Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Tale of Two Pancakes

When I am on the road, the first thing I ask the front desk clerk at a hotel is: “Where is the best independent, locals-only restaurant that serves a good breakfast?”

I never miss breakfast when I’m out of town. While spending the morning in a local diner, one can learn a lot about a town or city, not to mention, have a good, non-chain breakfast.

A recent book-promotion event landed me in Nashville. During the late-evening check in, I asked the front desk clerk the standard where’s-the-best-locally-run-independent-breakfast-restaurant question. Without hesitation, he said, “Pancake Pantry.” Another clerk at the desk enthusiastically agreed.

The next morning I asked the front desk personnel on the new shift the same question. All agreed, “The Pancake Pantry.” While hailing a cab the valet asked where we would like to go, “The Pancake Pantry,” I replied.

“Lucky man,” he said, “I wish I were going with you.”On the ride over, the taxi driver gave us detailed instructions on the best time to arrive at the Pancake Pantry and which time of the day has the longest line. “There’s a line?” I said.

“There’s always a line,” he replied.

I was excited. The prospects looked good for an excellent dining experience. Never before had so many different people unanimously endorsed one restaurant.

As we pulled up to The Pancake Pantry, an older building with faux Swiss-chalet architectural features not far from the Vanderbilt University campus, there were several people standing in a line that stretched down the sidewalk. The sign inside read: “Sun, rain, or shine, there’s always a line.” My anticipation grew.

After a short 15-minute wait, we were seated. The menu boasted of made-in-house maple syrup and pancakes prepared with “specially ground flour from an Eastern Tennessee mill” breakfast was looking better by the minute.

The menu listed several pancake styles and variations. I asked the waitress which ones she recommended. “The sweet potato and buckwheat are my favorites, and we sell a lot of the strawberry,” she replied.

I figured if I were going to judge this much-acclaimed pancake restaurant on its pancakes, I would need to try the plain buttermilk variety. We also ordered the buckwheat and strawberry.

The pancakes arrived and were just O.K. — not great, but not bad. However, during the course of the meal the waitress brought by a sample of the sweet potato pancake and it was excellent.

What made The Pancake Pantry a memorable dining experience was not the food, but the atmosphere. Tables were filled with college students, vacationing families, businessmen, and women on there way to play a round of tennis. It truly felt like a community breakfast.

My next stop was Chicago. We arrived late in the evening and the next morning, in the hotel’s lobby, I asked the front desk clerk the breakfast question. Without hesitation he mentioned a restaurant across the street from the hotel.

It was Saturday morning; the theatre district of downtown Chicago was still. The restaurant— one with a Greek name that I can’t remember— had only a few tables occupied. The food was bad. It was a wasted breakfast. As I was paying the tab, I looked across the street to the bottom floor window of our hotel and a bustling breakfast business was in full swing.

I walked across the street and learned that the restaurant was connected to my hotel. The menu looked great, the people looked happy, the restaurant was packed. The “question” had backfired. In my search for a “local non-hotel restaurant” I wound up in a dud.

What did we learn from this experience, children?

Even if there is a line out the door, the food might be mediocre.
House-made Tennessee syrup tastes just like Aunt Jemima’s.
Always take the waitress’ recommendation.
Always ask the front desk clerk about the quality of their in-house restaurant, first.
Vanderbilt might not have a football team, but they’ve got a pretty good breakfast joint.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Bug Truck

Yesterday I was on my way home from the office and passed an ice cream truck just two blocks from my house.

I can’t remember the last time I saw an ice cream truck in my neighborhood. It was probably sometime around 1974.

As a kid growing up in the thick heat of the South Mississippi summers, the circus-like jingle of the ice cream truck creeping down the street was always a welcome sound. It could be heard from blocks away and a mad dash always followed, with dozens of neighborhood kids running frantically to make sure they ended up on the same street as the truck before it passed.

There was an excited eagerness that preceded the advent of the truck that was unique only to that occasion. Hot and sweaty kids anxiously waiting for ice cream is an unrivaled enthusiasm. Those who anticipated the truck’s arrival earlier in the day were already packing pocket change. Others, unprepared, had to run beg money from their mother and hurry back before the ice cream man bolted. When the truck finally stopped, a swarm ensued.

The only other sound that generated as much excitement in my neighborhood was the hum of the bug truck ambling down the street.

The Bug Truck was a city-owned vehicle and the lone soldier in the battle for a mosquito-free neighborhood. It had a large white tank on the back that spewed a thick white fog as it slowly ambled down the block, sort of a crop duster on wheels. In those days, the fog that billowed from the back of the truck was laced with DDT and highly poisonous.

Wherever the bug truck traveled, a crowd of at least half a dozen kids riding their bikes in and out of the fog would certainly follow. No matter what was happening elsewhere in the neighborhood, weaving in and out of the thick white mist was THE place to be at that moment.

The bravest of our crew would stand on the bumper of the bug truck, their faces only inches away from the source of the insecticide, eyes watering, toxic fog blowing furiously in their faces. I am fully prepared to grow a second head and a third eye by the time I am in my sixties, just for breathing in a few summers’ worth of DDT.

My mother, a single mom, was an early warrior in the battle to save the environment. She subscribed to environmentally conscious magazines and had read a theory that the fog from the bug truck did, indeed, kill mosquitoes, but then the birds ate the mosquitoes and died, the cats ate the birds and died, the dogs ate the cats and died, and eventually everyone on our block was going to croak because the bug truck passed in front of our house.

One summer evening, my brother and I were eating an early supper when we heard the seductive sound of the bug truck turning the corner at the end of our street. We looked at each other and just as we were about to jump out of our chairs and head outside our mother yelled, “No! You boys sit back down. I’ve had enough of this!”

She stormed out the front door and stood in the middle of our street, feet planted, left arm outstretched in a Tiananmen Square-style tank-halting protest. My brother and I watched wide-eyed from inside the house as she walked towards the drivers-side window, and began shaking her finger, lecturing the driver on the long and drawn out birds-eating-the-mosquitoes theory. The kids cycling behind the truck scattered.

The mosquito lectures continued for a few consecutive nights, until, after a few weeks of environmental sermons, the bug man finally started avoiding our street altogether. Consequently all of the mosquitoes moved into our neighborhood and the St.John boys were the ones who returned to school at the end of the summer looking like they had a chronic case of chicken pox.

Nowadays they have removed the DDT from the bug truck’s tanks. The vehicle that travels in front of my house, today, spits out a weak stream of a barely visible mist, certainly nothing that could be considered fog. There are no children pedaling their bikes behind the truck or riding on the bumper. Consequently, all of the dogs and cats are healthy and accounted for; they might have my mother to thank for that.

We do, however, have an ice cream truck, and the next time I hear its alluring call, I’ll grab my two children and a handful of change and join in the chase.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Baseball, Red Dirt, and Apple Pie.

Baseball and food are numinously entwined. The two go together like peanuts and Cracker Jack.

Times have changed from the popcorn, peanuts, and hot dog days of our youth. Today’s major league ballparks feature servers who take your order while you sit in your seat, enter the order on a wireless computer device, and deliver the food directly to your seat. From San Diego, to Seattle, to Maryland, baseball fans are eating fish tacos, tofu hot dogs, and crab cake sandwiches.

In Hattiesburg the local baseball parks are still serving the all familiar peanuts, popcorn, and candy bars. I know this because I am now officially entering the next phase of my life: The always-at-the-soccer-field-or-baseball-park phase.

My four-year old son is playing 5-6-year old coach-pitch baseball. It is his first ever exposure to the sport.

At the conclusion of his first practice, the coach gathered the team in the dugout and asked, “What’s the number one rule of baseball?” My son’s hand shot into the air. It was the only hand raised.

“Harrison,” the coach said, nodding in his direction, “What’s the number one rule in baseball?”

“Don’t hit dogs.”

“Well, Harrison, that’s a good rule, but that’s not rule number one. Rule number one is ‘don’t throw dirt.’” I had to pull the coach aside later and tell him that my son wasn’t an animal abuser. He walks around the house with his bat and his mother and I are constantly telling him not to swing the bat anywhere near the dog.

Driving home after practice, I was trying to figure out the logic behind rule number one. I could come up with at least a thousand other baseball rules that were more important than throwing dirt— keep your eye on the ball, keep your other hand above your glove when fielding a grounder— then I attended the second practice. It was a red-dirt throwing and kicking free-for-all. I became a huge fan of rule number one that day.

I have also learned that 5-6 year old baseball can turn into a full contact sport. There is an innate desire imbedded in these children to chase the ball, wherever on the field it might be. Every time a ball is hit into the outfield there is a mad dash of at least six boys chasing it down. They run from all areas of the infield and then jump onto a pile. At the second practice, my son, the right fielder, was chasing down foul tips behind home plate.

His baseball team is Piercon, named for a local construction company. His soccer team’s mascot was a panther. Yesterday he asked what type of animal a Piercon was. He has a friend who plays for the Hattiesburg Clinic’s Gynecology group. Luckily, they don’t have a mascot either.

I was worried about my boy playing coach-pitch this season for several reasons: being the youngest on the team and having not yet turned five-years old, not having played T-Ball last year, and the fact I hadn’t worked with him much on baseball until a few weeks ago. After watching him in the batter’s cage minutes before his first game, he only hit one out of 30 pitched balls. In a game, the batter only gets seven pitches. As he stepped up to the plate I was already composing my “father speech” which would be delivered in the hopes of cheering him up and making sure he held his head high after he swung and missed the seventh ball. Then he got a hit! He was excited. I was ecstatic.

We are currently three games into my son’s baseball career. He has six hits, 47 errors, and three tackles and I’ve never had more fun in my life.

On July 20, 1969, I was eating popcorn and peanuts in Yankee Stadium watching a double header between the Yankees and the Washington Senators when an announcement was made, “America has just landed on the moon!” Everyone stood and cheered. The game was stopped and the national anthem was played. Until last Saturday, that was my most memorable baseball moment.

I am proud to say that, to me, America landing on the moon can’t hold a candle to Harrison getting his first base hit.

Please keep Darian Pierce, coach of the Piercon Dirtkickers, in your prayers. He needs all the help he can get.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Denomination of Punch and Friday Night Lights

In 21st Century life, there aren’t too many settings in which punch is served. Today, punch is strictly a church party offering.

Years ago my grandmother and her friends owned elaborately decorated sterling silver and crystal punch bowls. They were brought out at bridge clubs and sewing circles and loaned out for weddings and receptions.

Those days have gone. Most punch bowls in use today are made of glass and come from the party rental store.

At weddings, the punch bowl has given way to the champagne fountain. I am not a fan of the champagne fountain. The champagne fountain is a health-inspector’s nightmare. Stand around the champagne fountain at the next wedding you attend. Within five to seven minutes, someone is going to sneeze or cough in the direction of the fountain. Moments later someone will stick their glass under the fountain— champagne splashing on their unwashed hands, and falling into the bottom of the fountain to be re-circulated.

The cascading chocolate fountain is just as bad, if not worse. The first time I attended a party with a liquid chocolate fountain, I stood and watched as guests stuck strawberries into the cascading chocolate. The chocolate oozed over the berries and their fingers and then back into the bowl to be recirculated, and no one knows where those fingers have been.

Today, punch is usually reserved for weddings and religious socials. Usually, both are church events. There are many forms of church punch. I have always felt that one could determine one’s denomination just by keeping a close eye on the punch bowl.

Baptists dunk the entire cup into the bowl when serving it. Methodists only sprinkle a little bit of punch at a time. Catholics add a lot of wine to their punch. Lutherans will only drink punch if the recipe has been nailed to the door. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in drinking punch, but only if they can do it two at a time. Mormons, on the other hand can drink as many glasses as they want.

My high school had a punch that was served after football games at the post-game dance in the gym. Named for the school, it was called Beeson Punch.

Beeson punch was a non-alcoholic variety most of the time. Occasionally, if a chaperone was asleep at the wheel, it was given a little spike by one of the students. But I have no idea who would have done anything like that, and if I did, hopefully the statute of limitations has run out.

Beeson Academy was located on the edge of town situated directly behind the area’s landmark drive-in theatre, The Beverly Drive In. On Friday nights, the screen at the Beverly Drive-In was in full view of the Beeson Academy football field.

Beeson wasn’t big enough to have a marching band, so in lieu of drum majors, majorettes, and tubas, our halftime entertainment featured the Beverly’s huge screen filled with Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Clint Eastwood, without sound.

In the latter days of the Beverly Drive-In, and in the waning days of the drive-in movie craze, new management at the drive-in resorted to cheesy soft-core skin flicks to help jump start their dwindling business. This posed quite a dilemma under the Friday night lights of the Beeson Academy football field.

I can remember looking up from the huddle and seeing all manner of depravity shining forth on the Beverly Drive-In screen. Our team had grown accustomed to the momentary flashes of flesh (or as accustomed as any 17-year old boy can become to a sight such as that). However, it served as a great strategic distraction for the visiting team. Nothing created a better home-field advantage than Swedish stewardesses on a gigantic screen in front of 11 testosterone-filled high-school football players from out of town.

Blonde stewardesses in the distance will thwart any opposing teams play calling. To this day I think that it was the 10,000 square feet of exposed and jiggling flesh, rather than the mighty Beeson Trojan’s awe-inspiring football prowess, that helped our tiny school win as many football games as we did.

In a state where breast feeding in public is punishable by six months in jail and/or a $500.00 fine, the ultimate home-field advantage was the sight of a 75-foot tall bosom bouncing up and down in the distance and was always worth 7 to10 points on the home team’s scoreboard.

After the game, punch for everyone!

Beeson Punch

1 46-oz can pineapple juice
1 small can frozen orange juice
1 small can frozen lemonade
1 quart ginger ale

Add enough water to make 1 gallon. Serve chilled.
The Egg Man…

Food suppliers are the ultimate behind-the-scenes partners of the restaurant business.

In an industry where margins are sometimes as thin as a slice of prosciutto, a good food purveyor can mean the difference between a profitable year and a used restaurant-equipment auction. When building business relationships, the successful business owner looks for a supplier that always keeps his customers in good hands.

Tommy Griffin personifies everything that is good about the restaurant business.

As the owner of Griffin Egg Company, Tommy is a restaurateur’s best friend. Griffin Egg Company is a small operation that sells eggs in various forms and top-drawer dried spices of all flavors and varieties to restaurants and grocery stores. As one of my company’s main food purveyors, we have been in the good hands of Tommy Griffin for 17 years.

As a small-business owner, Griffin works long hours while performing multiple tasks. Opening the office at the crack of dawn, he takes orders, processes orders, fills orders, and sometimes delivers orders, all while doing the books, billing, and payroll. In the spirit of the successful American entrepreneur Griffin has always done whatever it takes to keep his customers happy and his business profitable. At 8:00 pm on a Saturday night or 6: a.m. on a Sunday morning, Griffin could always be reached by phone to deliver emergency supplies for unsuspected shortages, with a smile on his face— again, good hands.

I slightly biased because I have been friends with Tommy Griffin, a fellow graduate of the Class of ’79, for most of my 44 years. Nevertheless, I know a good businessman when I see one, and know a valued friend when I need one.

The term, “there’s not a finer guy around” is clich├ęd, and often used to describe someone for lack of a better depiction. In Tommy Griffin’s case, “there’s not a finer guy” is a gross understatement.

When one encounters a person in the course of an average work week a snap judgment can sometimes be made that instantly sums up the person and his character. Maybe its more of a feeling than a judgment. Some people I encounter give me the feeling that they are sneaky and generally up to no good. Some folks I see and get the feeling that whatever they are doing, it must be good. Some I meet and get the impression that the person is probably praying for me minutes afterwards. Whenever I am around Tommy Griffin, the one thing that I am absolutely sure about is I know that he will always be doing the right thing. No matter what the “thing” is, it will be the right, morally just, and proper choice.

Like the restaurants he has supplied, Griffin’s family, too, has always been in good hands. He is a caring father, loving husband, devoted church member, faithful friend, and patriotic citizen. He is also a dedicated soldier.

Last week, Tommy Griffin shut the doors on the 54-year old family-owned business he took over from his father in 1987. On April 17th, Lt. Col. Tommy Griffin, a member of the 108 th National Guard Division out of Charlotte, N.C., will ship off to Iraq for a one year tour of duty.

This father of three, husband of one, and friend to many, will be supervising the training of Iraqi troops. When asked what the future holds when he returns, he’s not sure. Maybe he’ll start another business, maybe something in the food trade, maybe even a career in politics.

We will certainly find another egg and spice supplier. Will we find one who was as helpful, hard working, honest, and friendly as Tommy Griffin? No way.

Tommy, his wife Caren, his three school age children, and his mother all need our prayers. The war suddenly feels a little closer to home.

No matter how you feel about the conflict in Iraq, with men like Tommy Griffin over there, the Iraqi people, the Iraqi Army, and the rest of the world are in very good hands.
PARK CITY, UTAH— Do Mormons eat breakfast? I’ve been in Utah for four days and still haven’t eaten a decent breakfast.

Granted, this is a ski resort and everything is centered around getting everyone to the top of the mountain as quickly as possible. It is my opinion that it would be a much nicer chair-lift ride to the summit if one had just enjoyed a first-rate breakfast.

I have eaten in four different restaurants on this Spring Break vacation and all four served fake eggs. I hate fake eggs. We have enjoyed almost 20 inches of new snow, but nothing that remotely tasted like breakfast.

My $64 breakfast this morning consisted of fake eggs, freeze-dried hash browns, limp, tasteless bacon, orange juice that tasted like grapefruit juice, and warm milk. (I hate warm milk almost as much as I hate fake eggs). My wife ate yogurt and granola, no harm done, there. My daughter had a fruit crepe that was nothing more than a crepe topped and filled with canned cherry pie filling and my son ate a waffle that tasted like toasted Wonder bread.

There is a universal rule for traveling Southerners: Once one leaves the South, his or her chances of eating a passable breakfast diminishes incrementally with each mile traveled in any direction away from the region.

Utah is a Western state. However, the American West is not devoid of passable breakfasts. I have eaten good breakfasts in Aspen where the Paradise Bakery serves an excellent quiche muffin. Yountville, California is home to a mostly locals diner that serves an extremely memorable breakfast. Nevertheless, avocados belong in guacamole not omelets, so give me a good Dixie breakfast of fried eggs, salty ham, homemade biscuits, and mayhaw jelly any day of the week.

No one can touch the South when it comes to breakfast. Two years ago I ate an early morning meal in a New York restaurant that one national magazine claimed served the nation’s best breakfast. Another publication called it THE place for a New York power breakfast. Folks, I spent an embarrassing amount of money at “The nation’s best breakfast restaurant” and could have been just as happy with my friendly neighborhood Cracker Barrel.

Yesterday a good friend rang my cell and stated that he had just eaten the perfect piece of bacon. He is a preacher and not prone to exaggeration, so when he says he has eaten the “perfect” piece of bacon, I am a believer.

He was traveling in North Carolina and he and his wife had stopped in a local breakfast joint. The bacon was so perfect it warranted a long distance phone call to Utah. I have yet to eat the perfect piece of bacon and have no hopes that I will find it here among the cheap steak houses and sushi restaurants of this ski town (by the way, the coolest sushi restaurant in the world is The Flying Sumo in Park City, Utah).

My friend Carol Daily is a member of the Bacon of the Month Club. She receives a rasher of bacon each month shipped from a different supplier or boutique smokehouse. I am absolutely positive that none of the bacon samples ever come from Utah. Carol, too, has probably eaten the perfect piece of bacon.

It is good to know that my friends have their priorities in order. The folks in Park City, Utah could learn a few lessons from them.