The Rebel in Me

A gourmet’s shameless confession


By David Claude Bailey

Whenever, as a teenager, I would do something that was beyond stupid, as in outright illegal, like seeing if our Pontiac Bonneville would really go 120 mph with my tattletale sister in the car, my dearly departed father would let out a long sigh and say, “Son, do you have some sort of predilection for institutional food?”

This was characteristic of my old man’s cutting sense of humor, but yes, Dad, I have, in fact, developed a penchant for institutional food over the years.

Despite my winning the N.C. Press Award for writing about fancy, white-tablecloth dining in the Triad, a smorgasbord of comfort food makes me lick my lips just by naming them: mac’n’cheese, scooped upon request from the corner of the hotel pan where it gets those exquisite crusty edges all caramelized into gooey bits; chicken-fried steak painted with a layer of creamy milk gravy; turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce, served out of the holiday season; meatloaf featuring tangy notes of sage from the breakfast sausage blended into it, covered with fire-engine-red chili sauce; salads — Watergate, Waldorf, Greek and tomato-aspic; and — my oh my, pie: goopy coconut-cream pie or tart Key-lime pie made from sweetened condensed milk.

Unlike many kids, my introduction to institutional food was a fortunate one, at South End School in Reidsville where the servers (who were also the cooks) pitied the skinny little boy in front of them with his big brown eyes fixed on the sizzling, chicken-fried steak. We quickly got to know each other on a first-name basis and they would always give me generous servings.

“David,” the sweet voice of the server would whisper alluringly, “Wouldn’t you like a little leftover dish of yesterday’s spaghetti-and-meat-ball casserole? We saved some just for you.”

I’ve also had some terrible institutional food, perhaps the worst at Boy Scout camp, where you could hoist your wiggling serving of cold grits onto the end of your fork and heave it across the table. But growing up in the food desert of Reidsville, I relished trips to Greensboro and Charlotte, which introduced me to the wider world of exotic cafeteria food, such as the chicken chow mein served with crispy noodles drowned in soy sauce at Greensboro’s downtown S&W Cafeteria near Belk.

I never served in the military, but I sure have been served some superb food by various branches of the armed forces: incredible picnic fare at Camp Lejeune on a Boy Scout Jamboree; fabulous oven-fried potatoes and roast beef on a Navy ship while I was a reporter covering missile launches from submarines at sea; hearty, stick-to-the-ribs fare at Parris Island, where I followed a Marine recruit through basic training; and a first-rate steak dinner I ate in the officers’ mess aboard an aircraft carrier on a shakedown cruise.

Perhaps the best institutional food I ever had was when I taught at Salem Academy, meals cooked with love and devotion by Helen Sowers. Her perfectly crisp fried chicken might just have been enhanced by Salem’s rule that you had to eat it with a knife and fork, the same way you were supposed to eat potato chips. (You could eat a hot dog with your hands, but several teachers insisted on cutting theirs in two first.) Mrs. Sowers’ desserts were legendary: chess pie that made me miss my mother; pound cake laced with so much butter its aroma beckoned you to take a bite before you finished your meal; and Hello Dollies, made devilishly rich with coconut, chocolate, condensed milk, pecans, graham crackers and who knows what else.

My most recent love affair with institutional food was at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, where I ate nearly every weekday for years since it was across the street from where I worked at Pace Communications. This puzzled some of my colleagues who typecast me as a gourmet food-snob, a pose I’d adopt when I wrote about the restaurants of Rome, Paris and New York for Sky magazine. But I would also wax rhapsodically about pit-cooked barbecue or Cincinnati chili I found in airport cafes.

So I guess Dad’s words were both prophetic and prescriptive. I have, in fact, developed a predilection for institutional food. And it’s probably by his counsel that the institutions where I’ve enjoyed them have not been behind lock and key. At least so far. Thanks, Dad.  OH

David Claude Bailey is a contributing editor for O.Henry magazine

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