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  • Drum Head StewThe Power and Poetry of Terroir
  • Bernard L. Herman (bio)

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Terroir is much more than the taste of place. It defines the particular attributes of place embodied in cuisine and narrated through words, actions, and objects. Place alone, however, fails to translate the deeper associations that terroir projects about identity. George Doughty hunting shorebirds on the Hog Island beach, c. 1900, courtesy of Buck and Helene Doughty.

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The Eastern Shore of Virginia, a long narrow peninsula, projects roughly seventy miles southward from the Maryland state line to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The Atlantic Ocean bounds the two counties (Northampton and Accomack) on the east and the Chesapeake Bay on the west. The soil is sandy; the terrain is flat. Scores of tidal streams and creeks cut into the shoreline on both sides of the Eastern Shore. Vast marshes on the seaside extend to a chain of constantly shifting Atlantic barrier islands that were once home to a variety of settlements, hunting and fishing clubs, and resorts. Storms and erosion, however, forced the residents to relocate to the mainland in the 1930s, leaving the islands in the sole possession of birds and wildlife. Oyster watch houses perched on slender pilings still dot a marine landscape that changes dramatically with tidal ebb and flow. On the bayside, long necks bracket saltwater creeks and marshes. Indians, Europeans, and Africans have harvested these estuaries as long as they have occupied the land, fishing with spears and harpoons, seines, drift nets, pound nets, and hand lines. In the 1800s fish fed the inmates of the county almshouses and were shipped by rail, destined for well-to-do urban tables in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The area’s prosperity, once rooted in farming and fishing, has faded, leaving Northampton County one of the most economically distressed and ecologically delicate locales in Virginia. Disease, over harvesting, and pollution devastated the fishery. The shift away from truck farming toward grain cultivation and the advent of industrial farming led to the closure of local canneries and packing houses. Still, a powerful sense of place and belonging defines the lower Eastern Shore. The cultivation of clams and oysters remain viable enterprises. A handful of local farmers continue to plant Hayman sweet potatoes and gardeners carefully nurture heirloom fruits and vegetables. And, always there are myriad stories surrounding food. It is precisely the specific textures of local foodways—from marsh and field to table—and their attendant narratives that define an Eastern Shore terroir and provide the core elements for sustainable economic development rooted in human ecology.

Terroir writ large is much more than the taste of place. Terroir defines the particular attributes of place embodied in cuisine and narrated through words, actions, and objects. Place alone, however, fails to translate the deeper associations that terroir projects about identity. In its literal consumption, we ingest and digest terroir, imbuing ourselves with the tastes of identity and authenticity. The body literally absorbs the substance of terroir and translates it into narratives of place and experience. It captures a consciousness of association and belonging. Terroir is experience and emotion, embodiment and immediacy, custom and invention, destiny and storytelling. It manifests itself in a constantly evolving style and synthesis of ingredients, recipes, preparations, and eating, from fancy holiday meals [End Page 37] to workday lunches. Finally, when people speak about terroir, they speak about themselves. It is in that spirit that the following thoughts on terroir privilege the personal recollections of the residents of the Eastern Shore.


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The Eastern Shore of Virginia, a long narrow peninsula, projects roughly seventy miles southward from the Maryland state line to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The Atlantic Ocean bounds the two counties (Northampton and Accomack) on the east and the Chesapeake Bay on the west. Storms and erosion forced the residents to relocate to the mainland in the 1930s, leaving the islands in the sole possession of birds and wildlife. Hog Island from the lighthouse, c. 1900, courtesy of Buck and Helene Doughty.

You get a recipe for fish chowder. You can find that pretty...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 36-49
Launched on MUSE
2009-11-12
Open Access
No
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