Saturday Diary / Carman's crazy country kitchen
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It is not usually worth driving 300 miles just for breakfast. But that's what I did last weekend.
Carman Luntzel made it worth it.
On a narrow corner of South Philadelphia, surrounded by knickknacks, kitsch and profane slogans, she's been making my favorite breakfasts since I met her 12 years ago.
Even when it's been a couple years since my last visit, she recognizes me. When I introduced her to my wife a year ago, she looked confused.
"I would have never guessed," she said to me after giving me a big flour-covered hug.
And then to my wife: "He used to always bring a different girl in here with him. If you got him to settle down, good for you. Can't say I saw that coming."
What can I say? She knew me.
And now she's closing. She has until Dec. 16. Her landlord decided a pizza shop was a better idea for the space. Because I guess Philly needs another one of those.
This little restaurant -- three tables, a handful of seats at the counter -- was where I really started to learn what food could be. What it didn't always have to be.
Carman taught me.
Of course I had to go one more time.
The first time I met Carman, I had just moved to Philly. First job out of school. I was new but Carman's Country Kitchen wasn't -- she had opened in 1989.
A friend took me the first time. The collection of penis statuettes like idols on a shelf near the ceiling, the hipster-before-they-were-called-hipster staff, the soft-toned '70 portrait of a young woman over the pass-through from the tiny kitchen and the same older woman working back there -- it looked like a place where food would be an afterthought to attitude.
The milk for coffee was in a ceramic breast and had to be poured through the nipple. When archaeologists excavate the place, they're going to think it was the temple to some fertility god.
Then there was the menu. There was a choice of a pancake or waffle, an omelet, challah French toast and a wild card. They looked ... I'll go with "weird." The food combinations didn't make sense to my 21-year-old brain. A lobster risotto omelet? For $14? And what do you mean, cash only?
I learned fast.
Carman changed the menu every week. She wrote her own recipes. No one -- no one -- cooked in that kitchen except her. She employed artists and musicians and promoted the hell out of their work. Every year, she'd take two or three weeks off a couple of different times just to travel and eat: the south of France, Turkey, wherever. Just to taste things. Just to get new ideas.
I have no idea how old she is. I'm guessing in her 50s. And as much as I associate her with Philadelphia, she moved there from Indiana without having finished college after growing up mostly in Paris. She's a mother of three and a grandmother. She used to be a cocktail waitress and ran a club called Tiddlywinks.
She never went to cooking school and she wouldn't repeat recipes. You loved the Bailey's pancakes she made for St. Patrick's Day one year? The chicken liver omelet? What she called "wild-ass" chili made from four different meats found in Philly's Italian Market district? They would exist only in your memory.
Her clientele was just as eclectic. The retired union worker in the Champagne of Beers cap, rainbow suspenders and the Che Guevara T-shirt, for example.
The December after 9/11, she was about to go off on one of her trips. One of her regulars gave her a riding crop as a gift. It was a little before closing and most everyone had cleared out. She climbed up on stools at the counter, apron still on and waved it around wildly in the air.
"What do you think the FAA's gonna say about this ------------ !?" she crowed.
And the people she hired tended to be loyal. Alexis has been there 13 years. Dan for nine.
I ate there at least a couple times a month. It wasn't cheap and I was broke. But it was always worth it.
When I moved away, she gave me her email address. We stayed in touch. We're Facebook friends.
I drove out to Philly Friday night. My friend Alicia drove up from D.C. so we could go together. We met each other when we lived in Philly and we both had to go to Carman's one last time.
I was usually an omelet man. I'm not big on sweet at breakfast. This time: French toast. Dan said it was his favorite on the menu. It came covered in buttered yams pureed with toasted almonds, cream cheese and persimmons, and topped with dates. With a Carman-recommended side of applewood-smoked bacon. Because, of course.
If that was going to be my last meal, and I'm reasonably certain I could hear my arteries hardening, it would be a good way to die.
I realized I didn't have any pictures of the place or of her. I went so often when I lived there, it hadn't occurred to me. Alicia and I walked back to the kitchen to say hi.
I kept taking pictures of Carman talking, cooking. Most are blurry. The woman doesn't stand still. Even in a confined space like that itty bitty kitchen, she can't be contained.
She's at peace with closing. More so than I am. She said she's going to put her stuff in storage in North Carolina near her daughter and cook on contract part-time for rich people overseas. Like you'd do.
"I've been doing this 23 years," she said. "It's the right time for another adventure."
First Published December 8, 2012 12:00 am