Right in the Middle of Nowhere

Anyone who thinks Dade Corners is just a gas station probably thinks the Everglades is just a little wet spot west of Miami

"You going to live?" Sally asks. A thin man is hunched over a beer at a table in the Frog Pond, convulsing in coughs. He has sun-blasted skin and hair resplendent in Brylcreem. A buck's head is mounted to the wall above him; it sports a stained Harley-Davidson cap and smudgy, skewed sunglasses. "You gonna live?" Sally Jackson-Smith barks again from the bar, where she's resting after a day's work in the Frog Pond's kitchen. The man silently shakes his head no without looking up. A column of cigarette smoke ribbons upward and encircles the buck's head like a scarf. "Goody!" she exclaims. "Someplace else to go!"

Sally has been here since very early in the morning, as she is every day of the week, to prepare for a day of cooking orders like the "Good Morning America" (three eggs with bacon or sausage plus three silver dollar pancakes) or the "Famous Lilly Pad" (two eggs with cheddar cheese atop a heap of hash browns) or the "Eighteen-Wheeler Special" (pick of a meat dish like chopped steak or fried chicken strips, plus soup or salad) or the so-called Everglades specialties: frog legs, gator tail, Okeechobee catfish, and shrimp.

This is the kind of place where they automatically put butter on your toast and grits, lots of it. The radio is always tuned to a country-music station. The walls behind the bar are covered in dozens of corny store-bought aphorisms: "Sex is like credit: Some people get it, some people don't." "Have a nice day -- someplace else." "This is not Burger King. You don't get it your way. You take it my way, or you don't get the damn thing." The thin blue carpet is spotted with age, the drop ceiling tattooed with water stains. A tapestry depicting a frog playing pool suggests that once upon a time there was a pool table here, but now the only entertainment is a couple of electronic poker machines; on top of one is perched a stuffed bobcat. A customer found it dead on the side of the road and dragged it inside a few years ago. Dade Corners owner Bob Dollar took it to a taxidermist.

At the Frog Pond you can have a beer or a coffee and just sit for as long as you like. "You take the majority of restaurants," says Sally. "How often do they say, 'Hey, howya doin'? What kin I gitcha?' Where can you go get a glass of iced tea and they bring you a pitcher of iced tea?"

Sally, at age 69, is a constant presence -- literally. She works seven days a week, from 4:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but often sticks around longer. Of her 70-hour-per-week schedule, she says only: "I guess it's my routine." A lumpy woman, her thick, strong limbs and creased face suggest a life of toil. She walks awkwardly, as if she has painful blisters on her feet.

She came to Dade Corners in 1985 at the insistence of Dollar's mother, who was the matriarch of the station until she died seven years ago of cancer. Sally had been managing a bowling alley restaurant, but the bowling alley shut down. "The bowling alley closed, and her and I talked. She talked me into coming in here," recalls Sally, who moved to South Florida from upstate New York in 1953 and speaks in a regionless country twang. "Everybody knew her as Miss D. She loved these Everglades. She wasn't one for city living." Then Sally shouts, "Hello, sexy!" She's hailing a male cashier from the convenience store who has wandered in through the back door. He's a pudgy Hispanic man with a crooked smile. "You wanna fool around today?" she asks him.

"No," comes the mumbled reply.
"Good," she deadpans. "I don't either. I was gonna get you somebody else."
The lunch crowd has thinned now, not that the Frog Pond was ever actually jammed; the eleven tables are rarely all occupied at the same time. "You get truck drivers, you get federal employees from the Krome Detention Center, you get local drunks," Sally says. "Most of 'em, I know what they want. I can see their truck and I can start their dinner before they walk in." The truckers haul plants and produce, she says. Some will park their rigs out back on Dade Corners' ragged lot and stay overnight -- Dollar doesn't charge. "See where that dump truck is parked out there?" Sally continues. "They'll be lined up from there all the way around." She waves her arm in a big arc, encompassing the entire perimeter of Dade Corners. "We been here since 1935. We serve country cookin'. It's something outta the past. It's away from the city, the hustle and bustle. It's cooking like the 1950s, before everything came out of a box."

A vague feeling of family seems to have permeated -- along with the kitchen grease -- deep into the Dade County pine walls. (Stopping by for an iced tea several days earlier, Bob Dollar said, in a tone loud enough for the cook to hear, "Her nickname's 'Ptomaine' Sally. Drop it on the floor just means you have to cook it a little longer. She's closed more restaurants than the health department. She's great. Excellent at keeping food costs down. Nothing she won't serve. Liver's a little green? Put some gravy on it or wash it in bleach"

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