Virginia Real magazine
The real  Virginia, old and new
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A NYer in Virginia

                         A New York Vegetarian in the South
                                                                                 by Grace E. Pedalino


     Virginia is the first place I have ever been where I felt I could apply the word fecund. Steamy, hot, fertile, lush.  And Virginia is all that—in the summer. Sweat trickles down into uncomfortable places and stays there. When I first moved south, people would nod their heads knowingly and say, “Oh, you must have had a lot of culture shock.” Like I had moved to a foreign and strange country. And for the average Northerner, south of the Mason-Dixon line is an unknown. Although they think they understand the South. But no place is a cliché. On the other hand, Southerners think they know what the North is. It’s a mutual misunderstanding.  You can only be shocked by something if you think that your way is the only one. So the answer to the culture shock question is no. But there are some things I miss and things I don’t.  And some things here I still don’t understand. I had no idea that lard came in a 4-pound tub or that you could buy ½ gallon of mayonnaise.

     And why are the restaurants closed between 2:30 and 5:00 or 6 p.m. and then close for the night at around 9? Ok, yes, I’m griping. I understand they just don’t have the business to sustain longer hours. I was spoiled in New York, where I could find a restaurant open at just about any time of the day or night. A fond memory for me was of walking past the iconic Zito’s Bakery on Bleecker Street with friends at 4 a.m. and catching the fragrance of baking bread. We banged on the door and the baker graciously sold us two loaves of hot whole-wheat Italian bread that we devoured while we walked.

     Food is a big issue for anyone transplanted away from the place where they grew up. To compound my dilemma, I’m a vegetarian, and even the vegetables in the South have meat in them. Or lard. Or both. And are often cooked to a uniform shade of gray. My Southern gentleman husband grew up hating vegetables. I’m pretty sure that’s why. He eats them now and even enjoys them. But not the way they are cooked in the South. He hates okra. Told me it’s tough and slimy. He also hates grits; he thinks they taste like their name. As for me, I love okra and gritsand almost anything coated in cornmeal and fried. It’s not healthy, but it’s tasty. I’m fond of fried green tomatoes (my husband doesn’t like that either). But being a vegetarian here is tricky. And while I don’t usually think of salad as dinner, I think of it even less so here. Iceberg lettuce and a hothouse tomato just don’t make the cut for me. There’s nothing sadder than going into a restaurant with friends and having no other option but to say, “I’ll have the salad.”

     Bakeries in the South make me sad. I wandered around for years asking what was wrong with the bread. It was soft and fluffy and mostly white. Bread for me should have a crust, one that your teeth break through with a satisfying crunch. Italian bread in Virginia can almost bring me to tears. It is as soft and fluffy as Southern cotton. Although a well-made buttermilk biscuit is a lovely thing.

     Years after I moved here when a bakery opened that actually made authentic baguettes, I was excited beyond reason. I asked a friend, an Alabama native, didn’t he love the bread? He said, “Nah, too much work to eat.”  I told him he was only 30 and still had all his teeth—use them.

     Bakeries in New York are sybaritic delights with counters crammed with all manner of things. The cases tend to be so high I can barely see over the top of them. It’s true, I’m short, but even so the counters are high. And they are open on Sundays. Bakeries on Sundays were full of people buying pastries to take home or for a Sunday visit with family and friends. The white pastry boxes tied in a tower with string is something I have never seen here. I miss that and their contents. Cannoli, chocolate rum balls, sfogliatelle, and the wonderful marzipan fruit that is a specialty of Sicilian bakeries for Easter. My nonnu (grandfather) used to get a marzipan lamb for Easter. Good marzipan should taste of almonds and not be gritty with sugar.

     Don’t get me wrong. I love it here. There’s a lot to love. Now, anyone want some pecan pie?


barn photo by Grace E. Pedalino


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