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August 21, 2009

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

Last week I found myself spending a few days in Jefferson County, W. V.

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.  

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 11:18 AM | | Comments (10)


Never much thought about going to Charlestown, RoCK, but you make it sound like such a nice summer trip, we may just have to go for weekend!

Is Rt 340 the main drive in to W. Va? It's been a long time since I've been there!

Sounds like it would also be a great drive in another month or two when the leaves are turning. Thanks for the report, RoCK.

Sounds like fun, RoCK. 90 min. is nothing. Probably take longer by bus, though.

You can take the MARC train to Jefferson County, but only from D.C..

Oh, so Harper's Ferry is in Jefferson Co.? Cool. I'll learn all this Mid-Atlantic geography yet.

I've actually been planning to do just that. There is a hostel in Harper's Ferry.

the maryland heights hike/trail is nice, easy and offers spectacular views of harpers ferry. can be crowded on nice weekends. i like going on wednesday mornings.

I've been to Harpers Ferry dozens of times. There is great hiking and history, but the dining scene is over priced, mediocore and touristy, which is why I didn't mention the town in my guest post.

The train stops at Brunsick, I think. How would you get to Harpers Ferry, much less Shephardstown, without a car?

I meant to type "Brunswick", not "Brunsick".

The Brunswick line goes all the way to Martinsburg, WV and has a stop in downtown Harpers Ferry. Unfortunately, there isn't a reverse commute train, so you can only get to Harper's Ferry in the evening and then return to D.C. in the morning.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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