Virginia Real magazine
The real  Virginia, old and new
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Found Pleasures

Found pleasures


Of field corn, running herring and why, despite what people tell you, there are things in the South more essential than barbecue


                                                By Harry Henson


       Barbecue is supposed to be a quintessential Southern food, but when I was growing up in rural Virginia during the 1950s and ’60s, the only time I remember eating it was during trips to Richmond, when we lunched at the famed, and recently closed,  Bill's Barbecue. Most of the time, as a noncomformist and difficult child, I ordered the turkey salad sandwich.

        We lived in the Northern Neck of Virginia and had so many distinctive local foods available, not even counting fish and shellfish, that we  had no need for barbecue. Most of these foods have now vanished or have become so expensive they are luxuries, but then they were so common that they were a staple for the very poorest.

        In those days, what we called “field corn” was edible. It is not today, after a generation of genetic engineering. But then you could  stop along any road, go into a cornfield, help yourself to a dozen or so “roasting ears,” take them home and put them in the oven.

        They were tastiest when cooked in the husks, although  I never cared for field corn and preferred the sweet corn you either had to grow for yourself or buy from small growers like our elderly knife-fighting neighbor, who raised and sold it from his little plot adjoining our property.

        Sweet corn, like most vegetables, including snaps, or green beans, has to be steamed, and steamed lightly. It’s best to do so with some fat pork or otherwise all the taste will be boiled out.

        There was one cultural superiority, beyond musical skill, which the North Carolina mountain half of my family seemed to have over the Virginia Tidewater part. They knew how to cook vegetables. Even today, Virginians are notorious  for boiling vegetables down to a tasteless paste.

        In the Northern Neck, the shellfish  were plentiful. You could go down to just about any of the ubiquitous docks, find a waterman coming in and buy a bushel of live crabs for a few bucks. Today, it would cost you about $150, if you could locate an independent waterman.

        Steamed crabs were best if you steamed them yourself. You piled them into a five-gallon pot, put in a few inches of water, lathered them down with salt, bay seasoning, pepper and beer, and turned up the heat.

        And you told yourself that crustaceans could not feel pain as their claws clicked frantically against the sides.

        With crabs steamed to a bright red, you then ate them with Uneeda biscuits, apple-cider vinegar,  Tabasco sauce, melted fresh butter and, if you were old enough, washed them down with Rolling Rock beer. Or if you, you drank Coke out of glass bottles from the Montross plant, which, according to connoisseurs, was one of the five best plants in the whole country because the water was so good.

        In the spring when the herring ran, we walked down the abandoned county road behind my grandmother's house to the site of a bridge that had been washed out during a terrible hurricane in the 1930s. The creek was so full of flashing silver fish it almost seemed as if you could walk to the other shore on their backs if you stepped nimbly.

        You’d dip a net in and extract a heavy load of squirming fish. Three or four netfuls, and you had enough fish to eat for breakfast throughout the year. I no longer remember the exact process except it was irksome and messy, but after we scaled and cleaned the fish, we salted them down and stored them in stone crocks.

         My grandmother fried them up with lard and cornmeal in one of those old cast-iron pans, and then cooked corncakes made from locally grown corn ground in a local gristmill. Those cakes had a very distinctive taste, and the only bread I have sampled in recent years that is remotely similar has been at roadside stands operated by Central American immigrants who had brought their own locally grown grain with them.

        Of course, the idea of all that salt, fat, and cholesterol likely would make the hair of a contemporary middle-class American stand up in horror.

        Not to worry. It is mostly gone now. The herring were exterminated by enormous factory ships in the mid-’70s and no longer run. Genetic engineering has taken care of the easy availability of field corn.  Overfishing has even managed to crash the crab population, once so plentiful they were called the roaches of the seas.

    None of those local gristmills to grind locally grown corn exist anymore. And Uneeda biscuit, Rolling Rock Beer and the Montross Coca-Cola plant are only the distant memories of fading but more fortunate generations.

Harry Henson is a writer in Richmond County. Contact him at

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