Children of the (creamed) corn: scary stories from small-town diners


In honour of Halloween, I watched one of my favourite scary movies, one that influenced me during my formative years growing up in small-town America: Stephen King’s ‘Children of the Corn’.

Children of the Corn

Horror classic 'Children of the Corn'

Afterwards, I sat pondering how to make it fit the remit of my food blog.

Food connection 1: obviously, it’s about corn, which is a food, or at least used to be before Monsanto and friends got hold of it. Now it is the root of all evil, a subject covered in another corn-related horror film: Robert Kenner’s ‘Food, Inc.

‘Children of the Corn’ is about an ambitious bunch of fundamentalist kids worshipping the devil in a cornfield. ‘Food, Inc.’, on the other hand, is the true story of a bunch of ambitious corporate billionaires worshipping corn and getting tax breaks for it. Way scarier!

Diner scene from 'Children of the Corn'

Isaac, the creepy devil-worshipping 'Corn' kid, peering in through the diner window

Food connection 2: the big murder scene in ‘Children of the Corn’ takes place in a small-town diner. This is where, on a Sunday after church, the creepy kids kill all the grown-ups by poisoning the coffee. (Not the coffee!)

But it was food connection 3 which hit a chord: three years after the murders in the diner, two big-city grown-ups show up to discover the kids making ritual sacrifices in the name of corn. One of these grown-ups was none other than my Hollywood doppelgänger: Linda Hamilton, a.k.a. Sarah Connor, a.k.a. That girl from the ‘Terminator’.

It just so happens that, during one of my short-lived stints as a diner waitress,  a customer said, “Hey, it’s the Terminator Girl!” Apparently, I looked a bit like Sarah Connor when I was about 18. In fact, I didn’t just look like her – in the first ‘Terminator’ film she was also a waitress in a diner. Coincidence?

Sarah Connor in 'Terminator'

Me

Sarah Connor in 'Terminator'

Sarah Connor in 'Terminator', played by my doppelgänger Linda Hamilton

According to an online Terminator fansite, here’s her profile:

NAME: Sarah Connor
GENDER: Female (check!)
AGE: 19 (I was 18)
HEIGHT: 5’6 (okay, not quite)
EYE COLOUR: Brown-Light (well, mine are green)
OCCUPATION: Waitress, Fugitive (like it!)
STATUS:  Targeted for Termination (awesome)

Diner of the damned

Sarah worked for meagre tips at a place called Big Jeff’s Restaurant. I’ve decided not to tell you the name of the place I worked, out of respect … and fear of lawsuits. To its credit, though, it’s been in business for about 60 years, which suggests it has serious staying power (much like the food it serves, which has staying power in your arteries). While it’s often true that nostalgia is rose-tinted, a quick internet search suggests that my recollections of my former place of employment are accurate.

According to an online review:

“It’s 3 A.M. on Sunday morning. You’ve been home from the bar long enough to realize that you only have cigarettes, pickle juice and ketchup in your apartment. … head to [diner I’m not going to name]. … Their breakfast portions are so crazy big that you’re glad they’re right across from the hospital, because you might just need an emergency angioplasty after wolfing down a stupendous plate of stuffed crepes.”

From another review:

“The only positive thing to say … is it is across the street from a hospital, so a family member keeping a death vigil in the ICU can walk across the road at 2am and get a cup of stale coffee and maybe a greaseburger. Being open 24 hrs it also attracts the drunks and bums on the street late at night.”

Yep, that’s the place. I remember it well. And on this, the eve of Halloween, I’m reminiscing about a scary experience I had at that diner …

Waitressing in the Twilight Zone

Chicken-fried steak

Chicken-fried steak, also known as country-fried steak - a diner classic

It is an ordinary day in northwest Ohio. I’m a young Linda Hamilton lookalike (from Terminator 1, not Terminator 2 when she gets all buff), wearing the required uniform of a pale blue blouse and long denim tube skirt (the ankle-length kind, designed to make it hard to run away). As a new waitress, I’m working the undesirable 3-11pm shift. This means I miss out on the lucrative tips from the breakfast and lunch trades, and also the late-night crowd of drunk people, who often leave big tips due to their loss of math faculties.

I retrieve my meagre tip from the counter, which was left by a kind trucker who has since hit the open road, his stomach full of chicken-fried steak, cream gravy, and a bottomless cup of joe. As I wipe down the counter with a bleach-soaked cloth, I sense silent footsteps behind me. High-top sneakers, unlaced as per the fashion of the day, are padding towards me.

A voice says, “You know I date all the waitresses here, right?” This comes from the skinny, mullet-topped cook (his doppelgänger is the lead singer of Journey, circa 1982). Apparently this young gentleman had spent some time in juvie (i.e., a juvenile detention center), which explains his lack of good pickup lines.

“In your dreams, “ I say, and proceed to straighten up the ketchup and mustard bottles on the counter.

At this point, mullet boy grabs my wrist and twists my arm behind my back in an armlock. A bit freaked out (but not nearly as freaked out as I should have been, with hindsight), I channel the spirit of Sarah Connor (from Terminator 2, when she’s a buff warrior and mother of the rebel leader of the human race).

In a calm, steady voice, I say, “If you don’t let me go right now … I WILL kill you.”

He let go. And he never did ask me on a date. (Bummer.)

Food service warriors, unite!

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

My role model in food service: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2

It turns out, working in the food service industry prepared me in unexpected ways for life’s challenges, in much the same way that Sarah’s experiences in Terminator 1 prepared her for kicking ass in the sequel. I started out unsure of myself, lacking in confidence, much like Sarah, who says at the beginning of the first film:

“Come on. Do I look like the mother of the future? I mean, am I tough, organized? I can’t even balance my check book!”

What did I learn?  For starters, I learned what an armlock felt like, so it wouldn’t be shocking the next time a co-worker performed one on me. I also learned never to take a job that required restrictive clothing, in case a cyborg (or Monsanto) came after me and I had to escape.

I even had my own sequel: the following summer I got a job waitressing at a family restaurant in Northwood, Ohio. However, I only lasted a month before being felled by chicken pox. They asked me to take some time off  — apparently plagues are bad for business (see earlier post about Chi Chi’s Restaurant and hepatitis).

I never returned to food service after that, but I learned enough to last a lifetime. And I’m confident those lessons will serve me well when the machines, the corn-worshipping fundamentalists, or Monsanto try to take over the world.

Actually, Monsanto has already taken over the world. I’m forming an army. Let me know if you’d like to enlist.

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