I’ve lived in Clarksville, Tennessee all my adult life, but like many denizens of the my town, I one worked in Nashville. There are many things about that period that I don;t miss. I don;t miss the daily commute. I don’t miss the time I spent driving (yes that’s a separate gripe from a commute). I don’t miss the hours. I do miss the people, but I also miss the opportunity to easily acquire some of the best hamburgers in the Southeast from Fat Mo’s.
My dad imparted his love of hamburgers throughout my childhood. He also defined the characteristics of a good burger for me. LIterally. I first remember him listing them over Mega Burgers at the long departed (and greatly mourned) Kandy Kitchen. I won’t go in to the whole list, but the major component is a hand-made beef patty.
“Meat is not meant to be perfectly round,” he said, “A hamburger should be as imperfect as the hands that make it.”
I listened to such nuggets of wisdom as I struggled to consume an entire Mega Burger. I always wanted to finish the whole thing because I thought it impressed Dad. After a lunch there he would often say, “Now that was a burger for a man.” I wanted to feel included in the statement.
I haven’t lost my taste for asymmetrical, hand-patted hamburgers. I know it disturbs some, but I like the thought that some actually handles my food (although it does disturb me that every restaurant has the sign about employees needing to wash their hands. I think they should only hire people who already know that). Food should be personal, not shipped hundreds of miles to taste exactly the same in any city you wind up. I acknowledge that there is something to be said for familiarity, but I argue that food can be familiar without being industrial.
If you’ve ever eaten at Fat Mo’s, then you already know why it appeals to me (If you haven’t, you really should try it). The meat isn’t frozen and, while it’s quick, it’s definitely not fast food. More than the food however, Fat Mo’s provides an atmosphere that cannot evolve from a national string of conformity.
Part of the atmosphere comes from the international makeup at each location. English is rarely a first language and, when coupled with differing cultures provides the experience. My first experience sold me on wanting to come back before I even tasted the food.
Their hamburgers are well proportioned, but I wasn’t hungry enough to eat one that large that day. Fortunately, there was an item on the menu called a “Little Mo.” It was a smaller version, but otherwise the same. I ordered one and the woman behind the counter stopped taking me order and looked at me.
“No, no no,” she said, “You no want Little Mo. Little Mo too small for you. You want Fat Mo.”
“Thanks, but I’m not really hungry enough to . . .”
“No hungry? You not hungry? Why you no eat? You need eat. You man, right?”
“Uh, yes, but I don’t think I could finish an entire . . .”
“Yes you can. You finish Fat Mo. You need eat. I get you Fat Mo.”
“I really just want the smaller . . .”
“No. No smaller. You want to be big man, you eat like man. You look hungry. You need eat. You need Fat Mo, not Little Mo. Order Fat Mo.”
“So I can be a man?”
“Yes. Big man. Strong, real man.” She held up both hands, clenched in fists and shook them in the international symbol for “strong.”
“I guess I’ll have the Fat Mo instead,” I relented.
“Yes. Good choice. Right choice. You need eat.”
I’m still not convinced I had a choice.
Sadly, some might take her behavior as rude, but she delivered her words with great sincerity. She seemed truly worried that I was starving myself for no good reason and she wanted to make sure I had enough. It reminded me of being at a friend’s house whose mother always wanted to feed me more. That was the true beauty of my lunch that day. The food was unique, but her attitude was familiar. I’ll never know her name and a counter separated us, but I felt welcomed at her table.