Virginia is for (food) lovers

While reading Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, I came across a passage about morels, a wild mushroom with a honeycomb-like cap. It gave me pause to appreciate the natural culinary wonders which I was exposed to in the year of my life during which I lived in Blacksburg, Virginia.

From August of 2008 to 2009, I journeyed to Blacksburg, a small town of 30,000 tucked on a plateau between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. Life happens slower in Blacksburg. After work, I often found myself bored. Cooking helped fill the void.

I quickly learned there was something different about food in Virginia. Number one, we don’t have a Wegmans. While that was reason enough to be hesitant about moving, I found the absence of the supermarket giant forced me to look outside the grocery store for the ingredients to a meal. Suddenly I wanted to follow the rickety wooden sign advertising a butcher 1.5 miles down the road. And the idea of spending hours slow cooking ribs on a homemade backyard smoker made sense. I recall one trip to the farmers market which netted a few pints of heirloom-variety grape tomatoes, and inspired me to spend an entire afternoon slaving over a fragrant pot of tomato, basil, parmesan risotto.

There were many opportunities to pick our own produce, like strawberries and blueberries. Several afternoons spent collecting the delicious homegrown fruits resulted in more than half-dozen varieties of blueberry pies, many evenings of strawberry daiquiris, and a blueberry pancake brunch.

One of my favorite memories was cooking with morels for the first and only time in my life. These wild mushrooms are tough to find. Some say they grow in old apple orchards while others insist they grow around the roots of tulip poplars or dying elms, Kingsolver writes. Morels do contain toxic hemolysins that destroy blood cells, chemicals which are rendered harmless during cooking.

“Wild mushrooms are among the few foods North Americans still eat that must be hunted and gathered,” Kingsolver writes.

It just so happened, my boss at West End Market at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, “Bubba” was an expert morel picker. He lived just over the state-line in West Virginia and he and one of the chefs would go out each spring and collect these rare and very expensive delicacies. To give you an idea, a one-ounce bag of dried morels is listed for $34 on Amazon.com. Lucky for me, I had friends in Virginia who were willing to share the bounty of their hunt.

Bubba instructed me to soak the morels in a bowl of salt water overnight before eating them. The next day I set out to incorporate them into a cheesy risotto, the recipe for which I’ve since forgotten. I will never forget the distinct flavor of the dish though. The results were absolutely divine, an earthy, melt-in-your-mouth kind of goodness that you can’t get with just any kind of mushroom. And the idea of getting to eat something so rare gave me a new appreciation for putting a little more time, effort and thought into hunting, gathering and cooking my food.

“With their woodsy, earthy, complex flavors and aromas, and their rich, primeval colors and forms, wild mushrooms bring to our kitchens a reminder that all the places we once inhabited were wildernesses.” ~ quote by Alice Waters, as borrowed from “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”.

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