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Posts from the ‘Southern Foodways Alliance’ Category

Sally Bell’s Kitchen.

Last month I discovered Sally Bell’s Kitchen had made Saveur’s Top 100 for 2014. Their iconic boxed lunches have satisfied everyone from students to congressmen for almost 90 years! When you’ve been serving fierce boxed lunches that long, you tend to become ever so slightly beloved.

Seeing them on this hallowed list caused spontaneous chair dancing, which settled into a permanent grin which then grew into a gnawing of the gut as my stomach suddenly craved some of that damn good potato salad. Which evolved into nostalgia for said salad as I recalled scarfing it down last summer, which further reminded me I hadn’t yet written about it. For shame! To not wax poetic about Sally Bell’s Kitchen is a crime of the highest order.

I attended the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium last June. Now I’ve been writing since I could chicken scratch, and dabbling in food stories for about 6 years, but this was the first time since my newfound personal statement that henceforth all my food writing would focus on my Southern food heritage that I got to hobnob with like-minded folks as enthusiastic about deviled eggs and pimento cheese as I was. I couldn’t wait!

And when I heard part of the conference would focus on Sally Bell’s, I knew I was in the right place. You can’t grow up in Richmond as I did and NOT know Sally Bell’s. We would first view “Boxed Lunch” a short film created by Nicole Lang Key and Christophile Konstas of Pared Pictures, then enjoy a Sally Bell’s picnic lunch on the Valentine Museum patio. Nice.

The movie is a heartwarming portrayal of the Jones family who have owned Sally Bell’s since it opened in 1924. Many of its employees have also worked there for decades. Each boxed lunch comes with your choice of sandwich, deviled egg, tomato aspic, potato salad, a tiny pecan-topped cheese wafer, and your choice of cupcake, iced upside-down because you get more icing that way. Everything, including the bread and mayonnaise, is handmade and always has been. Lunchtimes are crazy with lines full of people who need lunch, VCU alumni back in town for a nostalgic taste, or suburbanites with a craving for potato salad. Sally Bell’s is old school. Meaning, when the food runs out, it’s out.

I ADORED “Boxed Lunch”. Did the ugly laugh when the owner’s mother said, “I’ve seen people cry because they couldn’t get a deviled egg.” During the holidays, lines snake out the door for the eggs as well as their famous potato salad, which is run through a grating device invented by the original owner. Some people go so far as to bribe others for a better place in line, all the while declaring how it just wouldn’t be Christmas without 5 pounds of Sally Bell’s potato salad now would it?

It made us all terribly hungry. The scramble to the patio after the Q&A was pretty hilarious. I was included in the thrall, the eagerness showing on my face like a Tex Avery cartoon. All that morning other attendees who knew I’d grown up in Richmond kept saying, “I bet you can’t wait for lunch,” to which I would shake my head and sigh.

Grabbing my white box tied with twine and packed oh-so primly, I claimed a shady spot beneath a tree. The white-hot day only amplified the quintessentially “Richmond” experience of having al fresco lunch in some hidden nook of Downtown, the smell of boxwoods filling your nostrils, the threat of sweat behind your knees if you didn’t eat fast enough.

I sunk my teeth into the pimento cheese, inhaled the potato salad like it was a healing serum, and crunched away on the cheese wafer. Saved the deviled egg for last, and promised to savor every bite of the cupcake later on. I photographed the whole thing, plastered it all over Pinterest, Foursquare, and Instagram, and bragged to all my Facebook friends that I was enjoying a Sally Bell’s and they weren’t Nyah! Nyah! Nyah! I was in Southern food HEAVEN.

And here is where I must make a confession. A sad, shameful, guilt-ridden confession. I’ve been lying to everyone. Because while I grew up in Richmond, I’ve never eaten a Sally Bell’s Kitchen boxed lunch. Not until that point. I’m so ashamed and beg your forgiveness and if I must I’ll hand over my “Richmonder-Born-and-Bred” card. My street cred as a Richmond food lover is officially shot.

I have no excuses. I went to VCU for undergraduate AND graduate school. I lived on West Franklin, less than 3 blocks away, for almost four years. I recall subsisting on ramen noodles, groceries from Hannaford’s, and splurging on pies from Naturally Pizza or subs from Stuffy’s. Going to Stella’s for dinner if I had a windfall. Later on I worked Downtown, but did I ever get a boxed lunch? Noooooo! Not even once. Seriously, what is the matter with me?! All those years without a Sally Bell’s. And I’m not even sure why. I do know by the time I’d gotten to the conference I shamefully hid the fact I’d never partook of the wonderful wares at Sally’s, instead hiding my shame in a pack of pimento-cheese-laden lies.

The shame I felt as I sunk my teeth into that first bite of homemade pimento cheese on soft white bread only tripled as I realized how awesomely delicious it all was. You mean I could’ve been eating THIS? I wanted to cry. Cry for all those times I could’ve gotten a Sally Bell’s but didn’t. Cry for all the deviled eggs that went into other mouths instead of mine. Regret for all those college days when I was poorer than poor and used a Friday pizza as a reward to say well done for getting through another tough week. All that time I could’ve been eating Sally Bell’s potato salad?! The wave of regret that washed over me almost knocked me over. I almost stole another boxed lunch as compensation.

Then I had a thought. You can never “taste something for the first time” more than once. It’s like that first high, always the best. It’s why addicts become addicts, chasing that first high and never quite reaching it. If I’d tasted Sally Bell’s Kitchen for the first time at 20, would I have swooned? Or just agreed it was a good lunch at a decent price? Would I have the appreciation I have for it now? Probably not.

Instead of the “first high” reaction, re-tasting the potato salad at 46 would have been nostalgic. An “I remember this!” moment, which is totally different. Just as sweet, but softer, not swoon-worthy, more floaty and dreamlike. A little sad. As Milan Kundera says, nostalgia is that childish notion of longing for things no longer there. That suffering you feel when you realize you can’t return to the past.

At 20 I was still able to eat my Nana’s homemade pimento cheese, my Muddy’s potato salad. My first bite may have been something like, “This is good, but Nana’s is better.” The whole aspect of how incredible this homemade food is would have been lost in my effort to defend family honor.

As it stands the reaction I had as a middle-aged woman to Sally Bell’s was a mixture of “first taste” and nostalgia. I swooned at my first taste and the more I ate, the more I became nostalgic. It made me miss the food of my grandmothers but happy to live in the now where the Jones family is still making boxed lunches. It’s not a lost art. No need for nostalgia girl, you can still get it.

Who knew potato salad could have you delving into philosophy and result in so much navel gazing? I suppose if it’s Sally Bell’s it can. I still regret not getting all those boxed lunches I could have gotten in college. But something tells me I ate Sally Bell’s for the first time this past summer for a reason. All things in their own time. With a side of potato salad.

 

 

Best of 2013.

Yep, about this time each year I pull out my golden fork and spoon awards for my “Best of” post. Not the best restaurants, but the best food I ate. The most memorable. I sit down with coffee and a notepad, and brainstorm the 13 best foods I ate in the Charlottesville area in 2013. From off the top of my head. Because in this brain with its vastly diminishing capacity (thanks middle age and Lyme Disease) if I can remember it right away, it was probably pretty outstanding. And worthy of an award, however small. I’m just one broad, but I’ve got a good palate and know when something has skipped past the boundaries of delicious into the stratosphere of, “Hey remember when we ate that?”

Here are my picks in alphabetical order by establishment. Go eat them. A few are seasonal, but I bet if you wait until the appropriate season and ask real nice, they’ll make it for you. Especially when you tell them it won a major award! Congratulations to all, and good eats in 2014!*

Smoked Turkey. At BBQ Exchange.
This is the second year in a row Chef Hartman’s smoked turkey has won a golden fork and for good reason. It’s incredible. Melt-in-your-mouth-smoke-meets-sweet-meets-meat incredible. Only available at Thanksgiving. Sad face. This was the third time The Hubby and I ordered our turkey from The Exchange and if I can help it, I will never cook turkey again. Because it won’t be as good. The first year we got the dinner with sides, but I like leftovers. LOTS of leftovers, so the next year we got an entire bird. Repeated this year. And between the two of us, managed to finish off a 15-20 pounder. Boom!

Fried Green Tomato, Smoked Salmon, and Mozzarella Salad with Basil Crema. At Bizou Restaurant.
A fancy take on a BLT. The crunchy fat and acid of the tomato pairs well with the soft cheese and the creamy greenness of the crema, which was like the best Green Goddess dressing I’ve ever had. I couldn’t eaten five of these salads without saying Boo!

Bacon Fat Popcorn. At Brookville Restaurant.
Congrats to Brookville for making my “Best of” list 2 years running! The Hubby and I love Chef Keevil’s place and eat there often for brunch or any time we need the greatest hamburger on the face of God’s green earth. But in 2014 his bacon fat popcorn sent me into the stratosphere. Imagine huge fluffy kernels with just a touch of salt. Then imagine crunching down and tasting bacon. But not a big grease-filled overpowering smoky business. A touch, a kiss. Like popcorn and bacon didn’t get married but are just making out. HEAVEN!

Chocolate Macaroon. At Cappellino’s Crazy Cakes.
Who cares if it’s gluten-free? This cookie is simply the most deeply, darkly, chocolaty, ooey, gooey confection I’ve ever eaten. Right away you can taste the high-quality chocolate. The way it just glides over your tongue into a gooey delicious chewy chocolaty mess is a gorgeous thing indeed. No way you can eat just one. It has officially replaced their Apple Harvest as my favorite cookie.

Carne Asada Tacos. At El Tako Nako.
Monday night is taco night because of this food truck on Hydraulic Road across from Stonefield. I love all the tacos on offer: Pastor, Chorizo, Lengua, but it’s the Carne Asada that gets my motor running. Charred meat with a little cilantro, onion, and lime in double-wrapped corn tortillas. Completely authentic Mexican tacos for $2 each. You can’t beat that with a stick.

Pupusa Queso Con Frijoles. At El Tepeyac.
El Tepeyac has incredible tacos, but I will always mark 2013 as the year I fell in love with pupusas. This Salvadorian style tortilla tastes like the best Hot Pocket you’ve ever eaten. Scratch that. Imagine if Hot Pockets were actually any good! That’s an El Tepeyac Pupusa. They’ve got several different styles (including an incredible one make with loroco flowers) but my favorite is the pupusa with black beans and cheese. Like you took corn pudding, stuffed cheese and black bean dip inside it then stuffed it in a panini press. I can eat pupusas until the cows come home.

Poached Duck Egg Frisee Salad With Warm Bacon Dressing, Chive Flowers, and Crispy Ramps. At GlassHaus Kitchen.
I’m very sad I won’t be able to enjoy this classic anymore while sitting on the patio with The Hubby and watching the freight trains roll by. Chef Ian Boden’s version is lovely and perfect. The creamy egg mixes with the warm fat of the bacon and the tang of the chive and the sweet of the ramps to create something awfully special. Perhaps we can persuade him to recreate this perfection at his new venture, The Shack? Hope so.

Chicken Liver Mousse. At JM Stock Provisions & Supply.
I’m a sucker for a good chicken liver mousse. Put some of that on a cracker or good piece of baguette and pour me a glass of wine and that’s dinner. The mousse at JM Stock is luscious, creamy, rich, and decadent. Priced right and presented in a small Mason jar. Yep, an entire Mason jar full of chicken liver mousse. If that’s not decadent I don’t know what is.

Tonkotsu Ramen. At Now & Zen.
Ever since I tucked into my first bowl of in Vancouver a few years back I have searched and longed for this dish. There isn’t a day goes by where I don’t long for ramen. Not the 5-for-a-dollar version in the market, but good, authentic, steaming, yummy ramen. Preferably with fatty broth, seasoned egg, and extra wakame. No matter where we travel, my first question is always, “Is there ramen here?” Now when fellow seekers ask me, I can point them to Now & Zen. Unfortunately Chef Sato only has ramen nights every so often (next one scheduled for January 19 and 20). Go early with an empty stomach (bowls are huge), and order the broth as fatty as you can.

Fried Okra With Comeback Sauce. At Pasture Charlottesville.
Oh my lord! Simply the best fried okra I’ve ever had in my life. Chef Jason Alley fries the okra whole, and the batter is so light, so crispy, I dare you not to finish off their ginormous bowl. Every time I’ve eaten this I swear I won’t possibly finish the whole thing, and every time I fail. It’s that good. The comeback sauce tastes like mayonnaise and Sriracha? Not sure, but it has kept me coming back for this appetizer again and again.

Spicy Creamed Rice Grits, Smoked Tomato Broth, Black-Eyed Peas.
At Pasture Charlottesville.

This is one of those dishes I want to magically appear on my counter every time I have a crappy day. Or the weather is crappy. Or I’m just feeling crappy. Comfort in a bowl. They serve this as a small plate, but trust me, after inhaling this unctuous blend of smoky, creamy goodness you’ll want more. A whole lot more. Tastes like a big ol’ nap! Which is a compliment of the highest order.

Charcuterie Plate. Pippin Hill Vineyard.
We had a miserable spring and summer full of rain and gray skies. So when we finally hit a warm patch The Hubby and I had a lovely “All Summer in a Day” moment at Pippin Hill. Cured meats, olives, arugula pesto and grape must mustard paired with a nice Cabernet Franc can cure every form of seasonal disorder. I’m convinced of it. And I’m counting the days when I can lounge on their sumptuous deck once again.

Anson Mills Sea Island Peas with House Bacon and Appalachian Star Farm Spring Onions. At The Whiskey Jar.
This dish was prepared as a side for the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium opening dinner. The beans tasted like tiny black-eyed peas, but with better texture and flavor: sweet, meaty, and hearty. The bacon added a fatty, smoky flavor while the spring onions provided sweetness. This dish was by far the hit of the night; everyone raved. I even bought my own bag for New Year’s Hoppin’ John. To say I can’t wait to dig in would be an understatement. Here’s hoping Sea Island Peas are rediscovered and relished in 2014. They need to be.

Peach Trifle. At The Whiskey Jar.
Congratulations to Rachel Pennington on creating a dessert I devoured without a second thought. Let me explain. Usually I’m so enamored of appetizers by the time the dessert comes, I can’t take more than a bite. Not here. This trifle with its layers of fresh peach, feather-light cake, fresh cream, and vanilla custard is simply one of the best desserts I’ve ever tasted. Decadent, yet light as a Spring cloud in May. It should be a staple on their summer menu. And they should give Chef Pennington a raise. Yum!

*You’ll notice I actually included my “Best 14 for 2013”. Whatever. I love it when my town makes it hard to stay within parameters ;)

Sauer Spices Tour.

I live by my sense of smell. Really driven by it. I’m obsessed with perfumes and have samples of every type. I get fixated on a scent, so I spend 3 months collecting lilac fragrances, before moving on to citrus, vetiver, geranium, carnation, coconut, almond. My whole garden revolves not around flowers that look pretty, but rather have unusual yet appealing smells. I adore marigolds, peppery with spice, and love geraniums whose scent seems weirdly flowery and kind of winey. I grow tomatoes not for the fruit, but for the weird acrid smell of the vine. My deck is a jungle of basil: Thai, lemon, lime, lettuce. The scent at the height of summer is paradise to me.

Don’t even get me started on spices. It pains me to pass sealed spice jars in the store, and a trip to The Spice Diva or Penzey’s is a fabulous field trip from which my nostrils emerge dazed, confused, and happy.

It probably all started when I was a kid helping Momma in the kitchen. Bored as shit, because even though she wanted me to “help” my Momma was Type A so her version of help was me standing to one side watching. To pass the time I’d pry open every single one of the yellow boxes of C.F. Sauer spices she was using and inhale. Pry open the red top and breathe deep. Clove. Cinnamon. Pepper. Oregano. Each one so different and intoxicating. Each one so stimulating and unusual to this weird kid who inhaled the scent of Play-Doh and magic markers every time she got the chance.

I dated a guy once whose father had lost his sense of smell in a car accident. I remember actually feeling sick to my stomach on hearing this, a sharp pang of empathy for this guy rushing through. Was there a worse fate?! Not only could he not smell, he could barely taste. He carried a bottle of hot sauce everywhere he went because only by drowning his food in it could he have any sense for what he was eating. The horror! The horror!

So of course when presented with a tour of the C.F. Sauer spice factory as part of the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium I was more than elated. I was high with excitement. I’ve already written about my obsession and love for their neon sign. The fact I’d get to bathe in overwhelming scents of pepper and cinnamon? Heaven!

The intrigue, the secretiveness, the special Willy Wonka aspect of the tour was heightened when we were told not only could we not take pictures, or notes, we had to take off any dangling jewelry, leave every purse and bag and phone we had on the bus, and cover our hair with nets. Makes sense. No one wants to find a stray earring in the vanilla. My dreams of taking artsy architectural Instagram photos of peppercorns were dashed. No matter, I was one of the lucky few (they limit tours to 20) to actually get in. I felt like Veruca Salt. Without the rich Daddy to get me a Sauer neon sign of my very own.

Sadly they weren’t ready, so the tourbus made a short detour to Carytown for a half-hour walkabout while the Sauer people prepared. I cracked up laughing when I saw a few folks head for the Penzey’s Spices store. “Harumph! This is spice tour dammit! We want spices!” I headed for my old coffeeshop Betsy’s (now Carytown Bistro, but it will always and forevermore be Betsy’s to me) for an espresso and a sunbath.

Back at the factory we entered, donned hairnets, and started the tour. I gazed longingly at the huge ironwork wraparound staircase spiraling up to the second floor, jonesing for my camera. At every step the “CF” logo was inlaid into the iron and painted gold. Gorgeous! Shiny varnished old wood lay throughout the front offices, just begging to be touched. Very 1940’s Arthur Miller dancefloor slash bowling alley wood. It felt like glass and I couldn’t stop imagining the decades of spice dust which had settled into its crevices, becoming a part of it. Yummy.

We stepped through the doors into the factory workspace and the scent was like a tidal wave, assaulting your nostrils first then washing over you like a flood. Pepper. Black pepper. All encompassing and surrounding you so you couldn’t get away from it. I breathed in and noticed an undertone of oregano, garlic, and something else I couldn’t quite place. It was like each spice was tapping me on the shoulder to inform me of its presence. Every breath was a new experience. I felt like a wine sommelier smelling those boxes containing all the scents you’re supposed to pick up when you taste wine.

The first floor is one long warehouse space with huge bay doors at the back which open so workers can truck the sacks of spice in on pallets. We walked down corridors of spice sacks stacked 20-30 feet high as Mark Sauer explained the process. C.F. Sauer has been family owned since 1887. His 17-year-old daughter, fourth generation, is working the front desk for the summer. In addition to spices, Sauer’s also makes Duke’s mayonnaise down in Greenville, South Carolina, and there are other factories for its various subsidiary companies all over the country.

As we walked, I spied sacks labeled, “Chick-Fil-A Seasoning”. My eyes grew wide and I thought to myself, “OOOOOOHHHHHH! That’s why it’s so frikkin good,” and grieved for the days when I could still eat those suckers. Can’t anymore. Bad juju. I imagined myself as Slugworth, drilling a hole in a bag and stealing some, so I could make the filets at home.

Sauer walked us through each step, from the time the pepper is shipped from Madagascar to the time it hits your shelves. He pointed out a long, metal object used to poke into each shipment. A rudimentary version was invented by Marco Polo on his first journey to the East.

Sauer is one of the few spice companies that use liquid nitrogen to extract oils from spices. By chilling the cinnamon to such a low temperature, more of the oil is kept and your spice is much more fragrant. They are also the only one who still cold-press their vanilla. Huge vanilla beans a foot long are wrapped in a material similar to cheesecloth and steeped for 8 months at a time.* By cold pressing more of the vanilla essence is preserved. Most companies percolate the bean for shorter periods which cooks away the flavor.

As I stood and listened to him, the smells continued to swirl about and assault my every sense. Not just my nose, mind you. Maybe I’m sensitive but I could actually feel the spices settling into my clothes and sinking into my pores. Since this wasn’t a workday the fans weren’t turned on. Eventually the warmth and the overwhelming smell got to me. I started to feel drowsy, then dizzy, then nauseous. The pepper, the oregano, the cinnamon, the vanilla in the vats, all of it just wouldn’t relent. It was really too much of a good thing. I had overdosed on my obsession. I wondered how he could handle this day after day. And I longed for a breath of fresh air free of spice.

After the tour I stepped outside gratefully but then couldn’t resist smelling my clothes. Pepper. Mmmm. A nice memory of our tour. I hoped it would stay. Writing this post almost a month later I pour over the promotional materials Mark gave us and am astounded. They still smell like pepper. Magic!

What’s the moral here? You can have too much of a good thing. I enjoy smelling spices because a part of me wants to hold on tight to that moment of surprise, that elation you feel when you smell something wonderful. The nostalgia that something like vanilla evokes as it hits your nose. Memories of Muddy’s cakes, of birthdays, and good crème brulée. I want to grasp it tight and keep holding on, breathing it in. But when that vanilla surrounds you so completely? It becomes a parody of itself. It’s so huge and all encompassing it’s no longer special, but cloying, and after a while, something sick and annoying. The specialness is destroyed.

I’ll still briefly smell my cache of spices on occasion. And after doing this tour, I’ll seek out Sauer’s with more vigor when I’m shopping. But after overdosing on pepper and cinnamon and oregano, I know my spice junkie status is over. I am cured. And I’m ready for a Spices Anonymous meeting.

*They wouldn’t let us take notes, so I’m relying purely on memory. Forgive any mistakes and feel free to correct them!

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