Wednesday, January 18, 2017

January 18, 2017--Breakfast Blog: Ernie's Texas Lunch

A funny thing happened on our way south--I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease and we're staying put until I do whatever I have to do.

I had planned to reprise a few breakfast blogs that I wrote on other drives to Florida. Since I'm feeling lazy, I will post them as planned over the next three days. Here's the first one--

Heading south, we stopped overnight in Gettysburg, PA to take in the battlefield the next day, especially the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. As always, almost as soon as we arrived, we began the hunt for the just-right place to have a local breakfast.  Ernie’s Texas Lunch, in spite of its anything-but local sounding name, qualified. The menu didn’t have anything on it that sounding very Texan or Tex-Mex, for that matter, nor was it only open for lunch; but as we looked through the window the evening we arrived (it closes after lunch) we saw a classic small-town lunch counter and half a dozen wooden booths. 

“Perfect,” Rona exclaimed, “Look at the menu posted in the window. See that they feature chipped beef on toast—which I love—and make a big to-do about their home fried potatoes.” 

I peered at the menu over her shoulder and noticed that a “small portion” of home fires cost $2.50 and if you wanted onions with it, it’s another $1.50.  “I never saw that before,” I said, “how they charge extra for onions.” 

“Which suggests to me that this could be a special place. And we have to have the potatoes with, of course, the onions.” 

At 8:30 the next morning we were disappointed to find just one booth occupied by what felt like a grumpy, late-middle-age couple. Maybe they just needed coffee to perk them up, but it felt as if they had just had a fight or had given up talking to each other decades ago. But the waitress was cheery and we thought, It’s only breakfast. Not a big deal. Or not that big a deal.

“Be sure to have some of our home fries,” she chirped, “I cut them myself every morning. Real thin like they’re ‘sposed to be. And we cook ’em in a special oil. You’ll see how non-greasy they are. But sort of with a buttery taste. Real good,” she smiled as if to cast the light of happiness on that poor couple who continued to sit there scowling at each other. 

With such a complete description—more than we received earlier in the week at Balthazar where we went for bouillabaisse—how could we resist? “We’ll have a small order,” I said, “We’ll share them.” 

“And be sure to add the onions,” Rona’s smile was almost as wide as the waitress’. 

“Good choice,” she said. “That’s the right way to have ‘em.”  We ordered scrambled eggs and I asked also for a side of ham. “Not the salty country kind,” she made sure I knew, “But just as good. Some of our regulars say better.”  I nodded my assent, wondering who those regulars were considering how empty the place was, and with that our waitress did an about-face and bounced over toward the kitchen to place the order. “I’ll be right back with your coffee and tea,” she assured us over her shoulder, and we settled back to see what might happen. Expecting very little—except from the home fries—considering what wasn’t going on two booths over. 

But at nine o’clock things indeed began to happen. 

One-by-one a steady stream of customers showed up. First a woman of about 60 with her hair pulled back in tight braids. She sat alone in the booth by the door and almost as soon as she was settled popped up, raced to the door, which she opened, and shouted to someone in the street to “Come on in. I’ve been waiting for you.” She had literally been there less than a minute. 

Next an elderly gentleman arrived but had difficulty opening the heavy door. The waitress noticing him—more accurately she appeared to be expecting him--trotted to the front to push it open and then helped him up the two steps into the diner. Arm-in-arm she led him to a stool at the counter. She stood protectively as his side as he eased onto the swiveling seat. 

Then two women entered, clearly in the middle of a good story as they announced their arrival with a burst of laughter.  They got themselves settled back toward the kitchen at what looked like a communal table that could accommodate eight. 

And shortly thereafter another couple about my age came in and smiled at the rapidly filling room before sliding into the booth adjacent to ours. Rona winked at me as if to say, “Just what we were hoping for.” 

Then over the next five minutes a young man joined the woman who beckoned him from the street and they quickly entered into a whispered conversation, and he was followed in turn by three more single women who joined the others at the large table in the rear. 

A happy buzz settled over Ernie’s as the waitress scooted about filling and refilling coffee cups and raced back and forth from the kitchen with steaming plates of eggs and toast and home fries. Including ours.

The waitress came over to our booth to check to see if we needed a refill but more to find out what we thought about the potatoes. 

“The best ever,” Rona, with a mouthful, said.

“Told you so. It’s about how I cut ‘em up and as I told you the oil we use.”

“What kind is that?” I asked. 

“Can’t rightly tell you,” she said with an apologetic shrug, “It’s sort of a family secret. My people’ve been here since ‘41, same location, and though I wish I could tell—you seem like a nice couple--my husband, who’s the cook, would never talk to me again. Which on some days,” she said as an aside, “wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” 

“Ain’t that the truth,” someone who had slipped in and was standing behind her blurted out. “He is something else. I could tell you a whole day’s worth of stories about just him.” 

I looked up from my ham and eggs to see a tall woman of some years all wrapped up in a long coat and magenta boa which she whipped about in a circle as if she was performing on a vaudeville stage. 

She saw me staring at her and, in a cigarette-thickened voice, said, “You should have seen me when I was a girl. That is, assuming I ever was one.” She laughed at herself. “Just ask Judy over there,” she pointed back toward the table where the four women were seated, “also assuming she ever was one.  A girl, I mean.” She wanted to make sure I got the reference. 

“I’ll be right back, honey, assuming I can extract myself from this outfit.” She was struggling to untangle her boa. I noticed she was wearing matching magenta wool gloves. 

Rona and I, loving every minute of this, returned to our eggs and home fires, not wanting them to get cold. The potatoes were, in fact, as advertised. The best ever indeed. Clearly the result of the thin slicing, secret oil, and the $1.50’s worth of onions. 

“You look like a preacher to me.” It was the woman now without her coat, gloves, and boa who had come back to stand next to our table. I looked up at her, smiling quizzically. “Not that I have much use for them. Preachers, I mean. No offense intended.” 

“And none taken,” I said, “I’m the last person in the world to be taken for one.” 

“But if you have a minute, I have a preacher story for you.” 

“Love to hear it.” Rona nodded enthusiastically. 

“You see there was this country preacher and this city preacher.” We had no idea where this was going. I took a long sip of coffee. “The country preacher had a bicycle and the one from the city a big Lincoln. There was a crossroads right outside of town where they met every Sunday on their way to preaching. To exchange greetings and to say a word or two about what they had been reading in the Bible.

“One Sunday morning when they met the country preacher was walking. He told the city preacher who was driving his Lincoln that someone in his congregation had stolen his bike. And that he didn’t know how to figure out who it was. 

“’I have a suggestion,’ the city preacher said. ‘When you’re delivering your sermon today talk about the Ten Commandments. And when you get to the one about stealing look around and the one who stole your bicycle will be all uncomfortable and give himself away.’ 

“The next Sunday,” she continued, leaning in close to us so only we could hear, “when they met the country preacher again had his bicycle. ‘I see you recovered it. Did my advice about the Commandments work?’ 

“’Yes and no,’ the country preacher said. 

“’What happened?’ the city preacher asked. 

“’Well, when I got to the commandment about adultery, I remembered where I left it.’” 

While waiting for her joke to register, the magenta-woman straightened up to get a better look at our reaction.  Rona was the first to get it and then as well I did. It took a moment because neither of us was expecting a joke from her or anyone for that matter, much less a raunchy one. 

As we finally laughed, she joined in, tugging at her bra. “This danged thing’s always riding up on me.”  She turned to return to her friends. “I’ll be back. I got a million of ‘em. You all right with that?”

“Indeed we are,” Rona said, still chuckling. Choking on my coffee I nodded. 

Which she proceeded to do. Twice more to tell us a couple of other ribald jokes, this time sotto voce so everyone who wanted to could listen in.

Even the grumpy couple appeared to be smiling.

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