A bountiful shore: Celebrating Thanksgiving on the Chesapeake Bay
Just before dawn on Thanksgiving morning, I pull on my waders, grab a basket, and splash my way to the oyster cages that lie a hundred or so yards from our house on the banks of Westerhouse Creek, not far from the shore of Chesapeake Bay. Light from the kitchen windows flickers across the water. The first winter jellyfish pulse in the flowing tide. Hauling one of the cages onto the lip of a sandbar, I brush away seaweed, unhook the lid, and peer at the oysters inside. Silvery grass shrimp somersault across the shells. Mud crabs skitter to the cage's bottom. A drowsy oyster toad squirms in a corner. Into my basket, I toss big handfuls of oysters—a favorite delicacy at the Thanksgiving meal my family hosts every year on Virginia's Eastern Shore, the long, narrow peninsula that forms the eastern boundary of the lower Chesapeake Bay.
I have loved this place since I was a child growing up here in the 1950s. Even after I moved away, I stayed connected to the Eastern Shore. Over the years, I looked for ways to return to the place, visiting often, and writing academic papers on the peninsula's food and folk traditions, old and new—from the annual October snapping-turtle feast to the everyday life of the Eastern Shore's early settlers and native communities. About ten years ago my wife, Becky, and I bought a second home here, a 1720s brick house south of the village of Bayford, about 20 miles from the peninsula's southern tip. It has become my family's favorite place to spend Thanksgiving.
The company isn't huge by holiday standards: This year it's just me and Becky; my mother, Lucy; my sister, Fredrika (who goes by "Freddie"), and her husband, Paul; their daughter, Jessica, and her six-year old son, Peter; and my 30-year-old daughter, Lania, who's brought her friend Samantha, who everyone calls Sam. As for the meal, it tends to be a bit over the top. For me, it's a coming together of all my favorite Eastern Shore traditions, and a celebration of the local foods that have fed the people of this peninsula for generations—all of it combined with the favorite holiday dishes of the rest of my family.
The Eastern Shore is 70 miles of sandy, fertile land abutting the country's best clamming and oyster-growing waters. The climate is Mediterranean, and home gardens here yield figs, peaches, and even pomegranates. No matter what time of year it is, when I'm on the Eastern Shore, I always seem to be thinking about provisioning our Thanksgiving meal. Becky and I start our preparations early, in July and August, when we and our friends put up fruit preserves, and savory pickles made from the tomatoes and okra that the area produces so abundantly.
Throughout the fall, our neighbors who hunt and fish make their contributions, too, though what gets to the table depends on luck and weather. Our neighbor Jon Moore presents us with six venison roasts, and another friend, ace oyster grower Tom Gallivan, drops off a 25-pound bluefish. I rub the venison in black pepper and cayenne, and cure it in the smoker in our backyard, then fillet and smoke the bluefish, before storing both away until November.
As the holiday draws near, our preparations intensify, peaking two days before Thanksgiving, when I embark on the annual "big loop," an epic, daylong drive to visit purveyor friends along the shore. It's my version of the Thanksgiving harvest. The trip ranges from one end of Northampton County to the other, along back roads bracketed by creek and marsh, field and woodland.
This year, Sam accompanies me. Our first stop is Pickett's Harbor Farms, at the southern tip of the peninsula, where W.T. and Tammie Nottingham live on land W.T.'s family has farmed for generations. They grow heirloom sweet potatoes, including a variety called Hayman that is virtually unique to this area and prized for its dense white flesh and intense sweetness. We pick up a couple dozen of them, plus a medley of other kinds for cooking into casseroles. Next, we drive north to visit James Elliott, the co-owner of A. & J.'s Fresh Meat Market, in the little railroad town of Cheriton. A. & J.'s is where we get our turkey, always naturally raised. James also makes a sage pork sausage that really sings. This year I buy some for our hominy and oyster stuffing, and, as I do every year, I ask him what goes into the sausage. He gives me the same wry answer he always does: "That is something I'm not telling."
After that, we head to JC Walker Brothers Inc. clam house in Willis Wharf. "These just came off the grounds this morning," Hank Arnold, the owner, says as he hands me a 250-count bag of littlenecks. Finally, before heading home, we make a return visit to Tom Gallivan, our oysterman friend, who owns Shooting Point Oyster Company in Bayford, to retrieve two mesh bags of Shooting Point and Nassawadox Salt oysters, to supplement the haul from my own oyster cages.
The next day, Wednesday, preparations really shift into high gear. While I brown the sage sausage in a cast-iron skillet for the stuffing, Becky makes a couple of sweet potato casseroles and a pumpkin cheesecake. I turn next to the smoked bluefish, making a creamy, brandy-spiked pâté. Finally, Lania and Sam prepare an old family standby, juicing lemons and chopping oranges and apples for a cranberry relish that's based on a recipe my mother, a retired elementary school teacher, coaxed from a lunchroom cook in the 1960s. Once our two refrigerators are full, Becky and I tidy the kitchen and turn in for the night.
On Thanksgiving Day, by seven o'clock, I've returned from my oyster beds with a hundred or so Westerhouse Pinks, as I like to call the mollusks native to our creek. I take them over to an old workbench, which will serve as an outdoor buffet table that we've set up in the yard. I lay out a couple dozen of my oysters on ice-filled wooden trays, alongside the ones from Tom Gallivan, then light the propane burner on the pot steamer that I'll be using to steam the littlenecks. Sam and Lania bring out some pickled okra and pickled figs, the bluefish pâté, and the cured, smoked venison, sliced paper thin and served with rounds of crusty bread and coarse brown mustard. At our home, the eating on Thanksgiving starts outdoors, and it starts early.
By ten o'clock, almost everyone has arrived, and the festivities officially commence. In the middle of the yard stands a towering pyre of branches, driftwood, and old stumps, fuel for the bonfire that we always light on Thanksgiving morning and keep burning into the night. This year, Sam does the honors, touching a match to the pile. Flames erupt high in the air, and everyone cheers.
The bonfire lit, it's time to shuck the first oysters. I pop open one of my Westerhouse Pinks; it's fat and sweet. Then I taste a Shooting Point Salt, which has a briny, mineral tang. My brother-in-law, Paul, the family's Thanksgiving sommelier, shows up with a case of domestic bottles from his cellar. For the oysters, we open a chardonnay made just up the road.
As morning turns to afternoon, guests beat a path between the roaring bonfire and the steamy warmth of the kitchen. The turkey—stuffed with the sage sausage and hominy, rubbed with olive oil, and seasoned with fresh parsley, salt, and black pepper—has been roasting for a couple of hours already, and it's filling the room with its aroma. Various family members pursue culinary tasks under Becky's gentle direction. Freddie and Jessica plate creamed spinach and a layered vegetable terrine. Becky pulls a pan of roasted oysters from the oven and sets them out with one relish of pickled green tomatoes and another of horseradish, beets, and cranberries. The cooks snatch the oysters right off the baking tray, and in minutes, they're gone. Just before dinner is served, Becky improvises a last-minute dessert of roasted pears stuffed with minced pear, almonds, dried currants, and raisins.
Finally, by midafternoon, all the dishes are ready, arrayed on our kitchen table. In the dining room, my late father's huge, three-by-eight-foot writing desk has been put into service as our dinner table. I head outside to throw a few more branches on the fire and then come in to grab a plate along with everyone else. It is a sumptuous spread: the freshly carved turkey; a platter of thin-sliced aged country ham; the baked Hayman sweet potatoes, incomparably luscious; the Brussels sprouts and rosemary potatoes; plus the pumpkin cheesecake, an apple pie, a boozy rum Bundt cake, and Becky's sugar-glazed roasted pears, which are destined to become a regular addition to the holiday menu. There is no order to serving. Everyone just descends on a favorite dish.
At last, seated, glasses raised, we toast the day, and then we toast the cooks. Becky, looking tired and elated at the same time, clinks her glass with Lania's and says, "Aren't we lucky?" In no time, guests are heading back into the kitchen for seconds. Before dessert, I read aloud from The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth's great novel, written in 1960, about life in the Chesapeake Bay country of the late 1600s. I select a passage that describes an imagined eating contest between the English explorers and the Ahatchwhoop Indians to choose a king:
[T] he rest watch'd in astonishment, the two gluttons match'd dish for dish, and herewith is the summe of what they eat: Of keskowghnoughmass, the yellowe-belly'd sunne-fish, tenne apiece. Of copatone, the sturgeon, one apiece. Of pummahumpnoughmass, fry'd star-fish, three apiece. Of pawpeconoughmass, pype-fishes, four apiece …"
After a few more lines I break down laughing. By the time the dessert wine and the grappa come out, we're starting to feel like the culinary combatants in Barth's book.
Once night falls, most of the rest of the family departs. The kitchen is a wreck, but it can wait. It's growing chilly, and Becky, Lania, Sam, and I return to the dying bonfire with glasses of wine. "That was a great Thanksgiving," I say to Becky. "Let's talk about next year."
"Let's not," she replies. "We've had enough fun for one day."
But I can't help thinking about next Thanksgiving's big loop, about what we'll cook and eat. Down by the creek the night herons are calling to each other raucously, and I can hear the rasp of the breeze in the marsh grasses. It is the soundscape of the Eastern Shore.
See the menu and all the recipes for this Chesapeake Bay Thanksgiving »
Read about the history of Virginia's native ingredients »