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.

Virginia fried chicken

Fried Chicken is a very hard food to write about – as I am sure there have been fights, feuds and who knows what other entanglements that have come from who’s is better and how to prepare this staple. All I know is what works for me, I will not even venture into the how and why and who’s. Living in Charlottesville, owning a restaurant and being a lover of fried chicken I am going to dive in head first and tell but a small portion of this history. Now we use Lodge cast iron at l’étoile and even the techniques used in these old recipes to bring these ideas to your plate.
Is there any food more representative of American cuisine than fried chicken? It has deep and meaningful roots in the nation’s history, distinct regional preparations across the country (from skillet-fried to cornmeal-crusted), and it has inspired food lovers emigrating here from other nations to create their own versions of it (Korean fried chicken is particularly popular right now, but there are plenty of other varieties to speak of).
Fried chicken has its roots in country kitchens of the South, soaked in buttermilk, shaken in a brown paper bag with seasoned flour, and prepared in a cast-iron skillet filled with bubbling liquid lard. The oldest fried chicken recipe on record is published in The Virginia House-Wife, written by Mary Randolph in 1828. Since then the American classic has been prepared in countless ways — from soaked in a spicy vinegar-based marinade and deep-fried, Peruvian-style to served upscale in four-star restaurants with maple-honey butter or other accoutrements.
Now as there are as many stars in the sky, there are as many ways to prepare this backbone of southern cooking. In our own backyard of Charlottesville is the town of Gordonsville – once considered the Fried Chicken Capital of the country, and the term boxed lunch came from. Keep reading.
Early trains had no dining cars and passengers had to eat at trackside establishments. The African-American women of Gordonsville would become Orange County’s first female entrepreneurs. The “Chicken Vendors” greeted the waiting railroad cars with trays of fried chicken expertly balanced on their heads and baskets of rolls hanging from their arms, selling fried chicken to passengers through the open windows. No one knows the exact date the custom began–perhaps with that first train.
Trains carrying soldiers during the Civil War were greeted at the depot by thongs of chicken vendors. Chicken legs and breast cost fifteen cents; backs and wings, five and ten cents. By 1879, the Gordonsville Town Council required a “snack vendor’s” license and payment of a license tax by these thriving entrepreneurs!
In1869, newsman George W. Bagby called Gordonsville “the chicken center of the universe”. In 1871, the C&O Railroad provided northern newspaper editors the opportunity to visit the south. In the book detailing this journey entitled “The Pine and the Palm Greeting; or The Trip of the Northern Editors to the South in1871”, published in Baltimore in 1873, the chicken vendors were described in detail.
The “Chicken Vendors” came to characterize Gordonsville in the minds of travelers for decades. Gordonsville Fried Chicken and the story of the ‘chicken vendors’, has been featured on restaurant menus as far away as California. The practice continued until the mid-1900s when regulations finally forced them to close down.
“Southern fried chicken
Chicken parts that are floured or battered and then fried in hot fat. The term southern fried’ first appeared in print in 1925…Southerners were not the first people in the world to fry chickens, of course. Almost every country has its own version, from Vietnam’s Ga Xao to Italy’s pollo fritto and Austria’s Weiner Backhendl, and numerous fricassees fill the cookbooks of Europe. And fried chicken did not become particularly popular in the northern United States until well into the nineteenth century…The Scottish, who enjoyed frying their chickens rather than boiling or baking them as the English did, may have brought the method with them when they settled the South. The efficient and simple cooking process was very well adapted to the plantation life of the southern African-American slaves, who were often allowed to raise their own chickens. The idea of making a sauce to go with fried chicken must have occurred early on, at least in Maryland, where such a match came to be known as “Maryland fried chicken.” By 1878 a dish by this name was listed on the menu of the Grand Union hotel in Saratoga, New York…”
—The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman: New York] 1999 (p. 305-6)
Fried Chickens
Cut them up as for the fricassee, dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt, put them into a good quantity of boiling lard, and fry them a light brown, fry them a light brown, fry small pieces of mush and a quantity of parsley nicely picked to be served in the dish with the chickens, take half a pint of rich milk, add to it a small bit of butter with pepper, salt, and chopped parsley, stew it a little, and pour it over the chickens, and then garnish with the fried parsley.”
—The Virginia House-Wife, Mary Randolph, Facsimile 1824 edition with historical notes and commentaries by Karen Hess [University of South Carolina: Columbia] 1984 (p. 252-3)
“Fried Chicken
Cut the chicken up, separating every joint, and wash clean. Salt and pepper it, and roll into flour well. Have your fat very hot, and drop the pieces into it, and let them cook brown. The chicken is done when the fork passes easily into it. After the chicken is all cooked, leave a little of the hot fat in the skillet; then take a tablespoonful of dry flour and brown it in the fat, stirring it around, then pour water in and stir till the gravy is as thin as soup.”
—What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Abby Fisher, In Facsimile (1881) with historical notes by Karen Hess [Applewood Books: Bedford MA] 1995 (p. 20)
[NOTE: This book is considered to be the first published cook book written by an African American.]
Maybe next I could look a little deeper into cast iron cooking in Virginia, stay tuned. Here is a link to Lodge cast iron: A great American company making a product that stands the test of time and makes the best chicken anywhere in the world.

Robert E. Lee Cake

Sitting and thinking about Memorial Day and what it means to us and in particular – central Virginians, I am humble when I say thank you to our Veterans and those who fell in the line of duty. I have been looking deeper into Virginia foods and have found many recipes for a Robert E. Lee cake. Which seems to be done well – a personal twist almost always had to be put into the making of this cake. It is not for the faint of heart to tackle such a wonderful cake.
General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), one of the South’s most venerated heroes, was affectionately known to Southerners as Marse Robert. He was respected by leaders on both sides of the Mason-Dixon, and many historians believe that had he accepted Lincoln’s offer of command over the Union Army, the Civil War would have been over much more quickly. Others, however, have called into question his skill as a strategist. We will never know because ultimately Lee decided to resign from the Union army.
Lee surprised almost everyone by his resignation in 1861. In a letter earlier that year he had denounced secession as a betrayal of the Founding Fathers and thought a peaceful compromise was the best solution. Torn between competing allegiances, Lee asked commanding Union general Winfield Scott if he could stay home and not participate in the war. The general replied “I have no place in my army for equivocal men.” Shortly thereafter, Lee made the difficult decision to take up arms in defense of his home state of Virginia.
Like General Lee, this cake prevaricates – it straddles the flavors of orange and lemon, trying not to choose one side over the other. Traditionally, the cake itself has lemon zest and juice and the filling is luscious “lemon jelly,” aka lemon curd. Finally, orange, with a touch of lemon, perfumes the icing. Many tasters had difficulty pinpointing the flavors
This sponge cake has the unusual additions of baking powder and cream of tartar. I’m not sure if the cream of tartar was added because the baking powder was supposed to be single-acting, or if the recipe writer intended to use both double-acting baking powder and cream of tartar. I erred on the side of the latter, although I expect the recipe would turn out fine without the cream of tartar.
Sponge cake purists might scoff at the idea of chemical leavening, since highly whipped egg yolks and whites usually suffice as the leavening for this type of cake. However, I appreciate the help because I have baker’s block regarding sponge cakes – they often turn out really flat for me. I haven’t decided if I over-beat or under-beat the eggs to cause that problem. But add baking powder, and problem solved!
As for the icing, I feel this recipe, like most American buttercreams, has far too much sugar. It’s a simple recipe: butter, powdered (confectioner’s) sugar, a bit of liquid, and a flavoring agent (the liquid can double as the flavoring agent, as in this case). I used three times as much butter as the recipe directs to tame the sweetness, but even then I didn’t approach the ratio in my traditional easy buttercream: 1 ounce of butter to each ounce of powdered sugar. Use more butter to suit your taste – this is an extremely flexible recipe. For this cake, lemon and orange juice add a bright citrus flavor in addition to making a spreadable consistency.
Back to General Lee3: cake plays a role in Lee’s history. Allegedly Lee proposed to Mary Custis (granddaughter of Martha Washington) as she knelt to serve him a piece of cake. It is unlikely that Lee ever tasted his namesake cake, as no recipes for it were published until years after his death. However, legend has it that his wife passed down a favorite “receipt” (recipe) for a lemon cake to their daughter, so it can be deduced that Marse Robert would have enjoyed this cake.
1879 – In the cookbook, Housekeeping In Old Virginia; Contributions from Two Hundred and fifty of Virginia’s Noted Housewives, Distinguished For Their Skill In The Culinary Art And Other Branches of Domestic Economy, Edited by Marion Cabell Tyree:

“Robert E. Lee” Cake
Twelve eggs, their full weight in sugar, a half-weight in flour. Bake it in pans the thickness of jelly cakes. Take two pounds of nice “A” sugar, squeeze into it the juice of five oranges and three lemons together with the pulp; stir it in the sugar until perfectly smooth; then spread it on the cakes, as you would do jelly, putting one above another till the whole of the sugar is used up. spread a layer of it on top and on sides. – Mrs. G.
“Gen. Robert Lee” Cake
10 eggs.
1 pound sugar.
1/2 pound flour.
Rind of 1 lemon, and juice of 1/2 lemon.
Make exactly like sponge cake, and bake in jelly-cake tins. Then take the whites of two eggs beat to a froth, and add one pound sugar, the grated rind and juice of one orange, or juice of half a lemon. Spread it on the cakes before they are perfectly cold, and place one layer on another. This quantity makes two cakes.
– Mrs. I. H.

Thoughts on Virginia Peanuts

I have been craving Virginia peanuts for many days now, and if I bring them into l’etoile – they do not last long at all. Of course I love out culinary heritage here in Charlottesville and the rest of the state, but the peanut named after our commonwealth are hard to beat.
The peanut plant probably originated in Brazil or Peru, although no fossil records exist to prove this. But for as long as people have been making pottery in South America (3,500 years or so) they have been making jars shaped like peanuts and decorated with peanuts. Graves of ancient Incas found along the dry western coast of South America often contain jars filled with peanuts and left with the dead to provide food in the afterlife.

Peanuts were grown as far north as Mexico by the time the Spanish began their exploration of the New World. The explorers took peanuts back to Spain, where they are still grown. From Spain, traders and explorers took peanuts to Africa and Asia. In Africa the plant became common in the western tropical region. The peanut was regarded by many Africans as one of several plants possessing a soul.

When Africans were brought to North America as slaves, peanuts came with them. Slaves planted peanuts throughout the southern United States (the word goober comes from the Congo name for peanuts – nguba). In the 1700’s, peanuts, then called groundnuts or ground peas, were studied by botanists and regarded as an excellent food for pigs. Records show that peanuts were grown commercially in South Carolina around 1800 and used for oil, food and a substitute for cocoa. However, until 1900 peanuts were not extensively grown, partially because they were regarded as food for the poor, and because growing and harvesting were slow and difficult until labor-saving equipment was invented around the turn of the century.

The first notable increase in U.S. peanut consumption came in 1860 with the outbreak of the Civil War. Northern soldiers, as well as Southern, used the peanut as a food. During the last half of the 19th century, peanuts were eaten as a snack, sold freshly roasted by street vendors and at baseball games and circuses. While peanut production rose during this time, peanuts were harvested by hand which left stems and trash in the peanuts. Thus, poor quality and lack of uniformity kept down the demand for peanuts.
In the U.S., peanuts are used in candies, cakes, cookies, and other sweets. They are also enjoyed roasted and salted. Peanut butter is one of the most popular peanut-based foods in the U.S., and for four hundred years, recipes for peanut soup have been present in the South, Virginia in particular. In some southern portions of the U.S., peanuts are boiled for several hours until soft and moist. Peanuts are also deep fried, shell and all.

Around 1900, equipment was invented for planting, cultivating, harvesting and picking peanuts from the plants, and for shelling and cleaning the kernels. With these mechanical aids, peanuts rapidly came into demand for oil, roasted and salted nuts, peanut butter and candy. George Washington Carver began his research into peanuts in 1903 at Tuskeegee Institute. Research that would lead him to discover improvements in horticulture and the development of more than 300 uses for peanuts (including shoe polish and shaving cream).
Peanuts have many uses. They can be eaten raw, used in recipes, made into solvents and oils, used in make-up, medicines, textile materials, peanut butter, as well as many other uses. Popular confections made from peanuts include salted peanuts, peanut butter (sandwiches, peanut candy bars, peanut butter cookies, and cups), peanut brittle, and shelled nuts (plain/roasted). Salted peanuts are usually roasted in oil and packed in retail-size plastic bags or hermetically sealed cans. Dry roasted salted peanuts are also marketed in significant quantities. Peanuts are often a major ingredient in mixed nuts because of their inexpensiveness compared to Brazil nuts, cashews, walnuts, and so on. Although peanut butter has been a tradition on camping trips and the like because of its high protein content and the fact that it resists spoiling for long periods of time, the primary use of peanut butter is in the home, but large quantities are also used in the commercial manufacture of sandwiches, candy, and bakery products. Boiled peanuts are a preparation of raw, unshelled green peanuts boiled in brine and often eaten as a snack. More recently, fried peanut recipes have emerged – allowing both shell and nut to be eaten. Peanuts are also used in a wide variety of other areas, such as cosmetics, nitroglycerin, plastics, dyes and paints.

The talented botanist recognized the value of the peanut as a cash crop and proposed that peanuts be planted as a rotation crop in the Southeast cotton-growing areas where the boll weevil insect threatened the regions’ agricultural base. Farmers listened and the face of southern farming was changed forever. For his work in promoting its cultivation and consumption, Carver is considered the father of the peanut industry.

Peanut production rose rapidly during and after World Wars I and II as a result of the peanut’s popularity with Allied forces, and as a result of the post-war baby boom.

Today, peanuts contribute over four billion dollars to the U.S. economy each year.

Thoughts on a Virginia Christmas

Here it is two days from Christmas eve in Charlottesville. l’etoile will finish dinner service on the 23rd then it is off to be with family and friends for Christmas. I just thought that I would pass some thoughts on a colonial Christmas and how some of the tradtions are still evedent today.
Christmas in colonial Virginia was very different from our twentieth-century celebration. Eighteenth-century customs don’t take long to recount: church, dinner, dancing, some evergreens, visiting–and more and better of these very same for those who could afford more. It’s certainly a short list, I tell myself, as I plan meals, go shopping, bake cookies, write three hundred cards, stuff stockings, and dog-ear or recycle the hundreds of catalogs that begin arriving at my house in October.
Attend church, stick some holly on the windowpanes, fix a great dinner, go to one party, visit or be visited. It sounds so refreshingly easy and simple and quick. But I’d miss a tree with lots of lights and all my favorite ornaments collected over the years. And if there were only one special meal, how could I hope to eat my fill of turkey and goose, both mince pie and fruitcake, shrimp as well as oysters? Materialist that I am, I would surely be disappointed if there were no packages to open on the morning of December 25.
Our present Christmas customs derive from a wide array of inspirations, nearly as various and numerous as the immigrants who settled this vast country. Most of the ways Americans celebrate the midwinter holiday came about in the nineteenth century, but we’re extraordinarily attached to our traditions and feel sure that they must be very old and supremely significant. What follows is a capsule history of some of our most loved Christmas customs. Perhaps both residents and visitors will enjoy learning the background of one or more of these rites. I offer them in the spirit of the season: with best wishes for continuing health and happiness to all!
Christmas foods and beverages. Everyone wants more and better things to eat and drink for a celebration. Finances nearly always control the possibilities. In eighteenth- century Virginia, of course, the rich had more on the table at Christmas and on any other day, too, but even the gentry faced limits in winter. December was the right time for slaughtering, so fresh meat of all sorts they had, as well as some seafood. Preserving fruits and vegetables was problematic for a December holiday. Then as now, beef, goose, ham, and turkey counted as holiday favorites; some households also insisted on fish, oysters, mincemeat pies, and brandied peaches. No one dish epitomized the Christmas feast in colonial Virginia.
Wines, brandy, rum punches, and other alcoholic beverages went plentifully around the table on December 25 in well-to-do households. Others had less because they could afford less. Slave owners gave out portions of rum and other liquors to their workers at Christmastime, partly as a holiday treat (one the slaves may have come to expect and even demand) and partly to keep slaves at the home quarter during their few days off work. People with a quantity of alcohol in them were more likely to stay close to home than to run away or travel long distances to visit family.
The Christmas Cake as we know it today comes from two customs which became one around 1870 in Victorian England. Originally there was a porridge, the origins of which go back to the beginnings of Christianity. Then there was a fine cake made with the finest milled wheatflour, this was baked only in the Great Houses, as not many people had ovens back in the 14th century.
Originally people used to eat a sort of porridge on Christmas Eve. It was a dish to line the stomach after a day’s fasting, which people used to observe for Christmas Eve, or the ‘Vigil’ as it was called long ago. Gradually, they began to put spices, dried fruits, honey etc in the porridge to make it a special dish for Christmas. Much later it was turned into a pudding, because it got to be so stiff with all the fruits and things, that they would tie it in a cloth, and dunk it into a large cauldron of boiling water and boil it for many hours. This turned into Christmas Pudding.
But it was not a Christmas cake, but a Twelfth Night Cake. Twelfth night is on the 5th January, and has been for centuries the traditional last day of the Christmas season.. It was a time for having a great feast, and the cake was an essential part of the festivities. This was slightly different in different countries, and also at different social levels.
In the GREAT HOUSES, into the cake was baked a dried Bean and a Pea. one in one half and the other in the other half. The cake was decorated with sugar, like our icing, but not so dense, and ornamentation. As the visitors arrived, they were given a piece of the cake, ladies from the left, gentlemen from the right side. Whoever got the bean became King of the Revels for the night, and eveyone had to do as he said. The lady was his Queen for the evening.
In smaller homes, the cake was a simple fruitcake, with a bean in it, which was given to guests during the twelve days of Christmas. Whoever got the bean was supposed to be a kind of guardian angel for that family for the year, so it was an important task, and usually, it was arranged that a senior member of the family would get the bean! This was observed until recently in Poland in fact.
In Britain the cake was baked as part of the refreshments offered to the priest and his entpourage who would visit on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, to bless each house in the parish. this custom died out after the Reformation in the late 16th century.. In Mallorca, the main island of the Spanish Balearics Islands, they have a similar custom which takes place at Easter.
The festive cake in Britain was revived at the end of the 17th century, and became very much part of the Twelfth night partying again. It is recorded In royal households, that the cakes became extravagantly large, and the guests divided into two side could have a battle with models on the cake! One battle was a sea battle, and there were minature water canon on the cake which really worked!
This is the Church festival of Ephiphany. The traditional day when Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi or Three Kings at Bethlehem. It used to be the time when people exchanged their Christmas gifts. The feast was marked, as were all the old feasts, by some kind of religious observance. A visit to the church, a service or some kind, and then a folk observance which was tightly wrapped up as part of the Church activities. As we have seen, Twelve Day (the day following Twelfth Night) entailed the blessing of the home, and in some countries is still observed. But after the Reformation, these customs of the Church were banned by the Puritans, and fell into disuse. Without its religious overtones, Twelfth Night became a time of mischief and over indulgence. By 1870, Britains Queen Victoria announced that she felt it was inappropriate to hold such an unchristian festival, and Twelfth Night was banned as a feastday.
God bless and Merry Christmas from all of us at l’etoile.

Virginia Thanksgiving

Stuffing or Dressing?
As I start to plan my menu for my family Thanksgiving a few questions come to mind. Being from Virginia, born in Richmond, and currently having a restaurant in Charlottesville – just who did host the first Thanksgiving? As if the in laws were not enough for you this time of year, gently steer the conversation to our history and culinary heritage.
Stuffing in the middle ages was known as farce, from the Latin farcire (and French farcir) meaning to stuff. Farce originally denoted a brief, lighthearted play stuffed in between lengthy religious productions to keep the audience from being bored.
Forcemeat and farce were also common terms referring to a spiced chopped meat mixture, currently still in use when referring to sausage.
The term stuffing first appears in English print in 1538. After 1880, it seems the term stuffing did not appeal to the propriety of the Victorian upper crust, who began referring to it as dressing. Nowadays, the terms stuffing and dressing are used interchangeably, with stuffing being the term of preference in the South and East portions of the United States.
Oyster stuffing was very popular in the nineteenth century and remains so today. Southerners often prefer pecan, rice or cornbread stuffing. Italians like sausage in their stuffing. Dried fruit, potatoes, and apples are a favorite with Germans.
Adding more flavor to Thanksgiving’s old stuffing, many historians doubt whether the Massachusetts settlers deserve any credit for hosting the first Thanksgiving in English America. Evidence points to Berkeley Plantation in present-day Virginia, less than 50 miles upriver from that first Jamestown settlement. At Berkeley Plantation, a band of new colonists held Thanksgiving on Dec. 4, 1619. But theirs was not a festival of binging on food and drink: The colonists at Berkeley Plantation lacked the provisions and time to hold that kind of a celebration. Their thanksgiving was more religious than culinary. Still, other historians point to an earlier ceremony held at Cape Henry on April 29, 1607, when the original Jamestown settlers made land and gave thanks for their safe passage–again more of a religious ceremony than a festival.
Naturally there are turf wars over historic ‘firsts’ between Massachusetts and Virginia, but a case can be made for crediting Cape Henry and Berkeley Plantation with the first ritual of giving thanks, while Plymouth certainly set the thankful tone for ritual gorging. And the latter is far more appealing to the appetites of the average American family.
So why the confusion over the historical narrative? That entire Berkeley settlement was destroyed by a Native American massacre, reasonably leaving the tradition’s torch to their English brethren to the north. Regardless, the idea of giving thanks for what one has is relevant whether Berkeley Plantation or Plymouth gets credit for the act.

Ironically, the original destination of the Pilgrims when they left England in September 1620 was present-day Virginia where there was an existing contingent of English colonists. Instead, the Mayflower first spotted land in November off Cape Cod and thus altered the course of English expansion in America and Thanksgiving history.

Virginia Apples and Cider

I spent the better part of Sunday pressing apples with our dear friends at Red Row farm in Esmont Virginia. It is south of Charlottesville about a half hour scenic drive. Worth every effort – the cider is sweet and so wonderful.   This time of the year, with our weekly delivery of Mr. Henleys apples from Crozet has to be one of my favorites.  We make apple butter at l’etoile, pies and anything else that we can think of with them. But the pressing of cider made me wonder about how this great tradition was started, and how it fits into our culinary heritage. It is indeed a shame that fresh pressed cider is a thing of the past.

Cider Apples may be considered as a step in development from the Wild Apple to the Dessert Apple. Formerly every farmhouse made its cider. The apples every autumn were tipped in heaps on the straw-strewn floor of the pound house, a building of cob, covered with thatch, in which stood the pounder and the press and vats and all hands were busy for days preparing the golden beverage. This was the yearly process – still carried out on many farms of the west of England, though cider-making is becoming more and more a product of the factories. One of the men turned the handle of the pounder, while a boy tipped in the apples at the top. A pounder is a machine which crushes the apples between two rollers with teeth in them. The pulp and juice are then taken to the press in large shovels which have high sides and are scored bright by the acid. The press is a huge square tray with a lip in the center of the front side and its floor slopes towards this opening. On either side are huge oaken supports on which rests a square baulk of the same wood. Through this works a large screw. Under the timber is the presser Directly the pulp is ready, the farmer starts to prepare the ‘cheese.’ First of all goes a layer of straw, then a layer of apples, and so on until the ‘cheese’ is a yard high, and sometimes more. Then the ends of straw which project are turned up to the top of the heap. Now the presser is wound down and compresses the mound until the clear juice runs freely. Under the lip in the front of the cider press is put a vat. The juice is dipped from this into casks. In four months’ time the cider will be ready to drink.

The demand for cider has increased rapidly of late years, chiefly on account of the dry varieties being so popular with sufferers from rheumatism and gout. As very good prices have been paid in recent seasons for the best cider apples, and as eight tons per acre is quite an average crop from a properly-managed orchard in full bearing, it is obvious to all progressive and up-to-date farmers and apple-growers that this branch of agriculture is well worthy of attention. In the last few years, with the object of encouraging this special Apple growing industry, silver cups have been awarded to the owners of cider-apple orchards in Devon who make the greatest improvement in the cultivation of their orchards during the year, and it is hoped this will still further stimulate the planting of new orchards and the renovation of the old ones.

The peculiar winy odour is stimulating to many. Pliny, and later, Sir John Mandeville, tell of a race of little men in ‘Farther India’ who ‘eat naught and live by the smell of apples.’ Burton wrote that apples are good against melancholy and Dr. John Caius, physician to Queen Elizabeth, in his Boke of Counseille against the Sweatynge Sicknesse advises the patient to ‘smele to an old swete apple to recover his strengthe.’ An apple stuck full of cloves was the prototype of the pomander, and pomatum (now used only in a general sense) took its name from being first made of the pulp of apples, lard and rosewater.

In Shakespeare’s time, apples when served at dessert were usually accompanied by caraway, as we may read in Henry IV, where Shallow invites Falstaff to ‘a pippin and a dish of caraway,’ In a still earlier Booke of Nurture, it is directed ‘After mete pepyns, caraway in comfyts.’ The custom of serving roast apples with a little saucerful of Carraways is still kept up at Trinity College, Cambridge, and at some of the old-fashioned London Livery dinners, just as in Shakespeare’s days.

The taste for apples is one of the earliest and most natural of inclinations; all children love apples, cooked or uncooked. Apple pies, apple puddings, apple dumplings are fare acceptable in all ages and all conditions.

Apple cookery is very early English: Piers Ploughman mentions ‘all the povere peple’ who ‘baken apples broghte in his lappes’ and the ever popular apple pie was no less esteemed in Tudor times than it is to-day, only our ancestors had some predilections in the matter of seasonings that might not now appeal to all of us, for they put cinnamon and ginger in their pies and gave them a lavish colouring of saffron.

Apple Moyse is an old English confection, no two recipes for which seem to agree. One Black Letter volume tells us to take a dozen apples, roast or boil them, pass them through a sieve with the yolks of three or four eggs, and as they are strained temper them with three or four spoonfuls of damask (rose) water; season them with sugar and half a dish of sweet butter, and boil them in a chafing dish and cast biscuits or cinnamon and ginger upon them.

Halliwell says, upon one authority, that apple moyse was made from apples after they had been pressed for cider, and seasoned with spices.

Probably the American confection, Apple Butter, is an evolution of the old English dish? Apple butter is a kind of jam made of tart apples, boiled in cider until reduced to a very thick smooth paste, to which is added a flavouring of allspice, while cooking. It is then placed in jars and covered tightly.

The once-popular custom of wassailing the orchard-trees’ on Christmas Eve, or the Eve of the Epiphany, is not quite extinct even yet in a few remote places in Devonshire. More than three centuries ago Herrick mentioned it among his ‘Ceremonies of Christmas Eve’:

‘Wassaile the trees, that they may beare

You many a Plum and many a Peare:

For more or lesse fruits they will bring,

As you do give them Wassailing.’

The ceremony consisted in the farmer, with his family and labourers, going out into the orchard after supper, bearing with them a jug of cider and hot cakes. The latter were placed in the boughs of the oldest or best bearing trees in the orchard, while the cider was flung over the trees after the farmer had drunk their health in some such fashion as the following:

‘Here’s to thee, old apple-tree!

Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,

Hats full! Caps full!

Bushel – bushel-bags full!

And my pockets full too! Huzza!’

The toast was repeated thrice, the men and boys often firing off guns and pistols, and the women and children shouting loudly.

Roasted apples were usually placed in the pitcher of cider, and were thrown at the trees with the liquid. Trees that were bad bearers were not honoured with wassailing but it was thought that the more productive ones would cease to bear if the rite were omitted. It is said to have been a relic of the heathen sacrifices to Pomona. The custom also prevailed in Somersetshire and Dorsetshire.

Roast apples, or crabs, formed an indispensable part of the old-fashioned ‘wassailbowl,’ or ‘good brown bowl,” of our ancestors.

‘And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl

In very likeness of a roasted Crab’

Puck relates in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.

The mixture of hot spiced ale, wine or cider, with apples and bits of toast floating in it was often called ‘Lamb’s wool,’ some say from its softness, but the word is really derived from the Irish ‘la mas nbhal,’ ‘the feast of the apple-gathering’ (All Hallow Eve), which being pronounced somewhat like ‘Lammas-ool,’ was corrupted into ‘lamb’s wool.’ It was usual for each person who partook of the spicy beverage to take out an apple and eat it, wishing good luck to the company.


Fourth of July Hot Dogs

As I sit literally looking out the window from my office in downtown Charlottesville, on West Main Street – I can see Monticello.  I started thinking about the man who started this eat local movement, and the reason for the 4th of July that we all will celebrate this weekend.  I do not know if hot dogs were eaten by the founding fathers in Albemarle County or not, but I do know that all over central Virginia they will be on the 4th.

Sausage is one of the oldest forms of processed food, having been mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as far back as the 9th Century B.C. Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, is traditionally credited with originating the frankfurter. However, this claim is disputed by those who assert that the popular sausage – known as a “dachshund” or “little-dog” sausage – was created in the late 1600′s by Johann Georghehner, a butcher, living in Coburg, Germany. According to this report, Georghehner later traveled to Frankfurt to promote his new product. In 1987, the city of Frankfurt celebrated the 500th birthday of the hot dog in that city. It’s said that the frankfurter was developed there in 1487, five years before Christopher Columbus set sail for the new world. The people of Vienna (Wien), Austria, point to the term “wiener” to prove their claim as the birthplace of the hot dog. As it turns out, it is likely that the North American hot dog comes from a widespread common European sausage brought here by butchers of several nationalities. Also in doubt is who first served the dachshund sausage with a roll. One report says a German immigrant sold them, along with milk rolls and sauerkraut, from a push cart in New York City’s Bowery during the 1860′s. In 1871, Charles Feltman, a German butcher opened up the first Coney Island hot dog stand selling 3,684 dachshund sausages in a milk roll during his first year in business. The year, 1893, was an important date in hot dog history. In Chicago that year, the Columbian Exposition brought hordes of visitors who consumed large quantities of sausages sold by vendors. People liked this food that was easy to eat, convenient and inexpensive. Hot dog historian Bruce Kraig, Ph.D., retired professor emeritus at Roosevelt University, says the Germans always ate the dachshund sausages with bread. Since the sausage culture is German, it is likely that Germans introduced the practice of eating the dachshund sausages, which we today know as the hot dog, nestled in a bun. Also in 1893, sausages became the standard fare at baseball parks. This tradition is believed to have been started by a St. Louis bar owner, Chris Von de Ahe, a German immigrant who also owned the St. Louis Browns major league baseball team. Many hot dog historians chafe at the suggestion that today’s hot dog on a bun was introduced during the St. Louis “Louisiana Purchase Exposition” in 1904 by Bavarian concessionaire, Anton Feuchtwanger. As the story goes, he loaned white gloves to his patrons to hold his piping hot sausages and as most of the gloves were not returned, the supply began running low. He reportedly asked his brother-in-law, a baker, for help. The baker improvised long soft rolls that fit the meat – thus inventing the hot dog bun. Kraig says everyone wants to claim the hot dog bun as their own invention, but the most likely scenario is the practice was handed down by German immigrants and gradually became widespread in American culture. Another story that riles serious hot dog historians is how term “hot dog” came about. Some say the word was coined in 1901 at the New York Polo Grounds on a cold April day. Vendors were hawking hot dogs from portable hot water tanks shouting “They’re red hot! Get your dachshund sausages while they’re red hot!” A New York Journal sports cartoonist, Tad Dorgan, observed the scene and hastily drew a cartoon of barking dachshund sausages nestled warmly in rolls. Not sure how to spell “dachshund” he simply wrote “hot dog!” The cartoon is said to have been a sensation, thus coining the term “hot dog.” However, historians have been unable to find this cartoon, despite Dorgan’s enormous body of work and his popularity. Kraig, and other culinary historians, point to college magazines where the word “hot dog” began appearing in the 1890s. The term was current at Yale in the fall of 1894,when “dog wagons” sold hot dogs at the dorms. The name was a sarcastic comment on the provenance of the meat. References to dachshund sausages and ultimately hot dogs can be traced to German immigrants in the 1800s. These immigrants brought not only sausages to America, but dachshund dogs. The name most likely began as a joke about the Germans’ small, long, thin dogs. In fact, even Germans called the frankfurter a “little-dog” or “dachshund” sausage, thus linking the word “dog” to their popular concoction.


Strawberries in Virginia

It is that time of year in central Virginia, in particular the Charlottesville area when the first produce of Spring comes to our kitchen.  One of my favorites is the Strawberry, which got me thinking:

The strawberry is a member of the rose family, with the most common varieties being a hybrid of the wild Virginia strawberry (native to North America) and a Chilean variety. The plant produces succulent, red, conical fruit from tiny white flowers, and sends out runners to propagate.

Although the plants can last 5 to 6 years with careful cultivation, most farmers use them as an annual crop, replanting yearly. Crops take 8 to 14 months to mature. Strawberries are social plants, requiring both a male and female to produce fruit.

The word strawberry comes from the Old English streawberige, most likely because the plant sends out runners which could be likened to pieces of straw. Although they have been around for thousands of years, strawberries were not actively cultivated until the Renaissance period in Europe.

Strawberries are native to North America, and the Indians used them in many dishes. The first colonists in America shipped the native larger strawberry plants back to Europe as early as 1600. Another variety was also discovered in Central and South America, which the conquistadors calledfutilla. Early Americans did not bother cultivating strawberries, because they were abundant in the wilds.

The wide distribution of wild strawberries is largely from seeds sown by birds. It seems that when birds eat the wild berries the seeds pass through them intact and in reasonably good condition. The germinating seeds respond to light rather than moisture and therefore need no covering of earth to start growing

Cultivation began in earnest in the early part of the 19th century, when strawberries with cream quickly became considered a luxurious dessert. New York became a strawberry hub with the advent of the railroad, shipping the crop in refrigerated railroad cars. Production spread to Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida and Tennessee. Now 75 percent of the North American crop is grown in California, and many areas have Strawberry Festivals, with the first one dating back to 1850.



I just returned from a trip to the Midwest to visit family, and the discussion of grits came up – me being from the south, central Virginia in fact. Well, actually our restaurant is in Charlottesville and one dish that is always on our menu is shrimp and grits. As many stars in the sky, there are recipes for this Southern classic. At l’etoile, we think that we prepare it the best in Albemarle County. Grits are the backbone, but first a little history.
Another versatile corn product is hominy, which is whole-grain, dried corn, traditionally soaked in a lye solution made from wood ashes to rid it of its outer husk. The kernels may be prepared as a starchy vegetable. Canned hominy is found in grocery stores all over the South…Grits are ground dried corn or hominy, and they must be cooked slowly for a long time.

Whole hominy or great hominy is the result of the alkaline (lye) process of removing the hull form the kernel. But the word “hominy” refers to dried and hulled corn kernels, coarsely ground and prepared for used in puddings and breads, in particular. The term “grits,” or “hominy grits,” especially in southern states, refers to finely ground hominy. Hominy grits, usually of white corn, have been called “the potatoes of the South,” so heavily have they been relied upon for starch in that region. Hot hominy is simmered over a slow heat for hours with butter, perhaps cream, and salt or sugar to taste. Grits for breakfast, served with eggs and ham or as a side dish, is a long-established dish of the South.

Eastern settlers hulled corn by both methods after cracking and pounding their corn in the hollowed log mortars and wooden pestles they called interchangeably “hominy blocks” and “samp mills.” But throughout the nineteenth century, American cooks north and south labored valiantly, and hopelessly, to squeeze the rich nomenclature of native corn dishes into the narrow confines of hominy, samp and –worst of all–grits. Anglo-Saxon grytt from bran and greot for ground had melded into “grist,” which colonists applied generically to dried, ground and hulled grain. The New Orleans Picayune only confused matters when it called hominy “the older sister of grits,” since it was the Indians who taught Creoles to thresh the hulls from dried yellow corn until the grains were white. Grits might be yellow if the hull was left on, the Picayune specified, but “the daintier preparation” was white with the hull off. Plain hulled corn was “big hominy”; grits ground superfine were “small hominy”…In the North, samp (from the Narragansett nasaump, or unparched corn, beaten and boiled) came to be indentified with coarsely ground corn however it was hulled…Grits for many reasons became strongly identified, as they are today, with the South.

Hominy. Dried, hulled corn kernels cooked in a variety of ways in breads, puddings, and other preparations. It was one of the first foods European settlers readily accepted from the Native Americans, and the word, from one or another Algonquin words, such as rockamoninie (“parched corn”) or tackhummin (“hulled corn”), was used as early as 1620. Different terms describe hominy that has been treated or ground in different ways. “Great hominy,” also called “whole hominy,” “pearl hominy” (from its pearly appearance), and “samp” (from the Narraganset nasaump, “corn mush”), in coarsely ground and prepared by scalding shelled corn in water and wood ash to separate the hulls, called the “eyes.”…If the corn is ground more finely, or ground twice, the result is called “hominy grits” or, as is usual in the South, just grits. Further grinding results in cornmeal….”Hogs and hominy” is an old southern dish of hominy and fried pork.