Once you’ve tasted what lies inside the rugged shell of a Virginia oyster, you can begin to understand the history that flows through the winding, sumptuous tidewaters of the state’s eastern shore. The small but mighty morsel represents survival, its brininess born of the sea from which it was first harvested by Native Americans and by hardworking watermen today. Virginia is home to a variety of oysters, each with a very specific flavor; the distinctness is a story of cultural fusion in this eastern coastal community, and the freshness is a sign of thriving life.
Some define Virginia’s Tidewater region as the portion of land east of the Fall Line, west of the Chesapeake Bay, and in between the James and Potomac Rivers, while others generalize the term to include a larger portion of the low-lying plains named for the rise and fall of changing tides. Within the region lies Jamestown, which was America’s first colony settled by European colonists in 1607, about 13 years before pilgrims founded Plymouth, Massachusetts. Many came to the New World in search of gold and silver, and in hopes of finding a river passage to the Pacific. But what they found were marshy conditions that made living treacherous. Survival of the colony and its inhabitants depended on both self-sufficiency and economic stability. Having neither, settlers died from starvation and disease. But with the skills they learned from Native Americans, and the introduction of tobacco to the area by John Rolfe in 1612, their outlook changed, breathing new life into this adopted homeland and those who lived there.
The Native Americans taught the newcomers about indigenous crops and the aquatic creatures that lived in the plentiful waters. They were familiar with the diversity of local oysters and incorporated them into their everyday diets, along with an abundance of fish and crops like corn, beans, and squash.
They also shared their skill of salt-curing and meat-smoking as a means of preservation. When the colonists brought hogs to the region, they began to apply the same method to the pork—thus Virginia’s signature salty, smoky hams were born. Not only did smoked ham feed the people, but it served as a means of income when crops were less reliant and tobacco prices dropped. While many people conflate what we consider to be the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth as the first-ever feast between settlers of the New World and the native peoples, European settlers and Native Americans farther south had already been sharing meals together for years before; the meals consisted of many of the same foods that locals still eat today—including those fresh oysters and salty hams.
For shoreside parts of the country, living of the water is everyday life. If a family doesn’t have their own fishing boat, it’s likely they have a neighbor or friend to call for a fresh catch come suppertime. Unlike meat and game, which hold heavy governmental restrictions, seafood can be bought directly from a fisherman, whether you’re purchasing just for your family or to serve at a restaurant. Sure, markets and grocery stores sell many of the same products, but for families who have been here for generations, the close fishermen-consumer tie is natural.
“We’re just surrounded by water here; it’s part of the culture,” says Stephen Marsh, chef and owner of LeGrand Kitchen in Norfolk. “A lot of people know that person who goes out and fishes or owns an oyster bed or whatever else. I think we see that a lot more here than anywhere else. You’ll go to an oyster roast and there will be big burlap sacks of oysters, and there’s no way they bought that from the store. They got it directly from the source.”
The Chesapeake Bay is the largest and most diverse estuary in the nation, with more than 250 species of fish dwelling in its waters and tributaries. Combined with many rivers and the Atlantic Ocean, the Bay generates hundreds of millions of pounds of seafood each year. During summertime, that means crabs— whether they’re the gorgeous blue variety or soft shell. During the winter, oysters steal the show, while clams, scallops, and a plethora of other shellfish and finfish play supporting roles.
“You’re living off the bounty, so whatever is available, that’s what you eat,” says Todd Jurich, chef and owner of Todd Jurich’s Bistro in Norfolk. “Here, it’s much more seafood centric. We’re right on the Chesapeake Bay where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, so soft-shell crab and crabmeat are plentiful. The oysters out of the Lynnhaven River and Eastern Shore of Virginia are delicious, and we’re known for flounder as well.”
A Pennsylvania native, Todd still remembers the first time he tried a soft-shell crab. He was just out of high school, visiting his mother and stepfather who had recently moved to Virginia Beach. He ordered a soft-shell crab sandwich at a local restaurant and was surprised to learn that it was customary to eat the entire crab—shell, legs, and all. Whether it was that strangely delicious deep-fried sandwich that had him hooked or the easygoing seaside living, Todd soon moved to the Tidewater region, a place he still calls home today.
In some respects, this aqueous land is just like it was decades or even centuries ago. Generations-old fishing families still explore the waters day in and day out, and diets remain anchored by seafood. But in other ways, the Virginia Tidewater region has changed. Now, the area is often referred to as Hampton Roads, a region defined by the channels, rivers, and bays that border each town. Boundaries differ depending on who you ask, but a combination of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton, Smithfield, Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Suffolk generally make the cut. There’s a naval base—the largest in the United States—in Norfolk, bringing people of all cultures to the area. There’s also the Port of Virginia (one of the busiest on the East Coast) that attracts industrial workers by the hundreds, and because many of the nation’s largest cities are within a short flight or car ride, the region is truly transient.
“I think we’re probably one of the more diverse communities in the country,” Todd says. “Because of the naval base, we just get people from all over the country, if not the world, who have been stationed here but come back because they like the area and have settled down. And they’ve brought their culture with them.”
One of the major cultures represented in the area is Filipino, with Hampton Roads holding the largest community east of the Mississippi River. They arrived in the early 20th century to work jobs at the naval ports, and many never left. Thanks to the local Filipino American community, the Tidewater region’s staple dishes like fried crab and country ham are in good company alongside a vast selection of worldly cuisine.
“Filipino culture is shining right now, especially in the food scene,” Stephen explains. “We’ve been seeing some pop-up restaurants or special menus focused on Filipino cuisine, and some chefs at restaurants in the area are of Filipino descent.”
Neighborhood cafes with dishes like adobo (meat simmered in an irresistibly savory sauce), pancit (a noodle dish with meat or seafood and vegetables), and crispy Filipino-style egg rolls called lumpia serve not just Filipinos but people of all ethnicities because they have become ubiquitous.
When Virginia-native Stephen started out with opening his first restaurant, this part of the country was in the midst of what he calls a “renaissance period.” Now, through his culinary ventures and the contributions by other local chefs, the changing tides are washing over the region, setting a diverse course for the future.