Visitors to Virginia may sample historic cuisine that melds English, African and native American influences, coupled with modern adaptations. Here a server at Alexandria's Mount Vernon Inn shows some of the savory Colonial fare adapted for a modern palate.*
Tasteful Traditions: Sampling
Virginia’s Savory Cuisine
By Sharon Cavileer
“Carry me back to Old Virginny….” on the tip of a spoon.
There’s no better way to experience Virginia than bite by bite. Savor a bowlful of peanut soup, a buttery biscuit with Smithfield ham, a melt-in-your mouth crab cake, a hearty Brunswick stew or an elegant trifle drenched with applejack and whipped cream.
Or walk on the wild side in Urbanna and hunt down an oyster fritter.
Cultures, Climates and Topography
Cuisine in the Old Dominion is a happy convergence of cultures, climates and topography.
Just years after the founding of Jamestown, Native American, African and English field crops and cooking styles converged to create a unique Virginia cuisine.
Traditional dishes are served today, for example, at the Shields Tavern, Colonial Williamsburg, shown at left.*
On the map, Virginia is half-way between Maine and Florida making it the perfect American pantry. Northern staples like apples, berries and maple syrup thrive alongside southern standards like peanuts and peppers.
The state also rises out of the Atlantic at Virginia Beach and tops out at 5729 feet above sea level at Mount Rogers creating micro-climates and soil to suit almost everything from cranberry bogs to wineries and wheat fields.
Pork became a mealtime standard with the creation of the Virginia ham cured in salt, smoked and aged to perfection with a coating of peanut oil and pepper.
Today, if your ham is labeled a "Virginia ham," it’s still made the traditional way. (www.shopvafinest.com).
America’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay provides 200 varieties of seafood. Native Americans called it Tschiswapeki…the Great Shellfish Bay.
From its waters, Virginians are deliciously spoiled with succulent sweet oysters, bluefish, flounder and rockfish -- a state delicacy. And, rainboat trout abound in the commonwealth's wild mountain streams.
A Culinary Historical Perspective
According to his daughter, George Washington would sit down every morning to a hearty breakfast of hoecakes swimming in honey and three cups of tea.
In the fields, African Americans of the 1700s and 1800s made their corn meal pancakes on hoe blades adding field greens and wild onions for taste.
Plantations were known for their hospitality, offering guests multiple courses served with panache. The linens, china and silver were imported.
Tables were set according to the rules of Mother England but the food was uniquely Virginian.
At left is the savory Virginia culinary fare -- including fried chicken and biscuits -- served at Michie Tavern (434-977-1234 or www.michietavern.com), on Route 53 near Charlottesville.*
If you're visiting Virginia, you'll discover hundreds of restaurants that adhere to the finest traditions and recipes of 400 years ago.
But there is one difference, according to Erick Swanson, manager of the Mount Vernon Inn (703-780-0011) George Washington Parkway, Mt. Vernon (south of Alexandria). His restaurant (shown below*) serves 140,000 meals a year.
Swanson puts it this way: "If you were to be offered the food of the Colonial period, you wouldn’t want to eat it. All of their meat, except pork was tough and stringy -- and seasoned to mask its “off” taste.”
“Today,” said Swanson, “we appeal to a wide variety of tastes, serving from an American Southern Colonial menu. We use regional products and modern methods but the period atmosphere, ambiance and traditions remain.”
Elegant tables, shown below, await visitors to the Mount Vernon Inn.*
Among the Mount Vernon Inn's offerings are:
- Peanut soup
- Fried green tomatoes Parmesan
- Hoe Cakes with Smithfield Ham and Crab
- Pork Loin
- Martha Washington’s Great Cake.
Further south in Colonial Williamsburg (www.history.org), you'll find that many restaurants in that historic area do a remarkable job of combining cuisine with history.
Editor's Note: We recently dined at the King's Arms Tavern (www.history.org) in Colonial Williamsburg. In Colonial times, it was "the place" for the elite to meet, socialize and dine. So it's the perfect spot to soak up history and chow down on cuisine of the 17th-19th centuries. You'll be served by wait staff dressed in authentic period attire. Don't miss the peanut soup, fried chicken, game pye and prime rib, as well as the savory desserts. The interior decor is simplistic elegance.
Further north, you can find a similar combination of history and traditional Virginia cuisine. In addition to Michie's Tavern mentioned above, two other good culinary spots are:'
**Gadsby’s Tavern (703-548-1288 or www.gadsbystavernrestaurant.com), 138 North Royal St., Alexandria (shown at right*);
**The Red Fox Tavern (800-223-1728 or www.redfox.com); 2 East Washington St., Middleburg.
But dining in search of historical perspective is only part of the Old Dominion's culinary story.
Top Food & Wine Destination
Virginia is among the top 15 food and wine destinations in the U.S., according to the Travel Industry of America.
For culinary buffs, the trinity of fine dining in Virginia consists of:
- The Inn at Little Washington (540-675-3800 or www.theinnatlittlewashington.com), Middle and Main Streets, Washington);
- The Homestead (540-839-1766), Route 220, Hot Springs; and
- Keswick Hall (434-979-3440) 701 Club Dr., Keswick.
Make reservations months in advance. And understand that the prices at these three excellent restaurants are not for the faint of heart. Still, the memorable meals dished out at these restaurants are worth the price.
If you're more interested in exceptional dining on a budget, head out on Virginia's byways to discover these dining venues.
For example, you might try Graves Mountain Lodge (540-923-4231 or www.gravesmountain.com); in Syria for fresh catfish, pot roast or country ham served up with local veggies, home-made bread and jam.
For fine pan fried chicken and peanut soup, head for the Southern Kitchen (540-740-3514) 9597 Congress Street, New Market.
Or savor some local oysters and seafood at Lowery’s Restaurant (804-443-2800 or www.lowerysrestaurant.com), 528 Church Lane, Tappahannock; Bill’s Seafood House (757-595-4320) 10900 Warwick Blvd, Newport News; or the Eastville Inn (757-678-5745) 16422 Courthouse Road, Eastville, on the Eastern Shore.
Barbecue Lovers will lick their lips over
- Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que,(757-565-2955 or www.pierces.com), 447 Rochambeau, Williamsburg;
- Red Hot & Blue (703-218-6989 or www.redhotandblue.com), 4150 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax; or
- The Virginia Barbecue Company (804-52-4838) 600 England Street, Ashland.
Culinary Resources for Visitors
To achieve ecstasy in the Old Dominion, pick your pleasure, pick your passion. On the web go to www.Virginia.org/Fresh-Picked or www.Virginia.org/Freshcaught.
Or, you might take a cooking class at an elegant inn; visit www.Virginia.org/CulinarySecrets.
The right ingredients for Virginia recipes can be found on-line at www.shopvafinest.com. Or take a culinary drive-by with “The Best of Virginia Farms Cookbook and Tour Book” by CiCi Williams.
Still craving more? Stop at a Visitors’Center and ask either the desk staff or the truckers in the parking lot.
A Traditional Virginia Recipe
Commonwealth cuisine is celebrated by us all. Here is one Virginia recipe provided to whet your appetite.
Mount Vernon Colonial Peanut and Chestnut Soup (Provided by the Mount Vernon Inn)
Ingredients: ¼ cup margarine; 1 ½ tbsp flour; 1 quart chicken broth; 1 quart water; 1 cup smooth peanut butter; ½ cup unsalted peanuts chopped; ½ cup water chestnuts, chopped; and 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce.
Instructions: Melt margarine in a large saucepan. Stir in flour to make a roux. Cook on medium heat , stirring frequently until the roux is light tan in color.
Once the roux is ready, add chicken broth and water and bring to a boil. Add peanut butter and Worcestershire sauce and stir. Hold on stove at a low heat until ready to serve. The longer it heats, the thicker it gets. Garnish with chopped peanuts and water chestnuts.
Sharon Cavileer, a freelance writer and photographer, is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and Garden Writers of America. With 25 years experience in features and travel, her work has appeared in numerous national magazines, newspapers, and websites from AAA to Southern Living. She is the author of "Virginia Curiosities" (First and Second Editions by Globe-Pequot Press) and is a travel columnist for The Chronicle Newspapers and frequent contributor to Carolina Gardener, Virginia Explorer, and Carolina Explorer Magazines. Sharon specializes in luxury travel, gardens, equestrian topics and the South.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of the Mount Vernon Inn, Colonial Williamsburg and other tourism entities mentioned in this story. All rights reserved. Do not copy nor link to these photos. Thank you.