Wit Watching at Wintzell’s

Posted November 9th, 2011 at 6:59 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

For 73 years, one of the must-visit locations in the moss-draped city of Mobile, Alabama, has been Wintzell’s Oyster House.  And not just for the “oysters fried, stewed, or nude.”

Wintzell's was a hit with the locals long before it became a yummy tourist attraction.  (Wintzell's)

Wintzell's was a hit with the locals long before it became a yummy tourist attraction. (Wintzell's)

Nude, as in raw, served on the half-shell.

While some restaurant owners display celebrity photographs and autographs on their walls, Wintzell’s has hundreds of little signs all over the joint.  Don’t worry.  Wintzell’s won’t mind my calling it that.  The place was founded as a six-stool oyster bar, and even though the family sold it in the 1980s, it’s as down-home as ever.

Each of the signs contains one of founder Oliver Wintzell’s homespun sayings, and to understand why they’re a regional legend, you should know a little more about him.

If ever there was a southern “good-ole boy,” it was James Oliver Wintzell.  He was so countrified, he called his wife “Cooter.” The son of a barber and pool-hall owner, Wintzell was born in 1905 in Bayou la Batre, Alabama, named for a gun battery placed there by the French who first settled the little Gulf of Mexico shrimp- and oyster-boat port back in the 1780s,

Oliver learned how to shuck and cook oysters from his parents, who started a little restaurant called The Olive.  People came from as far as Mobile, 40 km (25 miles) away, just to enjoy their gumbo, a savory soup.  Oliver worked in a nearby canning factory but left to try his luck in college. “I quit because I couldn’t major in oyster opening,” he would write later, displaying some of the wit you’ll soon read more of.

In 1938, during the depths of the Great Depression, Oliver and Cooter moved to Mobile. They opened that tiny oyster bar, where they sold the quivering, delicious little mollusks for 15 cents a dozen, cold and raw, on the half-shell.  Oyster-loving Mobilians mobbed the place, and pretty soon it expanded into a full-scale seafood restaurant.  It’s even bigger now, but still humbly appointed.

Oliver Wintzell liked to eat, smoke a bad cigar . . . and nap.  (Ben Newbold)

Oliver Wintzell liked to eat, smoke a bad cigar . . . and nap. (Ben Newbold)

The customers came, too, for the slogans, plastered on signs all over the walls.  Oliver Wintzell wrote most of them himself, or “borrowed” them from friends and customers.

The very first one, which also featured the hand-drawn image of a pretty girl, read, “A man can sometimes get a pearl out of an oyster, but it takes a pretty girl to get a diamond out of a crab.”  It was one of his many plays on words: crab, as in crabby, or grouchy, person.

Taken together, Wintzell’s aphorisms are a barometer of the times.  Not OUR times.  The Old South, circa 1955, on through the “hippie” era of the 1960s and ’70s.

Not surprisingly, Oliver didn’t think much of hippies.

Reading these slogans is especially a trip back in time when it comes to the “battle of the sexes,” keeping in mind that Wintzell’s has always attracted more male than female diners.  Put it this way: Ms. Magazine won’t be publishing them any time soon, although there’s not a raunchy saying among them.  A double entendre here or there, but no smut.

There’s common sense, if not outright wisdom, in some of the sayings.  Others are terrible groaners.  Or terrible, period, depending on the length of the groan.

This looks like a more svelte Oliver at the cash register in Wintzell's early days.  His slogans were everywhere even then.  (Wintzell's)

This looks like a more svelte Oliver at the cash register in Wintzell's early days. His slogans were everywhere even then. (Wintzell's)

Even if you don’t agree with the sentiments, I think you’ll smile reading them, out of admiration for the cleverness that went into them.  “When we are rushed with a big crowd,” Oliver Wintzell wrote in 1984, “the customers have got something to amuse them and don’t realize the service could be better.”

So relax and step into the Fifties or Sixties as I dish out a sampling of Oliver Wintzell’s gems.  I wish I had a plate of those oysters — nude — as I type them.   Here goes:

• No matter what happens, there’s always someone who knew it would.

• The older generation thinks nothing of getting up at five o’clock in the morning.  The younger generation doesn’t think much of it, either.

• It’s not the minutes you spend at the table that make you overweight.  It’s the seconds.

• I finally talked my son into cutting his hair, and I regret it.  Now I can see his earrings.

• The best time to make friends is before you need them.

• A quartet: A good singer and three of his friends.

• Never go around with another man’s wife unless you can go two rounds with her husband.

• Once you have a mouthful of super-hot coffee, whatever you do next is wrong.

• Inflation is a fate worse than debt.

The oyster bar area, set apart from the main dining room, today.   (Wintzell's)

The oyster bar area, set apart from the main dining room, today. (Wintzell's)

• Don’t smoke in bed.  The ashes left behind may be your own.

Diner: Say, waiter, this steak is awfully small.  Waiter: Yes it is, sir.  Diner: And it’s tough.  Waiter: Then you’re lucky it’s small.

• The world’s best labor-saving device for women: a husband with money.

• Pleasure trip: driving your mother-in-law home.

Politician: Did you hear my last speech?  Voter: I certainly hope so.

• Not long after a boy graduates from being a Boy Scout, he becomes a girl scout.  (This is one of those that may take an extra read or two.)

• A pedestrian: A man whose child is home from college.  (This one, too.)

• Political speeches should carry a warning label: “May be harmful if swallowed.”

• Observed on a highway sign:  “You are now leaving Texas.  Why?”

• A woman rushes up to a police officer.  “That fellow is following me,” she says.  “He’s drunk.”  The cop takes a look at her and says, “You’re right.  He must be.”

• If at first you don’t succeed, you’re fired.

• Quiet people aren’t the only people who don’t say much.

Dad: Jimmy, don’t pull the cat’s tail!  Jimmy: I’m not. The cat’s pulling.

• He who indulges bulges.

• When today’s teenagers dance, they don’t talk, and they don’t touch.  It’s as if they’ve been married 30 years.

• When a man is pushing 70, that’s exercise enough.

• Farmer’s formula for success: Rise early.  Work hard.  Strike oil.

• The two best times to fish: Right before you get there, and right after you leave.

• Cannibal: Someone who’s fed up with people.

• A lot of people are smarter than they look.  They’d better be!

• How times have changed.  When a father and son go out together now, it’s the son who has the beard.

Joe: Our dog is like one of the family.  Moe: Yeah? Which one?

• Money won’t buy you friends.  But it will buy you a better class of enemies.

Delicacies from the deep!  The shallows, actually.  (Wintzell's)

Delicacies from the deep! The shallows, actually. (Wintzell's)

• Build a better lawn, and the world beats a path across it to your door.

• A diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing.

• When it comes to giving, some people stop at nothing.

(An apt one for today) • A man went to his physician for a checkup.  “You’re as sound as a dollar,” the doctor told him.  The man fainted.

• Hotel walls are terrible.  They’re too thin when you want to sleep and too thick when you want to listen.

• I’m constantly amazed at these young things with their fancy hairdos and skin-tight pants.  And the girls are even worse.

• Sign in an optometrist’s shop:  “If you don’t see what you want, you’ve come to the right place.”

• “What’s your wife like?”/  “She’s an angel.”/  “You’re lucky.  Mine’s still alive.”

• I’m not the world’s greatest lover.  But eighth place is not so bad.

Judge:  “Sir, are you guilty?”  Defendant:  “I don’t know, your honor.  I haven’t heard the evidence yet.”

• Many men miss their wives’ cooking — every chance they get.

• At least a fat man knows where his cigar ashes are landing.

• Long walks are healthy.  Why don’t you take one?

• There’s nothing like a horseback ride to make you feel better off.

• The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more.

• Some people can trace their families back 800 years but can’t tell you where their children were last night.

• People who live in glass houses shouldn’t do much of anything.

• She’s such a poor driver, the police gave her a season ticket.

• Life is a game, the object of which is to discover the object of the game.

• Lord, help me to be good.  But not right now.

Nervous cruise line passenger:  “Do ships like this sink often?”  Captain: “No, just once.”

• Then there’s the Texas trillionaire who has an unlisted telephone company.

Fried oysters are good in "po-boy" sandwiches; stewed ones in hot milk broth with lots of pepper.  But "nude" are the tastiest.  Some people just slurp 'em down.  I like mine on crackers with hot sauce.  (Wintzell's)

• America is a melting pot.  We’re always borrowing customs from other cultures.  So how’d we miss the siesta?

• Despite what people say, this is still a free country in which a man can do and say as his wife pleases.

• Woman to fortune teller:  “Can you read my mind again?  I’ve changed it.”

• Today’s young woman wears just as many clothes as her grandmother did.  Just not all at once.

• Some people are too busy learning the tricks of the trade to learn the trade.

Arriving fisherman: “Are the fish biting today?”  Fisherman on the shore: “If they are, they’re biting each other.”

• Have you ever seen a lie detector?/  Seen one?  I married one.

• Are you a man or a mouse? Squeak up.

• Their marriage is a true partnership.  He’s the silent partner.

• Eighty is a wonderful age . . . if you’re ninety.

Customer:  This coffee tastes like mud.  Waitress:  It was ground just this morning.

Teacher: What tense is the following: “I am beautiful”?  Pupil: Past.

Oliver looks like a southern pol in this photo.  But he was too frank to be elected.  (Wintzell's)

Oliver looks like a southern pol in this photo. But he was too frank to be elected. (Wintzell's)

As you might deduce from his sayings, Oliver Wintzell had strong feelings about issues of the day.  He even ran, unsuccessfully, for “revenue and road commissioner” and other political offices, never failing to inject some drollery into his campaigns.

One of his ads carried two photographs of him.  The caption under one read: “LIBERAL with your money.”  The one under the other photo read: CONSERVATIVE with my money.  There followed his “platform points, not exactly in order of importance,” including:

12.  I promise to know everybody before election.  No promises afterwards.

And 13. If there’s any thing I forget to promise, I promise that, too.

By the way, the food, humor, and décor at Wintzell’s may be modest, but the business’s bottom line certainly is not.  There are now 12 Wintzell locations along the Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast.

Wintzell's wasn't much more than this when it started.  (Wintzell's)

Wintzell's wasn't much more than this when it started. (Wintzell's)

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Double entendre. A word or phrase that’s open to two quite different interpretations, one of them often naughty. This headline, for example: “Prostitutes appeal to priest.”

Shuck. To remove something, as in one’s clothes or the shucks (outer coverings) of corn or shellfish.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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