Morrison's Cafeteria as theatre: Memories of perfect shrimp and tartar sauce

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For starters, the building seemed tremendous (The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre occupies the space today.) Once inside the cavernous structure, gleaming terrazzo floors, sky-high ceilings, stucco walls, chrome and formica tables, and naugahyde booths all contributed to what can best be described as an "unfortunate" acoustic environment.

Never mind: the cacophonous noise -- including the clang of heavy dishware hitting plastic trays; the greetings and friendly chatter of the servers behind the line; the swush sound of cold beverages cascading into tall drink glasses, half-filled with slushy crushed ice, arranged in perfect rows; the chug-chug-chug-RIP of the ticket printing machine as its somber operator eyeballed your tray while touch-typing on her broad keyboard at lightning speed and, in one swift and smooth swing of her arm, tore off the printed tally slip, dragging it through a small bowl of water before releasing it to adhere to the tray surface with a graceful flip of her wrist; all poetry in motion –-  and every aspect of the perfectly-orchestrated cafeteria ceremony created a gorgeous operatic performance, disguised as an American cafeteria.

What's more, I was allowed my own tray (sometimes still dripping and hot to the touch from recent washing), festooned with a heavy baton of hotel-style utensils bundled in a starched napkin, and prepared to receive and convey a plate of fried shrimp with tartar sauce. Sliding that tray along the stainless steel railing in front of the long line of food offerings required concentration: move too fast, and I'd slam into my mother's fingers, curled around the edge of her own tray. Go too slowly, and I'd hold up everyone behind me. The responsibility was exhilarating. "Everyone probably thinks I'm a grown-up," I thought.

African-American servers in white jackets and black bow ties would whisk our food-laden trays into the dining area, deftly arranging the dinner items on our chosen table in quick flourishes. My father would collect the paper tally slips and tip the servers with quarters. Every so often a server would dash through the dining room with a platter–sizzling loudly and balanced on the palm of one hand, held high–to deliver a cooked-to-order steak or chop. "How's he know what table to go to?" I always wondered. What a show! And such marvelous entertainment before one morsel had entered my mouth.

Indeed, the Morrison's Cafeteria food-as-performance-art event laid waste to other "fine dining" experiences: sitting quietly in a chair, ordering food from a children's menu never offering more than three or four choices, selecting said food sight unseen, accompanied by your mother's unwelcome salesmanship ("This sounds good!") and veto power ("I don't think you'll like that"), and then waiting for the Lilliputian portions to arrive -– usually after the adults have enjoyed real cocktails ... appetizers ... soups ... salads ... while we children devoured cellophane-wrapped crackers and drank water or kiddy cocktails of ginger ale and grenadine.

Even with the end-of-meal plastic trinket or candies (if we were really lucky, a box of chocolate cigarettes, which my sister and I would pretend to smoke in the car on the way home, while our parents puffed away on the real thing in the front seat), it was all so demeaning. Every aspect of fine dining in the 50's and 60's seemed designed to remind children of our lowly station. Morrison's, on the other hand, showed you the food before you ordered; provided a stimulating atmosphere with lots of noise and loads of action, where breaches in dining etiquette might go unnoticed; didn't make you wait for the check; and provided near-instant oral gratification. At Morrison's, children and adults ordered and dined as equals. This was a restaurant.

Back to the shrimp: Morrison's offered a long list of entrees in their white-on-black-felt-letterboard box, mounted on the wall alongside the waiting line: Pepper Steak. Chicken & Dumplings. Meatloaf. Spaghetti. Liver & Onions. Fried Chicken. Spanish Mackerel Amandine (one of my dad's favorites). Shrimp Creole. Chopped Steak. Turkey and Dressing. Stuffed Bell Peppers. But only the Fried Shrimp called to me. I cannot remember a time when I did not adore shrimp. And I considered the fried shrimp at Morrison's incomparable –- huge, tender and sweet, with a thick, crunchy batter that I'd find too heavy now. But not then. We didn't know about panko back then.

I also deemed their tartar sauce perfect. Not a mayonnaise lover, I liked that they used just enough to bind the other ingredients. The result wasn't pourable like a sauce; it was more a thick relish. In the late '70's, as gardemanger at La Chaumiere, restaurateur Alain Taulere's first Sarasota culinary destination, I was responsible for making his Sauce Tartare recipe: homemade mayonnaise, parsley, dill pickles and capers. The result was a condiment just as thick and nearly as toothsome as that at Morrison's –- yet not the same. I couldn't figure out how it was different.

Thirty years later, enter Google. Searching "Morrison's Cafeteria Tartar Sauce" produces Uncle Phaedrus, Consulting Detective + Finder of Lost Recipes Voila

Morrison's Tartar Sauce

"This is not a clone - Morrison's gave the recipe to the food editor of the

Louisville Courier-Journal."

1/4 lb cabbage

1 small onion

1 or 2 strips green bell pepper

1/4 cup dill relish

1 cup plus 2 Tbsp real mayonnaise

Place cleaned cabbage, onion and green pepper in blender or food processor. Process to fine pulp. Add relish and mayo and stir to blend. Place in a covered container. Refrigerate overnight before serving. Makes 2-1/2 cups.

No wonder I liked Morrison's Tarter Sauce so well: it's really cole slaw with some dill pickle added.

What else did my family and I select at Morrison's? My mother recalls their coconut cream pie fondly. My sister loved their pumpkin pie (Morrison's was a southern states' chain, so desserts figured prominently, and were displayed cunningly at the very start of the food line). My baby brother would eat whatever macaroni and cheese or cornbread he didn't drop or fling from his high chair tray. (The place was so noisy, his histrionics barely registered beyond our table.) I am fuzzy on what else I ordered. A tossed salad with thousand island dressing and eggplant casserole ring bells, albeit as side dish. Fried shrimp were the apple of my eye.

Morrison's is no more: They vacated their downtown Sarasota location in 1970, and the chain was bought out by Piccidilly Cafeterias in 1996. To me, Morrison's was dinner as theatre. Replaced by an actual dinner theatre. Trippy.

Are memories often imperfect? Absolutely. Nevertheless, I insist that shrimp today –- even fresh, Gulf-caught, not previously frozen and perfectly prepared –- regardless the restaurant or chef, do not hold a candle to the fried shrimp I ate as a kid at Morrison's. I don't know if life was better then. Surely the shrimp were.

Photo by Deborah Thomas from the FLORIDA MEMORY State Library & Archives.

"Ask Daddy."

That's how my mother always responded when I asked, "Can I get fried shrimp?" while in line at Morrison's Cafeteria in downtown Sarasota in the late '50's.

For this elementary school kid, a trip to Morrison's represented the apex of great dining experiences. I knew Morrison's wasn't "fine" dining. I had eaten at the venerable Zinn's, with its soaring rock waterfall in the middle of its dining room; and at the Buccaneer Inn on Longboat Key, where I was awed and a bit frightened by the peg-legged pirate doorman who would open a treasure chest from which children could select after-dinner tchotchkes. Still, Morrison's Cafeteria was infinitely more exciting.

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