My husband and I were on the Jamestown ferry early, with a horde of black-necked laughing gulls catching remnants of our breakfast toast in midair, as we headed for the south shore of the James River. Williamsburg's attractions of colonial costumery, discount shopping and amusement parks had become tiresome. On the other side of the James, we were told, was another, unspoiled, Virginia.
Our two-day quest to discover Surry and Isle of Wight counties _ the heart of the commonwealth's pork and peanut region _ was to have its own rewards, most of which would come calorie-laden.
These are seemingly endless rural flatlands, where narrow, two-lane highways marked by faded RC cola signs and crumbling wooden sheds break up the crops that grow right to the edge of the road.
Prosperity south of the James river is measured by peanuts and pigs. More than 23,000 acres in Surry and Isle of Wight are planted with jumbo goobers, the kind food processors consider too good to be used in peanut butter. The size of a man's thumb, they're the kind you find in fancy gift cans at Christmas or at better hotel bars.
"Smithfield (Isle of Wight's county seat) butchers 5-million hogs each year," my husband said, his eyebrows arching as he read from a manual while I drove the yardstick-straight road.
We decided then to narrow our search to ham _ and not just any ham, but the gourmet types hung and aged for six months or more, concentrating the flavors best enjoyed in transparent slices that dissolve on the tongue.
Two miles south of the ferry, we stopped on Route 31 at Smith's Fort Plantation, a restored example of an 18th century planter's farm. Although the house itself is a small gem, the tale told by our guide was even better.
It seems that the 2,000 acres around it was Chief Powhatan's 1614 dowry gift to English settler John Rolfe on behalf of his favorite daughter, Pocahontas. Rolfe supposedly figured he would introduce his bride _ and perhaps some of her kin _ to Christianity. The gesture bought a short truce between the tribe and the new settlers. Rolfe took her back to London, where she became a celebrity. A son was born there the next year, but Pocahontas died in England a few months later. The son later returned to reclaim the Smith Plantation, his heritage.
Our history lesson over, we made our way up the road another mile to the village of Surry, the county seat. Surry has yet to get a stoplight.
Its being Saturday, we visited the truck-farmer's market on the corner in front of the courthouse. The practiced oldtimers recounted how each of their vegetables (we counted 18 varieties) had been planted and just picked within Surry's boundaries. The produce looked like an ad _ cabbages the size of beach balls, both smooth and rough kale, mustard greens and red potatoes.
A few steps from the courthouse is the local landmark, the 40-year-old Surrey House restaurant (the owner uses the British spelling). It was nearly noon _ time for a first encounter with the area's twin treasures.
The Surrey House advertises the world's greatest peanut butter sandwich. For $3.95 one gets alternating slices of white and brown breads, and a small crock of peanut butter on a large butcher board spread with crisp bacon, sliced bananas, raisins, grape jelly, cheese slices and apple wedges. The peanut butter can be used as mortar.
We studied the 11 ham entrees on the menu. There were ham and oysters, ham and crabmeat, ham and turkey and on and on and oink. The most popular entree is ham and southern fried chicken, which comes with two fresh vegetables.
The ham at Surrey House is aged six months. Moist and bright red, there is a sweetness to it that almost overpowers its salty texture.
The peanut soup, smoky and silky, uses a base of chicken broth with crumbled nuts on top. Folks here often start a meal with a 95-cent cup of the soup and finish it with honey-sweetened peanut-raisin pie ($1.50).
Next door to the Surrey House is the Wallace Edwards Ham Co., one of the few places in the area that offers weekday tours of its ham-curing operation. Wallace Edwards Sr. began the business by selling ham sandwiches to travelers on the Jamestown ferry in 1925.
His grandson Sam told us how his own dad started him out: "I always had to clean up the grease, do the packing and split the hickory for the smokehouse." This came after he received his business degree at the University of Richmond.
"Hogs were originally butchered in January," Sam Edwards said as he led us into a cavernous room full of fresh hams covered with flaked salt. The curing sheds that day held more than 10,000 hams. The space was chilled to 40 degrees. The salt looked like snowdrifts as it nearly hid the huge ham hill.
Spring is for smoking and a thick cloud of hickory smoke blown in from outside nearly obscured our view in the next room. After that, there was a warm "summer" room, in which the outside fat melts away from the ham, helping it to lose a third of its fresh weight. (The slippery floor attested to the process.) In the final aging process, the hams are rubbed with pepper _ an unnecessary step, Edwards said.
"It's for show," he confided. "A century ago they put it on because it's a perfect bug repellent. We only keep it there because customers still expect to see a natural ham coated with pepper. It doesn't penetrate enough to flavor it."
At Edward's country store, my husband sampled its top-of-the-line ham, the Wigwam brand. Aged for a year, the smoked dry flavor is an acquired taste, and beginners fare best by cutting its strength with a baked biscuit or chicken.
I was primed for Edwards' next suggestion: "Cousin Billy makes a terrific peanut pie in Wakefield, just down the road." We scurried south down Route 31.
Wakefield bills itself as "peanut capital of the world" and Cousin Billy's Virginia Diner is the largest building in town, except for the peanut-processing sheds. Here the slice was all peanut and honey, served hot, with a fist-size mound of peanut ripple ice cream. We also tried the vinegary pulled pork sandwich. Double yum!
What Surrey House was to ham, the Virginia Diner is to peanuts. Whether you order a simple tuna fish sandwich or the giant pork chop dinner, you will get a little side cup of freshly roasted and salted jumbos with it.
Peanuted out and porked up, we decided to head for a destination where we could atone for our gluttony. Backtracking down Route 31, we turned east on Highway 10 where three miles down the road we came to Chippokes Plantation, a 1,400-acre state park. Planted in peanuts and soy, Chippokes has trails bordering its cliffs over the James River, a perfect place for a jog or hike.
The sedentary can easily spend a worthwhile hour in the Farm and Forestry Museum; in the summer, bring your swimsuit since Chippokes has the only Olympic-size pool in either county.
Feeling less guilty, we rolled along Highway 10 for our last visit of the day, Bacon's Castle, which is neither a castle nor has anything to do with pork bellies. The 17th-century brick mansion was once ordered commandeered as an anti-Crown outpost by rebel force Lt. Nathaniel Bacon.
Originally sited on 10,000 acres of rich farmland, the Jacobian-style structure stands in stark contrast to most of its area contemporaries. The bricks, which were made on the premises, are laid English style _ one long, one short _ with the mortar full of ground oyster shells for strength.
Smithfield, where we planned to spend the night, was less than 10 miles away. As we approached the town we drove past the mile-long pork-processing plant. So important is it to the region that during the Christmas season it is festooned with lights, and a giant Santa's sleigh is suspended from the largest building. Except it is pulled not by eight tiny reindeer but by nine very large pigs, the lead porker having a bright red nose that blinks on and off.
We headed for Smithfield Station. Poised over the Intracoastal Waterway on the marshy Pagan River, it features a bright daylight-lit restaurant, a 15-room hostelry and a marina. A wrap-around verandah has views of the historic part of town, the sunset and passing boats. We passed up dinner in favor of nibbling on a plate of thin Smithfield ham biscuits and iced tea, while watching herons dive for their supper among the reedy grass and cattails.
Adrian and Georgiana Havill are freelance writers living in Reston, Va.