Virginia's beloved bivalve has a unique legacy, offering experiences that are delightful to both tastebuds and tourism.
By Patrick Evans-Hylton
SPOILER ALERT: just eat it. They are not only good, but good for you.
It had been a long voyage across the Atlantic before the English settlers first landed at Cape Henry on April 26, 1607. Cramped quarters and questionable fare probably made the trip seem even longer.
But the next day, the longest recorded account of the love of Virginia food took place when explorers stumbled on some plump, juicy Lynnhaven oysters roasting in an open fire. The colonists took them in hand and opened them. Steam from the bubbling juices wafted towards their nose, and they slurped them greedily down.
Diarist George Percy, who would later become one of Virginia’s governors, waxed poetic about the experience, noting the oysters were “very large and delicate in taste.” It was the birth of an American cuisine.
Admittedly, oysters aren’t much to look at; theirs are not the beautiful shells you find washed ashore on sandy beaches. They are a bit stubborn too – taking effort to crack into – and once there, many folks are given pause before deciding to eat the flesh inside.
But Virginia’s oyster history has been rich for more than four centuries, reaching its first gilded era in the 19th century. Barrels packed to the brim were shipped from the Commonwealth to fine dining restaurants across the country. Lynnhavens were featured prominently on menus and touted as “world famous.”
Closer to home, O’Keefe’s Casino at Cape Henry hosted wildly successful oyster roasts. In 1909 a visiting President William Howard Taft downed 12 dozen oysters – as an appetizer. The world was Virginia’s oyster: around the turn of the last century, watermen harvested nearly eight million bushels of the bivalve.
There is always a flip side to a coin, and the oyster’s popularity was also its downfall. Unsustainable harvesting methods, as well as pollution levels in the Chesapeake Bay and her tributaries caused the oyster population to plummet. By the turn of the 21st century, harvests were well under 100,000 bushels.
But love oysters or not, theirs is a Horatio Alger story that everyone can rally around, where the courage, determination and hard work of many Virginians brought the legacy seafood back from the brink. Oyster sanctuaries were established, as well as a rotational harvest system. Targeted shell plantings on public oyster grounds took root, and depleted oyster stocks began to make a comeback. The result was not only an increase in oysters, but a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, too. Just one adult oyster can cleanse as much as 50 gallons of water a day.
Today Virginia is in a second gilded era for oysters, and there are many ways to get up close and personal with these little saucers of joy. These include tours that have you wading knee-high into the Lynnhaven Bay and sampling them shucked right out of the water, to sitting around a roaring fire at an Eastern Shore winery and relishing roasted oysters perfectly paired with Virginia wine.
Pleasure crafts fill marinas, and their passengers fill the quaint, nearby restaurants and shops along waterfront Main Streets. The advent of the Virginia Oyster Trail gives opportunities to explore destinations via a scenic drive, or peddling bikes through the countryside. The declaration of November as Virginia Oyster Month adds to a bevy of long-established celebrations, such as the Urbanna Oyster Festival. Across the state, there are eight distinct growing regions from Chincoteague south, into the Chesapeake Bay, and along notable rivers such as the James, Rappahannock and York. Because the waters in each of these locations are kissed with varying levels of minerality and salinity, oysters have distinct tastes in each locale. Flavors range from salty and sweet to buttery and creamy – something for every palate.
Restaurants across the Commonwealth – from seafood shacks and oyster bars to fine dining eateries with AAA Diamonds – showcase these gems in every way from raw to roasted, to folded into rich, creamy stews, as well as breaded and fried. And these dishes conveniently pair perfectly with with Virginia craft beers, wine and even distilled spirits.
Each bite is (delicious) history on the (sustainable) half-shell.
Patrick Evans-Hylton is a Johnson & Wales-trained chef who has reported on Virginia foods and foodways in broadcast, electronic and social media since 1995. He blogs at VirginiaEatsAndDrinks.com.
Last Updated: 10/8/2019