I like cafeterias. There, I said it.
Before you start in on me, let me clarify: I like really good cafeterias. Sadly, those I can no longer find.
As a kid, it was the S&W Cafeteria at Park Road Shopping Center in Charlotte. It was located in the same shopping strip as the Park Road Bakery. That would be the bakery I knew hung the moon because they sold a cake frosted with alternating swirls of chocolate ganache and marshmallow cream.
Sometimes we went to S&W after church. Everyone was in spiffy clothes; the men would loosen their ties just a bit, the ladies always kept their hats on. (And what hats they were!)
My grandmother Nez's hat.
I keep it in my bookcase.
Wide-eyed I was, with all those choices before me yet I knew what I wanted, each and every time. I wanted haddock! Bites of plump, moist, white fish battered and fried until it was crispy and crunchy, with tarter sauce on the side. At just seven, I knew that fish was some kind of good eats.
The variety of fresh vegetables wasn't simply predictable, it was expected. They were the vegetables you ate at home and you wouldn't expect to find less; mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, creamed corn, green beans, fried okra, yellow squash, white rice, crowder peas, zucchini, lima beans.....and of course there were the yucky things only the adults chose; spring onions, deviled eggs, pickles, chilled asparagus, radishes...
I always got a biscuit. With a mother and two grandmothers who all made biscuits, it might not seem a special thing to get but these were not the tiny, southern biscuits we had every day. These were big. B-I-G big. Better than dessert. (Except for coconut cake.)
I grew up eating my way through many other great cafeterias. Along the way, I was introduced to squash casseroles. Of all the squash we ate in Charlotte, from home gardens and cafeterias, I don't remember a single casserole.
So I've been cooking a few this summer, just experimenting. Here's one I like. I've called it a Squash Gratin because I bake it in a gratin dish which is shallower than a casserole pan but it's simply a yummy Squash Casserole I think any really good cafeteria would be proud to serve.
two pats of butter
5 or 6 medium yellow (summer-crookneck) squash
1/2 of a medium yellow onion
a pinch of sugar
1 teaspoon salt
several grinds of black pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
several grinds of fresh nutmeg
4 tablespoons sour cream
2 eggs, beaten
3/4 cups fresh bread crumbs, divided
Lightly coat two gratin dishes with the pats of butter and set aside.
Wash the squash and cut them into large chunks. Place them in a medium size pot, cover with water and gently boil until a knife can easily pierce each one. Drain and allow to cool a little.
Chop half of a medium onion and place the them in a large bowl. Add the squash. With a sharp knife, roughly cut the pieces of squash to a smaller size. Leave any liquid that accumulates in the bowl.
Season the squash with the sugar, salt, black pepper, nutmeg and paprika. Add the sour cream, eggs and 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs, stirring to combine.
Fill each dish with the squash, topping with the remaining 1/3 to 1/2 cups of bread crumbs.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes or until the tops are brown.
makes two gratins
One Easter when I was seven or eight years old, my mother bought a beautiful hat for me. It was really more like a very wide headband. I think of it now as a Juliet cap. It was snow white lace with a couple of large pink flowers. I know it was exquisite and probably expensive....but I hated it!