Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia's Roanoke Valley offers endless outdoor recreation -- everything from biking and hiking on hundreds of miles through national forests (the Appalachian Trail traverses the northern end of the valley on its 2,000-plus-mile journey from Maine to Georgia), to white water rafting and canoeing on the James River, to fishing and boating on Smith Mountain Lake. All of which, of course, will make you hungry.
If you're daytripping in the city of Roanoke, there's one dish you absolutely have to try: The peanut soup at the grand Hotel Roanoke.
Considered a Southern delicacy, the gourmet classic dates back to the 1700s in America. But it actually has its roots in Africa. In the 1500s, Portuguese explorers carried the peanut from its native Brazil to Western Africa, where it was quickly embraced by African growers and used for stews, soups and mushes. From there, it was transported once again across the Atlantic, arriving with black-eyed peas and yams in Colonial Virginia via the slave trade.
Virginia peanut soup as we know it, says Michael Twitty, a culinary historian who specializes in African-American foodways, is a direct descendant of maafe, a peanut soup eaten by the Wolof people of Senegal and Gambia. Peanuts -- or groundnuts, as they were then known -- also were grown in Sierra Leone and Angola, where they regularly made their way into stews and spicy sauces. Before long, it found its way into plantation kitchens, "so what we're really looking at is the influence of female and male black cooks."
Some historians claim George Washington so loved peanut soup that he ate it every day, and by 1781, Thomas Jefferson, who cultivated peanuts at Monticello, was writing about them as a common crop, said Mr. Twitty. The first known recipe comes from "House and Home; or, The Carolina Housewife," a collection of Low Country recipes published in 1847 by Sarah Rutledge, a housewife from Charleston, S.C. It included a pint of oysters and peanuts ground with flour.
At Hotel Roanoke, the soup is a bit tamer than the spicy West African recipes Mr. Twitty favors, flavored simply with chicken broth, lemon juice and a bit of butter for added richness. "But that's how Virginians like it," he said. "Plain."
A bit of hotel history: Chef Fred Brown created the signature soup in 1940 on a challenge from the general manager at the time, George Dennisson. A companion dish, spoonbread, quickly followed and for the next decade, even though many, many guests begged for it, the hotel held both recipes close to the chest.
Sometime in the early 1950s, the hotel recognized it for the PR opportunity it was and started spreading the recipe far and wide. In 1994, it was immortalized in "Peanut Soup and Spoonbread: An Informal History of Hotel Roanoke" by Donlan Piedmont. To this day, said hotel PR manager Michael Quonce, they get "countless" requests for the recipes.
What makes it such a classic combo? Mr. Quonce attributes its popularity to Virginia's heritage.
"It celebrates not only the region in which we operate, but also to the entire historic nature of the property," he said. "It's astonishing how much attention it still gathers to this day."
The hotel, he added, dishes up about 48 8-ounce servings a day.
This is an extremely rich soup, so you'll probably want to serve it as a starter instead of an entree. It reheats well for leftovers.
HOTEL ROANOKE PEANUT SOUP
1/4 pound butter (1 stick)
1 small onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 tablespoons flour
2 quarts chicken broth, heated
1 pint (2 cups) peanut butter
1/3 teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup ground peanuts for garnish
Melt butter in cooking vessel and add onion and celery. Saute for five minutes but not until brown. Add flour and mix well. Add hot chicken broth and cook for a half hour. Remove from stove, strain and add peanut butter, celery salt, salt and lemon juice. Sprinkle ground peanuts on soup just before serving.
-- Hotel Roanoke
HOTEL ROANOKE SPOONBREAD
This is a moist, souffle-version of spoonbread. I made it with individual serving-size cast-iron skillets (available at Penn Fixture in the Strip District) but one big pan would work as well.
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1 1/3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 cups boiling water
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, melted
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon baking powder
Mix cornmeal, salt and sugar together and scald with boiling water. Add melted butter. Beat eggs. Add milk to eggs. Combine two mixtures and add baking powder. Pour into baking pan and bake 30 to 40 minutes at 350 degrees.
-- Hotel Roanoke
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.