The Sunset Diner is an institution in my hometown of Lebanon, Tennessee. It began in 1967 on what was then the end of the city proper to the south, the last business before the recently completed I-40, which is now chock-a-block fast food franchises, Wal-Mart, used car dealerships, and sundry businesses.
Every trip back home requires at least one, if not multiple meals at Sunset. Their Southern family cooking is award winning. On our first night back for Christmas this year, we went there. The following story is a result of that outing.
On Thursday night (December 16, 2010), Grandpa, Maureen, and I went to Sunset for dinner with Grandma’s order to bring back a hamburger.
She said, “Get the little one.”
Grandpa and I said, almost simultaneously, “They only have one size.”
As usual, Grandma and Grandpa argued. I remained smugly silent, and I thought wisely, sided with Grandpa.
When we were seated, we looked over the menu. On the right hand bottom half of the inside under sandwiches, the hamburger, at one-quarter pound, was listed. Directly underneath, the “Nokes Burger” was described as a seven-ounce hamburger with all of the trimmings. Grandma was right again.
Maureen, my California-born, haute cuisine, healthy-eating San Diego mama, had not been a fan of Sunset until our last stay in Lebanon when she had the cheeseburger (in my parents home and back in the Southwest corner, hamburger is synonymous with cheeseburger). This evening, she ordered the special of pork tenderloin and three sides: fresh tomatoes, lima beans and mashed potatoes with gravy. Grandpa ordered half of a roast beef sandwich with gravy.
As usual, I ordered based on what I was not likely to get often anywhere else, especially back in San Diego. I make a mean okra dish, but it is along the Cajun way with tomatoes and spices. I like to add Tennessee sausage but usually capitulate by replacing it with bacon for Maureen. About once a year, I buy turnip greens at the Navy commissary and cook up a batch. Several times a year, I make cornbread, much like but not as good as my mother’s version.
This night my order was liver and onions, pinto beans, turnip greens, and fried okra with cornbread and sweet tea.
In the course of the meal, I asked Maureen if she would like a taste of my liver and onions. Demurely declining, she finally relented when I, thinking she would be won over again, insisted. After the small taste, mostly onions, she scrunched up her nose, and said, “It tastes like liver.”
My father then started a tale, “When I was a young boy, six or younger, Daddy worked in the hoop mill.”
Note: At the time around 1920, Lebanon had a hoop mill that made the hoops for wood barrels somewhere around where the current high school football field and the baseball and softball fields are located. Close by was a stave factory, where the wooden barrel staves were manufactured.
Daddy continued, “I don’t remember why, but he took me there one day. In a barn area, there were two men dressing a cow they had just slaughtered. One came out, with the fresh liver in his hands. I have never liked to eat liver ever since then.”
I could feel Maureen sort of shudder. I continued to eat my liver and onions.
Shortly after the story, the party of four sitting at the next table collected their tab and departed, but the man in the party returned and leaned over and shook my father’s hand.
“I really liked your story about liver,” he said. “My wife won’t eat liver either."
I wish I had asked for his name.
I will continue to go to Sunset as many times as possible when I come back home, but now I will think about that story and have a hard time ordering liver and onions.
But I will occasionally.