This month we venture further afield. For all you folks from the frozen north I have a wonderful secret for you—just a couple hours south on Interstate 55 is the South (not just south but the South). For some this may be like doing a cross-cultural module if you go any further south than Perry County. Well, it’s time to break out of your sheltered existence and go to the land of cotton, kudzu, rusty appliances, and throwed roles. “Throwed roles, what are those?” That’s the same question my Southern family asked as we took a road trip to Memphis. Driving Interstate 55 leaving the rolling edge of the Ozarks and entering the beautiful flat delta of the Mississippi River, where cotton (and catfish) are king, we began sighting big green billboards with a funny little man hawking “Lambert’s Cafe-Home of the world famous ‘throwed rolls.’” “Hmm, that looks interesting,” we thought, and on our return trip decided we had to stop.
Lambert’s is in the little town of Sikeston, about two and a half hours from seminary. Sikeston is nothing if not Southern, but don’t let that scare you. Folks in the South are about as friendly, honest, and generous as they come. This would prove especially true at Lambert’s Cafe. From the outside Lambert’s looks like an oversized green Cracker Barrel, except that instead of rows of rocking chairs for sale out front, there are long wooden benches and a life-size wooden train to play on. Admit it, everyone likes to play on the kid’s playground, especially when it’s a train. Once we coaxed our son past the train and through the door we saw an awful sign: “Cash Only!” We checked our wallets, pooled our resources and found $25—hopefully enough. We figured we would just split as usual, but this was not your normal restaurant—the “throwed roll” thing should have told us that. The first thing I see on the menu is “No Splitting.” I’m getting a bad feeling here. About that time I heard a commotion and saw a waiter with a big metal bowl full of hot rolls. Another waiter was taking the rolls and throwing them at excited diners like throwing out prizes before a minor-league ballgame! Then our waiter came by and explained adults can’t split because of all the pass-arounds. I’m from the South but I hadn’t heard that term before. “Basically,” he said, “we bring all the side dishes out to you.” Interesting, I thought, throwed rolls and all you can eat sides. “Plus,” he added, “just like at home, you can have seconds on your entree.” Seconds, too? Wow, this was great! (And I hadn’t even had any food yet!) We ordered up some butterfly pork chops and chicken fried steak.
Waiting for our food I noticed something odd. We were sitting under a tree. Not just any tree, but a tree built onto the restaurant with branches stretching out long the walls! Not only that, there was a boy fishing beside the tree! Before I could ponder this for long our food came and it was great—tender, moist, and delicious. Even better, now that we had plates we could start getting some pass arounds: fried potatoes & onions, macaroni & tomatoes, black-eyed peas, fried okra, and hot rolls with sorghum (a sweet molasses) and apple butter. The food was like mana from south of heaven. I felt like I was back on the old family farm in rural North Carolina. If you’ve never had these veggies (or for that matter know what some of these veggies look like) this is a tasty way to try them for the first time. They scoop them out of their big bowl onto your plate, as much or as little as you want.
Bethany loved the macaroni and tomatoes. Personally, I overdid it on the fried okra and hot rolls with sorghum. By the time we finished our meals and pass-arounds, our waiter asked us if we were ready for seconds. Seconds? We had forgotten all about seconds! As much as I hated to pass up the offer, I had to after thirds (or was it fourths) of fried okra and rolls with sorghum—my oversized belly couldn’t hold anymore. We got the check and our $25 covered the four of us plus tip. Not bad with all you can eat sides and seconds for your entrée. Next time you’re heading south, or just want to get out of the Midwestern funk for a day, head to Lambert’s Café in Sikeston where the fields are filled with cotton, the yards filled with rusty appliances, and most importantly, the bellies are filled with the best Southern cooking this side of the Mason-Dixon line. (Speaking of which, does the Mason-Dixon line even come out this far? If it does wouldn’t we be South of it? Maybe we’re west of it? Hmm, questions to ponder.)
(This article original appeared in the March 2005 ATT)