Monday, September 12, 2011

Are You Hungry?

Welcome back to Flowers on the Fence Country! Are you hungry? Well, then you’re in the right place. Actually, that’s not quite right. You would have been in the right place three years ago. Three years ago, before the beginning downswing in the economy and the summer when gas skyrocketed to over $4.00 a gallon (the first time, I mean) and stayed there until fall, before food prices blew the top of the roof off, the working folks of Jeffersonville ate breakfast and lunch at the Courthouse Café. The Courthouse Café occupied a prime piece of real estate in J’ville – 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 actually was. Everyday’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 Flowers on the Fence Country, most folks don’t even consider that any beverage but sweet tea (and I do mean sweet) is 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. 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. The cooks tried on occasion, particularly in the heat of the summer, to substitute out the menu so that it didn’t just scream “Thanksgiving!” but it never worked. That’s what everybody wanted on Thursdays and that’s what everybody got.

Do I sound like I have more than a passing acquaintance with the Courthouse Café? That’s because I do. We’d bought a small business in town several years before. My husband had had his eye on the Courthouse Café for a while, but I’d managed to hold him down. “You’ll break your back to break even,” I said. “This is J’ville.” That worked for about a year. Then he called me up and announced he’d bought it. Well, the restaurant part, anyway. Not the building, he was just renting that.

I’ve always attempted to make the best of everything. And there was a lot of good in the Courthouse Café. 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. 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’s something decadently luxurious about being able to just grab ready-cooked bacon.

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 for 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 potatoes we used went from $19.00 for 40 pounds to $40.00 for 40 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. We’d at least held out for year. Small restaurants are back-breaking, heart-breaking businesses. Y’all remember that the next time you’re 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.

Times did change, though, and the restaurant did close. 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 as that glimmer of an idea, that glint in a writer’s eye, that will be seen somewhere, sooner or later. In the case of the Courthouse Café, it will be seen sooner. September 2012 as a matter of fact. Because it lives on as the model for the Scales of Justice Café which figures so prominently in the social life of Turkey Creek, Rockland County, Georgia, the fictional setting for Down Home, my crime thriller coming September 2012, from MuseItUp Publishing.
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. Coming September 2012. Y’all come back now, hear?


  1. Darn, now I am hungry. All that food sounds so delicious. It is amazing about writers not ever throwing anything out. Yep, we have a special place in our brain where we store it. Nice post, Gail. Thanks for sharing

  2. You explained grits, but what's collard greens and I've always wondered why you have biscuits with a meal - to me a biscuit is a cookie. Now you've just got to explain Gail.

  3. It's illegal to make people hungry when they have deadlines five minutes ago and their stomachs are still empty from yesterday. I loved this blog, actually, I'm only grumbling because I have a reputation of Maltese Gemgem to maintain. How do you make thes biscuits that are not cookies, then?

  4. I know the answer to your question, Tanja and Sue. Bisquits are not cookies. They are little bready things slathered in butter or dipped in gravy to accompany meals. The Pillsbury Doughbough advertises the ready to make kind you can buy in tins from your grocery store, but Gail is talking about the kind that's made from scratch. Ingredients measured sometimes by actual measuring devices, but more often than not by geniuses who know how many pinches and dashes are needed.

    Gail thank you for taking me back to my childhood when everything had a season and that season involved tantalizing aromas wafting through the house as the ladies in our household made homemade jelly, canned fresh peaches for the coming winter, spent a week cooking corn on the cob, stripping the cobs and sealing sweet summer corn into containers they'd be stacked inside the three deep freezers for the winter feasts during the cold winter nights to come.

    There is nothing quite like good old home cooking no matter what part of the Country you are downing it in.

    And Gail, I am looking forward to Septmeber 2012...look the other way for a second...thanks...It's embarrassing to drool.

  5. Oh my, can you gain weight just by reading? The biscuit discussion is fun. I had the opposite impression when I visited Ireland and England: why are they serving dinner rolls for dessert? I soon learned biscuits were cookies, chips were french fries, and crisps were potato chips. You've captured a real bit of Americana here, Gail. So glad the Courthouse Café will live on in your writing.

  6. Wonderful post, Gail. I look forward to reading your crime thriller.

  7. What a delicious post! I can imagine the scene and practically smell those biscuits baking. Mmmm....yummy. I'm a northerner but have learned to like grits...buttered and peppered. Not like cereal with milk and sugar as the northerners eat them. So looking forward to your mystery in 2012. You have a wonderful way of telling a story..oh yeah, and sweet tea for this northerner, for sure!!