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They Had Me At Pie

Back Roads: People, Places and Pie around Virginia is the collaborative effort of Bob Brown, the award-winning photographer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and first photojournalist inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame and Bill Lohmann, a Richmond native who has written for the Richmond Times-Dispatch since 1992. Back Roads’ text is genial, concise, and astute, while the photos tell their story in the same succinct, observant manner. Reading this book is like a leisurely unmapped car trip with two beloved uncles who share your fondness for back roads and good food. However, like any good uncles, Brown and Lohmann will tell short stories about regular folks who have made social contributions you might want to emulate.

Two stories about women in non-traditional roles say much about changing notions of equality in Virginia. Early in the book is a piece about the Lee County Predators, a women’s non-professional football team whose players take hard hits against their female rivals. Brown’s head shot of Predators quarterback Amanda Goins captures an alluring young woman whose eyes project a no-nonsense gaze behind her helmet’s faceguard. About playing football, Amanda says “I was nervous…but once I got hit a few times, I was fine and I haven’t been nervous since.” Somehow, I think her parents feel differently.

The 10th anniversary of Virginia Military Institute’s Supreme Court-mandated acceptance of female cadets in 1997 underscores the toughness of the 13 women, out of the original 30, who graduated in 2001. Kelly Sullivan, one of the 13, says “I was one of those people who said ‘I will never come back here…’ Then I realized, it was nothing but good things for me.” Several photos accompany this piece and all but one conveys seriousness equal to the subject. However, a photo of all of the 2001 graduates on VMI’s lawn shows the women in their VMI uniforms with linked arms and some posing with less-than-military stiffness and cheeky grins.

A story on Richmond postal worker Thomas Cannon tells of a man who gave away over $150,000 to people in need, many of whom were strangers he read about in Richmond newspapers. Cannon’s monetary gifts were inspired by being spared a World War II explosion that killed some friends aboard his former Navy ship. Cannon’s concern for others’ troubles might also have come from his upbringing in a Chase City shack without running water or electricity. Of that spare time, Cannon said they were “the happiest days of my life.” That positive outlook was necessary as he cared for his bedridden wife until her death in 2000 and faced his own diagnosis of inoperable cancer before his 2005 death. Brown’s four photos of Cannon show him as often gesturing boldly to make a point, something his philanthropy quietly did for most of his 79 years.

While I found the stories of people overcoming obstacles the best part of Back Roads, there are also excellent accounts of fun events and tasty meals on the authors’ travels. Whether listening to the Virginia Hams barbershop quartet at Celebrate Fairfax or seeing a hog named after a young boy’s girlfriend at the Orange County Fair, Brown and Lohmann sound as if they enjoyed every person and place they saw on their travels. Of course, all that interviewing and taking photos was accompanied by lots of local food. Descriptions and photos of maple syrup-making in Highland County, ham and biscuits in Bristol, and several pies inspired my “must eat” list for summer road trips because, to quote Erma Bombeck, “I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.” To that end, Back Roads: People, Places and Pie around Virginia will be a staple in my house for a long time - or at least until food stains make it illegible.