Wining and dining in the Blue Ridge Mountains
“I’d like the black bean burger.”
“And your side dish, ma’am?”
As Lacey, our young and mannerly waitress, rushed off with our order, I gazed through the window at a thick forest of oak trees, the green valley and misty mountains.
Two weeks ago, my husband and I had the unexpected pleasure of wining and dining in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
On that mild September day, we lunched in a historic lodge called Skyland in Shenandoah National Park. In the late 1800s, the sprawling log building was a private resort where a bugle call awakened guests and called them to meals. The lodge has been open to the public since 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated this national park and its famous Skyline Drive, which runs for 105 miles along a ridge of mountains.
Over the years, my spouse and I have visited 24 national parks, but our food experience in this park was by far the fanciest and healthiest.
When we set foot in the Skyland dining room, we had just finished a morning hike to Stony Man mountain, and were planning an afternoon trek to the park’s highest peak, Hawksbill, 4,051 feet.
As we plunked down in the ladderback chairs, under the chandeliers, we were still attired in perspiration-laden shorts and T-shirts, although we did switch our clunky hiking boots and socks for bare toes and beat-up sandals.
My house-made vegan bean patty was gigantic, plopped on a wheat bun, and topped with freshly made guacamole, alfalfa sprouts and red onion slivers.
Instead of the usual French fries or potato chips, my husband’s sandwich arrived with a bowl of fruit.
“Do you stay in the park for the summer?” I asked Lacey.
“I live down in the valley, ma’am. It’s 45 minutes to get up here,” she replied.
As we listened closely to her gentle Southern drawl, we wondered what it would be like to greet and serve people from all over the world. Shenandoah is one of the most popular U.S. national parks, with 1.2 million visitors in 2012.
Beginning this summer, at Shenandoah and four other national parks, visitors are eating healthier, locally sourced food, thanks to Delaware North Companies.
A worldwide concessionaire business, Delaware North has been based in Buffalo since 1915, and operates the Gideon Putnam Resort in Saratoga Springs.
In June, Delaware North partnered with the National Park Service to launch a Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at Shenandoah, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Sequoia and Grand Canyon national parks.
At the Grand Canyon, the park grocery store now offers more than 1,000 organic or natural food choices.
At Shenandoah, the goal is to source 90 percent of all menu items within 200 miles of the park.
During our three days and two nights in the park, we slept in a tent and cooked up breakfast on our trusty two-burner Coleman stove. But for lunch and dinner, we ate in Skyland lodge, at mile 41 of Skyline Drive, or Big Meadows lodge, at mile 51.
Each lodge has its own executive chef, and each dining room has stunning mountain views.
One night, wearing the distinct aroma of campfire in our clothes, we dined in the Big Meadows lodge, a stone-and-wood building built in 1910.
My delectable blue stone crab and corn chowder soup was flecked with bacon from Edwards Farm in Surry, Va., and my salad of mixed baby greens and raspberry vinaigrette was made with veggies and fruit from Miller Farms, in Locust Grove, Va.
Pasta fra diavolo, my husband’s dish, was made with whole wheat penne.
Both lodges also have tap rooms, pubs with a full bar and live music, where campers and lodgers can hang out until 11 p.m.
On Monday night, we headed to the tap room in the basement of Big Meadows so my husband could watch the Washington Redskins game.
While I nibbled a Caprese salad topped with Virginia-made mozzarella, he gobbled a hamburger with a salad. For his drink, my man selected white lightning, which was served on the rocks in a clear Mason jar.
“It’s awesome,” he exclaimed. “Not like straight moonshine, it’s flavored and blended. And at 80 or 90 proof, it’s half the strength.”
This clear corn whiskey was called Stillhouse, and came from Culpeper, another Virginia town.
Planning a road trip to Washington, D.C.? Shenandoah, which draws huge crowds during its fall foliage display, is two-and-a-half hours west of our nation’s capital.
On Nov. 5 and 12, the chefs at Shenandoah will be doing cooking demonstrations, and on Nov. 15, there’s a Vintner Dinner featuring Virginia’s Horton Winery.
For more info, to see menus or meet the chefs, visit www. goshenandoah.com.
“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by Gazette staffers. You can reach us at email@example.com.