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Edible Underworld

The cafeteria that time forgot.

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It's no good politickin' on an empty stomach. When the speaker starts carrying on about pork barrels, all you'll see up there is a ham hock with a gavel. Hunger can tinker with a lawmaker's ability to decide those important house bills; a wayward stomach, in other words, can reverse the flow of the great stream of Progress. One wrong gastric burble and — pow! — separate schools again.

Which is probably why, when the General Assembly is in session, there are two cafeterias available to the lawmaking peckish: the venerable Chicken's and that lesser-known food-service roost on the sixth floor of the General Assembly Building, the convincingly named Assembly Cafeteria.

Here's a state secret: The elevators are time machines. Because when you step off on the sixth floor, you'll walk into a cafeteria straight out of the Albertis S. Harrison Jr. administration ('62-'66), a sort of seafoam-walled estuary for the legal eagles of yesteryear. There's a window for ordering hot or cold sandwiches and, around the corner, a run of stainless-steel bars leading a tray past an assortment of juices and salads, hanging a right at the half-pound cheeseburgers, the barbecue, the fries, hanging another rosco at the surprising presence of Mr. Pibb in the soda dispenser, and to the register, where a stately $6.11 earns you a slab of roast beef, mashed potatoes and greens.

I also went for a sandwich at the window — some young professional women were thusly clustered and looked closer to the 21st century. I picked up a hot Tuscan panini for $6.94 and addressed the meaty assembly.

The staff was apparently trying to cover up the meat's service record: What they called roast beef was more pot roast, and it maintained an unimpeachable toughness. The greens died in subcommittee, and the house was definitely divided on the mashed potatoes: flakes or all-American spuds? The panini wasn't bad, though: tender roasted chicken, tomato, red pepper, lettuce, provolone. And a budget surplus of warm pesto, which brought a little order to the proceedings.

Come for the pesto, stay for the overheard conversations. The young women had perched nearby, and the discussion ranged from intolerance on university campuses to whether fish feel pain. About this point, I certainly wasn't feeling any. But then I wasn't feeling much of anything. The sheer density of the meal had called a recess on my mental resources. I was in no shape for legislatin'.

Which got me wondering: How do delegates make decisions that will lead us into the gilded embrace of the future when they've got a meat-brick in their stomach pulling all the blood from their brains? Once the elevator returned me to the present, I realized the solution: Buried further back into the past (somewhere around the 10th floor), inspired by the last great empire to celebrate excess. Like the Romans, we need, installed in all government buildings, vomitoria. Sic semper tyrannis!

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