The Wilderness Road Regional Museum in Newbern recently held a history-themed harvest dinner on the Friday evening before Thanksgiving week.
This meal was one of the most interesting suppers that this columnist and his wife have ever enjoyed.
About 25 people assembled around a large candlelit table in the Log House Kitchen behind the museum. We were served by colonial period costumed volunteers, were treated to music by the Indian Run String Duo, and were given a course-by-course commentary on the servings by April Martin (formerly April Danner) the museum’s Programs Director.
Martin and her intern Sarah Shay (a Virginia Tech junior history major from New Jersey) had obviously given a great deal of thought to the menu and put in a lot of hard work in purchasing and assembling its diverse ingredients.
The courses were prepared by Chefs Randall Van Dyke, Dell Peters and Jeff Gray of the New River Valley chapter of the American Culinary Federation (ACF). The ACF bills itself as the premier professional chefs’ organization in North America and has 17,500 members spread over 150 chapters nationwide.
When settlers first arrived on the New River in the middle of the eighteenth century they found an abundance of freshwater mussels. Before the settlers, Native Americans used mussels as a ready food source and mussel shells for tools. One online source say that “With 77 species, the mussel fauna of Virginia is one of the most diverse in the United States.”
To acknowledge the shellfish heritage of our region, the first course was “Winkle Stew with Crust and Butter.” Winkles are small sea shore snails similar to escargot. They were shipped live from Maine. The chefs prepared them in a highly flavorful tomato-based sauce, and we used toothpicks to extract the mollusks from their shells.
Winkles were a feature of my early years in London. Winkles with bread and butter is a traditional cockney Sunday afternoon meal. The Winkle Song is a traditional nineteenth-century British Music Hall rendering that speaks to the difficulty of getting the winkle out of its shell.
The salad course was Carrots Tartare with Jefferson’s nightshades. Carrots Tartare, which was new to me, is currently a very fashionable dish and is served at many big-city, upscale restaurants. Jefferson’s nightshades are tomatoes, so-called because our third president grew them at Monticello and they are in the nightshade family of plants.
The vegetable course featured corn pudding and Allegheny chestnuts. The latter are dwarf chestnuts also known as chinkapins. April and Sarah gathered these from a tree in Draper in Pulaski County and a tree on the Cloyd’s Mountain battlefield. It took them a great deal of time to shell these nuts.
The main course was heritage pork with pickled cabbage and vanilla apple sauce. This was another excellent dish.
The heritage pork came from large black pigs raised in Tazewell County. Large black pigs are native to the counties of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset in southwestern England and only 1,500 remain today worldwide. Apple sauce is a traditional English accompaniment to pork. The red cabbage gave a nod to the German element among the settlers of western Virginia.
The dessert course featured buckwheat hoecakes and honey with apples and English cream. The honey came from a local hive in Newbern and another at White Gate in Giles County.
The after dinner cordial consisted of two Madeira wines served in miniature, one-inch high beer mugs. Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal composed of an archipelago of four islands located in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa about 600 miles southwest of mainland Portugal. It was first settled in 1420 to initiate the European Age of Discovery.
Madeira is fortified wine (meaning that it has added alcohol to stabilize it) from the archipelago produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry to sweet and colors from almost white to dark brown. From the time of the founding of Jamestown up to the time of the Civil War, no wine was more favored in the US than Madeira.
With Madeira long out of favor, in 1998 working with a Portuguese wine maker, the Rare Wine Company of Brisbane, California, introduced a series of nine Madeira wines. Two of these, named after the colonial ports of Baltimore and Charleston, where original Madeira was landed, were the after dinner cordial.
The Blacksburg based Indian Run String Duo was Ginger Wagner on banjo with her husband Paul Herling on fiddle. The band was formed in 2010 and sometimes plays with as many as four string performers.
Other folks who helped out and deserve a mention include the costumed serving couples of Kassi and Eddie Schulz and Jane and Roger Bell and assistant chefs Justin Thompson and Grayson Holland.
All-in-all it was a very unusual and entertaining evening. I plan to make sure that we get early reservations for Thanksgiving 2019.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of southwest Virginia. He can be reached at email@example.com.