Monday, April 6, 2015

If It's Monday, It Must be Roast Beef by Gail Roughton

Say you’ve decided to get off the Interstate and take a drive along some back country roads.  The road twists and curves through tree tunnels dappled with streams of sunlight, one leading to the next. Bridges provide passage over creeks and streams with fabulous names, names like Turkey Creek, Stone Creek, Dry Branch. Time’s gotten away from you, and the sun and fresh air and changing scenery have made you and your passengers hungry.  You look around but there’s not a McDonalds or a Wendy’s or a Dairy Queen to be found.  But if you’re lucky, there’s something better.  Something special.  Something a Burger King or a Taco Bell or even a Zaxby’s can’t even dream of touching. A small town country café.

Now, I’m a little more intimately familiar with the inner workings of such an establishment than most.  Whether  I consider that a blessing or curse depends on the particular memory recalled at the particular moment I’m reminescing.  See, back in 2006, when my husband Randy was a small-town businessman already running a combo small-town business in a store where one side was a Mom-n-Pop video store (this was before Blockbuster and Netflix pretty much slammed the lid on such enterprises) and the other side was the local laundry, the owner of a cute little restaurant by the name of The Courthouse Café decided to sell it.  Randy wanted to buy it.  I managed to delay the inevitable for a little while. “You’re already breaking your back to break even,” I proclaimed. “A restaurant’d just be one more thing to break your back over!” And he listened.  For about a year.  Until the day he called me up at work and announced he’d just bought it. 

Thus began one of those true love-hate relationships that you look back on with simultaneous feelings of fondness and true horror.  The Courthouse Café occupied a prime piece of real estate in Jeffersonville (aka J’Ville), Georgia – right across from the Courthouse and right beside the local grocery store.  Meals were served cafeteria style.  Judy, the head cook, stood behind the steam counter, spoons at the ready to dish out the patrons’ choice of one meat and three vegetables from that day’s menu.  It wasn’t called all you could eat, but with the amount of food hitting the plates, it might as well have been. Each day’s menu sported two meats and seven vegetables from which to make your choice, complete with either cornbread or biscuits.  Homemade.  With dessert (frequently homemade, though that wasn’t one hundred percent guaranteed).  And choice of beverage.  Soft drinks were available, but down here in this neck of the woods, most folks don’t even consider any beverage but sweet tea (and I do mean sweet) as an option with either lunch or supper.  Some folks even drink it for breakfast.  Pam, Judy’s assistant, kept the kitchen moving, threw more chicken in the fryer, fetched and toted.  Not only were the biscuits and cornbread homemade, no instant or frozen mashed potato would have dared show its face in that kitchen.

Lunch started cooking while breakfast was still leaving the kitchen short order style, frequently by means of the breakfast crowd sticking their head through the swinging kitchen doors and hollering out for two eggs, bacon, grits and a side of hotcakes.  Or two sausage biscuits.  Or whatever.  Big pots of vegetables simmered on the gas range, liberally seasoned with salt meat,  that staple of southern cuisine.  There was a set menu for every day, as dependable as a calendar.  Mondays were roast beef, Tuesdays were beef tips over rice.  Wednesdays were spaghetti, and Fridays were catfish. Every day was delicious, but Thursdays were always Thanksgiving.  Turkey, dressing, sweet potato soufflé, macaroni and cheese, broccoli casserole, peas, collard greens.  If you weren’t in the mood for turkey, you could have fried chicken.  Everybody was always in the mood for the dressing.  That dressing was ambrosia from Olympus.  Judy and Pam tried on occasion to substitute out the Thursday menu so it didn’t just scream “Thanksgiving!”  It never worked, though, not even in the high heat of the summer.  That’s what everybody wanted on Thursdays and that’s what everybody got.   

I formed the habit of leaving for work early enough to run into the backdoor of the kitchen.  First order of business was a hug from Judy and then a hug from Pam.  Or vice-versa, depending on who was closest to the door.  Then I’d head to the dining room and see who among the regulars needed a coffee re-fill.  Grabbing my own coffee, it was back to the kitchen, where I maneuvered to the grill between Pam and Judy, both of whom moved in an intricate ballet between grill, stove, and refrigerator, frequently in time to the black velvet voices of Southern gospel playing on the radio.  The best mornings were the mornings when they joined their voices to the radio.  I’d soft fry an egg, sometimes two, grab a big spoonful of buttered grits from the pot warming on the stove (hot, cooked, fine-grained corn based cereal not generally well-known outside the South and usually truly appreciated only by Southerners), and add several pieces of the bacon standing ready on a corner of the grill.  There was something so decadently luxurious about being able to just grab ready-cooked bacon, you know? 

Before I left, I’d fix my lunch.  Why not?  I was in a commercial kitchen, right?  Fried chicken salads, sometimes.   I’d throw some chicken fingers in the deep fryers and they’d be ready by the time I was done with breakfast.  One of the legendary quarter-pound hamburgers, maybe.  They re-heated just fine at lunch if they were fresh-cooked that morning on the grill.  The fixings for a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.  If there were no left-overs from lunch, then there was no supper waiting at home that night, but there most always was just enough for our suppers and  Pam and Judy’s suppers.  It wasn’t enough to save, and our customers didn’t expect re-heated food the next day.  We didn’t plan to ever give them any, either.  I can taste that roast beef, those beef tips over rice, that spaghetti sauce, that fried chicken, those hamburger steaks now. 

In the end, though, guess what?  Randy broke his back and didn’t break even, though that had to do with the economy that summer more than anything else.  The Courthouse Café was always packed. Customers weren’t the problem.  Gas skyrocketed to over $4.00 a gallon (the first time, I mean), impacting trucking and shipping with the force of a meteorite striking Earth. The potatoes we used went from $19.00 for 40 pounds to $40.00 for $40.00 pounds.  In the space of months.  The rest of the staples followed suit.  Between rent, food, utilities, payroll, taxes, we couldn’t raise the price of the plates enough to cover the costs of putting them on the table even though the crowds remained consistently large.  The Courthouse Café closed its doors for the last time on August 31, 2009.  A few hearty and optimistic folks attempted to start another restaurant in the building. They stayed only a few months each. Small restaurants are back-breaking, heart-breaking businesses.  Y’all remember that the next time you’re lucky enough to be in one.  Even so, in more favorable economic times – say, even the ones in which Randy Branan in a fit of optimism had purchased the thing – I’m pretty sure it would still be open.

But there’s one thing y’all should have figured out by now about writers.  We never waste anything.  We never forget any experience.  We remember bits and pieces of here and there, now and then.  And we blend those bits and pieces into things we hope will be as special for our readers as they were for us.

So, even though the Courthouse Café is no more, other than in these pictures scattered around, it lives on in another world. The e-book world. The Courthouse Café was the glimmer of an idea, the glint in a writer’s eye, that became as much an individual character in a certain novel titled Country Justice as its hero and heroine.  Y’all want to read the Courthouse Café’s full menus?  You can find them in the Country Justice. Y’all have any idea of what goes on the night before an anticipated visit from the Health Inspector? You do if you’ve read Country Justice. Right down to taking the kitchen fans apart and cleaning them with bleach.  Which, by the way, is one of those things I don’t miss. 

I hope y’all enjoyed this little tour of the two cafés, one real, one fictional, but both mine.  Keep an eye out.  There are still Courthouse Cafés scattered around the countryside to enjoy, right along with homemade biscuits.  If you’re lucky, you can find one now and then.  And if you don’t, well, there’s always the Scales of Justice Café.  All you have to do is drop in on Turkey Creek, Georgia, located within the pages of Country Justice and go set yourselves down at a table.  And coming in 2015, I’ll be revisiting Turkey Creek in Black Turkey Walk, the second in the Country Justice seriesSo y’all come back now, hear?  

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