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Strong Stomachs

by P. S. Gifford

part 1 of 2

It was a typically soggy and frigid Chicago November evening when I met with Paul Mannering at our usual bar. I had known Paul since my college days, over thirty years now, and twice a year we met here at the same drinking spot, for a warming drink before we headed off to dinner. Tonight was Paul’s turn to have arranged our culinary adventure, as we alternated the honors.

Upon our last meeting, in April, I had taken him to a small, off the beaten track eatery that specialized solely in viscera, those underrated internal organs such as the heart, kidneys and several other seemingly unsavory entrails.

Paul was disgusted at the notion at first. Yet, we had a pact: whatever our dining guest ordered for us, we must consume every last morsel on the plate. The eating process that night had been lubricated by three rather fine bottles of French red wine.

As I entered the bar there was yet no sign of Paul. I nodded to the barkeep, sat at the antique mahogany countertop and ordered a large single malt whisky. I was convinced that whatever Paul had in store for me to eat tonight was going to take as much courage as I could muster. I have been blessed with an iron stomach from childhood, however, I had a gut suspicion that Paul was about to test that stomach to its boundaries.

I was on my second drink when Paul finally entered. By this time the rain had intensified and he strolled in looking as if he had just swum his way there instead of walking. I could tell that despite his soaking he was in high spirits, for he wore a subtle smirk on his face.

Removing his raincoat and resting his umbrella, he saluted me and made his way over. I ordered him his customary double bourbon as he ambled over and sat beside me.

“So?’ I asked inquisitively as I watched him finish half his drink with the first gulp. “Where are we heading tonight?’

Paul, obviously feeling far better from the sudden intake of bourbon, simply winked at me.

“That will take half of the fun out of it if I told you now!’

We finished our drinks and idly caught up on what mundane things had been going on in our lives. We rarely spoke other than our customary bi-annual culinary excursions, so I informed him of my recent promotion to area manager, and he shared of his two large and lucrative accounts he had recently procured after months of wooing.

It seems our lives were still on an even, albeit slightly dull, course. There were many parallels between us. Paul and I had both graduated with business degrees, and both had done quite well financially for ourselves. We had both opted for living in the heart of Chicago, and we were both contentedly married with children. I had a son and a daughter, and Paul had three sons.

Paul glanced at his watch. “Crap, look at the time. We need to get a move on.’

With that he retrieved his cell phone and called a taxi. Ten minutes later we had finished our drinks, settled the bar tab, and were waiting in the lobby for the taxi-cab to pull up. As it did we quickly dashed out into the rain and tumbled into the back seat.

“Where you heading, gents?’ asked the thick accented driver.

Paul reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card, making sure that I was unable to catch a glimpse of it. He discreetly handed it to the driver.

“It is a surprise for my friend,’ he said.

The driver read the address on the card, and the look in his eyes showed his alarm.

“Are you sure you want to go there, sir?’ he asked hesitantly. “There are some great steak houses that I can recommend. Or if you fancy seafood, I...’

Paul cut him off mid sentence. “No, please take us to where I ask.’

The twenty-five minute car drive continued with no sounds of the heavy rain pounding on the cab, the sound of its engine, and the constant, almost hypnotic, swishing back and forth of the windshield wipers. I noted with curiosity, and a degree of alarm, that we left downtown Chicago, to the suburb of Douglas. I glanced at Paul, who was smiling broadly.

“Don’t worry. I know precisely what I am doing; this is going to be the most exquisite culinary delight that you have ever consumed,’ Paul said reassuringly, obviously noting the look of dread in my eyes.

Douglas is located in the very heart of the south side of Chicago, a town where gang members mark and protect their territory ferociously. An area predominantly black American, and where two white city slickers such as Paul and I appeared decidedly out of place. The rain by now had stopped, but what remained was a misty night. I could not fail to consider that it was the sort of fog reminiscent of one described vividly in many of Conan Doyle’s books.

Five minutes later as I nervously peered out the taxi-cab window at a vast variety of colorful and oftentimes elaborate graffiti, we pulled up outside an old building that looked like a Victorian-era house. Its style was distinctly American carpenter gothic style, and in desperate need of several generous licks of paint. The building, which was well lit by several lamplights, stood two stories high with steep gables augmented by gargoyles and pointed windows. There was a long wooden set of stairs leading up to a foreboding front door. I wondered if we had arrived at the wrong location, and this was a private residence; however, a hand painted sign on a wooden post outside of it proved otherwise.

The name of the establishment, “Voodoo Hoodoo’s,’ was painted in faded red ink. Below it, smaller black letters which I could just make out stated: “Serving traditional Jamaican food since 1947.’

“That will be thirty-three dollars, gentlemen,’ the driver said hastily.

Paul handed him two twenty-dollar bills. “Please keep the change,’ he said as he swung open the door. “And could you pick us up again at midnight please?’

The driver hesitated. “It would take twice my usual fare to make me inclined to do that, gents,’ he said as he watched us climb out of his cab.

“You’ve got a deal,’ Paul replied, looking the driver straight in the eyes. With that, the driver nodded curtly at us, then shook his head, in apparent disbelief, as he thrust the car into gear and sped off down the street.

“So just what sort of a place have you brought me to? It looks more like a museum than a restaurant.’

“You will see. I have been here three times now, and have never been disappointed.’

With that we walked up the creaking wooden steps to the front door and rang a bell. A haunting chime filled the bitter cold air, and I was beginning to second guess venturing inside when the door opened abruptly.

Standing there stood a black man of about sixty. He was wearing black trousers, a black shirt and a black tie. His clothing was in sharp contrast to his grey and white full beard and bald head. He appeared to be well over six feet tall, with massively broad shoulders that would put most NFL players to shame.

He looked curiously at us at first, and then apparently recognizing Paul he beamed a generous smile, revealing a full set of gleaming perfect white teeth.

“Welcome back, Mr. Wentworth. Your usual table awaits,’ he said to us. “And I see that you aren’t dining alone tonight. I am delighted.’

The imposing gentleman offered an equally imposing large hand towards me.

“My name is Mr. Ellin. I am the manager here.’

I accepted his handshake and found it surprisingly gentle for a man of his proportions.

“Do come in.’

We were ushered inside. At first I was taken aback by the sight of a front room containing just eight tables, all crammed together in what had surely been the parlor and lounge, long ago converted into one larger area. This mismatched tables and chairs were full of people greedily consuming their food.

The second thing that struck me was the silence. There was no idle chatter or annoying Muzak playing in the background, which is a mainstay of most restaurants. All that could be heard was the sound of the diners fervently slavering down their food.

The next thing that struck me were the abundance of cobwebs and dust that filled each available nook and cranny of the room. I was about to once more reconsider eating here, being a bit of a hygiene freak, when my nostrils managed to breathe in the most tantalizing aroma I have ever experienced. Paul smiled at me again knowingly.

Mr. Ellin, who had watched my transforming facial features go from disappointment to enthusiasm, led us to the only empty table, set for two.

I was seated into a wooden chair, and Paul positioned himself in a wicker one directly opposite me.

“Enjoy,’ Mr. Ellin said with a modest, well practiced bow, and then left us.

“What a peculiar yet charming man,’ I said to Paul, trying to soak it all in.

“Yes, he runs the place and his father prepares the food. He has been cooking here, single handedly, ever since the place opened... I bet he has to be nearly ninety.’

“Good grief! I wonder what his secret is,’ I said, astonished to hear that my meal was going to be prepared by a gentleman of that age.

““His diet, I suspect,’ Paul answered with one of his famous winks.

“So where are the menus?’ I asked, looking about me at the fellow diners. I noticed to my surprise a vast variety of diners ranging from young college student types to elderly gentlemen of various ethnic groups. One thing that struck me, however, was there were no women present.

“Oh, there are no menus. There is only one fixed dining choice. I have had it three times now, and believe me, it just gets better and better.’

“Is there any reason why there aren’t any women here tonight?’ I asked.

“Women are strictly forbidden,’ Paul said with a rather mischievous tone in his voice that I found a tad disturbing.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by P. S. Gifford

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