A month before we got married, Sparky and I made a trip east, so I could meet her folks. Their home is in Florida, but we met them in Williamsburg Virginia, where my wife's surviving grandparents lived.
My new in-laws are good people, and getting to know them made for a fine time, and it was wonderful to find myself in a town where fresh seafood means "it was swimming yesterday." The fried fish specials offered by restaurants in this corner of Appalachian Kentucky are good, but can't compare to something truly fresh.
We were in Williamsburg the better part of a week, and I ate shrimp, crab, or some sort of fish every day. I ate oysters fried and baked and raw, flounder and tuna and I don't know what all, some of it gaudied up with names and labels well beyond my personal understanding. It seemed sort of embarrassing to be well over fifty and ignorant of exotic fare I've heard or read about most of my life. The night before Sparky and I headed back to Kentucky, I ordered scallops Newburgh without having a clue what it was.
And got a helluva surprise.
I'll admit to being your basic meat-and-potatoes eater, but I've done considerable traveling, mostly courtesy of Uncle Sugar's Steel Yachting and Carousing Society, an organization you all know as the "U.S. Navy." Wherever the Navy took me, I wasn't afraid to try new foods, so long as I understood what they were. I've eaten things on several continents I couldn't begin to pronounce, if I could puzzle out what it was. I ate snails in Spain, calamari in Italy, and liked it all. I tried sushi before most Americans ever heard the term, and ate in Hong Kong restaurants where you picked out a live snake for your dinner, same way you chose a lobster at some seafood joints.
I've eaten far and wide and seldom been sorry...
But I never had anything "Newburgh."
Didn't know what it meant, but decided to risk a plate or bowl or cup of it, however it showed up.
I expected to be surprised in that Williamsburg restaurant, thought I'd face the complicated, colorful sort of dish crowed over in the gourmet magazines I sometimes leaf through in the office of a doctor or dentist.
Well, they brought me my scallops Newburgh, and to say the least, its appearance was underwhelming. It wasn't complicated or colorful at all. It seemed to be a bowl of milk, a white soup, featureless as a snow bank, and about as interesting to look at.
I tentatively put a fork in the dish, fished me out a piece of scallop and tasted this Newburghish stuff. It looked boring, but tasted pretty good. If it hadn't been for looking like a pig in front of my in-laws-to-be, I might've ordered another serving. But there wasn't a thing "new" about this "Newburgh."
It turns out "Newburgh" means white gravy poured over something. That's all. Just white gravy.
More than a few have written about the ignorance of people living in these hills. Folks from up north make fun of us, but by Ned we can hold our heads a bit higher, knowing our white gravy makes so much of what we eat into a fancy "Newburgh" dish. Great Aunt Ethel lived to be ninety three years old, and she cooked Newburgh all her life.
And did it better than that restaurant in Williamsburg.
Mary Ethel Stewart Crager (1911-2004)
This was her yard, year after year, spring after spring.
Scallops Newburgh is good.
But Aunt Ethel's biscuits Newburgh, and chicken Newburgh and country fried steak Newburgh were way better.
Even if she did call the "Newburgh" part "white gravy."