In Tidewater Virginia, the southeastern region of the state that includes Norfolk, Suffolk, and Portsmouth, yock-a-mein is known as a box of yock. The name refers to the Chinese take-out box in which it’s served. It’s also simply called yock, but there are endless ways to spell the name of the dish.
It’s likely yock arrived in Tidewater when Chinese immigrants moved to Virginia in the early twentieth century.
Some theories suggest that because of segregation many Chinese immigrants could only open restaurants in African American neighborhoods, introducing folks to yock-a-mein, which translates to “one order of noodles.” African American customers took the dish home, altered ingredients to taste, and developed their own special recipe from the traditional Chinese dish.
Tidewater yock bears only small similarities to ya-ka-mein traditions in New Orleans. Virginia uses lo-mein noodles, still made in factories in Tidewater, versus the spaghetti noodles used in the New Orleans version of the dish. A choice of meat: chicken, pork, shrimp, beef, or sometimes, sausage tops the noodles followed by a dice of raw white onions.
Depending on who’s making the yock, the ratio of soy sauce to ketchup varies. A mixture of ketchup and soy sauce forms its own broth, though some prefer chicken broth. A hard-boiled egg is optional, as is a pour of vinegar. Most folks finish it off by sprinkling cayenne pepper over the top.
When you want yock in Tidewater, you’ll find it in Chinese take-out restaurants, like Sing Wong in Portsmouth, owned by Patsy and Haymond Wong. Haymond’s grandfather, the restaurant’s namesake, opened it in 1965.
Or you can wait for a yock fundraiser – popular in black churches in Tidewater – like the one at Tabernacle Christian Church in Suffolk. There, Bernice “Florida” Cofield cooks yock she’s made for more than thirty years, using a recipe she got from Perry Jane Davis Lambert, former owner of The Horseshoe Café in Suffolk.
Once a dish limited to certain communities in Tidewater, these stories paint a history of how a box of yock moved beyond the boundaries of neighborhood, race, and culture.
~ Sara Wood