Prior to moving to Atlanta, Georgia in June, 1964 to begin my medical internship I had never lived in a major city. My 4 years in medical school in Little Rock were spent in a town so much larger than my home of El Dorado, Arkansas, yet by city population standards Little Rock is not a metropolis. Because of the immensity and intensity of the work of a medical student I didn’t get to enjoy many of the benefits of the city of Little Rock.
Atlanta was different in so many ways and frankly was a bit intimidating to a small town guy. I was at once very excited to move to a major city with my new MD degree and all the doors which might be opened, but at the same time frightened I might be swallowed up in the immensity of it all and lose any personal identity. At that point in life faith played no role in my thinking, and I was not seeking after God to direct my path. My secular thoughts led me to believe like the poem “Invictus”; I was the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.
Fortunately within a few months of living in Atlanta and working at Grady Memorial Hospital, I met a young and beautiful woman named Cathy Young with whom I fell madly in love. My work schedule at the hospital was crazy in those days since I was on call for 36 hours and off duty for 12 hours in a 2 day span. Those kind of work hours are no longer allowed because of the physical and emotional drain, but at the time I thought nothing about it because I was single, young and strong! Sleep and rest were accomplished by short, quick naps interspersed by 3-4 hours of deep sleep when available. Cathy will tell you I occasionally took short naps on her couch while waiting for her to get ready for a date.
My salary at the hospital was below poverty level, but this was the culture of medical training in those days. We expected the temporary poverty awaiting the time when larger incomes could be attained. Cathy was earning a salary for her teaching responsibilities as an elementary teacher, but her income was modest at best.
Our dates did not involve any expensive outings because we were relatively poor. Perhaps once each month we could afford dining in a moderately priced restaurant, but never in a 4 or 5 star restaurant. We ate lots of hamburgers and hot dogs, but I don’t recall ever feeling deprived. Had we been invited to a 5 star restaurant by someone who could afford it, we would have felt uncomfortable and out-of-place.
Perhaps our favorite restaurant for a special date was Aunt Fanny’s Cabin located in Smyrna, an Atlanta suburb. We didn’t get to go there often, but when we did it was a visual and culinary delight. Opened since the 1940’s Aunt Fanny’s Cabin catered to people who loved good Southern comfort food served in an atmosphere of a culture long since gone.
When we lived in Atlanta the Civil Rights Movement was near its’ peak in intensity and confrontation. Reverend Martin Luther King whose church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was a prominent figure in Atlanta and throughout the entire South. Sadly there were many death threats hurled against him and his family. At Grady Hospital there was always talk among our hospital staff we expected he might be brought to the emergency room at any time either severely wounded or killed. From a racial hatred and intolerance standpoint Atlanta was a risky and sometimes frightening place to live in the mid-1960’s.
Cathy and I never felt threatened or intimidated in any public place in which we dated, nor did we believe by eating in a restaurant like Aunt Fanny’s Cabin were we endorsing a stance of racial prejudice. It was a fun place we could occasionally afford and not only did we love the food, we had a good time there.
Upon entering the restaurant and being seated at a table with a red and white checkered tablecloth, a young black boy named “Jimmy” would come to the table with a large black board with a hole in the top of the board. Written on the board in white chalk were the 4 main entrees of the restaurant. Jimmy would say with a big wide-mouth grin; “Aant Fanny sez, howdy folks, what’ll it be? Today’s specials are — our famous Southern fried chicken — six dollas. Gen u wine Smithfield ham — six fifty. Charcoal broiled steak — sebn’ dollas and Rainbow trout — sebn’ fifty”
The price of the entrée included the side dishes which were brought to the table and served family style. The sides included black-eyed peas, turnip greens, green beans, squash and mashed potatoes with gravy.The baked corn bread was absolutely delicious. As I recall when one finished the meal and was still hungry, desserts were available at a small extra charge. The meals were so filling only the heartiest diners had one of their desserts.
Occasionally Jimmy would stand at the table while allowing customers to read his menu sign and might recite a jingle or do a shortened version of the “Hambone.” This was a syncopated hand slap associated with a rhyming tune about a character named Hambone. I had known how to do the “Hambone” since junior high days in El Dorado when Buzzy Sutherlin and I had “Hambone” contests. Cathy had never seen such a thing and was intrigued by having seen me do it once or twice in private. On one occasion at Aunt Fanny’s Cabin I told Jimmy “I’ll bet you a dollar I can do the “Hambone” better than you.” We had a brief contest in front of several tables of near-by customers, who all seemed to enjoy it. It embarrassed Cathy just a little, but she didn’t urge me to stop. I didn’t prolong the contest fearing it might jeopardize Jimmy’s job, and I gave him a dollar for his good nature in contesting with me.
Cathy and I will always fondly remember our days of courtship in Atlanta. Despite the stresses of available free time, financial insufficiency and big city living, we had a blast. All of our remembrances of dining at Aunt Fanny’s Cabin are wonderful and I wish we could find restaurant food like that once again! We never considered the atmosphere of the place to be demeaning or insulting to black people, because neither of us was racially prejudiced. The restaurant was closed in the 1980’s for some of those reasons.
PS: I always thought I beat Jimmy in the contest!