Discover more from Apt. 11D
The Healing Power of Home Brew and Baby Back Ribs
Let's knit our tired country together, one pint at a time
As he started a nation-wide job hunt for a university position, a grad school friend once told me that he would never live in an area where he could not find arugula in the supermarket.
Arugula, that bitter sharp lettuce, was Lawrence’s shorthand method for narrowing down his options for jobs. Any position must be located in areas with a sophisticated culture, liberal politics, and hopping community life to keep him amused when not in the classroom. His arugula method ruled about 3/4rd of America at that time; he ultimately landed in London.
Today, Lawrence would need some other shortcut to find a sophisticated, educated, progressive community. Because food is the rare thing in our culture that has not been politicized. Pretty much anywhere in this country, you can find a bearded, tattooed hipster, who will make you a cocktail involving rosemary, smoke, and small batch vodka distilled just a mile away at a shiny distillery in a former paper mill. There’s shaved brussel sprouts salads in the heart of West Virginia, and burnt brisket ends in a converted garage in upstate New York. For me, the ubiquitousness of fine food is a sign of hope, a rare sign of agreement in our polarized society.
Growing up here in Jersey, we rarely drove farther for vacations or college than the three-hour circumference of our house. When you marry a midwesterner, as I learned about twenty years ago, you had better learn to love, or at least tolerate, long road trips. Midwesterners are used to traveling long distances and are allergic to “wasting” money on air travel. So, I quickly had to get used to the 8-hour commute to Cleveland to visit the grandparents with two toddlers in the backseat.
On those road trips, we would have to stop frequently. The kids were little and needed frequent potty breaks and food. But the standard fast food fare, like McDonalds and Wendy’s, were the only dining options in those miles and miles of empty space along Route 80 in the long state of Pennsylvania. Back in 2004, I blogged about one of those trips.
It's all good, except for the food. Good lord, where do you have to go to get something healthy? What's wrong with some steamed carrots? Grilled chicken? Brown rice? Sans salt and grease? I'm sure there's some decent restaurants down one of the smaller highways and roads, but along Route 80, all we found were Wendy's, Burger King, and McDonald's.
My colon is so lubricated with french fry oil, I'll be .... Well, nevermind.
Why is the American highway so devoid of good food? Where are the cute little pubs that follow England's major roads that serve ale and plowman's specials? I want some pickled onions, dammit.
Fast forward 18 years, we’re still taking long road trips. Last Saturday, we drove for six hours to Charlottesville, VA, and the following day, we drove another six hours to Asheville for an extended family get-together in a little airbnb cabin in the woods. On Wednesday, we drove for 14 hours to get back home. That was a lot of car time for us and the autistic teenager.
But unlike those trips to Cleveland with the never ending Big Macs, we ate local vegetables and slow cooked meats at restaurants, taverns, and food trucks quickly found through a search on Google Maps. Every meal was accompanied by a long list of local brews, all extremely tasty. We drove through six states on that trip, including West Virginia and Tennessee. Blue state, red state, purple state – they all made great food.
On the way down to Asheville, we did a quick detour in Charlottesville, VA. I wanted to see Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and revisit my brother’s alma mater at UVA. (My fantastic meal that night was pecan crusted short rib, mashed cauliflower, and roasted asparagus. The pork belly appetizer will live in my dreams.)
Monticello was remarkable for its complete lack of information about Thomas Jefferson. He was our third president, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and a huge influence on Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson designed that house that we spent $30 per person to tour and the nearby University of Virginia, but none of that information was on display in his house. All the signage and movie clips were located about 100 yards from the house in the quarters for the enslaved people. A person could easily walk away from Monticello with more information about the cook and the blacksmith, than information about Jefferson.
Now, Jefferson was, of course, a complicated dude. His story includes both genius, courage, as well as hypocrisy and blindspots. However, by the standards of his time, he was a progressive. Jefferson’s story must encompass all that complexity. But the museum fumbled. Embarrassed by protests, the museum found it easier to simply erase Jefferson from Monticello.
Everything is politicized today. Museums, disease, schools, even the British royal family (since when do Americans have opinions about them?) – everything must have a good guy and a bad guy. It’s tar and feathers for those on the opposite side, because their hearts are evil, the actions impure, so the complete destruction of their livelihood and reputations is the only acceptable response. The angels and devils are at war, but we all think we are on the side of the angels.
But food is different. That’s why when I saw three beefy, good old boys going into a local BBQ spot, I knew we found a good spot. They looked like guys that knew stuff about beer and ribs. They probably voted for Trump and weren’t vaccinated, but I didn’t care. We were in solidarity about lunch, and in these polarized times, that’s a blessing.
It was a vacation week for me, so not much elsewhere.