Patti Miller points through the picture window to a notch in the mountains where the Potomac River meets the Cacapon.
She tells me about her friend Neva Wood, a native West Virginian who died a few years ago near the age of 100. Throughout the last century, Wood and her fellow locals here in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia planted all spring and fished all summer. They foraged with the seasons, gathering land cress, watercress, morels and ramps. They harvested and preserved. And in the fall they hunted.
For weeks at a time, they followed the animals – deer, rabbit, pheasant, wild turkey – men and women both, each day pushing deeper into the terrain. By season’s end, they would arrive at this fold in the landscape, where the rivers met and the deer were forced to stop, stymied by the confluence of water and the steepness of the mountains, out of places to go.
“Right about now they’d be getting the land cress and the watercress,” Miller says during a visit on the verge of spring. Watercress features prominently on the menu at Panorama at the Peak, the Berkeley Springs restaurant Miller owns with Leslie Hotaling. The watercress, dressed with hot bacon, is a tribute to Wood and the people who have lived for centuries off this land.
Geography can be destiny, and it’s fair to say that the mountains — the Appalachians — created West Virginia. The only state that is completely contained within a mountain range, West Virginia began life as the craggy, untamed western corner of Virginia. With a fertile eastern shore and broad swaths of farmland, Virginia of the 18th and 19th centuries was a place of plantations, slaves and landed gentry. Its mountainous appendage was one of salt mines and self-sufficiency. The two had little in common, and when Virginia joined the Confederacy, West Virginia declared its independence. It joined the Union in 1863, becoming a border state during the Civil War. West Virginia celebrates its 150 years of statehood this June.
That ethic of rebellion and self-reliance still runs like a thick vein of coal through the Mountain State. Even here in Berkeley Springs, just two hours from Washington, D.C., many people still grow their own food; take time off from work to fish, hunt and forage, and “put up” most of it – pumpkin, pickles, venison, squirrel and crappie.
On an icy Friday night that struggled toward spring, Stacy Dugan stirred a pot of sweet-and-sour meatballs, made from the venison bagged by the three generations of hunters in her family. Sweet steam fills the room as she lifts the cover off the slow cooker.
“Wanna know what’s in it?” she asks, eager to share her secret. “Grape jelly.”
But it doesn’t stop at meatballs. Dugan, who is a dietician as well as a county commissioner, has generously laid on a Sunday-worthy feast for this stranger. She seasons a big pot of “pulled” venison, like pulled pork but with deer meat. Fresh, pillowy biscuits stay snug under a dishtowel while chipped venison – bits of meat in cream sauce — bubbles in a skillet. There are mashed potatoes, green salad, corn on the cob and bright yellow sweet Southern cornbread.
And then the neighbors arrive.
Joy Canoles lives 20 minutes down the road in Unger, and she comes through the door bearing her specialty: squirrel potpie.
“You have to leave it on the bone, one teaspoon of salt, a little water,” she tells me about canning squirrel. It takes three plump critters to make a pie like the one she lays on the counter, she says, plus potatoes, carrots, peas, onions and gravy. “It doesn’t always have enough broth,” she says confessing that she’s added some canned chicken gravy.
Her husband Henry, a burly white-haired man, proudly carries in a plate of pan-fried blue gills that he caught last summer in Sleepy Creek. And even though Joy has made raisin-filled cookies for dessert, she sets to peeling apples for a cobbler.
We snack on homemade deer baloney and deer “stick” (think venison Slim Jim.) On the stove, tea bags steep in a stock pot. “Are you going to braise something in that?” I ask, stupidly.
“It’s tea,” Dugan says.
“For dinner,” she says.
I remain confused until she asks whether I want “sweet tea” or regular. Sweet tea and Southern corn bread. Bordered by Maryland and Virginia to the east, Pennsylvania and Ohio to the north, Kentucky to the west and Virginia again in the south, West Virginia is neither here nor there. Sometimes considered the east of the West, the West of the east, the north of the South and the south of the North, the fact that the Mason-Dixon line forms part of the state’s northern border lives in this small culinary gesture of sweet tea and Southern cornbread.
We pour ourselves tea and pile our Styrofoam plates. I ladle chipped venison over one half of a biscuit and slather the other with Country Crock spread and Dugan’s homemade blackberry jam. I make sure to take a little bit of everything on my plate. The pulled venison packs a tang and not in a million years would I have pegged grape jelly as the meatballs’ mystery ingredient. The blue gills are surprisingly tender for fish that’s been frozen for months.
The squirrel pie, though … . The image of furry rodents troubles me. I remember a T-shirt with squirrel mug shots and their assorted crimes that I gave to my dad, who has been at war with the squirrels in his yard for decades. I push a small bite of pie onto my fork and resolve not to react, no matter how it tastes. But the meat is tender, and even slightly sweet, a bit like turkey, the dark stuff that comes from the legs and thighs. It is delicious. But even more than that, it was hunted, killed, preserved and then generously shared by my hosts. I finish the whole piece.
We are nearly a dozen around the Dugan’s table, Stacy and her husband Bobby Jr., and their three children; Bobby’s father Bob Sr., the Canoles, plus me and a family friend from in town.
“Growing up, all our food came from what we hunted and raised,” says Bob Sr. At 65, he is dapper with silver hair and a neatly tucked plaid shirt. When he was growing up near here in the 1950s, he says, his mother worked at the A&P. But they never got anything from there except flour and sugar. At home, they raised chickens and pigs, and kept nine milking cows. “It was nothing to go out and get 30, 40 rabbits,” he says. “When we hunted, if you killed it, you were going to eat it.”
The local menu even now goes well beyond rabbits and squirrels. “Gigging frogs” – spearing them with a long, multi-tined fork — is a favorite pastime, and 64-year-old Henry says he once caught enough to fillet 10 pounds of legs. Eel and bottom-feeding “mudcat” are good, Bobby Jr. says, but you have to know how to remove the mud vein in the back. As a child, Joy, who is 63, held the flashlight for her father when he killed rabbits at night. Bob Sr. remembers unwittingly eating skunk. “I kept it down,” he says. “Meat is meat.”
Meat is meat. That’s the basic rule. For Food Network stars, eating skunk is a dare, a ratings maker, something you do for the eyeballs. Here, where real people live, it’s often a necessity. Stacy, who is 42, was raised here in Morgan County by her great-grandmother and she remembers being poor. She remembers bushels of beans left anonymously on the porch. She remembers picking berries if they wanted jam. And she remembers eating ground hog.
“It was nasty. It was oily,” she says. “But we were glad to have it. We couldn’t afford to go to the grocery store.”
Today, Stacy buys pork when its on sale at the Food Lion and most people buy chicken there too, she says. But Bobby Jr. estimates that in a good year – when the family bags nearly a dozen deer – half of what they eat comes from what they kill. Henry and Joy harvest or kill roughly one-third of what they eat, pulling and canning corn, okra, bell peppers, green beans, lima beans, tomatoes and other vegetables from their garden, which at 30-by-50 feet is larger than my suburban backyard.
In some ways, these lives aren’t much different from Neva Wood’s. Everyone has or had a day job: Bobby Jr. is a mechanic at U.S. Silica, which runs a huge sand mine on the edge of town; Bob Sr. is a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, and Henry, who is retired, worked as a corrections officer at a Maryland prison. Yet they live in close communication with the seasons. In the fall, Bobby Jr. takes off the first day and last two days of deer season to take his 16-year-old son Luke hunting. Bob Sr. takes his grandson on the other days. Luke is likely not the only kid who takes the whole week off from school.
Henry tracks and records his kills and the conditions, much like ancient peoples might have, though perhaps not on paper. He nearly always bags his limit on deer, and knows when and where each was taken. Since 1999 when he got a 17-caliber pellet rifle, Henry has bagged 969 squirrels. That is not an estimate.
“I mark them on a calendar,” he says, adding that he notes day, time, temperature, even the phase of the moon. “There’s going to be good days and bad days. If you go hunting before bad weather, there’ll be some activity.”
And every bit of every catch is used. Joy makes squirrel leftovers into croquettes. Bobby Jr. makes baloney and deer burgers from the rib meat and other scraps. “I even cut the bones and give them to the dog for a treat,” he says. Earlier in the day, someone told me about a legendary local who cut the tails off his fish and made them into “potato chips.” Henry has a friend who impales squirrel heads on Popsicle sticks and eats them while watching TV. Not everyone at the table thinks this is a great idea.
“The tongue is good,” Henry argues. “You take the eyes out, you crack the sockets, eat the cheek meat, the meat around the neck,” he continues. “Then the brain is kind of a smooth taste. I usually put a little salt on it.”
While urban yuppies try to recreate a simpler time by “putting up” what they buy at the farmers market, canning and preserving here is a way of life. You can’t eat 969 squirrels in one sitting or a half-dozen bushels of corn even in a whole summer. So you can them. Or freeze them by filling a milk carton or a Ziploc bag with water. That’s how the blue gills were done.
“They’ll keep 2 or 3 years in the freezer if you freeze them like that,” Henry says.
These ways and traditions are being passed to Luke, the Dugan’s youngest son. Not just for the fun of it, but for survival. There are no 100-gallon water tanks on the Dugan’s porch. There’s no talk of black helicopters. But there is the distinct sense that it is wise to never rely completely on someone else or on the government or on the system. You can rely only on yourself and your family.
“I told the wife that I want to teach Luke so that if something happened we could make it,” Bobby Jr. says. “Something” doesn’t mean losing your job or having the main breadwinner die. “Something” means a catastrophe, a situation in which all the grocery stores close and civilization itself is challenged.
So far, Luke is well prepared. He first went hunting when he was 10, he says. The second or third time he went out, he wished for a big beautiful buck. His grandfather said, “If you hunt long enough and are patient enough, it will happen.”
The next day, he shot an 8-point buck.
Its head sits on his bedroom wall. The rest of it was put on the table.
Squirrel "has long been associated with elegant dining as well as with the simple food of the trapper and the nomad," James Beard writes in "American Cookery" (Little, Brown and Company, 1972.) Recipes were regularly included in early editions of Irma S. Rombauer's "Joy of Cooking." Though we may think of squirrel a bit differently today, the meat is rich and satisfying, a bit like dark meat turkey. Squirrel is versatile and can easily be used in a pot pie -- the way many folks in West Virginia eat it -- or simply broiled or fricasseed, as in this recipe adapted fro "American Cookery." It becomes a real country treat with the addition of fresh biscuits or dumplings, as Beard suggests, and fresh, homemade preserves.
- 2 squirrels cut into serving pieces
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon sage
- 6 tablespoons bacon fat
- 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
- 1/4 cup bourbon
- 5 tablespoons butter
- 12 small white onions
- PInch of sugar
- Chopped parsley, for garnish
In a large bowl or a plastic bag, mix the flour, salt, pepper and sage. Add the squirrel pieces and toss or shake in the bag until well coated. Heat the bacon fat in a heavy skillet and brown the meat on both sides over high heat. When they are nicely colored, add the chicken broth and reduce the heat. Cover and simmer until tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Taste, and add salt and pepper, if necessary. Add the bourbon.
While the stew is cooking, melt the butter in a pan and brown the onions. Add the sugar, stirring well. Then cover and cook over low heat until the onions are just tender.
Arrange the squirrel on a serving dish with the onions and the sauce, and garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with hot biscuits or dumplings and pear preserve or currant jelly.
Stacy Dugan cooks by intuition so her recipes are few and far between. This recipe closely resembles what Stacy told us goes into her meatballs. It comes courtesy of AFR community member Kendra Bailey Morris from her book "White Trash Gatherings" (Ten Speed Press, 2006). The grape jelly really is a secret ingredient, and gives these Swedish-style meatballs a very American twist.
- 1 ½ cups prepared chili sauce
- ½ (32-ounce) jar grape jelly (more, if you like it sweet)
- 1 pound lean ground beef or venison
- 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
- 1large egg
- 1/3 cup chopped onion
- ½ tablespoon prepared horseradish
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
In a slow cooker, put the chili sauce and grape jelly and set on medium-low heat to simmer.
For meatballs, mix together the ground beef with the rest of the ingredients. Carefully shape the mixture into small balls, taking care not to roll the them too tightly.
In a shallow pan of hot oil, fry the meatballs until they’re brown on all sides (or you can brown them in the oven at 375 F on a sheet pan). Add meatballs to the grape jelly mixture and simmer until nice and tender, at least one hour and up to four. Serve meatballs straight from the pot with toothpicks.
This recipe is easily doubled.
This recipe also comes to us courtesy of AFR community member and cookbook author Kendra Bailey Morris. She writes: "When slow cooking a lean meat such as venison you will need to remember two things: make sure the meat is covered in some kind of liquid as it cooks in the slow cooker (be it barbecue sauce, water, beef stock, beer or a can of cola), and be sure add some type of fat into the cooking liquid (in this case, I incorporated a couple of tablespoons of butter into the barbecue sauce) to compensate for the venison’s leanness. Top these protein packed barbecue sandwiches with creamy slaw and a dash of hot sauce, if desired."
- 3-4 pound whole venison roast
- Cooking spray
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup dark beer
- ½ cup ketchup
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 3 ounces tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon dried mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup beef or chicken stock, beer, cola or water, or enough to cover the venison slices
Trim deer roast of any visible fat and/or connective tissue and cut it into 2-inch thick slices (this will help the meat stay submerged in the sauce). Spray the inside of a slow cooker with cooking spray. Spread the sliced onions onto the bottom of the slow cooker. Place the pieces of meat inside the slow cooker without overlapping them too much, if possible.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the cider vinegar and the brown sugar until the sugar has dissolved. Whisk in beer, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, butter, chili powder, salt, mustard, garlic powder, red pepper flakes and black pepper. Pour sauce over the venison pieces, reserving about ½ cup if desired to serve on the side.
Pour the 1 cup of stock (or more) over the meat, making sure it is covered, but barely. Cover the slow cooker and set on low (9-10 hours) or until the meat can be easily shredded. Remove meat to a large bowl and shred it with 2 forks. Return the meat to the slow cooker and cook another hour on low. Set the slow cooker to warm and serve barbecue straight from the ceramic insert.
A 6-quart slow cooker was used for this recipe. Also, you can easily double the barbecue sauce and set some aside if you like saucy barbecue.