Tradition and Taste on Virginia’s Eastern Shore
The high shell middens that crenelated the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in the Age of Discovery were testaments to generations of the Native American appetite for roasted shellfish well before Europeans arrived. Within days of landing in Virginia, George Percy, one of the original English colonists in Jamestown, inadvertently interrupted a Native American oyster roast on Lynnhaven Bay in present-day Virginia Beach. In April 1607, he wrote:
EASTERN SHORE Virginia Oyster Roasts
“We came to a place where they had made a great fire, and had been newly roasting Oysters. When they perceived our coming, they fled away to the mountains [actually dunes topped with trees near Cape Henry] and left many of the Oysters in the fire. We eat [sic] some of the Oysters, which were very large and delicate in taste.”
The taste for roasted oysters has not diminished in the towns and hamlets lining the Chesapeake. By the 1880s, tidewater newspapers were full of reports of oyster roasts held to benefit churches and clubs, lure voters to political rallies, and for pure sociability. The Peninsula Enterprise newspaper, published in Accomac (known as Drummondtown until 1893) on the Eastern Shore between 1881 and 1965 includes glimpses into the lives of our ancestors more than a century ago:
Grand Democratic Rally at Parksley! Judge J.W. Marshall (Cyclone Jim) will speak at Parksley on next Wednesday at 2 o’clock. Oyster Roast at same time. Reduced rates on train have been requested. October 3, 1896
Chincoteague — Smoked eyes and burnt fingers were some of the results of a late social and oyster roast, but all agreed it was a splendid affair and just the event of the season. Later developments seem to indicate that it was a matrimonial success to several in attendance. December 23, 1893
Belle Haven – An oyster roast was held at Exmore Station last Wednesday in honor of the president-elect by the colored people, and in the evening they marched through our town. December 5, 1896
An oyster roast will be given on the grounds of the public schoolhouse at Drummondtown on Monday next. An abundant supply of oysters of the best quality has been secured for the occasion and everyone, who will, can partake of the feast for the small price of 25 cents . . .the proceeds will go to improving the church property. March 17, 1900
Today, between September and April, the Eastern Shore of Virginia continues this gustatory tradition by playing host to a sizzling array of oyster roasts that are open to the public, many of which raise funds for worthy local causes. Each oyster roast has its own character and special features. Many Eastern shorewomen and shoremen attend multiple oyster roasts a season and it is possible to attend several in one weekend.
“Life on the Eastern Shore of Virginia slows slightly in the winter months,” says Robie Marsh, Executive Director of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce, “So, the tradition of community gathering around an historically winter-cultivated crop probably happened naturally. Today there are more oyster roasts than we have had traditionally, mainly because there are more community activities seeking support than in the past.”
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission maintains a list of oyster roasts and other events in Accomack and Northampton Counties on their website at visitesva.org and esvaoysters.com. Not all oyster roasts are listed, so an Internet search will dredge up additional ESVA bivalves eating opportunities.
All Eastern Shore oyster roasts include all-you-care-to-eat roasted oysters, usually steamed clams, and commonly unlimited barbecue, clear clam chowder (an Eastern Shore specialty), salads, desserts, and soft drinks. Oysters on the half-shell, crab cakes, soft crabs and other specialties are on the menu at some oyster roasts. Beer and wine are usually available for a reasonable fee. Occasionally, you are invited to bring your own.
The hidden secret of many Eastern Shore oyster roasts is a silent auction designed to enhance the fundraising. Eastern Shore decoy carvers, visual artists, boat captains, tour guides, chefs, and specialty food makers donate items and experiences. Sharp-eyed collectors and gourmands will seldom see such an array of hard-to-find local items on display and sometimes bargains can be had; but bid generously. This is for charity after all.
“Oyster roasts have become crazy popular,” says Peter Henderson, co-owner along with Hunt Addison of Eastern Shore Events & Rentals in Exmore, which puts on about 20 large oyster roasts a year for clients, in addition to usual weddings and other events. They can accommodate up to 500 guests at a time who eat as many as 40 bushels of oysters, and even more if a raw bar is included.
The time-tested method of roasting oysters for big crowds begins with a hardwood fire in a longitudinally halved drum the size of a double bed. A heavy steel plate goes over the fire and is allowed to heat up to a scalding temperature. Then, a bushel of oysters is shoveled onto the plate and covered with damp burlap to create steam. The steam pops the shells open to allow the wood smoke to flavor the meat , and very soon, the plate is carried to a high table and the oysters are dumped out for appreciative eaters who will devour them right there or show restraint and fill their plates to take to a table to sit and relax. Addison and Henderson have developed a twist that many think accounts for the outstanding taste of their roasted oysters. Instead of a solid metal plate, “we use an open grate. Smoke really does get into the meat of the oysters, but you’ve got to keep the fire just right,” says Henderson. They also use a custom-made metal “boat” to hold the fire.
Oyster roast etiquette can be summarized in two words, “dig in!” Piles of steamed shellfish generally continue to come well past dark. Elbow your way in and rub shoulders with the locals as you belly-up. Ramekins of melted butter, lemon wedges, and cruets of hot sauce are the standard accoutrements. The shells go into buckets or baskets under the table to be recycled into the Bay as cultch for future oysters to attach to.
“Bring an oyster knife and a glove,” advises Addison. “But we also have a guy around the tables to help show people how to pop them open,” he adds. Arrays of oyster knives are available at The Great Machipongo Clam Shack (greatclams.com) and at Northampton Lumber in Nassawaddox.
In the colder months, heated tents help keep the weather at bay. Folks most often keep warm by the fire pit. As darkness descends, grab a glass of local Chatham Vineyards Vintner’s Blend or a pint of Cape Charles Brewery Assateague IPA and make new friends around the flames.
“If you think about it, the pricing might look a little high but there are not too many places you can go out with your wife, have a couple of beers, eat oysters, a lot of times barbecue and other things, too. On top of it, you are supporting a good cause. It is a win-win,” says Addison.
The oyster roast tradition is going strong on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Attending one is a great opportunity for locals and visitors to celebrate Eastern Shore culture and to help support some excellent charities.
ESVA Oyster Roasts
The Barrier Islands Center Oyster Roast
Machipongo, Va., February 29
This signature event on Virginia’s Eastern Shore attracts hundreds. The “BIC,” as it is affectionately known by locals, is a museum of Virginia’s once-inhabited barrier islands culture, and it serves as the community center for the entire Eastern Shore. The silent auction features a huge array of local arts, crafts, and products and is a prime opportunity to go home with a decoy from renown local carvers.
Volunteers from The Nature Conservancy are on hand to recycle the shells. Buy your tickets online early as the event always sells out.
Broadwater Academy’s Homecoming
Exmore, Va., October 19
After the Broadwater Academy’s homecoming football game fades into the campus’ pine woods, several hundred parents, students, and non-Vikings in the know head to the gym for one of the most local and spirited oyster roasts of the season. The event supports the school. The oyster and clams are donated by parents, alumni, and supporters who work in the local seafood industry, making this event one of the best opportunities to sample a cross-section of Eastern Shore oysters. The live auction features local artists and products, including seafood. Alcohol is not available on site, but guests may bring a cooler with their own beverages.
Eastville Volunteer Fire Department
Eastville Volunteer Fire Company’s bingo hall and adjacent yard come to life as the aroma of roasted oysters waft over the historic town. The event supports the lifesaving work of the dedicated firefighters. Arrive early and tour the impressive historic sites in the tiny county seat of Eastville (population 167), which has the oldest continuous court records in the United States going back to 1632.
Chatham Vineyards Merroir & Terroir Oyster Extravaganza
Machipongo, Va., November 9
This event offers a rare opportunity to drink award winning wine and eat the freshest oysters produced in the same hyper-local ecosystem. Many of the oysters come from the waters of Nassawaddox Creek just beyond the vineyard’s dock, and the grapevines are nourished by oyster shells that lie buried in the alluvial Eastern Shore soil. $65 per person.