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What is Virginia cuisine?

Posted by  / Monday, December 19th, 2016

Rockfish

Rockfish, one of Virginia’s culinary calling cards, cooks within the embers at Field & Main / Photo by Rey Lopez

Within days of each other, two restaurants opened claiming to serve Virginia cuisine. And while that might sound obvious in one way—they both call Virginia home—it is also a radical act. Because what exactly is Virginia cuisine?

Between the menus of Field & Main and Coton and Rye, similarities are few. Field & Main projects a contemporary vibe flush with items like crispy pig ears—sliced into strips and tossed in Crystal hot sauce, topped with blue cheese and served with shaved celery—as a play on Buffalo wings. It’s a mash-up of modern American sensibility and a bit of Southern, small-town charm, a hat tip to the recently revived town of Marshall.

Coton and Rye, inside Lansdowne Resort, is named after the farm (owned by family members of Robert E. Lee, who were also signers of the Declaration of Independence) where the hotel and golf course now reside. More transparent in its ode to the state, with the words Virginia Tavern in its logo, Coton and Rye taps into time-honored dishes with Tidewater seafood chowder, Brunswick stew and Jane Hamilton’s hand pies.

Both restaurants, which debuted just after Labor Day, serve biscuits, feature corn in a variety of ways (spoonbread,bread pudding and corn cakes) and list greens cooked with pork. These are all vaguely Southern, vaguely American. And that’s the point.

Rockfish is on display, too, and is given a particularly rustic treatment at Field & Main: It cooks over a live fire. The hearth is a focal point of the restaurant, both because you can see it from the dining room and those coveted seats lining the open kitchen and because it’s how we used to cook, how America used to cook.

Biscuits

Biscuits served with bacon butter at Field & Main / Photo by Rey Lopez

“This is the birthplace of American cuisine,” writes Patrick Evans-Hylton in Dishing Up Virginia, a book that’s part recipes, part history lesson, part megaphone. Hear this: Virginia’s food is worth eating, worth knowing. Evans-Hylton, who launched an online publication called Virginia Eats + Drinks Magazine, divides Dishing Up Virginia by region with particular emphasis on the Chesapeake Bay.

Jamestown. It’s where we began. A nod to the first settlement appears at America Eats Tavern, a restaurant in the Tysons Corner Ritz-Carlton. The concept first started as a pop-up in D.C. in conjunction with the National Archives exhibit “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet” with a team of chefs researching and testing historic dishes. Below the name of menu items is the dish’s inspiration, with shrimp and grits crediting “Jamestown, 1607.” Though low country South Carolina is largely given credit for the combination, the restaurant cites a loose correlation between the settlers’ use of hominy, which is a precursor to grits, says America Eats Tavern head chef Claudio Foschi, and is therefore used as an ode to Virginia.

Even a dedication to Jamestown isn’t a straightforward answer to what is Virginia cuisine.

Dinner at the Old Town Alexandria restaurant Gadsby’s Tavern, famous for hosting George Washington, doesn’t provide a clear picture either.

The tavern, now a museum, does not possess records of meals during the colonial era but pieced them together with cookbooks of the time, including The Virginia Housewife: Or Methodical Cook, by Mary Randolph (1860) says Liz Williams, acting director. The dish dubbed George Washington’s Favorites, with duck, scalloped potatoes, corn pudding, rhotekraut (a cabbage dish) and port wine orange glace, is based on his visits there, which were documented. (His exact meal on Nov. 5, 1789: roast canvass back duck and hominy with Madeira to drink.)

Biscuits

Biscuits served with pepper jelly at Coton and Rye / Photo by Rey Lopez

While that may not read recognizably Virginian, other items include peanut soup, ham and mascarpone cheese biscuits and the English crossover that became a staple here, a pot pie-like dish: thick, salty, dark gravy with lamb and beef and a puff pastry top.

Chef Marcus Repp wants his guests to order the turkey pot pie at Coton and Rye, with that bird specifically chosen because turkey would have been more readily available during early life in Virginia.

A native of Germany, Repp became a student of Virginia cuisine when he moved here this summer, having previously cooked in Europe, the Caribbean and throughout the United States for a variety of hotel chains.

“I really didn’t know much about it,” says Repp, but after a few months here, he thinks “Virginia cuisine is a wine-driven, fresh cuisine that is very much about the farms and the locals that live here.”

But what’s most interesting coming from an outsider is how he compares Virginia to California’s wine country. He sees a parallel: the wine, especially, and the reliance from so many restaurants on seasonal ingredients presented without a heavy hand. He sees ambition here. “They’re driven to please, showcase their ingredients,” he says about the farmers, the winemakers, the artisan producers. “It seems like Virginia was sleeping, but now it’s coming alive.”

Marcus Repp

German-born Virginia-proud Marcus Repp, chef at Coton and Rye / Photo by Rey Lopez

Besides thumbing through Jane Hamilton’s Recipes; Delicacies from the Old Dominion (1909), Repp also chatted up farmers and customers at local farmers markets asking what they ate for Sunday dinner. “There are just so many people that are driven to do something really special in the food industry,” says Repp, ticking off the artisans he’s met, which keeps his menu grounded in the now.

Repp cites his turkey pot pie, fried chicken, rockfish, beef jerky, pickled vegetables and the coal miner’s roll up (dough folded with salami and a gouda-style cheese made in Virginia that is an homage to a coal miner’s lunch) as items that should signal to his guests, most of whom are out-of-towners staying at the hotel, that this is what we eat, now, in Virginia, but is also a tribute to the past.

While Repp easily conveys his enthusiasm for Loudoun County, to him, Virginia is shiny and new and ripe for discovery for those outside our borders.

“Virginians historically have been self-deprecating. I don’t know [if] mentally we’ve prepared ourselves to be a world [food] city,” says Evans-Hylton. While the food writer has been here much longer than Repp (his ancestors came to Colonial Virginia in the 1600s, and after growing up in Georgia, he moved here in 1990.) and thinks, without hesitation, Virginia has its own cuisine, we’ve yet to make it identifiable enough to be rattled off with the country’s other obvious cuisines: the Cajun and Creole cooking in Louisiana, Tex-Mex and Southern, and though Virginia is technically in the South, NoVA restaurants do not autopilot into Southern cooking. When a Southern restaurant opens here, it is noted as such. It is not the default style.    

Virginia food does exist under the larger umbrella of Southern food. Richmond was the heart of the Confederacy; Virginia is inherently Southern.

Turkey pot pie

A turkey pot pie from Coton and Rye. The chef chose that particular bird because of its historical significance. / Photo by Rey Lopez

For Evans-Hylton, he assigns specific ingredients to Virginia cuisine. He calls them culinary calling cards: peanuts, Virginia country ham, apples, strawberries, (white hamon) sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes and fresh catch: rockfish, flounder, sturgeon, oysters, blue crab.

Ingredients do not make a cuisine. And that’s the rub. Just because something can grow here does not make it part of the locale’s cuisine. There must be more. It is a combination of ingredients, a set of methods or techniques, culture and at least one signature dish.

Thinking back to the beginning of Virginia, the mode was survival. Eat or die. So the settlers preserved. The Spanish already released hogs to the new land, and, adapting European techniques to a new climate, settlers cured, salted and hung ham. Though because of higher humidity levels in Virginia, much more salt was needed, explains Cathal Armstrong, the chef and owner of Restaurant Eve.

“I don’t know of a cuisine that is specific to Virginia,” says the Irish-born Armstrong. “Virginia was unfortunate that it was populated by the Brits that didn’t have much taste.”

With a garden in the back of his Alexandria restaurant, Armstrong follows a more calendar-driven approach to his menu. “We follow the Virginia growth season. That is our closest alliance,” he says of producing Virginia cuisine.

He thinks of Virginia’s food in terms of its past: “What comes to mind are poor settlers that couldn’t figure it out and suffered immeasurably.” Those coming here to the new world had to learn how to sustain through the winter, and that is a strong part of the legacy. “An important thing that probably comes out of Virginia more than other areas of the world … the importance of canning and preserving. If you’re not pickling, preserving, canning, you’re not surviving.”

Crucial to an existence before refrigeration, sustenance-motivated food cannot define Virginia’s food identity today. Asks Armstrong, “Is that what we want to be excited about—pickled green beans?”

But that is exactly what you’ll get at Coton and Rye. In a glass canning jar there are pickled carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, radishes and green beans. Housemade beef jerky is among the last-forever foods on the menu too.

There is another way to look at foods from that period: What will stay fresh?

Field & Main partly builds its menu around thinking about what was served on that property when it was a restaurant 200 years ago. “If you put yourself in the context when our building was built and what you had to work with that was in a perishable distance away, that’s an inspiration point,” says owner Neal Wavra.

Ingredients include reemerging grains like sorghum and farro, creamed corn bread pudding with Southern flair, field peas, greens braised with hocks, biscuits with bacon butter and mac and cheese, plus a quintessential Virginia creature, roasted oysters topped with the Australian native finger lime as well as vinegar from local purveyor Lindera Farms.

To what this adds up to is still to be determined.

“I don’t know if there is a Virgina cuisine,” says Wavra. He shares that same view of many people interviewed for this story, though he does point to Virginia developing great chefs as a road toward carving out a culinary character.

For his restaurant, “We are seeking to define what a farm-to-town restaurant means. We want people who come here to eat from here.”

He credits Tarver King, the chef, farmer and forager at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, for doing that well. King, Wavra says, “works hard to translate this place into a taste.”

Maybe you can’t see it, or define it. Maybe it’s more of a feeling. Maybe you have to taste Virginia cuisine to know it.

“It’s just a matter of time … and I think we’re very close,” says Evans-Hylton. He ticks off the chefs with awards, the wine scene, the growing beer and distillery industry. And gives the state credit, too. “The way Virginia ate is the way all Americans eventually ate.”

But the days of Jamestown are very far away. What was learned infused into what we do now, but it also dissipated. It’s hard to connect the dots from what we ate then to the varied ways we eat now, and this doesn’t even touch the impact the many waves of immigrants from across the globe, Asia specifically, changed how we do dinner.

Does a Virginia cuisine exist? “It’s kinda of like believing in Santa Claus,” says Evans-Hylton. “You have to believe.” 


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