Finding myself alone in Nashville on a thursday night, I had several options in front of me, none of which seemed appealing. I could walk around, taking in the downtown area and hoping to find myself in some lardcore haven; I could go eat spiciy fried chicken, at the legendary Prince’s, in the fearsome ghetto area here; or I could go for a meat-and-three dinner at Monells. Barbecue was not an option, as I was in town to judge The Jack Daniels World Championship of Barbecue; and the city’s strip clubs are, I am told, subject to oddly puritanical regulations that require the visitor be at least three feet from the dancers at all times. The disandvantages to this rule are obvious; but it’s less clear why I passed up great fried chicken and a much-needed walk for a meat-and-three meal, when I’ve almost never had a good one.
Meat and three is one of the oldest eating traditions in America, and it sometimes shows. You pay a flat price and get your choice of entree and three side dishes. The meats, and they are always meats, are almost invariably limited to fried chicken, fried chicken in gravy, fried pork chops, pork chops in gravy, beef in brown gravy, ham steaks, and meat loaf. Sometimes catfish will stand in for the meat, but no hearty eater – and all southerners are, to some extent at least, hearty eaters – could ever sit down to a meal in which catfish figured as the main protein. This would be thin soup indeed, like a northerner making a whole meal of garlic bread. Fried fish as its own thing, and but rarely found in any but soul food luncheonettes. Maybe I’m wrong. The real stars are usually the “sides” which are richer, creamier, more colorful, and more exciting in general than the bland meats. Buttery, lush sweet potatoes, corn puddings, collard greens steeped in pork fat, and viscously bound macaroni and cheese all dominate the table. And then of course the real stars are neither the inert and innocuous meats, nor the soul-satisfying, infantile treats that are the vegetables, but rather the masterful biscuits and cornbread that begin the meal and which involve their own constellation of side dishes – peach preserves, cream gravy, honey, et al. The whole meal comes served with sweet lemonade and even sweeter iced tea, and concludes with a variety of desserts, ranging from surreal meringues many inches taller than the pies they top, to heavenly banana puddings, to layer and upside-down cakes brimming with heavy cream and preserved fruit. The meal as a whole is a powerful sedative, and when combined with hot weather and an indolent disposition, can lead to a nap as surely as the night follows the day.
But I still haven’t told you about the best part: you often eat at big communal tables, passing all the plates around after the style of the inns and boarding houses from which the meat-and-three tradition arose. A solitary and asocial predator in my eating, I dreaded this, and yet so strong was my desire to experience it that I passed up the ghetto chicken and the walkaround to give it a try. Monells, in a small house on a residential block in Nashville, was everything I hoped for. The food was rich, inert, and unsurprising; the reverse image of the high-concept tweezer food I ate the night before at a bravura duet between two Iberian modernists. I also liked the big table spread wide with bowls of food. Three obese IT professionals, two tennessee moms, and seven or eight black ladies all sat together and were temporarily united into an unhealthy family. “Did you ever eat this growing up” one lady asked the computer man. “No, when we grow up all we ate was casseroles.” Say what you will about the meat-and-three, but it’s better than casseroles. Or maybe it isn’t.
As for me, I couldn’t decide until halfway through the meal whether I was glad to be there. I was too fat to be indulging in a fourth piece of chicken, doused with hot sauce to cover up the flavor of its tired oil. And I neither belonged to the black ladies or to the nerds, nor to the garrulous gentiles that made up most of the restaurants guests. Would I not have been better off, sitting in a go-go bar, nursing a Miller High Life? Or eating spicy chicken out of styrofoam over a trash can? No; the temporary fellowship was, at least for a borrowed, blissful few minutes, enough to engage my furtive mind as well as my distended abdomen. It really was just a few minutes; they had that chicken on the table within minutes of our getting our sides; the whole meal was consumed, from biscuits to banana pudding, in the length of a Seinfeld episode. Then I was out of there – back out on the street, grateful for the respite from the tyranny of excellence, and my own solitary compulsions.