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The Food-Lover’s Drive Along the Blue Ridge Parkway

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Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

“When I left the bank in Charlotte,” Diane Flynt said, tromping through her north orchard in clogs, designer jeans, and an immaculate white blouse, “I wanted my final career to be working with the land—I’m an avid gardener, and I like making things.” The sun was low, radiating in bursts through the foliage of pippin trees, and we were learning that Flynt has a tendency toward understatement. For her retirement gig, she did indeed end up planting a garden—more than a thousand heirloom apple trees ranging over 25 hilly acres in Dugspur, Virginia. And the things she ended up making from them, once the trees had borne fruit—and after she’d traveled to England for schooling in the blending and fermentation of apple juice—are Foggy Ridge Ciders, four styles of the sort that early settlers drank gallons of, but which has all but disappeared from the nation’s dinner tables.

Flynt’s hard ciders deserve to be drunk with dinner. Sophisticated and dry, lavishly acidic with understated fruit, they’re like a brisk mountaintop breeze with a hint of spring. We first fell for them at Lantern, in Chapel Hill, one of a number of restaurants in North Carolina and Virginia that serve Foggy Ridge. We made a mental note to visit the orchard if we were ever in the Blue Ridge highlands of Virginia.

Then, a week later, a friend in New York told us about a life-changing cheese she’d tasted at Per Se that chef Thomas Keller sources from a small Virginia dairy called Meadow Creek, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Around the same time, we heard from our old friend Haden Polseno-Hensley. The son of potters, Haden grew up in Floyd, Virginia, the Berkeley of the Blue Ridge, where back-to-the-landers, artisans, and musicians settled in the 1960’s and 70’s. Now, he told us, he was about to open Floyd’s first coffee roastery, and if we came to town, he’d show us his neighbor’s new brewery and introduce us to friends who were making all-organic Neapolitan-style pizza in a wood-fired oven mounted on the bed of a Ford truck.

The Blue Ridge was clearly summoning us. Small-scale food operations with a keen sense of place and an upstart, indie spirit were breaking out all over, some to national acclaim. And it seemed noteworthy that these hives of local-food culture were clustered along the path carved by one of the largest government-sponsored public works of the 20th century.

The Blue Ridge Parkway—469 miles of two-lane blacktop running from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina—turns 77 this September. It’s hard now to fathom how controversial the project was when it was green-lit by FDR’s Public Works Administration in 1933. The proposal set off protests by mountain residents, many of whom were forced to sell their land to state governments. But construction went ahead as planned, with the first section begun in 1935. Within a decade, two-thirds of the route was completed.

Something about the triumphant parkway emerging from a period of recession and grand public stimulus seemed apropos. And we were curious to know what it’s like to travel—and eat—along the route today.

Our journey began in Staunton, Virginia, just west of Milepost Zero, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s trailhead. Staunton has a reputation as a mecca for food lovers. The town celebrity is Joel Salatin, a farmer whose family has been operating Polyface Farm for more than 50 years and who is revered among the locavore set for such witty polemical farm manuals as Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front. Salatin was a protagonist of the documentary Food, Inc., in which he appeared as a down-to-earth David lobbing hilarious common-sense zingers at the Goliaths of corporate agriculture.

We asked Salatin if he drew any connections between traditional Blue Ridge culture and the current farm-to-fork movement. He noted, at the core, a peculiar irony: “So often the sustainable-food movement is seen as this urban yuppie thing,” he said. “But the gun-toting, canning, freezing mountain people actually exemplified a lot of the specifics that this new Gucci food movement fantasizes about. For the mountain people, it wasn’t a fantasy—it was survival, because they didn’t have any money!”

At Zynodoa, in downtown Staunton, we learned firsthand about chef James Harris’s take on mountain comfort cooking, which finds local ingredients playing a French tune: a chicken-liver mousse (the livers from Salatin’s farm), impossibly creamy, served with cornichons and a baguette from Charlottesville’s Albemarle Baking Co. Other dishes whistle nouvelle Dixie: Wade’s Mill grits (ground in a circa-1750 mill, 20 miles south) with black pepper and cream cheese and braised collard greens accompany scallops—trucked in that morning from the Chesapeake Bay—dressed with a red-eye gravy.

Harris grew up in San Diego and worked at Virginia’s Inn at Little Washington and in kitchens in Dallas and Pennsylvania before moving here on a tip from a chef friend. “Staunton is amazing,” he said. “It’s like someone dropped a Dickensian village in the middle of Virginia. And I’d put the quality of the produce here up against any other place in America. There are so many microclimates that you can grow a crazy range of stuff: saffron, figs, garlic, even kiwis!”

The following morning, we experienced what Harris meant by microclimates. At Milepost Zero, where we took photos of ourselves in front of the retro-cool entering the Blue Ridge Parkway sign, it was 83 degrees and rising. The car windows were tightly shut and the AC was on. By the time we’d ascended to Milepost 18—we had passed only one vehicle, a motorcycle, the whole way—the temperature had dropped to a cool 67, the sunroof was open, and Del McCoury was hosting Bluegrass Junction on Sirius XM, spinning “Lonesome Road Blues,” by Bill Monroe. The foliage at that elevation was still immature, almost translucent, and the sun turned the leaves a shimmering, electric green.

It’s a challenge to put words to the feeling of driving along the parkway, with its scenic overlooks every few miles. Riding among the clouds comes to mind, and it’s tempting to view the road as a strip of macadam slapped down onto the crest of a pristine ridgeline. But in fact, the road’s curves and gradients, the visual drama of every linear foot, were the deliberate vision of its landscape designer, Stanley W. Abbott, who scored the job when he was just 25 years old. In interviews, he compared his work to filmmaking, storytelling, and painting. “I can’t imagine a more creative job than locating the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Abbott said in an oral history from 1958, “because you worked with a ten-league canvas and a brush of a comet’s tail. Moss and lichens collected on the shake roof of Mabery Mill measured against the huge panoramas that look out forever.”

Even today you can’t help thinking, as you focus on the perfect geometry of a post fence, about the artistry of the parkway. The analogy to cinema is immediately apparent, in the consistent pace (the speed limit is 45 miles per hour along most of its length), the flickering guardrails at the periphery of your vision, the return of certain themes (ravines; rhododendrons; squat stone dwellings), and the wide-angle explosions of its grand vistas. It’s all so visually arresting that some have accused Abbott of overstyling his set.

Whatever aspects of these mountains Abbott might have moved, there remain the stunning, fixed realities of the landscape. Apple Orchard Mountain, the highest point along the parkway at 3,950 feet, is occupied not by apple trees but by a forest of red oaks that—because snow and relentless wind have stunted their growth—appear to be pruned fruit trees. It’s a spectacular, almost desert-like site, and all the more alluring for the fact that just 10 miles back, we were driving through a tranquil, pine-scented forest, with a fat robin swooping low over the windshield.

The aesthetic value of the parkway comes into full relief when you drop off it and descend into a place like Natural Bridge, Virginia, where “Nature’s Cathedral”—an enormous arch in a large outcropping of rock—has been turned into a ghastly mess of parking lots and restaurant Dumpsters. Neighbors have turned their own properties into yet more shoddy-sounding tourist attractions: Enchanted castle studio tours! Virginia safari park! Foamhenge!

But we were immediately drawn to Layne’s Country Store, a rambling roadside pit stop with hand-painted signs. Inside, Mike Layne, who’s run the place since 1954, was enduring the midday heat. There’s no air-conditioning, which seems in keeping with the old-fashioned nature of most of the goods on offer: locally made preserves, cured bacon, country hams, penny candy. (There is, however, an up-to-date refrigerator stocked with the latest in soft drinks.) We bought some bacon, which Layne sliced to order; a whole cured, smoked country ham; and a Budweiser & Clamato brand michelada. We loaded up the car, thinking, Is this country amazing or what?

What becomes apparent, dining from town to town along the parkway, is just how many different styles of cooking arise from a locavore’s devotion. You thought you were bored with “fresh-seasonal-local”? Go to the Blue Ridge for a new perspective, and rejoice in the fact that a single region can inspire so many food interpretations. At the Admiral, in Asheville, North Carolina, a cinderblock dive lit by a flickery, old-timey TV against the wall, the kitchen sources its grass-fed beef tenderloin and pork belly from the stellar producer Hickory Nut Gap Farm, its ramps and mushrooms from forager friends. But here, they’re the basis of a playful, offbeat—dare we say elegant?—cuisine that pairs seared scallops with foamed brown butter, smoked Vidalia onions, and navel orange supremes. Cooking local here doesn’t preclude flashes of sriracha and dashi and the occasional Marcona almond from making appearances. (In true dive-bar spirit, PBR finds its way into mussel broth.)

When we cruised into Floyd and met up with our friend Haden, he told us the Dogtown Pizza Truck folks were on a brief hiatus. But maybe that was for the better; after all, it was Friday night in Floyd, when food plays second fiddle, as it were, to music.

The focus of the evening is the lineup of bands playing the Floyd Country Store—a tin-ceilinged grocery and soda fountain with a stage at the back. When we arrived, the headliner, Lone Ivy String Band, was deep into its set, couples crowding the well-worn dance floor. But even more impressive was the scene outside: up and down South Locust Street were impromptu jam sessions—tight huddles of musicians picking and strumming in the fading light.

In front of the Floyd Barber Shop a quartet was playing: two elderly guys, one on banjo, the other on Dobro; and two teenagers, on mandolin and upright bass. A fifth player stood on the periphery, strumming a 1922 S. S. Stewart banjo. He saw we were new to the scene and started up a conversation, even as he played, casting a gaze at the core group every now and then. His name was Woody Gaskins; he worked as a pharmacist at Walmart, and had been coming to Friday nights in Floyd for 20 years, “sometimes with a guitar, sometimes a banjo,” he said. “What we’re playing here is called ‘old-time.’ You see, there’s ‘bluegrass’ and then there’s ‘old-time.’ Bluegrass people are a little younger on average, they tend to use a little amplification. I like ’em both, but you’ll see bluegrass people turn up their nose at ‘old time’ and vice-versa.”

We knew what he meant. Earlier in the trip we’d stopped in at another fabled mountain-music venue, the Rex Theater, in Galax, to catch Old Oak Revival, a young, rollicking bluegrass band from the Asheville area. Within two minutes of their taking the stage, 10 percent of the crowd stood up and left. “Leaving so soon?” the affable ticket-taker asked one couple.

“Not our style—the electric bass and all,” the man replied, laughing and leading his partner out the door. There seemed to be a parallel between music and food along the parkway: the same primary sources could inspire such differing interpretations, with the audience taking clear sides.

Over the years, the parkway has played an active role in preserving both traditional food and music. At Milepost 213, near Galax, we stopped into the Blue Ridge Music Center, a roadside museum and amphitheater co-run by the National Park Service. Inside, park ranger Anita Scott was plucking the strings of an Appalachian dulcimer for a group of visitors. The sound was haunting. She explained that her instrument was made of cherry, with brass tuning pegs, and that every choice of material in its fabrication would affect its timbre and sustain.

Down the road at Doughton Park, we came across the Bluffs Coffee Shop, one of four parkway restaurants owned by the NPS. The timbered lodge evoked the kinds of food experiences one might have had traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway half a century ago. (Little did we know that the Bluffs itself was in need of preservation—shortly after our visit, the restaurant suspended operations; the National Park Service is now searching for a new concessionaire.) At the Bluffs, we ate the same superb fried chicken they’d served since opening in 1949: a half-bird that took 30 minutes per order. Our chicken was delivered to the table by Ellen Smith, who started working as a waitress the day the Bluffs opened. We asked Smith if anything about the menu had changed since.

“We lost some desserts, like the schaum torte,” she said. “Egg whites and fresh peaches and whipped cream. Oh, it was so good!” We resolved to lobby the Park Service to bring back some of the delicious, extinct foods of old parkway restaurants and diners.

Despite the Bluffs setback, the spirit of preservation—of monuments, of vistas, of plants—still abounds along the Blue Ridge. Hiking up to the Craggy Gardens, one of the higher elevations east of the Mississippi at 5,640 feet, we pulled our parkas tight and stayed strictly on the path. A sign warned us there were dozens of endangered plant species that are known to exist nowhere else but this place.

We found heartening evidence of revival at Knife & Fork, a spare restaurant overlooking the train station and freight lines in Spruce Pine. We were the first to show up for brunch, and ordered nearly everything on the menu, which exudes virtue without a hint of sanctimony: nettle soup with fruity olive oil; grilled bread with sautéed ramps, prosciutto, and two gorgeous sunny-side-up eggs with soft yolks the color of orange peel. There was flaky, sweet redfish with tangy grilled rhubarb, and a shatteringly crisp fried trout with lemony tartar sauce. Within half an hour every plate was clean, and every table around us was filled.

The chef, Nathan Allen, and his wife, front-of-house manager Wendy Gardner, had worked in Los Angeles at Suzanne Goin’s Lucques and AOC restaurants before they decided to move to Gardner’s hometown of Burnsville, North Carolina. The plan was to ease their way into the food community around Asheville. But immediately after setting foot in Burnsville, they saw an available space in Spruce Pine. Three days later, they’d signed a lease, and in four weeks’ time, they’d renovated the place, installed the kitchen, and opened Knife & Fork. They’ve never looked back.

“Everybody in L.A. says they want to be farm-to-table, but it wasn’t until we moved here that we understood what that meant,” Allen told us. “We’ll spend forty-five minutes hitting all our growers and getting produce picked that morning. We don’t just know our farmers, we know all their kids and dogs, too. I think being so closely tied to a food community hasn’t been possible since—what—maybe the late eighteen-hundreds?”

T+L contributing editors Matt Lee and Ted Lee will release their third cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (Clarkson Potter), in 2013. Follow them on Twitter @TheLeeBros.

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