Monday, December 22, 2014

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner - Wayside Takeout

The idea was to impress the girl.  Not just any girl, mind you, but the girl to whom I had, this last summer, professed my truest love.  Because this girl (whom we’ll yet call X) was traveling from Chicago see me and discover all that is great and good about my hometown-for-now of Washington, D.C.  This trip would effectively be her first visit to D.C. in over twenty years, and it was up to me to present D.C. at its capitol best—its coolest museums, its finest restaurants, its hippest watering holes.  All in the span of a way-too-brief forty-eight hours.

What to do.

Planning X’s first twenty-four hours in D.C. was a no-brainer:  there would be a trip to the National Portrait Gallery, followed by Chef-pal Hamilton Johnson’s five-course tasting menu at Vidalia, followed by cocktails composed by master-mixologist and friend, Jeff Faile, at Partisan, in Washington’s newly reminted Penn Quarter.  The day would be perfect.  Pure magic.  One for the ages.  This much I knew.  But how could I possibly improve on this?  How could I best such fun? 

I had my doubts.  I had a beer.

Then I had my answer.

We would avoid D.C. altogether. 
Instead, I would offer X Virginia in its purest form, the Virginia we, here, dream about:  a rolling October’s drive through horse country.  Autumnal foliage.  Golden, sun-dappled light.  Wood smoke in the air.  I would offer a glorious, two-hour drive down to Monticello to there mutually delight in Mister Jefferson’s hilltop home, and all the views of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia those splendid gardens and grounds would surely afford.

So we went.  To Monticello.

To here and now undertake any discussion on the confoundingly contradictory nature of Thomas Jefferson (as we know it) is a fool’s errand in the extreme, with the subject being too highly nuanced to be sufficiently redressed in this silly little blog about food (buy me a beer, however, and I’ll speak ad infinitum on the syntactical shell game the estate’s docents deploy when describing Jefferson’s relationship with slave and lover, Sally Hemmings).  Suffice it to say that X and I had a perfectly delightful time marveling at the apotheosis of Virginia’s greatest mind.  The Colonial-era technological marvels atop Jefferson’s desk.  His books.  His gardens.  The dumb waiter he built specifically for wine.  Pure genius.  All of it.  But these delights were expected.  It was Thomas Jefferson, after all.  What X and I found so extraordinary was what happened just after we left Monticello. 

Because lunch happened.  That’s what.  And not just anywhere, boy-o, but at Charlottesville’s truly remarkable Wayside Takeout.

Wayside Takeout is an aberration in the current zeitgeist of culinary branding, which demands every purveyor of truly authentic regional cuisine—be it a long-cherished, deeply-enshrined area institution, or a tarpaper shack on the side of the road—incessantly remind its eaters of just how truly authentic its food really is, until the meaning of “authenticity” becomes lost in that linguistic funhouse of Derridaian post-structuralism found in food media and Yelp reviews.  Wayside is different.  It’s refreshingly—almost shockingly—old school.  Because Wayside’s décor maintains a classic, dino-era theme that has nothing to do with food.  Walk into Wayside, and you’ll see counter staff and cooks alike festooned in t-shirts of Cavalier orange.  Gaze upon its walls and you’ll see it papered with every manner of school banner, team calendar, and greater campus announcement, as if Wayside had been commandeered and annexed as outpost of the University of Virginia’s Student Union.  It’s not until you notice what’s offered on its letter-board menu behind the counter that there is any indication of Wayside’s deeply serious culinary intent.  Fried chicken.  Fried clams.  Fried livers.  Sides galore.  This profusion of Tidewater classics will be a familiar gastronomic litany to anyone who has visited Virginia, to be sure, but what’s not mentioned on the menu, and what X and I discovered upon ordering our own shared five-piece box, is that everything at Wayside is fried-to-order.  Fried.  To.  Order.  No pre-cooked yardbird.  No heat lamps where flavor crawls up to die.  Not here.  Here, you order.  They cook.  In that order.  And when you are served, moments later, your chicken arrives perfectly moist, perfectly crispy, and most importantly, having magically attained, for this eater at least, that death-row-last-meal state of absolute culinary perfection.

X and I sat in a booth with our chicken, our Cheerwine, our hushpuppies, our two sides of greens and slaw, and there we quietly devoured our food in the kind of happy and stunned silence that attends all truly great meals, where no one is compelled to speak because there simply are no words, and where only a quick smile is required to convey one’s own deeply satisfied culinary bliss. 

The importance of fried chicken to American gastronomy, in general, and to African-American foodways, in particular, can hardly be overstated.  Frying was used as the primary method of preserving chicken by generations of African-Americans, particularly those traveling across the segregated American South.  Fried chicken eaten cold—as it would have been eaten by entire populations of hungry travelers denied access by Jim Crow to white-owned restaurants—is the best and truest measure of its greatness, I believe.  So X and I ordered an extra piece of chicken to take with us on the road, and headed back home.  Hours later, just before midnight, and after the chicken had endured miles of travel and a stint in my fridge, we shared that piece, in the space on the bed between us, still in its paper box.

And it was freaking great.

That the good people of Wayside Takeout fry and serve chicken with all the quiet and masterful reverence the dish deserves speaks admirably of them.  That they fry chicken so well and with absolutely none of the pretense that usually accompanies such culinary greatness, is nothing short of miraculous. 

Go there.  Order the five-piece box.  Order some Cheerwine.  And share it with the person you love.  She just might be impressed.  Maybe.

 Your links:  Wayside Takeout:


Post Script:  For the record, our meal at Vidalia was a minor masterpiece of gastronomy, and our         cocktails at Partisan were pure genius.  Hamilton Johnson and Jeff Faile are incredibly gifted at what they do, and I am honored to bathe in their light.  -C         

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