Winter Family Fun & Feasting in Mountaineer Country ~ the Calm between the Storms
It’s been a really great cool season for us. Just enough snow to enjoy, but not so much that we’ve been immobilized, which we’ve been assured by the Central Appalachian locals is not the norm for winter this far north. That helps us appreciate the calm between the storms even more.
It’s been so unseasonably warm, in spite of the Arctic blast we experienced just a few weeks ago, that we have been able to continue the adventuring with our kids that my husband and I have always loved best about relocating.
Grafton, Reedsville, and Kingwood, WV are a few small towns we love to visit.
Since we have moved I’ve been saying that as a cook and food geek I am in chain food heaven because I can find any chain restaurant I could possibly want from Pittsburgh, PA to Charleston, WV, but that I’m in independently owned restaurant hell. I can’t believe how much trouble I’ve had finding good food up here. I keep hoping that I’ve just been looking in all the wrong places, so keep searching. Some finds are at least worth mentioning. Others? I’m just going to take a cue from the little Disney rabbit Thumper and try my best to be a lady by saying “nuthin’ at all.”
When we visited the mining town of Grafton to attend their tree lighting ceremony, we found a decent pizza parlor. The red sauce that was liberally applied to the pizza we ordered tasted fresh and homemade. Something we were surprised to have trouble finding in an area with such a large Italian population is good red sauce.
This pie was a poor substitute for Frank’s Roman Pizza in Asheville, our family’s favorite, but since there are several pizza places we have tried since we moved that we are sure we won’t go back to, I’d call Capri Pizza Parlor a win. I liked the fact that, though the decor was dated, in a cozy, hometown pizzeria, football team hanging out in the corner kind of way, everything was sparkling clean. The boys loved the crispy crust, though I prefer a floppy, New York-style thin crust. It’s not you, Capri. It’s me.
We first went to Monroe’s in Kingwood when we were told what a great general store they had in the basement under the restaurant. So one Saturday, not long after we moved, we mapped the little town with the hope of finding hand-crank and electric-free appliances and maybe even farm implements. When we arrived, I was so disappointed to find that the general store was no longer in operation. The restaurant, however, had a nice menu with items from Maryland crab cakes to New York steaks, with lots of reasonably priced sandwiches in between. The French dip at Monroe’s is better than the ones I make at home from sliced sirloin tip roast. I was very pleased to see a real pat of butter sitting atop my baked potato rather than a mini ice cream scooped sphere of that fluffy, whipped junk that is typically plopped on top of a spud in most other restaurants. The staff at Monroe’s prepares several items for their expansive dessert tray, among a few that are brought in from The Cheesecake Factory. New cozy booths and lighting made our second trip more enjoyable. And, because the restaurant is located south of the Mason-Dixon Line, they have sweet tea on the menu. As my Western North Carolina spawned step mother says, it’s just not the same when you try to add sugar to unsweetened iced tea.
The holidays were anything but sad and gloomy away from our family home, as we were able to keep most of our traditions while adding a few more. I was worried that Santa wouldn’t find us in a new house and wondered what he would do with a gas log fireplace, so was so relieved to see his usual magical, fairy dust footprints leading from the fireplace to the tree where he left presents for everyone. I’m very glad that my boys aren’t so grown up that they roll their eyes at such a fanciful idea, but still fully embrace it, probably for their old mother’s benefit. Thank you, my sweet man-cubs. Thank you!
Those same wonderful boys gave me such thoughtful Christmas gifts, full of whimsy, as usual.
A REAL German boot for this German girl…
…made in China. I need some beer.
My favorite gift was two very sweet, fluffy bunnies to “keep me warm”. An added bonus is that they are meat rabbits purchased from our nice Mennonite neighbors who are hoping that I will eventually have the nerve to go into rabbit farming. Of course we would never eat these sweet babies, but they can be the beginning of my rabbit operation if I decide to start one. Jolly is black, and I’m sure was the runt of her litter because she is still tiny a month later ~ I adore the runt of a litter of anything ~ and Holly, with her red eyes that make her look as ferocious as a certain Monty Python rodent, is the white one. “Look, that rabbit’s got a vicious streak a mile wide! It’s a killer!” She did bite my shirt sleeve once. I’m glad I was wearing a shirt sleeve.
A very thoughtful gift from my husband and kids was a high-powered pellet gun with hollow point pellets to scare off the coyote, or coyotes, that have made dinner of two ducks and a chicken from the barn. Mama can shoot straight. I guess they knew that. Funny that the local predators don’t go after the wild ducks that spend a fair amount of time on our pond when it’s not frozen. Probably because when they visit they spend a fair amount of time on the pond where those old coyotes can’t reach them.
And speaking of ducks, our Mennonite neighbor came knocking on our door last week with an addition for our little farm. When I answered the door he held her up exclaiming, “I broughtcha a duck in a bucket.” Sure enough. He’d crammed an entire Welsh Harlequin in a plastic bucket. She just looked at me as if to say, “Um…think you can help me out, here?” All I could do was laugh and have my son hurry her down to the farmyard so she could stretch all her bendy parts, while his brother confessed, “That makes me want KFC.” The other ducks, Mr. Bickerson and the one remaining girl Pekin, avoided her for a day or so but now she’s part of the bunch.
One local tradition I was happy to embrace this winter, though I am neither Italian nor Catholic, was Fairmont, West Virginia’s 7th Annual Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival. It was a nice substitute for my family’s annual trip to the North Georgia Alpine village of Helen to enjoy German food and Christmas shopping. Though it was a bitterly cold day, I believe one of the coldest I have ever spent outdoors, it was having our hands cupped around steaming, delicious hot foods and the warm hospitality of the vendors and attendees that made the festival so memorable for us. I already can’t wait to attend next year.
There are some beautiful buildings in downtown Fairmont. I’ve never been fond of brick, but there are so many colors and textures mixed with different architectural styles that I can’t scrunch my nose at the choice of building material…especially when that nose is frozen stiff from the icy wind that rockets through those alleyways.
Old churches make me weak in the knees. This one only serves the community for special events, these days. On “feast day” a makeshift coffee shop was set up inside, which was a welcome sight for those of us who were chilled to the bone.
When we went our separate ways to find lunch, I skipped Heston Farm’s booth, with the intention of visiting the actual winery to sample their wines and their Foxfire restaurant’s food. It was only a few weeks later that I did just that. The Riesling! Oh my. Now to see what their famous Sunday brunch is all about. Can you feel another blog post coming? I can. But how I passed up that Drunken Crab Soup, I’ll never know.
It was Pierpont Culinary Academy’s steaming booth with hauled-in commercial deep fat fryers that drew me in.
As I watched students ladle a bowl of seafood chowder into an insulated cup for me, and fill a paper boat with calamari for my son, I was very glad that I attended culinary school in Hawaii so that on the occasions when we students served the public away from campus, any and all locations were warm and balmy with tropical trade winds keeping us cool. These girls looked cold!
The chowder, which was loaded with at least seven different types of fishes, was absolutely delicious, and warmed me right through.
My son’s fried squid was excellent. I despise an overcooked, rubbery tentacle. I only saw rings in this batch, and the one I snitched from my son was tender and crisp.
Pierpont’s pastas and sauces were tempting, but I was saving room for dessert.
Mountain Dragon Mazery made it to the top of my day trip list when I first read about the mead producers on Facebook, not long after I learned we would be moving. Since I have yet to make it to the mazery, I settled for buying a bottle of mead from their booth at the festival.
I chose a bottle of their West Virginia Wildflower Honey Mead. It’s on the dry side, which surprised me because I love a syrupy sweet mead. I think a proper tasting at the mazery to find one I really like is in order.
But, since my son is begging me, daily, to fund his apiary dreams, I may just wait to sample my own.
Other booths at the festival boasted Italian pastries and specialty foods.
I found my dessert under the zeppoli tent, where local firefighters were frying up the sugar-dusted doughnuts.
Oh yum. I think they should open a shop. I really, really do.
But this nice lady’s booth I found most intriguing. She is Natalie Tennant, Secretary of State for West Virginia, who makes pita piata “just like Mom’s”. I had arrived too late in the day to sample one of her pita piatas, as they were sold out, but the cookies we bought from her were wonderful. She told me that her pastries are made to order from her website, where a recipe for her late mother’s nut roll is also available.
As the holidays wound down, our New Year’s Eve was full of sparkle and love, as usual. Sparkling apple juice for the boys, and some real bubbly for the ‘rents, stoking us for a great 2015 and, hopefully, spring just around the corner.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed, as I batten down the hatches for another wild night of winter storms hitting our part of the country, that soon we’ll have a break in the weather for another explore. Stay safe and warm, my fellow Central Appalachian folks, and thanks for having us.