The Bounty of the Chesapeake
The tradition of Thanksgiving dinner was first attributed to the Plymouth Bay Colony in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. But the practice of a harvest or a thanksgiving dinner was widespread throughout the early colonies and especially around the Chesapeake.
The Chesapeake was by far the richest colony in America in terms of fish, waterfowl and wild game. Capt. John Smith, who first explored the Bay, spoke of being able to “walk across the water” on the bounteous schools of striped bass. Oyster beds were so numerous and large that they threatened the hulls of careless ships. Crabs choked the shallows, waterfowl darkened the skies each fall and wild turkey swarmed the surrounding forests.
Big fish over 36 inches were also reported off the mouth of the South and Severn rivers.
Whitetail and sika deer bow season:
In observation of that early American wild game tradition, no Thanksgiving dinner at our house is complete without at least a few of the dishes (or variations thereof) that were sure to have been served around the Bay for 400 years.
Chesapeake Bay oysters are a treat that never gets old. I have two favorite ways to serve them: On the half shell with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of Tabasco; and barbecued, smoking hot off the back-porch grill, with a seafood horseradish sauce.
There were always wild geese and ducks on Tidewater tables because their migrations were at their peak this time of year. The flights of waterfowl coming down from the north no longer darken the noontime sun as they once did, but there is still a fair flurry of Canada geese, mallards, black ducks, widgeon and teal blessing our shores in autumn.
Grilled teal is a great starter, for these birds are scarcely larger than a pigeon. You can also substitute smaller pieces of larger waterfowl. Salt and pepper each piece and wrap generously in thick bacon strips. Then quickly cook over a hot charcoal fire until the bacon is crisp and the duck medium.
Our garden salads at Thanksgiving have a Chesapeake twist, with backfin crabmeat to top everyone’s bowl of mixed salad greens sprinkled with mustard vinaigrette.
Whitetail deer also graced the tables of our colonial fathers, and while not nearly as plentiful as today, they were still very highly regarded. A hindquarter of young whitetail deer makes a wild Thanksgiving centerpiece.
Stuff the roast by piercing it with a sharp thin knife and inserting stout slivers of garlic throughout. Then coat it with olive oil, coarse salt and pepper and sprinkle with fresh, minced rosemary. Allow the meat to reach room temperature before cooking.
Roast about an hour — until the venison reaches 135 degrees — on a covered charcoal grill with mesquite chips added for a good smoky flavor. Slice the meat thin and across the grain.
If you’re lucky enough to still be fishing the week of Thanksgiving, fresh rockfish fillets add colonial variety to your holiday spread. I like to keep my rockfish simple. Anoint it with olive oil, salt and pepper, then broil. Flip when the fish begins to brown, and remove when it flakes.
Smother the fillets with sliced mushrooms and some chopped pimentos sautéed in lemon butter.