L.A. is one of the great cities of the world. I have been there many times and like Randy Newman: I love it! This, however, is the story of a different L.A.
This other L.A. has no freeways, just two-lane highways that wind through forests which grow right up to the shoulder. In this L.A., the only glimpse of the horizon is often just a speck at the far end of the road.
This L.A. has no traditional agriculture; no orange groves or vast fields of strawberries, only endless tracts of southern yellow pine trees managed by international conglomerates.
This L.A. has no giant advertisements covering entire sides of tall buildings. The most prevalent sign in this L.A. is made of cardboard and nailed to trees at 50 ft. intervals. They address the thing that is near and dear to the hearts of many people in these parts, something they would literally fight over, and often do – hunting rights.
This L.A has no traffic or smog, no movie stars, no ocean, no mountains.
This L.A. is Lower Arkansas.
This alternate L.A., like the one in California, does have its share of eccentrics. Case in point – my brother-in-law Harold, who makes trades in the stock market based on cosmic vibrations derived from the study of numerology. Harold’s number is eight, and his complete lack of success over almost four decades, and counting, has not deterred him in the least.
Not to be outdone, Harold’s youngest daughter Lara, a woman of thirty years, dresses like a spinster from the Gilded Age. She chose this style of clothing, she explained, after having a heart-to-heart talk with Jesus, where He gave her specific instructions about her wardrobe.
My other brother-in-law, Alvin, is more redneck than eccentric, although he does live a hermit-like existence in a tiny town near the state line, on the fringes of a wildlife refuge. Alvin blames Barack Obama for literally everything that’s wrong with America, except NASCAR, and he believes Trump is just the medicine this country needs. I can’t say I agree with Alvin on many things, but he can trash-talk Obama or anyone else as much as he wants, as long as he keeps frying catfish, which he does with more skill than anyone I have met who is not a professional cook.
This past weekend we gathered with my in-laws in the L.A. town of El Dorado, because Alvin had announced a couple of weeks ago he was once again ready to cook catfish. This is never a spur of the moment thing with Alvin. It’s something he has to work up to, and it generally takes him a year or more, so when he decides he’s ready, we drop everything and light out for L.A.
This year we all assembled at Cathy’s house, Cathy being Alvin’s ex-wife. Alvin and Cathy seem to be the best of friends, and a casual observer would never suspect that there was once so much animosity between them it caused them to divorce. My wife summed it up thus: they like each other, they just can’t live together.
Alvin had his deep-frying contraption set up in the backyard under a carport when we arrived. It’s a one-of–a-kind unit, built by Cathy’s brother, who is a master welder. A large fan that was somehow liberated from a commercial chicken house made the temperature under the carport bearable and held most of the flies at bay. Details on how the fan came into Alvin’s possession are sketchy at best, and I sensed it was wise to leave them undisturbed.
Alvin gets his fish from a catfish farm in Dumas, Arkansas. He fries it in soybean oil, even though he admitted reading recently that soybean oil was thought to cause cancer in small animals. He reasoned the risk was acceptable since our fish fry is an annual occasion at most, and also because soybean oil costs about one-third as much as the presumably safer peanut oil. I had to confess I understood and agreed with Alvin’s logic, and that worried me when I thought about it later.
Jasmine, Harold’s oldest daughter, brought her fiancé Robert to the fish fry to meet the extended family. This will be Jasmine’s third marriage. She’s had worse luck picking husbands than her father’s had picking stocks. But we all agreed Robert deserved the family “seal of approval”, especially Harold, who let it slip that Robert had a six figure salary down at the automobile assembly plant. The timing of this marriage is especially fortuitous for Harold, who plans to retire in December after almost fifty years as a locomotive engineer, because Jasmine and her three boys still account for a good chunk of his monthly expenses, even though Jasmine is almost forty. Maybe there is something to that numerology business after all.
At its core the family fish fry is an exercise in gluttony, the point being to see how much catfish, corn fritters, hush puppies, French fries, baked beans, coleslaw, sweet onions, pickles, sweet peppers and ice cream you can consume over the course of an afternoon without getting sick.
Beer is an essential component of the festivities, and it flows in great quantities. Robert endeared himself to me forever when he showed up with two cases of Yuengling, my favorite beer that I can’t buy at home, and I said a quick prayer that nothing goes wrong between now and the end of August that puts the kibosh on the wedding. The beer contributes to a generally happy gathering, but there is a downside, because the more beer Alvin drinks, the more he talks, and he tends to lose focus on the fish. The lesson is to get in on the early batches, because the later ones can be a bit on the crispy side.
After our meal had settled, Robert took Alvin for a ride in his Nissan GTR, a very fast sports car. Apparently Robert put the car through its paces because Alvin came back visibly shaken, which I thought was odd, because when he was younger Alvin had some of the fastest cars in town. We teased him a little and he snapped back that it was different when you’re not the one in control. Then he told everyone to shut the hell up, and we did, because even though he is 70 years old, nobody wants to be on Alvin’s bad side.
All things considered, this year’s fish fry was a whopping success. Cathy had wisely cautioned Alvin beforehand that the subject of politics was off limits for discussion, and he was able to stick with that plan, for the most part. Nobody got drunk, there were no hurt feelings and everyone made it home safely. It was a fine day in L.A. with family, food and drink, and at this point in my life that’s about all I need