The idea to write this cookbook came to me after one of these great big misunderstandings I often find myself in. Consequently, it also happened right around this time last year, a few days before Thanksgiving, in country. And so, it’s the first story I’ll share with you. Rightly so too, because that misunderstanding inspired me to find the time to write this cookbook, after realizing my life centers on an ever-constant flow of food, misadventure, laughter & new friends. And occasionally, a very undeserving and misunderstood stay in the whoscow.
Service. And To Be Of Service.
Over the years, I’ve gained a reputation as a professional who will go to great lengths to procure anything a client wants. There are no limits. And if it won’t come to me, I often will find a way to go and get it to them.
Food is a service business based on the procurement and fulfillment of specific client needs & demands. And I’ve always been able to provide that successfully, while offering unique culinary services to clients. For me, being of service to those clients in a way that only I can is important. But in the arrangement of extremely unique culinary experiences and products, I have occasionally found myself in the middle of “misunderstandings” outside my kitchen walls - with my intrepid employers having to occasionally intervene on my behalf. But they don’t mind – because for them, their reward is that unique, spectacular experience. And besides, it’s usually simple misunderstanding of some sort. But for me, each odd new procurement request is the start of a different trip that begins somewhere way out there - in the great beyond of the kitchen cage, my four walls, with that always primal rush of fight-or-flight adrenaline coursing through my veins while I twist, wind and forage a new path in the wide-open world in the name of procurement.
Of those somewhat questionable situations I’ve found myself in, I can say for certain that they’re not atypical for most other chefs I know. For example, there was one occasion when the engine cut out in a boat, when it was still tied to another boat, in what had been a more-then-tense-negotiating situation, after transacting the purchase of extremely rare vintage French wines from the hands of well-armed, heavy-shouldered goons. Then there another rare instance that put me in a city with an attempted coup d'etat. Bad timing for sure. And another trip that aroused the suspicion of the local Stasi. That one was over Honey. Honey? Yes, honey. You read that right. But why, you ask, why would I make these extra trips, especially when I could just order products from a local food-service supplier? Well, because I get paid to do this. And because I’ve always prided myself in being a professional who always goes that extra mile for a client. I’ll go to enormous lengths to procure anything a client wants, and serve it wherever they like. And that’s my reputation.
Throughout the years, I’ve provided service aboard in most places imaginable and many you’d never expect, such as: hot-air balloons, underwater caves, unusual ships, old railroad dining cars, remote mining or mountain camps, a decommissioned nuclear submarine, oil rigs, long abandoned ghost towns in various locales, private planes, the tundra, underground cave systems & cloud-level mountaintops and mountainsides. The logistics behind making these events happen is often mind-blowing. But there’s also nothing better when it happens. Because it’s unique. And that experience is yours alone forever.
If there has been some gigantic culinary lesson in life for me, it’s this; it’s not just about the food you serve. It’s also how you prepare it, how you present it, where you serve it, and how or where you procured it. And the attitude with which you serve it. And then there’s the story behind how it all went down. And when all that sensory information combines at one big junction – that point at which you experience the first bite off your plate – the taste becomes almost surreal. No matter if it’s the rarest or the humblest ingredients prepared, and no matter if you serve them on fine china or tin plates at 13,000 feet high in a hot air balloon or in a dive bar at an small town somewhere, what works is the final combination. The “whole experience” provides that unique taste.
But then again if you were to take the same food and serve it table-side in a French restaurant, people would look at you like you’ve got escargot crawling out of your ears. Why? Because the expectation changes the experience. So, you see, food isn’t just something we eat. It’s something we experience, with all our senses. And if you can learn to break out of your expectation, you’re in for a wild ride. Because it’s when you learn to stack your own plate full of that kind of experience, along with great food, now you’ve got game. So, when you read this cookbook, remember – if you can find the chutzpah to pull off your own service no matter the adverse or challenging conditions present, your dinner will come off spectacular.
Turkeys, Whisky & Contraband (or, the Hanging Judge of Suskatook County)
Around Thanksgiving every year, I would volunteer alongside a bunch of other chefs, to secretly cook food for the lonely. We ban all press and it’s required that we all turn in our phones and any media devices at the kitchen doors. That assures no photography and no recording of any kind. Because the point of this whole operation is to do good and give back to people that really need a little friendship during a time, when being lonely, can seem even lonelier.
And for years without fail, we all would coordinate and gather our own ingredients to put on a traditional Thanksgiving feast. Communicating quietly among each other via texts and cell calls (and without a single PR rep bugging any of us for anything), we would all gather unannounced in a central location, each with their own donated supplies. And through working together, begin preparations for our yearly dinner to bring back some happiness to some otherwise kind, lonely folk.
I was in my truck, on my way to our location, when I got a phone call from one of my chef friends (let’s call him Uncle M).
“Hey Chef,” he said, “It’s fucking cancelled!”
“What?” I said
“Yeah, I can’t believe it either!”
“What the hell! Why?
“Ahhhh, I don’t know really. I showed up a little while ago to start prep with my crew, and they told me to get my shit out of their kitchen. And for that matter – come get yours too. So, get over here and take your fuckin’ turkeys!” Click.
I pulled up to the location soon after, and I loaded up what I could take of my farm-fresh turkeys into the bed of my truck, along with a few chickens for bone broth, some vegetables and other sundries. Uncle M asked me what I was going to do with my supplies, since we didn’t have a large crowd to feed. And I asked him what he was going to do with his. He didn’t know, since he, like the rest of us, had cleared his schedule to make this dinner happen for the community.
“I think I’ll take a drive upstate and see if I can find us a place to throw a big dinner.
“Great idea,” he said.
“Think the other fellas would go for a ride?”
“Sure! It beats being left out in the cold like this with nobody to feed.”
Ok,” I said, “I’ll call you when I find a great locale.”
I got into the cab of my truck and drove off into the morning dew, heading north, entirely unaware of what would soon befront me just a few hours down the road. And over a Thanksgiving dinner, in a year that I’d never forget.
About 3 hours into my drive, I pulled off the road for a break. I jumped out of my truck, struck a lite. I surveyed the mountain scenery around me, with all its breathtaking autumn glory. In moments like this, it occurs to me that being out of the city lets you breathe better. But is that because the stress ain’t there? Or is it there’s just something about breathing country that’s refreshing when you’re mostly used to breathing city? I don’t know.
Done with my lite, I hopped back into my truck and drove further north-western, traversing farther through mountainous terrain and into progressively smaller towns. And at a time no more appropriate too, when small town America looked no better dressed for the holidays then right now, with all her bright autumn foliage and high spirits in the air.
I’d just come into the beginning of a valley lined with corn fields, after coming over a mountain pass, when the corn fields gave way to a hay-colored pasture. And as I drove down the road, I saw what looked to be a long abandoned, old church with a worn down for sale sign leaning sideways, against the building.
In the places I often wander off too, it’s actually not that out of the normal to see this sort of picture; abandoned farmhouses, old barns in various states of decay, sometimes even whole ghost towns in their entirely sitting among fields of disused wheat grass reclaiming them board by board, until their floors once again become earthen and their new residents, natures best.
But here I was, with a bed full of turkeys and supplies, looking for a place to lay down a feast for a bunch of friends. And that old church somehow seemed quite appealing to me. So I pulled over & parked in the gravel drive to get out and take a look around. Noticeably, a side entrance door was left alone and open. I poked my head in and let out a yell to see if anyone was home. No answer. So I stepped inside.
What I found, I swear to this day, was the most spectacular looking place I ever could have imagined. With high old hand-made stained-glass windows and wide spacious dark wood plank floors that groaned a little when you moved over them. The place was chock-full-of-old-school-character. I mention spacious plank floors, because there was a ton of room in the hall of that old church, as all the pews had all been pulled up already by the previous owner. And they were stacked to one side of the room, leaning on a far wall, with a big sign that read, “Church Pews $25 each, you remove. Contact Hal for purchase”.
Of course, this building had once been a church, so I was betting the acoustics were good too. Which meant I could also invite a few of my musician friends up to join us. And then we’d have a hell of a good time after all, with great food and live music. Excited, I tried to make a call to tell my friends what I’d found. But alas, no cell service. That’s the other side of wandering through mountains and valleys and long abandoned places. No one puts cell towers in abandoned places like this. But that’s what I also love about them. They’re abandoned.
So I went back inside, took another look at that for sale sign I’d seen before and found a hand written note under the big phone number. It read, “For purchase, go back over mountain, enter town of Wharburg, make your first left, follow signs to town of Northwinds. See Hal @ Wharburg realty for sales.”
Since I had no way to make a phone call, I hopped back into my pickup, and drove back over the mountain range. It wasn’t a long till I came to the town of Wharburg. I made a left turn and drove on.
On my way to the office, I passed an old red barn with a hand painted sign out front that read, “BARN SALE”. Barn sales are a favorite of mine because you can pick up vintage kitchen tools on-the-cheap. And stuff like solid cast iron skillets or sturdy hunting knives. So, I pulled off the road. And as I got out of my truck, I was greeted by a woman who asked me if she could be of help. So, I asked what she had for sale. “Oh”, she said, “anything you can find in this here barn. Take a look around, find something you like, and make me an offer…”
So I wandered around the first and second stories of the barn, poking my head around corners, bales of hay and sorting thru piles of junk. She had everything I never wanted, and then some. Disappointed I hadn’t found anything, I was on my way out of the barn when I noticed an odd sword nailed up on the other side of one of the rafters that hadn’t been visible to me on the way into the barn.
So I pointed to it. “Is that for sale?”, I said.
“How much you offerin’?”
“How about $20 bucks?”, I said.
“If’n you can climb up there and get it, you got it.”
“Deal!” said I. So I quickly wormed my way up into the rafters, and after a few manipulations with a knife I’d had at my side, I managed to release the old sword from its nails. I let it drop down gently to land on some hay below.
I produced a $20, put the sword in the cab of my truck and headed on my way, following the rest of the signs to the town of Northwinds. Sure enough, 10 miles up the road, there it was: Wharburg Realty. The sign on the front door said closed, but there was another note on the front door, next to a buzzer, that said, “ring bell for service” So I pushed the buzzer.
Above the office, the second-floor window flung open, and out thrust the sleepy-eyed gangly head of a tall man in his late thirties. Looking down at me from above, the gangly fella grunted, “What in the hell do you want at an early hour like this?”
I took my hat off. “Oh,” I said, “sorry to bother you. But I saw that sign for church pews for sale.”
“Church pews?” his eyes lit up. “Hold on,” he said, I’ll be right down!”
He came bounding down the stairs with the exuberance of a school-kid, one hand on the rail, and the other hand hoisting up the left side suspender on his overalls. Then unlocking the front door from the inside, I watched him slick his hair back with spit. He reached out to shake my hand and said, “Howdy, I’m Hal, from Wharburg Realty – at your service! How many would’ja like?”
“Like what?”, said I.
“Church pews! I got plenty and their fine! Old sturdy pews too! How many did you want?”
“Well, I didn’t really come for the pews.”
His tone changed quickly. “What! You mean I got all dressed up this early, and you ain’t buyin’ no pews? Then he shot me a sideways look and said, “Just what kinda heathen are you anyway, rousin’ a man from his sleep not to buy church pews?
“Don’t misunderstand me, sir; I just wanted to ask if I could borrow the church for a few nights.”
You know, “I said, “like an Air B&B.”
Hal scratched his head, “What’s an Air B & B?” Hal seemed confused.
“You know, Air B&B…you rent the property…but just for a few days. Me and a few of my friends would like to put on a dinner there. I probably need it for no more than two nights, tops. And then I’ll be gone - like it never happened.”
His tone changed again, and a smile came back to his face. His thumbs and forefingers protruded outwardly from the underside chest of his suspenders, as if he was in deep thought now. “Oh, well that’s a different story,” said he, “and sure, uh, and you can rent it directly from me, ‘cause, uh, I’m the owner. And that church has well-water out back, a propane stove and a great coal stove too! We used to use ‘em for potluck suppers all the time too, ‘fore she closed down, a few years or so back. But the kitchen is still entirely operational, and I think a lot of the pots and pans are still in the cupboards. Let me go get my keys and we’ll drive over and see if she’s a good fit!”
When we reached the old church, Hal unlocked the kitchen door and showed me around the inside. It had a propane stove and a coal stove, just as Hal had promised, along with a big adjacent dining hall. There were plenty of good folding tables and chairs against leaning up against the wall of the dining hall, along with the remains of a busted old cabinet. And the kitchen had plenty of storage too, along with ample workspace and a good-sized refrigerator. After checking, I could see the pans and pots were still there in the cupboards and that there were plenty of plates, silverware and serving platters for a dinner. And because the kitchen and dining hall had been closed-up tightly, it was mostly clean, except some dust.
“Man, you must have had some big potluck dinners here,” I said.
“Yeah,” remarked Hal, “We had some real great ones, too! The whole town would come. And it’s a real shame; because she used to be a real place of gathering! But when that Preacher up and ran off with the Sheriff’s only daughter – it made a real mess of things for a long time! And that’s why this old church could never find no one to replace that Preacher – ‘cause her reputation got scandalized! So they gave up and de-sanctified the church and packed up what they could to take elsewhere. But as you can see, although they had gone through the trouble of unbolting those pews, they decided to leave ‘em here. It turned out they were just a little too small for their new modern churches.
“Well,” I said, “I’d like to bring it back to life for a night or two. How much to rent it, with full use of the kitchen?”
$300 for two nights, he said.
I crossed my arms and hesitated.
“I’ll also include the cost of the ‘lectric, the propane and the coal for the stoves!”
“Deal!” I said.
“Deal,” said Hal, eyes smiling.
We shook hands.
“I’ll turn the propane tank on out back now and I’ll show you where the coal bin is for the extra stove. And when I get back to my office, I’ll have the power turned back on too.”
I gave Hal the money. He showed me where the coal bin was. And then he drove back off over the mountains. And I was left alone to the quiet.
Now, I could have easily had the dinner in the dining area adjacent to the kitchen, but with the pews removed from the flooring of the old great hall, the great hall looked just a perfect candidate with its high stained-glass windows and bare lain wide-plank wood floors for a seasonal dinner. So I went with the idea in setting a table in the great hall. But that meant I had extra work to do, general cleaning and organizing; moving the tables and chairs from the kitchen.
Evening had come; the sun was setting into shades of auburn among the trees. I could feel a cool breeze wafting thru the great hall. My work on cleaning up the kitchen, putting away most of what food I had brought with me and setting the great hall was mostly done. I had already begun roasting a few chickens in oven, to be used the next day for bone broth. There wasn’t much more I could do right now, especially since I had no phone service, so I took a few minutes and walked outside, leaning against one of the outside pillars. I watched a lone car sling by as I struck a lite and the sunset filtered down over the distant mountains.
Looking westward, I figured if I drove far enough tomorrow, I could probably get enough cell service to tell my friends to come up, and to let them know exactly where to meet me for our dinner.
By nightfall, the power finally came on. So, I went into my truck and brought in a few tablecloths and blankets I had, because I figured I was going to bunk down here for the night. And my kitchen knives, so I could began cleaning down those farm fresh turkeys I had brought with me, although I still wondered if I’d be able to reach them. No matter, I had plans – for something. Even if it just meant feeding the local farm animals a fine meal.
Since no one was around for miles, I opened the doors of my truck and cranked up some music while I struck a lite and went back inside to start plucking the feathers from those fresh turkeys. A while into plucking, I’d messed up one of my fingers a bit, so I went into the kitchen to wash out the cuts. But when I turned the water on, the pipes let out a deep groan and throttled. Then gushing brown water came out. Loosing fingers to infection isn’t in my bag of tricks, so I decided to let the water clear up by running for a while. And instead I went back out to my truck to sanitize the cuts by opening a bottle of whisky and pouring it into the wounds. And since I already had the bottle open, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t have a little myself.
I took a swig in the moonlight & fired up a smoke, with good music cranking in the background. It couldn’t have been a more perfect night. I’d left the church side door open to let the evening air blow in and to hear the music from my truck. From the outside looking in, the illuminated church windows looked like a thousand candle lit stained glass leaves all jumbled together in a gust of wind. It just couldn’t have seemed any better.
Then out of the distant darkness, I saw a brief flash of headlights, far out. But I turned away, had another swig and paid no mind. I went to the cab of my truck to bring inside the sword I’d bought earlier. And I’d just grabbed the sword in my right hand and spun back around on the heel of my left foot, walking towards the side door of the church with the gravel crunching loudly underneath my boots - with an open bottle of whiskey clutched in the other hand and a lit cigar slung from the side of my mouth, when I felt cold steel pressed against the nape of my neck and a smoky voice from the shadows told me not to turn around.
“Drop it, “he said.
I had no idea what had just happened.
“Who? What! Drop what? Who are you?”
“Drop your weapon!”
The blade clattered against the gravel drive. “Now walk inside,” said he.
Behind me, I could hear the sword being picked up.
This couldn’t possibly be any good.
Inside the church, when I was ordered to turn around, I found myself staring down the business end of a colt revolver. On the other end of that barrel, was an angry looking local sheriff. And I was guessing by the looks of things, that he’d prolly had a really bad night. And that I was the last thing he needed.
The Sherriff immediately smelled the stoves.
Holy Jeezus, what’n the hell you have goin’ on in here,? said the Sherriff? I smell somthin’ cookin! You using them old stoves in here?
The sheriff peeked into the kitchen. Turkeys? Chickens? Where’d you get so many damn turkeys? Wait a minute, those’r fresh turkeys!” The sheriff squinted his eyes sat me, and said, “You got a hunting permit?”
Then the Sheriff noticed I also had the old coal stove fired up and his eyes widened up.
“And what! Jeesus! You got that old coal stove going too? Coal? Coal Fire? Fire! Holy smokes, I’ve got to call the Fire department!”
The sheriff put out a call on his shoulder mike for the fire department.
And then he noticed the big box of whisky bottles and some blankets I had brought in from the truck and said to me, “Son, are you squattin’?
“No.” I said.
“Then what’s with all these turkeys, this sword and all this whisky you got here?
“I rented the place for two days to put on a dinner.”
Dinner? With a sword?”
“Yes,” I’d replied.
“And whisky? Really? And who’d ya rent it from? Cause this place been closed for years!” Then the Sherriff took another look at that sword he’d taken from me. “Hey, wait a minute… I know who owns this sword. And it was his daddies ‘fore he passed. He wouldn’t never wouldn’t let this go! You musta stole it! Dang it, just what kinda hells-angel are you?”
“Sheriff, I legally bought that sword, brought those turkeys up here myself, rented this place and got permission from the owner to use the stoves to put on a Thanksgiving dinner here. In fact, the owner even turned the electric on for me. So, this is all just a big misunderstanding.”
“You let me be the judge of that. Who’d you rent this place from?”
“The owner,” I said. “Hal, of Wharburg Realty”
“Hal? The Owner? Ha! He don’t own this place! And who turned the power on for ya?”
“Well, there’s one way to settle this. I’ll radio the office now.”
I was drawing on my cigar, while the Sheriff heard back from Hal.
“Yeah, this is the Sheriff. Yeah, I’m at the old church in the valley, and there’s this strange fella who says you rented the church…yeah, that he rented it from you. And that you even turned the ‘lectric on for him.”
I could hear Hal mumbling something vaguely on the other end of the Sheriffs radio. “Uh huh, yeah, I thought so too. Thanks Hal,” said the Sheriff.
“Say, what kind of cigar is that you got there?” remarked the Sheriff.
“Oh, that’s a clear-Havana. They’re damn good.” You want one? I got a full box on that table over there.
“Thanks,” said the Sherriff. He went over and grabbed the whole box and tucked it under his arm.
What’d you do that for?” I said
“You ain’t allowed to have Havana cigars! These’r contraband! An’ it looks to me like you’ve been trading with the enemy!”
“No sir, Sheriff, those are made in Florida. I swear! If you’ll just look at the back of the box….”
“The front says Havana – that’s all I need to see!” Then the sheriff cocked his pistol, “Pick up your whiskeys, turkeys and those tablecloths over there too! Now get on back toward that wall back there, where that old busted up cabinet is. Now stand straight against it!” The Sheriff handed me the box of cigars and the sword. “And, here, you take hold of this contraband and this sword too - but don’t you try nothin or move an inch, ‘cause I got a bead on you.”
“What the heck am I holding all this stuff for?” said I.
“Just stand right there,” commanded the Sherriff. Then his phone camera clicked and he said, “ If’n I didn’t take a photo of this, ain’t nobody gonna believe me at the station ever again. And then the sheriff mumbled under his breath… “Why’s it always this old church in the valley, givin’ me all this trouble…
“Whadda you mean, station? Whats going on? Didn’t Hal clear things up?”
I heard his cell phone camera click a few more times. “He sure did,” said the Sherriff. Now drop all those turkeys, whiskeys and that contraband cigar and get into my car. We’re going for a ride.”
Once I’d been stuffed into the back of the car, the Sherriff closed the door and leaned against it. I could vaguely hear him put out another radio call. And I swear I could hear the Sherriff putting out requests for things like an ambulance, the Fire Marshall, the county coroner, the health department, a game warden, and a few other departments I couldn’t make sense of. So, when he got into the car, I asked him who he’d called. But he didn’t say a word.
One thing I was glad about in retrospect is they’d left my truck at the church because the town had no impound yard. And so they hadn’t looked inside it for any more contraband. If they had, they might have found it under the front seat. And then I’d have been in a lot more trouble.
We arrived down at the local station about 20 minutes later. And that’s when I found out what kind of trouble I was in. Almost. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Sheriff came around the corner with papers in his hand. And I heard him thank a person somewhere way out of the way, around the corner, who was named Cindy-May. I was sitting in a chair at his desk. “Now.” he said, “what’s your last name?”
“Muller”, I said.
“Do you have any aliases?”
“Nah, I’m not a criminal.”
“What I mean is, son, do your friends call you by any other name?”
“Oh, yeah. Well, that’s different. My pals call me Morey, because most have a hard time pronouncing my last name with the umlaut over the U.”
“Any other nicknames I should know about?” asked the officer
“Well, they also call me, “Three-taters”. But that’s because I had a whole incident with three taters that ended up putting me in the hospital. And after that, I never disrespected those taters again.” I was hoping the Sheriff would have laughed a little, but the Sheriff was clearly in no mood to laugh. Sheriff deadpanned, “OK, sure, sign here.”
Then a deputy sheriff who’d been down the hall eavesdropping in on the whole conversation, poked his head out of a small office and took one look at me, his eyes widened, and he jumped out his chair. “Holy smokes, you’re that guy! You’re Three-taters! “
I was flattered. I mean, I never imagined someone would know who I was, so far out in the country.
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“Damn funny story, Chef! What’cha doing all the way up here? And why’s he booking you for?”
“Booking? I’m getting booked?"
“Yup, said the Sheriff. And if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you your accommodations.”
The officer led me down the hall, made a left turn and pointed to a row of empty cells. Take your pick. We don’t get much business ‘round here.”
“Wait a minute! Don’t I get a phone call?”
“You would, but all the phones are down. We had a bad storm a few days ago.”
“What about a lawyer?”
“Yup, we got a public defender, but the public defender only works Tuesday and Thursday.
“Only two days a week? That’s nuts! But can’t I see‘em tomorrow if I offer to pay’em?”
“No, the lawyer’s too busy cutting hair at the hair salon on Mondays.”
"The lawyer works at a salon, too?"
“Yup!” "What about Wednesday?”
“Not since the damned town Preacher ran off! Since then, that’s the day the Public Defender officiates county marriage ceremonies.”
“A minister too? Jeezus, what about Friday?”
No way. It’s the busiest night at the Stone Pony!
“Stone pony? What’s a Stone Pony?”
“The only bar in town. And the bartender there on Friday night is –“
“Lemme guess, I said, “The Public Defender.”
“Correct!” quipped the Sheriff. “And since tonight is Saturday night and nobody legal works the weekend, it looks like you’re spending Thanksgiving with us, unless you want to talk to the judge without a public defender on Monday.”
“Well, I can’t afford to spend a week up here. I got to get back to work by Tuesday morning. So can I talk to the judge Monday?”
“Let me see about that. Someone will come back to talk to you - if I can work it out.”
A little while later, the Deputy Sheriff who’d eavesdropped on the whole conversation before, dropped by. “Hey, guess what! I hear you’re gonna see the Judge Monday!”
“Oh, that’s great news!”, said I.
The officer leaned on the jail cell door. “Surely must be true!” he said, “all those stories I read about you, ‘cause nobody I never know would be crazy enough to go up all alone, in front of The Walleye!”
“The Walleye? What’s a Walleye?”
“Well, I mean the right Honorable J. P. Nickle Walleye; or as we call him around here, the Hangin’ judge of Suskatook County.
“Hangin’ Judge? I’m seein’ a Hangin’ judge? …for one big mistake? Whatever happened to due process around here?
“Well, Sheriff says you volunteered to see the judge on a Monday on your own, without your public defender, so you gave up your rights.”
“I had no idea.”
“Oh, that’s all right. You’ll prolly just get off with a few years. But, personally, I wish you hadn’t done that,” said the Deputy Sheriff, “because I really like your true-life stories.”
“I need to be out of here by Tuesday!”
“Well,” said the deputy, “I don’t know about that. But you’ll have the chance to talk with the Judge Monday. Meantime, can you please sign here?” He pushed his officers’ pad thru the cell bars.
“What’s that for? Another charge?”
“Oh no, that’s just an autograph for my new wife, Cindy-May. She really loves your stories too!”
I signed his pad, the officer left, and I tried to get some sleep.
In the meantime, the Deputy Sheriff went home and gave his new wife the autograph. She inquired about how he had gotten it. So, he went on to explain to his wife how this notorious Chef was locked up over some bunch of charges stemming from the old church in the valley and was spending the weekend in the county whoscow. And further, he had volunteered to be seen without the town public defender in court, on the following Monday, in front of the hanging Judge of Suskatook County! Well, that just got his wife all excited because it meant all those other things she had read about me were all real stories too.
That evening the new wife of the Deputy Sheriff went off to her book club. And the Deputy Sheriff went off to his Saturday night card game, with all his pals. And then the arresting County Sherriff went off in a different direction, to the Stone Pony - but on not-the-busiest-night-in-town, when the town public defender wasn’t working as a bartender, to meet his own pals for a drink.
And in the midst of a book club and a poker game and a Stone Pony, gossip in the town soon spread far and wide about the forthcoming trial on the next Monday for a really notorious Chef who had been crazy enough to give up his own right to be defended by the town public defender and go up all alone against the hanging Judge of Suskatook County.
Monday came, and off I went to court. When I was brought into the courtroom, much to my surprise the whole place was just packed to the gills with townsfolk. Unbeknownst to me over the weekend, the whole town had been gossiping over the notorious Chef who’d been crazy enough to go up alone against The Walleye. And they all wanted to see what’d happen. In the courtroom, I could hear terrible murmurs and whispers in the crowd about horrible and unsightly things that the Hangin’ judge of Suskatook County might just do to me.
Then the bailiff called out, “All rise for the Right Honorable Judge J. P. Nickle Walleye”. The judge entered the chamber and took a seat at his bench.
Not far down the street from the court, was the only hair salon in town.
The phone rang and the stylist answered. “Thank you for calling Tabernacle Hair; our tease brings you closer to heaven! This is Cindy-Louise speaking. How may I help you?”
There was hurried murmur over the other end phone of the phone line, to which the receptionist responded, “You’re cancelling? After waiting three long months? This is the third appointment cancelled today! Crimey, what’s going on in this town, Ms. Nickel?”
Ms. Nickel went on to answer that question. She explained she’d heard from her new husband the Deputy Sheriff, that the County Sherriff had arrested an infamous Chef on charges stemming from trying to rent that old church in the valley. And then, the same Sheriff had convinced the Chef to go up against the Judge in court today, without a public defender, because he’d been told by the sheriff that the public defender only had official work hours on Tuesday and Thursday (which was true, but not entirely) and the Chef had needed to get back to work by Monday.
“You don’t mean the Walleye?” deadpanned the receptionist.
“Sure do,” said the person on the other end of the phone.
“You makin’ an appearance in court?” asked the receptionist.
“Me too!” said the receptionist. She dropped the phone in a hurry, threw on her coat, flipped the open sign to closed, grabbed a briefcase, locked the door and headed out to court.
I was standing at the defendant’s bench, now expecting the worst, based on all the whispery rumors I was hearing go around the court room.
“Be seated,” said the bailiff to the court room full of spectators.
Said the bailiff to me, “Will “Three taters” Morey, please rise for the Honorable Judge P. Nickle Walleye.”
The judge spoke;
“You’re being charged with the following: 1 count of disturbing the peace, 1 count of grand larceny, 1 count of illegal possession of a weapon, 1 count of trespassing on private property, 1 count of vagrancy on private property, 6 counts of hunting without a permit on private property, 1 count of possession of contraband and 1 count of operating a foodservice establishment in violation of the local fire code, as per the fire Marshall of Suskatook county. Son, how do you plead?”
“Your honor – this is all a big mistake, I swear. I think we can clear this up with as few phone calls.”
He slapped his gavel down hard. “Son, how do you plead!”
“Not guilty, your honor.”
I sat back down.
Then the prosecuting attorney addressed the court, “Your honor, we’d like to submit into evidence exhibit A, the sword; on one count of stolen property and 1 count of possession of an illegal weapon. Exhibit B, the contraband item taken from the accused. Exhibit C, photos of the 6 freshly killed turkeys found in the church. Exhibit D, the report from the game warden that states he found no hunting permit on record, for the defendant. Exhibit E, the county coroner’s report, stating he found 6 freshly deceased turkeys at the scene of the crime. And exhibit F, the fire Marshall’s report citing the ovens were lit and were being used for illicit cookery in an unfit and unlicensed establishment as per local ordinance.”
The court accepted all the exhibits.
And now,” said opposing counsel, “we’d like to call the following witnesses to the court, to testify to the crimes of the accused: The county coroner, the county dispatcher, the county fire Marshall, the county game warden, the representative from the county health department, the crime scene detective and the arresting Sheriff.
I got up. “I object, your honor!”
“On what grounds?” said the Judge
“On the grounds this whole thing is just one big misunderstanding!”
“Objection overruled.” said the judge. “The counsel may proceed with the first witness.”
“I call the crime scene detective to the witness stand.”
Out of the back of the courtroom he walked, and he took his seat on the stand.
“Mr. Wharburg, do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
“I do,” replied Hal.
I jumped up out of my seat, “I object, your honor!”
“On what grounds?” said the Judge.
“On the grounds that’s the same guy who’d got me into this mess in the first place!”
“Objection overruled,” exclaimed the judge, slamming his gavel down.
But then the court room doors swung open with a certain flair usually reserved for TV stars. And in sauntered a brunette with a bold briefcase and an attitude so mighty it could have killed Castro. Although I had no idea who this was, the look on the face of the Judge said it clearly all to me, when it had changed from one of judgely-rage to one of shock-and-awe.
Clearly, this wasn’t someone to trifle with. And clearly their arrival was unplanned for.
The brunette walked over to where I was and put her briefcase down on the table. She addressed the court.
“Your honor, I’d like to call for a 15-minute recess to speak with my client.”
Opposing counsel spoke. “I object your honor, as the defendant knowingly waived his right to an attorney.”
Defending Counsel retorted, “Your honor, I have it on good authority that my client was denied his legal right to a phone call and was also denied his legal right to a public defender. Therefore, I need a 15-minute recess to determine my client’s legal status.”
“Fifteen-minute recess granted.”
In recess, I explained my situation to the public defender. And how it had all been one big mess and I hadn’t intended to cause anyone any trouble. The public defender understood my position and had agree to take my case, but it wasn’t until I told her I was arrested by the County Sheriff himself, that she got all riled up.
“That’s it,” she said. “I’ve heard enough!”
When we returned to the courtroom, Hal Wharburg was sworn in.
And the judge asked the witness the first question.
“Mr Wharburg, under penalty of perjury, do you swear that you’ve never met the accused before?”
With the balance of whole courtroom watching in anticipation, Hals left eye started to twitch a little. I was in my seat, staring him down as best I could, with my new attorney by my side.
“Well, mostly, your honor.”
“Mostly, Mr. Wharburg? Please explain.”
“Well, I mean, I haven’t met him personally. I did meet him one time prior to this court.”
“Can you explain that event?”
“He, uh, he had come by my way, to buy, uh, some, uh…Church pews from, uh, me, your honor.”
“Church Pews?” Church pews! the Judge stymied. “Hal, are you tryin’ to sell those damned church pews again?”
“Well, uh, maybe, your honor.”
A little drop of sweat started to roll down Hal’s left cheek.
“Maybe? Hal, for the last time - they ain’t yours to sell! You know Cindy-May owns ‘em! And Hal, for the love of Pete, you’ve got to stop trying to sell property that was granted to her in the divorce!”
“I’m sorry, your honor.”
The whole town looked on at Hal shamefully. My attorney addressed the court, “Your honor, I object to the testimony of this witness.”
“Counsel, on what grounds?’ said the judge.
“On the grounds that he knowingly rented property that was not his own, to my client for use.”
“Rented property?” inquired the judge. “Hal, I thought you said you were trying to sell church Pews?
“Well, I was meaning to say that it started with church pews, but then we went ahead to look at the church, and he rented the whole property from me, which I meant the church pews were in.”
Now the Judge was steaming-mad at Hal, because it occurred to the Judge that he’d been trying to make some extra money on the side and hide it from his x-wife. Who, consequently, was also the Judges daughter.
“Dang it, Hal!” hollered the Judge.
My attorney got up, “Your honor, I move to dismiss Hal Wharburg as a witness.”
“On what grounds?’ said the judge
“Since this witness was involved in the alleged crimes of which my client is accused, this witness cannot be an impartial witness, your honor.”
“Request granted. Will opposing counsel please call their next witness?”
Opposing counsel addressed the court, “Well, your Honor, without Hal, we don’t have anyone to testify to support exhibits A,B, C, D, E & F. And the arresting Sheriff can’t be present because he’s down working at the family nail salon. We therefore call Ms. Nickels to the witness stand.”
My attorney got up and said, “Can opposing counsel please clarify that statement to the court?”
“Well,” said opposing counsel, “Hal Wharburg was appearing as our witness as our crime scene detective. And as the court may know, when Hal’s not working as the town CSI, he’s also employed as the town fire Marshall. He also works per diem as the county game warden and the town health inspector. And on an as needed basis, he fills in on an hourly employee as the police dispatcher and on a per-case basis as the county coroner, just as he was on the day of the said events took place. And since he’s disqualified as a witness, consequently, we only have one witness lest - Ms. Nickel, the person who formerly had possession of the stolen property. And the County Sheriff. But the County Sheriff can’t be present, because on Monday’s because he’s running the family nail salon, your Honor. You know that salon - the same one he’s been running ever since his only beloved daughter ran off with that unsavory-man-of-a-Preacher – that flimsy bamboozler who used to run that Church down in the Valley.
My attorney addressed the Judge, “I object to the Sheriff as a witness, your honor.
“Explain,” said the judge.
“The church is property Hal tried to rent to my client. And as everyone in town knows, that very same church is where the Sheriffs only daughter ran off with the town Preacher. As such, there may be implicit bias on the part of the Sheriff against alleged users of this church. Therefore, I move to dismiss the Sherriff and or any evidence the sheriff may have collected for use against my client. And for the court record, please let the record state that it was the Sheriff’s daughter who in fact convinced my half-brother to leave town and abscond with all the money from the church offering plate on that Sunday afternoon.”
“Request approved. Will opposing counsel please call their last witness to the stand.”
Ms. Nickel appeared from the back of the court room and walked up to take the stand.
I jumped up from my seat again and shouted, “I object!”
The judge yelled back in my direction, “Counsel, restrain your client,” as he hammered his gavel. And Chef, just what is your primary objection to this witness?”
“Your honor, that’s the woman who sold me that sword!”
Then the whole courtroom let out a gasp. I could already hear the gossip mills ginning themselves up.The judge dropped his head in his hands and groaned. “Cindy-May, are you trying to sell your ex-husband’s sword again?”
“Well, it ain’t his, Daddy! she declared. “I got it in the divorce with the barn!”
Then Hal Wharburg shouted from the back of the court room, “Your honor, that was my Daddy’s sword, from Mexico. That’s a family heirloom! An’ that ain’t right!”
The judge lost his cool and stared wildly gesticulating and yelling at opposing counsel in words I didn’t quite understand mixed with something about wasting his time, a few days before the big event. In all my life, I’ve never seen a Judge so red faced and ticked off. And yell at so many people at once. Once the Judge was done letting off some steam, he called my attorney, Opposing Counsel, Cindy-may and Hal to the bench for a conference.
In conference, Cindy May admitted she’d been trying to sell off her Hal’s belongings for some time now, especially that Mexico-sword she hated, instead of giving it back to him. And Hal admitted that he’d been trying to skim money off the old church in the valley by trying to sell the old church pews. And that he’d also been trying to rent the church out, because he’d been so drained with alimony payments from the divorce. And then my attorney complained to all of them that she had felt she’d been slighted by the County Sheriff and the whole county court system, after her half-brother had run off with the Sheriffs only daughter and the contents of the Sunday offering plate from the old church in the valley, even though it wasn’t her half-brothers fault that the Sheriffs only daughter was the town harlot!
Well, the Judge got Hal and Cindy-may to agree to a formal truce. And my attorney, the Judge and opposing counsel agreed to drop most of the charges, except two - possession of illegal contraband and the questionable acquisition of fresh turkeys. My attorney explained to the judge a simple phone call to the farm where I bought the Turkeys would clear things up. And thankfully, a quick call to the farm confirmed my purchase of the turkeys and that charge was quickly dropped too.
Then counsel returned to their seats.
And the Judge said, “Now, as to the single count of possession of contraband and trading with the enemy, will bailiff please produce to the court Exhibit B, so we can settle this case and get back to our other business!”
Bailiff produced Exhibit B, the box of clear-Havana cigars, to the judge.
The judge reviewed the labels on the box and quipped, “Oh, I know these! My daddy used to smoke these cigars around me when I was just a kid! They’re made in Florida! Not contraband at all!” Charge dismissed! Case closed!”
The gavel fell.
I was relieved, to say the least (later on, I had also learned that the judge had ordered all records relating to the case to be expunged from the system, to avoid any possible embarrassment for the county, since he’d heard from the bailiff that I was an infamous Chef).
“And now bailiff, if you please, can we please reconvene the committee get back to the more pressing problem at hand - our yearly Thanksgiving dinner and where we’re going to have it this year- since Earl’s closed up last week.
I couldn’t help but overhear the Judge. So I whispered a few words to my attorney.
My attorney addressed the judge,” “Your honor, I may have a suitable suggestion.”
A few days later, Thanksgiving was in full swing everywhere across the country. And there I was too, back with stoves filled to the brim with holiday food. As for me, as usually happens in my life, all had worked out right with the world and I was back in my normal environs, no worse for the wear.
There was a cool autumn breeze blowing outside. And as the day turned to evening, the sky slowly dimmed to shades of autumn. I stepped outside to have a light in the splendor of the autumn evening.
In Suskatook County, homes were full of roasting turkeys, freshly made stuffing and too many pies to count. And there was a particular kitchen full of volunteers who had come together to help cook and present the traditional Thanksgiving gathering, considering the recent closure of Earl’s, while their children laughed and played outside in the fields. A woman in an apron stepped outside the kitchen and rang a heavy bell hanging by the back door. And hollered out into the valley, “Dinner!”
While sunlight danced on the stained-glass panels throwing autumnal colors into the great hall, the kids in the field streamed back into the building for dinner. Inside, nothing could have looked finer. The wide plank floors had been cleaned and polished to a fine shine. The pews and the windows had been cleaned up too. Children began to take their seats at a row of card tables, lined with bench seating, courtesy of those distinguished old pews. And the community started to fill into their seats at the long table, in the great hall.
The honorable Judge J. P. Nickel Walleye produced himself from the kitchen with a white cloth napkin tucked into his shirt collar, and a turkey wing in hand and seated himself at the head of the table. After a few minutes, when the crowd had finally filled all their seats at the table, he stood up and raised a glass. “To old friends of old and new, may we always appreciate the bonds of friendship.”
“Here, here” said someone in the crowd. Many glasses clanked together.
“And to the new friend of our town we’d like to extend our appreciation for his help in organizing up this year’s dinner in this fine old Church in the valley. And for helping us to remember that we must let bygones be bygones. And as a thank you, we have a little token of gratitude that we’d like to give to you - Chef.”
The judge handed off a twine and brown paper wrapped package to one of the children, who came over and handed it to me table-side.
The whole table held their breath while I opened it.
“I can’t believe it!” I exclaimed. “I can’t believe it! After everything?”
“Well,” said the fellow sitting next to me, “In light of all the trouble and then the way you helped us out after all of it, Judge and I thought that it might be a nice gift.”
I shook his hand and said, “Thanks, Hal! I know how much that sword meant to you.”
I took a forkful of turkey off my plate. “By the way, these turkeys cooked up just right in your ovens. But how ever did you manage to keep so many of my turkeys perfectly fresh for so long? I mean, you must have a hell of a big refrigerator at home!”
“Oh yeah, I’ve got the best!”
“And it was just right to store a 50lb bag of potatoes in too,” remarked the deputy Sheriff.
“And a two-bushels of corn,” volunteered another person at the table.
“And the all the wine!” exclaimed Cindy-May.
“And all the soda pop!” declared the County Sheriff, who had shut his family nail salon early, to come to the dinner.
“And even all the fruit for the pies!” said the town public defender.
“Your refrigerator’s that big?” I said.
“Yeah!” said Hal, “In fact, we were pretty much able to keep everything in there for this dinner, so it worked out perfectly. I never woulda thought of it before, but after having to store your turkeys, I got me the best idea!”
My eyes widened out of curiosity and I put my fork down on my plate, “Hal, just where did you store all those turkeys?”
“Oh, the best place ever - the coolers at one of my other jobs.
“Remind me, Hal, - what supermarket’s that?”, I asked.
“Supermarket? Ha!” Hal laughed, surprised at my guess.
The Deputy Sheriff chimed in from across the table, “It weren’t stored in no lousy supermarket coolers, Chef! It was stored in the newest, most modern and finest facility in the whole county! And dammit Chef, this turkey sure is tasty as hell,” said he, as he took another big bite. “Great job!”
I turned my attention back to Hal. “Hal, exactly what coolers are we talking about?”
Hal leaned over and snickered, “The coolers in the county morgue!”
After dinner, dessert and coffee were served. And there wasn’t a single person who left that church in the valley, who wasn’t happily sleepy-eyed from all the tryptophan in the turkey & gravy, stuffing and pie they’d eaten - despite knowing where the food had actually been stored. But that was because everybody at the dinner already knew what I didn’t – that the new coolers in the morgue had been installed so recently that they hadn’t yet been used for holding anything. Except those six-solitary-turkeys. And the county coroner had taken pride in booking those turkeys too, giving them the royal treatment, with official registration numbers & turkey-toe-tags.
In fact, Thanksgiving dinner had been such a great success that even before they finished their dessert and coffee, the town Thanksgiving Committee convened an impromptu meeting at the very same table. And there in that moment they had motioned, seconded and resolved to have their yearly Thanksgiving dinner in the Old Church in the Valley from this point onward.
As the last drabs of coffee were downed, the committee put forth a second motion - to have an on-the-spot election for a long-standing committee vacancy: the Thanksgiving Committee treasurer; because the old treasurer had been the County Sheriffs sister, who’d left everyone high and dry when she run off with that Preacher and the Sunday offerin plate. And after that, nobody ever wanted to run for her old committee position, for the same reason no Preacher would come to that old church in the valley - because it had been scandalized so. But that dinner had so cleared up well the bitterness and hurt feelings among the town folk, that the Deputy Sheriffs new wife, Cindy-May, volunteered to run for the vacancy. And she got elected at that dinner meeting too.
At that same impromptu meeting I received an on-the-record invite from the Thanksgiving Committee to come back to Suskatook County for next year’s dinner. This time though, the President of the Thanksgiving Committee – who was also the Hanging Judge of Suskatook County – swore on the record that my invitation would be without any trouble from him. And without a stay in the county whoscow (although he said I could bunk there for free if I wanted to, since it was usually empty).
And then the Sargent at arms of the committee – who was also the arresting Sheriff - spoke up too, saying he wouldn’t mind if I bunked down in the old church in the valley next time, along with as much music, friends, whisky and contraband as I wanted to bring. With a personal guarantee from him that he wouldn’t come by to hassle me, no matter who complained!
Then not to be outdone, the Vice President of the committee - who was the Suskatook County Public Defender – went on the record stating if in fact something did come of it, not to worry, shed be honored to represent me in court on any day of the week, no matter what her job was on that day.
And then the Secretary of the committee remarked that he was so happy with how everything had turned out, that he wouldn’t even charge me his normal realty fees to let me sleep in the old church in the valley, neither. To which the recently elected treasurer of the committee, Cindy-May, reminded the Secretary – who was Hal Wharburg - that the Hanging Judge of Suskatook County ruled in court that he wasn’t allowed to do that anymore. And Cindy-May made sure that Hal, who was doing the recording of the minutes of the meeting, recorded that in the minutes of the meeting too.
And then all at once, it seemed that all the past grievances and bad blood between townsfolk that had cropped up in Suskatook County for years, ever since that Preacher had up and run off with the County Sheriffs only sister and the contents of the Sunday offering plate, were settled. All was right with the world.
Afterwards, I packed up my backpack, and loaded my new sword and my knives into my truck. Outside the Church, the evening air was quiet, crisp and cool. As I headed back down the road, away from the old church in the valley, I looked back one last time. With one eye trained on the rear-view mirror, I watched the glowing stained-glass windows in the old Church in the valley disappear from my line of sight as my truck crested over the hill. And it was in that moment that I realized the folks of Suskatook County had resolved many of its long-standing grudges and differences. And not only had they come together to celebrate the season but also to celebrate forgiveness.
You see, sometimes even the oddest set of circumstances work out in some way, after all. As for me, I was glad that I was back on my way and happy in the knowledge that this beautiful old building would once bristle with life again, as a place to eat together and celebrate.
As for the invitation I’d received to come back to join them for next Thanksgiving - while I thanked the committee for the invitation to come back to Suskatook County for their annual dinner and did not turn it down, - just the same, this year, I think I might just stick to carving turkeys with my new sword at home. Or at least, maybe not in Suskatook County. And with turkeys that I keep in my own refrigerator.
So if you’re ever passing through a small town somewhere, and they just happen to be having a big Thanksgiving Dinner at an old church in a valley with high stained-glass windows, please stop on in. And ask them if they know about that infamous Chef who once changed the whole outlook of a small town with some Turkeys, Whiskey & Contraband.