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Traditions you can taste: Southern Foods

Photo Courtesy New Orleans CVB

In 2005, when Cindy Day found out the century-old Dutch Maid Bakery in Tracy City, Tenn., had closed and was for sale, she convinced her husband they should move back to the East Tennessee town, purchase the historic bakery and reopen it.
In 1975, Mike Davis, a former teacher and farmer, purchased the historic Conrad Rice Mill in New Iberia, La., the oldest rice mill in the United States, and quickly reopened it after it had been shuttered for two years.

In 2003, the family-owned Bigelow Tea Co. purchased and restored the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, S.C., whose hundreds of thousands of tea bushes are descendants of bushes brought over from China and India during the 1800s.

Southerners have an instinctive love for and appreciation of their culinary heritage and will often go to great lengths to preserve that heritage. Their efforts also provide an opportunity for groups to sample distinctive Southern food products where they originated.

Other places also offer groups a chance to see food and beverage production in action, and to sample or purchase the finished products where they began, among them distinctive Southern potato chips and shrimp fresh from the Gulf of Mexico.

Baked in time
When groups arrive at the Dutch Maid Bakery in Tracy City, located near Interstate 24, 45 miles northwest of Chattanooga, Tenn., owner Day first gives them a history lesson.

  Courtesy Dutch Maid Bakery

“I tell about the history of the bakery, how it was founded in 1902 by John and Louise Baggenstoss,” she said. “It is the oldest bakery in Tennessee. I tell about how they came here from Switzerland with six boys, all of whom worked in the bakery.

“After the talk, I bring them down onto the bake floor, and they get to see us hand cut and hand roll every loaf of bread.”

Day preserves the bakery’s history not only in her talks but also in the equipment she uses. “They get to see old scales and mixers; one from 1928 we use for fruit cake,” she said. “The old oven was shipped here in 1920 from Germany. It was originally fired with wood.”

If time permits, Day lets groups roll some dough and then feeds them lunch in an adjacent two-story dining area. She also runs a 25-seat cafe next to the bakery, where she serves home-cooked meals made from scratch, including, naturally, homemade bread.
Once a month, Day prepares a themed evening dinner in the cafe.

Day uses many original Baggenstoss family recipes along with her own for a wide variety of artisan breads, such as black-olive roasted red pepper, onion dill, sundried tomato and rosemary olive oil, in addition to a salt rising bread, for which she is noted.

The bakery also turns out a wide assortment of pastries, cakes and other sweets, and is famous for its fruitcakes, among them an applesauce fruitcake that is citrus free.
(931) 592-3171

Hot coffee, cool rice
The coffee is always on and hot at the Conrad Rice Mill, where groups also get to sample the different kinds of rice made at the mill.

“It [the kind of rice] depends on what we cook each day,” said Davis. “We have all kinds of seasoning and spices for people to try.”

A group visit begins with a 20-minute slide presentation in a small theater at the mill. “It’s about the Cajun culture and how the name came to be,” said Davis. “It transitions into rice, how it is grown, how the fields are planted, how it is harvest, and so forth.”

Groups then proceed to the mill, “where we show them whatever we are doing that day: packing white rice, making crackers, whatever.”

The mill is still in its original building, which was built from cypress and tin in 1914, and is a rare example of early-20th-century belt-driven power technology, much of which is still used. However, Davis has also made many changes and improvements since he purchased the mill, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.
(800) 551-3245

America’s tea
The Charleston Tea Plantation was originally established in Summerville, S.C., in 1888 and was a major producer of black tea until 1915, when it closed and sat derelict for 45 years.
Lipton purchased the plantation in 1960 and moved it to its current location on Wadmalaw Island, 25 minutes from Charleston. Bill Hall, who still gives tours, and a partner bought the plantation in 1987 and developed American Classic Tea.

Courtesy Charleston Tea Plantation

The Bigelow Tea Co. bought the operation in 2003 and did extensive restoration. Today, groups can visit the thriving tea garden, where more than 80 varieties of flavored, traditional, green, organic, herbal and decaffeinated teas and iced teas are made.

“It is a wonderful, peaceful place that can never be replicated,” said David Bigelow, owner and co-chair of the company started by his mother 65 years ago. “We are very happy that we basically saved this place from the bulldozers.”

Guides give an informative and entertaining account of the plantation’s history and ongoing efforts to produce American-grown tea as they and their visitors ride a red trolley past the island’s live oaks to the fields, where 127 acres of tea bushes are maintained.

During harvest, visitors can watch a large green harvester specially designed for the plantation pick the top leaves and buds of the bushes.

Tour participants then go to the state-of-the-art process facility, where they watch through a 125-foot-long gallery window as the leaves are dried and prepared for packaging.
“We are the only place tea is grown in the United States,” said Cindi Bigelow, company president.

Back at the plantation store, groups can purchase teas grown at the plantation and kick back in rocking chairs on the porch.
(843) 559-0383, ext. 202

Beneficial water
The old saw is, you can lead a horse to water, but not make it drink. However, apparently, if you take good enough water to the horse, it will not only drink, but it will also become a champion.
Low-sodium, mineral-rich Mountain Valley Spring Water, taken from the same natural spring near Hot Springs, Ark., since the 1870s, was given to thoroughbred champions Secretariat, Nashua, Kelso and Bold Ruler. It has also been served in the White House and was a favorite of Elvis Presley.

Courtesy Mountain Valley Springs Water

Free tours of Mountain Valley’s historic bottling facility are given every Tuesday morning year-round without reservations.

“They are very informal,” said Kay, a spokeswoman for the tours. “You see the water going into the glass bottles and the caps being put on the bottles. You can see the boxes being broken down and put on the conveyors.

“Throughout the plant, you see bottles on the conveyors. We also tell about the history of the company and where the water comes up out of the springs the original owners found in the 1800s. They are still the same springs. Part of the building was part of the old building from the 1800s.”

Each member of a group gets a bottle of Mountain Valley Spring Water following the 30-minute tour.

Many groups also visit the company’s historic Greek-revival corporate headquarters building in downtown Hot Springs, 15 miles from the plant, which has a gift shop, company memorabilia and an art gallery.

“It was a popular resort a long time ago,” said Kay. “People would dance and eat, but they only drank water there. It was renovated in the 1980s. It is a very neat building.”

(800) 828-0836

Virginia potato chips
Sarah Cohen believes that it is important for people to see how the food they eat is made.
“We like cooking for the public,” said Cohen, owner of Rt. 11 Potato Chips in Mount Jackson, Va. “It is important for people to see how things are made. They are right at the source. It is like going to a water spring. You are getting them right there.

“We are a specialty potato chipper,” said Cohen. “We do potato chips and sweet potato chips. That is one thing that is extremely Southern — sweet potato chips. We have won awards for ours. We try to do really high quality.

“Groups can come in and watch the cooking happening. We talk about it. They see the chips being made and bagged, see them sliced directly into the oil and cooked in batches and seasoned with eight different flavors. Most of our seasoning is all natural.

“Everyone loves potato chips, and when people are touring, it is nice to have a food stop,” she said. “We give out samples.”

Cohen’s Web site notes that “there is no charge for fry-viewing, the only requirement is you sample the produce.”

And it is hoped that you’ll purchase some. Several sizes, up to three-pound tins, of Rt. 11 Potato Chips are available in the facility’s retail area. The company moved into its new facilities about 20 miles north of Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley about 18 months ago.
(800) 294-7783