Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Going Home, But Not Getting Far

As I posted previously, we road-tripped the Deep South this past weekend. Living in the undisputed capitol of the Mississippi Delta, we occasionally have to get out and visit some of the other micro-cultures that make up this wacky part of the country. As the hysterical Florence King wrote in Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady that those not from the South often make the error that all southerners are the same, regardless of their region of nativity. This could not be further from the truth. Although the movie and television industry is the worst offender, this stereotype is all-too-frequently depicted by those who just don’t have an accurate frame of reference. To compare, for instance, a Memphian and a denizen of Nashville (a Nashvillian, if you will, and come to think of it, I know a few Nashvillians) brings to mind the old joke about comparing Americans and Canadians. If you want to know the difference between the two, just call them both Americans. Or Memphians. Or Nashvillians, for that matter.

We left home and headed in a southeasterly direction. It was a bright Saturday morning, cool and crisp. The farmlands are mostly brown at this time of year, with the occasional flash of green where a field has been sown in a winter crop of greens or winter wheat. The ride was pleasant. The Norwegian drove so I was relegated to the role of disc jockey (serving up the best of Guy Clark, John Prine and friends) and Chief Cultural Minister. I pointed out the clumps of deer, water birds, low-perching predators, abandoned farm implements, weather changes and funny signs. The best one we saw the whole weekend flashed by too quickly in a rainstorm for me to capture. The sign said “Historical Marker” and its arrow pointed straight at a dilapidated single-wide mobile home, rusting on its moorings and attended by a fleet of, ahem, vintage automobiles in various stages of repair. It looked like Jesco White’s home, although we were in the wrong state.

We reached our destination – a small town in northeastern Alabama situated on the Tennessee River. At least one horrific battle was fought here during the Civil War, reputedly over access to the railroad spanning the bridge. The old town itself is drawing in on itself. There is still a lovely district of old houses and part of the original business district is still populated by the usual purveyors of gentrification—law and architectural firms, boutiques, specialty restaurants (an oddity here in the land of fried green tomatoes). The “modern” business district—and by this I mean Wal-Mart, Target, Kroger, Best Buy and the like—are situated out on the Beltline smack in the midst of what was, in my own childhood, farmland and woodlands.

One thing that hasn’t changed in downtown old Decatur is C.F. Penn’s Hamburgers. I’ve searched the Internet for links to anything about Penn’s, but there just isn’t much out there, save musings from expatriates who miss the…um, experience. My mother was one such person. By the time we reached her sister’s apartment, Mom was pretty much starving and nothing would do but that we go to Penn’s on Moulton Street in old downtown.

The Norwegian –who grew up all over the country, and Dear Daughter were curious. I was guarded. Been there, done that. These two had never experienced anything quite like lunch at Penn’s, and I just didn’t have the words to adequately explain it.

In a nutshell, C.F. Penn’s is a classic burger diner, and this one (there are a few scattered across north Alabama) features the original neon signage, twirling stools at the lunch counter, and probably the same frying grease they used when the place opened more than 50 years ago. Dear Daughter, having been raised in the “have-it-your-way” land of burger dining, started to tell me how she wanted her burger dressed. I laughed and stopped her. At Penn’s, there’s only two ways to have your burger—all the way, or half the way. Your only other options involve number, sides (chips or fries) and the size and flavor of your Coke (remember this is the South).

“All the way” or “half the way” refers to how far across the three-foot lake of sizzling grease you want your burgers floated. Yes, I said floated. Penn burgers are cooked in advance and are reheated when ordered by floating it from the right to left side of a commercial fryer. The time it takes to float “all the way” or “half the way” is all you get to get your lunch reheated.

This, by itself, is pretty disgusting (at least to me). But wait (as they say on late-night infomercials), there’s more.

When you collect your lunch, served on white bread buns and wrapped in waxed paper translucent with grease, and accompanied by a complimentary sheet of double-ply paper toweling, the best is yet to come. I watched Dear Daughter’s face across the booth as she unwrapped her burger. She prefers “ketchup. ONLY ketchup” on her burgers, and at Penn’s, they always come with mustard and chopped onions. She quietly scraped the offending onion and mustard off and picked up the squeeze bottle of ketchup to remedy the situation. The ketchup—apparently also original equipment—did not make her much happier. The kicker was when she took a bite. See, at C.F. Penn’s, the name “burger” is kind of a misnomer. The amount of actual “burger” in each sandwich varies from “some” to none, at least none that can be tasted. What burger is present is mixed with something approximating Hamburger Helper (which it doesn’t, really), then formed into, well, not really a conventional patty; more like a lump, then first deep-fried and then reheated in the Grease-Lagoon when ordered.

I don’t know whose face was funnier—Dear Daughter’s or the Norwegian’s. I don’t think either wanted to chew, much less swallow. Fortunately, we had ordered conservatively. No one asked for seconds, except my mom, and I was glad to give her the half I was unable to finish. Dear Daughter played with my cell phone while we talked and finished up our lunch and got ready to leave.

The service at Penn’s is friendly and unique, in the way that only a Southern diner can provide. We had a good time. It made my mother happy. I like making her happy. It made Dear Daughter grateful for what she gets back home, and it made her and the Norwegian laugh, although politely out of earshot of both my family and the staff. Later on, though, I found this message on my cell phone notepad. Apparently, Dear Daughter is not anticipating a career in reviewing restaurants.

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