Tired of having Tidewater fare overlooked in favor of places like New Orleans and Charleston?
So was Dag Zapatero. And that frustration led the Virginia Beach dentist to bring together a collection of the state’s best chefs to the Eastern Shore in early June for the Pigs and Paella Weekend, a two-day dining adventure that raised money for a good cause and showed off the region’s culinary bona fides.
“It’s been a sense of pride for me to introduce people to America’s first table,” said Zapatero, a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
The SFA, based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, produces podcasts, films and educational opportunities. It also hosts food excursions, exposing members to what European, Native American and African cultures have contributed to Southern dishes.
Zapatero created Pigs and Paella for Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore as an auction item for an annual Southern Foodways fundraiser. Twenty couples placed bids and raised more than $45,000. The package promised a one-of-a-kind weekend of gluttony Tidewater style. It didn’t disappoint.
The weekend started on a Friday, when the group enjoyed an incredible brunch at Commune in Virginia Beach, dining on dishes made with fresh produce plucked by hand from the local New Earth Farm. That evening Zapatero, who grew up in Cuba and Spain, treated everyone to a feast, bringing in nationally renowned Charleston pit master Rodney Scott to roast a whole hog – from Perennial Roots Farm on the Eastern Shore – at the waterfront home of Karen and Kelly Law.
On Saturday two shuttles carried people across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel for an oyster and wine tasting at Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek. Owner Jon Wehner is a second-generation vintner, but the land surrounding the winery has been a working farm for four centuries. The land, with its sandy loam and high mineral content from ancient shells, produces a unique set of wines.
“What’s so great,” Wehner said, “is that we have an audience that loves distinct flavors.”
The guests sipped their way through Church Creek’s steel chardonnay, rosé, merlot, cabernet franc and a vintner’s blend. They also enjoyed the locally grown oysters, including plump Shooting Point Salts and Sewansecotts from Hog Island.
All of this, however, was the preface to a grilled lunch prepared by award-winning chefs Harper Bradshaw of Harper’s Table in Suffolk and Ian Boden from The Shack in Staunton. Boden has twice been a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic.
“I feel that we’re the California of the East Coast, except we’re better,” Boden said. “We have four seasons. You have the water, you have the mountains, you have the wine production, cideries, amazing food production. We have everything.”
The two produced a lunch spread of eight dishes that featured seafood and vegetables, grilled slow and low over hot coals. Whole black sea bass from the Chesapeake anchored the meal, playing well off the side dishes, which included Eastern Shore new potatoes with charred onions, May peas, green herbs and bacon, a dish from Cape Charles’ legendary restaurant, Sting-Ray’s. Bradshaw brought in squash from his garden and topped it with olive oil, lemon and chunks of blue crab meat.
Both chefs ended the lunch with something sweet: Boden made a pudding that featured miso banana bread, bananas, vanilla pudding and banana chips. Bradshaw used Chatham Vineyards’ rosé to marinate strawberries and topped them with crème fraiche and a brown butter crumble.
The group capped off the trip with dinner in a restored, late 19th century structure, Bill Parr’s historic barn in Cape Charles. They gathered on the second floor along a stretch of wood tables and ate seafood sausage and oyster pie after an appetizer of snapping turtle soup.
Bernie Herman, chairman of the department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, lives in the area and toured with the group. He took every opportunity to explain how European settlers learned from the native peoples who lived here and cultivated corn fertilized with fish heads.
“This is a place that – no matter what you eat today – you will taste all of those centuries.”