Author of Plantation Feasts and Festivities
by Bella Stander
Willow Grove Inn proprietor Angela Mulloy didn't set out to be an innkeeper. In 1987, all she wanted was to buy a second home where her family could gather. Told by her daughter to look at the historic 37-acre Orange property, she fell in love at first sight. The main building (there are also five dependencies), she says, "was totally original, down to its 18th century wainscoting, and had no remodeling to rip out." Still, as so often happens when people buy a big old house, Mulloy had to turn Willow Grove into a paying venture to cover repairs and upkeep. For the next six years she shuttled between the inn and her public relations and publishing business in Annandale. "It was insanity!" Mulloy admits. "I couldn't keep my mind on either one." Now she lives and works full-time (and then some) at Willow Grove.
Mulloy got the idea to do a book when guests started asking her for recipes. However, at first, "there was no such thing as a recipe here. We did everything by feel and touch. Then I started writing things down." Later she began collecting recipes from chefs she brought to the inn, which she rewrote to make simpler for the home cook.
After self-publishing a recipe booklet and two seasonal books, Mulloy produced Plantation Feasts and Festivities: A Celebration of the Grandes Dames of Virginia Food and Hospitality, with a foreword and commentary by culinary grande dame Edna Lewis (who shared some of her own recipes), published by Roberts Rinehart. And "produced" is the operative word, because Mulloy not only wrote the book, but also oversaw the photography and food design, and laid out the pages. "That's one reason I was able to get a publisher so easily," she claims. There might be some other reasons, too: namely that the book is as informative as it is gorgeous, and packed with scores of recipes for dishes old and new. Another big plus is that Mulloy gives credit to the enslaved African-Americans who actually did the cooking for such long-ago hostesses as Dolley Madison.
Mulloy got to know Lewis through a seminar on food and wine held at Willow Grove in honor of Thomas Jefferson's 250th birthday. Lewis, who was born nearby on the same date (though many years later), saw that there was a rare surviving American chestnut tree on the grounds and suggested that Mulloy do something to honor it. And so on the second Sunday of each November, coinciding with the release of Novello wine (Italy's version of Beaujolais Nouveau), Willow Grove is the site of a Chestnut Festival. Each year Mulloy features a different Virginia winery, which makes its own Novello especially for the occasion and has its winemaker on hand to talk about it. The day's highlight is a sit-down six-course meal, with a different wine from the vineyard at each course-and roast chestnuts to dunk in it.
Having grown up in an Italian family next door to her grandmother in Camden, N.J., Mulloy comes by her cooking skills honestly. "Any time we got together the men played cards and all the women went in the kitchen and cooked," she recalls. "We had three dining rooms that opened onto each other and they were filled with people all the time." She notes that innkeeping takes the same skills as publishing. "They're both deadline businesses. You have to be on your toes, please customers and have enough moxie to sell everything that you're doing." We'll vouch for the moxie.
© 2001 Bella Stander