Okay, let's start with the birthday dinner, because it's getting on toward supper time, and I'm feeling a mite peckish.
Hick wanted to take me out on my birthday, but with it being a weekday, I bargained for a Sunday meal. That worked out fine, because then we could celebrate The Pony's actual birthday as well as my own. The destination of choice was always planned to be a local catfish house. Let's call it The Fish Skillet. They have recently switched ownership, and remodeled part of the building, and offer some new tidbits as well as the standard All-You-Can-Eat fare served family style for $12.95 a head, beverages extra. That might sound cheap to you city-dwellin' fellas, but out here in Backroads, that's exorbitant.
Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the omen that manifested itself on the walk from T-Hoe to restaurant. "Look out, Pony! You almost stepped on that dead bird!" Uh huh. A dead gray bird with yellow-tipped wings lay flat upon the blacktop, stringy entrails on display, beady birdy eyes gazing sightlessly into mine.
"Oh," said The Pony. Not one for words or empathy.
I had left my coat in T-Hoe, because it was giving me static. Besides, who wants to wear a regular quilted purple winter coat with a gray sweatshirtlike lined hood for an entire meal? "I DO! I DO!" shouts Val, who desperately needed her coat once inside the establishment.
Let the record show that Val and family truly enjoy feasting at The Fish Skillet. We feed there several times a year. What a spread! First, your drinks come in a quart mason jar. Then a basket of hush puppies arrives, to be slathered with honey butter by The Pony, and eaten by the half-dozen. He loves him some hush puppies. Also brought out before the good stuff is a plate with sliced onions, dill pickle spears, and lemon wedges. But let's not forget the baked beans, which are Hick's territory, and the SLAW! They have the BEST slaw ever. Finely chopped, juicy, sweet, sweet slaw, served in a large flat white glass bowl. Mmm. Then the meat and potatoes arrive. Wedge fries with a bit of seasoning, fried shrimp, chicken breasts with a delicious sweet & sour dipping sauce, and the star of the show, fried catfish chunks with a cornmeal batter, the size of a plump kindergartener's fist. And tartar sauce!
Except it wasn't. Not like the old times. Not what I'd been surreptitiously salivating over for four days. New management. Some renovations. Not our beloved Fish Skillet.
First of all, the revamping seemed to consist of making the entry area larger, so they can stack up more people waiting to eat-all-they-can. The carpet had been replaced with hardwood floors. An etched glass partition divided one dining area from the entrance, rather than the woven wood slats of old. And that's about it. The tables were the same, the chairs were the same, even the tablecloths were the same. BUT THE FOOD WAS NOT THE SAME!
We were seated in a corner, at a table for five, even though there were only Hick, The Pony, and me. We were right under the thermostat. At one point, Hick told me to bump it up a couple of degrees. Indeed. I was sorely tempted. That thing registered 69 when we sat down, and 68 when we left. That is too cold to consume mass quantities of catfish. My hands were shaking so much that I could barely fork that slaw into my mouth. Michael J. Fox would have had better luck. And by the time we were ready to leave, Hick further noticed that the heat was not on at all, but was turned off. To which The Pony offered, "So it's just a big bulky thermometer."
Oh, and the slaw was not the same. It had CARROTS in it! Val prefers her slaw without carrots. If carrots must make an appearance, then they should be of a tiny dice, about the size of ammunition for a Red Ryder BB Gun. But no. These carrots were long slivers. Oh so long. I had to pull three of them out of my throat as The Pony watched in horror. It felt like I was trying to swallow a shoestring made completely of aglets. And the slaw was brought to the table in a plastic cereal bowl. Not a shallow grand white glass bowl, showing off the acre of slaw awaiting consumption. The taste of that slaw was still above average. But the texture was off-putting.
Hick noticed right away that he did not get his platter of onion slices, dill pickle spears, and lemon wedges. He and Genius used to bargain for the pickle spears. He also noticed that his baked beans came in the same kind of small cereal bowl as the slaw. "You guys don't really eat the beans, do you? I'll just eat them right out of the bowl." And he did.
The Pony grabbed a handful of hush puppies and began feeding. He could make a meal of them and the fries, which were now served in a basket like the hush puppies, and not on the grand platter with the meats. Which brings us to our next topic, the sad decline of Backroads civilization.
The fried shrimp were the same as always. Or at least said The Pony, they being his meat of choice, and most likely just frozen from a bag. They don't advertise using farm-raised shrimp, after all. The chicken was now strips. Tenders. Kind of like Hardees chicken tenders. No half breast without the bone, tender and moist, pure white meat ready for dipping. Nope. Now they were oddly-shaped strips, with a fried breading all around, and some suspicious bites that were not white meat. With enough sweet & sour sauce, they were edible and almost tasty.
The catfish was the major travesty. Where, oh where, had those fat juicy nuggets gone? In their place was a strip of cornmeal-battered something that was passed off as catfish. It was thinner than beef jerky. And just as chewy. Hick and I agreed that is was like batter-dipped fish skin, fried to a crunch. The "fish" was served in long flat sections, like you might have filleted the flesh off an anorexic catfish. And when the first platter was set upon our table, it contained just 3 fish pieces. For cryin' out loud, people! It's a CATFISH house! And we were paying $12.95 a head for all-we-could-eat! I took a piece of fish. Hick took two pieces of fish. And The Pony announced forlornly, "I was going to try a piece of fish this time." So Hick stopped our server and asked for more fish. She looked a bit suspicious. We still had chicken on the platter, and a few shrimp. It was like she was in charge of rationing the catfish. Not that it was anything to write home about.
Yes, that was the pattern all evening. The server brought out just a little bit in one of those small cereal bowls. Then we'd have to ask for more. It got to be a chore. I'm sure that was their goal. Shame you into asking over and over for more food, until you finally got embarrassed and decided you were done. From our past dining experiences at The Fish Skillet, I have left stuffed. Filled to bursting. With delectable food. This time, I left barely sated.
And frozen to the core. Which is, perhaps, appropriate. The Fish Skillet will not see Thevictorian's business again until Not-Heaven freezes over.