“Diner 1” (2007), by Yana Dimitrova
Lard Have Mercy
By Chris Offutt
Restaurant jobs are notoriously easy to get—you just walk in and offer to work. There’s often an immediate opening because food workers are by and large an unreliable bunch. The cooks are drunk, the waitstaff is flying on stimulants, and the dishwashers are stoned beyond speech. Waiters and waitresses are a sexually adventurous population. This is due to their general youth, the high-pressure work environment, and a severe lack of job fulfillment. After hours, you may as well get drunk and take your clothes off. Sadly this general trait didn’t cross certain lines—when I was a dishwasher, no waitress would deign to have sex with me.
Three years into my food career I dated a waitress who worked at the same restaurant as I did. We were both twenty-five. Between drinks, hangovers, work shifts, and sexual escapades, we planned the kind of restaurant we’d eventually open. It would be small, ten or twelve tables, a hybrid of old-timey diner and cool French café. We’d call it The Palette. The menu would be an oval with a hole in it—like a painter’s handheld palette. Best of all, the name of our imagined place had a double meaning: palate or palette!
Restaurants are intensely competitive, and a memorable slogan enhances repeat business. Before we came up with a catchphrase I got fired for insubordination and the waitress broke up with me to keep her job. We both left the restaurant business and thirty years later became Facebook friends. Her posts reminded me of how irritating she’d been, the frivolous outrage, fatuous prattle, and unending complaints. I unfollowed her but kept her as a friend. Perhaps if that were possible in real life back then, we’d still be together. Then again, in my mid-twenties I was a reckless wreck living under any number of self-imposed delusions. In her own way, I suppose she unfollowed me at age twenty-five.
Since then, I’ve made a study of restaurant mottos, still hoping to open my own place. These days I live near Oxford, Mississippi, a small town with better restaurant fare than you’d expect, due primarily to chef John Currence, who owns a few restaurants. Big Bad Breakfast is modeled after a diner, complete with a counter and stools. The name is a reference to local writer Larry Brown’s collection of short stories Big Bad Love, and the menu features clever puns based on the books of other writers. The place is affectionately known as BBB. Late in the evening at one of John’s bars, usually around last call, people refer to it as BB-BBBB-bbbbb-bb, trailing off like beekeepers falling asleep under sedation.
My only quibble with BBB is the menu’s former proclamation that breakfast is “served all day.” The place closes at 1:30 in the afternoon! What kind of clock are they using? Where did it come from? (At least it’s better than those cafés that tell an outright lie. As Steven Wright said: “I went into a restaurant. The menu said, ‘Breakfast anytime.’ So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.”)
Big Bad Breakfast sells t-shirts and hats at the cash register. Lately I’ve noticed that clothing is often referred to as “apparel,” a word that is Middle English, from Old French, based on Latin. It is a perfectly fine word but only used in advertising. Some stores refer to themselves as “apparel shops,” but the staff never utters the word to customers. From a semantic point of view, it reminds me of movie buffs using the word “film,” and comic book afficionados who prefer “graphic novels.” It’s a way to disguise one’s own insecurities and head off the judgment of strangers. I don’t sell t-shirts, I’m an apparel merchant!
The only time you hear the word spoken is in a Christmas song. “Deck the Halls” was a sixteenth-century Welsh song of Yuletide. (Perhaps the ancient pagans of Alabama shouted “Roll Yuletide” during solstice football games.) An early translation of the song involved quite a lot of drinking until the 1877 American translation trimmed out the alcohol and added “don we now our gay apparel.” No one knows the origin of fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. Even its meaning is unknown, along with the names of solstice football teams. Incidentally, the best sports name of all time is a Japanese baseball team: The Ham Fighters. I love their apparel.
Anyhow, Big Bad Breakfast’s official slogan is “Lard have Mercy,” and I own one of their souvenir t-shirts. Recently I began to consider the words more carefully. Could it be sacrilegious? How does the Lord feel about lard? Would God be annoyed that his power of mercy is used to peddle apparel? No, I concluded. The phrase is intended as funny, and one thing is certain: God has a sense of humor. Otherwise, where did ours come from?
“Make Biscuits, not War” is the official slogan of the Loveless Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee. This is appealing in a hipsterish kind of way, as a reference to the counterculture of the 1960s demanding an end to the Vietnam conflict. The catchphrase also suggests that preparing food is better than killing people.
All this is well and good until a close examination of the phrase yields difficulties. First, are war and biscuits the only two options? The slogan is very limited, sort of like 50 Cent’s rap album Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Me, I prefer a less extreme dichotomy, such as “Get a Raise or a Sore Throat Tryin’.” Back to Loveless Cafe and its motto of biscuits versus war. What if you are a cook for the military? You can’t request a suspension of combat operations while you make biscuits. Excuse me, Colonel, but will you cool it with the artillery—my dough is rising!
“Automatic for the People” is the motto for Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods in Athens, Georgia. It is also the name of R.E.M.’s eighth album, recorded in 1992. R.E.M. stands for “rapid eye movement,” a reflexive condition that indicates deep sleep, but the band members claim they picked the name at random from a dictionary. Probably a good idea, because the band’s second-choice name was “Negro Wives,” which may not have been as popular. But with that name, perhaps we’d have been spared “alt-rock,” which led to grunge, a style of music that ruined the wearing of flannel shirts for more than two decades. Mine still smell of mothballs from twenty years of storage.
Vernon, California, is the home of the Culver City Meat Company, with the slogan “You can’t beat our meat.” So much to ponder! Vernon is the smallest city in California, has no parks whatsoever, and bills itself as “exclusively industrial.” That is the oddest form of snobbery I’ve heard—a gated community for commerce. Nobody lives there but unbeat meat.
One of my favorite slogans is for Taylor Grocery in Taylor, Mississippi, located about sixteen miles from my house. It has the best fried catfish around, and I always get a double order of hush puppies. Their slogan of “Eat or We Both Starve” is charmingly personal. The use of “we” implies an intimacy between the restaurant and its clientele. There’s also a certain blunt honesty that I admire: the workers need money to live on and customers need a meal. But a more careful examination reveals a flawed logic. First, Taylor Grocery has a lot more food at their disposal than I do. They buy in bulk and have walk-in refrigerators, which means the employees will last longer in a starvation contest.
This reminds me of people who have theme parties, which invariably necessitate a bland slogan. “Be There or Be Square” has a cruel edge, inflicting a kind of emotional blackmail into attending because nobody wants to be square. I love the popularity of Evite, but not because it saves trees. As a writer I’ve destroyed entire forests of paper. (In fact, this essay took out a sapling.) The best thing about Evite is the latitude it offers for skipping the shindig. My computer was down, or Guess it went into my spam folder.
In general I avoid groups larger than ten. This may be the result of growing up in a community of two hundred people, or it could be that I’m just way too sensitive, the Appalachian King of Fragility. When insects die at the first frost, I cry like a baby. I’m like an ancient bauble that must avoid exposure to air, light, and the inane chatter of humanity. Bugs are better company for me.
The last actual party I attended was about ten months ago in Oxford. I wanted to stay home, but my wife insisted on going in my company. She understands the dynamics of group behavior that begins with warm greetings full of hugs and kisses. (Oxford folks are a kissing bunch, a cultural habit that never fastened on to me. I kiss my mother’s cheek, my wife’s lips, and upon occasion the upper pate of Jack Pendarvis’s head.) After the smooching, interactions move to simple questions such as How are you? and What have you been up to? My answers seldom venture beyond “I don’t know” and “I can’t remember.” Conversation quickly peters out, thank goodness.
The Mississippi Delta has produced my favorite excuse to avoid a party, the all-purpose phrase, I couldn’t make it. The implication is that you intended to go but something interfered—a flat tire, a family emergency, or the heat finally got to you. Usually there are no further questions. Oxonians are too polite to seek details, mainly because we tend to tell each other our personal business immediately after the kissing stops.
My wife and I arrived at the party, where I intended to spend all my time in a dark corner of the backyard. Unfortunately, the lawn was packed with people—nice and friendly, but definitely human and chatting—and I discovered the ideal way to endure a party. I spent three hours standing alone in the driveway, greeting the newcomers and bidding farewell to each departee, without any of the prolonged jabber and yak. I’ve never been happier! It’s not that I dislike people, I just feel better when they’re not around.
The only gathering that holds the slightest interest to me is a reunion of the Donner Party. Hi, your great-grandpa ate my great-grandma. So good to meet you! Imagine the single people who would hook up at such an event, fall in love, get married, and produce a slew of kids descended from cannibals on both sides of the family. They could open a restaurant with a clever slogan such as “Eat Meat to Honor the Donners.”
I once met a man who’d engaged in cannibalism. Tobias Schneebaum hitchhiked from New York to Peru, disappeared into the jungle, and was presumed dead. As it turned out, he was very much alive. He’d been taken in by the Harakmbut people, who participated in “ritualistic flesh-eating,” a fancy term for eating each other. Mr. Schneebaum was elderly when I met him, quite ill, and would die soon at age eighty-three. A former combat paratrooper was generously escorting Mr. Schneebaum about. I recall being quite enamored by the two of them, their intrepid and daring lives, while I was stuck with mine—father, husband, non-cannibal, killer of trees. The three of us sat on a bench near Saratoga Springs, New York. Mr. Schneebaum was slim and friendly, with a gentle smile. I’d been briefed on his youthful adventures and wanted desperately to inquire about cannibalism, but was reluctant to ask outright.
Instead I obeyed my Southern heritage by granting him the dignity and respect of age. As an anthropologist, he was curious about the hills of Kentucky. I showed him a lucky fossil I carried, and he examined it carefully. Mad-squirrel disease had lately been in the news, allegedly the result of Appalachians eating the delicacy of squirrel brain, and it seemed like a logical way for me to segue into his own jungle cuisine. Unfortunately, Mr. Schneebaum became overwhelmed with fatigue due to his illness. The paratrooper helped him to his feet, and they ambled away arm in arm. I watched them go, thinking about two cannibals who ate a comedian. One cannibal says to another: “This taste funny?”
How To Serve Man
Prepare it any way you like!
(The U.S.A. has no laws that prohibit the eating of citizens. Acquisition of the ingredients is the tricky part.)
Gustatus Similis Pullus
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