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.