I keep bouncing this idea for a story around in my head: one about the relationship between an English professor and his lower class wife. He is cultured, published in academic journals & attending fêtes where he & his colleagues discuss the latest encroachment of new media studies on “traditional” literature courses. She is mostly high school educated (possibly her husband’s former student), has a thick accent, secretly reads popular genre fiction & eats mayonnaise by the spoonful when he is away.
I can’t let the story go, not because I have some great insight to the characters but because I see it as an opportunity to purge some of my own insecurities about my marriage, my education, my troublesome Southern-ness. Trouble is, I don’t have the right amount of distance to start writing it. Instead, I’m going to blog a little about my experiences with food. My husband Kurt recently started reviewing restaurants for our local paper & as his dining partner, I feel like the punchline to a karmic joke.
I’ve blogged before about my love for mayonnaise, how I feel estranged from the culinary traditions of my home state. But, until recently, I haven’t derived a lot of pleasure from food. There are myriad reasons why, but I also realize that my husband wants me to have fun eating these different meals with him. Often times, these meals become an internal struggle to get out of my head & into the present moment.
For example, two months ago, we traveled out to King George county to eat at Howard’s Bakery and Restaurant. The building sits on the edge of the town, where the four-lane road goes down to one lane on either side of the median. The restaurant itself had been there for nearly 20 years. Out front a small sign said: Wi Fi • Happy St. Patrick’s Day • Corn Beef and Cabbage Fri & Sat. Inside the bright, perfectly scrubbed dining room was a sign that invited us to seat ourselves, with a typed notice that read “We now have ginger ale and Coke Zero!”
I was immediately nervous, as if I had stepped into a neighbor’s nice parlor. Eating at local restaurants with Kurt is like reliving the first holiday dinner my family invited him to. My husband has lived in Fredericksburg for 20 years, but despite having gained a drawl & an acquaintance with local customs, he is still an outsider, a newcomer. I watched as he talked to the waitresses & thought, What will they say to our face & what will they say when we leave? I feel frustrated even now as I type this paragraph. This is the exact internal negotiation I put myself through most of the time when I sit down to a meal. Food can apparently never just be food with me–it has to be manners, expectations, how you hold your fork, how you pronounce the words on the menu, how tactfully you avoid foods you don’t like.
But, after a while, I was able to let myself enjoy our meal. In his review, my husband wrote that I exclaimed “This is Virginia cooking to me!” while we ate & I’ll admit I did. On the salad bar, the lettuce was bagged & the green beans tasted like they had come from a can, but the hot entrees were homemade & plentiful. The corn beef & cabbage I ordered tasted like it had simmered promisingly all day on the stove. The food wasn’t sexy or complex; it was savory, honest & plain.
The combination of homemade & pre-made food reminded me of dinners my mom had cooked my sisters & I, the American food buffets we had eaten at on vacation, the church potlucks we went to. Even a lunch I had at Stratford Hall a few years ago had this same mix of fresh & prepackaged food. The food at Howard’s was “Virginia cooking” to me because it seemed like it had sprung from theVirginia Hospitality cookbook, like these other meals in my life. Long before Sandra Lee coined the term “semi-homemade,” I was eating meals from this cookbook that relied on canned condensed soup & a liberal helping of Ac’cent. These half-and-half recipes made life easy for my mom, who like many other working moms, had to feed her kids in a quick & somewhat healthy way.
I still have a copy of Virginia Hospitality in my kitchen. Though my husband does most of the cooking, I keep it as a talisman, as a concession to my Southern cooking gods.
After all the nervousness & nostalgia on my part, we ended the meal in a decadent note. One of the staff had made a Chocolate Irish Creme cake layered with mousse. With a cup of coffee, the liquor-soaked piece I had was heavenly. My anxiety scaled down to a tumble dry low setting & I watched the other diners through the happy glow of contentment. They seemed friendly with one another & simply happy to enjoy their meal & the chatter of the waitresses. Maybe I could unlearn my own hang-ups & for once be more appreciative of the food put in front of me. One meal at a time, right?
(For the record though, I refuse to give up mayonnaise.)