Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fish sandwiches

I seldom like fish sandwiches even though I love fish of all kinds. I think I figure out why fish sandwiches disappoint me so--it was the fish sandwiches at the Central Cafe in Anawalt, West Virginia.

The Central Cafe was about a block from where I lived (if Anawalt, pop.400) could be said to have blocks. In fact, it was a parallelogram twice as long as it was wide. There were no cross streets. The street where I lived was Front Street--though there were no street signs, we just knew it and there were no numbers on buildings since everyone got their mail at the Post Office which was next to my
Dad's Nationwide Insurance office, across the street from my Uncle Del's Esso station (spell check just underlined Esso so I tried Exxon and that was fine...time passes...names change, and one door down (my dad's office) from my Uncle Russel's H & S grocery store which was next door to Uncle Russel's Anawalt Dime Store.

The street parallel to Front Street, across the creek behind where I lived, was, what else, Back Street. The two shorter parallel streets connecting Front Street from Back Street were, to the north, Side Street and to the south, Jenkinjones Road because it you stayed on it long enough you'd come to Jenkinjones (named, not ironically after a man named Jenkins and another named Jones who started the coal mine there). Jenkinjones was the last coal camp in West Virginia just across the state line from the first coal camp in south-western Virginia. You could get to Virginia on any of the two roads through Anawalt (state Rt. 7--Main Street, and whatever Rt, if it  had one, was Jenkinjones road. By going east or west or south you would eventually run into Virginia across mountains called Elkhorn, Peel Chestnut and Jenkinjones. McDowell County (pronounced, if you were from there MACK-dowell and you referred to it as 'the Free State of MACK-dowell') poked down into southwestern Virginia so far that you hit Virginia, after crossing at least one mountain in three directions from Anawalt.

None of which has much to do with fish sandwiches and the Central Cafe.

The Central Cafe was one of the three beer joints in Anawalt that were legal. The others were Paul's place, named after the owner Paul Greek (whose real name was Genendopolis but no one is Anawalt could speak Greek so they just called him Paul Greek) and a beer joint on the corner of Front Street and Jekinjones road that once belonged to Clovis and my dad. My dad sold out to Clovis after dad was forced to pull the pistol from its hiding place to get one of his cousins, who was pretty drunk, to leave the premises without violence. The next day, dad sold out to Clovis at a loss and started working in the H&S with Uncle Russell. Then he became a dry cleaner route driver, then an insurance salesman. When he came back from WW II his lungs were shot and he couldn't go back into the mines, which was, I think, a blessing in disguise. Clovis sold out to someone else, I don't remember who though I think it was the two barbers who owned the barber shop next to the beer joint. The little restaurant changed hands and names a lot after that. (None of these places still exist and Anawalt has a population of about 150 these days. The last time I was there, about 12 years ago, my dad's old office was a beauty parlor and the H&S was a 7 day a week flea market and there were no other businesses on Front Street. When I grew up there were two groceries, a hardware store, a clothing store, a Gulf station, my dad's office,  the post office and my two uncles' three businesses.

I could still weep when I think of Anawalt and the whole state where I grew up. Sad and tragic.

Finally, the Central Cafe's fish sandwich: a fried fish filet, haddock I think, about as long as a hot dog bun which it was served on with mustard, onions and chili. I swear to God, it was the best think I've ever eaten! The fish was deep fried in the french fry oil until it was so crisp it cracked when you bit into it and yet it was moist and flaky inside. It was, in fact, the only fish I ate as a boy since Anawalt was so far from anywhere that there was never fresh fish. And putting it on a hot dog bun with hot dog ingredients was, as horrible as that might sound to your sophisticated pallet, shear genius. God it was good!

I've tried to get places like Frankie's and other places that serve both hot dogs and fish sandwiches to prepare it for me. But it's not the same. And I've tried myself but just couldn't come close.

If I were on death row, I'd ask for a Central Cafe fish sandwich as my last meal. (If they can't find your last meal do they have to let you live???)

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.