Connections to the Land, with Doris McCray – Louisa County

This film was directed and produced by Laura McCoy as part of the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course at the University of Virginia, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in Spring 2012.

Connections to the land and the “stuff that goes way back”: A story of one woman’s food

by Laura McCoy

As I pulled into the drive at her house, I found Doris McCray and her son Glen working in the backyard.  She called me over, and I started to wade through the wet grass.  As it turns out, Doris was watching her son with his newest project—an espalier for the grapevines, which she has been growing there since 1958.  They are “red, white, and blue” grapes, as she likes to call them—Fredonia, Concord, Niagara, and Brighton.   We spent the next quarter of an hour touring her garden, in early bloom on a mid-March morning: the asparagus, apples trees, collards, Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, sugar snap peas, cabbage, onions, and strawberries.  Doris’ garden is important to her; she loves being outside, the land, and having “room to roam.”

Growing up on a dairy farm in Louisa County, Virginia, with her grandmother in charge of several farming families, Doris learned a lot about food and farming, and staying connected to the land.  Doris’ family grew most of their own food and even raised a few hogs.  She remembers shelling butterbeans and selling them to women in Gordonsville, Virginia, and the cream her mother made from their own cows’ milk, on top of freshly picked berries and homemade biscuits.

Doris and her son, Glen, in the back yard garden
Espalier for the grapevines, built by Glen McCray, Doris’ son

Her grandmother’s word was always law, but one of the most important lessons she learned is “waste not, want not,” a saying that has resonated with Doris throughout her life.  Throughout her life she has been very involved in educating her grandchildren, as well as school children about where food comes from, and how it is grown.  Through this, and through her lifestyle as an adult she has maintained the linkages to her roots.

Doris defines heritage food as the “stuff that goes way back,” the traditional foods that were used back then, and still today.  Doris has preserved her food heritage by making the lessons she learned as a child common practice in her own home and life.  Doris and her husband Lloyd raised hogs the first few years they were married, along with cows and chickens.  The tradition of hog raising also goes back to Lloyd’s father, from West Virginia.  Even when they were not raising their own meat, Doris and Lloyd bought hog meat from a neighbor, ensuring their food came from a local, natural source.  She is proud of what she grows because she knows what is in the foods she raises, and that is what is important.  Her food tastes better because of it.  Doris believes that it is “important to let people remember that we have been connected to the land forever.”  That connection to the land and to place and to our food is critical, and is what Doris is all about: teaching people to remember our roots.

Doris shows the Brussels sprouts in her garden

Doris shows old tools and knives. She often brings them to school groups and Boy Scout troops to show them how things were made and how these tools were used in the past.

For more about the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course, visit http://ien.arch.virginia.edu/courses/food-systems-resources.

Doris shows the Brussels sprouts in her garden

Connections to the land and the “stuff that goes way back”: A story of one woman’s food heritage in Louisa County, Virginia

Doris McCray in her garden

by Laura McCoy

As I pulled into the drive at her house, I found Doris McCray and her son Glen working in the backyard.  She called me over, and I started to wade through the wet grass.  As it turns out, Doris was watching her son with his newest project—an espalier for the grapevines, which she has been growing there since 1958.  They are “red, white, and blue” grapes, as she likes to call them—Fredonia, Concord, Niagara, and Brighton.   We spent the next quarter of an hour touring her garden, in early bloom on a mid-March morning: the asparagus, apples trees, collards, Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, sugar snap peas, cabbage, onions, and strawberries.  Doris’ garden is important to her; she loves being outside, the land, and having “room to roam.”

Growing up on a dairy farm in Louisa County, Virginia, with her grandmother in charge of several farming families, Doris learned a lot about food and farming, and staying connected to the land.  Doris’ family grew most of their own food and even raised a few hogs.  She remembers shelling butterbeans and selling them to women in Gordonsville, Virginia, and the cream her mother made from their own cows’ milk, on top of freshly picked berries and homemade biscuits.

Doris and her son, Glen, in the back yard garden

Espalier for the grapevines, built by Glen McCray, Doris’ son

Her grandmother’s word was always law, but one of the most important lessons she learned is “waste not, want not,” a saying that has resonated with Doris throughout her life.  Throughout her life she has been very involved in educating her grandchildren, as well as school children about where food comes from, and how it is grown.  Through this, and through her lifestyle as an adult she has maintained the linkages to her roots.

Doris defines heritage food as the “stuff that goes way back,” the traditional foods that were used back then, and still today.  Doris has preserved her food heritage by making the lessons she learned as a child common practice in her own home and life.  Doris and her husband Lloyd raised hogs the first few years they were married, along with cows and chickens.  The tradition of hog raising also goes back to Lloyd’s father, from West Virginia.  Even when they were not raising their own meat, Doris and Lloyd bought hog meat from a neighbor, ensuring their food came from a local, natural source.  She is proud of what she grows because she knows what is in the foods she raises, and that is what is important.  Her food tastes better because of it.  Doris believes that it is “important to let people remember that we have been connected to the land forever.”  That connection to the land and to place and to our food is critical, and is what Doris is all about: teaching people to remember our roots.

Doris shows the Brussels sprouts in her garden

Doris shows old tools and knives. She often brings them to school groups and Boy Scout troops to show them how things were made and how these tools were used in the past.

Ice Houses: Remembering a Time Without Refrigerators, with Aretha Marshall – Louisa County

This film was directed and produced by Natalie Roper as part of the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course at the University of Virginia, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in Spring 2012.

Tricking Nature and Remembering a Time Before Refrigeration: Ice Houses in Louisa County, Virginia

by Natalie Roper

Read this story as a PDF, with images

It’s hard to imagine life without refrigerators or freezers. Today I went to the refrigerator for eggs, butter, milk, turkey, lettuce, water in a Brita (filtered water is a whole other story), salad dressing and yogurt. Come to think of it, the only things I ate that were not from the refrigerator were pita chips.

For 92 year old Aretha Marshall, however, a time without refrigerators is an easily accessible memory that she holds dear. On Saturday March 17th at 11am I drove around Bumpass, VA trying to follow a GPS, which had no jurisdiction over the area. I had been warned of this but I mistakenly depended on it anyways. A little late and a little flustered, I pulled onto a dirt road, knocked on the wrong house, and then finally the right one, and met Aretha and her daughter Patricia. We sat outside on the beautiful, windy day and I just listened. Aretha recounted in vivid detail how it was growing up on her family’s farm. She described what sounded like paradise, “wild berries would come up out of the clear blue and we would bring them home in buckets and make pie”[1]. And then Aretha, excited and proud at the same time, sort of yelling despite her hearing aid, exclaimed, “And we had an ice house!” I had never heard of an ice house, only an ice box, which I’ve since found out came much later. Aretha’s excitement was contagious and I listened eagerly as she recounted this icehouse. They had a pond and when it froze over with ice several inches think they would break the ice and harvest it for the winter. But harvesting ice did no good if there was no way of preserving it and protecting it from the summer heat. She described a large hole in the ground that had a top on it. Ice houses take advantage of the constant ground temperature of about 55 degrees if the hole is dug deep enough and insulating the ice using straw or sawdust helps keep the cold consolidated[2].  As Marshall recalls, “we would break that ice and put a layer of straw and a layer of ice, a layer of straw and a layer of ice, until it got up to the top”[3]. To Marshall’s pride and my surprise, “Right there under that ground, ice was there from the winter and all summer”[4].

As George Washington’s journal shows, he was very involved in the design and best practices of his icehouse at Mount Vernon. In writing to his friend Robert Morris in frustration that his ice was already gone, he learned the importance of straw as insulation that Marshall explained. Morris had learned that “the closer it is packed the better it keeps and I believe that if the walls were lined with straw between the ice and stone it would preserve it much”[5].  Icehouses date all the way back to the 17th century but it wasn’t until the 1830s that people other than the most wealthy began harvesting and saving ice for food preservation[6].

According to Howell Living History Farm, as ice harvesting and preservation became more accessible, structures and advice began to be published in farm journals. The structures were varying in size, materials, and grandeur. However, they all seemed to remain constant on three key features: a deep hole in the ground, insulation of some kind, and a top to keep out heat. Architects like our own Thomas Jefferson became infatuated with the design and look of his icehouse at Monticello but simpler versions like that which Marshall described in Bumpass, VA still do the same trick. A trick that we take for granted to today. A trick that Olmert in Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies calls “faintly devious because we can cheat Nature, providing ice in seasons when non should exist at all”[7]. A trick that we might [8] all but forget if it weren’t for the important stories of people like Aretha Marshall. In reflecting on hearing her mother’s story, Patricia Marshall exclaimed that “when things are handed to you, you lose ability to think, think, think, how, how, how”[9]. But in this time where people had to be resourceful and creative to trick nature, “it was a time was a time, I believe, when God taught us to use this brain”[10]


[1] Marshall, Aretha. Personal Interview. 17 March. 2012.

[2] Michael Olmert, Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 209.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael Olmert, Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 207-208.

[6] Larry Kidder, Ice: The Winter Harvest that Lasts All Year, http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/footnote.html (Spring 2003:Date Accessed April 2012)

[7] Michael Olmert, Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 206.

[8] Journal page on the construction of ice houses. Digital image. Hathi Trust. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t1sf3km1d&gt;.

[9] Patricia Marshall. Personal Interview. 17 March. 2012.

[10] Ibid.

For more about the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course, visit http://ien.arch.virginia.edu/courses/food-systems-resources.

Tricking Nature and Remembering a Time Before Refrigeration: Ice Houses in Louisa County, Virginia

by Natalie Roper

Read this story as a PDF, with images

It’s hard to imagine life without refrigerators or freezers. Today I went to the refrigerator for eggs, butter, milk, turkey, lettuce, water in a Brita (filtered water is a whole other story), salad dressing and yogurt. Come to think of it, the only things I ate that were not from the refrigerator were pita chips.

For 92 year old Aretha Marshall, however, a time without refrigerators is an easily accessible memory that she holds dear. On Saturday March 17th at 11am I drove around Bumpass, VA trying to follow a GPS, which had no jurisdiction over the area. I had been warned of this but I mistakenly depended on it anyways. A little late and a little flustered, I pulled onto a dirt road, knocked on the wrong house, and then finally the right one, and met Aretha and her daughter Patricia. We sat outside on the beautiful, windy day and I just listened. Aretha recounted in vivid detail how it was growing up on her family’s farm. She described what sounded like paradise, “wild berries would come up out of the clear blue and we would bring them home in buckets and make pie”[1]. And then Aretha, excited and proud at the same time, sort of yelling despite her hearing aid, exclaimed, “And we had an ice house!” I had never heard of an ice house, only an ice box, which I’ve since found out came much later. Aretha’s excitement was contagious and I listened eagerly as she recounted this icehouse. They had a pond and when it froze over with ice several inches think they would break the ice and harvest it for the winter. But harvesting ice did no good if there was no way of preserving it and protecting it from the summer heat. She described a large hole in the ground that had a top on it. Ice houses take advantage of the constant ground temperature of about 55 degrees if the hole is dug deep enough and insulating the ice using straw or sawdust helps keep the cold consolidated[2].  As Marshall recalls, “we would break that ice and put a layer of straw and a layer of ice, a layer of straw and a layer of ice, until it got up to the top”[3]. To Marshall’s pride and my surprise, “Right there under that ground, ice was there from the winter and all summer”[4].

As George Washington’s journal shows, he was very involved in the design and best practices of his icehouse at Mount Vernon. In writing to his friend Robert Morris in frustration that his ice was already gone, he learned the importance of straw as insulation that Marshall explained. Morris had learned that “the closer it is packed the better it keeps and I believe that if the walls were lined with straw between the ice and stone it would preserve it much”[5].  Icehouses date all the way back to the 17th century but it wasn’t until the 1830s that people other than the most wealthy began harvesting and saving ice for food preservation[6].

According to Howell Living History Farm, as ice harvesting and preservation became more accessible, structures and advice began to be published in farm journals. The structures were varying in size, materials, and grandeur. However, they all seemed to remain constant on three key features: a deep hole in the ground, insulation of some kind, and a top to keep out heat. Architects like our own Thomas Jefferson became infatuated with the design and look of his icehouse at Monticello but simpler versions like that which Marshall described in Bumpass, VA still do the same trick. A trick that we take for granted to today. A trick that Olmert in Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies calls “faintly devious because we can cheat Nature, providing ice in seasons when non should exist at all”[7]. A trick that we might [8] all but forget if it weren’t for the important stories of people like Aretha Marshall. In reflecting on hearing her mother’s story, Patricia Marshall exclaimed that “when things are handed to you, you lose ability to think, think, think, how, how, how”[9]. But in this time where people had to be resourceful and creative to trick nature, “it was a time was a time, I believe, when God taught us to use this brain”[10]


[1] Marshall, Aretha. Personal Interview. 17 March. 2012.

[2] Michael Olmert, Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 209.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael Olmert, Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 207-208.

[6] Larry Kidder, Ice: The Winter Harvest that Lasts All Year, http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/footnote.html (Spring 2003:Date Accessed April 2012)

[7] Michael Olmert, Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 206.

[8] Journal page on the construction of ice houses. Digital image. Hathi Trust. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t1sf3km1d&gt;.

[9] Patricia Marshall. Personal Interview. 17 March. 2012.

[10] Ibid.

Central Virginia Wine Heritage, with Aretha Marshall

This film was directed and produced by Jordan Kelsey as part of the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course at the University of Virginia, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in Spring 2012.

Virginia Heritage Wine: More Than Jefferson’s Legacy – Louisa County

by Jordan Kelsey

On a pleasant mid-March Saturday morning, two of my colleagues and I set off to the east of Charlottesville.  Our goal: Bumpass, Virginia – a “blink and you’ve missed it” settlement in Louisa County.  We were on the hunt. Our treasure: “food stories” that would add grist to the Heritage Food Project.  Our lead was Ms. Aretha Marshall, the 91-year-old matriarch of the Marshall family.  Her daughter Patricia would accompany her, and presumably there were tales of yore to be heard.  With GPS as our guide we loaded the ladies address and hopped for the best, knowing that rural nooks and crannies often thwart modern technology.  I had personally set up this interview and had only the most basic information about our subjects.  They were women, African-American, and they loved Jesus.  The rest would have to wait. It was a good start though and enough to deduce that the interview had promise for discovering a Heritage Food.

As a bicycle commuter I don’t actually drive that often, having long given up on cars for most short trips.  On this day however, driving was our only option because of the remote location.  Since one of our trip’s central themes was nostalgia I felt it was high time to blow the dust off the car and be the one behind the wheel.  It was a good call too, because rural Virginia is certainly a place where Fahrvergnügen – or the joy of driving – is still possible.  This phenomenon probably also explains why it’s so dangerous to be cyclist out there.  Meandering byways, second or third growth forest, pasture and homestead, all await would be explorers.  Of course, Shenandoah it is not, and shamefully travelers have littered the side of the roads quite heavily.  However, intrinsic beauty abounds and early spring provides all the hope of new life.

Since the topic of this story is wine one glaring reality must be laid upfront. Louisa County is not, by most people’s estimates, “wine country”.  No vineyards, if they exist, show up on the Monticello Wine Trail.  My colleagues and I were not in search of any one food in particular, but our general impression was that we were headed into “cow country”.  In fact, very few people I’ve spoken to know much of anything about Louisa.  However, the Marshalls wouldn’t be the first people from Louisa I’d met.  During the previous fall at the Virginia Heritage Harvest Festival I’d had the unique privilege of meeting two members from the Twin Oaks secular commune.  They’d told me they produced and sold tofu – of all things – and that the community had previously supported itself making hammocks, which they then sold to Pier One Imports at enormous profit, presumably allowing them to shift into the tofu sector.  The two communalists seem like real nice people and we had a fun conversation, but I doubted they were representative of the county at large or its agricultural traditions.  Time would tell.

As expected, our GPS unit took us off-road, off course, and eventually to the local appliance dump.  A quick look at a map and some thoughtful consideration and we were back on track and found the Marshall’s home minutes later.  It was a rather modern looking “mobile” home situated behind an older rustic house that we initially mistook for our destination.  Once we found the right place though our welcome was cordial and… interesting.  Aretha Marshall, you see, is very hard of hearing.  So immediately we all started in on what can simply be called a low-level shouting match as we tried to establish the interview parameters.  This was reason for concern, but I felt perhaps her daughter Patricia would be an adept translator.

And so she was.  I would shout my questions in Aretha’s face and she’d turn to Patricia for a lip-reading interpretation.  This is how the interview played out over the next 45 minutes, and… it worked.  Aretha told us all sorts of stories from her youth, some pertaining to food, some completely off topic.  What I found most interesting though was her discussion of the wild fruit that used to grow around their property.  They had – at the very least – blackberries, strawberries, and grapes.  She and her family would gather them up by the bucket load.  Bring them home.  Wash them.  Mash them up.  Then make wine out of them.  She said they made all kinds of wine – “A lot of wine” in fact.  They’d store it in the cellar under the house to consume throughout the year and rarely, if ever, go to the store.  On this last part, Aretha was very adamant.  Patricia too, recalled her childhood spent on the farm as being one where they wanted for very little.

As we slowly wound our interview down and traded hopeful thoughts, I began reflecting on the Marshall’s story in context.  Here we were, miles from Virginia “wine country”, yet at a location where homemade wine once flourished from what the forest naturally yielded.  In fact, the accurate wine story of Thomas Jefferson is one of frustration over failing to grow European grapes in Virginian soil.  It wasn’t until much later that modern agriculture’s herbicides and pesticides made Jefferson’s vision possible.  Of course, as far as we can tell his vision has come true for Central Virginia and is embodied in The Monticello Wine Trail, but there’s a greater history here.  There’s the one where simple people of modest means called upon nature’s unaltered bounty to serve up a drink of their own creation.

For more about the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course, visit http://ien.arch.virginia.edu/courses/food-systems-resources.

Virginia Heritage Wine: More Than Jefferson’s Legacy – Louisa County

by Jordan Kelsey

On a pleasant mid-March Saturday morning, two of my colleagues and I set off to the east of Charlottesville.  Our goal: Bumpass, Virginia – a “blink and you’ve missed it” settlement in Louisa County.  We were on the hunt. Our treasure: “food stories” that would add grist to the Heritage Food Project.  Our lead was Ms. Aretha Marshall, the 91-year-old matriarch of the Marshall family.  Her daughter Patricia would accompany her, and presumably there were tales of yore to be heard.  With GPS as our guide we loaded the ladies address and hopped for the best, knowing that rural nooks and crannies often thwart modern technology.  I had personally set up this interview and had only the most basic information about our subjects.  They were women, African-American, and they loved Jesus.  The rest would have to wait. It was a good start though and enough to deduce that the interview had promise for discovering a Heritage Food.

As a bicycle commuter I don’t actually drive that often, having long given up on cars for most short trips.  On this day however, driving was our only option because of the remote location.  Since one of our trip’s central themes was nostalgia I felt it was high time to blow the dust off the car and be the one behind the wheel.  It was a good call too, because rural Virginia is certainly a place where Fahrvergnügen – or the joy of driving – is still possible.  This phenomenon probably also explains why it’s so dangerous to be cyclist out there.  Meandering byways, second or third growth forest, pasture and homestead, all await would be explorers.  Of course, Shenandoah it is not, and shamefully travelers have littered the side of the roads quite heavily.  However, intrinsic beauty abounds and early spring provides all the hope of new life.

Since the topic of this story is wine one glaring reality must be laid upfront. Louisa County is not, by most people’s estimates, “wine country”.  No vineyards, if they exist, show up on the Monticello Wine Trail.  My colleagues and I were not in search of any one food in particular, but our general impression was that we were headed into “cow country”.  In fact, very few people I’ve spoken to know much of anything about Louisa.  However, the Marshalls wouldn’t be the first people from Louisa I’d met.  During the previous fall at the Virginia Heritage Harvest Festival I’d had the unique privilege of meeting two members from the Twin Oaks secular commune.  They’d told me they produced and sold tofu – of all things – and that the community had previously supported itself making hammocks, which they then sold to Pier One Imports at enormous profit, presumably allowing them to shift into the tofu sector.  The two communalists seem like real nice people and we had a fun conversation, but I doubted they were representative of the county at large or its agricultural traditions.  Time would tell.

As expected, our GPS unit took us off-road, off course, and eventually to the local appliance dump.  A quick look at a map and some thoughtful consideration and we were back on track and found the Marshall’s home minutes later.  It was a rather modern looking “mobile” home situated behind an older rustic house that we initially mistook for our destination.  Once we found the right place though our welcome was cordial and… interesting.  Aretha Marshall, you see, is very hard of hearing.  So immediately we all started in on what can simply be called a low-level shouting match as we tried to establish the interview parameters.  This was reason for concern, but I felt perhaps her daughter Patricia would be an adept translator.

And so she was.  I would shout my questions in Aretha’s face and she’d turn to Patricia for a lip-reading interpretation.  This is how the interview played out over the next 45 minutes, and… it worked.  Aretha told us all sorts of stories from her youth, some pertaining to food, some completely off topic.  What I found most interesting though was her discussion of the wild fruit that used to grow around their property.  They had – at the very least – blackberries, strawberries, and grapes.  She and her family would gather them up by the bucket load.  Bring them home.  Wash them.  Mash them up.  Then make wine out of them.  She said they made all kinds of wine – “A lot of wine” in fact.  They’d store it in the cellar under the house to consume throughout the year and rarely, if ever, go to the store.  On this last part, Aretha was very adamant.  Patricia too, recalled her childhood spent on the farm as being one where they wanted for very little.

As we slowly wound our interview down and traded hopeful thoughts, I began reflecting on the Marshall’s story in context.  Here we were, miles from Virginia “wine country”, yet at a location where homemade wine once flourished from what the forest naturally yielded.  In fact, the accurate wine story of Thomas Jefferson is one of frustration over failing to grow European grapes in Virginian soil.  It wasn’t until much later that modern agriculture’s herbicides and pesticides made Jefferson’s vision possible.  Of course, as far as we can tell his vision has come true for Central Virginia and is embodied in The Monticello Wine Trail, but there’s a greater history here.  There’s the one where simple people of modest means called upon nature’s unaltered bounty to serve up a drink of their own creation.