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.”