Border food in Almost Heaven
Robert of Cross Keys takes us out of our usual feeding grounds in this excellent guest post on where cuisines collide. EL
I’ve always been fascinated by border areas. Places like Baltimore, Cincinnati, or Louisville where two or more cultures bump into one another.
Jefferson County is one of these border areas. The county is the inspiration for the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; however, it was forced out of Virginia against its will and dragged kicking and screaming into West Virginia. For many years this dichotomy of Mountaineers and Southerners was played out in the county. These groups are still present, but they are joined by newcomers who are transforming the county into an exurb of Washington.
You can experience the cultural mix of Jefferson County through its food, but it will take a little bit of digging. It’s not going to be as easy as walking through a place like Adams-Morgan and seeing Ethiopian food on one side of the street and Salvadoran fare on the other. Unfortunately, you will have to wade through the chains and the sports bars, but if you do you’ll find some good and genuine food.
For West Virginian cooking, I go to My Pappy’s Place on Route 340. This place is decorated in stained glass, and your placemat offers up four prayers: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Judaic. Alcohol is not served, but traditional favorites are. A favorite is the hillbilly chicken, which is honey fried chicken. A subtle sweet flavor permeates the chicken. The meat is very juicy, while the batter is crispy but not too heavy. Pair this up with some beans, both green and pinto and both made with smoked ham, and you are set for the day.
I found Southern cooking at an African-American festival in Charles Town.
I got a great fish sandwich from a guy known as Mr. Big Fish. There is truth in advertising, as this sandwich probably had more than a pound of fish. Three big pieces of whiting, dredged in cornmeal, and fried fresh on the spot. The only condiments available: six different kinds of hot sauce. I went with Crystal. The sandwich came with my choice of soda: black cherry or strawberry. Like an idiot I went with the cherry, and I regretted it for the rest of the day.
On the way out of the festival there was a family that set up shop in their front yard. A guy was yelling: “Come on over, it doesn’t cost nothing to look.” I walked over. He was selling knock-off Gucci handbags, which I really didn’t have a need for. Fortunately, in the backyard his wife was selling country ham sandwiches, which is something you never can have too many of.
When it comes to seeing the effect of newcomers on the county’s tables, there are actually quite a few places, such as Yellow Brick Bank and the newly opened Stone Soup Bistro, both of which are in Shepherdstown. These are nice places with fairly sophisticated fare, but they mostly cater to a limited clientele. If you want to see the impact of newcomers on a larger scale, that can be found at Charles Town Races and Slots.
Yes, I said Races and Slots. I know the image is of old ladies throwing their Social Security checks into a slot machine one nickel at a time only to take a feed break by being herded into some buffet line. While that scene is present, there is also the Skyline Terrace, where I found things I wasn’t expecting, such as panzanella salad, Moroccan couscous with chickpeas, braised short ribs and a crepe station.
A must have at the Skyline Terrace is the dry aged strip steak with roasted garlic. The chef de cuisine at the Skyline Terrace is one of those newcomers to the area. He is originally from Kansas City, and that culinary heritage is on display in this dish.
Jefferson County is 90 minutes away from Baltimore, which considering it is “Almost Heaven," isn’t too far a drive.