Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Meated-out Virginia.

I got pulled over on my way to Hilary’s in Virginia. It’s been years since I’ve been pulled over and when I saw those manic lights in the rearview I nearly hyperventilated. My interaction with the police officer was my first encounter with a gin-u-wine Southern accent on my trip. I was so nervous that I actually laughed out loud when he called me ma’am. I’m really in the South, I thought.

The Charlottesville area, like Burlington, is a hotbed of localvore activity, with its agricultural history and thriving student community. For lunch, me and Hilary and her sister, Courtney, took the baby to the Take It Away Sandwich shop near the university for ham sandwiches. Smithfield, a small town near Williamsburg, is world-renowned for its salt-cured ham. Smithfield ham is cut from peanut-fed hogs raised in the peanut belt of Virginia or North Carolina. Our sandwiches were intensely salty, the meat pleasantly chewy on the soft white bread. Courtney ordered Brunswick stew, a thick, tomato-based soup originating in Brunswick County. Initially made with squirrel or rabbit, the version we tasted was made with chicken, okra, lima beans and corn. It was heavy and somehow gamy-tasting—one could easily imagine the stew being made with any kind of pulled meat.

For a real Virginia barbecue experience, we drove thirty miles out of town to the Pig-N-Steak in Madison. Seated in a cozy booth, Hilary said, “I hired these actors to give you a real sense of what it’s like around here.” Looking around, the other patrons really were straight out of central casting—big burly guys in overalls (!) and turtlenecks. Here I encountered the meat-and-two phenomenon for the first time (pick your own meat and two sides). We had pulled pork and mac-and-cheese and collards and ribs, with french fries for the baby. The pork was deeply smoky but clean-tasting and not greasy. It hardly needed sauce but I tried a bit of the sweet Virginia-style condiment. The baby loved the bland, buttery mac and the sweet sautéed collards complemented the smoky meat nicely.

The next morning a half-inch of slushy snow had fallen. Hilary and I, like typical northerners, had a good laugh at the fact that school was closed for the day. We drove to Monticello—it, too, was closed. A couple of miles down the road, the Jefferson Vineyards didn’t look too promising, with only one car in the lot. Just as we pulled in, though, a guy was heading out the door to shovel. We did a tasting, and the wine was pretty good! (tasting notes to be transcribed when I am reunited with these notes later)

In Crozet, a cute rural town near Charlottesville, we hunted down the Our Lady of the Angels monastery, where nine nuns live a monastic life in log cabins and make gouda as their main source of income. We drove up a winding wooded road along a stream, arriving at a stark brick structure reminiscent of one of those institutional public schools built in the sixties. Again, no signs of life anywhere, just an ugly building with some cows hanging out nearby. We rang a doorbell and waited a few minutes. A nun in a hairnet and a blue and white apron eventually poked her head out the door. They were sold out of cheese, she said, since Christmas. The new batch wasn’t aged enough to sell. Dear lord!

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