Tulsa Flashback: Borden’s Cafeteria and the Church of Big Hair

Bordens Cafeteria Sheridan Village

Borden’s Cafeteria was one of the finest food emporiums ever, at least in my limited-view childhood mind. At one point, there were multiple locations, but we only ever went to the one at Sheridan Village. The thrilling allure of this particular venue was that you could drive up to the second floor of the “shopping mall” and park up there, a jaw-dropping aspect that had me giddy with adventure. At a mere three feet in stature, I felt like we were somewhere near the moon. It’s nice to remember that there was a time when I could be entertained by complete nothingness.

Aside from the mind-blowing elevation, I was also presented with this concept of “cafeteria-style” dining, where you went through a line and got to pick out whatever you wanted from the array of options. This was so much more exciting than eating at home, where Mom plunked down the limited menu and you either ate it or you went to bed, no discussion. And let’s face it, Mom could never make all of these selections, even if she wanted to do so. We were definitely in a free-fall land of endless opportunity and pleasure.

Of course, I was not allowed to completely lose my mind, snatching and grabbing with lustful abandon. I had to be measured in my navigation and selection, with both Mom and Granny trailing along behind me, making down-low but very distinct noises when I was breaching the limits of acceptable gluttony. I could run free, but only to an extent, and that extent better not show up on the sacred receipt at the end of the line.

The two choices I always made? First, the mashed potatoes with the brown gravy. There was an artisan somewhere in the bowels of the building who had perfected the craft of carving out just the right-sized crater in the potato mound so that it would hold the perfect amount of gravy, not too much, not too little. It was a heavenly balance. (At this time, we shall not speak of my later conversion to worshipping the cream-gravy and mashed potatoes combination. When you change religions, it’s a complicated and difficult process, and you shouldn’t judge too harshly. Or judge at all. When people expand their worldview, embrace it.)

The second conquest that had me salivating was an odd one, even for me, an odd child who perplexed everyone around me. (The usual response you get when questioning my relatives about how I was as a child? Thoughtful silence, followed by hesitation and reluctance to continue the conversation.) Borden’s had this one plate that featured a scoop of cottage cheese, a slab of quivering gelatin (usually lime, because the jello flavors back in that time were limited to lime, lemon and tasteless-clear for the non-adventurous), and a chunk of the fruit of the day, usually a peach half, although there were memorable days when the staff got whimsical and tossed in a trio of plump strawberries or an exotic slice of pineapple, decadence at its finest.

I didn’t know at the time that my “fruit plate” was considered a “diet option”. (I think it’s fair to say that most of Oklahoma in that day was unaware of such a thing as a diet plate, and they would probably shoot it first before ever considering eating it.) Still, there was something about the combination of cheesiness, plasticized water, and a splash of fruit that spoke to me. In retrospect, many of my later decisions in life could probably be traced back to this pivotal food-selection moment at Borden’s Cafeteria. On the second floor. (You could drive up there, swear.)

Of course, as with all situations where one might be presented with an opportunity to experience pleasure, epicurean or otherwise, there were conditions to be met before nirvana was proffered. And in the 70s, with my sometimes-structured and sometimes bedlam-based upbringing, there was only one way to be granted a pass to get a fruit plate at Borden’s Cafeteria.

You had to find Jesus.

Well, not find Him exactly, but you had to willingly go into His house and make yourself available, should finding or re-finding come up on the day’s agenda. You see, my grandparents on my mother’s side were the pivotal factor in determining whether or not we got to go to Borden’s Cafeteria on any given Sunday. I had a lot of questions about this arrangement. (Were my grandparents the only people in the state who had directions to this cafeteria? Why did we only go on Sundays? Did my parents lack some necessary skill that would allow us to dine on the other days of the week?)

None of my questions were ever answered, mainly because I didn’t ask them (there’s a lot that we never talked about in my family, it’s just part of the package), but also because all good parents and grandparents understand that you cannot reveal all the ways of the world to a child or they will stop listening to you. Keep them in the dark about everything and maybe they won’t end up in juvy. Parenting 101.

The only thing that was clear about the potential journey to Borden’s was that my sister and I had to behave accordingly in the House of the Lord. If we acted up in any way, whether our fault or the fault of the Devil tempting us with heretical avenues to wickedness, then nobody was going to the cafeteria and we would slink back in shame to the family manor where we would eat beans and cornbread, with no dessert, and think about our sins.

This was not an easy task, behaving in church, especially a Southern Baptist establishment in 1973. The whole setup was just wrong for a child. First, the child was forced to wear uncomfortable, fancy clothes that they were not allowed to get dirty or wrinkle in any way. (How do you not wrinkle your pants? You sit down, they instantly wrinkle, game over.) Speaking of sitting, who had the brilliant idea of putting hard wooden benches in a place where you had to sit for hours while the preacher itemized the various ways you could go to Hell? Children don’t like wooden benches and sitting still. Did you ever overhear a gang of neighborhood kids saying “hey, let’s go play Sit on a Church Bench”? You did not.

Then we have the acoustics of the Come to Jesus Grand Hall. The original intent of the design was so everyone in all corners could adequately hear pronouncements about all the bad things they shouldn’t do, no matter how enticing or fun. This ensured that you could make proper annotations in your Little Christian notebook, which was an exact facsimile of one used by Mary back in the day, when she wrote a feisty letter to the Hotel Owners of Greater Bethlehem, complaining about the poor availability of lodging in the area. But the acoustics worked both ways, which meant that any personal noise you might make, however slight, would then be broadcast throughout the entire building for immediate gossip-circle review.

And topping all of this mess were the toppings on the older women in the church. I’m not talking about hats, although some of those women did go that route as well, selecting mind-numbing headgear that could sleep a family of four. I’m talking about hair. I guess this was a reaction to all of the younger women of that time allowing their hair to grow long and straight and obviously downward, it was the cool thing to do. The older women had an adverse reaction to this, because it’s apparently in the Baptist By-Laws that they be outraged by the antics of anyone under 30, and they decided to pile their hair in the other direction, creating upswept, behemoth sculptures that reached for the skies. (Maybe, in a pinch, these structures could be used to climb their way to the Pearly Gates should Armageddon arrive and regular means of transportation were not available.)

In any case, we couldn’t even see the preacher strutting around at the front of the room, or the choir, or that fancy bathtub where they did the baptisms, or anything, because of the rows and rows of elaborate beehives before us, with the elevation of said beehives dramatically increasing the closer you got to the pulpit. (I guess the seating chart was somehow based on altitude, not sure.) End result, us wee ones couldn’t see anything, couldn’t understand most of what was being said because we were wee ones (although it was pretty clear that Going to Hell should not be on your bucket list), we weren’t allowed to move or wrinkle, we couldn’t touch things, we couldn’t talk, and we couldn’t make any sound whatsoever that might be perceived as blasphemous or disrespectful (which included even the most discreet belching, because that right there would get you sent to the car in the parking lot in the 103-degree Oklahoma heat).

This was far too much pressure to put on a child.

So there were many times when one of us kids would violate the sanctity of it all, because we just couldn’t help it, and (usually) Granny would make the decision that we were not going to Borden’s that day. This verdict, of course, would not be orally presented for review and reflection. No, the decision was kept under wraps until post-Church, even if Granny had already set her mind hours back, when she had received some whispered reportage that one of her grandchildren had done something unsavory with the modeling clay in Sunday School during the Make Your Own Baby Jesus crafting circle. Granny kept her lips sealed so that we would still have minimal hope and possibly make an attempt to behave. Good strategy.)

Which meant that we never knew our dining fate until the last second. (Granny was cool and measured with her reactions, not even batting any eye when I would accidentally drop my hymnal with a resounding boom or my sister intentionally tried to throw her shoe out the window just because it was open.) Once the service was finally over, decades later, most of the family would rush out to the melting-asphalt parking lot and mill around the car, the promise of escape tangible and real.

But not Granny. No, she had the church social-networking down to a science. She made the rounds, making sure to share a few words with all of the key players in the church hierarchy, even if she didn’t personally care for some of them, because that’s just what you did in a Baptist church. Well, that’s what you did if you wished to remain in good standing with said church and stay in the chatter loop of who is doing what in the town. If you didn’t care about such things, you waited by the car, muttering, whilst the cavalcade of political maneuvering took place on the church steps.

Finally, Granny would make her way to our clan by the car, with her looking, as she always did, perfectly fresh and tastefully stylish despite the blazing heat, while the rest of us looked rode hard and put up wet, sweat dripping off of us as we slumped against the vehicle. She would make a subtle signal to Peepaw (our version of Grandpa) that social duties had been met, and we were free to move on with our lives. We would all pile into the car with relish, our jostling punctuated by the glorious sound of Peepaw activating the air conditioning. (Granny and Peepaw didn’t play when it came to the AC. They wanted big cars with big AC units that could adjust the climate of entire countries. It would drop thirty degrees in their cars within 3 seconds.)

And now it was Judgment Time.

If we pulled out of the parking lot and turned north on Hwy 169, it meant that we were headed back to Granny’s farmhouse, and the menu was limited to the aforementioned beans and cornbread, or some other more modest concoction that Granny had in mind. (Not that there’s anything wrong with such fare, Granny was a Goddess in the kitchen, no two ways about that.) But if we turned south on Hwy 169, we were Borden’s bound, and all was right with the world. By the time Peepaw’s block-long Oldsmobile hit the up-ramp to Borden’s, I was practically vibrating with anticipation, visions of brown gravy saturating my dreams…


Photo from the Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library.

5 replies »

  1. Brian, and I thought I was the only one who still dreamed of the whipped mashed potatoes served in our high school lunch room! The “cafeteria lady” perhaps channeling a missed calling as an artist, crafted the most perfect circle with a quick wave and then press of her ladle.. poetry in motion! The succulent taste of that steaming gravy I still recall. Sadly, it also evokes the memory of when my friend crumbled the tin foil from her sandwich into a ball and catapulted it toward the lunch ladies, striking one in the side of the head. No harm was done (physically at least) but I always remind my two sons to treat the lunch ladies and cafeteria staff in their school with respect. It’s a tough job.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Kathy! Yes, I had a great infatuation with our high school lunch room as well. (This was not something that one could admit to casual classmates, because it was considered very uncool to speak highly of the cafeteria; the main goal of all the popular people was to eat somewhere, anywhere, off campus, even if it meant gnawing on a piece of beef jerky at the convenience store across the street.) Still, once the bell rang for lunch hour, I would race to the cafeteria, my eyes aglow with the wonders of what might be served by the lovely ladies in the not-so-lovely hairnets… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.