Virginia, the Food Capital of Everything

When it comes to what we eat, the Old Dominion is the top of the world.

Illustration by Victoria Borges

In Virginia, we have ample points of pride. Our mountains and beaches. Our rich history and culture. Our picturesque rural towns and trendy city centers. And, of course, our growing reputation as a culinary destination. But we also boast some particular claims to foodie fame from long before “artisanal” was a thing. Welcome to Virginia, the world’s capital of …

Marker Miller Orchards

Apples

Forget pumpkin spice: If fall has a flavor in Virginia, it’s surely the sweet-tart taste of a crisp apple plucked fresh from the tree. And with a long history of apple-growing, the Winchester-Frederick County area, our “apple capital,” provides you with plenty to choose from.

John Marker, a fourth-generation apple farmer whose family has been growing the fruit on the same property for more than 100 years, says it’s the limestone karst soil that gives apples from the area their notable, distinct—and delicious—flavor. The Marker family grows around 200 acres and some 25 varieties of apples—from the tart lodi cooking apple to the popular honeycrisp—along with peaches, pears, plums, and vegetables. The farm welcomes the public to its pick-your-own orchards and to its market and bakery, where the apple cider donuts are a perennial favorite, says Marker (don’t miss the fresh apple cake, either).

A lifetime in apples doesn’t seem to have diminished Marker’s enthusiasm for his product; at 72, he still eats on average at least two every day. “I like apples almost any way,” he says. MarkerMillerOrchards.com

Fried Chicken

Gordonsville Fried Chicken Festival

While Gordonsville is not quite the crossroads of Virginia these days, after the Civil War its location at the junction of two important rail lines meant the town hosted a steady stream of travelers arriving, departing, and passing through—which is how Gordonsville got itself on the map as the “fried chicken capital of the world.” 

In a time before railroad dining cars, entrepreneurial African American women would await the arriving trains, bearing food to sell to hungry passengers. Soon, the Gordonsville stop became known for the delicious fare—including fried chicken—served by these trackside vendors. Today, the annual Gordonsville Fried Chicken Festival, held the third Saturday in May, celebrates that history, serving up hundreds of pounds of traditional fried chicken from local vendors and featuring both fried chicken and pie-judging contests. (The waiting list to be a judge “stretches over years,” claims Gordonsville Visitor Center Director David Solomon.)

And as for the railroad line that brought fried-chicken fame to the town? “It still passes through Gordonsville,” says Solomon. “It just doesn’t stop.” TownOfGordonsville.org

Turkey

Rockingham County welcome turkey.

Photo courtesy of Rockingham County

If you want to talk turkey, there’s certainly no better place to find a knowledgeable source than the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County region, where back in the 1920s Charles Wampler Sr. made the first successful commercial attempt to artificially incubate and hatch turkey eggs, thereby launching the modern turkey industry.

Today, according to Virginia Farm Bureau, Virginia ranks sixth in the country in turkey production. Two large, bronze turkey statues, located on Route 11 at the northern and southern Rockingham County lines, welcome visitors to the “turkey capital” and attest to the bird’s continued importance to the area’s economy—and identity. And of course, with the rise of the turkey burger, turkey bacon, turkey sausage, and the like, turkey is not just for Thanksgiving anymore.

“I believe the turkey sandwich is the most popular sandwich out there today,” says Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation. And when you’re biting into yours? You can thank Charles Wampler.

World’s Oldest Ham

Photo courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum

Ham

To earn the label “genuine Smithfield,” a ham must be “processed, treated, smoked, aged, cured by the long-cure, dry salt method of cure and aged for a minimum period of six months … within the corporate limits of the town of Smithfield, Virginia.” That’s according to item 3.2-5419 of the Virginia State Code. In the Commonwealth, we don’t kid around when it comes to ham. 

Smithfield has been home to the ham curing and packing business since at least 1779, laying the foundation for the town’s claim to “ham capital” fame. Today, Smithfield’s most famous ham, however, is one you certainly wouldn’t want to eat—but you can view live (or cured, actually) via the Isle of Wight County Museum’s 24/7 “ham cam.” It’s the World’s Oldest Ham (and who would dispute this claim?), dating to 1902 and vying for status with the museum’s even more venerable World’s Oldest Peanut. The ham, however, has its own Twitter account.

Museum director Jennifer England says the ham’s birthday is celebrated on the second Saturday in July. He gets cards. He gets gifts. “Last year,” says England, “somebody gave him mustard.” HistoricIsleOfWight.com

Moonshine

Twin Creeks Distillery moonshine.

Photo courtesy of Twin Creeks Distillery

If you want a taste of Virginia’s true original craft distilleries, skip the hipsters-come-lately and head for Franklin County, the “moonshine capital,” where liquor-making is a longstanding local tradition.

Before Prohibition, according to a history by Ferrum College’s Blue Ridge Institute and Museum, the Blue Ridge region was home to many legal distilleries. Franklin County alone had more than 75 at one point in the 1890s. But when alcohol was outlawed, the practice went underground—and into basements and barns and backwoods operations—where it remained even when Prohibition was overturned. 

Now, however, Franklin County once again boasts several fully legal operations, including Twin Creeks Distillery in Rocky Mount. It is owned and operated by the Prillaman family, who proudly claim their moonshining roots, including a great-grandfather who “pulled time” for bootlegging in the 1930s. Anna Prillaman, the daughter of master distiller Chris, handles the distillery’s website, PR, and online operations. She points out that “moonshine” isn’t actually a drink but a colloquialism for illicit liquor-making or “making liquor by the light of the moon.” And she bristles at the popular stereotype of moonshiners as mountain-country rubes. Distilling is a science, she says, and moonshining was a tradition and a way of life. “Their backwoods ingenuity and craftsmanship was unreal,” she says. TwinCreeksDistillery.com

Hope & Harmony Farm peanuts.

Photo courtesy of Royal Oak Peanuts

Peanuts

From the imagination of Antonio Gentile, a schoolchild in the “peanut capital” of Suffolk, was born a true cultural icon: Mr. Peanut. Local lore (and a surviving illustration) has it that in 1916, Gentile submitted a sketch (maybe, or maybe not, for a contest) of a suave peanut-about-town, “Mr. P-Nut Planter,” who would go on to become that now-world-famous monocled and spats-wearing ambassador for the Planters Nut and Chocolate Company based in Suffolk.

Peanut-growing is still a tradition in this area of Virginia. Jeffrey Pope is the fourth generation in his family to farm peanuts on the same land. What’s known as a “Virginia” peanut, he explains, doesn’t actually have to be grown in Virginia, but is the largest variety of peanut, best for snacking and “gourmet” packaging. The Pope family’s Hope & Harmony Farms grows about 400 acres of peanuts and offers a range of peanut products, including traditional salted (their most popular); sriracha, habanero, and lime-flavored varieties; raw peanuts; and peanut candies. Pope is particular to their Cajun peanuts, but he says, “Nothing is better than when we go to harvest the crop, to walk behind the digger and pull the peanuts off and eat them right in the field.” HopeAndHarmonyFarms.com

More Food Capitals
Rural Retreat: Dr. Pepper capital of the world

The beverage was invented in Texas, but tradition holds it was named for drugstore owner Dr. Charles Pepper of Wythe County.

Virginia (Chesapeake Bay): Shellfish capital of the U.S.

Virginia plants and harvests the most oysters and clams in the country.

Wachapreague: Flounder capital of the world

Home of a world-record fish and a popular sport destination.

Hampton Roads: Coffee capital of the East Coast

Norfolk is the most active coffee port, while Suffolk has the most warehouses and is home to several large roasters.

Other Honors

In addition to its fame for food, Virginia has been cited as the capital of many other shadow nations.

Podcasts: According to a 2018 study by Panoply Media (now Megaphone), Virginia is home to half of the top download-per-capita counties in the country. Falls Church leads the list—maybe D.C. commuters use podcasts to beat Beltway boredom?

Fly Fishing: The Roanoker postulated in 2016 that a long season, vast choices, 5,000 miles of fishable water, and several best-in-business local fishing heroes make Southwest Virginia the fly fishing capital of the world. 

The Internet: According to Submarine Telecoms Forum magazine, as of 2018 Northern Virginia is the leading data center market in the world. Loudoun County’s 75-plus data centers are home to more than 3,000 tech companies, who traffic many virtual bits and bytes.  

Redbuds: The Virginia General Assembly designated Honaker, in Russell County, the Redbud Capital of the World for its plentiful trees, which bloom annually in April. Route 80 is known as Redbud Highway.


This article originally appeared in our Smoke + Salt 2019 issue.

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