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Maple Doughnuts, Unwrapped
A treat from Mill Gap, Virginia
By: Susanna Byrd, Allegheny Mountain School Alumn
If you were born and raised in Mill Gap, Virginia, you know about Maple Doughnuts. But for most of the rest of us, it will be refreshing to hear a story about doughnuts that does not end in an attack of regret or high blood sugar. When they have as rich a story as those that come from Mill Gap, doughnuts deserve a little more of our attention than the drive thru window permits. I’m willing to bet that, surrounded by affection and community as they are, the Mill Gap Doughnuts are ten times more nourishing for your health than their mainstream cousins.
Food with a story is important, as the Virginia Food Heritage Project is so ardently trying to demonstrate. What I crave is food that comes wrapped in the layers of generations, the ebb and flow of cultures, the changes of many thousands of seasons. I don’t want food that comes wrapped in only plastic. If there were a plastic wrapper on the Mill Gap doughnuts, it might display nutritional values, breaking the woven whole of the doughnut into the parcels of guilt associated with fat, sugar and carbohydrate. But a Mill Gap Doughnut is so much bigger than its parts. In its own way, it nourishes community. To find its wrapper, you have to see the places it comes from, talk to the people who make it and share some of yourself in the process.
So we’ll start in Mill Gap. Located near the intersection of Routes 84 and 600 (Little Back Creek Rd), Mill Gap is a small, rural place. It sits strategically in the low place where Rt. 84 comes through one ridge of the numerous North-South mountain chains in Highland County. There is undoubtedly an old well of community in this area, now mostly maintained by church functions and the Ruritans club. That community shows up in force every year on the first and second weekends in March to make and sell maple doughnuts in Monterey at the Highland County Maple Festival. “If your father was a Mill Gap Ruritan, you did something with doughnuts every year,” says Cappie Hull, who grew up in Mill Gap. “When we were little…the Mill Gap Ruritans decided that ‘we have fun making doughnuts down in Mill Gap. Let’s make doughnuts for the maple festival.’ And so in the very beginning, the Ruritans would sell one doughnut and a cup of coffee…”
The Highland County Maple Festival has been held every year since 1958 and now attracts thousands of visitors, who tour ‘sugar houses’ and the ‘sugar bush’ (the grove of Sugar Maple trees that are tapped to make syrup) and partake in all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts, replete with the authentic maple syrup made all over the county. But even before the days if the festival, Mill Gap residents often came together for special occasions of their own like birthdays and holidays. At these gatherings, according to Cappie, there more often than not would be doughnuts frying:
“The people in Mill Gap…had the sleigh ride and they had a family day where generations got together and made the doughnuts, which was usually a Sunday or a weekend or a birthday or a special occasion…and as a family you made the doughnuts. And the grandma and your mom usually made the dough and the children did the hole picking…And it was an event to work together, make the product and then eat it, like a gorge.”
Donna Hooke, who grew up in Mill Gap and now owns a small food store in Monterey called ‘Evelyn’s Pantry,’ remembers her birthdays in Mill Gap:
“For my birthday…in January, we would go to my grandparent’s house and grandaddy would always…pack that hill down and he had barrels alongside the route with fires in them so you could see. And everybody from the neighborhood would come and sleigh ride at night time. And then when you got done, grandma and mom had doughnuts ready to fry and we had a big doughnut feast and hot chocolate or milk.”
And how to make these oh-so-special doughnuts? Well, you’ll have to go to the next Maple Festival (March 8-9 and 15-16) and find the Mill Gap Ruritans themselves selling doughnuts. Even then you’ll only be seeing the facade of what can be a mighty endeavor. In the first years of the festival, the Mill Gappers would set up the doughnut-making operation in the smallest house in town: “Well, back then size didn’t matter, so we went to the smallest house because they were the only people who had ties to Mill Gap. But they lived in Monterey… They had this itty bitty house, and we made doughnuts in that itty bitty house,” recalls Cappie.
Cappie was a young girl in those first years, but she remembers who did what: “The daddies came out to town and probably just sat around. They all sat there, probably 20 of them, to sell you doughnuts. But [the mommies’ and children’s] job was to produce them in that little house…The whole house, the beds, the whole house had doughnuts raisin’.” The youngest children were in charge of “pickin’ holes.” After a mother had used the doughnut cutter to shape the dough, the kids would go and pick out the centers. With maturity came the job of easing the doughnuts into the hot oil to fry. “And then we became professional glazers,” says Cappie fondly, in charge of making and applying the famous maple glaze.
So the Mill Gap doughnuts really brought the community together. And they still do; “If you don’t have your own personal business, you’re still making doughnuts [during Maple Festival],” says Donna. Cappie nods, saying that during the Maple Festival, she always helps out. “We couldn’t come to town and not feel like we had to.” I personally am glad that the community holds so strong; Now, “unwrapped”, I can taste that distinct flavor, as I sink my teeth into stories and maple sweetness all at once.
The Times and Tastes of Culpeper Cookbook
Coffee cake, Virginia batter cake, and more recipes can be found in The Times and Tastes of Culpeper, an incredible book with recipes that range from historic to modern, from the era in which “slow food” was the only sort available, to today’s time-saving recipes. This book has 300 years of history and 300 years of recipes in it — people came to the Culpeper area in the early 1700s and the recipes cover the entire timespan. Not only do these recipes have a rich history, but they are local — all the recipes in the book are from Culpeper or from cookbooks that would have been used in their day!
All proceeds from the sale of this cookbook will be dedicated to the repair of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which was damaged in the 2011 earthquake. Click here to find out how to get a copy of your own!
The Times and Tastes of Culpeper, by members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
The Pioneer Village Cookbook: Reliable Receipts & Curious Remedies, by Ann Chandonnet
Dishing Up Virginia, by Patrick Evans-Hylton
The Taste of America, by John and Karen Hess
Out of the Ordinary: Recipes from The Hingham Historical Society, by The Hingham Historical Society
Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Stories From Western Albemarle, by Phil James
Food on the Frontier: Minnesota Cooking from 1850 to 1900 with Selected Recipes, by Marjorie Kreidberg
The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, by Mark Kurlansky
Cod: A Biography of Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky
Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky
The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting Deer for Food, by Jackson Landers
Bush Medicine of the Bahamas, by Jeff McCormack
Where Our Food Comes From, by Gary Nabhan
Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, by Andrew F. Smith
Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in American, by Andrew F. Smith
Fading Feast: A Compendium of Disappearing American Regional Foods, by Raymond Sokolov
A Garden Supper Tonight: Historic Seasonal Recipes & Home Lore, by Barbara Swell
Mama’s in the Kitchen: Weird & Wonderful Home Cooking 1900-1950, by Barbara Swell
Old-time Farmhouse Cooking: Rural American Recipes & Farm Lore, by Barbara Swell
The Way We Ate: Pacific Northwest Cooking, 1843-1900, by Jacqueline B. Williams
The origins of the popular southern dish, Brunswick Stew, is often debated. “One version of Brunswick Stew traces its origins to Brunswick County, Virginia. Tradition has it that the dish was created in 1828 by an African-American chef, ‘Uncle’ Jimmy Matthews. While serving as camp cook during a hunting expedition, Matthews shot squirrels combined them with onions, dry bread and other ingredients, and made dinner.”
First catch your chickens, clean and cut them.
And in an iron pot you put them.
And water nearly to the top
And in it salt and pepper drop;
Boil slowly. Your tomatoes peel;
Put in a shin or so of veal;
And for the flavor bear in mind,
A chunk of middling with the rind.
Next some onions you throw in,
the young and tender skin,
And butter beans do not forget;
And what is more important yet;
The corn, but do not be too fast,
For you must cut and add it last;
For better than the flour you’ll find it’ll do
To give some thickness to the stew.
Some lemon peel cut very thin
May then be added and stirred in,
And ere it’s taken from the fire
Give it a dash of Worcestershire,
And soon you will hear its praises ring,
This is a dish fit for a king.
–Virginia Woodroof, 1930
This recipe was supplied by Ann Chandonnet, author of The Pioneer Village Cookbook, which can be found here! Don’t like to cook? Attend Richmond’s Brunswick Stew Festival next year! More information can be found on our food heritage events page.
The 2013 Virginia Farm-to-Table Conference: “Healthy Food and Vibrant Farms for the Common Wealth and Common Good” is this Wednesday, December 4 and Thursday, December 5. The conference includes two days full of speakers, panel discussions, and networking opportunities organized to address critical challenges surrounding a sustainable food system. Virginia Cooperative Extension and Natural Resources Conservation Service are hosting the event in cooperation with community partners! Learn more about how to attend the conference at their website here!
Most Americans today have never tasted a heritage turkey! Theobjective of the Heritage Turkey Foundation is “to save heritage breeds of turkeys by returning them to the holiday tables of ordinary American families: Better food at an affordable price.” Helping communities exercise their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food is part of a growing movement called food justice. In this post, author Barbara Kingsolver describes her experience raising the turkey we introduced last week, the Bourbon Red.
Did you know many heritage breeds of turkeys, like the Bourbon Red, are endangered species? Heritage Foods USA was founded over ten years ago to sell meat from heritage animal breeds that are anti-biotic free and raised on pasture. If you haven’t bought your thanksgiving turkey yet, consider buying one from them! If you can’t cook your own, you should join UVa’s School of Architecture for the annual 100-mile thanksgiving this Thursday, November 21 at 7. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Faces of Farmers is a website run by students at the Allegheny Mountain School to help support farmers in their community. “The idea behind the site is that by telling the stories of farmers in our area, we can help connect producers and consumers, so people know who their food is coming from and how it is produced. Though a solid start, this website would be no where without the help of Kat Rutt who designed the logo and a positive editorial by the Recorder, our local paper.”
This website and blog is devoted to strengthening connections from the farm to the table and enhancing Virginia’s overall food system. The Virginia Farm to Table Plan and Initiative is a collaborative effort of Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia State University, University of Virginia, the Virginia Food System Council and partner organizations, for strengthening Virginia’s economic future and food system from the farm to the table.
The 2013 Virginia Farm to Table Conference scheduled for December 4 and 5 will help to shepherd the initiative forward and help reconnect individuals and communities to farming and food, and highlight the social, environmental and economic importance of these connections.