I was invited by the Norfolk Convention & Visitors Bureau to cover the 22nd Annual Town Point Virginia Wine Festival. In addition to sampling a surprisingly large collection of locally produced wines, I was able to visit with some fascinating local food icons.
To read about American culinary history is one thing, but to be handed a broken piece of waffle cone by a living part of it is something completely different. I'm referring to Al Doumar, nephew of Abe Doumar, who is credited with inventing the ice cream cone at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
Despite being in his eighties, Al still cheerfully mans the specially designed waffle cone irons at Doumar's Cones & Barbecue on a daily basis. He does so wearing a bow tie and suspenders that seem so perfectly suited to him, it's hard imagining him wearing anything else.
His bright eyes sparkled as he told us the story of his uncle's ingenious invention, which forever changed how Americans eat ice cream. At one point, he even began flipping though a well-worn photo album, pointing out highlights in Doumar's long, storied past. I could have listened to him for hours; the man is a true American food icon.
If you ever get to Norfolk, make it a point to stop by Doumar's for a cone, and if you're lucky, a conversation with Al. Just don't wait too long, he may only be doing this another twenty or thirty years.
We also had a chance to visit with Rowena Fullinwider. Her homemade cakes and jams business, Rowena's, started with a couple fruit trees in her backyard, has grown into a nationally recognized gourmet manufacturer that ships all over the world. We got to tour her Norfolk plant and retail store, and sampled many of her delicious offerings.
Rowena is not only famous for her pound cakes, fruit curds, and jams (including an amazing carrot jam), but she led the fight to change food labeling laws that would have put her, and thousands of other small, artisan food makers out of business. Like Al Doumar, it was impossible not to smile as you listened to her talk with such pride and passion about her history and recipes.
Since it's located on the Chesapeake Bay, seafood plays a big role in Norfolk's local cuisine. At a lunch hosted by Todd Jurich's Bistro, I had a delicious plate of fried shrimp and cheese grits, sauced with another southern classic, red-eye gravy.
I also tasted two stellar soups that I'm determined to get the recipes for, so you can give them a try at home. One was an oyster stew fortified with a potato puree and bacon (Chef Jurich's grandfather's secret recipe), and the other a memorable marriage of pumpkin and the area's famous crab.
Back at the Town Point Virginia Wine Festival, I spoke at length with sommelier Patrick Farrell from Flair Viticulture about the area's wine industry. I had no idea Virginia was such a large wine producing state, and there were over 30 wineries proudly pouring at the festival.
I don't pretend to be a wine authority, but I tasted a wonderful 2008 Viognier by Jefferson Vineyards that would stand up nicely to any I've had here in California. Farrell explained that Viognier is the area's best white grape thanks to a thick skin and genetic disposition suited to thrive in the humid weather and red clay-rich soil.
Unfortunately the trip was much too short to cover all the culinary ground I would have liked. I didn't even get to try the area's famous ham, which a local authority informed me was so delicious because, "we only feed the pigs peanuts!"
If nothing else, the visit had me hoping I can make a return trip someday to more thoroughly explore the area's rich culinary heritage. In the meantime, I'll be collecting and posting some of the recipes I enjoyed on the trip, so stayed tuned!
Photos (c) John Mitzewich