Food Feature: Harrah's in a Hurry

Gambling on birthday fun in Cherokee

Turning 21 is only a big deal for law-abiding college students, those stiffs planning to run for office someday. For most, like my girlfriend Jessie and I, drinking legally doesn't signify much because we've spent a lot of time in college intoxicated illegally. In fact, legal twenty-oneness ruins the thrill. So for Jessie's 21st, I couldn't go with the liquor theme. It had to be less expected. I took a chance on something risque, Native American and neon: gambling in Cherokee, N.C.

Johnny Cash got us in the mood for our weekend of betting and booze. We meandered up mountain roads in western North Carolina to the sounds of the Man in Black. And when we arrived on the reservation, we headed directly to Harrah's Casino.

Inside, we were carded and stamped. Jessie flaunted her license. "Happy birthday," said the female attendant. Overhead, flashy blue lightning bolts ripped through the simulated sky. Slot machines and video card games stretched endlessly like El Dorado before us. Someone was winning and I heard tokens dripping out of the machine like a prince's inheritance.

Jessie was frenzied at the prospect of testing her Irish heritage. I, on the other hand, wanted to slowly absorb the smoke-filled atmosphere, a mix between roadhouse and hotel. It was like an anthill. What seemed like thousands of people swarmed with buckets full of riches.

We made a pact to only spend half our money the first night, insuring a little game on the morrow. Jessie, though lucky, played conservatively and stuck to the 25-cent slot machines and joker pokers. Still, her luck wasn't good. I started ambitiously on the dollar card games, and lost half my money for the evening in 10 minutes! Discouraged, we called it a night.

Originally, I'd planned to stay at Harrah's hotel, but it's booked months in advance, even in the off-season. So, we retired to Baymont Inn and Suites on Acquoni Road, about 15 minutes from the casino and right off the Oconaluftee River. Baymont amenities include a generous continental breakfast and a free shuttle to and from the casino. In the room, Jessie donned an ironic expression. "I'm 21 and have yet to purchase alcohol legally," she said. Our night had just begun.

Downstairs, we sought help from the concierge, who told us that the closest beer joint was 14 miles away in Bryson City and it stayed open till midnight. Three minutes before midnight, Jessie snagged some Boone's and a pack of wine coolers and went proudly to the register to flash her ID.

"I can't sell you alcohol until the day after your birthday," said the man in an East European accent. "The law is no sell on your birthday."

Who knew?

"Then we'll wait three minutes," replied Jessie suavely, looking at the clock on the wall. It was two minutes till 12. The bureaucratic shopkeeper acquiesced at the prospect of a sale.

We awoke the next morning to find the Oconaluftee River full of trout fishermen. The Smokies regally presented their autumn vesture amidst billows of cloud. We had breakfast at Grandma's Pancake and Steak, a mom-and-pop eatery with autographed portraits of has-been country singers decorating the walls. I ate Grandma's biscuits and red-eye gravy, a true Southern specialty. Jessie had one of the blue-plate specials: two eggs, golden pancakes and sausage. The food was truly reminiscent of my own grandma's cuisine — greasy and fried up with love.

With our fingers crossed, we went back to the end of the rainbow. Jessie and I chose video card machines next to each other. I put in $5 to play Shamrock Sevens. In minutes, I was on a roll, my pot-o-gold growing. By that time, Jessie had spent the rest of her money and was watching me in disbelief as my treasure grew to over $150!

"You better quit while you're ahead," she said.

Yeah, right! I had visions of being a high roller. I wanted to find a table with a live dealer. We spotted a blackjack stand. Minimum bet was $25 and the dealers were merely pressing buttons. Bummer. The only downfall to Harrah's in Cherokee, we learned, is that all games are computerized.

We continued our assault on the 25-cent games. I was addicted. Jessie finally dragged me out. She had busted, but I'd managed to triple my money.

We didn't work in any shopping or sightseeing, though there is plenty of it to do in Cherokee. We learned that the thing about gambling is it's kind of boring, but it keeps you coming back as long as you've got the cash. You just sit around and do the same thing over and over again in hopes of a quick — always just around the corner — payoff. The thrill of something for nothing.

As Cash crooned on the way home, I noticed a strange but alluring smell on my hands: the metallic and grimy scent of coin money that every red-blooded American, native or immigrant, loves.


Where to Eat
Food Events