The Splendid Table comes to Greensboro, not for the hummus

The Splendid Table” is readily recognized as a radio program/podcast/website/blog focused on food. To see “Greensboro” identified as a subject of a recent installment was a minor jolt.

My knee jerked: “Please, not another paean to North Carolina barbecue.”

Maybe, hummus?  MidLaw was the first to posit the theory that hummus originated in Greensboro.

As it turns out, The Splendid Table’s focus is neither barbecue nor hummus. It is “the Greensboro Four” who historically sat in for lunch at Woolworth’s in the 1960’s. In a brief interview, Joseph McNeil gives a dignified and generous account of the sit-ins (it’s impossible not to like the guy), reprising the now iconic, unidentified white lady who encouraged the students, and crediting the solidarity of the UNC-G (then, Women’s College) students who came out to support the Four. But he trashed the food.

The Splendid Table picked up the interview from New York’s Other People’s Food. The theme is “the universality of food to find common ground amid racial and cultural differences.”

MidLaw is able to attest: “universality” and not “quality” is the right theme for downtown food in Greensboro at the time. In the 1970’s, when MidLaw set up shop at Brooks Pierce in downtown Greensboro, Woolworth’s was one of a limited few venues for lunch downtown.

Joseph McNeil does not recount being served in 1960, but he does recall returning to Woolworth’s in the 1970’s after the lunch counter was integrated. He says the coffee was bad and the apple pie was bland (“it sucked,” he says).

There weren’t many choices for lunch in downtown Greensboro back then. The big department stores were departing for the shopping centers, taking with them their cafeterias and dining rooms. What was left were lunch rooms in office towers and a small handful of stand-alone restaurants. MidLaw recalls Mathews Grill, a meat-and-two-vegetables place whose proprietor was busy parleying restaurant proceeds into real estate; The Lotus, a mid-century Chinese restaurant that was far from home; Randy’s Sandwich Shop, which served the standard sandwiches of the day; the Southeastern Soda Shop; and a delicatessen whose name I can’t recall that famously served “Kosher Dogs” (hot dogs smothered in sauerkraut). And Woolworth’s. Mr. McNeil’s word captures everything except the kosher dogs: “bland.”

Woolworth’s led the way. The meats at Woolworth’s were such that the smartest order was a Vegetable Plate. The vegetables came largely from cans and frozen packets. Macaroni and cheese was prepared in large sheets and cut into squares with a knife to make a serving. Greens from a can. The squash casserole was redeemed, if at all, by cheese melted in the juices of the squash and onions. Salt was the key ingredient.

Except those who were members of the Greensboro City Club, lunch most often required flight to the shopping centers, where the great American culinary innovation of the day awaited: the all-you-can-eat salad bar.

So, Joseph McNeil’s commentary on mid-1970’s downtown Greensboro food is about right.

Today though is different. Today, there are a couple of places downtown who might actually earn a place on The Splendid Table.

Here again, McNeil gets it right. He says “we’re going to make progress sometimes in spite of ourselves.”

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