A Taste of History

For 90 years, Sally Bell’s Kitchen in Richmond has made food the old-fashioned way—by hand.

Standing at a metal table in the narrow confines of Sally Bell’s Kitchen in Richmond, Connie Parker holds a cupcake perched on the fingers and thumb of her left hand, twirling it this way and that with an agility that belies her 91 years.

With her right, she uses a butter-knife-sized spreader to cover it with caramel frosting—a dollop for each side, a third for the top—with the casual expertise of an artist using a palette knife. 

This cupcake is nothing like the giants in the display cases of trendy bakeries. Its proportions are modest, the size of a toddler’s fist, and the frosting a light spackle that envelops the cake rather than a gooey, sugary pompadour that overwhelms it. It is as different from a modern cupcake as one of those dog-sized ancestral horses is from Secretariat. But in its way, it too is an evolutionary forebear—a reminder of how things used to be. 

When it’s ready, Parker balances the cupcake on the tip of her spreader and places it on a tray. As with every one of the thousands of cupcakes made and sold each year at Sally Bell’s for almost a century, the frosting covers the cupcake’s bottom and sides rather than its top. 

Why? “We just always have,” Parker says. “People like them that way.” And they have, ever since Sally Bell’s began in 1924. Still do. 

In its list of 100 recommended food-related things for 2014, the glossy foodie bible Saveur called Sally Bell’s iconic upside-down cupcakes the “prize” of a Sally Bell’s lunch. Southern Living mentioned them as one reason the magazine included Sally Bell’s in its 2014 list of “best cheap eats.” Other national publications have gushed about everything Sally Bell, from its deviled eggs to its boxed lunches; in a passionate encomium published in June, the Paris Review, perhaps America’s most august literary journal, called the cupcakes “demure.” 

Another highlight: As part of its 2013 summer symposium, the Southern Foodways Alliance presented a 12-minute documentary about Sally Bell’s. “We’ve been really fortunate that people write these things,” says Scott Jones, 59, Sally Bell’s manager, whose great-aunt started the business. “It’s flattering.” 

Locals line up every Thanksgiving and Christmas to buy hundreds of pounds of potato salad. Employees tell of customers who travel to Sally Bell’s modest brick storefront in Richmond from far away—Utah, California, New York—to order, say, a pimiento cheese sandwich on white bread. It’s not just the food these people seek. It’s a memory. 

William Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center museum, where the business has a lunchtime operation, says Sally Bell’s offers a chance to taste the “sacramental foods” of an era of Virginia that is nearly gone: cups of translucent tomato aspic, rolls with slivers of salty Smithfield ham, slender white-bread sandwiches with olives and cream cheese, cheese wafers with a single pecan pressed into their centers—all precisely wrapped, all made by hand. 

“There’s this innocence to it,” Martin notes. He points to Sally Bell’s popular boxed lunch, a tidy box of white posterboard containing a sandwich, a cupcake, a deviled egg and a cheese wafer. “Everything is so carefully placed, each piece fitted into its own special place … it makes us think of a mother packing lunch: ‘What has mom put in the box today?’” 

Martin corrects himself. It’s not motherly food: “It’s grandmother food.” 

That makes sense. Sally Bell’s was founded in 1924 by Sarah Cabell Jones and a business partner, just across the street from its current location on West Grace Street. Now the site is all but engulfed by Virginia Commonwealth University buildings, but in those days the street was lined with homes and small storefronts. The women had met as part of a nationwide movement, the Women’s Exchange, intended to teach women skills and financial independence. Their business quickly became part of Richmond culture.  

Not much has changed at Sally Bell’s in the past 90 years. Cupcakes are made from scratch every day. So are the egg and tuna salads. So is the potato salad, and the deviled eggs, and the cheese wafers, and on and on. 

Twenty-year employee William “Billy” Thompson handles much of the prep work at Sally Bell’s. He starts work at 2 a.m., boiling eggs, chicken and potatoes. Then he makes cupcake batter. While they bake, he makes the chicken salad. 

Then it’s time for mayonnaise. Thompson makes it from scratch in the 1930s-era standing mixer, the way his mother and grandmother did before him, going back to 1930 when his grandmother, Estelle Curtis, started working there at age 16. 

It’s an important job. Much of the food at Sally Bell’s harkens to an era before cholesterol consciousness. As Thompson puts it, “Everything here runs on mayo.” 

Mayonnaise is a mainstay of the potato, egg, chicken and macaroni salads. So Thompson makes a lot of the stuff, sometimes seven mixer-bowls’ worth in a day. 

Thompson works mostly by memory and feel. He was taught by the people who created these recipes, after all. 

But the recipes are easy to find inside a 5-by-7-inch red loose-leaf notebook, ordered alphabetically, each in careful Palmer penmanship. The notebook is a time capsule of early 20th-century cooking: The first recipe, for fruit aspic, has as its first ingredient two cans of fruit cocktail. One for pimiento cheese calls for “1 New York midget”—the pickle, presumably. 

But even at Sally Bell’s, time takes a toll. The long kitchen, barely wide enough for two people to squeeze between the ovens and prep tables—employees call it “the submarine”—shows its age with walls worn and pocked from years of use. A bread safe holds a handwritten sign warning against latching the doors, lest they not be able to open again. 

The staff, with an average age well into the 60s, tends to be grandmotherly, generous with smiles and endearments as they tie twine around a stack of boxed lunches. But sometimes when the counter is crowded with clamoring patrons, they testily chide the customers. (“Hurry up, now—people are waiting!”) 

The task of moving Sally Bell’s forward has been taken up by Scott Jones. The great-nephew of the founder, he had done the books for years while his wife of 29 years, Martha Crowe Jones, managed the business and the kitchen. He stepped into the managerial role after a career in finance when Martha, worn from almost 30 years at Sally Bell’s, was thinking of calling it quits. (With her husband overseeing the finances, she stayed on; generally, she oversees the retail operations.) 

Scott Jones says the business has never really made money. Now he is trying to make it solvent without losing the emphasis on handmade, traditional food. He has trimmed hours for employees, sought other income sources—selling potato salad in groceries, for example—and sublets the kitchen to a late-night cookie-baking business. He has tried very delicately to balance the needs of tradition with those of commerce. 

Over the years, some of Sally Bell’s offerings had wandered from their original forms—partly because different cooks have different tastes, partly because after almost a century the original ingredients were no longer easily available. Jones, with help from local culinary scientists, has tried to offset that. One example: For a number of years, yellow cupcakes had been made with vegetable oil instead of liquid shortening, the shortening being hard to find. Jones tracked down a vendor who carries it. The improvement, by all accounts, is impressive. 

The most visible change came in mid-2014 when neighboring Virginia Commonwealth University announced it had purchased the longtime Sally Bell’s property. Jones seems alternately amused and exasperated by the ensuing public furor. (“No No NO!” wrote one devotee in an article headlined “Sally Bell’s Future in Limbo.” “I know that you want to be downtown, VCU, but some things are sacred!”) Many people assumed Sally Bell’s would be closing. Not so, Jones emphasizes. He points out that the business has three years to find a new home. Plus, the sale has brought a needed infusion of money. 

“If we do it right and find the right place, the move could be the best thing to happen to us,” Jones says. “If we do it wrong … ” He doesn’t finish. He doesn’t have to. 

A few feet away, Connie Parker surveys her work. A tray full of just-frosted caramel cupcakes sitting in rows like obedient schoolchildren, stands ready for church picnics or lunchboxes. Each shows her handiwork—a crease from the spreader here, a bump or divot there. 

Perfect? Not at all. But just right.

SallyBellsKitchen.com

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