NELLYSFORD, VA. -- Cross a mountain man with a classical piano teacher and you get the Blue Ridge Pig, a rustic carryout that serves sophisticated smoked meats and sandwiches. Charles "Strawberry" Goodwin, his wife Mary, and her 14-year-old daughter, Stevie, run the barbecue operation that is an anomaly as much for its location as it is for its unusual owners and diverse clientele.
Adjacent to the banks of Stoney Creek and down the road from Truslow's Restaurant and Auto Repair, the Blue Ridge Pig shares a wall with a country store on Route 151 South, about 35 miles south of Charlottesville. If you blink, you'll miss Nellysford, and you might miss the Blue Ridge Pig, too, unless the hickory-scented smoke is belching out the smokehouse chimney.
"First thing I ever built," says Strawberry Goodwin, of the small shack that houses the smoker, an imposing black contraption that becomes a temporary heated home for huge slabs of pork, beef or ribs, whole chickens and turkey breasts, and maybe an occasional piece of elk or deer that Goodwin smokes as a favor for area hunters.
What results from spending 20 hours in the cooker (in the case of pork), or anywhere from six to 10 hours (in the case of the rest) are meaty, crusty ribs; poultry with bronzed skins and silken, hickory-tinged meat; roast beef that is lean and rare, and smoky pork that will be chopped and combined with a savory barbecue sauce with just the right amount of heat. Depending on demand, some 300 to 500 pounds of meat will undergo this process each week, fired with hickory wood scraps from a mill near the Goodwin's home on the Rockfish River.
Sitting at a picnic table and igniting his cigarette with a Camel lighter, Goodwin, a wild-eyed man with a gentle demeanor, is hard-pressed to recount his barbecue education. Strawberry (as he is widely known, the nickname coined when he was a child by a Little League coach), previously drove a taxicab, was an insurance agent and ran a discount gas station/car wash. The idea of opening a barbecue carryout was initiated 12 years ago because "hey, we got to do something," he says. The smoker was installed by a friend, and Goodwin just learned the art by his mistakes, fiddling with different cooking times to make sure not to overcook or undercook the meats.
But the barbecue business is so far the favorite of his several careers. "I love this," he says, describing the customer base as a range from "migrant workers to millionaires." In close proximity to the Wintergreen resort, the Blue Ridge Pig is a convenient stopping place for Polo-shirted golfers or wintertime skiers. In the parking lot, there will be "a big Jag and right next to it you'll see someone driving a $300, $400 pick-up," he says shortly before a customer in a flannel shirt and jeans jumps out of a pick-up truck.
"I've been cuttin' brush all day," says the man. "OK," answers Goodwin. "The ladies will fix you up."
The "ladies," it turns out, are his wife Mary, a modest woman who is quick to point out her husband's contributions rather than her own, and daughter Stevie, whom her mother describes as a gifted child who could be in a special school but "we wanted her to get to be a kid." For the summer, Stevie Swanson is the full-time treasurer of the operation, running the cash register and jokingly inflating customers' bills (a $20.00 total becomes $2,000).
Although she would be the last to admit it, the true cooking genius behind the Blue Ridge Pig may be Mary Goodwin, a former math and classical piano teacher who owned a clothing store in Lovingston, Va., where she met Strawberry.
She says her cooking "isn't razzmatazz," but simply "good wholesome food." That it is, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and small touches that make a difference. The smoked turkey sandwich is served on a toasted butter croissant with curly lettuce, a slice of tomato and can be ordered with Goodwin's homemade dill sauce, an interesting condiment that combines olive oil, garlic and dill. The potato salad is coated with the same sauce; the tomato-y barbecue sauce, an altered family recipe, has depth without that gluey sweetness found in many amateur versions; and virtually everything is homemade, from the cole slaw to the lemon and limeades. (The baked beans are the canned kind, but the Goodwins doctor them up with bacon, green pepper, onions and spices.)
It's all prepared in a tiny kitchen at the rear of the carryout, where Strawberry Goodwin squeezes the lemons by hand and scoops out the pulp. "We had a drink machine but it took up too much room," he says.
At the center of the crammed preparation area is a cutting board where the couple use high-quality knives to thinly slice the meats. The blade goes through a whole turkey breast as easily as if it were a drift of freshly whipped cream. Also in the kitchen is a small toaster for the croissants, lots of jugs and jars, and the cash register. The customer side of the carryout consists only of a long refrigerated case displayed with hunks of smoked meats, and a couple of rough-hewn chairs.
"Straw had to get used to the kitchen," Mary Goodwin explains, referring to the system the two had to establish to make the operation run efficiently. "Now we're as smooth as silk."
They share responsibilities: She got carpal tunnel syndrome from pulling pork, sometimes for hours at a stretch, so Strawberry has taken over that job. And he's in charge of smoking all the meat, although he had to take a two-month hiatus recently to recover from getting badly burned in a grease fire. A window in the smokehouse exploded and the small building caught on fire -- with Strawberry in it. Mary Goodwin claims she smothered her husband with her own body to extinguish the flames licking his chest, while Stevie called an ambulance.
Indeed, Mary Goodwin seems inseparable from Strawberry. "I think he married me because I love to cook and he loves to eat," she says. As for running the barbecue operation, adds her husband, "I couldn't run it without her and she couldn't run it without me."