Human Condition: Mom’s daily fare brought in travelers, locals _lowres


“What’s on the menu, Mom?”

That was a common question in the 1940s when Mom and Dad ran a filling station and four-stool café in our small town of McAlester, Oklahoma.

My mother was a real trooper. She helped keep our family together financially as the “first Great Depression” was ending. The staples at her café were sandwiches and hamburgers, which sold for a dime, or the “plate lunches,” which, as I remember, were 25 or 50 cents, depending on whether meat was included.

Mom had the bare minimum cookware and a four-burner gas stove, small for any kitchen, much less a café. And she came from an upper-crust family, having married for love rather than status.

I never remember hearing her complain.

When she had the opportunity, she could sit at the table and look out the window, across an empty city block, and see her parents’ big, two-story, brick home — the finest in our community. I often think she might have wondered, “How did I get into this situation?”

Fortunately, we lived less than a block from a neighborhood grocery store. Mom was never at a loss when it came to satisfying her customers. I can hear her still today yelling out the door saying, “Joe, run to the store and get a slice of liverwurst.” I had no idea what that was, but she had a customer who needed to be satisfied.

Mom’s café was a small, frame building — only two rooms. The front section had a counter and four stools. A small table by a window accommodated three or four with “kitchen” chairs. The back portion of the building was the kitchen where she “made do” with what she had available.

Mom was a great pie maker. You could smell it a block away when it was baking time. Pies in those days were cut in quarters and sold for a nickle a slice. She made great chili, too, but she never tasted it. Her vegetable soup was my favorite.

Many of her customers walked to work, passing the café to and from their jobs. It was common for them to stick their head in the door and ask Mom what was on the menu for the day.

About half her customers were those traveling who stopped for gasoline at Dad’s Texaco station. The other half were “locals” with whom “carry outs” were popular. My dad, brother Laurence and I ate in the kitchen, content with whatever the daily fare was — hence our question — “What’s on the menu, Mom?”

— Cannon lives in Baton Rouge

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