A Plateful of Memory

18 Feb

In the front seat of my grandpa’s Impala
I guess it was late summer in ’63
he said, I’m gonna get you a big old burger with a small town’s worth of flavor
you know it’s the finest place in our little town to eat. . .

. . .So give us this day our daily bread
and remember the truth is gonna set us free
and she said what are you doing here alone on another Saturday night
and I said ah I’m just a being me
besides it’s the finest place in our little town to eat

Neon lights, all night diner
Anita’s right on time with my coffee and extra cream

— Brian Hall, Anita Pours Coffee

Last week was a bit rough. A new earlier morning regimen had me a tad sleep deprived and with a mid week jaunt to DC to Ash Wednesday service at the National Shrine, a slight pestilence was trying to gain a foothold in my throat. So when Cupid’s Day rolled around, I was achy and a bit homesick. But I decided to take myself out to dinner for the day of love anyway in memory of one of my favorite dinner companions…my grandaddy. If there was anyone I’d love to spend a nice Valentine’s dinner with, it would be him. Granny always tells the story that when I was little, he took my high chair down to the basement and sawed the bottoms of the legs off so it would sit up to the table evenly right beside him. My feet never hit the ground for the first three years of my life, according to her. I was a permanent fixture in his arms. Naturally a diner, something with a bit of the south and of nostalgia seemed the place to go to remember him and to feel well…more like dinner felt back then.

Market at Main was my destination, and for a single diner, it’s perfect with a long marble counter, friendly waitstaff, and a full view of the kitchen. I had eaten there before a few times, but always for brunch, never for dinner. So with a photo of Grandaddy on my phone, I went downtown for homestyle southern diner fare.

The atmosphere of Market at Main has all the right features of a nostalgic forties diner, but with a lot more space. The ceilings are high which opens up the atmosphere without making a counter diner seem exposed or cold. That aspect I like quite a bit, and there is something to be said about barstools at just the right height. Many bars have seats too low to rest one’s arms properly on the counter, or too high to cross one’s legs properly underneath. I felt quite comfortable in my swivel seat almost immediately. The only aspect of the restaurant I don’t enjoy is that the open kitchen, while fascinating to watch, emits a normal cooking smoke and the smell permeates my hair and clothes. When I leave, I know I have been there. They have large ceiling fans, but it’s the down home cooking, real cooking that resonates in the air. Whenever I cook bacon at home the same thing happens. I suppose it’s like finding a tiny bit of manure in the mushroom carton, it lets a person know that the food is real. That’s more important, to me anyway.

Two of the waitstaff greeted me quickly and I was tended to with great care. For the holiday evening, a special menu was available and it was really hard for me to choose. One aspect I did not anticipate was the availability of beer and wine, something not typically diner-esque, but a nice touch. I ordered a Raywood Merlot that was soft and slightly tannic. My first course of fried green tomatoes balanced with it nicely. They were tart and savory, paired with a spicy mustard remoulade sauce that had good peppery heat. Even though they were a tiny bit soft for my tastes, everyone has his or her own recipe. These were more tender, thicker cut, so the coating was less crispy than I had enjoyed at breakfast previously. Again, real food has variation…probably from cook to cook as well. It might even be the season, too. Green tomatoes in winter aren’t typical seasonal fare.

Among a few delicious sounding choices, I chose the Tango Pork: pork loin medallions with a citrus balsamic glaze and fried plantains, collards on the side along with grilled zucchini. I almost bent to the macaroni and cheese, but held off. I didn’t think it would quite mesh with a citrusy glaze. The only aspect of the special menu selection that I didn’t like was that the entrees didn’t seemed to be paired well to available sides. They were most definitely southern classics, but I began to think that perhaps the specials should stick to classic southern rather than “fancy fare”, one of the reasons I didn’t choose the Pink Chicken, with its raspberry, white wine cream sauce. My dinner was delicious, nonetheless, the glaze on the pork not overly fruity nor sweet. Both the collards and zucchini were ultra fresh and not over cooked, which is usually the case in most restaurants that serve greens. I could have ordered just collards and the macaroni and cheese, that would have definitely reminded me of being at Granny’s, maybe next time.

The plantains, however, weren’t cut to fry well and I honestly thought they were bananas, really not to my liking. Overall though, the food was solid and real, but I think trying to be something it wasn’t. No matter what, the menu should stick close to cafe southern, even on a holiday. That’s the whole appeal of the place, and pretty much the only place I know of to get home cooking that isn’t like a cafeteria or haute Lowcountry. Is there a category for Gourmet Virginian? There are plenty of fancy Valentine’s Day dinners out there in beautifully decorated candlelit spaces. Southern diner though is quaint, loving and warm and it should just be that, even with the food. Simple food made by nurturing hands. That is the soul of southern cooking to me.

Market at Main does have that quality and that that extends to the people there as well. I don’t think I’ve been some place where so many people smiled at me or wanted to tend to me. It was like Granny’s, the “what can I get you”, “how you doing baby” sort of feeling. I like that, especially on a Valentine’s Day when I was tired and a tiny bit homesick for family loving. That was soon remedied, though. One of the cooks, who had previously come by to ask me how my dinner was, came out of the kitchen again to talk to one of the patrons. As he did, he pulled a tiny frame out of his pocket and began to talk about his grandfather. My ear perked up immediately. Then, he went to show another coworker and then another waitress. I asked if he’d show me. What a genuinely nice young man. He came over, proud as punch and showed me the tiny black and white framed photograph of his grandfather, Irvin Lloyd Hoyt.

“He was in the Coast Guard”,  he said smiling. “Doctors gave him five years to live back in ‘72 cause he had black lung from being a coal miner.”

He told me he had passed away only a few weeks ago at 89. But that picture told me how this young man saw his grandad, as a hero and he was so proud. And I thought, he was carrying his loved one with him on Valentine’s Day, just like I’m carrying my granddady with me. That picture means the world to him, one small way he can express his love for a great man in his life.

We shook hands and formally met.

“Hi, I’m Jeremy.”

It was a genuinely good moment, one that reminded me of seeing a cousin again after a long time, family connecting two virtual strangers. I didn’t show him the photo of Grandaddy on my phone, but I did tell him how much of a grandaddy’s girl I am. I could tell in the smile we shared that he understood.

I’ve been thinking of family this Valentine’s Day, and how important it is to remember and be remembered. I like to think we take our family with us everywhere we go, in our smiles, in our handshakes and hugs, sometimes literally in our pockets. Simple love extends to all sorts of endeavors and at times, the best food is made and enjoyed with family in our hearts and minds.

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