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The answers to my most frequently asked questions

Fred Sauceman • Aug 21, 2019 at 10:33 AM

Why don’t you weigh 500 pounds?” When I give talks around the country and the region about food, it’s the most frequently asked question I get. FAQ #1.

My response is something I once heard when I was doing my very first story on the making of pure sugar stick candy in Bristol. Richard Gibian, on the Virginia side, was my guide through the plant at Moretz Candy Company, makers, at the time, of Red Band Candy. Richard was, as we say around here, “thin as a rail,” despite sampling his product all day long.

I posed the weight question to him. “High metabolism,” he answered. So I’ve borrowed his line. I also make the point that, in order to appreciate a Monster Cone, let’s say, at The Hob-Nob Drive-In, outside Gate City, Virginia, it’s not necessary to eat it all. The physics and the architecture of this tower of soft-serve ice cream make the story, just as much as the flavor.

The second most frequently asked question is, “Why don’t you run a restaurant?” That’s a more involved answer. A quick but accurate response is lack of knowledge. Expertise in accounting is just as important for a restaurant owner as knowing how to cook a steak or bake a pan of rolls. Maybe even more so. And being able to prepare a meal for the number of people who sit around your dining room table is nightand-day different from running a restaurant.

But in order to answer FAQ #2 in more detail, let’s consider some real-life scenarios from my own kitchen.

Take the time I obliterated 100 years of accumulated skillet seasoning in less than half an hour. It was the Age of Blackening, the 1980s, when Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme single-handedly put the redfish on the endangered species list. My attempt at treating catfish the same way, with a skillet that had been in my wife’s family forever, undid all the bacon grease slickness of several generations and caused our 185-pound Great Dane to take refuge in the far corner of our pie-shaped backyard.

Or there was the time when, eager to try out a new wok, I threw a handful of dried hot chili peppers from the Far East Company in Knoxville into very hot oil at my mother’s home. Her house had been air-conditioned for years, but we had to search out the old portable fans from both the attic and the basement to clear the air, which took the better part of three hours.

Then there was Thanksgiving 1990 at our house. Young and lacking the good sense that maturity sometimes brings, we had agreed to feed over 40 people. Shortly before they arrived, we discovered stalactites and stalagmites of ice in the turkey.

Still wondering why I don’t run a restaurant? There’s more.

Consider the time I hooked a Fry Daddy cord around my toe and dumped a full vessel of oil into the kitchen floor. Running a restaurant does involve a good bit of dexterity.

Seared into my psyche is my first and only attempt to cook tripe, the stomach lining of the cow. Not only the tripe itself but also the pan I cooked it in ended up in the ditch on Seminole Drive, gone from our kitchen and olfactory memory forever.

And all this is not even to mention the dropped dishes, the burned fingers, and the cuts, like the time I was slicing a white sweet potato without a cutting board and got more hand than vegetable.

Now if you only consider my family heritage, running a restaurant might have made sense. My aunt, Selma Overbay, managed Reynolds Ice Cream, right across from Greeneville High School, as well as the Crescent Grill, directly opposite Crescent School on the other side of town. Two of my aunts helped her, and one of them, Zella Bible, operated Bible’s IGA with her husband Otis on the Knoxville Highway in Greeneville for years. Another aunt, Virginia Ottinger, from that same side of the family, ran what we simply called the “bread store” on Tusculum Boulevard. We bought all our “brown and serve rolls” from her.

My father, their brother, often entertained fantasies of opening his own restaurant. Never mind that he had neither the capital nor the expertise. Wisely, my mother stepped in to apply the yin of paying the bills to his yang of restaurant-running reveries and convinced him that making phonographs, radios, and televisions at Magnavox suited his training and our resources much better.

It was Aunt Zella who, on her deathbed, confirmed that my life’s career path should not place me in restaurant kitchens. As she was dying, she recalled her time at the Crescent Grill and whispered to me, so no one else could hear, “I used to go to bed every night and pray, ‘God, take me tonight.’ I just hated that work.”

In writing about food and its traditions for over 20 years now, I’ve gained enormous respect for the people who do make the sacrifices necessary to feed us in restaurants. Restaurant owners and employees are among the people I most admire in life. To operate a restaurant properly takes enormous talent, infinite patience, complete dedication, and detailed knowledge. I’m not sure I could do it.

But I will be eternally grateful to the fine people who do.

Fred Sauceman is the author of “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”

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