Francis's Famous Okra Chowder
by Laura Lamm
Doline looked out her main street cafe window as far to the left and to the right as she could; then she looked at her watch. “Forty-two minutes late,” she called back to the kitchen where Francis was stirring a huge pot of her famous okra chowder. The kind that is so full of in season vegetables that the ladle would stand straight up in the pot if Francis would let go of the handle.
“They’ll be here any minute,” she chimed back to Doline.
“What’ll we do if’n they don’t come today?” Doline asked.
“Since when has one of my chowders ever been wasted? Always better the second or even, God forbid, third day.”
Doline smiled a little bit. She’d run a special tomorrow. Everyone in town would stop by for a cup—maybe a bowl. “How many boxes of saltines do we have?”
“Enough for a special.”
“Girl, you know me too well,” and Doline laughed in spite of trying to keep a straight face.
Aubrey Frahm, who had come in to enjoy the gospel and hymn sing-a-long that always took place Wednesdays between 11 AM and 2 PM ate in silence, each spoonful of chowder held just long enough for it to cool before she swallowed it. Aubrey never spilled a drop or left a hush puppy in the basket. Aubrey didn’t tip either, but she was a regular customer, and regulars paid the bills.
“Need some more sweet tea there, Aubrey,” already filling her glass. Doline was the one in need of something to take her mind off the group of friends who had grown to over twenty and filled the whole back section of her café each week. No one other than this special group ever sat in the back on Wednesdays. Doline had even set her longest table in the middle between the booths, leaving plenty of room at the far end for Charlie, Sammy, and Gordon — the local guitar players and banjo picker to sit in front of the Rotary club’s banner. The emblem of blue and gold clashed with the red and white checkered plastic table cloths, but so did the hot sauce and vinegar-pepper bottles.
Peggy from the Dollar General and her friend Janice came in, sat near the door, and looked around appearing a little lost. Quickly Doline said, “Must be running a little late.” Peggy smiled and waved, “Janice drove over from Newport special today.”
“Sure did. I love me some gospel.”
Doline reached their table with the silverware rolls and menus, “Give you a few minutes to decide.”
Janice sniffed the air like a bloodhound catching a convict’s scent, “Before I look at the menu, what is it that smells so good?”
Doline thought for a moment; “It’s Francis’s Famous Okra Chowder, today’s special. Same thing Aubrey’s having. Cup just $2.50. How is it Aubrey?” She turned her back on Janice and Peggy, winked at Aubrey and looked at her as if to say help me out here.
“Best chowder I’ve had since St. Patty’s Day.” It was a small stretch of the truth to help Doline. Aubrey ate here every week and everything she ate was delicious.
Peggy who had only an hour to eat spoke right up, “That sounds good to me, and I’ll have sweet tea.”
Janice shrugged, “I’m game.”
Doline hurried over to Aubrey’s table, leaving Peggy and Janice to titter about the latest fashions or sales or whatnots. “Thank you,” she whispered, “give me that ticket, and I’ll write you a new one.
Aubrey handed it straight over. She knew how it was to pinch a quarter ‘til the eagle screamed.
“They come?” Francis asked as Doline appeared at the 2’ X3’ kitchen window.
“Shhhh, no, and I just made your chowder today’s special. No sense waitin’.”
Francis nodded; it had been hard to keep the cafe going in Turkey Bend. She turned to Sadie; the only kitchen help she had or needed for that matter. Sadie could outwork ten people of any age, any day of the week. Miss Sadie was old school in just about every way, and she was always happy.
“Miss Sadie, please bring me the dry erase board and its marker.”
Sadie nodded and went in the pantry to bring them out. Sadie didn’t talk much, but the warmth of her spirit filled that tiny kitchen no matter what chore she had. She supported several children and their children, some cousins, and her husband when he was in town. Doline and Francis never could keep all of her relations straight, and she like it that way. She didn’t have anything to hide. She was just a private lady who took all her cares to Jesus.
Sadie wondered where the gospel group was. It was nearly noon and not a note of “I Saw the Light” had floated into the steamy kitchen.
“Thanks, Miss Sadie.” Francis took the black marker and wrote ‘Today’s Special’ in four inch letters. Below she wrote ‘Francises Famous Okra Chowder’. “Hey, Doline,” she squinted at the sign and then at Doline out the serving window.
“What’s our special price?”
“$2.50 a bowl.”
Sadie looked alarmed. She shook her finger in the air and got a soup cup down from the shelf. She pointed at the word bowl that Francis had written on the board and back at the cup in her gnarled hand.
“Okay Sadie — $3.50 a bowl, $2.50 a cup.” Doline didn’t know the long list of fresh vegetables that had been chopped for the pot, but Francis did and she heartily agreed, “Sadie’s right.”
Doline quietly cocked her head toward the three customers seated out front, “Okay, but these first bowls go for $2.50, and hand me one of those apple pies Miss Sadie. Thank you, ‘mam.” Doline cut a nice slice from the pie and took it over to Aubrey with her adjusted bill.
“I can’t eat another bite,” objected Aubrey.
Doline sat the pie on the table and walked away. Aubrey stared at the pie. It had been so long since she had treated herself to anything. She turned the ticket over: okra chowder — $2.50, tea — 75 cents, tax — 20 cents, apple pie — free for being my friend.
Peggy and Janice were spooning into their bowls of chowder, waving their hands in front of their faces, and gulping down tea. Fools, Aubrey thought. Them that has don’t appreciate.
“Ladies, it’s right from the pot,” Doline chided. “More tea, Aubrey?”
“No thank you. Can I take this pie to go?”
“Course you can. Let me wrap it up for you.” Doline took away the precious pie slice. Aubrey licked her thumb where the syrupy filling had caught as she passed the plate. She’d have licked it if she wasn’t in public. Cinnamon so sharp it caught in her throat and delighted her, made her mouth water so much she was forced to swallow several times even though she tried not to. The pie sat wrapped in a paper bag by the register with her name on it. She sat there and admired it. Her pie. Her name.
Doline picked up the bag and brought it over to the table. Aubrey held out four one dollar bills and said, “Keep the change.” Doline chuckled for the third time that day, making Francis and Sadie gather at the kitchen window to peer out.
Aubrey practically strutted over to the door and held it open a little too long, letting in a few flies. “Lord, why do you do this to me,” Doline muttered. “I get with one hand, and you take with the other.” She stood for a moment, listening to the flies buzzing, and stared at her sign over the door — “Good Food … Good Friends … Good Times” and prayed, Help me, Lord.
“Okra chowder’s today’s special. Get the apple pie? Okay Miss Aubrey.”
Doline smiled as she saw Gordy and his banjo coming in the door.
“Appears we’re gonna be late startin.’ We’re all caught in traffic out on Hwy 24 near the turn off. You’d think this was Charlotte.”
Doline wrinkled her forehead and frowned, “What happen?”
“Oil tanker jackknifed. Nobody hurt. But it’s gonna be a mess for a while.”
“Go on back Gordy. Want iced water?”
“You’re always so good to us Doline. Bet you remember everybody’s drinks.”
“I try Gordy. One of these days you’re gonna to want tea.”
“Only if it’s unsweetened — got high sugar, you know.”
“No, I didn’t, Gordy. Next Wednesday there’ll be a pitcher of unsweet tea with your name on it.”
Gordy tuned his banjo; “It’ll be official then. Just like home.”
Doline sighed almost too loudly, how nice people thought of her small-town diner as home away from home. Peggy sidled up to her, “I left my money on the table — gotta run back to work.” As she walked toward the door, she shouted back to Francis, “The chowder was real good.” Francis just waved from beside the stove where she was standing, deep fat frying hush puppies.
“See Miss Sadie, told you they’d be here.”
Sadie threw her head back and grinned. She took down a stack of red plastic bread baskets and started lining them with thick white paper napkins. The front door began to open and close. She could hear it above the frying pops and the cardinals singing out the back screen door. Sadie kept readying those baskets thinking, Lord, keep these good people coming.
Doline was thinking the same thing as she filled more and more water glasses. Eighteen years ago Doline had opened the café with little money and struggled on. Somehow not being able to be fired had looked good to her as a younger woman. She’d had no idea how hard owning a restaurant would be at thirty-two. Francis had stuck by her all that time — cooking home-style meals even on the hottest, most humid days. Few other cooks would have done what Francis had.
Seventy- eight years young Miss Polly arrived, along with several others, and stopped to speak to Doline before going to join Gordy and the others, “Honey, you gotta know we wouldn’t miss this for anything. We all love music and you so much. Deep down in our souls, we all know that if we don’t feel better after being here, there is something bad wrong with us.”
“Thank you, Miss Polly. Francis, Sadie, and I love your gospel and hymn singing. All y’all do know that you help keep my open sign out.”
“We know, but we never think about it. Each of us does what he or she can. That’s all.” Polly squeezed Doline’s arm and seemed to glide to the back where the others had already gathered.
Charlie and Sammy strummed their guitars, and Charlie asked, “What we gonna start with today?”
After some discussion, “What a Day That Will Be” was the group’s decision. The group turned in their personal hymnals to the song, and the music rang out. As the song ended, everyone laughed, joked, or clapped. Charlie shouted out the next song, and Sammy strummed some of its music, so everyone would be ready to start. Doline was sure the singing could be heard all the way out into the parking lot — church just without the preaching.
“Lord, don’t that sound good,” croaked Sadie.
“Yes, it does. Just like your musical voice.” Francis was a tad bit stunned that Sadie had spoken.
“‘Old Frog’ is what my husband calls me.”
“Croak on then.”
Sadie was distracted and didn’t hear Francis. The front door kept opening and closing, so she started to make more bread baskets.
“What’re you doing?”
Sadie pointed through the window at the restaurant full of waiting customers. Heads bobbed to the music. Doline ran from one table to the next, writing ticket after ticket. She ran back to the kitchen window, “They all want the okra special.”
Francis replied, “I hope there’s enough for all those people.”
“Me too,” Doline agreed.
Sadie thought of the loaves and fishes and kept on making up baskets until there were none left; then she noticed that Francis was standing stock still with her hands on her hips. The fryer tongs were dripping hot oil onto the floor by her feet. Sadie bent down with a rag, “Best not drip oil.”
Francis realized what she was doing. “Sorry Miss Sadie. You know I don’t like making a mess — especially a dangerous one.” She returned to the hush puppies and started humming along with the current song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Yes, Sadie knew they did. She sang along with Francis. Together they filled the baskets, gingerly covering the cornbread delicacies to keep them hot for the hungry customers. Francis shoved them onto a serving tray, carried it to the window, and passed it to Doline who handed the baskets of bread out like candy to her full house.
Laura Lamm is an instructor at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and a beginning fiction and poetry writer. This story is based on a real event that takes place in Clifton, South Carolina, every Wednesday in a small diner named Dolline’s. “I read an article in my local newspaper about these old friends, and I was so moved by the real story that I worked it into a fictional one,” says Lamm.