Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Virginia I - "You got your Virginia ham in my biscuit!"

For just a few weeks, this State-by-State series comes back home.  Okay, almost back home - not in state but in regional terms.  Though Virginia is across the Potomac, our neighbors to the south share one very important thing with us here in Maryland: the big ol' Chesapeake Bay.  But a quick perusal of any cookbook or recipe collection claiming to be Chesapeake cuisine will show you that the foods we share are not just seafood.

Official Name: Commonwealth of Virginia
State Nickname: The Old Dominion State
Admission to the US: June 25, 1788 (#10)
Capital: Richmond (4th largest)
Other Important Cities: Virginia Beach (largest), Norfolk (2nd largest), Chesapeake (3rd largest); Newport News (5th largest), Hampton (6th largest), Alexandria (7th largest)
Region: South, Upper South, Mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake; South Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT NationsChestnut, Crab Cake
Bordered by: West Virginia (northwest), Maryland, District of Columbia and the Potomac River (northeast), Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean (east), North Carolina (south), Tennessee (southwest), Kentucky (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: brook trout (fresh water fish), milk (beverage), Eastern oyster (shell), striped bass (salt water fish)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: ham (especially Smithfield); peanuts; Chesapeake Bay cuisine to the north and east of the state, specifically crabs (fried, steamed, boiled, deviled, Norfolk and she-crab soup) and oysters; typical Southern foods to the south and west of the state (including ham biscuits, beaten biscuits, etc); diverse multicultural foods in Northern Virginia (notably South & Southeast Asian, West African, Ethiopian and Central American); Brunswick stew

What constitutes Virginia cuisine?  It depends on where in the Commonwealth you are (NB: Virginia is the last of the four "commonwealth states" we are hitting up, after Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Kentucky.  Five if you count Puerto Rico, which isn't a state but is a commonwealth.  Ugh, my head hurts keeping track of all this).  The Virginia travel site ( with its well-known "Virginia is for lovers" tagline, boasts right at the top that "There's a lot more to Virginia Cuisine than Peanuts!" [Virginia Tourism Corporation 2012].  Well I knew that!  And they spell it out for us, region by region:

* Chesapeake oysters, beautiful blue crabs and - yes - flounder abound on Virginia's Eastern Shore, as Wachapreague (not far from Chincoteagoe) bills itself as the flounder capital of the world.  Getting Misty yet?
* South Central Virginia, best known for its Brunswick stew - something that the entire Upper South fights for credit over.  made with chicken or squirrel.  You will see this pop up in a few posts, though I'm not quite sure the recipe I used is the most authentic one.
* Appalachia is home to typical Appalachian foods - like the stack cakes and cornbreads we've seen in earlier posts.
* The Shenandoah Valley, which is apple country (that I just found out while researching this).
* Northern Virginia, like DC and the Maryland suburbs, draws in the cuisines of the world.  A simple glance at Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide, based in NoVA, shows the true diversity of international eating around 495.  This is also wine country, by the way.
* And of course, the classically Southern fare of Richmond, Hampton Roads and the Tidewater, where ham, biscuits and peanuts abound. [Virginia Tourism Corporation 2012; Cowen 2012]

I really need to get to Virginia more often.  It is just next door after all, and I'm in DC a lot more often these days.

Among all the things I know Virginia for, it is crab.  And of course it would be: that's one of the big things Marylanders share with Virginians is the blue crab.  But most Americans probably identify Virginia more with ham.  Virginia is famous for its hams.  Again, you find these in neighboring states, too: Tennessee, Kentucky and even Southern Maryland all boast about their respective takes on ham.  But Virginia has cornered the national market (not to mention Food Network star Paula Deen in one nasty frozen ham assault a few years ago).  Most famous is Smithfield, though remember that many local farms smoke and sell their own hams to the public. Particularly important are their dry-cured hams, not the easiest thing to find in the mega-supermarkets - the Wegmanses and Harris Teeters in the area - but hard to miss in most Giants, where you literally stumble over the Virginia dry-cured hams (go fig).  As noted by Paul Graham, N.G. Marriott and R.F. Kelly for the Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension [Graham et al 2011], the process and trade in Virginia ham is an old and storied one in the Commonwealth
Virginia ham was one of the first agricultural products exported from North America. The Reverend Mr. Andrew Burnaby enthusiastically reported that Virginia pork was superior in flavor to any in the world (Burnaby 1775). Another early clergyman, the Reverend Mr. John Clayton, wrote the Royal Society in England that Virginia ham was as good as any in Westphalia (Force 1844). [Graham et al 2011; their sources included]
They further outline the process of dry-curing your own ham the Virginia way, from start to finish, even warning about the specific bugs that typically bother the ham during the curing process.

For this ham recipe, I would have liked to use dry cured ham.  But the stuff is pricey, and I just don't have the time to properly, or even half-assedly, prepare a dry cured ham for serving.  So instead I shot for the boneless smoked variety of party ham put out by, again, Smithfield.  To best utilize this, I turned to one of the most popular finger sandwiches in the South: the humble ham biscuit.  You can definitely make these with dry-cured ham, but it's just a lot cheaper, easier and less time-consuming with the pre-cooked, vacuum-packed-in-water stuff.

The ham biscuit is as popular with Southern hostesses, tailgaters and buffet-goers as that other Southern classic, pimento cheese.  So much so that the makers of Martha White flour [date unknown] have a few things to say about this cherished snack.
The origin of the yeast biscuit is unknown but seems to have surfaced in Southern cookbooks and in newspaper food sections during the 1950s. Alice Jarman, the founder of the Martha White Kitchen, developed a version for the company that was publicized across the South called "Riz" Biscuits. These biscuits became preferred carriers for country ham because of their light texture and good keeping qualities. [Martha White date unknown]
Martha White points out three variations, a thin, crisper biscuit, a softer, yeasty biscuit and a biscuit that has actual ham pieces in the dough.  The recipe below, which I got from Treva Chadwell whose recipe is posted at the Cooking Channel website, is a softer biscuit using no yeast at all - and swapping White Lily flour for Martha White (Chadwell doesn't specify any specific flour).  Hers also comes with a honey Dijon sauce and - gasp - chives!  What is a humble host like me to do with all this fabulousness!?!?

The Recipe: Virginia Ham Biscuits

For Chadwell's ham biscuit you will need the following:

First, you will need some biscuits.  You could cheat and buy some, but why not make them yourself?  Chadwell's chive biscuits call for:

* flour (had it on hand - White Lily in this case, though you could use Martha White as well.  Oh hell, any flour will do, but the softer the better)
* baking powder (had it)
* baking soda (same)
* salt (had this too)
* buttermilk (picked up a quart for about $1.50)
* lard (I should have gone to Giant and gotten actual lard, since they have it in their meat section.  Neither of the mega-huge supermarket chains that has come to our area - Wegman's and Harris Teeter - has lard.  The closest I found was Goya's lard, which upon reading the ingredients seems like some strange lard-Crisco hybrid at Harris Teeter.  It ran about $4.)
* chives (only $2 a bunch)

This recipe also calls for a honey mustard sauce.  For this you need:

* Dijon mustard (had it in the pantry)
* whole grain mustard (just $3.50 for a bottle)
* honey (had this on hand, too.  My sister brought some of this from Richmond Hill, outside of Savannah.  Best to keep this recipe as Southern as possible)

And finally, you will need:

* ham - otherwise, it wouldn't be a ham biscuit (I bought a vacuum-packed pre-cut boneless Smithfield ham at Harris Teeter for $4 per lb - about $9.50.  I will be eating this ham for a while)

First, whisk together the dry ingredients and the chives.

Next, cut in the lard.  It should be cold.

Whisk until it is of a crumbly but doughy consistency.

Flour the dough and roll it out to about a 1/2 inch consistency.

Punch it a few times...

...and cut it into rounds of about 2 1/2 inches.  I just used a drinking cup.

Bake it in a preheated 400°F oven for about 20 minutes.

While baking, mix the mustards and honey.

When your biscuits are cool enough to handle, make the ham biscuits.  Cut a biscuit in half.

Spread the honey-mustard sauce on at least one side.

Place some of your ham on the biscuit.

I liked these biscuits, but for some reason mine always turn out flatter than most.  Still, this is a tasty sandwich.  Though I didn't cook the ham at all, I would warm it up a bit before I made this again.


Anderson's Neck Oyster Company.  "History".  Copyright 2012, Anderson's Neck Oyster Company.  All rights reserved.

Brunswick Stewmaster's Association.  "Brunswick Stew History".  Copyright 2010, Brunswick Stewmaster's Association.  All rights reserved.

Carman, Tim.  "The Real Reason Why Squirrel Meat Isn’t Used in Brunswick Stew Anymore".  Young & Hungry column, Washington City Paper, posted May. 6, 2009.

Cowen, Tyler.  Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide.  Copyright 2012, All rights reserved.

Chadwell, Treva.  "Virginia Ham Biscuits".  Provided for the Cooking Channel.  Copyright 2012, Cooking Channel LLC.  All rights reserved.

"Elmer Fudd" (user), "Elmer Fudd's Brunswick Stew".  Posted September 26, 2009.  Copyright 2009 Field & Stream.  All rights reserved.

Good Earth Peanut Company.  "All About Peanuts".  Date unknown.

Graham, Paul, N.G. Marriott and R.F. Kelly.  "Dry Curing Virginia-Style Ham".  Written for the Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension, 2011.

Peanut Shop of Williamsburg.  "Thai Cucumber Salad".  Copyright 2010, The Peanut Shop of Williamsburg.  All rights reserved.

Randolph, Mary.  The Virginia Housewife: Or Methodical Cook: A Facsimile of an Authentic Early American Cookbook.  1824.  Republication of the edition by E.H. Butler & Co., Philadelphia, 1860.  Introduction by Janice Bluestein Longone, Moneola, NY: Dover, 1993.

Shields, John. Chesapeake Bay CookingBroadway Books: New York, NY, 1998

Virginia Tourism Corporation. "Home page".  Copyright 2012, Virginia Tourism Corporation.  All rights reserved.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Virginia" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Virginia".