Wyant’s Store is located in White Hall, Virginia, a town with a population just shy of 700, surrounded by farms and vineyards. The ancient clapboard building practically teeters on the side of a country road near the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Outside, there’s a lone time-warp gas pump. Inside, there are shelves of pantry staples—yellow mustard, evaporated milk—a few tables with folding chairs, and a menu that lists country-ham sandwiches and specials like smothered pork and cheeseburger “mac.” Opened by Adam Wyant in 1888, and still run by the Wyant family, the store hosts a group of locals practically every day for a meeting of what they have dubbed “The Liars Club,” a cover under which they can swap stories and trade tender insults over sausage biscuits and coffee. When Mason Hereford was growing up in nearby Free Union (population: under 300), he looked forward to visiting stores like Wyant’s with his siblings. Let loose in the aisles, they found independence, distraction, and sustenance. For their mom, Amy, these stores represented something more: the kinship that helped her raise a family in troubled times.
After Mason’s parents divorced when he was 10, and his mother had to wrangle him and his three siblings by herself most mornings, a ritual was born. When they were running late for school, which was often, Amy would skip making bacon and eggs, pack the kids in the truck, and head to forage for breakfasts of packaged food in Free Union from a shop called Maupin Brothers Store, which everyone called Maupin’s. “She’d spill coffee on herself,” Mason says, “every single morning.”
Today, Mason lives in New Orleans, where he is the chef and owner of Turkey and the Wolf, an oddball sandwich shop in the sleepy Irish Channel neighborhood that has lines out the door and more accolades than most restaurants with tasting menus and sommeliers. It’s a place with a collard-greens melt on rye bread with Swiss, coleslaw, and spicy Russian dressing; chicken pot pies served deep-fried as hand pies; and tostadas slathered with French onion dip and dusted with crushed Doritos. The food—which not only has no pretense, but also flaunts that fact—betrays only trace elements of Mason’s fine-dining training. Unlike most chefs’ origin stories, which begin with a just-shucked oyster or a French grandmother’s lessons, Mason’s primary influences were his childhood adventures at local country stores.
Wyant’s is just one of many such places—often a mix of convenience marts and takeout counters—scattered about this neck of rural Virginia. What most have in common is a couple of gas pumps outside, a small menu of homespun dishes, and a gaggle of loitering regulars, typically sunbaked and male, who live and work nearby. There’s Piedmont Store, also in White Hall, where Mason’s mom would stop, all four kids in tow, on the way to Sugar Hollow, a hiking spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They’d pile out of her brown GMC Suburban for lunch—off-brand chips, cheeseburgers, pasta salad dripping with mayo (into which Mason would dip pizza nabbed from under a heat lamp), sandwiches with thick-cut bologna and yellow mustard—to eat at a picnic table out front. “I hated the texture of bologna. I hated yellow mustard,” Mason says. “So I put on enough salt-and-vinegar chips that it tasted good.”
There’s Brownsville Market, in Crozet, which boasts three snazzy new Exxon pumps and a hot case stocked with broccoli-cheese casserole and fried chicken. And Bellair Market, in Charlottesville, where Mason would usually order a very ’90s sandwich with turkey, cheddar, cranberry relish, and arugula, called the Jefferson, that remains so close to his heart that he put it on his own menu at Turkey and the Wolf. “Ours is a straight rip-off,” Mason says. “We even use the same exact bread that they do.” (He does, however, swap out the turkey for his own brined and smoked ham and make a dill-spiked mayo.)
While these other stores were a short drive away, Maupin’s was the closest store to Mason’s childhood home. Outside is a lone gas pump. Inside, the shelves are stocked with canned goods, cereal boxes, cigarettes, wine, and antifreeze. With the truck idling, Amy’s kids would race in to grab breakfast. “Even though Maupin’s doesn’t make any food, it was the most formative in the way I actually eat,” Mason explains. That is to say, free from the bounds of good sense. With his mom’s attention elsewhere, he and his siblings gleaned their morning meals from aisles of microwaveable frozen bean burritos, pop-top cans of Vienna sausages, and Mr. Pibb. (When it was their dad, Robert’s, turn to drive, breakfast was Egg McMuffins and Dr. Pepper.) There, they found an elation that largely dissolved the drag of divorce.
Maupin’s was just a few minutes’ drive from their home in Free Union, a tight-knit rural community of people who worked in lumber mills, orchards, and pastures. Gradually, it transformed into an enclave for big-city transplants, who renovated old farmhouses, decking them out with chandeliers and mega-additions. As the town’s price-per-acre rose, the family’s fortunes fell. “My kids started out in a great big house and went swimming at the country club,” she says. After the divorce, neither Amy nor Robert could afford to keep the house. “So we lived in a little A-frame with exposed plumbing, and they swam in the river.” Later, Amy moved to another small house, across the street from Maupin’s.
The Maupin family became de facto aunts and uncles to Amy’s four young children. “They looked after us,” Amy says. At the time, the store was run by Kemper Maupin, his wife, Della (whom Mason’s family all called Miss Maupin), and their son Mike—all descendants of French Huguenots who settled nearby in the mid-18th century. The Maupins let Amy run a sometimes sizable house tab. They kept an eye on her children, informing her, for instance, when her oldest son, Will, came by in her truck—before he had his driver’s license. When she asked for boxes to move houses after the divorce, Mike left a note at the store that now hangs, framed, on Amy Hereford’s wall: “Kemper—Amy Hereford says don’t touch these damn boxes.” The Maupins did this for just about everyone in the community. Free Union residents treated Maupin’s as the town’s social locus, leaving packages and messages for friends and family, who would inevitably pass through there. “It was a business that was more like a public service,” Amy says.
Of all the Maupins in Amy’s second family, Miss Maupin was the most formidable. She presided over the store with gruff affection. Amy remembers the day Miss Maupin told her that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Seeing Amy’s eyes well up, Miss Maupin chided, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s the slow-growing kind.” She died in 2007, more than a decade later. That day, Kemper and Mike Maupin taped a piece of paper to the store door that read: “We will be closed for a few days due to the passing of Queen Della Maupin. Thank you all for being her family of friends.” Kemper died three years after his wife. Today, Mike runs the store.
The same sort of practical considerations that brought Mason to Maupin’s for breakfast also shaped the dinners his mom cooked and the food Mason makes today at Turkey and the Wolf. His mom’s dishes drew influence from Mason’s grandmothers. His paternal grandmother, Ann, favored sophisticated food (some favorites were duck fricassee and snapper with herb butter, often prepared by the family’s cook), while Amy’s own mother, also named Anne, specialized in simple, hardscrabble Southern cooking like cornpone, custard pie, and kraut dumplings. (She was also known for snacking on raw ground beef sprinkled with salt and pepper. “It was a passing-by-the-fridge snack,” Mason says. “Like tartare for rednecks.”) Amy would make a dish of chicken with cream and apples, a sort of poulet vallée d’auge rendered with evaporated milk and apple-juice concentrate. There were biscuits and fried chicken, and “cheese wafers,” which primarily comprised butter, flour, and Rice Krispies baked to a crunch. There was steamed broccoli blanketed with melted American cheese, and a casserole they call “burnt tomatoes,” for which tomato slices are flour-dredged, pan-fried, sprinkled with sugar, and baked to a soupy, delicious mess. “It’s 10 times better than anything I make,” Mason says.
As it happens, Amy’s grandfather, Wayne Boor, ran a drugstore with a soda fountain called the Corner Drug Store, in Petersburg, West Virginia. Like his great-grandson would, Wayne sold sandwiches, with fillings like “cheese salad”—essentially, sharp cheddar, relish, Miracle Whip, and pimentos passed through a hand-cranked meat grinder—and ham salad, which was identical but with ham in place of cheese. At Turkey and the Wolf, you can sit on a salvaged set of the Corner Drug Store’s chairs.
Country stores, however, are what provided the ethos for Mason’s restaurant, and his between-bread prototypes, too. At Turkey and the Wolf, Mason serves a version of the bologna sandwich from Wyant’s. The new version takes a village—or, at least, a community of dedicated cooks. A former colleague with whom Mason once worked at a fancy restaurant in New Orleans gifted him a fluffy white-bread recipe, and Mason pays a local baker friend to make enough loaves of it to satisfy the hordes. Another friend makes and smokes the bologna, then Mason griddles it to add color and texture. His roommate’s mom shared the recipe for her own sweet-tart mustard sauce, and because every aspect is carefully prepared, Mason actually likes the sandwich. Still, he adds a heap of salt-and-vinegar chips. Without them, it just wouldn’t taste like home.