Tarboro is a small town in eastern North Carolina on the banks of the Tar River. From the early 18th century until the Civil War, the town was a busy commercial port, the farthest a ship could travel up river before reaching the impassable fall line at Rocky Mount. At the heart of the town is the only surviving town commons in the eastern US outside of Boston. A well-preserved collection of antebellum and Victorian era homes fills the original town limits with historical connections and tradition. Princeville, the oldest incorporated African American town in America, sits across the river, the bridge between the two less a metaphor than you might suppose even though my senior partner advised me that I might walk past young blacks who looked very familiar, as if siblings of some of the white friends I had met; apparently, some of the prominent white residents crossed the river in their pursuit of companionship.
We had dated a couple months when Valentine’s Day approached, and I wanted to dine somewhere nice outside of Tarboro where the only barbecue restaurant in a region famous for its barbecue was notable locally only for its excessive grease. The town queen of cuisine was an Italian restaurant in a strip shopping center that served good Americanized pasta and meatball subs but surprisingly also offered Moretti beer in a Budweiser town. I asked Don and Sarah if they knew of any nearby restaurants that would be suitable for a Valentine’s date. Eastern North Carolina has been notable for several remote and isolated special restaurants like the Country Squire outside Kenansville (formerly famous for a 72 ounce steak challenge that NC State football star and later LA Rams quarterback, Roman Gabriel, accepted). Don and Sarah knew something closer, a newly opened restaurant they had yet to try, and suggested they would like to join me and Marsha.
Sarah made reservations at The Legacy, an old Victorian mansion in Elm City, a tiny railroad town between Rocky Mount and Wilson, both of which continue to be Amtrak stops. With massive columns and wrap-around porch, the mansion appeared as out of place as the restaurant itself. In a town currently offering an American café called Oh My Lard [sic] and Boogies Turkey Barbecue (heresy in pork country), a fine dining establishment was nothing if not unexpected. There being no choices closer, we drove twenty miles for our holiday dinner date.
We were pleased when the waitress asked if we wanted wine with dinner. Much of North Carolina remained dry (no alcoholic beverages served) at the time. Don said that a wine list would be nice, and the waitress replied, “Red or white?” So much for the wine cellar. We shared hors d’oeuvres, then ordered dinner. Steak is always a safe bet, so most of us ordered a filet mignon, but Sarah ordered Beef (not “Boeuf”) Bourguignon. Sitting at a solitary table in the former parlor with its twelve foot ceilings, the atmosphere offered a sophistication found in Tarboro homes if not in Tarboro restaurants, not even at the tiny nine-hole country club, Hilma, a name that seemed as if someone had severed the spelling prematurely. Cordial banter prevailed as we waited for the chef (cook?) to complete our meals. Service was relaxed as it should be when the kitchen is preparing meals to order. We sucked down a few glasses of red until small green salads and the entrees eventually arrived. Everything looked good, and each of us immediately began to slice into our meat.
Don polled the table and asked if our steaks were cooked to our satisfaction. Marsha and I, mouths filled with tender filet, nodded with restrained satisfaction. The steak was not remarkable, but it was good enough. Sarah, however, replied, “Truthfully, this Bourguignon is kind of tough.”
When the waitress returned to see if we needed anything and inquired if we were content, Don spoke up, as a husband should, polite and patient as a priest should be. “My wife’s Bourguignon is rather tough.”
With the prepossessed confidence of a seasoned professional, our waitress instantly proposed a solution, “Would you like a sharper knife?” If the humor of the moment had not been equally mixed with the tragedy of the response, the rest of us might have spit with laughter our pre-chewed food as the absurdity washed over us. Stunned into silence, all of us checked the waitress’s expression for irony or outright humor, then searched for an apology (we considered it impossible that the suggestion was serious) as she stood listless beside the table watching Sarah’s plate as if the cubes of meat might suddenly reposition themselves and find the tenderness the cook had misplaced. Nothing happened, and Don choked on his visceral response.
I remember nothing else about the evening except my long climb up the elegant central stairway to a large restroom tiled in black and white checkerboard where I relieved myself prior to making the ride back to a simpler town with the tortured memory of a “fine dining” experience in rural eastern North Carolina, my home turf.