My Life

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

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 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-achieved, 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…


Originally published in “Bonnywood Manor” on 05/02/14 and 11/08/16. Minimally revised for this post. For those of you who are newer to the scene here at Bonnywood, this is just one entry in a series of food-based stories from my internment as a child in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Someday this collective mess will be a book. Today is not that day…


28 replies »

  1. Damn! My pot kicked just before I read this post. I now have the most incredibly strong, steady craving for mashed potatoes and that fine brown gravy. Not exactly something that I usually have sitting in the kitchen under a warming light just now. I stay undated! You are a vile creature Brian, to torment me this way!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. You could really DRIVE UP there? Swear? This piquant tale reminded me of our Sundays and Chuck-0-Rama (although that place could NOT have been open on Sunday. Places being Open On Sunday were considered dens of iniquity by the bible crowd in Utah – many places still hold with that and the person venturing out to purchase something on a Sunday is likened to those unsavory people in the temple when Jesus got overcome with wroth and kicked all their silly butts. I digress). Chuck-O-Rama was akin to Bordens in the fact that it was (and is still today) cafeteria style. My brother, a frail boy in his tot years, insisted on carrying his own tray, which was so heavy, even without food on it, that it nearly toppled him. One memorial Sunday he dropped the damned thing. Twice. Finally Pops took it over and brother was relegated to the booth to await his dinner. Ah yes, those were simpler, kinder and far more toothsome times, weren’t they?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Chuck-O-Rama? The mind boggles at that moniker. I’m tempted to google such a thing and savor the madness, but a part of me is intimidated by such a venture. Texas used to be another place where “Open on Sunday” was considered the work of the devil. When I moved here for the first time in 1986, they had JUST passed a law that allowed certain establishments to be open on Sunday. I was agog at this freshly-rescinded restriction, as I was hailing from Oklahoma, the land that time forgot and Bible-thumpery, but the only things closed on Sundays were liquor stores. I couldn’t believe that Oklahoma was actually more progressive than Texas, not that this is really saying much in the long run…


      • Here’s a thoughtfully provided link in case you wish to view the tempting goodness that C.O.R. IS. It’s been around since roughly Noah and his Ark days…but updated now and then in the interest of profits, the Department of Health (my sister in law from California calls it PTOMAINE o’ Rama…I’ve never gotten sick though. Must have delicate ‘systems’ in California..) and other considerations. And oddly (a factoid for you too..ain’t you lucky? ) a picture of my great (great great?) grandpappy in prison stripes hangs on the wall. He’s surrounded by other cronies and aficionados of polygamy – in the days after polygamy was deemed ‘non-holy’. The law came in and rounded up those not slick enough to run to other states where they weren’t known (my father’s people ran. And practiced) and stuck ’em in the pokey. And there is great (x2 or 3) grand pappy in all his glory on the wall of Chuck’s now. I think it mortified my mother, but I don’t know how anyone would have known who he was… not after all that time had passed..

        as you can see, C.O.R. has embraced the “Sunday is family dinner day!!” idea with gusto.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I am pretty sure the reason the grands got to decide was that the grands were the ones doing to paying and LOL at that point in time “good parents” would never dream of eating out during the week. Cooking is what women were for. It was expected, it was just what “was done”, “Barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen” was the pathway to heaven and every woman knew that if her husband was to be saved, it would only be by her own personal holiness as written somewhere in the Corinthians and if the family fell apart it was always her lack of holiness that caused it. Beans & Cornbread are next to godliness after all. ;p

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are precisely right with the grands footing the bill. If it were up to my dad, we would never have eaten a speck of food outside of the domicile, because he didn’t believe in spending a penny if you could find a cheaper resolution. Of course, he hightailed it out of the scene after my parents divorced when I was seven, which made it even more imperative that we kids be angelic in church in order to get the dining-out reward, as Mom was now a single parent.

      And yes, beans and cornbread still speak to me with their allure and nostalgia…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved eating at those cafeterias with lines when I was a boy, too. There’s something about them. There’s an old fashioned cafe not far from here; it hasn’t changed since the 50’s. My kids want to go there every time we’re near.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I still go to the old-fashioned cafeterias whenever I can, but they are much harder to find these days, especially in Dallas where they demolish almost anything that is more than two years old. Still, if you persevere, you can stumble across little pockets of the past…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We hardly ever ate out, when we did it was Friday night at the Mexican food restaurant near our house. The one next to the paint store. All the best Mexican food restaurants were next to paint stores. And they have to have a neon beer sign in the window. That’s a must. I think I was in high school the first time we went to a cafeteria style place. Ah Lordy, those mashed potatoes with gravy… *sigh*

    Side note: No offense, but this post reminded me how grateful I’ve always felt about not being raised Baptist. I would have come to a bad end, of that I’m certain. Ask anyone and they’ll say I wasn’t a rebellious child, but that’s because I had nothing to rebel against. When you’re raised in a church that gives you positive, life-affirming messages, it’s kind of hard to be a crank about it. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Speaking of Mexican food restaurants, we didn’t really have such in Tulsa when I was growing up, although I should probably qualify that by saying “at least not that I knew of”. It wasn’t until I moved to Texas the first time that I experienced such, real Mexican food and not the Tex-Mex variations that most folks in the States consider “Mexican”. (Not meaning to malign Tex-Mex, as there are certain chains proffering such that I greatly relish, but it’s not the real thing.) But the nearby paint stores and blinking beer signs do hold true…

      To your more important point, I did not find the Southern Baptist experiences of my youth to be enriching, based in a fear of damnation as they were and not in the importance of life-affirmation. There’s something fundamentally wrong with an organization that negates instead of uplifts. My two cents…

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Structured bedlam? Wonderful description! Could apply to my childhood as well. The mixed messages were, well, mixed. I didn’t figure any of it out until much, much later and then I had to deal with it.

    The idea of being entertained by “nothing” as a child is so true. Parking “upstairs” and getting to choose what to eat – such childhood delights to be immensely enjoyed, savoured, and looked forward to. I still love getting to choose! 😉

    Wonderful piece, Brian. Delightful to read. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Lynette. There was so much confusion in my childhood with those mixed messages, made even worse by the general belief that one should never question anything and just accept. Luckily, I was not one who did well with being told what to do, and I was able to save myself…

      And yes, the childhood ability to be entertained by nothing is now priceless, I miss the days where the simple joy of possible opportunity was all we needed…


      • “Sack O’Sauce in a Can O’Meat”

        You are a great person, Brian. As I hoped not to get sucked into the vintage vortex and spit from another dimension back out on my couch 90 minutes later, I’d say, better you than me. So with that, a gift from me to you -(something I’ve hesitated for months to lay at your blog doorstep) Parachute yourself in here first:

        Then sniper crawl like a green toy soldier over to the daddy of that poster site of why I love the internet so much I want to marry it sometimes:

        The main site Whatever you do in lileks stays in the NASs cache for as long as we all shall live but no longer than that. I believe it started years ago when in my career apex CEO role behind a closed office door I sat catching up on my overflowing email inbox, a supposedly good friend of mine simply sent me the link. Doomed and doubled over from the side pains, it led to forwarding email to all my now long gone friends. Or saying, “I ’ll sign the paychecks later with my meat pen, hahaha!” To whit my admin, Anthony replied, “why do you keep snorting and giggling in there? What’s so funny?”

        Oh, everything my dear, everything. Enjoy the dimensions of the past and it’s cookery, mainly molds of things, strewn peas, sausages wrapped in meat, butt steaks, food so white it should burn crosses on lawns, and vomitously pinkish creamed saucy dish that has one slice removed clearly by the crazy-eyed Enid, your meaty hostess extraordinaire.

        Be forewarned, any time concerns or commitments melt like ice cream outdoors in Houston mid-August whilst pleasuring your funny bone (see what I did there? Ha!) anywhere in this house of hilarity, including Dorcus men’s 70s clothing.

        Happy early Halloween, pumpkin.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Love, love, LOVE this. It is my solemn belief and vow that any well-made gravy, either brown or white, poured over anything, makes it edible, if not a religious experience. I was also in awe of the lime jello, or any jello that had fruit suspended within, but have never been able to make it. The combination never tasted that great. It was the magic of it. After reading (and laughing through) this, I was glad I’d made lunch (chicken stuffed with fresh thyme surrounded by parsnips (don’t know why I’ve been craving them) and potatoes. Yes, It was sublime but not the orgasm on a plate that is MP&G.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, mi amiga. I really do think I could survive perpetually on a diet the greatly featured MP&G. Of course, this is an unhealthy aspiration, but I have a history of pursuing such. And the suspended fruit? How DO they do that? My Granny was a master in this art (I have a blog post somewhere in the archives about these very suspension skills), but despite my careful study of her machinations, I never produced anything that went beyond the “fruit at the bottom” thing that is now the rage with certain yogurt-producing companies. Some people have the knack, some don’t, but we all hope for the best…

      Liked by 1 person

      • De nada, mi hermano. Screw it. There are days when calories must transcend the cruelties of self-image. And your Granny was one of the gifted. To paraphrase, many try, but Granny succeeds.We are all differently talented. She created delights in the kitchen and her grandson on the page. Today making pork roast with garlic, carrots and spuds, and avoiding the scale.

        Liked by 1 person

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