There was nothing "elegant Southern" about sub-zero Vermont last Saturday night. But the promise of crawfish eggrolls, poussin confit and bananas foster motivated a carload of us to drive an hour in the dark through blowing snow from Burlington to a gourmet Dixie dinner in East Middlebury. The improbable setting -- the New England Christmas-card-perfect Waybury Inn -- couldn't have been further from the French Quarter. And the whiteout conditions extended to the inn's interior: There wasn't a black face in the house.
Ironically, an African-American inspired the feast and wine pairing. Not Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday was less than a week ago, but Texas-born vintner Edward "Mac" McDonald of Vision Cellars, one of a very small number of black wine makers in the United States. Vermont Wine Merchants, which supplies the Waybury, showcased three of his wines -- a Pinot Noir, a Pinot Blanc and a Sauvignon Blanc-Pinot Gris blend -- alongside bottles from France, Argentina, New Zealand and Chile.
Resident Chef Donna Seibert kept apace in the kitchen, starting with a "reception table" laden with three preparations of raw oysters, fried okra, spicy beef empanadas and grit cakes in a spicy red-pepper glaze. Only the alligator "app" was absent. "I couldn't find it anywhere," said Seibert, who put together the menu with the Wine Merchant's Joerg Klauck. Later in the meal, she clued in the dozen or so diners, "I just kept on pretending I was from Tara, and Rhett Butler was my man."
Scarlett O'Hara would surely have known to eat the pompano -- and not the parchment paper -- in the delicate first-course fish dish. Native to Florida waters, the tasty white chunks went swimmingly with scallops in a creole-spiced champagne-cream sauce presented with a shaved collard green garnish. I devoured that, too. The small portion size, elegantly presented in a papillote package, made you want to savor every bite. McDonald's Sauvignon Blanc-Pinot Gris combo -- which Klauck described as rare and "odd" -- was clean and crisp without being lightweight.
Then came a refreshing salad of mustard, collard and spinach greens dressed with sunflower seeds and a warm tasso vinaigrette. And another wine: the fruity Pinot Blanc from Vision Cellars. As he did between every course, Klauck got up to explain a bit about the selection, and in classic wine-snob-speak, said something about "oak barrels" and "tropicality." As the gum-chewing Jack in Sideways would say, "It tasted pretty good to me."
Vermont Wine Merchants makes a habit of throwing lavish dinners. Owners Klauck and Mike Stolese bring business to the company's restaurant clients -- the Waybury's all-inclusive price tag was $65 -- while the public gets a clue, too. In the past few weeks, the company has organized food-and-wine pairings at the 1824 House in Waitsfield and at Warren's prestigious Pitcher Inn. Next Wed-nesday, Klauck is serving organic wines from Cali-fornia's Yorkville Cellars at a special five-course dinner at Elements in St. Johnsbury. The next night they move on to the Black Lantern Inn in Montgomery.
Klauck confides, "I'm trying to convince people that wine is another food group."
Back at the Waybury, a savvy Scarlett would have been discreetly loosening her corset. We were faced with a choice of four entrees, each paired with a different wine. Reluctantly, I passed up the pan-seared pork tenderloin with Makers Mark sauce. I said "non" to the poussin confit, which turned out to be a tasty little chicken with cornbread apple and pecan stuffing. The herb-crusted lamb loin chop got away, too, with its enticing winter vegetable ragout. I ordered spiced boiled shrimp on black-eyed peas and rice with a seafood gumbo sauce. Safe, but I wasn't sorry.
Plus, my crustacean creation was matched with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc -- did I detect a hint of upside-down grapefruit? The wine of the hour, the Vision Cellars Pinot Noir, accompanied the pork.
Frankly, the last thing we needed was a rum dessert, accompanied by a sweet Chilean wine made from grapes allowed to begin fermenting on the vine. But the soupy bananas foster were too good to pass up. So I had two servings. I was well into my second glass of dessert wine -- the smaller the vessel, the more dangerous -- when Seibert reappeared to invite us all to the restaurant's next Big Night on the eve of the Academy Awards. Each food course references a movie that has been nominated -- surely Sideways? Of course, there'll be wine. Here's hoping for a '61 Cheval Blanc.
Since Bill McKibben arrived in Vermont several years ago, Middlebury seems to have acquired a growing appetite for food as an academic subject. The visiting scholar recently moderated a school-sanctioned panel discussion that free-ranged from factory farming and eating disorders to pasteurization. "The ability to eat whatever we want, whenever we want it, is based on the availability of cheap fossil fuels," said McKibben, who brought together four eating-oriented instructors to share "Food for Thought."
Over the monthlong winter term, organic vegetable farmer Will Stevens taught a course called "Eating Locally, Thinking Globally" that examined agricultural sustainability as a form of "homeland security." Middlebury alum Shannon Finch, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Texas, looked at the intersection of food, culture and communication in "Eat Your Words." Husband-and-wife Amy Trubeck and Brad Koehler team-taught a workshop on Vermont farmstead cheese. She's a food anthropologist and executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network. He's the manager of dining operations at Middlebury, which now provides students every eating option imaginable, including Mongolian Grill. One young man in the room reported to Koehler, "People are starting to saute vegetables on the panini machines."
Attendees munched on Vermont goat cheese while the panel pondered the meaning of "local" -- the state's official definition is 40 miles from your house. McKibben asked what they'd cook for the presidential inauguration, which was then still a week away. Trubek suggested foods indigenous to the D.C. area, such as Maryland crabs. Koehler followed up with a Virginia turkey. Finch recommended a Texas barbecue because "It brings people together from both sides of the aisle." Stevens said, "I'd have to go straight to dessert: apple pie." Made in Vermont, of course.