The refrigerator shelves were almost empty. My middle-aged brain couldn’t concoct a breakfast from leftover chili, half a dozen eggs, kidney beans, two day-old rice, diet Cherry Dr. Pepper, and a jar of strawberry jam. Until I realized the meager pickings held everything I needed to jump-start my day with a Denco Darlin’.
Denco’s Cafe anchored the corner of East Main and South Jones in Norman, Oklahoma for over 35 years. Rumor has it the original Darlin’s satisfied men’s cravings of a different sort in the upstairs rooms of the commercial block tight to the railroad tracks. But by 1972, when my high school buddies and I frequented Denco’s after a long night, Darlin’s were a legitimate menu item.
Main Street Norman swells to 100 feet wide where the street grid shifts to accommodate the crick in the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe tracks. The rest of town aligns with a compass grid and the University of Oklahoma campus. Forty years ago the grid shift separated downtown’s gun shops, pawn shops, and boot shops from the campus’ malt shops, head shops and fern bars. Working cowboys had no business near OU, and vice versa. Except late a night, when everybody showed up at Denco’s.
Neither laborers nor fraternity boys, we were oddball high schoolers better at math than football. We opted out of Norman High to attend University School, a pair of Word War II outbuildings on OU’s neglected North Campus; misfits in a town where football rules in the generation before Big Bang Theory made geeks cool. We didn’t drink or smoke much; still our heads nurtured a rebellious buzz. We grew our hair long, tried to grow beards, listened to American Pie, and played bridge ‘til dawn several nights a week. Around four in the morning, hungry and giddy, we drove through blinkered lights and angle-parked my parents’ Torino wagon between mud-caked pick-ups and flashy GTO’s.
Denco’s was open twenty-four hours, though I don’t believe anyone frequented the place in daylight. Wee morning was prime time; daybreak men in working jeans cradled mugs of hot coffee, late-night partyers in paisley shirts nursed burgeoning hangovers. We found a booth and ordered our Darlin’s. The food was cheap. The air, laced with cigarette smoke and stale beer, was free.
A Denco Darlin’ with Two Looking Atcha came in a shallow metal plate, like a miner’s pan, filled with elbow macaroni, a ladle of chili, a handful of shredded cheddar, and two sunny-side eggs. The food was piled high but never overspilled the edge. Grease held the assembly in place. One morning I tried to extract a unique noodle from my meal without success and therein grasped the principle of covalent bonding.
Just before swallowing the last of my chili and slurping my Coke I realized that sleep had slipped off my agenda. I’d motor straight through to my 11 a.m. shift at Safeway. Sacking groceries for eight hours on no sleep wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t hard either. My buddy Mark’s eyes were half-closed; he was expert at sleeping through the day. Larry was wide-eyed as me. Konrad, our quartet’s philosopher, retained an inscrutable look. He extracted a toothpick from the jar on the table, inserted it along his upper gum and pronounced, “My teeth feel like they’re wearing sweaters.”
Denco’s closed a few years after we graduated from high school. Attempts to recreate Denco’s have failed. The streets of downtown Norman still run at an odd angle, but these days that’s the only thing unique about them. There’s not much cow town left.
University School closed in 1973; my graduating class was the last. I’m Facebook friends with my high school pals, but only Konrad stills lives in Norman. We went on to college, then graduate school. Two of us became physicians. We married, raised children. Two of us divorced. The renegade spirit that led us to Denco’s proved more rebellious in our imaginations than in our deeds.
Back to my refrigerator circa 2014. Although I was missing two key ingredients for an original Denco Darlin’ – no noodles, no cheese – I could toss together a reasonable facsimile. Instead of eating nutritionally appropriate poached eggs on dry toast, I got out the skillet, poured too much oil in the bottom, scooped in chili, beans, and rice, and mixed it with a spatula. On a separate burner I greased the griddle and fried two sunny-side. When the whites bubbled, I glided the eggs over the chili. Two bright yolks shimmered atop the oily stew. The entire mass slid onto my plate. I ate it up fast.
Fried food is like memory; its distinct flavor has a short half-life. I sopped up the last of the grease with bread. It tasted as good as I remembered, though I couldn’t feel sweaters on my teeth. Some insights are only available to young men who’ve been up all night.