The sun has set. The night sky is blueish. Hartford, Alabama.
It’s suppertime. Highway 167 is getting to me. My wife and I have been on the road for days. My hindparts are sore. We’ve slept in hotels, skipped breakfasts, and today we skipped lunch because we were in a hurry.
Hunger has fallen upon us like General Sherman fighting the Battle of Chik-fil-A.
Hark. A restaurant ahead.
A tiny place. A gravel parking lot full of pickups. A Pepsi sign in front. It reads: “Home Cooking, 7 Days a Week.”
Mom’s Kitchen is your all-American meat-and-three joint. We are greeted by the smell of real food, happy faces, and a few pie coolers.
The waitress is young. She says, “Sit wherever y’all can find room.”
This place is buzzing. There are only a few free tables—a good sign. It’s full of something I can’t put my finger on, but it transcends food.
An old man behind me is eating alone. He’s having a tough time feeding himself. His hands don’t seem to work. Early Parkinson’s maybe. He’s trying hard.
The waitress takes good care of him. Whenever he sees her, he smiles big enough to beat the band.
Hold it. I owe you an apology for that last phrase. It’s corny, and a low-class habit for a writer to indulge in. And it’s proof that I’m my father’s son. Before he died, he used to end every sentence with: “to beat the band.”
A lot of innocent bands were beaten during my childhood.
I will always miss him.
Anyway, seated beside our table is a redhead boy with his family. His food arrives. He’s eating so fast he’s in danger of passing out.
I was a redhead like him once. I was a big eater, too. Once, my father took me to a country eatery and I ordered a triple cheeseburger.
My father looked at me and said, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”
It took me a long time to figure out what that meant. It took me even longer to figure out that it has nothing to do with food.
At the table behind our booth are white-haired ladies. They wear pearls, and pumps that match their handbags. These are women from our part of the world—you can just tell.
They are women who could balance the Complete Unabridged Works of Emily Post on their heads while vacuuming their den. Women who make Devilled eggs, crustless finger sandwiches, and if the occasion calls for it, ambrosia.
My wife orders grouper. I order turkey and dressing. My sides are zipper peas and coleslaw. It’s been a lifetime since I had a zipper pea.
This food is worth writing home about. The turkey deserves its own theme song.
It tastes like my mother’s fare. Mama was the kind who put pork products in all the right places. Her soups were ham-boney, her cornbread was a outlawed by the National Cardiologist Association.
It’s funny, the things you start to miss the older you become. You don’t even know you’re missing them until one day you pull off the highway to eat. A smell, a meal, a taste, or a phrase.
Country restaurants do that to me. So do small-town newspapers, middle-aged dogs, train whistles, Sunday schools, and old men who have Parkinson’s.
I’m noticing the old man again. He’s finished eating. He stands. He’s shaking bad. He leaves cash on the table. He hobbles outside. God love him.
A waitress grins big at the man.
“Bye, darling,” the man says in a voice that is sweet enough to beat the band.
There I go again.
Anyway, if you’re ever in Hartford, visit Mom’s Kitchen. Try the zipper peas. Leave a fat tip.
Tell them I sent you.
CALISTA - March 27, 2018 5:36 am
Been a long time but it was some good eatin last time I was at Mom’s. Thanks for the memories ?
Sue Cronkite - March 27, 2018 7:25 am
Good one. Try the cafe in Geneva run by sisters in their 90s. I can’t remember the name. It’s on the right on 52, just past the Radio Hill turnoff. Angela is the one who runs the restaurant. The sisters help her out. They have a legendary cook too. The restaurant may be called The Junction Cafe, referring to the park with the giant oak tree where the Pea River runs into the Choctawhatchee.
John - March 27, 2018 7:31 am
Wendy Franks - March 27, 2018 8:20 am
Darn ! I wrote a comment to beat the band but it’s now lost somewhere way out in cyberspace. Sigh…..
Leslie in NC - March 27, 2018 8:51 am
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that phrase, “your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” My dad used to tell me that when I’d load up my bowl with my Granny’s chicken & dumplings…and went back for seconds! And I sure love me a good meat & three diner. Thank you for the memories, Sean!
Kelly - March 27, 2018 9:11 am
This touched my heart this morning. My Mom’s birthday is coming up and, although she’s been gone several years now, I miss her every day. “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach” was something we heard many times!
Sherry - March 27, 2018 10:29 am
Hungry and homesick…thank you!
Sharon Hand - March 27, 2018 11:30 am
You know what I miss? Sayings that I grew up hearing and saying. The world is indeed too small and we adhere to the normal.
Jill - March 27, 2018 12:23 pm
One of your best.
Harriet - March 27, 2018 12:51 pm
Sean, I’ve been by that place hundreds of times traveling from Enterprise to PCB. I’ve never stopped because, you know, the beach was calling. With your recommendation, I will just make a trip to eat there. I need zipper peas and dressing.
Connie - March 27, 2018 2:03 pm
I love to read about the places you eat. It always makes me want to visit there just to try them out. Just so you know, if y’all are ever back in Bay Minette, give me a couple hours heads up and you’re welcome at my table anytime. Feeding people is what I love to do. Hope y’all have a good day. Hugs.
Jack Darnell - March 27, 2018 2:24 pm
Hey, ‘at happened in NC too. When my daddy talkied aoub his life on the farm in N. Gerogia he said his daddy could ‘Plow, to beat the band’. Thanks. Keep ’em coming, you write ‘to beat the band!’
Nancy Payne - March 27, 2018 2:32 pm
Love this one…but I’ve never heard of zipper peas…I’m from West Virginia too…and Poppa always said your eyes are bigger than your belly…thanks for sharing…
Edna B. - March 27, 2018 2:53 pm
Wow, two well used phrases stir up memories. I still use “to beat the band” sometimes. I get a few funny looks, but oh well. When I was younger, I used to stop in once in a while to eat in a tiny restaurant that was tucked away in a forlorn looking shack. Oh my, the food was delicious! Thanks for the wonderful story. Hugs, Edna B.
Linda Chipman - March 27, 2018 5:10 pm
There are all too few of these “meat and 3” places left. None where I live which is near Atlanta. There is one outside Hartwell, GA called Mary’s Kitchen. Great food and Mary’s cakes are so delicious.
Jill R. - March 27, 2018 5:48 pm
I am 46. My dad died when I was 13. The one paragraph line “I will always miss him.” made me tear up because it is so true. No matter how old I get, I will always miss him. But your articles always make me smile and think fondly on about him and how wonderful and unappreciated daddies are.
Jack Quanstrum - March 27, 2018 6:17 pm
Okay, will do!
Steven - March 28, 2018 12:53 am
I was born in Hartford. The ‘hospital’ had been a hotel at one time. It is long gone. Now folks go to Geneva or Enterprise or Dothan or even Bonifay (if they want their babies to be Floridians). My family is from Black. Actually the woods outside Black. Hartford was considered ‘town’. They’ve been in those woods since the 1830’s. When I was a kid my grandpa would take us to Lucille’s general store for a pocket full of candy and a soda. Usually just before dinner (that’s what we called lunch). I think he enjoyed hearing my grandmother squawk about it. He would let us stand in the bed of the truck while he whipped down the sand bed road at about 20. I don’t think he ever went over 40. Now that old rural route carries his name. We’ve eaten at the diner many times. Nothing quite like it in Atlanta. You’re right, great food. Thanks for the memories.
Don Warrick - March 28, 2018 12:58 am
One of the things I fear at my age now is the day I have to be reminded of something my Momma cooked in the past tense …. I’m sure I will cry on the spot
Ellen Shelley - March 28, 2018 4:52 pm
Even before you said the name, I knew you were talking about Mom’s Kitchen. We just passed by there a few days ago. It is hard to pass by, but we were not hungry yet on our long trip home to Dayton, Ohio. Once again, you make me think I need to notice more. Thank you for the reminder. Yes, I miss so much about my Mom’s cooking and just miss my Mom. Mom’s Kitchen is such a great place that is out of the past. Good food always. I noticed they had a new sign.
Lucretia - March 29, 2018 10:11 am
Country Diners affect us the same way. Mom’s Kitchen is written down, located on the map, and will be a reality. Thank you for putting it out there that the small local kitchens and dinners are the best. Sadly we just lost ours and with it part of my soul. Thank you, Sean. Lucretia
Susan Tolley - March 29, 2018 11:49 am
Thank you so much for writing this! It’s especially close to my heart because my brother in law is the owner, my husband works there part time and almost everybody who works there is family. It’s a close knit group who work hard to make everyone feel at home, and make sure you leave full and happy. As a matter of fact I’m taking my mom and four grandkids there for lunch tomorrow.
jim collins - March 29, 2018 5:23 pm
“What for you, HON’ ?”………and you get a funny look if you order sweet tea.
jim collins - March 29, 2018 5:24 pm
Lisa Tomas Mills - March 31, 2018 3:23 pm
Zipper peas and Granny’s crackling corn bread, aka, hoe cake, johnny cake. IMOH, best cook in Wewahitchka. Miss her. ?
Janet Tobin - June 5, 2018 12:12 pm
“I will always miss him”. I lost my Daddy at age 13. He was a well educated southerner with two degrees. A southern Baptist preacher who was a hard drinking, hot-rodding, tough guy until he got saved at 19. He loved the Lord, helping down and out people, my mother, fast cars, and home cooking. I try very hard to remember little things about him like the way he used to say he was going to “wrench” (rinse) off his hands before supper or how he pronounced Chevrolet as “chevolay”. Your line about your Dad’s saying will have me thinking about the things my Dad had to say all day today. Thank you.
Shannon - June 5, 2018 2:54 pm
I can’t wait to try it out the next time I’m up that way to see my family. Thank you! ?
J Campbell - June 5, 2018 3:20 pm
I grew up in north Georgia….I think you musta been one of my neighbors….or maybe kinfolk. At least you eat like we was kinfolk. (Yes, I meant to say “we was”.)