Food is the focus at this festival

Ira Wallace, co-founder of the Heritage Harvest Festival, will serve more than 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and a few dozen varieties of other vegetables and fruit in the tasting tent from 10am-4pm. Photo by Eze Amos Ira Wallace, co-founder of the Heritage Harvest Festival, will serve more than 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and a few dozen varieties of other vegetables and fruit in the tasting tent from 10am-4pm. Photo by Eze Amos

There’s always something new to learn about food, and for the past 11 years, the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello has been one of the best ways to learn a lot about the history of what we eat in a little bit of time. On Saturday, chefs, farmers, culinary historians, purveyors and foodies from all over the country will convene to revel in their love for food and share it with others. Here’s just a taste of what you’ll find on the mountain this weekend.

Eat your veggies

Seed saver, master gardener and Heritage Harvest Festival co-founder Ira Wallace will serve up more than 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and a few dozen varieties of heirloom peppers, melons and collards in the tasting tent from 10am-4pm on Saturday. Most of these varieties have been grown locally, by Wallace and other gardeners at Twin Oaks and Acorn communities in Louisa County.

“One of the surprises for most folks is the great variety of heirloom collards and methods that make for quick cooking at home,” says Wallace of varieties like Alabama blue and tender Carolina cabbage collards. As for tomatoes, Wallace says she “can’t even pick just one.” For those who haven’t tried them, the “bicolor Georgia streak is a delight to see and taste. Compare it with a big German pink like brandywine or mortgage lifter” varieties, she advises.

At the tasting, be sure to ask Wallace about the origins of the varieties you sample: “Taste is good, but when you have a story, a recipe, it takes you back to some time and some place that is really good,” Wallace told C-VILLE back in July. Wallace also wrote The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast, regarded as the book on year-round gardening in the region. So if you’re itching to start your own garden, or just try your hand at growing your own tomato plants, now is the time and Wallace is the one to talk to (Wallace will also be signing books from 1:15-1:45pm and discussing seed saving and a four season garden). After all, September is the time for sowing spring greens and root vegetables, because the coming frost is a hard deadline.

Drink gingerly

Most people would be surprised to know that ginger beer “was never meant to be a soft drink,” says Georgia Dunn, brewer for Island Ginger Beer and a presenter at this year’s festival.

When the British settled Jamestown, they quickly discovered that the water was not safe to drink, Dunn says. Water supplies, which contained a naturally occurring amount of arsenic, were also contaminated with microorganisms that cause cholera and dysentery. While the settlers didn’t quite understand what was causing their illness, they did know that consuming alcohol—which killed many of the microorganisms—mostly kept the illness away.

“Production of alcohol evolved as the primary means to preserve one’s health,” Dunn says. And beer specifically had long been used to solve problems with contaminated water, she says. Making beer requires just two basic ingredients—water and a form of starch/sugar—so just about anyone could do it, and the low alcohol level of beer allowed people to drink it whenever they needed to stay hydrated, says Dunn.

“Adding ginger provided additional benefits, as it is naturally anti-microbial,” says Dunn. “It’s the one thing that creates a hostile environment for every other living organism but that our stomachs love and that we thrive on with all of its nutritional benefits.” By the mid-1800s, there were about 1,500 ginger beer breweries in the United States (not to mention the homebrewers out there).

All of that changed with Prohibition. No longer able to produce the fermented, traditional ginger beer but still needing to sustain a business, brewers converted their equipment to make a soft drink, Dunn says, and ginger beer—or, ginger ale—“landed next to the Cokes and Pepsis in the grocery store.” But when Prohibition was lifted a generation later, the market was set; ginger beer in its initial form never returned. Most ginger beers on the market today are soft drink variations. “Prohibition beer,” as Dunn calls it.

Chances are you’ll never think of your whiskey ginger or Moscow mule the same way again after hearing Dunn’s noon-1pm talk on “Drinking History: Jefferson and Ginger Beer.”

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Other don’t-miss sessions

The Early Spices of Appalachia

10:30-11:30am, Monticello historic kitchen

Chef Nathan Brand leads a tasting of early Appalachian spices and discusses the role each plays in defining the flavor and identity of Appalachian cuisine.

Food Waste: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

1:30-2:30pm, Festival tent

Virginia-based chef Joy Crump and senior editor and food columnist for The Atlantic Corby Kummer will talk about how
small changes in food habits can help demolish food waste…something important to consider, because 40 percent of all food produced in the United States is wasted before it even gets to
the table.

Taste Heirloom Wheat: Biscuits

1:30-2:30pm, Chef demonstration tent

Scott Peacock, a chef famous for his biscuits (and a close friend of the first lady of Southern cooking, the late Edna Lewis) will use heirloom wheat to prepare a biscuit that, to his knowledge, hasn’t been prepared in centuries. To go along with the biscuit, “canning evangelist” Kevin West will make and serve a complementary preserve.

Michael Twitty

The festival affords four chances to hear acclaimed culinary and cultural historian Michael Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. Twitty’s work focuses on the intersection of food, history, politics, economics, genealogy and race.

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