I’m excited to be attending the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium this weekend in Richmond, VA. For a myriad of reasons, and not just because the SFA has had the wisdom to hold their conference in my hometown. There are many food causes dear to my heart, but none as dear as Southern food, and SFA’s only mission is to preserve and teach the history, joys, and glories of barbecue, biscuits, chitlins and chutney. Hallelujah!
Richmond is a tremendous food town with an illustrious past which helped shape what I’m about. As a child, all my birthday cakes came from Belle Bakery on the Northside. Limeades and barbecue were devoured every summer at Bill’s, and our trips to Bryant Park were never complete without a cheeseburger with everything from Roy’s. Mom and I lunched on grilled cheese at the lunch counter at People’s Drug at Willow Lawn after shopping at The Imp Peddler or La Vogue, and my sister and I begged to be taken to Morton’s Tea Room for sandwiches and cake after visiting Santa downtown at Miller & Rhodes. And if we were really good? We might score some “Chicken in the Rough” from Wright Town House near Azalea Mall.
But my fondest food memory involves neon. Specifically the C.F. Sauer sign on Broad Street near the Sears where we shoe shopped by having our feet X-Rayed in the space age machine that made your foot bones glow green. The Sauer sign was a magical one that moved. The company name glowed over the orange spectacle of the word “Vanilla” being spelled out in script as a chef poured the flavoring into a bowl. His toque was tall, his face was fat, and his mustache reminded me of Oliver Hardy. Or those bakers from Maurice Sendak’s, “In the Night Kitchen.”
Every Autumn we’d park the car and walk to Broad Street to stand under the sign and wait for the Harvest parade to march by. The bands were wonderful, the floats were garish and bright, but I couldn’t take my eyes off that sign. The tubby baker pouring the vanilla into the bowl over and over and over again. The script writing itself out from beginning to end in bright orange. I was transfixed. It began an obsession with old neon I hold onto still. Neon and baking. At age 4 I knew my future.
C.F. Sauer has always held a dear place in my kitchen, that of my parents, and grandparents. I use their spices when I can find them. Only Duke’s mayonnaise touches my lips. And when we cleaned my grandmother’s house after her passing, her stock of old C.F. Sauer spices and food colorings (some still in the box!) came to my house for historical display. Some of these are from the 1930’s. And they will never leave my kitchen.
This weekend as part of the SFA symposium I will get to tour the Sauer plant. After years of standing outside I’ll get to venture within. Home to that famed sign, those famous spices. That impeccable mayo. Yeah, I kinda feel a bit like Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket. I hope they give us a jar of Duke’s. I hope there’s a history wing and I wonder if their collection is as swag as mine. And I hope they talk about the sign. That glorious, awesome, swoon-worthy neon sign that was the beginning of my obsession with food, neon, and diners.