Thursday, July 30, 2009

Food Tour of Tuscaloosa: The Waysider

The best food comes out of old converted houses. There's something about the creaking wooden floors, the aging fixtures, and the inevitable well-worn seating that makes the food taste better. The Waysider, a Tuscaloosa institution for breakfast since before recorded history, is such a place.

My grandfather and I navigated our way through the old red brick buildings of downtown Tuscaloosa, over the river and along a bank of railroad tracks to find The Waysider. My body was crying out for a big breakfast and hot coffee, as beers and a giant shrimp poboy from the Cypress Inn on the Black Warrior River the night before had left me a little worse for wear.

I worried about a long wait for a table. Earning accolades from Esquire Magazine as a Top 50 breakfast joint probably wouldn't discourage the crowds from swamping this little Tuscaloosa gem.

Fortunately, on this off-peak Friday morning we were able to breeze right into the old red and white house to take a seat in the, ehem, cozy, dining room. By cozy, I mean that the tables are wedged in a Tetris-like arrangement that requires serious diligence in navigating.

Getting seated at a famous restaurant without a wait surprised me. This is something great about Tuscaloosa. It hasn't yet been overrun by foodies and food bloggers like my home town of Austin. A hidden gem remains that way and doesn't get oversaturated with fans.

In keeping with Tuscaloosa city ordinance 4.2.10, every square inch of the Waysider's walls is covered with Alabama football memorabilia. Daniel Moore's ubiquitous prints of great moments in Alabama gridiron history hold a place of honor. The steely painted gazes of dozens of Gene Stallings and Bear Bryants inspired me to eat like a champion.

As for the food, I came looking for a real-deal Southern breakfast, and I found it. I had two fried eggs, bacon, grits, fresh biscuits, and red-eye sausage gravy for a ludicrous $4.85. My eggs and bacon were just fine, but you can get these anywhere. It was the deep south, by golly you're in Dixieland, portion of the meal in the grits, the biscuits, and the gravy that made this special.

I might lose my Alabama card for saying this, but I've never loved grits. Grits have always been a gritty, gloppy, flavorless placeholder for me; a blank canvas that nobody bothered to paint. These grits were graced with the presence of butter, salt, and, I swear, some bacon grease, that elevated them. I've been transformed. I'm a grits man now.

The biscuits came out piping hot in a connected pod of four. They featured a flaky, al dente exterior with a soft, steaming interior. While they tasted great, their primary purpose was as a Gravy Delivery Vehicle for the sausage gravy. Sitting here more than 500 miles from the Waysider, I nearly weep when I think of that gravy. It was so peppery, spicy, and thick with little chunks of sausage. A cardiologist would warn against the dangers of such a gravy, but I swear that instead of damaging my body, it was fortifying me; spackling cracks and regrouting loose tiles.

The Waysider serves up Southern breakfast at its finest. If I had to lodge one complaint it would be that their breakfast made it nearly impossible for me to eat lunch that day. In fact, leaving the Waysider, I wasn't sure if I would ever be able to eat again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nick's in the Sticks

There are scattered moments in this life when everything falls into place. You are in exactly the right place at the right time, and it feels great.

I don't know if it was the first few sips of my jet fuel-esque beverage that was beginning to course through my veins. It might have been the classic weathered décor of an honest, authentic dive restaurant. Maybe it was the fact that I was having dinner with my grandpa, Pappy Duncan. Just us two guys out for a steak and some conversation. It could have been the primal joy in eating a well-cooked ribeye. I'm not sure what it was, but it was darn good.

A few minutes earlier, we had been headed down a dark two lane road on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa. Nick's Original Filet House (colloquially known as Nicks in the Sticks) would be our destination. Doubt crept into my mind. There's no way there could be a restaurant out here. There's nothing out here at all except for darkness and the yellow lines in the middle of the road.

Then, out of the darkness, I saw a sign. Well, to be precise, I saw a lack of a sign. It was the empty metal frame that contained Nick's restaurant sign until some tornado or freak storm blew it away years ago. They never replaced it. The empty metal frame works just fine, and it is a fitting welcome.

Imagine one of those sad television commercials pleading for just 35 cents a day to help save the life of a child. Picture the footage of lean-to hovels and cinder block houses with murky puddles of water or dusty gravel. That's about what Nick's In the Sticks looks like at first glance. I kid. It's not that bad, but you get the idea.

The ambiance inside is that of an old bar or maybe a VFW Post. There's aging wood panelling everywhere, and, as is the custom in these parts, the walls are covered in Alabama football memorabilia and paintings. The ten tables were all jammed packed. It was pretty loud in there as the small room practically thrummed with a happy, boisterous energy.

I suspected that Nicodemus might have something to do with the atmosphere. The Nicodemus is the signature cocktail at Nick's, and the word on the internet is that this is a potent concoction. As a looked around at the other tables, I could see many of them festooned with styrofoam cups filled with red punch topped with a cherry. I nervously ordered one when the waiter stopped by. I was a little surprised when he asked to see my I.D.. This must be some drink! If he asks me to sign a waiver, then I might have to rethink my order.

Pappy and I then ordered our steaks. He had the bacon-wrapped filet with baked potato. I ordered the biggest thing I could find, the ribeye with onion rings. The food was delicious. I could tell that my ribeye wasn't a high-falootin dry-aged, organically farmed piece of prime beef. It had character, it had seasoning, and it was cooked to the medium rare I asked for. The onion rings were some of the best I've ever had: sweet with a thick buttermilk batter.

I will admit that the Nicodemus had gone to work on my physiology. I felt warm, happy, and quite hungry. I was really enjoying the atmosphere. I was chatting with pappy and peering around at the Daniel Moore Alabama football prints. These realistic paintings capture great moments in Alabama football history and feature names like, "The Kick", "Rebirth in the Swamp", and "Goal Line Stand." Pappy was telling me about the last time he had been to Nick's. It was 25 years ago, and the table he sat at was right next to ours. Maybe in the light of day in some blind taste test, I might not be overwhelmed by the experience like I was, but everything combined for an awesome night.

We wrapped up our dinner and went up to the bar to pay. There's no cash register or touch-screen computer here. You just point at your table, and the owner adds up your bill by hand in pencil. Ah, Nick's. As we headed back out into the dark Alabama night, I looked back at the little brick building with the aged red and white awning. That was definitely the right meal, at the right place, at the right time.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

9 Months

Saturday will mark Michael's 9 month birthday. We've all come a long way in that period, surmounting obstacles, losing sleep, regaining sleep, losing it again, and finding new adventures.

How did we celebrate Mikey's 9 month birthday? We took him to a Well Baby checkup to be weighed, measured, poked, prodded, and evaluated. Here are the latest technical specs on our finely tuned baby machine:

Weight: 21 pounds and 13 ounces (75th percentile). Doctor Travis assured us that Mikey is not a total butterball, but that I could probably lose a bit of weight.

Head Circumference: 50th percentile.

Length: 29.75 inches (90th percentile). This is great news. I am totally ready to vicariously live through Michael's achievements on the basketball court.

Toughness: Michael received a heel stick and a shot today without shedding a single tear.

Cuteness: Michael was mobbed by the nurses and office staff. We heard, "Get over here, you need to see this baby. He's precious. Look at that smile and all those teeth!"

Toothiness: With 8 teeth, Mikey is still leading the league in teeth per capita among all babies we know.

Stethoscopability: Dr. Travis warned us that Michael would probably object and freak out at being examined. Michael's response? Laughing and trying to grab the stethoscope.

As you can see, I'm quite proud of my son. He aced his pediatric doctor's visit. It wasn't all great news. He hasn't started waving "bye bye", so he got a black mark in that section of his development evaluation. We'll have to work on that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

Night Times

We've made it through another day. Mikey has ceased his crawling, grabbing, gumming, pulling up, and otherwise creating mischief for the day. He has polished off his 6 ounce bottle, supplemented with organic rice cereal, and stopped rubbing his eyes. The tireless baby has finally tired. The infant sleeps.

After a brief negotiation with Shannon, it is up to me now to attempt a high-stakes maneuver, the transfer to crib. I smoothly stand up and hold the baby to my chest. He stirs but does not wake. I move with exagerated care like a ninja carrying a jar of nitroglycerin or a crate of Faberge eggs. To wake him and shatter the serenity would be a disaster. With a sigh, he nestles his sweaty little head (for he is a certified sweat-sleeper) into my chest and falls back asleep. We have passed the first obstacle.

This is one of the best feelings in the world, the feeling of your little monster, warm and drowsy, nestling against you. It lasts for a scant minute, the time it takes to get up the stairs and gingerly lower him into his crib (another treacherous step in the process). I linger for a moment at the rail of his stylish espresso crib and pause to look at him. I remember seeing this exact Hallmark glurge moment on television many times: the beaming parent staring down at the sleeping baby while a heartwarming orchestral score poignantly plays. The younger me would have gagged a little or apathetically flipped the channel, but the current me gets it. It's more than just a cliché. It really does happen. And, if there's anything sweeter and more deeply good than the visage of a sleeping infant, I don't know what it is.

I flash back to all the difficult sleepless nights: the crying, the failed crib transfers followed by hours of anxious rocking, reading, and cajoling. I'm relieved that tonight turned out differently. This was a perfect transfer. I must be getting pretty good at this parenting business. I turn and tiptoe out, closing the door behind me to keep the no-good cat from sleeping on Mikey's head or scratching up our rocking chair. The dishes wait for no man, so I head back downstairs toward the kitchen with a smile on my face..

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Preemptive Cry Interception

All is right in the kitchen. Little Michael is playing happily on the tile floor. He's long since mastered the art of sitting up, so there is no need to place a protective ring of pillows around him. Enter the dog, 35 pounds of rolicking, oblivious Corgidor. She dances sideways, hoping for a morsel of food, and runs solidly into the baby.

He topples backward onto the cruel hard floor. The impact doesn't look too terrible, but the tell-tale signs of a huge cry are already appearing on his little face.

Little eyes squeeze shut in a grimace. His mouth opens and twists itself into a pitiful litle upside-down U. His lungs are expanding, taking in the huge breath that will fuel the hellish sonic fury that will soon follow. Little cheeks have reddened. The table is set for an explosion of infantile grief.

This is where quick thinking and parenting can save the day. Before he even hitsthe floor, I am in motion. I scoop Mikey up and begin the emergency preemptive cry interdiction procedure. The basic steps are: Pick up, hug, bounce, shush, and say "you're ok" over and over again. This can normally stabilize the situation, but there will probably be some residual screaming.

The next phase of intercepting a serious cry is the happiness distraction gambit. It's amazing that a hurt little baby can go from screeching to laughing and playing in mere seconds if the happiness gambit is applied correctly. For this one, I raise my voice into the horrifying falsetto that babies seem to enjoy and repeat the celebratory words, "YAY YAY! That was fun! YAY YAY!"

I quickly try to find something interesting like a mirror, a terrified cat named Velcro, or a colorful toy. The combination of the happy sounds and the new, interesting object defuses the situation, and the happy laughing baby returns. All memories of being bodyslammed by the dog have faded away.

This post is based on a true story.