April 29, 2014
My family was poor when I was very young. If we camped in the ShawneeNational Forest we had to catch fish in order to stay. A crappie haul from the lake meant one more day on the lake, one more swim, one more tramp in the woods. At home, we had designated foods for each day of the week and fried mush for most breakfasts—gag me. Friday was Vegetable Soup Day, for me by far the worst of the food days, worse even than liver and onion day, for the soup consisted of a tonnage of cooked, limp cabbage, just enough tomatoes and ketchup for a reddish tinge and a few carrot peelings and lots of salt. I have never been able to eat or smell cooked cabbage again. I did discover slaw, which I liked (hold the mayo) but I wasn’t crazy for it. Farmer B.’s wife Shirley makes a mean vinegar slaw (oh, her cucumber and onion salad!).
Last Wednesday, at Bobby Q’s Barbecue and Catfish, in Cookeville, Tennessee, I tasted something so good I can never eat regular slaw again. Now I lust for slaw, covet slaw—it may even be the last words I utter on my deathbed: Want . . . Charlie Hawkins’s Pool Room Slaw.
Start with the experience. Just the meaty smell of the restaurant makes you nearly faint. Then sit down and chat with Tasia the waitress, a comely, dark-haired lass with a winning smile and the word “y’all” tripping off her tongue: “Hah. Ah’m Tasia, would y’all like somethin to drink? Tea? Sweet or unsweet, y’all?” Unsweetened, y’all sweet Tasia. “Y’all’s barbecue comes with two sahds.”
Oh yes, the barbeque pulled pork was the best I had ever eaten, even though Farmer B. makes a mean pulled pork to go with the cucumber and onion salad, baked beans and mustard potato salad. Bobby Q’s sauce was tangy, spicy and piquant (there used to be a Bobbie and she morphed into a Bobby), the meat was melt in your mouth, the hush puppies (according to my friend Judy) were hollow and crisp and oniony, the thick banana pudding (a Tennessee ubiquity) chock full of banana slices and cookie wafers, was astounding, but!
“What do you recommend for a side?” I asked dear Tasia. “Pool room slaw,” she said, not missing a beat. “What is pool room slaw?”
The second best thing I ever put in my mouth, that’s what. Mix cabbage and vinegar and habanera peppers and onions and shredded carrots and God knows what else Charlie Hawkins puts into it, into a slush of reddish hue, and inhale it, masticate it, savor it, shed tears over it, sing odes to it, swallow it and experience slaw like a fine whiskey, and thank God for making cabbage and marrying it to hot peppers and creating Tasia the waitress. Simply put, pool room slaw is the greatest use of cabbage and carrots in history.
I was halfway through my pool room slaw when a giant of a man came into the dining room from the kitchen. He wore an apron and looked a little weary. “Are you the cook?” “And the manager,” Charlie Hawkins replied, in a deeper voice than Leonard Cohen could muster. “Is something wrong?” “No, something is right! My mouth is tingling!” “Oh, it must be my pool room slaw; it is an acquired taste.” Yes, and I had acquired it.
“Margaret runs the front,” Charlie Hawkins said, “Bobbie runs the back and Scott (the owner) runs his mouth. I said that in the old days. Then I used to work at a restaurant in St. Louis and all I did was dream of retirement. I have this friend, he lives in the country, and he has this great hammock, and he said, ‘Try it, Charlie,’ but, as you can see, I am a very big man and I said the hammock wouldn’t hold me, but I did try it and it did hold me and I thought I could just spend the rest of my life in that hammock, but then—it took me like, half an hour to rise from that hammock—I decided to come back to Cookeville, I was raised here, and put my stamp on something, which brings us to pool room slaw, Bobbie used to make it and now I added my own touch to it.”
Enter Mike, the current owner, and Charlie explained about my slaw fetish, and Tasia told them I was a writer and was going to write about Bobby Q’s and Mike allowed as how pool room slaw is an acquired taste and he comped us the drinks and the pudding, and my belly was full of pulled pork and hot slaw. Five stars out of four! Tell them, Gene sent you.
The next day, John and Judy and I hung with the college kids in Nashville’s Vanderbilt neighborhood, at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. Order the Southern (no spice), the mild, the hot or the damn hot. I ordered the damn hot and damn near burned my tongue off and seared my lips, and while the fried chicken was damn hot, it was too hot to taste anything but my own hot blood. The two young men who sat next to us marveled at my stamina, as they’d never seen someone order the damn hot before.
Hattie B.’s is a gimmick and a lot of fun. Bobby Q’s, featuring the lovely Tasia, y’all, and pool room slaw, is an addiction.
“Hi. I’m Gene, and I am a slaw addict.”