Hogfest

by Jonathan Ammons

NOTE: The following events are true, but names have been changed, altered, or removed to protect the innocent and the guilty alike.

Part I: I Wasn’t Supposed to Be Here

Taylor DiFrancis was stringing his hammock between two small trees when the gator truck pulled up baring several more members of our team.

“Why the hell are we camping all the way out here?” Mike called as he dismounted the vehicle. “We may as well have stayed in Asheville and just walked to the festival!”

Our camp was situated on the far side of the estate, away from all the action.

“I needed a tree to string up my hammock and the guy driving said that this was his favorite place on the farm.” Taylor barked back.

“You do realize this is the furthest point you could possibly pick!”

It was a blazing hot summer day, and it was nice to find some respite beneath the shade of the trees, but Mike—organizer of our team–was right: you could hear the bleating of sheep louder than the  music, just barely audible, floating from the band stand on the other end of the estate’s massive property.

Mike groaned. “Shit, I grabbed the wrong tent!”

As he pulled his tent from its crinkled wrapping, we could see its poles: like spaghetti that’s been sticking half out of the water, part rigid, part al dente, limp and useless. “I bought a brand new one, but I accidentally grabbed my old tent from high school!”

From over the hill, we heard the rumble of another gator arriving. It skidded to a stop, and its passenger tumbled to the ground, breaking into a nice shoulder roll before scrambling back to his feet. Bags and luggage went flying everywhere, clothes strewn across the grass as they poured out of the opened duffel bags. Once upright, he grabbed a large trash bag out of the back of the vehicle, and aggressively slung it to the ground the way one might throw a sandbag.

“Jeremy Whitecastle, ladies and gentlemen!” announced Mike, with the sweeping hand gestures of a game show host.

“I couldn’t find all the pieces for one tent,” mumbled Whitecastle, hoisting one end of the trash bag into the air and carelessly dumping the contents into the grass. “But I got parts of two different ones… I think I can make something out of it.”

“Well this thing’s useless!” moaned Mike, still trying to figure out how to shove the limp poles through the ancient fabric of his tent. Before any of us had finished setting up our camp, Whitecastle had somehow made sense of his bastard pieces and built himself a respectable shelter.

“Fuck this, I’ll just sleep in my truck,” Mike said, tossing the heap of fabric and useless poles back into the dirt.

hogfest1We found ourselves in that field at Ivy Forks Livestock Farm for the 4th Annual Hogfest, often heralded as “Bonaroo for Chefs.” I knew little about what I was getting into, only what I’d read in Vice Magazine, and what little I’d gleaned from the twitter hashtag #hogfest, most of which, in some way or another contained the ominous phrase: “Time to get weird.”

Hogfest is a place where chefs from all over the country come together to cook for one another, and show off the cuisines of their home states.

I wasn’t supposed to be here.

Two days earlier, I ran into Mike. He invited me—a writer, not a chef—to tag along with is crew to Hogfest. Spur of the moment.

“Sure!” I said without thinking, then: “What the hell is Hogfest?”

At the time, I was desperately grasping at the tail end of a fraying relationship with my girlfriend, and rather than make the hard choices that were necessary and break off something I didn’t want to end, running off into the woods with a bunch of chefs and drowning in bourbon seemed like a much better option.

Now at camp, Mike burst into laughter. Holding up his phone he said, “Warthog just texted me, ‘Hurry up and get over here, y’all gotta see all these chicks that are into fat dudes!'”

“Did he just send you a picture?” asked Cardiff.

“Yes!” Mike laughed. “And the girl is looking right at the camera like ‘Why is this creep taking my picture?'”

Once we set up camp and consumed a significant portion from a bottle of Blantons, we started our long hike up the hill. The tent village, a hard stone’s throw from the festival ground, looked like a refugee camp for well-to-do white people. Bright orange and yellow tents dotted the crest of the hill, and lawn chairs housed hungry campers, waiting for the next spread of food.

Out of breath and dripping with sweat, we arrived at the festival grounds. There was little to no shelter, save for a couple of tents. Most of the constructed covering was for the kitchen…a large open structure with a tin roof that housed all manner of smokers, grills, and prep stations. The choice was simple: either stand in the blazing sun, or slowly bake next to a piping hot smoker in the shade. As we were walking inside, Jeff Roberts, the events organizer and owner of the farm, rolled up beside us in his golf cart. “Y’all do know you can camp ANYWHERE on the estate you want, don’t you?”

“I know, I know,” Mike barked, gesturing at Taylor. “It’s this dumbass’s fault we’re a mile and a half away.”

“What? I’m a farmer, I don’t mind walking!” Taylor said, attempting to defend himself.

Roberts chimed back: “I do when I don’t have to!” And drove away.

A gravelly voice shouted from the hill below the kitchen. “Where ‘da hell y’all been? You missing all the good stuff!”

John “Warthog” Tanner was loading more wood into his chicken roaster. The massive structure looked like some medieval torture device, with a large black iron grate built in an octagonal shape around a large post with wood fires burning at the base. At the top of the post was a great hoop that surrounded the expanse of the fire.

Strings hung down, holding about a dozen whole chickens that turned slowly, browning in front of the open flames.

Warthog, a large bearded man with a bandana wrapped around his head and a heavily stained t-shirt, lumbered up the hill to greet us. A young woman walked up to Warthog’s contraption to snap a quick photo.

“Give them chickens a spin!” Warthog shouted in a tone that almost sounded angry.

The girl jumped in fright and looked sheepishly up the hill at him.

“Give them a spin!” He shouted again, drawing out the word spin like a carnival barker.

The girl timidly reached out and twisted one of the strings between her fingers sending the chicken turning rapidly, like a top.

hogfest2“What the hell is wrong with you!” Warthog yelled again, “I told you to spin them, not take them for a fucking ride!” The girl nervously, and rapidly slipped up the hill and disappeared into the crowd.

“You do have a way with women,” I remarked, taking a long drag from my beer.

“Shut up, white pants.” He coughed. “I hope you won’t be wearing them Miami Vice pants to cook tomorrow.”

“Getting them dirty is half the fun!”

Despite what appeared to be savage, carnivorous chaos, there was some order to the event. Teams from as far away as California, Texas, Florida and New York arrived to cook, each bearing truck loads of food, enough to feed up to two hundred people. But the heavy threats of rain had dampened the hopes of many and seemed to be diminishing the turnout. Many originally committed to our team were no shows. In order to keep things paced out, the organizers had set a schedule for the time of day that each team was to serve their meals. Ours was scheduled for dinner the following night.

But the delineations of what food was being served by whom seemed to blur as breakfast turned into brunch, brunch into lunch, lunch into second lunch, second lunch into dinner, then someone brought out a whole animal, before the real dinner was finally served.

Lunch, our first day, was served by the incomparable Sam Jonson of Alden North Carolina’s Skyline BBQ. An institution in Eastern North Carolina cue, Jonson had been shoveling coals from his wood burner to his smoker for about 13 hours, all night long. Once the whole pig was cooked, sauced and separated, it was laid in pieces on the service counter and everyone lined up for the show. Baring two cleavers in hand, Jonson took to chopping the pork — rather than pulling it — with a rapid and heavy whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, back and forth, alternating swings from each hand until it was coarsely diced. Then he used the blade to draw to himself a large slab of crispy pork skins, heavily darkened by the hours of smoke. He began chopping the skins even thinner and making large sweeps with his cleavers to mix them with the fatty meat before serving it to those in line. The result was a plump, moist meal with crispy bits of delicious skins tucked in hiding. Little land mines of texture and flavor.

hogfest3We were encouraged not to get too full on the barbecue, however, because a team from Louisiana had already started on preparing their dinner. Throughout the festival grounds sat massive Cowboy Cauldrons, 41 inches in diameter, chained to giant iron tripods with smoldering wood fires set beneath.

On the table, in the kitchen, a chef was spreading all the ingredients for boudin; the herbs, the spices, the ground meat, and mixing it all together in broad strokes with his hands. When dinner was served, there was Mouton Boudin Blanc, Lamb Backbone Fricassee with purple hulls, Boudin Cracklins and Lamb Summer sausage, made with lamb from the very farm hosting us.

By the time Boudin was served, Whitecastle was raging drunk.

He ran from table to table, sparking up conversations with total strangers before turning them in starkly antagonistic directions. We tried to sit him down long enough for our meeting to determine what the hell we were going to cook the next day, but he kept rambling incoherently something about a raw corn and sungold tomato salad that before finally getting in a fight and storming off. Moments later he ran back towards our circle, “I’m going to take off my shoes!” he said excitedly, falling to the ground as he tried to remove one while standing.

“Mark my words, he will have no idea where his shoes are on the last day, and they’ll still be sitting right there,” I said to Samantha Geoff, who had spent the majority of her evening laughing at my uncontrollable laughter over Whitecastle lewd behavior.

Some time later, we saw him climb up on stage, mid show, to try and convince the guitarist to let him play. After some degree of shouting and a few poorly thrown swings, Whitecastle resigned himself to meekly steal one of the microphones and ran off barefoot into the woods.

I retreated up the hill to find enough reception to call my girlfriend. But her voice sounded as distant as the hundreds of miles between us. There are some wounds for which time and distance are very poor healers, and I began to feel it puncture my chest.

By the time I came back to the festival ground, the mood had shifted drastically. Most of the attendees had drifted off to their camp sites, but those that stuck around were gathered on the hill watching the fire spew out of the pizza oven.

The music shifted from Zydeco to Dirty South Hip Hop, cranked to deafening volumes. A lanky, shirtless chef wearing cargo shorts danced like a madman in front of the flames of the oven. Wielding a pizza paddle, his face was covered by a rubber lamb mask, possessed.

He pulled a pizza from the oven and tossed it onto the counter. Reaching for a large chefs knife, he lifted his mask and snorted a long white line off the dull side of the blade. “It’s cocaine pizza time!” He shouted as he began to dance again.

“Do you suppose that’s cooked with cocaine?” Matt — another member of our team — asked.

“I can’t imagine that it is,” I said. “But he is using that knife to cut the pizzas…”

Suddenly, out of the darkness, and from the wrong end of the festival grounds, Whitecastle returned. “I got kicked out of camp!” he slurred, sitting down on the grass in the center of our circle of folding chairs.

“What do you mean?” Taylor asked.

“I was trying to get in my tent, and some dude inside started yelling at me and told me to get the hell out of there! So I tried another one and some girl started screaming, and they all told me to go away!”

“Yeah, that wasn’t your tent, buddy,” Matt said, consoling him.

“But I’m kicked out of camp!” Whitecastle whined before distractedly pointing at Olofson. “Hey, let’s arm wrestle!”

Matt — who is a large man with bulging biceps and easily has 100 pounds on the wiry Whitecastle — protested. But sitting there, seeing the drunkard on his knees in front of a plastic white folding chair, his elbow resting firmly on the seat and his expectant hand outstretched must have softened him a bit, and he finally acquiesced.

Both men squatted before the plastic chair, Mike counted to three, and the battle commenced.

Immediately Whitecastle’s hand began to quiver and dip towards his loss. “Fuck you!” he groaned, and reached his free hand into the fray.

“He’s using two hands!” Mike called out.

Whitecastle lifted up off his knees, and leaned his entire body into the chair. Toppling to the ground and bringing the seat with him, he smashed into another row of chairs, bashing his head against one and somehow winding up underneath a pile of them. He threw the small plastic seats off like the Incredible Hulk busting out of a pile of rubble, stumbled back to his feet slurring, “I won, right?”

“Yeah, sure buddy.” Matt hugged him. “You won.”

Another person who had joined our circle—a stranger to me—leaned over to Mike and whispered: “Why do you keep him around?”

“Just wait ’til you see him cook,” Mike said.

Part 2: Blow On Them Coals To Keep Them Going

In the morning, I stumbled from the tent, a little more bleary eyed than initially realized.

The grass, still wet from the early morning dew, dampened the hems of my jeans, and the air was crisp and cool. Somehow, everyone had made it back to camp safely. The first from our camp to stir were Taylor, Geoff of Beaufort, Kane of Sassafras restaurant, and myself. As we returned together toward the festival grounds, the grasshoppers– that just yesterday had ambushed us in swarms from the tall grass — were surprisingly still. Over the hill, smoke was billowing from Whistle Pig BBQ’s smoker, a whole hog already getting started for dinner. Kane immediately followed suit and got to work prepping our smoker to get the ribs started.

A team from Raleigh had prepared breakfast. Eggs baked in veggie marinara, lamb bacon grits with red eye gravy, hearth roasted confit fingerling potatoes, and lamb “shit on a shingle.” After we’d had our fill of breakfast, then came the brunch: lamb bacon seared scallops, heirloom tomatoes, and BBQ lamb shoulder with red slaw.

I was too hungover to eat. It was torture. Looking across the self-service buffet line of impeccably prepared foods, my stomach was simply too wrecked to indulge. But sitting and staring at it long enough…it was ugly, but I finally just dove in and punished myself through it. Bacon grits with red eye gravy. Sitting there, feeling nauseous, with grits dripping off of my suspended spoon. I was staring weakly at the horizon when a gator truck drove past. In the back sat a woman. Her knees were tucked up under her arms; all you could see were legs and cowboy boots. This coquettish pin-up image among the wilted, hungover camp scene surprised me and—my spirit now lifted a little—I went back to the buffet line for a second helping.

Just as I was going to refill my plate with scallops, Whitecastle appeared out of nowhere. “Did I piss you off, too?” he asked, resting his hands on my shoulders and speaking with a great sense of urgency.

I put my hand on his shoulder and burst into laughter. “No man, I’m not mad at you.”

“Thank god.” He drew me in for a bear hug that reeked of yesterday’s booze. As he walked away, I noted that he was still barefoot.

Whitecastle is a bit of a legend in the Asheville scene. His rockstar party habits have always been a step behind his legacy as a fantastic chef. But he’d never call himself that, despite the fact that dozens of cooks in the area with a fraction of his skill call themselves by that oft term all the time. In fact, Whitecastle once famously left his home at the now famous Admiral to sell hotdogs from a roadside cart. Hotdogs that he made from scratch with high quality ingredients. And they were some of the best damned dogs I’ve ever had.

“I’m not a chef” he used to tell me, “I just make hot dogs.”

After a stint kicking ass in Philadelphia, Whitecastle returned to the Carolina’s, where he worked as a butcher at a local farm to table butcher, and served me what might have been one of the most depraved and decadent meals I’ve ever had at one of their famed “Butcher’s Table” dinners. These days he cuts meat at the highly ambitious Butchery in the tiny town of Saxpahaw.

By the time everyone had stumbled to action, even more team members from our crew had arrived from out of town. Asheville staple restaurant Table had sent chef Ben Adamson, and Clark Merl was there from Moorehead City.

Chef Stephen Geoff and his wife Samantha were already hard at work prepping. Stephen was on a tear at the moment, freshly cut and fucked over by his former Asheville restaurant — despite being regarded as one of the best chefs in the city. Stephen had been a bit of a nomad, cooking all over the country before finally being offered a butcher’s position in Durham. That nomadic life was not unusual for him, though. Having dropped out of high school, Stephen had been a train hopper for most of his life, cooking his way across the country at all manner of restaurants until finally settling down in Asheville. While homeless and cooking at the oft-touted Zambra, he actually slept in the woods across the street from the building he would later open his own restaurant, in his first head chef position. His face appeared on billboards for his tech school’s culinary program where he taught as an adjunct. He cooked on TV shows and local news broadcasts. But hell hath no fury like a disgruntled co-owner with a stick up his ass, and eventually he was forced out of his own restaurant. Now, at a place like this, workhorses like Stephen and his wife Samantha always steal the show.

Mike and Matt finally dragged themselves away from the camper they’d found refuge in the night before. By now, breakfast and brunch had been cleared.

“Feeling rough, buddy?” I asked Mike. He grunted and headed to the coffee tent.

Most of the meal prep work had already been divvied up: Mike, Stephen, and Kane had spent the better part of the previous day hunched over a notebook, sketching out menus and assigning tasks to everyone involved. Hard at work while the rest of us acted like 20 year-olds on spring break.

Matt started stemming collard greens, and a random assortment of helpful volunteers appeared out of nowhere, all pitching in. Kane got to work on the chicken, and Cardiff started on his sour beer brine. Warthog was hauling in his massive 60 inch paella pan. He built his fire under the tree line to shelter it from the impending rain. “That pan will feed 150 people!” he boasted.

The rains came in waves. Smashing against the tin roof, louder than hammers and nails. The fires and cauldrons spit and sputtered, but never died out, the leaves of the tree canopy above barely sheltering them. Warthog blew on the coals to keep the fires stoked while guests huddled under festival tents for shelter, and the music played on.

hogfest4When dinner was served, we’d displayed an insane spread that far outnumbered the people who had gathered to eat. Most had packed their tents and retreated home. We presented ribeye salad, with roasted fingerling herbs and mushrooms; peach salad with Benton’s ham, basil and cheese curds; raw vegetable salad with a wicked weed sour beer brine; porcetta with heirloom tomato, tomatillo, and panzanilla; Sunburst trout with grits and sungold tomato; Warthog’s insane seafood paella; black bean BBQ chicken, Whitecastle’s lamb roast; and collard greens cooked in King Cobra malt liquor.

There was far too much food for the hundred or so people, especially after Whistle Pig brought out their hog and started pulling BBQ. A group from Texas served up what might have been the best beef brisket I’ve ever put in my mouth. The charred rim, the pink interior, the richly marbleized meat, all an unearthly experience that none of us felt worthy to have had, particularly after these nights of complete debauchery.

It was astounding, really, that Mike could have herded such a misfit bunch of cats into preparing such a stellar dinner. By the end of dinner, our rowdy bunch who just last night might have been drawing ire, were suddenly the features of the party. We had come, seen, and inevitably conquered. For some, prepping a dinner for two hundred outside in the pouring rain would be a major challenge, something none of those candy-assed chefs on Chopped could do. But because most of these chefs get to keep their mass catering chops souped up in their participation in pop up dinners on a regular basis, this was like a piece of cake to them.

It is also important to point out how rare it is for chefs to have the kind of opportunity afforded here. For most fine dining establishments, cooks rarely get to cook for one another. That food instead goes straight to the paying customer. At high end restaurants, most cooks can scarcely afford what’s being served. At others, it’s frowned upon for staff to darken the doors for anything but work. But here, there are no customers, just new friends and a hell of a lot of meat.

By the time the sun set, and the rains came down in torrents, most of us had given up on plates. The 75 people stood around or circled back through the kitchen handpicking through massive serving pans of food. Others passed handles of whiskey. With everyone compressed under the small ramshackle shelter, the Zydeco band played unplugged in a tiny circle. People danced closely, practically hugging.

For a few hours, despite the horrible weather, despite the waste of food, despite the fights from the night before, everything felt perfect. Our bellies were full, our glasses were too, and our heads were spinning. Huddled together, dodging the occasional rivers that passed in the mud beneath our feet, the cliques and clusters that might have kept us from mingling before were destroyed by such confined spaces. There was a bottle of 12-year Elijah Craig that, I’m pretty sure, touched every lip on the property. It was now a communion, bringing some of the best chefs in the world together for a night to lay down ambitions, relax, and just enjoy themselves. For a few hours, every problem, every struggle, all fears were assuaged. We were on an island far, far away; a distant place untouched, completely and wholly unadulterated.

Around one in the morning, it occurred to me that I had pitched my tent with the door facing uphill. A rookie mistake from an admitted non-camper. I was happy enough just to have gotten the damn thing up in the first place; it never occurred to me that at the base of the knoll, all that water would be rushing directly down the hill and into my front door like some land-locked tsunami. I could picture my sleeping pad floating, while my pillows, blankets and luggage stuck to the bottom of the canvas floor like a leech.

“Hey Matt, are you sleeping in that RV tonight?” I asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“Then I’m sleeping in your truck. I have a feeling my tent is full of water.”

I stuck around for a little longer, watching the wonderful albeit predictable scene. Bannister was still trash talking with Mike, Matt, and the Geoffs, who mingled with new friends, Whitecastle was still hopping from table to table like a jackrabbit — more sober than the previous evening. Taylor was flirting with the only three single girls at the event the best way he knew how: showing off his box full of chefs knives and butcher cleavers. But as the rain let up a little, I found it a good time to slip up to the truck.

It was stuffed full of Matt’s camper cushions he had planned on using as bedding before he scored a spot in the camper. I rooted around like a dog, burrowing into the cushions until I found a comfortable position. While the rain pattered across the metal roof, I tried calling my girlfriend, even though I knew she’d be asleep.

She did not answer, and that was probably just as well.

Part 3: Road Sodas

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and I awoke to the sound of Matt attaching his smoker back to his truck. Crawling out of my cave of cushions in the bed of the truck, I found my boots and slipped them on. Stepping out of the truck, I had expected to see someone down at the kitchen cooking breakfast, but all was quiet, and the smokers were still.

At the Dark Hollow Roasters coffee tent, Helen blared Americana and alt country, a little Jason Isbell to wake us all up. I skipped the brew and poured myself a shot of coffee liqueur instead. Taylor, Mike and I stood around the counter, talking to folks from Virginia, New York, and Florida when Jeff Roberts showed back up.

“Despite the turnout,” he said, “I think this was about the best Hogfest we’ve had yet!”

The Hogfest crew, he explained, would be venturing down to join the team from Louisiana in an old school Boucharie in November, and invited us to come cook.

Boucharie is a little different than the way we tend to do those kinds of gatherings in Appalachia. Being Creole and Cajun country, the focus is more on culture and not simply the cuisine. For Boucharie, the cuisine is simply an expected piece of that culture. And the music is just as important, as is the sense of not wasting a thing. Any meat served at Boucharie must be brought in live, slaughtered on hand and butchered on site, leaving nothing to waste. It’s a tradition as old as Zydeco itself.

Warthog was already packing up his gear, but due to its size and weight, it took a tractor and a flat bed trailer to get it all back to his truck. Most known for an annual festival he throws in small town South Carolina — an insane mash-up of pyromaniacs, pit masters, and chefs who prepare all manner of whole animals over open flames. He has whole fired everything, from an alligator to entire cattle. He said he had an event in South Carolina tomorrow, and was about to start his trip from Greenville/Spartanburg area kayaking all the way to Charleston to have dinner at High Cotton.

hogfest5Warthog is a man whose lunacy just might be outdone by his brilliance. In fact, seeing him leave on the back of that flatbed truck, loaded up with a bazaar of ancient cookery, perched like a pirate on a the bow of a ship as the tractor drags it across the horizon, one couldn’t help but think of the words of the great Hunter S., “One of God’s own prototypes…Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

“Has anyone seen Whitecastle or Kane?” asked Cardiff. He joined us under the coffee tent, bleary-eyed.

“They both took off first thing this morning,” Taylor said.

We shuffled down to the kitchen and began to salvage what was left of our produce. Being the starving journalist, I grabbed a box and began treating it like a grocery store, hoarding corn, kale, collards, tomatoes, potatoes, and anything else I could fit. As I was loading the box onto the flatbed, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye: Whitecastle’s shoes, exactly where he’d left them, just as I’d predicted.

On the drive home, we stopped in Mount Airy, known as the inspiration and setting of Mayberry in the Andy Griffith Show. Even the police cars look like the ones from the TV show: monster, four-door Ford Galaxy 500, black and white with the famous arced antenna stretched back and pinned to the tail-fin. Downtown Mt. Airy maintains a quaintness untouched by many modern chains, but the streets that day were empty, and many of the businesses seemed to be shuttered, the crowds drawn out to strip malls on the outskirts of town, no doubt.

Our motley crew bumbled down the street. Cardiff, whom I’m pretty sure was still drunk from the night before, wore a stained t-shirt, cargo shorts and muddy sandals.

Taylor was in all-black shorts and knee high rubber boots, looking like he’d walked straight out of the psych ward. “Yes Mr. Difrancis, those were the cloths you checked in wearing.” To top it off was his floppy leather hat, one of those wide-brimmed ones, the American equivalent of a sombrero, only made to look–like all things American–tougher and less tactful.

But I, surely, looked even worse. Everything was muddy. Shirt, pants, hoodie, boots, and me, all three days of unshowered madness scrawled across my swollen, bloodshot eyes.

Our target for the quick stop was Snappy Lunch, a legend in the greasy spoon world, dating back to 1923. We had called our order in, not knowing what kind of crowd the place would draw. Snappy Lunch is most known for their pork chop sandwich, which they started serving some time in the 1960’s, and which still sells for a meager $4.05. Three and a half artery-clogging ounces of Carolina pork tenderloin thinly sliced open is drowned under a sweet-milk batter before being fried on the store front griddle. The smell drifts out the window and you can watch them cooking these suckers and smell them from across the street. Then, like all sensible humans, they smother that crispy pig in coleslaw, mustard, chili, and — for your health — some onion with a few slices of tomato. It’s a plate-sized sandwich, which, for some reason, Mike decided we should order to go.

Back in the car, Mike looked at the sandwich, deliberating the best means of attack. There is no way to eat these things with one hand, so driving was out of the question.. As you ate, the soft bun spit out condiments on all sides. It ran down your arm, your chin, it stuck in your beard. It was a gross and unholy sight. Thank god for tinted windows.

I asked if anyone was thirsty. Taylor was, so we hopped out and opened up the U-Haul trailer where I dug around for my bar kit to stir up a little hair of the dog.

My bar kit is one of those suitcase shaped boxes from the 60’s, large enough to hold two bottles of booze, and a shaker, with one wall covered in straps to secure items such as spoons, strainers, knives, peelers, bitters, bottles, and flip-top syrups. We drained the water from our styrofoam Snappy Lunch cups and refilled them with the double Old Fashioneds. Road sodas. Other than the reeking stench of whiskey, no one would be the wiser.

We were heading home. For me, that meant back to the office, chasing deadlines, and dodging my editors. For them, it meant back to the kitchen to do this whole damn spectacle all over again. Only, instead of cooking for their peers, it would be to paying customers with yelp accounts, and the stakes would be considerably higher. It is an unforgiving trade, and no one really gets a break. Every day there are orders to place, product to receive, walk ins to stock, someone calls in sick, someone just doesn’t show up, a fridge breaks, the drains back up, the dishwasher wont heat up, it simply never ends. But give any of these lunatic soldiers of the restaurant world their choice, and where will they be? On a farm in BFE, shooting whiskey, and cooking for their friends. Just like they do every damn day.

Despite having run as far away as possible, having hidden in the woods for three days, chasing off memories and bad juju with potent drink and heavy food, it was time to go home. Perhaps things will be better, I thought. Maybe the few days away would have been a good break from my manic presence. In the past, when I’d come home from a stint on the road, my girlfriend would draw me in the front door with kisses, sit on my lap, and peck around my cheek for a good half hour while we caught up. Who knew–perhaps my absence would have sprouted a little more fondness than I’d left with.

After returning home I washed up and headed toward her house. She had cooked me dinner, and was standing at the sink when I walked in.

“Welcome home!” she said. Her voice was always soft and paper thin, like a wren. I leaned in to kiss her, but she casually turned her head back to the sink, taking my lips on her cheek. She plated the food and set the table.

I was just sitting down when she said quietly, “We need to talk.”

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