June 12, 2020

Julia Spalding

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Front of the Line

A carb-loaded, sugar-fueled heartland cafeteria tradition

Both of my parents dabbled in Weight Watchers during its analog years. Before the SmartPoints, the app, and the New York Times think pieces, members recorded their meals in pocket trackers and attended weigh-ins in actual church basements. At least once a week, they were required to eat a serving of liver, the one dish my mother refused to cook in her own kitchen. And so it came to be that, at least once a week, we headed to our nearest MCL cafeteria.

The Indianapolis chain, founded in 1950 by Charles O. McGaughey and George Laughner (whose last names formed the initialism MCL), had a steam tray dedicated to liver and onions that allowed Mom and Dad to fulfill their organ-meat obligation. During those weekly outings, I tore through the rest of the cafeteria line like a robber baron, scooting my tray along the metal tracks, grabbing up tiny chilled dishes of cubed Jell-O, glazed strawberries, cucumber salad, and paprika-dusted deviled eggs before I even rounded the corner to the hot entrees.

I could have fried chicken or chicken and noodles, an enormous plank of fish almondine with tartar sauce, meatloaf, sliced turkey, ham and beans, or roast beef carved to order under the heat lamp’s warm glow. Then, on to my sides of choice: always mashed potatoes covered in white gravy and green beans, plus an accompaniment of sweet, earthy Harvard beets if they had them. There were precision-cut slices of pie, from the basic cherry to the showboating coconut cream with its ridiculous meringue bouffant to my beloved sugar cream. And the rolls. My god, the rolls—those warm, yeasty cloverleaves that looked like tiny chef’s hats to be pulled apart and slathered in pats of butter. At the end of the line, my tray heaving with comfort food, a cashier would tally up the dishes: Hoosier dim sum.

Front of the Line - Quote

At the end of the line, my tray heaving with comfort food, a cashier would tally up the dishes: Hoosier dim sum.

I realize that Indiana doesn’t actually own the American cafeteria restaurant model, which dates back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and has roots in both the Swedish smorgasbord and the German automat. Cafeterias would eventually take hold on the East Coast (Hector’s in Times Square) and the West Coast (Clifton’s in Los Angeles) and crisscross the country, with tray lines catering to everyone from urban factory workers to ladies who lunched. But let’s embrace the fact that the Midwest in particular provided a nice, wide berth for hearty grandma food and all-you-can-grab carbs, earning the right to be called America’s breadbasket. In 1994, the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis claimed that that MCL was the largest privately held cafeteria chain in the country, with twenty-eight locations in four states.

At last count, that tally had dwindled to nineteen MCLs in three states, the surest indicator of how the cafeteria’s self-serve, open-counter concept has struggled to compete in a fast-casual world. And now, at a time when the restaurant ecosystem itself is so fraught, I worry about a genre built upon the customer’s intimate, up-close relationship with food selection. How can a place that lets you sample the Waldorf salad before you buy it and operates under an iced-tea-refill honor system adapt?

At my neighborhood MCL, which sits three minutes from my house, the reopened dining room looks sadly sparse under COVID-19 restrictions. The woman working the fried chicken station asks a muffled “white or dark meat?” behind her mask. Still, it’s reassuring to know that, when nothing else seems sure, MCL is there, providing seniors with a 10-percent Golden Discount, letting kids eat for free Monday through Wednesday, and at least once a week, serving liver and onions to keep us all on track.


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