Friday, September 14, 2012

C-ville in September

Last weekend I went to Charlottesville for the UVa/Penn State football game. I decided to go the game as soon as I heard that UVa was on Penn State’s schedule, since well, a UVa/Penn State game is as much fun as you can have with your blue blazer, orange tie, madras shorts, and striped Topsiders on.  When the game was scheduled UVa was to be one of Penn State’s cake games and no one in his or her right mind expected Penn State to descend into the abyss of scandal and sanctions. As I’ve said before, State College is opera masquerading as real life. But I’ll save talk of that for another day.

Every time I go to Charlottesville—once or twice a year at most—I text or call my friend Brandon back in State College to confirm with her that Charlottesville isn’t at all like Happy Valley. Brandon is a Wahoo, too, and the fact that she’s a girly girl with a boy’s name attests to her Wahoo-vian bona fides. Brandon always agrees with me, that yep, the two towns are not at all alike. We’re both comforted in the fact that the more things change in C-ville the more they stay the same.  As anyone from Virginia (the state and/or The University) will tell you, progress is fine, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.

My traveling companions and I stayed at the 200 South Street Inn since it was in downtown Charlottesville and I like to walk to wherever I’m going from a hotel. Truth to tell,  I’m not usually big on staying at the proverbial Shady Rest—that  here’s Uncle Joe and he’s movin’ kinda slow thing is not exactly my idea of real living when it comes to fixing my crappy hotel internet connection. However, I’d stayed at 200 South Street once before and it was actually quite nice. Interestingly enough, it was a better deal than any chain outpost on Route 29, Charlottesville’s mother of all strip developments.

I was pleasantly surprised when I went for my Saturday morning stroll to find that the Charlottesville City Market was taking place right across the street from the inn. In every other town they’d call it a Farmers’ Market. In Charlottesville, however, it’s City Market. There, in the lot where hipsters’ old Volvos and bumper sticker festooned Subarus had parked cheek by jowl the night before, were ninety-nine 10’ by 10’ spaces (I asked a market official, no way could I count to ninety-nine on a Saturday morning). The spaces were mostly covered with E-Z Up tents so as a festival person, I felt right at home. However, instead of art and craft, most of the people there were selling heirloom vegetables, flowers, food, and whatnot.  

When is the last time that you saw scratch ‘n’ dent orchids?

I spent a lot of time chatting with James Rucker, the man behind Pantheon Popsicles. He used to be an antiques dealer (or was it art mover?) but now he takes locally grown fruits and turns them into tasty iced treats on a stick. Had I been a C-ville local, I would have remembered to ask if the sticks were locally sourced and sustainably harvested, but alas and alack, I missed that important detail.  James had sort of a minimalist rig, a cooler on wheels, shaded by an umbrella covered by something that looked like a blanket your old girlfriend who didn’t shave her armpits would have bought outside a Grateful Dead show.  Construction paper popsicles a lá elementary school art teacher (perhaps one who doesn’t shave her armpits and has been to some Dead shows) hang from the spokes of the umbrella.

James was cute, charming, and chatty. He shared a story about moving a painting by some artist I’d never heard for “some fashion guy, Tom Ford….Have you ever heard of him?”  The story involved asking to use Tom Ford’s bathroom, where, in an otherwise dimly lit and presumably uber-tastefully designed space, there was only one work of art on the wall, over the toilet, “a photo of a man going down on a woman”.  Rather than pointing out that it (yes that it) was an acquired taste, like a strawberry-lime-starfruit popsicle, I let him continue. He said the work he was moving looked like, well, a large aluminum vagina. At that point, I did have to say, “That’s about as close to a vagina as he’s been in a long time”.  We chuckled at the incongruity. Before long the conversation careened over to the delicious fare at the C&O Restaurant.  I asked him for other restaurant recommendations and he suggested Bizou, which turned out to be just what the doctor ordered later that evening. As we chatted, I had watermelon popsicle (great stuff) and when some other customers appeared we stopped jawing and I went on my way.

One of my favorite stands was The Porkshare from Rock Barn Farm. And no, it wasn’t just for the shirts, which, I did like. And yes, of course, I did ask them about their sausages. Their sausage comes from “ethically raised” pigs from Nelson County, Virginia. You can read all about it and the farm’s porkshare program on the farm’s website. 

One of the principals in the venture (the boys in the photo are spokesmodels) used to work as a cook on a submarine and afterward for star chef  Thomas Keller. The guy's business partner (or maybe life partner, I am not quite sure how far they take the sausage thing), went to UVa for a degree in English and American Government. These days he now holds these truths to be self-evident: that all hogs are not created equal; that they are endowed by their farmer with certain value added options, among which are ethical lifestyle choices, humane butchering, and the meaningful use of every part of the pig. In non-English and American Government major-speak this means no Hank Williams, Jr. tunes in the barn, readings from A Tale of Two Cities as each of the porkers is on its way to a far, far better place, and recycling the oink into ring tones which may be purchased from the iTunes store.  All the products looked tasty but alas and alack, they weren’t serving the stuff, just selling it. I didn’t bring a cooler and dry ice, so toting the stuff back to State College was out of the question.

I was in luck because another sausage guy was cooking up links of succulent deliciousness. My sister and I split a sausage sandwich which the laconic sausage man sliced in half with precision worthy of a surgeon.  The sausage was made from woods-raised, free-range pork, and stuffed into a locally made, artfully split, Albemarle Baking Company bun. The vendor, whose conversational skills stated at Yup and ended at Nope, didn’t look quite so chic as the sausage boys, probably hadn’t worked in a submarine, didn’t have a marketing brochure, and might have had a problem distinguishing Thomas Keller from Helen Keller.

On the other hand, the sandwich didn’t require me to scalp my football ticket in President’s Box to pay for it. There is a helluva lot to be said for locally raised and prepared food that doesn’t cost any more than the crap you can get at an outpost of the military gastronomical complex. The sandwich was tasty. Although not laced with double entendres, the sausage was peppery but not molar incinerating, and it was topped with just the right amount of onions and peppers. It was a hot and juicy breakfast that even Alice Waters would have enjoyed.

There were heritage apples, including variety named Hawkeye, presumably after my father.

I also bought some soap from Made by Mieka Olive Oil Soap. As you probably guessed already, she has a Ph.D. in Anthropology and is a college professor in addition to being an olive oil soap maker. She had a great demonstration station where you could rub your hands with a bar of her soap over a hand-thrown earthenware pot while she provided the water with well-timed spritzes from a spray bottle. I’ve never seen a soap demo station like it—pure genius. And yes, she thought of it herself.  When you’re finished washing your hands she proffers a paper towel—as far from artisanal, free range, heritage, sustainable, and organic as you can get. But they were all white, clean and crisp and eminently functional. Sometimes industrial America gets things right.

Mieka’s Olive Oil Soap promises smooth, radiant skin. I bought some guest bars, but for now the smooth radiant me is courtesy some kick-ass orange trousers I bought at the Brooks Brothers Outlet in Las Vegas. As James Bond might have said about his shaken and not stirred martinis, you stick with what works. Especially in Charlottesville. 

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