A Tales of Cable County Short – featuring Ballerini, Earl & Bean
A most wonderful event happens every year in the Cable Counties. I reckon that’s not exactly accurate. This seasonal wonder happens all over the southern United States. Peanuts come into bloom and the young green ones are ready for picking late in May. Most folks think of peanuts as crunchy little morsels that come in a can, calling them ‘cocktail peanuts’(thank you, Mr. Peanut). They are tasty treats in their own right, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Near the end of Spring, the peanuts can be picked but they are still young and tend to absorb moisture. This is the best time.
My name is Arezzo Ballerini and I own a country convenience store at the crossroads of the heart of the Cable Counties, the small hamlet of Lawless, Florida. Labor Day has always been the date for the annual Boiled Peanut Feast, which I host behind the store in an old wooden pole barn. It’s our own way of prolonging Summer and gearing up for football season.
Labor Day was a week away. So, as it always was, this was the time for the big peanut debate. A small, true group of locals had gathered at a near home/business, Get-A-Head Taxidermy, and were ‘practicing’ their various recipes for boiling peanuts. A week from now they’d all be behind my store, still arguing, listening to good country music and drinking beer bought from the store. The sometimes-heated arguments are just a part of the tradition.
And so we take a peek behind the curtain to see the scene in progress…
Four pots were boiling, two over open fire, and two over propane cookers meant for frying turkeys at Thanksgiving…
“… and I’m telling you for the one millionth time… the only, only true recipe is just as simple as good nuts, proper boiling temperature over a wood fire, a healthy amount of Morton Salt, stir repeatedly and patience. Anything else is just plain wrong; a Yankee influence or the result of a tainted palate.” The speaker was Earl, an intensely black stack of muscle who was also one half of the ownership for Get-A-Head Taxidermy. His rant was aimed at his brother Bean, a hulking six-by-six white man with a red sunburn.
While tending his own pot over the fire, Bean gave it back. “And I’m tellin’ you for the… the million and oneth time… there ain’t no one right way. Sides, I like ‘em jalapeño hot.”
Earl stirred his pot. “That’s precisely where you’re wrong, ding-dong. If you want to go ahead and mix in all manner of other ingredients – hell, I don’t care if you pour in a pound of cotton candy – then you gotta call ‘em something else. Call ‘em Bean’s Wild Legume Flowers, or Bean’s Abomination of the True Boiled Nut. But you can’t go callin’ ‘em boiled peanuts when you get all fancy with the ingredients.”
Bean scrunched his forehead while dumping another bowl of sliced raw jalapeño peppers into his own pot. “You’re a ding-dong lagoon.”
Earl smacked his head. “Legume, legume… peanuts are a legume, not lagoon you big… aw, why do I even try.”
A lean muscled hard fellow, a few inches shorter and several pounds lighter, walked up between the brothers and handed each a red Solo cup with froth. He pointed towards their boiling pots. “How ‘bout a sample?”
The brothers elbowed their way around each other trying to dip a few boiling nuts. Bean got his into the belly of a wooden spoon first. “Go ahead and munch on this Cloud. Smooch around the area of a properly boiled peanut, suck on the juice like you would a crawdad head.”
Cloud, Jeremiah St. Cloud, was the king of this little band of country boys. He and the brothers had grown up together as close as nickels and dimes but in separate houses. He was hard, and a hard man to know, too many years working for the dark side of the government. But now he was home and was making an effort. He said, “I didn’t eat all day, just so’s I could get my belly right to taste every one of these recipes. I’ve only been surviving on barley, hops, and good-knowing love.” He grabbed a nut from Bean, cracked the shell and tossed it into his mouth. “Might need a few more to get the true taste.”
By now, Earl had gotten some sample ready. “Don’t go an burn down your savoring taste buds with Satan’s nasty gruel. Have a true boiled nut and just let the memories take you back. Remember floatin’ on the Rainbow River, nekked horseback rides out to the sink, and all other manner of debauchery?”
Bean grimaced. “That ain’t fair brother. You callin’ into account all the past sexing up and mixing it into a peanut story.”
Cloud said to Earl, “Touch lite on the salt…”
Earl turned to his pot with a large mitt handling a box of Morton. “I always sprinkle a little on top, cut the fire down a bit and let the steam do it’s business.”
At that moment, two bookends of the loveliest ladies you ever saw walked down the steps of the house behind us; framing a healthy black woman holding a pie dish. The woman was Mary-Howard Bean, mother to both Earl and his brother, and someone I’d been a little more intimate with than anyone knew. The bookends were Emma and Blue, Cloud’s… housemates. He fiercely looked after the women, plainly loved them both, but… I’m not sure what you’d call their unusual family. Blue held a large bowl of off-name tortilla chips and Emma held a platter of crisp vegetables.
Mary-Howard Bean said, “Took some of the boy’s past efforts and made somethin’ these girls told me is Boiled Peanut Hummus.”
The mention of the last word made all of us cringe. Cloud especially, as I suppose he was used to having good country cooking bent down into something resembling health.
I’m an old Italian man. Got my manners from Senora Ballerini. When she asked you to taste the sauce, you surely wouldn’t turn your nose. I’d lived my life in Lawless, and I was now what you might call a countrified Italian American. I looked into my sweet’s eyes, took a chip and dipped deep into the hummus. I cracked it with my teeth and crunched. I have no idea why I doubted – it was heaven.
“Mary-Howard, that is divine.” I said while giving her an unnoticed wink.
A long-haired country boy, tending his pot over a propane fire, set his vented spoon down and grabbed two carrot sticks and two more of celery then plunged them deeply into the hummus and scooped and crunched.
Bean rubbed his large bald dome. Earl dramatized a wide mouth and said, “That’s just what I’d expect from a damn Yankee.”
The Long Hair, Temple Reed, crunched around a celery stick. Snap-hat turned back, he knelt and rubbed the ears of his bar dog, Maximum-Ready-Set-Go. “Better dim the Yankee comment my friend. I’m from Nashville, and all the world knows that’s the center of the country world. Sides, my nuts cooking over here are what makes a grown man weep. I learned it from a Tuscaloosan – Alabama – if you would. I’m not so much a Gator as the rest of you all.”
An audible gasp escaped from the crowd. Reed continued, “I’ll bet the fee for mounting that bass I gave you last week, that I’ll win the crowd come Labor Day.”
Both Earl and Bean pointed spoons. Earl said, “Game on, hippie.”
And lastly, the most handsome man in the group, who’d been reclining on a battered couch, his head in the lap of a woman we’d never seen, except in the movies, rose and sauntered towards his own boiling pot. Bean said, “You ready to give some samples, Mac?”
MacGregor Knox was the tippy top he-coon law enforcer for all of the Cable Counties. He’d been at West Point with Cloud and was the most notorious philander anyone could imagine. He smirked while pouring a small canister of ground white pepper into his pot. “Don’t do samples, you simple imps. When they’re done, they’re done. Mine always get eaten first.”
Earl guffawed, and he and Bean bumped knuckles. Earl said, “Mac and Reed with their propane fire… damnable shame. Can’t even cook with what the good Lord made.”
In a matter of moments, all pots would cease fire. Then the eating, then the arguing, then the end of civility. I was intent on getting ahead of what was coming. I removed a small spiral-bound notebook from my breast pocket and licked my pencil. “Let the games begin. Every cook must contribute a crisp $100 dollar bill. You’ll be facing another ten or so cooks next week. I’ll match the pot. There’ll be a blind taste test on Labor Day. I’ll choose the judges.”
Bean raised his hand. There was laughter. “Bean, you always were the polite one, don’t listen to these jackals.”
Bean said, “Mr. Ballerini, you taking note of side bets?”
“Bean my boy, how do you think the house covers and wins. Of course I’ll take side bets. A hundred will get you eighty more if you win. But of course, I only write down what’s cash on table upfront.”
Bean scratched his head. Most of the rest of them wanted to seem like they knew what I was talking about, so they looked at each other. Some mumbled.
Hundred dollar bills erupted. I took their money, wrote down their bets. Cloud was last to the table. I raised an eyebrow when I read what he’d written. So is so… I took his money and worked the pencil.
The sampling was upon us. I tried a little up the ante. “Arty Vich and Tree Raulerson cook some mighty good nuts.” More money flowed.
Finally, I said, “Business for the night is closed. I’ll take more bets right up till the day before. For now, let’s get to the tasting.”
Oh my, did the smorgasbord of peanuts go over the moon. Imagine your tongue reaching up high to lick the ceiling of heaven itself. Then you just washed the last bite down with a cup of frothy suds. Goodness gracious Lord Almighty and thank you very much.
When everyone was seated, with beer in hand, the tasting began. We’d drawn straws to see who to sample first. Earl won. We all tasted a few nuts from his cup as he passed it around. I said, “Do you care to tell us your recipe?”
A big cavernous smile. “You bet your ass, Mr. B. But, like I said before, keeping it simple is what makes it righteous.”
Bean interrupted. “Go on an’ cue Skynyrd. No need to apologize just yet simple man.”
Earl shrugged off the rebuke. “Six pounds of nuts in four gallons of water, one round box of Morton’s Salt, cooked over an open fire, preferably made from dry oak and some pine. Boil at high heat for an hour and a half. Then cut the fire back, sprinkle lightly with more salt and let ‘em steep for another half hour. Sheer magical delight. I’m sure you’ll agree.”
Mac Knox was the first to speak. “Makes me remember Friday nights. Big high school games under lights, this smell then taste after the game. Beer and boiled peanuts. Game food.” Mac pushed out his cup and Cloud toasted him.
You could see all of the former players and cheerleaders savor memories from a decade or two past. I said, “Good effort Earl. I propose we dip into the ladies’ hummus to clear the palate. If anyone needs to refill their beer, this is the time.” There came much munching of tortilla chip, carrot and celery stalk.
When everyone had gathered themselves back into the loose circle, I said, “You’re up, Reed.”
Temple Reed rose, went to his pot, and returned promptly with a large sterling trophy-type cup. Steam rose above the mound of peanuts in the challis. The nuts themselves were of a dark orange almost red hue, and sprinkled atop was some dusting of greenish herb. I noticed the engraving on the side of the trophy as he passed it my way and I scooped a handful. “Cable Nut Champ”, with the year shining below.
Earl noticed the engraving as well. “Getting a little ‘head of yourself there, Mr. Needs-A-Damn-Haircut.”
Reed smirked. “You can be my Delilah, I’ll always be Sampson.”
The group took a moment to comprehend, then all bust a gut with laughter.
Bean shoved several peanuts into his gap. “What’s the frilly green sprinkles?”
Reed ignored the inquiry and instead handed everyone a miniature red Solo cup the size of a shot glass. The logo for Big Toe Brewery, the roadhouse/brewery that he and Cloud owned prominent on one side. He looked at me and I reached into a Yeti cooler behind my chair and handed him a nondescript bottle. He proceeded to top off every mini Solo.
When he finished, Reed held his own tiny cup aloft and said, “If you’re lucky enough to live in Cable, then you’re lucky enough. To my friends.”
We all, mannered as we were, downed the shot. Some grimaces ensued, but I thought it tasted of Italy.
Everyone moved back over to the table and dug into the hummus. I noticed Cloud noticing me.
When all were back in the circle I said, “Mac, you’re up.”
MacGregor Knox came back to the group with a stainless steel colander. He dumped the water from a gallon jug he grabbed from his own cooler over the nuts. The colander rained and he watched our eyes. Then he proceeded to serve every woman first, then the men.
The women took note, so did Earl. “You can’t taste charm, lawman.”
Mac winked at him, grabbed a handful of his own product and laid back into the lap of the actress we were all supposed to act like we didn’t know the name of.
After several moments of silent munching. Cloud arose and dipped his hand in the colander and sat back in his chair. His body language was loud.
Emma, almost silent until now said, “Mac, do they serve boiled peanuts at high school football games in Texas? You are originally from Texas, right?”
The actress mussed his hair. “…Texas.”
Mac leaned into her and smiled. He produced a toothpick from his breast pocket and used it a little. “Emmaline, I guess you’d call me… ‘from parts unknown’ like wrestlers from days gone by. But, to your question, yes, I played high school ball in Texas, and I played there for a few years after as an adult.”
The crowd inhaled some. Evidently Emma, was the only one who didn’t know that Mac had played for the Dallas Cowboys for nearly eleven seasons before he came to Cable and became it’s chief lawman.
Mac continued, with no bother at her naiveté or snafu. “It’s true you know. Everything’s bigger in Texas. The wind and rain, the horizon and hats. And most assuredly the nuts. The nuts are most definitely bigger in Texas.”
Earl rolled his eyes. “Alright Texas Tolstoy. You are for sure the biggest nut I’ve ever seen.”
Bean picked up the vine and did his best. “Yeah, Mac, you’re a big peanut-butter nut.”
Everyone burst into laughter. Earl rubbed his face and leaned over and tried to speak into Bean’s ear. Bean pushed him aside and bathed in the laughter with a mile-wide smile.
Mary-Howard hustled to the house and returned with another hummus pie. “That’s the last of it y’all.”
I’d never felt so hungry. I’d been sittin’ there eating peanuts for a few hours and still I felt starved. Evidently, everyone else felt the same. The group descended on the pie with no manners a’tall. A role of Bounty paper towels sat lonely, but it shouldn’t have. These people were face covered in boiled peanut hummus and they didn’t seem to know it. I’m afraid I was just as guilty. I looked over at Temple Reed and he shot me with a thumb and forefinger. Holy green sprinkled…
Bean didn’t wait. He jumped up and shucked his shirt. He mopped his face with it and then tied it around his head like a giant bandana. “My turn Mr. B, my turn.”
I slouched and collapsed into my own chair. Damn, this was the best peanut feast ever and the real Feast was a week away. I took the little pad from my pocket and tried to focus. But, for the life of me, I surely didn’t care about the bets or the money. This was a first.
“Bean, my boy, it is finally your turn.”
“Oh boy, oh boy – just you get ready now.” He dipped full cups for each of us while he talked continuously.
Again I looked over at Temple Reed.
Bean continued, “Take everything Simple Brother Earl did, then… then add in one table spoon of black pepper, and two tablespoons of white pepper. Then… here’s the good part… a dozen sliced fresh jalapeno peppers and a few more ground to liquid in a blender.”
I looked around the group. Most seemed to be gazing at the full moon. Bean smacked his hands against his thighs, then rubbed them together furiously. He said, “Does anyone need a beer, you’re gonna need one, a full one. Oh boy, this makes beer taste better than… than… well, maybe you can’t make beer taste better.”
He handed out his cups and we ate raw fire until all of us were raining bleary eyed hot tears.
Later, as we finished off way too many pounds of peanuts and the last of the cold beer, Bean raised his hand.
I said, “Go ahead Bean, we’re all listening hard.”
He said, “Does everybody got plenty of toilet paper back home?”
A week later, Labor Day, every shop in town was closed for business, including Big Toe Brewery, which was a block down the street from my store. I walked down there anyway; the festivities weren’t to come for some hours yet.
I found Temple Reed in the back yard, the parking lot. He was wearing only boxers and both he and Maximum-Ready-Set-Go were watering the native plants. He felt me behind him, turned and walked toward me. Max, a very social K-9 got there first and demanded attention. I gave him some.
We lounged at a picnic table. Reed began braiding his hair into a blonde back tail.
“Labor Day.” I said.
“Yep. One of my favorite holidays.”
“You, Cloud, Mac, Earl and Bean were all soldiers.”
“And then some.”
“I… me and the whole Counties appreciate it. You’re the best of us…at least at heart.”
“Can’t cook that ‘green dust’ recipe at the Fest today, not at the store. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know. Wasn’t planning to. I had my best time the other night. Just all of us together.”
“Just so we’re straight.”
“We are. But, you think you and Mary-Howard might like to come down and have some of my peanuts in a couple of weeks?”
He scratched at his boxers. “Good night, huh?”
“It was at that… my boy.”
And so it was early evening on Labor Day. The band had been playing for several hours and the beer and boiled peanuts were consumed with gusto. A tower of watermelons had been reduced to rind and nearly two hundred hearty country souls waited my announcement of the winning recipe of this years Feast.
On other days, almost all other days, the bets I accepted for sports and all other manner of enthusiastic gaming were serious. Deadly serious. I myself find it hilarious that I do what I do behind the scenes as a bookie of sorts and still truck with my great good friends who are almost all responsible for upholding the law in the Cable Counties. But the Labor Day peanut bets were just semi-serious. It was real money, but most people won some and lost some, mostly coming out pretty even after I took my fee. Today was going to be different. I hoped it wouldn’t signal the end of the tradition.
The judges I’d chosen were all from out of town and for the most part people I knew only a little. There’d been sixteen entries, sixteen boiling pots and sixteen different philosophies as to what real boiled peanuts should be. As the house in this bet, I’d been a bit perplexed a week ago when I’d received a rather large bet for such a social situation. I’d thought about changing the line, thought about changing the house bet. But, I hadn’t. I’d remained strictly conservative, as the house should. Most of the time, people would good-naturedly rib each other over what they won or lost. That didn’t seem to be the case this year. This year it looked like a winner-take-all scenario. And that worried me.
The party was in full frenzy out behind the store at the pole barn. I’d come to my little office at the back of the store to count the votes. The door to my office which was never closed or locked but was now, rattled. Agitated, I growled, “Out in a minute. Just give me a few minutes.”
I heard a click, looked up, and saw the doorknob turn, which I alone had the key to. I pulled out a drawer and reached my hand inside. The door eased open. “Big mistake, who’s ever opening that door. Big, damn mistake.”
When the door was halfway open, it paused. A voice, “Don’t shoot me, old man. I just need to talk for a minute before you go out there and set the town on fire.”
I relaxed my hand, but kept it hanging on the drawer. It was Cloud, and he should’a known better. “You damn well should know better than touch that door. As a child I had to beat your ass a time or two in the past for even standing too close to it.”
He came in, smiled as much as he ever did, and sat in the single chair across from me. I said, “You picked my lock.”
He set a cold beer on my desk in front of me. He held his up and I hesitantly toasted him. “I did.”
“It’s a dangerous life you lead.”
“There’s few hundred people out there. You weren’t gonna shoot me.”
“I still might if you don’t wipe that shit-eating grin off. I got to get out there and tell every last one of my regular customers that none of them won a single dollar. That one, mysterious man somehow gamed the system, beat all of them combined, and the house too.”
He gave that patented smirk. My fingers brushed the pistol in the drawer. He said, “I did it for you. I did it for the Feast for years to come. I figured it out. If I didn’t, someone else would have- probably someone you do business with from the dark outside fringes. Not a Cable Native.”
“Nobody will ever believe that.”
I nodded, and shook my head at the same time.
“Good enough. Tear up my sheet and let the money flow as if I’d never entered. Sometimes I’m just too much of a smartass for my own good.”
I shook my head. “You’re far too much of a man to figure out.” I tore up his sheet and refigured the bets. It only took a few minutes. We both got up and walked to the door.
He grabbed my shoulder and said, “I noticed you kept your hand in that drawer, even after you knew it was me.”
I closed the door and locked it, turned and walked to the hot action of the Feast. Over my shoulder I said, “… best you remember that.”