A creature of tiresome habit, I played the discount lottery again Sunday, putting down $2 to obtain $264 in savings from the area’s foremost coupon delivery system, The Birmingham News.
As an extra bonus, some reporting. Our old friend Jeremy Gray scored a daily double by getting his story on the attempted copyright of the phrase “It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham” into two separate sections of the paper. On page three, Kent Faulk broke the news that Alabama can now save money on executing prisoners by cutting the number of drugs used in lethal injections from three to one. The big story on the front page? Chris and Idie Hastings are opening a new restaurant.
I think I had the pleasure of dining once at the couple’s first award-winning restaurant, Hot and Hot Fish Club, where the signature dish is a tangy tomato salad. Bob Carlton’s rapturous preview had me ready to sell some plasma to afford a trip to the new place, called OvenBird (because it’s the national bird of Argentina), until I read about its signature dish, called a Beef Fat Candle (because a burning tea light candle made of beef fat is part of the dish).
I tried the same trick once when the power went out by sticking a wick into a can of Vienna sausage and lighting it. The gelatinous goo burned for 26 hours, but I had to leave the apartment windows open for a week afterwards.
Humans are born dining out. Straight from the womb, we count on somebody else preparing meals for us, so it should be no surprise that we delight in restaurants to this day.
Believe it or otherwise, the Magic City was not always a mecca for mastication. When I was a kid, fine dining meant getting to push your own tray at Mrs. Todd’s Cafeteria. Shoney’s was a posh spot to take a date and, as God is my witness, in junior high school we once took a field trip to Joy Young’s Chinese restaurant downtown as part of our international curriculum in social studies.
I passed chopsticks with flying colors.
Nowadays, Birmingham is up to its haut in cuisine. We have not only an abundance of restaurants, serving everything from agua frescas to zuppa Caprese, but also some excellent food scribes scribbling.
However, to my mind, none can compare with the late Dennis Washburn, whose weekly Birmingham News column, “Dining Out,” set impossibly high standards for restaurant rhapsodizing. According to those published accounts, his daily food intake dwarfed Henry VIII’s and each dish was the best he ever ate. No superlative was too excessive to describe the wares of a particular eatery (unless his tab was not comped, we are told, in which case Washburn merely itemized what he had downed and gave a precise total of what he’d spent). He lavished praise equally on master chefs and parking attendants, exalted the lowly steer butt wherever it might be served, and always took home leftovers to his Peke-a-poos. Dennis served up flamboyant prose best read aloud and, like any great culinary artist, always left one craving more.
Gourmands and gobblers alike spend a prodigious amount of time in Birmingham’s fast-food restaurants, but I don’t recall a local food writer ever subjecting the presentation of a Big Mac to the same scrutiny a Snapper Provençale might receive.
Having spent years in drive-throughs, with a cholesterol count to prove it, I can attest that some fast-food joints are better than others. Some place a higher premium on speed, for example, and those tend, in my experience, to jumble orders and offer indifferent service. (Of course, if their haste results in my getting bonus fries out of the deal, scratch that carping.)
The quality of the food in such emporia tends to be the same, which is what corporations strive for, but a crucial difference is made by the intercessors, the people who take and fill the orders. I’ll come back every time to a place where I know the personnel will make the awkward transaction of drive-through dining agreeable.
I’m mindful of a bubbly lass at the Full Moon on Valley Avenue, the late-night crew at Arby’s on Seventh, pleasant folk at a Taco Bell on Crestwood, the breakfast lady at Mickey D’s near St. Vincent’s. If this column had stars to hand out, they’d all get some, and I’d save four for the unsung heroine of this true noshing tale.
A professional lady of no insignificant means pulled into an area Krystal and, once wedged into the drive-through lane, realized to her horror that she’d mislaid her wallet. Scrounging the glove compartment, the cup holder and furrows in the car’s leather upholstery for spare change, she had retrieved a handful of coins by the time she rolled up to the garish menu’s microphone.
“How much would it be for a Krystal and a small Coke?” she asked breathlessly, counting dimes and pennies as fast as she could.
“Well, the Krystal would be 82 cents and the Coke would be a dollar fifty-three,” came the squawkbox reply.
“What’s the total for that?” The professional lady was not at her best calculating under pressure.
There was a pause. “Two thirty-five. Plus, there’s tax.”
Even with a fistful of currency, the professional lady was short. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I haven’t got that much. I’ll just get the Krystal.” She rolled up to the window, mentally berating herself for having neither memory nor math skills, and handed over her hamburger money.
The lady in the window handed back a small paper bag and counted coins. Then, with a broad beatific smile, she gave the professional lady a penny back…and a free Coke.
That’s the sort of satisfying dining experience the James Beard Foundation ought to recognize. I just wish Dennis Washburn was still around to write about it.