By Stefanie Jackson
Author Bernard L. Herman visited the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo Dec. 14 to introduce his new book, “A South You Never Ate: Savoring Flavors and Stories from the Eastern Shore of Virginia.”
The book of recipes and interviews aims to preserve the history of Eastern Shore food and the stories of the people who prepared and ate it.
“At the end of the day, I ended up talking to well over 100 folks, getting down interviews in places as unlikely as the ‘inconvenience’ center in Nassawadox … as well as sitting in folks’ living rooms or at dockside,” Herman said.
The book also records the recollections of several Eastern Shore residents who died before Herman’s work could be published, including folk artist Mary Onley, aka “Mama Girl.”
She “would always say, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about that,’ and then proceed to give you … extraordinary insight,” Herman remarked.
He also wanted to “think it all forward” and get a modern perspective on the ideas and ingredients discussed in the book, so he interviewed several well-known chefs like Jeremiah Langhorne, who heads the kitchen at a Michelin star restaurant in Washington, D.C.
All the chefs Herman approached agreed “without any hesitation” to collaborate with him because of their “belief in just how remarkable the Eastern Shore of Virginia is as a southern cuisine (destination) that still remains largely undiscovered and extraordinarily distinctive.”
New Orleans may have gumbo or shrimp and grits, but the Eastern Shore has clam fritters and baked fish stews, Herman said.
“In more distant memory,” he continued, there were Eastern Shore specialties like “terrapin stew, Accomack style – which is rough on the terrapin but is every bit as much a part of this place.”
The earliest recipes that appear in “A South You Never Ate” date back to the 1640s.
Herman read several excerpts from the book that retells, with wit and humor, the stories of Eastern Shore folks and their food.
One excerpt told a tale of the 1930s when Shore native Emerson Polk Kellam bribed his cousin with a hindquarter of beef to teach his new wife, Amine Kellam, how to make beaten biscuits, which were beaten with “a dull hammer or similar instrument” 600 times, until they blistered.
“A South You Never Ate,” Herman said, is “not just about food, it’s about the lives and the imaginations and the creativity of all who lived here.”