“Slow down! Slow down!” I shouted to my husband with a grin on my face as I spotted those three words on the façade of the little gray building. Porky Pig Diner. The last word sounded especially inviting even though the industrial front of the building suggested otherwise. Could this joint carry the promise of the local flavor we’ve been on the lookout for? I was watching the side of the road with the mindset of the tourist eager to experience local culture through its authentic cuisine while simultaneously assuming the role of the house hunter who was inspecting a new listing and checking out the relocation area to decide if it was the right place to live.
This was our first outing to Mammoth Cave National Park since our move to Kentucky. After the long day’s hike, I was looking forward to the culinary rewards for grumbling stomachs and some rest for our aching feet. We pulled over. When out on the trail, I never fail to bring up stories about past trips from my younger years when I still lived in Europe. The-Sound-of-Music-like scenery with the crispness of the Alpine air at 5000 feet and the spotting of a rare edelweiss more than compensated for our sore limbs; however, the prospect of reaching that little half-timbered café or mountain restaurant at the end of the trail always helped me push through the last couple of kilometers. No matter how remote the summit, I was confident that the food and wine experience at the end of the path would be just as memorable as the excursion itself. I missed those trips. In the U.S., I rarely encountered a café at the end of a trail, and I blamed the country’s Puritanical heritage for it. When I spotted Porky Pig by the roadside, my heart and soul became filled with anticipation of gastronomic adventures and indulging in unique cuisine. Maybe Kentucky isn’t such a bad place after all.
The big cultural adjustments were behind us by the time we moved to Bowling Green. We had already lived in the U.S. for over seven years in three different states, off and on, so we had surely reached the “gradual adjusting” stage of culture shock. In fact, as the unfamiliar was slowly turning into familiar, we were proudly marching towards complete acculturation. We had come a long way. While living in Indiana in the 1980s, we learned how to operate a microwave not made in the Soviet Union. We managed to open doors when entering or leaving rooms without difficulties, and we even had great success with bathroom faucets and flushing toilets. In Michigan, selecting a food item at a grocery store took no more than a mere three seconds. I’d call this a major improvement over the initial 15 minutes we spent staring at a shelf and looking for a single item in our lengthy shopping list and getting frustrated by the plethora of options even for something as simple as cooking oil. Grocery shopping in a socialist country was so much simpler: there was usually only one kind of a certain type of food item. It was either available at the store or it was not. Customers wasted no time by reading food labels to make the right purchase decision. By North Carolina, we were comfortable enough to rely on OTC medication from Walgreens and abandoned the medicine box that we brought with us from Hungary, a clear indication that we were transitioning from visitor to local if you ask me. With all this accumulated cultural knowledge, who wouldn’t feel ready to brave a new location?
When my friends in North Carolina found out that I got a job and would soon be moving, they made some subtle comments: “Kentucky is different.” “It’s the South,” they whispered with that meaningful look, but what did they even mean by that? Excited about my new job, I wanted everything to work out fine. The Mammoth Cave hike was an attempt to become assimilated into our new home state, a way of taming the locality, of turning the strange or alien into ordinary and usual. But above all, I just wanted to enjoy our walk that day.
The late September sun was playing hide and seek with the clouds, and I was absorbing the lush green vegetation and marveling at the spectacular rock formations. The deer, only a couple of yards away from the trail, were so tame that we could have almost petted them. I was translating the beauty of nature and what seemed to be a perfect day into signs of good times ahead. As the sun was setting, we headed back to the parking lot. I just wished there would be a small home-town restaurant nearby for old times’ sake. And there was.
As we entered the spacious Porky Pig Diner, we noticed the red vinyl and chrome chairs with the white tables that seemed to have been left behind from the 60s, but not for the intentional retro look. Figurines of pigs of all sizes, shapes, and colors decorated the wooden shelf behind the counter. Pigs dressed as chefs or waiters, Looney Toon pigs, Missy pigs, Ninja pigs, boxing pigs, dancing pigs, musical pigs – let your imagination run wild. Looking around, I felt sure it was not the exquisite decor or the vibe that drew people in. All the better, I thought to myself. Locals must have frequented the diner for delectable dishes.
We glanced at the customers enjoying their country dinner. On the left, the parents in a family of four were having roast beef. Their school-age kids across the table were savoring chicken strips. Behind them, the two look-alike pot-bellied gentlemen in baseball caps, probably a father and son, were enjoying their Texas-size cheeseburgers and fries. The white-haired elderly couple in their Sunday bests on the right had something fried on their plates, the shape of a broken horseshoe. Could that be frog legs? I couldn’t wait to check out the menu.
The smell of BBQ hit us the moment we entered. “Mit eszel?” I asked my husband as we stepped closer to the whiteboard menu displayed on the wall. The couple sitting closest to us must have heard me as they lifted their eyes from their plates to see who was responsible for the weird sound sequence. Our eyes met briefly, and I smiled. I doubt they ever managed to figure out what language we were speaking.
It took me a couple of minutes to go over the list of dishes and make up my mind. There were too many scrumptious choices for anybody who wanted a taste of small-town Kentucky: frog legs (yes!), catfish, hot wings, ham, rib eye, and Salisbury steak. The list went on, and I began to salivate. Fried dill pickles, okra, loaded baked potato, onion rings, and corn nuggets. I had never heard of at least half of these dishes and I wished I could try them all. And then there was the list the desserts: cherry and peach cobbler, fresh fruit salad, and brownies. After considering half a dozen choices, both of us settled for the BBQ.
The next big decision to make was whether to order wine or beer with dinner. I thought that most locals would recommend beer, but I was more of a red wine person and hoped the waitress would recommend the house wine. We chose a table in the middle of the dining room, thrilled to soon sample a slice of local culture. The waitress, a rather tired-looking woman in her early sixties, hair pulled back into a bun, wearing a black Porky Pig t-shirt and jeans, approached our table to take our order. I wanted her to be the grandmotherly type, but her smile seemed forced at the end of the workday.
“What can I get you?”
“We’ll have the BBQ with fries, slaw, green beans, and apples” I answered. I articulated each word carefully to give her a chance to adjust her ears to my Eastern-European accent.
“And to drink?”
“My husband is driving,” I explained, “so he’ll have sweet tea no ice.” She nodded, but I could tell she found the “no ice” part a little unusual in the September heat. I was about to defend the statement by saying that ice was not customary in drinks where we came from and that cold drinks, especially in the hot weather, often led to a sore throat. But I realized the explanation would be even more awkward than the order, so I kept silent. I just went on with my order for a drink.
“And for myself, I’d like a glass of red wine, please. Would you have a house wine? Pinot noir or merlot would be great,” I said.
“We don’t have red wine here,” she said. The smile from her eyes was gone; in fact, I detected a slight irritation in the way she moved her lips.
No red wine? It seemed odd considering the number of items on the menu that red wine would go so well with.
“So, what kind of white wine do you have?” While white wine wasn’t my favorite, I was ready to make an exception for the sake of the BBQ.
“We don’t have white wine either,” she said, but this time it wasn’t only her eyes that showed irritation. Her tone of voice conveyed a touch of exasperation. But why was she so angry? What did I do? Could there be a special type of drink that they preferred to serve with BBQ that I wasn’t aware of? At that moment, it dawned on me that this must have been a beer place. Of course! How could I have missed the fact that this was a brewery?
“I’ll have a draft beer then,” I replied, still trying to sound pleasant despite multiple disappointments.
Her eyes cast thunder and lightning towards me. Only mass murderers get this look. There was no trace of “the customer is always right” attitude that I so appreciated in America. Instead, she was almost yelling at me when she uttered the following words in contempt: “This is a dry county.”
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
“This is a dry county,” she repeated, this time a little louder and even more slowly, in a manner that was clearly meant to teach me a lesson. The husband and wife at the next table turned and stared, eyebrows frowned.
There was a pause. I was trying to digest those words carefully. My mind was computing possible explanations for her bizarre behavior but came up with no solution. I had no idea what the climate had to do with my order.