Benny’s First and Last Chance

Benny’s First and Last Chance sat on the right side of Dixie Highway connecting Fort Knox to Louisville.

The building itself was unpretentious; mostly one story with a second story built over the bar itself, all spread out like a dusty brown hen hunkered down for a sun bath in her gravel parking lot. The kitchen was in the back, a large room with the ubiquitous grill for the main items on our menu: hamburgers and cheeseburgers. My luck we didn’t do fries; scraping down that greasy hot grill late nights was chore enough.

The kitchen door opened to a hallway; right angle to the kitchen door was a rounded door to the bar, where I would stand while waiting for orders. Miss Benny’s was a classic honky tonk; meant for serious drinking, few came just for lunch or dinner.

Benny the Greek was long gone, but Miss Benny, the Tennessee girl who married Benny, held herself upright every night at the bar, sipping on Canadian Club with ginger ale and a squeeze of lime until the bartender would gallantly offer Miss Benny his arm and usher her slowly up the stairs to her apartment, her bouffant up-do tightly in place thanks to lavish application of Spray Net, her eyes squinted and puffy behind her sparkly cat eye framed glasses, each step carefully measured.

The juke box was right inside the front door, you couldn’t miss it when entering, all lit up, volume cranked up loud enough to drown out most drunken arguments. It wasn’t all country music, we had the Stones, Elvis, and Motown. Ok, mornings the bartender would lower the volume some, but I must have listened to “Hey You Get Offa My Cloud” thirty times a night at a volume that would stun me. Air conditioning throbbed away continually, which did cool things down on hot Kentucky nights but still didn’t clear out the smoke. If things got too rowdy, the bartender would nudge the worst offenders out to the parking lot where differences could be settled so folks could get on back to what they came for: whiskey and beer. Chances were pretty good there would be a tooth or two missing by the time things got calmed down, but a little whiskey would sanitize most scrapes.

One Sunday afternoon two men came in, took a seat and ordered hamburgers and sodas. No beer. The older looked weather beaten, a bit careworn, silent, grim. The younger looked like his son, equally grim, though he looked pretty beat up instead of weather worn. He had a beauty of a black eye and the eye itself was blood red where there should have been white. After serving them their hamburgers and chips, I went back behind the bar to the round doorway and watched the son eat his hamburger carefully, slowly, being careful not to bother that loose tooth left over from last night’s brawl in another honky tonk closer to Louisville. Pop drove up and bailed him out; now on their way back home, they had stopped for a bite to eat. The look on the older man’s face said, “If you think you got it bad last night son, just wait until you get home and your ma gets her hands on you”.

Miss Benny ran a tight shift, and even though she got pretty tight herself, she had definite views on how things should be done: Her Way.

I wasn’t the only short order cook to work for Miss Benny.

Pearly Mae shared shifts with me; a large woman of perhaps three hundred and fifty pounds, probably a little more, she had dark brown, medium length hair with nice natural waves and beautiful skin. Pearly Mae would bring a three layer devil’s food cake covered in chocolate frosting to work with her and put it on the kitchen table in the middle of room. By the end of her shift there would be nothing left but crumbs and a smidgeon of frosting. I never asked for a piece of her cake, so I couldn’t judge if it was worthy of a ribbon at the state fair. She never offered.

Once, while spending two relaxed weeks in the closed psychiatric ward at Walter Reed after a teensy breakdown, I met up with an interesting bunch of girls. One, a hearty woman from Alabama, filled my head with her detailed descriptions of southern cooking, describing meals she had prepared for her family. Though I couldn’t get a grip on pouring syrup over a plate of pork chops, greens, black eyed peas, and corn bread, I sure wanted to try corn fritters and a few other dishes she described in detail.

I figured hanging around with Pearly Mae could be my big chance to get close to real down home cooking. I started cooking full time after my father passed away when I was eleven, but that was pretty hard scrabble stuff. Now, the Real Deal; I hoped to be initiated into the inner sanctum of southern hospitality. Pearly Mae didn’t even show me which mix she used for her devil’s food cake.

I had just turned twenty one and Pearly Mae was in her middle thirties; in Miss Benny’s eyes I simply didn’t measure up to Pearly May’s heftier qualifications.

The bone of contention was salmon patties.

Miss Benny got a hankering for salmon patties one day. I understand her liking salmon; I grew up eating fresh salmon grilled over an open fire on the beach of Cultis Bay. My dad caught, canned, smoked, dried, and grilled salmon all through my childhood. I knew salmon.

Miss Benny opened and drained two cans of salmon, then proceeded to carefully make the pattie mixture herself. I was on early shift in the kitchen that day and would remain there serving tables for the late afternoon shift, so I had high hopes of getting in on the action. My hopes were quickly dashed when Pearly Mae strolled into the kitchen, chocolate cake in hand. I slid over to my post at the bar doorway to keep an eye on customers while keeping my ears open to what was going down in the kitchen.

Miss Benny explained carefully that she wanted her patties to be delicate, so Pearly Mae was not to add any crushed cracker crumbs to the salmon mixture. Confident that all was in experienced hands, Miss Benny glided past me to the bar and her favorite stool to enjoy an afternoon refreshment of her usual Canadian, ginger and lime. Pearly Mae got down to business in the kitchen; the smell of sizzling salmon patties mingled with the odor of grease from frying hamburgers was soon wending it’s way to where I stood sentinel.

The moment of truth finally arrived: Pearly Mae proudly walked past me, plate piled high with fresh fried salmon patties in hand, she did a quick pit stop at the barkeeper’s station for some lemon wedges, then presented the plate to Miss Benny. Smiling, Miss B tucked into a pattie, chewed a big mouthful, paused, then spit it out. The plate moved suddenly into a dangerous slide towards Pearly Mae.

Frustrated that she shouldn’t add cracker crumbs, Pearly Mae had mixed a generous portion of flour in with the salmon and turned Miss Benny’s patties into pucks.