Dine Quixote: Ohio cafeteria visit rekindles comfort food memories

Looking at Dine Quixote you see a person of indeterminate age, and so there were a lot of surprised people when I declared that I was off to my 40th high school reunion at the end of July. It was a trip I made without the help of Sherri Panza, who had no desire to listen to the chewed and re-chewed memories of four years at Meadowdale High in Dayton, Ohio, which will soon be replaced with a new building while the old one awaits demolition.

Recently I took a bit of historical license when I wrote to fellow graduates that all I could remember about the old school was the pattern on the auditorium curtain. A couple of days later, when writing to a fellow alumnus and Columbus, Ohio, foodie, I recalled the unpleasant, institutional green walls and tiles of the cafeteria and such un-tasty memories as chicken and biscuits with corn and mashed potatoes and Salisbury steak with corn and mashed potatoes and a brace of frankfurters with corn and mashed potatoes. I also remember that the cost of a lunch was about 35 cents when I was a freshman, and it rose to 50 cents by graduation. But by the time I reached senior status I had found a way to get out of the building and drive down to one of the local hamburger emporiums: the "need" to purchase some film for yearbook coverage.

It wasn't that I didn't like the cafeteria, but I couldn't stand the surplus government fare they forced upon us. Cafeterias play well in my memories. I can recall the Virginia Cafeteria in Dayton, where a solid ribs and sauerkraut lunch cost 88 cents and was the beginning of a day downtown, hunting for old books, looking at camera equipment and finally doing our sixth-grade school research at the main library. There was also Scholl's Cafeteria in Washington, D.C., which I often hiked to for dinner while working at the French news agency. It was a place I had discovered back in the late 1960s on a school trip, and I found it again at a new address in the '80s. Then there was the cafeteria at Dayton's Rike's department store, where I'd been dragged shopping by my mom. But I did get to eat what was then, to me, the height of exotica -- a triple-deck peanut butter, cream cheese and strawberry jam sandwich.

I mean, what could be bad if there were enough customers to keep the steam table pans turning over regularly?

So while driving to Dayton from Pittsburgh on Interstate 70, I passed once again a big sign at Exit 220 for Mehlman Cafeteria in St. Clairsville, Ohio. It is in the general vicinity of the shopping spots near the Ohio Valley Mall, which is home to a good many nationally franchised restaurants . . . which I avoid.

I knew I just had to stop at Mehlman. Once off the highway, it was just under a mile to the cafeteria, where the large parking lot was filled with the post-church crowd. After walking in, I immediately thought about leaving. The place was jammed, with people filling out two long lines.

Listening to stories about sermons and students who were playing in praise bands during the summer, I found that the lines moved rapidly toward the first choices. Smart people own this place. The first foods you face, at your hungriest, are pies, including peach and apple, along with apple dumplings. The peach pie had a flaky crust, and its large chunks of peaches were sugary but not eye-closing sweet.

Then, as at many such places, the next choices included fresh salads and composed salads bound with gelatin. At the end of this section I finally got to face a live, talking person who asked me what I wanted to eat, and then another person who dealt out the real deal, including prime rib, barbecued ribs, meatloaf, baked or fried whitefish, baked or fried chicken, and my choice -- a plate of moist, just-carved roast turkey draped over a hill of dressing, tasty with herbs and seasoned with a light hand on the salt. I couldn't resist the whipped fresh potatoes holding a small pond of gravy and the corn bread but, thinking back to high school, I passed on the corn and chose creamed fresh peas and a remarkable broccoli casserole.

The broccoli was tender without being mushy and was bound in a cheese sauce and topped with crisp, buttery bread crumbs. The peas were not dumped out of a can, and the white sauce, so easily turned into library paste, was rich and smooth, holding the peas together. The corn bread was moist. Adding iced tea brought the damage to $10.47 and, when I concluded my fun at the table, walking to the car was difficult.

Larry Roberts shoots the We Are Pittsburgh photographic gallery for PG+ when he's not out foraging for road food; lroberts@post-gazette.com .


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