Southern Folks: Dining out with Miz Lena over the holidays

Bill Stamps
Bill Stamps

My wife, Jana, and I prefer little spot-in-the-road cafes. Meat-and-threes, we used to call them. The kinds of places that feature fried foods, fresh vegetables and a good cup of coffee or sweet iced tea.

The waitresses are nice ladies, well into their 50s. Most of them, by blood or marriage, are related to one another. Their kids are all grown up and out the door. Their old man's on the couch. They have names like Evelyn, Betty Lou, Maxine or Claire. They call you Sweetheart and Darlin'.

Back when I lived off and on with my grandparents, Adrian and Miz Lena, in Middle Tennessee, we rarely went out to eat. Grand Mom didn't care for crowds, and she didn't like spending money on meals that she, or any one of her sisters, could "cook better and for half the money."

On special occasions and some holidays, we'd take a drive to Nashville. Grand Dad would drive; Miz Lena in the passenger seat; me and my two younger brothers in the back seat. Grand Dad would step on the gas and then let up on it. Speed up and slow down. All of us had suffered a little whiplash by the time we got there.

Little did those "fancy-shmancy" restaurants, as Grand Mom called them, realize what they were in for, when Miz Lena and her brood stepped through the door.

There we'd be: Grand Mom in one of her "special bought" Cain-Sloan pantsuits, Grand Dad in a sports jacket and tie that she had selected for him to wear and us boys in our matching Sunday School outfits.

I'm not sure why she was so rough on the restaurant personnel, but she was. It could have been fanned by a form of competitive jealousy.

For instance, just let Grand Dad, or any of us, compliment the food, and she'd go off. Not loudly. As a matter of fact, she spoke, almost in a whisper, a loud whisper, of her lack of respect for the cuisine, decorum and sometimes the servers. It was a trying experience from the time we walked in.

To the hostess, she'd say, "Honey, could you put us somewhere where the sun's not gonna make us squint? Do you have anywhere comfortable to sit? Somewhere away from the kitchen? My doctor says for me to always try to sit next to a winda."

I'm not sure where that came from, but seems like it usually worked. She'd finally settle on a table, we'd be seated, and the "holiday dining out experience" would commence.

Grand Mom started her professional life as a farmer. Later, she became one of the very few female contractors in the South. She built houses. Grand Dad was a prominent architect. Usually, it would start with the two of them discussing the restaurant's layout and design.

Miz Lena would say things like, "They'd be better off guttin' the place and startin' all over." Or, "Somebody musta been drinkin' when they drew up these plans." Or, "Who puts the bathrooms next to the kitchen? Them plants need waterin'." And, one of my favorites, "I wouldn't hang this wallpaper in my garage."

No matter how fast our server brought the menus to our table, Miz Lena would say, "Thank the Lord. I wuz wonderin' when you'd get over here, Honey. Looka here, my little grandbabies are about ready to starve to death."

She'd say that and then take a good 15 minutes perusing the menu, followed with another 10 minutes of interrogating the waitress about how the meat was cooked and whether there had been any garlic used.

Grand Mom, half under her breath, and right in front of the waitress, would say, "I shouldn't hafta carry around my toothbrush and a tube of Pepsodent."

Back then, there weren't that many male waiters. I remember, once, we had a fellow wait on us at Harveys Department Store's upstairs restaurant. Miz Lena asked him what he "really did" for a living. She wasn't being sarcastic. She just couldn't wrap her head around white men serving food. Miz Lena was Old South.

When the meals were served and after her plate passed the "sniff test," Miz Lena would eat and critique the offering all the way through the meal. There was always someone in the family who could make it better.

"It's a good thing Innie ain't here right now." Inez was her second-oldest sister. "Wonder what she'd say about sweet coleslaw with no shaved carrots and raisins? Whoever heard of such a thing? Even Macel knows you gotta cook snap green beans with bacon." Macel was her youngest sister. "Wonder if they spect me to pay full price for these whipped taters?" Then came the inevitable, "I'll betcha a silver dollar the head cook's a Yankee."

Here we are having lunch, and Miz Lena would start talking about a great meal she and Grand Dad had in New Orleans. She'd say, "That steak we had at the French Quarter. Now that was really good eatin'."

Or, better yet, she would talk about what we were going to have for supper, later that same day. I always thought that to be a little peculiar.

Then she'd start wondering aloud whether she had remembered to turn off the stove before we left. That was about the time Grand Mom would ask for the check. She'd tell the server, "Honey, we're gonna need to get the bill lickety-split."

After she squawked about the tab, saying, "I cudda bought me a whole live pig at this price," she always left a sizable tip, with a heed to the waitress, "Here you go, Honey. You do somethin' nice fore yoreself, with this." Followed by, "Don't you worry, Honey, you keep pluggin'. You'll git a better job down the road."

They say kids are like sponges and pay attention to what's being said, whether it seems like it or not. That's probably somewhat true.

Through all these years, anytime we go out to eat, I try to be seated by a window. Many times, I ask if any garlic is in the mix. I too, prefer "family restaurants" over "fancy-shmancy" ones.

They're just more comfortable and much less complicated. And I can count on them cooking their beans as good as Macel's.

Bill Stamps is a native Tennessean who moved from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn., after four decades in the entertainment business. Contact him at or on Facebook.