Sunday, September 11, 2011

Little Miss Predictable

You can smell the tobacco from two galleries away.

Approaching "Xu Bing: Tobacco Project" at the VMFA, the overwhelming scent of tobacco, not burning cigarettes, but cured leaf, greets visitors.

But what do you expect from 500,000 cigarettes assembled to look like a room-filling tiger-striped rug?

I was unprepared for how the "rug" looks completely different depending on the vantage point from which you view it.

As a guard told me, "I like it from the back corner because it's all brown and white."

And it is much browner when viewed from that place, but it's mesmerizing from any direction.

There's just something about seeing a half million cigarettes stood on end that draws the eye.

Surrounding galleries hold the rest of the project, including a video about Bing's inspiration and trips to tobacco country, a pipe with seven stems, boxes of uncut cigarettes joined at the filter and cigs with poetry and quotations on them, to mention only a few.

There's a bale of tobacco, a tobacco plant, a book made of tobacco leaves and a partially burnt long cigarette defacing a reproduction of "Traveling Down the River," an ancient painting considered to be China's "Mona Lisa."

The exhibit explores the complicated role tobacco plays with humans, who both revile and crave it, as both subject and material.

I'd have stayed longer, but my companion is allergic to cigarettes and started to sneeze and tear up.

Our second stop was Chop Suey for a reading.

Sandra Beasley, a poet turned memoirist, was reading from her memoir, "Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life" about her many allergies and how they've shaped her life.

And lest you think the title is overly dramatic, at her own birthday parties (where she ate something completely different than what her guests ate), kissing or hugging her could result in hives if they'd eaten something she was allergic to.

Her book is a combination of the cultural history of allergies and her own experiences as someone known in college as "cod girl" because she couldn't eat beef, chicken, cheese or any other dining hall protein staple.

The best the dining hall could come up with for her was unseasoned cod day after day.

Kill me now.

Her memoir was laced with much humor and her reading did justice to the inanity of trying to exist in a food world that wants to poison her at every turn.

Hearing about the hives she got after eating an uncle's fries off his plate (he'd also had a burger) made me appreciate how lucky I am to have no food allergy other than peaches.

Naturally that made me want to go eat whatever I wanted as soon as the reading was over.

Since it's Sunday, 821 Cafe seemed a logical choice since parking wouldn't be the usual weekday nightmare.

We slid right into a booth behind a real loud talker and his female companion.

They were having drinks and waiting for their food to come while he was explaining why he now likes cole slaw, a food he used to avoid but had just ordered.

"When I was in lockup," he told her, "I found out you never know when your next food is coming, so you better eat what they give you or you're gonna end up f**king hungry!"

He followed up that emphatic statement with an order for "Another round of bourbon and Cokes, miss!"

Sounds like he must have regretted sending back that cole slaw.

One of the other servers came up to me to say hello and ask why I hadn't been in lately.

I didn't have a good reason and as I was stammering out a non-answer, she looked at me accusingly, but with a smile.

"Are you getting nachos?" she asked rhetorically as our server set black bean nachos down on the table and we dove in.

Hey, I'm not allergic to them and I doubt I could get them in lockup. Why the hell not?

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