My Turn: Brass Buckle’s commitment to quality will be sorely missed

  • JD Hairston and Anika Balaconis pose for a portrait at The Brass Buckle, on the corner of Main and Chapman streets in Greenfield. The restaurant closed last week. RECORDER STAFF/Paul Franz

Saturday, February 10, 2018

It started with the biscuit. OK, to be perfectly specific, my love affair with Brass Buckle, and my abiding respect for JD Hairston’s commitment to good food, actually started with the coffee I drank while “waiting” for the biscuit. It was REALLY GOOD coffee. I thought, “Oh! Someone here really cares!”

When I saw that a Southern food-themed restaurant was opening on my street corner, I was deeply skeptical. I’d seen know-nothing Yankee cooks pull out of their lane to take on Southern cooking, and the results weren’t pretty. (On one memorably gruesome occasion, I was served an abominable concept of biscuits and gravy which involved SUGAR.) What I didn’t know was that the person who would be running this place was a Brownsville, Texas, native who knew a thing or three about how to make great food (things which I can’t presume to know myself).

As a child of the mid-Atlantic, raised by a mother who was herself raised by a North Carolina native, the varieties of food commonly lumped into the broad category of “Southern” cuisine have a deep emotional pull on me. I never learned to make that stuff myself (perhaps making its power over me that much stronger), but I know the real thing when it’s presented to me, and I can smell a pale imitation like a skunk in a Fiat.

So there I am, enjoying a cup of coffee, which was head and shoulders above the quality I’m used to getting in a cafe, when my name is called, in that commanding tone I would come to know so well.

Now, in the hills of western North Carolina, where my grandparents lived out their retired lives (and, I’d wager, many other parts of the American South), you can get a sausage egg and cheese sandwich at damn near any gas station. And, in a lot of cases, it’ll be pretty good. But I’d found a good biscuit in New England nearly as elusive as a good bagel would be in, say, Parkersburg, West Virginia. So, it was with great hope that I now headed to the counter to see what these peoples’ idea of this foundational food staple was like.

And I can tell you right here, no version of this was ever more perfect.

I can’t quite put into words the depths of gratitude I felt in those moments as I enjoyed this beautifully rendered, simple, perfect thing. It sounds like I’m being hyperbolic, but I’m telling you this straight up.

Shortly after this, I had my first plate of the Buckle’s biscuits and gravy, another staple food often attempted and frequently despoiled. Needless to say, this was the real thing. I was a devotee from that point on.

Over the years as I got to know JD, and we spent some long car rides together (more than once in pursuit of a great deal of pinball), I was able to tell him about how worried I had been that the Buckle, like so many other restaurant ventures, would eventually slide into mediocrity, a shadow of its initial quality — and how impressed I’d been that his place had maintained such a consistently high-quality level. This led to a number of deep discussions about the importance of integrity within your craft, a subject which we both held dear within our professional lives (and the lack of integrity being a frustration we both felt within a lot of what passes for quality, in food service in JD’s life, as well as in the building trades in my own.) I quickly came to respect his commitment to his craft, and realize now that that commitment was what led me to reach out to him as a friend in the first place.

I’ve known and loved many eateries, indie movie houses, coffee shops, bookstores, record stores, etc. over the years. I’ve come to recognize that the best places are the best because somebody poured themselves, body and soul, into something they believed in. As such, I’ve also come to understand that nobody can keep that going indefinitely. But this is the first time the loss of one of my beloved spots has made me this deeply emotional. Of all the wonderful places run by generously creative people, the Brass Buckle has done more for me and my community than any other. It’s an incredible legacy.

But now it’s time for my friends to regroup, figure out what to do next, and live their lives without being chained to their creation. And I fully support the decision. It would be inexcusably selfish not to. Godspeed.

Sorry for getting all soggy with nostalgia this week, JD, but such is the power of good food, dammit.

Benjamin Miner lives in Greenfield.