Saturday, July 25, 2009
11:02 AM | Posted by Wide Lawns | | Edit Post
When my parents started packing up our house, and I knew it was for real, we were really moving to Florida, the first positive thought I had about the whole thing was that at least we could eat at Morrison's Cafeteria whenever we wanted.
Before we moved to South Florida, we'd drive down at least once a year. I made the drive down 95 so many times I began to measure our progress towards the Sunshine State by landmarks. There was the bridge tunnel and Aunt Sarah's Pancake House in Virginia where we always stopped for breakfast for dinner. Then there was South of the Border; first the miles of ridiculous neon billboards and then the actual giant sombrero itself. Next came the stench of methane rich swamps and paper mills outside of Savannah, which woke me up in the wee small hours of the morning when everyone else, save whomever was driving that shift, slept though Georgia. Spanish moss appeared, bearding the trees along the highway by the "Welcome to Florida" sign just before Jacksonville. Right after that I'd start to count the armadillos crushed in the highway's shoulders and by then everyone would be blinking awake, wanting coffee, so it would be time to stop at a rest area where we kids would have the first of many freshly squeezed orange juices. My grandfather would sling a red net sack of grapefruits over his shoulder and maybe pick up a Goo-Goo Cluster for later and we'd keep on heading South, almost until the road ended, unless we were lucky enough to be stopping at Disney first, which was rare. We usually made it to Broward County in time for lunch and the first place we'd have to go was Morrison's Cafeteria. We would have been planning this lunch from the time the car pulled out of the driveway, asking one another halfway through North Carolina what we were going to have. I'd pray that when we got there they'd just be pulling a tray of apple dumplings out of the oven. My mother always hoped for chicken and dumplings, but the turkey and dressing was just as good and so was the hand carved roast beef. My sister held a firm commitment to their batter fried shrimp, which she called "skrimp" because she was the littlest. But really, everything at Morrison's was good. You couldn't stick to one favorite.
You'll have to take my word for it though because Morrison's closed in the 90s. Some of them were bought up by the inferior Piccadilly Cafeteria and others were torn down or remodeled into Best Buys or Pier Ones. Many of our favorite Morrison's were in malls which had once thrived; the same types of malls that had had Woolworth's with old fashioned lunch counters right in the stores. These were the malls of my childhood where it always felt so glamorous to stroll over the terrazzo floors, past fountains where people tossed pennies, to shop at J.C. Penney's or Burdines, another Florida institution now history. Burdines always seemed so fancy. When I was little I used to dream about one day buying a prom dress there, straight off the racks of pastel taffeta.
While we usually couldn't afford shopping sprees in high-end department stores, we could always get whatever we wanted at Morrison's. Even if you got everything: desserts, a salad, three sides instead of two with your entree - it never added up to more than about seven dollars a person, if even that. And when you stepped into that cafeteria line and grabbed your tray, still warm and a little damp from the dishwasher, you got the sense that you could have things. Morrison's meant accessible abundance. Plucking plastic wrapped slices of triple-layer coconut cake, monkey dishes of potato salad and jewel-toned cubes of Jell-o off the line made you feel exactly like you'd won a shopping spree on a game show. As I pointed to the crispy, cob shaped sticks of corn bread, the well-done end of the prime rib I wanted and having these things handed to me, with an unquestioning smile by the aproned, hair-netted servers behind the plexi-glass shield guarding the food, I was a young queen. No matter who you were, at Morrison's you were royalty. If you wanted something special, like a breast portion when there were only thighs left, they'd get it for you and actually deliver it to your table when it was ready.
I am lucky to have been underweight until my mid-twenties, when Morrison's finally went under. This way, I never had to worry about calories, fat or carbs as I pushed my tray along the three, parallel metal bars towards the cash register at the end of the line. Desserts were first. I guess they did this to tempt you and to get you to spend more, though desserts were all only about a dollar. Maybe if they put them at the end, people would look at their already loaded trays and opt out, but at the beginning, when you're starving, you're more likely to reach out and grab the first items offered. I never skipped dessert at Morrison's. I lived for their apple dumplings, but their thick, moist slices of cake and hot peach cobbler were just as good. Often I'd agonize over which to choose. Did I want yellow cake with chocolate frosting or that yummy spice cake? And oh my goodness they have blueberry pie today too! A lot of times my mother and I would agree to each get a different dessert so we could split them and try both.
Salads were second, and typical to Southern home cooking, a salad could mean anything as long as it was cold. I stuck with the coleslaw before the line meandered towards the entrees, dished out or sliced by hand. We had several favorites. At one point we went to Morrison's so much that we knew which specials they made on which days of the week. If we felt like fried fish we had to go on Fridays. Saturday afternoons were for fried chicken, which was also good. I was particularly fond of their baked chicken, smothered in an orange-scented gravy that went unbelievably well with Morrison's unrivaled macaroni and cheese. Though I've tried a million recipes, I've never replicated Morrison's perfect combination of soft elbows in mild white sauce hidden under a carpet of browned cheddar. There is nothing better, period. And then, looking down at my tray of frosting, mayonnaise, gravy and cheese, I'd feel suddenly guilty and ask for a dish of stewed green beans just to say I ate my vegetables, but I didn't enjoy them any less. I think they boiled them with ham hocks and lots of black pepper.
Breads were next. Looking back on this, it seems sort of strange to me that once people regularly ate bread with meals. Now, in a carb-phobic world, bread with a meal feels decadent, gluttonous and flat out insane. There was a time though when a meal without bread was unheard of. I certainly didn't skip it at Morrison's where a two-inch thick plank of grilled (on both sides) garlic toast was thirty five cents. It was soaked in salty butter and cooked like a grilled cheese sandwich, minus cheese; crunchy, greasy heaven, especially when you dragged it around your plate, mopping up the citrusy gravy from the baked chicken. But there were steamy, blueberry muffins, corn sticks, parker house rolls dusted with flour and drizzled with melted butter and pillowy slices of warm cinnamon raisin bread too. How could a person choose? It was almost unfair. Luckily, you always knew you could go back soon, tomorrow even if you really wanted to, so you never really felt like you had to miss out on anything. Morrison's wasn't like Christmas, only coming once a year. It made every day into a holiday.
I have so many memories of Morrison's. Even the drink station, where I could hold my amber, plastic cup up to a lever, unleashing an avalanche of crushed ice before serving myself unlimited refills of sweet tea, gave me a thrill. I remember the employees, who worked there for years until they dished out the last dishes of glazed carrots and topped the last slices of rare roast beef with golf-ball shaped potatoes, paprika orange in au jus. After we moved here permanently, we knew them by name. They knew our favorites. They even knew when to wish us a Happy Birthday and they didn't forget. I've always wondered what happened to them and where they went when the building, whose ornate port-de-cochere gave it a wonderful illusion of grandeur, was bulldozed.
I drive by the old location a lot. It's near where the Whole Foods is now. I think there's some kind of electronics store, maybe a jewelers there now. I've never been to any of these places. I've never needed them.
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