The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

I think that what I dislike most about spam is its name. You see, I’m quite fond of real SPAM, that uncertain food product made possible by the Depression and brought to the forefront of the world’s food stage by the second World War.

Why on earth am I fond of SPAM (™) or its bastard cousin, TREET (also ™)? I have no idea whatsoever. I just like the stuff. I don’t get, really, why people are so freaked out by SPAM. SPAM does not bother anyone. It can’t, for Christ’s sake, it’s inanimate and lives in little tins surrounded by viscous oog. It couldn’t bother anyone if it wanted to. SPAM just sits there being salty and tasty and lets everyone insult it. (TREET, I’m sure, has the same problem, but it’s somewhat protected by relative product obscurity.)

I think that most people are bothered by the very name SPAM. It just doesn’t sound like something that you’re supposed to actually eat. Having done my spomework, I know that the name was the result of a contest. It stands for SPiced hAM. Most people do not recognize this, however, and shy away from something with a somewhat ambiguous name that comes in a little tin surrounded by viscous oog. Names mean a lot to the American public. While the English are quite happy to devour their blood pudding (which does have the advantage of being honest about its origins), Americans are freaked out by things like SPAM and another of my favorites, scrapple.

Scrapple grosses people out because it’s called scrapple. All of the people who think that scrapple is omiGAWD EEEEWWWW!!! probably love Big Macs, which have considerably more nebulous ingredients. These same people will invariably eat sausage quite happily (not that “sausage” is a particularly appealing name either). Scrapple IS sausage, but it has a lot of cornmeal thrown into the mix to stretch the meat out a bit further. It is, after all, the invention of thrifty Pennsylvania Germans.

SPAM, on the other hand, is a completely corporate product — and it has a name that doesn’t exactly give its potential consumers much insight as to its consistency. But then, hot dogs have the same problem. One can only hope that they don’t actually include dog — but nobody seems to mind “hot dogs.” Neither does anybody mind the designations “frankfurter” or “wiener.” Do keep in mind that real Frankfurter-wurst and Wiener-wurst don’t much resemble American hot dogs. Please also note that it’s pronounced “veener,” and it’s not spelled “weiner,” which is a nonexistent word in German and, if it did exist, would be pronounced Vine-er.

So why is SPAM gross? Hot dogs are fine. Baloney is fine. (And I’m fine with calling it baloney, since it doesn’t really resemble the real food from Bologna, anyway.) But SPAM is gross and scrapple is gross.

It’s all in the name, methinks — that, and in the homogenization of American taste that has winnowed out a lot of the old ethnic food tendencies brought over from Europe, particularly those involving any form of thrift.

Perhaps modern Americans need to be grossed out by SPAM because they don’t know enough about truly gross food. You think SPAM is gross? Try head cheese. That’s really gross — and, for those not sufficiently deductive, made from pig heads. Whole pig heads. Or souse, which is basically SPAM that wasn’t left in the blender long enough, and still has recognizably porcine parts embedded in its gelatinous nastiness.

Perhaps beyond the name issue that damns SPAM to food hell is the ever-fickle nature of fashion. SPAM was born of economic despair and came to fruition in wartime, so even if it had a cool name people would associate it with unpleasantness. Fashion has smiled upon other nastiness, though, and sometimes renders style from entrails.

Note, if you will, sushi. I don’t really have anything against Japanese culture, I simply find it completely unfathomable. Hey, I’m sure that very few Japanese people would understand my affinity for pierogi, and I’m OK with that. Why, though, am I supposed to like sushi? This is fucking raw fish we’re talking about here. Fish is supposed to be cooked. If no one can figure this out I have about four hundred and seventy three recipes for various tasty seagoing things. SPAM is gross, but raw fish and seaweed is delicious? Give me a break, people. I have long cherished a belief that no one in the US actually likes sushi, but everyone pretends to love it and chokes it down — at risk of numerous diseases resultant from the consumption of raw fish — because, well, it’s really cool.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Just back from the fine old cities of Allentown and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I was hit dead on by the humidity I’d foolishly thought to escape. It does get bad up there but somehow never seems as viscous at night.

I always enjoy the two principal cities of the Lehigh Valley because, despite all odds, they maintain a sense of gemutlichkeit that Baltimore seems to have long since dropped. Even so, things are different there, these days. The onetime industrial cities aren’t at all anymore. Allentown — the larger and once-flashier city — has a bombed-out downtown just like most other downtowns. She no longer can boast big department stores and a score of handsome theatres. The grand hotel is empty and the somewhat older hotel is creaking along like a dowager empress who still has her diamonds but can’t afford a cup of coffee. That hotel — my favorite, of course — even has a name that is now laughable. “Hotel Traylor” probably seemed English and elegant in 1913, but in 1913 “trailers” were not a domestic option. Now people are incredulous to find that I, their rather snooty correspondent, intend to stay at a place they hear as “The Trailer.” Bethlehem, by comparison, is fairly prosperous in the recent past. The home of Bethlehem Steel, the city’s most famous child has died and left it bereft of industry, but the quaint old downtown has survived with the help of its Moravian roots — which predate the Steel by a good 150 years — and a lot of amusing and very nouveau boutique-y shops. This is actually nice; downtown Bethlehem looks charming and pretty. Unfortunately, if you need to buy some new underwear, you’re just as much out of luck there as you would be in boarded-up Allentown.

Yet I love both cities. I always make a point of having drinks at the decrepit Traylor, even if I’m not taking up temporary residence there. I usually find a congenial and pleasant bunch there and the bartenders always pour a stiff drink. This visit was a little less pleasant but only because the two Baltimoreans who tagged along with me clearly didn’t find anything nice about the place and wanted to get the hell out as soon as possible. It’s hard to explain the combination of faded glory and conviviality that makes it a nice place to someone who would obviously prefer a place with nine dollar drinks and a fake Italian name. Allentown may have a dead downtown but it also has gracious residential areas with miles of pretty and well-kept Victorian rowhouses, and a world-famous public Rose Garden. A walk through its West Park is like a walk into 1915, complete with its bandstand — and the exceptional Allentown Municipal Band there to play marches and waltzes for your afternoon entertainment.

The real reason for the visit, though, was for Bethlehem’s annual Musikfest. (The German is theirs, not mine, for once.) Musikfest is something doing. The whole city goes berserk for this twenty-five year old event. No humble gathering of bands, Musikfest attracts everything from classical ensembles to the latest hip-hop. These are subordinate events, though, which I eschew in favor of the main attraction of the Festplatz — a gigantic tent with a dance floor capable of holding five hundred dancers. Festplatz is the home of the most relentlessly happy music on earth — polkas, waltzes and Rheinlanders, usually auf Pennsylvanien. They always import a dance band from Germany or Austria, but my favorites are of the homegrown variety. Walt Groller und sein Orchester, and Jolly Joe Timmer and his Bavarians can bring a smile to the most jaded. Oh, I know — you think there’s nothing tackier and sillier than polka music, but I can pretty much guarantee that if you visit the Festplatz this second week of August you’ll enjoy yourself. Add the large beer trucks and vast tents selling good Pennsylvania German food and you’ll follow in my footsteps and start searching the real estate advertisements in the Allentown Morning Call.

The overall good-time feeling of the event is augmented by its attendees. The people of Allentown and Bethlehem are a startlingly good-looking bunch. Three hundred years of German heritage have been tempered with Poles, Slavs, Hungarians and Italians and it has all filtered into a mix that produces pretty, curvaceous women and tall, well-built men. And, at Musikfest, they’re all in an exceptionally good mood.

Evidently beer, kraut and fourteen varieties of Wurst are good for you in many ways. I may have to retitle this blog if I move to Allentown...

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Now it’s certain. The world is obviously bent on destroying everything that I have ever loved, enjoyed or found necessary.

I discovered that I could live — unhappily, mind you — without Hutzler’s and Hochschild’s; I substituted Miller and Rhoads and Thalhimers’. Just as well; Richmond stores were just as stylish. Until they disappeared. I then had to learn to live with Woodward and Lothrop, which was a close second anyway, and its big downtown store was beautiful. I also subsisted with periodic injections of Wanamakers. Those went away too and I was left — bereft of department stores and all but one movie palace — with only the grand old restaurants to fall back upon.

(To be fair, there are also a bunch of stodgy old-line Catholic churches but those only really fill the bill early Sunday morning when I’m usually hung over anyway.)

One by one, the nice old restaurants have closed; I’ll never again be able to indulge in chilled strawberry soup and schnitzel Paprikasz under the watchful eyes of the naked Aurora chez Haussner.

And now I discover, courtesy of the Capital City Desk (a.k.a. Lisa) that the New York Deli is closing.

This is not fair. I was not adequately informed of this. Had I been, I’d have laid in seven hundred pounds of smoked eel and would have bought a basement freezer for the purpose, to say nothing of ten years’ worth of reuben sandwiches (Richmond style, thanks, with tomato sauce). I’ve never been quite sure why it was called the “New York” deli. It did serve things that one would never have otherwise found in Richmond, but it managed to put a delicious Richmond twist on nearly everything it served, which automatically made its food product tastier than anything I’ve ever eaten in that pestilent city on the Hudson.

Many will immediately respond, “Oh, if you’d eaten in New York, you’d know.” I have, and I do. The only place I’ve ever found there worth my patronage is Junior’s, in Brooklyn, whose praises I’ve sung here before. (Those praises are best performed accompanied by the mammoth Wurlitzer at the big Paramount across the street.) The New York Deli, despite its distance from its eponymous city, served superlative food — and, unlike pretty much any place in Gotham, had absolutely no confusion about serving iced tea in hangover-drowning quantity.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Some of you may have observed, via the Sun or the Times-Dispatch (or possibly the Post, if that rag hasn’t been too busy wringing its hands over the plight of the snail darter or some similar idiocy) that Hecht’s is soon to fade into the afterglow. I’m preparing a pretty lengthy dissertation upon that bittersweet subject, so consider yourselves forewarned.

Tonight, however, I have lighter things in mind. Colder things, really.

On Sunday I visited with two friends who have lately embarked upon the journey of mutual housekeeping — those friends, in fact, whose poop I helped to move last week and whose furniture nearly caused me to sink into ’70s-topia. Having consolidated said poop into one apartment, we have been searching the city for a more permanent residence.

I hereby enlist all of you to beam good thoughts towards T. and A. (I never fail to remind them of the inherent scintillating possiblities of their initials) so that they’ll get the house we saw on Sunday. This place is the ultimate 1930’s Baltimore Happy House. It’s still a rowhouse, natch, but it’s one with a cute li’l front yard and a flagstone front porch and an arched front door that makes it look like Everyman’s Castle. Scoped through the windows were a fairly sizable living room and a dining room with a French door that opens onto a back porch, which proved to be just the right size for potential Teacher Happy Hours in the future. Like many Baltimore houses the front of the place is built up so that the basement opens at full ground level out back, and in this case it also houses a garage. This joint has great potential to jump.

After we examined the potential new residence we retreated to downtown Hamilton for snowballs. Neither T nor A are natives but both of them have readily adhered to the beauty of the snowball.

Growing up, I never realized that nobody else has these things. Every city has favorite summer treats but nobody seems to be quite as snowballcentric as the Baltimoreans. If you find a snowball stand in Richmond, they usually just have these prepackaged gloms of solid ice with the barest hint of flavor. Every once in a while, you might find a larval snowball stand in Philly, Washington or Richmond that offers five or six flavors, and for that you should count yourself blessed in those snowball-challenged regions.

The most decrepit, poverty-stricken snowball stand in Baltimore has at least twenty flavors. The hallmark of all time is Egg Custard (which is inexplicably red, usually). I personally favor those that turn my tongue gross colors, so spearmint and blue raspberry are perennial winners. Pina Colada, plain coconut and watermelon are pretty high on my list, too. The prepubescent set adores flavors like Scooby-Doo, Ninja Turtles and Sponge Bob. I have no idea what these taste like but they seem to sell very well.

Snowballs are superior to ice cream only as a heat-beater. Ice cream and ice-cream sundaes and soda floats are all wonderfully fulfilling. They are, however, heavy. The last thing you want when it’s 98 degrees and muggy is something that fills you up. Snowballs are nothing but ice and flavor. They cool, refresh and don’t fill. Unless, of course, you opt for marshamallow creme topping, which is extra tasty. A good snowball stand will offer to put it in the middle instead of on top. Some stands offer sprinkles but nice people do not do this. Leave it for Baskin-Robbins.

You can even graph personalities with snowball choices. Egg custard means someone either old or very old fashioned; kids like the weird comic hero names, yuppies like things like Wine Cooler, West Baltimoreans prefer the icky-sweet fruit flavors and younger Baltimore natives like things that taste like some kind of cocktail. Cherry is the flavor of the indecisive.

You can always tell the out-of-town types that are here to visit relatives. They always choose grape. Probably the most absolutely generic of all available snowball flavors, it’s pretty tasty but lacks panache on several different levels. It does, however, get the Auslander into the spirit of things. After eating a grape snowball, your tongue will make you look like an escapee of a medical experiment gone horribly wrong.