Tangier, Virginia, a small island of just more than one square mile in the Chesapeake Bay, is one of the most unique communities in the country. Once a summer refuge for the Pocomoke Indians, humans have long been drawn to Tangier and the neighboring islands for their natural beauty and rich bounties of the Bay, particularly soft crabs and oysters. Crabbing and oyster fishing have fed and sustained the island’s residents for centuries, and still remain a critically important occupation and way of life. Even in this new digital age of unprecedented connectivity, Tangier remains remarkably isolated. The island sits 12 miles out from the mainland in the Chesapeake Bay, and is reached only by boat from Virginia’s Northern Neck and Maryland and Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Most of Tangier’s 470 or so residents trace their families back on the island for generations.
Climate change and its resulting rise in sea level and increased severity of storms has taken a great toll on Tangier. It loses approximately nine acres of coastline a year due to erosion. The island was easily more than twice as large as it is now when John Smith first set eyes on it in 1608; roughly 740 square acres now remain of Tangier, only 83 of which are still suitable for habitation. And as the landmass of Tangier has been shrinking, so has its population, at an accelerating rate. Once home to more than 1,200, Tangier’s current population is less than half of that. Those who remain fiercely carry on the Tangier way of life, including the island’s food traditions.
Like so many boys who have grown up on Tangier, both Andy Parks and Chuck Pruitt began working on the water in the crabbing industry at age 12, sorting and scraping crabs, baiting pots, and dredging oysters. For the past 41 years, each has worked as an independent waterman. Andy’s wife Mary Stuart Parks grew up with a passion for cooking, and in 2000 joined four other women in purchasing the popular Fisherman’s Corner Restaurant, which she still owns and operates, often with the help of Chuck’s wife Robin Pruitt. The restaurant is a legendary institution on the island, and is known for its take on traditional Tangier dishes such as crab cakes, fried soft shell crabs, and its famous crab bisque.