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Nelson 151.

Growing up, my sister and I often visited my mother’s family, The Critzers, in Waynesboro, Virginia. We’d stay the weekend, eat too much, and sit on the seafoam-green porch glider sipping sweet tea and rifling through the Sears catalog. Pretending we were rich, on each page we were “allowed” to shop for just one item. Whoever pointed at it first, got it. The humidity made you feel like you were visiting Scout down in Alabama. Muddy’s marigolds smelled peppery, the boxwoods woody and sweet. Granddaddy would be out in the yard trimming his roses and their white Pekinese Fluffy would bound through the sun like a fuzzy butterball.

Inevitably, Granddaddy would stop trimming and come up on the porch to regale us with stories of “Down the Valley.” These stories were long and colorful, involving scrapes he got into, hardships the family endured, and descriptions of where he grew up in Nelson County. When we took Sunday drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway or Interstate 64, he’d even point out “Down the Valley” when we crossed Afton Mountain. The scenic overlook would go by and he’d point off in that direction absent-mindedly and declare, “That’s where me and your Aunt Ann grew up. Down the Valley.” Sometimes we’d stop at the overlook and gaze out across this expansive green space and imagine. To a child, it seemed a magical place, and very far away indeed.

We finally went when I was 12. Memaw died, Granddaddy’s mother. At her request, she was buried “Down the Valley” at Rose Church. I remember feeling confused. We were actually going to drive down there? That would take days! To a 12-year-old sitting in the back seat of our AMC Javelin in the late 1970’s, it did. Down the mountain, driving along 2-lane byways lined with fields and barns and houses. When we finally arrived at Rose Church, it seemed so far removed from anything else I’d ever known I thought I was in some English fairytale and this was a heath in the middle of nowhere someplace. A true country gothic church with a tiny cemetery. The funeral was small and sad, full of old hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and the drive back took too long. Afterwards there were ham biscuits, potato salad, and cakes as high as your head. Like you do when there’s a funeral.

I grew up, lived my life, and forgot about “Down the Valley”. Occasionally I’d visit my grandparents and look off in that general direction on 64 and get wistful at how strange and surreal that part of the country felt, like an old-timey sepia photograph.

Eventually I married and we moved away. Every so often “Down the Valley” would come up like the time my aunt mentioned how she took Granddaddy back to his old country home. The man living there took them out to his barn and they found a huge cache of old framed portraits. Turns out they belonged to the Critzers and Granddaddy cried when he saw them. They hang in my aunt’s house now.

Fast forward eight years. We move to Charlottesville and I start writing about food. I start to hear some exciting things about Route 151 in Nelson County. Overnight it seems breweries, cideries, wineries, and farms chock full of produce have sprouted up like weeds along Route 151 from Route 250 just outside Charlottesville all the way down to Nellysford and beyond. So of course The Hubby and I had to check it out. Nothing better than a weekend drive through the country with tons of lovely food and libation stops along the way.

Our first visit was to Blue Mountain Brewery at the north end of 151 for Bratwurst Pizza and Bourbon Barrel Stout. We followed this up with a visit to Cardinal Point Winery for their Oyster Festival, Veritas Winery for their tasting room, and Devils Backbone Brewery for Saturday lunch, Vienna Lager on the side. Every trip felt like a journey back home somehow but I didn’t know why.

I’m not even counting the stops for side-of-the-road barbecue at Blue Ridge Pig, cider at Bold Rock, or peaches and strawberries at Critzer Family Farm. Sure I remember Granddaddy saying his grandfather and the original owner’s grandfather were brothers. But it still didn’t click.

It wasn’t until we’d passed Rodes United Methodist about a bajillion times that I had an epiphany. A real Homer Simpson “Doh!” moment. Rose=Rodes! In my 12-year-old mind I pictured Rose Church. Granddaddy’s roses melded with images of Memaw and funeral roses into a country church conglomeration of flowers and magical “Down The Valley” trips. When in fact it was Rodes Church.

It hit me like a blast of late-July heat. All this time, all those weekends, we’d been traveling “Down the Valley” for fine food and libation and didn’t even know it. How about that? Funny how life works. All this time I’d been traveling such a short distance to find topics to write about. And the whole time my spirit was turning my inner compass to true north. Toward home. Toward my past and toward the person I really am. The kid who’d imagined this magical country full of hills and hidden gothic secrets, instead of this modest little brick church that you could blink and miss on the side of a fairly busy 2-lane highway. Just goes to show you can travel great distances to get away from your heritage, but somehow something will always end up bringing you back.

With that realization, things in my life fell into place. I visited Rodes and found about a thousand Critzers buried there. Including my Memaw, Allie Cook Critzer. This renewed my interest in the family tree which sparked an interest in Southern food and in particular, my own Southern food heritage. As a result, my writing has taken a completely different direction, one that feels more personal, and certainly more profound.

The kicker? That came 2 years ago when I was at the funeral for my Granddaddy, David Henry Critzer. We’d just said our prayers at the cemetery, Waynesboro this time, placed roses on the coffin, and were reluctantly leaving to walk back to our cars in the early-summer swelter. I remember the heels of my shoes sinking into the soil. An elderly man approached, hand extended, to say he was a distant cousin of Granddaddy’s and was so sorry for our loss. I wasn’t surprised, if you live in the Waynesboro area, you know there are hundreds of thousands of Critzers.

This cousin just wanted to tell us about the huge Critzer family reunion that’s held every July 4th just off Route 151. How about that? After all these years Critzers are still venturing “Down the Valley”. And as it turns out, it doesn’t take days to get there. His directions? “Drive about 6 miles and take a right onto the dirt road just past the junkyard. Bring a covered dish and a lawn chair.” I laughed and he grinned. And just like that I was back home again.

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Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium. The Whiskey Jar.

This past weekend I had the great good fortune to attend the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium. Long ago in the earliest infancy of my food writing career I knew because of the way I work, I’d more than likely have to focus on just one cause to promote more than any other. It’s how my mind works. When presented with sustainability, local food good corporate bad, evil Monsanto bashing, gluten-free, fat-free, carb-free, vegan only, organic, molecular gastronomy and all the other food causes out there, the only one that really speaks to me is my Southern food heritage.

Southern food got me excited as a kid, and it’s what drives me to write and eat as an adult. For 14 years, the Southern Foodways Alliance has promoted the celebration and preservation of Southern food loudly and proudly. From the first moment I set my eyes on a copy of Cornbread Nation in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, I knew I’d be a member. I knew it was my calling. I knew I’d be a Southern food advocate forever. I spent a few years following the organization, and eventually saved up enough money for dues. This year, I decided it was time to get active.

I signed up for the weekend the minute it was announced. It’s the first time they’ve had a symposium in the summer. And it’s the first time they’ve ever had one in Virginia, picking Richmond as their base city. The first event? Why, it would be in Charlottesville. The topic? Women who work, a program championing female business owners who produce wines, cheeses, vegetables, meats, as well as all the other yummies we enjoy, and lots of talks about the great food women in Virginia’s past. I’d be damned if I was going to miss a chance to crow about my home base, as well as squire about with a bunch of people unfamiliar with my hometown. What an opportunity!

Just one problem. I have horrible social anxiety. Horrible! In fact, part of the reason I became a FOOD writer was because The Hubby is equally passionate about food and most of the time can come with me to the events I attend. I can lean into him the way my dog leans into me during thunderstorms. Except he wouldn’t be attending this event. I would have to go alone.

So it was with great trepidation, tremendous actually that I slunk into the first dinner at The Whiskey Jar and looked around in vain for someone to lean into. Grabbed myself a berry moonshine punch and hoped for some courage. Even a career in fundraising and development (i.e., lots of wine events) has done nothing to ease the anxiety I feel at the thought of having to converse with a bunch of strangers, even if all of us are there for the same reason: we adore Southern food.

And the biggest reason I hate informal dinner gatherings like this? The mad dash for seats. Ugh. Some 200 people descending on a room and trying to jockey for position as to where to sit, and whom to sit with. It sucks. As I was standing there contemplating which seat to choose for dinner, and sweating it, a tall, gregarious woman approached in a long fuchsia scarf and pink spangly jeans. “Dahlin’ now where pray tell did you procure that delicious-looking libation?” she asked sweetly in a heavy Southern accent. I pointed at the direction of the bar, and wished I could be that confident. She was ready for a party and her whole demeanor just screamed, “If you have nothing nice to say, PLEASE sit next to me.” I loved it. And I’d found my seat.

Dinner turned out to be a hoot and a half and pink jeans was a huge reason. Her large personality did a lot to break the ice and helped put me at ease. I was to find out later this attitude is basically the lifeblood of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Wherever they go, the party follows. I encourage every agoraphobic out there to become a member. You won’t regret it.

The other thing that put me at ease was the food. The Whiskey Jar can really cook up a storm! It was homespun without being corny, and full of Southern-fat-is-good-for-you-flavor without being too heavy. Tiny finger sandwiches of BBQ’d rabbit that was by turns creamy and spicy. Imagine a sweeter version of pulled pork with the texture of tuna. Scrumptious! Chard salad from Appalachia Star Farm with velvety cottage cheese from Caromont. Light WhiteWay Bread topped with sorghum butter from Compass Winds. Imagine a light molasses butter, the color of caramel. Maple, molasses, honey, and caramel flavors all play around with the butter and make you want to swoon. I can’t wait to make it at home.

Of course, there were the famous Whiskey Jar collard greens (everyone cheered) and something new to me, Anson Mills Sea Island Peas with bacon and spring onions. Like lentils but with a better chew. Everyone raved and begged for the recipe. It’s my new goal in life to get that recipe and serve it next Thanksgiving. Chef Richey? Can you help a girl out?

The BBQ chicken in sorghum red sauce was tangy and tender and the roasted Rag Mountain Trout was so light and fresh I could swear it was caught out back in some hidden creek in the kitchen.

But the true highlight? DEFINITELY the dessert. A recipe collaboration created by baker Rachel Pennington. Peach trifle consisting of Edna Lewis’s sponge cake, then topped with Mary Randolph’s peach marmalade and vanilla bean custard. An airy sponge of vanilla that melts in your mouth but not before sinking into a sweet peach and vanilla dream. Holy sugarsmacks it was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. It’s going on my list. They need to add this to the regular menu like yesterday. It tasted like a big ol’ nap! Which coming from me? Is the highest of praise. I usually only eat a taste or two of dessert. This? I. Ate. It. All.

So yeah, all in all the night was a big success. The lovely food artisans got a pretty sash and did their Miss America wave, people scarfed up food and clapped them on the back in congratulations for the good works they’re doing, the chef and his staff trotted out to a standing ovation. Um, why don’t chefs do this every night during service? They should. And one middle-aged woman took a small step toward alleviating her social anxiety. The Veritas Viognier and Foggy Ridge Cider helped. I doubt it will ever be completely gone. I’ll continue to lean into the chatty folks whenever I have to go anywhere. But leaving the event, full moon rising, and The Mall bustling still at 10pm, made me feel really good about myself. And about where I live. We made an excellent impression that night Charlottesville. I wouldn’t be surprised if Summer Symposium 2014 takes place right here in our little ‘ville. Cheers and applause to everyone involved. You certainly deserve it.

Virginia Food Artisans, SFA 2013 Anson Mills Dinner

Kathryn Bertoni, Appalachia Star Farm
Margaret-Anne Burkholder, Compass Winds Sorghum
Diane Flynt, Foggy Ridge Cider
Ellen Nagase, Rag Mountain Trout
Gail Hobbs-Page, Caromont Farm
Sara Miller, Timbercreek Farms
Emily Pelton, Veritas Vineyards
Rachel Pennington, Baker, The Whiskey Jar
Lisa Richey, Red Row Farm
Mary Alissa Wilkins, WhiteWay Bakery

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Food Seen.

Food writer’s log of local food seen during for the last part of May, first part of June 2012:

  • Chef Harrison Keevil from Brookville Restaurant gets pastry kudos from The Daily Meal for his Spicy Raspberry Jelly & Cinnamon Sugar doughnuts. Yum!
  • Have you been keeping up with Tomas Rahal’s MAS missives while he’s been touring Tuscany and Barcelona the past few weeks? If not, you’re missing out. His tapas photos from Tickets, Albert Adria’s place, and his musings on the Tuscan countryside will make you want to slap him silly with jealousy when he gets back. Seriously dude, you’re killing me!
  • Megan Headley gets Cville chefs to reveal their deepest, darkest junk food addictions. Reminded me of when I asked Mr. Bourdain this very question during his visit here. His “Popeye’s mac and cheese” answer was appropriately embarrassing and delicious. Mr. Ripert’s response of “chorizo” was not. As for me? I’d go with Sweet Thai Chili Doritos and Cheerwine. Not together mind you. ‘Cause that would be disgusting.
  • The Charlottesville 29 was kind enough to ask me for my Five Friday Food Finds – while I was with The Hubby in Barcelona sans computer (oh yeah, whole other post on Barcelona yummies up soon). It was all I could do to get the visions of tapas from dancing in my head and come up with a “Comfort Food” theme to send. I blame Spain. Cause their food is so damn comforting.
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