Pounding Mill is roughly 600 miles and a world away from New York City.
But the small community in Southwest Virginia’s Tazewell County is well-represented at New York’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in an exhibition titled “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America.”
Pounding Mill? A Manhattan museum? Chinese food?
Yep. All because of Cuz’s Uptown Barbeque and Yvonne and Mike Thompson, who run the place and have made the quirky (and astoundingly good) restaurant an institution in that part of Virginia. Cuz’s is one of our go-to places whenever photographer Bob Brown and I travel to Southwest Virginia. It’s also the only restaurant I’m aware of that’s housed in an old dairy barn.
“It’s a big honor,” Yvonne Thompson said by phone. “We’re really thrilled about it, just to be listed among these world-famous chefs. We have people come from all over the place, but we’ve never gotten any national attention. I’m humbled to be among these people.”
The exhibition highlights 33 Chinese and Asian-American chefs and restaurateurs, including Peter Chang, another familiar name to Virginians, and tells their widely disparate stories of cooking inspiration, favorite dishes and immigration experiences through a virtual banquet featuring video interviews with the chefs. Personal artifacts represent each chef on the exhibit’s massive dining table and in a second room. (Cuz’s is represented, in part, by a pair of the restaurant’s custom-made plates, one of which features flames around the edge, symbolic of the two fires the restaurant has survived since it opened in 1979.)
The exhibition opened earlier this month and will be on view until March 26.
Many of the chefs come from New York and California, as you might expect. Pounding Mill would seem to be an unusual dateline for a museum in Lower Manhattan dedicated, according to its website, “to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.”
It starts with Yvonne Thompson, who grew up in Hong Kong.
She said, “That’s always a question on a lot of my customers’ minds: ‘How in the world did you get here?’ ”
Thompson, who was born Chiu Yee Cheng, graduated from high school at age 16 and came to the United States, under the sponsorship of an uncle, L.Q. Wong, to attend college. Wong operated a well-regarded Chinese restaurant in St. Louis called the Lantern House — in the 1970s Esquire magazine rated it among the nation’s best restaurants — and Thompson worked there.
It was an illuminating experience in that she had spent little time in the kitchen growing up. She considers her uncle a pioneer in the world of Chinese food in the United States, recalling that his menu included shrimp with lobster sauce and sizzling rice dishes at a time when egg foo young was as exotic as some Chinese restaurants dared.
“He made egg foo young, too, but his egg foo young was better than anybody else’s,” she says in a video in the exhibit.
Her uncle taught her all aspects of the restaurant business — cooking techniques, dealing with employees — but this was a big takeaway:
“Restaurant work is very hard,” she said.
So she majored in journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia, one of the best J-schools in the country, and looked for a newspaper job. She was offered a job in Kentucky and another at a paper in a little mountain town in Virginia: Richlands, in Tazewell County.
“All my friends said, ‘Go to Virginia; it’s beautiful,’ and it turned out to be true,” she recalled. She moved to Tazewell County in 1976.
Almost immediately, an editor introduced her to a friend, a local man who had majored in art history at Vanderbilt and moved back home to work on the family farm. Mike Thompson impressed her by making soufflé potatoes on their first date. She taught him how to make Peking duck, and he taught her how to make grits.
Mike, the son of a physician and the great-nephew of Virginia Gov. George C. Peery, always liked to cook because he’d always been surrounded by good ones, most notably his mother. They married, and when he grew tired of farm work, he suggested they open a restaurant. Thompson said, “No.” Then she said, “No” again.
“He convinced me, and it was kind of a natural for both of us,” said Thompson, who abandoned the world of covering town council meetings to work in a kitchen. “We’re both perfectionists, and we love to cook.”
They hired two employees, including the cook from a nearby bowling alley, and started as a tiny barbecue joint with four tables in the bottling building next to the dairy barn of Mike’s family farm. They were busy from the start, and soon expanded to the barn itself, which they transformed into a bright, lively space with wildly painted booths and pieces of folk art. Now they have 150 seats and, Thompson said, “people coming from all over the place.”
For good reason. The vibe is exceptional, as is the food that long ago moved far beyond just barbecue.
Back in the old days, they used to hold “Chinese Nights” on Thursdays. In an area generally devoid of Chinese restaurants, the locals loved it. Even as Cuz’s evolved, there remain “Asian-influenced” items on the menu: a stir-fry with American prime rib, seafood and lobster fried rice and a series of dishes — egg rolls, crab Rangoon and broccoli-and-cheese beignets — accompanied by a sweet-and-sour sauce made with her uncle’s recipe.
“We have people dipping bread in it and drinking it almost,” she said of the sauce.
Roanoke author Beth Macy, who has written about Cuz’s and likes it as much as we do, has described it as “a hillbilly-Asian place that is a tiny speck of funk in the rolling hills of Tazewell County.”
Which is how, in a way, the Thompsons wound up in the Museum of Chinese in America.
Macy introduced her friend Audra Ang to Cuz’s on one visit. Ang is a former Beijing-based correspondent for The Associated Press and author of “To the People, Food Is Heaven,” a memoir about her time in Beijing. When she later was asked to serve as one of four curators for the “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” exhibit, she suggested Cuz’s.
“It’s an immigration story with sour, sweet, bitter and spicy twists throughout — perfect for an exhibit focused on exploring the narratives of people who moved here and the role food has played in shaping their identity in America,” Ang wrote in an email. “A woman from Hong Kong moves to Missouri, graduates with a journalism degree, ends up writing at a newspaper in southwest Virginia, meets a local boy who becomes the love of her life, opens a barbecue restaurant with him, adds Chinese food to the menu because there’s actually a demand for it — and behold, the Velveeta cheese egg roll is born!”
Velveeta cheese egg roll?
It’s part of Cuz’s charm.
When asked to describe which regional cuisine her food represents, Thompson told the museum, “Southern Chinese.”
“And by Southern,” she explained, “I mean American Southern Chinese.”