Editor's note: This piece was originally published in the Southern Foodways Alliance's Gravy Foodletter #42. Today's installment comes courtesy of Kat Kinsman, managing editor of CNN Eatocracy.
Several stories above Manhattan's Central Park, there hangs a three-Michelin-starred, monstrously expensive restaurant that an awful lot of people think is perfect. I may have thought that, too, at one point, but I know it's not, because I've been to the K&W Cafeteria.
Actually, I'm going to back that up and admit out loud in public that I have in fact boarded a plane, rented a hotel room, and stayed overnight in a city several states away for the express purpose of sitting down with a groaning tray of K&W chicken livers, fried okra, collard greens, and vegetable congeal and eating my greedy head off.
Yes, I made some preemptory noises about going to visit a couple of old friends who live in relative proximity to a K&W. I brought them along with me so I could steal hush puppies off their plates. And their child's. I have no shame. And the trip cost just slightly less than my single meal at the aforementioned palace of gastronomic fanciness.
There clearly are many, many things wrong with me as a human being, but if you've ever eaten at a K&W, you know my love of the place is not one of them.
That wasn't always the case. Though a Sunday apres-church K&W dining room is now typically a multi-racial, transgenerational, pan-denominational assembly of Southerners possessed of a great appreciation for fancy church hats and rock-bottom prices, in the early 1960s, several outposts found themselves at the center of the battle over segregation.
The original location, which had been doing business since 1937 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as K&W restaurant (the initials stood for original investors T.K. Knight and his brothers-in-law, Thomas, Kenneth, and William Wilson) was acquired by Grady T. Allred in 1941. Allred opened a second location in High Point and eventually converted both locations from restaurants to cafeterias in the 1950s.
As the chain expanded further, folks across the state clamored for the low-priced fare. They were all welcome to it - but not necessarily on the premises.
In an interview for the University of North Carolina's Southern Oral History Program commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Reverend David Forbes made mention of K&W struggles in Raleigh. Willena Cannon recalled in Through Survivors' Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre, "We could not get served at other places, like the K&W Cafeteria, which had good food and nice tables. If we wanted to eat K&W food, we had to go to a window and buy the food and then walk down the street to eat it. We couldn't go inside. That kind of stuff causes a lot of pain inside you."
Spurred by the local Woolworth sit-ins, Cannon, along with around four thousand of her classmates, protested peacefully for integration, occupying a Greensboro integration, occupying a Greensboro intersection as paddy wagons pushed into them, attempting to mow them down. So many were arrested that jails in several surrounding towns filled up and other buildings were converted into holding facilities. Cannon notes that she, like Forbes and countless others, was indeed willing to give her very life and freedom for the cause.
It did not, thankfully, come to that - though K&W's owners did their best to thwart the efforts of protestors who'd vowed to remain in jail until the chain served black people. The president of the historically black NC A&T State University told students that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be speaking on campus, and they had to leave the jail to see him. It was a trick to lure the students out, and the restaurants remained segregated until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forced K&W to open its doors to all customers.
It was about time. Reverend Forbes recalled, "Either they were going to be prepared to kill us all, or something had to give."
Nowadays, on a given Tuesday afternoon, a person of any race, creed, or color is perfectly welcome to stroll into a K&W for a ham steak with gravy and to eat that meal while sitting down comfortably at a freshly bussed table.
Even those of us deranged enough to to fork out roughly $500 for the privilege of doing so.
How far have you traveled for a meal? Let us know in the comments below.
Delve into more from the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Speaking in tongues: a barbecue communion
The cook who picks cotton: reclaiming my roots
Mehepyewpleez? A love letter to K&W Cafeteria
Paula Deen and Southern food: Critics say credit is past due
5@5 – Why diversity matters in a restaurant kitchen
A toast to Leah Chase
I'll travel halfway around the world for this event:
stop telling lies
I'm known to take my personal plane and fly from my home in Tennessee to Denver CO. just for a Fool's Gold Loaf. The best darn peanut butter, grape jelly and bacon sandwich ever. Uhhh huh Huh!
When I drive from DC back to Philly, I must first stop at Aldos Pizzarama.
They honestly are my taste of home oped in 1978 and have not chage a thing since, other than offering fries, but I usuall get their pie and maybe a cheese steak.
Now that my daughter has had it too she is addicted to the quality and wants to have the recipe.
Anyway – keep all the Genos and Pats Lukes....I choose the best in Aldos.
Drove 1100 miles to Boston for a cannoli from Mike's Pastry.
Mike's is shite. Modern Pastry is tops.
wow great ad for K&W otherwise the article is worthless. hope you at least get a few free meals from them.
I'm trying to wrap my head around this article - why isn't there any description of the food? I still have no idea why the author chooses to pay astronomical amounts of money to eat here, instead of (for example) Per Se. Unless her point is that she likes to eat at restaurants that resisted integration attempts in the 60s? Odd.
We how they link the crap to paula???? Again starting see some of real issues and damn sick of weelllll guess we stole the recipes as well.............bull crap break down history during the era did those have money buy o grow food? No. And overcooked what people use to having eating etc. So recipes were not theirs. Came here with no recipes and didn't have the things here where they came from either
Huh? Your spelling and grammar make your comment unreadable.
.... and illegible.
The reason for his traveling is a era where blacks weren't allowed, only whites. You should see the Butler. It will tell you how the 1964 civil rights act with Dr. King who wanted equality. Same for the Women who wanted power. This article refers to how blacks were treated. The I used to travel to NY to Curry in a Hurry (South Asian Resturant) when it was just starting out, but I know how racism works.
I don't make specific plans to go there, but if I am anywhere near Pacific Coast Highway, I make time ( and make room ) for a snack of French Fries at Neptune's Net. I have never ordered off their main menu, but I have been there with friends where we have shared multiple orders.
Boiling hot, crispy on the outside, and supersoft and burning potato on the inside. Delicious
I know of people who will pay $2 each way bridge tolls to pick up a steak sub from Captain Harveys in the Dundalk area of Baltimore. We used to do if we had 4 or more people, but a close competitor now exists on my side of the Harbor.
München to Colmar for pate fois gras.
My family plans our road trips from KY to IA around stopping for a meal at the Jubilee Cafe in Kickapoo IL. They serve some of the best homemade pies we've ever eaten. My go-to meal there is the fried pork tenderloin sandwich and a slice of toffee cream pie! It's just over the halfway point (about 6 hours) for us, so we usually manage to hit them coming & going.
i've also been know to make the drive from KY to Wilmington NC (about 12 hrs each way) to eat at J Michael's Philly Deli (my dad worked at the original location for over 20 years), Something Fishy, and La Costa Mexican restaurant. Topped off with pastries from Apple Annie's & a slice of Incredible Gourmet Pizza's Formaggio Bene. (the best all white pizza i've ever had) My siblings & childhood friends laugh at my eating tour of the city, but I notice they never say no if I ask if they want to join me!
I've routinely traveled 110 miles one way to get my fix of Ted's Charcoal Broiled Hot dogs in Buffalo NY (Sahlen's Hot Dogs). (When I lived in Sodus NY). They are the best I've ever found and I've considered many times of traveling the 1400 miles for more Ted's. When ever visiting Buffalo, It's Ted's Charcoal Broiled instantly, before doing anything else.
Is this a nod at Truth's recent travels?
I am Vidiot's mother and we live not too far from a K&W. You are welcome to visit us anytime!!
I just may take you up on that! (And I think your son is the bee's knees.)
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