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.