Friday, November 28, 2008

The Magic of the Plate Lunch

We've never been fortunate enough to attend a premier showing of any production, but we jumped at the opportunity to attend a screening of Raised on Rice and Gravy. While the opportunity itself was enough of an attraction for us, the fact that we were to view a documentary about "South Louisiana Plate Lunch Houses" was enough to get us to The Coffee Break, the site of the showing, in Breaux Bridge.

There was a festive air present as we approached the coffee shop. Rocking chairs had been placed in the street and the block roped off to prevent parking.

It was a warm evening, so the crowd spilled into the street, waiting for the showing to begin.

When we walked in, we noticed a group gathered around a table with cakes and dessert pastries. In the back of the shop, we noticed two rooms filled with people and serving dishes. There seemed to be a good supply of red beans and rice, among other hot dishes.

We passed all the food selections and headed for a seat in the room where the documentary was to be shown. We found two seats in the back row of the screening room. The room soon filled to Standing Room Only capacity. An air of anticipation engulfed the room. At 7:00, Conni Castille announced to the 36 of us that the show was to begin. It took a question from a member of the audience to inform us that Conni was one of the producers (along with Allison Bohl).

The documentary focused on the Plate Lunch. Back in the day, when lunch was the main meal, it was the hearty and substantial plate lunch that provided the energy to do the work of the day. More and more, it was the local diner that provided this meal.

The plate lunch became a restaurant fixture in the early 1900’s. Before long there was even a customary plate for lunch: a large china plate in the popular and familiar blue willow pattern with compartments to divide the meat from the potatoes and the vegetables.

The blue plate special began to refer to a large plate with generously large and inexpensive portions, commonly consisting of a main dish, three or four vegetables, some kind of bread, and a drink.

In the best of these Lunch Plate restaurants, there is a common denominator: a universal pride of mission and reputation, a celebration of longevity, and a joy of service. “It is these qualities that make owners go whistling off to work at four in the morning, employees serve faithfully for years on end, patrons return time and time again with enthusiasm, and restaurants survive and prosper for decades” (John Edgerton, et. al., Southern Food).

The film featured the owner of staff of Carl's lunch-only restaurant in Lafayette. Carl's comment, "I'm not doing this to get rich. I just like serving good food to good people" summarized the whole philosophy of the Plate Lunch eateries. Interviews with the cooks and the patrons noted the connection among these two groups and the food.

Another characteristic of these restaurants was summarized by Carl in this pithy observation: "I don't need to read newspapers. I get all the news from my customers." The documentary covered a day in the life of the Plate Lunch participants (restaurant staff, the food, and customers). The warm, human touch to the people in the film left one wishing there were more "helpings" of all three ingredients than the 20 minutes provided.

Another group of people started filing in for the next showing.

On the way out, we stopped to listen to the Huval Family Band.

I had this urge for a heaping plate of chicken, rice and gravy, green beans, cole slaw, collards, a roll, and an iced tea (unsweetened for the outsider).

But it was 8:30 p.m.

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