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Back to the Land (and Sea)

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Back to the Land (and Sea)
Written by Brennen Jensen | Photos by Kieran Wagner

Can the revival of historic foodways breathe new life into Virginia’s Eastern Shore?

Chef Amy Brandt runs Amy B. catering out of a trim, clapboard commercial kitchen where french doors look out on farm fields. Visit in late summer and you’ll likely see a step ladder up against one of her fig trees. The kitchen is located near Cheriton, Virginia. But it’s also smack in the middle of history.

Brandt is on the grounds of Eyre Hall, where the land was patented in 1637 and has been in the same family’s hands for thirteen generations. A cedar-lined drive continues on to the namesake, gambrel-roofed colonial home of white weatherboard and shingle dating to 1758. Behind this National Historic Landmark are, perhaps, the oldest formal gardens in the county: aged boxwoods and gnarled crepe myrtles within stout walls of bricks said to have come over as ships’ ballast from England. To the west, ruins of an 1818 orangery with the grey-blue waters of Cherrystone Creek rippling in the near distance.

Amy Brandt.

This is the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a pair of rural counties—Accomack and Northampton—that form a narrow peninsula dangling beneath Maryland, orphaned from their commonwealth brethren on the western side of the Chesapeake. Isolated and sparsely populated—lacking beach resorts or even a sizable town—it’s a part of the South few ever see. And despite the ready bounty of the sandy-loam soils and fecund bays and tributaries, it is also one few ever taste.

Indeed, on this early evening Brandt is preparing a sixcourse dinner called “The South You Never Ate,” the third such feast she’s created to call out this culinary omission. Now filing into her kitchen—roomy enough for a handsomely-set dining table catching the orange-sherbet glow of the setting sun—are friends and neighbors, including shellfish purveyors, winemakers, and an academic behind the Eastern Shore of Virginia Foodways Group. Its aim is to promote the distinct culinary techniques and terroir of this water-lapped land. But getting an overlooked cusine recognized and celebrated is only half the battle. While the region is rich with gastronomic goodness, these two remote counties are also among the most impoverished in Virginia. Might an area’s distinctive tastes be tapped, however modestly, as an economic development tool?

Winemaker Jon Wehner samples his latest vintage of chardonnay.

Perhaps it’s best to have Bernie Herman, one of the group’s co-founders, explain it. He soon ambles in, stopping off to hand Brandt plastic bags of locally foraged wild fennel and beach arugula (the latter a succulent whose sharp, salty leaves will garnish a tomato aspic course). Herman divides his time between a home here on Church Creek and one in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he’s a professor of Southern studies at the University of North Carolina. He has the group’s end game down into a lapidary nugget: “one job, for one person, so one family doesn’t have to leave.” And lots of people have left. Northampton County’s population has withered by more than a third since 1930. Big-ticket development schemes have come and gone, such as building offshore oil platforms in Cape Charles or bringing in a maximum-security prison. Big Ag is already a key player here, of course, especially up in Accomack County where sprawling chicken processing plants and mega-scale chicken houses line Highway 13. But poultry jobs tend to be grim and low-paying and the vast amounts of manure created is problematic. The foodways group takes another perspective. “What would sustained economic development—respectful and meaningful economic development—look like here?” Herman asks. “We think it would be around traditional foods and foodways. We can’t make it work for everybody, but maybe we can create jobs that mean something here, and get others to become engaged.”

What are the foodways in this far-flung sliver of Virginia? Herman is the right person to ask about this too. He’s actually taking time off from teaching to write a book whose working title is—wait for it—The South You Never Ate. It will draw on hundreds of taped interviews he’s conducted with area watermen, farmers, and cooks.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia has some distinct ingredients, such as white-fleshed Hayman sweet potatoes, Hog Island lamb and mutton, “Accomack broccoli” (actually a non-rooting turnip with bitter greens), and a wide variety of heirloom figs; there are indigenous dishes, including clam fritters, oyster pie, and black duck and dumplings. And along with traditional shellfish and crabs, there’s also a reverence for fish less-heralded elsewhere, such as spot and puffer fish (“swellin’ toads” in local parlance). It’s a plain cuisine with minimal ingredients. But most now-celebrated Southern cuisines began humbly. (Shrimp and grits was a regional, workingman’s dinner long before chefs elevated it to the white tablecloth.)

Case in point, Brandt stands before a metal sink cleaning a heap of spot. How best to prepare these finned beauties? Keep it simple. Brandt honed her culinary chops across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel as erstwhile chef-owner of Virginia Beach’s easy-elegant Lucky Star, where an unfussy approach to seafood garnered good ink from the New York Times. “I’m just going to score them and pan fry them,” she says. “These were brought in this morning from a pound-net fisherman—or as they call themselves over here, a fish trapper.”

Matt Ertle looks after a herd of Hog Island sheep and crossbreeds.

The group’s first effort to get “over here” on the culinary radar happened a few years back when they invited a group of A-list chefs, food writers, and culinary historians, including Ann Cashion, John T. Edge, Marcie Cohen Ferris, Jessica Harris, Jane Lear, Molly O’Neil, and David Shields, for a literal cooks’ tour of the shore. A few other such tours have followed. Herman also takes a peninsula-promoting PowerPoint show on the road, such as to Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, whose James Beard Award-winning co-founder, Spike Gjerde, is now connected with a half-dozen farm-to-table eateries. Shore offerings are slowly starting to pop up on mainland restaurant menus. And on their wine lists.

Providing vino pairings this evening is Jon Wehner of Chatham Vineyards. He and his wife, Mills, started growing grapes up the road in 1999 in one of the area’s many locations with magical-sounding names of Native American origin: Machipongo. “The winery has completely taken off—we’re up to 4,100 cases a year,” Wehner says, of an operation rambling before an 1818 Federal-style farmhouse on land patented in 1640. “People are really buying in to what were doing. They’re interested in things that are local, expressive of place, and sustainable. These can be so powerful, which is why we want to embrace our food heritage and spread the word about it.”

You want terroir? Try their 2016 steel-tanked chardonnay, tonight’s opening glass. “The vines—French Dijon clone—are close to twenty years old now and the roots have gone down fourteen or fifteen feet through layers of marine deposits and ancient shells. The wine has a distinct minerality, even a slight salinity,” Wehner says. (Also, hints of pear, honeysuckle, and tart grapefruit in the finish.)

Now comes the shellfish course. It’s obligatory—sweetly tender steamed middle-neck clams with a splash of horseradish butter and plump oysters quick-pickled in Brandt’s homemade cider vinegar. Shellfish production is the region’s greatest culinary success story. The bay and seaside waters produce millions of clams and oysters destined for dinner tables across the country. Breakthroughs in shellfish farming—many pioneered here—allowed the industry to recover from diseases that decimated wild stocks in the 1980s. That the region’s uninhabited barrier islands lack condos and golf courses is a boom for fisheries, leaving seaside waters pristine—designated a United Nations Biosphere Reserve.

Heather Terry Lusk brought the clams. She’s the fourth generation at the H. M. Terry Company, which markets clams and oysters under the Sewansecott brand. (Improbable as it seems, she’s also a former Wall Street lawyer who nixed New York for tiny Willis Wharf and a return to the family bivalve business.) Tom Gallivan, whose Shooting Point Oyster Company provided the other shelled delights, also has salt water in his veins—albeit as the son of commercial fisherman from Maine.

He sees the group making headway, not only on locavore menus, but also at meetings and in the planning notes for various county agencies. “Rather than saying the same thing that every other rural county says—we need to bring in manufacturing jobs; we need more chicken plants—they are starting to understand that what we have here is an incredible place to grow shellfish and we have open space where we might rekindle some of our agricultural heritage.”

A growing number of small operators are looking backward for a future. Matt Ertle and his wife Eden run Seaside Lamb on a five-acre farm near the town of Oyster with a flock of eighteen Hog Island sheep and crossbreeds raised for wool and meat. This distinct breed developed from flocks that ran wild for centuries on Hog Island off the coast here. They adapted to a diet of tough marsh grass by becoming smaller in stature and are now extremely rare—listed in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, a catalog of endangered foods.

“The breed has a reputation for being very mild-flavored, even well into mutton range. We’ve actually donated mutton to one of the [foodways] group’s dinners and it’s very good,” Ertle says. “I would like to expand the business. There is a growing small-farm movement on the shore. I think we all have common goals.” Meanwhile, Pungo Creek Mills, in Painter, was launched eight years ago from the ashes of a mercantile failure. Bill Savage planted a bushel of Indian corn he acquired from a local man who said his grandfather first grew it in the 1870s. (Later research traces such corn back to the seventeenth century when it was exported to Jamestown.) Savage made decorative wreaths from his first crop, but they didn’t sell. Out of curiosity, he pulled a couple of ears off one and ground the kernels. “It made some of the best cornbread we’d ever had—sweeter, more flavorful than modern corn,” he tells me. “That gave me the idea to revive a gristmill operation.”

Now he grows and stonegrinds the corn using all manner of vintage (read: laborintensive) techniques and equipment. Brandt uses it in hominy salad and brewers and distillers have made beverages with his heirloom grain. “Anything to improve the local food industry is a plus,” Savage says. “They can help find some of the niche markets for us specialty growers and producers.”

Meanwhile, back at the dinner, you might raise an eyebrow at the next course: crab meat tamales in chili sauce. But this is just an example of an old Southern food tradition getting some new blood. In this case, from even farther south—Mexico and Central America. This dish is the work of Brandt’s Mexican kitchen assistant. Three types of dried chile (ancho, guajillo, and negro) flavor the sauce, along with toasted cumin seeds and a pinch of clove. Similar to mole and just this side of hot, it doesn’t overpower the succulent, sweet clumps of crab meat.

The ebb and flow of Latino migratory workers has long been a part of the shore’s rhythms. But as chicken plant jobs replace seasonal fieldwork, some are putting down roots, and opening restaurants or food trucks. Another dish that debuted here recently: carne de cordero barbacoa—or barbecued mutton, Guatemalan-style. “A new generation of Latino/Latina cooks on the Eastern Shore is really transforming the way we eat here,” Herman says. “They’re building on what we’ve always done and crafting dishes that are as much a part of this place as foods we’ve shared for generations.”

More courses, more delights: clam fritters à la chef Brandt. This classic shore dish of minced clams can be pancake-like, but she uses rice flour and keeps them silver dollar-sized for crispy edges. Those spot get their time in a hot pan, and on our plates, accompanied by green beans flavored with salty nibs of locally cured ham. Teasing the whole time has been Mrs. Gunter’s ribbon fig cake with its luscious swirls of ivory icing and garnish of no less than five types of local fig.

Though an Asian import, figs have been growing in Virginia for nearly 400 years. Since they can’t reproduce on their own in these climes, all the Shore’s heirloom figs can be traced back over a hundred years. There’s a strain that was served to President Grover Cleveland, others that were rescued off barrier islands after hurricanes. Herman and others make clones from cuttings and he maintains a fig library. The Ertles have added figs to their sheep farm. These unique figs—different sizes, colors, tastes, and evocative stories—are ripe for food trending and Instagram fame.

Cake namesake, Bessie E. Gunter was an Accomack County native and author of Housekeeper’s Companion, an 1889 compendium of Virginia Eastern Shore recipes. Well, “recipe” might be a bit of stretch, at least in contemporary terms. Brandt reads aloud the scant directions she followed, noting that “cups” probably didn’t mean 8 ounces, no type of icing was specified (she used a sevenminute icing), and when it was time for the oven? “No time or temperature were given,” Brandt says, shaking her head. “Amy made this cake out of her own expertise and a poetical reading of Mrs. Gunter,” adds Herman, as the slices go around.

It’s poetry on the plate—moist white and yellow layers, creamy icing laced with figs and deftly spiced with cinnamon and allspice. As the Wehners bring out a port-like, late-harvest red dessert wine, (and yours truly passes around some Maryland-style rye brought down from Baltimore), a fabulous and filling exploration of an uneaten South draws to a close.

Changing some menus isn’t going change the world. But for that one person and one family who wants to stay on their sandy-soiled home, it could make all the difference.