A Trip and a Compliment

IMG_0322[1]I was introduced to some new people in a local restaurant just the other day. It was a glorious day, in my opinion. It was cold and blustery, and pouring rain, but all things considered, it was still a great day. I was taking care of my fifteen month old son, Nolan. We were doing daddy-son stuff since Mommy was gone, such as eating pancetta with olives and sourdough bread straight out of the fridge, raw cookie dough from the freezer and listening to some new country on Pandora. All in all, a great day. Since I had been up since five and cooked in the restaurant most of the day, I decided it was ok to forego cooking him dinner, especially since the olives and pancetta were giving him some amazing farts and take him out to a local little joint for a cheeseburger and some ice cream.

He drove. Or at least he was relatively certain that he did. Yeah, I know, I’m going to get some haters out there for this, but I broke the law and let him ride in my lap and steer. Yes, it’s against the law. I made a conscious decision to do that and do you know why? The earliest memories that I have are riding around in my Mom’s open top CJ-5 Jeep during the early summer months as she sang along to Alabama’s “Roll On Eighteen Wheeler” and “Copperhead Road” and “A Country Boy Will Survive.” Those were some truly great times.

I’d like for Nolan to have those distant memories of taking a car ride every once in a while, sitting on his Mom’s lap, or mine, as we drive the four miles on back roads to a couple of our favorite restaurants. Although we live in what most, including my wife, consider to be the sticks, we are lucky in that I am only a few miles from work at what is one of the most beautiful venues in the world, where I have been blessed with a job as a professional cook. We are also only four miles from one our favorite restaurants, six to another and about twelve to another. The Palisades, The Bank Food and Drink, Mountain Lake Lodge and Mickey’s Seventh are all within a few miles of where we live!

Let’s leave Nolan driving for the moment, while he rolls the window up and down, turns the cruise on and off and in general has a great time steering with his feet as the scenery rolls by in a way that he has never experienced before. There is a new country song playing on the radio that sounds a lot like rap, but it’s a great song. Nolan is happy with it and I like the crossover sound of the twang and beat.

Let’s fly out the window, into the rain and mist that give the Great Smoky Mountains their name. Let’s head out Spruce Run Road and turn left on Rt. 469 West, which leads into West Virginia and points beyond. Right UP the Mountain we travel, over beautiful waterfalls and no doubt a black bear or two, snuffling around on the first warm day in a long time, seeking out wild ramps, leeks and other leafy items to replenish their bodies stores of essential vitamins and nutrients after their long sleep. We most likely also pass a deer or twenty, wild turkey brooding in the rain, and as we ascend the air becomes colder and the rain turns to snow near the frost line around 2,500 feet. As we go up, we must have also gone back in time, for the Black Ford that Nolan thinks he is driving is here slogging up the mountain at a scant five or ten miles an hour. Visibility is near zero as we descend into the cab with the sleep deprived driver.

The driver is me, the author. I’d left for my breakfast shift earlier than usual, awakened by some sound or the pressure in my eardrums as my head cold gets worse. I didn’t know it then, but I was headed towards a rough shift and one of the greatest compliments of my life. I had a LOT of people staying at the Lodge and I didn’t know it. The snow storm was so bad I would get out of the truck and walk ahead to make sure that I was still in the road, bang the ice of my wipers and drive a little more.

I had no preparation done for breakfast – no biscuits made, no potatoes cut, no oats soaking, no bacon thawed, no fruit cut and no batters prepared. I wasn’t worried, in this storm, long after “Spring” had supposedly sprung – I didn’t think that anyone would be ready to eat breakfast.

I was wrong. There had been a wedding and there were a ton of guests awaiting breakfast, hungry and hungover and eager to continue the debauchery of the former night beginning with Mimosas, Bloody Mary’s and all the biscuits and gravy they could possibly stuff into their faces. I had a new kitchen I’d never cooked in before and no prep work completed. So began my shift.

I honestly don’t know how many breakfasts that I prepared that morning, or how many biscuits I made or how many mistakes I could have or did make. All I know is that it was suddenly 10:30 a.m. and the restaurant was closed until lunch, I was drenched in sweat and so exhausted I was swaying a bit. My ears still hadn’t readjusted to the change in altitude due to the head cold and everything sounded as if I were in a barrel. One of the wait staff high-fived me and we had a group hug as I thanked the staff for their help and celebrated the new menu and kitchen with coffee, tea and the rest of the pancake batter, cooked on the new grill.Menu

Here was my greatest compliment: Chef came into the kitchen with a new employee in tow, and introduced me as Ron, his Breakfast Chef. The enormity of what he said sank in for a moment, then I became very humbled by his gratitude. I didn’t feel like I had done anything that anyone else couldn’t or wouldn’t do, which is just what I was hired to do. But, I’m not a Chef. Not in the classic sense of the term. A chef is a leader of the kitchen, responsible for EVERYTHING in the restaurant. A chef must be able to reproduce dishes flawlessly, while instructing others and motivating them to accomplish a feat akin to an orchestra crossed with a demolition crew tearing down a bridge.

Later that day, I was introduced to the people in another restaurant after Nolan safely drove us there and we were feasting on Cheeseburgers, ice cream and carrot cake. I was introduced to the couple as “Chef Ron.”

But I was too deliriously tired and happy to correct them.

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Appetite for Destruction

Authors Note: The following is an excerpt from a larger body of work written largely from my own experiences, but like all authors I reserve the right to change names to protect the guilty, seasons to reflect my mood and religions as it suits me. I generally leave politics out of everything. All situations similar to those experienced by anyone else are not my fault!

I have never been one to be defined, at any point really in my life, unlike so many of my own generation, by the music that I listened to. The main reason is that music, unlike books, was relatively rare in our house. My parents didn’t own a massive record collection, didn’t have music happy hour or family time and my Dad flatly refused to listen to the radio in the car, like most normal people do, as that interfered with his driving and he couldn’t hear the engine properly over the sound of the radio. So, as a result I never became enamored by the sounds of my generation of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s as so many others did.

But during the summer of 1990, the album was everywhere. It defined us. We identified with it, with the screaming lyrics and the intensity, frustrations of corporate marketing and Hollywood’s definition of who we were, those lost souls from the end of what would be later coined as the x-generation. We were torn between mullets and camo hats, Rambo style sleeveless shirts and the inevitable no-sock, white sport jacket by Sonny Crockett. We were enticed by the Mambo No. Five, but clung to the roots of our land and heritage as tenaciously as possible.

Unfortunately, this was a time of turmoil and strife within the coal fields of Virginia and the surrounding states. The traditional ways of life were rapidly disappearing right before our eyes. Jobs were drying up faster than we could scrap up ways to make up money somewhere else. Many turned to drugs – something I steered mostly clear of throughout my life, recognizing that there was no escape from the path before me without turning my back on what others were embracing.

One particular morning is forever imprinted on my mind. I had graduated from high school and was accepted into the Air Force Academy, Virginia Tech, UVA and King College. My dream, my childhood dream and reason for most things I did was to become a fighter pilot in the USAF. I was too young to enter the academy and so had agreed to go to King College instead of the other schools of choice. It was closer to home and my girlfriend at the time lived not far away.

That morning, in the dew of the backyard near my dad’s workshop, I had disassembled a race bike that I had found in a nearby town, hopelessly crashed and in pieces in a crate. The birds sang, I was deeply tanned already from all the time spent in the gardens, working construction and simply being constantly outside. My dad had sort of given me a car, one that I hated, but ran and got really good gas mileage, which wasn’t much of a concern in 1990. “Sweet Child Of Mine” was playing on the radio that morning and the sun was already evaporating the mist. My wrenches spun in the early morning and my siblings wandered out to see what I was doing. My baby sister, forever at that time of her life in rollerblades, skated up to say hello. She should have been barely walking but instead had leapfrogged all the way to wheels on her feet.

I knew I could turn a profit on the bike I was rebuilding, I had races scheduled all summer, thirty-five yards to mow, a girlfriend a few towns over, plenty of walking around money and the world in my pocket. All I had to do was phone in a semester at King and theoretically I would be bombing our poverty stricken enemies from the relative safety of the cockpit of an F-16, to me the sexiest of planes. I really thought I would be running dogfighting missions across Southeast Asia, but my imagination often supplanted reality.

The reality was, I went to King, experienced terrible cafeteria food for a few months, managed to beat my parents off the campus when they dropped me off, sans car as I had totaled it over the summer and proceeded to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted during my first moments of total freedom.

The problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted. All my life, my parents had encouraged, nay, insisted, that I go to college. Having never went to college themselves, they really didn’t understand the actual benefits, the money involved or what impact it would really have on a relatively sheltered mountain boy to be abandoned on a campus full of Navy Blue Jacketed white boys and girls still wearing bobby socks and parking their BMW’s in the school “patched” parking lot.

I played “Welcome to the Jungle” and “My Michelle” on a never ending loop in my dorm room, enraging the other students. Nights could be found with my head under a pillow and “Paradise City” blasting in my ears as Bobby and Cody discovered that they were gay next door. Was that the ultimate rebellion? I settled for my stand against authority “Animal House” style: Ron Matney “Has no GPA.”

Did I understand the ramifications of my rebellion against nothing? Not really. I simply went back home, to a world I understood and started over. I went back to my old job with my uncle, attended community college and vaguely pursued my dream of being a pilot. I kept myself in unbelievable shape, something not hard to do with the work I was performing. I practiced exams and study guides until I knew them by heart.

I was again accepted into Virginia Tech in 1994. Thrilled beyond belief, my parents readied me for my second excursion into a larger world, my being better prepared, they hoped. What did I do that summer? I married a local girl who refused to leave her parent’s last wedding gift – a single-wide house trailer behind their house. Why? I have no idea. Self-destruction, I suppose. An excuse for not succeeding in a larger world. My little world was strategically placed in case of failure. Intentionally, no. Subconsciously, I think it was a safety net.

One I didn’t need, not that time. I did well at VT, working in mining on the weekends in WV and maintaining a grueling study/workout/work regime that may have in the beginning embarrassed a Navy SEAL. I was determined now to be a pilot. I finished my degree with my dream almost within my grasp when my future ex-wife, demanded, no insisted, no, screamed that we must return to her mommy and church where she could go to church instead of hell, which she was certain existed just east of Blacksburg and extended all the way to the center of the earth.

We did return, I worked as a mine foreman and hated every minute of my existence. I would get phone calls from students who were travelling the world, going on perpetual vacations and having what seemed to me a euphoric existence. I fought black lung and had knee and ankle surgery. They played on a beach in Thailand – I had my ankle reconstructed. They worked as bartenders and lived for schwag – I was trying to make as much money as I could.

With what most considered to be a certain future and a great life, I walked again. Left my wife and her bubble and entered graduate school at VT, where I fought once again with authority over my responsibilities as a PhD student. I lasted exactly one semester. Undeterred, I was accepted into RU’s graduate program, where I was a perfect fit. After graduation I was offered several jobs, good ones with high pay – I went to the beach for the summer. I was accepted into the PhD program in Geological Engineering at VT – I crashed my car and broke 27 bones.

My Dad was diagnosed with a terminal liver disease about that time. I was offered a full position with the NASA group studying the Mars mission in Reno, NV. I moved to Reno, once again clashed with authority, decided there was too much drama and left.

Back in mining in WV once again, I locked horns with my bosses once more, fighting them over every slip in safety regulations, dreading the day when I would be responsible for someone dying somehow on the longwall, one of the most dangerous places on this earth. The strain broke me and I ended up in D.C., dating a want-to-be-but-never-will-be model who had followed me around like a lost dog for years. After so much drama that my nervous system was shot, I started drinking heavily and broke up with her.

I met my wife in D.C. and the self-destruction lessened on the surface and increased with depth. I worked hard, made her proud, was promoted and given a huge office. I hated the city with all my heart. I threw away that opportunity and we moved to Blacksburg, VA where I worked for a smaller office and was largely bored. I left the safety of that firm for another, then another as I sought something, something to fill a space emptied by a lack of, what, exactly? I didn’t know. There was just no challenge, no excitement and I was horribly bored and stressed at the same time. My drinking escalated by that point enough to scare my wife.

During the economic crash of 2006-2009, I had largely escaped intact due to my charisma and work ethic and mostly likeable personality. No one saw the real me behind the false face I projected – nobody saw the addict, the self-destructive tendencies, the old injuries and scars of so many years of living so close to the edge. I lost my job in 2009, not from any fault of my own for the first time, but from the firm downsizing. I just became a number in an equation that was failing.

After a period of wallowing in self-guilt and pity, I snapped out of it long enough to find another job, not one that I wanted or liked, but it was safe. My wife worked with the firm and was invaluable to them – they wanted to keep her at all costs, even if it meant hiring her largely overweight, rather flaky husband with a dubious resume and strange background.

After about a year, I became so frustrated and bored that I was considering packing our things and leaving. We talked about it, but I didn’t know what to do. My drinking escalated.

By this point, everyone knew I had a problem. Most probably knew what it was. I didn’t. I once again pursued something else, a passion that I have always had for teaching, studying for a M.S. in teaching. I was wildly successful as a student, at the top of my class every semester. At this point, my drinking had consumed my life.

The School Board realized something was wrong. Tasked with the safety of the children and placement of teachers in schools, they made the decision to expel me from the program, the first of such in years. I fought it and was re-admitted, only to be asked to leave once more.

Around this time, my wife became pregnant. We were thrilled beyond belief and my drinking lessened. As the time period for his entrance into the world came closer, I became more and more self-destructive, drinking heavily most of the time.

Impaled on a spear of guilt and self-immolation, I crashed and burned. Nearly dead, my wife admitted me into the hospital for my second attempt at monitored rehabilitation. It worked, for about three months. I started hiding alcohol again and becoming ever more vague about my whereabouts, what I was doing and the depth of my sickness. My wife panicked one day, fearing for my safety as well as hers and helped me admit myself into rehab. She and my team of doctors and counselors saved my life that day, once again.

Throughout all this time, food remained and continues to be a solace, almost an embrace, a place where I can reconnect with my childhood and those innocent days of the season, each with their unique flavors and cooking methods. From canning to grilling, storage and ripening, time spent in the kitchen became irreplaceable. No matter how hungover, how sick, how broken or how depressed – a day in the kitchen creating dishes brought me crashing back to reality, where I would often curse my addiction and the wasted time spent fighting against authority of any kind.

Today, things are quite different. I am treating each day as an opportunity, being honest with my wife and it’s been seven months since I’ve had a drink of any kind. The only job that I could get after all of that nonsense was as a line cook at a local restaurant and resort. I work hard, go home every day and thank God for my chance to be with my family, sober and clear-headed for the first time in a very long time.

Like most of my generation, I have come to peace with my life and who I am, but some spring mornings I can still hear the gripping notes and polarizing lyrics of “Appetite for Destruction.” They fade now into the shadows as I play with my son and hug my wife thank God for these moments of peace in my life.

A Baby’s Opinion of Charlottesville

Just so every one knows, I was born in Roanoke and have spent most of my life when I’m not traveling in the New River Valley near Virginia Tech. So my parents, diehard Hokie fans, were more than a little surprised when I insisted that we go to Charlottesville, VA for a couple of days. I was getting irritated with Mom and Dad – normally I get to go everywhere all the time but the weather has been nasty and cold and there’s all this white stuff outside that’s called “snow.” I don’t know if you guys have seen it, but so far I’m not a huge fan. Sliding up and down a hill in a box isn’t a whole lot of fun with this snow stuff in your face. Mommy’s car has been buried for a long time now and here’s what I think of snow:

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So, I drug out my laptop, phone and some travel and food books one morning and more accurately assessed our situation. I wanted to go somewhere warm, like Florida or Costa Rica or Mexico…but overhearing my parents talk about this thing called “Money,” which I don’t have, I decided to keep us local.IMG_0269

Of course, research is long, hot, dirty work, especially when your parents keep you caged in the kitchen! It is my favorite room, as Mom and Dad are always in there and that’s where all the food is, but, I can climb stairs, run and help with the fire! I have to get a drink of OJ to clear my head.

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Man, I like OJ. The only thing better are kiwis, or maybe chocolate milk. I’m going to have a talk with Dad – he has a great recipe for hot chocolate from my Aunt Vickie that I really like, but he hardly ever makes it. I check to make sure that Hooville has plenty of bakeries and little shops and they do! I also research some other restaurants and route and I know my Mom likes to visit wineries, so I leave my computer open and books out while I take a nap. I may not be able to talk yet, but I can communicate! Throwing things helps too.

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So, we set sail. I have a new carseat so I can help better with driving and Mom consults this thing that Dad scornfully calls a “Dumb Phone.” I don’t know what he means by that, I think the phone is pretty smart, so I call it “SmartPhone.” He fusses but she gets directions and all the restaurant reviews I’ve sent her immediately.

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Mom and Dad look and look for the restaurant in Lexington, VA but they can’t find it. I tell them it’s in the YMCA building, but they won’t listen to me so I drink some juice and yell directions at them. I even tried throwing some of my organic cheddar bunnies at them and they still don’t get it. Wait, Parents! We’re driving right by it…Arrrg. We finally found it and Dad was so happy.

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Dad orders a Sweet Potato and Bean cheeseburger and Mom get’s the chef’s take on a Cuban Sandwich, except it’s in a burrito!

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Dad was thrilled with the changing menu and food options that were already prepped and ready in the chiller. He kept saying things and Mom kept telling him it would be my first word, but I know better than to say that word. Dad told me to wait until I was with Nana to say it. I don’t know why.

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For dinner we went to some place called Whiskey Jar and they were supposed to have music but they didn’t play until after my bedtime. Man, I wanted to dance! Their burgers were good and the potato biscuits and hush puppies were AWESOME!! They also had lots of something called whisky, which apparently my parents used to like but don’t anymore since I’ve been born. Another question to ask them later.

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After dinner we walk around but it is COLD! We get some free muffins and a cookie. I remind Dad why we shouldn’t have gotten this hotel the next morning, and then we split for some better food. Pancakes for me and Dad, Salsa Verde breakfast from The Bluegrass Trail and then we swung by Pippin Hill Vineyard for an AMAZING Lunch. I told Mom and Dad we would love this place. There was lots of room for me to run around, nice people to talk to and lots of stuff to put in the floor where it belongs. Whew. It’s hard to be a writer and a baby, so it’s off to bed with me!!! Some nice warm milk, and I’m going to dream of free muffins. Yummmm.

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