Virginia’s Eastern Shore has two types of people: “from heres,” and “come heres.”
Bernard Herman is the latter. But you’d never guess it from perusing his just-published book, A South You Never Ate: Savoring Flavors and Stories from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Herman, a professor of Southern studies and folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill, lives part-time on the Eastern Shore. His meaty 371-pager is part cookbook and part oral history, and dishes out an astonishing sense of place. He recently sat down with Lorraine Eaton and explained how the book came to be.
I’ve known you for 10 years or so, and I can’t think of a time when you weren’t lit up about some Eastern Shore dish. I’m guessing the genesis for this book goes back even further.
When I look back and think about it, some of the earliest material in (the book) is from interviews that I did with folks in the mid-‘70s. This (book) wasn’t even on my radar then.
That’s 40 years of stories!
Drum-head soup, I bet just to sort that out probably took a couple of years. We were having dinner with neighbors and Jon Moore said, “Have you ever heard of drum-head soup or stew?” I allowed that I had never heard of this, and he started to describe it. Then I started asking around, and I kept coming up against folks saying, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.” I would go up to people in the grocery store and ask, “Have you ever heard of drum-head soup?”
Did people think you were crazy?
Oh, everybody thinks I’m nuts.
Lots of conversations made it into your book verbatim, which is unusual. I think the best way to consume your book is to make a recipe, then read the accompanying chapter while eating it, because I really do feel like I’m at the table with “from heres.”
That’s exactly right. To me, it would be hugely disrespectful to rewrite those stories or to take somebody else’s story and tell it in my words, as if I was speaking for them. There’s no respect in that.
recipes. There’s a cache of old ones, but I was
surprised at others, like chef Amy Brandt and Gricelda Torres Segura’s Lamb Barbacoa.
I could have let this rest with the historic or community cookbook recipes, but if I had left it there, it would have communicated a sort of static future for these foodways. What really inspired me is the new cuisine of the Latin American community here. This is a place where people are inventing all the time.
There’s also an evangelical bent to this book, am I right?
Yes. Early on, every time I picked up some book on Southern cookery, if there was a map that included Virginia, very often the Eastern Shore wasn’t on the map. So, I — and others — began to collaborate, seek out, document and try to understand the people and foodways on the Eastern Shore with an eye to building a broader desire to consume this place.
We know it’s
a delicious place. But like your book title says,
“A South you never ate.”
Think about “here.” What are the signature dishes that nobody knows about that are every bit as distinctive as Charleston’s shrimp and grits or New Orleans’ gumbo? There are things like clam fritters, oyster pie, there’s drum-head soup. And then you begin to realize that all these things are backed up with really wonderful stories.
Which makes them irresistible.
It dawned on me very early in this process that there is this deep, necessary connection between food and storytelling. At the end of the day what folks really, really want is a great meal and a story.
– Interview by local epicure Lorraine Eaton; condensed and edited for space and clarity.