I’ve worked in or around restaurants nearly all my working life. My first job was at The Virginian Truck Stop where I did everything from clean the bathrooms to prep, bussing tables, and washing dishes. Even when my primary job was not with a restaurant, I would get part-time jobs at one to make extra cash. One of those part-time jobs was waiting tables at The Wayside Inn in Middletown, VA.
I worked there on weekends while working at a bank during the day and taking classes at college at night. It was good money. I met a few famous people in that little bit of time I was there. One Sunday morning, I think it was Easter Sunday, Gene Shalit and his family reserved the private dining room and I was their server. Gene was a movie and book critic for the Today Show for many years. I heard about Paul Newman and Tom Cruise being there, but I was not working that night. Apparently, they raced at a local race track near there. Other than that, I usually waited on visitors staying at the Inn and local business people.
The male waiters dressed in black pants, white tuxedo shirt, black tie, and cumberbund. The women wore long granny dresses and mop caps. It was an odd mix of uniform. The Inn had been known as the longest continuously operating Inn in America until one night the kitchen caught fire and they had to close for a few months. The original part of the Inn and dining rooms were fine.
One evening, I had the last table of the night. When they left I had to clean up and turn off the lights in the kitchen. Everyone else was gone and the night clerk was waiting on me to finish up and close out. I headed across the dark dining room toward the bar where there was a short flight of stairs and a tiny hallway that took you right to the front desk of the Inn. Along that hallway was my favorite dining room. It was the original kitchen of the Inn, dating back to the late 1700’s. As I got to the small flight of stairs and started down, a figure in white started up toward me! I screamed and it screamed back at me and then took off in the other direction down the hallway to the front. As it entered the light of the front desk I could see it was one of the waitresses. In the almost pitch dark of the stairs, all I could see was her white apron and cap and all she could see was my white shirt. We both thought one of the ghosts we had heard so much about had appeared before us. The front desk clerk had a bit of a fit over our screams, which were followed by almost uncontrollable laughter. When we screamed, we were directly under the main hallway for the guest rooms upstairs and he was sure we had woken everyone at the Inn. He got over it and the waitress and I walked each other out to our cars. Even though we knew we had only scared one another, we were both still a little skittish.
|The small dining room which had been the original kitchen to the Inn. It still smelled like the wood that burned in the fireplace 200 years earlier.|
I worked there twice while in college, with one of those runs being during the summer where I was able to pick up more shifts. When I returned for more weekends we had a new manager and he did not like me very much, or at least I thought. He was the one who assigned me to Gene Shalit’s reservation, I never got to work the banquets, and it seemed I always had the tables furtherest from the kitchen. It turned out though that he felt I was one of the better servers and could handle a famous guest and his family, I could take care of the bigger tables in the front dining room. And, banquets were given to one main server and several people who just did what they were told. I thought they had it easy and always got done early and could go home. But the truth was they never made much money because it was the only round they had for the evening. So in hindsight, he did like me better, but I was too stupid to know it at the time. I had enough when one Sunday morning I got there to find out I was the only server and the Inn had been full the night before. That meant that I would have the entire restaurant to take care of myself. I did a foolish thing and walked out. I did squeeze the fresh orange juice, make the coffee and set the muffins in the warmer before I left though. I also left him a note on the board by the schedule to say I would not be back. He called me later that morning and of course was not happy with me for walking out, but mostly for leaving period. I regretted it a little and thought I would never just walk out on a job again. So, I have only done it twice more since then. I think I have it out of my system now though!
One of the things I enjoyed most about working there was getting to take the dessert tray around to the table. They did have the best desserts. One was Kentucky Derby Pie, which one waitress always described as pecan pie laced with chocolate chips. You could tell when she got to that on the tray, even across the dining room. She always threw her hands up in the air and lean back a little when she said: “laced with chocolate chips”. We all said she was a little laced at times and she pretty much admitted it. We also had a Strawberry Romanoff, which was strawberries and cream with a liquor syrup. At the end of the night, several of us would fight over who got which dessert off the tray. I don’t know why any of us wanted any of the desserts though. They set on a tray for hours in the dining room, being carried from table to table and by the end of the night they looked pretty bad. They were just examples for customers to see and the dining room was so dimly lit that even they could not see when the strawberries had practically decomposed in the dish. It was pretty good just the same.
There was one dessert that many people chose that was not on the tray though. It was a special order and was prepared to order. It was Spoonbread, which is a very moist and dense pudding made with cornmeal. Guests needed to order it about 30 minutes in advance. I had never heard of it before working there, but I became a quick fan of it. I found the recipe that they published, but that was for 6 people. I only wanted to make enough for a couple of people, so I searched a few more recipes and then came up with my own to fit my 6-inch Lodge skillet.
Since we just canned peaches this past weekend, I thought I would try to change it up a little more and create Peach Spoonbread. I took one to work this morning and shared it around to get some feedback. So when I got home, I made a couple of more changes and made it again. I have to say, it’s pretty good! I realized I had not put up a recipe in a little while so I thought it was time.
1/2 cup plain cornmeal – yellow or white
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup of boiling water (you can reserve the syrup from canned peaches, making up any shortage by adding water to equal 1/2 cup of liquid)
2 tablespoons butter – melted in boiling water or heated peach syrup
1/2 cup milk
1 cup chopped peaches
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons butter for skillet
1/4 cup reserved peach syrup from canned peaches or 1/4 cup water
4 tablespoons white or brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter
dash of cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350. To prepare skillet, warm it in the oven comes to temperature, with butter in the pan to melt. Mix cornmeal and salt then add the liquid/butter mixture. Stir well to remove any lumps. Add the milk and blend until smooth. Add the egg and blend until smooth. Stir in the peaches and baking powder. The batter will be thin. Remove skillet from oven when it comes to temperature. Carefully pour batter into skillet. The melted butter will rise up and over the batter. Return skillet to the 350-degree oven for 30-35 minutes or until the top is golden an the edges just begin to pull away from the pan. Let sit and cool just a couple of minutes while preparing the syrup.
Combine all ingredients in a microwave-safe measuring cup or bowl. Heat on high for 2 minutes. Carefully remove from microwave and stir. Return microwave for 2 more minutes. Remove carefully and stir the syrup. If it is still too lose, cook it for 2 minutes longer.
Serve spoonbread right from the skillet. Drizzle with the syrup and enjoy!