Sunday, October 21, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Virginia II - More of that Bounty of the Chesapeake

Having been born and raised near the Chesapeake Bay, I tend to think of our crabs, oysters and other local seafood as, well, the best.  Virginia shares that same distinction (and attitude towards its seafood) with Maryland - as I've always said, it's the same bay after all.  The same bay with the same delicious crabs and oysters, y'all.

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 NationsChestnutCrab 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

Virginia (and Maryland, for that matter) has its share of fairly complicated blue crab recipes.  My Great-Uncle Eddie, who died when I was four, had his recipe for crab imperial that is still part of the family recipe file.  And of course from Virginia we see those fairly rich she-crab soups, popular all along the Southern coast.  Somewhere in between are the Maryland crab cakes and heaping helpings of crab Norfolk - neither terribly complicated, but not as simple as they at first appear.  Some of my favorites, however, are the simplest to make: the steamed crabs and fried soft shells.  

I've been eating these things for years, of course.  One of my most memorable experiences came when I was just out of college, taking a soon-to-be-married friend from upstate New York into Old Town Alexandria with his fellow bachelor partiers, all also from upstate New York.  We went into a non-descript pub whose kitchen was just about to close.  I was hungry, and ordered the soft-shell crab sandwich.  My Northern friend was not interested, but his buddies really were the ones to react: when the plate came out with that big deep fried bug looking thing poking out from inside the bread and a few pieces of lettuce, one of them actually said, "Now I think that I'm going to throw up!"  More for me.

My mother's mother, born and raised in Baltimore, had perhaps the simplest and most delicious method for preparing a soft: just cut off the face, dredge it in flour, fry it up in butter a few minutes each side, and serve it up on white bread with some mayonnaise.  John Shields gathers quite a few soft shell crab recipes in his Chesapeake Bay Cooking, and flipping through my well-worn copy I found more than a few that sparked my interest.  But of course, there was a recipe from Tidewater Virginia that was more or less the same as my Grandmom's.

This was Alva Crockett's "No Bullhocky" Fried Soft-Shells.  Tangier Islander Alva Crockett, so says Shields,
is a down-to-earth guy who doesn't take kindly to fancy soft-shell preparations.  Just thinking about sautéed crabs with this and that on them sends his nerves all to hell...  He figures that if you fry them up like this, you'll never eat them any other way" [Shields 1998: 46]
My Grandmom died when I was four years old, so I don't know whether she would've hated a fancier interpretation of soft shells or been intrigued by them, kind of like my mother.  But Mom, like her mother before her and of course this feller Alva Crockett, are just three of the thousands upon thousands of people serving up soft shells this very way.

The recipe I use is indeed Alva's, page 46 of Shields' cookbook, though the recipe is essentially the same as my grandmother's.  And the same as so many other grandmothers, uncles, mothers and sons from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to Chesapeake, Virginia, and on either shore - like Tangier Island.

The Recipe: Fried Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich

To make this fried soft shell crab sandwich, assemble the following:

* soft shell blue crab (I picked one up, thawed, for $3.50)
* flour (just enough to dredge it)
* salt and pepper (had them)
* cayenne pepper (had it too)
* Old Bay (Alva's recipe doesn't have this, nor does my grandmother's.  I just felt like adding some)
* oil (peanut oil in this case)

Dredge the soft shell in the mixed dry ingredients.

Pour in enough oil to fry the crab, and place the crab in the oil.

Fry about two to three minutes on a side.

I have always eaten these on white bread with mayo, nothing else.

There are so few things as satisfying as this sandwich.  I just can't go into any more detail.. It's just delicious: crispy on the outside, soft inside, with that beautiful crab flavor exploding around your taste buds.

Of course, the Chesapeake is also known for its bounty of urshters.  And like the crabs, people have been eating them here for thousands of years.  Archaeologists have found many a shell midden in the Chesapeake dating not only to colonial times but earlier.  Anderson's Neck Oyster Company [2012] based on the York River have a whole page on the lengthy history of oyster farming and use dating not just to the 1500's but well before that.

So it is no surprise that oysters feature in one of the United States' first official cookbooks.  Mary Randolph wrote her book The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook [Randolph 1824; Bluestein Longone 1993] well before the Civil War, and features many a recipe that the modern cook can just interpret for his or her kitchen.  This "facsimile of an Authentic Early American Cookbook" (the subtitle of the 1993 reprint) is just the latest in myriad reprints, as Janice Bluestein Longone [1993] notes in the introduction to a much more recent edition:
It was an immediate success and went through at least nineteen editions before the outbreak of the Civil War.  In addition, copies appeared in the late nineteenth century and at least three modern reprints have been published, apart from the one in hand. [Bluestein Longone 1993]
And the editor notes the popular recipes and styles that might surprise modern cooks: everything from "Spanish dishes" {gaspacho and ropa veija) to salads and vegetable dishes, to even a few exotic things like "dough nuts" ("A Yankee Cake").

I was, actually, surprised at the dearth of crab recipes: I found none.  But Mrs. Randolph has more than a few things to do with oysters.  Her recipe for "Scolloped Oysters" was perhaps the easiest to do, once you shuck the oysters - and yes, you must use oysters in the shell, or else have spare shells to put them in.  I do not typically quote whole recipes at length, but with this almost 200 year old recipe I think I can make an exception.  This is on page 68 of the 1993 edition:
TO SCOLLOP OYSTERS.When the oysters are opened, put them in a bowl, and wash them out of their own liquor; put some in the scollop shells, strew over them a few bread crumbs, and lay a slice of butter on them, then more oysters, bread crumbs, and a slice of butter on the top; put them into a Dutch oven to brown, and serve them up in the shells. [Randolph 1824; Bluestein Longone 1993]
I swapped out the Dutch oven for my broiler (just because, alright?), but even without that, this is a ridiculously easy dish to interpret as is.

The Recipe: Scalloped Oysters

You don't need too much for Randolph's Virginia Housewife scalloped oysters.

* oysters (I got Chincoteague oysters, natch, for about $1 each)
* bread crumbs (I had these in the pantry)
* butter (had this too)

First, shuck the oysters.  Make sure they are free of any grit and shell bits.  You won't be saving the liquor in this case.

Make sure to save enough oyster shells to use for holding the oysters.

Place an oyster into each shell.

Top each oyster with bread crumbs.

And then top each with a pat of butter.

Do it again: some more bread crumbs, some more butter.

Place in a Dutch oven - or in this case, under the broiler - for a few minutes until browned.

Apart from the arduous process of oyster shucking, this is a ridiculously simple yet decadent appetizer.  Cook just long enough to get the oysters cooked through and soft.  The crunch of the buttery bread crumbs are a nice addition.  You will have to bite a little into the oyster, but make sure you drink down the butter so don't get it all over yourself.


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".