April 2009

On Food and Words

by Kirsten Parmer/

I credit my parents for my love of food and words. In our house, we devoured both with equal gusto. My mother read aloud to us long past the age when it was really necessary. In the evenings, my brothers and I would curl up on the floor next to the kitchen, as her lyrical voice mixed with the smells of homemade bread, simple meals and freshly washed dishes. My father gobbled up The Washington Post every morning, reading interesting pieces of it to anyone in earshot, the scent of toast and strong, black coffee wafting through his words. There were lively dinner parties with interesting guests and free-flowing words. I could come up with dozens of meals from years past where I can vividly recall both what we ate and what we talked about. Food and words. Words and food. In our house they were inseparable.

So it’s really no surprise to me that being a food writer is one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had. I have loved the task of tying together stories and food, regardless of its level of perfection, and finding a place for it in our local culinary repertoire. I love the way words can create texture and temperature or describe a taste or technique. It only seems fitting, then, that I give my final words to some of my favorite dishes and discoveries along the way.

I learned about the power of food. The Staunton Grocery-the best thing to happen to area dining in my time writing about it- taught me to fall in love with pork belly, sous vide short ribs with melted, carmelized fat as tasty as its tender meat, lemon verbena donuts and farmers markets. Chef Ian Boden and his staff taught me that how you cook can impact everything from how your body digests food to the prosperity of local agriculture, and can still move you to the core. A simple mustard-chive gnocchi dish at the Joshua Wilton House with earthy morel mushrooms, green olives, braised garlic and silky saffron butter sauce reminded me that even in relatively elemental dishes, perfectly balanced flavors have the power to take your breath away. That a paper bag full of tacos carnitas from the Tacos El Primo truck in Harrisonburg with salsa verde, diced onion, cool radishes and fresh cilantro have the power to transport you somewhere much more exotic than Reservoir Street.

I learned to love casual lunches with friends. The light crunch of battered cod in Cally’s fish tacos, combined with heat from cilantro and wasabi and sweet from black-eyed peas and mango, became a favorite. The Dave’s Taverna rooftop on a warm spring day and a pita cheesesteak with gooey melted cheese and hot peppers. Or the #6 at Cinnamon Bear with its warm, soft cheese roll, turkey, spinach and chipotle sauce. I adore the traditional Cuban media noche at Earth and Tea Café with thick sliced ham, slabs of Swiss cheese, and dill pickles. And the simply elegant brie, pear and honey sandwich with cracked pepper at Stone Soup Books in Waynesboro.

I learned that sometimes the company you eat with is as important as the food itself. I learned that most people will try anything once. I learned to laugh and enjoy every bite; to appreciate it for what it is and maybe even be a little less critical of it. I learned just how personal food is because each one of us ties it to our own memories and experiences.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Walter Wink and seems an appropriate way to end this column: “Give us a heart for simple things-love and laughter, bread and wine, tales and dreams.” I will miss sharing my meals with you. Keep eating local and keep eating well. 

Quick Bites

In Staunton, L’Italia has changed it’s name to Emilio’s. Belle Grae Inn is offering wine dinners on the second Thursday of each month. The Staunton Grocery held its first local producer dinner, highlighting Baker’s Farm heritage pork in all six courses-even dessert. Congratulations to the Bistro who is celebrating their 10th anniversary. Nick’s Italian Kitchen in Verona is now Little Maria’s. Worth the road trip is Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company in Nellysford. In Harrisonburg, Downtown 56 is no longer serving lunch. Dukerz Sports Grille opened behind the mall, and and Jack Brown’s Burger and Beer Joint will open downtown on Main Street this spring.