America has fallen hard for Southern food and drink. First it was New Orleans, then Charleston, now Nashville: Our national love affair with all things grits and greens shows no sign of stopping. In the rush to canonize the citadels of New Southern Cuisine, however, the country has ignored Virginia’s Tidewater, the constellation of seven sister cities—including Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach—that spirals out from Chesapeake Bay. And from the shallow waters of this port-city region, where immigrant cuisines thrive and the measure of chefs’ mettle is their prowess with oysters and crab and rockfish and shad, the country’s next great food region is beginning to surface.
I have known the region since boyhood. As a middle schooler, I traveled from my home in Georgia to Williamsburg for primers in colonial history and faux period lunches of sausages and rye bread on pewter platters. But those were bucolic images, rendered in sepia. My introduction to the Technicolor Tidewater began several years ago, when I traveled to Oak Island for an exposition of modern Virginia foodways, hosted by chef Harper Bradshaw of Harper’s Table restaurant. After an evening of Pleasure House oysters slurped naked from the shell, handfuls of sea salt–roasted Virginia peanuts, and conversation with local oystermen, chefs, and farmers—all convinced that the rest of the nation did not appreciate the excellence of the food community then coalescing—I knew I had to return to explore further.
In Virginia Beach, the legacy of Filipino immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s to take jobs at naval ports lives on at Laguna Bakery & Filipino Food, my first stop. Here, Therese Lee, a native of the Philippines’ Bulacan province, channels her heritage with yam porridge and lumpia, those crisp, cigarillo-shaped treats so ubiquitous that some locals refer to them as “Manila french fries.”
The neighboring city of Norfolk, on the other hand, is the province of egg foo yong sandwiches, disk-shaped omelets of eggs and onions and pork on mayonnaise-smeared white bread. Like barbecue joints and fried chicken hutches in the deeper South, restaurants such as Patsy and Haymond Wong’s Sing Wong serve as a portal to the Tidewater’s working-class culture. My sandwich reminds me of how port cities, coursing with people from all lands and latitudes, have long affected the American experiment.
Great food regions are rich with both low and high diversions. On the higher end of the spectrum sits the $24 flounder and house-ground grits entrée served by Stephen Marsh at LeGrand Kitchen, also in Norfolk. Marsh opened LeGrand Kitchen in the North Colley neighborhood in the summer of 2014. Much of his food, from creamed vegetables capped with a sunny-side-up egg to a deviled-egg schmear with Ritz crackers, is minimalist, the attitude almost punk, like a Momofuku for the Mid-Atlantic. His band, The Great Dismal Swamis, plays stripped-down music, Marsh tells me. “And this is stripped-down food.” Named for LeGrand Records, the Norfolk label that launched the career of rock-and-roller Gary U.S. Bonds, it’s a bunker restaurant with a griddle at its center, staffed by kids who wear black and look bashful.
Indie chefs such as Marsh drive dynamic food scenes. In this American moment, when white tablecloth dining has ceded the conversation to everyman restaurants that deliver local provenance without fuss, chefs partner with farmers to revive heirloom vegetables. More important, those chefs validate the foodways of a place by presenting traditional dishes, like that reinvented open-faced pimento cheese sandwich, in novel ways.
Bradshaw, who hosted the dinner that got me plotting more Tidewater travels, is one of the modern interpreters of Tidewater foodways. At his downtown Suffolk restaurant, 20 miles west of Norfolk, set near a stretch of old, but still operational, peanut warehouses and decorated with vintage duck decoys and oyster cans, I eat an elegant oyster stew strafed with arugula and cracked black pepper.
“This place is where it all began,” Bradshaw says, when I ask what inspires him. “You can make an argument that American food culture started when settlers and Native Americans first met. That’s a powerful story, one I get to tell with the ingredients I choose and the dishes I cook.” A great food destination embraces local ingredients in novel ways, Bradshaw says. In the kitchen, he translates that vision into dishes such as Eastern Shore oysters and potatoes, seasoned with country ham fat and lemon.
Not all of the Tidewater chefs making waves are newcomers. Sydney Meers—owner of Stove, the Restaurant—is a gleeful subversive who has led the good food movement here for the better part of 20 years. Late in my trip, when I tell him I came to the Tidewater to eat country ham and I don’t want to leave before I taste the real thing, he escorts me across the street, where he has installed one of those prefab hutches sold at building supply stores. With a flashlight, he pans his rafter-hung prizes before plunging an ice pick into one of them to release its scent.
“I’m going to use this on your cheese platter,” Sydney tells me, carrying a coffee mug of lard as we head back toward the restaurant. I’m not sure whether that’s a promise or a threat. But I follow, because Sydney is the Tidewater’s most alluring jester.
Succumbing to Sydney’s will, I eat brown sugar-coated twigs of pork that he calls Smoochie Bear and that you might recognize as aggressively seasoned ham. I nibble at a wedge of cheddar drenched in that silky ham fat. Local rockfish in a tomato concassé follows, with a glass of chardonnay vinified down the road at Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek. If a great culinary destination requires one restaurant that could not be replicated anywhere else, then Stove is that Tidewater restaurant.
When it comes time to head home, I realize that I haven’t whacked any crabs, and this region is the ideal American place to do that. So I double back to T&T Seafood Market, just down the street from LeGrand Kitchen. The line is long. In the kitchen, a cook works a battery of fry baskets filled with sook (female) and jimmy (male) crabs. I yell into the kitchen to ask the difference. A woman seated alone in the dining room, picking meat from carapaces shrouded in cornmeal crust, answers me: “One is supposed to be sweeter,” she says, licking her fingers clean. “But I can never remember if that’s the female or the male. So I always order a pair.” When the counterwoman looks my way, I order a pair too. And soon, I’m mallet-whacking those crabs, pulling the aprons off their undersides, rooting with an oversize fork for sweet white meat.
Yes, the Tidewater should be part of our conversation about the Southern culinary renaissance. But this region is Southern on its own terms. It isn’t rich with grand old-guard restaurants like New Orleans. These people don’t hew to the genteel ways of Charleston. Here in the Tidewater, you’re more likely to find yourself busting open crabs and trying not to flinch as shell shrapnel flies, while seated beneath a sign like the one at T&T that warns, WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING CAUSED BY CRABS.
John T. Edge is the author of The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South (Penguin, May 2017)
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