Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 11, 2019

Fellowship with a side of fried chicken

"The first order of business is to get a piece of pie and put it on your table so you save your place."

We had just entered the Green Café in Green, Kansas with friend Jay. As a frequent visitor to the establishment, he was sharing how to make our visit the most enjoyable. Jay had invited us to one of the special meals held on the first and third Sunday of each month. Art and I had eaten there a few years ago, so we didn't hesitate to accept his invitation.

Although it was already busy when we arrived at 11:30, we beat the church crowd and Jay had already saved us a booth. He said the pies can go quickly, so we went directly to the cart. I picked out a piece of my favorite - lemon meringue - and Art chose cherry.

As we settled into the booth, Vicki Pfizenmaier, one of the volunteer waitresses, asked what we’d like to drink. I opted for lemonade. Then it was off to the buffet line to fill our plates with fried chicken, smothered pork chops, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and green beans ... or as our daughters would say, "old-people food." I grabbed a dinner roll, but as I looked over the crowd, there were some youngsters here and there as well.

The café was buzzing with conversation. Jay, who is from the area, knew quite a few people and several stopped to exchange pleasantries and bits of news.

I was curious about the number of customers served and the amount of food prepared at the Sunday dinners, so I asked Vicki.

She said the café typically serves between 120 and 140 people from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. during the special Sunday meals. The cooks, dishwashers and cashiers are all paid from the money charged for the meals, and waitresses are volunteers, but divide up the tips received.

The cooks usually fry about 30-40 pounds of chicken and prepare 50 pounds of potatoes. They also cook five gallons each of corn, green beans and sweet potatoes, and serve six or more 18-count bags of rolls. There is a wide selection of pies: chocolate peanut butter, chocolate, butterscotch, cherry cheesecake, peach, apple, cherry, blueberry, lemon meringue, coconut cream. Sometimes a visitor can also select from custard, pecan, pumpkin, gooseberry, rhubarb, and others.

A few days after our visit, Jay shared an Associated Press article he had just noticed about how important cafés are to small French towns as well. In that country, the number of cafés has dropped from 200,000 to fewer than 40,000 in the last 50 years. AP reporter John Leicester wrote:

... The social-glue-role of cafés - where the French mingle, find friendship and sometimes love, squabble, mourn and celebrate - is seen as being so vital for national well-being that a mentor of French President Emmanuel Macron is launching a $165 million rescue plan for 1,000 of them ...

Macron’s former teacher and now the head of a large French non-profit organization, was quoted as saying, "... Reopening cafés in villages that lost them will," he argues, "help combat social isolation, providing inhabitants with places to meet and kindle friendships, and 'little by little' restoring life to a village and connecting it to the rest of the world."

Since I grew up in a small Kansas town myself, I know very well how important the cafés and small restaurants around the state are to our communities.

The Green Café is also open Mondays through Saturdays from 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and from 5-7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays. Connie Schurle, who handles day-to-day operations of the non-profit café, said it was built by volunteer labor in 1983, and some of the kitchen equipment was purchased from a restaurant that was closing at the time. She thought the Sunday buffets probably started in the 1990s.

The walls and shelves are covered with old black-and-white photos of Green and objects such as framed sunflowers, stuffed toys, baseball caps, flags and other memorabilia.

Vicki, Connie, and others who are involved, enjoy meeting the people who come for home-cooked meals. Connie said she's become acquainted with many people she wouldn't have known otherwise and she'll keep working as long as she can to help keep the café open.

"We all love working there and if it keeps our little Green café open we will continue," Vicki said. "We enjoy the returning customers and meeting new people; they come from everywhere - New York to Germany!"

By the time we were ready to leave, a line had once again formed at the door. I realized I knew a few of them, including the grandmother of our daughter Mariya's school pal Maggie. I also saw Romelle VanSickle and husband Wayne seated on the opposite side of the room from where we had been. She was the former owner of the Riley Countian newspaper where my column debuted almost 20 years ago. I stopped to chat and she commented that Wayne always says the café on Sunday sounds like a henhouse.

The food at the Green Café was fantastic! But even more than the food, the fellowship it provides to people in the surrounding area - even those from as far away as Manhattan - is priceless.

Top-left: cars parked in front of the Green Café on the day of our visit; top-right: closed French café from the newspaper article; lower-left: a few of the pies available; lower-right: after the "church crowd" departs, a few chairs become available.

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