She likes to party. She really likes fried chicken. And she loves you. Anita Whitley has been swiping cards and taking names for 32 years. This week, she sat down with Street to talk about cooking, bopping and her famous yellow glasses.
What do you think of the dining hall food?
I think the dining hall food is great, some days.
Do you have a favorite thing that they make here?
Southern fried chicken. Macaroni and cheese. Cornbread. And collard greens. A whole meal. And a slice of cake for dessert.
Is that your favorite thing to eat just here, or is that your favorite thing in the whole wide world?
Here and at home. I wouldn't say in the whole wide world, but I really like fried chicken.
What would you say is your favorite part about working here?
I really like meeting people from all different parts of the world, 'cause I know I'll never get to that part of the world myself. I like to hear them talk about the different things that's done in their country, different from the United States. I like to hear about the different kinds of food they have in their country, and what they consider their main course or meal.
Have you seen the student body change in a significant way over those years? Are people more stressed out now?
They aren't as stressed out now as they were back then. These young people right now, they can deal with school, education, problems, anything that arises. Back in the day some of them could, but it was a lot of headache. They used to stand here and tell me about how they were tired. But these young kids now, they got it going on.
Are there particular students who you have become friends with over the years?
A lot of kids have heard about Miss Anita and they just want Miss Anita to swipe their card. They just want her to remember their name if she can. They fail to realize they've got one name to remember, that's Miss Anita. I've got about 6,700 names to remember. But there are a couple that I met when they came here to check out the school, and two years later they'd come to school here, and I'd say, "Is your name Lauren?" She said, "Yeah, I met you here about two years ago." And I say, "Yeah, I remember." There was one guy whose mother wrote me a note on piece of paper -- I've got the paper today. "My son is going to come through your line." And she did say what his name was, but his nickname was Zack. So he came through my line, and I said, "Hello, Zack." He said, "How you know that's my nickname?" "Cause whatever his name was, "Zack" is nowhere near it. So I told him about his mother and I showed him the paper. I told him whenever he gets lonesome he can come in here and read this little note that his mother left him.
You have an advice column in the Penn Dining newsletter, "Ask Anita." What were the questions that you got last year?
One guy asked me what would be a nice place to take a girl that he had met to dinner. I told him, why don't he bring her to 1920? (laughs) You can come right in the dining hall and you can sit right there in the window. That could be a love scene. Tinted window. Lights low.
You changed your glasses this year.
I'm going to get those back. I just got this prescription about two weeks ago.
So you'll be back to your signature...
...Yellow glasses. Yeah.
Do you have a lot of mouths to feed?
One. My daughter. She cooks for me now.
Is she a good cook?
Better than me. And she's a city girl. I taught her how to cook when she was about five years old. Her first thing was an egg. And she did good with it. And then she gradually got on up from the egg, and I would make sure she knew how to do the fire. I bought a microwave for her so she wouldn't have to turn on the stove. But can you imagine an egg in a microwave? Bacon in the microwave? Nuh-uh.
Are you from the city?
I was born in North Carolina. I'm a Southern girl. I was in the city part of my hometown, but a lot of my girlfriends lived on farms, and I used to go and spend the weekend with them. To me, it was a lot of fun. Going to feed the hogs, feed the chickens. Oooh, I loved it.
What do you like to do during the weekends?
I like to party. I like to go to cabarets. And my main thing is I loooove to bop.
Any advice you'd like to give to us students?
I love all y'all. When I see you on the street, it's really, really nice that you holler my name. Some people, they like, "Oh, that's just the lunchroom lady." But a lot of these kids, they don't look at it like that. They look at me as Miss Anita. And I really enjoy that. These are all the kids I never had. This is my family. When I meet their parents, I say, "You might have gave birth to them, but when they come through the dining hall, they are my kids, my babies." Back in the day, I named them 1920 Commons Babies. Just keep up the good works, and when you become famous always remember: Miss Anita says, she still loves you.