Although I didn’t grow up in the South and have only lived there a few years — in Florida and North Carolina back in the 1970s — I always think of Southern cooking when I think of comfort food.
My favorite comfort foods, at least to start the day, are biscuits and sausage gravy (toss in some grits and my bliss is complete). And so it was that I started every day of my recent stay in Roanoke, Virginia, with the very same biscuits and sausage gravy. I was powerless to resist — there they were on restaurant menus, prominently featured, and there they were at the breakfast bar at my Best Western hotel.
Are biscuits and sausage gravy the healthiest foods on the planet? Probably not. But how often am I in Roanoke, Virginia, which, by all appearances, is the biscuits and sausage gravy capital of the world? Not often enough.
So while I don’t recommend this diet for all baby boomer travelers, especially those facing bypass surgery, I will point out that the Roanoke area has plenty of great hiking opportunities and other outdoor activities — kayaking, canoeing, biking, running — to help work off any excess poundage.
And of course, there’s seriously healthy food to be had in the Roanoke area as well — it just didn’t happen to top my agenda.
I inaugurated my Southern comfort food fest at the legendary Roanoker Restaurant, “Home of Good Food Since 1941,” when two biscuits with sausage gravy cost $.35. (They’re still a bargain.) As someone mentioned, the biscuits manage to be light and fluffy yet filling at the same time, especially when smothered in gravy.
For a mid-morning snack, I stopped into a store called Chocolate Paper, which sells, interestingly, chocolate…and paper. Awash in paper back home, I went for the chocolate.
Later, for lunch, I moved on to the venerable Hotel Roanoke, which first opened its doors in 1882. The hotel’s specialty is peanut soup and spoonbread, both of which can be conveniently eaten with a spoon and are also, you guessed it, filling.
The following day, after loading up on biscuits and sausage gravy for breakfast, I took one of the most beautiful hikes in the area, a 3/4-mile trail that led up to Roaring Run Falls. Paralleling and at times crossing a rushing river, the trail was sprinkled with multi-hued Autumn leaves and was just challenging enough to make me feel somewhat virtuous. It was not, however, so challenging that one of my boomer-aged hiking companions, who had a hip replacement a year ago, couldn’t navigate it. Within the Roaring Run Recreational Area there’s also a huge iron furnace that dates from the 19th century, which could have baked a lot of biscuits in its day.
My virtuosity continued with a visit to the Ikenberry Orchards store, run by a fifth generation family of fruit growers — and one of the last remaining — in rural Botetourt County. If you ever wanted to eat an apple a day or otherwise keep the doctor away, this would be the place. Jams, jellies, preserves, relishes, chow chow, pickled goods, candies and salsas also line the shelves. But I decided to save myself for lunch, which I was hoping would involve something fried.
As luck would have it, I was served a fine (though unfried) salad at a restaurant called Pomegranate in nearby Troutville, followed by an equally fine beef bourguignon and a yummy apple tart, so I got my fruit after all.
The afternoon was taken up very pleasantly with wine tastings at three vineyards: Fincastle, Blue Ridge, and Virginia Mountain, all out in the rolling countryside of Botetourt County. As I noted in yesterday’s post, the wines were for the most part very drinkable and the wineries themselves brimming with rural charm. Wines come from grapes: more fruit.
That night at dinner I wanted to branch out a bit ethnically so I ordered a burrito at a casual place back in Roanoke called Fork in the City. I was then asked a question I have never been asked before: would you like fries or mac and cheese with your burrito? It seems the burrito, already a handful, comes with a side guaranteed to send you reeling out into the street (the restaurant actually provides a free shuttle service within town). For some reason known only to me at the time, I chose the mac and cheese, though I lifted some fries from my companion’s plate, and they were delicious.
An eight-mile hike up and down a mountain along the Appalachian Trail totally cleared my arteries the next morning, which was good because that night’s farewell feast involved not one, not two, but three platters of meat — fried chicken, roast beef, and Virginia ham — along with mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, pinto beans, green beans, cole slaw, and of course buttermilk biscuits with incredibly tasty apple butter and, for dessert, fruit cobbler, all served family style so that those with big appetites (ahem) could, well, help themselves to as much as they wanted. Our server even implored us to “finish up that last thigh” so she could bring an all-new platter of fried chicken goodness to our end of the table.
The meal was served at The Homeplace Restaurant in Catawba, about a half hour drive from Roanoke. The Homeplace dates from 1907 and is set on 150 pastoral acres. When we arrived, kids by the dozen were rolling down the hills in front of the restaurant and adults by the score were waiting to be called to their tables. Our hour-long wait wasn’t bad considering that we were a party of 28 — and you should have seen the platters of chicken decorating a table that size.
After a final biscuits and sausage gravy breakfast the next morning, it was time to say goodbye to Roanoke — and hello to my exercycle back home.
The locals, I should add, appear to be in remarkably good shape — a testament either to all those hiking trails or to more willpower than I was able to muster for my stay.
What do you think, readers? Are there any great comfort foods I missed in Roanoke? (Someone mentioned the Texas Tavern…)
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