Tony Davis can sure cook up a ‘mean hamburger’
Posted: Friday, September 3, 2010 8:02 pm
I sit at a counter and watch him at work and I think of the late author, the late Truman Capote, who wrote a short story, “The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger.” The story is about a farmer’s wife who upset the whole countryside and fueled the gossip mill when she up and bought a small cafe in a nearby town. She was pronounced a failure before she even started, but by hard work she made her little business a success. It was said of her, “She can sure cook a mean hamburger.”
Well, folks, I am here to tell you that Anthony W. “Tony” Davis cannot only cook a mean hamburger, he can also put a lot of other good eats on the table.
There is an object lesson in there somewhere.
What we have here is an example of the way America’s sons and daughters use what they learn in the military to society’s benefit when they return to civilian life. Simply stated, they justify the public’s investment in their training.
A 1975 graduate of Union City High School, Davis entered active duty with the U.S. Navy in September 1976. He attended boot camp at Recruit Training Command in Orlando, Fla.
Boot camp, or “basic,” as it is called in all branches of the armed forces, was eight weeks long. If you couldn’t swim, it was 11 weeks long.
“I couldn’t swim a lick. So I spent those three extra weeks learning to swim. Went to the pool every day. After three weeks, I could swim,” Davis said.
Next came what we in the Army call “AIT,” or Advanced Individual Training, meaning a formal military school where one learns a skill. For Davis, that was a cook school in San Diego.
During the next few years, he served as a “mess management specialist,” which is a fancy way of saying “cook,” on two ships — the USS Portland, an LSD337 landing/docking ship, and the USS Lawrence, a guided missile destroyer. Both ships were based in Norfolk, Va.
He tells an anecdote — a story within a story — that is so typically military, it almost made me homesick.
The USS Lawrence, he said, had a ship’s crew of about 225, plus about 30 officers. The galley — that’s “mess hall” in Army lingo — opened at 5 a.m. sharp.
“When I got on the Lawrence, I noticed they weren’t doing any omelets at all. Just fried eggs and scrambled eggs,” he said.
The galley had two grills where cooks fried eggs in real time to keep the chow line moving.
Davis asked his boss, a Navy chief — in the Navy, a sailor with the rank of chief is god-like — about their adding omelets to the menu.
“The chief said we didn’t have time to do omelets,” he said. “He told me, ‘We got to get these people in, get ’em fed, get ’em out.’ I told him, ‘Well, we got time to do eggs over medium, eggs over easy. An omelet won’t take but a few minutes.’ He said, ‘OK, show me.’ So I did.
“The next morning I was on one grill, some other guy was on a grill beside me. He did the usual fried eggs and scrambled eggs, I did the omelets. I started with just a basic omelet, ham and cheese. It went OK.
“Well, we went from there to bacon and cheese to ham and cheese with onions and bell peppers. It got popular real quick. I got to where I was cookin’ a lot of omelets.”
As you might imagine, news of this culinary achievement spread throughout the ship and eventually reached certain ears, if you get my drift.
The plot thickens…
“I reported for work one morning and the chief stopped me and said, ‘You don’t work here any more.’ I said, ‘I don’t? Where do I work?’ He said, ‘You’re going to the officers’ mess.’”
That’s right, the officers’ mess. Apparently, the ship’s captain — the rank would almost be equivalent to a full-bird colonel in the Army — had a yen for some good omelets, too, and they weren’t going to let the crew hog all the action. So somebody up high had Davis transferred upstairs.
Davis spent the rest of his time aboard ship cooking omelets and other goodies for the officers.
Davis was honorably discharged from the Navy in July 1988. He says he was going to stay in for 20 to qualify for retirement benefits, but an accident intervened. “It messed up my leg. They said I would never again be able to serve on ships,” he said.
Upon discharge, he returned to Union City and the home of his grandmother, the late Liddie McKnight. “I was born in Indianapolis, but they brought me to her when I was 18 months old,” he said. “There were so many living in that big house in Indianapolis, they said I’d be better off. And I was. It was a good decision. My grandmother raised me, put me through school. It is because of her that I am what I am today.”
He figures that through the years, he worked at just about every place in Union City, including the former Reelfoot Packing Company, where he worked the kill floor, separating hogs’ small intestines from large intestines. “For about two weeks, I wouldn’t eat nothin’,” he said. “But I got over it.”
He worked at the plant until it closed.
Tony Davis likes to cook, likes to create, likes to learn new things to put on a plate and make you smile. “One thing about cooking, you never get through learning,” he said. “They are always coming up with something new.”
How long will this Navy veteran, this Anthony W. “Tony” Davis, keep on applying his culinary skills in the public arena?
“I’m 52. I still got 10 more years in me before I retire,” he said. “I told them when I hired on at Generations Restaurant, this is my last hurrah. I want to hang in there 10 more years.”
That’s 10 years’ worth of mean hamburgers.
Published in The Messenger 9.3.10