From Harvest to Table: Exploring Regional Foods from Our Commonwealth

From Harvest to Table: Exploring Regional Foods from Our Commonwealth

Browse below to explore the delectable cuisine of Tidewater, as featured in the Our Commonwealth in-exhibition interactive. 

Blue Crabs | Historic Hams | Oysters | Famous Peanuts | Potatoes in Virginia | Native Strawberries

 

Blue Crabs

Blue crabs range from Nova Scotia to Argentina but are synonymous with the Chesapeake Bay. The crustaceans thrive in the brackish estuaries and salt marshes of eastern Virginia, which chefs believe give the Chesapeake Bay blue crab a distinctively sweet, delicate flavor. Bay watermen and women trap blue crabs from late spring to early winter and take their catch to processing houses where workers pick the tender meat from the shells. Crabs can be boiled or steamed, fried as soft shells (right after the crab molts its old shell), or made into cakes, soups, and dips.

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A watercolor painting of layers of blue crabs
"Hard to Choose" watercolor painting by Katherine Sullivan of Arlington, Virginia, from the Virginia Watercolor Society's 41st Annual Exhibition at the VMHC. 

Tidewater-Style Crab Cakes

1 lb. white crabmeat
8 saltine crackers, crushed
1 egg
1 teaspoon honey mustard
1 teaspoon mayonnaise
Old Bay seasoning

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients. Shape into cakes. Place on a plate and refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes to set. Fry in hot oil until golden brown. Makes 4 crab cakes.

Historic Hams

Curing and aging meats is an ancient practice that colonial farmers perfected to create today’s “Virginia Ham.” For generations, they butchered peanut-fed hogs, cured the meat with salts, added their favorite spice mix, and aged the hams in smokehouses for at least six months. This process creates a uniquely dry, salty ham that generations of Virginians believe pairs perfectly with biscuits. Mallory Todd started the first ham curing business in Smithfield in the late 1700s. Now Virginia law mandates that genuine Smithfield hams can only be produced within the city’s limits.    

"My grandfather butchered his own hogs. After curing the meat for months, this was the best and easiest way to cook the hams." –Betty Fitzgerald, Lyndhurst

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A color photograph of a sliced country ham, with yellow tomatoes on the side
Virginia Baked Country Ham. Detail from the cover of When do we eat? : First choose the meat. by Kingan & Co., 1937. (VMHC TX749 .W56 1937)

Virginia Baked Country Ham

1 whole Country Ham
6-7 cups Water

Preheat oven to 500°. In a small roaster, place ham in water and cook for 20 minutes at 500°. Turn off oven for 3 hours. Turn oven on again at 500° and cook for 20 minutes. Turn oven off and leave ham in oven overnight. Do not open oven during this entire time! Next morning, trim fat, baste with your favorite glaze and serve.

Oysters

Virginia oysters have been a prized delicacy since the times of Indigenous Americans and the first European settlers. Eastern Virginia’s unique mix of ocean and freshwater habitats yields oysters that have eight distinct flavor profiles, from sweet to salty to buttery. Virginia now even boasts an “Oyster Trail” that visitors can travel to sample the different oyster flavors and learn about the history and culture of oystering families. Once on the brink of collapse, Virginia’s oyster beds have rebounded thanks to conservation efforts by watermen, scientists, and environmentalists.

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A color photograph of an oyster can.
E.J. Steelman's Cherrystone Oysters can, 20th century. (VMHC 2004.362.2)

Oyster Soup

8 cups oysters
3 onions, chopped
2-3 slices ham
4 tablespoons flour
1 cup heavy cream
6 egg yolks
Sprinkle of salt and pepper

Wash and drain 8 cups of oysters and put them in 12 cups of water. Add in the chopped onions, ham, and the pepper and salt. Boil the mixture and strain, keeping the liquid. Add the liquid back to the pot, and cook the oysters. Add in the flour, heavy cream, and egg yolks. Serve fresh.

Famous Peanuts

Peanuts came to Virginia with enslaved Africans and were originally used as animal feed, especially for hogs butchered for hams. Peanuts became widely popular in the late 1800s thanks to two Black men: George Washington Carver discovered 300 different uses for the legume, and Virginia farmer Benjamin Hicks invented a machine to stem and clean peanuts. Consumers favor the Virginia variety of peanuts for its size, taste, and crunch. Today the “Salty Southern Route” guides visitors through southeastern Virginia to sample the peanuts of the region’s growers and processors.

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An illustrated paper bag with a cartoon of Mr. Peanut holding a red pennant. Text reads: Planters Pennant Brand Salted Peanuts, "The Nickel Lunch," 5 cents, Planters Nut & Chocolate
Planters Pennant Salted Peanuts waxed paper bag. (VMHC 2002.480.44)

Virginia Peanut Soup

2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
6 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups natural peanut butter
2 teaspoons hot sauce
2 limes, juiced
2 tablespoons chopped peanuts
2 scallions, chopped

Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent, about 10 minutes. Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the flour all at once and cook until the mixture has a toasty aroma. Whisk the stock into the flour mixture in a slow, steady stream until smooth. Add the heavy cream and peanut butter to the soup and stir to combine. Stir in the hot sauce and lime juice and season, to taste. Garnish with the chopped peanuts and scallions.

Potatoes in Virginia

Potatoes first arrived in the Commonwealth in 1621 as a gift from the governor of Bermuda to the governor of Virginia. It would be the mid-1800s before large-scale potato farming took root on the Eastern Shore, where sandy, fertile soils and a temperate climate create an ideal environment for growing spuds. By the early 1900s, potato farming made Accomack County one of the wealthiest agricultural counties in the nation. Today, Eastern Shore farmers grow potatoes for the potato chip industry and for fresh market buyers who want to boil, bake, or French fry their potatoes.

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A color postcard of rows of flowering potato plants, with text Irish Potato Field Near Cape Charles, VA
Irish Potato Field near Cape Charles, Virginia, by Curteich-Chicago and Savage & Blasingame, 20th century. (VMHC 1999.17.1107)

Mashed Potatoes

2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup milk
Sprinkle of salt and pepper

Boil a pot of salted water. Add the potatoes and cook for 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes. Heat the butter and milk in a small saucepan over low heat until the butter is melted. Add the potatoes, butter and milk to an electric beater to blend. Add salt and pepper if needed.

Native Strawberries

The Virginia native strawberry was discovered by Jamestown colonists and soon exported back to England, where it was prized for its large, luscious fruit. Today, the state’s biggest strawberry producing area is in the agricultural community of Pungo, just a few miles west of the bustling Virginia Beach waterfront. Warm Atlantic Ocean waters provide mild temperatures that combine with rich southeastern Virginia soil to produce more than 25,000 pounds of berries per acre. Strawberries are so ingrained in the community that Virginia Beach features strawberry leaves in its city seal.

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A black and white photo of a man in a horse-led cart handing a crate to a  man on a train car
Loading Strawberries by Carload, Guinea, Virginia, 20th century postcard. (VMHC 2004.1.568)

Strawberry Preserves

4 cups strawberries
2 tablespoons vinegar
4 cups sugar

Boil berries and vinegar for 3 minutes. Add sugar and boil for 10 minutes. Pour into jelly glasses and seal with paraffin.