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Meat & Three

Jun
25
2007

If you wander the byways of the South, avoiding the interstates and instead taking what William Least Heat Moon called the “blue highways” you’ll eventually begin to notice signs for:

Jeff’s Grill
MEAT N 3
TODAY MEATLO F

or

Cathy’s-teria
“Home Cooking Away from Home”
MEAT AND THREE $4.95

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A meat-n-three consists of a meat dish and three vegetable dishes on the side for a set price of around $5.00. Even back in the day, these restaurants, cafeterias, and grills weren’t known for the subtlety or sophistication of their offerings. The meat might be meatloaf doused in ketchup, fried chicken, roast pork, country steak, or oven-baked barbeque. The vegetables, always over-cooked, ranged from turnip or collard greens to mashed potatoes to fried okra. In fact, even macaroni and cheese and banana pudding are often classed as vegetables.
In some places the meat-n-three is set on any given day while in others (particularly cafeterias) you’re offered choices. In the good places the green beans may have been overcooked, but they were overcooked from scratch. Step into a meat-n-three cafe late in the afternoon at this time of year and you’d see the cook sitting at a table, pulling the strings from fresh green beans, drinking sweet tea, and gossiping. When the beans were ready they’d go in a big pot with a couple of ham hocks or some country ham, salt and pepper, and cook for two or three hours. On your plate the mushy, khaki-green legumes would glisten with tiny prisms of liquid pork fat.
But even those mushy beans were good and full of flavor (a friend of mine noted the other night that good food can stand up to bad cooking, although I’m not sure this constitutes bad cooking). The meatloaf tasted like real meat (provided you scraped off the ketchup) and if you were lucky, the chicken was pan-fried and not deep-fried. The country fried steak would be wonderfully crisp on the outside, moist and not overly chewy on the inside and the white gravy would have plenty of sausage in it. We’re not talking health food here, but we are talking simple and honest cooking by simple and honest people.
The establishments themselves can take a number of forms: café, bar and grill, restaurant, or cafeteria. If the formica tables have a covering it’s a plastic, red and white gingham table cloth. Decor runs from non-existent to incredibly tacky. And the waitresses call everyone “Hon.”
The clientele reflects the neighborhood. Stop into a restaurant by the side of the highway and you’ll find farmers in overalls, utility workers, the ocasional (and obvious) tourist, and a few less identifiable customers. Visit a downtown diner and your fellows will be bankers and lawyers in pin-striped suits, secretaries and salesmen, some construction workers, and a few less identifiable customers. The thing is, a meat-n-three is ultimately democratic, everyone is welcome and, if the place is good, everyone comes.
But these days, even on the blue highways, meat-n-threes are far outnumbered by Burger Kings, Dairy Queens, and the inescapable McDs. Although there was a time when having these local eateries supplanted by careless corporate behemoths was a tragedy, that day may be past. Too often these local joints pay far less attention to the quality of what they serve than even the worst of the corporate giants.
Too often the ingredients are all frozen or canned and preparation consists of nothing more than thawing the product out and then heating it in a microwave or oven. The blue-haired ladies in their starched white uniforms who populated the kitchens and served the tables have given way to gob-smacking teenagers with multiple piercings and tattoos — probably including many tattoos that I not only can’t see, but don’t want to see — wearing permanent-press polyester in even the best joints and jeans and t-shirts in the worst. And if their hair is blue, it’s not a rinse but a dye.
This cornerstone of early 20th century Southern culture has been waning for decades, and yet, it hasn’t disappeared. In fact, some suggest it’s beginning to wax again. I hope so. “Local food” isn’t limited to just the origin of the raw ingredients. It’s also embodied in local eateries whether they feature three-star chefs like Thomas Keller at The French Laundry or Amy’s best friend at Amy’s Café.
You can leave thoughts, comments, and observations here.

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