Fork and Plough

May 29, 2023

I wondered about the spelling of the name of the place. “Plough” is the British spelling of the implement used by farmers to till their fields. In America it’s “plow.”

Like everyone else, every so often we go out to lunch. The stay-at-home (or workplace) routine of sandwiches or leftovers day in and day out gets old. Much of the restaurant industry is built around lunch, fast-food or leisurely. Try driving through the parking lot of Chick-fil-A at lunchtime. Businesses make deals over restaurant lunches. For some friends and couples, lunch at a favorite place is a ritual, a tradition. A lunch date usually is an easier “ask” than dinner, and cheaper.

Restaurants in Greenville and its environs are dispersed the same way as in other mid-size cities. Downtown is more expensive than the suburbs. Dozens of restaurants, maybe hundreds, are clustered along the two major business thoroughfares, Woodruff Road on the south side and Wade Hampton Boulevard to the north. Many of them are chain outlets, identical to those on any side of any town, large or small.

Typically if we go for lunch we like the so-called fast-casual places, the ones that let you order at a counter, rather than wait for a server to appear, smile, and bustle about, “Hi, I’m Dan, I’ll be taking care of you today.” Some people are pressed for time, others don’t want to add a tip. At fast-casual you shuffle forward in line, study the menu on the wall behind the workers, and at some places, watch your meal being prepared. It’s more work than dealing with a server but you have more control.

That’s what I had in mind on the first day back from my Virginia trip. It was a rest day, no errands scheduled. But the place I thought of was on Woodruff, on the opposite side of town, where rush hour first appears. So we recalculated. We had driven past Fork and Plough many times on our way downtown, along the main street of what’s called the Overbrook historical district. So that’s where we went.

Fork and Plough announces that it will “provide both neighbors and visitors alike the Upstate’s freshest and most plentiful meats, produce, and products both as a dine-in and carryout option. This concept supports the idea that farmers and chefs can make a living supplying a community with its daily necessities, while also encouraging the enjoyment of a simple meal.”

Every restaurant has a blurb. But really, they all say the same thing. Fork and Plough adds that it changes the menu twice a day, which I guess is true, since the menus were xeroxed slips of paper. When we were there, the menu featured Tuscan Bean Chili, Beef Carpaccio, Seared OBX Scallops, and Ms. Janna’s Fried Rabbit Legs.  I thought the prices a tad high, but we weren’t looking for a feast. We got salads.

Fork and Plough is in a nondescript block building that likely housed some other local business. The staff people wear shirts with the restaurant name across the front. It offers a selection of wines and craft beers.

The concept of “freshness,” i.e., not deep-frozen, no doubt adds a premium, especially with vegetables. When I worked at a church food pantry we received donations of food from grocery stores, the local markets, even Walmart. They gave away the stuff that couldn’t be called fresh, even if it was safe, because less than fresh won’t sell at the right price.

Fork and Plough, like plenty of other places, calls itself a “neighborhood” restaurant. Fresh food in a neighborhood setting is a strong sell to some people. Then add the British spelling, even stronger. They charge the premium for freshness. They get the historic neighborhood crowd, the “Plough” crowd.

A few miles away, along Wade Hampton, among the dozens of chain outlets, department stores, cell-phone places, auto-repair garages, and quick oil-change shops is another restaurant, Josey’s Chuck Wagon. It perches on a hill next to a Target and a tire shop.

Josey’s is the kind of place you call “down home.” The menu is printed on laminated sheets. It never changes. You can get a breakfast of eggs, hash browns or grits, bacon or sausage all day. Alcohol isn’t available. It offers stick-to-your ribs burgers, “hamburger steaks,” country-style steak, mac ‘n cheese, fried chicken, chicken fried steak, all with fries, and a selection of side dishes. A Route 66 medallion hangs on the wall near the kitchen.

Josey’s is a neighborhood restaurant in a very different neighborhood. The help at Josey’s wear T-shirts with slogans on the back like “Turkey, gravy, beans and rolls, let me see that casserole,” and “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” The places brings in lots of retired folks and people who work in the nearby businesses. The servers call you “sweetheart” or “hon” when they take your order or refill your coffee, iced tea, or soda. They recognize customers, because so many are regulars. Josie’s is more of a “plow” kind of place.

We sat down at Fork and Plough at the height of the lunch hour. It was about half-full. Maybe because the design is an open concept with no partitions, the noise was deafening, the din of a high-school cafeteria.  I had to lean forward to hear the server, she leaned down to hear me.

At Josey’s, most of the tables are booths, in the old-fashioned diner-type design. That’s what it is, a diner, serving its own neighborhood, its own world. Occasionally you heard a few sentences at another table, but it’s pretty quiet.

Fork and Plough thrives on the pitch of being unique—the singular place in Overbrook, maybe in the whole city or whole state where “farmers and chefs can make a living supplying a community with its daily necessities.” Josey’s, though, isn’t much different from the A&P Restaurant a couple of miles away and has a sign facing the highway that says, “Good Food.” The Lil Rebel Restaurant, also nearby, is the same kind of place. They’re not unique. But always crowded.

Rural Retreat

May 22, 2023

Rural Retreat, Virginia, is just south of Wytheville along I-81. I’ve flashed by the sign dozens of times over 40-plus years of driving Virginia’s western spine. This time I moved to the right lane, signaled, and turned.

Two miles along, Rural Retreat appeared. A side street, a church, a railroad station. I passed modest homes and large Victorian houses surrounded by brilliant rose bushes. The main street turned onto a hill topped with an enormous orange silo emblazoned, “Rural Retreat.” From the peak of the hill a panorama of vernal pastures reflected the glorious sunlight. Twenty miles out the misty silhouette of the Shenandoahs rose.

In the same way, the mountain views behind me, along I-26 north of Asheville are mesmerizing, the effect of the dark peaks magnified by the near-emptiness of the road. I headed up that way solo last Wednesday. After the Rural Retreat detour I stayed with I-81 to New Market, then U.S. 211 through Luray and for five miles through Shenandoah National Park. The road is well-kept, the climbs and descents as sharp as I remembered.

In late June we’re heading to Franklin County, Tenn., west of Chattanooga, then in July to eastern Pennsylvania.

We no longer avoid interstates, the broken white lines lead us. But the joy of the road is in the local segment as much as and often more than in the destination. The rural roads are where you find serenity, maybe memories. They’re lined with forests, mountains, meadows, and cultivated fields exploding with growth. Open roads show you the country, right now a rich, luminescent green.

We took a back route months ago that seemed like a shortcut to U.S. 11, South Carolina’s southeast-inclined state highway. The road wound through the nearby suburb of Taylors, across the busy retail-clogged highway found in every city or town. Soon we were away from traffic in Pickens County, passing lush pastures where livestock grazed, farmhouses and barns stood in the distance. I don’t remember where we were going. I remember the places we saw getting there.

It’s like that everywhere. Crossing into New Hampshire from Massachusetts on U.S. 3, also called the Everett Turnpike, the tree coverage shifts from mid-Atlantic deciduous to rough New England North, tall pine, thick dark patches of forest. A few homes here and there, then clusters of low-rise office buildings around Nashua. The past races back for me to Manchester, a grubby mill town less than 50 years ago, now still trying to be suburban high-tech.

The pine forests along Rte. 3 haven’t changed, they show up just north of Chelmsford, Mass. They connote for me that intense four-year stretch, the late Sixties, the convulsing years of the peak of the Vietnam nightmare that scarred millions, but now seems even to middle-agers like ancient history. In winter, from our college hilltop the city was hidden by the smog of oil heating, white clouds curling upward above the snow, smothering the city.

Today the mills that belched pollution are apartments, condos, and offices. Interstate 93 still runs through the heart of the city on the west bank of the brown Merrimack River that curdles into angry rapids as it rushes south to pass through Lowell and Lawrence. The forest breaks around Concord, then becomes thicker and darker again approaching the White Mountains.      

We had a family wedding a few years ago, I think near Thornton, a good hike up I-93. We could see Mount Washington to the northeast. The next day we headed southeast on a narrow, winding state road. We chugged through the old lake town of Laconia, past Lake Winnisquam and Lake Winnipesaukee and a rush of motels and cabins, then back into deep woods on a local highway to Portsmouth.

We crossed the fast-moving Piscataqua River past the naval base into Maine and took pictures at Fort McClary, which looks out over the Atlantic. It’s an odd spot, established for coastal defense around 1800, named after Andrew McClary, who died at Bunker Hill. But then Maine and New Hampshire never needed coastal defense. The fort now is a state park.

So that was thousands of country miles into the past. Now there isn’t the time, we take the highways. There’s always a medical stop, home maintenance, some other obligation or distraction, the old folks’ list. The big glamor states we haven’t seen, Alaska and Hawaii, seem right now like distant planets. Four others, Arkansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon are farther down the list.

Awhile back Sandy wanted to visit Laurel, Miss., to see the old homes. I wanted to go to Hattiesburg, supposed to be an interesting place. I still want to see Luckenbach, Tex., which Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson sang about. We missed it by a couple of miles in 2018. We’d like to see Niagara Falls.

My 2018 road atlas lies on the living-room sofa, the non-interstate U.S. highways that span the country, routes 2, 6, 20, and 50, traced with colored markers. They seem to look up at me.

The detour to Rural Retreat took me a short way east, through a small, pretty community perched mainly on a hillside that gave a view of pristine, near-empty country. The stately homes on large lots offered clues to a prosperous history. The whitewashed rail station is the center of town. A few small businesses and retail operations line the main street, VA 749, which heads south toward a census-designated place, Sugar Grove, barely a spot on the map.

Planning travel can become a bookish, inward-looking hobby, then an excuse for not going. The journey to the unknown, the small town in the boondocks, along the winding road through forest and mountains may take the place of something else, some chore or obligation, something unnerving or uncomfortable looming in our lives. But gas prices have dipped a bit. Everyone talks about going. We should stop thinking about it, pack, and leave.

Rod and Gun

May 15, 2023

Last Wednesday, about noon, workmen installed a huge “Outdoor World” sign above the entrance to the giant sporting goods store here, previously known as Cabela’s. A clerk inside said it still will be called Cabela’s but also Bass Pro Shops (BPS), which owns the nationwide chain.

In 2017 Bass Pro Shops acquired Cabela’s, the company founded by Richard Cabela in 1961 when he tried to sell artificial fishing flies by mail order. By 2012 the business had revenues of $3 billion and 17,000 employees. Cabela’s had stores in 25 states and mailed 120 million catalogs each year.  Bass Pro now is organizing the stores into five types. They’re all “outdoor world,” but some are named Outdoor World, including ours.

The Greenville store, like others in the group, is massive, a couple of hundred thousand square feet of floor space. It’s a celebration of roughing it, hiking, camping, fishing, hunting. The aisles in the fishing-gear section are canyons lined by forests of rods, thick, sturdy ones for baitcasting, giant surfcasting rods, thin, graceful flycasting poles.

The store gins up enthusiasm for fishing and gives kids a thrill with two tanks stocked with game fish, big ones. They glide gracefully past the glass. The idea is that if you get your fishing gear at Outdoor World you’ll land a lunker just as big.

A cousin, Bill, an experienced fisherman, had recommended Spectra Power Pro fishing line. Cabela’s, or Outdoor World, seemed the logical place. I picked up the line for my grandsons. An employee mentioned the store will install line on customers’ reels, a chore I wanted to avoid.

The front of the store is like lots of department stores, displaying fashionable men’s and women’s sportswear. Venture further and you’re in fishing: the rods, reels, lures, line, other tackle. The store will sell you a kayak or canoe, paddles, oars, life jackets. Then camping: Outdoor World has the ultra-water-resistant insulated clothing, cold-weather tents and sleeping bags, lightweight cooking kits, miniature propane stoves. It carries the freeze-dried high-nutrition meals, backpacks in every size, shoes and boots for every terrain.

The store offers survival and first-aid gear, generators, battery chargers, high-powered camp lighting, metal detectors and prospecting equipment, camp furniture like lightweight folding chairs and benches large enough for your living room, mountain bikes and biking accessories.

That’s the general outdoors fun end of the store. The rest is all about hunting: Rows of cammy bodysuits, waders, headgear, enough for a battalion of guerrilla warriors. For archery, high-tech bows, arrows, arrow points, crossbows, bow sights, bow cases, fishing bows, tree stands, targets.

You then get into the business end of the business: firearms. Richard Cabela was an enthusiastic big-game hunter and supporter of the NRA. In 2012 Cabela’s contributed more than $1 million to the NRA. The Cabela’s/Outdoor World gun inventory is catalogued under “hunting.” A few years ago an investment newsletter reported that one-third of the chain’s revenues came from firearms.

The gun department, in a rear corner of the store, is an arsenal: hundreds of rifles, shotguns, handguns. Among the long-gun makers: Savage, Browning, Winchester, Tikka, Springfield Armory (SA). Of course it’s all about hunting: deer, antelope, elk, moose, bear, wild boar, bison, whatever. The hunting section has the tree blinds, the ammo, the targets. The website features SA’s M-Lok AR-15 assault rifle, priced at $929.99, “built for self-defense, giving you peace of mind in knowing that SA has your back.”

The store offers handguns by Glock, Walther, Sig Sauer, Beretta, Smith & Wesson, Taurus and others. Prospective buyers of the Heritage Rough Rider single-action revolver with a stars and stripes grip are told to “enjoy the look and feel of a classic revolver design, built with a nod to the traditions of the Old West.”  

A gun library near the gun counter displays used guns for sale, more rifles, shotguns, handguns, ARs. You see a 2003 Springfield rifle used by the Army in World War I. Strangely, or maybe not, the Cabela’s website features the Soviet-developed Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle, deployed to the Cold-War-era Warsaw Pact armies and terrorists worldwide.

I qualified as expert in the Marine Corps with the M-14 infantry rifle, an 11-pound semi-automatic weapon exquisitely designed for war. By 1972 the Corps was replacing it with the M-16, a flimsy plastic-stock killing machine that fires a lighter round than the M-14, that on impact tumbles inside its target, hardly ever leaving any wounded. The AR-15 is the civilian variant, favored by mass murderers, now sold at an Outdoor World near you for under $1,000. You can get a used one for less.

The Outdoor World firearms guns on display all are locked in racks or display cases. But a quick survey finds news reports of gun thefts at the chain, from West Chester, Penn., to Hammond, Ind., to Lexington, Ky., to Oklahoma City to Charlotte; Woodbury, Minn., Kansas City, Calgary, Alberta, lots of others. The Fort Mill, S.C., store had three robberies. Some arrests are made, some guns recovered, not all.

You can buy assault rifles at other places, Adventure Outdoors, Camping World, Big 5 Sporting Goods. Some Walmarts sell them, others don’t. The U.S. has about 53,000 licensed gun dealers.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry trade group, said in 2022 that Americans (including police forces) own 20 million assault rifles, which it calls “modern sporting rifles,” up from 8 million in 2004. NSSF says Americans own something like 434 million firearms of all types.

The boys, their mom, and I had a lighthearted visit to Outdoor World. We watched as a young guy loaded the new line on their reels. We looked at tackle, I bought a new rod. The place was nearly empty while we were there, which was fine with me. Like lots of people, Sandy and I have pretty much stopped going to malls and other crowded places. Walking city streets, I look around.

The Chapel

May 8, 2023

The chapel, built of brick, is the size of a large living room. One wall adjoins the main church. The ceiling is high and centered by a large chandelier. The altar is covered by a deep red cloth, set off by large potted plants on both sides. The eucharist is locked in a gold receptable called a monstrance, perched on the tabernacle above the altar. Candles in four-foot-high bases stand in front of the altar, the tiny flames steady, silent, and bright against the dark background.

It’s not a lovely place, a little on the garish side. I’d like it plainer, more austere. The chapel is nearly empty most of the time, one or two people may be there, praying or meditating. Silence is the rule. Silence, always.

This goes on at lots of Catholic churches and some non-Catholic ones, those with chapels adjacent to or part of the main building, on a schedule of church members who sign up for an hour or more per week on a 24/7 schedule of perpetual adoration. The point is private prayer, contemplation.

The chapel routine is one of countless ways ordinary people seek contact with the source of their faith, the transcendent, sublime, elusive, majestic idea they may call God, or something else, or nothing at all. Some walk on the beach at sunrise or at midnight, others stare out from mountain vistas or practice yoga, expanding their minds privately or with others.

Some folks jog, listening to podcasts, others gather in groups to ponder Bible verses or the Koran, or teachings of the Talmud and Torah, or the Bhagavad Gita. Some nod at stemwinding harangues by televangelists, on TV or in giant megachurches. With some, beer, wine, or booze is involved.

For a change we drove out to a church in the country for Sunday Mass. Arriving, we saw no one else. We had got the date wrong. We ended up at a tiny church tucked in the boondocks of this huge county. It was a casual, easygoing Mass. After the closing prayers the priest called a young boy and young woman to the altar, wished them “Happy Birthday” in English and Spanish and blessed them. The congregation applauded. New to me.

On the drive home we passed two Baptist churches across the street from each other, their parking lots near-full. Sunday worship was going on full-tilt everywhere. Some of it is for show, going through the motions. How much? I recall a gaggle of priests and nuns at the January 2020 March for Life in Washington breathlessly applauding Trump as the “pro-life” president, the same one who confided to his erstwhile legal gofer, Michael Cohen, “I bet [my supporters] think it’s cool that I slept with a porn star.”

The struggle—to seek the divine, the immortal, the ineffable—always is at risk of falling into routine, which means it no longer is a struggle. Immediately after February 24, 2022 we heard prayers for Ukraine in every church—now, hardly ever. The churn of daily headlines: the shootings, the wars and famines, the soap operas of political corruption, drain from us the contemplative will which, if we allow it, may part the veil of the mystery of faith.

The silence of the chapel is one way of brushing aside the cobwebs and distractions, and laying bare the reason anyone goes there. The silence drives an awakening, an understanding that prayer isn’t verbal babble. It is whatever we hope it is, whatever we conceive of that transports us from our rushed schedules and hectic priorities to confront what St. Thomas Aquinas calls the Act of Existence. The existence that is for Thomas simply being: the vastness of everything we can imagine: the universe, the tangible, touchable world in which we live, our sense of ourselves and our surroundings, those we love.

All this remains a bit of an abstraction, Aquinas generally now lives in dusty philosophy and theology courses, and not just Catholic ones. But who, besides seminarians and the diminishing number of philosophy majors, are taking those courses, although now you can get them online. And no area of human interest has had more books written about it than spirituality. For every Sunday morning TV preacher, bookstores and the internet offer hundreds, maybe thousands, of how-tos on getting right with God.

One is out there, The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic who traces his turn from despair, the “dark night,” to the ecstasy of salvation. It’s his own intense, agonizing journey, and a tough read. But the title captures something of the place where so many find themselves, in this generation of smart, sarcastic cynicism. That is a place from which to extricate ourselves and run away. Run away, but to where we don’t have a clue.

Years ago we visited St. Peters in Rome and strolled through the huge square. You can buy a rosary blessed by the Pope. We’ve been to St. Paul’s in London, Notre Dame in Paris, to another Notre Dame, the one in Montreal, and to St. Patrick’s in New York. A cousin was married at the San Juan Capistrano Mission in California, famous for the sparrows. Years ago, when our kids were small we went to Christmas Eve Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. At all of them, you can buy souvenirs, postcards, get lunch.

All those places are stunning, beacons of faith, like every parish church everywhere, like the one we visited a week ago. I read up on it, the congregation, until they raised the money to build their modest church, attended Mass at a nearby Methodist church.

It’s true that not as many attend services as in past generations or even decades.  Pastors blame lots of things for that, the internet, the distractions of modern life, the sex scandal. But faith is elusive. It’s not in the tracts or the texts. Faith is a solitary thing, scary, even. That was St. John’s lesson. It comes in silence, in a dark night.                      

The Fence

May 1, 2023

“Good fences make good neighbors,” Robert Frost wrote in “The Mending Wall.” As in the poem, every so often something has to be done about them. Our white picket fence surrounds the backyard, with gates on both sides of the house. In fact it is no longer white, but dappled with dark mold. Time for a new fence.

This is what we do in the burbs: replace, upgrade, invent. People in apartments are limited to painting, buying new furniture, rearranging it. Same with condos and townhouses: restricted to the space between their outer walls. Homeowners who are captains of their own plots can add decks, patios, treehouses, swingsets, lawn ornaments. We can try to recreate our visions, or our illusions, of class, taste, comfort. Sometimes it’s a struggle. We can make our property beautiful or tacky. HOA covenants may prevent painting the house purple or parking a giant boat in the driveway. They may or may not.

The fence on the rear border of our Virginia home was a good neighbor, a few strands of wire that marked the property line, invisible from the house. The backyard was a steep hill; we could look up past the fence at the large lots of homes on the street above ours. The impression, somehow, was a dreamy rural scene, the homes resembling barns sitting on a lush hillside.

Our South Carolina fence, made of cheap, bendable vinyl, follows an easement along the property line on two sides. To the north it faces the next-door neighbor’s eight-foot-high wall that blocks any view of his yard. Along the back is a tall wire fence, allowing a view of the wide, pretty yard on the next street. The backyard of the neighbor to the south, a middle-aged Cuban man who found asylum in the U.S., is bounded only by our fence, allowing an occasional glimpse of him sunbathing in his Speedo in warm weather.  

Since our fence is out of sight of the street and other bills kept coming in, we let it go over these past two years.  But recently a ten-foot section fell over into the yard. I tried to refasten it to the adjoining sections, but the next morning it was again on the ground.

A block away from our place a team of men worked on a sturdy-looking new fence. We walked over and talked to the foreman, Brandon, about a new wood picket fence. He handed me a business card. We filled out the HOA paperwork, approval took a month. We called Brandon, he came by, measured our fence, and sent us an estimate. It looked reasonable.

It’s common sense that when you decide to hire a contractor you want at least a second quote, maybe a third. Everyone looks to compare prices, services offered, and that hard-to-define quality—personality, maybe, is the word. You want to feel comfortable with the people you hire.  You shop around, learn the market. Still, cost matters. The low bid usually wins.

We found another fence guy on the internet, Rusty. He came by and, like Brandon, measured the fence and showed us photos of his work. He impressed us as a competent, experienced professional. His fences all looked attractive and sturdy. Rusty’s estimate, two days later, came within $75.00 of Brandon’s. But Brandon had said he’d haul away the old fence at no charge. We realized we had forgotten to ask either of them about painting and sealing the fence; raw, untreated wood in this climate would start to rot in two years. Brandon guessed $400 to $500 for painting, Rusty estimated $800.

Brandon offered a $300 discount if we paid cash. I liked the discount but wondered: does cash, for him, mean straight currency, like out of the ATM?

Doing business should mean creating transaction records through use of checks and credit, not stacks of greenbacks. So “cash” meaning a pile of currency raises a red flag. The contractor who pays his employees in cash to allow them to avoid reporting the income is tiptoeing along the shady side of the law. If he accepts a check he’d have to deposit or cash it, creating a transaction. Getting hard currency from clients would let him avoid that.

Brandon said he’d take a check but then the discount would only be $150. His $500 painting estimate was only a guess, likely it would run higher. Rusty is waiting in the wings with his $800 painting estimate.

The fence rebuild had become more complicated than I expected. Getting our Virginia house painted nearly three years ago meant getting three bids and going with the lowest. Then we felt pressure to get it done, get out of town, get on with life. Now, I’m used to our collapsing, worn-out fence. Time is speeding by. Other plans, other distractions, are crowding in. Do we really need to do this? Unless we have a yard party, no one sees the fence. We could use the fence budget for other things.

Yet the broken segment and the cracked and wobbly pickets seem to stare at me. We had put this off long enough. After years of do-it-myself projects we needed to hire a pro, admire his skilled labor, check “fence” off our list of must-do projects, and maybe get to the hope-to-do list. But $800 for painting?

Can it be that hard? I’ve painted lots of walls and stained a deck. We could get the paint at Home Depot. We don’t have a timetable or deadline. I could daub the undersides of the pickets, Sandy could do the edges. The flat sides would be easy.

Why does fence-painting ring a bell? Right: Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. When Tom’s Aunt Polly caught him skipping school she ordered him to whitewash her fence. Instead he tricked other boys into doing it. We have two grandsons. They remind me, sometimes, of junior versions of Tom and his sidekick, Huck Finn. We’d pay them something. Not $800.