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All You Can Eat

Shortlisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2023.

Have you ever been so hungry that you would eat a shoe? 

It’s not something that I can imagine. Especially not here. Stainless steel counters snake across the room, punching through an atmosphere thick with the smell of grilled meat, and each laden with small black dishes that almost overflow with food. You can build your own tacos; a chef will grill steaks to your order, and you can help yourself to pizza, hot dogs, cornbread, Texas toast, hushpuppies, fried chicken livers or almost anything else you can think of. At this restaurant, you can eat whatever you want, as much as you want, for less than $12.

It was ten miles from here, on a small island in the James River, where an oppressive heat blankets the forest and the humid air pulsates with the chirrup of cicadas, that the first English settlers arrived in Virginia. They were to build a new town, Jamestown, on a ration of 500 calories per day. At this restaurant, a cup of sesame chicken – sticky and sweet, incredibly sweet – has 350 calories. A slice of pecan pie has 410. 

Sitting close to me, a young couple lean across their brown laminate table. Smiles dancing across their smooth, tanned faces, they sip from plastic cups full of ice and soda. They laugh, they joke, and they eat. Seventeen or eighteen, they must be. Eighteen, I guess, on account of the Virginia Tech t-shirts that they both wear. A little bit older than the other girl I saw today, the girl whose face sticks in my mind. Frozen in a look of defiant severity, gazing into the middle distance, everyone calls her Jane, though that was almost certainly not her real name. She was 14 years old in the autumn of 1609; 14 years old when Jamestown began to collapse. Huddled in their fort against a cold and snowy winter, the English settlers ran out of food. So they ate their livestock. Then they ate their pets. Then rats, mice, snakes and every plant within their fort. Then they ate their shoes. Along with boots and any other leather they could find, they boiled and ate their shoes. And then they ate Jane. Archaeologists found her skull beneath the ground, dumped in an ancient landfill with the remains of dogs and rats and snakes, scarred with the tool marks of an inexperienced but determined butcher. Now her skull sits alongside a reconstruction of her face, staring blankly into the cool, dimly lit museum on the island where she died.

Archaeologists are still at work on that island. Sweating, red-faced students kneel in trenches cut neatly into the dark red earth, scraping away at pottery that has spent hundreds of years beneath the earth’s surface. Older men and women, grey hair poking from beneath sun-faded baseball caps, stand alongside the trenches, talking to visitors.

In one of those trenches, not far from the pit where they found Jane’s skull, they have uncovered another young woman. Her name is Angela. And this time, that probably is her real name. Or it is, at least, what the other residents of Jamestown called her. It was probably not the name that she was born with, or the name by which her parents knew her. She had come from Angola, one of thousands of Africans captured in a Portuguese raid. Destined for Mexico until English privateers interrupted her passage, Angela was brought to Jamestown and sold – one of twenty Africans who became the first slaves in English America. Unlike Jane, Angela’s face does not look out over the island where she lived – they haven’t yet found her body. Perhaps they never will. But they have uncovered the remains of her life here, beneath the rich man’s house that was once her home. 

Of the 500 settlers who lived alongside Jane, only 60 survived the winter of 1609. But that was enough. To the east of Jamestown, on the south bank of the York River, a white marble monument thrusts upwards from the red-brown soil, reaching out towards the summer sunshine. It marks the spot where, 170 years after Jane’s death, British troops surrendered to General George Washington. I went there today too, driving the 23 miles from Jamestown on a road called the Colonial Parkway. A slow and sun-dappled ribbon of grey that winds its way through the forests of the Virginia tidewater, this road tells a very particular story of American history. The story of a peaceful, picturesque and orderly journey from tentative colony to confident new nation. But it is not the true story of that journey. The true story – more complicated, chaotic and ambiguous – has not yet been fully told. But it is slowly being uncovered, beneath the surface of the earth.