Saturday, November 1, 2014

Food, Glorious Food

Being food curious can take all day and night.

First of all, it starts at the crack of dawn, meaning my fellow Gemini showed up at 9:30 to collect me and walk over to the Hilton Garden Inn and check in for Fire, Flour and Fork's Friday extravaganza.

People were clustered around the coffee station like it was mother's milk. When forced to, I can get up at the butt crack of dawn (though I'd prefer not to) but coffee's not what I'm looking for at that hour. Or any hour.

Our first session of the day was called "Relish Fork" with Paul Virant of Chicago's Vie restaurant talking about pickling and preserving ("Eat what you can and can what you can't") and Jamie Coffey of Williams & Sherrill making jam. Spoon jam, to be precise.

I'd never heard of spoon jam, but soon learned that it's jam made without using a hot water bath, meaning that the strawberry freezer jam I made for decades probably qualifies. Jamie's version was far more nuanced than mine, using raspberries, the juice of an orange, honey, sugar, orange zest and thyme.

Best of all, he passed around a jar of jam and little wooden spoons inscribed RVA for us to taste his beautiful jam with. When the jar was passed to me, the woman next to me told she loved my shoes. "I would wear the hell out of those." I assured her I do. Cute and comfortable wins the race.

As a lovely parting gift, Chef Virant passed out miniature jars of apple butter, pleasing me no end and sparking memories of childhood. Whenever one of my sisters or I would ask Mom for a snack, she always offered bread and apple butter.

You'd think I'd have gotten tired of it by now, but well-crafted apple butter still speaks to me. And I have to assume Chef Virant knows how to make some apple butter.

Our next session was "Biscuits of the South" for two reasons.

One, it was being given by Ronni Lundy, a founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and two, growing up with my Richmond grandmother living with us meant she made biscuits at least two or three times a week. Biscuits are in my blood and probably my DNA.

She began by holding up a bottle of sweet sorghum syrup and saying, "I'm gonna show you how little hillbilly children are introduced to it. It's a gateway drug," before pouring a third of the bottle into a bowl where several sticks of softened butter awaited.

Once she'd turned the yellow butter golden brown with sweet sorghum syrup, we received little ramekins of it with a biscuit. My first thought after one bite was how those hillbilly mothers had cut out a step. I always smeared my breakfast biscuits with a thick schmear of butter and then a layer of strawberry jam for sweetness.

A biscuit with sweet sorghum syrup delivers both sweet and salty in one application. Brilliant!

Lundy talked about how sweet sorghum syrup tasted of terroir, like wine, picking up mineral notes and changing from season to season.

"It's hard to make a bad biscuit and it's an art to make a good one," she informed us, saying light hands and soft wheat flour are essential. She critiqued the biscuits we were eating as having too much chew inside instead of fluff. Also, bacon grease makes great biscuits (duh).

Baking lessons aside, she also provided cultural history (cat's head biscuits are called that because they're big, like a cat's head) such as why farmers' wives made small biscuits in the morning. That way, everyone at the breakfast table - family and farmhands- got one biscuit to start eating while the next batch baked.

She talked about how when self-rising flour was developed, the public didn't embrace it, but mountain women did. Before, they'd had to measure their own leavening agents into the flour and now it was done for them.

I know my grandmother, who used no measuring to make her biscuits, took to self-rising flour from the day it came out. When she moved in with us, it was the first time I'd ever seen it.

And I could totally relate when she shared John Edgerton's axiom about how you could always tell a southerner because when biscuits were put on the table and most people took one, a southerner would take two and butter them both at once while the biscuits were still hot.

I am that person despite not being born a southerner. I suppose that comes from having a southern grandmother in the house making biscuits three times a week. I want hot, liquid butter oozing out of every bite of biscuit.

The question and answer period took us all over the place. Chef Colin Perry (and his epic mustache) of Montreal's Triple Crown Dinette (who makes 500 biscuits a weekend) was in the audience and fielded a question about adding pimento cheese to biscuit dough and why the results had been varied.

A guy in the row in front of us with a serious southern drawl raised his hand and observed about things such as pimento cheese additives, "That's not a biscuit." No indeed.

Someone asked about molasses versus sweet sorghum syrup and before she addressed that, Lundy turned to the pimento cheese maker and asked politely, "Was your question answered? Because I'm going to go down a road here."

"It's a dirt road," the southerner drawled and I laughed out loud.

After her explanation, a women told a story of meeting a couple who'd been married for 40 years, yet the wife complained that her husband still ate biscuits wrong.

Seems he would break them in half and spread his sweet sorghum syrup inside the halves while the wife was positive that the correct way was to stick your finger into the side of the biscuit to create a hole and pour the syrup in.

Forty years and that poor woman still hasn't been able to train her man how to eat a biscuit properly. I think there was a life lesson more than a culinary lesson there.

Two classes behind us, we were glad when it was lunch time, taking the secret side door to the giant sampling tent set up on Sixth Street to gobble Belmont Butchery sausage (and watch butcher Tanya debone a whole pig), Gearhart's chocolates, Rapphanock oysters, and a host of other locally made food items.

At the Virginia wine tasting table were Veritas, Pollack, Barboursville, Keswick, North Gate and Grace Estate, the latter two new to me. It's impossible to keep up with all the new Virginia wineries in spite of my best efforts.

It was inevitable that I'd run into people I knew and I did - the former co-worker, the beermiester, the kitten lover, the baker, the low key mover and shaker -  and the consensus was that FFF had been meticulously planned and executed so far.

From there we went to the John Marshall ballroom where ZZQ was serving up their Texas style barbecue. Once I'd procured a plate of brisket and potato salad, I found a seat at a table of strangers, only to have the guy across from me ask, "Aren't you Karen? I think Prabir introduced us a few years ago. Don't you write a blog called I Could Go On and On?"

The woman to his left assured me that he has an unbelievable memory and does this all the time. Meanwhile, I had no problem finishing off my plate while chatting with them about their screen-printing business, which sessions they'd attended and where we were all heading next.

I'd found it impossible to pass up "Oyster Fork" with Mike Hutt of the Virginia Marine Products Board, an unabashed cheerleader for Virginia oysters.

I've done several stories on Virginia's oyster industry so while I knew almost everything he told us, a few tidbits were new to me.

The governor has declared November Virginia oyster month.Seventeen tons of oyster shells were collected last year in Richmond from festivals and restaurants (such as Lemaire, Heritage, Saison and Dutch & Co.). They love our oysters in Asia.

After being shown how to open oysters, they let us loose on two trays of bivalves, one of buttery oysters from the Rappahannock and the other seaside oysters tasting like a mouth full of ocean water.

He suggested we begin with the less salty ones, but I already know I prefer saltier so I did my damage there and damn, these were some of the briniest oysters I've ever had. Delicious.

I will give these guys credit, though, the oysters were served with no accouterments - no cocktail sauce, no lemon, no mignonette - so you were just tasting oysters and water, no adornments. If there were any oyster virgins in the room, it was the equivalent of dropping them into the deep end of the pool.

After I'd gorged on the sea, Gemini and I cut out. We weren't skipping class exactly, but we wanted some down time to assess and regroup, finding it at Saison market for a happy hour glass of Vino Verde.

Then she was off to home and hearth and I got cleaned up to go to someplace I never thought I would despite smelling it for years: the inside of the 1911 C.F. Sauer factory on Broad Street.

Walking up to the check-in desk, the woman looked at me and feigned surprise. "You, again?" FFF humor.

Being the punctual sort, I got herded into the first tour group along with a guy who'd been at my lunch table and the oyster class. When I asked what had brought him to FFF, he said simply, "I love food."

With a little probing, he shared that he'd worked in restaurants for years (including with Sean Brock back in the day), although he was no longer in the business. It's an addiction some people never get over.

Our tour guide was Sauer's marketing director and she took us up and down old staircases to see the workings of the company who puts out the spicy scents on Broad Street.

Walking in to the building, we saw a charming, wood-framed window, above which hung a sign saying "Information." I was thrilled when she told everyone to deposit their cell phone in the back room because no cameras were allowed. I was the only one who didn't have to divest myself of a device.

Sauer tours are quite a rarity, it seems.

She showed us a framed collection of awards Sauer's had won, asking if anyone had read "The Devil in the White City," (which I had) set in the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

It was at that fair that Sauer's had won their first award for purity in their products.

Walking past vintage wooden doors, a break room with library chairs and tables and machinery, we heard how Sauer's was the first to bottle extracts and the only company still using glass bottles.

All the equipment was original to the building as was the sign, "Think! This equipment pays your salary. Take care of it."

We learned that in terms of what they produce, it's predominantly pepper, garlic and cinnamon. We heard about how they still cold soak their vanilla beans in grain alcohol while other companies use a sped-up heating process much like percolating coffee.

Speaking of, the aroma of the warm, vanilla room was sublime and while others got overheated, I could have listened to her talk there all night and enjoyed that scent and temperature.

When we saw huge sacks of MSG, we all guessed it was for Asian markets, but learned that MSG is extremely popular in the American southeast. Who knew?

Filing past the president's office, we looked in to see green leather furniture, painted portraits of past Sauer presidents (it's always been a family owned business) and a fireplace mantle with one of their most popular products, jars of Duke's mayonnaise, adorning it.

After that, we stood in the office area for a Q & A, learning that in all its years, Sauer's had never laid off an employee, even during the world wars and the depression. Now, that's impressive.

Outside in Sauer's rose garden, our group was offered whiskey-based Boulevardier cocktails and hors d'oeuvres to accompany them, all under the scenic glow of the Sauer's vanilla sign, which now meant a whole lot more after 28 years in Richmond because I'd learned why their vanilla was such a big deal.

One of the Sauer men sat in a windowsill outside, sharing colorful stories about his great-grandfather's racing car habit, how they got the city to let them replace the rotting windows facing Broad Street and that multiple bands had asked to have their picture taken in front of the vanilla sign.

FYI: The answer is always no. The reason he gave was who knows what their music is like? Or if they're going to be naked in the picture?

Purity, remember?

My final FFF stop of the day was Hardywood for the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, a dine-around with local chefs.

For this portion of the never-ending FFF day, I was to meet a favorite couple who'd just come from "Spice Poker" at Curry Craft. Clearly their stomachs were bigger than mine.

Arriving before they did, I caught a few songs by Full Moon Fever, a Tom Petty cover band playing tonight as part of the "Night of the Living '70s" bill. It was particularly appropriate since it was the show I'd have attended if my friends hadn't offered me their extra FFF ticket.

When they finally showed up, full of apologies for their tardiness, I wasted no time in going inside to eat from the tables of local chefs.

As I was savoring Julep's goat stew over pumpkin, I was handed the last of Magpie's beef tongue skewers. Heritage's pumpkin gemelli with brown butter, kale and mushrooms impressed even this non-pasta lover. One chef described Metzger's trotter torchon as "an orgasm in my mouth." Blue Goat's rockfish and cooked peanuts was an unusual take on a familiar fish.

But I think my favorite was Secco's head cheese with celery slaw, a pitch perfect marriage of fat and acid.

Although beer was part of the affair, that held no interest for me, so I passed on my beer tickets to a favorite record store owner whose costume resembled a Monopoly character.

Lots of people had come in costumes, and many were clever. One friend started to explain her group's costumes and stopped. "Oh, you don't watch TV, you're out living life, so you won't know about this show."

A guy I once worked with and his girlfriend came as farm to table, him with a table draped over his shoulders, her in overalls with a pitchfork.

The one that baffled us was the girl with romaine leaves on her breasts. We puzzled and puzzled over it until I came up with a guess. Maybe she was supposed to be lett-tits.

Since we had to know, one of us went up and asked her. When I told her what my guess was, she laughed loud and hard. When her boyfriend arrived, I told him my theory and he laughed even harder. Turns out she was going for Bibb lettuce.

"But yours is so much better," she laughed. "That's what I'm coming as next year!" Who knew I was so clever?

By the time I got around to trying desserts -sarsaparilla pudding with toasted pumpkin seeds, tres leches cake, pistachio cookies with dark chocolate and fig, and pumpkin cheesecake - some chefs had already run out of their desserts.

That was okay because we were ready to move on, this time back to Curry Craft for our private after-party.

There I found a music friend at the bar, a beer rep swooning over wine and the dear friend who'd donated his FFF ticket to me tonight. After a while, a couple of restaurant owners.

Everyone wanted to hear about my FFF classes today and I obliged with tales of jam and biscuits, oysters and spices.

At one point I looked over at a friend, who'd been up since 6 a.m. this morning, and pantomimed sleeping. He pointed at me and then himself and nodded.

When I got up to say my goodnights, the male half of my couple date registered shock. Explaining that I'd been up since 8 - unusually early for me - and had another day of early morning classes tomorrow, I was leaving.

"Yea, you look tired and that never happens," he said, clearly surprised. Just this morning, a friend had e-mailed me about tomorrow night, saying, "Your energy is unrelenting!"

Honey, you've never seen me after fifteen hours of being food curious. I gotta say, being out living my life is far less tiring.


  1. U must be tired...


  2. And slow to respond, cw! Yes, that was one day that whooped my tail. You know everyone gets tired at some point!

  3. ah day i'm going find you pooped-out on the street....i'm goin' have to pick you up before the street sweeper sucks you up...& spits u out---


  4. Please do if you see me like that. I'd appreciate it!

  5. can't let a good girl get down...


  6. ..and a decent dame you are kid!