Mom and I are the only ones still living in Kingsport. My sister, Pamela; her husband, Larry Fagans; their youngest daughter, son-in-law and grandson (Emily, Ben and Jaxon Harless) all live in the Knoxville area. Their oldest daughter and son-in-law, Allison and Tom Langley, live in Augusta, Georgia, and couldn’t make it Friday due to work. And Allison’s daughters, Abbie and Olivia Carr, start school Monday morning. My brother, Keith; his wife, Kim; and middle daughter, Deidre, live on the northwest side of Raleigh, North Carolina. Their oldest and youngest daughters, sons-in-law, and four grandchildren (Kendra, Michael, Everett, and Caroline Fuller; and Anne Catherine, Joe, Emma and Taylor) live on the northeast side of Raleigh.
I omitted the last name of the youngest daughter and son-in-law because they’re already so well-known to anyone who calls (or rather, tries to call) Mom on her old-fashioned landline. Those who do so usually get a recording. It’s a man. He announces, “You’ve reached the Leone household. ...” That would be Joe. The answering machine was a hand-me-down from Anne Catherine and Joe. Mom got a kick out of the confusion it caused when we first plugged it up. So we just left it. Now several friends and relatives will jokingly ask Mom, when they give up and call her cell phone number, “Well, how is Mr. Leone?” or “Did Mr. Leone give you my message?”
Why did they all surprise Mom this weekend, rather than visit on her actual birthday weekend? Two words: Race Weekend.
And that means booked hotels and much higher rates when you do find availability. The whole family likes to stay at the Marriott (which we still call the Marry-ott). And I’d planned Mom a birthday party at the Carousel downtown, but a few weeks ago she told me she didn’t want a big party. She’d rather I take her on a trip.
Pamela polled the rest of the group on dining options for Friday night and Saturday night. Everyone wanted local flavor. Friday, she knew, would be more of a challenge because everyone was arriving at different times right up through dinnertime. Like a lot of folks, we’ve always liked Pratt’s. Pamela’s fascination with the Big Indian dates back to his days standing watch on what is now Memorial Boulevard. And Pratt’s had just what we needed: a large room for groups. Even with short notice, Pratt’s bent over backward to accommodate us.
And we didn’t make it easy. Our reservation was for a party of 18 at 6:30. At 6:45, barely half of us were there. Another group arrived about 7, and the last stragglers made it by about 7:30. Meanwhile, we early birds enjoyed several appetizers: fried green tomatoes; pig straws; and barn chips with dip. The second crew added fried dill pickles to the lineup. All were good, but we all agreed the green tomatoes were outstanding. We ordered our main courses in three or four waves. Before the food came out, we all played musical chairs. Checks were split at least five ways. Our two toddlers were rather loud in their excitement to see each other.
Our lone waitress, Amanda, handled it like a true pro. Kim sought out a manager to report what good service we’d received and was told Amanda just started work there last week. Our hats are off to her. Applause, applause, applause. A special thanks for bringing out the birthday dessert for Mom, which in rambunctiousness we hadn’t even thought to request. For Mom and us of the second generation, dinner at Pratt’s brought back fond memories. We hope it created a new one for the third and fourth generations, one we hope to repeat on future visits. We will understand if Amanda wants to switch stations with another server when she sees us coming.
For the record, of the seven BBQ sauces Pratt’s offers, the Signature Sauce — created by current owner Tom Pratt’s son Jonathan — was voted top choice among most of our group. It has long been my favorite, so I was happy about that. But all seven are great and I often end up sampling most, especially if I get a platter with two or more meats.
By the time you read this, if all goes according to plan, all the North Carolinians will either be packing, on the road, or already back home — and probably the Knoxville crowd, too. We will have had Saturday night dinner at Riverfront Seafood, followed by birthday cake (strawberry with strawberry buttercream frosting) from the Blackbird Bakery. I’ll tell you more about this surprise party weekend in a future column.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]