By Thomas M. Malafarina
© 2011 Thomas M. Malafarina
Ray loved breakfast. It was by far his favorite meal of the day. And whenever eating breakfast there was nothing Ray loved better than a heaping plateful of scrambled eggs, hash browns (or home fries in a pinch), buttered toast, a cup of steaming tea with cream and sugar and most notably bacon.
To Ray Johnson there was nothing so important for bringing out the taste of a great breakfast than a delicious double serving of good old-fashioned bacon. Not the cheap thin fatty store-brand garbage his wife tried to pass off on him sometimes but the good stuff; the bacon, which had a much larger meat to fat ratio than you could find at most grocery stores. He preferred the kind of bacon you could only find in an authentic butcher shop.
In the mind of Raymond J. Johnson, Jr. there was nothing comparable to the taste of bacon. Yes, he had been given the dubious name Raymond J. Johnson, Junior. His father, Ray Sr. had been a huge fan of the 1970’s light beer commercials featuring comedian Bill Saluga, who did a shtick featuring a character known as Raymond Jay Johnson Jr. In the act, Bill would ramble on incessantly saying things like, “My name is Raymond Jay Johnson Jr., but you doesn’t have to call me Mr. Johnson. You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay, or you can call me . . .” This would go on and on until at some point it would mercifully end with him saying, “But you doesn’t have to call me Mr. Johnson.”
It was one of those commercial catch phrases like “Where’s the beef?” and for some strange reason, Ray Sr. loved it. Since his name was Raymond J. (for John) Johnson he often had fun at work walking around the office repeating Saluga’s monolog. He was sorry he wasn’t a junior; that would have made it perfect.
He told his wife, “If we ever have a son, we’re going to call him Raymond J. Johnson Jr. A boy could have lots of fun with a name like that.” By the time Ray Jr. was born and eventually had grown to the age where he might “enjoy” the name, the world had moved on and most people didn’t recall the commercials. From time to time some “remember when” type of special might show a clip of Bill Saluga’s act and Ray Jr. would take some ribbing at school the next day, but it never lasted, a fact for which he was grateful.
Silly name aside one thing Ray did inherit from both of his parents was good genes. At fifty years old, Ray never exercised except for yard work on the weekends, was only slightly overweight, had low cholesterol and perfect blood pressure. When one of your favorite pastimes was eating fried eggs, potatoes and meat for breakfast this little physical benefit came in very handy.
Often Ray would go out to breakfast with his health nut co-workers who would sit picking at fruit and non-fat yogurt and other forms of heart-friendly food terrified even a single bite of fat or one drop of grease would instantly stop their tickers. All the while Ray would be gulping down a plateful of scrambled eggs fried in butter, hash brown fried potatoes, still glistening with grease and of course a mountain of fried bacon. His coworkers would look on in amazement, warning him he was killing himself and would probably be dead by the age of fifty-five. Ray would simply laugh and tell them, “Boys, this is what I call the breakfast of champions.” Then he would go back to gulping down his meal with a euphoric look of pleasure.
Ray often traveled for business and whenever possible made a point of scheduling his trips so he would arrive at his destination the night before his appointment. That way he could check around and find the best place for breakfast in the area. He always tried to avoid the fast-food chains and larger concerns and looked deliberately for the out of the way, “Mom and Pop” breakfast nooks, where he was virtually guaranteed to get a really good, special and unique breakfast. And every time he would wait with anticipation for their bacon. There were times he was disappointed with a particular establishment but for the most part, he was usually satisfied. Sometimes he’d get really lucky and find an out of the way place with incredible breakfast and outstanding bacon.
That was why he found himself in Bart’s Forge, West Virginia at 7:00 am standing in front of what looked like a very promising place for breakfast. The restaurant was at the edge of town, housed in what may have once been a large barn, which seemed to back up against a farm. The hotel desk clerk told him this was the best place for breakfast in the entire county. The restaurant apparently opened at 5:00 am and was only open for breakfast, no longer taking any orders past 10:00 am.
The place had a very interesting name, “Bob’s Bacon Barn.” Now that Ray was actually standing in front of the place he found himself looking on in awe at the name, displayed boldly in neon high above the entrance. Not only did Ray feel the name was creative but the name was displayed in a font, resembling strips of bacon, twisted and formed into letters.
“Oh my sweet Lord in Heaven!” Ray said. He appeared to be in a state of rapture usually reserved for people experiencing a religious epiphany. But for Raymond J. Johnson, Jr. this was his religion, his nirvana.
He just knew this place had to have what might turn out to be the greatest breakfast he had ever eaten. “This will be one for the record books,” he said as he used his cell phone camera to take a quick shot of the front of the place. Yes, Ray did have a scrapbook of his favorite breakfast haunts from all around the country and was certain Bob’s Bacon Barn would deserve a special place in the book. It wasn’t like Ray to make such an assumption, but something about the place told him he was right.
His first appointment was about twenty miles away and wasn’t until 9:00 am so he had plenty of time to relax and enjoy one of his greatest pleasures in life, breakfast. Ray walked through the large glass front door, which was housed inside of what at one time was one of two large barn doors.
“Cool!” Ray thought to himself, “What a great idea keeping the barn appearance but adding a modern door.”
As he opened the door, one of the most scrumptious smells he had ever experienced hit his olfactory senses and he feared he might start drooling from the amazing aroma of the wonderful restaurant.
Ray seemed to float as in a dream in the restaurant past the sign reading “Please Park Your Own Pork” mounted on a large cartoon character resembling Porky Pig instructing regulars to seat themselves. The luscious smells of the place were unbelievable and Ray took in every single glorious aroma as he floated to the nearest available table. He wasn’t surprised to find locating an empty table was difficult. Any place, which smelled this good was bound to have a packed house day after day.
He looked around the large room and saw the place had once been an actual barn. It was decorated in rustic wood and timber and had a two story peaked ceiling from which hung a bright assortment of larger plastic pink pigs adorned with angel wings. A large ceiling fan hung from the center of the ceiling turning slowly generating just enough air current to keep the pigs in motion, appearing to fly high above the crowds below.
Ray could tell a large percentage of the people in the restaurant were locals by the way they all seemed to know each other and were all engaged in animated conversations, but there were a few people who stood out as possibly business people or tourists.
A waitress dressed is a 1950’s style uniform with the name “Aggie” embroidered above the left pocket approached Ray’s table with a menu and introduced herself as his server. She asked if he wanted to see a menu, which had an assortment of bacon-related breakfast choices. Ray declined, as he knew exactly what he liked and he always ordered the exact same thing.
“No, thank you.” Ray replied. “Just bring me three scrambled eggs, hash browns, if you have ‘em, some buttered toast and a heapin’ helpin’ of your finest bacon.”
Aggie set the menu on the table then started to write his order on her order pad. Ray inquired, “This is a really interesting place. Is the bacon really as good as I hope it’s going to be?”
“Yes sir,” Aggie replied. “Not only will it meet your expectations, but it’ll surpass them. I can guarantee it. You see, Bob owns this restaurant as well as his own hog farm, slaughterhouse and butcher business. He supplies meat for restaurants all over the state. But he keeps the very special bacon reserved for this place right here. It’s the only place anywhere that you can get Bob’s special home blend of bacon. That’s why people come from all around the state to enjoy breakfast with Bob.”
“Wow!” Ray said. “I can’t wait to try it.”
“Would you like some coffee while you’re waiting?” Aggie asked.
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble could you bring me a cup of tea with cream and three sugars?”
Aggie replied, “One cup of hot tea with cream and three sugars coming right up Darlin’. I’ll be back in two shakes and your breakfast should be up in a few minutes.”
The waitress left Ray sitting in anticipation of the arrival of what showed promise of being the best breakfast he had ever eaten. Ray looked down at the laminated menu resting on the red and white-checkered tablecloth. He figured why not pass the time by checking out what else the place had to offer. The menu had the same Bob’s Bacon Barn logo across the top with a cartoon pig wearing a straw hat grinning and pointing at the logo. It listed a variety of breakfast creations all of which featured bacon and any one of which could have satisfied Ray such as bacon wraps, bacon croissants, bacon sandwiches and other such items. However, whenever he ate at a restaurant for the first time, Ray always ordered the exact same combination. He felt this way when he was weighing one place against those he had visited in the past he could do an “apples to apples” type of comparison, or perhaps “bacon to bacon” would be a more appropriate statement. He figured, if he came back here the next day he could get creative and order one of the other options.
Aggie arrived back with his tea. “Here you go, sir. I certainly hope you enjoy your morning tea.”
“I’m sure I will,” Ray replied. Then he inquired, “Does, Mister, I mean, does Bob ever stop by the restaurant to meet the customers?”
Aggie said, “Bob, his name is actually Bob Evans, no relation to the national restaurant chain, does make a point of stopping by whenever he can to make sure things are running smoothly and everyone is getting their money’s worth. I’m not sure if he’ll be stopping by this morning. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.” Then she turned and headed to the next table.
About three minutes later Aggie returned with Ray’s breakfast. It was a remarkable sight, which for Ray was beyond comprehension. An enormous mountain of scrambled eggs adorned his plate, obviously fried in real butter. In addition, there was a heap of golden hash browns as well as four slices of toast glistening with more butter. On the side was a gigantic pile of the best-looking bacon he had ever seen. Each slice appeared to be over an eighth of an inch thick, at least ninety-five percent meat with only a slight bit of fat marbling the bacon in just the right way. The aroma emanating up from the plate was in Ray’s opinion pure ecstasy. For the first time in his life, Raymond J. Johnson Jr. actually felt guilty eating such an amazing sight. He thought it belonged on the cover of some glossy food magazine.
Nonetheless, Ray did what he did best and plunged headlong into his breakfast. As he ate the amazing feast, his brain filled with all sorts of images, as his senses seemed to go temporarily mad with delight. A few times during his feeding frenzy, Aggie stopped by to see if he needed anything, but Ray seemed not to hear her as he was in another place, a place of pure savory delight.
When he had finally finished, Ray appeared to wake up from a dream as he stared disapprovingly at his empty plate. He wasn’t ready for the experience to be over and wanted more of that incredible flavor but at the same time, he sensed he was extremely full. He was sure if he ate another bite he would end up making himself sick. What a quandary he was experiencing! His taste buds craved more but his body was telling him he had already eaten too much. Slowly he forced himself to back away from the table and take a much-needed deep breath.
It was as Ray had predicted, the most scrumptious breakfast he had ever experienced. With a slight bit of melancholy, he realized if he lived to be one hundred and ate breakfast every day for the rest of his life he’d never find a breakfast as good as this one.
For a moment, he had the flash of an idea that maybe he would move his family out here to Bart’s Forge so he could experience this breakfast every day from now on. Then with a bit of sadness he realized there was no way his wife would be willing to move to a place, which obviously offered very little in economic opportunity, not simply so he could have his favorite breakfast. She’d likely divorce him first. For a moment, he actually even considered divorce as a viable option.
Then realized the answer was still no. For Raymond J. Johnson Jr., when this business trip was over he would have to go back to eating breakfasts he knew would never compare with the one he just ate. Perhaps whenever possible he could arrange to have business trips to this area of the country and could make a point of stopping by Bob’s Bacon Barn often. Yes, that was what he’d do. He’d even wake up early and travel an hour for this experience again if necessary. He chuckled to himself when he realized his new-found love affair with Bob’s Bacon Barn wasn’t all that different than if he had found a woman in the town and he had to sneak back to see her.
“Sir?” Ray heard a voice calling him from nearby, awakening him from his gastronomically induced trance.
“Sir? Is everything all right? Did you enjoy your breakfast?”
“Aggie, that was by far the most incredible breakfast I’ve ever eaten in my entire life.”
Aggie said, “Earlier you had mentioned wanting to meet Bob, Mr. Evans the owner of the restaurant. He just arrived in the building, and if you’d like I’d be happy to tell him you want to say hello.”
Ray was thrilled with excitement, “Please Aggie, by all means ask Mr. Evans if he’d be kind enough to stop by. I’d love to compliment him on this amazing feast.”
A few moments later Aggie approached the table with a tall rotund man in a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. She said, “Mr. Evans, this is the man I was telling you about. He just loves your bacon.”
The large man reached out a huge paw of a hand and said, “Bob Evans, proprietor of this fine establishment. I’m happy to make your acquaintance.”
Ray stood and extended his own hand and said, “Raymond J. Johnson, Jr., please have a seat.”
Evans sat down across the table from Ray and said with a sly smile, “I suppose I doesn’t has to call you Johnson, but I can call you Ray or I can call you Jay . . .” Then he winked at Ray. Obviously, Bob Evans who probably took a lot of ribbing for his own name appreciated what Ray must have gone through growing up with a name like that.
“I see you’re familiar with the routine,” Ray replied.
“Yes. I feel your pain.”
The two seemed to strike up an instant friendship and after several minutes of Ray praising the quality of the food he decided to take a bold step and asked, “Bob, I’ve never actually seen how bacon is, shall we say, processed. I’m so amazed with the quality of your bacon I’d consider it an honor if you would show me where and how all of this takes place.”
Evans seemed to think about it for a moment, and then he looked at Ray as if he was appraising a prize hog and said, “Well, I usually don’t let too many folks in on my secrets, especially when it comes to my bacon. But you seem like the sort of fella who truly appreciates a good breakfast, so I guess I can make an exception for you. Say, you’re not from around these parts are you?”
Ray replied, “No, sir. I’m a businessman from a little town in Schuylkill County Pennsylvania called Ashton not a whole lot bigger than your little town just a lot hillier. So you know I appreciate fine food like you serve right here in Bart’s Forge.”
“Well then, that being said, why don’t you stop back here around one this afternoon, and I’ll give you a private tour of my hog farm and my slaughterhouse.”
For a moment, hearing the man say the word “slaughterhouse” and seeing a strange gleam of happiness appear in the man’s eye, Ray felt a strange chill creep down his spine and his stomach seemed to tighten just slightly. Perhaps some primitive instinct was warning him something might not be right.
Putting the strange feeling out of his mind, Ray replied with some trepidation, “Sure thing, Bob. I’ll be happy to stop back at one.”
Evans must have noticed the slight hesitation in his voice, “Not to worry, Ray. I sense you might be a bit uncomfortable with the slaughterhouse part of the tour, but I guarantee you it’s not as bad as you might think. And I’ll tell you what. If you feel in any way uneasy when we’re in the slaughterhouse, we’ll end the tour and send you on your way. But if you want to see the real secret behind the best tasting bacon in the state if not the country you’ll want to see everything.”
“Very well then, I’ll see you back here at one.”
The two men shook hands, and Ray watched the large man work his way around the restaurant shaking hands with the various customers. Ray mentally scolded himself for his momentary uneasiness. He realized he had nothing to worry about. It wasn’t like this fellow was some sort of psycho like that crazy couple from the movie “Motel Hell” who ground up people to make their prize sausage or anything like that. He was simply a hard working entrepreneur who produced the best bacon Ray had ever tasted.
Ray settled his bill and headed toward the front door. As he approached the door, he noticed something he must have missed on the way in. Off to the side of the door was a massive stuffed hog. It was the largest hog Ray had ever seen, not that he had a lot of experience with hogs. He had however, been to the Pennsylvania Farm Show several times and had seen a good many prize hogs. This creature, however, was twice as big as any he had ever seen. It was mounted on a platform with a background depicting a farm scene. There was a sign at the base of the stand, which read, “Nelly – Prize Hog and Beloved Pet.”
Ray thought to himself if the rest of Bob’s hogs were this huge it was no wonder why he was so successful and why his bacon was so incredible. Ray left the restaurant and headed to his appointment relaxed with a full stomach and an anticipation of his tour with Evans in the afternoon.
Promptly at 1:00PM, Ray returned to the restaurant to find it closed for the day. He walked to the front door and shielding his eyes from the sun peered in to see if anyone was still inside, but it was empty.
He slowly walked around to the side of the restaurant and heard some activity coming from another barn located behind the restaurant. Ray approached the open door of the barn and saw Bob Evans dressed now in a tee shirt and coveralls feeding some of his pigs, which were rapidly devouring the slop in their troughs. Ray was amazed at how well built the man was with muscles bulging from the sleeves of his shirt. At first appearance Ray thought the man fat and out of shape, but now he realized, although very much overweight, the man was still very strong and muscular.
“Hello?” Ray called, “Bob? Mr. Evans? It’s me Ray Johnson.” Ray could smell the pungent stench of the live hogs.
Evans stopped what he was doing and walked toward Ray wiping his hands on his coveralls then reaching out to shake Ray’s hand. “Glad you could stop by, Ray. If you’ll give me a few minutes to finish slopping these hogs, we can begin our tour.”
Ray asked, “Are these the hogs you use to make your delicious bacon?”
Evans replied in surprise, “What? These puny things? Heavens no! I’ll slaughter these hogs in a few weeks after I fatten them up a bit. They’ll be processed and sent out to the various stores in the area. Granted they’ll still produce some of the finest bacon, chops and pork roast in the state, but they’re nowhere near the quality of what you ate this morning. The hogs used to produce that bacon are much larger and receive very special care and feeding.”
This reminded Ray of something he saw that morning, “That hog in the front of your restaurant had to be the largest such creature I’ve ever seen. Will the hogs we will be seeing that huge?”
Evans stopped for a second looking like he had been struck, then he caught himself and continued, “Uh yes. They’ll be more in line with Nelly you saw in the barn. She was my first hog of her type. She was the one I used to test out my special recipe feed. In fact, every one of the hogs used in the production of my prize-winning bacon is a direct descendant of Nelly. As you could see, I could never slaughter her. She was more like a pet, hell almost like family. When she passed on I chose to have her mounted and displayed forever in the restaurant.”
Evans continued with his chores and when finished said proudly, “Alright, Ray. Let’s go back to the next building, and I’ll show you the hogs that make the best bacon in the state.”
The two men walked back through the long barn and out a pair of double doors across a long yard to another much larger barn hidden from street view.
“Now you’d better prepare yourself, Raymond. These babies are at least as large as Nelly, a few maybe even bigger.”
Although Ray thought he would be prepared for what he’d see, he soon discovered he wasn’t. As they entered the barn, Ray saw immediately the hogs in this area were at least two feet taller than the enormous stuffed Nelly. They were also several feet longer and much wider.
Unlike the smaller pigs in the first barn, there were no wooden fences keeping them penned inside, but instead Ray saw open top cages made out of what appeared to be two-inch thick solid steel bars. The beast in the cage closest to them sniffed the air and started to salivate madly. The menacing creature charged headlong into the bars and was knocked back just as quickly by a jolt of electricity. Shaking its head dazed from the voltage, the beast howled in pain.
“You don’t want to get too close to those bars,” Evans said. “There’s enough juice going through them to fry you ten times over. I know it’s dangerous, but the electricity and the cages are the only way I have to keep them contained.”
“Oh my Lord!” Ray exclaimed. “How in the name of Heaven did you ever manage to grow them so big.”
“Well, many, many years ago, back when Nelly was a piglet, I started to work on a variety of feeds to help the pigs grow larger but at the same time leaner. I’m sure you noticed the perfect marbling of minimal fat and the abundance of meat in your bacon this morning. The special feed I developed requires some ingredients, which are often difficult to come by so I only feed it to a few select hogs, which I eventually butcher and use for the bacon I serve at the restaurant. The rest of the hogs on the farm get traditional feed and as a result, I sell them for general use. As I said, all of my meat is excellent but the meat from these fine specimens is by far the greatest.”
“But the size of them! You must be using some type of steroid or something to cause their enormous size.”
“Absolutely not!” Evans insisted. “These hogs are raised on one hundred percent natural feed and their size is gained through careful and selective breeding.”
Ray asked, “So tell me about this feed. What is it about this feed that’s so special?”
“Well come on back to the slaughterhouse, and I’ll be happy to show you.”
The two walked slowly through the barn. All the while, the hogs growled and drooled wanting to break out and devour them. Soon Ray found himself in another huge building, obviously the slaughterhouse. The smell of blood and death were overpowering. For a moment, he thought he might vomit but managed to suppress the feeling.
“See?” Evans continued, “It’s not so bad in here. After a while, the smell tends to grow on you. I’ll tell you what. See that steel dumpster over there?”
Ray looked over and saw a huge shiny steel dumpster on hinges attached to what appeared to be a giant meat grinder.
Evans explained, “In there is the secret ingredients for my special brand of hog feed. Go ahead, take a look.”
Ray walked slowly to the dumpster and peered over the side. What he saw made him freeze in terror. The dumpster was filled with human body parts. A horrid assortment of dismembered arms, legs, hands and severed heads both male and female filled the bin. Flies and maggots crawled in and out of the mouths of the severed heads. An incredible stench rose up from the pile of human debris, causing Ray’s stomach to turn over once again.
“What the Hell!” Ray shouted just before he felt the felt a jolt of electricity at the back of his neck and the world went black. That phrase would be the last sentence Raymond J. Johnson Jr. would ever have a chance to utter.
Sometime later, Ray began to regain consciousness finding himself gagged and strapped to a filthy wooden table unable to move. Across the room, he saw Bob Evans slowly walking arm in arm with Aggie the waitress from the restaurant. She was carrying something in her right arm, which appeared to Ray to be a chainsaw.
“We’re going to do you a favor, Ray old boy.” Evans said, “Today you had the opportunity to taste the best breakfast in the world,”