Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The New South

My coworker - let's call him Maxwell - and I are in the process of picking a caterer for our annual summer event, a process that involves skipping breakfast to gorge ourselves on the wares of caterers hungry to impress us. We fell in love with the first place we went to, Clare and Don's Beach Shack in East Falls Church. With surfboards for tables, walls adorned with flip-flops, and a surfing competition on the bar t.v., the place exuded the same atmosphere we wanted to project at our picnic: laid-back, cool, summery fun.

The food more than lived up to the expectations. Rebecca, the owner, was passionate about her food, clearly taking pride in having a primary role in what came out of her kitchen. Equally happy to please carnivores and vegetarians, she was ready to accommodate our staff, a group that tends toward the extremes of that spectrum. Somewhere between blackened tofu, barbecue grilled baby ribs and shrimp with hot-DAMN-this-is-delicious homemade sauce, and key lime pie with real graham cracker crust, we knew we were sold. Maxwell, who eyes tofu with the same trepidation I reserve for Rocky Mountain Oysters, ate an entire serving, exclaiming, "I didn't know this stuff actually tastes delicious!"

And yet, we still had other tastings to attend. We went to our last one yesterday, arriving after literally driving in circles to get there - only to find that there was no parking. While my co-worker waited in the car, I ran inside to ask about parking. A blast of steamy air hotter than the 95 degree soup outside greeted me when I opened the door, followed by the pungent smell of a kitchen in the midst of washing dishes. The smell of old dishtowels followed me up a dingy, ill-lit stairwell, where I found our hostess in a in the middle of lunch. A pasty woman with hair the color of blighted wheat, she directed me to just park where we were and come on up. I went outside to tell my co-worker where to park, adding, "Keep an open mind."

We tentatively sat down in the tasting room, our place setting prepared for a state dinner. Before we could introduce ourselves, our hostess offered us iced tea. "I have sweet tea and unsweetened, or you could just have water," she said."

"I'll take the unsweetened," I replied, while Maxwell said, "I'll take the sweet tea, thanks."

"I knew it!" Our hostess exclaimed. "I could tell you'd go for it - because you're from the South."

Here's something you should know: Maxwell is not from the South. Maxwell does not speak with a southern accent, have a Virginia flag tattooed to his face, or give any other outward impression that might lead one to believe he is from the South. When the woman said that Maxwell was from the South, we assume she meant that Maxwell was black.

It went downhill from there.

Maxwell and I introduced ourselves. Turning to me, our hostess said, "So you're planning this and he's your helper?"

"No, he's my partner," I replied firmly. We made smalltalk while we waited for the food, and somehow the woman launched into a lengthy explanation of how she hired her executive chef from some old building that used to make box meals for the predecessor of McDonald's and she found this woman cooking chitlins and collard greens. "You like collard greens, right?" she asked Maxwell.

"Yep! Because I'm from the South!" Maxwell exclaimed a little too brightly with a tight smile. "I like collard greens," I piped up. Our hostess seemed taken aback. "Oh, are you from the South, too?"

"No," I replied, "Chicago."

"I didn't realize they ate collard greens there," she responded. It took every ounce of willpower not to remark that Chicago had black people, too. After nattering on some more about collard greens, our hostess left the room to check on the progress of our food. I looked around the room furtively and turned to Maxwell to quietly ask, "Do you think there's a hidden camera in here?"

"I was thinking the same thing," he murmured. "It's the only explanation, right? We're getting punk'd? Maybe my new boss set this all up?" Our hostess came back in the room, followed by a member of her kitchen staff. He set the tray of food down and Maxwell poked my leg to draw my attention to our server, whose nails were filthy with layers of grime that would have fetched a fine price to display at the Natural History Museum, but just made us shudder.

I looked over the platters before us, a series of side dishes and a plate of assorted red meats. As casually as I could muster, I inquired about veggie burgers, which I had asked for when scheduling our tasting, noting that about twenty percent of our attendees had requested a vegetarian option.

"Oh, I didn't make any, since those are expensive and we usually only bring a few with us." I passed the plate o' meat to Maxwell. " I hope you're hungry!" I said a little too brightly with a tight smile. I dipped my fork in a little of the barbecue sauce on the side of the plate, hoping for a mouthful of something redeeming, but tasting only the tinny sweetness of corn syrup.

"Can't you eat the chicken?" Our hostess asked.

"No, as I said on the phone, I'm a vegetarian," I replied. "I'll eat fish for special events like this, but otherwise, I avoid meat."

"Well, at the picnic, we'll have a few veggie burgers that people can request if they want them - or they can just eat the side dishes," she said, pointing to the tepid, unseasoned potato salad and pasta salad that could most charitably be described as flaccid.

"Can't you just serve them on a different plate and serve them along with everything else? We'd be happy to work that into the pricing," asked Maxwell.

"It's just not the way we do things," our hostess responded curtly.

"What about gluten-free options we asked about?" I asked. The hostess responded, "We can make a plate of steamed vegetables, but if you want anything more than that, you'll have to provide us with a list or bring it yourselves."

Our smiles got tighter and our tones got brighter. I wiped my mouth on the polyester napkin and almost gagged. The napkin reeked. It took me a moment to place the smell - it was the same stench that emanates from the bowels of the Object's frat house around three in the morning. I don't know how she managed to replicate the blending stanks of gonad sweat, pork ring farts, cheap beer, and Axe body spray, but it was precisely the same.

Our hostess asked, "How are the collard greens? Or are they mustard greens?"

"You're not sure?" Maxwell asked. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, I haven't had collard greens in years," she responded.

"You don't taste the food yourself?" I asked, trying to keep the incredulity out of my voice.

"No, I own the business, I don't work with the food side," she responded.

We made it through dessert and more agonizing small talk about the South, then politely hightailed it out of there. We sat quietly in the car for a minute, and I asked Maxwell, "So tell me, what's it like, living in the South?"

I got back to the office at 2:01 p.m. and had confirmed with Rebecca by 2:06 p.m.


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