Sunday, March 11, 2018

Forging On

We'll begin with the front door. It was candy apple red.

The little green house - 'though we didn't call 3-bedroom houses little when I was a pup - tucked into a mid-century neighborhood just west of Thornrose Cemetery surprised us by being newly built. The neighborhood was also home to Giancarlo Fine European Bakery which operated out of the back of the Giancarlos' little pink house and which we accessed by driving down a gravel alley labeled "Pastry Lane."

It doesn't get much cuter, even if we did arrive after they'd sold out and closed early for the afternoon.

Later, inside the red-doored house, our host explained that the original house had burned down and this one built a few years ago in its place, undoubtedly making for less drafty digs, if also a tad plebeian. But it had front and back porches for sitting, two comfortable bedrooms and a fireplace, so no one was complaining.

Our host had warned us she had cats, suggesting we keep our doors closed if we were allergic (I am). What took us by surprise was that, cut into the owner's bedroom door was a little arch allowing the cats complete access night and day. Her friends may call her a crazy cat lady for all we know.

Welcoming and comfy as the house was, we saw very little of it given that we had only 25 hours in Staunton. That would be 25 extremely frigid hours in Staunton.

Mac and I started at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfrair's Playhouse for a behind-the-scenes tour with one other couple that took us through a timeline of Shakespeare's original Blackfrair's Playhouse, through the costume shop and past a white board listing of music ideas for current productions (The Oh Sees, Amy Winehouse) and eventually to a balcony perch to watch actors rehearse "Richard II."

That's right, I'll get up with the sunrise to make it to the other side of the state for that kind of a nerdy peek.

Especially since I'd been to the Blackfriar's over a decade ago to see "King Lear," back when there were no seat cushions or backs to the hard benches, the better to allow patrons to experience Shakespeare as theater lovers had in his time. In the intervening years, soft, over-indulged Americans had demanded a more modern, comfortable experience and the theater had capitulated.

Let's just say my disdain was real.

Walking through the petite downtown to eat, it was clear given the few passersby that we were in the minority for tourists willing to stroll put up with the bitter cold and gusting winds for teh sake of sightseeing and eating. Call us rubes.

Farmhouse Kitchen and Wares was a low-key and charming place to get warm and fed as the only occupants at a community table. The crusty rolls on our stellar sandwiches were worthy of a quick prayer of gratitude to the bread gods and sausage, kale and white bean soup was nothing short of life affirming.

Properly fortified, we set out for Black Swan Books and Records - how could I not after all my wonderful finds over the years at the Black Swan Books in Richmond? - where I got a fascinating glimpse into how music and locale intersect. The used albums there bore no resemblance to the used albums I might find at my neighborhood record store (with the exception of spotting a friend's band's album, but he grew up out that way), as in was there no punk music in Staunton? Weird.

Conclusion: musical taste is geographic.

We wandered down to the old warehouse that houses Sunspots, a glassblowing studio, and watched a blower do his thing, although I'm not too proud to say I also reveled in the warmth of that fire. The last time I saw glass being blown was at Jamestown in the '90s and every two decades isn't too often to be reminded of the artistry of that skill set.

After we struck out at Ginacarlo, we did the only sensible thing and stopped at Cocoa Mill Chocolate for some almond bark to tide us over until we reached Reunion Bakery to satisfy Mac's bakery lust (a pistachio roll and chai did the trick).

That was to fortify us for the Woodrow Wilson Museum and manse, which turned out to be far more compelling (and relevant) than we'd expected. Three big takeaways:

1. Only President with a ph.D.
2. As a southerner, he opposed women's suffrage because if they gave it us, they'd have to give it to blacks.
3. The second wife, Edith, a widow whom he avidly pursued after his first wife Ellen died, basically ran the country when he had a stroke as president and was unable to function.

Tucked away in the garage, they even had his favorite toy, a shiny black Pierce Arrow that he loved being squired around in.

After a tour through the posh house where he was born (his father may have been a Presbyterian minister, but he was well paid for his efforts and the house came free), and being the walkers that we are, we set out to stretch our legs, only to be defeated by the hills and brutal wind after circling one large block.

I'm not proud of that, but then I shouldn't have worn boots to see a hilly town. One walker's demerit for that.

The centerpiece of the weekend was dinner at the Shack, so it was satisfying to arrive at the tiny restaurant and see a table with a strip of menu folded like a tent with my name and 7:00 written on it to secure our spot.

An intoxicating marriage of obscenely creamy and understated heat on the finish, the spicy golden beet soup impressed from the start with its presentation: a long, curvy-necked teapot poured the yellow soup over croutons of chaat masala that soaked it up like sponges. Mac's butternut squash peirogis over onion puree got a kick from chil and crunch from pecans and caused her to make Meg Ryan-like sounds as she ate them.

Sipping my Lois Gruner Veltliner, we struck up a conversation with the couple next to us who, naturally, were from Richmond (albeit the west end) and out celebrating her 50th birthday. She insisted we try her Heidi Shrock Rose "Biscaya" (a seven grape blend appealingly described as " a country wine made by a woman who's comfy in the city also) since she'd gotten a celebratory bottle and her husband didn't care for wine.

We thanked her for her hospitality by handing over restaurant recommendations written on a torn page from my pad and handed over surreptitiously. Since they were also in town for the weekend, they were curious what we'd done so far and then gobsmacked when we shared our day. Their own plans, it seems, were far less ambitious and involved as little outdoor time as possible.

For my main course, I chose guinea hen, boasting crisp, seasoned skin and moist meat over butterbeans, Carolina gold rice and fermented cabbage while Mac dove into fried chicken.

Just two city girls wallowing in southern cooking.

It was impossible to do full justice to dessert after all that, but we gave it our best, me with a chocolate cremeux, although its accompanying smoked apple butter failed to impress me. Call me old fashioned, but apple butter is already a practically perfect food group, no smoking enhancement required (or desired). Mac seemed equally happy with banana bread pudding with caramelized banana ice cream, or maybe she was just in a food coma. Hard to say.

When we got back to the little green house, we sat on my bedroom floor and talked about (of all things) technology, at least until we both conceded that our digestive systems had shut down our brains. Our host had informed us that she'd put extra woolly blankets on our beds in anticipation of the night's drop in temperature and sure enough, we needed them.

Waking up to a temperature of 11 degrees is meaningless when the wind makes it feel like 1 degree, but did we let that stop us from walking to breakfast? We did not. Did such biting weather prevent our getting lost twice before finally locating Nu Beginning Farm's Store? Absolutely not. Never mind that once there we saw they were closed.

We only had to slog another half mile or so to land at Cranberry's Grocery & Eatery, a place that smelled of patchouli and hippies and served fabulous oatmeal with figs and currants, dried apricots, walnuts and blackberries, with a crock of Virginia maple syrup riding shotgun. Chalk it up to my Irish roots, but that's a helluva bowl of oatmeal, especially after 3 miles of walking to get there. The everything bagel that accompanied it was mere filler.

Our final stop was the Frontier Culture Museum, which turned out to be even less popular than downtown Staunton when the air feels like 2 degrees. Given that handicap, it was pay-what-you-will day at the museum (off season, there are no costumed interpreters at the buildings), plus they'd recruited five women to give spinning demonstrations in a warm gallery.

I was raised in a family where you didn't get dessert if you didn't finish your vegetables, so you sure don't get to watch indoor demos until you've trooped all over the outdoor museum.

The 1700s African farm was closed for the season, so we began at the 1600s English farm, which was understandably more rustic than the 1700s Irish farm with its impressive stone walls to corral animals.

We lucked out when we entered the 1700s Irish forge because a master was training interpreters on the fine art of blacksmithing, meaning there was a hearth fire with massive bellows behind it being stoked as he refined a metal tool. The young men who were being schooled watched raptly as the master demonstrated technique.

Far cozier than the previous farms was the 1700s German farm and it was there we saw a stringed instrument lying on the table, an indication of leisure we hadn't seen in other farmhouses. My favorite oddball detail was the tiny little crank out window in the horse stall in the barn. Sure, there was a Dutch door which could allow half ventilation, but sometimes a horse needs a window apparently.

We never made it as far as the American farms of the 1820s and 1850s - don't judge - although we did see some spinning, but since we'd covered 5.86 miles since we'd left the little red-doored house for breakfast, we weren't exactly slacking, either.

Coming back, we detoured to Charlottesville so I could finally have my first Bodo's bagel (didn't measure up to Nate's bagels for me) and shoepeg corn salad in the crazy busy dining room, where two painfully skinny college students (one UVA, one Skidmore) discussed their bands and the upcoming house shows they have scheduled, all the while purposely flipping their shoulder length hair to mark their territory.

They were, neither one of them, remotely like VCU students (not a tattoo or piercing in sight) and I was again reminded: hipster prerequisites are geographic.

Sometimes only a change in geography will do when it's the dead of winter and life has been lacking for too long.

One distraction from that is a country weekend had by a city woman who's comfy in the mountains for short periods. Self preservation, that's what it is.

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