Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Feb 5, 2012
07:51 AMSmall Dishes
I realize nowadays that the mere mention of the word cafeteria horrifies most food lovers. It conjures up images from grade school of compartmentalized plastic trays, cream-style corn and dour women in hairnets. But growing up in the South, my memory is a fond one. It was my aunt and grandmother’s dining-out option of choice. Mine, too. Expected were crispy fried chicken, soulful ham hocks and greens, golden cornbread and more desserts than an eight-year-old could fantasize about. Best of all, everything was made from scratch, ready to eat and at a thrifty price.
It wasn’t without service, either. After reaching the end of the line and settling the tab with the cashier—someone inevitably who looked like Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine—a smiling white-coated waiter would carry our trays over to our table. Of course, he got a tip discreetly palmed from my minder’s purse. Most amazing of all was what I thought the cleverest amenity ever—a hook under the table on which to hang your purse! I had never thought about it before, but where do women put their purses when they eat? The ones my relatives carried back then were the size of carry on luggage; smelled of Tuvache Jungle Gardenia and dispensed a seemingly endless supply of Beemans gum.
At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, John Kruger opened what many believe was the prototype for the cafeteria. His inspiration was the Swedish smorgasbord encountered on his European travels. The word “cafeteria,” however is Spanish for “coffee shop”. By the early 1900s this innovation in dining was popular throughout the country.
Especially they flourished in the South in an era when the region languished behind the rest of the country. Fine dining options there were few and far in between. In 1920 only nine southern cities could boast a population of more than 100,000. Excluding New Orleans, the South’s largest city, dining outside of the home was limited to hotels, tearooms, barbecue joints and roadhouses.
The cafeteria became so successful there because it showcased familiar dishes in a bright and modern setting at an affordable cost. It was here that began the tradition of the bottomless glass of presweetened iced tea that survives to this day.
Much anticipated by me on trips to Florida was stopping at Morrison’s, a chain of cafeterias in the southeast. To this day I find myself craving its fried shrimp, eggplant casserole and sweet potato pie. Eventually Morrison’s left Main Streets in favor of shopping malls and in 1996 was taken over by its main competitor, Piccadilly.
One of my favorite cafeterias, though, was in Terre Haute, Indiana and was called the Goodie Shop. It dated back to 1922, but when I frequented it in the 1950s the décor was stylishly modern. In the 1960s, extensive remodeling took place to stay fashionable with the times. The specialty was hand-carved prime rib with oven-browned potatoes and, of course, an endless bounty of homemade pies. After the owners died in 1987, it was renamed the Martin House in their honor but closed a year later. Not surprisingly, since by then America had developed an appetite for fast food and cookie-cutter mediocrity.
I have few Madison cafeteria recollections. Occasionally my mother would take me to one at Rennebohm’s but it was of the school/hospital utilitarian variety. I do remember Carson Gulley’s fudge bottom pie served at the Memorial Union. Not a cafeteria per se, we often drove down to Rockford for Sunday lunch at the Sweden House that featured a spectacular Scandinavian smorgasbord.
By the 1980s cafeterias were on the decline supplanted by the serve-yourself-, all-you-can-eat buffets, many of them chains. Inevitably, quantity trumps quality at this style of restaurant. My least favorite of the genre are the Chinese ones—by nature, Asian food sadly suffers from sitting on a steam table. More successful are the Indian buffets since traditionally most dishes are slowly cooked and heavily spiced and sauced.
Here are my pile-up-your-plate picks:
Salad Bar. This once ubiquitous supper club prerequisite has taken a hit in recent times. More often than not, you’ll find more variety and freshness at the supermarket. Everything on the Willy Street Coop’s salad bar is natural and made in house; more often than not, the ingredients are organic and often local. Pricing is by weight.
Upscale. Prior to the parade of meats at Samba Brazilian Grill tango over to the extensive salad buffet bar. It’s laden with sundry greens; numerous composed meat, fish and vegetable salads; cheese; pickles; condiments; and even hot sides of black beans, feijoada and garlic mashed potatoes.
Sunday Brunch: The Nau-Ti-Gal puts on quite the spread: prime rib, ham, turkey, smoked salmon, eggs, pastries, and its curiously popular chocolate chip cookie dough. Sitting out outside in summer is an added attraction.
German. Wunderbar! The first Monday of the month (and the third Monday as well June thru October), Dorf Haus hosts an epic buffet that includes knackwurst, schweinsrippen, sauerbraten, wiener and pork schnitzel, spätzle and many more German stalwarts as well as a salad bar and dessert table.
Indian. Taj is a well-established and reliable curry house that features an impressive buffet at lunch including all the classic dishes. Attentive service makes it stand out from the rest.
Jamaican. On Friday nights at David’s Jamaican Cuisine you can sample its authentic menu—ackee codfish, curried goat, jerk tofu—at its all-you-can-eat Caribbean buffet.
Absolutely Wisconsin. Every year in November, Lakeview Lutheran Church holds it annual lutefisk dinner with Swedish meatballs, mashed rutabagas, lefse and all the trimmings. These church dinners were once common but have become increasingly rare.
Best Buffet in the World! Forget Vegas, my vote goes to Moonlite Bar-B-Q in Owensboro, Kentucky, self-proclaimed “Barbecue Capital of the World.” Granted I once lived there back when this place was little more than a drive-in, but true barbecue fanatics (like me) travel from afar to graze the celestial and astronomically large selection of hickory-smoked meats, salads, side dishes, and desserts. The specialty of the house is mutton, a forte peculiar to Western Kentucky served with a Worcestershire-based dip.
Morrison's Cafeteria Sweet Potato Pie
1 unbaked 9-inch pastry shell, thoroughly chilled
1 pound sweet potatoes, baked and peeled
2 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
Large pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons evaporated milk
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons white corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven 375 degrees.
Place the sweet potato pulp in the bowl of electric mixer and beat until smooth. Add the eggs and beat until well combine—about 2 minutes.
Combine then sugar, flour, salt and nutmeg and flour and add to sweet potato mixture. Beat until well-blended and gradually add the milk. Add the melted butter, corn syrup and vanilla extract and beat until well-blended.
Pour the filling into the unbaked pastry shell. Bake in the preheated 375-degree oven for about 45 minutes, or until set. Cool on a rack and serve with whipped cream if desired.
Makes 8 servings.