Chicken is the poor man’s meat, which may explain why it is so prevalent on restaurant tables in Tomahawk County*. When our schedules coincide, my husband and I like to meet for lunch at Brannan’s* Fish Camp, the tiny lunch shack in Traveler’s Joy* that clings to a steep canyon above a branch of Buffalo Creek. I ordered fried chicken on my first visit there and have never ordered anything else.
|The Cluck Truck, Union County, S.C.|
The first time FK introduced me to the place, having eaten there with fellow workers from his plant in the days before it closed, I was anxious that the whole place would go sliding down the cliff while we were in it. Instead, the whole place burned to the ground shortly before Easter two years ago, the result of a grease fire, and for nearly a year fleets of Duke Energy workers, line repairmen, street pavers, surveyors and tree-cutting crews driving heavy machinery had to be turned away from the blackened ruins when they showed up there for the $7 lunch special.
It was rebuilt at last, despite the owner’s misfortune in not having fire insurance, and while it isn’t any bigger, the dining space is lighter and cleaner, with one big room making it easier to shout across the tables at people you know instead of poking your head into dim, low-ceilinged extensions that made you feel like you were eating in someone’s crawl space. Everyone was concerned that the food wouldn’t taste as good in the new Brannan’s, considering that it would be cooked in new pots and pans, atop shiny new appliances. But our fears were unfounded.
|Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, slaw,|
green beans and hush puppies
My husband ranges over the comfortingly limited “meat-and-three” menu, ordering dinner steak on one day and pork chops on another, but despite the fact that I am resolved to sample other entrees, in practice I am never ultimately able to bypass the fried chicken. The chicken breasts served up are always succulently tender, with coating so crisp it snaps in your mouth. Hush puppies are heaped on top, although sometimes the kitchen serves cornbread instead. My husband isn’t fond of the cornbread but I think it’s just right – a little on the salty side, with a grainy texture and powerful absorption properties the better to soak up the pot likker from the beans. On Tuesdays and Thursdays pineapple-cheese casserole is offered as a side, although you have to order early if you want to be sure of getting this church-supper specialty before it’s crossed off the menu board.
Not long ago FK and I attended an exhibit in the town of Gaffney, which is located a fair distance down the mountain. The Mayor of Gaffney, Henry Jolly, Sr., is a well-known fixture in this county seat. Few of his townsmen know that his picture appeared in the Sunday New York Times in January, 2012, nor that he was interviewed by a reporter researching manufacturing operations in the south that had been shut down by presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital. The reporter had a hard time locating any of the 150 workers who were laid off from the scrapbook company that closed its doors in Gaffney in 1992, nor could she find any residents who remembered the plant. (In my opinion, that’s because so many plants in the region have closed down since that time that no one can keep them straight. I know this because I teach many of these unemployed workers. )
|You have to get to Brannan's* early or the popular 'vegetable'|
sides, like banana pudding, get swiped off the menu board.
('Cal' stands for 'Calabash-style,' or deep-fried, not 'California-style.')
Mayor Jolly’s quoted remarks struck some as sounding distinctly non-aspirational. “I don’t think we are special or any different from any other small community in the south,” he told the Times reporter, effectively negating the efforts of the Gaffney Chamber of Commerce to optimize this moment in the national spotlight and portray the town as exceptional (Severson). To my ear, however, Jolly’s comments sounded characteristic of a generation brought up in mill communities – humble and plainspoken people – cautious not to sound like one is ‘getting above his raisin’s.’
At this event in Gaffney, which honored figures from the region’s history as a center of the textile industry, Mayor Jolly was asked to say a few words. He recalled for the crowd that he had grown up in a poor family and as a junior legislator just starting out (this was fifty years ago) he was still very short of cash. At that time, a man named Riley* opened up a steakhouse on Tomahawk Road just south of Traveler’s Joy. Riley was always trying to get Henry, whom he had nicknamed not very benignly “Chicken” Jolly, to come over and try one of his beef dinners. He worked on him until he wore Jolly down; the young lawmaker eventually made his way up Tomahawk Road to the restaurant and ate his first steak. It was cooked to Riley’s standard of perfection, which meant on the living and breathing side of rare, with sauces and condiments strictly forbidden.
Eating at a dumpy Chinese restaurant in Shelby, North Carolina, one day recently, I overheard a story at the next table about Riley’s, a tale which may have been apocryphal except that it sounded about right for restaurant culture in Traveler’s Joy. One of the four diners at that table, an enormous man with an enormous voice, described going to Riley’s years earlier and ordering a steak. When it was brought to his table, he cut into it and saw that it was hardly cooked to ‘medium;’ more like barely cooked at all. He called his waitress over and told her to take the bloody thing back to the kitchen and cook it longer. She returned almost immediately, slamming the plate on the table so hard the juice splashed on his clean shirt. She told him, “Riley says it’s cooked fine!”
The diner did not receive a refund for the meal and more infuriatingly, he told his dinner companions at the Chinese place, Riley’s refused to reimburse him for his laundry bill.
My husband and I have never encountered anything but polite and welcoming manners from staff at that steakhouse and have certainly never witnessed any plate-slamming, although we have learned to order our filets a little on the ‘done’ side, in order to get them cooked through. When we first moved to town and were working like Trojans trying to dig ourselves out from the deep hole that was the Great Recession, we told ourselves to hold off going to Riley’s until we’d reached a certain milestone in earnings. It took us nearly two years to reach that goal, and when we finally treated ourselves to a big old steak dinner it struck us as funny that we’d waited so long, as it must have struck “Chicken” Jolly. While the food is first-rate, the restaurant itself is far from showy. The faux-leather chairs are patched with duct tape, the carpet is scuffed and the table linen is worn soft as bed-sheets. Like so much in this town, that suits us. We are more comfortable these days in surroundings where no one is working very hard to impress anyone else.
Even so, we draw the line at eating in certain establishments in the county. Sam’s All-Night Café is one such place, billed a little ostentatiously on its circulars as “The Pride of Traveler’s Joy.” A colleague of mine whose regular turf is Greenville and Spartanburg found herself far afield in our neck of the woods one day (looking for an auto-body shop, I believe, which makes a lot of sense if you read my previous post about vehicular recklessness in these parts) and stopped at Sam’s Café’ to pick up some coffee to go. Not only was this young woman, a habitual smoker, delighted to find a cigarette machine in the establishment, but the café itself was blue with the smoke of patrons puffing away on their tobacco products of choice. My colleague told me she was amazed to discover a restaurant that still encouraged smoking in this day and age. I told her she had clearly never spent much time in Traveler’s Joy, where life proceeds at least fifty years behind the rest of the planet.
Up on Shagbark Street,* at the modest home of our neighbors, the Gordons,* the glass storm door was kicked in some months ago. This is an all-male household, father and son being accomplished marksmen and hunters with a plentiful supply of firearms on the property, so son Mike’s* observation that it was lucky for the would-be intruders that no one was in the house at the time is not an exaggeration. Mike Gordon surprised me by seeming completely sanguine about the incident when I asked him who could have done such a thing. He was fairly certain that it was a case of mistaken addresses. Living directly behind the Gordons at the time was a man who worked as a fry cook at Sam’s All Night Café and who, according to Mike, ran a lively cottage industry selling purloined prescription pills out of his rented house. Competing dealers may have been warning him off, because the next day the cook disappeared without a trace. The Gordons were not happy about having to replace their door, but they seemed to accept some smashed glass as a fair price to pay for being rid of an undesirable neighbor.
I never heard how they coped at Sam’s without their cook, but I’m guessing most of the regulars didn't notice his absence.
Severson, Kim. “Town, Cast as Romney’s Victim, Says, ‘Huh?’” The New York Times 14 January 2012. Web.