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Restaurant Review: The Whiskey Jar

Last summer I travelled round the Deep South, interning for Morgan Murphy on this book. I wrote an extensive blog when I was there, as well as snapping a lot of pictures, and since the book is finally out I am publishing a few of them on here.

The Whiskey Jar

Charlottesville, Virginia

22107079086_e2098a4c2c_oMason jar cocktails and exposed brick walls mark this place out as a hipster haven from the get-go, and its sanded wooden tables and farm-to-table menu seal the deal. As does its edgy bearded owner, keen to tell us all about making his son’s baby food from scratch and their seasonal dessert changes. Sneer as I might, it is he who is laughing because this affected approach clearly works – The Whiskey Jar is just great. Located in a shady, pedestrianised walkway in the student town of Charlottesville, it rocks sun-drenched tables near its French windows and booths cloaked in shadow the further you advance into its depths. A well-stocked bar occupies a pleasing middle ground, and produces even pleasinger concoctions with a speciality in moonshine based delights. Yes, moonshine is marketed as a spirit in the south, and it’s great.

The food, however, may well surpass the alcohols on offer. We sat down to a smorgasbord of fancy yet wholesome dishes like one big hungry family whose father figure gets the first bite of everything before the kids fight over the remains. A glassy-eyed trout served whole with the bones looked amazing on the plate and the camera screen, and tasted even better. Stewed ochre and tomato soup, slightly spiced and perfectly warmed. And the greatest tomato sandwich I have ever consumed. I don’t even like tomatoes. This sandwich was out of this world, I cannot even describe it (some food critic I am). But the crowning glory of the whole meal was a cobbler that has taken resident baker Rachel Pennington three years to perfect, and disappeared within minutes of first taste. Filled with in-season peaches, bathed in vanilla ice-cream, and topped with a crust that was literally a giant cookie, I have never seen such aggressive fork-work on this trip before or since. That thing was phenomenal, and she was persuaded to share her closely guarded recipe so we can all take turns in failing to replicate it.

The staff at The Whiskey Jar are friendly if reserved, and one of them sports a fab little mason jar tat that graced Morgan’s Instagram (courtesy of your’s truly’s overactive iPhone). Owner Will was more than happy to point us towards the best bars in town – one of which is conveniently owned by him – and we spent the rest of the golden hour wandering through Charlottesville’s twee little shops and sipping margaritas. Very civilised.

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The Altar of the South

During my first stateside flight I sat next to a southerner who told me that the American male sees his car as the ultimate accessory; an expression of personality and individualism “much like how women like to wear different shoes from each other”. During my last flight, I sat next to a northerner who told me that the American male has but two topics of conversation: sports, and the weather. “They all take such pride in their cars so they have one more discussion point before conversation runs dry.”

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The further we travelled, the more towns we stayed in and the more people we met, the more apparent it became to me that the real altar at which America worships is not found within the pretty tin-roofed churches lining our routes. It is the God of the Automobile that rules the south with an aluminium fist. It may be true that one of the few fully pedestrian-planned towns in the country is the most expensive property in the whole of the state of Florida, but for the south at large the SUV and the four wheel drive are as essential to life as food and air con. Even in the cities – perhaps especially in the cities – pedestrians on the sidewalk are a rare breed, and those that we do manage to spot from our fortified Range Rover do not look to be the sort of characters you want to find yourself within a foot of. Without a child lock and an egregiously tinted window in between. And this unbelievable reliance on having a vehicle is not even just a unfortunate necessity; the very idea of investment in public transport is seen as a direct attack on personal freedom (the most important thing in this country, don’t you know). “When I sit behind my wheel I feel like I can go anywhere, do anything, get to any part of the country I want as long as there are gas stations between here and there,” is a sentiment expressed by almost everyone with which I have broached this subject. “Why would I sit with my face in a stranger’s armpit when I could cruise along in my air conditioned SUV?” A damning indictment of train travel, and one that rings like blasphemy in ears of railway-loving Englanders.

Admittedly these arguments, like many of those alien American arguments, political and otherwise, that I at first scoffed at unashamedly, have gained credence the further our journey took us through the southernmost states. The south is its own nation built on and for the car, its (second) booming highpoint synchronous with that of the invention of the automobile and its roads specifically constructed for streams of individuals in cars large enough for eight. It’s a land that has had industry from so comparatively close to its conception that to structure itself around the pedestrian and not the 4×4 would have seemed absurd to the city-expanders of the early 20th century. Its towns are built around never having to leave your car and step into the brutal southern heat; there’s drive-thru food, drive-thru banks that shoot a capsule of money down to you through a vacuum tube, drive-thru voting polls, and, most incongruously, drive-thru liquor stores. There is a painful artificiality to the giant southern metropolises in which you can go a whole day without stepping a foot outside. From your living room to your garage to the parking lot to your office to the parking lot to your garage to your living room. An endless chain of air-conditioned artificial exteriors, a reality where it’s almost too easy to never have to see another human being save through the barrier of your windscreen or the glass of a drive-thru booth.

I’m so not into it.

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