A southeastern state known for its history, beaches, and mountains, Virginia is also home to amazing food. Embracing Southern cuisine as well as highlighting its local resources, you’ll want to try as much as you can while visiting the Old Dominion.
Famous for producing crops such as apples, peanuts, and theater, Virginia has a rich farmland that influences much of the fare. With fresh, local ingredients that are the foundation of many dishes, in no particular order, here are 11 of the best foods and drinks in Virginia:
Dry-cured for months before being smoked, country ham is a salty meat that’s best served thinly sliced at room temperature. Popularly purchased from the brand Smithfield, it can be eaten as a part of the appetizer or main course of a meal. Even enjoyed as a leftover, Virginias tend to add it to biscuits the day after a big dinner.
Following a Native American tradition of smoking different types of meats, Virginia residents have continued this tradition, particularly with ham. Even Queen Victoria of England enjoyed this Virginian delicacy.
Virginia may not be the first location that comes to mind when considering popular wine production regions, but the state is rich in vineyards and wineries. Located all over the state, the wineries play host to a variety of festivals and tasting events as well as selling their wines.
There are over 300 wineries across Virginia, many of which are found in the northern and central regions of the state, particularly in the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The most widely produced type of wine in Virginia is Chardonnay. Other varieties include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Vidal, and Merlot.
Virginia oysters have been eaten since at least 1607 when English settlers in Jamestown recorded consuming them. Now, it’s one of the most notable dishes in the state, giving Virginia the nickname “Oyster Capital of the East Coast.” There are eight different regions in the state, particularly around the Chesapeake Bay, James River, and Potomac River, that harvest oysters.
Virginia also uses its wealth of different wines to its advantage in the oyster industry. Wines made from grapes that are grown in the same watersheds as corresponding oysters often pair exceptionally well. This has become both a geographical and culinary experience.
Peanuts are all over Virginia – both packaged in Virginia Diner tins and included in numerous dishes. Peanut soup is one of the most popular peanut-based creations. Growing peanuts since the 1840s, in 1940, chef Fred Brown created a recipe for peanut soup inspired by maafe, an African soup that likely dates back to the 1700s.
The best peanut soup in Virginia is said to be found in Roanoke. The Hotel Roanoke’s famous peanut soup is flavored with butter, chicken broth, and lemon juice, putting a Southern spin on the classic African dish.
Macaroni and Cheese
Mac and cheese is a southern and overall American staple dish that also owes its origins to Virginia. It was likely inspired by cheesy European pasta dishes, but Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, James Hemings, created the version that we know and love today.
Jefferson loved similar pasta dishes that he had tried while traveling around Europe, and when he returned to Virginia, he imported a pasta machine and macaroni noodles for this purpose. Hemings, who traveled with Jefferson, had learned French and Italian cooking techniques and created recipes including macaroni and cheese.
Traditionally, mac and cheese is made with cheddar cheese, but other variations include ingredients such as bacon, broccoli, breadcrumbs, truffles, and more.
Virginia, alongside North Carolina and Georgia, claims Brunswick stew to be one of its signature dishes. It was invented by Jimmy Matthews in 1828 for a squirrel-hunting party. Brunswick stew no longer contains squirrel meat, instead using smoked meats such as rabbit, chicken, or pork. It also has ingredients such as potatoes, corn, beans, and tomatoes.
The resulting product is a rich, warm stew also known as “Virginia ambrosia.” While it’s also popular in other Southern states, Virginia’s take on the dish is unique and best enjoyed at restaurants in its home of Brunswick County.
Apples are one of Virginia’s most important crops. Virginia is the sixth largest apple-producing state in the country, making it a notable location for this internationally popular fruit. Apple harvests take place across the state of Virginia, particularly in the Shenandoah Valley, Central Virginia, and Southwest Virginia regions.
Some orchards even offer visitors the chance to pick their own apples and learn firsthand about the production process. In addition to munching on large, juicy apples, many Virginians enjoy consuming apple-based products like apple butter, hard apple cider, apple pie, and applesauce.
At any potluck or large family gathering in Virginia, there’s bound to be some fresh pimento cheese available as a part of the food spread. This savory dish is often served with bread, crackers, biscuits, or ham. Pimento cheese combines cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and sweet peppers into a smooth spread.
You may also find variations of the dish in other states that include ingredients such as hot sauce, cream cheese, and jalapeños that give it a different flavor profile. This dish has become integral to southern cuisine over the years, giving it nicknames such as “caviar of the South” and “pâté of the South.”
Another staple of southern cuisine is barbecue. A style of cooking that has a unique history, Joe Hayes wrote “Virginia Barbeque: A History” about the evolution of barbecue from the Powhatan tribe’s technique of smoking and slow-cooking meats. He also argues that general Southern barbecue was inspired by Virginia barbecue, despite the many differences.
Virginia barbecue’s flavors and level of spice depend on the region of the state where it’s created and consumed. For example, Northern Virginia restaurants typically serve a sweet tomato-based barbecue sauce with the meats, while you are more likely to find a sauce made with vinegar and herbs when in the Shenandoah Valley region.
Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab
In Eastern Virginia, on the coast of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the most important dishes is the Chesapeake Bay blue crab. Though blue crabs are often referred to as “Maryland crabs,” most of these crabs are fertilized in Maryland and then born in Virginia waters. Restaurants in this region often offer blue crab that’s fried, steamed, or even baked into delicious crab cakes.
Soft-shell crab season generally includes late spring, summer, and early fall, but you can also find blue crab meat in stores’ frozen sections during other times of the year. Other seafood options popular in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia include scallops, striped bass, clams, catfish, and, of course, oysters.
Whiskey’s roots are debatable and not entirely clear. Some historians, however, argue that this liquor can be traced back to the state of Virginia, rather than Tennessee as many people tend to assume. In 1620, colonist George Thorpe recorded that he found a “good drinke of Indian corne” in Virginia. Many believe that he was referring to whiskey with this statement.
Additionally, at one point, George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, VA was the largest-producing whiskey distillery. Virginia is now the home of many whiskey distilleries, which each provide tourism and educational opportunities for those interested in spirits and cocktails.
The many regions and crops of Virginia contribute to a dynamic and delicious food culture. Dishes across the state often differ in style and flavors, so be sure to explore many parts of Virginia when seeking out a full foodie experience in the Old Dominion.