JIM DODSON: A Groundhog Day to Remember
It's not easy being a child of Groundhog Day.
I sometimes wonder, as I open birthday greetings illustrated by snuffling pigs and such, what my mother was thinking by letting me debut on Feb. 2, a day most of the world thinks of as a bad Bill Murray movie. Then again, maybe that's redundant.
On the plus side, I share my birthday with celebrated writers James Dickey, James Joyce and the visionary novelist Ayn Rand, the mother of Objectivism, a school of philosophy symbolized by the lone hero standing against the rule of the mob.
On the downside, I also share it with the dumber Smothers brother, Colombian pop diva Shakira, and marriage expert Christie Brinkley.
Together, we share this faux-holiday with a fat and furry little critter named Phil from Pennsylvania, who hogs the media's attention every year by pretending to know what the weather is going to do in the Lower 48 over the next six weeks.
To judge by my Aquarian stars, or at least the successful traits of my fellow famous Groundhoggers, one might surmise I'm inclined to write passably well but sleep most of the winter, complain that my mother liked my brother better, marry early and often, and be able to ignite hordes of glandular young Colombians with the smart waggle of the hip.
Us lesser known Groundhoggers, in fact, are a pretty basic lot. We don't ask for much.
Every year, for example, I tell my wife, "Honey, listen. Please don't buy me a thing for my birthday! There's nothing I want except maybe an early spring."
Naturally, I repeated myself again this year. But this year I actually did want something else.
I wanted my own K&W Cafeteria.
See, when I was a kid -- 45 Groundhog Days ago, give or take -- I used to love going to the S&W cafeteria, an elegant eatery where pleasant ladies wearing white hair nets would serve you platters of glazed baked ham or country-style steak plus bubbling macaroni and cheese and stewed apples and, best of all, pulverized yams topped with gooey marshmallows, all dished out in saucy little bowls.
My goal every time through the cafeteria line was to safely reach the dessert display by the cashier with absolutely no yucky green items on my tray, though I was severely handicapped in this quest by having a mother who could uncannily monitor sibling food choices in two directions simultaneously. More often than not, on the very threshold of victory, I would hear her pleasantly inform one of the elderly service ladies: "Excuse me, ma'am? He'll also be having the stewed Brussels sprouts and some of the green beans."
My mom was a Mother of Objectivism, too. She objected if I tried to stand alone against the rule of the mom.
Nevertheless, if you've ever seen the old S&W Cafeteria building in downtown Asheville, a temple of nourishment at least as ornate as the famous Scribner and Brothers building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, you know what sort of singular dining experience it must have been.
At the cafeteria's Greensboro location, where we often went after Sunday church services, and sometimes on Saturday evenings as well, there was a glamorous mezzanine and, on special occasions, I recall a small spiffy white-jacketed orchestra pumping out jazz standards -- though maybe I'm confusing this with something I saw in a Thin Man movie.
Just Not the Same
In any case, I think brother Marcel Proust was probably right. Pulverized yams with gooey marshmallow topping does philosophically for me what a hard biscuit did for him -- it transports this humble groundhog back to a childhood that was something of a Southern eating Idyll, despite all the wretched green beans and Brussels sprouts I was forced to consume under silent protest and direct threat of no banana pudding.
Near as I can tell, the S&W vanished from the Southern cultural landscape 30 years ago. Its surviving relation, the K&W Cafeteria chain, which began 50 years ago in neighboring Winston-Salem, nobly expanded to fill the void, providing a rewarding cafeteria dining experience that even included the serving ladies in white hair nets, but minus the orchestra.
Upon my return to the Sandhills a few years back, however, I was shocked and dismayed to discover there was no K&W within 30 miles of this Eden in the Pines, so I phoned the company headquarters and asked to speak directly to Mr. K or Mr. W about the possibility of acquiring one of my, that's to say our, very own.
"At this time," I was informed by a pleasant company spokeswoman who'd probably never had the pleasure of making her cafeteria selections to the classy strains of a white-jacketed orchestra, "we have no plans for a restaurant in the Southern Pines and Pinehurst area. But you never know what might change. Stay tuned. We may put one there eventually."
And so, I have waited. I've stayed faithfully tuned. But no K&W cometh.
Which is why, in the interim, this year's Groundhog Day turned out to be such a swell birthday surprise to the lonely aging Southern palate.
Out of the blue -- no doubt weary of hearing me whine -- several of my colleagues from the world headquarters of PineStraw Magazine more or less forced me into a car and drove me up to Greensboro to eat at Stamey's Barbecue. Hog to hog, so to speak.
Barbecue, as you may know, is the other regional food near and dear to the Carolinas heart -- ranking right up there with God, Dean Smith, the U.S. Constitution, bonded bourbon whiskey and certain kinds of bottle-blonde women.
As any fool knows, there's barbecue made in the east of the Old North State, and there's barbecue made in the west -- and that's about all there is for decent barbecue anywhere on the planet.
There's also red slaw and yellow slaw. The kind of barbecue and slaw one generally prefers typically depends upon which part of the state you hail from. Since I grew up a few miles north of the original Stamey's Barbecue in Greensboro, which I fancied I could smell cooking on certain nights when the wind blew from the south, that's the kind I grew to manhood believing was pure ambrosia. But since I attended school at East Carolina, I harbor a brotherly affection for that style of barbecue as well.
Like the mythic city of Atlantis, the original squat '50s-style Stamey's is long gone, replaced a couple decades ago by a spacious ersatz of wooden dining parlor where a small army of waitresses ferry sweet tea and paper plates loaded with chopped barbecue, red slaw and hushpuppies to the hundreds of patrons who pack the joint six days a week.
Frankly, it was beyond my comprehension that my traveling companions -- two of whom hail from this state -- had never made a pilgrimage to Stamey's. My passion for the barbecue of my youth was the source of much jocular comment, in fact, as was the old golf club blazer patch on my favorite jacket -- until they tasted Stamey's barbecue for themselves and fell silent in grudging if respectful admiration.
"OK, Thurston Howell III, I'll give you this much, it's pretty good," allowed David Woronoff, a son of the east who somehow courted and married a beautiful young woman away from the scion of a prominent barbecue clan. So he claims some familiarity with the tomato-based glory of the west, if only by terms of wedlock.
Mary Ann or Ginger?
Still under the impression that I was the pompous castaway from a famous TV sitcom, he added, "Here's a really important question. And since it's your birthday you have to answer honestly. Mary Ann or Ginger?"
"That one's easy," I replied, recalling many happy hours sitting before the tube watching "Gilligan's Island," sometimes with a plate of Stamey's on my lap. "Mary Ann. Cute. Lovable. Probably very low maintenance. She may be the perfect woman for these recessionary times."
"Men are so predictable," sighed Andie Rose, our very own Mother of Objectivism at PineStraw, texting several of her male friends to see if she was right. At least she'd enjoyed the red slaw and Stamey's.
"You guys are perfect for Groundhog Day -- true sexist pigs," chipped in youthful Claire Corso with a laugh, who only a moment before had been church-nodding in a light doze from the sugar high induced by Stamey's famous peach cobbler. But she, too, was busy texting every male in her fancy phone log to see what they might say.
The responses seemed to suggest that most guys are, indeed, groundhogs at heart.
A well-known physician from these parts, for example, instantly texted back from the links: "I think Mary Ann is smoking hot and probably has a hidden wild side to her." The two surgeons playing golf with him, however, both chose Ginger.
A fellow journalist cobbled out: "Mary Ann to Marry. Ginger for a mistress. The best of both worlds." This may explain why he's a single divorced guy living alone with his dog.
A top Raleigh businessman quickly weighed in, "Easy. Mary Ann. No more high-maintenance women for me."
"For fun or love?" wondered an equine dentist.
"One of the great philosophical questions of our time," responded a big-shot lawyer from Boston. "I actually married Mary Ann. So I'd choose Ginger -- but only in my dreams. Please don't tell my wife."
"Huh?" wrote Pilot editor Steve Bouser. "I have no idea what you are asking. Are you sure you have the right person?"
For the record, Claire Corso's younger brothers Michael and Anthony split evenly on the question, but her dad Pat tipped the family total in Mary Ann's favor.
For the record, Mary Ann topped Ginger in the final vote tally by nearly 3-to-2. Young and single guys tended toward Ginger, for reasons perhaps best left unmentioned in a family publication. Older married chaps favored Mary Ann because she was "the girl next door, the one you would want to marry and take home to Mom."
Only one culturally deprived newspaper editor remained baffled and unwilling to answer the question.
Six More Weeks of Winter
After work hours, these same colleagues chivvied me out for a celebratory birthday libation, prompting me to wonder when enough is enough and whether I was ever going to lose them. Following a brief interlude at the bar, against my mild protest, they even insisted on driving me home. They seemed to think I'd forgotten the way.
Truthfully, I was beginning to feel like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," destined to relive the same day over and over, until I opened the door and a dozen of my friends and family members jumped out from behind the furniture like a bunch of swooning Shakira fans. It was all part of the plan. I couldn't have been more surprised if Christy Brinkley had shown up to give fitness tips and free marital advice.
My wife promptly handed me a heaping platter of homemade food that included baked ham, macaroni and cheese, pulverized yams, and nothing yucky green.
"It's not quite a K&W," allowed my very own Mary Ann, giving me a sweet peck to wind up the most memorable Groundhog Day ever, "but I know it's what you really wanted -- especially since, thanks to your friend Phil, there's going to be six more weeks of winter before spring."
Contact Jim Dodson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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