Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wine, Knives, and the Whole Hog

We are truly blessed!

Amy and I had a grand time at the 2008 Cast Iron Cook-Off and we have the Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia to thank for it!

The Welcome Reception on Friday evening was the perfect lead-in to the weekend's events. Everyone gathered in the rustic lobby of the Stonewall Resort Lodge with glass in hand to toast the reunion of old friends and celebrate the meeting of new ones. We walked into the mass of humanity centered near the over sized fireplace and almost immediately connected with Dr. Allen Arnold, the director of the 21C. He could not contain his joy that the event had finally come nor his excitement for the grandiose pork-processional which we were about to witness. After glad-handing a few more dear friends including Executive Chef Dale Hawkins, Nancy Bulla, my co-emcee for the weekend, and Dr. Elaine Bowen, the brass and strings proclaimed the arrival of a whole hog, cooked and ready to be carved.

No head nor apple but he was carried by four chefs from the kitchen through the lodge foyer and into the ballroom. Everybody cheered and raised their glasses! It was a sight that's equal I've yet to encounter. We were instructed to follow the hog where we were greeted by candle lit tables and an Appalachian buffet with a hint of down home hospitality. Everyone loved it!

Following dinner, Nancy and I grabbed our microphones and jumped into our jobs with both feet. We introduced the judges for the weekend and the teams and chef who would compete the next day. As each head chef was announced, each team member was introduced then given a chef's coat to wear during the cook-off. I have to admit I always get a little jealous when it's coat time.

To my surprise, Nancy and I were both given snazzy Cast Iron chefs jackets as well! Truth be told, it was not total surprise because I had remarked just days before that it would be nice to have the Emcees wear some official looking 21C clothing. It would allow us to stand out as 21C representatives. It was agreed that it would make a great addition to our station and I thought we might get chefs coats but didn't think it possible so close to the event.

Thankfully, I was wrong. ;)

The Cook-off started promptly at 10:00 the next morning after Amy and I had a quick breakfast of pastries, muffins, and juices. Off she went to her massage treatment and some luxurious pool time while I entered West Virginia's version of Kitchen Stadium. Staggered throughout the morning/midday, 14 teams of Gastro-gladiators walked, scurried, or danced their way into the hour long battle. The prize: dethroning the two-time Grand Champions, Team Provence Market (headed by Chef Anne Hart) and becoming Grand Champion.

With every whisk, chop, puree, and glaze Nancy and I were there calling the action and chatting up some "did-you-knows" about cast iron, our judges, or anything else we thought interesting to keep the nearly 6-hour competition running at high energy. With every fry, saute, steep, and sear the competitors shared smiles, laughs, and songs as they worked to create a New Appalachian menu with time-honored tools and methods. If they felt the pressure of winning they didn't show it. There was so much hootin' and hollerin' that one would have thought he/she had entered a mountain family reunion by mistake.

Meanwhile, Amy would check in a time or two to see how everything was going. After a quick jaunt around the working stations, she'd be off to take advantage of Stonewall's little known secret; the Library. A cozy place complete with fireplace, extra comfy furniture, soft lighting, and walls of books, the library is quaint. We both enjoy it's quiet reprieve from the frantic pace of the cook-off. It's a wonderful place to take off your shoes, wrap your feet under your "seat" and curl up with someone you love beside the fire and read...or sleep...or just zone out.

After the cook-off, we made way to T.J. Muskies for lunch. This is Stonewall's rendition of a rustic, fireside bar, grill, and billiards hall all rolled into one. The mood is relaxed and the food is familiar. We snagged a table for two by the screened-in fire pit and devoured an overdue midday meal. We each had our Stonewall favorites: Amy loves to order the Appalachian Egg Rolls as an appetizer and I had the Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. This was the first creations of Dale's that after having done a segment about it on TV, I went home and tried immediately. As I recall, I made it for Amy when she came in for a visit while we were still dating.

At the end of the day, all of the teams, chefs, judges, and friends returned to the ballroom for a 5 course wine pairing dinner prepared by Chef Dale and his staff. Every plate was teaming with fresh produce, locally raised proteins, and Appalachian love. I'd have to say that is what makes Dale's recipes stand out: his love of food and his friends.

You can probably deduce that after 5 different glasses of wine to be had, some didn't treat the proceeding awards ceremony with exactly the same level of composure as they did the meal. Appropriate or not, it wasn't hard to tell that everyone was having a good time! Especially the newly crowned Grand Champions! Congratulations to Chef Hans Friedman and the rest of Team Lightburn's for their well-earned victory!

Something tells me that they'll be back next year to defend the title. And, as long as the welcome mat is out, the Canterburys will be back at the Cook-off with bells on!

Photos Courtesy: The Media Center



That sounds like fun....especially the part where Amy gets to get the spa treatments.

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