Fish and Grits

Jeffrey K. Actor

MY RETIREMENT BUCKET list includes long drives across the U.S. in search of the unexpected.

Such trips appeal to my frugal nature. As a rule, the total cost of gas, hotels and meals is usually less than the total for roundtrip plane tickets, airport parking fees and baggage expenses. This might not be true for single travelers. But it’s a guideline that works for my wife and me.

We typically pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, drinks and cookies for roadside breaks, thus limiting our meal costs. Still, I love stopping at random eateries in small towns, filled with locals willing to share stories and tall tales. Indeed, I know my desires well enough, to the point where I snuck a small line item into our travel budget for “whim eating adventures.”

Recently, Lori and I drove from Texas to visit my mother on Florida’s west coast. It was a two-day venture that took us across rivers that were difficult to pronounce, and through places that were even harder to spell. We had no set itinerary. Rather, we simply wished to enjoy the sights along the way.

We stopped close to midnight halfway across Mississippi, finding a place to stay on the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico, outside a postage-stamp-sized town whose name screamed for another vowel. We awoke hungry and searched for an inexpensive breakfast place before starting the second leg of our drive.

I punched the word “diner” into my iPhone. To my chagrin, there were no hits. Undeterred, Lori entered “cafe.” Lo and behold, 14 entries appeared, which was odd since the town’s population on a roadside sign was listed at just 18,387. No matter.  Perhaps we stumbled into a well-to-do suburb of Biloxi, rich in history and culture. More likely, there was a culinary training institution nearby, and the cafes catered to high-rolling casino visitors.

We picked a cafe with an engaging name, input the address into our driving app, and left with an appetite whetted for a meal filled with conversation and local food. We drove past homes with classic white pillared southern-style porches and perfectly arranged sugar magnolia trees, the beauty of which we missed during the previous day’s nighttime arrival.

My inner frugal spidey sense immediately tingled upon entering the establishment. A well-coifed hostess seated us at a marble-topped table. A waitress wearing Prada soon appeared with a glossy menu sporting breakfast entrees with fancy descriptions. While I was certain that their baked avocado and ricotta pancakes were scrumptious, all I wanted was a strong cup of Joe, sunny-side-up eggs and some cheese grits. You can always judge a breakfast establishment by the quality of its grits.

I should have listened to my gut and politely left to find a cheaper breakfast emporium, yet my empty stomach growled loudly in a forceful language all its own. Our server answered our questions politely, but was definitely not the garrulous type. Try as we might, we simply couldn’t engage her in meaningful conversation. We each ordered an overpriced omelet and biscuit. I had a mocha latte, while my wife had a chai tea.

Overall, the food was pleasant, although I left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth. I was aghast when the bill arrived, which included an opt-out box for a suggested 25% tip. There was also a 2.5% credit card convenience fee. The total represented more than our entire day’s food budget. I was physically satiated but disappointed. This place certainly didn’t satisfy my bucket list desire.

We had better luck on the trip home. We arrived at our hotel in Tallahassee, Florida, just as the late afternoon rush hour traffic was abating. Hungry and exhausted from traveling, we asked the desk clerk about local eateries. She handed us the hotel’s printed list. But then, almost as if taking pity on two weary travelers, she leaned over the counter and shared that there was a special place right across the street.

We gambled and took her suggestion. The first hint we’d hit pay dirt was the parking lot. A majority of the cars were as badly in need of a wash as our aging Honda CR-V. A pleasant vibe and conversational hum welcomed us. The place was full but not overcrowded. The staff sported well-worn and faded T-shirts adorned with the restaurant’s logo, which juxtaposed two energetic-looking fish caricatures.

The cashier called my wife “honey” and directed us to sit at any empty table. As we settled into a spacious booth, we heard several waiters greet locals by name, who reciprocated by peppering the servers with questions about their family.

The menu was simple: six types of fish prepared battered and deep fried, blackened or grilled. Each entrée came with two side orders and hush puppies. For those in the know, such as my wife who was raised in Louisiana, hush puppies are basically deep-fried cornbread balls. I grew up in Pennsylvania. There, Hush Puppies were a brand of shoe.

Our waitress wondered if we had questions about the menu or if we needed more time before ordering. I asked about the fish and grits. Her eyes sparkled, as if I’d stumbled upon a hidden gem only truly appreciated by regulars looking for fortification before starting their night shift. With an infectious grin, she asked if I wanted my base plain or cheesy.

I ordered blackened trout over cheese grits, accompanied with sides of homemade coleslaw and applesauce, plus a bottomless glass of iced sweet tea to wash it down. The second time she returned to our table, we struck up a conversation and shared tidbits about life in general. She was a November baby, loved the cold, and was going camping the following weekend. More important, we learned she was working her way through community college, earning a degree in hospitality administration and management. She treated us like regulars, letting her guard down to make us feel welcome.

The food nourished both our bodies and our souls. The price for two dinners, including a hefty tip for our waitress, was substantially less than the breakfast mentioned above. On a whim, I slipped an extra Jackson under my plate, our small way of supporting a working gal’s education dreams.

Jeffrey K. Actor, PhD, was a professor at a major medical school in Houston for more than 25 years, serving as an academic researcher with interests in how immune responses function to fight pathogenic diseases. Jeff’s retirement goals are to write short science fiction stories, volunteer in the community and spend time in his garden. Check out his earlier articles.

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