It was October 1976. My mother had flown from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC to help me make the drive from Washington DC to Dallas Texas where I would take on a two-month work assignment in the land of DC’s rival, the Dallas cowboys.
Mom and I were quite the pair –a redheaded, fast-talking Italian Mom and her very dark slow talking Italian-American daughter. Big city Eastern, not Southern in the least. I was not looking forward to spending two months in the deep South. I was wary of southern and southwestern culture and the reputation of an abundance of fried food in the South. Fried foods are not my friend, digestion-wise. I was sure most of the trip, I would be taking care of my Mom, who rarely traveled, who rarely ate anything that was not Italian and who was, well, she was Mom. She had insisted on flying down to be with me because I would need her. It did not matter to her that I had traveled solo all over the world.
“Driving such a distance, you need someone with you,” she told me when she arrived, unannounced, uninvited at my apartment, three days before I was to leave.
Those long highway hours did seem shorter with someone along. True to her word, Mom did not try to “boss me.” She read the maps and pulled snacks out of the back seat for me while we were driving. My mother insisted we trade driving duties every two or three hours. At first I had resisted, but it was a help and she was a good driver. When we stopped for the first night, I found it was nice not to be alone in the budget motel I had selected.
On the second day, we briefly stopped in Hot Springs, Arkansas on our slow trek to Dallas. This was a nostalgia stop for Mom, because for many years my grandparents had spent every February soaking in the curing waters. We opted to push on despite the fact that our five-in-the-afternoon start meant a nighttime arrival in Dallas, just over four hours away.
That four-hour estimate, however did not account for some hellish weather that swept across our path not long after leaving Hot Springs. Somewhere just outside the boundaries of the town of the healing waters, the sky went dark and rain poured down on us for a terrifying thirty minutes or so. There was not much traffic, so we pushed on. When the rain stopped, we were alone on a country road. A very dark road. There were no other cars, in either direction. We wondered if perhaps, when the rain was blinding, we had taken a wrong turn.
After the storm, it was my mother’s turn to drive. I peered out my window looking for roadside signs to tell us exactly how far from the state border, how far from Dallas, how far from anything we were. Once again, the wind began to bully trees into bending low. I feared more rain, but then, on that dark road, the gusts of wind brought us something worse. Fog. Thick fog. It rolled over us like a tidal wave that never receded. Visibility was zero. Two women alone on a dark road in heavy fog at night. I was never a fan of horror movies, but many nasty scenarios rushed to mind.
Mom suggested, “Let’s keep going.”
“But we can’t even see the road,” I whined.
“I’ll drive slowly and you open your door to see the white line that marks the side of the road so we won’t go off in a ditch.”
Her idea made a lot of sense to me and that’s what we did. We crawled ahead for what seemed like hours. It was only twenty minutes according to the clock on the Volare’s dashboard but we had covered barely twenty miles.
A white hell of a night. Darkness swathed in white gauze. Finally, something glared back at us through the fog. A mere reflection of our own headlights? Possibly. As we drew closer to this light, we could discern that the break in the fog was light blaring out out from a single bulb on a pole in the packed parking lot of a roadside restaurant. We found a spot for the car. My sky blue two-door Volare barely edged its way to a resting place between a pair of massive red pickups As we got out of the car, the savory smells of home cooking drifted out to us. Suddenly we felt hungry. It was nine in the evening.
We pushed open the wooden door of the barn-red structure and discovered a universe of blaring country music, an aroma of fresh fried somethings, and the sight of folks with Stetsons and cowboy boots meandering down a long serving bar. They were heaping high their plates with what, on closer examination, appeared to be two different kinds of fried things, some sort of greens (collards I later discovered) fluffy white mashed potatoes, and French fries. Pitchers of iced tea (sweetened) provided liquid and the register anchored the line. Five dollars per plate, according to the sign, evidently no matter how much was piled onto it, from the looks of the people exiting the line.
My mom and I smiled at one and all, then hit the food line ourselves. I looked down at another metal tray full of fried something and asked, “What’s this?” I wrinkled my noise, sure that nothing on this country buffet could tempt my palate. Fried chicken was the only item I could trust. Maybe. But there was no fried chicken.
The man behind the counter snickered as he drawled out his reply. “Catfish, right from our river. Want some?”
Before I could speak, my mother chimed in, “Oh, catfish! I haven’t had good catfish in years!” She picked up the serving tongs and placed two pieces on my plate and two on her own. The man seemed a bit bewildered at my obviously northern mother’s affection for what was just as obviously a local, very Southern dish. Fried, at that.
We paid, sat down and nodded our heads to the music as we ate. My mother explained to me that on her one previous trip South, as a young girl, her hosts had served catfish. “Of course, that was in New Orleans, so it was spicy.” she cut off a piece of fish and ate it.”This is a bit plain, but it’s so fresh. Great too!”
I nibbled at a small piece. Had to agree. The catfish was heavenly! Sweet white fish flesh encased in a fried batter punctuated with just the right amount of salt and pepper. Nothing more needed. That bottom feeding sea creature was fried to a crisp crunchy perfection without being greasy at all. As we worked our way through our servings of fish, savored the greens and devoured the potatoes, a couple of the women and some of the musicians (during their break) wandered over, greeted us and at Mom’s invitation, sat down to chat. We told them where we were headed. They marveled over Mom’s red hair. “Never met an Eye-talian with red hair,” many proclaimed. Mom charmed with her love of southern food. They treated her more as my sister than a “mom.”
All of our new acquaintances agreed we should not to continue on unknown roads so late at night in the dark. The tall redheaded banjo player wondered if Mom was a distant cousin, even though until that night, he was sure he had not “Eye-talian” relatives. He told us where to find a motel to sleep overnight and wait out the fog. “Jist a mile up the road. If you stay until we are through playing, at 11:00, I’ll drive ahead of you,” he added.
We stayed. Promptly at 11:00, as promised, the banjo man walked into the parking lot with us, got into his big red pickup and guided us to the nearby, unimaginatively named, “Roadside Motel.” Our musician cousin shouted loudly for the manager. When the man came out, our escort shook both our hands firmly, swept off his cowboy hat, and made a courtly bow to Mom and rode off.
By nine, the next morning the sun had erased all evidence of that all-enveloping fog. We paid our bill, had coffee and fresh biscuits in the motel office and loaded ourselves back into my Volare. We soon crossed the state border into Texas. Together we got lost on Dallas freeways and laughed about it. No roads were frightening after our experience together on that foggy country road. After trying out all the best Tex-Mex places in the city and a place for great fried catfish, Mom flew back to Pittsburgh and I started my work assignment. I found I missed her and looked forward to her return for our drive back north together. I paid for her ticket this time.
Don’t ask me the name of that little catfish joint. Neither one of us could ever remember the name of that tasty stop. In fact, over these forty years that have passed since our trip, I have begun to wonder if the restaurant really existed or if, like the mythical Brigadoon, that red shack of a place had sprung up to save two northerners from a southern swamp road’s hellish night of rain and fog.
No matter. Mom and I had a delicious meal. I learned that fried catfish, can be heavenly, and best of all that my own mother, was a good friend, a worthy travel companion, and, in the eyes of a country–western singer, a red-headed cutie pie, (maybe cousin). It was the first time I had ever really seen her clearly, as a person, not just a Mom, and it happened in the fog.