s hardware store at 2806 MartinLuther King Blvd. and has turned it into afirst-rate cafeteria. It only seats 44 people,but you won’t forget the pleasures of Isaiah’ssuggested meal of meat loaf, red beans, cornbread and lemon pie.