The mind is a strange thing, and memory perhaps the strangest of its abilities. It can discard useful data, such as what one may have had for breakfast that same day, while retaining in poignant detail the savor of meals taken years ago.
Back in my Snot-Nose Days, our family had evolved a Vacation Routine of sorts, one that lasted several years. My brother and I, accompanied by our mother, would fly down to South Florida in the springtime to visit the Maternal Grandparents. After a week, our father would drive down to join us, and after another two weeks, we would all pile in the car for the long trip home.
At some point, possibly due to escalating airfares, we began the practice of driving both ways, the four of us packed into the family sedan for what evolved from a three-to-four-day marathon to an efficient two-day run down the Eastern Seaboard. The drive got shorter as the roads got better, Interstate 95 replacing the long stretches of US 1, 301, and 17.
But early on, the Interstate was a fever dream of futurists. We hammered down long stretches of two-lane blacktop between cities and became entangled in those selfsame cities, sometimes breaking our trip to stop at a Quality Courts motel. High living, that was.
There was a one or two year period when we would stop in Jacksonville, Florida, the remaining miles to North Miami Beach being just a little more than the Old Man could handle as the sun was setting. The Lodging of Choice was the Motel Zanzibar, hard by US 1 in the heart of the city. I recall one infamous episode there, an incident involving what can only be described delicately as a stoppage – the result of an Irresistible Force meeting an Immovable Object. In the interest of sparing the Casual Reader, I will say only that the Zanzibar’s plumbing was not up to the challenge of a ten-year-old Stevie. Carpet was moistened, teeth were gnashed, Housekeeping was called, Parental Embarrassment hung thick in the air. But I digress.
Across the street from the Zanzibar sat a dilapidated hole-in-the-wall eatery, The Chicken Shanty. We dined there one evening – one precious evening – and the sense-memory of the fried chicken I ate there that day has never left my reptilian hind-brain.
It was ambrosial, that chicken. Crisp, perfectly battered, moist beneath its fried coating, it was the Chicken of the Gods. Served alongside it were baskets of fluffy Southern-style biscuits and pitchers of golden honey. Simple food, and perfect.
When people ask me what I find alluring about Southern cooking, my mind inevitably flashes back to The Chicken Shanty. Forty-seven years have come and gone since that halcyon spring evening, and not once have I partaken of fried chicken without thinking wistfully of that sacred place, long since vanished.