Pickled watermelon rind, muskrat brain, fried oysters, and clam— a range of dishes testify to eastern Virginia’s shifting relationship with the Chesapeake Bay. Tidewater Virginians relied on the water for sustenance. Narrators in this collection recount how their cooking is rooted in Native settlements along marshes and rivers, seventeenth-century English occupation at Jamestown, nineteenth-century trade up the bay to Baltimore, and twentieth-century beach and yacht club tourism.
Twentieth century commercial industries and innovations in transportation and engineering connected this area to mainland America and a global economy. Today, Virginia is the third-largest seafood producer in the country and the largest on the East Coast. The ecology of the Chesapeake Bay now shifts. Eastern oyster and blue crab populations have collapsed, testing restaurant commitments to local seafood. Few young people now work as commercial fisherfolk. Changes in the bay impact local foodways. Crucial ingredients in a traditional shad fry or crab cake have begun to disappear. Because of the changing environment, the Tidewater region faces an uncertain future.
The cooks, restaurateurs, and watermen of eastern Virginia ready themselves for the booms and busts of the seafood industry and more permanent environmental and population changes. They assert the relevance and value of the Chesapeake’s cuisine. “It’s important to me because it maintains traditions of things that are of my fiber,” said restauranteur William Barnhardt. “It’s important to keep things like that alive and not replace them with crab cakes that are frozen and come off a truck.”
The changing environment also impacts historic foodways. Open since 1918, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe’s fish hatchery suffers from a dwindling shad population. “I just hope that people understand how difficult it is for, not just indigenous communities, but small rural communities who have traditions,” said Ashley Spivey, Director of the Pamunkey Indian Tribal Resource Center.“There are people that really care and struggle to keep them alive.”
To maintain traditional ways, requires a balancing act. But cooking like a Tidewater local isn’t complicated. “You grill it, you fry it,” said Yorktown Pub owner Dean Tsamouras. “It’s very down-to-earth, very, very simple. You let the seafood for itself speak.”