Images by Andrea Hubbell + Sarah Cramer Shields. Words by Jenny Paurys.
We could have spent the entire day around the worn dining room table in the white farmhouse that Tracey Love and Bridge Cox share. The house, built in 1925, has an authentic, sturdy feel and is filled with an eclectic mix of items that are practical, antique and loved. This is especially true of the kitchen, which has been newly renovated and fitted with found and recycled objects — each with its own story. Everything about this morning, this homestead and this couple reverberates with love and appreciation — of each other, of food, and of community. The conversation flows as easily as the sun through the windows, touching on hard work, dedicated pets, good friends, and personal passions, histories, and philosophies.
A genuine love of food runs through each of our hosts’ lives. A veteran manager of several fine-dining establishments — including Tavola in Charlottesville and before that, Six Burner in Richmond — Tracey is now Event Coordinator at Blenheim Vineyards and Sales and Marketing Director at Best of What’s Around organic farm. Bridge, meanwhile, is the Cheese Maker at Caromont Farm in Esmont, a position perfectly suited to a history working on farms and in kitchens, including a stint working with sheep in Oregon. They met through mutual friends when Tracey was managing Six Burner. Tracey chuckles recalling their first date, a coffee date to which Bridge brought every type of coffee accoutrement imaginable. All of which Tracey, naturally, already had.
The couple relocated to Charlottesville a few years ago, seeking the opportunity to broaden their love of food outside of the confines of a restaurant, where they could have more creative freedom and a chance to marry this passion with their strong sense of community. By any measure, they have succeeded, and this success is especially evident in Hill and Holler, a dinner series hosted in outdoor locations in the Charlottesville area, which Tracey cofounded with Caromont Farm owner Gail Hobbs-Page. In conceptualizing Hill and Holler, Tracey and Gail wanted to provide a venue for food lovers and farmers alike to enjoy a dining experience that would interweave local food with the people who produce and appreciate it, and complete the tapestry with a setting that is truly authentic to the hills and hollers of central Virginia.
“Any restaurant that I’ve ever worked in, I’ve tried to do some sort of local benefit dinner. Part of the reason Bridge and I moved to Charlottesville was because we’re surrounded by a bunch of talented food and wine producers. And I wanted an excuse to tie them all together,” Tracey says.
Hill and Holler features a different guest chef for each event, who has free rein over the menu. If the chef doesn’t have local farmers with whom they typically work, Tracey helps select these, drawing on the connections she’s made through her work at Best of What’s Around and Blenheim Vineyards. She has found that these opportunities to connect local food lovers and producers extend to the dinner table itself, where guests get to know each other and then find ways to support one another’s interests and businesses.
While we’re talking, Bridge is working on a true breakfast feast: a version of red beans and rice, with grits standing in for the rice.
“I feel like it’s pretty rare for most people to be able to have stone-ground grits,” he says, remarking that while he grew up eating them, he’s discovered that most folks don’t have access to the real deal. “It’s nice now that we have options,” he says, noting that both Wade’s Mill of Raphine and Woodson’s Mill of Lowesville offer true stone-ground grits.
Bridge dubs his method of making grits the “Edna Lewis approach” — add butter, salt, water and then leave it alone and let it do its thing. (Though he then notes that he’s added a little Worchester sauce to this batch.)
Cooking and conversation intertwine effortlessly, and Bridge talks about growing up on a farm outside of Lexington, Kentucky, where the loss of his mother at a very young age meant he spent a lot of time with his grandmother, whom he helped in the garden and in the kitchen.
“She canned everything; she did all that stuff. Everything was pretty much homemade, ” he says.
Tracey’s mother encouraged her three daughters to be adventurous with food.
“We were allowed to pick five things we didn’t want to eat,” she explains. “Anything other than what was on that list we had to at least try.”
Bridge learned how to cook for himself when he was quite young, and brings what he calls a “DIY ethos” to most things. Tracey, meanwhile — being the oldest — began cooking for her younger sisters in the afternoons. This early exposure to food preparation made each of them acutely aware of where ingredients come from, an awareness that eventually led them to where they are today.
“Bridge and I have definitely bonded over our love of food,” Tracey says, before adding, dryly, “My love of food also forces me to run.”
The couple also shares a mutual love of toast, which played an integral role in the early days of their relationship.
“It’s just one of the most simple foods that we both totally love,” she says. “When I was managing the restaurant in Richmond, I’d always get a break in the afternoon. He was making a bunch of bread and always had some sourdough starter going. I would go over to his apartment, we would hang out and eat toast for an hour and then I’d go back to work.”
“I’m a sucker for sourdough,” Bridge adds.
At the stove, a foundation of grits is added to the four white, oval au gratin dishes set out on the wooden countertop. Over this, Bridge pours a version of red beans, inspired by his love of New Orleans — the “creative capital for the South”— with a bit of structure added by a Savour recipe. The stew includes red beans, chopped yellow onions, celery, green and red bell peppers, and garlic; mixed with spices and bulked up with The Rock Barn smoked andouille sausage and Best of What’s Around beef shank. Bridge makes a well in the stew and into this cracks an egg, provided by one of the chickens they keep. Then the entire dish is set into the oven, to cook until the egg is done to the preferred consistency. Once out of the oven, Tracey adds a bit of arugula tossed with a simple, homemade oil and vinegar-based dressing. And, naturally, they serve brioche toast on the side, with toppings that include jam, butter, Caromont cheese and Marmite, a food spread produced from the yeast extract byproduct of beer brewing, and something Tracey classifies as a guilty pleasure that tastes “kind of like spreadable beef bouillon.”
“Marmite and brioche is pretty freaking awesome,” she says.
It is comfort food, eaten in a cozy, comfortable dining room where the feeling of friendship and gratitude pervades. It is a dish based on the simplest of Southern meals, blended with creative inspiration and sourced from local ingredients. (Bridge chuckles that even the bay leaves come from a friend, who brought them as a gift when visiting the couple.) In these ways, it is also the epitome of the life Tracey and Bridge are building together.
It is clear from the conversation in the sunny dining room that this is a couple with a deep well of interests. When we ask what plans they have for the rest of the week, Tracey mentions, almost by way of passing, that they are headed to San Francisco at 5 a.m. the next morning in an attempt to squeeze in a little downtime before spring gets underway.
For Bridge — who jokes that his unofficial title is “goat wrangler” — kidding season at Caromont will be in full swing in the coming weeks. For Tracey, spring means full-tilt wedding season at Blenheim and the onset of the planting and growing season at Best of What’s Around. Their work supporting these local food efforts will engulf their lives until autumn, when they will celebrate a different union than the search for food and community that originally led them to Charlottesville: Tracey and Bridge are getting married in October.
“I joked with Bridge that Blenheim paid him to propose so that I would get really fired up about weddings,” Tracey laughs.