We happened to cruise into the town of Fulks Run, in northwestern Virginia, on what devotees know as Fried Ham Friday. What luck! One day each week, the big table at the back of Fulks Run Grocery, a small provisions store, is cleared so that people can sit down and eat sandwiches at what normally serves as the ham shipping department for Turner Ham House. The legendary hams, made by Ron Turner using his great-grandfather's formula, are dry-cured with sugar, salt, and saltpeter. They come enveloped in a fragrant cloud of titillating porcine perfume, and they deliver the exquisite salty-sweet punch for which Virginia hams are famous. On Fridays, nickel-thick slices are first soaked in water to mellow their intensity; then they are lightly breaded and fried crisp in an electric skillet. There are no condiments, no adornment whatsoever, and no side dishes—just a sheaf of exquisite brick-red meat in a spongy bun. This sandwich costs $3.50, an astounding bargain.
Fulks Run is west of the Thornton Gap entrance of Virginia's Skyline Drive, the 105-mile, two-lane road that threads through the Shenandoah National Park. Cruising along it, and neighboring roads, we found ample opportunities to partake of the area's fabulous foods. This is Blue Ridge Mountains food, a comforting mix of 18th-century English and African-American traditions brought to bear upon such local ingredients as blue-ribbon hogs and backwoods moonshine. Fried chicken, biscuits, and peanut soup are passions here, too, as is baking with mountain-grown apples.
Ten minutes from the town of Front Royal at the highway's northern terminus, we pulled into The Apple House, a deli that takes full advantage of the local crop in velvety, crunchy-skinned apple-butter donuts plastered with cinnamon sugar. Apple fritters, sugar-glazed and chockful of fruit, are equally marvelous. Both, we discovered, are good car snacks while traveling along the mountains' crest. But we needed to sit down to eat the housemade apple dumpling. It's a muddled mess of soft-baked Golden Delicious apples, buttery pie crust, and caramel glaze that demands a fork, and it's delicious enough to warrant unwavering concentration, especially in autumn, when Virginia apples are at their peak.
The second day of our trip, we got a big taste of the region's fare and its culture at the Hi Neighbor Restaurant in Strasburg, just 20 minutes west of Front Royal. We took a seat in an upholstered '50s-style booth with a view of buck trophies on the wood-paneled walls and the communal table where locals convene for morning coffee klatches. This neighborhood eatery features breakfast meats from Crabill's in nearby Toms Brook. Here is scrapple that is a perfect balance of ground pork, cornmeal, and flour, sliced from a loaf and fried to a crisp. Sausage patties are rough-hewn and succulent. You can even order that farm-country favorite, puddin' meat, which our waitress described as "like scrapple, but without the cornmeal." The texture of soft oatmeal, puddin' meat is best enjoyed on pancakes or waffles, topped with a scattering of raw onion. It is enough of a local delicacy to warrant the sign above a shelf of boxed cereals that boasts, WE HAVE PUDDIN' MEAT.
"Is the chicken skillet-fried?" we asked a member of the Hi Neighbor staff taking a coffee break at the Formica counter. "It sure is," she replied. "And I know, because I'm the one who cleans the skillets!" We ordered it right away. It was a straightforward flour-battered bird with no folderol or fancy seasoning. Its perfectly brittle crust was modestly salted, its dark meat immodestly luscious. The country ham here was good, too: Big slabs of it were chewy and well-aged, their lip-smacking saltiness balanced by a spill of sweet, stewed apples on top.
We headed south afterward, driving an hour or so until we hit Triple Oak Bakery, in Sperryville. Although this shop is just barely a restaurant, we discovered no nicer opportunity to savor the easy-going rural foodways of the Blue Ridge. As at the Fulks Run Grocery, there is no dining room (although there are plans to build one), but the one-room store has a lawn out back where baker Brooke Parkhurst was happy to set up folding chairs so we could enjoy mocha cake and apple pie by the bank of the Thornton River. There, we heard the strident call of a crow. But it was not a crow; it was Parkhurst calling like one. Within seconds, a small murder of black birds arrived to perch on nearby branches and toddle across the lawn. Parkhurst and the crows were deep in conversation, cawing back and forth, and when she noticed our puzzled expressions, she said, "I speak fish crow, not regular crow," as if that explained things. She did tell us that the flock is fond of her because she feeds them pieces of cream puff.
Our favorite of all pastry sources turned out to be Red Truck Bakery, which we found in Warrenton, east of Sperryville, in a renovated 1921 Esso gas station. Red Truck's Brian Noyes bakes intriguing specialties: double-chocolate cake laced with Culpeper County moonshine; sweet-potato bourbon-pecan pie; and, in the fall, Shenandoah apple cake, a maple syrup-glazed Bundt cake made with fresh apples, apple cider, and apple sauce. It's a sweet prelude to a spin through Horse Country, the nation's premier source of fox-hunting apparel, located just around the corner.
The big surprise of our trip, however, came twenty minutes east of North Garden, at Dr. Ho's Humble Pie. This hip, happy place, decorated like an old garage, makes pizza with a Shenandoah Valley twist. Atop the chewy-crusted pie is a crown of lemon-laced fresh arugula along with shavings of parmesan and the corker: curls of country ham from Turner Ham House back up in Fulks Run. It is a bewitching combo, the ham a fine Virginia analog of prosciutto di Parma.
Even more than the kitchen's Virginia-accented pizza, what really endeared us to Dr. Ho's is that it serves hot milk cake. A farmhouse classic, this ivory-hued cake is such a straightforward dessert that it rarely appears on restaurant menus and is often referred to, even in vintage cookbooks, as "old fashioned." Made right, as it is here, with a fluffy white crumb and an uncomplicated buttercream frosting, it is moist and egg-rich—a mother's-hug Dixie treat.
Without a wisp of appetite remaining, we left Dr. Ho's heading for the southern end of Skyline Drive, which also happens to be the northern start to the Blue Ridge Parkway, another beautiful mountain road that led us to a treasure-trove of barbecue parlors. But that is for another story.
Fulks Run Grocery
11441 Brocks Gap Road, Fulks Run
The Apple House
4675 John Marshall Highway, Linden
Hi Neighbor Restaurant
192 West King Street, Strasburg
Triple Oak Bakery
11692A Lee Highway, Sperryville
Red Truck Bakery
22 Waterloo Street, Warrenton
Dr. Ho's Humble Pie
4916 Plank Road, North Garden