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Caves and Comfort Food Cruisin’ in Ohio

OHIO_0114aDoug Nutter’s grandpappy made moonshine. So does Doug. But unlike grandpappy, the feds aren’t after him.

Because Doug has gone legit. And he has a distillery in Straitsville, Ohio, along with a yearly Moonshine festival to prove it.

Of course once I heard that, I had to try out the “Comfort Food Cruise” in Hocking Hills, Ohio.

Where? you ask.

Hocking Hills is towards the southern end of the state, 50 miles south of Columbus, 50 miles north of West Virginia on the northern edge of the Appalachians.

Ohio still

Moonshining has long been a tradition in the Ohio hills. Today, it’s legal.

“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.

Definitely not food.

Cruising for Cheap Comfort

There’s a “Comfort Food Cruise,” held in dead of winter, which prompted my husband to wonder on what body of water, much less one that wasn’t frozen solid. “Cruise” refers to cruising in your car. Ten restaurants serve up appetizer portions of cinnamon rolls, biscuits & gravy, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, brownies, meatloaf, chicken & dumplings and, yes, mac & cheese.

The comfort food cruise includes homey foods like donuts and mac and cheese.

The comfort food cruise includes homey foods like donuts and mac and cheese.

For $15.

“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, the Comfort Food Cruise is a lure to get people here in winter. Yes, it’s a deal. And yes, the food is really good.

The general pricing of food here — much of it truly mouthwatering — is way below what you might expect if you live in, say, Miami or New York or Seattle. 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 (honest) mac & cheese (gruyere, fontina, white cheddar sauce over penne pasta with Oreganatta bread crumbs and drizzled with truffle oil) and the $14 duck confit (“whole duck leg slow cooked with andouille sausage, JB King Slab bacon and Great Northern beans”), among other things.

Gourmet mac & cheese with gruyere, fontina and white cheddar

Gourmet mac & cheese with Gruyere, fontina and white cheddar

Moonshiner Madness

But back to Doug and his hooch.

Back in the late 1800s, local miners struck, and then lit the mines on fire. The coal all burned, so the folks turned to what they knew, moonshine, and built some 300 stills in the smoldering mine shafts.

Prohibition boosted business, eventually prompting locals to turn out 10,000 gallons of moonshine a week.

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

The end of prohibition put a damper on all that, but didn’t end moonshining 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.

So what does Doug’s secret family recipe taste like?

Sadly, what with weather woes and whatnot, Doug was still building his distillery in New Straitsville, Ohio, when we visited.

Could he sneak us a taste?

“Um, not really. I could lose my license and it took 11 months and 60 pieces of paper to get.”

Sigh, that’s what Doug gets for going straight. But when you consider that moonshine is basically un-aged whiskey, you can imagine the taste when you remember folks used to cut the stuff with rubbing alcohol. Doug swears his is much tastier.

Upscale Foods , Waterfalls, Caves

While the comfort food cruise tends towards the basics … pizza, brownies, grilled cheese … You can certainly find more upscale fare in Hocking Hills. Not only at Rhapsody Restaurant with its truffle oil drizzled mac & cheese, but also at the Hocking Hills Dining Lodge, an arm of the state park system.

Before Matt Rapposelli took over, the place served the usual uninspired state lodge food. Now that’s all changed. Matt’s claim to fame is custom smoked brisket.

OHIO donuts 1

Jo Evans makes her ‘secret recipe’ glazed donuts at her diner in Laurelville, Ohio.

Since his brisket is the restaurant’s signature dish, Rapposelli is willing to put it in just about anything … mac & cheese, pizza and, if you don’t do red meat, he’s got a vegan recipe where the non-meat protein is dry rubbed and smoked just like the “real” thing.

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. Sadly, only 555,000 of them come in winter, which is a shame since all those waterfalls and caves are then dead empty.

Mind you, Hocking Hills is strictly a DIY affair. You wander it yourself, choosing your inns, your restaurants and, if you do want some guidance, naturalist-led hikes. But the choice of activities is far more textured than you’d expect.

Starting 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. Saltpetre Cave is also worth a visit, especially in winter when the waterfall freezes to the ground in a ropy column of ice.

Visitor photographs frozen Lower Falls in winter at Old Man's Cave, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio.

Visitor photographs frozen Lower Falls at Old Man’s Cave, Hocking Hills State Park.

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. The area’s name comes from an old Shawnee word, “hockhocking,” which loosely means broken ground from the eroded hills and ravines that cut the area, resulting in winding, dipping roads that only go straight once you reach one of the tiny towns dotting the landscape.

OHIO Hocking Park

A visitor listens to Shawnee elder Ron Hatten talk about traditions and Shawnee life while visiting Saltpetre Cave, part of Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park system.

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.

Beyond the hikes, there’s a tour of a washboard factory (yes, people still buy them), bead making classes, pottery making classes, cooking classes, spa massages, maple sugar demos (if you come in late winter/early spring when the sap is running) and more.

And, of course, there’s always the food.

The rest of our tour of local food ran the gamut from a killer chocolate milkshake and bison burger at The Boot Factory (boots, camo clothes, Amish spices and more) through Jo Eves’ home-made donuts (light and mouthwatering especially if you get them hot out of the oil) to, finally, Matthew Barbee’s gourmet beer (in 750 ml “cork and cage” bottles like fine wine) and so complex in taste you really want to sip and savor.

Yvette hot tub

After her chilly visit to Hocking Hills, Ohio, RFT Ski & Dive Editor Yvette Cardozo needed a hot tub to warm up!

Why I didn’t come home 10 pounds heavier from comfort food cruisin’ in Ohio I’ll never know. — Story and photographs by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor

If You Go

Hocking Hills, Ohio, is 50 miles south of Columbus, 50 miles north of the West Virginia northern edge. The entire Hocking Hills area is 950 square miles touching seven counties and while most people come for Hocking Hills State Park (which is actually made up of six non contiguous parks), there is much more to see.

The state parks are free and there’s a list of weekend naturalist-led hikes, along with the star of winter, the annual six-mile winter hike from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave via twisting forest trails (In 2015, January 17). However, most hikes, usually in and out to waterfalls from parking lots, are a half mile or less one way.

For something more challenging, there’s Hocking Hills Adventure Trek, a private company which, among other things, leads hikes that include bass fishing, rock climbing, rappelling and Shawnee Elder Ron Hatten’s Circle of Life talk.

OHIO washboards

Old time artisan items like these washboards are still made by Columbus Washboard Co., in Logan, Ohio.

Also in winter is the Comfort Food Cruise, which has nothing to do with water, but includes appetizer size servings of comfort food (pizza, mac & cheese, biscuits & gravy, brownies and more) for $15. The “cruise” covers about 80 miles of driving and is run on consecutive weekends in late January and early February. Most people take two days to do it.

All of this is DIY (Do It Yourself), meaning you need to either drive here or rent a car at the airport. The closest major airport to Hocking Hills is Columbus. A word to the wise: if you plan to do winter hikes bring warm boots and a set of slip-on crampons.

Among the neater places to stay is Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls, with individual cabins (stuffed rocking chairs, wood stoves, huge Jacuzzi tub, antique furniture) and yet another great gourmet restaurant (don’t miss the chocolate mousse topped with candied bacon).

Hocking Hills:

Hocking Hills State Park:

Hocking Hills Dining Lodge:

Hocking Hills Adventure Trek:

Rhapsody Restaurant:

Comfort Food Cruise:

Straitsville Special (moonshine):

Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls:



Shawnee Elder Ron Ron Hatten teaches visitors about his peoples’ traditions.

Shawnee Elder Greets Visitors:


Check out the recipe for Chocolate Mousse with Candied Bacon Yvette brought us back from the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls.

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Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor

Yvette Cardozo from the Seattle, Washington area, likes to visit interesting places and learn about interesting cultures and, if a tasty local dish is involved, so much the better. She’s eaten everything from gourmet food at the world’s finest restaurants to native food in Asia, the arctic, and all kinds of places in between.Yvette recalls being in Antarctica and going out on the land with Inuit elders in arctic Canada , then bagging a caribou. They dragged it back to camp and ate it on the spot raw. She quips, “Hey, if you like steak tartare….”Yvette, who is a veteran skier and diver, is RFT’s Ski & Dive Editor.