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.


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