ONE: When I first patronized the place, I don’t think the The Club was formally called The Club. I think it was just the local name for the establishment. The only signage identifying it as a café/bar was a plywood sign on the roof, lighted by incandescent bulbs that said simply “Eats.”
It was a hot July Saturday afternoon when I walked into the building, through a beat-up front door into a white Formica café with four small tables, a dozen straight backed chairs, and six leatherette stools at the counter. The kitchen area was tiny, with a serving window ledge. I could just see the top of a gray head, belonging to the one cook who also acted as waitress, cashier, and busperson.
I was the only patron. It looked dark and cool back in the bar, so that is where I went. An old-school wooden bar hugged one wall. A few round tables skirted a dance floor and jukebox. The bartender wore a ballcap that said “Clyde.” I asked Clyde if it was alright to eat in the bar and could I see a menu? He handed me a single sheet of 8 ½ x 11 paper with a mimeographed price list.
While a beer made peace with my ulcers, I studied the menu. A hamburger with fixings was a dollar, a bowl of chili 50 cents, and a chiliburger $1.75. I pointed out to Clyde what seemed to me to be a discrepancy in the pricing.
“Well, this must be an error. It just seems like it would be cheaper to order a hamburger and a bowl of chili than to ask for a chiliburger.”
“Well, what is the difference? If you are charging two bits more for the same ingredients and calling it a chiliburger, is it something special, something more than chili over a hamburger and a couple of sunk buns? I mean, is the chiliburger something I eat with my fingers or with a fork?”
Clyde gave me a “you stupid-pup” look that I saw several times in the next few years, jerked the menu from my fingers and said, “Hell no, son. With a mouth like you’ve got, I’ll walk over home and get you a scoop shovel if you think you’re going to need it.” I ordered the chiliburger.
TWO: When I was a teenager, at the very beginnings of what turned into a 30-year on-and-off career as an agricultural worker, I put up loose hay out in the Sandhills of Nebraska, where ranch families made darn certain that their help ate three square meals per day. The big meal was at noon, called dinnertime, when the women of the family would bring a big spread out into the fields and feed the workers as though they were going to market us by the hundredweight in the fall. I fondly remember sitting in the shade of a tractor wheel and feasting on fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, and homemade bread, washed down with raspberry Koolaid and followed by a piece of gooseberry pie and a short nap.
By the time I was in my thirties and had bounced around the planet, I ended up in the high country above the Salmon River in Idaho, where no food was ever offered by the various ranchers I helped, and, eventually, none was expected. We cowpokes and silage pit stompers would sneak home at noon for a baloney sandwich or into town for a chiliburger at The Club.
Except for one time. It was weigh-out day at the ranch, as close as one can get to Cow Owner Christmas, that day when the cattle buyer with the dusty tan Cadillac, big checkbook and five cattle hauler trucks shows up at the ranch to weigh and load grass-fed beef for the trip to the big feedlot in the sky. It was rancher’s payday.
About mid-morning, when the crew was encrusted with cow crap and the rancher and cattle buyer were opening their second pint of Old Overholt, the owner yelled into the pens that none of us were supposed to leave at lunchtime because his wife had prepared food for all of us. Crazy Dan and I were both surprised at the sudden appearance of a meal plan in our terms of employment.
I was right at the front of the serving line and was the first to realize that the only entrée on the menu for the day was microwaved beef liver served on a paper plate, with potato chips. I never was a gut eater, and I challenge you to show me a person who ever butchered a steer and eats rare steak. Nuking beef liver does nothing to the organ meat except to heat it up and turn it warm and gray. The ranch wife was using this day to clean out her freezer.
I was lucky. I was able to accept my serving somewhat graciously by holding my breath. Then I excused myself from the kitchen and beat it to the porch where the cowdogs were waiting. A young hard-working Dingo dog was kind enough to eat my free lunch. By the time the last of the cowboys joined me on the porch, though, the cowdogs were plumb full of microwaved beef liver. I’m pretty sure that my horse slipped on a chunk of liver that afternoon, chucked into the barnyard slop rather than left rudely on the plate.
J.D. Smith is an accomplished writer and jack-of-all-trades. He lives in Athena.