Tangier Island is a little piece of history that, alas, is likely to disappear into the Chesapeake Bay. It was settled by people from Cornwall, England in the 1600’s and now has about 400 inhabitants, down from more than a thousand at its peak.
Tangier residents make their living from the Chesapeake Bay. They catch crabs, especially peeler crabs that are about to shed their shells. The peelers are kept alive in tanks circulating the salty Bay water. Tangierwomen tend these tanks in crab shanties along the waterside, keeping a sharp eye on the crabs at all hours of the day and night. When the crabs do shed their shells, they become soft-shells crabs. These delicacies are packed on seaweed and sold to restaurants everywhere.
I went to Tangier to help provide a free clinic early in our time on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The boat ride from Onancock to Tangier was spectacular. The people of Tangier enchanted me, particularly their manner of speaking which is often said to be “Elizabethan”. For example, the word “crab” is pronounced with at least 3 syllables. Another sign of their English origin: the pitch of a question goes down at the end, rather than up as usual in America. Ask me to give you an example I heard once.
During our years on the Eastern Shore of Virginia I met many Tangierwomen and their watermen husbands. I well remember the night that a helicopter from Tangier landed at Shore Memorial Hospital. Helicopters came often from Norfolk General Hospital across the bay to pick up patients from our little community hospital. But that night, the helicopter brought a mother from Tangier TO our hospital.
The Corn Pudding recipe below came from the late Tangierwoman Henrietta Charnock, who also gave me a pound of crabmeat she had picked herself that morning. She told me it was the same recipe as the corn pudding served family-style at Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House restaurant on Tangier.
This recipe might not be particularly wholesome–everything but the eggs is processed. But I love the Tangier Island memories it summons, and it is delicious.
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2/3 cup sugar
1 can cream-style corn
1 can evaporated milk
½ stick of melted butter
Mix cornstarch, sugar, and eggs. Add milk and corn and mix. Spoon warm butter over top. Bake at 400°F for 50 minutes.