Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Lunch with Mr. Twain

He is without a doubt my favorite writer of all time. Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was a master at describing life in the heartland. Everyone of course knows of or has at least read excerpts from his classic novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I personally believe that, like no author before or since, Mark Twain excelled at translating the regional dialects, idioms and accents of his characters to the printed word. When you read his novels, you can hear the characters speaking.

But what very few may know is that Mark Twain had a cafeteria named after him....a questionable honor, you might say, but then again, this was no ordinary cafeteria. Inspired by Twain's novels of life on the Mississippi, the Mark Twain Cafeteria in Memphis churned out many a fine lunch and dinner in its heydays during the 1950's and 1960's. Although the establishment has been closed for years now, memories linger.

The spacious dining room was attractively furnished (for the time), tastefully lighted, and adorned with huge murals placed around the outside walls of the dining room. One mural depicted the whitewashing of the fence in Tom Sawyer, while another captured a serene afternoon, with either Tom or Huck (can't recall which) fishing on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. The pictures were painted by one Elmer F. Blalack. I have tried to find further information on the web about Mr. Blalack, but to no avail.

It seemed that everyone in our Highland Heights neighborhood dined at the Mark Twain: ladies in their hats after Sunday church, teenagers on dates, business people from the area stores, even little kids tasting their first roast beef au jus. There was a quiet energy about the place, and the food was classic Southern -- delicious.

Some years later, when I moved to Chicago, I was surprised to find that "cafeteria" there implied something totally different, generally involving worn, clanky stainless steel trays and food that was often below average. But I took solace in the fact that back home in Memphis, I could visit the Mark Twain on breaks and everything would somehow be right with the world -- the river would continue to flow, the bacon-steeped green beans would materialize on the plates, and Twain's words would linger in my mind, with every "y'all" and "ain't" intact. It was priceless.