Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Ham Biscuits and Holidays

hambiscuit Wakefield, Virginia. One of the pleasures of beach traffic during the summer is--wait a minute, what am I saying?! Every year, the traffic along I-64 East from Richmond to Virginia Beach seems to get worse and worse. It bottles up around Williamsburg, it bottles up around Hampton, and then it stops dead at the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. Hours and hours pass as all of the adults in the car sigh heavily, use colorful expletives, and generally bemoan the fact that they didn't choose to take Rt. 460 instead. Yes, 460 is longer and has annoying stop lights, and yes, you feel like throwing yourself out of the moving car when you have to loop back onto I-64 in the end in order actually to get to Virginia Beach but, BUT no one else is on the road except you and the small-town cops in the speed traps; it's smooth sailing all the way. When it's finally conceded that 460 is the best way to go, gratitude to the traffic gods overwhelms me, and I am compelled to offer my thanks at the Virginia Diner in Wakefield, VA. Or, more precisely, I am thankful for the Virginia Diner and the absence of 21st century homogeneousness that plagues the highways of this country. I've been going to the Virginia Diner all of my life; there was a time before the existence of I-64 (believe it or not) and this was the way everyone went to the beach. Although the Virginia Diner has spiffed up some since those days, has expanded and added a gift shop at the entrance full of various varieties of boiled Virginia peanuts, it's not so entranced with its own quaintness and anachronisticity to forget why people stopped there in the first place--the food. Basic southern fare like ham biscuits and fried chicken provide the bulk of the menu, although when we stopped there last Friday on the way to the beach for the 4th of July weekend, they had a pretty impressive buffet happening. There was a large roast beef (medium, of course), fried shrimp, fried fish, barbecue, ham, corn, biscuits, etc., etc, for $10.95 a person. That was a little steep for us, so we opted for the menu and immediate seating in the smoking section since there was a long, long wait for non-smoking. Oddly, no one at all was smoking in the smoking section--not a single person. Of course, we were stashed in the back, away from the windows in what looked like a banquet section, but then, we weren't really there for the atmosphere. Ham biscuits were my goal (although I was sorely tempted by the fried chicken)-- barbecue for my husband. The children, of course, wanted hot dogs. The biscuits at the Virginia Diner aren't the flaky kind that pull apart in layers; these are high-rising biscuits, fluffy and buttery, that seem indigenous to this part of the country. I love those flaky kind, but I've never been able to make them and I can't recall ever eating them when I was growing up at anyone else's house either, unless they came from a can. Inside my three hot biscuits, folded in paper-thin slices, was a mound of salty, smoky country ham with just the slightest hint of sweetness in the sliver of fat left around the outside rim of each slice. After the addition of a little more butter to the inside top-half of each biscuit, my dinner was perfect and ready to eat. Each bite reminded me of the ham my grandmother would send us for Christmas every year and the somewhat laborious process involved in readying same ham fit to eat. First you had to remove the cloth covering, then peel away with a sharp knife the mold that invariably grew over the outside (my mother would always assure me that the mold was "normal"), and then soak the ham in water overnight to remove the excess salt. Then and only THEN, was that ham ready to cook--for hours. I think that's why I love ham biscuits so much: they are presented to you ready to eat, no work involved, just the perfect hot and tender vehicle to transfer the cold and salty deliciousness to your mouth. Accompanying my wonder biscuits was the Virginia Diner's signature side of Peanut Waldorf Salad. Now, don't forget, Wakefield is the center of peanut country, and the cooks at the Virginia Diner try to slide peanuts in wherever they can. They're most successful with their peanut pie--think pecan pie and replace the pecans with peanuts--and this great twist on the traditional Waldorf. The usual apples, celery, and raisins were there but peanuts subbed for walnuts and topping it all was a lusciously sweet, almost Asian peanut dressing. It provided a succulent counterpoint to the salty saltiness of the ham (reduncies just abound with Virginia ham), displacing my (usually) favorite salt back-simmered green beans, and almost replacing dessert. As I slid behind the wheel, I knew, fortified with ham, I could deal with any traffic exigency, as long as I had enough water to slake my thirst all the way to Virginia Beach. I tossed back a few peanuts and settled in for the long holiday drive through the country, and the seashore that waited at the end.


Anonymous stef said...

yum. that DOES look good.

July 17, 2005 9:11 PM  
Blogger Get Out There Richmond said...

I've had the pleasure of stopping by the VA Diner a couple of times, and it really is part of a dying breed. Usually, we vacilate between horrible chains or over-priced and overly anticipated eateries, but this place is just simple diner cooking. Both my husband and I had the buffet and though it wasn't high end eatin', it was good stuff. Nice work.

August 14, 2005 12:22 AM  

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