It’s Not Really Raw

I don’t like to use the word puke when I write, because some of you read this early in the morning while you’re eating breakfast. It’s not a very pleasant word at any time but, fact of the matter, it’s what I did and there’s no way to write this post without using it. You’ve been warned.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I’d like to tell you that it’s because I spend so much time reflecting on the blessings of the year, but I’m not that good. Oh sure, I will spend a few minutes in reflection when I see my kids and wife watching the “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”, huddled up snug on the sofa under three blankets because I won’t turn the heat on in November.  It’s a beautiful sight. What I really like about Thanksgiving is the four-day weekend, spending time with Leah and the kids, and the food. Oh my word, the food.

Thanksgiving was always a Nana and PawPaw holiday. All of their kids and all of my cousins would descend upon their house for the day. There were years that Nana tried to escape to Gatlinburg or to Cherokee, North Carolina, but we always found her anyway and descending we would go.

I don’t know why she was such a good cook with the simple things, but she was. Biscuits, gravy, cornbread…she had every staple in her wheelhouse. I promise you, she could slice a tomato and it would taste better than the tomato that you sliced. It was crazy, really. She had this way of making cornbread that I wish I had paid closer attention to. It was good without butter! That’s crazy talk, I know, but butter actually took away from the flavor. It was almost a shame to see her cornbread crumbled up for use in her dressing, but the magic that happened there was spectacular.

I wrote a post a few years ago, Well Bless Your Heart Ma’am, that didn’t really sit well with some people. It wasn’t meant to offend anyone, but I guess it did anyway. If you want to offend a southerner this Thanksgiving, compliment their “stuffing”. They’ll be nice and say “thank you, it needed more sage, but I’m glad you liked it” while on the inside thinking, well bless your heart.

Dressing is cornbread and some dried out pieces of french bread or loaf bread mixed with celery and onions, sage and thyme and other spices,  eggs, giblets and livers (that’s what you do with those, in addition to the giblet gravy), and some chicken broth. Some people add proteins, like sausage or oysters, but that’s optional. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve always been told that it’s okay to eat dressing “raw”, that is, after it has been mixed up in a gigantic pan, but before it is baked in the oven. After almost 20 years, Leah has stopped giving me a quizzical look when I walk in to Aunt Pat’s house, put whatever we brought on the counter, and ask “where is the raw dressing?” It’s always in the refrigerator.

I can remember years when Nana didn’t save enough raw dressing, and those who arrived late didn’t get any. That’s a downer. You stand for hours at the refrigerator, trying to hope a small bowl of raw dressing in to existence. Then PawPaw would say “close that door and get out of this kitchen, you hophead!” At that moment, you wondered what a hophead was and you vowed to be the first one to arrive at their house for Christmas, even though you were 11 and had no actual control over that sort of thing.

I promised to use the word puke but then I went off on a dressing tangent. The puke came from the pecan pie, but I never made it to dessert in this post, so you were spared. Such is the danger of Freestyle Fridays. I could talk about dressing all day, I guess. I’ve got a friend that makes oyster dressing. My brother-in-law visits his wife’s family in Louisiana where, I suppose, they make some voodoo dressing that will take three years off your life. They’ll all be posting photographs on Facebook at Cornbread Smoke. If you’re particularly proud of your dressing this year, or if your dressing ends up being a goopy disaster, send us your pictures! We’d love to see what you created!

If you’re eating stuffing, well….

Have a great a weekend and a very happy Thanksgiving! And if the turkey is dry, love ’em anyway!

It Was a Small Town

It was a proud moment when I looked at a map and found it, a small little dot north of Birmingham with the words “Tarrant City” next to it. Most maps didn’t recognize it existed. I guess there were people around that didn’t recognize it existed either. It was a small town by almost any definition of the word small. With a population of around 2,000 people, most of who knew each other, it seemed more like a large family.

But exist it did, with schools and drug stores and beauty shops full of gossip. If those beauty shop women hadn’t heard anything, they’d tell you something they THOUGHT they heard. If you wanted men gossip, you had to go to Jack’s in the morning, any morning, and just listen.

There was a quirky street sign that asked you to be “Quiet please. Sickness in block”. That sign was up my entire childhood and through my college years. For all I know, that poor soul is still suffering just beyond the top of Mountain Drive.

It was just a working class town, full of mechanics, firemen, policemen, teachers, truck drivers, plumbers, and preachers. Heaven above did we have the preachers, and we had a church for every one of them. I’ve never seen the number, but I’d guess Tarrant had more churches per capita than any town of any size in the state. The Methodists pretty much just went to Rock Methodist, or The Rock, as it was called. There was a Methodist Church on Ford Avenue, I think, but I don’t know anyone that went there. From that location, though, they were probably in and out of the Tarrant Coffee Shop before any other congregation adjourned. The Baptists, as Baptists do, couldn’t agree on much so there was First Baptist, Central Baptist, Boyles Baptist, Mt. Calvary Baptist, Springdale Baptist, the brick one on Jackson Street at Jefferson Boulevard – Plainview maybe, the one over near Fulton Avenue with the bells that played on the hour, and probably some others that I’m forgetting. There was a Church of Christ and a Church of God, but I don’t guess I met a Catholic until I went to college.

Anybody from Tarrant can tell you where they were when the tank exploded. I was in Mrs. Burchfield’s 8th grade class, sitting across from Keith with my back to the window. Keith was wearing a crimson Alabama jacket and, when the tank that held excess gas produced at the ABC Coke plant exploded, his face turned as deep red as his jacket. That’s where I was when the tanked exploded. Incidentally, it was that same year that painters were painting the outside of the school. A painter tried to toss a roller up to his partner, who was at the top of the ladder. The guy on the ground must have been a terrible aim because, instead of getting the roller up to his partner, he threw it through the window of Miss Layton’s second floor classroom. The window pane shattered and scared us to death. I think a piece of glass cut Stacey’s arm, but we weren’t a litigious lot. She just put a band-aid over the cut and that was the end of that, at least as far as I could tell. I’m sure Mr. Graham, the principal, had a few suggestions for the painters. He was a good man, Mr. Graham.

Friday nights in the late summer and fall were for high school football and, in Tarrant, it was an experience unlike most others.

Our football stadium, and I’m using the term “stadium” loosely here, was surrounded by neighborhoods. We would park at my grandmother’s house on Hanover Street and walk to the stadium, passing the Horton’s house where my dad played as a kid, Uncle Billy and Aunt Dean’s house where my dad fought with his cousin Bobby as a kid, and a host of other houses where we’d stop and talk along the way.

Once inside the stadium, well, that’s where this post really starts.

After the teams warmed up, the band – the Tarrant Blue Regiment – would march from the south end of the field to the north end. Tradition, I guess, dictated that the drum major would lead the way – blowing a whistle on the one and the two, with the drums adding some funky beat on every fourth count (that may not be the right terms, I don’t know music). Behind the drum major marched the majorettes. That’s where I focused. Marching with their batons and wearing swimsuits made of blue, white and gold sequins that shimmered under the stadium lights. I know more about music than I know about women but, as a 12-year-old boy, I didn’t see how it could get much better than that.

The order of the program didn’t change much through my high school years. Once the band took their place in the stands, one of the town’s preachers would lead to audience in the invocation. After that, the band would play the national anthem and then, for good measure, the team would kneel and say The Lord’s Prayer together. You could tell a person’s denomination by whether they said “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever” or “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever AND ever”. It seemed the Methodists were content with leaving it at “forever” while the Baptists added “and ever” for a little extra emphasis.

After The Lord’s Prayer, the final item on the pre-game agenda was for the team to run through a giant paper sign that the cheerleaders made. To this day, one of my favorite high school sports traditions. I like a good paper sign with a witty saying. Anyway, hours of cheerleader work decimated in a matter of seconds.

As a player, your attention is supposed to be on the game, but there was a show going on behind us in the stands. Hollywood’s dad brought an airhorn to the game and, whenever our team made a play – or needed to make a play – Mr. McGraw would blow the horn.

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNK!

It would’ve been okay with me if he blew the thing a little more, but I’m sure those people around him disagree with me.

My granddad came to a lot of the games. If my brother or I ever made a play, he’d stand up and yell “that’s my grandson!” Once, I tossed the ball to Quinton, who made a nice run. My granddad stood up and yelled “that’s my grandson!” Bud from the hardware store said, “CT, that was Quinton.” Undeterred PawPaw just said, “well, he’s my grandson, too!” And that’s how every player on our team became CT Labore’s grandson.

Aside from the personalities in the stands, I don’t suppose the actual game was much different from the one playing out at high schools across the country. Coaches coaching, players playing, cheerleaders cheering, fans fanning, band banding.

One thing that I remember, in this time of kneeling during the National Anthem, was the lowering of the flag at the end of the third quarter.

Immediately after time expired for the third quarter, before teams switched sides of the field and held up 4 fingers, before bands geared up for the home stretch with their school’s fight song, everyone would stand, remove their hats or their helmets, and face the flag. Even the kids playing smear in area beyond the south end zone would stop, for a moment, stand still, and watch.

Then, as a lone trumpeter played Taps, someone would slowly lower the flag. As the music haunted the stadium, you could’ve heard a pin drop.

It was a special time. Right there in the middle of second half hysteria, we took a moment to stop and remember. Nowadays – and even then at a few schools we visited – we just go home at the end of the game with Old Glory still flying.

I know that times change and old ways get replaced, but I think we’re losing something when we don’t pause to lower the flag.

As the trumpeter finished and the flag was safely lowered without touching the ground, Mr. McGraw would blast the air horn and the band would strike up the Tarrant fight song, and so the fourth quarter would begin.

It was a small town. It was home. I suppose, in a lot of ways, it still is.

#BringGravyBack

Eighteen months ago, I shared with you a secret of sorts that was so awesome that I felt guilty keeping it to myself. Since then, I have received tweet after text after email saying, “MAN! You were right about the chicken biscuit and gravy at Chick-fil-a! Outstanding!”

It is with great sadness that I report that the Chick-fil-a chicken biscuit and gravy is no more. Two people in the last week have told me that, when ordering the chicken biscuit and gravy at our local Chick-fil-a, the extremely friendly and polite person behind the counter explained that CFA no longer has sausage gravy so, therefore, making a gravy biscuit was impossible.

I wonder if this is a store decision, or a CFA corporate decision. I imagine stores are free to decide if they have little flower arrangements on each table and are free to decide where to get the little flowers, but food items are probably corporately sourced. I mean, you can’t have thousands of kitchens across the country set up the same but preparing different menu items. There has to be a process and space allocated in the kitchen for heating gravy, so it’s got to be a corporate decision, right?

It makes more sense that it would be a corporate decision because, as I wrote in May of 2016, I never, ever, not one single time received a proper chicken biscuit and gravy at an Atlanta area (which is to say, Georgia) Chick-fil-a. I always just received a regular chicken biscuit with a side of gravy. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the CFA corporates never experienced a proper chicken biscuit and gravy and, therefore, didn’t understand the ramifications of removing sausage gravy from the food items available to its stores around the country. There’s a  lesson to franchisors and franchisees about the importance of consistency from location to locations here, and the loser is the customer.

Someone told me that CFA has introduced some type of hash brown breakfast skillet bowl, which sounds awful and like they’re trying to compete with KFC. I will not order it. I will not. Cannot. Quite honestly, this throws my whole CFA breakfast order in to disarray and, on Saturday morning – after 5 straight days of disarray – I don’t want the hassle of a breakfast order in disarray. I’ll just eat a frozen waffle and save the $25 it would have cost me to feed my family of four breakfast at CFA.

All that to say, keep ordering the chicken biscuit and gravy. Don’t let it be forgotten. Order it every time you go in for breakfast, at every location.

Maybe, just maybe, if we keep ordering it, a seed will be planted and that seed will become a tree. The tree will become a forest and, someday, the CFA corporates will see the forest and think, “hey, that’s a good spot for a CFA” and they’ll cut down more trees than necessary to built the building and parking lot and, when they do, in the heart of the tree, they’ll find gravy. And that will be their sign to #BringGravyBack.

Or, if we keep ordering it, maybe the franchisees can band together and tell the corporates that people ask for gravy all the time. We ask politely, and acknowledge that we know they don’t have gravy, but we will not let the chicken biscuit and gravy go quietly.

Interesting side note, at what became the original Chick-fil-a location in Hapeville, Georgia, you can still order items from the classic Chick-fil-a menu. Honest to goodness french fries, not waffled potatoes or whatever they’re called. Carrot-Raisin salad, the cole slaw, etc., etc. I don’t want to have to drive to Hapeville to get a chicken biscuit and gravy.

So go, have a great weekend. Order it anyway.