The Taste of the River Towns restaurant fair gave chef Jim Switzenberg a chance to show off his top-drawer hock of dried, imported Spanish ham Sunday evening.

It gave Gerrianne Currey, of Wrightsville, the opportunity to introduce her new Columbia Market House business to the public, via miniature cupcakes, tiny eclairs and samples of sweet crepes.

And it let Kris Blasdell, of Columbia, spend some time with her brother, Kevin Kauffman, of Strasburg.

The eighth annual tasting event, held at the St. John’s Herr Estate senior living community in Columbia, drew hungry souls from around Lancaster County. They filled their plates with samples of food prepared by eateries in Wrightsville, Marietta and Columbia.

Diners lingered over Hinkle’s Restaurant chicken croquettes, downed little plastic cups of Nissley Vineyards wine, and sipped coffee with big dollops of French cream courtesy of Columbia’s Cafe Garth.

The sounds of laughter and chatter from those gathered around tables in the dining room and chapel of the community’s main building were punctuated by the explosive hiss of the flaming bananas Foster that St. John's Herr chef Jason Gardner swirled in a skillet.

The dessert, served over vanilla ice cream at a station decorated with greenery and bunches of bananas, is an annual tradition at the event.

“I think it’s the fire that gets people’s attention,” Gardner said as he flicked large pats of butter into the hot pan, followed by a generous helping of brown sugar and slices of banana. “It’s the fire, and the rum. You’ve got to have good rum to make good bananas Foster.”

Pigging out

Switzenberg, executive chef at John Wright Restaurant in Wrightsville, was carving thin, burgundy-colored slices of dried ham from the pig leg secured to a wooden stand.

The prized protein, he explained, is serrano ham, made with the meat from a breed of white pig in Spain. The ham is packed in salt and then hung up for months to dry-cure.

“We recently had a Spanish dinner at the restaurant,” Switzenberg said. “This (event) gave me a good excuse to bring it out again.”

Cory Floyd, banquet chef at John Wright, stood beside Switzenberg, serving little samples of seared rare tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes and a ginger glaze. Among the diners surveyed Sunday, it was a favorite dish.

Another popular food sample was the thick, pale-orange, fire-roasted tomato bisque Freddy States was ladling from a tureen at the table shared by McCleary’s Public House and the Railroad House. States is an owner at both Marietta eateries.

Nearby, Executive Chef Robert Schoelkopf, of The Inn at Bully's Restaurant & Pub in Columbia, was serving up a deconstructed fish taco, featuring blackened tilapia, salsa made with cherry-wood-smoked pineapples and a blood orange vinaigrette.

“It’s seasonal — fresh and light for this time of year,” Schoelkopf said.

About an hour and a half into the tasting event, Currey, who opened The Wild Batch stand in February at the Columbia market, was all out of her creamy cupcakes and chocolate-topped eclairs.

“A lot of people had two or three of them,” she said. “The eclairs are made the old-fashioned way, with homemade pate a choux (batter) and cornstarch in the filling.”

Feeding tourism

Taste of the River Towns raises money for the marketing programs of the Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce and for the operation of the chamber’s visitors center in Columbia.

Chamber Executive Director Kathleen Hohenadel said the event showcases area restaurants and gives locals a chance to catch up with friends.

About 150 of the 200 available tickets were sold this year, she said.

Hohenadel said Beth and Tom Bigler, of Manheim Township and formerly of Columbia, always buy two of the first tickets for the event.

Tom Bigler, a Columbia native, said they like to come back to their hometown to visit friends and sample favorites such as the sweet-and-sour meatballs from Hinkle’s Restaurant.

“I love the fellowship,” Kris Blasdell said as she and husband Randy stood at a tall table with brother Kevin Kauffman and wife Connie. Kris Blasdell had just run into her old Sunday school teacher from Ironville United Methodist Church.

The Blasdells and Kauffmans said they enjoyed spending time together as much as they loved the bananas Foster and the dry red Chambourcin wine from Nissley Vineyards.

Columbia Borough Council President Kelly Murphy and wife Rebecca were making the rounds of the sampling stations after volunteering at the event.

“We love living in Columbia,” Rebecca Murphy said. “It’s such a close community.”

That sense of community is on display at the tasting event, the couple said, giving those from other parts of Lancaster County a sense of what the towns on the river have to offer.