Shore Dinner

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Hosting a dinner party is the perfect intersection of creativity and faith. You pull into existence a menu of that which is fresh, that which is pleasing to all the senses. And as you bring together flavors, so too you gather people, and know that fellowship will follow. On this gorgeous evening, 10 lovers of food communed at Mimosa Farm on the Eastern Shore, where they feasted on the riches of their land and sea.

 dinner designed and prepared by Amy Brandt photography by Keith Lanpher

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Hosting, Dinner Party, Eastern Shore, Virginia, Amy Brandt, Keith Lanpher, Mimosa Farm, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Virginia Magazine, Hampton Roads, Cobia, recipes, Recipe

Hosting, Dinner Party, Eastern Shore, Virginia, Amy Brandt, Keith Lanpher, Mimosa Farm, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Virginia Magazine, Hampton Roads, Cobia, recipes, Recipe

Hosting, Dinner Party, Eastern Shore, Virginia, Amy Brandt, Keith Lanpher, Mimosa Farm, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Virginia Magazine, Hampton Roads, Cobia, recipes, Recipe

Hosting, Dinner Party, Eastern Shore, Virginia, Amy Brandt, Keith Lanpher, Mimosa Farm, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Virginia Magazine, Hampton Roads, Cobia, recipes, Recipe

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photography by Keith Lanpher

WINES FOR THE MENU:
Level 2 sommelier Jen Saxby, of 37 North in Virginia Beach, suggested Caracciolis Brut 2007 Santa Lucia; Forlorn Hopes Kirschenmann Pinot Gris 2012 Lodi; and Anthill Farms Peters Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012.

DOUBLE DEVILED EGGS

A variation of two classics, married together.

INGREDIENTS
12 farm eggs

For the filling:
2 tablespoons Duke’s mayonnaise
1 teaspoon yellow mustard
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon hot sauce, plus more for serving
Sea salt to taste

For the garnish:
6 ounces Edwards Country Ham, sliced very thin ¼ cup celery, diced very fine
2 tablespoons Duke’s mayonnaise
3 tablespoons whole-grain mustard
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons bread and butter pickles, diced
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped

PREPARATION
Place eggs in a large pot and cover with 2 inches of cold water. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over high heat. Once the eggs come to a boil, remove from heat and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Let stand for 15 minutes. Drain off the water and refresh with ice and cold water. Let chill completely.

Peel the eggs and split them lengthwise. Remove the yolks to a medium bowl and place the white halves on a serving platter.

To make the filling: To the yolks add the mayonnaise, yellow and Dijon mustards, pepper and hot sauce. Mash yolks vigorously with a potato masher or chop in a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Season to taste with salt.

Place yolk mixture in a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip. Pipe the mixture into the hollows of the egg whites. Wrap loosely and keep cool.

To make the deviled ham salad garnish: Shred the ham into small pieces. Place in a medium bowl. In a small bowl put the celery, mayonnaise, whole-grain and Dijon mustards, pickles and parsley. Stir to combine. Scrape the mixture onto the shredded ham and fold in until the ham is evenly coated. Refrigerate until needed.

To serve, place about a teaspoon of the ham mixture on each egg.  Serve with hot sauce on the side.
SLAB FRIED GREEN TOMATOES WITH COLD BLUE CRAB SALAD
Thick slices of green tomato coated with Pungo Mills cornmeal and fried crisp in a cast-iron pan. Perfection!

INGREDIENTS

For the crab salad:
1 pound Eastern Shore jumbo lump crabmeat
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh chives, sliced very thin
2 teaspoons dried tarragon
2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper

For the tomatoes:
½ cup vegetable oil for frying
4 green tomatoes, 2 ¾-inch slices cut from each
1½ cups flour
2 eggs
½ cup cream
2 cups Pungo Mills cornmeal
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

For the drizzle:
¼ cup lemon juice
¾ cup mayonnaise

PREPARATION
To make the crab salad: Gently pick through the crabmeat and remove any shell particles. Place the meat in a medium bowl. Fold in the remaining ingredients.

To make the fried tomatoes: Set up the dredging. Place the flour in a shallow container. Whisk the eggs and cream in a small bowl. Place the cornmeal into another shallow container.  Dip the cut tomatoes in the flour, coating thoroughly. Next move them to the egg mixture one at a time, then into the cornmeal and coat completely.

Heat two large cast-iron pans over medium heat. When pans are hot, pour ¼ cup of oil into each. When the oil is hot, very carefully place four slices of coated tomatoes into each pan. Let the tomatoes brown well before turning. Brown the second side well. Remove from the pan to a plate covered with paper towel or brown paper. Season with the salt and pepper.

To serve, place the hot fried tomato slices on a platter. Top with the crabmeat salad.  Whisk lemon juice into mayonnaise and drizzle. Serve immediately.
AMY’S TOMATO TART
A tomato tart that stays true to the tomato and shows off the taste and fleeting beauty of the summer and fall tomatoes. Tarts are best served with a simple vinaigrette dressed green salad.
Makes 6 small or 3 large tarts.

INGREDIENTS

1 recipe thin-crust pizza dough (below)
6 tomatoes, sliced thin
Sea salt and flour
1 tablespoon fresh chives, cut very thin
6 teapoons olive oil
12 leaves fresh basil
Goat cheese or fresh mozzarella for garnish (optional)

PREPARATION

Make the dough in the pizza crust and flatbread recipe below. For small tarts, divide the dough into 6 equal balls; for large, divide into
3 equal balls. Follow the instructions up to the step where the dough balls are removed from the refrigerator and sit for 2 hours before baking. With the smaller balls, only 1 hour is necessary.

While the dough is warming, gather your ingredients and slice the tomatoes. The tarts can be baked in many different vessels. I like a small cake ring, but a pie pan or springform pan will work as well.

Heat oven to 450 degrees.

This recipe deviates from the pizza recipe at this point; proceed as if you were baking a pie. If using cake rings, place them on a sheet tray covered with parchment paper. If using a pie pan or a springform, lightly oil the pan and place next to your work area. Dust your work table with flour and roll out the dough. Place the rolled dough into your chosen vessel. Using a fork, poke holes in the dough. Tightly line the dough with aluminum foil and weight the dough with baking beans.

Bake the tart shells for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest with the foil and beans still in the shell for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the foil and beans and let the dough cool.

Make a layer of tomatoes in the shell, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle the layer with a bit of flour, salt and the chives. Make another layer and repeat the flour and salt. Lay 2 to 3 basil leaves on top of that layer of tomatoes. Make your last layer of tomatoes and drizzle the olive oil on top of each tart along with a bit more salt. Top with a few pieces of goat cheese or fresh mozzarella if you like.

Bake the tarts immediately for 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
THIN-CRUST PIZZA AND FLATBREAD DOUGH

INGREDIENTS
4½ cups bread flour
1¾ teaspoons sea salt
¼ teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons yeast
¼ cup olive oil
1¾ cups water, lukewarm
PREPARATION

In the bowl of an electric mixer combine ½ cup of the flour; salt, sugar, yeast, oil and water. Using the flat paddle, mix to combine. Stir with the paddle for 2 minutes. Add the remaining flour until a sticky dough forms. Dough should pull away from the sides of the bowl. If the dough is too sticky, add a bit more flour. Change attachments to the dough hook and knead for 7 minutes.

Remove dough onto a floured counter and divide into 4 equal pieces. Work the dough into smooth balls and place on an oiled sheet tray.

Lightly oil the tops of the dough and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.

Remove the dough 2 hours before you plan to use it. Form the dough into discs and let them sit, covered with plastic.

When you’re ready to bake, heat the oven to 500 degrees with a bread stone in the lower third. Be sure your toppings are ready before you begin to form the dough.

Using your hands, work from the inside to the outside and form a flat, thin disc (about ¼ inch thick).

Generously dust a peel with cornmeal and place the dough on the peel. Working quickly, place toppings on the dough, leaving the outer 1½ inches without any topping. Remember, less is more with pizza topping!

Slip the pizza onto the stone by quickly pulling the peel out from under the pizza (not too hard or you will lose your toppings). Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Let stand 3 minutes before cutting.

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LIMA BEAN, FRESH CORN AND POTATO HASH
An unusual late summer hash.

INGREDIENTS

2 slices cured side meat (I’ve used smoked bacon)
2 tablespoons sea salt
2 pounds fresh lima beans
2 gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 slices thick-cut bacon
4 or more tablespoons butter, divided
The corn cut from 4 ears, blanched
Canola oil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped

PREPARATION

Place the side meat in a pot with 3 quarts of water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 30 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons salt and the lima beans. Simmer for 30 minutes. Discard the meat; drain the beans and set aside.

Place the cubed potatoes in a sauce pan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook the potatoes until they are just tender (about 10 minutes), taking care not to overcook. Gently drain and rinse with cold water. Set aside.

Cook the bacon until crisp; drain on paper towels. When cool enough to handle, cut into ½-inch pieces.

Place half of the cooked limas in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Add 2 tablespoons of the butter and process until somewhat smooth.

Place all of the ingredients except thyme into a large bowl and mix together with your hands.

Heat two cast-iron pans over medium heat. Add canola oil and a tablespoon butter to each pan. Divide the hash between each pan and cook without disturbing until the bottom is browned. Flip the hash and cook again until browned. You may need to add more oil and butter at this time.

Sprinkle the hash with the chopped thyme and serve immediately.


GRILLED COBIA WITH GRILLED-SCALLION VINAIGRETTE

An incredible local fish that is available from July into October. The meat cooks firm and sweet; it is a forgiving fish, as it does not dry out easily. I like simple accompaniments so that the taste of the fish is not overwhelmed by the sauce. I also serve this fish with grilled lemon halves. Grilling sweetens the taste of the lemon and helps to release the juice.   

 INGREDIENTS

3 pounds cobia fillet, skin off and bones removed
Sea salt to taste
Fresh-ground black pepper

For the vinaigrette:
2 bunches scallions, trimmed and lightly oiled
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped very fine
1/3 cup malt vinegar
1/2 cup canola oil
3/4 cup olive oil
Sea salt
1 teaspoon dried tarragon

PREPARATION

To make the vinaigrette: Heat your grill to medium high. Place the lightly oiled scallions on the grill. After you see dark grill marks appear, turn the scallions over. Remove from the grill after the second side has dark grill marks; cool completely. Cut the scallions into ¼-inch slices and place in a bowl with the garlic, vinegar, canola and olive oils, salt and tarragon. Let sit for 20 minutes before using.

To grill the fish: Brush it with oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the uncut fillet on the grill, skin side up. The length of cooking time can be determined by the thickness of the fish. The basic guideline is 5 minutes per inch of thickness. Cobia can be pretty thick. Divide the cook time between the two sides. For example, if the cobia is 2 inches thick it will take about 10 minutes to cook through, so cook 5 minutes each side. Lower the heat if you feel the meat is becoming too dark too quickly.

As with any firm meat, I suggest lightly covering with foil and letting the fish rest for 5 minutes before serving.
ITALIAN PRUNE PLUM PANNA COTTA
Smooth and creamy, this satisfies the strongest dessert cravings. I love the tanginess of the yogurt and buttermilk.  Serves 8.

INGREDIENTS

For the filling:
2 cups Italian prune plums, pitted
cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 sheets silver gelatin
2 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split
1½ cups cultured buttermilk
2 cups Greek yogurt

For the topping:
Whipped cream
Lemon curd

PREPARATION

To make the plum mixture: Put the pitted plums in a large, heavy sauce pan with the sugar and lemon juice. Heat over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is jam-like, about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat as the fruit becomes thicker to prevent burning. Set aside and let cool. This step may be done the day before.

To make the panna cotta: Place the gelatin sheets in a shallow container; cover with cold water. Set aside.

Measure the cream into a medium sauce pan and heat over medium heat. Add the split vanilla bean and bring just to a simmer; remove from heat. Scrape the seeds from the bean pod and whisk them into the warm cream. Discard the bean pod. Remove the gelatin sheets from the water and squeeze some of the moisture from the sheets with your hands. Place the sheets into the cream and stir to dissolve. Whisk in the plum mixture, buttermilk and yogurt. Whisk until smooth.

Pour into serving dishes and chill at least 3 hours or overnight.

Serve with whipped cream with lemon curd folded into it.

 

During our “Dinner on the Shore” we had made a special #Spotify playlist do set the tone for the afternoon. Simply click the link to hear!

These recipes and many more from this dinner are available on Distinction’s tablet and smartphone app, free at iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.


Old Style Markets

Provisions

 

by Janine Latus
photography by Todd Wright

Food is nourishment. It is art and community. It is that which gathers friends and family and strangers around this need that is also a want, this necessity that is also a luxury. The steaming bread, the cut of meat, the pile of produce, each has its own story, its provenance, its bakery or butchery or patch of soil. Norfolk is seeing a surge in businesses bringing the best of food to the community, to speak of the farmers and the soil, of sunlight and the terroir of a side of beef, a heritage tomato, even a loaf of bread.

There is an old movie saw that if you build it they will come. These entrepreneurs did, and the community came.

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Jonathan Highfield lifts the edge of a flour-covered proofing cloth to roll a loaf of his signature organic whole wheat bread studded with sunflower and pumpkin seeds onto a balsa wood board, then transfers it from that onto the wide wooden paddle he will use to slide it and four other loaves at a time deep into the brick oven. It is 5 a.m. and Highfield, 35, has been working here at The Bakehouse at Chelsea for an hour, first cleaning out the ash from the fire built in the kiln-like oven the night before, its heat now radiating from the brick, the temperature inside dropping during the course of the 60 or more loaves he’ll make today from 700 to 650 to 600 degrees.

On the other side of the kitchen, Rachel Gaxiola, 28, who trained under Highfield, uses a ruler to confirm that the puff pastry she’s mixed by hand and rolled out measures a precise 8 by 12 inches. She sprinkles the dough with cinnamon and folds both long edges to the center, then folds it again lengthwise before selecting one of her favorite knives and slicing, each cut half an inch from the last. These she arrays on parchment paper in a baking pan before lifting out the 40-pound iron doorway to the second oven, which last night was roaring with a pizza fire. Her pastries will bake in the residual heat, emerging minutes later as crispy, sweet, elephant ears. On any given morning she’ll make sticky buns and scones, ham and Gruyère croissants, and turnovers, positioning a palm’s worth of strawberries and a sprinkling of fresh basil in the centers of nearly exact squares of pastry dough she made herself.

Highfield, who trained at New England Culinary Institute and founded the bakery and pastry program for the Culinary Institute of Virginia, uses his paddle to push a shallow pan of water deep into the back of the bread oven, both to even out the temperature and to give off steam to the loaves he slides in now, tugging the paddle back in increments, the loaves dropping off it in rows.

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“You have to finesse this a little bit,” he says. “The wood fire is by far the most consistent and incredible way to bake and I love it. But you can’t just set the temperature like you could with electricity or gas.”

Owner John McCormick himself loves bread – whole wheat or rye or white, crusty or chewy or some nirvana of both. Every Friday his New York-bred father would bring home a bag of big, crusty rolls, so to McCormick bread is family, it is texture and flavor and sustenance. He began in the bread business as one of the owners of Rowena’s Kitchen, but when he sold off his share he became captivated by the beauty of all-brick ovens. He hired a pair of “vintage Vermont craftsmen” to come to town to build the ovens – 3,000 bricks that together with the concrete slabs and iron doors weigh more than 40,000 pounds. Now late in each day  he and his employees build a Boy Scout-like fire in the bread oven – paper and tinder and logs – and open a chute of vents along the side to give the fire air. For nearly five hours it burns; then the bakers close the vents and let the heat saturate the brick.

McCormick opened the Bakehouse in May and it quickly developed a following.

“I almost cried the first time we had a line out the door,” Highfield says.

A couple who appear to be septuagenarians choose a dense, black, German rye called vollkornbrot.

McCormick’s wife, Melissa McCormick, who on this day is working the counter, offers them samples of a soufflé made of butter, eggs, cream and sausage, so rich it’s like savory custard. The flaky crust is hand-made of nothing more complicated than flour, butter and salt. Behind the couple a child is lifted up to choose among the pastries. By lunchtime the seven tables are filled with people and their pizzas, as are the picnic tables outside. If it’s evening and there’s a wait, John McCormick suggests that patrons go next door to The Birch for a beer. He or one of his employees will happily bring their pizzas over when they’re done. They’ll run one over to Chelsea neighbor Smartmouth Brewing, too.

The slow-rising dough for the pizza crust is shaped each morning by Highfield, who weighs out carefully measured chunks from a yeasty mass he made the day before and rolls them with one hand into uniform balls. These are later lifted and shaped and stretched by Larry Blanks, smeared with sauce and dotted with basil and feta, or spinach and pepperoni and mozzarella, or any one of a changing array of ingredients. Behind him Kenny Gerry does nothing but tend the open fire and slide pizzas in and out, 80 to 100 pies a day, flames leaping, the heat so intense at 800 or 900 degrees that within two minutes the cheese and toppings have caramelized, the bubbles on top are lightly charred, and the crust is undercooked just enough to keep it chewy.

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“You have to be really mindful,” McCormick says. “You have only a 20-second window between too soon and too late, so you cannot turn your back.”

The primitive components of fire, brick, ground grain and the house-grown leaven – grown simply from airborne yeast fed with flour and water – are transformed under the craftsmanship of the bakers.

“These are not delicate,” McCormick says. “They are hearty, ancient ovens that turn out hearty, traditional breads.”

The kind that taste like home.

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Kilan Brown hefts the 90-pound back leg of an Angus cow around on his butcher table, examining his options before sliding his knife in around the femur, his left hand feeling for the seams of fat and connective tissue that separate the muscles into top and bottom and eye of the round, which he then will cut into steaks or roasts, to be sold to customers or served in the store’s signature sandwiches.

Still on the table is the front leg of a Red Devon, grass-fed all the way to the end and thus more lean, its muscle a deeper red and its extra beta carotene making its limited fat more orange than that of the Angus, which spent its last months feeding on soybeans and corn. As head butcher at Pendulum Fine Meats, Brown deals with whole cows, the Devons a heritage breed raised at Black Diamond Ranch on the far side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Angus from Monrovia Farm in Colonial Beach, Virginia, a few miles from the Potomac.

Later he’ll cut apart an entire Buckingham Berkshire, a heritage breed of pig that feeds in forest groves in Buckingham, Virginia, on acorns and berries and bugs, and still later another pasture pig from North Carolina that’s a mix of Duroc and Chester White and Berkshire, its marbling, nutritional profile and weight distinctively different.

Brown, 34, holds his knife like a dagger, his own muscles bulging, sometimes wearing a mesh glove and apron so that he doesn’t cut himself with the exertion of removing meat from bone. Customers stand at the counter and watch. They ask about process, request a particular cut, discuss heat and marinade and time.

Or they just gaze into the meat cases, the pork alive and walking around as recently as four days ago, now turned into chops and loins and bacon.

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“The 757 loves bacon,” says co-owner Dana Wakefield, laughing. “We sell a ton of it.”

Beef bacon, too. And lamb. All preserved in a mixture of salt and sugar that’s rinsed off before the meat is shut into the smoker.

“There’s almost a little bit of a cult following for beef bacon,” says Dana, whose husband, Dylan, is a co-owner and chef.

The butcher shop just opened in February, and already people call ahead and reserve a couple of pounds, then drive in from Suffolk and Hampton on weekends, buying eggs from pasture-raised chickens and honey from local hives, and perhaps a six-pack of Virginia beer or a bottle of wine while they’re there. Most of Pendulum’s customers, though, are neighbors known by name.

“Actually it’s funny, because we haven’t seen one of our regulars in a couple of weeks,” Dana says, “and Dylan said that if we don’t see him by Friday he’s going by his house to take him some paté and make sure he’s OK.”

Pendulum began as an act of friendship, at a dinner table just blocks away from its site on Shirley Avenue in Ghent. The Wakefields and their neighbors at the time, Amy Price Neff and Eric Neff, ate together several nights a week, their kids playing happily, the adults, all in their late 30s or early 40s, collaborating in the kitchen. Dylan had cooked for eight years on a Navy sub and then studied and taught at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Dana is an elementary school math teacher who for years trained the serving staffs for the corporation that owns Chili’s and Macaroni Grill. Amy is a family practice doctor and Eric an orthopedic surgeon, and all of them are devoted to putting the best food possible into their own bodies and those of their children.

They created a partnership, visited farms, looked at real estate, gave sweat-equity ownership to a mostly silent partner who handles business details like payroll and taxes, and to Stephane Girois, a 47-year-old chemical engineer who has expertise in running a processing facility under USDA inspection. Among his jobs is walking the farms that raise these breeds, whose genes are close to those raised generations ago on family farms – before the encroachment of modern breeding. Girois makes sure the chickens from Spirit Level Farm in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, receive only non-GMO feed, that the lamb from Harrisonburg gets to frolic in the field, that each farm meets Pendulum’s standards for animal care.

Then they hired excellent people. Brittany Chappells, 23, has her own kitchen kingdom, where she smokes the meats, cooks the brisket or barbecue or roast meats for the Wednesday meals-to-go, and builds the lasagna that is a Sunday evening staple. For lunch she layers her own smoked pork with Swiss cheese and homemade pickles and mustard for a Cuban, or stirs tarragon into mayonnaise that will become part of the egg salad on ciabatta.

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Tucker Nelson, 29, makes all of the sausage, blending meat and spice from recipes written with a Sharpie on the kitchen’s tile walls. Today he’s making what he calls banh mi sausage out of ground pork, carrots, daikon radish, green onions, garlic, ginger, cilantro, sriracha, black vinegar and pepper, pushed through a hand-cranked press into a long tube of sheep casing that he’ll later twist and cut at 6-inch intervals. The banh mi and both the sweet and the spicy Italian sausages are staples, but he makes more than 40 varieties – 200 pounds a week – from every meat they carry.

The people of Pendulum are deeply connected to a network of people dedicated to the best of food.

“Our producers refuse to sacrifice quality for profit,” Amy Neff says. “They opt to give their animals a better feed or put fewer animals on the ground if that’s what the farm needs. It’s a cool community, guided by principle. It’s also a lot of fun.”

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In  the morning the basket on the old farm table is piled with peaches, but at midafternoon a customer lays claim to the last four, cradling them against her body as she gathers tomatoes and corn and herbs picked half an hour ago in the side yard at Westside Produce and Provisions.

This is a place of bounty and abundance, of blackberries and summer squash, of collards and Carolina shrimp and ciabatta and cheese bread, and beef from cattle recently roaming in pastures at Windhaven Farm in Windsor. Everything here is grown or baked or harvested within easy range of the store.

Co-owner Gordon Holley, 60, is a board member of Buy Fresh Buy Local Hampton Roads, which helps consumers find locally sourced products. But he was connecting people with food long before that, much of the time in his job at Valley Foodservice, a family-owned company so close and tight that he could walk into the president’s office any time he needed to. But Valley merged with a bigger company that had so many layers of management that it didn’t suit Holley’s style. He wanted to work for a family-owned business, so he and his brother James, 52, decided to start their own. They rented the former Jazzercise building on north Colley in Norfolk, scraped the old tile off the floor, and added extra plumbing and a cistern to capture rainwater. They brought in family furniture and antiques bought at auctions, and hung an old painting by their mother’s cousin of boats reflected in nearby Knitting Mill Creek. They built raised beds in the side yard and planted tomatoes and herbs and Japanese eggplant, and in June 2012 – before Chow, before Eva’s, before the Cogan’s slated to open down the street in the fall – they opened their doors.

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A woman from nearby Larchmont buys zucchini and tomatoes and Virginia wine. A 20-something on a bicycle buys $50 worth of pasture-raised beef and eggs from pasture-raised chickens. A sailor in uniform buys a pound of ground beef, two ears of corn, and tomatoes. Always tomatoes. The store sells 500 to 600 pounds of them a week during the height of the season – some of them picked from the yard just moments before.

Two mornings a week James drives his rounds – to New Earth Farm on Indian River Road to pick up the CSA boxes that customers will pick up later in the day, to Cullipher Farm in Pungo for boxes of lettuce, cauliflower, corn, melons, berries and squash; to Vaughan Farm to pick up peaches left there by a farmer on Knotts Island, just across the border in North Carolina.

“You need a bib, those peaches are so sweet and juicy,” James says.

He picks up bread from Sugar Plum Bakery on Laskin Road and Jody’s popcorn from her store blocks away, and sauces and pimento cheese and hummus from the aptly named Yummy Goodness Catering on his way back to town. Late in the summer he will bring in nearly a dozen varieties of apples, and the store’s perfume will become heady.

At each stop he asks questions about gardening and sustainability and shopping locally. “I pick those farmers’ brains like crazy,” he says. “What do I plant when, what’s my spacing, what’s the best fertilizer?”

The plants in the Holleys’ raised beds grow from heirloom seeds from New Earth Farm, and while the brothers each had gardens before, now they’re harvesting 30 to 40 pounds of tomatoes a week, plus lettuce, eggplant, mustard greens, collards and broccoli, each bed protected naturally from certain pathogens by stands of marigolds. The brothers take turns digging and planting, sweeping the store and picking through produce, talking with customers and trolling the Internet for new vendors. They discovered Belmont Peanuts at the Virginia Wine Festival and Marsh Mud cold-brewed coffee from Eastern Shore Coastal Roasting in Eastville at the Virginia Food and Beverage Expo. Their roots into the artisanal food community are deep and wide. One producer tells them of another who tells them of another.

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“Do we pay a little more?” James asks. “Yeah, but it’s the mom-and-pops up and down Colley Avenue and downtown and Ghent that really drive the economy.”

He quotes a study done by the Virginia Food System Council that concludes that if every household in the state spent $10 a week on locally produced items, it would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue in southeastern Virginia.

Thus Westside’s beer comes from Charlottesville and Richmond, Norfolk and Virginia Beach; their sunflower sprouts come from Heads Up Hydrogreens in south Virginia Beach; their hot-brew coffees  from Rogue Elephant in Hampton and Three Ships in Virginia Beach.

“I can give you driving directions to the farm where that was picked yesterday,” James says, pointing at a tableful of produce. “You’d have to buy a plane ticket to go to the farm where the ones from the big grocery store were grown. Everything here is sourced locally. I call the order in, they cut it, I get it the next day. That’s fresh.”

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Science of Oysters

Pleasure House Oysters, Coastal Provisions, Oysters, Oysters and the Halfshell, Virginia Oysters, Oyster Varieties, Oyster eating, Raw Oysters, Science Behind Oysters, Oyster Science, Chesapeake Bay, Lynnhaven River, Oyster Regions, Distinction Magazine, Virginia, Virginia Magazine, Hampton Roads, Eastern shore

by Diane Tennant
photography by Eric Lusher

The art of appreciating oysters begins with a plateful of half-shells.

To make the most of your experience, be sure the plate includes oysters of many different types, from many different regions. But don’t start slurping yet. Before you taste, some introductions should be made.

Art, meet science. And now let science introduce you to the oyster.

All East Coast oysters are the same species, Crassostrea virginica. Yet coldwater oysters are distinct from their Gulf Coast relatives, and those from the Chesapeake Bay come in even wider variety.

“You’ve got to remember, there is no food we consume that is more emblematic of the place from which they come,” says Dan Lewis, chef and owner of Coastal Provisions on the Outer Banks.

On this particular day, he’s offering his customers seven varieties on the raw bar – farm-grown Chunus, Seaside Salts and Sewansecotts and wild James Rivers and Chincoteague Salts from Virginia, Katama Bays from Massachusetts, plus Belons from Maine. Only the Belons, a species native to France, are not C. virginicas. Yet the oysters are different, each from the other.

“The principal flavor component is really the water from which they’re taken,” Lewis explains. “One of the principal factors there is the salt content, and that can vary, too, depending on the tides or how recent the rain was.” Oyster author Patrick McMurray (Consider the Oyster: A Shucker’s Field Guide) placed words such as “astringent,” “geranium,” “honeydew,” “walnut,” “sweet cream,” “leather” and “stainless steel” in the book’s tasting wheel. Connoisseur Rowan Jacobsen (A Geography of Oysters) says Pacific oyster species taste distinctly different from that of the Atlantic coast. The same applies to Belons and other international oysters. Different species, different taste.

But flavors vary even within a species, depending on where they’re grown. “I can give you a James River and a Seaside Salt. They’re the same species,” Lewis says. “They look remarkably different, based on how they grow naturally, but the James River has much less salinity than the Seaside Salts.”

The differences are so striking that a tasting guide has been prepared by the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center, run by Virginia Tech in Hampton. The guide separates Virginia’s part of the Chesapeake Bay into seven regions, and trained panelists defined the taste of the
oysters that come from each.

Factors other than water salinity determine flavor, notes Michael Jahncke, director of the center and a professor of food science and technology. “Time of year, runoff, rainfall, types of algae in the water column, whether or not the oysters are spawning – all that will change the flavor and texture of these oysters.”

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Chris Ludford of Pleasure House Oysters inspecting his oyster cages on the Lynnhaven at sunrise.

The Chesapeake Bay is justly famed for its oysters, which once grew in such staggering numbers that it’s hard to grasp just how many there were. More than 4 million bushels were harvested in the early 1950s, and that was significantly smaller than the massive hauls of the 1880s. But overharvesting led to dramatic drops; then the diseases MSX and Dermo took a toll. By the mid-1990s, the industry’s low point, only 17,600 bushels were landed.

For a time, it appeared that the Chesapeake Bay’s native oyster would have to be replaced with an Asian variety more resistant to disease, but science stepped up to the plate. Now hatcheries produce genetically modified, triploid, oysters, and sell the spat (tiny seed oysters) to watermen who grow them until they are large enough to eat.

Raising seed oysters in tanks, then transplanting them, as they grow, into bags and cages, confines them to a certain geographic location. The specific attributes of those local waters come through in the taste of the shellfish.
“I describe mine as moderately salty with a sweet taste,” says Tommy Leggett, an oyster farmer on the York River. “You’re going to taste the mineral content of the water. If they’re growing over mud bottom, it’ll be one mineral content. If it’s sandy, it’s another.”

Where aquaculture really changes the game is in supply – oysters are available pretty much year-round. The traditional prohibition against eating oysters during months that don’t end in “r” was linked to the fact that wild oysters fatten up in the fall to carry them through the winter, making them plump and tasty in September, October, November and December. After reproduction during the spring and summer, they are left thinner and flaccid, not exactly big selling points.
But most farmed oysters, being genetically modified to have an extra set of chromosomes, are sterile and do not reproduce. Because they are able to focus their energy on their own development instead of reproduction, they grow faster and remain plump and meaty all year long. The oysters reach market size sooner, which has two benefits: Farmers can harvest and sell more often, and the oysters can be harvested before they are old enough to be
affected by disease.

Last year, the commonwealth’s watermen harvested 504,113 bushels of C. virginicas, almost double the haul of the previous year. More than half of those oysters came from aquaculture. In the past six years, sales of oysters grown specifically to be eaten on the half-shell have grown from 800,000 oysters to 23.3 million. That means plump Chesapeake Bay oysters, in all their many flavors, can stay on the menu, and on your taste buds.

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Chris Ludford, Kyle Watts and Lee Gregory of Pleasure House Oysters sort oysters for market.

Eating an oyster is an art form, really.

For the best flavor, aficionados say, the shellfish must be eaten raw.

Tip one into your mouth and taste the salt of its home waters. Bite down on it to experience the creamy, buttery mouthfeel. Chew a few times to release the sweetness. Swallow, then pause to savor the aftertaste, which is also unique to location.

Why is that? How can the same variety of oyster, of the same size, taste so very different based simply on where it’s grown?

Oysters are filter feeders. Every day, a single oyster siphons 50 gallons of water through its gills. The salt, the single-celled algae, the minerals – everything that’s in the water goes through the oyster, and contributes to its taste.
Jacobsen cites the words of a poet in describing oysters: “Like kissing the sea on the lips.” Chef Lewis quotes one of his local farmers: “The oyster will taste of the last thing it drank.”

In large part, that taste derives from the salinity of the water. Scientists measure the ratio of salt to water in parts per thousand. Oysters can grow in salinities ranging from 10 to more than 28 ppt. They’ll survive in a little less, but they won’t grow. Less than 5 ppt, and they die. Freshwater is not an oyster’s friend.

Salinity in the Chesapeake Bay ranges from about 5 ppt near Baltimore to more than 29 ppt at the mouth. Along the ocean side of the Eastern Shore, salinity can reach 32 ppt. It flavors the oysters’ meat, from extremely salty to bland.
Jahncke’s tasting panelists trained their tongues to distinguish between various salinities, so each was comparing Virginia oysters to a standard measure. Then they studied other flavor notes. “We did initial sensory training sessions to get people’s palates to understand different types of flavors that may be in oysters,” he says. After multiple tasting sessions and discussions on identifying specific flavors and textures, the panel got to work.
“We gave them blind samples of oysters from different regions and had them describe the flavor, texture and sensory characteristics,” he says. “There were distinct – some subtle and some not so subtle – differences between these oysters from different regions.”

For the brochure A Guide to the Flavors of Virginia Oysters, the bay and Eastern Shore were divided into seven regions. Salinities were highest along the barrier islands that separate the Eastern Shore from the Atlantic Ocean, and lowest in the upper bay and in tidal rivers flushed by freshwater flows. Not surprisingly, the panel rated the taste of oceanside oysters “strong” in saltiness. That would include Chincoteague Salts, historically grown in the waters between Chincoteague Island and the mainland. The area’s oysters were so renowned for their briny flavor that sometimes, Jacobsen wrote in Geography, Gulf Coast oysters would “vacation” in the waters of Chincoteague for a couple of weeks, drinking in salt, before being sent on to northern markets.

The least salty taste, according to the guide, comes from four regions encompassing the upper bay and western side, but those oysters still came in as “moderate.” None of the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters – not a single one – was rated in the two lowest categories of saltiness, “slightly” or “barely perceptible,” which means that any Virginia oyster you choose will bring some salt flavor to the table. Now, the biting and chewing. Salt is only the first flavor sensation oysters will impart. Biting into the meat releases the second wave of taste, and that can range from sweet to vegetable to earthy.

Sweet flavors such as watermelon, apple and cucumber result from the mechanical act of chewing. Oysters store energy as glycogen, a largely tasteless substance made of glucose molecules all linked together. Chewing breaks those sugar molecules into short pieces that your tongue can pick up.

“Your taste buds get imbued with flavors,” Jahncke says. “Your mama was right when she told you to chew your food.”

 

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Dan Lewis, chef and owner of Coastal Provisions on the Outer Banks.

 

Economist Dan Kauffman, who also worked with the tasting panel, agreed. “What we call an oyster taste, that doesn’t really occur until about eight or 10 chews into the oyster. Then it blooms at that point.” Texture plays a big role in the whole oyster-eating experience, they say. Plump oysters are firmer and have a better mouthfeel than limp oysters that have expended all their energy on reproduction. That enhances umami, a mouth sensation only recently
recognized by Westerners but defined by the Japanese for a century as “the essence of deliciousness.”

“We believe that umami may come from a combination of different things,” Jahncke says. That includes an amino acid called glutamate, whose molecules can be broken down by metal ions such as copper, iron and zinc. Oysters can contain high concentrations of those metals, especially those grown in mineral-laden freshwater flowing down from
Virginia’s mountains.

“I think umami is why oysters are so addictive,” Kauffman says. “Oysters, when you taste them, aren’t a smack-you-in-the-face big flavor. They’re pretty subtle.” And that is exactly why you shouldn’t eat them too quickly. When you allow the taste to linger on your tongue, the “finish” becomes apparent. A rich, buttery taste may come from lipids, or fats, stored in the oyster meat, Jahncke says. Earthy flavors described on McMurray’s tasting wheel include “forest floor,” “mushroom,” “potting soil” and “silt.” Those may derive from sediment in the bottom where the oyster grew, or from the type of algae in the water.

When at last you must swallow, pick up the shell again, and drink the juice that remains, the oyster “liquor.”

“It really is tasting the sea,” Jahncke says.

Now pick up the second oyster from the plate. Tip, feel, bite, chew, swallow, savor, sip. It really is an art. But science is never satisfied.

“I’ve taken scientists on tours of oyster bars – tough job, right? – so they can talk to chefs and oyster shuckers to get feedback on what customers really want, so they can try to breed for those characteristics,” Kauffman says. “But breeding is not going to swamp geography. Geography is what the oyster is all about.”

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To list every type of oyster raised in Virginia would be impossible, but here are a few you’re likely to run into, and their taste profiles. A little extra: profiles of oysters from other parts of the country.

REGION 1: SEASIDE
The highest salinities are found along the Atlantic coast of the Eastern Shore. A Guide to the Flavors of Virginia Oysters describes this region’s oysters, generally speaking, as “initial bold saltiness mellowing into a taste of sweet butter/cream at the finish.”
Chunu: High salinity with a sweet, grassy finish.
Chincoteague Cultured Salt: The name says it all. Salty!
Misty Point: High salinity fading into bright, sweet hits of celery and grass.
Olde Salt: Bold and briny with a smooth, clean finish.
Sewansecott: A big hit of umami with lingering sweetness.
Watch House Point: Salty followed by hints of cucumber and melon.

REGION 2: UPPER BAY, EASTERN SHORE
These oysters are moderately salty because they are farther from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and, thus, the ocean. The initial brine is replaced with a sweet, savory finish.
Broadwater: Grown in Occohannock Creek, right on the boundary of Regions 2 and 3; farmers send these oysters to “vacation” on the seaside to pick up more salt. Lively pizzazz ending with a unique finish of cedar and spice.

REGION 3: BAYSIDE EASTERN SHORE
Saltier than those from Region 2 but creamy with mellow sweetness and a quick finish.
Pungoteague Creek: Light body, with a bit of a rusty, alkaline finish.

REGIONS 4 AND 5: UPPER BAY AND
MIDDLE BAY, WESTERN SHORE
The Virginia oysters guide refers to these as “sweetwater” oysters, because of the freshwater flow into the rivers where they’re grown. They enjoy an easily located buttery flavor, followed by a mineral finish.
Rappahannock River: Less briny than others on the East Coast, with a crisp finish.
Stingray: Mildly salty and sweet.

REGION 6: LOWER BAY, WESTERN SHORE
These oysters are mildly salty, with a sweet finish.
York River: Mild saltiness with a buttery quality.

REGION 7: TIDEWATER
These oysters can range from salty near the mouth of the bay to milder in the James River.
Wild James River: Sweet with a buttery finish.
Lynnhaven: Once off the market because of pollution, these are once again becoming available. Salty with a slightly sweet zing.

Some oysters from other areas:
Belon (Maine): Fairly strong, with a metallic/mineral finish.
Katama Bay (Massachusetts): Briny with a sweet cream roundness.
Kumamoto (West Coast): Sweet and fruity.
Olympia (Puget Sound): Sweet with a metallic, celery-salt flavor.
Hog Island Sweetwater (California): Sweet and pleasantly briny.
Gulf Coast oysters: Mild and soft.

Sources:

A Guide to the Flavors of Virginia Oysters; Rowan Jacobsen’s OysterGuide.com; Dan Lewis of Coastal Provisions; the websites of Ballard Fish and Oyster, Rappahannock Oyster, York River Oyster and Lynnhaven Oyster companies; and Saveur.

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A Side Of History

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 by Lorraine Eaton
illustrations by Steven Noble

 Sit down to dinner in Virginia and you’ll likely be served a side of history – fitting for a state that boasts the nation’s first foodway.

Consider oysters. The earliest English settlers were stunned by the dinner plate-sized bivalves they found when they first sailed into the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters sustained the Jamestown colony during harsh winters and drought, and may have been key to the survival of the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

Then there’s Brunswick stew. Behind every bowl is “Uncle” Jimmy Matthews, the cook who in 1828 made a vat of it for a hunting party on the banks of the  Nottoway River. His name is etched on a historical marker identifying Brunswick County as “The Original Home of Brunswick Stew,” with no apologies to Georgia, which fought fiercely for the right.

Okra. Salt-cured ham. Whiskey, even. They’ve all got stories.

Here we seize on an entire meal of sorts – fried chicken, sweet potatoes and May peas, each served with a savory side of history. Just add some sweet iced tea.

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Hayman Sweet Potatoes

On cool fall mornings, when farmer’s markets fold for the season and trees turn sunset hues, W.T. Nottingham traverses the Eastern Shore horizon on his tractor, disking rows of chocolate-brown soil inside out to reveal his last – and ugliest – sweet potato crop of the season.

In his wake the earth is studded with whitish, dirt-smeared tubers, some round, some splayed out like fat fingers, each one prized by cultlike fans from North Carolina to New York. They call Pickett’s Harbor Farms months in advance to reserve Haymans for holiday pies and casseroles. A late call means languishing on a waiting list.

Never mind that Hayman sweet potatoes aren’t handsome like their bright orange brothers, the Beauregards and Hernandez varieties that Nottingham also grows. No, Haymans’ milky skin is bumpy and veined like the back of an old man’s hand. Inside, the flesh has a greenish cast. The texture is slightly fibrous.

It’s the intense, starchy sweetness that keeps the cult coming back and keeps a handful of Eastern Shore farmers like Nottingham growing the crop, which is as cantankerous as it is coveted.

Even in the first half of the 20th century, when Virginia’s Eastern Shore reigned as the country’s premier sweet potato producer and Joe DiMaggio crowned the sweet potato queen, small farms and backyard gardens were the provenance of Haymans, for decades a sort of culinary secret among people on the shore.

Haymans are kin to morning glories, said David S. Shields, McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina and chairman of Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste nominating committee for the Southeast. He has researched the potato’s pedigree.

The tubers arrived in the United States via the West Indies in 1856, when Capt. Daniel Hayman sailed into Elizabeth City, North Carolina, with a cargo of semitropical white sweet potatoes in his hold. A Methodist minister bought the lot of them and distributed them through a network of Methodist preachers. Since Methodists were dominant on the Eastern Shore and the sandy, slightly acidic soil is prime for growing sweet potatoes, “it took a foothold there and became the standard boiling potato,” Shields says.

More than a century later, it seemed that Haymans might move into the mass market despite myriad drawbacks: ugly, slow-growing, inconsistent yield, susceptible to disease. In the 1980s, Virginia Tech partnered with Eastern Shore growers in an attempt to improve the seed stock and develop a mass market. “Hayman Selects” were packed into boxes, each prime spud bearing a gold sticker. Seconds were made into chips. But problems persisted and the experiment ended.

Nottingham, whose family’s farm is just north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, is in his seventh season of growing Haymans. He received his first seed from William Harmon, the octogenarian dean of the Eastern Shore growers, whose family has harvested Haymans for generations.

“Hayman, if you can grow him, he ain’t no problem to get rid of,” Harmon said one fall afternoon, post harvest, as he waited for neighbors coming for a fix. “Every year, we grow a little more. … The more you grow, the more they want.”

The Chicken Leg Center of the Universe

The train whistle blew a mournful ribbon of sound through the rolling hills of central Virginia. At the passenger depot in Gordonsville, the bustle would begin.

African-American women in long skirts and white aprons piled serving trays high with pure Southern comfort – salty ham sandwiches, lemon meringue pies, biscuits, loaves of bread and, most important, baskets of fried chicken.

The women hoisted the trays onto their heads, grabbed folding trays and coffee pots, and made their way trackside. When the train screeched to a stop at the depot, the women scanned the open windows for hungry travelers, crying, “Chicken ’n’ ha-am. Get your hot fried chicken.”

For generations, this town a few miles east of Charlottesville was known as “the chicken leg center of the universe,” a 145-year-old accolade that is enjoying a revival of sorts.

Exactly when the “waiter-carriers” first started serving meals to rail passengers isn’t known. But in 1869, just four years after the Civil War ended, local newsman George W. Bagby christened the crossroads the “chicken-leg centre of the universe.”

At the time, Gordonsville marked the junction of two major railroads and the first waiter-servers were almost certainly newly freed slaves. In his book Fried Chicken: An American Story, food historian John T. Edge posits that the enterprise “was an early and important underground economy that leveraged self-reliance and rewarded its practitioners with an independence that many of their sharecropping husbands could not muster.”

Not that the women’s work wasn’t equally laborious. Interview transcripts and yellowed newspaper clippings reveal a vocation that demanded cooking skill, accounting acumen, physical grace and stamina, plus the persistence and savvy of a salesman.

The Pine and the Palm Greeting, a collection of essays chronicling the 1871 train trip by Northern newspaper editors through “ex-Confederate” states, notes that at Gordonsville, the train was “surrounded by a swarm” of vendors “carrying large servers upon their heads, containing pies, cakes, chickens” and more.

The unidentified editor noted that he and his cohorts partook only of fresh berries and cherries, eschewing the freshly fried chicken.

Too bad for the editors.

The fried chicken that the waiter-carriers served would make today’s slow-food locavores salivate. In the early years, the women raised the chickens themselves. The birds were plucked and then battered and fried in lard bought by the 60-pound barrel full.

“We’d meet every train all day long, beginning with the nine o’clock train from Richmond,” the late Hattie Edwards told a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter in 1957. “We’d get up before day and start to fry and if we ran out, we’d fry and bake again between train times.”

Edwards, born in 1880, worked the depot from 1916 to 1925. She was a second-generation waiter-carrier and one of the last to perfect a skill that a Charlottesville Daily Progress article in 1955 described as “uncanny”: “They would reach up into the tray, recognize the cut of chicken by its shape, hand a sandwich to a customer, receive payment and make change, if necessary, without ever removing the tray from their head.”

“Sometimes milk would freeze on my head,” the late Bella Winston told the Times-Dispatch. “My mother’s head got a soft spot where she carried hot coffee.”

Exactly when the practice ended is unknown, but waiter-carriers pegged the decline to when rights to serve passengers from the depot side of the tracks were awarded to a local businessman, who opened a restaurant there. Waiter-carriers continued to serve from the back side of the tracks for a bit before the era ended for good.

In 2001, Gordonsville celebrated its heritage with a fried chicken festival. It was revived in 2013, with plans to continue having one on the third Saturday in May. Every year the festival has included a cook-off, where at least one team of waiter-carrier descendants has competed using recipes that remain closely guarded family secrets.

There is no restaurant that serves it. Today, getting in line at the festival is the only way to get a taste of the fried chicken that for a time made Gordonsville famous.

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Mr. Jefferson’s May Peas

On the Eastern Shore each spring, delicate dogwood blossoms signal to fishermen that flounder will soon be biting. Across Virginia each fall, collard lovers crave the first frost, knowing that the sudden cold snap makes greens taste sweeter.

Up at Monticello, the whistle of the whip-poor-will seems to have signaled to the nation’s third president that the annual gardening contest would soon be decided and that a dish of fresh May peas would be served by the winner at a celebratory supper.

May peas were likely Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable. At Monticello, nearly a third of the vegetable garden was planted in peas, including 15 varieties of English peas, sown in stages to stretch out the harvest.

“It does seem like a lot,” says Pat Brodowski, head vegetable gardener at Monticello, who today tends pea crops in the same location where Jefferson’s grew.

In other places they’re called English peas, or garden peas, or are lumped into the category of shell peas, because they must be removed from their pods before eating. In Virginia, these tiny green globes are May peas. They’re sown in winter, after the New Year. Weather willing, by May those seeds have grown into leafy, knee-high bushes.

The pods and blooms are the stuff of children’s book illustrations. Wispy tendrils curl around wee white flowers, and here and there you’ll find a dangling pod or three. Split one open to find peas nestled inside like babies in a blanket.

Jefferson, a prolific letter writer who kept a meticulous record of his gardens, mentions peas 78 times in his letters and 44 times in his “Garden Book,” a ledger where, in neat columns, he noted the time and location of plantings and when the harvest would “come to table.”

Like today’s May pea enthusiasts – and there are enthusiasts who pester farmers each spring about when the crop will be ready – he must have craved the crispness and sweet, grassy flavor. When May peas did come to Jefferson’s table, they were likely served in the style of his relation, cookbook author Mary Randolph – slightly crisp, bright green, with a bit of chopped mint and glistening in butter, “because Thomas Jefferson put butter in everything,” Brodowski says.

Judging from his correspondence, Jefferson wasn’t the May pea champion of central Virginia. That honor belonged to George Divers, his neighbor in Charlottesville.

Perhaps it was Jefferson’s love of peas or perhaps his pleasure in a bit of neighborly competition, but the president kept a keen account of his pea crop, even while away on business.

In June 1790, while in New York, Jefferson wrote to his youngest daughter, Mary, “We had not peas nor strawberries here till the 8th. day of this month. On the same day I heard the first Whip-poor-will whistle. …And when had you peas, strawberries, and whip-poor-wills in Virginia? Take notice hereafter whether the whip-poor-wills always come with the strawberries and peas.”

Whichever household won the Jefferson-Divers May pea match had work ahead to get the peas to table. It takes about 25 plants to produce little more than one cup of shelled peas, and quite a spell to shell them. Once they’re picked, the peas need to be eaten quickly, before the signature sweetness gives way to starch. All that explains today’s seemingly high price of shelled May peas, about $5 a pound, and why the Jeffersonian dinner took place soon after the first pea pods appeared.

Years later, Jefferson’s grandson recalled that the president was ever the gentleman, even when it came to May peas.

“Mr. Jefferson, on one occasion had them first, and when his family reminded him that it was his right to invite the company, he replied, ‘No, say nothing about it, it will be more agreeable to our friend to think that he never fails.’ ”

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Shucking Knives

 

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You can’t tip the oyster if you can’t pry the thing open. These knives are geared to clamped-down Lowcountry oysters. From left, the hammered-blade Edisto in cocobolo rosewood with Himalayan ram’s horn trim, $400; the Damascus stainless, in black cherry burl with musk ox horn, $500; and, back, the Edisto in Arizona desert ironwood with olivewood, $300. WilliamsKnife.com.

photograph by Eric Lusher

  This and more stories are available on Distinction’s tablet and smartphone app, FREE at iTunes, Google Play and Amazon

Zekes

 

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by MICHELLE WASHINGTON
photography by TODD WRIGHT

 

Cheerful lettering on the door extends the artful vibe of Zeke’s Beans and Bowls into the outside world.

“Take care and create stuff!” says the slogan, applied around eye level to ensure the hearty farewell goes noticed.

“I’d like to think the restaurant itself has a soul,” says co-owner Nick Vitale. “It’s more than a place to eat. It’s a creative hub.”

Vitale – he pronounces it Vih-TAHL-ee, and emphasizes that although his whole name looks as if it could rhyme with that of sportscaster Dick Vitale, it doesn’t – crafted that vibe. Zeke’s opened in Shadowlawn in June 2013, behind a purple door crowned with a giant coffee cup. The furniture evokes “your grandmother’s living room,” Vitale says. “It’s vintage, well-kept pieces” like a sturdy couch with a floral pattern in the avocado green of a bygone time. “Not a stinky college-town frat couch.” He added other pieces that lend a feel of anachronism, like a typewriter – “kids have never seen a typewriter!” – a turntable, a rotary dial phone. Then Vitale infused the space with his own personality. Big photographs pay tribute to his father’s career as a photographer. A copy of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay for Pulp Fiction joins coffee table books, a reflection of Vitale’s love of movies.

“Basically I wanted a space that was comfortable and cozy,” Vitale says, so folks who came to eat at the Beach could “maybe get inspired.” When he was younger, he says, dreaming of one day working as a film director, he never saw a screenplay. Tarantino’s work was a revelation. “Maybe it will inspire someone else,” he says.

Inspiration for the menu came straight from memories shared with co-owner Mike Schirmer. They have known each other since they were kids surfing together at Virginia Beach in the mid-’90s. Surfing took them to other spots with fine waves, and introduced them to the foods other surfers ate for sustenance: in Puerto Rico, fruit salads loaded with acai berries. In Hawaii, poke – raw tuna mixed with rice and fiery seasonings. In the Pacific Northwest, coffee beans ground to order and brewed slowly in single servings.

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At Zeke’s, the beans equal coffee, and the bowls equal hearty portions of nutritious, flavorful victuals to sustain surfers, whether of waves or corporations.

The North Pole acai bowl features a luscious sauce with plenty of cinnamon, mixed with blueberries, bananas and mangos. Almonds and granola contrast with crunch. It’s a bit like eating a yogurt parfait – perhaps a dessert Grandma might have made – but more decadent, more filling.

“And instead of feeling all fat like a bacon, egg and cheese, you feel light,” Schirmer says.

Poke bowls, packed in plastic to-go containers, evoke another touch of retro, bearing resemblance to those ’70s school art projects that filled baby food jars with layers of colored sand. A base of white or brown rice, a vibrant stripe of green seaweed salad and onion, then a glistening coral topper of firm, fresh tuna mixed with sriracha, mayo, panko and searing hot peppers. It, too, offers balance in a bowl. Cool parries spice; chewy, crispy salad plays against creamy tuna; lean, healthy protein earns favored status through tons of flavor.

Organic, fair trade, single-origin coffees from Intelligentsia and the Beach’s Three Ships Coffee provide perk. Juices made from vegetables or fruits – Zeke’s Facebook page touts watermelon juice as “nature’s Viagra” – and lightly sweetened smoothies complete the drink options.

A serendipitous reunion sparked the creation of Zeke’s. Vitale had been in Los Angeles, “in a big pond with a lot of fish,” trying to work in film but supporting himself by tending bar and waiting
tables. He came home to Virginia Beach for a visit last year and bumped into Schirmer, who owns The Boxx near 22nd Street, as well as Beach Cruiser Taxi. In addition to surfing, the two had tended bar together at Virginia Beach restaurants.

On that visit, they talked about starting a place together.

“We came up with the idea on a Tuesday. On Wednesday we had a place,” Schirmer says.

To find its soul, both men turned again to the past. The name of their place, Zeke’s, honors their friend Zeke Sanders, one of Virginia Beach’s best-known and most successful surfers. He died by suicide in 2006, when he was 29.

Sanders had already changed their lives.

“When he was 22 and I was 16 he took me to California for a month and a half,” Schirmer says. “We’d go out every day, walk a couple miles.” Sanders was already well regarded by then, even worked for some of the big surf companies, Schirmer says. He could have been a real jerk to a teenage kid. Instead, he was the most friendly, easy-to-approach person Schirmer had ever met.

To Vitale, too, Sanders offered unconditional support.

“When I told him I wanted to go to New York City, he said ‘Do it!’ ” Vitale says. “We looked up to him.”

Vitale and Schirmer have tried to incorporate Sanders’ goodwill and inspiration into their place. They host artists and showings during First Friday events. Surfboards stand just inside the door. The two planned a kids’ surf competition in Zeke’s memory this summer.

Zekes-Owners

Vitale this year took Zeke’s advice for a second time, and moved to New York City again to pursue his dream of working as a filmmaker. One of his first film projects: a commercial for Zeke’s.

Schirmer lives just a few blocks from Zeke’s, and they trained their chef – born in Hawaii, and creator of the poke recipes – as general manager. Vitale continues to update Zeke’s Facebook page.

And so a partnership from two friends who paid tribute to a third helped Zeke’s establish its own beat.

“I like to think this would be a place he would come to,” Vitale says. “We’re going to do right by the name.”

 

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In The Mix

Mixology, mixologists, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, bartenders, Norfolk VA, Virginia

by J. CLAYTON BARBOUR
photography by KEITH LANPHER
The myth is that sailors in the 1600s stumbled across a concoction that forever changed the way people enjoyed alcohol.

Employees of the East India Company, in an effort to kill two birds with one stone – scurvy and boredom – combined brandy with citrus, sugar and spices to create what some believe is the first cocktail.

Bachelorette parties would never be the same.

Fighting off a vitamin C deficiency is no longer the motive, but that same level of creativity is  alive in Hampton Roads. Sure, breweries like Smartmouth and O’Connor have led to a regional craft beer renaissance, but those inclined toward harder spirits can easily find bars catering to a better class of cocktail.

These skilled bartenders believe their zest for fresh ingredients and original recipes will lead to the kind of revolution that has knowledgeable beer drinkers looking down on Budweiser.

Mixed drinks have changed somewhat since those very first ones.

During Prohibition, they served as a way to make homemade – and often dangerous – booze palatable. By the 1960s, thanks in part to James Bond, vodka became the most popular liquor and elegant stiff drinks ruled the day. But in the 1980s, commercialized franchising did to drinks what it did to everything else: replaced freshness with affordability.

In the past decade, however, as people started to look for better food, with fresh, local ingredients, attention turned again to our drinks. Out went the mixes and concentrates. And some people were not happy to simply reproduce old standards; they got creative.

In cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington, bartenders specializing in mixology have become so popular that people seek them out.

Now some local bartenders are bringing this practice to life. Check out our picks, along with a signature drink of each.

The New Professional
Joshua Seaburg, 23
Bartender
Twist, Virginia Beach

Mixology, mixologists, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, bartenders, Norfolk VA, Virginia

Josh Seaburg uses the word “correct” instead of “yes.” Neat and professional, he has a manner that is almost old-fashioned. But his dedication to precision – a trait that can be irritating to some of his colleagues – has served him well in a profession where his best drinks come from experimentation and regimen.

Seaburg may be young, but he has studied his craft more than most and is passionate about cocktails. His philosophy is to use only fresh ingredients and quality spirits. No concentrates, no sour mixes. He even makes his own syrups.

“Quality shows,” he says.

 The Peace Prize
This tasty cocktail goes down easy – probably too easy. Imagine a hint of chocolate infused with citrus.

Ingredients
1½ ounces Ron Matusalem
(Cuban-style rum)
¾ ounce Fernet-Branca (neutral spirit infused with botanicals like saffron)
½ ounce Carpano Antica (sweet Vermouth)
½ ounce Licor 43
Large lemon twist

The Traditionalist
Maggie Tsouris, 65
Co-owner
Voila, Norfolk

Mixology, mixologists, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, bartenders, Norfolk VA, Virginia

If Maggie Tsouris’ name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she and her husband, John, have also owned and operated The Boulevard Café in Virginia Beach and Enrico’s on Colley in Norfolk.

Two years ago they bought Voila, in Freemason, and there Tsouris has been making delicious cocktails with a twist. Not only does she create her own unique drinks, she also makes traditionals the way you’ve probably never had them – in their original recipe.

Over the years drink recipes change, due to supply and cultural differences. Order a Tequila Sunrise today, for example, and you’ll likely get a simple drink made of tequila, OJ and grenadine. At Voila, it’s made with tequila, lime, crème de cassis and a splash of soda.

“Try them both and see which one you like better,” she says, with a smile.

Napoleon’s Devil

It’s like a cleaner, lighter Manhattan. If you like bourbon, this is your drink. Just make sure you bring a friend to drive you home.

Ingredients

2½ ounces bourbon
¾ ounce Maurin Quina (French aperitif)
¼ ounce Mandarine Napoleon
Maraschino cherry (a real one – soaked in salt brine, then pitted, and soaked in sweetener for about a month)

The Cocktail Chef

Erika Caylor, 39
Cocktaillier
Terrapin, Virginia Beach

Mixology, mixologists, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, bartenders, Norfolk VA, Virginia

A Buffalo native, Erika Caylor came to Virginia Beach young and never left. For the past eight years she has worked as head bartender at Terrapin. Making her own sour mixes, grenadine and syrups is just the first step for her. She also experiments with the creation of the drinks and their storage.

At any given time she will have behind the bar a selection of drinks stored in casks, such as Manhattans or Negronis. The wood brings out different flavors in the traditional drinks.

“It’s like being a cocktail chef,” she says. “I feel it takes a little more inspiration than just tending bar.”

Whiskey Goggles

A light, fruity drink that is as colorful as it is tasty. Goes down easy. Perfect for summer.

 Ingredients

1½ ounces Bulleit Rye
½ ounce St.-Germain liqueur
Juice of half an orange
½ ounce house-made raspberry syrup
B&B-rinse the martini glass (optional) and serve with four raspberries.

The Former Sailor 

Stephan Stockwell, 33
GM and co-owner
Chow, Norfolk

Mixology, mixologists, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, bartenders, Norfolk VA, Virginia

The Navy may have brought California native Stephan Stockwell to the area, but affection for Tidewater kept him around. The former sailor (who served on the Enterprise in aviation ordnance) now runs Chow, where he churns out drinks more hip than his ironic facial hair.

Stockwell got into craft cocktails through his love of craft beer. “Being able to create an expression of yourself is an art,” he says.

But don’t call him a mixologist. He is a bartender who enjoys mixology. Like Josh Seaburg at Twist, he uses only fresh ingredients and he loves to experiment. His offering here is proof of that.

The Free and Clear

This summer drink is reminiscent of a Dark and Stormy. Very light, citrusy with a touch of syrup. But strong. Don’t be afraid of the prunes.

Ingredients

2 ounces Salignac (cognac)
½ ounce Aperol (bitter Italian aperitif)
¾ ounce prune syrup
½ ounce lemon juice
Serve with lemon peel.

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Farming Of The Future

vertical acres, hydroponics, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, hydrogreens, Virginia Beach, Virginia, heads up hydrogreens, hunt club farm

by JANINE LATUS
photography by ROBERTO WESTBROOK
Inside an arched and insulated 60-foot-long building down a dirt road behind Hunt Club Farm in southern Virginia Beach, 8,000 heads of lettuce grow in what its owners call a “plant spa.”

John Pierce and Jacob Gold shuffle their feet through a low tray of disinfectant before entering a control room where a computer controls the transformers that manage the temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels in the air, and the conductivity and pH of circulating water. This is command central, the nervous system, the electronic butler that caters to every need of every basil and arugula and lettuce plant in the main growing room – the butter head and butter crunch, and the dark green summer crisp that’s popular with juicers because it’s so nutritious. There are black oil sunflower sprouts whose 7 grams of protein per ounce make them perfect for vegans, and herb-quality arugula so peppery it’s used only as a spice. All of it is grown from organic seeds.

Pierce and Gold, lean and health-conscious, are co-founders of Vertical Acres, a high-density hydroponic system they believe will change the way the world grows food.

Gold, 39, and Pierce, 48, spent 15 years as contractors, together and separately building high-end homes, restaurants, boats and horse barns. Gold worked for Pierce and then Pierce worked for Gold, and all the while they talked about starting a business that would matter.

“We wanted to find something with a purpose,” Gold says, “something that would fulfill us and improve the world.”

Then one day Pierce read a copy of Urban Farming magazine, and he called Gold.

“I’ve got the business,” he said.

They would produce food, and do it in a way that used no pesticides, almost no fossil fuel and only 1 percent of the water used in traditional farming. Their food would be nutritionally dense and far more flavorful than that found in a field, and it could be grown anywhere – on a yacht, in a mansion, on the edge of urban blight, in the middle of an African desert, inside a shipping container.

It would be grown in the midst of its consumers, so minimal petrochemicals would be spewed into the atmosphere in the process of planting and harvesting and transport.

Hydroponic growing systems have been around for decades, most with rows of tubes of water carrying the equivalent of soluble multivitamins – everything the plant needs delivered directly to its roots, to create foods that the USDA says are 40 percent to 70 percent more nutritious than those grown on a factory farm.

But Gold and Pierce had an idea that would let them produce eight times as much food in the same space: They would suspend horizontal tubes of plants one above another, 10 high, and hang those racks from a mechanized track that would allow them to push rows together for dense growing and pull them apart when it was time to tend or harvest. Eight hundred plants would grow in each of 10 sliding racks, the walls divided by curtains of LED lights that hang like love beads in a doorway.

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The two took a course in hydroponics led by the Cornell-trained horticulturist Jim Brown, who told them there was no way to make it commercially viable.

“That burned a hole in us,” Gold says.

“He told us we couldn’t do it,” Pierce says, “and we were adamant about proving that we could.”

So they spent $5,000 and four years researching and perfecting a prototype in a garage behind Gold’s house, experimenting with seed varieties, temperature and humidity. They studied lighting and wavelengths and which caused which kind of growth, and they designed two systems – one for seedlings and one for growing plants, the former blue to encourage bulk and root growth, the latter cooler in both temperature and spectrum.

After those four years of intense study, they signed up to provide lettuce for the CSA Coastal Farms, and succeeded. They had done it. Heads Up Hydrogreens was born, and from that grew Vertical Acres.

In 2013 they began production at their new location, where 550 square feet of growing space produces 8,000 plants a month. That’s more than 14 per square foot, eight times as much as in conventional gardening and six times as much as in normal commercial hydroponic production. If they had a second floor they could grow 16,000; a third, 24,000. The water transpired from the plant’s leaves is recycled into circulation, and the trays of their new system are shallower, cutting water needs even further.

They’re working now to incorporate solar panels for places far off the electrical grid, and the electronics can be replaced by human monitoring, onsite by locals or remotely by Gold and Pierce.

“In Africa they have good water but poor soil, and right now we export GMO wheat and corn, which is enough to keep people alive but not healthy,” Gold says. “This would be real food, grown right there. We want to re-green Africa.”

This is not a pipe dream. Decision makers in Abu Dhabi have shown interest, and there are people in Africa trying to pull together investors. The Vertical Acres system has been chosen for a 400,000-square-foot system in Las Vegas, a pilot project of the Eastern Nevada Food Bank that is designed to grow such abundance it will supply food banks, schools and restaurants, and allow graduate students to study optimal growing conditions and return to the planned satellite hubs in food deserts around the country.

“Because of the volume of vegetables it produces, it is a self-sustaining financial operation that won’t have to rely on outside subsidies,” says James Garza, executive director of the food bank and of Southern Nevada Public Farms.

“Hydroponics has become an up-and-coming agricultural technique. It’s been around for a long time, but it hasn’t been cost-effective. With the vertical density they’ve created, they’ve turned the tables,” he says. “We want to revamp the American farmer and help them get into urban areas with a feasible and economic business model that makes sense.”

Clients who buy the Vertical Acres ultra-dense hydroponic growing system will be invited to the building in southern Virginia Beach for a month to train, not just in how to work the system but in how to market and run the business.

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This year Pierce and Gold are adding hydroponic asparagus that will produce stems all year, the temperature of the soil and length of day controlled to keep it from going to frond. They’re building a hydroponic greenhouse where they’ll grow tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, all vining vertically. They’re talking with a Texas billionaire who wants to bring the system to Dallas.

“We’re just two country guys from Virginia, wanting to do something for the good of mankind, to help people feed themselves,” Gold says. “You look at your children and the world they’re going to inherit, and either you can stand by, or you can try to make change.”

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Hashi Food Truck


Food Truck, Hashi, Virginia, Distinction Magazine

HASHI – Not your average food on wheels.
 

by JANINE LATUS
photography by KEITH LANPHER
Ross Riddle ladles rice porridge as thick as grits from a stainless steel pot, steam billowing. He adds a dollop of butter, then a bit of Virginia breakfast sausage he has dressed up with cilantro and salt, plus sugar and chilies and vinegar, the flavor a meld of Southern Americana and Southeast Asian. He tops that with an egg that’s been cooked for an hour in an immersion circulator set to 147 degrees Fahrenheit, the egg’s texture that of custard. Over that he drizzles a blend of soy sauce and syrup made of hickory bark and sugar, then tops it all with a sprinkling of crunchy fried shallots.

He leans out the window of his food truck and hands the bowl to a customer, then turns and tweezes a frond of fennel atop wontons that he has tucked full of collard greens and Isle of Wight pork, and seasoned with garlic and ginger. These he has steamed in a bamboo basket and is now serving in a bamboo boat.

All of this from a 2006 Freightliner MT45.

Riddle, 35, is the owner of Hashi food truck, the name Japanese for both “chopsticks” and “bridge,” depending on where you place the accent. His ambition is to fuse food styles from around the world to bring flavor and comfort and surprise to breakfast and lunch.

“Breakfast needs some love,” he says. “And with the truck I’m not confined by people’s expectations that they can get two eggs any style with bacon and grits. I don’t have to compromise and serve pancakes and waffles like I might with a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. I want to get people hooked on the idea that breakfast isn’t going to always be the same way, that it can be a little healthier but still have that good and satisfying feeling we all crave.”

He pulls out a sushi rolling mat and a sheet of nori, which he heats by waving it over a gas burner. He presses on a mound of Carolina rice, then layers Windhaven Farm’s red Angus beef quickly seared in soy sauce, then asparagus, turnip greens and shredded carrot and homemade yellow beet pickles, plus miso and mustard, the ingredients changing with the season. He rolls it tightly and slices it into mouth-filling bites, the white of the rice perfectly encircling the center of red and yellow and green. The roll is a play on Korean kimbap, he says, with seasonal Southern twists.

Riddle rode his bike to his first restaurant job, back when he was 14 and working as a dishwasher at Tandoms Pine Tree Inn in Virginia Beach. During his teenage summers he worked under Angelo Serpe at Pasta e Pani, where he caught the from-scratch bug that has him buying his rice from South Carolina, his miso from Asheville, his pork from Surry and his vegetables from down the road. During college he worked at Mizuno’s Japanese Restaurant on Laskin Road under Walter Mizuno, who taught him the secrets of sushi and impressed upon him the practice of doing everything just the right way. From there he cooked at Bobby Huber’s Bobbywood, then served as head chef at Todd Jurich’s Bistro.

“Working with those great people developed in me a taste for great food and exploring different cultures,” he says.

He left Jurich’s to become part owner of the short-lived Italian Galleria, then moved on to serve as head chef at Suffolk’s Riverstone Chophouse under Sam McGann.

Then in 2009, tragedy struck. His parents, married 42 years, died within four days of each other. It is his inheritance from them – in both finance and character – that allowed him to open Hashi.

“I feel like they’ve kind of been speaking to me throughout this whole process,” Riddle says. “Everything they instilled in me, even when I thought they were overly frugal, a lot of their voice is in what I’m doing now.”

Food Truck, Hashi, Virginia, Distinction Magazine

He pickles his own vegetables. He plans to can seasonal, locally grown produce, and has learned from another restaurateur how to make the wakame that he floats in miso soup out of dehydrated collard greens instead of seaweed, a process that will allow him to source even that important ingredient close to home.

He does the prep work in a warehouse space that’s been outfitted like a traditional industrial kitchen, the counters wide, the appliances gleaming. He gets up at 4 a.m. Joel McLendon, 48, whose business card says “Rider of Shotgun,” himself a local chef with experience in Asian-style food, drives up from Elizabeth City, arriving at 5:30 each morning. Together they cut and prep and package, diced tofu here, pickled yellow beets there, the asparagus like pencils in a cup, the shiitakes sprinkled with soy, the daikons sliced and simmered in vinegar. They pack the pans, the plastic packages of prepped food, the knives and ladles and tongs. Each ingredient and implement is placed precisely, for both the drive over and for the later cooking.

Once the truck is in its approved spot – whether in its usual location at the Towne Bank lot at 21st and Cyprus or at another business or festival – Riddle and McLendon’s movements become choreographed within the tight space that grows sauna-like because of burners and steam and the beating of the sun. Still, Riddle smiles. He’s serving fresh, imaginative food made of grass-fed beef and crisp, fresh vegetables from a truck in a Virginia Beach parking lot.

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Check out our video on Hashi!

A River Of Chips




Route 11 Potato Chips, Potato Chips, Mount Jackson Virginia, Made In Virginia, Route 11, Virginia, Distinction Magazine

How potatoes changed the path of a hotelier’s daughter.

by Lanine Latus
photography by Eric Lusher

Mount Jackson, Virginia –

Inside a beige cinderblock building half an hour from Harrisonburg up I-81, 15,000 pounds of potatoes a day thunder down a stainless steel chute and through a chamber where they’re tossed by an auger, knocking off farm soil that is then captured and reused as topsoil for Route 11 Potato Chip employees.

The potatoes tumble into a spinning chamber with sandpaper-like walls that scrape off the skins, the amount of time for a tough-skinned winter crop from upstate New York longer than for thin-skinned spring spuds from the sandy soils of Florida, and different still for the ones that come from the farm of a Mennonite family nearby, the women in bright dresses as they harvest and plant.

The skins are gathered and later fed to a herd of cattle down the road, while the naked potatoes rise up in a custom-made escalator and then drop slickly into the slicer – set thicker or thinner depending on the potato’s provenance. From there they spew like thousands of Frisbees into a vat of 300-degree sunflower oil, where tined paddlewheels churn them into curls and folds, steam billowing as 75 percent of the product disappears into the sky. Fifteen thousand pounds of potatoes in, 3,500 pounds of chips out, up a conveyor, past an inspector and up another escalator to the seasoning table, where they’re sprinkled with throat-tickling habanero or dill or unrefined sea salt. Then they’re shaken onto an electronic scale that drops 2 ounces of chips into each of the bags being formed by the Robag machine below, the making of the bags and dropping of the chips choreographed to the millisecond.

Founder and co-owner Sarah Cohen, 50, grew up in Washington, D.C., which was a much sleepier Southern town back in the 1970s when her parents – unhindered by training or experience in running a business – bought the Tabard Inn, then and still a Washington icon. Cohen’s father was interested in food politics and food philosophy before they were trendy, and in the early ’80s the family started a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley so they could grow organic vegetables for their own restaurant and others’.

Route 11 Potato Chips, Potato Chips, Mount Jackson Virginia, Made In Virginia, Route 11, Virginia, Distinction Magazine

A neighboring farmer had planted potatoes under a contract with a pair of brothers who later were convicted for dealing cocaine.

“They wanted to launder money with organic potatoes,” Cohen says. “Go figure.”

The potatoes were already in the ground, so her father tossed out an idea: Why don’t we make potato chips?

At the time, she was safely in college in Colorado, far from the force field of the family business, and after graduation she returned to D.C. to work as assistant director on a documentary about the history of the White House. For two years she ran around the White House, trying to keep the director and crew happy, but then the film was wrapped, her job was over, and she was once again working at the Tabard Inn.

Then her parents started yet another venture – this one an oyster farm on the other side of the continent, 3½ hours from Seattle – and Cohen drove with her best friend and her younger brother to do reconnaissance. Cohen and the friend stayed, for a year living on a sliver of land in her parents’ new purchase, a cinderblock hotel named the Moby Dick. Her days were determined by the tide tables, under constant threat of tsunamis as she cultivated and gleaned oysters to send back to the other Washington. Each order home included six dozen for one of the restaurant’s dishwashers, a fact that caught in Cohen’s imagination.

“Oysters had the luxurious connotation, an indulgence,” she says, “and here was this dishwasher…”

She came back to D.C. and with a friend filmed her own documentary, a short black-and-white film about that dishwasher called Oyster Guanaca, the latter word Salvadoran slang for “watermelon eater.”

Cohen did not intend to get sucked back into the Tabard gravitational field. She wanted to return to Washington state, to the man she had met there. She wanted to finish cutting and splicing and editing her film. But then her parents bought a tiny potato chip factory in a strip mall in southern Maryland and promised Williams-Sonoma 6,000 tubs of Tabard Farm Yukon Golds. The Cohens asked their daughter to help.

Cohen didn’t know how to run a factory. She didn’t even like potato chips. Her earliest food memory is of biting into a ball of salt in the middle of a potato chip blister, an experience that made her a pretzel person forever. Yet she agreed to put her movie project and her man on hold and give the project a year.

“You almost have to not know what you’re doing to go into something like this,” she says now. “If you understood how consuming it was going to be, how much space it would take up in your life, you’d walk away.”

That was 25 years ago. That first factory made only 60 pounds of chips per hour – “any smaller and you’re doing it in your house” – but it came with a chipper, a man named Chris Miller, who had a recipe and just enough information to get the job done. Together they fulfilled the order, and when Williams-Sonoma promptly re-ordered, Cohen gave up on her Washington state dreams. She liked making something tangible that she could actually see people enjoy, but she wasn’t willing to do it in a suburban strip mall, so in 1992 she and Miller loaded everything onto a Ryder truck and moved to an old feed store in Middletown, Virginia, deep in the Shenandoah Valley, the building long and low and just off Route 11.

“It was a romantic location, totally inappropriate for food production,” she says, “but it had a lot of charm and a history of being the home of successful businesses, so it had good karma.”

It didn’t have a loading dock, though, so the partners created a conveyor system to bring in the 1,300-pound loads of potatoes and the 2,100-pound vats of oil. She worked part time in a pizza place and Miller worked in a restaurant kitchen, and the family business provided a small subsidy.

“We were young,” she says, “and we were going to make great products and do whatever it took to make things work.”

Their feed store had wooden floors. Their chip-making machinery was from the 1960s and ’70s. They used a garden rake to stir the potatoes in the hot oil. At first they didn’t have a packaging machine, so they sold only to restaurants and to people who came to the store for the novelty of watching through a window as their chips were made. Five years later Cohen and Miller built a new building, one with an actual loading dock and a concrete floor. They bought a packaging machine that had been built in 1964, the same year Cohen was born. It looked like an alien space ship from Lost in Space and was the Cadillac of its time, Rube Goldberg-esque in its workings and held together by bungee cords.

“It was all do-it-yourself. There was no capital investment money,” she says. “We were just on this weird little potato chip journey. Most normal business people would never have put up with it – they want their return now – but Chris and I weren’t the most conventional business people, nor is my family, so no one was telling us how to do it. I had no formal business training other than growing up with unconventional family business.”

It took seven years for them to make a profit; by then they had 20 employees. Miller left to start his own company, but Cohen kept churning out the chips. In her spare time she also finally finished her film, which in 2002 won an honorable mention in the Slow Food on Film Festival in Bra, Italy.

That was also the year she added what she calls the company’s secret ingredient – Michael Connelly, an ex-Army intelligence man, musician and Mr. Fix-It she’d met in a bar when he was playing in a band. She showed him her factory with pride.

“Friends who had seen it had always said, ‘This is so neat, this is so cool, this is the cutest little factory ever,’”Cohen says, “but Mike said, ‘Wow, quite frankly, Sarah, you have some issues here you should be addressing.’”

He talked about flow, about moving product in one direction and not making the machines do the extra work of fighting momentum. She hired him and he started rebuilding every piece of equipment in the place. With everything working they were able to start a second shift. After 12 years in business, Cohen could finally start paying herself a livable salary.

Route 11 Potato Chips, Potato Chips, Mount Jackson Virginia, Made In Virginia, Route 11, Virginia, Distinction Magazine

In 2007 Connelly became a partner, and in 2008 they bought 10 acres in Mount Jackson and spent a year designing and building their current facility. It faces south to take advantage of winter sun; its white membrane roof deflects summer heat. It has open-span construction so that there are no posts or pillars to make it harder to mop, because Connelly is fanatical about cleanliness. They worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, pulling wires and assembling equipment themselves, much of it custom-made by Connelly, now 47, who’s been building things since he was a kid and who is teaching his 3-year-old daughter to do the same.

“I came up with uncles and old guys who did everything from floor covering to being electricians, so there was a chain of information,” he says. “Technology has changed, but everything still works the way it used to – physics is still physics – but you get these big knowledge gaps because people don’t have hands-on experience anymore.”

Connelly set up their system in a straight line, a river of chips that starts at one end as a potato and ends 15 minutes later in bags.

“In the old place everything was herky-jerky,” Cohen says. “I’d read manufacturing magazines and they’d talk about flow and I didn’t even know what that was.”

Today they have 32 employees making nine flavors of chips, plus the seasonal Yukon gold Tabard Farm chips, as a nod to Cohen’s family.

Even in the slow season chips go from potato to out-the-door within two weeks, and in the summer demand is so high that the bags are sometimes still warm when they’re loaded onto trucks headed for high-end grocery stores and corner mom-and-pops across the country.

In Tidewater, they’re available at Taste.

“We very much respect Sarah and what she’s done in growing her business and doing it on a values-driven basis,” says Jon Pruden, co-owner and president of Taste Unlimited. “A number of factors went into our decision last year to eliminate other brands and focus solely on Route 11. It’s a superior product that’s Virginia-made, and we’ve had huge success with them.”

Cohen and Connelly are intent on going beyond just making great potato chips to also improving the lives of the people around them.

Thus the broken and imperfect chips are fed to local cows and the 3-inch-thick cardboard boxes that hold the bladders of oil are donated to the booster club of the local high school, which recycles them and uses the money for gear and travel. The used oil from the fryer heats the factory’s maintenance shop, and whatever is left is sold to a man up the road, who turns it into biodiesel. The company’s commitment is so strong that Connelly spot-checks employee wastebaskets to confirm that everyone is participating in the mandatory recycling program. The goal is to create a waste-free facility, and so far they’ve gotten it down to one small Dumpster every two weeks.

As they say on their website, “We also strive to contribute to the quality of life of our families, friends and community, because if we don’t, what’s the point?”

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