Like many adventures, this one began with a question: Would you like to come to D.C. for our event?
The question is ever-changing. My answer, a constant, “Yes!”
I first heard of the West Virginia State Society a year ago when one of their board members approached me about catering her wedding. Since then, I’ve been looking forward to the event they were planning to host. I used to spend a fair amount of time in our nation’s capital, and the idea of going down there to showcase what we’re doing here in Wheeling was thrilling to say the least.
The State Society celebrated West Virginia’s 152nd birthday on June 15. My wife, Katie, and I drove down the morning of to meet my friend, West Virginia ex-pat, and current D.C. resident, Leigh Anne. I was in D.C. just after the events of 9/11. I walked past soldiers on the streets grimly carrying automatic weapons. But I have not been to the city in many years, so before we left, I consulted with Leigh Anne.
“Matt, let me put it this way: I just took my nail clippers out of the backpack I’m bringing. If you have anything out of the ordinary in your vehicle at all, you may have a longer stay than you intended.”
A friend let us borrow his car, and I texted him: “Make sure your car doesn’t have anything in it that could get me arrested.”
Thanks to Leigh Anne’s sage advice, we left earlier than I’d originally planned. We shot across Interstate 70 in my friend’s glorified go-cart, through Little Washington and down into Uniontown, Pa. Then we climbed over the mountains past Nemacolin and angled toward the District of Colombia.
This gig presented several interesting challenges. We weren’t really going to be able to do any onsite cooking, and there’s no good way to hold food for eight hours, so I sat down with my Sous Chef, Ryan Butler, and we hashed out a menu with those concerns in mind:
Smoked Pork Loin Sliders with Smoked Aioli Made From the Smoker Drippings on a great Local Brioche that I found
Chipotle Hummus with Blue Corn Chips for the Blue and Gold Touch
House-Cured, House-Smoked Bacon with Chocolate and Strawberries
With this menu, everything could be fresh, delicious, and meet our standards of quality. We represented a spectrum from the more traditional to the more experimental and, as we always try to do, offered a vegetarian selection.
Getting into the D.C. area, the traffic, of course, picked up significantly. We timed it just right so we didn’t bear the brunt of any rush hour madness, but still, driving in traffic is a skill like parallel parking one best kept honed, and I was not. We got off 495 onto the George Washington Memorial Parkway and followed the Potomac River along the refreshingly wooded landscape bordering several regional parks.
Across the river, we could see the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. It struck me, as it always has, how beautiful and well-designed the capital is. One can still see echoes of the wetlands beneath its spoked streets and marbled buildings. Once we crossed the river and truly got into downtown traffic, I began to white-knuckle the steering wheel. It was hard to pay attention because we were driving through an area so densely packed with history. The scene from National Lampoon’s European Vacation flashed in my head.
“Look, Katie, the Capitol Building … the Smithsonian!”
We turned on to Constitution Ave and found the Dirksen Senate Office Building. But now what? Since my last visits to DC, it was obvious security has been stepped up significantly. Security cameras, police officers, and mobile road blocks were prevalent.
Subscribe to Weelunk
We pulled to the side of the road and a member of Capitol Police came over. He was unfamiliar with the event we were attending, but was certain we weren’t supposed to be where we were. He very kindly directed us to a place where we could safely pull over and get our bearings.
It took a moment, but we finally figured out what we needed to do. Apparently there had been a bit of a security issue the previous week, so this week everything was ramped up, and we needed to go to off‑site screening. At this point, we’d been in the car about five hours, and we both needed, very much, to find a bathroom. Nevertheless, we drove back out of downtown, and found off-site screening.
Everyone at the security checkpoint was very nice and very thorough. First, we pulled up, and a dog sniffed the car for bombs. We pulled to a second checkpoint to verify our identities. The third site had us open all the doors, hood, and trunk for inspection. Katie scurried off to a bathroom, and I continued to cross my legs. Following this third check, I thought we were surely cleared, but we were instead directed to back into a loading bay where everything in the car was removed and X-rayed. I finally got my bathroom break, and shortly thereafter, we left to go back to the Dirksen.
Once back in town, we had a bit of an easier time getting to our destination since now we had our bearings. We pulled in behind the Dirksen. Police officers asked us to pull to the side to have another bomb-sniffing dog give us the paws-up. The modular roadblocks were then lowered and we pulled into the basement of the Senate Office Building. We found a place to park, found the event room, and found we had a lot of time on our hands. Feeling a bit out of place, we went to the commissary and got lunch, appreciating the downtime before the show.
The building itself was beautiful. One thing that really struck me was how nice everyone was. Some folks were aloof, as you’d expect in a big city, but everyone was nice. The members of Capitol Police, especially. One word of caution though, don’t make the mistake of calling them “guards,” as I did, then hastily retracted. They are police officers.
Leigh Anne arrived from her day job, and before long, it was go-time. Place the table cloth, place the banner, place the platters, quick in-service on how to make and present the food, and I’m shaking hands with Senators and Congressmen.
There have been many times in my life where, in the moment, I’ve mentally stepped back to survey the scene, and I’ve looked at myself and thought, “Can you believe this!?”
Senator Shelly Moore Capito was one of the first people to stop by our table. Followed by Congressman David McKinley and Sen. Joe Manchin, Congressman Evan Jenkins, and Congressman Alex Mooney. We even got to meet Andrea Mucino, Miss West Virginia. Everyone had a great time and loved the food.
Also in attendance were members of the West Virginia State Society, including Emilee Romano and Pete Deremer who invited us to the event. I loved the chance to meet Amy Goodwin, Wheeling native and Commissioner for the Division of Tourism, a vibrant and exciting woman.
Charlie Schlegel, from the Alpha also represented Wheeling, along with vendors, restaurants, breweries, and distilleries from all over the state. Two of my favorites were Big Timber, a brewery from Elkins and Smooth Ambler Spirits from Greenbrier Valley (with aged Gin, Vodka, Rum, and Bourbon that are out of this world).
It was amazing to see so many people in one room who believe and are actively working to make our state a better place. Without reservation, I believe the key to our future is tourism. As a state we need to celebrate what makes us unique and beautiful: our culture, our land, and our history. We can reinvent not just Wheeling but the entire state. We can have a viable economy based on an industry that preserves what makes us great. We can find a way to be our authentic selves and thrive. There is a long path ahead, but we are taking some huge strides. The Vagabond Kitchen and I are happy to be a small part of the great things happening in our Wild and Wonderful home.