8 Foods You Need to Taste in West Virginia
West Virginia may not be known as a foodie stop, but those who take a trip through these country roads will find a food culture true to the state's Appalachian roots, with resourceful recipes that put an innovative spin on native ingredients.
Learn about some menu staples you’ll find on a road trip through the state.
Back in 1912, Andrew H. Mullins developed the first golden delicious apple on his Clay County farm — today it is West Virginia's official fruit.
Apple butter is a fall delicacy in Appalachia and it’s the result of inventive folks generations ago coming up with a way to preserve the summer’s plentiful food throughout the long winter months. Essentially it involves peeling, coring and chopping apples, then cooking them (along with cinnamon and other spices) in a copper kettle over a fire, then stirring the concoction with a wooden paddle for hours. Back then, people would gather together when it was time to do this, which eventually resulted in the annual festivals West Virginia hosts today in cities like Berkeley Springs, Burlington and Salem.
The Mountain State has the highest percentage of family-owned farms in the nation as well, so there are plenty of opportunities to pick up some fresh apples at places like Orr’s Farm Market in Martinsburg and Gritt's Farm in Buffalo.
Foraged from shady, woody areas like the mountains of West Virginia during the short window of early April to mid-May, ramps are wild leeks and cousins to onions, garlic and other wild edibles. They have a strong, garlicky aroma.
Native Americans, particularly the Cherokee, used ramps for food and medicine; because ramps are the first edible (and nutritious) greens of the season, they were an important part of mountaineer diets. They were also typically used as a “spring tonic” to cleanse the system of impurities.
During ramp season, you can taste this local plant celebrity at places like Tricky Fish in Charleston, which uses a mixture of grilled peppers and pickled ramps as toppings for its steak tacos. Or get in line at Ridge View BBQ in Institute for their half-pound burger with "ramped-up" pimento cheese. (It's only on the menu in April and May.) If you missed ramp season, pick up a jar of pickled ramps at The Lost River General Store in Lost City. Or bring up a bottle of ramp salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, which makes artisanal salts from the waters of an ancient ocean aquifer deep below the Appalachian Mountains.
Nicknamed the West Virginia banana, the pawpaw grows wild on trees throughout the state. While this oblong, greenish brown or yellow fruit can be eaten raw, its sweet, custard-like flavor is usually used in pies, bread, jelly, ice cream and even beer.
The fruit ripens in mid-August through September and has a short shelf life, but you can find them in the fall at farmer’s markets and roadside stands throughout the state. If you find yourself in Charleston during this season, head to Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream, which sells pawpaw ice cream for a few weeks each autumn.
There’s a delicacy in West Virginia that is ubiquitous in the state but virtually unheard of everywhere else. It started in the early 1900s with Italian immigrants heading into the coal mines with a chunk of bread and a pepperoni stick and has evolved into the much-beloved pepperoni roll. It’s essentially a soft white bread roll with pepperoni baked in the middle. As the pepperoni heats, the fat melts and infuses this flavorful snack, which is hearty enough for a meal and needs no refrigeration or heat.
Today, the pepperoni roll can be found on various menus across the state. West Virginia's mountain towns even hold annual celebrations with cook-off competitions, live music, vendors and more. Its popularity cannot be overstated.
Not only are apples found all over West Virginia, but so too are pommes de terre (literally “ground apples” in French), also humbly known as potatoes. Due to their popularity, especially among the Irish of Appalachia, a relatively inexpensive candy soon developed a foothold here.
German immigrants had brought the recipe for potato candy to the region in the early 1900s; it consisted of potatoes and powdered sugar. Later on, peanut butter was added to the recipe as well. While the potato provides the texture, the flavors that pop are the sweet sugar and nutty peanut butter. This slightly chewy candy has become especially popular over the holidays.
If you're in Harpers Ferry, head over to True Treats Historic Candy, the nation's only historic candy store (selling items researched and recreated from biblical times to the early 1900s), which whips up a fresh batch of potato candy weekly.
During the Great Depression, West Virginia farmers grew buckwheat as an “insurance crop” because it had a short growing season and good quality, but was also versatile in its uses (i.e. grain, hay production and as a cover crop). People soon clamored for buckwheat flour in order to make an Appalachian favorite: buckwheat pancakes, or buckwheat cakes, as they are called here.
While the crop isn't grown as much anymore, buckwheat cakes can still be found on diner menus around the state; they are usually served with sausage, bacon, eggs, sausage gravy and maple syrup or apple butter.
Lady Justice’s Cornbread
An award-winning cornbread in West Virginia became famous due to an unlikely source: horses. As a child, Cathy Leigh Comer Justice learned to ride horses and was very active in 4-H. For many years, she rode horses competitively at the West Virginia State Fair and even won the title of 1976 West Virginia Quarter Horse Queen.
In the early 1980s, due to pregnancy, she decided not to compete in the horse-riding competition, but instead to compete in the cornbread-baking one. She won the Blue Ribbon and best of show that year for her cornbread recipe, which is now featured at the much-lauded 5-star Greenbrier Resort as well.
Hatfield & McCoy Moonshine
Named after the most famous feuding families in American history, Hatfield & McCoy Moonshine not only uses the original recipe from Devil Anse Hatfield, but also produces it on original Hatfield land in West Virginia. This white corn whiskey is handmade in small batches six days a week, using 100% West Virginia corn, in a microdistillery in Gilbert. At 90 proof, it lives up to its moniker of “drink of the devil.”
Tours are available at the distillery and the tasting room serves free samples. In addition to the original moonshine recipe, other products include Devil Anse’s Double Barrel Bourbon, The Real McCoy Unaged Corn Whiskey, Ol’ Randall’s Recipe Moonshine (in homage to the original McCoy) and cinnamon-flavored moonshine The Devil’s Fire.
Chefs around the Mountain State can be found celebrating their Appalachian heritage by incorporating these local foods into their menus. At Vagabond Kitchen in Wheeling, chef-owner Matt Welsch uses ramps, buckwheat and pawpaws for his farm-to-table menu that he describes as “Appalachian comfort food with some twists” (think: pepperoni roll with Mediterranean relish).
Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County has been been passed down for six generations; here chef Mike Costello and baker Amy Dawson grow dozens of Appalachian heirloom crops and they even served pawpaw ice cream to Anthony Bourdain on the 2018 season premiere of Parts Unknown.
In Charleston, native son Paul Smith opened 1010 Bridge, with a focus on Appalachian cuisine with Low Country influence; menu items include Appalachian chips and guacamole which includes pickled ramp pico and local boiled egg.
The flavors of West Virginia (a.k.a. Almost Heaven) run as deep as the heritage and history behind the many tasty ingredients. Restaurants across the state have their own twist on local favorites and constantly change up menus to bring fresh and inventive dishes to travelers and residents alike.
Ready to go? Start planning your foodie road trip to Almost Heaven today.
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