Something Different Country Store near Urbanna, Va., serves traditional food with a twist

June 28, 2012

The white, plastic binder is as thick as the Bible, and in it is the gospel of food, according to Dan Gill.

Who is Dan Gill, you ask? Does he have his own cooking show on TV? Has he competed on “Top Chef,” “MasterChef” or “Iron Chef”? Has his writing appeared in the pages of Gourmet or Saveur? Does he at least live in Brooklyn?

No. Dan Gill is a guy who used to be a farmer outside Urbanna, Va., working fields his family had owned for decades. When he got tired of laboring most of the year only to lose $40,000 to $50,000 in the fall, he quit farming and bought a nearby convenience store. But then the convenience store started losing money. So, Gill turned the place into a country store. And because he needed “something different” to draw people to the weather-beaten clapboard building hunched alongside a quiet road in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, he turned the country store into a purveyor of surprisingly inventive regional cuisine — traditional foods with a twist.

***

Something Different Country Store & Deli is the actual name of the 20-seat enterprise — and it’s an apt description of both the place and the owner. On a Thursday afternoon around lunchtime, Gill is at his usual post behind the counter, delivering a dissertation to four diners about blow toads, one of the newest items on the menu. He is, as a plaque on the wall proclaims, “Dan Gill, Ethno-Gastronomist,” a title he thought he invented until a Google search revealed a couple of other folks using it.

Gill wears a sweatshirt, an Army cap and faded jeans. At 67, he has a ruddy face and teeth stained from years of smoking cigarettes. His eyes are bright blue.

In the 1950s and ’60s, he says, the blow toad (a local fish whose actual name is the northern puffer, so known because it puffs up when threatened) used to be plentiful in the Rappahannock and York rivers, which surround the Middle Peninsula. Fishermen caught them in their nets by accident, and since no one besides locals wanted to eat anything called a toad, the fishermen spread the extras on the fields for fertilizer. Then, in the early ’70s, the blow toads disappeared from the rivers, only to reappear in the past decade or so.

Now Gill is trying to get them some love.

“Back in Colonial Williamsburg, they used to call them sea squabs. They’re also known locally as sugar bellies and sugar toads,” Gill says. “We use the name ‘blow toads’ because it’s the local watermen’s term — we try to be as authentic as we can. It also has shock value. People say, ‘I’m not going to eat a toad.’ And I say, ‘Do yourself a favor and get over it.’ ”

As Gill lectures, drawing out his words with a Tidewater accent, the other workers in the store run here and there, carrying Mason jars of iced tea and plates of barbecue. When Gill’s daughter, Sarah, whizzes past, she rolls her eyes at him.

“Hey,” he says, “I’m doing customer relations.”

Indeed, Gill may be teaching Blow Toads 101, but he’s also conducting a sales pitch. He has already distributed samples of his homemade she-crab soup and barbecued tri-tip, which is the end cut of a sirloin. “You can have stuff on a menu, and it will just sit on the shelf,” he says. “But if people taste it, they want to buy it. It’s basic salesmanship.” When he gets a few takers for the fish, he calls, “Toads, toads, toads!” to Antonio Friday, the professional chef who prepares most of the food at Something Different.

Every few minutes the front door opens and a few more folks walk in. Some are longtime locals here to pick up lunch and be on their way back to work. But others want more than a meal. “A lot of people come to see Dad. He’s the main character of the store,” says Sarah Gill, the store’s manager. “The goofy, funny antics I get irritated by, they love.”

Then she adds, “What’s funny is that Dad is a complete different person than he was as a farmer. I never remember him laughing and carrying on when I was growing up.”

You can tell the first-timers because they walk in cautiously, then smile when they see the butcher-block tables, the seats fashioned from milk crates and the glass jars of roasted Virginia peanuts. They have driven from the next county, or over the bridge from the Northern Neck, or from Washington or Richmond, because they’ve heard about the barbecue at Something Different, mostly through word of mouth. One woman is here to test the pulled pork, make sure it’s worth her husband making the trip.

Barbecue was Gill’s first foray into cooking in the mid-’90s, and it’s still the store’s main draw. Every day of the week, there’s a hunk of flesh smoking in one of the four barbecue pits on the side porch — could be pork shoulder, brisket, ribs, chicken, or tri-tip. The first entries in Gill’s gospel relate to his barbecue philosophy, one that can be summarized by several of his mottos: “If you can taste the smoke, you’ve used too much.” “Barbecue is not a science; it’s an art.” And, most memorably: “Barbecue is like sex. If it’s good, you don’t need sauce.”

***

A few minutes later, Gill sets a paper plate with the piping-hot fried blow toads on the counter. “Eat around the fish like you do corn on the cob,” he says. “If you try to eat it like a hot dog, you’ll bite right into the central bone.”

The blow toads are delicious: light, flaky, succulent, not toadlike at all. Soon all that remains on the plate are a few fish spines and a lonely lettuce leaf.

Converts! Gill is delighted. But there’s more to be done. He positions himself in front of a woman who has driven 50 miles from Tappahannock, Va., to order a “Virginia Sandwich.” That prompts a tale about Gill’s mission to create a sandwich that honored Virginia’s heritage of pig and turkey farming. Thus was born the cured Virginia country ham and smoked turkey salad that now represents Virginia in the 2004 book “American Sandwich: Great Eats From All 50 States.” No need to buy the book — Gill will pull a copy of his “Virginia Sandwich” article out of his white plastic binder, where it is filed alongside the other meditations on food and culture that make up Gill’s gospel, and give it to anyone interested. Along with the recipe, takers get the story. At Something Different, there is no food without a tale.

After the woman from Tappahannock polishes off her sandwich, she asks for a scoop of chocolate ice cream. Of everything in the store, Gill may be most proud of his homemade premium ice cream.

“Do you want Hot Chocolate? It’s chocolate with capsaicin, the chemical compound in hot peppers,” Gill says. “The butterfat coats your tongue so you don’t taste the heat until it gets back in your throat.”

“No, just chocolate,” she says.

“Have you tried my homemade cashew butter and homemade extra-brewed chocolate sauce made with 100 percent cocoa powder?” he asks. “I call it ‘instant seduction.’ ”

Without waiting for an answer, Gill heads to the cabinet to fetch her a sample.

“I just want chocolate ice cream,” she says.

“Oh, come on,” he says.

“Just chocolate.” She means it.

“Oh, you’re boring,” Gill says.

***

On the wall above the wine rack that holds Gill’s binder is a picture of Remlik Hall Farm, where Gill was raised. The oil painting was done in 1951, when Gill was 6, and the 500-acre farm was one of the largest turkey hatcheries east of the Mississippi. Gill’s father bred, fed, hatched, raised and processed turkeys. “It was all vertically integrated,” says Gill. “It was a big business.”

Growing up on the farm, Gill ate three hot meals a day. His family made its own butter and cottage cheese; canned tomatoes; cured hams; and made sausage, scrapple and salted herring. “Being on the farm, I was exposed to the whole food chain, from start to end,” he says. “A lot of time what we talked about at the table was what we were eating. I didn’t do much cooking, but I listened and picked up an appreciation for food.”

Like his father before him, Gill attended Virginia Tech and studied poultry science, receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “Daddy told me when I came back that I should have stopped at my bachelor’s because I learned enough to shut the turkey operation down,” he says. By the early ’70s, the Gills couldn’t compete with larger turkey plants, so Gill put the family’s land into hogs, cattle and soybeans. “There were so many risks: severe droughts, extreme winters, low yields, low prices,” he says.

In the 1990s, after two decades of farming in which he lost money more years than he made it, he stopped planting crops, leased out the fields and sold some of the family’s waterfront acreage for estate-quality housing. He still has about 200 head of cattle that graze the fields surrounding his house. He and his wife, Barbara, support themselves on proceeds from the land sale, cattle operation and a sawmill Barbara operates on their property. Something Different has yet to turn a profit, but Gill is happy to be losing less money than he did as a farmer. “I got tired of losing money farming, so I figured I’d diversify,” he says, joking.

The couple’s house is set on Lagrange Creek, a tributary of the Rappahannock. Gill designed the house to look like it was built in 1680; it took a team of craftsmen four years to build it. Almost everything in the house is hand-made, including the floors, which were sawn by Barbara..

Gill included an indoor barbecue pit, thinking he’d like to grill oysters and steaks year-round. A brass plaque names it the “Ethyl A. Pigg Memorial Cooker,” in honor of the pig whose incineration taught Gill that he knew nothing about barbecue. That’s when he took to barbecue discussion groups on the Internet.

Within a few years, he had built an outdoor pit out of a wood stove and a commercial food warmer, started hosting a barbecue festival at the farm and was drawing on his farming and food science background to become a kind of barbecue guru’s guru. Gill hasn’t written a book, appeared on TV or trademarked his sauces and rubs for national distribution, so the average Joe hasn’t heard of him. But Gary Wiviott, author of “Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons,” says barbecue experts call Gill when they have a question. “What sets Dan apart is that he understands the chemistry of barbecue,” says Wiviott, who is the pitmaster at Chicagoland barbecue restaurant Barn & Company. “He’s definitely one of the top barbecue guys in the country, but to just call him that is limiting. He’s so much more.”

Wiviott fondly remembers a gathering at which Gill served what he called “the heart of a Virginia ham” that he’d cured himself. “I’ve eaten the best ham in the world in Spain,” Wiviott says, “and this was [expletive] amazing.” Gill also served “bag sausage” that he’d cured the traditional way: wrapping it in muslin and hanging it in his garage. “If that’s done wrong, you can get really sick,” says Wiviott. “There is no one else that I would risk eating that from except Gill.”

When Gill and his wife bought the Pine Tree One-Stop & Deli convenience store in 2000, he sold his barbecue there, often sleeping in the trailer behind the store to keep watch over the pits overnight. But even with barbecue as a lure, the convenience store wasn’t viable. There just wasn’t enough traffic at its location, the crossroads of routes 602 and 603 known as Pine Tree (which was never a town so much as a rural postal district, and today Gill estimates the population as a grand total of six). Urbanna, about two miles up the road, is charming and beloved by boaters, but its population hovers around 500.

In 2002, Gill realized he had two choices: sell the store for a loss or transform it into a place that could draw people from as far as 100 miles away. He chose the latter, and, in doing so, inadvertently turned Something Different into a country store for the 21st century.

In the early to mid-1900s, country stores dotted crossroads all over the rural South. They were not just stores, but also community centers. When Gill was a kid, he’d walk or bike the two miles to Bob Green’s country store to buy penny candy, hear the news and get the mail. Now, Something Different stands on the spot where Bob Green’s used to be. But instead of stocking convenience foods such as tinned sardines, milk and eggs, it sells specialty foods ( smoked salmon with dill sauce, and beignets) and heritage foods such as sweet potato pudding, hoecakes — and, yes, blow toads.

Upon hearing about Something Different, John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, says it sounds “newfangled and old-fangled at the same time.” Edge is bullish on places such as Something Different. “In this moment, when people see a different value in food, and connect that to community, there’s a need for updating the country store,” he says. “Cracker Barrel does not suffice.”

***

Late in the afternoon, a new handful of diners is at the counter, and Gill has his binder open. He turns to his dispatch on umami, in which he rhapsodizes about his discovery of kelp powder, which he uses in his she-crab soup, his barbecue rubs and his ice cream. Another dispatch offers an investigation of anasazi beans, which he has discovered to be “more socially acceptable than most beans,” due to their tendency to cause less, er, intestinal excitement. Yet another is on hoecakes, corn pancakes that, back in the Colonial era, were cooked on the blades of hoes over an open fire. “As an ethno-gastronomist, my passion is the ‘food of the people’ — not the ‘food of the kings,’ ” says Gill. “I’m not interested in haute cuisine. I’m interested in the foods that are central to culture.”

When Gill decided to put hoecakes on the menu, he started with the traditional recipe of cornmeal, water and salt. They were good, he says, but they weren’t “something different.” So he experimented to come up with the current recipe, which calls for jalapeño and canned corn and minced onion: traditional food with a twist.

Gill is equal parts fervent researcher and mad scientist. For that reason, his chef, Friday, who is classically trained and worked in a high-end restaurant for 10 years, views Gill with equal admiration and dubiousness. “Compared to a true chef, he’s going 100 miles an hour the other way,” Friday says. “You don’t really find kelp in a lot of American food. And his ice creams are crazy.”

Granted, many people come to Something Different for the un-crazy food — the standards. But even those are made from scratch. The ham in the ham and cheese sandwich is home-cured, the buns for the hamburgers are baked each morning by Gill’s wife, the coleslaw and potato salad is homemade.

“There’s a movement of high-end chefs moving down a few rungs to do burgers, poutine and traditional low-brow foods. They make a big deal of making everything from scratch and adding special touches,” says Wiviott. “Dan Gill has been doing that for years. He’s way ahead of the pack. But he flies pretty far under the radar.”

***

After the hoecake lecture, what else is there to do but order a batch? Gill drizzles them with molasses. “It really brings it together,” he says. Later, he describes his “Applechain hot dog,” topped with apple butter and mustard. “The sweetness and tartness of the apple butter joins up with the meatiness of the hot dog,” he says. “The mustard is the bridge between them. And so it works.”

Gill may look like he just walked out of the field, but he’s gifted with an artist’s imagination for flavors, a historian’s hunger for the past and a scientist’s drive to experiment. At night, when all the staff and customers are gone, Gill surfs the Internet, researching his latest inclination. Then, he messes around in the kitchen to give it that twist.

Later, back behind the counter, he’ll ask the people sitting before him, “Have you tried ...” and “Did you know ...?” teaching, selling, and doing something different than he ever imagined.

Laura Wexler is an author in Baltimore. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com..

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