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Whiskey by the drink sign at Shirley Mae's
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I'm late to the game. I didn't discover Shirley Mae's. Many a soul-food loving diner has gone ahead of me in the 25 years she's been cooking up lard-fried chicken and ribs and from-scratch fixings in her little Smoketown kitchen in Louisville. But it feels like a discovery, and it was one I immediately wanted to share after my husband Brian and I finally stopped at the little restaurant and bar tucked under the most awesome-ever vintage Whiskey By The Drink sign. The door was closed but the smoker was going. The gent standing in the doorway of the the liquor store across the street stepped over to bang on the door for us, and it swung open to reveal a dim interior thick with the promise of good food soon to come.
A friendly and polite fellow ushered us in and quickly set up one of the little tables lining the wall where we settled in to look over the to-the-point menu. It would be fried chicken for me – a farmer friend had told me she fries in lard, just like my great-grandma did – with mac and cheese and turnip greens and a glass of lemonade. Meatloaf was Brian's no-brainer, a childhood favorite, with cole slaw and pinto beans. We grinned at each other over the low table as Miss Shirley made her way from a seat to her well-worn spot at the stove amidst her collection of what surely are the most well-seasoned cast iron skillets in town. The crackle and smoke of battered chicken hitting the hot lard filled the air. This – this – exact feeling is what we seek in our travels around the globe. Real. No scene, no fuss, just people going about their business of seriously satisfying food.
The long space, formerly a shotgun house, Miss Shirley's son and our waiter told us, held a bar swathed in darkness past on the opposite side of the door where we'd entered. A few bottles of bourbon glinted with the lights from the Christmas tree deep in the shadows at the far end. Framed photos crowded the walls. Evidently Arsenio Hall is a fan of the place; he'd signed a photo for Miss Shirley. A television hanging on the wall above us blared a ballgame, competing with the sounds arising from the open kitchen where Miss Shirley was making magic. It was going on 2 o'clock and my stomach's rumbles joined the cacophony. A woman – Miss Shirley's daughter – took up a seat opposite us and we chatted about the thumb I'd smashed that morning in a tile-loading mishap. She chastised me for not seeing a doctor. After knowing me five minutes she pronounced me hard headed and stubborn – just about right, as anyone who's known me the rest of my life would attest. She and her brother regaled us with stories of their own injuries and maladies but when the food landed on our table I was pretty much done with the chit chat.
That chicken. A pile of four 'jumbo wings' crowded the styrofoam plate next to a couple pieces of hotwater cornbread, a marvel in itself, but let's get back to that chicken. A light golden crust shattered with my first bite into the nearly searing hot, juicy meat inside. Immediately my fingers were slicked in grease, my nails filled with crumbs. I tore from the chicken to the fried hand-pattied cornbread, sort of a savory beignet, to the melting pinto beans on Brian's side of the table to the creamy mac and cheese to the succulent greens back to the chicken, refreshing myself periodically with the lemonade that Shirley's son squeezed fresh. I shook my head frequently; I revert to muteness when the food is so good I don't even know what to say.
When Miss Shirley resumed her seat I turned to her to tell her what she must hear every day of her life: “This tastes like the chicken my great-grandma made!”
She graciously accepted the compliment, which I followed with a barrage of questions. “How do you get it so crispy?”
“I don't know, I just throw that shit in there,” she said, laughing at my exuberance.
“Well, where did you learn to cook like that?” I pressed on.
“I had six kids,” she said, “I had to.”
We went on raving about the food for a while, interspersed with admonitions that I get myself to a doctor for an X-ray when they saw how I fumbled with my chicken minus an operable left thumb.
When I couldn't manage another bite, we packed up our leftovers and stepped back out into the bright light of the rest of the world, bound for an x-ray. But I couldn't stay away long. My parents were coming up from Somerset the next day, so come opening time that Sunday we were right back at that door. We were greeted like old family friends, welcomed in, everyone checking on my damaged digit (which was not, thankfully, broken) and the ordering ritual began again, this time with even more giddiness on my part because I knew what to expect, and I couldn't wait for my parents to try it.
A notoriously picky eater, my meat-and-potatoes-hold-the-vegetables dad is easily the hardest person to go out to eat with I know. Even taking him to my favorite places I agonize over whether he'll like the food. But I had no qualms when he ordered Shirley Mae's chicken. The look of glee on his face when his plate hit the table was rivaled only when he contemplates an especially shiny new piece of chrome for his beloved Goldwing. He tried the pinto beans first and turned to look at me, beaming pure joy. “Dana!” he said. “I know!” I replied. Then he tried the chicken. He looked stunned. “Oh my God,” he muttered, then didn't say another word until “this should be illegal,” he proclaimed. He turned to Miss Shirley. “This tastes like my grandma's chicken,” he said. I smiled at her as she thanked him just as she had me and just as she must everyone who walks in the door.
Just like before, we got more than a meal. Today's topic had moved on from my injury to my relationship with Brian. “You're the right guy for her,” Miss Shirley's daughter observed. “You say one word to every 20 of hers.” We laughed till our sides hurt – not hard, full as we were from the heaps of food, everyone tasting everyone else's – potato salad, ribs, cole slaw, beans, greens, and chicken making their way back and forth across the table. We chatted with another of Miss Shirley's daughters and learned the secret to knowing when Shirley Mae's is open. "When that raggedy old smoker outside is going, people know we're open," she explained.
This meal served as our Christmas dinner with my family, since we're headed to our Detroit house for the holiday. It's been a long, long time since I can remember such a good-for-the-soul holiday meal as this one. It brought back memories of big, home-cooked dinners, long, raucous Rook games among the grown-ups while the cousins played, snow and presents and all that is wonderful about Christmastime as a kid. At Shirley Mae's the food, the joking and laughter, that food – my family welcomed and made to feel at home by this other family – it all made for a family Christmas dinner I'll always smile to think of.
As we made our way outside after dinner, my dad called out to Miss Shirley, “This is our new favorite restaurant!” I'll second that.