The building looked bigger, but I was certain it was the same one.
The last time I had been inside was 1977. I was 15, a sophomore in high school, and the facility’s chief dishwasher. As a matter of fact, I’m fairly certain that I was the facility’s only dishwasher.
County Seat Fried Chicken was my hometown’s only fried chicken restaurant at the time. With only slightly over 5,000 on the city limit sign, KFC and Church’s didn’t have franchises in towns as small as Ashdown back then.
Heck, we were lucky to have a Sonic.
But, being locally owned was in my favor. My mom and dad played cards with the wife of the guy who owned County Seat. So, it was fairly easy for me to get my first real job there. By “real,” I mean a job where you clock in and out and pay taxes. Prior to that, I mowed yards.
Mr. Pete, the owner, hired me to do what most teens do at a restaurant. I cleaned.
In addition to washing dishes, I also swept, mopped, and maintained the fryers.
Now, let me tell you, running the fryers properly made less of a mess and made the dishwashing, sweeping, and mopping much easier. Ms. Bobby taught me that.
I never knew Ms. Bobby’s last name. I never asked. One name was all she needed. Everyone just knew her as that.
She was happy, loud, wise, and an excellent cook. If she liked you, she would share her happiness and wisdom with you. Fortunately, she liked me.
I’m guessing that Ms. Bobby was in her 50s at the time. She loved to sing while she cooked. One day shortly after I started, I was trying to slide the drain bucket underneath the chicken fryer, when her singing stopped. She’d been watching me without me knowing it.
“Young man,” she said. “You need to tilt that there bucket before you turn on that drain. Let the oil even out in the bottom of the bucket and then as it fills, sit the bucket flat on the floor. That way, it won’t fall over and make a mess you ain’t gonna be wantin’ to clean.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you,” I said.
She looked at me to make sure I was actually listening and not just giving her lip service. When I followed her directions, she smiled at me and resumed her singing.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, Ms. Bobby took me under her wing. In between me washing dishes, sweeping, mopping, and keeping the oil fresh in the fryers, she taught me how to quickly, but effectively, peel a potato. She also taught me how to mash potatoes at the right temperature while adding the correct amount of butter, milk, salt, and pepper. It’s the recipe I use to this day.
She showed me how to dip the chicken pieces in an egg and milk mix before coating it in flour. It was a process you repeated twice more before gently sliding the chicken into the hot peanut oil near the front edge of the fryer. This technique helped keep splashing oil off of the floor. She was showing me how to be efficient, which kept the sweeping and mopping to a minimum.
Ms. Bobby mixed the shredded cabbage and carrots together and then added the mayo and spices to make coleslaw. So simple, yet delicious.
But, it was her peach cobbler that kept the place in business.
She would roll the dough over and over before putting it in place. The fresh peaches, sugar, milk, cinnamon and other ingredients were all mixed to perfection and then poured into place in the long, stainless steel pans. As the large oven baked Ms. Bobby’s cobbler, the whole place began to smell like Heaven.
I worked there for a little over a year before taking a new job at the Piggly Wiggly sacking groceries. I thanked Mr. Pete for the opportunity, and gave Ms. Bobby a goodbye hug.
“You remember all I showed you,” she said. “You can cook it yourself. If you just remember.”
I never saw her again.
Over the last four decades, I thought of Ms. Bobby every now and then when I made mashed potatoes or ate peach cobbler. But on this recent day, the vividness of her presence was front and center.
As my wife and I entered the building, I said, “This is the same place, I’m sure of it.”
Little was left of the original layout, but the ceiling, with its shiplap-style wood, was unmistakable.
County Seat Fried Chicken is no longer there. The original restaurant and Bobby are both long gone. The building had housed a bank for several years, then a pawn shop, but it’s now a restaurant again. They specialize in desserts.
On this day, I was the guest speaker at the meeting of the local book club. My book was being featured. Instead of changing the oil in the fryers in the kitchen, I was a guest in the dining room.
Leading the book club was my English teacher from my senior year, Mrs. Martha Trusley. Two years after I had hugged Ms. Bobby goodbye, Mrs. Trusley kept me after class one day to tell me that I had a gift for writing and should pursue it.
Things had come full circle. I just wish that Ms. Bobby had been there to see it.
©2017 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now is available on Amazon and at More and More Treasures in Ashdown, Arkansas.