Location: marengo, il, United States

Friday, February 18, 2005

A Hidden Cove

There are magical phrases in life that conjure up imaginative and picturesque images for some of us, like home-style cooking and road-house. The first one has been severely beaten to death by diners across this nation who seem to think placing it under their signs makes the food taste better, somehow.

The second one, to me, says pirates, so you know where my heart lays with these two.

Steak never impressed me much until after I married. My mother’s version of home-style cooking could have, for certain entrees of hers, gotten the woman flogged and thrown in a dungeon had she decided to go public with her stove. This was a person who bragged that when she backed her car, she hit the brakes only at the sound of breaking glass, and when standing in front of her hot stove, she cooked about the same way.

Pork chops came to our table as thin, golden-brown and shoe-leather-tough curls of meat. She alone invented deep-dish pizza, to my way of thinking, but till this day I have never tasted, nor has anyone outside the borders of my immediate family, anything to match it, nor do I ever want to, nor should anyone else; friends or even foes.

She made a version of chop suey that was literally to die from.

I always cringe now in supermarkets when I pass by today’s modern selection of bottled juices, especially if I see colors like light green or pale orange, because the woman bought herself a juicer one year, and for one longest, hottest summer, her children were subjected to a gastronomical form of child abuse that has still not come to light on today’s tell-all talk-shows. I don’t think we are ready for that much transparency yet.

But steaks -- I later joined the Marines where I learned they had the best food in the world, until the cooks got hold of it. One of their steaks would cover an entire metal serving tray. You had to hold the edges just so to keep your hands from getting burned or greasy as you walked over to a table to sit down. I ate one steak there and gave up. The world must be crazy, I thought, with all this hoo-ha about steaks, and I guessed maybe mom wasn’t that bad after all when it came to this one particular cut of meat.

But then I got married, and then I ate a steak my bride cooked. And then I fell madly in love.

Not far from the cave here at the edge of the swamp is a road house. The place sets on a small rise out in the middle of the woods. The road curves sharply as you approach the crest, and because of the lay of the land and the thick forest on either side, a driver is apt to miss the small, Tudor-style building.

It’s also a geographically unappealing spot for another reason, for the large population of our native deer chose this stretch of road as their favorite place to cross, and signs of failures can be seen along the wayside much too often.

But the man or woman who decides to stop here is in for a treat. Inside the road house is a well-stocked bar. The old couple that run the place have managed to survive a long marriage by him sitting on a barstool and entertaining guest with ribald stories, and her either waiting tables or broiling the steaks. In between her double duties, she stands and snarls in his direction a lot.

A proper road house requires only a few heavy, dark-stained wooden booths, separated by similar partitions. It needs to serve basic foods, such as meat and potatoes, and of course it must have a well-stocked bar. The old pirate and his first mate have supplied them all, and I would be willing to give out the most accurate directions to this tucked-away spot if I were not afraid of being turned away someday by a long wait outside their door, so I won’t disturb either my reader with such boring details, or the crusty owners.

So what does any of this have to do with anything?

I wanted to take the wife out Monday to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, so I said let’s go get a steak. Her eyes lit up at the idea. But who would think that the road house in the forest paid attention to customs around here? Truth being a strange one, the place is always shut on Mondays, so we waited until tonight to have our fun.

I managed to drive there without hitting anything, and I also was able to pull off the road at the juncture of hill-and-curve without being struck myself, but only then did we discover a dark building and an empty lot. The old buccaneer had left a note saying he took his booty to Florida for a month, and so there we sat, hungry and forlorn.

What to do, what to do?

How about the place over by (and here I whispered the name), I asked her. My sweet lovely agreed, so we drove a few more miles to a modern version of a steak house.

It turned out okay, although I missed the bawdy stories terribly.

But as the wife mentioned later, “At least your mom wasn’t cooking.”


Blogger Gone Away said...

Great posting, Harry. Apart from the steak hunger you induced in me, this is a beautifully written piece. And the idea of a diner owner just closing the place for a month while he goes on vacation really tops the whole thing off nicely. I love it! :)

5:53 AM  
Blogger Ned said...

There is a family-owned pizza parlor in town that closes for the whole month of July each year as they all go on vacation.

My mother was a great cook, but she had a similar idea on how to approach the cooking of meat. The idea was to overcook it to the point where nothing recognizable remained. I still prefer meat this way for some reason, delectable juices seeming to be somehow not "kosher". I never eat steak, the chewing just seems like too much work, for after I have ordered it burnt inside and out I could use it to re-tread my tires.

I'll just have the soup.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Harvey Young said...

Great story Way. My mother is really an awful cook (she does not own a computer so I can write this). I did not realize just how bad she was until I married my wife who is a wonderful cook. I don't care for steak, but your road house sounds like a neighborhood place that recently closed here. It makes me miss the place.

I love your reference to "Deer Failures"

Have you noticed a problem leaving comments on Blogger? I have had a devil of a time trying to leave a comment most days.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

There's no way anyone's mother is a worse cook than mine. I didn't even know that foods came in colours until I started shopping for myself; everything at our house was charred black until she just gave up cooking altogether and my family existed on frozen chicken fingers for the last 5 years. I haven't had a chicken finger since. I never tasted a steak until I was 20 because every food had the same taste and texture: burned black. Everything tasted like ashes, with no way to tell the difference between a pork chop and a chicken breast. Maybe this is why I am a slave to my kitchen, I cook all day to make up for the assault my poor taste buds took way back when.

Great story to have evoked all these memories for all of us!

11:23 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

Thank you, Gone. Ned, that's even understandable, and reminds me of the old saying in the South, "You raised to eat dog, you eat dog." Oh, wait; I already blogged about that deal. But I did mentioned the roadkill in this piece specifically to gag and keep stragglers away, as I'm convinced that even those so-desperate and hard-core of the Vegeterian sect would whimper and claim defeat, were they force-fed a single bite of the most tasty and chewably sweet meat on the planet that the old pirate's wife manages to prepares. Gosh darn it Charlene; now that's done went and made myself hungry again for the second time this week. See how you are, Nedders? In two days time I'm afraid I might be another fifty dollars poorer and at least a pound heavier, which will most likely upset my Gyro-scope as well as my friendly bank manager.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Your kind words have eased my conscience somewhat, Harvey. Torn between not wanting to write a comment longer than the original story, and that of seeing my name in print so often (and coupled with a faint hope that most people have short memories or either think Harry is a way-popular name nowadays, thus overlooking this ploy to attain high numbers), I so choose this second shot at a comment with an innocence of a child. Ah, swell peace of mind. Actually, the trouble with Blogger is on-going. If only we could send them our collective bad-cookin' mammas.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Mostly because of those thouroughly up-lifted sets of gorgeous and comely eyes, I shall now allow your mom to take the award from mine, Jay. Let's both hope my mom doesn't have a warm can of Coors in her hand at the time, though, or it could spell trouble for us all. So your mom is Canadian, eh?

3:00 PM  
Blogger Ned said...

In her defense, I must offer the fact that my mother made undeniably, the best hamburgers ever made on the planet. I have independent confirmation of this and can supply affidavits. There being no question of serving any meat with a hint of pink, she managed to somehow supply a burger that was uniformly the same color brown throughout, without even the smallest spot of charring and still produce the juiciest and most delicious hamburgers known to man.

7:01 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Mom did have her inspired times of culinary greatness too, but to make the story more effective required me to cast her in a ditzy light.

Well, she was sort of ditzy in her own way, but her shrimp goulash did command the whole family's respect. I wasn't kidding about the warm beer, though.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

It's funny (in a cute sort of way) that small town restaurants can up and close for vacations, but extremely annoying for those of us who are stuck eating our own cooking when they do.

10:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush is forever saying that democracies do not invade other countries and start wars. Well, he did just that. He invaded Iraq, started a war, and killed people. What do you think? How does that work in a democracy again? How does being more threatening make us more likeable?Isn't the country with
the most weapons the biggest threat to the rest of the world? When one country is the biggest threat to the rest of the world, isn't that likely to be the most hated country?
Our country is in debt until forever, we don't have jobs, and we live in fear. We have invaded a country and been responsible for thousands of deaths.
The more people that the government puts in jails, the safer we are told to think we are. The real terrorists are wherever they are, but they aren't living in a country with bars on the windows. We are.

2:40 AM  

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