WHERE LAND AND WATER MEET
Folklorist Bernie Herman celebrates food on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
On the farthest edge and centermost point of the Atlantic Coast, land gives way to water and the broad Delmarva Peninsula bottoms out into the Eastern Shore of Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Here, two counties of the Old Dominion State are connected to the rest of its mainland only by a nearly 20-mile bridge-tunnel, where it feels like, at any point, you might drop off into the ocean’s waves.
On this tiny stretch of sandy soil, life moves slowly, and a handful of farmers, watermen, chefs, home cooks, historians, and neighbors are working with a sense of purpose and timelessness to preserve one of America’s most unexpected foodways. Or, as folklorist Bernie Herman puts it, after New Orleans with its bayou country and Charleston with its Low Country, the Eastern Shore of Virginia and the lower Chesapeake Bay stand out as “the third great Southern coastal cuisine.”
An aerial view of the southern tip of the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
As he documents in his James Beard Award-nominated A South You Never Ate, this is a low-lying land of abundance, where for centuries, locals have plied its estuarine and seaside shorelines for fresh seafood, cultivated its sandy soils for bushels of sweet potatoes and strawberries. They hunted marshes for overwintering waterfowl They have scoured its forgotten lots to find groves of ancient fig, quince, and other fruit trees.
Preserving this foodway has become Herman’s life’s work. The recently retired and distinguished University of North Carolina professor became bewitched by the place as a young boy, splitting his time between Norfolk and Northampton County, where weekends and summers were spent peering at soft-shell crabs shedding in wooden floats along quiet creeks and gleaning for left-behind white potatoes scattered in nearby fields. Over the career that followed, he studied and taught the likes of art history, architecture, archaeology, and the vernacular culture of rural life, with a particular focus on the American South, where always, at the heart of things, is food. It was just a matter of time before he would set his sights back on the Eastern Shore.
And over the last 20 years, Herman has become the de facto bard of this distinctive Virginia foodway, so rooted in the land and water—a beloved storyteller, steward, and friend who not only documents its rich and evolving history but works with others to share its bounty with the broader world. Ultimately, he hopes it might generate culturally meaningful jobs and keep families in the remote region.
A second book is now in the works, and in his downtime, he tends to his own oysters, takes care of his fig trees, and keeps a truck-patch garden for trialing long-lost heirloom seeds in collaboration with Glen Roberts of Anson Mills and Mike Watkins of Heavenly Seed—just one more way of blending a dynamic past with the future.
Bernie Herman searching for oysters. —BH
How do you describe the Eastern Shore of Virginia to folks who have never been?
I describe it, physically, as a place that wants to be an island. It is not attached to the rest of Virginia, but actually Maryland, and you can’t see any other parts of Virginia from where we are near the very bottom of the peninsula. We exist on the edge of a continent. When you cross the high-level bridge on the Eastern Shore from the mainland, you look out and see the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on one side, and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, and that’s really a profound experience. As many times I’ve been on that bridge, I’ve never lost my sense of wonder—you know, just how remarkable it is that we get to live there. . . . And the Eastern Shore, especially in our area, works largely on a culture of mutuality. Everybody is there for a neighbor in need. And that often transcends questions or assignments of race, politics, or class. If someone is in trouble, you do your best to help them out.
How has that geography influenced the foodway?
The Eastern Shore of Virginia used to be one of the wealthiest agricultural counties in the United States, right up into the late 1920s, and then it all sort of fell apart. Northampton County is a remote place, and it has lost population every census since 1930, leaving behind a long history of structural poverty. We shifted from a diversified form of truck farming around fresh vegetables and local canning to monoculture. Some things have disappeared, but because our ground is fertile, others have continued to survive and thrive, and they’re still out there, waiting to be rediscovered. My friend Tom Gallivan, a commercial oyster grower, is bringing back the old flocks of Hog Island sheep. And W.T. Nottingham, Bill Jardine, and William Baynes are working to keep the Hayman sweet potato in circulation. Then there are the clams and the oysters and the spot [fish] and the [periwinkle] snails that climb up and down the marsh grasses. There’s always been a lot of taking advantage of what is here.
You’re working with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and food historian David Shields to preserve some of the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s heritage seeds. How did that come to be?
Glenn is hugely dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of landrace grains and legumes. Most people have heard of Carolina Gold rice, which exists because of his efforts to bring it back. But I was reading various county records, and in one of the references, when the Poor House burned in Northampton County in 1883, the commissioners found three bushels of black-eyed peas and four or five bushels of black peas. I became really interested in knowing, what were those black peas? They had totally disappeared from our community, but it turned out Glenn had some, from one family that had retained a few in downeast North Carolina. Dave Shields sent me 16 seeds, out of which I got about 15 pounds of shelled peas in the first year. They’ve been sent out for experimental planting and registered in the gene banks of the United States. Last year, we also grew indigenous cornfield pumpkins. Working with others, I then distributed them to chefs, and now all of a sudden, there’s a demand for them. This plays into our mission of bringing jobs back to the Eastern Shore, because somebody’s got to grow and pick up and distribute all those pumpkins. Jasmine Kuang, who runs the Bright Day Bakery at Li Ming’s Global Market in Durham, North Carolina, made a stew based around this pumpkin for her staff meal. And then the chefs at The Dabney in Washington D.C., on the other end of the spectrum, created dishes such as pumpkin stuffed with homemade pork sausage, and it just goes on. That’s what I want to see. We make sense of tradition through invention—looking back to move forward.
You also grow figs? We were surprised to learn in your book that, in Virginia, they have been around since at least the early 1600s, and have become somewhat prolific.
I got it in mind about 10 years ago to create a fig library. I was interested in how many varieties of fig there were here, and that each had their own story. I collected the first one that I found against a long-abandoned hedge row on the edge of our property. And then I started looking for others. And what I found extraordinarily interesting is that all the things that I was encountering had century-long histories on their sites. When you eat one of these figs, and you know its genealogy, you can taste another century. I don’t know of anything else like that—where you get to eat across time. For me, a fig is a kind of time machine for a world that I could not access in any other way, except through text, and that makes them hugely powerful. Even with oysters and clams, the changing waters have changed their flavors. So, I set it up as a library of 14 or 15 varieties and maybe 30 trees on our property, so that interested folks could come and take clippings and build their own libraries—and several folks have. Some of my figs have grown as high as a two-story house, so I get all the ones toward the bottom, and the birds and hornets get all the ones that are out of reach. It’s a very productive relationship.
A fig harvest. —BH
The mutuality continues.
Oh, the other thing is, I just started working this year with Virago Distillers in Richmond to create a fig brandy. Tom Gallivan and I have been thinking about this for a very long time, and we just couldn’t find a partner. Well, Virago created a beta batch and we tasted it and it’s there. If you can have calvados, if you can have poireWilliam, why can’t you have figue eau de vie? There’s got to be a market for that.
Does cast iron show up historically in your neck of the woods?
From the 1600s through the late 1800s, the number one cooking vessel was a cast-iron pot, anywhere from 10 to 20 gallons, usually footed, with a handle so you could hang it from a chain over a fire. Those pots show up in the Poor House inventory, and one-pot meals, like drum-head stew, were a real mainstay across the community. The second-most common ironware was what they called spiders, which is basically a footed skillet. We usually think of them for frying, but they were also often used for baking. In the Black community, there was something called” spider cake bread.” I’ve never found a recipe for it, but it’s cornmeal-based, and I’d like to try to recreate it. And the third-most common mentioned ironware in the early period were metal skewers, for roasting.
A stack of pans at Bernie’s A South You Never Ate supper.
What are you most excited about right now?
There’s a lot of exchange that goes on in our Eastern Shore of Virginia foodways. The fact that we have the opportunity to engage in the introduction and evolution of Latinx food right now is palpably powerful. The Latinx community is having an impact on the bedrock of the vernacular foodways here, and you don’t often get the opportunity to witness how something comes into being and makes a place its own and how that place in turn makes it fit into the community, too. There are dishes like mengue, which is a baked corn fritter, that the Oaxacan fishermen who live here now put in their pockets to go out and work the fishing grounds, as they did in the Pacific. They’ll fill them with all sorts of things, most often shrimp or mullet. One time, I gave a menguemaker a pint of pea crabs to use—the kind you find in oyster shells—and she thought that was a great curiosity. I’ve had empanadas stuffed with Hayman sweet potatoes. And tamales stuffed with figs and blue crab and venison. There’s a mistaken tendency to lump all our Latinx neighbors together as Mexican, but there are folks from Mexico, and Honduras, and Guatemala, and they have begun to create their own culinary ecology here, which is made even more dynamic when you consider that it also engages the populations of whites and Blacks in our community. What we’re really seeing is this edible and delicious synthesis that has been in play on the Eastern Shore of Virginia since the day the Europeans showed up in 1614.
Tell us about your second book, which you are completing as we speak.
People talk about a Southern cuisine centered on Charleston or New Orleans. And I believe that the lower Chesapeake Bay, centered on the lower Eastern Shore of Virginia, is the third great Southern cuisine. And what a cuisine is, in its narrowest sense, is a place defined by its culinary ingredients, practices, conventions, and habits. And in turn, it incorporates foodways, place, and people through its definition. That definition helps folks understand their home, themselves, their families. But then cuisine gets subdivided even further, each claiming a different territory: there is haute cuisine, of the elites, and cuisine bourgeoise, of the middle class, and nouvelle cuisine, and cuisine ordinaire. I became interested in the fact that we are constantly applying this idea of “cuisine” to people in a place, rather than looking at the people and foodways of a place to see how they map distinctive cuisines. And because cuisine is really an umbrella term, gathering all these different subsets of cuisine beneath it, what are the pillars that give the umbrella its shape and strength?
What are those pillars, as you see it?
They include “terroir,” which is basically the taste of a place, but one that you consume, and in the process of consuming it, it physically becomes a part of you, and you become a part of it. Take, for example, oysters—liquid animals that taste exactly like their point of origin. Then there is “mise en place”—the principle of "everything in its place”—and in the restaurant world, that also means having all of your ingredients together and ready for action, and, like terroir, situates individuals within a larger scheme of things and in doing so locates folks within their community. And there is “a la mode,” which means in the style and fashion of a particular time and place, like those Latinx dishes in present day. For example, gorditas, a form pocket sandwich associated with Latin street foods. And then there’s “finesse,” which is simply perfection through practice in the preparation of ingredients or dishes to a particular and uniform standard, and that can look like: How do you clean an eel, for instance? How do you go about cleaning the big quahog clams? When it comes to oysters, do you hinge shuck? Do you bill shuck? Do you side shuck? What kind of knife do you use? You want that oyster to look like a lab specimen when you put it out on the tray. Etiquette is another, which is a form of aesthetics observed in how people interact in a variety of circumstances. But what cuisine does, above all, is establish borders, and in turn, culinary ecologies, or systems of relationships. Those relationships are of particular interest to me.
Local oysters on the half shell. —BH
But if you could have just one local dish, what would it be?
I’m a person that likes to eat, I like them all, but I suppose the one thing that I like to eat the most is a seaside oyster on the half shell with a pea crab in it. Those tiny pink crabs are sweet and have crunch. Those oysters taste of ocean salt and stories told over generations.
Images courtesy of Bernard Herman. Read Bernard's Seafood Fritters recipe in Family Receipts.