Written by Allan Hall
The lawn was straight out of Dukes of Hazzard central casting. Cannibalised car engines lay rusting in the steamy southern heat next to discarded children’s toys, log piles, bricks, used fast food wrappers and a chained up puppy dog of indeterminate breed.
On the porch of the tilting wooden bungalow overlooking the remnants of the recent air strike – once white, now a filthy toffee hue – sat a large woman in a tracksuit. Next to her was a studious looking female, somewhat younger, with glasses, furiously scribbling in a notebook.
A portly bearded man, smoking and wearing a John Deere tractor hat (backwards) stood to the side, observing the progress of myself and a photographer as we navigated through the detritus of his fiefdom.
“If yawl repootez you can git the hell off ma land,” he wheezed. I bent to stroke the Heinz 57 mutt. Perhaps – probably – unused to affection it rolled on its scrawny back and urinated with stunning accuracy up my arm.
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The hillbilly was the brother-in-law of one Paula Jones, the tracksuited woman her sister. The speccy woman with the notebook turned out to be a reporter from the venerable New York Times. And Paula Jones, back then, was a rather laaaaarge story because she had just filed a lawsuit against William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President of the United States of America.
Clinton, claimed Paula in the days before Monica Lewinsky and THAT dress, had attempted to sexually molest her when he was governor of the state of Arkansas. Hence the command from London to descend on Little Rock, capital of said state, to root around like truffle hounds to find out anything and everything about Paula’s past.
But the hillbilly wasn’t having anything to do with the Daily Mirror of London. The NY Times, yes, tabloid wretches from across the pond, no. The bespectacled respectable reporter left, his wife went into their tumbledown home and our standoff continued until I saw smoke billowing from his shack. Really billowing.
“ Excuse me,” I said politely to the gatekeeper of Paula’s secrets. “But your house appears to be on fire.”
He turned, just as his charred wife appeared from the front door with blackened face and streaming panda-esque eyes. Clearly relieved to see her unharmed he said:”Goddamned stupid bitch, you done gone burned the dinner again?”
She had. And a fair portion of the kitchen with it. But no matter. The Daily Mirror was on hand to nourish him with a dustbin-sized bucket of fried chicken from a local takeaway joint. We became instant best friends, the chicken consumed, the story told. Soon it was time to entertain myself.
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Doe’s Eat Place in downtown Little Rock has most of its meat portions starting off at over two lbs. Don’t believe? Check out the humongous sizes on their website – http://www.doeseatplace.net/
The night myself and the photographer arrived, sirloins started at 3lb each. Insane, but there were the good ol’ boys, chomping away as their cholesterol levels soared along with the rising early summer temperatures.
The sides at Doe’s were the usual steakhouse offerings: fries, baked potatoes, doughy onion rings. Forget them and try these beans, the recipe for which I picked up in the madhouse Mexican city of Monterrey. The good thing about using pinto beans is that they require no soaking, and the rich savoury flavour goes great with fried or grilled meat.
The next day our mission was to find Paula’s high school sweetheart. I ran him to ground in the middle of a large field of squash which he was spraying with a noxious liquid from a tractor.
After a while he manoeuvred his transport to where I stood with the photographer. He smelled delicious – if you were a dog intent on rolling around in it.
“You’re a farmer then?”
“Muckspreader,” he replied.
Having agreed we were both in the same line of business all that was left for me to do was to purchase him a small Alpine peak’s worth of fried catfish in proportions enjoyed by his ex’s kin the night before. In return I learned the secrets of Paula’s high school frolics…..
I don’t say that properly prepared fried catfish doesn’t have a place on the frugal gourmet’s table. It just seems to me there are so many more infinitely satisfying aquatic recipes out there. Try this one which comes from France which I first sampled in the Basque country of Spain.
I left Arkansas – centre of America’s chlorinated chicken industry – at shortly after dawn next day. Not for home but Los Angeles whereupon I was to hire a car to drive 140 miles south to the madcap Mexican frontier town of Tijuana.
To brand Tijuana sleazy is to do an injustice to sleaze. Dirty, hot, dusty, dangerous – it is all these things. But it is a magnet to the college kids of the USA who can die for their country at 18 but can’t have a drink before they check out because they’re not 21. In Tijuana, seemingly anything goes at any age as long as you can pay for it.
The brief was to capture hard partying babes in their bikinis and their hunky boyfriends going at it – drinking, that is – south of the border. It was not a tall order. The hardest part of the mission was finding a safe place to park the rented Cadillac.
America’s next generation of corporate leaders, NRA lobbyists, trophy wives and born again fanatics embraced leisure time with gusto. Among infinitely sad mules painted to resemble zebras, past gaudy pole-dancing cantinas, murky mariachi restaurants, 101 tequila joints and ramshackle bars, the gringos swaggered, staggered and frequently fell over. I helped one young bathing costume clad girl, all of 15 I guessed, to her feet and was rewarded with a jet of vomit up one arm: the same one the puppy had weed up in Little Rock. ‘I’m glad I’m not young anymore,’ as the man sang.
Barely 14 miles south It was all a little different. Rosarito is hardly a quiet village but it attracts a somewhat different crowd, eager to surf or eat fine fish. A place on the water served me a great Tilefish dish, but I recommend monkfish for those of us dwelling in northern climes.
Down in Rosarito it’s tacos and re-fried beans with everything. I recommend this Indian way with rice as the spices play well with the richness of the fish.
Famously the Mexicans utilise a great deal of chocolate in their cuisine. Try making this simple but stunning Baja peninsula dessert which I had to follow my Tilefish.
‘Serenely full, the epicure would say, Fate cannot harm me, I have dined today.’ With the words of Sydney Smith ringing pleasantly in my well fed head, I pointed the Cadillac north for the border. The traffic, as always, entering America was gridlocked. A Mexican cop on a motorbike saw me stuck in the queue to cross and -kerching! – realized it was payday.
I had entered Mexico in a car the rental company did not insure for the country. He knew that, I hadn’t read the small print. So it was out of the traffic jam, down a back road to the darkness of a flyover where he fleeced me of $200 Yankee dollars – no receipt, fancy – before allowing me to continue homewards.
Mexicans call this endemic corruption ‘La Mordida’ – the bite.
Today was my turn to get bitten. After the puppy pee and the Barbie doll vomit, I hoped my trio of unlucky breaks was over.