The most exciting thing about overseas travel is the novelty and oddness you can come across without any warning whatsoever. This was especially true for me in, of all places, America where the utter strangeness of some things, in what I somewhat foolishly thought should be a familiar situation, completely banjaxed me. Coming from Ireland and knowing that St. Brendan and other intrepid Irishmen had colonized America long before Erik the Red and the Vikings and nearly a thousand years before that upstart Columbus, I automatically assumed that everything would be familiar, only more so, as it were, and that I would be above and beyond culture shock.
However, to be fair, I suppose it worked both ways. I’m pretty sure I shocked a fair few people there as well! For most of the preceding year I had been a vegetarian for no particular reason other than it seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyhow, on one of my first nights in New York City, wandering along 5th Avenue, I stopped here and there in bars, many of which were adorned with shamrocks and other Irish insignia. I was treated like visiting royalty on account of my “fresh” Irish accent but I began to develop a general awareness that I was in dire need of sustenance, other than the liquid kind, if I were to continue enjoying New York hospitality. Lurching into the nearest fast food restaurant, I sat boldly at the counter and squinted short-sightedly at the menu on the wall.
“Wha’ll it be, honey?” a large black lady behind the counter asked, already serving me a tall glass of iced water without me asking for it. “A cheese bugger with reg’lar fries”, I slurred, rather proud of my ability to have picked up appropriate Americanisms so quickly. To my horror, I received a massive slab of minced meat fashioned into a crude rissole, sandwiched in a colossal bun, adorned with fried onion rings and slices of impossibly large gherkins while several kilos of french fries vied for room on a platter the size of a coffee table.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, embarrassed at the unaccustomed task of sending food back, “I ordered a cheese burger an’ this,” I gestured wildly at the plate in front of me, upsetting the glass of water, “has meat in it!” Credit where credit is due, despite the large lady’s obvious amazement, she did attempt to reason with me by pointing out that a cheeseburger always had two main components – cheese and a burger. Looking back now, I cringe at my naievety.
Best to leave New York, I thought, the following morning so I set out to discover, like so many before me, the “real” America. I was looking for diners, steamed up windows, long shining, stainless steel counter tops, a juke box in the corner, pony-tailed girls in bobby socks (whatever they were) jitter-bugging away, cheerful, wise-cracking, gum-chewing counter hands, serving Mom’s apple pie, with coffee on the side and ice cream soda or floats or spiders or whatever they were called in that particular neck of the woods. I had already had a brush with the variety of names for fillings on a bread base – open-faced Rubens, hoagies, heroes, submarines and they are only the ones I can remember now. The relatively simple task of ordering a plain, honest-to-God sandwich involved such a plethora of choices – white, whole wheat, country wheat or rye breads, rolls, bagels, ciabattas and then butter, mayonnaise or margarine – that I began to suspect that they were deliberately trying to bamboozle me.
Driving out past the lunar landscapes of New Jersey and Allentown and into the Dutch Apple State, the scenery changed to Bonanza style country and so did the people. Gone was the elegance of 5th Ave. The further west we went, the further my illusions of familiarity with the culture receded. By the time I hit Kentucky, wiry, muscular types in greasy, blue jean overalls, with heavy working boots became the norm. Pickup trucks, a rifle or shotgun prominently displayed in the back window, constantly passed me, both ways. Just as strange was stopping at a gas station to fill up and seeing ice-cold six-packs of beer openly on sale. Eager to take advantage, I, of course, bought a six-pack of Ballantyne Ale, (a different rebus inside each bottle cap!).
Stranger still was the fact that no one seemed to understand a word I ever said. “Whyat’s thad yew say-id, byoh,” they’d drawl. Perplexed looks would invariably greet any request I might make, while they’d push back stained baseball caps and scratch sun-tanned foreheads. Repeated attempts to make myself clear failed to clear the hurdle of their incomprehension at my accent, so much so that I began to revise my earlier belief that Ireland had colonized America. Not this part, obviously.
The bluegrass (which was just ordinary green) area around Louisville (pronounced Lou’Vil) with its rolling countryside, winding country lanes and fertile fields provided everything a red-blooded male could possibly want – guns, pickup trucks, baseball caps, horse racing, beer available practically at every red light and red meat in every variety, shape or form, as I was to learn. So, determined to try something a real man would eat, I pulled into a diner on the outskirts of some small burg. Two fat ladies, with soiled tea towels casually tossed over the shoulders of their too-tight uniforms, behind the counter burst into laughter when I asked what they would recommend
“Why, honey, everythin’ we gots is just fine and personally recommended.” Gales of laughter followed this, along with much rolling of the eyes and patting fat stomachs and haunches. “How y’all want yore eggs?”
Oh God, I thought to myself, here we go again, over easy, sunny side up, over medium, scrambled, poached, what other bloody variations are they going to spring on me next?
“Ok, ladies, I think I’ll have two eggs, sunny side up and …ehhh, what’s this turkey fries, what does that mean?” I said, pointing to an item on the plastic covered, hand written menu.
As soon as I had said it, a strange silence fell and the two ladies exchanged quick, flustered glances with each other. “Way-hall, y’all know honey, fries are like, y’all know, Rocky Mountain Oysters or …”
“Ranch fries,” the other lady butted in. “All the folks round here shore like ‘em.”
“Yes, but what are they, exactly? What does it mean?” I persisted. “I just don’t know what they are. Are they the same as ..?” I hesitated and glanced down at the menu again. “Are they the same as lamb fries?”
“Yessiree, they are and they aren’t. That is to say, the lamb fries are a bit bigger’n the turkey fries but Ah do believe they are ev’ry bit as tasty and delicious, I do assure y’all”
Totally confused at this stage, I looked around only to meet looks of incomprehension on the other punters’ faces, mingled, perhaps, with warning looks.
But too late, I was already ploughing on. “I’m sure they are as tasty and delicious as you say, but I’d just like to know what they are, I mean, I’ve never heard of them and I just …”, my voice tailed off as the two ladies, now visibly annoyed with me, their once smiling faces now set and stern, as if in suet, backed away from the booth table where I was sitting, taking the grubby menu with them.”Harold!” One of them hollered, “There’s a jinelmun out here askin’ a mighty load o’ questions of us ladies and we think it might be better if y’all came out here right now.”
The swing door behind the counter into the kitchen swung open with a crash and a short, stocky man, the ball of his belly held tight by a dirty apron, appeared. His crew-cut head glistened with sweat while the redness of his face highlighted a white crust on the corner of his mouth. For some reason, he was holding a baseball bat across his chest in the port position I had seem marines holding their rifles just recently at the Fort Knox Military Reservation. It was only when he sauntered across to my table snapping the bat into the palm of his hand demanding to know what the problem was, that I began to realize that there might actually be a problem after all.
“No problem, actually,” I began. It’s just that these ladies mentioned turkey fries to me and I’m not quite sure what they are, that’s all. They said something about oysters and the thing is, I’m just not too sure … I tapered off, as he continued to give me a hard stare. “Y’all not from around here, is that it, son?” Perhaps it was my accent or maybe it finally dawned on him that I had no idea what turkey or lamb fries were. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when I didn’t know what a cheeseburger was, for that matter. He wasn’t to know that of course but his tone changed completely as he slapped a massive, meaty hand on my shoulder and levered me to my feet. “C’mon with me, son, Ah guess, Ah’ll jist have to show y’all what we folk mean by fries. Y’all sure now y’all nivir hear tell of Montana Tendergroin or Mountain Oysters?”
Shaking my head, I was led to a dented chest freezer, which Harold jerked open violently before he began rummaging among the cardboard boxes and plastic sacks. Finally, he pulled out a squashed box of frozen orbs, with a faint tracing of blue and red lines on and around them. Each knob was about the size of a baby’s fist and a horrible suspicion began to dawn on me. But turkey ones? my mind shouted, surely they can’t be …
“Downhere, y’all see, folks round here like to eat these – I b’lieve in Yerp they call ‘em sweetbread and Ah’ll tell y’all they shore are sweet, bud Ah doan’ know where they gets the bread from. Turkey fries, now are a bit different because we got to kill ourselves a fine burd to get our hands on them fries – why, they’re well tucked up behind the kidneys. Now, which ones y’all want to try first? Ah kin recommend the …hey, where in tarnation y’all going now?”
Thank God I still had a few cold bottles of Ballantyne Ale in the cooler in the back of the car which helped to wash away the very idea of eating turkey or lamb balls.