Jennifer Millington’s recipe for life involves liberal parts of luck, patience and romance with a few salty words thrown in for good measure. Sitting down with the owner of Taste Gourmet Foods in Urbanna results in a winding tale of soulmates, a passion for cooking and an appreciation for what life hands us.
The story began in 1982 in Richmond, where Millington was a twenty-something who worked on Cary Street, cutting hair for a living. “Bill got out of the car and I saw his reflection in the mirror,” she says of her partner, Mr. Bill. “I fell in love right there and I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life with him.” The only problem was that she didn’t know who he was, so she had to ask. She ended up cutting his hair and from then on, if she saw his name on the appointment book, “I’d go home and change into cute clothes,” as she puts it.
Despite her interest, nothing came of it, and in 1985, both she and Mr. Bill married other people, staying in those relationships for years. Fast forward to 1996 when the two, recently single, ran into each other at the market in Urbanna, where they both had weekend homes. He walked by, and like a good hairdresser, she recognized his neck from the back, and they became reacquainted. Mr. Bill, who owned a gift store called the Garden Club, in Richmond, suggested a road trip to New York for a trade show.
“We were very clear that it was just as friends,” she recalls, “but all I could think about was holding his hand. We’ve been pretty much inseparable since then.” After six months of heavy courting, they both acknowledged the obvious and moved in together, albeit with him downstairs and her upstairs. “My cardinal rule was no cohabitation while the kids were at home. We didn’t want to rush and mess this up. He’s truly the love of my life. We’re still not married, but we will one day. But we’re as married as any married couple could be. We’re together every day. It takes a lot of time to find the person who’s your best friend and soul mate.”
She lessened her hair-cutting schedule to three days and began occasionally helping him out at his shop, allowing them to come down to the river the rest of the week. Mr. Bill already owned a storefront in Urbanna, so they concocted the idea of moving merchandise that wasn’t selling in Richmond and opening a river shop, Garden Club Interiors.
The second day they were open, a team from Southern Living came in to shoot pictures and that was it. “This store just took off. Supportive locals, people with weekend homes were most of the business.” The store is only open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, meaning long hours for the couple. “People tell us we should open on Sundays, but we’re not working on Sunday. That’s a family day. We have crazy ideas. We don’t do things like normal people.”
Another crazy idea was soon hatched during an after-work conversation between the happy couple. “Let’s find an old boat and make it a guest house,” Millington remembers saying. But it wasn’t easy; they bought a houseboat on e-Bay, but it had been fraudulently represented and was in such awful condition that they got their money back. After “hundreds of hours” of research, Millington was browsing a fishing website and stumbled on an obscure ad for a Harbormaster houseboat, a brand that had been recommended to them because these boats have staircases rather than ladders. Even the man who’d posted the ad was amazed that they’d found it.
They immediately set out on a road trip to look at it. “I stepped on that houseboat, opened the refrigerator, and found it full of Miller Lite,” she said with a laugh. “I said, ‘May I?’ and the owner said, ‘If you bring me one.’ I switched on the TV and it was Julia Child and I thought, ‘We just bought a boat. This is our boat.’”
Mooring it at their dock in Urbanna, they began using it as a weekend retreat. “We’d pack up everything and go to the boat. But then we’d be sad at the end of the weekend to have to return to the house.” After a year of that, they gave in and moved onto the boat for good. “We’ve been full-time for two years now,” she says happily. “We’ve only been off for two hurricanes and even then, only one night each. We’re pretty much only off her due to weather.”
Millington says the best part of life on a houseboat is the simplicity. “When you say you want to live on the water, you really live on the water. You see it, you smell it, you hear it. Being able to watch nature is a gift, seeing the birds—loons, eagles, ducks—and snow on the water.”
An avid cook, Millington traces her passion back to getting an E-Z Bake Oven when she was seven. “I figured out if I put a 100-watt bulb in it, I could cook bacon and that began my love of cooking.” After her divorce, she briefly supported herself by cooking meals for a family, transferring the food to the family’s dishes and delivering the meal before the husband got home.
Moving around the houseboat, she shows off the tiny kitchen in which she cooks fanciful meals for Mr. Bill. He makes the cocktails, which, in good weather, they enjoy outside, talking and relaxing, while she gears up to cook. “I cook every night,” she says proudly. “But dinner is ten, or after. Bill always says we live on Denver time. We sleep late, we eat late. That’s how Taste Gourmet was born. I couldn’t drive to Richmond every time I needed a good fleur de sel, balsamic vinegar, or flavored oil.”
Taste Gourmet is adjacent to Garden Club Interiors and over the course of an afternoon, customers wander in, including a couple who moved from the area to Atlanta and are back on a visit, tasting oils, browsing the shop, and chatting with Millington. “The coolest thing about Taste is that people come in as customers and leave as friends. It’s fun, creative, and artistic for me.”
She’s an evangelist for cooking, encouraging noncooks at every turn. “It’s not effort; it’s fun. If you can read, you can cook. If you can taste, you can cook well. If you can love, it isn’t cooking, it’s simply joy.”
“I’m one of those obnoxious people who talks about food incessantly. The blog started with people asking what Mr. Bill had for dinner and I’d start reciting recipes.” Now she has Kristin type them up for the blog, along with pictures of the preparation for those who care to replicate them. “If you don’t pass down recipes, they die when the people who made them do. When we have our grandparents, we’re too young to care to ask for their recipes and they’re something that will be lost forever. If someone wants a recipe, I give it so it will continue.”
And continuing her unique life with Mr. Bill is just what Jennifer Millington intends to do. “We’re still so stupid for each other after eleven years. There’s not one day we’ve regretted moving to the boat. I can’t even fathom not living here in Urbanna. The only thing I want more of is time.”