The Queen of Comfort Food
By Jim Keogh
(Excerpt from CLARK Magazine Fall 2012; Watch a video with Annie)
Annie Jenkins has been filling Clarkies’ bellies for 25 years. They fill her heart.
“I hate making pancakes! They’re just an all-around hassle.”
“Hey Annie, you’re not supposed to boil them, you know!”
Annie Jenkins looks up from the grill at the guy wearing the NStar T-shirt and grins. He’s just delivered a good line, and she knows it. In fact, she would have been a little disappointed if he’d kept silent. Mr. NStar is a regular, and the regulars like to zing Annie a little because they know she’ll give as good as she gets. Earning Annie’s attention is part of the game.
Still smiling, Annie goes back to tending her mound of home fries. She’ll return fire later, maybe even tomorrow. There’s always time.
It’s just another morning inside the nook at the corner of Main and Downing streets known as Annie’s Clark Brunch. This is not the priciest real estate in Worcester, but its value to Clark University and the surrounding neighborhood is immeasurable. The place has been a diner under a series of owners dating back to the 1930s, a destination for generations of students, professors, cops, construction workers, and the stray person who wanders in off the street with no money and a look that says he hasn’t eaten in a while. Annie feeds them all.
“I never say no to somebody who’s hungry,” she says. “If they don’t have any money — feed ‘em. If they’re hungry — feed ‘em. I won’t turn somebody down. If you’re hungry, you eat. If you’re a Clark kid waiting for a check from home, then just eat. You’ll be back. Pay me then.”
Dozens of photographs of Clark alums with their arms slung across Annie’s shoulders don’t merely decorate the wall, they seem to buttress it. The people in these photos are her customers, her audience, her friends. Some consider themselves her surrogate children. She’s attended dozens of alumni weddings, and if she can’t make one, the couple is sure to send a picture of the happy event. These photos represent lots of good times celebrated by lots of Clarkies whose collective DNA probably bears the trace of an Annie Jenkins tuna melt.
A Worcester girl, Annie did a lot of things at a young age: got married young, had kids young, went to work young. There were jobs processing purchase orders at the Worcester School Department and selling neckties at Tie Plaza in downtown Worcester. She enjoyed her time as a buyer for specialty clothing stores.
In the mid-’80s Annie lost everything in a fire. It was a rough time; the marriage was going bad and would soon end in divorce, and she needed steady employment. In the summer of 1987, a couple of friends, brothers Billy and Arthur James, asked Annie to work at a diner they’d bought called Wendy’s Clark Brunch (named for the previous owner).
“It was great because it was within walking distance and I didn’t have a car. I came here at eight when the kids went to school and worked until two or three and was home by the time they got out of school,” she recalls.
She started as a waitress, but the James brothers taught her to cook on the grill and soon she was opening on Saturdays. Her daughter Megan would come with her on weekends to cut potatoes and wait on the customers who crossed Main Street to Wendy’s after Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Church.
Annie met Jerry Jenkins in the late ‘80s. He owned a landscaping business, and he and his crew chowed down at Wendy’s every morning. Jerry was a big guy, a Harley rider with a long salt-and-pepper beard tumbling down his chin. He was 17 years Annie’s senior and liked to party, but that was, Annie notes, “B.A.” (Before Annie).
They fell in love, moved in together, and had a notion to buy Wendy’s from the James boys, who were looking to sell. On March 25, 1991, with the help of a loan from Jerry’s father, Charlie, they signed the deal and took ownership.
Annie and Jerry’s love affair endured, and included marriage in 2002. (On the wedding license, Annie insisted her occupation be listed as “hash slinger.”) In those early days, the now renamed Annie’s Clark Brunch was a seven-day-a-week commitment. Jerry did a lot of the cooking at home — stirring up pots of chili, soaking beans for pea soup, barbecuing pulled pork.
“He made steak and eggs on Sundays, and the students loved it. And this just wasn’t a steak — it was a STEAK!” says Annie, who often ends her sentences a few decibels louder than she begins them.
To watch Annie in action is like witnessing a kind of ballet, only with more shouting and tattoos. In the narrow space behind the counter, Annie, in her signature black tank top, works the grill, pivots and spins to avoid her waitresses, balances plates weighted with three-egg omelets or slabs of meatloaf, barks out orders, and vies for precious square footage with Megan, who does most of the heavy-duty cooking in the back kitchen. (“She’s the face; I’m the hands,” Megan says of their roles.)
Annie accomplishes all this while keeping up a running dialogue with her favorite customers; her views on the issues of the day spill forth without apology and sometimes in language that’s saltier than her bacon. Over the years, she’s built a certain expectation among the regulars, who come for the food but stay for the show.
“Did you read the story in the paper this morning about the woman who went to Mexico and got a tummy tuck, liposuction and a boob job for eight grand?” Annie asks. “I’m gonna put a cup out for donations so I can go.”
“Here’s your first donation,” says a regular as he tosses a crumpled dollar bill on the counter.
“Go away,” she quips. “I’ve got a BIG KNIFE.”
Annie’s Clark Brunch isn’t officially annexed to Clark, but it’s close. The University purchased the Main Street building in the late 1980s and is Annie’s landlord. “Best thing that ever happened,” she says. Alongside Annie’s are other popular Clark food hangouts like Acoustic Java, New China Lantern and, one street over, Fantastic Pizza.
Her Clark family is precious to her. Annie refers to the Clarkies who frequent her diner as “stockholders.” One of the most devoted, research professor Cynthia Enloe, even has her own stool bearing a small plaque that reads, “Diva Mensch Rock Star Goddess Endowed Stool.”
“I tell them, ‘Your dividends will be coming soon, gentlemen,’” Annie laughs. “And they say, ‘Our dividend is you being here.’”
Student and faculty stockholders have even been known to pop behind the counter and help out at particularly busy times.
“One really crazy day I turned around and there’s [associate professor of chemistry] David Thurlow putting dishes in the dishwasher. I said, ‘PROFESSOR!’ and he said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing, Annie.’”
“I remember that day,” Thurlow says. “Annie’s crew generally manages quite well, but that day I thought if someone were to just do a few dishes, then everyone could catch their breath and carry on. It was just a nice feeling to be able to offer them a bit of help.
“I’ve been eating breakfast and lunch at that diner several times a week since I started teaching at Clark in 1985,” he continues. “Her patrons share great food, fun times, and Annie’s motherly love — and when necessary, tough love. Whether it is a bewildered first-year student, a university president, or a Harley rider — in Annie’s eyes they share one thing: they all need her TLC, and she’s ready to give it.”
And that TLC is returned. When Jerry died in February 2011 of complications from diabetes and coronary disease, Clarkies from all over the country traveled to St. Peter’s for the service.
“It was packed to the brim; Monsignor Scollen gave a beautiful service,” Annie says. “You know, Jerry loved to cook for everyone — I just sold what he cooked.” She points to the tattoos decorating her torso, and notes that Jerry’s ashes were used to make the ink in two of them, including a wedding poem he wrote for her that works its way across her chest in his handwriting. “Now, Megan does the cooking. He taught her well.”
Laurie Ross ‘91, M.A. ‘95, assistant professor of community development and planning, discovered Annie’s after arriving at Clark in 1987. She and three roommates lived in an apartment above the restaurant “and were there just about every day for at least one meal,” she says. The weekend she and husband Jeffrey Black ‘91 got married, they made sure to stop in at Annie’s one last time before heading off to Connecticut to tie the knot.
“Going to Annie’s was like going home and asking mom to make you a tuna sandwich or some eggs,” Ross says. “So before we got married and people came back to Worcester to hang out with us, it seemed very appropriate to go get a chili cheese omelet!”
On a steamy summer morning, Pat Hassett, Clark’s retired athletic director, follows her weekday ritual of fueling up at Annie’s before making her customary eight-mile trek around Worcester.
“I’ve been coming here since I was eight years old,” Hassett says as she sits at Annie’s counter. She recalls the days well before Annie when her mother would bring Pat and several of her 15 brothers and sisters to visit an aunt in Main South. “This isn’t just a place to eat, it’s a place to talk. It’s a real community.”
A photographer is snapping Annie’s photo for this story, and she’s not happy about it. She’s never minded posing for a quick group shot at an alumni wedding, but all this personalized attention is a little too much. Besides, the regulars now have some new ammunition.
“Hey, if I’d known you were going to be on camera, I would have worn a tie,” says a man at the counter.
“They from Playboy?” asks another.
And so on …
Annie likes the sunlight, especially in the early morning when it rises over the St. Peter’s rectory across the street and floods her diner. Good things happen during daylight hours. She once toyed with the idea of opening late into the night, but reason won out. “Why would I want to deal with drunks,” she asks. “Dealing with their hangovers is bad enough.”
In 25 years, some things have changed. Vegetarian meals weren’t even an option when she started. And who ever heard of an egg-white omelet? Today, she reserves an area on the grill strictly for veggie dishes (“No meat has ever touched it”), though she’s skeptical of someone ordering a yolk-less omelet, but with cheese and bacon (“Come ON!”).
Sometimes, the changes make for a good story. By way of explanation, Annie points to a yellowed newspaper clipping on the wall in which a Clark student badmouthed her diner to a reporter — nasty stuff about yellow lettuce and obnoxious customers. She then reaches behind the counter and pulls out a grease-stained guidebook to New England and flips to page 231. In it is a listing of Worcester’s best diners, with Annie’s featured prominently among them. Both the newspaper insult and the flattering guidebook profile were delivered by the same Clarkie, now an author, about a decade apart.
“Enclosed is a little bit of payback I’ve owed you for the last 10 years,” he wrote in a note that accompanied the book. “I hope I’ve finally managed to redeem myself for that first misguided review. I miss your place, the people in it, and would like to say thanks for a pile of excellent memories.”
“How about THAT?” Annie marvels.
Of course, she would welcome him back any time. She’d even make him pancakes.