ROBERT ST. JOHN: Prom season nothing like it was in my day



It’s prom season. Thousands of high school kids have been waiting years for their big night. Thousands of parents have been dreading it since their kids entered school. As the father of a 16-year old, 11th-grade daughter, who just fed 43 of her tuxedo-clad and chiffon-and-satin laced friends in our backyard, I speak from a unique perspective on this matter. I’ve got prom street cred.

Not only am I qualified in the father-of-a-prom-going-daughter category, but I have also been feeding promsters for 27 years at the Purple Parrot Café. Years ago, my servers occasionally complained about having to take care of a prom table – promsters tend to be a little unruly and often never order food straight from the menu, looking for cheaper more kid-friendly alternatives. It never bothered me. I love serving high school prom kids.

We opened in 1987, but missed the prom season that year. So if you were 18 and attended a prom in 1988, you are 44 today. That might be the median age of our current clientele. To me, proms have always been a way to earn future business. All of my employees agree these days.

The 21st century prom is an entirely different animal from the proms of my youth. The Junior-Senior High School Prom of today is a complicated, elaborate, and expensive affair.

First let’s have a recap of the previous weekend’s activities.

Throughout the week, the months of planning by parents began to come to fruition. Notice how I used the word “parents” in the previous sentence? That was fully intentional. It’s the parents that do most of the work these days. I speak from a unique perspective on this one, too, as my wife was the junior class coordinator for my daughter’s event, or as I have been calling her, “Prom Mom.”

A month out, a mad dash to reserve a “party bus” for the prom ensues. I am told that the parents of the boys handle this duty, which means I am in the clear until four years from now when my son will be a junior. The party bus that showed up at my house had colored disco lights, televisions, enough seating for 44 people, and a sound system so loud that the police were called to my neighborhood to see what was going on.

It costs thousands of dollars and – as best as I can tell – drives the kids around for a while before dropping them off at the dance, and then later drives them back to where their cars are all centrally located. A decade ago limos were the rage. In my day, I drove my mother’s Buick to pick up my date.

After boarding the party bus, riding around for a while and taking photos with their phones, the kids show up at the prom to meet other groups of kids who have been eating meals served by parents while taking photos on their phones. They walk into a grand venue that was beautifully decorated by – you guessed it – the parents.

The theme of this prom was Gatsby. Though this was not Fitzgerald’s Gatsby – this was Baz Lurhmann’s Gatsby. The theme was carried out to every minor detail, from the food and beverages served to the party favors given. Lighting, backdrops, table toppers – all to the last detail it was Jay Gatsby’s party brilliantly pulled off on Nick Carraway’s budget.

In my day I don’t even think we had a theme. I know we didn’t have a decorating committee, and if we would have, it probably would a been a few kids in the math club, certainly not a group of parents. The theme and décor of my prom was however the Hattiesburg Country Club was decorated at the time. We had the same theme the next year, unless they redecorated the country club over the course of that year, in which the theme would then be – whatever the newly decorated country club looked like.

The kids danced and took more photos on their phones. Once the dance was over, the party bus departed for a breakfast party where the kids would don a new change of clothes, eat another meal prepared by parents and take more photos on their phones.

The prom is over until next year. My wife, who has been MIA for a few weeks, is back and already talking about next year’s prom. “Yes, honey, but aren’t next year’s parents supposed to take care of all of this?”

“Well, we’ll probably host the dinner,” she said. Pray for me, please.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.

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