The Death of the Month Club guest of honor for September was my sister-in-law Jo's mother. The service was in Georgia, in the small town of Chatsworth. We stayed next door in Dalton. Founded in 1847, Dalton has a population of roughly 33,000 souls. The battle of Rocky Face Ridge and Dug Gap was fought here, during the War Between the States, ending when General Joseph Johnston withdrew from Dalton on May 12, 1864. Johnston's chiefly remembered here for leaving: the townsfolk erected a statue of him for having done so.
After the service and lunch with the family, we spent the afternoon hiking Rocky Face Ridge outside Dalton. A lovely place for a hike/climb in the woods, it must have been hell to attack. Ridges of rock set in place as battlements (twice attacked, and twice successfully defended) are still there, tumbled over now, and peacefully growing lichen.
After an afternoon in the woods, we were starving, and dinner south of the Mason-Dixon line meant barbecue. We chose Miller Brothers Rib Shack.
It's a cheerful little place that seats no more than 40, and seems to do a booming takeaway business as well. Red-and-white checked tablecloths cover the tables, and I noticed a Bible lying on one of them. Not a slick Gideon number, this was an old King James, so well-thumbed the cover was curling.
The walls were covered with Black-experience posters: B. B. King, Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman—and we were the only white folks in the place. The waitress, a pretty girl of about 20 came over, a guarded look in her eye.
She asked what we wanted to drink, and brought it without comment. Returning to take our order, she asked if we were from out of town. Yes, we said; we were down from St. Louis due to a death in the family. Southern hospitality is no myth, and the people of Georgia are just about the most hospitable you'll find. No exception this young lady: the reason for our being in Dalton thawed her completely. After expressing gracious condolences, she did what generations of women in the South have done when succor and solace are required: she fed us—after detailed comparison of our tastes and the menu.
Miller's bills itself as a 'rib shack', but I'm not big on ribs. I can't eat bones; keep 'em, and just bring me the meat. We both chose the brisket instead: it was smoky, with a sweetish, lightly-spiced tomato-based sauce with a faint suggestion of vinegar. It could have been a little more tender, but the flavor was still fantastic. Sides were Brunswick stew, corn on the cob, and Texas toast.
I hadn't been to Brunswick stew in 30 years. This one was beef-based, with corn, a little tomato, a modest amount of okra, and a hint of onion. Faintly smoky and on the thin side, it was good enough I had to force myself not to lick out the ramekin after I'd gobbled the contents—I could have made a meal on this alone.
The corn on the cob (half an ear, interestingly enough) was fresh, not too buttery, and served upright in a ramekin to keep it chastely separate from its more influential plate-mates. The toast was likewise not too buttery; browned just right, it was just crisp enough to be perfect.
As we ate, my mind wandered back to the last time I'd found myself in the racial minority. I'd been working at the local middle school for a year or two. The African-American population in Webster is all of 6.6%; the African-American population of the district I work for closer to 24%. We all manage to live and work together without too many bumps and bruises, so I found myself horrified one day as I was working on the computers in one of the special-services classrooms. Most of the kids in the room were black, as was the teacher. The book under study was The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963, and I was listening to the conversation with one ear until the teacher said, "So what do you think Whitey's gonna do next?" Talk about sudden verticality, realizing that 'Whitey' was sitting in my chair.
The best remedy for uncomfortable memories, I say, is dessert. Pie, for preference, and Miller's offers Key Lime, chocolate cream, dark chocolate, and sweet potato—house made.
Tom chose the dark chocolate. He said it was good, but not spectacular. I must say (with a thoroughly unpardonable smugness) that my sweet potato pie was nothing short of a religious experience. Though the crust was indisputably an undistinguished boughten one, it was filled with a creamy custard. Neither too heavy nor too rich, it was satiny smooth, thickened with egg yolk. Lots of sweet potato flavor blended with just a hint of nutmeg, and a distinct caramel undertone—it was utter simplicity, Nirvana on a plate. The folks at Miller's know it, too: addition of a dollop of whipped cream might have been appealing visually, but would have made it too rich. They wisely leave well enough alone.
I made myself eat it slowly, and found I was doing so with my eyes closed when, last bite gone, I came back to reality with a bump. Grinning, the waitress took my empty plate, admitting she had had a piece of it for breakfast. As Harper Lee observed in To Kill A Mockingbird, there's just one kind of folks—folks. Sweet potato pie makes the whole world kin, and as she waved us out the door she sent after us that most Southern of open invitations:
"Y'all come back now, hear?"
You better believe I will.