One of the best things about traveling to a new area is the opportunity to sample some of the local dishes. Maryland has its crab cakes, Philly—its cheesesteaks, and New York has bagels, pizza, delis—the list goes on for that melting pot. Virginia is known for quite a few things too. And many of those items come from the cities and counties that make up the Hampton Roads region.
Virginia Country Ham
When asked to think of a Virginian food, most people immediately say ham. Not just any ham, but Virginia Country Ham. In Hampton Roads, companies such as Smithfield and Edwards lead in country ham production, but many small independent companies also make hams employing the same methods used by generations before them. Country hams are salt-cured and aged for a few months to a year, giving them a distinctive and desired taste. Many people make the mistake of throwing away expensive country hams that they receive as gifts because they think the hams have gone bad. Country hams come with a layer of harmless mold on them, much like that found on fine cheeses. The mold will come off in the preparation process of soaking and scrubbing the ham.
A popular way to eat country ham is on a small biscuit or roll. A small thin slice is all you need and really, that’s it. Just about every native Virginian host has offered this staple menu item at one time or another. Pan-fried ham slices are also often served with red-eye gravy. After the ham has been cooked, remove it from the pan and stir in a half-cup of both water and black coffee, being careful to scrape up any tidbits left from the ham steak. Slightly reduce the coffee by simmering for about five minutes and then ladle the gravy onto the plated slice of ham and maybe some accompanying grits.
Being in Hampton Roads also means having access to great seafood. Of all the dining choices the sea offers, oysters from this area are some of the best in the nation. In fact, Virginia is becoming the oyster capital of the East Coast with oyster trails and festivals devoted to the bivalve. In recent years, the oyster industry has really taken off. Try them at a local restaurant where you’re likely to find the oysters fried, steamed and raw—all of which are delicious. Programs including Lynnhaven Now and oyster shell recycling have also diligently worked to rebuild oyster reefs thereby cleaning the waterways they live in. Read more about the oyster in the following article: The Mighty Virginia Oyster on page 84.
Finally, a list of Hampton Roads foods is not complete without mentioning a long-standing staple—the peanut. Before Planters and Mr. Peanut took up residence in Suffolk in the early 1900s, peanuts have been grown in the Commonwealth for sustenance. During the colonial era, peanuts were used in countless recipes that even included a peanut soup. At the time of the American Civil War, the legumes were relied on for a food source and Union soldiers brought them back to the north after the fighting had concluded. Now, Virginia peanuts are readily available, and places like Whitley’s Peanut Factory and the iconic Virginia Diner ship them across the nation.
Feeling thirsty after all of these salty foods? Fortunately, Virginia has been making quite a splash among oenophiles and wine fanciers around the world. In its 2009 Wine Lover’s Guide, Travel & Leisure named Virginia one of “5 Regions to Visit Now.” And the wines have been improving ever since. Virginia now has nearly 300 vineyards. Williamsburg Winery is the region’s most popular winery. While visiting this quaint oasis, you’ll be able to take a tour of the facility and sample some of their award-winning wines.
These are just a few of the items that make Hampton Roads a travel destination for food and wine enthusiasts. Other contenders for beloved Virginia foods and beverages include she-crab soup, microbreweries and distilleries. As you venture around, you’ll likely be tempted by a celebrated Virginia food. What’s your favorite?