A beautifully roasted bird sits at the center of Tarver King’s Thanksgiving table, but it is by no means the heart of it. The ingredients the chef uses and the dishes he has designed represent true passion. Each is either informed by American history — specifically, of Virginia and its Powhatan Indians in the 1600s — or a nod to his upbringing.
“I wanted to get to the bare roots of everything,” he says, standing in the squash-laden garden of Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, Va., where he still seems giddy about having taken over the restaurant’s kitchen some 15 months ago.
To harvest those roots, King perused his own collection of historical cookbooks, spent time at the National Museum of the American Indian and researched archival sites online. He developed the recipes over several months, gathered Virginia cedar and sumac berries along nearby Catoctin Creek, and dried end-of-the-season corn.
King, 36, has always been drawn to the history of cuisines. He attributes that to a family member he never cooked with, yet whose kindred spirit he senses just the same. His maternal grandmother, Tatiana McKenna, was a food editor for Vogue magazine in the 1960s, wrote books about food and drink through the ages and contributed to Gourmet magazine.
“She passed away when I was really young,” he says, “but the stories she told my mom involved lots of hunting and foraging. I think we would have had fun in the kitchen together.”
As a pioneer of farm-to-table fare, the 40-acre Patowmack (pronounced “PAT-o-mac,” an Indian word for the Potomac River) fits King to a tee. He sources less than many restaurants, because he and owner Beverly Morton Billand grow and raise many of his ingredients. Service four days a week allows for delicious R&D.
For Thanksgiving, the chef’s initial impulse was to produce food a la 17th-century native Americans, using spits and heated pits instead of pots and pans. King is, after all, a man of enthusiasm who commits 100 percent, his delivery often punctuated with “Awesome!” But he kept the prep in the kitchen as a nod to 21st-century cooks.
Eschewing a multiple-course approach, King designed all seven of his dishes to share space on the table, signifying a feast — including dessert, which consists of muffin-size honey cakes, bruleed goat cheese from a local farm and a chestnut relish.
“I’m used to sitting at a table where the eating slows down, but people unbuckle their belts and linger,” he says. “Cheese is perfect for that.” The recipe for the cakes is his grandmother’s.
King’s menu is protein-rich, with venison marinated in ground sumac, then grilled and dressed with black walnuts. Crisped trout fillets top a piquant, tender wild rice salad. The ingredients hark back to the first Thanksgiving, and his own family always served fish in addition to the holiday turkey; that was common in Virginia Beach, where he grew up, he says.
But the chef’s bird is prepared unlike any other, with lots of energy focused on its brine. By smoking onions briefly over cedar branches — a step that’s surprisingly easy to accomplish — then adding them along with more cedar and citrus rinds to a buttermilk bath, King is able to infuse the meat with a subtle smoky flavor and a slight tang. The brine, and a generous amount of herby shallot butter under the skin, create a gloriously browned and glistening exterior.
Golden beets and sweet potatoes marry in an unlikely side dish that will be a boon to anybody short on oven space. They are roasted in individual foil packets and emerge with a sweet-tart sorghum syrup glaze. King’s individual corn breads are baked in corn husks (fresh or dried), making them look appropriately rustic and historic. By cooking cranberries slowly, in honey, he evokes the way the fruit is believed to have been eaten whole by those Massachusetts Indians who took part in the original feast..
The chef’s intent even carries through to his kale salad, graced with a preserved-berry dressing. Drying fruits was definitely an American Indian thing, he says. “Sounds nerdy, but when we pull out foods we have put up, it’s a way of saying thank you for a past harvest of summer and spring.”
A plateful of King’s Thanksgiving foods combines tones of the season and flavors that truly complement each other. Virginians — as well as anyone who cares to serve up history — will appreciate the thought behind it.
King will join the Free Range chat at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com. The buttermilk-cedar-brined turkey, corn bread in husks and sorghum-glazed vegetables will be part of Patowmack Farm’s Thanksgiving Day menu. www.patowmackfarm.com. 2461 Lovettsville Rd., Lovettsville, Va. For reservations, call 540-822-9017.