I was thinking you might be in need of a vacation so I went ahead and picked one out!
Mom and I spent the last weekend in Williamsburg, Virginia, partaking in a food lover’s journey through Colonial America and modern-day Virginia. My dad had planned the trip as a gift and worked very closely with Colonial Williamsburg (CW) to make sure everything was perfect. Williamsburg is not just an 8th grade class trip destination or the place your parents take you so that you learn about history. After our trip I am convinced that Williamsburg is truly an American Food Destination and arguably the place where it all began!
CW is a place that holds a good deal of significance to my family. My grandparents loved going there and it was evident in the way they decorated Hollymead and even some of the recipes that my grandmother served her guests. One of the most obvious connections is the peanut soup she had on her menu. Williamsburg (or Virginia in general) is famous for their peanuts and peanut soup along with the salty Virginia ham. When I think about it, my ties to the state of Virginia run very deep. My grandparents settled in Charlottesville because of their love for Williamsburg (it’s about 2 hours away) and the irony of it all is that my father’s ancestors started in Virginia before making their way to Pennsylvania and finally settling in Illinois. I attended The University of Virginia which was fathered by Thomas Jefferson; an alum of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. It is starting to feel like there is no denying the importance Virginia plays in my life and my own history.
Mom and I had so much in our agenda, everything from enjoying traditional Tidewater cuisine to getting a close up look at where some of the culinary magic takes place. There was one experience that really resonated with us. We met up with Melissa Blank from the Historic Foodways team. The Historic Foodways team is responsible for researching and recreating the food of the 18th century. Melissa started out our tour by taking us to see where the meat (ham) was salted and smoked. At first I thought it was just a staging of these things until she unlocked a door, with a giant old key, and immediately the smell of smoke washed over me. Melissa offered the chance to go inside and I was so eager to jump in to the smoking house that I didn’t think about the smell it might leave in my clothing but honestly, it was completely worth it. The Historic Foodways team is not just writing about these dishes and techniques, they are testing them and tasting them.
The smoked hams looked like something you might stumble on in your modern BBQ joint or smokehouse. The technique has not gone away and it just shows how important it is to look at what our ancestors were doing so we know what to do. We were taken in to the Governor’s Palace kitchen where we got to see some of the other dishes they have recreated from the 18th century. We were standing in a kitchen that would have been used in that time, the same kitchen that the Foodways team uses when they are recreating these meals. The kitchen was large and multi-purposed in a way that I want for my own kitchen. A huge hearth fireplace was designed to be used for all manner of cooking from direct to spit cooking. A brick oven was off to the side and the amount of copper pots and pans was impressive. The reason we can cook like they did in Colonial America is because some things have not changed. Ingredients are still very similar and techniques seem to never change. To understand cooking now is to explore the cooking from then. We all know the influence that Native Americans had on our food as did the African slaves. In Colonial Williamsburg, the food experience explores those histories and traditions; bringing them to life in a way that may even surprise us.
Melissa shared with us the challenges of trying to decipher an 18th century recipe. She mentioned that many recipes don’t provide amounts or cooking times. They might not give clear descriptions on how the dish should be presented or served. As she spoke, I immediately thought about my own challenges in trying to recreate my grandmother’s food. Her recipe cards are always filled with holes or short hand that I can’t understand. I am constantly thinking about what would have influenced her at the time and what chefs were trending as to get an idea of what she was inspired by. Listening to Melissa, I found that a very similar process takes place within the Foodways program. They have to test and taste to finally figure out a dish or recipe. Honestly, this sounds like a dream job! You can even try some of the recipes they have deciphered by visiting their blog.
Outside of the historical food stories in Williamsburg there is a modern story that weaves beautifully in to the historic narrative. We were treated to a special tasting dinner at the Williamsburg Lodge. The meal was a tribute to the southern tradition with tasty staples like fried green tomatoes, succotash, and of course the use of peanuts! The food was a true Farm-to-Table or Garden-to-Table experience. The chef could tell us the name of every farmer and purveyor who provided all of the food that we were lucky enough to eat. We got to meet with the chef before our meal and even tour the impressive kitchens. We talked about the importance of fresh food and honest cooking. There was no mention of gimmicks or of serving food that could not be found growing within 100 miles of CW. The pantry was not filled with canned ingredients beyond the expected staples and the freezer was mostly ingredients they received fresh and prepped for freezing. The chef echoed a theme that seemed ever-present in Williamsburg, fresh is best and using the bounty around you is always the right approach.
CW is a real working city with gardens and farmers. You will see sheep in pastures and gardens around every corner. Every time I go I have the urge to buy a farm. I have that urge once a month actually. In addition to smoking meats, they brew beer and make chocolate!
The beer, Old Stitch, is malty and delicious and we ended up leaving with several bottles for the boys. You can only buy this beer in Williamsburg so that might reason enough to make a trip! The American Heritage chocolate is a newer addition to their culinary repertoire. They make chocolate in the historical fashion so it is not going to taste like your normal Hershey bar and nor should it. The chocolate was designed for drinking then and having a full bar of chocolate was like having a bar of gold. I was gifted a large block of spicy chocolate waiting to be used so keep an eye out for some colonial dishes using chocolate!
I left Williamsburg energized and contemplating my place in the culinary timeline. I realize that it is immensely important to know our beginnings and pay tribute to the chefs that came before us in order to understand who we are today. Williamsburg is doing wonderful things in terms of reminding us that where we started and where we are today are not very different. The food and stories are similar, the experiences are generally the same and undeniably American. As I learned, to understand my future I may need to spend more time getting to know my past. I suggest you do the same!
The Short List
Where we stayed:
A huge thanks to following individuals who helped to make our trip amazing; Paul Freiling of Colonial Williamsburg, Chef Travis Brust, Chef Anthony Frank, Chef Sean Gonzalez, and Melissa Blank (Historic Foodways Team).
Disclosure: I received no compensation for this post. The opinions reflected above are my own. If you wish to know more about Colonial Williamsburg you can visit www.history.org.