Quick Trips

Caves, comfort food in Hocking Hills

By the time I hit the second dish of gourmet mac and cheese, I was beginning to get the idea that “comfort food” didn’t have to be something you whip up for your 7-year-old.

Yes, indeed, I toured the food of Hocking Hills, Ohio. I submerged myself in smoked brisket so tender you could cut it with a fork, catfish in batter so light and crisp you could almost break it like a cracker, a killer milkshake in a boot factory, duck confit whipped up in a fancy restaurant by college students. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the secret-recipe donuts.

Hey, everybody deserves a vacation now and then from all that healthy stuff the docs insist we eat to keep our arteries clear and our waistlines under control.

But there was also a bit of exercise to cut the guilt factor — hikes to caves with dripping ice and a talk by a Shawnee elder. Plus way more.

“What do you think of when someone says Ohio?” someone asked shortly after I arrived.

“Industry,” said one of my friends.

“Steel,” said another.

“Buckeyes,” said someone else, referring, I wasn’t sure, to either the nuts or the Ohio State University football team.

Beyond all that, 50 miles south of Columbus, is Hocking Hills and its parks, its food, its hospitality.

There’s a “Comfort Food Cruise,” held in the dead of winter, which prompted my husband to wonder on what body of water that was taking place, much less one that wasn’t frozen solid.

“Cruise” here refers to cruising in your car. Ten restaurants serve up appetizer-portions of cinnamon rolls, biscuits and gravy, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, brownies, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings and, yes, mac and cheese.

For 15 dollars.

“Um, isn’t that a bit steep — $15 per restaurant?” my husband wondered.

No, not $15 per restaurant — $15 total. And $5 of that goes to local food pantries that serve the poor.

Yes, it’s a lure to get people here in winter. Yes, it’s a deal. Yes, the food is really good.

And even not counting that, the general pricing of food here — much of it truly mouth watering — is way below what you might expect if you live in, say, Miami or New York or Dallas. Rhapsody Restaurant, for instance, is run by a chef with top credentials but the food is cooked by students taking a two-year culinary course, which leads to the $3 gourmet mac & cheese (drizzled with truffle oil) and the $14 duck confit, among other things.

But the star of the area is Hocking Hills State Park, which gets 3.1 million visitors a year, nicely comparing to, say, the Grand Canyon’s 4.5 million.

Mind you, Hocking Hills is strictly a do-it-yourself affair. You wander it yourself, choosing your inns, your restaurants and if you do want some guidance, your naturalist-led hikes. But the choice of activities is far more textured than you might expect, starting in winter and early spring with the frozen waterfalls. There are hundreds in the area but of all these, the most beautiful are Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave and Cedar Falls, though Saltpetre Cave is also worth a visit.

The hike into Lower Falls (there’s also an Upper Falls) at Old Man’s Cave is through a shallow canyon where oozing water has left curtains of dripping ice along layered sandstone walls. The falls, itself, is a larger, wider, 50-foot version of that, with an artful curtain of frozen spikes against a terra cotta backdrop.

The cave is named for a recluse who lived here under the wide cave’s overhang during the 1800s. And the entire area’s name comes from an old Shawnee word, “hockhocking,” which loosely means broken ground from the eroded hills and ravines that cut this entire area and result in winding, dipping roads that go straight only when you reach one of the tiny towns dotting the landscape.

Ash cave, 700 feet wide, 100 feet deep, has a waterfall 90 feet high and occasionally, the freezing spray at the bottom and the frozen cascade from the top meet in the middle to form a tall frozen column. But more often, it’s a spray that clouds the mound below in a sparkling mist.

And then, there was Saltpetre Cave, where we went with Shawnee Elder, Ron Hatten (his Shawnee name, Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah, means “Blue Jacket,” for his blue eyes). The cave once was mined for potassium nitrate used for gunpowder. And in winter, the cave is low enough so its thin waterfall does, indeed, meet the spray cone on the floor to form a ropy, frozen column.

“You would be surprised how much Shawnee you already speak,” Hatten told us. Many English words come from Shawnee. Whereupon he listed them: River is “sipi” and “grandfather river” for the largest river they knew is “mississippi.” A nut that falls from a tree is “pecan.” Sweet (for syrup) is “malasa” and “Great Lakes” is “michiga.”

Between the eating and the hiking was the moonshine factory.

Yup, Doug Nutter’s grandpappy made moonshine, as did just about everybody in this northern stretch of the Appalachians. As the story goes, in the late 1800s there was a mine strike. The disgruntled miners then lit the coal on fire and after the fires were mostly put out, they turned to liquor stills — some 300 of them hidden behind smoke in the still smoldering caves.

“We knew when the revenuers were coming,” Doug said. “The local kids would go from house to house (think ‘The Redcoats are coming!’)” And, so, gallons of hooch went down the drain.

The end of Prohibition put a damper on all that but didn’t end it entirely. Today, Doug’s family has gone legit. There’s an annual moonshine festival every Memorial Day weekend and now that they can give tastings, Doug expects double the 5,000 or so folks who normally show up.

On the other end of the spectrum was Rockmill Brewery, where Matthew Barbee makes gourmet beer, in 750 ml “cork and cage” bottles like fine wine and holds weekend tastings. He has his own private well where his sandstone-filtered water leads to a crisp, fresh, complex set of beers.

Matthew sprinkles his talk with comments on the “terroir” of his seven beers, a term usually associated with wine to show how it has the special taste of its local geography. And indeed, his beers are often something you might want to just sip before a crackling fire or pair with a $30-per-pound cheese.

So, of course, we rounded out our tour of Hocking Hills with a visit to Jo Eves’ simple diner, The Ridge Inn, in Laurelville. Jo’s claim to fame is her homemade donuts — light but not too light, sweet but not too sweet, covered with a simple glaze that lets the whole product melt in your mouth with just the right yeasty note.

In the end, do not expect to lose weight in Hocking Hills. But if you hike enough, maybe the gain won’t be too devastating.