Thursday, January 15, 2015

Butter It While It's Hot

My walk turned into a history lesson, my snack a reminder of my childhood.

It began when I walked down Fifth Street and picked up the Canal Walk from there, something I'd never done before, usually sticking to the area around the turning basin near 14th Street.

Despite the chill in the air, it turned out to be a perfectly lovely morning along the Canal Walk, with sunlight playing on the water and reflecting onto the underside of bridges. I stopped to read all the historical medallions in the sidewalk, gathering new facts about the area as I went.

Coming back through downtown, I decided to make a stop at the Library of Virginia to see "To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade," a look at the role Richmond played in the domestic slave trade.

The exhibit begins with a jolt with the fact that between 1500 and 1866, over 12 million Africans were forcibly enslaved and brought to the New world. That's a staggering number of human beings to wrap your head around.

I was fascinated with the part of the exhibit that dealt with the book "Uncle Tom's Cabin," learning that it was the best-selling book of the 19th century. Just as surprising was that it had been translated, re-illustrated and printed ad infinitum all over the world.

One version was called "Uncle Robin in his Cabin in Virginia and Tom Without One in Boston." Another was the Classics Illustrated comic book version (25 cents). There was even a pro-slavery book written by a Virginian called "Aunt Phillis's Cabin: Southern Life as it Is." Despite the title, I doubt it seriously reflected the reality of a slave's life.

And the merchandise! Uncle Tom playing cards, pitchers, plates and figures abounded.

Hung from floor to ceiling was an enlarged photograph of Richmond from Church Hill, the view all but unrecognizable except for the State Capital.

As far as I was concerned, the most compelling part of the show was artist Eyre Crowe's drawings, illustrations and paintings of the slave trade. A Brit who was touring the country with author William Thackeray, Crowe documented aspects of human trafficking seldom scene, such as the moving painting "Slaves Waiting for Sale," an image of nicely-dressed Africans awaiting their fate while white men behind them held their destiny in their hands.

One, "Slave Auction, Charleston, South Carolina," had been thought to be lost, with only copies surviving until recently it had been discovered in the Museo della Belle Artes in Havava, Cuba. I have to say, it seems like an unlikely painting for a Cuban museum to have acquired.

Where the exhibition was especially strong was in telling individual stories of people on both sides of the slave trade. It was sickening to read about how some of Richmond's major slave traders kept black mistresses, sometimes even marrying them. Such hypocrisy.

When I left the Library of Virginia, the morning's sun had been obliterated with a leaden gray sky, appropriate to the story I'd just taken in.

Lesson over, it was time for lunch, or at least a good snack so I set out for Early Bird Biscuit in Lakeside, eager to see what the biscuit of the day might be. I couldn't have had better luck because it was crabby cheddar, a buttery biscuit made with Old Bay and cheese. Perfect, in other words, for someone with Maryland roots.

The shop was just as appealing as the smells coming from the oven. A rolling pin collection on the wall, a vintage flour sifter, white with cherries like my grandmother's and an old school electric mixer in the case and the colored glass bowls every grandmother used to have lined up on a shelf.

I was completely entranced when I spotted "Betty Crocker's New Boys and Girls Cookbook," a classic I still have to this day. The one in their case looked pristine while mine has crusty pages stained from so much use as a kid.

Asking what my favorite recipe in it was, I went with meat loaf a la mode and fudge, two of the crustiest and most stained pages in my copy. He said they'd recently made the molasses cookies from it. My childhood was unfolding in a biscuit shop.

They also had copies of the new book by my latest chef crush, John Currence, "Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey." It's tough not to be impressed with the man who threw the Big Gay Mississippi Welcome table in NYC to protest pending outmoded legislation.

All of Early Bird Biscuit was impressive, though, with a cozy and welcoming feel, including the guy behind the counter. After I swooned over the sound of today's biscuit, he admitted it was his favorite of all the daily biscuits they've made so far.

Apparently, what they do is alternate sweet and savory for biscuit of the day, so I'd randomly lucked into the crabby cheddar. When he asked if I wanted butter with mine, I asked if that was a rhetorical question. "Why not gild the lily?" he asked with a grin. Amen.

He suggested I return on a Saturday where the line may be out the door, but, "It moves quickly and there's more choices." Sounds like a plan to me, although since they close at noon on Saturday, it'll have to be after one of my infrequent early Friday nights.

As for the biscuit, it was heavenly, laden with butter and piquant with the spices of Old Bay studded with shredded Cheddar. I savored it like the biscuit hound my biscuit-making grandmother raised, my only regret that I should have asked for even more butter.

I can't wait to go back for another kind of biscuit. I'm only grateful that Early Bird is located in Lakeside and not Jackson Ward where I couldn't guarantee showing any restraint.

Grandma Bessie, I thought of you with every bite.

No comments:

Post a Comment