Thursday, April 20, 2017

Weekend in West Virgina

The place I belong

Spent the last weekend on a brief swing through West Virginia--why? Why not? Never been there, heard a lot bout the state, wanted to see for ourselves.

 Drivin down the road

Three hours behind the wheel brought us to CJ's Pizzeria in the small but highly placed (elevation 1,647 feet) town of Parsons. The food was standard Italian fare like spaghetti Marinara with Italian sausage:

What made the place special wasn't so much the food (which was nevertheless good n hot n plenty) as the place--at the entranceway we faced a small chapel window:

Wood tables and chairs, not one set alike; posters prints and artworks on the walls; pictures--some snipped out of magazines, some actual photos of the owners--inserted under glass tabletops; heavy wood beams overhead and at the heart of the space a brick fireplace with the name of the establishment in small metalwork fastened in front:

Bathrooms were up a flight of stairs, and on the landing you could appreciate the place a little more--like a beautifully furnished living room cluttered and comforting both, decked out with lights as if for Christmas:

A sign on one wall read: "CJ's Antique Shop" which might explain all the knick knacks and furniture. We asked for the check and the waitress told us "someone picked up your tab sweetie." Huh? Took a quick look around to see who might have done it--did we look that grungy? "Thanks" I said, and left as big a tip as I can manage. Decided to take it as a surprise kind gesture, an unplanned pay-it-forward, an impromptu pat on the back. Welcome to West Virginia folks; y'all take care now come back soon. 

In the mornin hour

For breakfast next day we decided to forego the microtel's free pancakes and try Tudor's Biscuit World:

Biscuits were buttery crisp outside flaky-tender inside, stuffed with a chicken-fried steak, a slice of American cheese, a crunchy McDonald's-style hash brown and (what else?) a fried egg. It was a find, we thought, a one-of-a-kind gem, till we saw the two branches in Fayettesville, the one in Oak Hill, the three in Beckley. A gem of a franchise then; if we weren't planning on lunch this would have sufficed for the rest of the day I think.

Misty taste of moonshine

But we were planning on lunch, this time in the Secret Sandwich Society, hands down the best moniker for a restaurant I've yet encountered on this trip, with overstuffed baguettes named after presidents (the Jefferson (roast beef with white cheddar), the Eisenhower (mortadella and provolone), the Lafayette (chicken cutlet ham swiss)), burgers after the Secret Service's code for each president's family (the Lark (bacon, thousand island, over-easy egg), the Eagle (mortadella, egg), the Dynamo (bacon, blue cheese)), salads after the First Ladies (the Lucy (spinach, green apple), the Martha (cucumber, tomato, red onions), the Eleanor (bacon, blue cheese, green goddess)).

There was craft beer and hard cider on the menu--but I had tap water, and with my water the Taft: slow roasted pork shoulder, rosemary mayo, braised kale, provolone in a toasted baguette. Lovely sandwich, reminiscent of the roast pork creations I ate in Philly.

Almost heaven

Next day was our last in the state but before we left we had to visit the Greenbrier:

Arguably the loveliest creepiest wittiest manmade structure in the state, as if the hotel in The Shining were designed by Willy Wonka collaborating with Tim Burton

The Greenbrier is part Southern Gothic

part state-of-the-art sleek 

part Magic Kingdom kitsch with tongue firmly in chic--take their soda fountain:

You can imagine Cinderella ordering a smoked beef brisket with fried jalapeno poppers to go with her root beer float (Barbie slim, chows down like a champ, belches louder than Gojira)--it's that kind of place.

And yet in the midst of the Disney Princess color scheme there were elegant touches of drama: the overhead chandelier, the rose upholstery against blood-red carpeting.

Or the blushing crystalware accompanying our grilled pork chop with corn on the cob cheese grits and peach au jus:

Creamy grits, sweet crunchy corn (with a smokiness that comes from grilling), big chop with pink center (asked for medium instead of well done).

The creole-style blackened grouper was if anything even better: a thick filet blistered and served in a blanket of rich crawfish etoufee over more of those unbelievable grits (funny but for all the fine ingredients and expert cooking the highlight of both dishes was the corn).

"What would you recommend for desert?" we asked. "The banana split" our server replied, "three scoops plus a whole banana cut in half." "Should I order a peach Melba with that?" She tossed me a warning look. "It's a big split." We settled on just the split.

When the order arrived it looked like this:

"That's not a banana split that's a banana boat," my partner noted, "A banana ocean liner." I glared at the waitress. "You said three scoops; this looks more like sixteen." "I saw them assemble. They dipped three times: strawberry, chocolate, vanilla." "What did they use for a scoop, a mop bucket?"

We got to about a third of the way in before we gave up:

"We want a box for the other twelve scoops, thanks."

My home far away

The Greenbrier was a gorgeous grotesque confection of a confusion of a resort but we didn't eat our best meal there. That happened the day before, by accident, when we stopped at a gas station to fill up and I afterwards made a surprise left turn, passing a road sign with a towering yellow crown. "Where are you going?" "We passed a drive-in." "But there are drive ins everywhere!" "Those are Sonic branches; I mean a real drive in."

King Tut Drive-in opened back in 1945 under the Tutweiller family, in 1955 was turned over to the McKays, has been going strong ever since. The menu is an overwhelming litany of old-fashioned classics, from pizza to barbecue to pot roast dinners to milk shakes to home-made pies:

Having not a clue as to what to get I decided (we'd just come from the Secret Sandwich Society) on the chicken liver dinner (Hint: the best-regarded dishes were the pizza with a sauce recipe unique to the family, and the prize-winning barbecue).  The liver came in a styrofoam box (we ordered takeout) with a huge mound of mashed potatoes:

The livers were bittersweet tender on the inside, crispy-buttery on the outside; the sauteed onions only added to the sweetness, the mushrooms brought an extra umami punch to the dish. The mountain of mashed tuber loomed over the plate, the dusting of cayenne on top promising (and delivering) a smoky flavor.

The home-made pies weren't exactly display-case attractive, if anything looked like wedges of shaving cream slopped into a styro box. But the coconut cream was custard smooth, not too sweet, punctuated by crackling coconut flakes.

Same with the strawberry creme only instead of coconut custard there was tart strawberries in a red sauce.

The bill came up to seventeen dollars; not too bad for easily the second-best meal we had in the state.

Teardrops in my eyes

The best meal in West Virginia we also stumbled upon by accident. Stopped at a Citgo gas station in the riverside town of Sandstone,  asked about a group of youths selling what they called 'ramps' on the entranceway to I-64. The clerk explained: ramps* were a wild onion or leek or green picked mostly in the Appalachians and available for only a short period in Spring (started early March this year as the winter was unusually mild). "They're delish, only if you eat too much you wont be kissin your girlfriend awhile they're so strawng." I asked where we could get some cooked; she pointed to the fire station next door: "They're havin a funraisin plate, all you kin eat for seven dollars."

Paid my seven bucks, and first up was this vast cornbread wheel, cooked in a cast iron pan the size of a manhole and cut into wedges:   

Cornbread as bread, not some sweet excuse for a muffin: crust firm with a wheatlike crumb and savory corn flavor, excellent for sopping up stew n other juices

I ended up with the platter below, clockwise from top: raw ramps; ramp corn muffin (spectacular); ham; ramps and potato casserole; cornbread (see above); white beans. 

The ramps ranged in flavor from delicate garlicky greens down to bulb with bite so fierce it sank claws into your tongue like a bobcat in heat--perfect with the boiled ham. Cooked ramps with potato chunks were another wonderful pairing, starch counteracting feral leek nicely (the bacon mixed into the potatoes dint hurt none). The cornbread was hot and good (remember it came from the pan not five minutes ago); dipped into the white bean juice it made for a superb chewy sop, with the delirious crunch of slightly burnt crust.

Dessert was a peach cobbler:

Tart fresh peaches--no silly pie filling or cloying jam, just honest fruit in a silky almost custardlike puddn bread. 

And that was West Virginia, cept when we neared the entrance to I-64 we stopped before the roadside vendors sitting on their blue Coleman cooler: "How much?" "Five dollars a pound." "We'll take two pounds." And so we bought ramps on the interstate ramp, and I've been doing salads with lemon zest vinaigrette topped with a gently fried egg, and potato-and-ramp casseroles topped with bacon ever since. Time of my life, only for some reason no one wants to stand closer than ten feet from me. 

*(More on ramps: apparently they're highly nutritious, rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, antioxidants, various minerals. Chefs from fine dining restaurants love em; folks seek them out in farmers markets and Whole Foods; states have formed annual festivals. All that demand has led to depleted populations--harvesting has been banned in Quebec (where they're considered a rare delicacy) since 1995 (a black market has formed in nearby Ontario, where the plant can sell for over a dollar a bulb); the Smoky Mountain National Park in both Tennessee and North Carolina followed suit in 2004.)


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