I’m not sure why distant memories surface unexpectedly. I’m just glad they’re mostly pleasant. I thought about Mrs. Balanis today, a sweet Greek lady I met in Valdosta during the 1970s. I spent four years in South Georgia at Valdosta State College. The first two years I lived in a dormitory and survived on cafeteria food. It wasn’t all that bad, but it paled in comparison to the country cooking I had grown up with.
One day there was a student protest of the cafeteria which attracted a crowd of 100 or maybe more. I didn’t participate, but I’ll have to say their sit-in was quite effective. The next time we had fish sticks they tasted like something with a possible aquatic origin.
We supplemented our cafeteria food from various places. Pizza Villa was one of our favorites. Fall quarter of 1970 was the first time I’d ever eaten pizza. I’ve had a few slices since then that were almost as good, but I’ve never had one any better.
Bynum’s Diner was our regular place for home-style fare. The ladies in the kitchen and the ones waiting tables were all senior citizens. They cooked for flavor not to manage cholesterol or calories. We probably didn’t tip them enough, but they were nice to us anyway. I guess those older women understood we were still kids, something that escaped us at the time.
Occasionally we’d go to Ma Groover’s Restaurant or to a boarding house that I’m not sure had a name. It was a two-story frame home where men rented single rooms and ate old fashioned meals seated around a long table. Anyone was welcome and the food was good. The era of boarding houses has long passed but I’m not sure why. Maybe there’s too much regulation to turn a profit now.
Mitchell’s Barbeque on the south end of town was custom-made for a college kid’s budget. They only had a few small tables, but it didn’t take us long to eat. Their plate full of barbeque came with rice and gravy, greens, and cornbread. Sometimes we’d buy a paper bag of grilled pork skins that were still warm and drenched in sauce. They made a perfect afternoon snack for a carload of hungry boys.
Shoney’s had Slim Jim sandwiches and strawberry pie. Mr. Twist offered foot-long hot dogs with a dozen toppings. Colonel Sanders fried his chicken with secret herbs and spices. There were plenty of good places to eat in Valdosta during my time there, but the one I wish most that I could return to is the ABC Diner.
ABC wasn’t in the regular rotation for college students. I first went there as a guest of a couple of Valdosta State staff members, Fluker Stewart and Andy Bond. I was President of the Student Government Association when Mr. Stewart and Dean Bond took me there for lunch. I was smitten with the food and even more so with the charming silver haired lady who served it.
It was a small but very busy restaurant. Mrs. Balanis was constantly in motion, making sure the place was spotlessly clean, the food exceptional, and the atmosphere inviting. She treated her customers like family.
ABC is where I learned to enjoy tossed salads. I had until then considered them an unnecessary accompaniment to spaghetti. Her picturesque salads were crisp, cold, and loaded with her own splendid version of Thousand Island dressing. Her Greek salads were reportedly even more magnificent, but I was young and lacked the courage to choose such an adventurous path.
It was at ABC where I was introduced to creamed corn so wonderful it deserved its own blessing. Mrs. Balanis knew how to perfectly sweeten the pot. Her creamed corn could have been served in a pie crust without apology to any dessert.
And ABC is the place I took my future wife one day when she didn’t feel well. She ordered a Coke to drink but no food. A few minutes later Mrs. Balanis brought her a bowl of homemade soup. With her warm smile and endearing accent, she said very softly, “Maybe this will help you feel better.” It helped back then, and it still helps now when I recall that brief but tender moment. Small gestures of kindness can make lasting impressions.
If I could go back to the ABC Diner, I’d order a Greek salad. But what I’d most like to do is just visit with Mrs. Balanis. I loved that little diner, because I loved the dear lady who treated me like family. I don’t know why memories surface unexpectedly. I’m just glad they’re mostly pleasant.