EDIBLE TOURISM: It's a form of travel that combines eating and driving, one that requires dedicated tasters rather than designated drivers. It's also a unique way to experience any region, including our own.
You don't need to go far from Washington to meet an octogenarian still making biscuits according to an old plantation recipe, watch fishermen unloading their catch at a crab processing plant or taste home-made chocolates produced by a 60-year-old family business.
A surprising amount of food is actually produced and processed in the Washington area. High insurance premiums and hygienic concerns have closed most of these facilities to the public, but here are six places that do welcome visitors. Each one tells us a little bit about our area food heritage, and each has a unique flavor. CHIPS AND CURLS
"This is potato chip heaven," tour guide Jennifer DelPercio explains, as puffy yellow clouds of chips drift across our horizon. They are taking a leisurely ride on a conveyor belt after four minutes of total immersion in sizzling cottonseed oil at the Herr's snack food plant in Nottingham, Pa.
This may not be heaven for the chips: They are on a journey from the frying pan into the hermetically sealed bag. But our small group of edible travelers is about to enter nirvana, as DelPercio runs over to the conveyor belt and scoops up a small mountain of chips. They're still warm, and seem to melt rather than crunch in our mouths. They look like chips, but they taste like french fries.
Herr's snack food factory is a family-owned business that produces such all-American mainstays as potato chips, popcorn, pretzels and cheese curls. The company's year-old facility is industrial but people-friendly. From the multicolored tiles in the reception area to the glass-enclosed cooling areas, this building was designed with visitors in mind. Here you can see most phases of production, and those parts that are not shown are explained in an entertaining film before each tour.
Our visit started with the popcorn and cheese curl room, where 500 pounds of seemingly weightless snacks toss around in each giant tumbler. We then watched onion-flavored rings transformed in a giant fryer from orange loops to puffy yellow circles. The potato chips were our last stop, and we caught them as they were being cut into wedges one-sixteenth of an inch thick.
After they are fried, the chips still have a few hurdles to pass. An electronic eye called an Optisort spots chips that are too dark and directs a jet stream of air to blow them away. Small chips, destined for small bags, are separated from the large ones, and a sauce machine sprays them all with one of nine flavorings.
Our final stop overlooked the huge packing area, where chips are mechanically bagged into color-coded bags (blue for regular, red for ripple, green for sour cream) and hand-packed into shipping cartons.
At the end of the 45-minute tour, we were treated to the catch of the day: a feast of onion-flavored rings, cheese curls, popcorn and chips. To think anyone could call this junk food!
Herr Drive, Nottingham, Pa. 800/284-7488. Tours lasting 45 minutes are offered Monday through Thursday between 9 and 4, and Fridays 9 to noon. Call ahead for reservations. Take I-95 north to Exit 100 (Rising Sun and Northeast, Md.), and take Route 272 north. Travel about 13 miles until you see the entrance to Herr's on the left. MARYLAND CRABS
David W. Wehrs Seafood on Kent Island, Md., is a new company maintaining an old Eastern Shore tradition. A hundred years ago, Maryland was home to more than 100 oyster canneries, and dozens of clam and crab processing plants. But Wehrs is one of only a handful of such businesses in operation today.
Immigrants have always been the backbone of this industry, and they still are. Tapes play Vietnamese music in the background at Wehrs as about 25 Asian workers sit at two long rows of tables in the processing room, hand-picking crabmeat. Each worker uses only a sharp, pointed knife. At the start of the day and after lunch, the knives are whetted on an old-fashioned honing stone.
This is a low-tech, high-skill operation: No machine can separate crab meat from shell and cartilage as well as the human hand can, David Wehrs says. But, Wehrs notes, it takes the average worker about one month of full-time picking to become proficient, and six months to "get it down to a science."
A good picker can get one pound of clean crab meat from 10 pounds of crabs, and the average worker goes through 400 pounds of crabs a day, according to Wehrs.
Six days a week throughout most of the year, fishermen unload oysters and crabs at the Wehrs pier. From May to November, the pier is especially busy, as 20 to 50 boats a day deliver their catch.
The large number-one-sized male crabs and all the oysters are separated and sold live, but the rest of the crabs are pressure-steamed right on the dock. After cooling overnight, winter crabs are sprayed with a fine water mist to remove the mud that accumulates in their gills when they hibernate in the sand.
The tour includes peeks inside an ice-making room and several large coolers. This is not a particularly attractive plant, but its location on the Chesapeake makes up for a lackluster interior.
During the warmer months visitors can observe the boats from a deck overlooking the bay, and Wehrs will even steam live crabs for those who have worked up an appetite.
DAVID W. WEHRS SEAFOOD --
Crab Alley & Little Creek in Chester, Md., on Kent Island. 800/832-8004. Tours last 20 to 30 minutes, and can be scheduled Monday through Saturday. Call ahead for reservations. From the Beltway, take Route 50 west across the Bay Bridge. About 1 1/2 miles past the bridge, make a right on Route 552 (Dominion Road). Follow the road until it ends, and make another right. Stay on this road until it ends at the waterfront; you will see Wehrs on your left. FAMILY BISCUITS
There is no Betty Crocker, but there is a Ruth Orrell. Orrell is 88 years old and her product, Orrell's Maryland Beaten Biscuits of Wye Mills, Md., is no invention of Madison Avenue. Using the same recipe that her mother and grandmother used before her, Orrell is carrying on a Southern tradition that is at least 200 years old.
Visitors enter Orrell's homey kitchen and pass through a breezeway to get to the biscuit-making room, a long, narrow space that used to be a shed. This is where you will find Orrell and seven others producing more than 10,000 biscuits a week, surrounded by barrels of lard and sacks of flour.
Beaten biscuits date back to the plantation era, when leavening was in short supply. The only way to get the biscuits to rise was by beating the dough with a hammer or the back of an axe. One old recipe recommended that biscuits be beaten "30 minutes for family, and 45 minutes for company."
As far as Orrell is concerned, everyone who buys her biscuits is family: All her biscuits are beaten for 30 minutes. Orrell started baking her biscuits in 1935, and she still has the hammer that she used until 1960.
"That was the year I was going to stop making biscuits, because I couldn't beat them anymore," Orrell recalls. But a Baltimore patron made her a machine that approximates the action of a hammer, so she is still in business. Visitors can watch this contraption beat the dough until the trapped air snaps out.
The biscuits are then carefully molded by Orrell, her granddaughter and some neighbors. After each biscuit is pricked with a special stamp, it is carried on a conveyor belt to one of six ovens.
After baking, the biscuits are initially hard and crusty on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside. But after a few days, the entire biscuit is almost as hard as a rock.
"The harder they are, the better I like them," Orrell says. "If I can cut them with a butcher knife right straight through, they're all right."
Orrell's biscuits have been shipped across the country and around the world, and the visitors keep on coming.
"We never did advertise," Orrell says. "All we do is put our name on the bag."
ORRELL'S BEATEN BISCUITS --
Route 662 in Wye Mills, Md. 301/820-8090. Tours lasting 15 minutes are available Wednesdays and Thursdays. Call for reservations. From the Beltway, take Route 50 east across the Bay Bridge. After you pass Kent Island, take Route 662 to Wye Mills, and travel south for about 1 1/2 miles. After you pass the large Wye Oak tree, Orrell's is the seventh house on the right. There is no house number, but there is a sign out front. FOR LOVE OF CHOCOLATE
If you have always felt that chocolate is one of the four basic food groups, you can have your hypothesis confirmed at Moore's Candies in Baltimore. This small facility is the birthplace of almost 400 different chocolate products -- from truffles to snowcaps, from nonpareils to peppermint creams, from chocolate-covered cherries to Easter eggs. If this isn't a food group, then broccoli isn't a vegetable.
The best thing about Moore's is that it's small. It still operates out of the basement of a house. This means that as you tour the facility -- which consists of one very large room and several alcoves -- you are never more than an arm's length away from chocolate. (This isn't dangerous for you, but it could be fatal for the chocolate.)
Moore's, about 25 minutes north of the Inner Harbor, is a family business that really feels like family. Most of the seven employees live in the neighborhood, and there is a sense of camaraderie that is missing in large industrialized facilities.
Hand-made chocolates are not easy to make: 85-year-old Virginia Little, who works at the hand-dipping table, has been perfecting her technique for almost 70 years. The fanciest machine in the place is one that owner Jim Heyl calls the "I Love Lucy Machine," a 38-foot-long conveyer belt that "enrobes" various fillings with a coat of chocolate. One employee puts the fillings on the belt and another, like Lucy, takes the chocolate-covered confections off at the other end.
Heyl works as he talks. He checks the consistency of 50 pounds of fudge, which has been mixed from scratch and stirred by hand in a three-foot-wide copper kettle. He examines a tray of peanut brittle, which is still soft. And he leads us through the packing area, pointing out chocolate cigars and white chocolate oysters.
But the highlight of the tour is saved for last, when visitors get some hands-on experience with the chocolate.
"Everybody gets a sample, and we don't put them on a scale first," Heyl says.
MOORE'S CANDIES --
3004 Pinewood Ave., Baltimore. 301/426-2705. Tours lasting 20 minutes are available Monday through Friday and some Saturdays, by reservation. Take I-95 north to Baltimore's Martin Luther King exit and follow the signs to I-83 north. Take I-83 to Northern Parkway and follow it east to Harford Road (about 15 minutes). Make a right on Harford and take the second left on Pinewood. Moore's is in the first house on the left. MINDING THEIR BEESWAX
To watch the production of a more organic type of sweet matter, visit the apiary at the University of Maryland in College Park, home to 1 million honeybees.
A number of indoor, glass-enclosed hives allow you to watch the endless work of drones, nurse bees, hive cleaners, waxworkers, and even the queen bee herself. During warm months, visitors also observe the 25 outdoor hives next to the apiary.
The tour, which starts out with a talk in a classroom, opens the door to a fascinating world of creatures that communicate by smell rather than sound, and have combs on their legs and antennae and antennae cleaners on their heads. The leader of the tour, entomologist Gordon Allen-Wardell, has been fascinated with bees since his childhood, and has taught beekeeping in Southeast Asia.
During late July and early August, visitors can watch Allen-Wardell remove raw honey from the hives. The rest of the year visitors are shown the extraction and bottling equipment. In addition to raw honey, adventurous tourists can taste two other products of the hive. Pollen, which is a protein source for bees, tastes flowery and slightly sweet. It is made up of tiny granules, and has a grainy consistency. Propolis is a gummy, sticky substance used to close up the entrance to the hive. It looks like red tar, smells of pine and tastes bitter and medicinal. (Propolis actually has antiseptic qualities, and is used in some throat lozenges.)
Allen-Wardell says many young children want to touch the bees by the end of the tour, and some of them do.
"Bees are really very gentle, and kids just can't hold their hands back," he explains. "I've never had a child stung here in two-and-a-half years."
Such assurances notwithstanding, this was one place where we were content to look without touching.
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND APIARY --
The Apiary Building, Stadium Drive, College Park, Md. 301/405-3953. Tours lasting 45 minutes are available daily, by appointment only. From the Beltway, take Route 1 south about one mile to University Boulevard. Make a right on University (Route 193 south) and a left at the second light onto Stadium Drive. At the T-intersection turn left and make an immediate left into the apiary driveway. You will see white beehives in the yard. MILK AND CREAM
It takes 125,000 cows to keep the Shenandoah's Pride plant in Crawford, Va., churning out milk on a daily basis. The dairy operation is highly computerized, and almost nothing is done by hand. Though there are no cows at the plant itself, the Shenandoah Valley is filled with them. They wear computerized necklaces that allow farmers to calibrate how much they eat per gallon of milk produced.
The plant is a good place to watch the wonders of automation. A blow-molding machine spews out pieces of molten plastic, which hang down like wet plastic bags. Within nine seconds they're filled with air and transformed into gallon jugs. Each minute 54 new, sealed jugs are born. Imperfect jugs are tossed to the side, and the others are automatically loaded onto a conveyor that climbs up and travels around the periphery of the ceiling. When they descend in the filling room, a circular jug filler pumps milk in at the rate of 60 to 90 jugs per minute.
The milk itself is piped across the facility, from the trucks to the raw milk silos, from the silos to the pasteurizing room and from there to the various filling machines.
This plant is less than two years old, and you can see some of the most advanced technology around. But be prepared for the noise of large machinery at work. The stainless steel pasteurizers are especially loud, hissing and emitting bursts of steam.
The dairy's laboratory is a quiet oasis where visitors may taste one of the new products under development. We tasted a new caffeinated dairy drink called Mocha Cooler. (Despite the name, it's nonalcoholic.) Another unexpected sight was the computer room, which controls and records everything that happens at the plant. It looks like a small version of NASA's Mission Control.
Our tour ended with an ice cream sandwich. We ate it in the company of two large sculpted cows, the only bovines in the entire plant. It was an old-fashioned ending to a high-tech tour.
SHENANDOAH'S PRIDE --
At Route 257 and Route 11, Mount Crawford, Va. 703/434-7328. Tours lasting 90 minutes are available weekdays; dairy farm tours can also be arranged. Call ahead for an appointment. Take I-66 west to I-81 south's Exit 61 at Mount Crawford. Turn right at the ramp onto Route 257, and go about a mile to the stop sign. Turn right on Route 11. The entrance to the dairy is a few yards to the right.
Daphne White gained five pounds while researching this story.