Children of the (creamed) corn: scary stories from small-town diners

In honour of Halloween, I watched one of my favourite scary movies, one that influenced me during my formative years growing up in small-town America: Stephen King’s ‘Children of the Corn’.

Children of the Corn

Horror classic 'Children of the Corn'

Afterwards, I sat pondering how to make it fit the remit of my food blog.

Food connection 1: obviously, it’s about corn, which is a food, or at least used to be before Monsanto and friends got hold of it. Now it is the root of all evil, a subject covered in another corn-related horror film: Robert Kenner’s ‘Food, Inc.

‘Children of the Corn’ is about an ambitious bunch of fundamentalist kids worshipping the devil in a cornfield. ‘Food, Inc.’, on the other hand, is the true story of a bunch of ambitious corporate billionaires worshipping corn and getting tax breaks for it. Way scarier!

Diner scene from 'Children of the Corn'

Isaac, the creepy devil-worshipping 'Corn' kid, peering in through the diner window

Food connection 2: the big murder scene in ‘Children of the Corn’ takes place in a small-town diner. This is where, on a Sunday after church, the creepy kids kill all the grown-ups by poisoning the coffee. (Not the coffee!)

But it was food connection 3 which hit a chord: three years after the murders in the diner, two big-city grown-ups show up to discover the kids making ritual sacrifices in the name of corn. One of these grown-ups was none other than my Hollywood doppelgänger: Linda Hamilton, a.k.a. Sarah Connor, a.k.a. That girl from the ‘Terminator’.

It just so happens that, during one of my short-lived stints as a diner waitress,  a customer said, “Hey, it’s the Terminator Girl!” Apparently, I looked a bit like Sarah Connor when I was about 18. In fact, I didn’t just look like her – in the first ‘Terminator’ film she was also a waitress in a diner. Coincidence?

Sarah Connor in 'Terminator'


Sarah Connor in 'Terminator'

Sarah Connor in 'Terminator', played by my doppelgänger Linda Hamilton

According to an online Terminator fansite, here’s her profile:

NAME: Sarah Connor
GENDER: Female (check!)
AGE: 19 (I was 18)
HEIGHT: 5’6 (okay, not quite)
EYE COLOUR: Brown-Light (well, mine are green)
OCCUPATION: Waitress, Fugitive (like it!)
STATUS:  Targeted for Termination (awesome)

Diner of the damned

Sarah worked for meagre tips at a place called Big Jeff’s Restaurant. I’ve decided not to tell you the name of the place I worked, out of respect … and fear of lawsuits. To its credit, though, it’s been in business for about 60 years, which suggests it has serious staying power (much like the food it serves, which has staying power in your arteries). While it’s often true that nostalgia is rose-tinted, a quick internet search suggests that my recollections of my former place of employment are accurate.

According to an online review:

“It’s 3 A.M. on Sunday morning. You’ve been home from the bar long enough to realize that you only have cigarettes, pickle juice and ketchup in your apartment. … head to [diner I’m not going to name]. … Their breakfast portions are so crazy big that you’re glad they’re right across from the hospital, because you might just need an emergency angioplasty after wolfing down a stupendous plate of stuffed crepes.”

From another review:

“The only positive thing to say … is it is across the street from a hospital, so a family member keeping a death vigil in the ICU can walk across the road at 2am and get a cup of stale coffee and maybe a greaseburger. Being open 24 hrs it also attracts the drunks and bums on the street late at night.”

Yep, that’s the place. I remember it well. And on this, the eve of Halloween, I’m reminiscing about a scary experience I had at that diner …

Waitressing in the Twilight Zone

Chicken-fried steak

Chicken-fried steak, also known as country-fried steak - a diner classic

It is an ordinary day in northwest Ohio. I’m a young Linda Hamilton lookalike (from Terminator 1, not Terminator 2 when she gets all buff), wearing the required uniform of a pale blue blouse and long denim tube skirt (the ankle-length kind, designed to make it hard to run away). As a new waitress, I’m working the undesirable 3-11pm shift. This means I miss out on the lucrative tips from the breakfast and lunch trades, and also the late-night crowd of drunk people, who often leave big tips due to their loss of math faculties.

I retrieve my meagre tip from the counter, which was left by a kind trucker who has since hit the open road, his stomach full of chicken-fried steak, cream gravy, and a bottomless cup of joe. As I wipe down the counter with a bleach-soaked cloth, I sense silent footsteps behind me. High-top sneakers, unlaced as per the fashion of the day, are padding towards me.

A voice says, “You know I date all the waitresses here, right?” This comes from the skinny, mullet-topped cook (his doppelgänger is the lead singer of Journey, circa 1982). Apparently this young gentleman had spent some time in juvie (i.e., a juvenile detention center), which explains his lack of good pickup lines.

“In your dreams, “ I say, and proceed to straighten up the ketchup and mustard bottles on the counter.

At this point, mullet boy grabs my wrist and twists my arm behind my back in an armlock. A bit freaked out (but not nearly as freaked out as I should have been, with hindsight), I channel the spirit of Sarah Connor (from Terminator 2, when she’s a buff warrior and mother of the rebel leader of the human race).

In a calm, steady voice, I say, “If you don’t let me go right now … I WILL kill you.”

He let go. And he never did ask me on a date. (Bummer.)

Food service warriors, unite!

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

My role model in food service: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2

It turns out, working in the food service industry prepared me in unexpected ways for life’s challenges, in much the same way that Sarah’s experiences in Terminator 1 prepared her for kicking ass in the sequel. I started out unsure of myself, lacking in confidence, much like Sarah, who says at the beginning of the first film:

“Come on. Do I look like the mother of the future? I mean, am I tough, organized? I can’t even balance my check book!”

What did I learn?  For starters, I learned what an armlock felt like, so it wouldn’t be shocking the next time a co-worker performed one on me. I also learned never to take a job that required restrictive clothing, in case a cyborg (or Monsanto) came after me and I had to escape.

I even had my own sequel: the following summer I got a job waitressing at a family restaurant in Northwood, Ohio. However, I only lasted a month before being felled by chicken pox. They asked me to take some time off  — apparently plagues are bad for business (see earlier post about Chi Chi’s Restaurant and hepatitis).

I never returned to food service after that, but I learned enough to last a lifetime. And I’m confident those lessons will serve me well when the machines, the corn-worshipping fundamentalists, or Monsanto try to take over the world.

Actually, Monsanto has already taken over the world. I’m forming an army. Let me know if you’d like to enlist.


Eating in the “Rainbow Nation”: South Africa

Table Mountain and the Bo Kaap area of Cape Town

Table Mountain rises dramatically from the middle of Cape Town. This is a view from the colourful, (mostly) Muslim neighbourhood of Bo Kaap.

After a blogging hiatus, I’m sipping a steaming cup of Rooibos (red bush) tea on a cool English morning. I wasn’t a big fan of Rooibos until two weeks ago — when I sipped it at its source: South Africa. During the short trip, I greeted each day with a cup of the smoky red brew, and somehow it just tasted better there, especially while gazing up at Table Mountain, the centerpiece of Cape Town. I also found Rooibos yogurt, which has red flecks suspended in thick, honey-sweetened creaminess. I ate it in large quantities – because it tasted great, but also to care for my sensitive tummy, which isn’t nearly as adventurous as the rest of me when it comes to travel (let’s just say, Muhammad Ali’s wasn’t the only rumble in the jungle).

This short trip (for work and pleasure) was packed with food adventures. They ranged from an ultra-posh farmers markets serving ostrich breakfast burgers and kudu biltong (antelope jerky), to simple pap or samp (corn meal porridge) and beans at a place with a single table in the heart of Cape Town. There was fish on the braai (barbecue) with 20 members of the Port Elizabeth Wolves Football (i.e., soccer) Club seniors team, and fresh strawberries eaten while watching whales at De Hoop Nature Reserve. There were also koeksisters, syrupy sweet twisted donut strips, bought at the inaugural farmer’s market in Mossel Bay, to the background sounds of the Indian Ocean crashing into the rocky coastline. Nelson Mandela famously ate koeksisters during lunch with the widow of the architect of Apartheid, an unprecedented gesture of reconciliation in what is still – nearly two decades after the end of apartheid – a divided country.

Strawberries and whale watching - De Hoop

Strawberries and whale watching at De Hoop Nature Reserve

Africa is a big country [sic]

I’ll share many of these adventures in future posts, but for now, I’ll just tell you about a food education I received while awaiting some (delectable) chicken and pap (cornmeal porridge, served in a lump that looks like a cloud) at a humble place called Yoggata Mini Kitchen. This was the place with one table, tucked away behind a women’s craft market on Long Street. Outside the market was a small sandwich board advertising foods we didn’t recognize, but which sounded like traditional African food … or at least our idea of African food.

In truth, we had no idea because we’d never been to Africa before (except north of the Sahara), and were relying on advice from our guide book and our imaginations, influenced by films and books. And of course … Africa is a really big place. Any notion we had of ‘African food’ was bound to be dashed by the diversity of the continent, not to mention South Africa’s unique status in Africa: it has the continent’s largest economy and the largest communities of people of European and Asian descent. Plus, Cape Town was first settled by Europeans in the 1600s, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that modern European fare was on offer everywhere we looked, including sandwiches and salads, pizzas and burgers, pastas and even a Mexican cantina serving cheap tequila shots.

Pap my ride

Yoggata table

The communal table at Yoggata Mini Kitchen, Long Street, Cape Town (behind the African Women's Craft Market)

Despite the realization that modern South African cuisine did not coincide with my romantic daydreams about ‘Africa’ (which were largely influenced by the soft-rock stylings of Toto and the movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ … neither of which has anything to do with South Africa), I was still keen to try something new. So when we came across the sign for Yoggata Mini Kitchen, we were intrigued. We walked through the colourful stalls packed with crafts and dangling with beaded jewelry, all the way to the back, where we found a dozen shops constructed from largely unadorned white walls, lighted by brash fluorescent bulbs, and mostly without signs to tell us what they were offering.

The barber trimming a man’s hair in the first shop was obvious, and we guessed that the next shop was serving food as we saw people walking out with wrapped bundles. Next was a place staffed by Rastafarians printing t-shirts, and finally our destination: Yoggata Mini Kitchen. It was decorated with brightly-coloured curtains and table settings, complemented by a warm greeting from the owner Phyllis Melane. She offered help understanding the menu, and then invited us to take a seat at the single plastic table. We had pap and fried chicken (with crispy, well-seasoned skin that I couldn’t get enough of), samp and beans, and curried vegetables. It cost about GBP4 ($6) for two filling meals.

lamb - pap - beans - veg at Yoggata Mini Kitchen

Lamb stew, pap (cornmeal porridge), beans and vegetables

It was so good we returned the next day. This time we were joined at the communal table by a couple from the Caribbean, who were in South Africa visiting their nephew. The nephew (a lecturer at the local university) sat down next to us. Just before tucking into his steaming plate of lamb stew and pap, he reiterated something I’d read: that Cape Town, among all of South Africa’s cities, is the least integrated, with black, white and coloured (mixed-race) people still inhabiting their own milieus to a large extent. And this extends to its food culture or, more accurately, its food cultures.

So the ‘traditional’ local food you can find in Cape Town and around might be African, like what we were eating at Yogatta; it might be ‘settler’ – mostly Dutch and British, but also German; or it could be Cape Malay, which largely came from the Indonesian or Javan slaves brought to Cape Town hundreds of years ago by the Dutch East India Company. Cape Malay includes South Asian foods (which we might think of in the US as ‘Indian’), such as samosas (samoosas) and curries. And of course, today there is the smattering of other non-traditional cuisines you’d see in any modern city in the world: Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Portuguese (we were rarely far from a Nandos chain restaurant), Spanish and many more.

Cape Town’s food cultures

Roti sign in Bo Kaap neighbourhood

A sign for the diverse foods on offer in one Cape Town neighbourhood

The huge range of what could be considered local and traditional food in Cape Town made me aware of how little I know about this country, which is often called the “Rainbow Nation” because of its diversity. I don’t think I’m the only person who, if asked what I knew about South Africa, would only have been able to conjure up information about Nelson Mandela and apartheid, or about the dreadful crime statistics that so often characterize stories about South Africa today. When it comes to food, I would have drawn a complete blank, except with regard to red bush tea and wine (and even then I knew next to nothing, only that they produce these things).

Now I’m only slightly wiser about South Africa’s food cultures, but more specifically the food of Cape Town and around, since it varies by region, and one look at a map showed me just how little of the country I’d seen.

Despite this, I’m happily savouring the memories of the meals I had and, importantly, the people I met while eating them. It’s this latter point which seems most telling of eating in South Africa, as in all countries – that food is something social, to be shared. For example, the braai, which is translated as ‘barbecue’, has a social significance and set of traditions unique to the region, and unlike what I know of barbecues in the US and UK (but slighly more similar to barbecues in Australia). And while eating my last portion of pap at Marco’s – an upscale pan-African restaurant – the Durban-born woman beside me informed me that pap is meant to be eaten with your hands from a plate shared among family and friends. Upon hearing this, the American woman sitting opposite set down her fork, picked up a chunk of pap with her fingers, used it to scoop up some meat and popped it in her mouth. With that gesture, we all smiled and continued feasting on ostrich, kudu and springbok (gazelle) cooked rare, washed down with a glass of local Cabernet-Merlot. While divisions still exist in South Africa, it’s nice to experience a coming-together around a great meal.

Soccer player tending the Braai at Mossel Bay

Soccer player tending the Braai at Mossel Bay

More South African adventures to come in future posts…