By general agreement, Jackson “Happy” Fohl, the proprietor of Sotty Hoff’s Pub, is the best chef in town, probably the best chef in the universe. When folks who get paid to cook want to escape the kitchen and dine out, they go to Sotty’s, then shake their heads as they waddle away, wondering how Happy does it. Only my Aunt Ada refuses to eat there. She shuns all appearance of evil as a general principle and calls Sotty’s a “den of iniquity,” mostly because it’s dim, as if a person can’t do good works in the dark or sin in the sunshine. Aunt Ada says the same thing about Freese’s Market and Hibb’s Department Store, too, both of which are well lighted. She also claims that 1826 was the last time anyone cleaned Sotty’s, but she’s wrong. Aunt Ada doesn’t understand the difference between dark and light, or dirt and patina. She doesn’t like the puncheon floor, either.
If a critter or a plant once lived, Happy will cook it and work wonders. I’ve seen men who looked mean enough to pinch puppies without washing their hands break into tears at the taste of Happy’s fox-squirrel pie, and that’s only after sampling the golden crust. Let them eat their way to the squirrel, rodent meat that’s been marinated in aged single-malt scotch and spicy lichens, and most times they break into hymn singing. Why, to hear the joy of their singing, you’d think they were eating fried angel. It doesn’t matter what kind of squirrel—red, gray, fox, even a chipmunk.
Try this: give Happy a catfish—a slimy, whiskered, corpulent, corpse-bellied mudcat that lived its life in foul muck and didn’t want no more—and he’ll make the fish taste like it had lived on Mt. Olympus, where it was fed ambrosia, educated by Aristotle, and sung to sleep each night by naked muses with red hair. When you taste it, you know that Happy could work the same with a hogsucker, a carp, or a drowned beaver.
After you’ve eaten the salad—a like-minded mixture of lettuce, spinach, snoreflower greens, wood sorrel, and petals from a lingerie flower when it’s in season, teased with dressing that smells as sweet as a spring meadow and tastes like a first kiss—Happy brings the buttonball stew. Minister Westminster says the only reason buttonball stew isn’t a sin is because Happy didn’t cook it until after the Bible was written. What can you say about a dish that gives so much pleasure, that’s as lean as a chicken shadow, that dances through your arteries and won’t fuss with your bowels, and there isn’t a thing wrong with eating it? That’s not only my opinion, either.
“I’ll be eternally roasted if I can find a scripture against it,” Minister Westminster has often said.
Several years ago Happy hung a sign over the door that says what patrons have known for over 200 years: Sotty Hoff’s Pub, the most fun you can have without sinning.