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Fire, Flour & Fork. Part 1.

“The food our grandmothers cooked is the most important food we will ever eat.” —Chef Sean Brock

I hate going to conferences. Just hate it. It makes me twitchy. All my social anxiety rises up from the basement of my being when I have to do something like go to a work event alone, or make a phone call, or leave the house to run errands, or get the mail.

But conferences are the worst. The break-out sessions not so much. Presumably you signed up for the thing because of a interesting topic. It’s the between times that make me feel I’m back at the outcast lunch table. Milling about, smiling, attempting small talk like, “Wow, that was informative!” to total strangers without looking like an asshole until the next breakout session begins and you can find a seat in the back and bury your head in your notebook and go back to what you do best at conferences. . . take notes.

But I go. It’s the nature of the beast. I’ve probably had 60 different jobs in my life and every single one of them had a meeting or conference deemed “must attend”. Plus when you’re a writer, if you don’t show your face at least twice a year people start thinking you’re a hermit or some kind of cellar-living mole man from a Stephen King novel. At least food events have food.

The first annual Fire, Flour & Fork  event in Richmond a few weeks ago had more than food. It had APPALACHIAN food. Chef Sean Brock’s food. Chef Travis Milton’s food. Throw in Chef Jason Alley of Pasture, one of my favorite folks on the planet, Christina Tosi, punk rock pastry chef from David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bar, and other assorted noteworthies from the region PLUS some of the great friends I made at the Appalachian Food Summit in Kentucky last spring (Ronni Lundy, Kendra Bailey Morris I’m looking at you), and just maybe this particular conference wouldn’t be so bad. It wasn’t. In fact it was pretty fucking epic. Almost as epic as that run-on sentence.

Another reason I don’t go to many food conferences is the same reason I stopped judging contests. And stopped ordering 10-course tasting menus. My aging tummy can’t handle it. But when I hear Chefs Sean Brock, Travis Milton, and Jason Alley are collaborating on an “Appalachian Memoir” dinner I do what any self-respecting homegirl from the Shenandoah Valley would do. I fast for three days and pack extra Mylanta.

And what a memoir! From my guesstimate 100 people gathered at Travis Milton’s Comfort that first night to celebrate the bounty of Appalachia. And when I closed my eyes and blocked out the ambient noise, the tastes and textures entering and warming my soul could’ve been from Nana’s and Muddy’s kitchens.

First Course:
Pickle plate with mustard pickles, icicle pickles, pickled beets, dilly beans, pickled cauliflower
Angel biscuits with Alan Benton’s ham and pimento cheese
“Sunday Go-to-Meeting” deviled eggs

Second Course:
Soup beans with chow-chow
Sour corn
Greasy beans
Squash casserole
Catfish and tomato gravy

Third Course:
Leather britches
White Eagle hominy grits
Mixed pickle
Kilt salad with Fall greens
Rabbit with black pepper dumplings

Dessert:
Buttermilk pie with warm pickled peaches
Sean’s Grandma’s apple stack cake
Green tomato fried pies

I could’ve made a meal from the biscuits, ham, and pimento cheese alone. Sean Brock’s pimento cheese is extraordinary. Box-grated onion adds a sweet creaminess so smooth it tastes like silky cheese pudding. The fermented sour corn is fried in bacon grease resulting in a taste that’s by turns, sweet, sour, and bacon-smoky. The soup beans instantly fed my soul with their warm, tender and hearty goodness, and the greasy beans tasted just like Muddy’s.

Leather britches are dried green beans strung into long ropes for hanging. Once dried they’re soaked, cut, and cooked down until soft. Usually with bacon grease. I couldn’t get enough of their beefy flavor and neither could my Buffalo-born Hubby.

The White Eagle hominy grits were prepared the old fashioned way. Wood ash is mixed with water to create an all-natural culinary lye used to strip the outer hull off the kernel. The resulting grits are gray in color and taste of pure corn essence, the corniest hominy grit imaginable. It’s a difficult process and it makes me sad to think I can’t always eat grits this way. From now on all the grits I eat will be less than. They’re that good.

What is Kilt Salad? Just any sort of green, wilted or quickly blanched, then doused in hot bacon grease. Yes Ma’am! Paired with Sean Brock’s rabbit and black pepper dumplings and I was slapping the table, crying out Hallelujah! Instant chair-church-dancing ensued. Light, airy dumplings with sweet, tender rabbit in a big stew pot. I need to eat this at least once a year from now on. Just to preserve my culinary sanity. Seriously, I will go insane if I never eat this again.

At this point the entire restaurant was pleading for mercy. Chef Milton’s brother even joked aloud how the line for the bathroom was ungodly long, and why not with all the beans and greens and pickles on the menu, resulting in gales of laughter. But no mercy here folks, for dessert was the final climatic scene to this memoir. Four-layer apple stack cake with what tasted like an apple, salted caramel glaze in between each layer. Holy mother of God. The Hubby took one bite and immediately proclaimed it the best dessert he’s ever eaten. Guess I’d better master the recipe. When the buttermilk pie and green tomato hand pies started coming out I looked around frantically for a to-go box. No way in hell was any of this going to waste.

As we rolled, literally Violet Beauregarde-ROLLED out of the restaurant and walked back to our hotel, I was content, truly content. One of those life moments so sweet you know it won’t last, so you breathe it in, take it in with every sense, so you can remember it later.

We strolled down deserted downtown Broad Street past Jefferson Loan (where Bo Diddley shops, remember that commercial?) and I thought to myself, “Yep, hometown proud. Those guys have done good. Real good.” Then burped. Loudly. In any case, I was happy, Pappy. It thrills me to see this kind of no-tweezers-in-sight comfort food celebrated. There’s a respect I have for the technical virtuosity of what I like to call “Tweezer Food”, no doubt, but I must admit, my love, lust, and longing are held most dear for the chefs who cook the way of my grandmothers. I’m a whore for dumplings and grits. Not to get too nutty-crunchy—spiritual-hippie on you, but when I eat Appalachian food, for just a moment, that spiritual gap, that hole, that emptiness we all carry around with us every living moment of every day, that gap that’s there because something in our lives is missing, is filled. For just a moment, one sweet moment, I’m whole. A rare thing indeed. And one I tend to chase when I’m hungry.

Is it nostalgia? After all, Chef Milton’s mother joked with me as a child Travis hated the garden, and now all he wants to talk about are “…beans, beans, beans!” I can’t get enough of beans, greens, biscuits, and cakes that remind me of my grandmothers. Even Northern-born Hubby ran straight to his favorite fish shop the minute we checked in. The one right next to his old apartment that serves up a fine 3-filet fried trout sandwich on white bread with ketchup. For $2.95.

Is it nostalgia? The simplicity of ingredients? Or just damn good food? All I know is what I feel. And after that meal, I felt not only FED, I had a twinge of excitement because after all, this was only the first event. There were about 50 more left to come. Anxiety? What anxiety? Good food makes conference anxiety all better.

Stay tuned for Part Two of my Fire, Flour & Fork adventure next week. . .

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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.

 

 

Nelson 151.

Growing up, my sister and I often visited my mother’s family, The Critzers, in Waynesboro, Virginia. We’d stay the weekend, eat too much, and sit on the seafoam-green porch glider sipping sweet tea and rifling through the Sears catalog. Pretending we were rich, on each page we were “allowed” to shop for just one item. Whoever pointed at it first, got it. The humidity made you feel like you were visiting Scout down in Alabama. Muddy’s marigolds smelled peppery, the boxwoods woody and sweet. Granddaddy would be out in the yard trimming his roses and their white Pekinese Fluffy would bound through the sun like a fuzzy butterball.

Inevitably, Granddaddy would stop trimming and come up on the porch to regale us with stories of “Down the Valley.” These stories were long and colorful, involving scrapes he got into, hardships the family endured, and descriptions of where he grew up in Nelson County. When we took Sunday drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway or Interstate 64, he’d even point out “Down the Valley” when we crossed Afton Mountain. The scenic overlook would go by and he’d point off in that direction absent-mindedly and declare, “That’s where me and your Aunt Ann grew up. Down the Valley.” Sometimes we’d stop at the overlook and gaze out across this expansive green space and imagine. To a child, it seemed a magical place, and very far away indeed.

We finally went when I was 12. Memaw died, Granddaddy’s mother. At her request, she was buried “Down the Valley” at Rose Church. I remember feeling confused. We were actually going to drive down there? That would take days! To a 12-year-old sitting in the back seat of our AMC Javelin in the late 1970’s, it did. Down the mountain, driving along 2-lane byways lined with fields and barns and houses. When we finally arrived at Rose Church, it seemed so far removed from anything else I’d ever known I thought I was in some English fairytale and this was a heath in the middle of nowhere someplace. A true country gothic church with a tiny cemetery. The funeral was small and sad, full of old hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and the drive back took too long. Afterwards there were ham biscuits, potato salad, and cakes as high as your head. Like you do when there’s a funeral.

I grew up, lived my life, and forgot about “Down the Valley”. Occasionally I’d visit my grandparents and look off in that general direction on 64 and get wistful at how strange and surreal that part of the country felt, like an old-timey sepia photograph.

Eventually I married and we moved away. Every so often “Down the Valley” would come up like the time my aunt mentioned how she took Granddaddy back to his old country home. The man living there took them out to his barn and they found a huge cache of old framed portraits. Turns out they belonged to the Critzers and Granddaddy cried when he saw them. They hang in my aunt’s house now.

Fast forward eight years. We move to Charlottesville and I start writing about food. I start to hear some exciting things about Route 151 in Nelson County. Overnight it seems breweries, cideries, wineries, and farms chock full of produce have sprouted up like weeds along Route 151 from Route 250 just outside Charlottesville all the way down to Nellysford and beyond. So of course The Hubby and I had to check it out. Nothing better than a weekend drive through the country with tons of lovely food and libation stops along the way.

Our first visit was to Blue Mountain Brewery at the north end of 151 for Bratwurst Pizza and Bourbon Barrel Stout. We followed this up with a visit to Cardinal Point Winery for their Oyster Festival, Veritas Winery for their tasting room, and Devils Backbone Brewery for Saturday lunch, Vienna Lager on the side. Every trip felt like a journey back home somehow but I didn’t know why.

I’m not even counting the stops for side-of-the-road barbecue at Blue Ridge Pig, cider at Bold Rock, or peaches and strawberries at Critzer Family Farm. Sure I remember Granddaddy saying his grandfather and the original owner’s grandfather were brothers. But it still didn’t click.

It wasn’t until we’d passed Rodes United Methodist about a bajillion times that I had an epiphany. A real Homer Simpson “Doh!” moment. Rose=Rodes! In my 12-year-old mind I pictured Rose Church. Granddaddy’s roses melded with images of Memaw and funeral roses into a country church conglomeration of flowers and magical “Down The Valley” trips. When in fact it was Rodes Church.

It hit me like a blast of late-July heat. All this time, all those weekends, we’d been traveling “Down the Valley” for fine food and libation and didn’t even know it. How about that? Funny how life works. All this time I’d been traveling such a short distance to find topics to write about. And the whole time my spirit was turning my inner compass to true north. Toward home. Toward my past and toward the person I really am. The kid who’d imagined this magical country full of hills and hidden gothic secrets, instead of this modest little brick church that you could blink and miss on the side of a fairly busy 2-lane highway. Just goes to show you can travel great distances to get away from your heritage, but somehow something will always end up bringing you back.

With that realization, things in my life fell into place. I visited Rodes and found about a thousand Critzers buried there. Including my Memaw, Allie Cook Critzer. This renewed my interest in the family tree which sparked an interest in Southern food and in particular, my own Southern food heritage. As a result, my writing has taken a completely different direction, one that feels more personal, and certainly more profound.

The kicker? That came 2 years ago when I was at the funeral for my Granddaddy, David Henry Critzer. We’d just said our prayers at the cemetery, Waynesboro this time, placed roses on the coffin, and were reluctantly leaving to walk back to our cars in the early-summer swelter. I remember the heels of my shoes sinking into the soil. An elderly man approached, hand extended, to say he was a distant cousin of Granddaddy’s and was so sorry for our loss. I wasn’t surprised, if you live in the Waynesboro area, you know there are hundreds of thousands of Critzers.

This cousin just wanted to tell us about the huge Critzer family reunion that’s held every July 4th just off Route 151. How about that? After all these years Critzers are still venturing “Down the Valley”. And as it turns out, it doesn’t take days to get there. His directions? “Drive about 6 miles and take a right onto the dirt road just past the junkyard. Bring a covered dish and a lawn chair.” I laughed and he grinned. And just like that I was back home again.

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