Monday, August 22, 2011

The Blue and White and the Southern Soul

So here's how the topic first comes up:  there are three of us in this Washington, D.C. dive bar, late at night, and deep enough into our cups, as they say, to mistake platitudes for epiphanies and to think that ordering two batches of freshly fried pork skins is a really, really good idea.  It's that kind of night.  We are all strangers, we three, but have struck up a quick friendship to trick ourselves into believing that each of us is not actually drinking alone in this Capitol Hill shit hole where the bartender is selling little white pills across the bar and the one, lone waitress is offering to service male patrons in the men's room out back.  Like I said:  it's that kind of night.  One of my companions is from New York City, a photographer by trade; the other is from Atlanta, a motorcycle mechanic, all tattoos and nose rings, and they are arguing, loudly, if affably enough, over the soul of Washington--is it a Southern city, as the New Yorker contends, or does its cold heart and killing pace necessarily relegate it to the North, as the dude from Atlanta maintains?  They bicker back and forth for a minute, trade a few friendly blows to the arms and shoulders, then posit the question to me, the one among us who actually lives here.

"So, which is it?" asks the New Yorker.  "Washington.  Northern or Southern?"

I bite my lip and consider.  I have to get this right.  These guys are all smiles, sure, but three drinks from now it might be blood, not beer, that gets spilled.

"Both," I say.  "Neither."

"Einstein," says the mechanic.  "That's who you are."

The New Yorker looks at me and rolls his eyes.

"Jackass," he says.

That Washington is well below the Mason-Dixon Line should have settled the matter for my drinking companions and me, but everyone here, be they the recently-landed from the outer provinces or long-time residents, is quick to realize that D.C. is at the cultural (and culinary) confluence of two vastly different American traditions.  One can easily see the former home of Robert E. Lee from the rear terrace of the Lincoln Memorial.  President Kennedy famously remarked that Washington was a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm, a quip, however funny, that reveals the essential duality of this place.  We are both, simultaneously Northern and Southern, a fact which looms over us like a kind of historical haunting, and posesses us like a cultural schizophrenia, and which, ultimately makes us something kindred to both and apart from each.  We are neither.  

But where, then, if not in Washington, does the North end and the South begin?

With all due respect to Misters Mason and Dixon, who got it so wrong with their proverbial line in the sand, I believe I alone have the correct answer.

The Southern United States begin at 1024 Wythe Street in Alexandria, Virginia, at the Blue and White Carry Out, and is heralded not by the Stars and Bars, but by some of the best fried chicken you're likely to ever put in your mouth.

I understand if you've driven by and have  been afraid to stop.  Believe me, I do.  The Blue and White not only looks menacing, as far as eateries go, it feels dangerous.  Situated in an industrial section of northern Old Town in spitting distance from Section 8 housing, the Blue and White hardly appears as the culinary power house that it most certainly is.  No, the Blue and White is tiny.  Maybe a 150 square feet--tops--of working space, I'd guess.  And dirty-looking.  And old.  Really old.  As in eighty-five years old.  And did I mention tiny?  The door jam framing the single ingress is so low that patrons taller than 5'8" have to duck when entering.  And once inside, you'd better be on your toes, boy-o, because there is a palpable amalgam of racial tension and requisite Soup-Nazi-like protocol to ordering that, if upset, will undoubtedly result in the diminished quality of your order.

So if the Blue and White is all these things (and is most certainly is) then why bother?  Why not just drive a little farther south and eat at Chipotle with all the other khaki-wearing, button-down, slack-jawed douchebags who flock to Old Town, Alexandria, on any given day?  I'll tell you why, jack-o:  the fried chicken.  Just the smell of it stopped me at 10:30 on a Thursday morning like any other.  Blue sky.  Puffy white clouds.  Just a regular day.  Only it wasn't.  Someone was frying chicken while the rest of the working world was still picking Frosted Flakes out of its collective teeth.  So in I went, into this tiny, filthy shack of a place misbegotten upon a street corner that the march of time (and the ceaseless avarice of real estate developers) had somehow overlooked.

The act of eating soul food is inherently a political one.  It's largely a deep-fried cuisine whose high-fat, high-starch content that speaks to the legacy of physical toil and hardship that such calorically-dense foods necessarily evoke.  Food to nourish the soul when one's bodily reality was abject misery.  Unless you think digging ditches is fun.  No.  It's soul food.  Southern food.  Food for black people tasked with doing all the really, really hard work that white people, with our famous and famously collective sense of entitlement, were unwilling to do.

So it did not go unnoticed that a white boy like me (avec starched white shirt and soft white hands) would come into a soul food joint and ask for fried chicken.  Was I embracing the politics of soul food or subverting it, was the question.  Was I okay, down with the program, or just another white dude in an expensive neck tie pretending to own the place?  Behind the glass, in a space no bigger than a walk-in closet (think "Das Boot," only smaller and way more cramped), were four African-American cooks, who politely asked what I'd like to eat while somehow managing to suggest that I should already know what I wanted to eat.  That only suckers and chumps ordered off menus.  So I winged it.  I made something up.  A soul food menu in my head.  I ordered the chicken dinner and the pork chop dinner, hoping they had both.  They smiled.

"I'm guessing you want the white meat," said the cook.

I smiled back.

"I prefer dark meat," I said.  "Always have."


"You know it."



"Hot sauce?"

"Over everything," I said.  "Never leave home without it."

The cook winked at me.

"Enjoy your dark meat."

I winked back.

"I always do."

What I received was two styrofoam "clam shells" with nearly two pounds of food in each.  A massive lunch by any definition.  So how to eat it?  Back at my office, at my desk, in front of my computer just like any other Gap-loving, gravity-bound white guy would do, or out in the open, in the fresh air, as a real working man would, as soul food was meant to be eaten?  So I ate it on the hood of my car.  At 10:40 on that sunny Thursday morning.  In the middle of traffic.  With my plastic fork and styrofoam plate, I ate.  What I discovered, with equal parts chagrin and delight, was that I was having two very different culinary experiences at the same time.  To explain:  the potatoes, the collard greens, and the brown gravy that was poured over nearly everything, while perfectly eatable, were prefab, industrial, reconstituted and canned, respectively, while my two proteins, the chicken and the pork, were both fried after I had ordered.  Both proteins were fantastic, with the chicken being nearly transcendental, god-like in its perfection, and easily some of the best I've ever had in my life.  And the cheapest.  Both meals, including an ice-cold Royal Crown Cola, cost me just over ten ($10--that's right) American dollars.  Two lunches.  Ten dollars total.  Call it Christmas in August.

But as I ate, there on the hood of my car, in the tiny shadow of that tiny and ancient little shack, all 150 square feet of it, I realized the Blue and White doesn't cook its own potatoes and greens because it can't.  There's no room.  No real estate.  No space.  Anyone who has ever cooked collards, mustards, or kale knows that greens greatly reduce in volume when cooked, they shrink, disappear in fact, and that raw greens that may have taken up a whole shelf of fridge space will produce no more than a few paltry servings of vegetable matter.  For the Blue and White to cook their own greens, they'd have to annex the adjacent building just to serve you a marginally better product, and after eighty-five years of doing this, that simply ain't in the chips, friend-o.

What the Blue and White cooks is protein.  They have a deep fryer and a grill.  Side by side.  Five feet from where you order your lunch.  That's all.  And that's what they cook in and on.  Chicken.  Pork.  Beef.  Fish.  In oil.  On hot, flat steel.  And what they cook is some of the best chicken in the Southern United States.  A bold statement, I know.  But how else to stave off Northern aggression with its hard consonants and gruff manners and Euro-centric cuisine than with chicken that makes you happy to simply be alive and have fry-grease dribbling down your chin?

Go feed your soul.  Give it chicken.  Eat on the hood of car and lick your fingers.  Eat in very, very northern edge of the South.  Eat at the Blue and White.  Why?  Because they give you two pieces of white sandwich bread to mop the brown gravy off your plate.  And because it's ridiculously cheap.  And because it's really good.  And because, after eighty-five years, it's still there.


And order the dark meat.

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