Origins: A Taste of Virginia Beach - #119

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

The English colonization of North America began in two different places and with two very different styles.  The Pilgrims who showed up in Massachusetts in 1620 came to the New World to pursue their search for religious freedom.  They were known as Puritans and they were devoted to a plain and simple way of life.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In general, when the Puritans saw something that looked like it was going to feel good to the body, they decided that it was going to be bad for the soul and should be avoided.  On the other hand, you had the colonists that showed up in Virginia in 1607.  When they saw something that looked like it was going to feel good to the body they asked for a large case of it and wanted it to be delivered to their home as soon as possible.  They came to Virginia seeking wealth and power.  They wanted to live a lifestyle as close as possible to the King of England and they did everything they could to have that happen.  Both groups, however, were very interested in keeping their English traditions.  Especially when it came to eating and drinking.  If there was a foodstuff that grew in England, they wanted to grow it here in the Colonies.

The early settlers in Virginia took up residence along the James River, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.  These days it’s where you will find the city of Virginia Beach.  For over four hundred years, the people of the Virginia Beach area have been surrounded by a great variety of seafood -- oysters, sturgeon, lobster, crabs, shrimp.  In fact, Captain John Smith wrote home that he had seen so many sea bass in the Chesapeake Bay that he thought he could walk across their backs without getting wet.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In order to reduce their dependency on foods being imported from England, a group of Virginia colonists went to live with a group of friendly Native Americans.  Of all of the new foods they learned about, the most important was probably corn.  They quickly discovered that cornmeal could be used just like wheat flour to make bread.  They also found out that corn was a great vegetable.  You could eat it fresh off the cob during the summer, or you could dry it for later use in the winter when you would mix it with water and beans and meat.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the 1600’s, the colonists in Virginia built a little wooden shack and designated it as the central market.  During the Revolutionary War, the British burned it down.  So they built another one.  And the British burned it down during the War of 1812.  But the people of Virginia are very resourceful.  In retaliation against the British they invented the grilled vegetable sandwich which continues to increase in popularity while British imperialism continues to decline.

These days the official farmers’ market is in Virginia Beach.  There are also about two dozen farm stands in the area, and a number of pick-it-yourself farms.  The Virginia Beach Cooperative Extension publishes a list of the locations and the foods that are available month by month.  And during the late summer, the trucks are filled with fresh corn.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Virginia also became famous for its pork.  Pigs can be raised without much supervision.  As a matter of fact, the early Virginia colonists would fence their pigs out, not in.  They lived on whatever the settlers would discard and what they could find in the woods.  During the 1600’s, the Virginia planters began developing a crop of peanuts.  They used it as a cheap food source and fed it to the pigs.  Pigs developed a very special flavor.  The most famous pigs from Virginia came from an area called Smithfield, just down the road from here.  They became so popular in the United States and in Europe that Queen Victoria of England had a standing order for six Smithfield hams every week.

Pork is still a favorite part of the Virginia diet.  This is Thomas Malbon, whose barbecue business is truly a movable feast.

THOMAS MALBON:  Today we’re cooking a 140-pound hog on open coals and slow-roasted 24 hours overnight and cook it about 250-275 degrees.  The meat is cooked long enough and slow enough it’ll just fall right apart, you don’t even need a knife, the bones come right out of it.

BURT WOLF:  That really is so tender!

THOMAS MALBON:  Yes.  And the tender pork tenderloin which is a favorite of most -- just dip right in the sauce.

BURT WOLF:  Yes, I can do this.  Mmmmmm. Mmmmmm. Mmmmmm.

You call Tom, you tell him where and when you want to have your party and how many folks’ll be there.  Then all you’ve got to do is be ready to pig out.

THOMAS MALBON:  We’re having Snowflake Rolls, coleslaw, Texas caviar -- which is black beans, black-eyed peas, and navy beans, celery and some bell pepper.  Potato salad, cucumber salad with bell peppers and tomatoes, homemade baked beans, baby-back ribs.

BURT WOLF:  Oh yeah!  Mmmmm!

THOMAS MALBON:  Barbecue chicken, and Silver Queen sweet corn.

BURT WOLF:  Silver Queen sweet corn.

THOMAS MALBON:  Grown locally.

BURT WOLF:  I’m ready.

And if you have any room after that, you could visit a restaurant on the beach called Timbuktu, where Jordan Cross is going to prepare a Killer Fudge Cake.

JORDAN CROSS:  About six years ago, my parents wanted me to do my own desserts for my bar mitzvah.  So, I started baking... and that’s the first time I made it.

BURT WOLF:  How many people came to your bar mitzvah?

JORDAN CROSS:  About fifty, but I only did one of the cakes.  And I did a couple of the other desserts.  But that was the first time that I baked.

BURT WOLF:  That is a great story.

Jordan is not the executive chef here.  He’s not the pastry chef, either.  He’s not even a chef.  Jordan’s a busboy!  But you’d never know it from his recipe.

Jordan starts by greasing the bottom of two 9-inch round baking pans and then lining them with parchment paper.  Next, over simmering water, he melts together six ounces of butter and six ounces of unsweetened chocolate.

JORDAN CROSS:  Now that it’s all melted, I’m going to take it off and let it cool, while I’m doing the rest of the recipe.

Six whole eggs go into a mixing bowl, followed by three cups of sugar, a half teaspoon of salt, and one tablespoon of vanilla extract.  All those ingredients are whisked together for a minute, at which point a cup and a half of flour goes in and a cup and a half of chocolate chips.  The melted chocolate is poured in, and when everything is thoroughly combined this batter is divided equally between two baking pans.  Then it’s into a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for thirty minutes.

While the batter is baking, an icing is made.  A cup and a half of sugar goes into a small saucepan, plus two tablespoons of instant coffee.  Then a cup of cream is added and the pan goes onto the range.

JORDAN CROSS:  I stir it until it boils, and then as soon as it starts to boil I let it simmer for six minutes without stirring.

The pan comes off the heat and five ounces of unsweetened chocolate go in.  As the chocolate melts, four ounces of unsalted butter are added.  And finally, two tablespoons of vanilla extract are whisked in.  That’s the icing, and it goes into a freezer for about ten minutes to cool down and thicken up.

BURT WOLF:  At which point, the sauce is ready and the cakes come out of the oven.

JORDAN CROSS:  Alright, and the first thing we want to do is loosen the crusts from the side.  Alright, now I’m going to put a cake plate on top and flip it upside down.  And you want to peel off the waxed paper.  And now I need to put a layer of icing on the first cake.

BURT WOLF:  Go for it!

A layer gets iced... the second layer goes on... the top and the sides are iced... a little decoration of roses of icing... white chocolate shavings and the cake is ready.  Now that is a Killer Chocolate Cake!

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The restrictions on trade that had been placed on the American colonies by the English King came to an end with the end of the American Revolution.  There was an enormous increase in interstate and international trade.  That increase in business led to an increase in ship traffic along the Atlantic coast. And the increase in ship traffic led to an increase in ship wrecks.

This was the problem.  And this was the solution. In 1878, the federal Lifesaving Service established a series of life-saving stations at six-mile intervals along the coast.

The only life saving station left standing today on the east coast is right here on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach.  And it is a museum dedicated to the history of the service.

FIELDING L. TYLER:  There were, according to records which we have here, along the coast of Virginia, some six hundred wrecks between the start of the Lifesaving Service and 1915 when the Lifesaving Service merged to form the Coast Guard.  So there were quite a few.  And most of them were captured in the log books of the lifesaving stations along this part of the east coast.

There were three primary methods that they would use for lifesaving in this station and in most all the stations in America.  The first was the surf boat, which would envision the crew of this station or any other station going out to the wreck in the boat, being maybe taken down the beach by on a vehicle or being pulled by a cart taken out to there, go out to the wreck and save individuals and the equipment and all the stuff on the boat.  The second method that they used was the surf car.  The surf car looked like a large torpedo that was used to bring people from the beach or from the ship to the beach in more than one at a time.  In this case, this metal device would be sent out to the shipwreck on a line, load in more than one survivor, in this case I think usually about two or three would get into this device, close the door, signal to the beach, and we would bring this back over the surf, over the water, to the beach.  Not a very widely used device, but a device certainly used here at the lifesaving stations along the east coast.  The third method was the britches buoy.  The britches buoy was a sort of a life ring with a pair of -- looks like a man’s pair of britches on it.  And they would move that back and forth from the beach to the shipwreck, sort of like pulleys between two apartment buildings in New York.  This model depicts a very small coastal schooner that’s gone aground right here in front of the lifesaving station at Virginia Beach.  The schooner is foundering in the surf, behind it you can see the surf men from the station have set up the britches buoy apparatus.  This is a method of rescue that would bring him all the way back to the beach one at a time, then the crew will send the britches buoy back out to the ship, bring another survivor on and bring him to the beach.  This is one of the major methods of lifesaving service in the old days here at Virginia Beach station.

The original line, how they got the britches buoy out to the shipwreck, was they would fire it from a very small cannon called a Lyle Gun -- the line-throwing cannon --shoot that bad boy out to the shipwreck, then they would pull the line in -- hopefully the survivors would pull the line in -- and establish the line between the two, and then the crew here at the station would run the britches buoy or run the surf car out there, bringing the survivors back and forth.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Eventually, the lifesaving activities of the U.S. Lifesaving Service became part of the responsibilities of the U.S. Coast Guard, which was founded in 1790 by Alexander Hamilton who was then Secretary of the Treasury.  That was only one of the important things that Hamilton did for our nation, but it appears that his undying fame will actually rest on the fact that he is the face on a ten dollar bill.  Such are the twists and turns of fate.

These days the United States Coast Guard is the smallest of our five armed services.  It’s made up of about 45,000 men and women who are charged with an amazing variety of responsibilities regarding our waterways.

They maintain our navigation systems, including lighthouses and buoys, as well as our ship-to-shore emergency radio networks.

They play a central role in the enforcement of customs and immigration laws.

They serve as a military force, and are sent all over the world, from the Caribbean to the Persian Gulf.

They quickly respond to environmental threats from oil spills and other hazardous substances.

They are essential to communities victimized by flooding.

They provide the ice-breaking capabilities for federal and scientific organizations, keeping the sea lanes open from the polar regions to the Great Lakes.

And, of course, the Coast Guard is famous for their search and rescue missions.

This camcorder footage is from one of their rescue choppers.  A family of four, including a three-month-old baby, is trapped on a drifting sailboat in fifty-mile an hour winds -- and although the footage is not the sharpest, the sound track will give you a clear idea of what these heroes are like.


RESCUER 1:  Okay, basket down?

RESCUER 2:  Okay, basket is going down.  Basket is halfway down, basket is holding five feet over water.

RESCUER 1:  Copy.

RESCUER 2:  Mario has the baby.  Basket hit the water.  Easy, right.  Easy, right.  Easy back and right.  Easy back and right.  Hold... Hold... Basket is on the water.  Basket is out of water.  Okay... you lost them in a wave...  Easy right, easy right... basket is in the water, wave’s pulling them away again... Easy right, basket’s in the wave... easy right, yes... basket’s at them... Okay, now drop the basket, pick up slack, easy back... pick up slack in cable, easy back... Hold position.  Hold position, woman is getting in basket, hold position.  Pick up slack in cable.  Easy right, easy right... Pick up slack in cable, easy right.  Hold, hold... Easy back, easy back... Pick up slack in cable... Left, easy left... Pick up slack in cable.  Easy left... Prepare to take the load.  Easy right, easy right, easy right... okay, taking slack, taking slack... Prepare to take the load... Taking load.  The woman and baby are clear of the water... take it back left.  Clear.  Move back and left...  Clear, move back and left.  They’re coming up.  Now bring them up slow.  Bring them up slow.  Hold altitude... Bring them up slow.  Basket’s halfway up... It’s swinging pretty good.  Hold... Hold position... They’re still about ten feet below the cabin...

RESCUER 1:  Okay, there’s no rush... There’s no rush... We got somebody on board.

RESCUER 2:  Bring them up slow.

RESCUER 1:  Okay, she’s coming up good.

RESCUER 2:  Okay, okay, bring them on up.

RESCUER 1:  I have someone inside, so don’t worry about it, Bob.  Dan, you look back down there.

RESCUER 2:  But I’m not bringing them in back first, I want to bring them in face first because that’s the only way I’m going to get it around the tank.  Okay, I’m bringing them up... I’m bringing them in.

Yep -- Alexander Hamilton would be proud to know that his Coast Guard is alive and well -- and one of its busiest stations is right here at Virginia Beach.

Virginia Beach has become one of the most popular tourist attractions on the east coast.  And if you’ve got a couple of Hamiltons to spare, let me recommend a great restaurant -- it’s called Lucky Star, and today its chef, Amy Brandt, is preparing Southwestern Beef.

AMY BRANDT:  Start with an eight to ten ounce of filet mignon -- this is beef tenderloin.  Your butcher can clean it for you or if you’re adept at doing it yourself, do that.  And you wrap the bacon around the meat, and it can be secured with either a toothpick -- I have this fancy metal pick that we use here at the restaurant that works well, so that it’s secured all the way around and this because it’s a leaner cut of meat the bacon helps to protect it and also adds flavor.  Before the beef is cooked, we season it with a Southwestern spice mixture that we make here.  It’s similar to a Cajun mixture: salt, pepper, cumin, dark chili powder made with ground anchote chili pepper, thyme, oregano -- I use a Mexican oregano, it has a little bit different flavor, and that’s about it.  A little paprika for a little coloring.  I use a cast iron pan to cook the steak because of the thickness and the heaviness of the pan, it holds a lot more heat and allows the meat to cook more evenly because it’s a bigger piece of meat that we’re cooking in this pan.  If it was something thin, you’d be able to use a sauté pan.  But I want something that’s going to hold the heat evenly and allow the meat to cook evenly also.  This does make a little bit of smoke in the house so you can grill it outside.  You could also use the cast iron pan on, say, a gas grill outside.  Let it get fairly hot and then do it -- do your cooking outside.  I like to cook it on all sides, especially the side with the bacon, that gives it a little bit of crispness, helps to flavor it.

BURT WOLF:  So you just sear the outside surface ‘til it’s dark and then into the oven.


BURT WOLF:  Roughly how long at 400?

AMY BRANDT:  I would say, to get some information about internal temperature for cooking meats.


AMY BRANDT:  And get an internal temperature thermometer.  If you like it medium rare it’s approximately 130 to 135, and then it goes up from there to medium, medium well, well.

BURT WOLF:  So what are you going to serve with this?

AMY BRANDT:  These are black bean cakes.  They’re black beans have been cooked, cooled and ground.  They’re mixed with diced red bell peppers, green onions, cilantro, chili powder, cumin -- again staying with the Southwestern -- little salt and black pepper and if you like it a bit spicier, which I do, a little cayenne pepper.  They’re dredged in cornmeal and then sautéed.

BURT WOLF:  I can do that.

AMY BRANDT:  Pretty darn easy.  Don’t need a whole lot of oil, just enough to coat the bottom of the pan.  You can see in the bottom of the pan that the cornmeal has turned brown, and that gives me an indication that it’s time to turn the bean cakes themselves.  If the cornmeal in the pan is brown, then the cornmeal on the bottom side of the bean cakes is brown.  And that’s true with any sautéing; if you’re sautéing fish or chicken that’s been dredged in flour, then you know if the cornmeal -- I mean, if the flour in the pan is brown, then the chicken on the other side is brown and it’s ready to be turned.

BURT WOLF:  Good thing to know!

AMY BRANDT:  This dish is served with a red chili sauce.  It’s tomato-based, onions, garlic, fresh tomatoes, roasted poblano peppers...

BURT WOLF:  Mmmmmmm...

AMY BRANDT:  ...roasted bell peppers, cilantro -- you can really smell that a lot in this.  The bean cakes go on top of that.  The bean cakes are garnished with a little bit of sour seasoned sour cream that I’ve put in a squeeze bottle, gives it a little bit of artistic flair while you’re adding the sour cream.  Then we’re going to put the beef in the middle, make sure to take out the toothpick or skewer, whichever you used, first so you don’t injure anybody.  And then we’ll garnish the beef.  We’re using roasted pepper strips.  They’re poblano peppers that have been roasted and peeled and seeded and cut into strips -- that goes on the beef.  And then it’s garnished with feta cheese.  You can use a cheese called “queso blanco” which is a fresh Mexican cheese, very similar to feta in taste, but the feta is much more available so that’s why I use that.  That goes on top, and I like to make sure that a little bit goes onto the plate as well -- it mixes well with the flavor of the sauce as well as with the beef.  And that’s that!

For hundreds of years Virginia Beach has been dominated by its relationship to the sea.  Between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, you will find an extraordinary selection of seafood.  One place to sample the local specialties is Chick’s Marina Oyster Bar.

Chick’s opened in 1987 as a down-home neighborhood eatery.  But the freshly-shucked oysters, local fish and simple, straight-forward cooking have given the place a wide and devoted following.  You can sit up at the inside counter, or out in the open dock room.  We ate through the menu and our collective favorites were: Crab Soup Annapolis, Blackened Crab Cake Sandwich with homemade coleslaw, and Chocolate Volcano Pie.

Another location for the local catch is the Lynnhaven Fish House.  The Lynnhaven Fish House was opened in 1979 right on the same beach where the first colonists stopped for four days before they moved up the Chesapeake to establish their settlement at Jamestown.  If the restaurant had been here at the time, Captain John Smith would certainly have taken Pocahontas here for lunch -- most likely at one of the tables with the great views.  I recommend Steamed Lobster, Homemade Hush Puppies, Crab Louie, and Coconut Cream Pie.

One of the other, less edible ways that Virginia Beach honors its relationship with the sea is the program of dolphin watching trips sponsored by the Virginia Marine Science Museum.  During the summer months, the boats leave from Virginia Beach every afternoon.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The great planters of Virginia lived on huge estates which kept them rather isolated from the rest of the world.  And it is in that sense of separation that we find the origins of southern hospitality.  When somebody finally did show up, you wanted to keep them around as long as possible and have them tell you what was going on in the rest of the world.  George Washington actually had two servants stationed at a crossroads with instructions to stop any interesting travelers and bring them home for dinner.  And if my experience in Virginia Beach is any example, southern hospitality is still very much alive and well.  And it is in that tradition that I would like to invite you to join me next time as we travel around the world.  I’m Burt Wolf.