“Food Fights,” stories by Fred Bonnie; Black Belt Press, Montgomery, Ala.; 191 pages; $24 hardcover.
What does it take to have a successful restaurant business today? How come some restaurants become local institutions for decades, while others go out of business in a few months? What goes on behind the scenes of a favorite eatery, bar or hangout?
In Fred Bonnie’s new and very enjoyable book, “Food Fights,” subtitled “Tales from the Restaurant Trade,” answers are provided for these questions and more.
Bonnie is a Maine native born in Bridgton and raised in Portland. In 1971, he graduated from the University of Vermont. He has held many jobs, including milkman, caddy, short-order cook, factory worker, pizza deliveryman, house painter, mover, landscaper, teacher, clerk, country-western singer, librarian, salesman, magazine editor, janitor, banker, advertising copywriter, bartender and caterer — an excellent background for superior storytelling.
However, for the last 24 years he has lived and worked in the South: first, in Birmingham, Ala., where he was the garden editor of Southern Living magazine; and now, in North Carolina, where he makes his living as a free-lance writer. Besides his short stories, Bonnie has published six other books on gardening and hundreds of magazine articles on a variety of subjects from crushed rock to auto retailing to miracles.
Up to the present book, Bonnie’s short stories have been set mostly in Maine. His work appears in such anthologies as “Maine Speaks,” “A Maine Reader,” “Inside Vacationland” and “Too Hot and Other Maine Stories.”
In “Food Fights,” there is only one tale that could be classified as “Maine,” and that’s the one called “A Live Maine Lobster,” the story of Vince from Maine, who loves driving Cadillacs and living down South. As Vince says, “I’d rather file my fingernails with a chainsaw than spend one more god-awful winter in the state of Maine.”
Vince suffers from kidney failure, among other ailments, and when the story opens, he’s sitting in his wheelchair on his “dialysis day” in his brother Brad’s restaurant waiting for an insurance man. Brad understands when his brother tells him how he’s dying for a boiled Maine lobster dipped in melted butter “like we used to eat them back home.”
In a disagreement with Brad, Vince provides the story’s theme: “The big lesson we all have to face sooner or later is how to live a life. Yours or someone else’s. I was never that good at living mine, and you were never as good as you thought at living yours.”
“Food Fights” is divided into three sections: the appetizers — seven little scenes to whet the reader’s appetite; the entrees, 11 stories; and the dessert, two satirical restaurant reviews. The appetizers and entrees take place in a wide variety of eateries, mostly set in Alabama, but with counterparts here in Maine and elsewhere in the country.
In the appetizer section, Bonnie explores the frustrations of a fast-food drive-in waiter with an obnoxious regular, the awkward attempts of trying to speak Chinese in a Chinese restaurant, the complicated gimmickry of certain “theme restaurants,” customers trying to make dates with cashiers, amazing waitresses who can memorize all their orders in their heads and a group of Algerian construction workers eating in France at a Tunisian cafe.
As for the tales, the scene in “Broom of Destruction” is called “The Oasis, a cheap joint that caters to teenagers.” The conflict involves a black janitor named Isaiah and a new redneck cook named Davis Drummond. There’s also a tough black waitress named Shyreena, who’s more “reena” than shy and the main cause of a fight between the two men.
In “Expense Report,” a foolish businessman named Red Bean Raoul Renault tries to impress his employees by taking them out to dinner at Ye Olde Beefeater Tavern, only to find he hasn’t enough cash or credit to cover the thousand-dollar bill.
Bonnie begins his story “Smoking Section” by writing: “Whenever Melba wanted to discuss a sensitive topic with Bickford, she suggested that they go out to eat. In a public place, she surmised, Bickford could not go fully ballistic if he got angry. Her favorite place to argue was Romeo’s, where they had been eating at least once a month for most of the four years they had been married.”
Melba’s “sensitive topic” turns out to be divorce from her husband, but there’s a surprising development involving the owner of the restaurant.
Bonnie’s characters are wonderfully human: generous and petty, kind and ignorant, sensitive and pathetic, courageous and dumb, funny and sad.
One of the most unforgettable and brave is a tiny Vietnamese woman named Thanh Ho in “Thanh Ho Delivers,” an amusing but harrowing account of a person who can’t speak English very well and has no license to drive, trying to deliver a pizza in a dangerous redneck section of Birmingham. Running for her life, after her encounter with an insane Vietnam veteran, she is helped by a wonderful black woman who guides her to safety.
Since it is Alabama, many of the stories, such as “Cafe Roma,” the last and longest in the book, are about race relations.
“Cafe Roma” is also the sad and frustrating tale of a father and son, who love each other but can’t agree. Rocks Romano, the father, is an Italian who dreams of having his own restaurant after working in other people’s places for 40 years. He tries opening a fancy place with a Louisiana-style Cajun menu and a chef from New Orleans, but it fails miserably. Located downtown at a time when the middle class has deserted the city for the mall, it is near a gay bar called the Cafe Roma, and people keep getting the two places confused.
Ultimately, Louie, the son, takes over and changes the place into a late-night hangout for blacks, gays and hip whites. It’s a big success. Louie falls in love with a beautiful black girl named Alicia, who becomes head waitress. The father, a rascist and homophobe, hates what his dream has become and his son’s involvement with a black woman.
In “Cafe Roma,” Fred Bonnie has written one of his best and most-important stories. As entertaining as his others, it cuts deeper and speaks volumes about us and our incredibly complex society.
On the book flap is written: “A restaurant is an intense environment for everyone in the place. The workers are harried and usually underpaid; the owners fear with every upcoming meal that business will be lousy; daytime customers are often on a short leash from their offices; and nighttime customers quietly simmer in rampant hormonal speculation and expectation … add to this the ritualistic nature of the activity at hand — the communal breaking of bread — and the stage is set for primal drama … about two-thirds of Americans have worked in a restaurant at one time or another and nearly everyone has eaten in one, so almost every reader will find something familiar in Fred Bonnie’s latest collection of stories.”
Essentially, I would agree, except that I’d add that readers will also find a lot more than familiarity and a lot more than entertainment, too.