The Revisit: Carman’s Country Kitchen
“Where’s Qadaffi going to go, anyway?” Carman is saying. “I mean, when people say he needs to go, where do they have in mind? Who’s going to take him?”
A fair question. The dictator has just blamed domestic unrest on the consumption of hallucinogen-doped Nescafé by teenagers, and pledged to open his country’s arms depot “so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire.” But the Academy Awards were last night, too, so the Monday morning conversation must move on.
“The supporting actress surprised everybody,” Carman chirps, coming around the kitchen wall while a duck breast sizzles slowly in a cast-iron pan. “It went to that woman from The Fighter. Did you see it? It was the one about white Irish trash living in Lowell, Massachusetts. It also got the supporting actor award—the guy who portrayed a crackhead so well. He was amazing.”
“But do you know enough crackheads to grade his performance?” I wonder.
“Oh yeah,” she answers. “I’m big on crackheads. You know, this neighborhood has more white welfare recipients than any other part of town.”
Carman, of course, is Carman Luntzel, whose eponymous country kitchen is now 21 years old. Don’t let the milestone of maturity fool you. The South Philly bruncherie remains an irreverent teenager through and though — its well-traveled owner still averse to police, keen to provoke, and brash in her taste for interior decor. The phallus collection retains pride of place on a shelf above the breakfast counter: porcelain and wood figurines of hyperbolic virility nestled among vintage 7-Up bottles and exaggerated mushroom caps. The pay phone rings whenever someone calls in for a table, a rainbow flag flaps above the corner of Wharton and 11th, and Carman’s inimitable slogan still reads like a jaw-dropping typo. “She put the count back into country,” it goes, only it ain’t spelled “count.”
There are still four choices every day — two sweet, two savory — and they’re still ferried by Alexis and Thomas, who’ve been there for 11 years. If Carman hadn’t just gone and praised Al-Jazeera English’s coverage from Tahrir Square — and she’s right on the money, by the way — I could have been drinking my drip coffee in a time warp. After all, actors have been milking white trash for Oscars for a dog’s age, and Qadaffi’s been bat-shit crazy for longer than that.
It’s not a cheap breakfast — with coffee and tip, you’re closing in on $20 — but sometimes you just need a duck breast glazed with persimmon to start the day. Or a pile of pumpkin pancakes thicker than a seat cushion. Or French toast crusted with crushed graham crackers, underneath three bushes’ worth of macerated strawberries and the last of the New Jersey blueberries Carman froze at summer’s end.
And really, who else tells you the blueberries are coming from the freezer—and proves that that’s a selling point? Part of Carman’s charm is an attitude that fetches some of her more fanciful food ideas down to Earth. Besides, I haven’t had blueberries that concentrated with flavor since my own frozen store ran out last fall.
Nevertheless, the conversation is at least as filling as the food here. Carman is a repository of neighborhood history. Before she took over this corner spot, it was a cheesesteak place for six years, as she tells it. “But before that, it was an ice-cream, cheesesteak, and numbers-running place.”
“Jerry Blavat’s dad was a bail bondsman,” she says, “and he used to sit on the corner right out here, waiting for business from Moyamensing Prison, where the Acme is now …”
"Old Lady Annenberg delivered beer in a wagon drawn by a horse …”
And so Monday morning whirls along, each tendril of conversation budding with another offshoot, the day’s beginning dimmed only by the sneaking feeling that the remainder won’t be quite as fun.