West Virginia Hills by Jeff Ellis

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tamarack: The Best of West Virginia, Beckley

     Now that it's summer and Memorial Day Weekend is almost here, many people will be traveling in and around the state, while many others will be leaving for destinations outside the state. Whatever the case may be, if you plan to be driving on I77 north/south, or on I64 east/west, and will be anywhere near the Beckley area, then I strongly recommend you plan on stopping at the Tamarack, located at the far end of  the ramp of exit 45 (beyond and to the right of the service plaza). For several years, when I would travel back and forth from eastern North Carolina, I drove right past this place, glancing over at its unusual building design with the red peaked roof (which from the air resembles a starburst quilt pattern!), not realizing what I was missing. When finally (thank goodness) curiosity got the better of me and I decided to check it out, I have made a point to build it into my travel plans as either the first break stop I make whether I'm headed east or south, or the last break stop if I'm on my way back home. I have even made it a point of destination since John and I have been together just to share with him how wonderful it is! While it opened in May 1996, I think it took me until sometime in 1999 to figure out what I had been missing. You hear people mention places, and I had heard something or other about the Tamarack, but I think what finally swayed me in its direction was the mention of its food court being managed by the Greenbrier Resort, and that Greenbrier chefs did their training there. I had also heard about how much even a hamburger platter cost at the Greenbrier, and people that I know who had eaten there have said that this was just as good only a whole lot cheaper (though since it is cafeteria style you still have to be a little careful). So as usual, it was the promise of good food that did it for me!
     And it's not JUST the food, though let me tell you about the food! But where to start? To tell you the truth, I go for the dessert, and everyhing else I eat is just "icing on the cake" so to speak. So let me start by mentioning the most decadent two-layered chocolate cake I have ever eaten in my life! I'm not diabetic and I need insulin to eat it! And honestly, I wouldn't even be mentioning it if I thought for one minute that all the pieces would be gone the next time I showed up because I wrote this article about it! I think it's happened to me only one time that I got there too late at night and all the chocolate cake was gone. I'm pretty sure that I had been fairly happy on my trip up to that point, and then WHAM! This is what happens when you live for something edible. Okay, so besides that I can settle for their fresh peach half smothered in homemade Greenbrier style whipped cream! And where do they find those peaches? Those things are gigantic! And I do love them too, and they make a great dessert dish for when you have company, and it just so happens that they can be purchased from the Greenbrier gift shop located directly across from the food court. Because I have wanted to impress my own guests, I have on occassion bought a vacuumed sealed can or two (or three) of them, although the whipped cream can only be had there. Oh, but the food court has many delicious desserts to suite every taste bud, from cheese cake, to bread pudding, to a whole variety of pies, and other things too. And then there are the various main gourmet and down-to-earth dishes of meats and vegetables, along with a few of their signature items such as rainbow trout and fried green tomatoes. They sell a whole assortment of deli sandwiches and soups and salads and breads and pizza, all made right there by those amazing Greenbrier chefs, and so your taste buds get the very best of West Virginia before you head out for your walk to browse around the artisans' shops and galleries (that's because I recommend eating first, though you don't have to).
     The Tamarack, named for the northern conifer that reaches its natural southern extent in West Virginia (and is known for its strength, beauty, and versatality), is the result of a collective vision of Govenor Gaston Caperton, artisans, bussiness men, economists, and others who desired a way to boost the state's economy by fostering a market-driven approach to selling indigenous products. Even from its inception, funds were set aside under the WV Parkways Economic Authority (without tax dollars or toll revenues ever being used), and from the first year it has generated enough revenue to stand on its own without any further support. The idea was to establish a premiere showcase for the state's best artists, crafts people, artisans, and food producers so that people traveling along the turnpike would be able to experience the very best that West Virginia had to offer all under one roof. When it opened in May 1996 it became the nation's first statewide collection of arts and crafts, all chosen by a jury selection process that was set up to insure quality and authenticity of West Virginia made items.
     Today there are over 2,800 artisans representing all 55 counties who sell everything from books and DVDs, to fine art, sculptures, furniture, jewelry, art to wear, fiber arts, toys, glass, WV souvenirs, pottery and ceramics, metal decor, outdoor and garden items, music and instruments, specialty foods, and seasonal and holiday gift items. The 59,000 square foot building also houses an art gallery, a theater, a Hall of Fame Museum, and an information desk! Because so many visitors have wanted to return for group meetings and  the like, a 22,500 square ft. conference center was added in June 2003.
     During the Summer (April - December) the Tamarack is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The food court serves breakfast from 8:00-10:45, and lunch/dinner from 11:00 until closing (but I'd get there before that if you want a piece of chocolate cake!). Over 1/2 million people visit there every year, and I hope to see you there the next time John and I go. If you haven't ever been, don't be like me and miss out on the experience any longer!

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