All photos by my friend and Richmond-based photographer Andrew Rolfe. Check out more of his work on Flickr.
Late one fall night, some time ago, in a dark dining room in Washington, I had supper with a writer who had recently published an ebullient piece on the food scene in Richmond, Virginia. When he learned Richmond was my hometown, he asked me excitedly what excellent restaurants I had grown up eating at. I paused a minute. I stared at a print of the Battle of Vicksburg on the wall as I thought. Nothing.
Only 120 miles south of Washington, Richmond is an altogether different animal. Somewhere between the two cities, you cross from dark suits to seersucker, from pancetta to country ham, from $10 North Carolina-style barbecue sandwiches to BBQ sandwiches, $1.50 a pop.
Richmond has all the moody, tainted Gothic weirdness of a Southern city. Today, and in my youth, the cool kids hang out on an island that served as a prisoner-of-war camp during the War Between the States and at a vast mid-eighteenth-century cemetery crowded with presidents and Confederates and a vampire that escaped from a train still supposedly trapped in a collapsed tunnel to the east of Downtown. The ghost of Edgar Allan Poe still haunts the city’s streets. (There even used to be a dinner cruise called the Annabel Lee.) Loft condos by the river occupy the sites of Libby Prison and Castle Thunder, and the city’s grandest and most beautiful street is lined mostly with statues of dead Confederates. (The street is sometimes dubbed the Avenue of Second Place Trophies by those less enamored of the city’s troubled past. The final statue, of Arthur Ashe facing away from the others, was a glorious middle finger to this legacy.)
Richmond is the only city where I’ve ever been called a “carpetbagger” and “Northern scum,” by a real-life Confederate flag-wielding street protester no less. At least in my youth, there was a strict social hierarchy presided over by the so-called First Families of Virginia – the ones who successfully lobbied for the Pocahontas Exception to the state’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act. There’s an entire museum devoted to an apologist retelling of the War of Northern Aggression. And, by my count, I endured seven years of schooling on the Civil War despite the war having lasted barely four.
But despite its Southernness, Richmond never really developed the high food culture of a New Orleans or a Savannah or a Charleston. In a well-recited anecdote, Winston Churchill attended a reception in Richmond only to be served cold chicken. (When asked what part of the chicken he’d prefer, he asked for the “breast” and was admonished by the buxom hostess that “we Southern ladies use the term ‘white meat.’” The next day, Churchill sent the hostess a corsage with a card that read simply, “I would be most obliged if you would pin this on your ‘white meat.’”)
I remember the Richmond of my childhood as a parochial place of bland palates. I remember waiting in line in a café near the Country Club behind a genteel blue-haired old lady ordering a comparatively exotic Thai (pronounced “thigh”) chicken salad – the only thing vaguely Asian about it being the mandarin orange slices and LaChoy chow mein noodles. I remember people flocking to an awful (mercifully now defunct) barbecue restaurant – its logo a pair of disturbingly cannibalistic pigs – despite the presence of far better spots in the city’s hinterland. I remember rushing to try new ethnic restaurants in the first few weeks after they opened, before one too many native-born Richmonders had asked, “now this isn’t going to be too spicy now, is it?” (My family would talk with teary eyes of restaurants being “Richmondized” or “blanched.”)
Naturally, there were highlights among the pallor: King’s in Petersburg, spoon bread at the Federal Reserve Bank’s cafeteria. But what restaurants had I grown up excited to eat in? Aside from a passable Indian restaurant and two passable Chinese restaurants, I couldn’t name a single one. Far too often, you ate out because you didn’t want to cook or clean, not because the food was better.
Several months after that fall dinner, it’s a hot day in early summer, and we’re driving back to Washington, up the impossibly dull, endless tree-tunnel of I-95, with sixteen personal-sized savory pies and two whole fruit pies steaming aromatically in the back seat. By Ladysmith, a beautifully-named nothing of a town only 37 miles out of Richmond, only my desire to be home and off the interstate keeps me from pulling off the road and tearing into them like a hyena into a strawberry-rhubarb-filled zebra.
Richmond is different now. The ghosts of its past still linger in the flaggers and the cemeteries and the Avenue of Second Place Trophies. Richmond wouldn’t be Richmond without them. But something is afoot in the city. In the last few years, I’m not sure I’ve had a bad meal in the city. I’ve rediscovered Millie’s, a 25-year-old diner on the east end of the city where the old tobacco warehouses give way to brownfields and countryside. I’ve discovered Comfort on Broad Street and Rappahannock downtown and Roosevelt in Church Hill. If you like whisky, and who doesn’t, there’s a fantastic whisky bar on Robinson Street in the Fan. There’s a beautiful purveyor of artisanal charcuterie.
All of them, I daresay, feel distinctly Richmond, which shocked me. Until relatively recently, I would have said Richmond felt distinctly like nothing.
As a kid, this frustrated me.
Due to a combination of its relative age and near-bankruptcy in the period when every other city tore down its historic districts, Richmond has always been a fantastic-looking place: red tobacco warehouses and endless Edwardian rowhouses pouring over and under a series of hills edged by a rocky, rapid-filled river; grand parks and boulevards; some spectacular views; and a more patent sense of antiquity than just about any other city in the country.
And there were some characters. There was Dirt Woman, who, with his mother, would frequent the late night synagogue bingo games my dad would sometimes work in an old event space on an otherwise deserted block off Broad Street, near the Triangle Adult Bookstore. Dirt Woman, the illiterate streetwalker drag queen, who, straight out of Pink Flamingos, got her name after defecating in the back of a police car in 1976, who went on to sell flowers, self-publish an outrageous charity calendar, appear in a GWAR music video, and run for mayor. There was the city councilmember who called a taxpayer-funded vacation a sister-city fact-finding mission. There was the slightly over-it news anchor with the tremendous puns who wrote a murder mystery about Flossie, a topless dancer at the local strip club. There was Sargeant Santa.
But despite its aesthetic and the occasional flash of color, it was always a somewhat boring place. More a place of Easter bonnets, denim dresses, soulless shopping malls, and supermarket salad bars. A place were local news anchors were forced to incorrectly and ahistorically pronounce “Powhite” as “pow-hite” to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of indigent Caucasians.
It needn’t have been. It could have been such an exciting place. Maybe it’s because I’m from there (and who likes where they’re from?), or maybe it’s because I took it for granted, but Richmond always reminded me of the Southern debutante, all dressed up in finery but with nothing but grits for brains or spirit, empty, a shell.
Richmond is filled with lovely neighborhoods: the splendid Edwardians of the Fan, the graceful mansions of Windsor Farms, the balconied apartment buildings along the Boulevard, the bright pastels of Main Street by the university, and the vaguely Spanish, vaguely Tudor hodgepodge of Byrd Park Court. But loveliest among them, I’ve always thought, is Church Hill.
As you might expect, the neighborhood climbs a sizable hill bounded on the south by the James River and on the west by Shockoe Valley, the city’s oldest tobacco and manufacturing district of brick warehouses and night clubs, across which you get a staggering view of Richmond’s downtown. The neighborhood is filled with some of the city’s oldest homes, antebellum homes and late nineteenth-century homes lining wide, tree-lined streets where moss peeks through the cobblestones. In 1737, William Byrd stood on this hill, looked out over the river, and remarked how much it reminded him of Richmond, England. It was here that, in 1775, Patrick Henry may or may not have asked for liberty or death at St. John’s Church, which gives the neighborhood its name.
On the neighborhood’s main drag, just a few blocks from St. John’s, you find Proper Pie Company. Proper Pie is a small storefront with a counter, only a few seats, and the smell of baking dough. And old commercial space, it has high ceilings, and, in true Southern fashion, fans that turn slowly, suggesting a breeze but emphasizing the humidity. A child of Kickstarter, the business has no proper website, only a Facebook page really, and is closed the entire month of August when its owners go back to New Zealand. Their hours are limited, and, when they sell out of pies, that’s it for the day. They don’t deliver, and, sadly, they won’t ship. (I’ve asked.) It’s the best pie I’ve ever had, and, if the name of this website is any clue, I’ve had plenty.
This is the New Richmond. A Richmond that seems, finally, to have grown up and found itself. Or maybe it hasn’t grown up at all but rather gloriously regressed. It still has its Southern seriousness, but it’s gone from the too stolid Episcopalian to a more picturesque Ignatius J. Reilly. It’s Kerouac on the road. It’s the Renaissance. It’s a creative place, ripe for exploration and discovery.
And so, on the sunset of a summer weekend visit south, despite having had lunch there the day before, we paid a last minute trip to Proper Pie and stocked up on 16 personal-sized savories (chicken and kumara, pork chili verde, beef chili rojo, lamb pasty, and lentil) and 2 whole sweets (strawberry-rhubarb and mixed berry) before realizing what we had done. The following week was a blissful blur of pies, of dinners, of dinner parties to plow through them, of reheated-pie lunches, of pies transferred to family. Two remain in the freezer for a rainy day.
My relationship with my hometown has always been mixed. Perhaps it’s Freudian. I’ve always appreciated it visually: the rowhouses, the mansions, the old department stores on Broad Street (out-of-business by the late 1980s and early 1990s), the lavish Moorish palace (once a grand movie theater from the 1920s) and the Shriners’ mosque that had become performing arts centers by my childhood, the occasional wrought-iron balcony, the cobblestones, its bridges, its parks and squares, the old Sauer’s sign and the strong smell of spices as you passed it, the old tobacco warehouses and Main Street Station’s terracotta tower nestled snugly among the concrete and shadows of car and train overpasses. But the city always seemed bland and provincial and closed-off culturally, with strict social hierarchies which, by no means a local Brahmin, I never fit neatly into.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve tended to keep one memento from the people and places of my life. My mother’s father is a 1920s film projector, my father’s father is a pair of World War II-era telescopes, and Richmond was always a hideous cocktail tray with a foxhunting motif. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts contains an entire gallery devoted to foxhunting scenes, which, rightly or wrongly, always seemed the height of Richmond style. This was always a reminder of a city I had was from but never fully felt a part of.
I moved away to a city, Washington, that feels more like a home than Richmond ever did, and my parents moved away too. Years went by without a visit, and when I began to visit again, after I began to let go of the memories I carried with me, I began to see a new place in the old, familiar buildings. I was shocked to discover the new Richmond, with food that conveyed a sense of place, with city streets more filled with life, with a population that had finally realized that such a beautiful city, with such a rich history, should, in fact, be a fascinating place.
You can’t go home again, they say, but that’s not always a bad thing. Case in point: the pies.