Right before Father’s Day, one of my favorite memories of my father–
About once a month, always on a Sunday morning, my father announced he was going to Ford’s place and did I want to come. I’d hurry to get dressed for church, for the trip had to be undertaken before the morning got away from us.
We’d leave my mother to get dressed, and the two of us would take off on our small adventure: my long-legged daddy in his church slacks, dress shirt, clip-on tie, and wingtip shoes, and me in a fussy, starched white pinafore, ruffled socks, and black patent Mary Janes. Oh, I can’t forget the chicken: whole and raw and wrapped up in a dishtowel inside a brown paper grocery bag.
Ford’s place was exactly that: a place, a spot at the side of the road, or to be literal, a spot clinging to the opposite side of the barbed wire fence that separated an acre or two of private property from the roadside property belonging to the state. Several sheets of corrugated tin rested against the sturdy cedar fence posts to form the low point of the roof, and an assortment of cobbled-together weathered lumber and posts too spindly to be trusted with the importance of the fence supported the other end. A corrugated tin wall, at most eight feet wide, faced the road, wrapped around both sides of the lean-to, and ended in a narrow wall on the opposite side, which was otherwise open. The tin was rusty, dented, and full of nail holes. Like the rest of the place, it was clearly someone’s castoff resurrected to a new life and held together with amateur carpentry skills and determination.
The road-facing side of the building, where roof and wall met, couldn’t have been over four feet in height; the opposite side—the entrance side—stood about a foot taller. At six years and a few months, I had no trouble entering the low space. At six feet and a few inches, my daddy stayed crouched over from the second he entered the lean-to until the second he exited it. Despite being a small man, Mr. Ford spent his business day bent over. He was fine boned and looked as if someone had carved him out of exquisite black marble and then clothed him in tattered jeans and a ragged chambray shirt as a twisted joke. The corners of his eyes crinkled when we walked in, and his wide grin redirected the sweat rivulets running down his glistening face. Dime-store pomade—or the heat of his work—made his tight curls shimmer like a crown around his head.
Regardless of the hour, Mr. Ford always had something on the pit. A word about the pit: it was nothing more than a section of dilapidated wire panel of some sort, narrow and running the length of the lean-to and held off the ground by a mismatch of rocks, bricks, and broken concrete blocks. Mr. Ford’s operating budget didn’t allow for the purchase of charcoal briquettes, and he relied on whatever wood he could scavenge to fuel his fire. Small branches and the odd piece of lumber lay in a messy pile by the pit, and the long lazy bed of embers they created stretched out beneath the wire panel. On it lay Mr. Ford’s humble art, and breathing in its scent was an olfactory experience fit for the angels. The sharp aroma of wood smoke and the nose-tickling, sweet, vinegary smell of the sop Mr. Ford daubed over the cooking meat mingled with the mouth-watering smell of the meat itself. Mixed in were the earthy, acrid smell of a hot summer morning and the muskiness of Mr. Ford’s sweat. The interior was cramped, barely large enough for two grown men and a little girl to squeeze into, and white shirt sleeves and ruffled socks were in eminent danger of being smudged inside that place. If my mother had known how it was, she’d never have let me go there in my Sunday clothes, fresh and crisp and startling in their cleanness.
It was always the same. My daddy and I stepped inside, and Mr. Ford greeted us. “Howdy, Mistuh John. Howdy, little miss.” “Howdy, Ford,” my daddy answered, and he’d hand over our chicken to the roadside cook. I was too busy looking at the offerings on the pit—links of sausage and quarter-, half-, and whole chickens, an occasional slab of pork or beef—to answer his greeting with more than a grin.
Mr. Ford had two ways of running his business. People could buy the meat he’d bought himself to put on the pit or they could take him their own meat. I longed for some of Mr. Ford’s wood-smoked offerings—much more exotic than our cold, naked, goose-pimpled chicken—and begged my daddy to buy some, but he seldom did. Mr. Ford charged fifty cents to barbeque a chicken, and I still don’t know if the bargain-basement price was why my father provided our chicken or if he feared Mr. Ford might cook us up a nice, fat chicken hawk instead of a chicken if we didn’t take our own.
Once the transaction was done, the other reason for the trip came into play. My father was a curious mix, and an unfortunate one: a naturally social soul inside the body of a man in a solitary job. He loved to talk, to joke, to share tall tales of his own making, or lacking time for creativity, a few simple, unadorned stories. Denied this opportunity during his work week, he grabbed at it with both hands on his time off. He’d grown up with the children of his father’s black tenant farmers, played alongside them, worked alongside them, and jumped naked in the river alongside them to cool off on a hot day. In a time well before the civil rights movement began to set things right, he loved his darker-skinned friends, and they loved him. As far as I know, my friends’ fathers never entered Mr. Ford’s place, and if they had, their wives most likely would have thrown Mr. Ford’s food to the dogs before allowing it on their table.
It’s not that they were bad people. Had anyone in the small community donned a bedsheet and cone hat to teach Mr. Ford and his like a “lesson,” they would have been horrified. They figured Mr. Ford had every right to sell his chicken—just not to them. However, my church-dressed daddy would have loved to spread out his white Sunday handkerchief on the ground, sit carefully in the middle of it, and let Jesus do his thing for the next couple of hours in the church down the road while he shot the bull with his old friend—and his old friend would have enjoyed the company. But on a summer day, even at 8:00 in the morning, the heat inside the lean-to was close to unbearable. And my daddy had a little girl to get to Sunday School.
After church, after dropping my mother back at our house to make final preparations for our Sunday dinner, my daddy and I would return to Ford’s place. The chicken waited for us, its sweet aroma refusing to be contained by its tight foil jacket. At this point my father might relent and buy a link of sausage, and I’d go home feeling like a Grace Kelly sophisticate who was privy to the virtues of a lean-to barbeque shack, a princess with a rich king of a father who had an extra dollar in his pocket.
I’ve always maintained that any special thing, done too routinely, loses its specialness. A sausage with every chicken, or, for that matter, a Ford chicken every Sunday would have become mundane all too quickly, but the once-a-month trip to Mr. Ford’s place, chicken in hand and with a surprise sausage every now and then on the return trip, was a highlight of my childhood. Maybe my father realized how special Mr. Ford and his roadside barbeque was and rationed the experience accordingly, or maybe, most times, he really didn’t have the extra cash.
The chicken, lying like a gigantic silver nugget on the floorboard, teased us on the drive home. The aroma filled the interior of the truck, but this chicken, unlike the contents of today’s big buckets, was not to be trifled with. And my mother would have killed us both if we’d come home with the main dish maimed and partially eaten.
Mr. Ford barbequed his chicken the old-fashioned way, sopping sweet tangy sauce over it repeatedly as it cooked. My husband, generally acknowledged to be the best barbeque cook around and beyond these parts, contends this is not the way to do it, that the sop goes on only after the meat is cooked. All I know I is that Mr. Ford’s chicken came off the bone as effortlessly as angelic fingers sliding across a heavenly harp, and the burned-on bits of sop added texture and smokiness and a bit of deviltry to every bite.
I thought things would go on like this forever, but one month my daddy didn’t ask if I wanted to go to Ford’s place, and I, preoccupied with who-knows-what, didn’t realize the omission for some time. I never asked why we quit going, and a reason was never volunteered. For all I know, Mr. Ford keeled over and died right on top of somebody’s half-cooked chicken, or maybe he had the foresight to call it quits before that happened. I like to think he’s only moved to a better location and is whooping it up with friends and family and sauce-faced angels at some great celestial barbeque picnic. Perhaps my daddy is there, sitting on his Sunday handkerchief and swapping stories with the best of them.
The thing is, now I realize those monthly trips weren’t just about the chicken. I’m not saying the myriad of lessons was intentional. The best ones never are. On the simplest level, Ford’s place gave me some brief moments with my hardworking father (“quality time,” they call it now) and a respite from the innate indoorness of my mother. On a deeper level, they helped shape my attitude toward race and social standing. Mr. Ford was undoubtedly poorer than us, and in that day his race had to have been a factor in that inequality, yet inside that cramped lean-to, business owner and customer shared a respectful, cordial relationship. Each was glad the other was there. Later when my school “integrated” during the Sixties, many of my friends felt hostile and superior toward our new classmates. I never did. If anything, I worried over them, outnumbered as they were and unwelcomed by many, surely self-conscious and perhaps a bit afraid. I believe that somehow my brief moments inside Mr. Ford’s lean-to made those feelings possible.
I learned about specialness, which I’ve already written about, and the value of money. The fact is, if you don’t have the extra dollar for a sausage, you shouldn’t buy it. If you have a chicken at home you can make do with, you shouldn’t buy another chicken from somebody else.
And I learned the importance of honest labor. Even mean labor is a thing of beauty and worth and something to be revered. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t keep looking, six decades later, for the exact place on the fence line where Mr. Ford’s simple tin shack housed the best barbeque I ever had. I never find it except in my heart, but I never stop looking.