Tray Chic: Celebrating Indiana’s Cafeteria Culture
By Sam Stall
Guild Press-Emmis Publishing, $22.99
For this New Yorker, whose longing for Horn & Hardart remains unabated, Sam Stall’s “cultural history of his home state’s love affair with cafeterias” resonates. Being upfront with Hoosier reverence for the steam table and lime Jello, Stall states, “Cafeterias are a dying breed. Once, a century ago, their steam tables, trays and low prices were on the cutting edge of culinary trends. Today they’re as state-of-the-art as a brontosaurus. And almost as rare. Unless you live in Indiana.”
It’s a seven-chapter send-up starting with Laughner’s, “Indiana’s oldest, most-revered cafeteria dynasty” circa 1900. Their treasured recipe for vinegar and onion slaw will feed a family reunion, and then some. You’ll find it on page 25. MCL Cafeteria is defying the odds. Read all about it in chapter two, over a lemon bar, the chain’s absolute favorite. Turn to page 41 for the 24-portion delicacy.
Now, if you find yourself in Mooresville, Gray Brothers Cafeteria is the lure, but beware. Leaving your table for second helpings at Gray’s is not for the geographically challenged who can’t remember which of the how-many-are-there-anyway dining rooms they were sitting in. Talk of getting lost is right up there with Poe’s of Morgan County, unless you’re a regular, in which case you might find your “usual” lined up and waiting before you get from your car to the door. For the venturesome, it’s next to Indiana 67 and the industrial park. Motorama Auto Center is alongside; Martinsville is nearby.
In Greenwood, Jonathan Byrd’s massive sign foreshadows a serving line roughly as long as a tennis court. Don’t even consider it with a broken leg, unless you just can’t bear another day without “pedigreed fried chicken” and a heaping side dish of JB’s Korny Korn.
And then there’s Shapiro’s, which insists it’s not a cafeteria. That line you’re in with the alluring sights and smells, why “It’s just a delivery method for food,” says Brian Shapiro, and you know he isn’t pulling your leg. Just waddle along, and pick up a fist-sized macaroon on your way out. Who has room after the 2-inch-high corned beef on rye, pickle on the side.
But for the true history buff, go south, to Oolitic, in the heart of Indiana’s quarry country.
Marian’s lays it out in black and white: “Home Cooking Cafeteria/Best Tasting Food Lowest Prices Help Wanted.”
Tray Chic is a book to get you into the line, reaching for that plateful. And don’t forget the napkins. Small item: I miss an index. Every book worth its salt needs an index.