Co-produced by VPM, the show airs its season finale this Friday, announcing winner.
Even in record high summer temperatures, great food has the ability to bring people out of the house and keep them there. Earlier this summer, in promotion of its new PBS TV show, “The Great American Recipe,” VPM hosted a series of cooking demos in Harrisonburg, Richmond, and Charlottesville with local chefs from each respective area.
Filmed in nearby Ruther Glen, Va. and co-produced by VPM, “The Great American Recipe” is an eight-part, uplifting cooking competition that celebrates multiculturalism. It airs its eighth and final episode of the season this Friday, Aug. 12 at 9 p.m., when it will reveal this season’s winner; the winner’s recipe will be on the cover of “The Great American Recipe” cookbook.
As an intern for VPM [which owns Style Weekly through a subsidiary], I attended the demos in Richmond and Charlottesville because I wanted to learn more about how important food was to the cultural lives of the attendees. What I found was that most people gave a similar answer: It’s very important.
At the entrance to each market, there were large crowds and the smells of sautéing meat and spices immediately grabbed your attention. Richmond’s Bryan Park, home of the RVA Big Market, was awash with patrons holding small plates of sliced pork and coleslaw.
Chef Will Leung-Richardson, owner of Kudzu RVA, moved from the grill to his ingredient table, answering audience questions with a quick, eager energy. He illustrated his Char Sui BBQ pork as “a flexible dish” where one could achieve “the same result with different means.” Encouraging onlookers to pick up take-home recipes, he described ways they could alter it: baking vs. sous-vide, pork belly vs. a cut with a less overwhelming fat content.
One woman, who said she was of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage, had been in Richmond since the ‘70s and has enjoyed watched it grow into a city with a uniquely diverse culinary scene. “Seeing the Asian community come together has been so inspiring,” she said. And not just the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community, but immigrant communities from across diasporas.
Another woman with two children noted that tastes from home are a staple in her household. She was from Mexico and her husband from Argentina. She explained that when they make similar dishes, cooking with the same spices, their kids often comment that the flavor is completely different. It is a “sign of that person’s background, the way food is prepared,” she said.
Food preparation is also an inspiration for Chef Yeshi Demisse, owner of Nile Ethiopian Bistro, who demonstrated the national dish of Ethiopia: doro wat. The dish has its own ritual, Demisse explained, noting that many Ethiopian Christians break their fasts with doro wat (a chicken stew).
“I used to wait for the church girls to come home,” she recalled, so they could begin a coffee ceremony followed by prayer and a feast hopefully by 2 a.m. The routine was that one piece of meat was saved for the elder of the house, husband and wife shared the gizzard, and everyone had to finish the hardboiled eggs before indulging in the berbere-spiced chicken, she said. “As a child, I thought it was very silly,” she added, laughing. But as she got older, she began to realize the importance of maintaining such cultural practices.
“It’s everything,” echoed another Virginian in the audience, of Polish heritage, when asked about the cultural importance of food. “You see where people come from when they interact with the food they know.” She believed that understanding started with food trucks, stands, and markets like this one. Her younger brother owns a pierogi stand and she said it felt great to see him “feeling comfortable cooking food we grew up with.”
“Food is culture,” said an audience member during the Charlottesville City Market. For her family, tradition was to “gather as a Korean household, no matter how busy everyone got.” Homesickness often arose as part of these conversations — a longing for the tastes, smells, and community of family.
“Jen helps a lot with that, though,” said the woman in the crowd with a smile. By Jen, she means Chef Jen Naylor of Umma’s in Charlottesville, which specializes in Korean and Japanese American food “from farm and community to table.”
During her demo, Naylor made cucumber kimchi, a dish she believes is as important to the body as it is to the community. She explained the benefit of kimchi to digestion while also describing the textural advantage of slicing vegetables with a mandolin kitchen tool. She said that cooking, like culture, lives in the heart. “I don’t know the recipe, even the one I wrote,” she joked, saying instructions just give her a headache. “You have to follow your tastebuds, follow your heart.”
Although restauranteurs like Naylor provide comfort for many, some Virginians still do not feel represented in either the food scene or food reporting across the state.
Two of my friends in Richmond explained that only recently, “in the last five to ten years,” have more Black restaurants been gaining notice.
After trying Shut Yo Mouf Soulfood in Petersburg, they wish there was more visibility “not just in RVA, but in the counties too.”
Watching these demos, one could easily argue that farmers markets across the state function as hubs for expanding community.
One Northern Virginia resident stated that she had seen Charlottesville explode over the past few years from an insulated college town to a place where she has now “been to a Japanese restaurant, a Turkish bakery” and more.
Two women standing in line for a Richmond food truck agreed, there is something transformative about “being able to take something home and experience the whole world.”
“I had never thought about venturing into a small farmer’s market,” one person told me. That was, until visiting a few over the summer. Now, these women have made it their goal is to visit all the smaller, less know farmer’s markets in Virginia this year.
Even those who have left Virginia have noticed that the food scene here seems to grow more expansive each year.
Between increased opportunity to showcase culinary culture and a growing population willing to try, Chef Leung-Richardson concluded that, for his business, “coming back to RVA was one of the greatest things to happen.”
“The Great American Recipe” episode 8 (last episode of the season), airs on PBS/VPM Friday, Aug. 12 at 9 p.m. when it will reveal the winner of “The Great American Recipe.”
Also the GAR Signed Cookbook Sweepstakes ends at 11:59pm this Friday, Aug. 12th. VPM is giving away two GAR cookbooks signed by the show host and three judges. Folks can enter the sweepstakes here https://store.vpm.org/page/sweepstakes.