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Support your local small-town cafe

Around the table

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POSTED: January 23, 2014 10:00 p.m.

They moved with a purpose from the dining room to the kitchen and back. Their pace was pretty good for 400-year-olds.
Well, they probably weren’t that old, maybe in their late 90s. I thought it was funny the old ladies addressed Papa as “young fellah.” Papa was pushing 60 by that time. I won’t say how they addressed me except to say I’ve never been cute or sweet.
I’ve forgotten the name of their small-town cafe in downtown Meigs, Ga. I do remember those dear old ladies, though, and especially their fried chicken, cream-style corn, chicken ‘n’ rice and multi-layer cake. Everything they fixed was perfect!
They were sisters. I thought they were twins, but Papa said one was older than the other. My 10-year-old imagination toyed with the idea that they’d gone to high school with James Oglethorpe, but Papa said he went to “grade” school with some of their grandkids. They were widowed decades ago. The little cafe was a means of making a living, but mostly was an outlet for something they loved to do, and they loved to cook.
They didn’t have a menu. Instead, a chalkboard near the front door told you what they had for lunch each day. It always was different and always delicious. They didn’t serve breakfast or supper.
Papa’s farm was between Meigs and Ocklocknee. At lunchtime, he’d either head for his brother’s country store in Ocklocknee or Meigs. Both had their advantages. All you got for lunch at Uncle Ralph’s store was a “drank (RC Cola) and pack of ’nabs (Nabisco peanut-butter crackers),” sardines and Vienna sausages, and night crawlers.
The worms were not for lunch; that meant we’d spend the afternoon fishing at Papa’s pond. If he headed for Meigs, though, that meant a trip to the old cafe and a meal to remember. As much as I loved fishing with my granddaddy, I never hesitated when he asked me, “Are ya hungry, boy?” That was a hint where we were heading when he stopped his tractor and headed for his big Dodge pickup.
He told me once there were better restaurants up in Pelham or over in Cairo, but I had a hard time believing that. Then, he said it was important to support the local cafe because it was local.
That made sense, even though I knew nothing about economics. I didn’t even know how much the old ladies charged for lunches.
The price apparently didn’t matter to Papa. They were local folks running a local business. That required local support.
By the following summer, one of the sweet ladies died, and the cafe closed. Papa said her sister died shortly thereafter. I realized then I missed them even more than their great food.
A year later, when my daddy returned from Vietnam, we moved to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and settled in the little fishing village of Sneads Ferry. Mama took a job at a local restaurant, the Riverview Cafe. I didn’t realize how much a part of my life that cafe would become.
It was on a high bank above the New River, directly across from Courthouse Bay. Its specialty was seafood, though I learned to love its North Carolina-style hot dogs that were covered in mustard, chili, onions and coleslaw.
By age 14, I joined Mama as a part-time employee. Over time, both my sisters would work there. The good-looking receptionist there one day would become my wife. Her mama also worked there, as did one of her brothers.
The little cafe on the river not only had the best seafood in town, it also was a major employer for the community. It allowed me to earn the money to buy a used dirt bike, blue jeans and penny loafers.
Even when the Riverview Cafe changed ownership from the Lewis family to the Jenkins family, it remained a central part of the community. I still think about its three-seafood platter (sea bass, fan-tailed shrimp and deviled crab). I don’t know who owns the cafe anymore, but whenever I get a chance, I re-visit it.
I find myself fighting the urge to clean the tables near me or rush into the kitchen to wash dishes. That urge disappears when my food arrives. It’s as good as ever, even though it costs a lot more.
That doesn’t matter. They still deserve my support.

 

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