FRED SAUCEMAN (this article was first published in October 2012)
The year 1940 was a defining one for Roanoke, Virginia. Amid the fear, dread, and uncertainty of World War II came the comfort of peanut soup and spoonbread.Since the Hotel Roanoke’s peanut soup recipe was developed that year by Chef Fred Brown, it has fortified stomachs and souls in the Regency Room of the hotel. Its companion dish, spoonbread, is one that has been served by Virginians for generations.In 1994, writer Donlan Piedmont penned a history of the hotel. Those two dishes have defined the hotel so well over the years that Piedmont chose them for the title of his book: Peanut Soup and Spoonbread.Marshall Fishwick, a professor at Virginia Tech, calls them “landmark dishes” in the book’s preface.
The history of the hotel is closely intertwined with the railroad legacy of Roanoke. Norfolk and Western built the Tudor Revival style structure in 1882. The property has gone through several changes of ownership over the years and is now operated by Virginia Tech. A wall of “Hokie Stone” marks the transition from the hotel to the adjoining conference center, managed by the City of Roanoke.In fact, in order to arrange a calm and quiet night before home football games in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech’s Coach Frank Beamer brings his players over for a Friday night stay.
Hotel Roanoke holiday buffets are legendary. Reservations must be made weeks, if not months, in advance. At Thanksgiving, the number of buffet reservations averages around 1,400. Two constants on those buffets are the peanut soup and spoonbread. Until just a few years ago, the peanut soup recipe was a closely guarded secret. Despite its long culinary history, Chef Billie Raper says some diners are surprised to learn that soup can be made of peanuts. Raper, a Richmond native, describes spoonbread as “a moist, soufflé-like version of cornbread.”
After the edible history offered in the Regency Room, a walk through the hotel reveals links to Roanoke’s past at every turn. In October of 1935, Civil War veterans gathered on the lawn for a reunion. During World War II, military officers relaxed in the Pine Room. Along Peacock Alley are photographs of Miss Virginia pageant winners who have gone on to claim the title of Miss America. For many years, the Miss Virginia pageant was held in the hotel.
At Christmastime, over 25 designer Christmas trees grace the building, during the Fashions for Evergreens event.
Of the 331 guest rooms, not one is the same. Those rooms have survived fires, the Great Depression, and even closure. But now, with tea dances in the Crystal Ballroom and peanut soup on the menu every day, the Hotel Roanoke is in full glory.
Hotel Roanoke Peanut Soup
- ¼ pound butter
- 1 small onion, diced
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 quarts chicken broth, heated
- 1 pint peanut butter (creamy)
- 1/3 teaspoon celery salt
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ½ cup ground peanuts
Melt butter in cooking vessel and add onion and celery. Sauté for 5 minutes but don’t brown. Add flour and mix well. Add hot chicken broth and cook for 30 minutes. Remove from stove, strain, and add peanut butter, celery salt, salt, and lemon juice. Sprinkle ground peanuts on soup just before serving.