Charlottesville Foodways

Charlottesville and its foodways

I am inspired by its history. I am amazed at the
generations of families that have lived here for over a hundred years. I
embrace the local traditions and admire the local’s knowledge. Of course, I’ll
never be a ‘local’ no matter how long I live here and I respect that. I really
love the sense of community, the common goals of promoting our culinary history.
It’s very comforting to me. I am very committed to my small town and I feel small
acts are appreciated. I want to step up to the plate and be a good neighbor/
friend….I strive to be an asset to my wonderful small town. As a chef – food
and its preparation can help with that idea.
But how to go about it?

The advice I like to give young chefs, or really anybody
who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for
amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for
the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are
not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the
process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re
sitting around trying to dream up a great idea about food, you can sit there a
long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will
occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you
reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely
unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea
before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case. Get
started and set a course for yourself.

Perhaps plant a garden. Or visit the farmers market and see
what our neighbors are growing.  Try and
prepare some at home.  Or Dine in one of
many of the wonderful restaurants in town that are actively participating in
our wonderful heratige. The local food movement may be just the ticket to save
food traditions and plant varieties that are on the brink of becoming a museum
piece. As people shift their focus back to their specific region and place,
they rediscover the foods that grow specifically and sometimes exclusively in
that particular area, foods that their predecessors knew well. Recovering food
sources goes hand in hand with recovering food traditions: old methods of
growing foods, recipes, folklore, festivals, and other ways to honor local,
whole food and culture.

Wild Turkey in Virginia

On this wonderful spring day in Charlottesville as I was driving in to l’etoile – I kept thinking how I would love the chance to hunt wild turkey.  I have eaten it many times and consider it some of the best wild game there is.  It actually got me inspired to sit down and jot a few words about this area and this great bird that is not only for Thanksgiving.

Early settlers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were
dependent on wild game for meat year round due to inadequate methods of food
preservation. Wild turkey and other game were staple food items for settlers
who explored and developed the Virginia countryside. But with increasing
colonization, wild game was also hunted professionally and sold at markets to
feed the growing human population in larger towns and cities. Wild game meats
were sold in quantities comparable to domestic animals, and at a fraction of
the cost of domestic meats.

Early settlers survived by taming the land with ax and plow.
Forests were cut to make way for agricultural production and lumbering. By the
turn of the 20th Century the landscape of Virginia had changed significantly
from the days when settlers first arrived at Jamestown. The extensive forests
that were havens for wild turkey and other wildlife were gone. Most forests had
been cut for lumber or to developed as agricultural lands for crops or grazing
domestic animals. These changes in habitat conditions, combined with market
hunting, led to the disappearance of wild turkeys from 2/3 of Virginia and they
had become rare in other sections. Populations of wild turkeys in Virginia were
probably at their lowest during the period from 1880 to 1910.

Concern for wild turkey conservation led to the passage of
the “Robin Bill” in Virginia during 1912 which prohibited the sale on
the open markets of wild turkey and several other species of birds. However,
enforcement of the “Robin Bill” and other legislation restricting
hunting methods and bag limits did not come until 1916, with the creation of
the Game Department.

The next milestone in turkey conservation came in 1929 when
the Game Commission began a restocking program using turkeys reared at game
farms. Game farm turkeys could easily be propagated and the Game Commission
raised and released several thousand birds before we realized these birds were
not capable of surviving and reproducing in the wild. In 1936, the Virginia
Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit was established under the direction of C. O.
Handley. Their first priority was to develop a satisfactory propagation method
to re-establish turkey populations. Many modifications of breeding, raising,
and releasing game farm turkeys were attempted from 1936 to 1955. All totaled,
the Commission raised and released over 22,000 game farm turkeys. In the final
analysis however, very little, if any, credit can be given to these efforts at
establishing wild turkey populations in any locality in Virginia.

A new procedure was developed in 1955 whereby native wild
turkeys were trapped and transferred to areas with suitable habitat. This
method proved highly successful and from 1955 to 1993 nearly 900 wild turkeys
were trapped and relocated in Virginia, primarily to the Southwest and
Tidewater regions. Wild turkey populations are now found throughout the

Fall hunting for wild turkeys has been a long-established
tradition in Virginia during the 17th-19th centuries when hunting was not
regulated and during the 20th century when seasons and bag limits were first
enforced. However, spring gobbler hunting is a relatively recent management
program that was initiated in 1962 as an experimental season on some public
lands in western Virginia. The experimental season was quickly adopted as it
was determined that spring hunting was biologically feasible and interest in
spring hunting grew.

Following the success reintroduction of the wild turkey, the
Department turned its emphasis towards research questions about wild turkey
biology and management. The most extensive project was a long-term study to
investigate survival, reproduction, and the impacts of fall hunting on wild
turkeys in western Virginia. This project, entitled “The Wild Turkey
Population Dynamics Research Project” was begun to determine the cause of
low population levels and low growth rates in wild turkey populations in
western Virginia. During the 5-year project biologists captured wild turkeys
and attached radio transmitters to the birds to monitor their movements,
survival, and reproduction. The study was part of a cooperative project with
West Virginia and the combined project resulted in a study of more than 1,000
wild turkey hens, the largest single study ever conducted anywhere in the

By combining efforts with West Virginia, the research
project was able to evaluate the impacts of several different fall hunting
season impacts on survival rates. Four different season structures were
evaluated including, no fall hunting, 4-weeks, 8 weeks and 9-weeks of fall
hunting. Results of the study found no difference in survival rates of turkeys
in the 8 and 9-week season in Virginia. Survival rates in Virginia averaged 48%
in Virginia. Survival was 52% in West Virginia’s counties with a 4-week season
and the area in West Virginia without fall hunting averaged 59% survival.
Natural mortality accounted for 34% of the population losses in the study.
Mammalian predators were responsible for most of the natural mortality. Foxes
and bobcats were the most common predators of adult turkeys. Virginia hunters
averaged taking 16% of the population whereas West Virginia hunters averaged
taking 7%. Illegal mortality was surprisingly high, averaging 21% in both

Significant differences were found in annual survival rates
that appear to be related to the availability of mast crops, namely acorns.
Survival rates were higher during years with good mast crops and were much
lower during years of mast failures. Hens monitored during the study for
reproduction revealed surprisingly low recruitment. Only one-third of the hens
were successful hatching a clutch and about half of those were lost during the
first 4-weeks following hatching. The high reproductive potential the wild
turkey is capable of producing was never achieved during the 5-year study; hens
averaged producing only 1.5 poults.

The study concluded that Virginia’s longer fall season was
adding mortality to the population, which lower survival rates. Low
reproductive rates were not compensating for high mortality. High fall
harvests, associated with mast failures, were resulting in lower densities and
lower growth rates.

Southern BBQ

A chilly day in January and I am thinking of starting the
hickory fire and putting some pork on the smoker.  BBQ – perhaps the most discussed, fought
over, and eaten jewel in all of southern cooking. As a  chef of l’étoile in Charlottesville, I may
know a thing or two about it. But under no circumstances do I claim to be an
expert. (way too many of those already)
You decide for yourself how you like your BBQ.

Why do the regional differences in pig-roasting merit
attention? Barbecue is emblematic of a lot of things in the South– despite
intra-regional differences, barbecue is barbecue all over the Southern United
States. We may argue about which kind is the best barbecue, but very few people
assert that the different types are not part of a vital (and delicious) Southern
tradition. Despite (in John Egerton’s words) the Americanization of Dixie, the
South has maintained a distinct regional flavor that makes it special–
different from any other part of the United States. In tracing the differences
between the different types of pork barbecue, we demonstrate one example of
how, despite geographical disparities, encroaching national homogeneity, and
bitter intra-regional disputes, the South continues to cherish those parts of
itself which make it peculiarly Southern.

This established, our attention turns to the differences
between the many types of pork barbecue. These are many and hotly contested.
Differences can be gauged by comparing cooking styles, serving methods, side
dishes preferred by each camp, and (most contentious of all) sauces.

Much of the variation in barbecue methodology and saucing
in Southern barbecue can be explained by its geographical migrations. After
originally appearing on the East Coast, barbecue began travelling West, picking
up permutations along the way. Spanish colonists spread the cooking technology
(Johnson 6), but the agriculture of each region added its own twist. The simple
vinegar sauces of the East Coast were supplanted by the sweet tomato sauce of
Memphis and the fiery red Texas swab. In western Kentucky, mutton was
substituted for pork, and the cattle ranchers of Texas used barbecue techniques
for slow-cooking beef (with these innovations, southwestern Texans and western
Kentuckians put themselves irrevocably outside the “barbecue belt”).

There are several main regions of barbecue saucery in the
South. Each region has its own secret sauces, with much intra-regional
variation. This “barbecue belt” shares the same tradition of
slow-cooking the meat, but diverges widely in sauces and side dishes.

The roads of the Southern United States are lined with a
succession of grinning pigs, advertising the availability of barbecue in
countless restaurants. The origins of barbecue in the South, however, are
traceable to a period long before the smiling pig became a fixture on Southern
roadsides. The etymology of the term is vague, but the most plausible theory
states that the word “barbecue” is a derivative of the West Indian
term “barbacoa,” which denotes a method of slow-cooking meat over hot
coals. Bon Appetit magazine blithely informs its readers that the word comes
from an extinct tribe in Guyana who enjoyed “cheerfully spitroasting
captured enemies.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to
Haiti, and others claim (somewhat implausibly) that “barbecue”
actually comes from the French phrase “barbe a queue”, meaning
“from head to tail.” Proponents of this theory point to the whole-hog
cooking method espoused by some barbecue chefs. Tar Heel magazine posits that
the word “barbecue” comes from a nineteenth century advertisement for
a combination whiskey bar, beer hall, pool establishment and purveyor of roast
pig, known as the BAR-BEER-CUE-PIG (Bass 313). The most convincing explanation
is that the method of roasting meat over powdery coals was picked up from
indigenous peoples in the colonial period, and that “barbacoa” became
“barbecue” in the lexicon of early settlers.

The history of barbecue itself, aside from its murky
etymological origins, is more clear. For several reasons, the pig became an
omnipresent food staple in the South. Pigs were a low-maintenance and
convenient food source for Southerners. In the pre-Civil War period,
Southerners ate, on average, five pounds of pork for every one pound of
beef(Gray 27). Pigs could be put out to root in the forest and caught when food
supply became low. These semi-wild pigs were tougher and stringier than modern
hogs, but were a convenient and popular food source. Every part of the pig was
utilized– the meat was either eaten immediately or cured for later
consumption, and the ears, organs and other parts were transformed into edible
delicacies. Pig slaughtering became a time for celebration, and the
neighborhood would be invited to share in the largesse. The traditional Southern
barbecue grew out of these gatherings.

William Byrd, in his eighteenth century book writings The
Secret History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina has
some pretty snippy things to say about some Southerners’ predilection for pork.
He writes that hog meat was:

the staple commodity of North Carolina . . . and with
pitch and tar makes up the whole of their traffic . . . these people live so
much upon swine’s flesh that it don’t only incline them to the yaws, and
consequently to the . . . [loss] of their noses, but makes them likewise
extremely hoggish in their temper, and many of them seem to grunt rather than
speak in their ordinary conversation(Taylor 21-2)


“Yaws,” of course, is an infectious tropical
disease closely related to syphilis. Perhaps because of natives like Byrd,
Virginia is frequently considered beyond the parameters of the “barbecue

At the end of the colonial period, the practice of holding
neighborhood barbecues was well-established, but it was in the fifty years
before the Civil War that the traditions associated with large barbecues became
entrenched. Plantation owners regularly held large and festive barbecues,
including “pig pickin’s” for slaves (Hilliard 59). In this pre-Civil
War period, a groundswell of regional patriotism made pork production more and
more important. Relatively little of the pork produced was exported out of the
South, and hog production became a way for Southerners to create a
self-sufficient food supply– Southern pork for Southern patriots (Hilliard
99). Hogs became fatter and better cared-for, and farmers began to feed them
corn to plump them up before slaughter. The stringy and tough wild pigs of the
colonial period became well-fed hogs. Barbecue was still only one facet of pork
production, but more hogs meant more barbecues.

In the nineteenth century, barbecue was a feature at
church picnics and political rallies as well as at private parties (Egerton
150). A barbecue was a popular and relatively inexpensive way to lobby for
votes, and the organizers of political rallies would provide barbecue,
lemonade, and usually a bit of whiskey (Bass 307). These gatherings were also
an easy way for different classes to mix. Barbecue was not a class- specific
food, and large groups of people from every stratum could mix to eat, drink and
listen to stump speeches. Journalist Jonathan Daniels, writing in the
mid-twentieth century, maintained that “Barbecue is the dish which binds
together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest
occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn” (Bass 314). Political
and church barbecues were among the first examples of this phenomenon. Church
barbecues, where roasted pig supplemented the covered dishes prepared by the
ladies of the congregation, were a manifestation of the traditional church
picnic in many Southern communities. Church and political barbecues are still a
vital tradition in many parts of the South (Bass 301). Usually, these
restaurants grew out of a simple barbecue pit where the owner sold barbecue to
take away. Many of the pit men only opened on weekends, working (usually on a
farm) during the week and tending the pit on weekends. The typical barbecue
shack consisted of a bare concrete floor surrounded by a corrugated tin roof
and walls (Johnson 9). Soon, stools and tables were added, and the ubiquitous
pig adorned the outside of the building. Few pit men owned more than one
restaurant– the preparation of the pig required almost constant attention, and
few expert pit men were willing to share the secret of their sauce
preparations. The advent of the automobile gave the barbecue shack a ready-made
clientele– travellers would stop at the roadside stands for a cheap and
filling meal (Johnson 6). As the twentieth century progressed, barbecue pits
grew and prospered, evolving into three distinct types. According to barbecue
scholar Jonathan Bass, the three kinds of barbecue restaurants are black-owned,
upscale urban white, and white “joints” (more akin to honky-tonk
bars). These racial denotations, however, do not mean that barbecue restaurants
catered to a specific racial clientele. Good barbecue drew (and draws) barbecue
fans of every color and class.

Perhaps because much of its trade consisted of take-out
orders, the barbecue restaurant was an interracial meeting place long before
the forced integration of the 1950’s and 1960’s (Egerton 152). When these
restaurants first appeared, many were owned by black Southerners, and
“whites, in a strange reversal of Jim Crow traditions, made stealthy
excursions for take-out orders” (Wilson 676). In the 1950’s and 1960’s,
much of this comity was lost. Many barbecue joints became segregated by race.
Barbecue has even made it into the annals of legal history, with the
desegregation battles at Ollie’s Barbecue in Alabama and Maurice’s Piggy Park
in Columbia providing often-cited case law as well as a stain on the
fascinating history of barbecue. In the case Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises,
the court ruled that Maurice Bessinger’s chain of five barbecue restaurants
unlawfully discriminated against African-American patrons.

The varied history of barbecue reflects the varied
history of the South. Sometimes shameful, but usually interesting, the history
of barbecue can be seen an emblem of Southern history. For the past
seventy-five years, the barbecue joint has flourished. Although local
specialties and the time-intensive nature of barbecue preparation have insured
that real barbecue (as opposed to defrosted and microwaved meat) will never be
a staple at chain restaurants, barbecue has endured. Aside from its succulent
taste, delicious sauces and the inimitable, smoky atmosphere of an authentic
barbecue joint, barbecue has become a Southern icon, a symbol that is cherished
by Southerners. Without the racist subtext of the Stars and Bars, the
anachronistic sexism of the Southern belle, or the bland ennui of a plate of
grits, barbecue has become a cultural icon for Southerners, of every race,
class and sex.