A few evenings ago, I dined with old friends, Gene and Charlotte, at the iconic Atlanta eatery The Colonnade. As Charlotte was enjoying her veggie plate, I, my chicken-fried chicken, and Gene, his salmon croquettes, he reminisced about growing up near Atlanta in the 1940's and 50's, describing memories of driving downtown with his mother to shop at Rich’s and Davison’s Department Stores and the small magic shops that were situated between those two Grande Dames of Southern Shopping. He told about following his mother up and down Peachtree Street, to and from Forsyth Street, and how the trip was made less painful as he was allowed to stop at both of the magic shops on the way. He said that, all the while he was eating lunch at Rich’s Magnolia Tea Room, he’d be trying to decide which one of the magic tricks he would be allowed to buy. As Gene was talking, my own Rich’s memory hit me like a….well, like a mouthful of English peas.
Living way down in Waycross as we did, we didn’t make it up to Atlanta very often. However, I did have two aunts who lived here and we would drive up to see them from time to time. My first memory of an Atlanta visit must have been in about 1954, which would have made me four. I remember looking in the Rich’s window and seeing my first television screen ever, all lit up in vibrant black and white. I also remember eating lunch in the tea room there.
As a child, I was a picky eater. On one occasion when I was quite small, a nice neighbor lady asked what I liked on my hamburger, and I responded with “everything but the meat.” I’d like to think I was ahead of the times with my vegetarian sensibilities, but I guess my recent chicken-fried chicken selection would belie that. And a vegetarian I definitely was not, as, to my child mind, vegetables were to be avoided at all cost.
I’m pretty sure that, for my nice luncheon at the Magnolia Tea Room, I ordered either a cheese sandwich or my extra-special favorite, peanut butter and jelly. I’m also certain that my sneaky mother mouthed something about a vegetable to our complicit waitress in her frilly white apron.
It doesn't take much of an imagination to conjure up what happened next in the midst of a nice meal in a lovely restaurant full of happy post-WWII hatted and white-gloved matrons and very few children. To my horror, English peas arrived in a neat little pile on my plate; Mama told me to at least taste them, and I said no. She ordered and I cried. She put her foot down and I petulantly took a spoonful. But, determined to have the last, albeit silent word, I refused to swallow.
The rest of the meal was spent with me full-cheeked and teary-eyed, but Mama didn't relent. Finally, the bill was paid and my Mary Janes insolently followed my mother's spectator pumps past the other patrons, out the door, and into the elevator to take us to the first floor where the perfumes and hosiery were displayed and sold. Midway through our downward journey, I looked up at Mama and smiled my best smile. In the midst the packed elevator full of other shoppers and diners, I said, in what my mother later reported to have been an extremely loud voice, "Peas all gone!"
Rich's Department Store, with its Pink Pig at Christmas and its Crystal Bridge spanning seven stories, is also gone, gone from downtown Atlanta and elsewhere. All that's left are grown-up memories of little children reluctantly following their mamas in their pretty hats and white gloves up and down Peachtree Street; children just looking for some respite, perhaps a magic trick or a nice peanut butter and jelly sandwich with no vegetables.
Although Gene eventually understood that there were simple solutions to the magic tricks he obsessed over and purchased on his shopping trips to downtown Atlanta, solutions explained by the sales clerk as soon as he handed over his small bills and coins, I continue to dislike English peas to this day.