Tuesday, August 5, 2008

[Really Listening] Country Music and the Lost Art of Family Dining

In the August 2008 issue of Country Roads

All expecting parents are deluged with advice as the time narrows between the abstract and concrete states of parenthood, but the best advice I remember from that fevered time was “Your child must adapt to your life, not the other way around.” It’s a little simplistic and not precisely actionable, but it’s something we have always kept in mind about raising our daughter and partially because of it, she has been my best partner in crime for the past seven years. So when the assignment came to check out the music at Hymel’s, the venerable River Road seafood restaurant in Convent, I figured why not indoctrinate her into this part of my life?

She has her own particular ear for music: any time a sweet melody should emerge from the car stereo, her first question is to ask if it’s on a CD so we can listen to it again. I burned her a copy of Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way for the little jambox in her room and within a week she was belting out her own heartbreaking version of their tribute to independence “The Long Way Around” chirping “but I, I could never follow” with a sense of pitch better than any she could have gotten from me. The promise of a real live country band plus what was rumored to be the best catfish in the area was enough to get her to sign on to this assignment.

The instant we passed through the glass door to the lounge attached to the restaurant, we were confronted with the band, a circle of men on guitars, bass and fiddle cycling through the country standards I’d grown up hearing. We were seated as they went through what I am pretty sure was an instrumental version of Lefty Frizell’s 1950 hit “If You got the Money (I Got the Time).”
Hymel’s is the kind of restaurant that I wish still was the standard for family dining. Paper on a crowd of formica tables, plastic baskets of crackers on the table, homey décor and nary a cartoonish mascot in sight. The band continued their greatest hits of yesteryear at the perfect volume: loud enough to be easily heard, but low enough to talk over. I asked her what she thought of this place, and she took a look at the platters of boiled shrimp being shuffled around and the plastic crawfish up on one wall and said “ I like it. It looks Cajun-ish to me.”

The food matched the décor—comforting and unpretentious. The seafood gumbo recommended by the waitress was a mildly seasoned yet pleasingly complicated thick concoction that mirrored the clientele. Young and old, families and young couples, kids and men just off their shifts at the plants nearby, all corralled together by the sound of the fiddle and harmonica and that familiar lope of Nashville’s golden era.

Our food arrived in short order considering how packed the place was, the canned soft drinks accompanied by small glasses. Pouring half a can of Coke into a glass may not seem like much at first, but comparing it to the assembly line ambience that usually accompanies eating with children, it was positively genteel.

The catfish lived up to the reputation—thick filets in cornmeal batter fried to just the perfect degree—and the shrimp and oysters were perfectly crunchy. I’m fairly certain my daughter ate her first oyster as she was distracted by the sudden change in the music from the other room. The homey lope had suddenly taken on a Native American cadence, complete with the harmonica and fiddle playing the war cries. She looked back at me with a quizzical look as the patrons in the bar began to clap along, and the powwow turned into Hank William’s “Kaw-Liga.” I told her the song was about a statute of an Indian that fell in love with another statue in a store across the street, but because he was made of wood, he could never go and talk to her. And then one day, someone bought the girl statute and he was sad that he never went to talk to her. She said, “So it’s like he was shy” cutting through any metaphors of wooden hearts and hesitation.

We cut through our bread pudding, deliciously soft with a tangy, barely-sweet sauce, just the way I like it and we made it up to the front to watch the band sway through Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas.” By that time, the chord progressions had already ingrained themselves in my daughter’s head, because I heard her humming along with it as we walked out the door. That is the beautiful thing about country music and family restaurants – to really do them right, they don’t need to be updated, or augmented or marketed to you. They just need to be allowed to exist, and thankfully Hymel’s is still around to offer both a home.

1 comment:

  1. great story,I am the owners cousin and I sure do miss all the GREAT!! food there...my brother-in-law and his son were prolly there playing guitars and singin....the reason I wasn't there is I live in Nebraska but sure do miss the food and music...glad you and your daughter got to visit a hidden treasure in St. James Parish.