Just enough pepper.

The sky wore its confederate grey cloak as I strolled up the street to the hotel. The leaves had peaked, their color going from the fiery red, yellows and oranges of early autumn to the subdued browns and deep maroon of fall in its twigh light. The cold had deepened and winter wasn’t far off. The dunes of leaves shifted and whipped around the nearly abandoned street as the wind rose and fell as though they were unseen waves sculpting the debris that the trees had dropped.

I got to the employee’s entrance to the hotel and with a sigh I opened the door. The breeze blew leaves down the small hallway, and I was greeted with a chorus of voices calling for me to “Close the dam door!” Grunting I shoved the big door shut and grabbed my time card. The old time clock that was probably installed sometime in the 1970’s clamped down and marked my card. I shrugged off my coat and placed it on the hook and adjusted my clothes. It was going to be a long boring day, the guests had left for the season and the next big holiday was thanksgiving, which was still weeks off. The hotel was quiet and myself and my fellow employees went about the business of keeping the grand old place open and running.

In these last, quiet days of the hotel we shared a lot of down time with each other, laughing and joking, cussing and crying, and wondering what we were going to do after the place closed. There wasn’t a lot in the hotel those days, the pantry and larder were kept at a bare minimum, the walk-in refrigerators’ inventory was kept at just above an operational level, there wasn’t a need for an overstock of anything. But our chef, William Snell, could work MAGIC in the kitchen. And his favorite time of day was morning. Yes, Bill was one of those dreaded “morning people”. His smile and thick Cajun accent delighted everyone who had breakfast in the opulent overlook dining room. This morning was no different. Chef Bill was in the dining room, making his morning rounds of the two or three tables that were having their breakfast.

“Hey ‘dere, god mornin’ son, you lookin tired.” He said smiling and clapping me on the shoulder. (I do apologize, but anyone who knew Chef Bill will tell you he had a thiiiiick Cajun accent)

“Yes sir,” I nodded, “Was a long night. And good morning to you too Chef.” I said.

“Hey, tell ya what, boy, come on back ‘dere and lemme make ya sumthin special, yeah?”

I would have been a fool to refuse one of Chef Bill’s “sumthin special” dishes. He knew, that man KNEW, what you were craving (even if you didn’t know yourself) and could produce it within moments. Like I said…magic. He once made my Mom a blackened catfish “sumthin special” that she still talks about. “yes SIR.” I smiled broadly. My morning had improved a hundred fold since i walked in the door. “Let me attend to some things behind the desk and I’ll be right back.”

“Dat’s fine, son. Gives me time to whip sumthin’ up.” He smiled broadly and went back to his kitchen.

I tended to my duties as quickly as I could. Thoughts of chef’s delicacies drifted through my head. What could it be? Some Et tu’ fe? Maybe some spoonbread? Oh my goodness what if he made a bacon, cheese and bacon waffle?! (yes that is a thing…stay tuned for that recipe) Whatever it was, I knew I was going to love it. He rarely made anything i didn’t like. There was the calamari incident, but it was way too early in the day for seafood. All these thoughts raced through my head until i had a few minutes to go to the kitchen. My mom came to the desk to check some reservations.

“Mom, cover me for a few minutes?’

She nodded. “Sure, where you going?”

“Chef Bill said he’d make me ‘sumthin’ special’.” I said trying my best to imitate his deep accent.

Her eyebrows raise. “OH?”

“Yeah…” I said and turned to leave without any further discussion or explanation. I almost ran, perhaps even, some would say half skipped across the large dining room to the kitchen. My stomach made an expectantly happy grumble as I opened the porthole double doors to the kitchen.

The aromas assaulted me with the relentlessness of a storm’s winds rustling through the trees on Maryland heights. I smelled things, baked fresh and hot coming from the oven, sausage, browned to perfection. I could smell the sage and rosemary that were Chef Bill’s favorite seasonings…and consequently, mine.

“Chef?” i asked as i approached the line.

He whirled around with the flair of a carnival barker. His smile somehow illuminated the dish he held in his hand sprinkling a pinch of something on top of what he held. “Here ya go, son, tuck on in and tell me what you tink’ o’ dat.”

I took the plate, my belly was doing somersaults of joy.

Biscuits and Sausage gravy.1442587816930

There are some who scoff at this being a chef worthy dish. But those people have never had fresh made buttermilk biscuits with gravy made with a flair. I took a bite. And in my head i heard Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” sung by an angelic choir. Every morsel was as delectable as the one before. Every bite was heaven perched on the end of the fork. The smells blended with the perfectly seasoned sausage gravy (made with bacon grease) and  just enough pepper. I could feel the warmth of the food filling the chilly corners of my body, warding off the November chill.

It wasnt long before the rest of the employees wandered into the kitchen, being pulled by the smell of fresh out of the oven biscuits like moths to a flame. And we all stood there soon, laughing and sharing a joke, each of with our own plate of biscuits and gravy.

It was in those closing days of the Hilltop House that my fellow employees and i became more than a group of people, we became more than co-workers, we became family.


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