Of Grills and Thrills: Postcard from Bernice, LA
inArtist Storyon June 15, 2016
Big Bertha, Magdalena, Theresa, Melvina; names tossed around with such affection you’d think they were referring to wives, lovers or children. Nope. BBQs. Bernice, Louisiana (pop. 1,648) has as many grills as it has rooftops. They take their grilling seriously.
A few weeks ago, Music Maker visited Bernice to shoot some music videos with Music Maker’s newest partner artist and one of its proud residents, Robert Finley. In advance of our visit, Communications Coordinator, Corn Lewis, discussed hosting a cookout for one of our shoots. Robert said there was no need to make any calls, as soon as the BBQ was lit, people would trickle in from every direction.
Early Saturday morning, Robert’s neighbor and closest confidant, Sherman, AKA Minnie, showed up wearing an apron and began to wash and prepare the 80lb box of chicken thighs we picked up the night before. He stood over the sink, peeling skin and rinsing, stopping occasionally to sip from his beer.
Elsewhere, Jimmy was working to wheel in the trailer sized “Big Bertha,” a custom-made BBQ with two matching smokers cut from oil drums purchased 60 miles away in Shreveport.
He scraped the grill, lit the coals and let it warm up. By 3pm, fragrant smoke was pouring out of the pair of chimneys. By 4pm, the yard was full of friends and neighbors, drinking, laughing and telling stories between bites. By the time we packed up our gear and left, somewhere near midnight, folks were still arriving and those that showed up at 4pm were still in their places. The night had just begun.
Robert tells us that when he moved to Bernice, 30 years ago, it was by accident. He showed up for a wedding between two of his old friends, started playing music and the party never ended. I asked him about the couple. He said they never married. Halfway through the party, the presumed groom grabbed Finley’s microphone and told his bride-to-be that he really cared about her but on second thought, didn’t really want to spend the rest of his life with her. The tone of the crowd became very somber. No one knew what was going to come next. Then the bride-to-be ran towards the microphone and, with a look of relief on her face, she told him and the crowd that she didn’t really want to marry him either. They laughed and the party went on. Finley said he had so much fun that night that he stuck around Bernice, bouncing from party to party for weeks, playing music and carrying on. He eventually started work and made arrangements to settle there. Now, he may as well be a natural born citizen. His grill’s name: Melissa.