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.