Recently some friends and I were discussing food we ate as kids, which made me think later that eating grits growing up is maybe why I turned out so southern. It sticks to you, know what I mean? If you’re from Montana and like to watch bronco busting, I’d suggest it might come from eating rocky mountain oysters as a youngster.
Some of the meanest Asian gangs? You ask ‘um. They all liked durian growing up like we liked watermelon. And if you don’t know what durian is, think rotting oranges and mangy, fly infested meat left in the topic sun for weeks… not that describes the taste, just its smell, that’ll make you want to puke. Who was the first person to actually eat that foul-stinking fruit?
But really each one of us can tell stories about our eats over the years. Food we’ve liked, disliked. Maybe not durian or grits or cow gonads, but there’s something – I guarantee – that you liked, that’s out of the ordinary, that speaks to your growing up years, when you were developing your tastes.
My dad owned an ice and coal plant in a small southern town in the shadow of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He had the contract to provide ice to Bragg for a number of summers and put me to work usually with Joe Petty delivering ice to mess halls on base. I was 11 or 12. I remember one mess hall we went to someone asked me once if I was hungry. “Yes sir,” I said and that guy gave me a hugely-packed bacon, onion and mayonnaise sandwich. There was black pepper and some bacon grease on the top… and I tell you what, I had never to that point in my life tasted anything that good. Ended up with a mayonnaise smile on my face… and my mouth would start watering every time thereafter when we got close to that place. That mess sergeant would see me and without saying a word fix me one of those sandwiches just to see the smile on my young face. I’ve tried to make this sandwich myself, but it never was as good, so I’m thinking maybe it was they were special onions, or maybe just good bacon. I don’t know. Maybe you gotta be riding on the back of an ice truck for it to taste good.
We didn’t go to that mess hall every day. Sometime Joe Petty and I delivered ice out to troops on bivouac and we ate at general stores out in the country.
We’d go in and prowl the isles a little, I always followed Joe’s lead – ‘cause Daddy would tell us before leaving the ice plant that Joe was in charge. He’d get Vienna sausage and crackers – or sardines or ham loaf or a hard-boiled egg or some pigs feet or pickled sausage or watermelon or a can of green beans and chips- and a big soda and I’d usually get what he did. I’d pay for both and we’d go out and eat leaning on the bumper of the ice truck, or sometimes sitting in the cab.
This was in the mid-50s and segregation was the unspoken law of the land. Joe being black, we never ate in a restaurant. I knew Joe Petty all my young life, and we spent hours together those summers on the ice truck. Never had a conversation I can remember. Joe just didn’t talk, but we were friends… and had some good meals together.
When I was in Vietnam as a platoon leader, there was a guy – Puerto Rican I think – named Castro, who used to carry a bottle of Texas Pete like stuff in his pack, plus he would have some green peppers hung off the back side of his suspenders. That guy could mix and match some regular ol’ C-rations, put in some peppers and whatever it was he carried in the Texas Pete like bottle, cook it a little bit, and that was mighty fine eating… Out in the boonies, tired of fighting the jungle all day, laying in my position for the night, trying to get up the energy to open some cans of rations… and Castro would come over bouncing his eye brows and motion to a spoon in a steaming canteen cup filled with some whipped together vittles, and boy did those couple or three spoonfuls taste great. He didn’t share with me more than three or four times like that, but my mouth still remembers…
In Laos had a job once where I was an outrider from Long Tieng, working with the Hmong village militia. Would eat lunch with village chiefs here and there… and they’d often kill a chicken for the meal, and being the guest of honor I’d get the head. Not that I’d ask for it. I’d sit down in the dark, smokey interior of the chief’s hut and one of his wives would serve me first. Va Xiong, my Hmong ops assistant said I had to eat it as a show of respect for the chief’s hospitality… but that was not good eating… and they’d usually serve some animal blood in a bowl, and I’m not recommending that either.
The meal there in Laos that was most talked about was prepared by an overland Chinese tribe in the south. They’d take a live monkey, cut off the top of its head and put it in a special cage in the middle of a table – so the stories went – and tribesmen would eat the brains before the monkey expired. Supposedly gave them energy. That was the story… though I never met anyone who actually saw this thing happening. It could have been a story that just percolated from drunken bar talk. Has that sound to it.
Like, back in the south, eating road kill. But now there was a guy near my home town who wrote a book on different ways to fix road kill. Book was quite the thing at Fort Bragg, but there Special Forces like to eat snakes, so you’d figure road kill recipes would sell. Probably wouldn’t do well in San Francisco.
There is a Road Kill Grill here in Vegas town, that should have unusual varmints on the menu, though items don’t get any more shanky than goat and buffalo and frog legs and rabbit. No possum, or squirrel, or buzzard, or alligator, or armadillo. How can you have a grill called Road Kill and not have possum?… Well for one reason, possum ain’t edible. Not even with grits. But it still should be on the menu… that’s your number one road kill right there.
As I’ve often said, one of my best friends growing up was a sergeant from the 82nd Airborne Division at Bragg. When he retired he went to work as a furrier, horseshoeing polo ponies and fox hunting jumpers out at rich Pinehurst, NC horse barns. Occasionally these sporting animals would break a leg and had to be put down. Cottonpicker, my buddy, always volunteered to do that… these were grain feed, well attended animals and Cottonpicker had no problems with dressing ‘um out, and bringing rich horse meat to our house. My sisters and I did not always welcome this. In fact, we thought eating horse meat wasn’t American… and we could taste something different in the hamburgers Mother made with the meat. I can remember one of my sisters saying that she would eat just one of those things but Mother had to promise not to tell any of her friends, ever. Mother said something like “One? You only going to eat one horsemeat hamburger? We got a whole horse in the fridge!” I think eventually the Joe Petty family ate most of that meat.
But now I did eat my share of venison growing up. There’s a long story of Cottonpicker and I going hunting early one morning out behind a NC state sanatorium near Camp Mackall. We parked pretty close to a Posted No Hunting sign – that we didn’t see, and eventually the Sheriff’s office was involved. I was at one time in the back of a Sheriff’s car, waiting on Cottonpicker, when I heard way out in the distance a single shotgun blast… and I knew it was in a lot of trouble… to finally out-wait the Deputy’s patience, and when released, ran into the woods in the general direction I heard the shot, and almost stumbled over Cottonpicker and the doe he had just shot. Doe!!!! We pulled that carcass to a road inside Camp Mackall and went back, got the car, then drove on the reservation, got the deer, drove home, dressed that sucker and had venison that night at Cottonpicker’s – feeling for all the world like Robin Hood.
My favorite meal growing up was Mom’s turkey a la king. I looked forward to Thanksgiving ‘cause I knew it would eventually bring that wonderful bowl of piping hot a la king stuff that I could ladle out on toast… and Momma would let me eat all I wanted. She made it with pimento and nuts and creamy sauce that had enormous body, and big chunks of turkey meat. If I had as much money as that was good, I’d be a rich, rich man.
Joseph our son is pretty damn handy around the kitchen and he makes me a big bowl of noodles with all kind of Thai fixings. Hot and spicy, and tasty. And Alma fixes a hybrid Mexican/Thai bowl of noodles that powerfully good.
Brenda’s still fixes country style steak that matches the best food any Las Vegas chief creates. I guarantee.
But the best food of all eats – that I’ve spent several hundred words getting around to – is Smithfield, North Carolina chopped pork Bar-B-Que. With hush puppies. And vinegar based slaw. And sweet ice tea.
It way better’n horse meat, and venison, and a State Fair hot dog… it is better than homemade ice cream and Grandmother’s pecan pie. It’s better than any monkey brains, or road kill, or grits.
To my mind North Carolina Bar-B-Que is one of man’s finest achievement. Man’s best eats. Especially good ‘cause it’s toxic to Muslims. And that makes me smile.