I’m not sure many people appreciate how surreal it is to be in Richmond, VA. How slightly odd it is to drive down Monument Avenue and have your car pass by all those grand statues of Confederate greats. Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis are gloriously depicted along with a few other notables; notable mainly on this side of the Mason Dixon. Monument is an avenue in the classic sense. The thoroughfare is divided in two by a grassy green and flanked on either side by oversized houses as manicured as movie sets. Even in the name itself, Monument Avenue seems to have been built to elicit the grandeur of the victorious side. If some cave dweller knowing nothing of American history had decided to take a stroll down Monument, he would no doubt be convinced of which side he thought was victorious.
Those old pillars of the largest rebellion in our country’s history are sculpted in that cliché triumphalism every statue in Europe seems to have. One man, one horse, a heroic gaze, one mission. The difference being, of course, there was no triumph. Our middle school social studies textbooks simplified it for us. The north eventually vanquished the south, vivid navy blue over pale gray, and then nothing much happened until World War I. But to the casual observer, or the casual cave dweller, no one had informed Richmond.
I continued to ponder this at the Lamplighter Roasting Company, a reincarnation of an old service station into a refuge for youngish VCU professors and Richmond’s hipster set. Sitting outside in very un-December December weather, I nursed a pretty decent cappuccino as well as a thought. Were all these monuments and statues just an outdoor museum or a curtain call to a Richmond of another time? It was a question that wasn’t going to be answered in an afternoon, no matter how many cappuccinos it took.
No, that afternoon my attention kept shifting to another thought: the previous night’s meal. Sandra’s Soul Food, all the way on the other side of town, can best be described as a dive. At best. Sandra’s was a cramped wedge of a structure that looked as if a parking lot grew around it. But, as it’s been made joyously aware to me over the years, it’s the scruffy places with zero décor and a dislike for even coats of paint that usually dish out the best grub.
While my younger siblings and I waited in front of a sliding glass window to place our order, several flyers promoting everything from gospel concerts to broken down Chevys for sale were taped up on the walls. Next to them, the grease-stained menu which read like a porcine autopsy report. I could have plentiful pig parts prepared positively pleasurably for a pittance. Say that ten times fast. Eventually the glass door slid open and a man with thick, gold-rimmed glasses and a doo-rag stuck his head out and took our order.
Sadly, the chitterlings weren’t ready yet so we settled for some pig feet. To go along: some fried chicken gizzards, mac and cheese, candied yams, fried chicken, cornbread and a narrow slice of sweet potato pie. You know, all one needs for a long life. We transported the hot Styrofoam containers in our rental car and then brought them into our historic hotel downtown. My brother placed them on a, hopefully, non-historic desk and unhinged the lids. After that initial gust of heat and aroma escaped, a vista of edible art lay before us.
Now pig’s foot, if cooked properly, can be a juicy beacon of fatty flavor. Overcooked and it will more closely resemble its name. We were fortunate to experience the former and a damn good specimen of it. Everything else was also pretty great. The fried chicken had a perfectly seasoned batter. The mac and cheese had mastered the balance between cheesy and moist. And the sweet potato pie? Wow.
To me, the most rewarding thing about “soul food” (beside the saturated fat content) is that it’s a window into a bygone era. It was the desperate cuisine necessarily invented from the scraps of the manor, the plantation, the palace and brilliantly incorporated into sustenance. But it was certainly much more than that. The soul part of the equation cannot be overlooked. Within those strict confines, the poor and the lowly didn’t just feed each other but nourished each other, both socially and emotionally. Every culture and ethnicity has their own version and, lucky for us, we Americans have access to almost all modern forms of them and all the stories they tell.
The 95 South snakes its way out of Richmond along the James River. As we headed out of town on that modern (and annoying) highway, I realized my question had been answered for me. Richmond wasn’t just a museum but a living, breathing, squealing one.
WHAT: moist, tender, flavorful pig’s foot, encased in Styrofoam
WHEN: December 21, 2011
WHERE: Sandra’s Soul Food, Richmond, Virginia, United States