Mon 20 Jul 2009
There is a tiny island in the Chesapeake Bay where the accents still reflect those of the first Cornish settlers who settled there in 1620, where you have no choice but to unplug and let the mellow pace of the place guide you, and where a bustling Main street and quiet, pristine strip of beach are a five minute bike ride away from each other. Welcome to Tangier Island.
Directions to Tangier Island are simple: drive to Virginia’s Eastern Shore and get on a boat for an hour until the island appears. Rising and falling with the waves of the Chesapeake Bay, the first thing you’ll spot is the water tower, which pumps fresh water from thousands of feet below the bay floor. It is potable with an iron tinge, but knowing where it comes from soothes any frustration about weak water pressure in the shower. Next you’ll see the gleaming white church steeple. Religion is prevalent here and two churches serve the population of about 700 people. Soon you’ll be able to pick out clapboard houses, stand-alone crab shanties, and watermen’s boats. The last thing you’ll see is the ground of the island itself. At its highest point, Tangier Island is only 5 feet above sea level, swept with marshes and seagrass.
Our B&B host met us at the ferry dock, zipping us down Main Street in a four-seater golf cart with our bags tucked in the back. Tangier Island, three miles long and one mile wide, does not allow cars beyond a few that serve official functions. Residents and tourists (pronounced “tuhrrists” by the locals) alike rely on electric golf carts, bicycles, and their own two feet to traverse the island. Bicycle rentals are cheap and simple: $2 an hour or $7 per day. Payment and return is on the honor system. No locks necessary. Theft on the island is as common as oversized SUVs.
Lunch was our first order of business after an early morning drive to catch the ferry at Onancock. We took a cue from our ferry captain and made a beeline for the Waterfront Restaurant. Located outside on the dock, we sat on weather-beaten picnic benches in the shade as locals caught up with prodigal daughters returning from “the shore” for a weekend visit with the grandparents. To Tangier natives, anything not on Tangier is “the shore,” from coastal towns on the Bay to America’s heartland.
The Waterfront Restaurant is a definitive no-frills-no-fuss establishment. Efficient middle-aged women man the kitchen, calling out orders and dishing out food on paper plates. Menu offerings include American staples, but the ultra-local seafood is the star. I ordered a softshell crab sandwich, enchanted with the idea that the crab I was about to consume was brought in by one of the dozens of boats just behind me. The presentation was an amusing but charming surprise. My crispy softshell crab sandwich featured two lightly sauteed crabs served on, no joke, Wonderbread. Mike’s double order of clam fritters and Tangier Island crab soup was more impressive. The fritters were little morsels of fried goodness on the outside with a briny bite in the middle. I found myself stealing one last bite over and over. The crab soup is a distant cousin to Manhattan clam chowder, made with a bright tomato base mixed with fresh vegetables and local blue crabmeat. The soup was light with just the right amount of seasoning to balance the crunch of veggies and small chunks of crabmeat.
With full bellies, we had a warm afternoon of fresh breezes and gentle sunshine ahead of us. We pedaled beach cruisers with squeaky seats across the briny marshes, rolling up and down wooden footbridges and among quiet clapboard houses and white picket fences. Soon we found ourselves at the public beach, a long stretch of sand reclining against the lapping waves of the Chesapeake. We had it to ourselves for hours, our own private beach in all pastels of beige sand, grey-green water and proud seagrass.
A Tangier-style family dinner, a personal tour of a softshell crab shanty and puffy fish (!) after the jump.
By the time we dusted off the sand and headed back into town, life had settled into a sleepy pace. The daytrippers from the Crisfield, MD and Reedville, VA ferries had gone home for the evening and it was just a few overnighters and locals on the paths.
Mike arranged for an overnight stay at Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House, a cozy B&B founded in 1939 with a screened in front porch, perfect for watching the locals zip past and protecting residents from mosquitos. Part of the package for B&B guests is a family-style dinner and breakfast at the restaurant, located across the street from our room. Dinner is an all-you-can-eat feast of traditional Tangier Island foods. We walked into the Lion’s Club-like hall, which could seat 200 without a fuss, and were immediately clucked over by the friendly ladies running the show. There are no menus at Hilda Crockett’s, but they offer so many plates you are bound to find something you like. Dinner started out with cold dishes reminiscent of my own farm-raised grandmother’s kitchen table: Virginia baked ham served cold, potato salad, canned green beans, and applesauce. Maybe not culinary genius but it is honest to goodness food.
Plates took a turn for the Tangier soon, when a sweet, golden corn pudding made its way to our table that I could have happily lapped up as a dessert. No time to fill up on corn pudding, though, when fresh from the fryer crab cakes made it to our table. The cakes were crispy on the outside, filled with spices, fresh crab and tasting of the briny waves just outside our door. Breadcrumbs? We don’t need no stinkin breadcrumbs.
The hits kept coming with fried clam fritters, an unholy latke in seafood clothing. Mike couldn’t get enough of the simple fried clam flavors and textures. The biggest hit of the table turned out to not even be seafood but bread. Apparently all the ladies of Tangier Island know how to make this special skillet bread, which they humbly call “rolls,” that is out of this world awesome. The bread is delivered pre-cut in a baking dish, boasting a golden flaky crust and an inside that is yeasty, slightly chewy and gloriously comforting. I can imagine generation upon generation of Tangier watermen coming home from a rough day at sea to warm plate of this exact recipe. Frankly, Mike and I are willing to brave a rough sea if it means we can have this bread again soon.
After dinner, we headed over to the dock to meet The Captain, a working waterman who agreed to give us a personal tour of his crab shanty. We motored a few minutes into the water, past crabbing boats all named after important women in the men’s lives (“usually wives but sometimes mothers or daughters”).
Like nearly all the other watermen on the island, The Captain grew up on Tangier and two out of his three sons have entered the business as well. Calling his space a “shanty” doesn’t do it justice. After docking, we walked up and down long rows of tubs with gorgeous blue crabs in various stages of molting. Once caught from the Bay at the right phase – which is before the molting begins but near the beginning of the process – watermen watch and wait for the crabs to hit the soft stage.
The Captain pulled crabs out of his tanks for us, sharing how the color of their joints indicates how soon they’ll begin to molt and some rookie moves of the business. Pink belly joints indicate they are a few days out. Brighter red means they will start any moment. Putting an unmolted crab that is too early in the process into a tank slows down the works and the entire tank won’t go soft at all. Once the crabs hit their ultimate softness, The Captain takes them out of the tank and transfers them into a refrigerator – pulling the crabs from the water prevents the shell from firming up. There is no concern about a crab mutiny. When at this stage in the wild, the crabs are in a perilous state as they can’t defend themselves from predators or other crabs. As a result, their M.O. is much like that of an awkward 11-year old: sit tight and hope no one notices you.
Wait too long to pull the crabs from the tank after molting and their hard shell begins to form, meaning they can’t be sold for the soft shell crab dollar. Soft shell crabs in the “whale” size (that’s jumbo, to landlovers like you and me) go for $40 a dozen at the Fulton Fish Market in New York, which . The Captain’s son, who sells regular blue crabs, gets $30 per bushel (between 5 and 8 dozen crabs, depending on size). At roughly eight times the value, getting the soft shells just right is pretty high on The Captain’s list of concerns.
Second on his list of issues are keeping those crabs healthy, alive, and in their tanks. To that end, he keeps an army of patrol cats on the shanty to ward off otters. “Otters’ll come in at night and eat a whole tank. And they only go for the crabs that are just getting soft. Every time.” The cats, named after Supreme Court Justices, act as an otter deterrent and I imagine provide nice company for The Captain during solitary hours in the shanty.
While answering Mike’s intelligent researched crab questions, The Captain humored me by pulling out some additional catches he was saving for the market like a slimy, evil-looking eel that squirmed its way backwards out of his two fists. Eel? Around here?
The Captain: “I highly recommend ordering crab and eel at restaurants.”
Me: “Really? Do you eat a lot of eel?”
The Captain: “I have never tasted it in my life. But I do highly recommend you ordering it with some crabs.”
Needless to say, we thought this guy was pretty awesome. Just as we were heading back to the boat, The Captain came back to us with what I took to be two floaty toys in his hands. “Hey,” he said, “ever seen a puffer fish?” I squealed like a child as I took this bulbous creature into my hands. The fish felt like rough plastic, more like a wiffle ball than a fish, but somehow holding a goofy, proud grin. Then like a waterborne whoopie cushion, it spit out its water and deflated into a normal fish, slimy and squirming to get out of my hands.
Back on the dock, we shared our good-byes with The Captain and strolled back to our B&B to sit on the porch to sip wine out of styrofoam cups and watch locals on Main Street in the summer evening light. Adults caught up on the latest news, teens flirted awkwardly. I felt like we slipped into a floating Mayberry.
Later in the evening we strolled to Spanky’s Place, an old school ice cream parlour and the only late-night option on the island. We sat on a bench outside, me with my chocolate mint ice cream cone and Mike with his cherry milkshake, smiling and nodding to locals and slapping the occasional mosquito into mosquito heaven. The Captain happened upon us, riding a scooter with his 4-year old grandson on the back, talking politics with us for a bit. He pointed out a few houses for sale and greeted new Tangier residents – an older couple from Pennsylvania who bought a house for the summer months. Like all travelers mid-journey, we daydreamed about what it would be like to while away weekends in this newly discovered place. What’s wrong with a nice little island house, replacing visions of palm trees with clapboard siding and white picket fences?
We rose early the next morning for a quick breakfast at Hilda Crockett’s before catching our ferry back to the shore. The hearty meal was clearly designed for people who are on their feet all day, not a couple of desk jockeys like us who pay top dollar for a gym they rarely visit. Bacon, crisp and piled high on a platter, was an immediate hit as were the sliced, scalloped potatoes. But it was the yeasty bread, cut thin and straight from a buttery griddle that warmed our tourist hearts. Piled with strawberry jam, I couldn’t think of a better way to start the day.
Tips for Travelers:
Getting There: There are three ferry options to Tangier Island. A smaller, converted lobster boat that seats about 10 from Onancock, VA and two larger ferries from Crisfield, Maryland and Reedville, Virginia. I’m glad we opted for the smaller boat. Not only was it a more personal experience, but those arriving on the large ferry disembarked with about 100 other visitors. Not my ideal way to start a visit to a sleepy island town.
Accomodations: B&Bs are the best (and pretty much only) option. There are 3 B&Bs on the island and a single vacation rental home. The Chesapeake House was not glamorous but homey, comfortable, and the two meals across the street make the cost very competitive at roughly $150 after tax.
Getting around: In addition to the bike rentals that can be had next door to Hilda Crockett’s, there are a limited number of golf carts available for daily rental, as well as a number of locals who make a buck offering tours of the island on their larger carts. Find them at the base of the dock. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to explore Tangier from the water, kayaks are available for free behind the Tangier History Museum and Interpretive Cultural Center.
Alcohol has not been served or sold on Tangier for over 100 years. They don’t mind if you bring your own. If you stay overnight, speak to your B&B host about the availability of glasses and bottle openers.
There are no ATMs on the island. Bring plenty of cash. Some restaurants and shops take credit or debit but it’s better not to risk it.
Food: The food is honest, homestyle, and reasonably priced. Don’t visit if you want culinary wizardry.