I do not know how to make fried green tomatoes and I have mixed emotions about this. Part of me is glad I didn’t know. If I knew then the following experience never would have happened and I would be missing an important defining story in my life. The other, larger, more honest part of me wishes I had known so that I could have skipped this moment because stories are over rated.
My one goal was to bring back a contribution to our community’s weekly potluck meal. The theme this week: southern food. The menu included chicken, cornbread and beans. So basically someone with no idea what actual southern people ate designed the menu. Because I am originally from the great state of The South it was my moral obligation to bring some authenticity to the night.
The problem is, I didn’t and still don’t own a deep fryer. Thankfully, not a mile from my house sits a restaurant that serves as my Southern consulate. Despite being located in Tacoma Washington, as soon as you pass through the doors of the Southern Kitchen, you might as well be crossing the Mason Dixon line. That is to say, it serves fried catfish for breakfast and the lemonade comes in massive mason jars.
It was as it had been on my previous visits: lively and packed, with the television in the back corner playing episodes of the Cosby Show. If memory serves, it was the one where Theo and his friends destroy the Huxtable residence with a party while Cliff and Claire are out of town.
People filled the tables and chatted with one another in such a way that I felt like I belonged, that any patron could be one of the regulars even if it was their first time there. Or in this case, the last.
I grabbed an empty stool at the counter and the old guy that I think ran the place greeted me. “How you doing today?” He was an older African American man dressed in a chef’s apron and a hat. He didn’t appear to actually cook the food so much as act as host and give off the vibe that the food served was the genuine article.
“Oh I’m fine. How you doing?” I slipped into my southern twang without hesitation. I have it on reserve whenever I need it. It needs another person to be fully realized. If I try and emulate a souther accent around Yankees, it comes across as extreme and unrealistic. But when I have a fellow southerner to work off of, they temper it and I sound like a real life good ol’ boy.
“Can’t complain,” Old Guy continued. “What can I get started for ya?”
“I’d like an order of fried green tomatoes thank ya kindly. To go please.”
“Just the tomatoes?” he asked. This was fair as the tomatoes in question are traditionally a side.
“Yeah, we’re having ourselves a dinner with some friends up at the house. There’s a theme this week and it is southern cooking. It’s a pot luck sort of deal and I’m contributing fried green tomatoes.”
“Sounds like we’re doing the contributing,” he said with a chuckle and a twinkle in his eye that confirmed we were now friends.
“Yea yeah, I guess so. I guess so. I do appreciate it though.”
“No problem. I’ll get those right up for ya, ma’am.” Now we were getting along so well that I didn’t want to point out that he called me ma’am. We’ve all done something like that at one time or another. Like when the ticket lady at the theater tells you to ‘enjoy the movie’ and you respond with ‘you too.’ Proper social etiquette dictates that we let these little slips slide for the greater good.
All around people enjoyed their food. I watched as the one waiter/busboy buzzed about the floor taking orders and clearing tables. He was younger guy with gargantuan hair but he knew his business and no one waited too long for their food or drink.
“Here you go.” I turned to see Old Guy. He handed me a styrofoam to-go container, which I assumed contained the tomatoes that were both fried and green. I paid for them and started to leave.
“Thanks a bunch. I’ll see ya’ll later.” I said weaving through the tables trying to not collide with the busboy.
“You’re welcome,” Old Guy responded and just as I reached for the door he rounded it off with a shout across the room, “have a good day ma’am.” How embarrassing for him, he had done it again and this time the whole restaurant heard.
My van sat across the parking lot facing away from the restaurant. Walking to my lime green Chevy Astro, I thought maybe my hearing was just acting up. Maybe he said ‘man’, as in ‘have a good day man.’ People say that. I didn’t have the time to sort it out; I had tomatoes to deliver.
I plopped into the seat and set the tomatoes down on the floor board. In doing so, my keys fell out of my pocket. I shoved my hand under the seat until I felt them. I didn’t take that long, but the few moments it took was long enough.
Someone knocked at my window. Not just someone, it was the old guy who ran the place, my newest friend.
Old Guy motioned with his hands that I roll down the window.
“Yeah, what’s up?” I asked. “Did I forget something?”
“Nah you’re good. I gotta ask you a question.”
“Sure thing boss, go ahead.”
“But you gotta be honest with me.”
“…Sure.” I said with a totally appropriate amount of suspicion that began to grow.
Then he said seven words that no one ever wants to hear. “Are you a man or a woman?”
“What?” I shouted, not believing he could possibly be asking me what I thought it sounded like he was asking me.
“Are you a man or a woman?” He said it again. Every single time that my brother or dad or kids at school had called me a fag or sissy or some other term that suggested I was something less than masculine came crashing down on me.
“I’m a man!” I roared with all the bass I could muster, at the age of 22 was not much.
“Now don’t lie to me.” He said it like I was trying to pass for a 50 year old war vet. He had such disbelief in his voice, face and stance;
“What? I’m not lying! I’m a man, a guy, a dude… a fella.”
“For real? Yes!” I yelled growing furious. “What? Do you wanna see my driver’s license?”
“Yeah.” He actually wanted to see my driver’s license. My word on the matter was not sufficient for him. Why would I lie? I should have just left. There was no real reason to prove anything to this man and yet I went into my pocket to show him the state issued proof that I have a penis.
“See, M for male.”
He studied my driver’s license for longer than I would have liked. “Okay,” he said giving it back. “You know how it is though right? There’s women out there that look really butch. I thought you was one of them.” It may seem irrational, but it felt worse that he thought I was butch woman rather than an effeminate male.
He started to laugh it off, not in a cruel way, like it was some simple misunderstanding. He didn’t seem to realize how humiliated I felt in that moment, how he was uncovering every insecurity I struggled with growing up. I was never as strong as my older brother and I went to extreme measures to avoid ever going to gym in high school just so I would not have to deal with not measuring up.
“What he say?” came a question that interrupted my thoughts. It hadn’t come from Old Guy. I craned my head a little further to the left and saw the busboy standing in my car’s blind spot. Unbeknownst to me, he followed Old Guy out to the car.
“He says he’s a man,” the Old Guy answered. I noted that he didn’t say ‘he is a man’ only that I claimed to be one.
At this the busboy jumped in the air. “I told you,” he shouted to the heavens. “You owe me twenty bucks!” At least someone was confident in my manhood, enough to bet 20 dollars on the fact.
“What he say?” This time the question came not from myself, the old guy nor the busboy, but from a little further away.
I craned my head even further to my left, passed the blind spot and saw the source of the question. Standing on the sidewalk was every single customer who had been sitting inside the Southern Kitchen while I waited for my tomatoes. Even the children.
“He a dude!” The busboy shouted to the crowed already thinking about what he was going to spend that 20 bucks on. The onlookers erupted with laughter and began passing bills to one another. I still wonder what the odds were.
I put a piece of glass between me and Old Guy and drove back to my house where people needed tomatoes that were both green and also fried.
*William Turbyfill was born in Lickskillet, Alabama. He enjoys Doctor Who and the idea of Ben Affleck as Batman and he once met the Queen of England. He thinks she enjoyed it.