I recently ventured with two friends into the wilds of Virginia. Pete, I strongly suspect, harbored daydreams of hiking up a majestic, tree-festooned mountain and looking out over the same gas stations once beheld by Civil War generals. The vineyard brochures that Eden optimistically clutched betrayed her unspoken pining for a cultured afternoon of wine-sipping at some civilized retreat. While I hadn't any particular rural fantasies of my own, I expected to spend no part of my afternoon eating a pulped pig's face. But as I would soon learn, Fortune is a fickle waitress, and her Special of the Day is writ large on the dry-erase board of Fate.
After a short drive that left us hungry, we followed hospitable billboards to the Hi, Neighbor! restaurant in Strasburg, Va. Not far from the Shenandoah River, Strasburg is a well-preserved antebellum relic with a cozy downtown where people are friendly even to transient heathens who happen to sully the Sabbath with their mildly intrusive gawking.
Time hasn't exactly stood still in Strasburg, but that flaky-looking crystal shop just off the main drag isn't far from a beautifully maintained Victorian inn and a colorful custard stand that mark the town's main intersection. In an era of overpriced, faux-1950s theme restaurants and formerly quaint storefronts that now groan in helpless protest at having to house Gap Kids, Strasburg is the closest to the real thing you're going to find.
It's a little quiet on a Sunday afternoon, but the Strasbourgeoisie seem to like that just fine. The Hi, Neighbor!, just off the main drag, is an unassuming little eatery, Spartan but cozy enough and blessed with a satisfying diner menu, friendly service and inarguably reasonable prices. What more could three Washingtonians want for their noontime repast? But Pete, ever the vigilant culinary crusader, let his taste buds wander over to the lunch counter. Above it was a sign that read, in confident, bold lettering, WE HAVE PUDDIN MEAT.
Most people are content to let local specialties remain local. Some secrets are best kept secret. Once, for example, in an important kitchen experiment, Pete and I invented "pea bread," which logically followed from the existence of foods like carrot cake and banana bread. It sure was green.
But I digress. Puddin meat, our waitress explained with disinterest, is a unique local variation on scrapple. Clive Barker could write a novel about scrapple. This rather grisly entree comes to us courtesy of the face, chest cavity and other macabre parts of a pig--all of those castoff fragments of flesh that would normally clog the sluiceway in large, oily chunks. This morbid melange is ground, spiced, thickened with cornmeal, baked in a loaf, and not only served with a runny egg but sometimes, in an absurdly redundant demonstration of excess, garnished with bacon bits. Scrapple makes that hot dog you bought at the ballpark last week look like filet mignon. Actually, it makes that raccoon you hit on your way to the ballpark look like filet mignon. Scrapple is immune to metaphor, because when you're eating it, "whole hog" isn't just a figure of speech; it's literal, eponymous truth.
Our waitress returned from the kitchen, bearing a grayish pulpy substance with the consistency of canned tuna that in no way could be mistaken for pudding. Or meat, for that matter. You see, puddin meat is so much more than mere scrapple. Puddin meat, the waitress explained, replaces the standard cornmeal thickener with everyone's favorite coagulant: prodigious portions of yummy, viscous, enriching liver.
By all rights, the puddin meat should have given me the same queasy feeling I get when the director of an Aerosmith video cuts too quickly between Liv Tyler and Steven Tyler, and my body should have rejected it as if it were a giant insect limb grafted onto my abdomen. Even the waitress told us that she, raised on a daily diet of puddin meat, could no longer stomach the stuff. But Pete and I ate it; we ate the whole bowl, at first cautiously, and then enthusiastically--indeed, almost ravenously.
I washed it down with a BBQ sandwich, Pete chased it with crab cakes, and we both enjoyed mammoth slices of pie a la mode for dessert. Eden sat watching, bemused but wisely abstemious. She may live longer, and she may enjoy a bloodstream less encumbered by brine and gut-fat cholesterol, but Pete and I will always be able to say that we looked a salty Shenandoah pig in the face, took a bite, and lived. Forget honey-baked ham; the culinary heart of Virginia--and the snout, and the ears and goodness knows what else--can be found at the Hi, Neighbor! restaurant. The truth is written in the entrails; the proof is in the puddin.
So if you're ever near Strasburg, drop into the Hi, Neighbor! and order yourself a warm bowl of puddin meat. You may even be rewarded for your epicurean valor as we were and not be charged for the pleasure. (You'll save a whole 85 cents.) Heck, you may even be moved to ponder how good puddin meat would taste on pea bread.
But, alas, you won't be able to get that in Virginia. I'm afraid that's a Washington thing.