The Food in Martinsburg


I was having a conversation with a friend about people who are picky eaters the other day, and this isn’t a post about picky eating, but it is about influences from childhood, which includes food–and it made me think of Martinsburg. Many of the core values and behaviors we carry through our lives are developed in childhood. Sometimes we try to give our children some kind of “experience” that they will carry with them, but more of the important influences may actually, I believe, come unintended or for other purposes than what they result. My parents didn’t spend a couple of years taking me to Martinsburg, West Virginia, every weekend to shape my lifelong attitude toward food–but it did impact my perspective on food as well as other things. Of all the places I’ve never lived, I was influenced by Martinsburg more than any other.

Back when I was around eight years old, my parents moved back to Silver Spring, Maryland. We’d lived in Silver Spring before, and after an odd ten-month stint in Alabama, we moved back. The whole back and forth moving around was a little discombobulating at the time. I was too young to understand the adult dynamics behind the moves, and they really don’t matter now to this point, but suffice it to say at the time we moved back to Silver Spring, my dad didn’t have a job. He started selling life insurance, which was also strange, since he was a longtime preacher. And then one day it was announced to us kids that he was going to start preaching at a little church in Martinsburg. But we weren’t moving to Martinsburg. I think my dad would have liked to move to Martinsburg, but my mother was having none of it. So he kept selling life insurance during the week and we traveled to Martinsburg every weekend.

I was also too young to really understand the issues going on with this little church at the time. It was a Church of Christ, of course. My father was a Church of Christ preacher. The church was small, and struggling for some reason. And they didn’t have a preacher. I suppose they must have paid my father something, but I doubt it was much. It was a small white building on a corner, with a parking lot that had a steep bank to one side. It was walled, and walking as if on a balance beam at the top of the wall was a good after-church activity while the grownups were talking. Next to the church was the (vacant) preacher’s home, where we stayed on weekends. There was very little furniture in the house, just some make-do beds to get us by. This was the 1970s and the inside was painted in bright, vivid psychedelic colors. My mother hated it, but I thought it was cool. Orange and purple walls! Who knew you could paint your house orange and purple! My room at home was painted a sedate off-white. I wanted to move there, and not just for the orange and purple walls. I loved the whole small town vibe of the area. (I haven’t been to Martinsburg in years, and I’m sure it’s much more built up now.) You didn’t have to go far, just a few minutes, and you were smack dab in the middle of West Virginia farm country.

Sometimes on Saturdays my parents went shopping. My mother loved antiques, and there was one big antique store there that she particularly liked. I liked it, too. I collected little glass animals that “lived” in my dollhouse, and I would save my money to buy a new glass animal every time we went. (These weren’t antiques, of course, just junky doo dads they sold near the register.) My dad also bought me a gold band there with a little chip of a diamond that has been a special ring to me ever since, and the lamp still on my night table today is a lamp I picked out in that store.

But while I remember that store and some of the things I got there, it’s one of few memories I have from Martinsburg outside of food. Food, to me, seemed to dominate our weekend trips. I remember little about the church, despite knowing I spent plenty of hours in that building. I remember little about that house other than the orange and purple walls. But the food…. Oh, how I remember the food in Martinsburg.

Picky eating wasn’t allowed in our home–if it was on your plate, you ate it. Even if it was cottage cheese with cling peaches on top and you thought it was nasty. (I’ve talked about cottage cheese and cling peaches before, here and here.) But this directive–eat whatever is in front of you–was even further slammed when we were in public, i.e. at someone else’s home. The preacher’s family was expected to be models of good, and polite, behavior. We were admonished many times that whatever was served to us, we were to eat it–and happily! To me, at least, this was mostly not a burden. I didn’t give too much thought to the situation. I was ever an obedient child. I think most of those admonishments were meant for my sister, who was known to spend HOURS after dinner at home sitting with untouched peas on her plate, tears running down her face and a stubborn set to her mouth, in a battle with my father over her vegetables. Me, I just scraped those peas onto the spoon, popped them in my mouth, and scampered off to play before it got dark! I couldn’t understand all the drama, and I had other stuff to do.

Food in Martinsburg, however, was something outside my mother’s usual daily dinner table repertoire. Since my father was the visiting preacher (even though his “visiting” went on for a couple of years) and they seemed to consider him to be doing them a favor by coming every weekend to preach for them and help the church get back on its feet, the congregation took it upon themselves to take care of his family the way country people take care of people. Every Sunday after church, a different family took us home for Sunday lunch. The majority of the homes we visited for these Sunday lunches were out in the country. They had huge gardens, and their tables groaned with plates and platters and bowls of vegetables and fruits and casseroles and meats, desserts and cakes and pies. It was like a holiday feast every week. Some foods were weird, like rhubarb or okra. Things my mother didn’t cook at home. And because we were at a different family’s home every week, things would be prepared and served in different ways. Week after week after week. It was an exposure to different family’s tastes and favorites and “weird” preferences that I couldn’t have gotten otherwise at such a young age where most of the time you’re usually just eating your mom’s cooking. It was also a great exposure to home cooking from scratch, beyond the cooking my mother did at home. My mother loved to cook, and she baked a lot, but she also enjoyed her suburban life and the grocery store and convenience foods upon occasion. There were no convenience foods at these Sunday farm lunches. The only other time we ate this way was when we visited the Slanted Little House once a year and dined at my great-aunt Ruby’s table. But that was once a year. This was every week.

As I said, I was never a picky eater to begin with, but this constant exposure to different foods over the time we spent in Martinsburg was an experience I’ve never forgotten. It left me with an enthusiasm, curiosity, and adventurous attitude toward food that I’ve carried with me over my life. It’s not something my parents set out to give me, or that they probably thought much about other than hoping their children weren’t going to embarrass them at the table. My parents were in the midst of their own transitional period and just muddling through the messy middle of their own lives, trying to keep it together and figure out what they were going to do next. Eventually, my dad quit selling life insurance and got a full-time preaching job closer to home. We continued to live in Silver Spring until we moved to California by the time I reached high school. Martinsburg became a distant memory other than the little church bulletin that came in the mail once a week for years to follow. We never went back to Martinsburg.

Though, every time I try a new recipe or eagerly reach for some new food that I’ve never tasted before, I know Martinsburg is still with me. And whenever I’m muddling through the messy middle of my own life, I know–or at least hope–that my children, too, are learning something that might surprise me.
And sometimes, you know, that’s the very best thing about messy middles. There’s always an unexpected sweet slice of pie in there somewhere.

P.S. The pie pictured is a variation on this pie, made with half oatmeal, half pecans (and, of course, still with rum, but no coconut or walnuts).


  1. MJ Krech says:

    Oh, Suzanne! :airkiss: What a wonderful story! I hope you are considering writing another book, this time about your childhood! If this is any indication of the stories you’ve got, I want to hear more of them! Thanks for a big smile on this horridly cold winter day! :snuggle:

  2. Backporchcarver says:

    That was an interesting read. I thank God so many times for my Mom making food such an adventure for me. She made it so exciting whenever there was “new” food to try and I will still get excited to try something different. My husband is a “restricted” eater and I feel so sorry for him cause he misses out on so many wonders.He won’t even let me cook for him cause he is afraid I might slip something “foreign” in his food.

  3. marrypoppinz says:

    So…you had a “glass menagerie”. Very cool insight. Now you have a real live menagerie….

  4. craig says:

    Interesting…you lived in Silver Spring, no doubt because people not from there always put an s on the spring. I don’t know where you lived, but my family owned a resturant there…Mrs. K’s Toll House (it is quite different today then it was). You might be not be much older than me (idk), so coulda been in the same area at the same time…and now I live in WV…Canaan Valley…funny how small a world it can be…

    • Suzanne McMinn says:

      OHMYGOD, I know the Toll House restaurant!!!!! We drove right by it all the time. We didn’t live far from it. And yes, people always put an s at the end of Silver Spring. (Just checked google maps. We lived on Burnt Mills Avenue, which is 2.6 miles from Mrs. K’s.)

      • Suzanne McMinn says:

        By the way, we did not, to my memory, ever EAT at the restaurant, but we drove by it on a regular basis. Our house was on a street right off Colesville Road, not far from where the restaurant is. I always wanted to eat there, LOL. It caught my attention and I always noticed it.

  5. craig says:

    ^^edit above^^…certianly you are younger than me..I’m sure…(or close to same age…or something)

  6. ibnsgirl says:

    We lived in a temporary apartment in Martinsburg for the second half of 2013. (Was there today, no less, but didn’t eat anything…) Where we lived, it was all fast food. We got sick of that really quickly. Our “Martinsburg Effect” has been to make everything homemade since we got a decent kitchen back!

    I’m not from the area, so I don’t know how much bigger it may or may not be. I wouldn’t call it a small town any more, though…

  7. meigseer says:

    My wife and I lived in Martinsburg for three years in the early 1990’s while preaching for a Church of Christ in the area. We understand about the food in the area. We lived in an apple orchard beside the church building. We enjoyed the fresh cherries, peaches and apples through out the time we were there.

    I’m know the area has changed since we lived there. Another high school has been built and all of the schools are in the large class in WV.

    We also loved the area for the history of the Civil War. So much to appreciate in the Eastern Panhandle.

  8. wvbetty says:

    Suzanne, you really should drive over and visit Martinsburg and the entire eastern Panhandle. It’s about a 5 hour drive from Charleston. Martinsburg has drastically changed since you lived there (practically all the orchards are gone), but it is still a nice place. Berkeley Springs up in Morgan County still is a quaint, quiet little place with lots of interesting little restaurants. Charles Town in Jefferson County is full of history, and Shepherdstown (also in Jeff County) is quaint and hip, with fabulous small eateries as well. And that entire Shenandoah Valley area is gorgeous in the spring and fall.

  9. AnnieB says:

    Thanks for this GREAT post. I agree with MJ – another memoir! No, but seriously, you do have such a wonderful knack for telling a story. You make me want to keep reading, and I’m always sorry when I get to the end.

  10. Granma2girls says:

    Love your story of your childhood food experience! I agree with MJ, we would love to read about your childhood. You make it sound very fascinating. I find it interesting that being exposed to all sorts of foods inspired you to be adventurous. With me it was the opposite. My mom was a plain cook. Boiled potatoes , canned green beans or corn, and some kind of fried meat. It was when I became part of a church and went to church potlucks, at 15, that I realized there was a whole new world of food adventures waiting for me. Salads, casseroles, desserts. I started cooking then and have been a passionate home cook ever since. Looking forward to the fried chicken recipe. Never attempted it but it looks very similar to my MIL’s. So will give yours a try. Many of your recipes have become family favourites.

  11. Ann W says:

    I’ve been thinking for some time that if you did another memoire, I’d like to read a “portrait of an artist” book about your life. There would be overlap with “Chickens in the Road,” but it would be more an autobiography about you as an artistic, creative person which could go back to childhood and include more of Sassafras Farm. Also, would you ever do a workshop on farm, or farm animal, photography?

  12. clstinson1 says:

    I knew it! You grew up in a household with traditional values. It comes through in your writing.

    I grew up in San Diego, and always loved our family trips out of town. I visited my grandparents who lived in Joplin and thought that was the country! We would occasionally pile into my grandma’s pristine old sedan and visit relatives who lived far out in the woods and grassy pastures, and it seemed as if they lived on Mars. I swam in a big round cow waterer as a swimming pool when I was there. I remember craw fish gumbo for supper. My west coast roots have stayed with me in a love for really good Mexican food, but the trips to grandma and grandpa’s house formed the way I actually cook. I make chicken fried pork chops, butter-bean, soup, pies, and fry up bacon for breakfast. I love this post because it tells why you do many of the things you love. Thanks for sharing, it is a very nice story.

  13. whaledancer says:

    Great post. It reminds me what a good writer you are. I think you have a ministry of your own, a kind of ministry of the blog.

  14. MMHoney says:

    So sorry to know our famous apple producing eastern panhandle is going down the drain so to speak. spent a wonderful vacation at deep creek lake. Never hear of it anymore… Just pondering…

  15. PattiSherwoodRealtor says:

    I’d like to invite you back to the Eastern Panhandle, Suzanne! I live in Charles Town and work in Martinsburg and throughout the Eastern Panhandle. Let me know when you’d like to come for Sunday dinner – don’t be surprised if I serve Grandmother Bread – and we’ll do a Sunday drive for dessert.

  16. Rah says:

    Reading this post makes me feel you are “back!” Really wonderful post! I was a minister’s child and later a minister’s wife, and experienced those every-Sunday feasts and the myriad ways people can cook the same dish. Many of my best recipes came from those lunches. Thanks for a great post and nice memories.

  17. Melody says:

    I have lived in Martinsburg for about four yrs now..I find it all fast food..My home roots is Wisconsin and I miss the fish frys from home.

  18. mtnmedx says:

    We lived in WV for 5 years while my husband finished up his Masters as a PA and you’re right about the church food. The spread was amazing for every church event. NEVER did you find a bucket of KFC or store bought desserts. Always there were homemade breads and other baked goods. I remember asking an elder’s wife if she could share her secret to such great chicken and dumplings and she said that “it always starts with a nice fat hen”. Hmmm. At the time (as a new wife) I wasn’t up to the challenge of starting any meal with a “nice fat hen”. How I wish I could go back to those days and pick the brains of all those great cooks!

  19. Leah says:

    I really liked this story. That pie looks so good! :wave:

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