I've been spending a few weeks in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. That's in the northwest corner of the state, where the Ozarks meet WalMart. I'm at the Writers' Colony, a place where authors can go to just write, to just have the freedom to create. Of course nobody can create twenty-four seven, especially when they like to eat out as much as I. The area is a veritable nirvana of fried chicken and barbeque. There's also some great Italian and wondrous cobbler. Let's put it this way: the food in Eureka is so good that I can even forgive the occasional use of Velveta.
Like many tourist places, the problem with Eureka Springs is there are too darn many restaurants. If I could eat five meals a day for the entire time I'm to be here, I might get to try them all, all that is excluding the fast food chains that have managed to find their ways this far off the major highways. Good, Lord, what's a McDonalds doing in a place like this?
Well, I can't eat out five meals a day. In fact, some days I haven't been able to eat one. After all, I am here to write, a new novel that does tangentially get us back to one of my food obsessions. I love fried chicken. I've been known to eat fried chicken four meals in a row, and yes, that does include a breakfast.
One day I took a ride over to Berryville, a nearby town that has a museum I wanted to check out. Honest, that was the reason; it was only by happenstance that I saw the sign for "Fried Chicken Buffet - All You Can Eat." "It's ten miles form here," I immediately calculated. "If I drive slowly enough I can be on time for lunch." Actually, when fried chicken is involved, lunch can be anytime from after breakfast until five minutes before dinner, but I was trying to sound rational.
I poked along at forty, which wasn't making other drivers happy, but they knew the road and I didn't. My speed really didn't have anything to do with the golden brown, crispy delight I knew was waiting. Well, to be honest it did, before I'd seen that sign I had been driving thirty-five - so much for "slowly."
Another sign. I was getting closer. NO! It was a KFC. My heart dropped and my well-fed stomach churned. The fact that breakfast had only been about two hours earlier had nothing to do with my hunger. Fried chicken promised and then denied had taken control of my body. I could taste my saliva. It had the faint taste of good oil. I started hallucinating some coleslaw - love coleslaw on the side. Mashed potatoes anyone? Mmmm!
I couldn't stand it, but there was no alternative. I drove on. On and into downtown Berryville. The town looked like it had closed down and gone fishing - that is except for the thrift and consignment stores that were waiting for strangers to come cart off the rest. There were a couple of cars parked and a small knot of children desultorily playing in the strangely perched gazebo. I had the feeling that somebody had taken the square that had once been the middle of this town, turned most of it into parking for the cars that would never come, and left that gazebo set on one corner as a teasing reminder of the life that had once been.
By that point I was starving. Deprivation will do that to a foodie. I knew that I had to eat something before I stepped foot in that museum.
There it was, my salvation - a tiny restaurant - coffee shop. It certainly didn't look promising. The windows needed washing and the half curtains looked stained. There were a couple of people inside; their faces were unexpressive, their looks impassive. Were they enjoying themselves? Was the food good? No way of knowing.
I plunged in anyway. Desperation!
"Sit anywhere," the waitress said. She looked worn and tired, but she was smiling.
I sat and she immediately came over with water, silverware wrapped in a napkin and fastened with a strip of white paper tape, and the menu. I took the menu. Before I could begin reading she said, "We have a special today. Three pieces of fried chicken, coleslaw, French fries or mashed with white or brown gravy, and a roll for seven ninety-five."
The culinary gods must have been laughing as I weighed my options. Should I go with something safe like a peanut butter sandwich or risk it all in this out-of-the-way coffee shop? The chicken might be the best I'd eat in my life, or possibly that night I could be dead of ptomaine poisoning - the dread scourge with which my mother threatened every food decision I made. I took the dare.
Only one thing could have made that plate of chicken better - cranberry sauce. I'm a New Englander, and I can't get used to the fact that most restaurants in this country don't know about cranberries. But that's a topic for another time.
Oh, in case you haven't figured it out for yourself - mashed with white gravy. That was a no-brainer.