I’m in third grade. It’s a Sunday, early afternoon, and I’m perched on a low stool at the lunch counter of Peoples Drug Store in Washington, D.C., dressed in my church clothes. It’s a crowded space, alive with adult chatter and the sounds of plates clanking, and I’m grateful that my grandmother has commandeered us seats.
As I read Robert Sherrill’s recollection of the soda jerks of his childhood in the August/September 2004 SAVEUR article “The Fountain of Youth,” my own lunch-counter memories came flooding back. After my parents’ divorce, I was sent from Camp Pendleton in Southern California to live with my grandmother and her sisters in the nation’s capital. The lunch counter was a reliable foundation in an otherwise uncertain time, a weekly ritual. I don’t recall the type of sandwich I ate back then because for me the purpose of having lunch was to get to dessert. Displayed on the counter were layer cakes—Black Forest, German chocolate, and red velvet stacked on stands—and pies with latticed designs, mounds of fresh meringue, and classic fillings like lemon, apple, and cherry.
Among my favorites was the triple-layer coconut cake, topped like a snow-capped mountain with shredded coconut, a dessert so moist I had to use a spoon to eat it. But I was also fond of the lemon meringue pie: a flaky crust, a zesty filling, and, on top, a billowing headdress. Reflecting on that time, I realize now that those outings weren’t just satisfying my childhood sweet tooth. They filled my need to feel cared for and secure.
Thomas Keller is the chef-proprietor of Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.