Notes From Nashville (Debating Food)

Notes Day 1:

Rotier’s: Jason orders the meat and two, roast beef, thick hunks of tender meat in thick gravy, tastes brown and beefy, coleslaw, very crunch in sweet sour cream, and hashbrown casserole, a recipe out of Fanny Farmer or a spiral bound church cookbook, iced tea, grilled buttery French bread. Emily orders fried chicken, green beans, hashbrown casserole. Beck orders steak dinner, fries, beer-battered cheese sticks. The interior is dark, smoky as though viewed through crackled microfilm, booths, a tv showing the LeBron, college kids bound in coats drinking beer, a waitress with a tired chubby face and a tired smile, thin brown hair, pay at the register to a gristly man graybearded. Neon signs outside read STEAK, SEAFOOD, it looks like a pit but is a friendly cavern.

A car packed with suitcases packed with printed articles, new news magazines, text books, Krugman, Nye, Okun top the shelf, boxes and boxes of granola bars, bottled water, clementines. We make pit stops at Love’s gas station, drink coke and watch the Tennessee sunset, listen to the Black Keys’ El Camino and Nirvana’s In Utero taking highway 24 down south. Then we cross into Nashville a great city of glittering light in the dark south (you can see the motherfucking constellations out the car window). Beck and Emily chat about television shows (Gossip Girl, Project Runway) and gossip about debaters on the national circuit. I sag in the backseat, trying to reach that nirvana of half-wakefulness rocking into the seatbelt and sleeping to the Black Keys’ “Sister.”

We’re staying at the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt, which is really almost swallowed into the campus. There is a towel folded in the shape of a swan on each bed. Debaters stroll the lobby lugging big suitcases overstuffed and carrying plastic tubs. There is a discrete taxonomy of debaters. It is easy to identify the policy debaters by their masculine affect, square jaws, tousled hair, cigarette stained teeth, beanies, fat cheeks, laptop dazed donut glazed look, and coffee swilling slump across lobby couches just chilling and shooting shit. The extempers by their careful grooming and intense walk. Extempers walk fast and with a purpose. They are pointy, driven, intense, aware of their intention and ready to fulfill it. There are less of them and they all know each other, so it’s like a perverse family. The LDers are the most attractive, impeccable, smooth and sly, genuinely nice or just plain slimey, and always white toothed and scrubbed nosehair plucked Gillette Max or whatever shaved smooth close to the cheekbones, giving their blue steel looks and ready for rebuttals. And then there are the debate coaches. The men have bottlebrush gray mustaches and craggy blue eyes, carry battered leather briefcases, smoke cigarillos. The women are either homemakers of the 1950s stereotype gotten old with platinum blonde hair and excess makeup around the lips, rouged and tanned cosmetically, or young women who are looking for or escaping from likewise boyfriends.

It is 10:30 and Emily has begun to file. In the connecting room I hear the punctuated click click click of a stapler sampling hundreds and hundreds of newspaper articles.

Notes Day 2:

I ate dinner at Joe’s Bar-B-Que and Fish, a small yellow and red shack off the Clarksville Pikeway. Take-out only. You drive into the parking lot, circle to the menu—a sagging, jury-rigged board—talk to the squakbox megaphone, pay at the first window, where a friendly head of dreads asks, “Whatsup? Hot pork, right” $11, pick up at window #2, make a u-ey on the pikeway, then pull back into Joe’s parking lot and around the back where there are two picnic tables. Pork on cornbread sounds like a sandwich, but proves far too messy for hands-on handling. In Nashville, cornbread implies griddled cakes, caramelized and loosely bound, soft as living hog skin or my Holiday Inn pillow. Between the cakes, Joe and company stuff close to a pound of pulled pork, rough chopped and juicy. Pickles are mixed in for brine and bite. I have to slow myself down eating dinner, it’s so delicious, so I close my eyes. A white cat curls around my legs, begging for scraps. Besides me and the cat, the parking lot is deserted; only sounds: the loudspeaker over the rumble of cars heading north; the glow of a Dollar Tree across the street; my own heart humming and jaws working or the slurps of spaghetti sliding through fork tines and pursed lips across a tongue that detects brown sugar twang and navy beans, sour and creamy.

The ride to Joe’s is, frankly, frightening. Six police cars, blue lights spiraling, stop before a clapboard shack. Teenagers hang in front of a liquor store. Dark pools mark the gaping vacancies of uninhabited space. I lock my doors.

Pancake Pantry: Wait on line 15 minutes (self-serve coffee available to those patiently idling), seated and thick black coffee served. I eat Smokey Mountain Buckwheat Cakes with soft salty butter, honey, and warm maple syrup. They are, despite their airy texture, not for the faint of heart. Buckwheat speaks of hard scratch soil, furrows clawed from the aching, reluctant earth; gravel paths and dogs off chains, woodsmoke and lean-tos, or maybe Brittany, the ancient and distant tang of saltwater, Mediterranean or Atlantic, a briny, primal sweat that I want to taste on a woman’s lips before I die. Spread with butter the cakes remind me of nothing—for I have never encountered such an ethereal representation of the soil, a live transmutation of earth into vaporous dough. (My sister—Swedish pancakes: lingonberry jam spread into eggy crepes. Beck—a salad and half a sandwich.)

After lunch I went to a used bookstore. I bought a copy of William-Least-Heat Moon’s book PraryErth. Although I wanted to purchase a copy of Jude the Obscure, they were selling it for plus ten percent of the original sale price. I balked, and asked the saleswoman why I should buy it if I could find it cheaper on Amazon. She shouted, “Shop local!” as she bagged my book.

Vanderbilt’s campus feels, for the most part, put there—it does not feel like an organic outgrowth of Nashville or the Tennessee soil. Most of the buildings are red brick, rectilinear, low, and shut close to the ground. Despite a concerted effort at landscaping and lawnskeeping, the campus looks artificial and uncomfortable. In contrast, Montgomery Bell Academy, with its pillars and palatial bricking, is a normal physiognomy on the Nashville skull.

Adam Johnson: head of extemp. Moonier faced than I remember him, boyish, big-boned, with a shock of sandy hair swept across his face. Aaron Lutkowitz: angular UNC student, former extemper, know him from the National Circuit my senior year, here to judge and assist Adam. At the registration table, Adam says, “You look hairier than when I last saw you.”

Notes Day 3:

For lunch, I went to Sylvan Park, a five-minute drive north of Montgomery Bell Academy. The building is white-washed, ramshackle, fading off the face of the Earth like an old photograph. The interior is sparse and feels like a prison cafeteria. Meat and three is the recommended route. I ate Tennessee ham, a salty fatty wedge of pink flesh, fried eggplant (cut into strips like fries, amazingly creamy), greens with a shake of vinegar, and mac n cheese, a passable rendition. For dessert, I savored a gigantic slice of chocolate pie, complete with skyscraping meringue top. Warm chocolate pudding set loosely, lightly on a buttery crust: nothing better on a cold Nashville afternoon. After lunch, I stopped to buy Emily a coffee at a Russian gas station.

For dinner, I went to Hog Heaven, which is located alarmingly close to Vanderbilt’s campus. Order at the window and sit at a picnic bench. I went for the pulled pork, served on a squishy bun that comes topped with a pickle or two. The meat is tender, vaguely smokey, but not especially piggy—a disappointment.

Notes Day 4:

The last day of the tournament. Emily wins the consolation bracket. Lily Nellans wins the tournament with a speech about how Australia should respond to Fiji lifting marshal law—I rank her last in the room for making cannibal jokes and general Orientalism. Lunch is at Swett’s, the Green Hill location, which is on the first floor of a home for retired teachers, aka a nursing home. The dining room is full of senior citizens tottering about on walkers, families visiting grandparents, and tables covered with uncleared dishes. Swett’s is understaffed, and it shows in the food, too. The fried chicken is nice and crunchy, salty, well spiced, but the side and pie are average at best: sickly sweet candied yams, tasting like a tin can, and bland cabbage, and decent green beans, and pathologically sugary chess pie, nothing more than a congealed block of sugar.

On the way home, we stop at Long John Silver’s. I get the ‘Fish and More’ platter, two super greasy planks of white fish, fries, hushpuppies (not bad!) and just awful slaw. The food is universally yellow. Or perhaps the advertising term is golden. I miss Nashville already, the whole 5 hour ride back, listening to Miles Davis and Eminem.

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