By Paul Warford
Photo courtesy www.enedrivein.com
No exaggeration, I’m gutted to share this news with you: Ernie’s is closing down.
E & E Drive-In is the moniker known to out-of-town visitors who happen upon the Brigus oasis via recommendation or sheer dumb luck. But to those who frequented that parking lot and spotted those midnight lingering cats, hunkered and patient with gleaming eyes amid the bushes beyond the oil drum garbage cans, the place will always and forever be Ernie Green’s. My sister-in-law texted me an image yesterday of the small chicken shack diner stamped with a circle and a strike through it. I told her the joke was a poor one. Ernie’s closing? Can’t be.
“It’s true,” was her reply.
Whenever Ernie’s came up in conversation, I would describe it to the uninitiated like this: “Y’know how everyone will say a certain chicken take-out from their area is ‘the best chicken place ever’? Well, this place is the actual best one.”
I loved introducing pals to Ernie’s for the first time. I can vividly see my friend Neil holding an onion ring with his first bite taken out of it, the tiny styrofoam tub of gravy balanced on his lap, while I waited in anticipation for his reaction. He swore softly as he chewed, another one hooked.
If you grew up where I did, when I did, getting your driver’s licence meant you could now do Ernie’s runs; a true rite of passage. Still underage, I’d go with my oldest brother Colin and his high school friends. We’d park in the line of ever-present vehicles in the gravel lot, walk to the window, order, pay, sit, wait. And then she’d point. (The place must have been making thousands of dollars a day, but the window would slam shut in the employee’s faces if they didn’t prop it up with a weathered stick set to one side for this very purpose.) When she pointed, a representative would leave the vehicle and bring the fragrant brown paper bags back to the waiting patrons. You’d get your order and drive it the 60 feet to the parking area, and only then would you dig in.
The first time I did this Ernie’s run with Colin and his friends, Trevor Luedee and Ken Neil, I asked, “Where are we going?” as Colin started the family car to move to the parking area. He and Trevor whipped around to look at me in the backseat as if I’d just suggested we rob a bank. “Where are we going?!” I didn’t know the rules back then, but by the time I was old enough for Neil to be having his first taste, that’s where we were sitting.
My best buddy (Best Man) Bussey and some of his Port de Grave comrades used to get Ernie’s delivered to the parking lot of our junior high school for lunch. Ernie’s never offered a delivery service, and I have no idea how they arranged this. But sure enough, some man would arrive in a car, and start handing out a dozen bags to the waiting lads, all of whom would be talking fast and paying with change they won playing poker the previous weekend.
Mom would complain when my friends and I did an Ernie’s run in the Warford family’s 1993 Buick Skylark (a friggin’ lemon, by the way) because the smell permeated the upholstery for the remainder of the week. “Not fit to eat,” she’d say with bemused admonishment as we tore the bags open in the rec room. She’d still grab a couple of fries though, wouldn’t she? You bet she would.
E & E wasn’t just “bay food” for a bay crowd, either. My former wife is a professional chef from PEI, and she loved Ernie’s, too. We all loved Ernie’s.
There was something to the batter - that was their secret: intoxicatingly flavourful and impossible to replicate. I’d long heard rumours that old Ernie Green had been offered franchising opportunities and turned them down; a rumour I’ve never once doubted. No offense to Mary Brown’s, but on a different timeline we could easily be watching the Growlers at the E & E Centre. That’s not a joke; I genuinely believe that.
I appreciate every smiling face and every side of coleslaw waiting for me at every chicken spot from here to Port aux Basques and to the tip of St. Anthony. When I’m doing comedy on the road and stop at these shops, they all feel a little like home, and that’s worth more than a good feed. But I promise you, fellow Newfoundlanders, a piece of our culture and history will shutter its doors very soon. And like the retirement of a stellar pro athlete who truly “changed the game,” their ilk may never be met again, and the fans know this as that player’s jersey is lifted to the rafters. They wipe a tear from their eyes in spite of themselves, as they watch the conclusion of greatness.