One of the things I miss during this quarantine is the freedom to make a visit to the Whistling Pig. There aren’t many places left like it in this country. Small town family-run operation. Daddy in the kitchen. Daughter at the register. Family working the business. Servers hollering out, “Number 93. Number 93.”
Young girls with dish rags hanging out the back pocket of their jean shorts scoot across the black and white linoleum tile floor delivering orders to tables with red and white checkered table covers. Cardboard Coca-Cola cartons sitting on each table as a holder for ketchup, BBQ sauce, salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Plenty of napkins.
Their burgers are what my friend used to call “5 napkin burgers”. Meaning you have to wrap both hands around one just to hold it, and if you hold it long enough you end up with a palm full of ketchup and burger ooze. Eat a few bites and wipe up to your elbows. Repeat.
I’ve seen the line to the counter where you place your order backed up half-way around the room. No way could you maintain a 6 foot clearance from anybody in this place. Tables full of Georgia Power crews. Circus performers from Callaway. Regulars who pop in most every day for lunch.
And lunch is all they serve. From the looks of it, lunch is all they need to serve. And based on the photos on the wall, I’d say that lunch plays a big part in support of the Moore family’s commitment to dirt track racing at the East Alabama Motor Speedway on the weekends.
One of my favorites is the country fried steak fingers and gravy basket. The BBQ combo plate ain’t bad either. But the vegetable plate is heaven in my mind. Garlic cheese mashed potatoes. Crunchy squash & chesse casserole. Cheese makes food better. Fried green tomatoes. Grilled fried corn on the cobb. Beans and ham. Slaw. Collard Greens. More I can’t remember. Choose 3 with cornbread and you feel like maybe it’d be alright to go on to be with the Lord and not feel cheated.
I don’t know why there are not more Whistling Pigs in the world. Not actual pigs, you understand. I’m sure you know a family run diner like it somewhere. A place where you know half the people around the room.
“How you do’in?”
“I’m good. How ‘bout you?”
Sometimes you sit by yourself. Every now and then a friend pulls out a chair and sits with you. “This seat taken?”
I used to do that to Mr. Billy Sumrell. After he lost his wife to Alzheimers, the Whistling Pig became his lunch spot. He ran a sod farm out Old Chipley Road and knew about everything there was to know about turf.
He’d already have his lunch and would be sitting by himself. I’d have my ticket, #22, pull out a chair and sit with him. Mr. Billy loved to make things out of wood. A real craftsman. Had a small shop down in the basement of his house. Before he passed he sold me some of his tools which still remind me of him every time I use them.
The Whistling Pig kept us in touch.
The sound and feel of this place is from another time. It lives in this time, but it has the atmosphere of a time that feels distant. It’s like the sound of a coin dropping down the slot in a Co-Cola machine at Byron Coker’s barber shop. The sound and feel of a juke box selecting “Hey Jude”, or Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December.”
You walk in and you know that time has not forgotten all that is good about this world. And, it’s in a time like this, we all need a place like that.
I hear people saying that they are enjoying the simple things in life again. Which, in a way, makes me sad that we ever forgot about the simple things.
Cars these days have video screens for kids. USB hook-ups for every gadget under the sun. I saw a car pass me on the interstate the other day. Tennessee license plate. Three kids in the back seat, all with ear buds stuffed up their little brains. Mom on a smart phone and Dad with a blue tooth nailed to his head.
I wondered if those kids knew how to play the billboard alphabet game. Or, how to spot Popeyes at night. Or, count Bugs, the VW kind, which would be hard these days anyway. Had they ever sang “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” about 50 times between here and the beach? Mama preferred that we sang Coke instead of Beer. Northern conservative kids sang about bottles of Pop.
I don’t think I’m being just nostalgic about simple things. What makes “simple” so appealing, so necessary, is that it often includes the people we know best. A night at home with the kids. A vicious game of Monopoly around the kitchen table. Baseball in the backyard with a tree for third base. Changing the oil in the truck on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
They say that you don’t miss what you have until you don’t have it any more.
Maybe the only reason we don’t have “simple” that much anymore is that we have allowed life to become too complicated for our own good. The norm is a restaurant with TVs on every wall instead of conversation around the table. The norm is a schedule every night of the week that requires a detailed spread sheet taped to the fridge to keep it organized. The norm is not even knowing your neighbor’s name. Talk about socially distant.
If this pandemic has done anything good for us, it has reminded us that simple is still possible. In fact, it might be better than we thought. And it just might become the new norm again. In my opinion it would be an improvement.
Look, I’m not anti-progress or anti-21st Century. The gadgets are fine. Year-round rec sports for kids has its place I guess. Being busy is not of the Devil. But every hardship gives us an opportunity to evaluate our lives. It gives us a chance to sort out the things that are important from the things that just fill up our days. It causes us to appreciate the difference between the simple pleasures and our overloaded expectations.
The Whistling Pig is closed for now. I hope the Moore family is gonna make it back to opening day, whenever that is. I can’t wait to say high to a few old friends and to hear my number called.
“Number 47. Number 47. Who has the Chicken Finger basket with Fried Green Tomatoes?”