The Mother’s Day Cannibal Cake Baker

Sunday was Mother’s Day. If you’re a mother, or have a mother you probably celebrated. Which pretty much means, if my reasoning is correct, everyone was celebrating since most humans have a mother. Except Mr. Levenhall down at the bakery. He’s a different animal. So he says.

“I don’t celebrate Mother’s Day,” he told me on Sunday while I was picking up a cake for a friend’s birthday. “I was hatched.”

I nodded. He said it like he meant it. No wry smile or indication he was pulling my maternal leg. I waited for him to laugh. He didn’t.

“Everybody’s got a mama,” I said. “Maybe you don’t celebrate, but it isn’t because you don’t have a mama.”

“I’m telling you I don’t have no mama,” he said, turning red and flicking the big cake knife he always carries, even when he’s not at the cake shop. Perhaps I shouldn’t argue with a man who was hatched and carries a foot-long knife, but it was just wrong not to admit your own mama. And I told him so.

“I was born in a chicken house down in Mississippi,” he said. “My grandpaw raised me. He said I didn’t have no mama. He never lied to me that I know of, so I reckon I was hatched.”

By now I was pretty sure this was just his Southern iconoclastic nature being belligerent. So I changed the subject to cake batter.

“What’s the best kind of cake batter?” I said.

“Depends,” he said. “Birthday cakes are light since you have one every year. So I go easy on them. Wedding cakes are thick and heavy. You get married just once. You can afford a little unhealthy icing.”

“You ever make a MoonPie cake?” I asked.

“I have,” he said. “Made one for a retirement party. This old boy down at the box factory was hanging it up after 29 years. Must have been about a year ago. He wanted a MoonPie cake, so I made him one. Used twenty-eight chocolate MoonPies. Chopped them up and used them in the decoration.”

I looked back in his kitchen and saw a bunch of eggshells in the trashcan. This hit me a little funny from a man who claimed to be hatched.

“So how do you explain those eggshells over there in the trash?” I said, “You being hatched and all?”

He turned slowly and dropped his head. “I reckon that makes me a cannibal,” he said.

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Coffee, Dogs and Miss Eileen

“You have to keep your eye on a banjo player,” said the woman behind the counter of the little restaurant, a six-table joint that was a cross between a coffee shop and a pet store judging by the number of animals sitting around. It seemed like everyone at every table had a dog. I judged the woman’s age to be about 70, but judging a woman’s age is a risky business and I don’t recommend verbalizing your assessment out loud if you value your life.

I’d stopped by to caffeine-up on my way to Austin Texas, which is a long drive from where I was.”I married three banjo players at one time or another and they was all worth half a worthless dog,” she said “And I’ve never met a worthless dog, so they was 50% of not much.”

Best I could tell from customer’s talking, her name was Miss Eileen, and she loved dogs and only allowed people in her coffee shop who had a canine with them. I told her I had my Jack Russell in the truck and she made me go get him before she’d serve me a cup of coffee. She also had a habit of talking to no one in particular. Now and then she would curse under her breath, a habit that might make you wonder about her if you didn’t understand that she was probably talking to you if you happened to be the one listening, not that she really cared if you listened or not. She was going to say her piece as that piece came to her. That’s how it looked. Today’s topic was ex-husband banjo pickers.

“Banjo pickers are ramblers,” she said. “Don’t know why it took three of them for me learn that. You might wake up one morning and he’s gone and stays that way for a month.  A string band in need of a picker won’t have to go without for long. A picker will just slide in and ride with them if it gives him a chance to play here and yonder.”

During her conversation she wiped the counter constantly, moving the MoonPie display several times. I noticed she only had banana MoonPies.

I waited for her to take a breath between sentences and asked her if she would like some other favors.

“You a banjo picker?” she asked, eyeing me as if I might skip paying for my coffee. “Cause you sure look like one.”

I assured I was no banjo picker, but I did say I had a bunch of MoonPies if she wanted some.

“So you just ride around in a truck full of MoonPies with a Jack Russell?” she grunted. “That’s the same thing as a banjo picker in my estimation. Maybe you ought to just break down and buy a banjo and learn to pick it.”

With that, I figured it might be a good time to leave, so I paid up, tipped her good, got ahold of Rudy, who was getting a little too friendly with a beagle under a table where three women were talking about church activities.

One of the women said, “Mister, you know your dog has a roaming eye.” She wasn’t happy about it either. “He was hitting on my little Betty here.”

“Ma’am,” I said, growing weary of people busting on Rudy and me. “You’re lucky he didn’t hit on your leg.” She looked shocked. The other women looked shocked. Even her beagle looked shocked.

Miss Eileen started laughing and coughing and then stopped and smiled at me, whispering, “I never liked them women or their smelly beagle. Coffee’s on me. And here’s a treat for your Jack.”

She gave me back my money and with it, a pork chop. I’m not sure where Miss Eileen’s no-name coffee shop will rank in all my travels, but Rudy will remember this place for the rest of his life.

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Juice At The Campsite

It’s late April at a Blue Ridge Mountain campground “resort.” Most people’s idea of a resort doesn’t involve sleeping on the ground next to a fire and using a composting toilet.  But this place is every bit a resort today, as me and two old friends sit next to a stack of logs and a fire ring cooking our shins and a few Bubba Burgers and watching the subtle light of late spring amble through the new leaves poking out of sappy branches above our heads.

About 20 yards away, a dude named Juice (it says so on his bike in scripted letters) rides up on a Suzuki motorcycle. He is a dude indeed, biked-up and as hairy as a Duck Dynasty cousin. After he gets off his bike and starts collecting sticks in the woods, I see him light up something that smells like being downwind in college as he casually eyes my stash of wood. Juice looks harmless even with his long hair and bandana pulled tight around his head. Then I see him checking out my MoonPies on the picnic table.

“Come on over and have some MoonPies,” I yell across the clearing, waving the box. And here he comes, doing the motorcyle rider strut. It’s an affected motion caused by riding a big machine all the time, not unlike a cowboy or a guy with a bum knee. He has a small tent tied on the back of his bike with a sleeping bag. He travels light and camps lighter.

“Pretty day, bro,” he says. “Nice stack of firewood.”

I held up a saw. “They told me if a tree was down, I could turn it into firewood. Wanna borrow it?”

“Naaa,” he grunts. “Too much work. I’ll scrouge enough scraps to make do.”

He shifts his weight awkwardly back and forth for a minute in silence, and then he clicks his mouth like he’s calling a dog. But he has no dog.

“Name’s Juice,” he says, looking around carefully like someone will hear him. “Listen fellas, me and a couple of girls are gonna be partying a little later, so if you hear some loud music,” he pauses and grins some impressive gold dentures, “just saying.”

“We may drown out your music with this new-fangled iPhone speaker I got on Amazon. Small size. Big sound.”

He stoops over to see it and I punch Neil Young’s “Rocking In the Free World.” It jerks him out of his mellowness into a wide-eyes startled panic look as if I had slapped him.

“Maybe I should go ahead and apologize for ruining your party,” I say.

“That thing cranks out some volume,” he says, rubbing his neck.

“The Jimmy Buffett tunes aren’t as rough,” I say. “But I must warn you that I got everything AC/DC and ZZ Top ever recorded, remastered and soaked in high fidelity. And this little machine goes all the way to eleven.”

“Maybe I will borrow that saw,” he said, perhaps envisioning a sleepless night next to the old guys rocking out in the woods.

I give him the saw and a box of MoonPies and he wanders off back towards his rusted fire ring. The girls he mentioned never show up. About 10:30 pm, I see his lonely silhouette sitting next to his little scraggly fire, beer in hand, thoughts far away.

I reach over and click “It’s a Long Way To the Top If You Wanna Rock”N” Roll” and turn it all the way up. His head bobs and slowly turns in our direction and I can see a gold tooth shining in the firelight. He holds up us a gloved hand with a thumb’s up.

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Why She Gave Me Her Old Cast Iron Frying Pan

She was at least 88 years old. Her face showed every child, every job, every heartbreak, every laugh, every row she’d ever planted or picked or hoed. And in those wrinkles, all three dead husbands still lived. When I drove to her house several years ago, she met me in the yard with the frying pan she’d told me about. It was black and worn around the edges like it had been abused by weather and pain and love all at once. It hung heavy from her warped, arthritically aggravated hand as if it might be a weapon instead of a cooking utensil. She leaned to one side to balance herself against its weight, her back hunched from decades of tough work.

“Well here it is,” she said. “It ain’t too big, ain’t too small.”

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Fish On A Stick and Singing By a Gas Pump

Jimmy “The Freak”, a friend of mine dries salmon on a stick, eating it like a fishy corn dog. He gets his fish shipped in from Seattle in big, frozen boxes. On the days his shipments arrive, he gets so excited he can barely speak.

I like fish, and I like fish sticks – the ones in the grocery store freezer section – but dried fish on a stick bothers me. Fish tacos are the same way. There is fish and there are tacos. I don’t see them hanging out together no matter how many times I go to Mexico. But that’s just me.

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Joining a Cult

I was just checking all my investments – okay, that’s not true since my investments consist of a seriously used Ford F-150 and a formerly valuable bass boat that is currently on loan to a friend of mine in southern Arkansas ­– and I came across a story on about MoonPie being named one of the “11 cult foods consumers crave.” They even called it a “cultural artifact.”

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Real Baseball Season Begins

Baseball season started the other day. And I’m not talking about major league baseball. I’m talking about little league ball. Real baseball. No steroids, no millionaires, no whole-paycheck-eating ticket prices, no $9 hotdogs. The baseball game I went to broke out on a ragged, mostly dirt field next to a chain link fence in a poor neighborhood. I pass a lot of these ball fields every week. This time I decided to stop.

The players wore no uniforms. The too-large gloves were handed down from grandfathers, most likely, or bought secondhand or donated or borrowed. No one wore cleats. They wore the only shoes they probably owned, the same shoes they wore to school or wherever else they went.

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The Best Job in the World, Almost.

About two weeks ago I was sitting in Dreamland, the barbecue joint in Tuscaloosa made famous by ribs and Crimson Tide football. Next to a wall filled with decades of Alabama football memorabilia, I nursed a plate of ribs and light bread as a friend told me about an architect in Texas who quit his job to ride around the Lone Star State eating barbecue every day, writing about it on his blog and Tweeting about burnt ends and perfect pork. That career change may seem drastic until you hear that the venerable Austin publication, Texas Monthly, has hired him to be its first ever Barbecue Editor. That is almost as good as the guy I know who is a professional Scotch drinker. As jobs go, it’s tough to find better professions than those. Well, unless you drive around all day giving away MoonPies and shooting the breeze with people. So I’m not complaining.

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March Madness, MoonPies, Garden and Gun and My Boss

In workplaces all over the country today, people are not working much. Well, they’re not working for their companies really. They’re busy filling out their March Madness brackets and arguing about who will win here and there.

I was just at a welding supply warehouse and instead of welding supplies, the guys in the back were huddled around a bracket sheet, pontificating vigorously about who will get to the Final Four.

“My money’s on North Carolina!” yelled a big ol’ boy well know for his Tar Heel tendencies. “Roy will have them ready.”

“Awe come on,” said the foreman, “you gotta admit that Indiana is going to take it all. North Carolina ain’t even in the top 20, boy.”

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Rough Drive To Gulf Shores

“I’ve started making lists of places I want to go,” says Katie, her tow-headed 4 year-old son, Mason – named after her grandfather, a former train conductor – running in circles in her yard.

“I remember when you were his age,” I say pointing to Mason and thinking about a little tomboy girl raised by my sister after her husband left her years ago. “You were mean as a snake.”

“Well, Uncle Mike,” she says, “everybody says I take after you.”

“What’s on your list?” I ask, ignoring her comeback. “Where are you going?”

“Canada, Mexico, Paris, Ireland and Australia,” she says without hesitation. From her expression I can tell she’s put some thought into this list.

“When was the last time you were in Gulf Shores?” I ask. “I’m headed there now. Wanna pack up Mason and a suitcase and you guys can ride down with me. Got room in the truck.”

“It ain’t exactly Paris,” she says.

“It is if you can’t afford to go to Paris,” I say.

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